Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Flying car fantasy looks like it could become reality

Posted by John Keller

When I was a kid it was the fantasy of everyone I knew to find a way to fly, be it with a rocket belt we saw on TV, or better yet, to have a flying car that could take off, as well as roll along the highways.

Now it seems that fantasy could be coming true.

Terrafugia of Woburn, Mass., is ready to market the Transition flying car, after receiving "light sport" aircraft classification from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.

The Terrafugia Transition, a two-seat combination light aircraft and street-legal automobile, can travel at normal highway speeds on pavement, and at 115 miles per hour when flying. It can take off from airports or long flat stretches after folding down its wings and engaging its backward-facing propeller.

At a cost of about $200,000, anyone willing to put in at least 20 hours flying time to quality can buy one, fly it from place to place, and store it in an ordinary garage.

I can't help thinking, though, that this fantasy-come-true is most likely a combination of poor car and even worse airplane. Just goes to show that you ought to be careful what you wish for.

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For the love of God, transition is not a verb!

Posted by John Keller

I apologize in advance for the upcoming rant, but I really have to vent about seeing the word "transition" used as a verb ... or more to the point, to make clear that transition is not a verb; it's a noun -- always has been, always will be.

It's a pity this is one of the things that drives me barking mad, that is, since I work around the defense industry and the Pentagon, where the community just LOVES to fold, spindle, and mutilate the perfectly useful word transition until this noun finally gives up and impersonates a verb.

I just got an e-mail with a subject line that illustrates this travesty: Have You Transitioned to ISO 9001:2008 Yet?

I remember back in the early '80s when Navy aviation was "transitioning" from the A-7 to the F-18 light attack bomber. It's as though no one has heard of the word "switch."

Then again, perhaps a simple, useful word like "switch" is too lowly and modest to describe the switch ... ooops, sorry, the transition ... to something as monumental as a new fighter-bomber, or a new ISO standard.

And so it goes.


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Monday, June 28, 2010

Unpiloted, automated passenger aircraft: coming to an airport near you

Posted by John Keller

Commercial airliners may be on the verge of a transformation every bit as significant as the switch from propeller to jet power, and once again likely will demonstrate the ability of air passengers to adapt quickly to new technologies that many say they will never accept.

What I'm talking about is the likely future of unpiloted, automated passenger aircraft. Yeah, yeah, I've heard it before -- nobody will fly on a plane without a human pilot. We've all heard the joke about the automated passenger aircraft on which nothing can go wrong ... go wrong ... go wrong.

Yet while it's true that passengers want to get to their destinations safely and with peace of mind, what the unpiloted passenger aircraft skeptics underestimate is how much passengers want to get to their destinations. Period. Get 'em where they want to go, when they want to get there, and they'll adapt.

Case in point: the Boeing 707 jetliner. The 707, developed in the 1950s, was one of the first commercially successful passenger jets, and dominated commercial aviation during the 1960s and into the '70s. When its design first went onto the drawing boards, nay-sayers said passengers would never board an aircraft that didn't have propellers.

Those in the aviation industry who believed this put their money behind other passenger aircraft designs of the day, such as the three-tailed Lockheed Constellation. Quick show of hands: how many remember the 707, and how many remember the Constellation? I thought so. Some of the first 707 passengers may have been a little nervous about seeing no propellers on the wings, but evidently that didn't last long.

We'll see the same thing when we see the first unpiloted passenger jets, and that could be sooner than you think. New Scientist has a story out online this week entitled Drone alone: how airliners may lose their pilots. It points out research projects on both sides of the Atlantic to find ways for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to share civil airspace with passenger jets.

It's only a matter of time, the article points out, before researchers can find a way for UAVs to share airspace with passenger jets, which will lead to unpiloted cargo aircraft, and finally to unpiloted passenger aircraft. Would you as a passenger fly in a plane without a pilot?

Let me tell you, if this approach led to fewer delays at the airport, I'd be on unpiloted planes in a heartbeat. I'm betting you would, too.

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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Oil spill: could modified sonar help detect concentrations of undersea oil threatening wildlife and tourism in Gulf of Mexico?

Posted by John Keller

I'm starting to hear some interesting things from naval defense contractors about gauging the magnitude of the underwater oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico resulting from the 20 April explosion of the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig.

Two things: first, sonar equipped with modified frequencies may be able to locate and measure concentrations not only of spilled crude oil, but also of heavy metal-laden toxic dispersants used in attempts to break up the oil as it spews from the stricken well. Second, this is likely to be WAY worse than people can even imagine.

Naval contractors are starting to talk about how to use modified sonobuoys dropped from U.S. Navy P-3 anti-submarine warfare aircraft to get a handle on just how large this oil spill really is. The problem, it seems, is that BP remains in charge of the cleanup, and has been less than eager to involve the U.S. Navy.

This oil spill disaster has turned into a bureaucratic mess that prevents the best resources from coming to bear. Case in point: the U.S. Coast Guard is one of the point agencies responsible for responding to maritime disasters close to the U.S. coastline like this. The Coast Guard is just now getting around to discussing contracts just to measure the rate of flow of oil into the Gulf.

The problem with the Coast Guard -- aside from its lack of a sense of urgency -- is this agency does not have adequate resources to deal with a disaster of this magnitude, while the U.S. Navy does. Sounds like it's high time to get the Navy involved ... that is, if it's not already too late for the Gulf Coast.

So why do we need modified sonar to find concentrations of oil? Doesn't crude oil float to the surface, since it's lighter than water?

The answer is, not always. Experts predict there are huge, lake-sized concentrations of crude oil traveling on sub-sea currents east and west along the Gulf's continental shelf. Some experts say that some of the oil starting to reach land is coming ashore without ever breaking the surface.

Think about that. If this is the case, and I have no reason to doubt it, then many of those oil booms deployed now and in the future will be useless. Worse, a sub-sea oil slick invisible from the surface is easier to ignore for federal authorities more interested in ignoring this disaster instead of solving it.

It's time to get the resources of the U.S. military involved in this maritime disaster. If the oil spill in the Gulf isn't a national emergency, then I don't know what is. Get the Navy, get it's P-3s, its sonobuoys, its surface ships, and its submarines to work on this disaster. Do it now.


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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Oil spill in the Gulf: you mean the studies are just beginning now?

Posted by John Keller

I ran across an interesting tidbit in the government solicitations this morning. Seems the U.S. Coast Guard wants to award a contract to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts to measure the flow rate of the underwater oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that resulted from the 20 April explosion of the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig. That's nice ...

... Wait a minute! We're into the third month of an uncontrolled oil spill that has created an oil slick the size of New England, no end in sight, and the Coast Guard is just getting around to it NOW to find how much oil is spewing out of the ocean bottom?

You mean all these statistics being thrown around -- like 39 million gallons of crude oil, or some such really big number -- are all just wild guesses?

The Coast Guard released what the government calls a "justification and approval" notice to award a sole-source contract to Woods Hole to collect and analyze data to measure the flow rate of the continuing spill in the Gulf. This isn't saying that Woods Hole scientists are deployed and on their way to the spill; it means the Coast Guard is still just talking about it.

By the way, the Coast Guard estimates it will need to pay Woods Hole $190,000 for the job. Doesn't sound like such a bad deal to me. I just wish they'd thought of doing this sooner.


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Monday, June 21, 2010

The Dork's guide to pragmatism, epistemology, and removing that blasted heat from electronic systems

Posted by John Keller

Okay, you caught me: I'm a Dork.

I've been a Dork for a long time, and qualify for this title on many levels and subjects, yet today's foray into Dorkdom involves electronics thermal management and 19th century American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, considered to be one of history's most influential thinkers on pragmatism, epistemology, and logic ...

... see, I TOLD you I was a Dork. My friends at Free Republic will give you chapter and verse on that, as they discovered after I penned a recent blog on the Russian T-50 jet fighter, but let me try to stay on track. For more on electronics thermal management, see Military electronics cooling and thermal management issues press for new materials development, potential move away from COTS.

Anyway, what I always loved about Peirce is his uncanny ability to cut to the chase on all matters, great and small. During his lifetime from 1839 to 1914 he wrote about stuff you can't ignore -- a lot like all that heat that comes out of powerful electronics ... the heat gives systems designers fits in their attempts to get rid of it.

Here's my favorite quote from Peirce, one that has stuck with me since I first read it in college during the late '70s, and which I thought about while researching this month's Product Intelligence report on electronics cooling and thermal management:

"A court may issue injunctions and judgments against me and I care not a snap of my finger for them. I may think them idle vapor," Peirce wrote. "But when I feel the sheriff's hand on my shoulder, I shall begin to have a sense of actuality. Actuality is something brute."

... and so it is with heat in electronics. You can't theorize it away, you can't wish it away, and sometimes you can't even design it away -- not without spending a boatload of money on exotic approaches involving some sort of liquid cooling.

I'm sure there are electronics designers out there who would agree that thermal management in today's electronics is, indeed, something BRUTE. I know more than a few of them out there who are getting a BIG sense of actuality these days when it comes to electronics cooling.

I've been told that removing heat from electronics is one of the few real threats out there that could lead to the end of Moore's Law -- you know, the one that says computing power doubles every 18 months or so? It's hard to get the heat out, and these powerful new computers generate heat, let me tell you.

I'm told the new Intel Core i7 microprocessors that so many are making a fuss over these days -- including us -- generates in the neighborhood of 45 Watts of heat. That's a big problem for the designers trying to build small, lightweight technology for unmanned systems and wearable computers.

I'm also hearing that some influential military systems designers are getting so fed up with the headaches of cooling electronics that they're considering giving COTS up altogether. Yes, you heard that right. Commercial off-the-shelf computing technology often is good stuff, and it's affordable, yet it can be a pain cool in deployable embedded applications.

Some designers out there evidently ready to throw up their hands and just start building custom electronics that has the cooling built in from the start, rather than an afterthought. At the end of the day, it just might not only be more reliable and rugged if they design systems that way, but it might be less expensive, too.

Certainly it won't be less expensive to build and buy, but if the military is honest and looks at design, procurement, and lifetime maintenance costs, they might be better off to specify some of the really hot electronics as custom systems, rather than COTS systems.

It's the small stuff that our fighting forces need most these days, and it's the small stuff that is so tough to keep cool. These issues are definitely NOT idle vapor, and today's thermal management engineers still have a lot of work to do.

Friday, June 18, 2010

With the T-50, Russian jet fighters are back ... and it's none too soon

Posted by John Keller

Ah, I'm so relieved that things are getting back to normal. I spent my formative years enraptured with the thrill of drop drills ('duck and cover;' remember that?) strategic missile gaps, the space race, submarine cat-and-mouse, missiles in Cuba, and other delights of the Cold War.

God, how I loved it when I heard Ronald Reagan refer to the 'Evil Empire." There were periods of my young professional life when I couldn't WAIT for the Pentagon's annual edition of Soviet Military Power, which absolutely terrified the bejusus out of anyone who picked it up.

Supersonic bombers, missile submarines as long as the Empire State Building, intercontinental and short-range nuclear ballistic missiles, scary special forces commandos, main battle tanks with guns so big they looked like just came off the USS New Jersey -- and all pointed straight at us! It was enough to make the sweat pop out on my upper lip every time I even glanced at that publication on the bookshelf.

It was us versus the Russians. You could count on it, it was predictable; heck, it was even a comfort. Those were the days, podna.

But then the Soviet Union collapsed, and I thought the fun was all done forever. When the U.S. and Russia started getting friendly, all of a sudden it was as if the Lakers and the Celtics had joined in a great big group hug. Not only was it kind of yucky, but it just didn't feel right. I mean, some things are just meant to be, right?

The Global War on Terror has been long, nasty, and exhausting. Far worse, there's no arms race. The terrorists don't parade their guns, tanks, and missiles through Red Square. We have to content ourselves with rapid advances in IED detection technology, and that's just not the same as seeing a shiny new Russian guided missile cruiser every couple of years.

But now things seem to be turning around. I'm reading lately about the new Russian Sukhoi T-50 jet fighter, and things are starting to feel comfortable again. The T-50 fighter, which should be deployed in 2015, is Russia's answer to the U.S. F-22 Raptor advanced tactical fighter. Both planes are useless as paperweights in the War on Terror, but man, do they look slick!

Now for the best part: we finally have two teams on the field again. There's trash-talk, and everything! Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin stood beside a T-50 fighter yesterday and said this: "This machine will be superior to our main competitor, the F-22, in terms of maneuverability, weaponry, and range," Music to my ears.

Sounds like we're all back in the saddle again ... right where we belong.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Redesigning an established Website turns out to be a cornucopia of frustration

Posted by John Keller

I know some of you have had complaints about the new Military & Aerospace Electronics Website. If you think YOU'VE had complaints, you wouldn't believe what we've been going through here ... but let me start from the beginning.

Military & Aerospace Electronics has a brand new Website at www.milaero.com. You already knew that, but there's more to it, probably, than you really want to know. It all comes from our wish to bring you a better reader experience online. We know that our old Website was getting pretty dated and frayed around the edges, even though it still did the job for readers and advertisers.

We just wanted to get ourselves into the 21st Century, and we did ... okay, 2004, but the 21st Century, nevertheless. What we've got now is a lot better that what we used to have ..., er, well, it WILL be. Soon. Yeah. At least that's what I've been told, and I have no reason to disbelieve what I've been told about this. Really.

The ideas sounded great at first ... and, I'm sure they are great ideas, or will be, ah, eventually. They told me that online readers want their content organized into topic centers. Sounds logical. I mean, who wants to see his Web content served up in arbitrary categories that WE choose, like news, and products, and features, and stuff?

Our readers, I was told, want to read Web content organized in categories that THEY'RE concerned with -- you know, like embedded computing, avionics, and power electronics. I get that, honestly, and I'm on board that this is the way to go ...

... if only it were that easy.

With everyone in agreement, we sailed off on our adventure to improve the Website -- through night and day, and in and out of weeks, and almost over a year, to where the UPGRADES are. And let me tell you, when we got to that new Website in the last days of April, those upgrades roared their terrible roars, and gnashed their terrible teeth, and rolled their terrible eyes, and showed their terrible claws ... and I wasn't as lucky as Max, who could just tell HIS wild things to "BE STILL!" Oh, no. Those upgrades grabbed me by the throat, flailed me around like a rag doll, kicked me to the curb, and left me for dead.

And that was just in the first week.

I have this nagging feeling that everyone knew from the get-go how hard this was going to be -- except me. I'm a trusting soul, and I'm a sucker for that sales pitch of hey, this is going to be good for everybody -- readers, advertisers, folks who come in out of the cold from Google. Everyone's going to LOVE this; you just gotta give it a chance.

Everyone hears this, right? You think I'd learn.

I could go through all the problems and horrors for you, but I'll just cut to the best one: the search function -- or more accurately the lack of one. Seems that little detail somehow was overlooked when we changed over from the old site to the new one.

What we got for the first couple of weeks was a gorgeous, shining, majestic new site that couldn't find its butt with both hands; I could tell you different, but I'd be lying. It was so bad that we could type in the headline located just below the search bar, and all we'd get is that nasty, mean, taunting little message, "no results found." Good thing it's finally fixed.

I swear the thing would laugh demonically after coming up empty of results. It got personal, it got ugly, we got calls from irate readers ... and I hereby publicly apologize to my colleagues here at work who heard things emanating from my office that ... well, that they shouldn't have.

The good news, though, is all that bad stuff is behind us ... I think. The search function has come back to life, and yields pretty good stuff. Our topic centers -- avionics intelligence and embedded computing -- are coming together nicely, and we're trying to figure out how to add power electronics, electro-optics, and several other topic centers over the next several months to help our readers find what they need, fast.

If only I'd known beforehand, I might not have been so trusting. Just goes to show you that no good act ever goes unpunished ... ever.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

What's backup plan if satellites go down on NextGen air traffic management system?

Posted by John Keller

The NextGen air traffic management system represents a revolutionary advancement in air traffic control, as the future system will use satellite navigation and guidance to enable commercial jetliners to fly not only straight lines to their destinations, but also to control their trajectories and flight profiles based on the performance of each aircraft to save time, fuel, and other operating costs.

But what happens if the satellites go down? This isn't out of the realm of possibility. A nuclear weapon detonated in low-Earth orbit could destroy or disable upwards of 80 percent of the navigation satellites on which not only NextGen air traffic management, but also any kind of Global Positioning System (GPS)-based navigation depends.

It worries me that countries we might consider to be rogue nations -- I'm thinking of Iran and North Korea here -- either have or are close to developing nuclear weapons and the means to boost these into Earth orbit and explode them there, taking out most of the communications, navigation, and home entertainment satellites residing there. Let's face it, it's only a matter of time before terrorist organizations get their hands on nukes capable of doing this job.

So assuming that we will in a short time have a primarily satellite-based air traffic control system, what do we do if the worst happens?

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in Washington has considered this possibility and has a backup plan in place, says Ronald Stroup, chief systems engineer at the FAA, who made his comments today at the Avionics USA conference and trade show in San Diego.

Stroup told conference attendees that the FAA has plans to continue maintaining its network of ground-based radar stations -- perhaps not all of them, but enough to do the job. In addition, FAA experts have plans to extend the ranges of ground-based radar systems to continue with air traffic control if satellite-based systems malfunction.

The FAA also plans to maintain its distance measuring equipment (DME) navigation systems so commercial aircraft can continue navigating from place to place using ground-based radio beacons. It might not be as efficient as the NextGen system, but at least we'll still have a functioning air traffic management system.

Finally, Stroup says the FAA plans to maintain radio-based voice communications to relay orders, directives, and crucial flight data to commercial aircraft in the event of a disaster that renders satellite-based systems inoperable.

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