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Future soldiers may be wearing ‘Iron Man’ suits

Posted by arnon_k On November - 13 - 2010 ADD COMMENTS

Salt Lake City, Utah (CNN) — A lunchtime crowd is gathering beside the parking lot at Raytheon Sarcos, the defense contractor, on a recent day in Salt Lake City. White-collar workers from nearby office parks stand with their yogurt cups and sandwiches, watching with quiet awe as a man in a metal suit — sort of half-man, half-robot — performs superhuman feats of strength.

This may be the closest these people will get to a real-life “Iron Man,” the character from the comic books and hit movies.

Inside a prosthetic shell of metal and hydraulics, Raytheon test engineer Rex Jameson is putting an XOS-2 exoskeleton through its paces.

As the crowd watches, Jameson uses his robot hydraulic arm to shadowbox, break three inches of pine boards and toss around 72-pound ammunition cases like a bored contestant on the “World’s Strongest Man.”

The suit moves as he moves and amplifies his strength 17-fold. It doesn’t fly though.

“You don’t have this immense feeling of strength,” Jameson says. “It’s just when you go to do something that you couldn’t do without it, then that’s when you notice it.”

Jameson is part of a team designing in real life what comic books and Hollywood have promised for years: bringing an “Iron Man”-like suit to the battlefield.

Raytheon is seeking to develop the suits to help the U.S. military carry supplies, and claims that one operator in an exoskeleton suit can do the work of two to three soldiers. If all goes as planned, the company hopes to see “Iron Man” suits deployed in the field by 2015.

“The logistics personnel in the military typically move 16,000 pounds a day, which is an awful lot of load,” said Fraser Smith, vice president of operations for Raytheon Sarcos. The XOS-2 suit can be used in tight spaces where a forklift cannot.

And with the extra of strength the robot gives the operator, “that means you exert one pound, and it exerts 17. That’s a major amplification of strength and that’s all load the person doesn’t have to carry themselves,” Smith said.

Jameson may be about the furthest thing from the fictional designer of “Iron Man,” playboy billionaire Tony Stark. “I roll in a minivan,” said the married father of three.

The painted black, steel, aluminum and hydraulic pumps of the wearable robotic suit wrap around Jameson’s slight frame, mirroring the human skeleton in form. Its structure runs up the side of Jameson’s legs and arms. Its backbone carries the load of the machine, and on this day is tethered to hydraulic power and a team of engineers.

Jameson straps into the suit, stomps his feet into the exoskeleton’s modified boots and straps down the snowboardlike bindings.

“I’d describe it as feeling like wearing a backpack — a light pack — and really big shoes. It kind of clomps around a bit,” he said shortly after the power came on and the suit jerked to life.

“It reacts to the force of your feet, so you want it to react immediately,” he added, pulling the bindings tight.

Jameson’s hands grip actuators in a fist. Technicians can attach grips and hooks to the robot’s hands, some of which look like they would be more useful for combat than for loading supplies.

Jameson said the response time from his movements to the robot reacting is less than 10 milliseconds. He marches around, balances on his tiptoes and kicks a soccer ball around. The peanut gallery at the edge of the parking lot loves it. A woman with a yogurt cup shakes her head in disbelief.

Raytheon’s Smith also sees soldiers using the robot in a modified form — from the waist down — to help carry equipment and take the strain off their legs during long marches.

One big obstacle, however, is how to power the suit. Raytheon is working on reducing the energy load; the version demonstrated on this day runs off hydraulic power from the Sarcos shop. Smith said chemically powered batteries such as lithium ions are not powerful enough to run the suit for eight to 24 hours at a time.

Batteries also raise concerns over safety.

“If they get breached, they aren’t gentle in the way they explode,” Smith said. A single-cylinder gas or diesel-powered engine may do the trick instead, he said.

The wearable robotics suit is now in its second iteration. XOS-2 has all its wires and hydraulics fully enclosed, unlike the first prototype, whose innards were more exposed. That would be problematic in places such as Afghanistan or Iraq, where a sand-encrusted robot would mean a dead robot.

“Sand, water, mud are all things we like to keep out of the system, and these current [robotic suits] include sealing strategies that basically exclude them.” Smith said.

While the suit has obvious military applications, Smith also sees broader commercial possibilities — and a shorter timetable. He said if orders come in and production ramps up, within three years you could have your very own $150,000 “Iron Man” suit to help push boxes around your warehouse.

More than 1 million cell phones in China have been struck by the “Zombie” virus, according to Chinese state media, CCTV and Xinhua.

It’s called the “Zombie” virus because it transmits from phone to phone, just as in the movies, zombie bites turn people into the living dead.

The virus binds with a security application, which then transmits the user’s SIM card details to a central server controlled by a small group of hackers. The hackers then will send messages or make phone calls that contain virus-ridden links for games and software, said CCTV.

Receivers who follow the link will find their phones infected, too, while at the same time providing a “click through” for the link itself, which typically translates into a payment for a party publicizing the links. CCTV said that the blame is likely to lay with intermediary distributors instead of the actual game or software developers that show up in the ads.

Zhou Yonglin, an official with the National Computer Network Emergency Coordination Center, told CCTV that “in the first week of September, nearly 1 million cell phones in the country were infected with the virus.”

And although telecom providers are said to have taken steps to reduce the number of infected messages, Zou Shihong, a telecom expert at the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, told CCTV that an updated virus might start sending fewer messages, making it harder for cell users to notice any suspicious activity.

Chendu Qimiao, the company behind the original infected security application, told CCTV that is has nothing to do with the virus, adding that it’s difficult for users to tell which applications are infected and which are safe.

Is this the first step toward a flying car?

Posted by arnon_k On November - 12 - 2010 ADD COMMENTS

Along with the jetpack, the flying car tops the list of classic science-fiction imaginings that lead legions of fans to ask — why don’t we have this yet?

Now researchers, with some cash from the U.S. military, might be taking a step toward making these hovering vehicles — seen in such diverse works as “Blade Runner” and “The Jetsons” — a reality.

DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is awarding grants to scientists to help develop its Transformer program, which seeks to create a road-worthy vehicle that can take off vertically like a helicopter and fly.

This week, the robotics institute at Carnegie Mellon University was awarded a $988,000 contract to develop a flight system for the Transformer.

The institute has already worked on automated flying vehicles, which researchers say would be crucial to the success of a military craft that could go from an earthbound combat situation into the air seamlessly.

“The [Transformer] is all about flexibility of movement, and key to that concept is the idea that the vehicle could be operated by a soldier without pilot training,” said Sanjiv Singh, a CMU research professor of robotics.

“In practical terms, that means the vehicle will need to be able to fly itself, or to fly with only minimal input from the operator. And this means that the vehicle has to be continuously aware of its environment and be able to automatically react in response to what it perceives.”

Carnegie Mellon is one of six contractors DARPA has chosen for the Transformer, or TX, program. AAI Corp. and Lockheed Martin Co. were selected by DARPA to develop overall design concepts for the transforming vehicle.

DARPA frequently engages private-sector businesses and amateur technology buffs for for ideas on innovations that could be used on the battlefield and elsewhere.

Among them are a recurring robot race and a nationwide DARPA balloon hunt that awarded prizes to players who most efficiently used online networking to hunt down 10 weather balloons.

The vehicle DARPA is considering would be able to carry four troops and up to 1,000 pounds of equipment for 250 miles, either on land or through the air.

“Its enhanced mobility would increase survivability by making movements less predictable and would make the vehicle suitable for a wide variety of missions, such as scouting, resupply and medical evacuation,” Carnegie Mellon said in a written release.

This isn’t Carnegie Mellon’s first outing with DARPA, or in the field of automated vehicles.

The university won DARPA’s 2007 Urban Challenge robot road race with a self-driving SUV called “Boss.”

They’ve worked on a self-driving submarine, and earlier this year had an autonomous helicopter demonstration. The Carnegie Mellon contract is for 17 months.

The Carnegie Mellon prototype follows the recent news that a Florida man built a flying car that was certified by the FAA.

Facebook won’t ‘share’ contacts with Gmail

Posted by arnon_k On November - 11 - 2010 ADD COMMENTS

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg talks about “sharing” info and “connecting” people to each other more than Kanye West talks about himself. And the site’s mission statement hits those themes hard, saying Facebook’s goal is to give people “the power to share and make the world more open and connected.”

So it might come as a surprise to Facebook users that the site takes a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do approach to letting people share their own information with one of its biggest competitors.

In what’s been called “data hoarding,” Facebook will not let users export their Facebook contacts lists — which include pictures and e-mails — to Google’s e-mail system.

That’s not new, but Facebook’s anti-sharing policy has come under scrutiny recently since Google last week retaliated by blocking users from uploading their Gmail contacts to Facebook, according to TechCrunch.

Facebook, in turn, found a work-around that let it pull in contact lists from Google anyway — a sort of technical slap in the face to Google.

“We’re disappointed that Facebook didn’t invest their time in making it possible for their users to get their contacts out of Facebook,” a Google spokesperson wrote in an e-mail to CNN. “As passionate believers that people should be able to control the data they create, we will continue to allow our users to export their Google contacts.”

Facebook did not respond to a CNN request for comment.

At first read, this may sound kind of silly or irrelevant — two multibillion-dollar tech companies bickering with each other. But these companies hold the keys to millions of peoples’ online identities. They control whether you can download or export lists of your contacts, where on the internet you can use those lists, and which data companies they’ll sell this information to.

The new lockdowns on user data could signal a change in how the Web works, writes Michael Arrington from TechCrunch.

The big tech companies are now in a “data war,” and it may be hard to stop this escalation now that it has started, writes Arrington, who sees Facebook as the aggressor in this situation.

Facebook “just pretty much refused to let users export social graph data, even though they import it like crazy from every source they can get their hands on,” he says.

The Wall Street Journal compared the situation to “what happens when a 6-year-old and a 12-year-old get in a fight.” (Facebook is the 6-year-old, apparently.)

“Expect neither side to let go easily,” Geoffrey A. Fowler writes.

Despite this fight, it’s still possible to share your contacts among plenty of websites, which makes it easier to find friends on social networks and to synchronize the digital contacts you’ve accumulated from various sources.

Below is a list of four of the big players in the online contacts space, and who shares with whom, compiled from each of these sites’ contacts pages. This should give you an idea of how “trapped” your data is in any one of these services. (Note that companies who are “friends” — i.e. Facebook and Microsoft, since that company owns a stake in Facebook — tend to be fans of sharing data. Rivals like Google and Facebook — not so much):

Who holds onto your data?

Google: Exports contacts to Facebook, Microsoft and Yahoo

Facebook: Exports contacts to Microsoft, Yahoo (not Google)

Microsoft: Exports contacts to Google, Facebook and Yahoo

Yahoo: Exports contacts to Google and Facebook (not Microsoft)