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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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Video games workers create union to demand rights

By Bethan Staton, news reporter

Workers in the video games industry have formed a union for the first time in the UK.

Excessive and unpaid overtime, precarious contracts and discrimination are all serious problems in the industry, according the the Games Workers' Union, which launched on Friday.

Now it is hoping to use collective organising to fix a "broken sector and create an ethical industry", according to founding member Dec Peach.

"For as long as I can remember it has been considered normal for games workers to endure zero-hours contracts, excessive unpaid overtime, and even sexism and homophobia as the necessary price to pay for the privilege of working in the industry," he said.

When the union holds its first meeting on Sunday, one of the biggest concerns for Mr Peach and his follow members is likely to be "crunch" – the practice of excessive unpaid overtime that's common in the industry.

In a 2016 survey by the International Games Developers' Association (IGDA), 51% of game developers said their job involved "crunch time" and a further 44% reported working long or extended hours.

Karn Bianco, a general programmer and GWU UK spokesperson, told Sky News that when he started in the industry he would work around 80 hours a week, much of which was unpaid.

"It was voluntary then, because I was so excited to be working in this industry," he said, estimating his average working week at around 80 hours. "But it didn't take long for it to affect me, and I started making an effort to work less."

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Burnout is common in the video games industry. Mr Bianco said it's normal for people to last five years or so, then move on to other areas of work where conditions and pay are better.

Crunch is not the only concern. Surveys show a majority of games developers think diversity is important, but scandals like GamerGate – which saw targeted harassment, death and rape threats against women in the industry – have suggested the scene can be hostile to minorities and women.

"Diversity and inclusion is a problem in what's a majority white male industry," Mr Bianco.

"There's a lot of toxicity that doesn't necessarily come from that but certainly isn't helped. And it's something companies have historically been bad at tackling."

GWU-UK is part of the global Games Workers' Union, but in the UK it is a branch of Independent Workers of Great Britain, a union that's made waves unionising "gig-economy" workforces like Uber drivers or cycle couriers.

Some games workers share much in common with these precariously employed groups.

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According to the IGDA, 27% of employed developers had worked for three to five employers in the last five years – a figure that indicates serious volatility in the industry.

People are welcome to join the union if they are involved in any area of video game production. Artists, producers, programmers and testers – both freelance and staff – will be part of the branch.

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Police to test facial recognition in Westminster

The Metropolitan Police is to test live facial recognition in Westminster as part of an ongoing trial of the controversial technology.

A deployment of the surveillance software will take place on Monday 17 and Tuesday 18 December in and around Soho, Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square.

It will be used "overtly" with a uniformed presence and information leaflets available to the public, the Met said.

All faces on the database used during the deployment are people wanted by police and the courts.

Members of the public could decline to be scanned, the Met said.

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Ivan Balhatchet, strategic lead for live facial technology for the Metropolitan Police Service, said: "The Met is currently developing the use of live facial recognition technology and we have committed to 10 trials during the coming months. We are now coming to the end of our trials when a full evaluation will be completed.

"We continue to engage with many different stakeholders, some who actively challenge our use of this technology.

"In order to show transparency and continue constructive debate, we have invited individuals and groups with varying views on our use of facial recognition technology to this deployment."

Privacy campaigners have repeatedly expressed concerns around the use of such technology, labelling it "dangerous and lawless".

In May, campaigners from Big Brother Watch used a Freedom of Information request to obtain figures which showed 98% of "matches" found by the technology during earlier Met Police tests were wrong.

The group now claims new figures show the technology has got worse, with inaccuracies rising to 100%.

Taylor Swift at the Billboard Music Awards
Image: Facial recognition software was reportedly used at a Taylor Swift gig

Big Brother Watch director Silkie Carlo said: "The police's use of this authoritarian surveillance tool in total absence of a legal or democratic basis is alarming.

"Live facial recognition is a form of mass surveillance that, if allowed to continue, will turn members of the public into walking ID cards.

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"As with all mass surveillance tools, it is the general public who suffer more than criminals. The fact that it has been utterly useless so far shows what a terrible waste of police time and public money it is. It is well overdue that police drop this dangerous and lawless technology."

Earlier this week, Rolling Stone reported facial recognition software was used in a kiosk of a Taylor Swift concert in the US and images gathered cross-referenced with a database of the singer's known stalkers.

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Self-driving, burrito-carrying rovers are going to talk to us with their eyes

Part of the way this rover communicates is with its eyes.

Postmates.

If autonomous rovers are going to start bringing us burritos and pasta and maybe even the occasional vegetable dish—as delivery company Postmates hopes that they will—they’re going to have to learn some social skills. For one, they’ll need to figure out how to make their way down crowded sidewalks. They’ll also have to communicate with people to let them know what they’re doing, since autonomous bots, and self-driving cars, can’t talk or gesture the way humans do.

The latest droid built for lugging takeout is a servile bot called Serve, and Postmates designed it to make short-haul deliveries in cities. To know what’s going on, it has a lidar sensor on top, in which spinning lasers let it perceive objects around it and know how far away they are. (It’s similar to what you’ll find guiding self-driving cars on the roads.) That’s not all. Behind each artificial eye is a camera, with six more imaging devices spread around the ‘bot. In its cargo bin is another sensor that allows Postmates to know if there is a package in there or not.

“One of our key decisions early on was to rely heavily on perception and the robot’s ability to see the environment,” says Ali Kashani, the vice president for robotics at Postmates. (That’s where the lidar sensor really helps.) Since the sidewalk is “a very chaotic environment,” he points out, the bot needs to be able to take it all in and figure out what to do.

This robot, and others like it, also must be able to signal their intentions to the organic beings walking alongside them (just like self-driving cars sometimes do). For that, it has a number of approaches. One is using its eyes, and another is a colorful light ring that goes around the top.

Say it wants to let a pedestrian know that it’s going to yield for them, Kashani says. “It would use its eyes; it would look down,” he explains. It can orient its wheels in such a way that it indicates it’s not about to roll in front of them, and the light ring on top enters a “resting mode, which is like a breathing pattern.”

“All of those together imply that’s it’s going to stop,” he adds. It can also use the lights on top like a turn signal, which is intuitive, and its peepers come in handy with that kind of maneuver, too. “Its eyes also look left and right when it’s turning left and right,” says Kashani.

And using eye movements—and other non-verbal cues—is a good strategy, says Aaron Steinfeld, an associate research professor at Carnegie Mellon University who focuses on human-robot interaction and advanced transportation systems. He likes that the rover is capable of “deferential behavior,” which he says isn’t common with robots.

Serve is intended for sidewalks, and Steinfeld says that environment is challenging. It’s easy for people to move fluidly with a crowd—they usually can do it (with varying degrees of success) while staring at a smartphone. For a bot, that’s a lot. “We actually have active research on robots navigating socially around people when they’re moving,” he says. “And it’s really tricky to do this well.”

On easy way for a robot to handle that scenario? “If they’re willing to have the robot wait for a crowd to get past, they can solve a lot of those problems just by being patient,” Steinfeld says.

Postmates says they plan to use Serve in Los Angeles area at first, and that its intended chore is to “move small objects over short distances efficiently.” The electric rover can travel 30 miles on one charge and is capable of schlepping 50 pounds, they say.

And of course, Postmates and its Serve bot aren’t the first company intending to use robots to deliver goods, either on sidewalks or the street. One well-know delivery robot company is Starship Technologies, and then there’s Nuro, which makes a larger self-driving robot designed for the streets and delivering groceries. According to a representative for Nuro, they plan to start actually using those bots, called the R1, “soon” in Scottsdale, Arizona.

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YouTube star banned from UK theme parks and TV studios

A YouTube star who trespassed at the Big Brother house and climbed a rollercoaster at Thorpe Park has been banned from theme parks and TV studios across most of the country.

Ally Law, who has more than two million subscribers on the site, filmed as he climbed the Stealth ride in July 2017.

He and a friend also entered the Big Brother House unlawfully in January this year.

The 21-year-old, from Southampton, has been given an interim criminal behaviour order (CBO) which covers England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

It also bans him from areas of a bridge or building not open to the public, any commercial property outside business hours, and all properties owned by Merlin Entertainments.

On Twitter, Law said the CBO "stops me from doing basically ANYTHING…"

Other videos on Law's channel include him scaling various tall buildings without safety gear and sneaking into other attractions.

"Ally Law has offended all over the country and we used evidence from all over in our application because we know that he has been causing numerous police forces issues for some time," said Inspector Nick Pinkerton from Surrey Police.

He said it had taken a year to get the CBO against Law.

The YouTuber could be arrested if he breaches the order and there is a potential five-year prison sentence if convicted.

Law will also be back in court in March over the Big Brother incident, telling his followers this week that he could face jail time.

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Ofcom launches review of broadband prices

Telecoms regulator Ofcom has launched a review of broadband pricing for loyal customers amid concerns they are paying more than they need to.

Ofcom figures show that 94% of UK homes and offices can now get superfast broadband, but less than half have taken it up.

Around four million households with old-style, basic broadband have passed their initial contract period and could switch to superfast for the same – or less – money than they currently pay.

Customers who take a landline and broadband service together are paying an average of 19% more once their discounted deal has expired, Ofcom found.

Sharon White, Ofcom chief executive, said: "We're concerned that many loyal broadband customers aren't getting the best deal they could.

"So we're reviewing broadband pricing practices and ensuring customers get clear, accurate information from their provider about the best deals they offer."

Ofcom announced a range of measures to help people get the best deal.

It called on broadband providers to tell customers about their best available deal, both when their deals are coming to an end and every year after that if they don't change their deal.

The watchdog is also launching a review of broadband companies' pricing practices – examining why some customers pay more than others, and whether vulnerable customers need extra protections to ensure they get a good deal.

Ofcom has already launched a website, Boost Your Broadband, that tells people what broadband they can get in their area, and offers advice on how to find the best deal.

The broadband market is highly competitive, with superfast broadband packages now available from around £20 a month, Ofcom said.

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Alex Neill, managing director of home products and services at Which?, said: "Our research has shown that many UK households are paying huge loyalty premiums for staying on the same tariff when they could be paying less for a faster internet service."

He added: "If you are unhappy with your internet service, or you think you could be paying too much, you should look to switch provider or try haggling for a better deal. A few minutes of your time could potentially save you hundreds of pounds a year."

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