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Scientists unveil insect-sized flying robot

Scientists have invented an insect-sized flying robot that is free from electric wires tethering it to the ground.

RoboFly is slightly heavier than a toothpick and is powered by a laser beam, using a tiny on-board circuit to convert the laser energy into electricity to flap its wings.

Its inventors are engineers from the University of Washington (UW) and they are going to present their work at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Brisbane, Australia, next week.

They expect that, in the future, RoboFly could help with tasks like inspecting crops or detecting gas leaks.

"Before now, the concept of wireless insect-sized flying robots was science fiction," said Dr Sawyer Fuller, co-author of the study.

"Would we ever be able to make them work without needing a wire?" asked the assistant professor in the UW Department of Mechanical Engineering.

"Our new wireless RoboFly shows they're much closer to real life."

Image: RoboFly is slightly heavier than a toothpick. Pic: Mark Stone/University of Washington

The team believes the real engineering achievement with the tiny robot is in its flapping wings, which is an energy-intensive activity.

As both the power source and the controller for the wings are too big and heavy to be on board the tiny robot themselves, Dr Fuller's previous insect, the RoboBee, had to be tethered to its power source through wires from the ground.

RoboFly is able to operate on its own. Dr Fuller's team uses a narrow and invisible laser beam pointed at a photovoltaic cell attached above RoboFly which converts the laser light into electricity.

"It was the most efficient way to quickly transmit a lot of power to RoboFly without adding much weight," said co-author Dr Shyam Gollakota, an associate professor at UW's Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering.

Buy itself the laser does not provide enough voltage to power the wings however, so the team designed a circuit to boost the seven volts produced by the photovoltaic cell up to the 240 volts needed for the flight.

To give RoboFly its independence, the team also added a microcontroller to the same circuit.

"The microcontroller acts like a real fly's brain telling wing muscles when to fire," said Vikram Iyer, a doctoral student in the UW Department of Electrical Engineering.

"On RoboFly, it tells the wings things like 'flap hard now' or 'don't flap'."

Specifically, the controller sends voltage in waves to mimic the fluttering of a real insect's wings.

To make RoboFly wireless, the engineers designed a flexible circuit (yellow) with a boost converter (copper coil and black boxes at left) that boosts the seven volts coming from the photovoltaic cell into the 240 volts needed for flight. This circuit also has a microcontroller brain (black square box in the top right) that lets RoboFly control its wings. Credit: Mark Stone/University of Washington
Image: A flexible circuit boosts the seven volts into 240v needed for flight. Pic: MS/UW

"It uses pulses to shape the wave," said Johannes James, the lead author of the study and a mechanical engineering doctoral student.

"To make the wings flap forward swiftly, it sends a series of pulses in rapid succession and then slows the pulsing down as you get near the top of the wave.

"And then it does this in reverse to make the wings flap smoothly in the other direction."

Although RoboFly can only take off and land at the moment the team hopes it will soon be able to steer the robot using the laser.

Future versions of the device could use tiny batteries to harvest energy from radio waves, Dr Gollakota said, allowing the laser to send instructions for other tasks.

Dr Fuller said: "I'd really like to make one that finds methane leaks.

"You could buy a suitcase full of them, open it up, and they would fly around your building looking for plumes of gas coming out of leaky pipes.

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"If these robots can make it easy to find leaks, they will be much more likely to be patched up, which will reduce greenhouse emissions.

"This is inspired by real flies, which are really good at flying around looking for smelly things. So we think this is a good application for our RoboFly."

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Branson’s astronaut training as space race hots up

Sir Richard Branson has said he is undergoing astronaut training and is just months away from being catapulted into space.

The 67-year-old Virgin boss has set his sights on turning commercial space travel into a reality since he founded Virgin Galactic and hopes to be among the first space tourists.

"We're talking about months not years – so it's close. There are exciting times ahead," he told BBC Radio 4's You And Yours, to be broadcast on Monday.

"I'm going for astronaut training, I'm going for fitness training, centrifuge and other training so that my body will hopefully cope well when I go to space."

Sir Richard Branson, who has revealed that he is training to become an astronaut
Image: Sir Richard Branson says 'exciting times' are ahead

He said he has increased his fitness training by playing tennis four times a day.

"Instead of doing one set of tennis every morning and every evening I'm doing two sets. I'm going kiting and biking – doing whatever it takes to make me as fit as possible."

Sir Richard is also taking part in gruelling centrifuge training which recreates the pressures the human body experiences during space flight.

All astronauts endure G-force training which simulates the experience of take-off and travel through the earth's atmosphere.

SpaceShipTwo landed about 10 after detaching from its carrier aircraft
Image: Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo

Earlier this year Virgin Galactic completed a supersonic test flight of its SpaceShipTwo passenger rocket ship.

It was the first return to the air for the company since a crash in the Californian desert in 2014 in which one pilot was killed and another was injured.

:: Elon Musk's Falcon Heavy is a space race game-changer

Sir Richard, tech entrepreneur Elon Musk and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos are in a race to get tourists into space.

While Sir Richard believes Mr Musk is "doing fantastically well" in getting cargo into space and building bigger and bigger rockets, the real tussle is between the Virgin boss and Mr Bezos.

"I think we're both (Sir Richard and Mr Bezos) neck and neck as to who will put people into space first," he said.

"Ultimately we have to do it safely. It's more a race with ourselves to make sure we have the craft that are safe to put people up there."

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I created the first digital meme


The mind behind the Dancing Baby regrets his most famous work.

When Michael Girard created a digital animation of a cute baby dancing, he had no idea it would become one of the first viral sensations of the digital age.

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John ‘TotalBiscuit’ Bain, YouTube star, has died

YouTube star and video game critic John Bain, better known as TotalBiscuit and the Cynical Brit, has died aged 33.

Bain, who publicly announced he had bowel cancer in 2015, revealed last month that his liver was failing and that he was retiring from reviewing games.

"I'm currently coming to terms with the fact that I don't have long left," he wrote in a lengthy post on Reddit.

He said his body had become resistant to all forms of chemotherapy and that his wife Genna would be taking over his YouTube channel.

Rest in Peace my Dearest Love
John @Totalbiscuit Bain
July 8, 1984 – May 24, 2018

— Genna Bain (@GennaBain) May 24, 2018

Bain wrote: "I can't do the job anymore. I'm under the influence of too much medication to think clearly."

A message on his official Twitter account confirmed his passing, while his wife tweeted: "Rest in Peace my Dearest Love."

"I'm more overwhelmed with grief than I could possibly express," she wrote.

Tributes poured in for the popular YouTuber with fans describing Bain as a "warrior", a "fighter" and "an inspiration".

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One tweeted: "One of the best game reviewers that was. Thanks for everything you've done John."

Another wrote: "I never thought the death of a man I never met would affect me so much. I literally cannot put into words how much your channel and podcast affected me for the better. Rest now good sir. You will be truly missed."

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‘Unlikely’ string of events sees Alexa go rogue

An American woman says she feels "invaded" after an Amazon Alexa device recorded a private conversation and sent it to a random contact without being asked to.

US news outlet KIRO 7 reported that a woman, identified only as Danielle from Portland, Oregon, had been unaware of what happened until she received a phone call from her husband's employee.

The employee said that Alexa, Amazon's popular voice assistant, had recorded the family's conversation and sent it to him.

Luckily, the conversation was not too personal – it was about hardwood floors.

Nonetheless, Danielle said she felt "invaded".

She added: "Immediately I said: 'I'm never plugging that device in again, because I can't trust it'."

An Inc driver stands next to an Amazon delivery truck in Los Angeles, California, U.S. on May 21, 2016
Image: Amazon says it is 'evaluating options to make this case even less likely'

Amazon confirmed the woman's conversation had been inadvertently recorded and sent, blaming an "unlikely" string of events for the error.

Alexa starts recording after hearing its name or another "wake word" chosen by users, meaning that even having a TV switched on can result in the device being activated.

Amazon said this was what happened to Danielle, adding: "The subsequent conversation was heard as a 'send message' request.

"At which point, Alexa said out loud 'To whom?' At which point, the background conversation was interpreted as a name in the customer's contact list.

"We are evaluating options to make this case even less likely."

Unprompted, creepy laughter from Alexa is freaking out Echo users  Amazon knows about the bug and is working to fix it. 0:09
Video: March: Echo spooks users with creepy cackle

Amazon wants Alexa to become a popular home accessory, used for everything from dimming the lights to ordering a pizza, but to achieve this, it must be able to assure users of the device's security.

There were fears raised after US researchers found in 2016 that sounds unintelligible to humans could set off voice assistants.

According to The New York Times, the group showed that they could hide commands in white noise played over loudspeakers and through YouTube videos to get smart devices to turn on flight mode or open a website.

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In May, some of those researchers went further, saying they could embed commands directly into recordings of music or spoken text.

This would mean that, while a human listener hears an orchestra, the voice assistant might hear an instruction to add something to your shopping list.

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Govt facial recognition delays ‘unacceptable’

By Alexander J Martin, technology reporter

The government's approach to a High Court ruling regarding facial recognition technology has been slammed as "unacceptable" by MPs.

As revealed by Sky News last year, police in the UK have amassed the facial images of more than 20 million people, including hundreds of thousands of innocent citizens.

These images have been used to automatically scan crowds across the country despite questions over whether this constitutes illegal mass surveillance.

facial recognition technology
Image: Just 67 people have asked police to delete their images

The activity has also been challenged by a High Court ruling in 2012 which said that retaining the pictures of innocent people on the custody images database was unlawful.

Despite this ruling, the government said it would be too expensive to delete innocent people's images and told police forces only to consider whether to delete images if the innocent individuals themselves complained.

This was slammed as "unacceptable" by the MPs, who explained that "unconvicted individuals may not know that they can apply for their images to be deleted".

The committee noted a report by Associated Press that only 67 of hundreds of thousands of innocent individuals had applied to police forces to have their images deleted.

In a report published on Friday, MPs on the science and technology committee criticised the government for being four years late in producing the biometrics strategy it had promised would address these issues.

Video: Facial recognition tech wrongly identifying people as criminals

The biometrics strategy is now technically five years overdue as it was originally to be published as a joint biometrics and forensics strategy in 2013.

Although the government said it would be publishing separate strategies in 2014, the publication date for the biometrics strategy has still not been confirmed.

MPs have demanded that it must be published by June of this year.

A Home Office spokesperson said: "Analysis of images plays a critical role in helping the police to protect the public. When doing so it is important that the police act legally, ethically, and transparently.

"We are examining whether, with new police IT systems, it will be technically feasible to link custody images to conviction status as is the case with fingerprints and DNA."

The Home Office say they are now considering the Select Committee's report and are "committed to publishing the Biometrics Strategy in June".

The forensics strategy was two years late when it was published in 2016, although it was still criticised as "inadequate" and "vague and incoherent".

Image: Planned forensic retesting involves all but one of Britain's police forces

A series of scandals have since rocked police handling of forensic evidence, prompting the MPs to demand a rewrite of the strategy.

The report published on Friday states that police are "unduly focusing on cutting costs" which is causing damage to producing evidence.

Their criticism comes as an urgent review is being conducted into the Metropolitan Police amid allegations that 33 cases were affected by forensics mishandling.

Last November, Sky News reported that rogue laboratory staff at the outsourced forensics firm Randox Testing Services may have tampered with evidence in more than 10,000 cases, including murders and sex crimes.

A Home Office spokesperson said: ""The majority of forensic services are being delivered to a higher-quality standard than ever before and are closely scrutinised.

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"We are, however, taking the opportunity to work with policing partners to review provision of forensic science.

"This work will ensure providers and police continue to provide sound forensic evidence for the criminal justice system."

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