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Damak (MIT)

Technology

Sticky solution

Young inventor’s sticky pesticides could benefit the environment

Water-based pesticides have helped increase the world’s food supply, but farmers use a lot of them. The National Institutes of Health estimates 5.6 billion pounds of pesticides are used worldwide each year, with 1 billion pounds used in the United States alone. The problem is that very little of the applied pesticide stays on the plant. Much of it runs off and leaches into groundwater or is blown away by the wind, polluting the environment.

A 27-year-old graduate student from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has found a solution to this problem: He’s invented a way of making pesticides stickier, so farmers can use far less.

“A lot of plants are what we call hydrophobic, or water-repelling,” Maher Damak, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, told Fast Company. “Pesticides are mostly water-based, so when it’s sprayed onto plants, droplets either bounce or roll off the surface. This is not visible to the naked eye—it happens in about 20 milliseconds.”

Damak’s organic and biodegradable technology uses electrically charged polymers to make the water droplets containing the chemicals more attractive.

After a simple retrofit of their tractor-mounted or handheld applicators, farmers could significantly reduce the amount of pesticide they use while retaining crop yields.

“Farmers use many pesticides, depending on what kind of pests or disease they have in a particular year, but it’s usually on the order of 50 to 100 gallons per acre,” Damak told the business magazine. “This solution could potentially take it down to 10 gallons per acre.”

With pesticides accounting for almost half of production costs, Damak believes there is a financial as well as environmental incentive for farmers to adopt the new technology. His invention has earned him recognition as one of the winners of the 2018 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize.

Growers across the country have expressed interest in the new pesticide additive, which is being tested on a citrus grove in Florida and a vineyard in Italy, according to Fast Company.

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(Nazdravie/iStock) ()

Technology

Hackers’ suite?

Researchers identify vulnerability in hotel room door locks

Cybersecurity researchers have identified a software vulnerability in the locking systems that secure millions of hotel room doors worldwide, a flaw that could allow an attacker to clone a master key card for an entire building.

International cybersecurity firm F-Secure uncovered the software design flaw for digital keys produced by VingCard, a manufacturer of hotel locking systems. The brand of locks, F-Secure reports, are used at more than 40,000 properties in 166 countries.

Although attempts to clone electronic hotel key cards are not new, according to tech website Gizmodo, the hack designed by F-Secure can produce a master key for the entire hotel in just minutes using a regular hotel room key—even an expired one.

“It can be your own room key, a cleaning staff key, even to the garage or workout facility,” F-Secure researcher Tomi Tuominen told Gizmodo. “We can even do it in an elevator if you have your key in your front pocket; we can just clone it from there.”

Tuominen and fellow researcher Timo Hirvonen began researching ways to hack hotel room locks in 2003 after a colleague’s laptop was stolen from a hotel room during a security conference. The hotel dismissed their concerns since there was no sign of forced entry, so they began what turned into thousands of hours of research targeting a brand of locks known for their high levels of quality and security.

“We wanted to find out if it’s possible to bypass the electronic lock without leaving a trace,” said Hirvonen in a post on F-Secure’s website. “Building a secure access control system is very difficult because there are so many things you need to get right.”

F-Secure notified the parent company of VingCard—now known as Assa Abloy Hospitality—about its findings and has been working with the lockmaker’s R&D staff over the past year to implement software patches at affected properties.

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Army Cyber Institute

An illustration from one of Threatcasting Lab’s new graphic novels (Army Cyber Institute)

Technology

Color of war

New graphic novels help Army soldiers visualize emerging threats

Emerging technological and cyber challenges posed by Russia, China, and North Korea have led the U.S. Army to return to a tried-and-true method for educating soldiers about future warfare threats: comic books.

The Army Cyber Institute (ACI) at West Point has partnered with Arizona State University’s Threatcasting Lab to produce a series of four science fiction graphic novels that depict some of the emerging threats identified by the ACI.

“Our mission is to prevent strategic surprise for the Army … to really help the Army see what’s coming next,” Lt. Col. Natalie Vanatta, the ACI’s deputy chief of research, told IEEE Spectrum. The books are targeted toward “junior soldiers and young officers to get them to think about—well, what if the next 10 years doesn’t look like the last 80?” said Vanatta. She added that the Army has a “history of using graphic novels or fiction to help our workforce understand somewhat intangible concepts.”

The novels—Dark Hammer, Silent Ruin, Engineering a Traitor, and 11.25.2027—written by Threatcasting Lab Director Brian David Johnson, are set in the near future and lay out scenarios in which foreign powers attack by drones, electronic jamming, and cyber manipulation. In Engineering a Traitor, foreign agents psychologically manipulate an Army officer by tampering with his daily internet news feeds and impersonating his family members online.

The novels grew out of a series of threatcasting workshops. “We do two-day threatcasting events where we … model possible threats 10 years in the future,” Johnson told IEEE Spectrum. “Threats to national security, threats to the economy, threats to civilization.”

Johnson refers to his novels as science fiction prototyping, in which narrative and storyline communicate factual material: “We worked very closely with subject-matter experts and made sure that everything from the way the tanks looked to the insignia to even how the attacks might happen and what their effects might be [was right].”

The novels don’t always show U.S. forces emerging as the victors. In Silent Ruin, for example, Russian drones destroy U.S. tank units during a battle in Eastern Europe. The depiction of such setbacks for U.S. forces in the novels was intentional, according to Vanatta.

“We have always been the victor. What happens if this does not continue in the future?” she told the magazine. “What if cyber is potentially a game changer because there is a lower bar to entry for some of our adversaries to get in? … How do we prepare ourselves for that?”

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