Life Imitates Art: The Mars Rovers of Iceland

On my next to last day in Iceland, I drove the Kaldidalur route from Reykholt to Thingvellir, passing en route the Langjokull ice cap. Much to my surprise, there was a modestly-marked turnoff that led not merely close to the ice but out onto it (just left of the prominent hill in the center of the image): 

Between Iceland and Norway, I’ve been up close to a dozen or so glaciers but have only ever seen ice caps from a distance. I always pictured them as being bounded by ridges or mountains where they didn’t squeeze out through passes as outlet glaciers, and didn’t anticipate that the margin of the ice would simply taper off to nothing. Just look at this – is this what you would have expected? That such a huge mass of ice would just kinda…end?

I took some pictures and made some notes and filed it all away for when we eventually send characters to the North Cap. Expect to encounter this scene with a red tint at some point.

Another surprise, and the point of this post, was the tour vehicles used by Into the Glacier to ferry people to a man-made ice cave further out on the ice cap.

A little research turned up that they were custom made from MAN 8×8 military chassis by a British company, Army-UK. The things were huge – the pictures don’t convey just how large they seemed up close (but note the Ford Explorer for some sense of scale). I couldn’t see how many seats there were in the front cab, but it looked wide enough to seat four abreast. Army-UK gives a maximum cabin capacity of 38 passengers, which would work out to ten two-by-two rows (minus two seats for the entrance door and steps).

This one was even larger than the one above:

While these aren’t exactly how we pictured the rovers in the Ares Project universe (at least not the rovers sent to Mars as part of the titular Ares Project, which we describe as having cylindrical bodies with a single large front transparency akin to the submersibles from The Abyss), they are great analogues against which one can imagine what other sorts of rovers might look like. In particular, the rovers used by the ill-fated British Trans-Marineris Expedition of 2050…oh, wait, we haven’t talked about that story yet, have we…

 

 

 

 

Here, Hold My Beer

NAWA Technologies has announced that it will begin mass-producing carbon nanotube based ultracapacitors.  Compared to lithium batteries, ultracapacitors are capable of near-instantaneous charging and discharging.

It was these characteristics that led us to select this technology, in our novel In The Shadow of Ares, to power various devices on a future Mars, ranging from mobile agents to the autonomous “diggers” (mining robots).  More specifically, it was the near-instantaneous discharge of huge quantities of energy that made them particularly appealing.

Although the 2019 versions of ultracapacitors have shortcomings (low energy density and high leakage rates compared to lithium units), it is rewarding to see the technology we described a decade ago reach mass production.

So what say we buy one, bring it to full charge, and see what happens when we damage the charge regulator?

Life Imitates Art #3,045,772

Someone is now marketing something we proposed in In the Shadow of Ares:  robotic solar panel cleaners.  I received information on these via an email brochure from Sentro Technologies USA (unfortunately information on theses robots is not available on their website).  These devices are certainly something my employer, a significant developer and owner of renewable technologies, would consider for our larger solar arrays.  Here are two images from the brochure:

 

 

 

 

The first runs on a rail, much like we envisioned when we had Amber engaged in her chores, cleaning dust off solar panels because the robot wasn’t functioning.  I find the second autonomous, mobile unit more interesting.  The engineering challenge would be to get it to move from array to array, especially where those arrays have tracking systems and vary in tilt and orientation relative to one another.

 

 

 

Electronic Noses for Sniffing Disease

This is something I suggested to Lockheed Martin five years ago as an application of the cabin air monitoring technology we were developing for Orion: New Technologies Smell Sickness

We’ve long known that sickness has a smell. Service dogs can smell and be trained to alert humans to seizures and even cancer.

Now scientists are using technology to ‘smell’ diseases that the human nose can’t.

The Technion-Israel Institute of Technology team behind the Na-Nose, which is designed to detect up to 17 diseases, claims that its new technology can a wide range of diseases on a person’s breath.

Each person’s breath is made up of a number of chemical compounds, unique to us. They may be dependent upon gender, age, race and a host of other biological factors.

The Na-Nose’s developers claim that it can smell diseases including some forms of cancer, multiple sclerosis, and Parkinson’s. So far, it has proven to be 86 percent accurate at detecting diseases.

We’ve actually had this idea on the back-burner for a while for use in an Ares Project story, but the need hasn’t yet come up. While the obvious applications are in health monitoring, the same technology could potentially be fitted to a robot and used for prospecting, by sniffing out trace volatiles and airborne “contaminants” indicating the presence of certain useful minerals.

Life Imitates Art: The Visor Display

It seems the capabilities of Leon’s helmet display aren’t all that far off:

Tyco’s Scott Safety is bringing a big upgrade to the field of firefighting with their newly released product, the Scott Sight. This hands-free device is the first in the industry that incorporates an in-mask thermal intelligence system, according to an April 18th press release from the fire protection and security company.

The Scott Sight works in a similar way to Google Glass. A screen within the mask itself displays readings and various interfaces via a thermal camera at nine frames per second for up to four hours.

Imagine How Much Worse MAs Could Be

Absent legal protections, social norms, and hard-coded and hardware-based preventative measures against this sort of thing: Your Devices’ Latest Feature? They Can Spy On Your Every Move

At least you can turn off your laptop: when it is shut, the camera can see only “the other side” of the laptop. But this quick fix doesn’t apply to sound recording devices, like microphones. For example, your phone could listen to conversations in the room even when it appears to be off. So could your TV, or other smart appliances in your home. Some gadgets – such as Amazon’s Echo – are explicitly designed to be voice activated and constantly at the ready to act on your spoken commands.

It’s not just audio and video recording we need to be concerned about. Your smart home monitor knows how many people are in your house and in which rooms at what times. Your smart water meter knows every time a toilet is flushed in your home. Your alarm clock knows what time you woke up each day last month. Your refrigerator knows every time you filled a glass of cold water. Your cellphone has a GPS built into it that can track your location, and hence record your movements. Yes, you can turn off location tracking, but does that mean the phone isn’t keeping track of your location? And do you really know for sure your GPS is off simply because your phone’s screen says it is? At the very least, your service provider knows where you are based on the cellphone towers your phone is communicating with.

We all love our smart gadgets. But beyond the convenience factor, the fact that our devices are networked means they can communicate in ways we don’t want them to, in addition to all the ways that we do.

We touch on this briefly in In the Shadow of Ares, and it becomes more of an issue (in unexpected ways) in Ghosts of Tharsis. In short, because MAs not only provide all the user functions described in the article but also Mars-specific functions such as air quality and radiation monitoring essential to individual safety, settlers are effectively obliged to have one on them and active at all times. In Shadow, Amber herself observes that people would not use MAs if they believed that others could use the devices to spy on them – or even just track their whereabouts – routinely and casually (and she uses this fact to mixed results in the climax of the book).

I see this becoming a serious public concern over the next few years. The Apple matter was probably only for public consumption, to forestall the inevitable realization that government agencies can already read any information on your phone. It’s naive to believe that their abilities extend only to realtime access to the devices’ microphones and cameras. It may turn out that people are so enamored of their electronic gadgets that continual automated monitoring of their every move by “pre-crime” algorithms, say, seems a small price to pay for ever-improving attention-whoring capabilities.

Something will eventually bring the privacy threats of information technology, social media, and networked devices to greater public attention. The longer the government (and non-government players) are able to continue unchecked, the more likely it is someone will get careless or over-eager and provoke a scandal even bigger than the Apple, “Fappening”, or News of the World foofooraws. Regular people may feel little or no sympathy for terrorists, trampy starlets, or media/society personalities who have their privacy invaded, but let them realize that everything in their own daily lives – from their bathroom habits to their commuting patterns to their casual conversations to their whereabouts at every second to their political views to their shopping lists to their browsing habits to their employers’ trade secrets to their kids names, schools, and bathtub pictures – are routinely monitored, cataloged, and cross-referenced without their knowledge, and that short of ditching all of this technology they’ve allowed themselves to become dependent on there is no way to block these invasions of their personal privacy, we may actually move towards the protections described in the Ares Project universe.

Life Imitates Art: Timing

Elon Musk Says SpaceX Will Send People to Mars by 2025 – NBC News

The SpaceX and Tesla founder said this week that he personally wants to visit space within the next five years and thinks that his company will launch a mission to Mars by 2025…

Personal space travel ambitions aside, Musk also talked about how important it was for mankind to reach Mars. He said that SpaceX is planning to reveal its next-generation spacecraft at September’s International Astronautical Conference in Guadalajara, Mexico.

That could be the next step toward eventually sending human beings to the Red Planet — something Musk said he thinks will happen by 2025. It’s an ambitious goal considering that NASA’s current plan is to send humans to Mars in the 2030s.

Note that in the Ares Project universe, 2025 is the when the Ares I mission to Mars is launched. Granted, it’s a joint US-Russian mission in our case, but it’s enabled by commercial space activity in LEO and on Luna, and is followed by commercial settlements.

Maybe NASA will have the first manned Orion/SLS flying by then.

Life Imitates Art: (Micro-)Oasis Edition

You know our concept for “oases” on Mars – a mass-produced prefabricated hut for ten, with a rover docking adapter and personnel airlock for access, equipped with hygiene and life-support, stocked with food, emergency equipment, and basic repair supplies, and with enough power to run a small gas separation unit for air and fuel?

This is a larval version of that design. Appropriately, it’s even egg-shaped: ECOCAPSULE | Dwelling with the spirit of freedom

Note the similarity also with Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion House and the Futuro, in the sense of being a self-contained “system” (and, of course, round). In the case of the Dymaxion House, as the link indicates it too was designed to capture rainwater for use by the occupants (I was not aware of that fact).

 

Exploding the Myths of Explosive Decompression

Contrary to science fiction tropes, it takes more than a drop from one atmosphere to vacuum to do it. But it’s happened: Byford Dolphin Diving Bell Accident

Came across this while looking for information on the effects of the more likely 1-to-0 atmospheres depressurization for a scene in Ghosts of Tharsis. (Not really a spoiler, since you won’t see it coming.) It’s both horrifying and fascinating at the same time, and coincidentally led me to an account of the Piper Alpha disaster, which also has some bearing on events in the book.