LAPD Gets Green Light For a Drone Pilot Program

The LAPD got the go-ahead this week from a civilian oversight panel to roll out a year-long drone pilot program. The panel voted 3-1 on this contentious issue, and the city is set to start using two drones within the next 30 days. The LAPD is the nation’s largest police force, so the implications for this development are huge.

Advocates for the drone program say it will protect officers and civilians by using drones instead of humans to gather crucial information in dangerous situations (active shooters, hostage situations, search & rescue missions, etc). The pilot program comes with strict rules on when the drones may be used – only with SWAT team members in the aforementioned dangerous situations – and every flight must be approved, documented, and reviewed. There’s a ban on facial recognition software and drone-operated weapons, and the Police Commission with publish quarterly reports on all drone activity.

Even with these restrictions in place, the program is facing heavy criticism from the public, as well as civil liberty and privacy organizations (the ACLU of Southern California and the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition sent letters to the LAPD urging them to kill the pilot program). The outcry all comes down to one thing: Trust. The LAPD has a contentious history with regard to technology implementation, most prominently in its rollout of body cameras without a policy in place to release the footage to the public. Jim Lafferty, the executive director emeritus of the National Lawyers Guild Los Angeles, says:

“Mission creep is of course the concern. . . . The history of this department is of starting off with supposedly good intentions about the new toys that it gets . . . only to then get too tempted by what they can do with those toys.”

Los Angeles isn’t the first city to attempt to use drones as a part of their police forces – and this isn’t even the first time the LAPD has tried to use drones. Seattle tried to start up a police drone program in 2013, but after heavy criticism from the public, the city killed the program and sent their drones to Los Angeles. The public outcry followed the drones to LA, and the LAPD also grounded and ultimately destroyed the drones without ever using them.

So why, a few years later, are they reviving and pushing forward with this program? Charlie Beck, the LAPD police chief, said at the panel vote meeting that more agencies are using drones, and there’s a “much more robust feedback mechanism” in place now. Time will tell whether these factors have any influence on keeping the drone program within their stated bounds.

Why it’s hot (and/or terrifying, depending on your view): The LAPD is the nation’s largest police force, and the outcomes of this pilot program will have a significant impact on future developments in unmanned civilian surveillance by our own government.

LA Times | Engadget

Tamagotchis are back!

[insert siren emoji here] Big news: Bandai just released a new line of Tamagotchis to celebrate the iconic toy’s 20th anniversary! These little buddies are very similar to their original predecessors, 256-pixel screen and all – the only real difference is that they’re about 20% smaller than the classic version. There are six shell designs to choose from, and the digital pets are just as needy and adorable as you remember them being. Have fun!

Why it’s hot: The trend of reviving 90s-era tech & toys continues! Nokia re-released its classic 3310 mobile phone earlier this year, and Nintendo released a NES Classic Edition last year. Is Game Boy next??!!

Read more: Gizmodo | Engadget

Biotech startup Taxa debuts genetically engineered fragrant moss

Taxa, a biotech startup in Silicon Valley, has debuted a new product: Orbella, a line of three fragrant mosses genetically engineered to give off aromas of patchouli, linalool (floral, clean, and fresh), and geraniol (rose-like). The project is a textbook example of synthetic biology, or synbio, which is the application of engineering techniques to the building blocks of life. (Basically, creating new life forms.)

Orbella was produced through a collaboration between Taxa and Dr. Henrik Simonsen, a professor at the University of Copenhagen whose work focuses on using photosynthesis (as opposed to conventional chemical synthesis) to biosynthesize small molecules.

The scented mosses were created by taking genes associated with a certain scent and splicing them into the moss genes. The actual process sounds like a near-future sci fi plot point: the scientists design the spliced gene online, use a gene gun (real name) to insert the genes into the moss cells, and then grow the GMO moss in liquid form.

If you’ve heard of Taxa before, it’s probably because of their intensely controversial Glowing Plant Kickstarter project. Back in 2013, Taxa successfully funded the Glowing Plant project with the promise of delivering a genetically modified plant that’d glow in the dark. Problem is, the biotech required to actually produce the glowing plant proved to be beyond Taxa’s reach, and their actual product hardly emitted any light.

Regardless of the success (or not) of the Glowing Plant itself, the Kickstarter project faced heavy blowback amid concerns of GMO products hitting consumer markets without any regulatory oversight. Prompted by the Glowing Plant controversy, Kickstarter banned GMO projects shortly thereafter. Taxa then pivoted to fragrant moss, which is much easier to engineer due to its simpler genome and shorter life-cycle, which allows scientists to run experiments more quickly.

Why It’s Hot: Orbella is a step forward in the consumer-facing biotech sphere. Taxa’s hope is that the product helps to positively change people’s perception of GMOs and demonstrate the varied uses of the emerging technology. Taxa is also funded primarily through crowd funding, and they’re an independent biotech company – their work is proving that GMO products don’t have to be the sole purview of massive conglomerates.

More significantly, though, the synbio field is truly the future of biotech, and represents mind-bogglingly vast possibilities for humanity – along with equally vast moral and ethical quandaries. How much modification is too much? Where’s the line between a fun, harmless GMO like scented moss and something more troubling? And who should be allowed to produce, and sell, and purchase GMO products in the first place?

Orbella Moss: Gizmodo | Business InsiderOrbella Moss
The Glowing Plant project: Kickstarter | Mother Jones | The Verge

Assassin’s Creed Origins Releasing Zero-Combat Mode

Ubisoft announced the development of a zero-combat mode for Assassin’s Creed Origins, the soon-to-be-published tenth installment of the wildly popular Assassin’s Creed series of video games. While Assassin’s Creed games typically involve a hefty dose of violence along with their sprawling, historically accurate worldbuilding, the zero-combat mode will turn Ubisoft’s massive re-creation of Ancient Egypt into an interactive, living historical world.

The educational mode will feature dozens of guided tours that focus on subjects like the Great Pyramids, mummification, and the life of Cleopatra, among others. Players can also simply roam through the entire world without having to keep looking over their (virtual) shoulders, taking time to wander and explore the vast landscape that includes Alexandria, the Sand Sea, the Giza Plateau, and more.

The content is painstakingly vetted to ensure historical and cultural accuracy, thanks to the team of historians and Egyptologists who helped create the educational world. According to Jean Guesdon, the creative director for Assassin’s Creed Origins, “We spent years recreating Ancient Egypt, documenting ourselves, validating the content with historians, with consultants, and we feel that many more people than just the players can benefit from that.”

The update doesn’t land until 2018, but when it’s ready, it’ll be a free upgrade for everyone who’s already purchased the game.

Why it’s hot: The zero-combat mode is a significant play for Ubisoft, who may be trying to get into the education space with this release. Guesdon says, “I hope that teachers will seize this opportunity to present that to their students, so they can learn with this interactive medium.” Regardless of their broader intention, it represents an exciting (and fun!) new application of the Assassin’s Creed series’ worldbuilding technology and expertise.

Ubisoft blog | Engadget | Ars Technica

Record-setting EV announced – and it’s a dump truck

A new experimental electric vehicle project is underway in Switzerland, and its sheer power puts Tesla to shame.

A Komatsu quarry truck, a massive vehicle whose wheels are the size of an adult human, is being modified by Kuhn Schweiz (a Swiss construction machinery company) and Lithium Storage (a European lithium battery supplier) to run entirely on electric power. The truck weighs 45 tons when empty, can carry an additional 65 tons of material, and is powered by a 700kWh battery pack – the equivalent of 8 Tesla Model S batteries.

The Komatsu’s regenerative braking technology is the key to its energy surplus. Because the truck carries such heavy loads, it generates more electricity driving (and braking) downhill on the way to the quarry than it needs to get back up the hill. The extra energy generated – approximately 10kWh per trip uphill, and it makes approximately 20 trips per day – feeds directly back into the local energy grid.

Why it’s hot:
The sheer size of the Komatsu, and the surplus of electricity it generates, is a significant, concrete (no pun intended) step in the expansion of electric vehicle technology beyond personal cars. Transitioning heavy machinery and commercial modes of transportation to electric power will have a massive impact on air quality, emissions, and global fossil fuel consumption.

 

Why it’s not super hot quite yet:
The Komatsu is still in development, and there are questions still being researched about the longevity and functionality of the battery under harsh construction environments.

Learn more:
https://arstechnica.com/cars/2017/09/this-cement-quarry-dump-truck-will-be-the-worlds-biggest-electric-vehicle/
https://www.treehugger.com/cars/worlds-largest-electric-vehicle-will-generate-more-electricity-it-uses.html