Silicon Valley & Technology

Researchers Develop a Better Drone: Bat Bot

Holy drone, Batman! Mechanical masterminds have spawned the Bat Bot, a soaring, sweeping and diving robot that may eventually fly circles around other drones.

Because it mimics the unique and more flexible way bats fly, this 3-ounce prototype could do a better and safer job getting into disaster sites and scoping out construction zones than bulky drones with spinning rotors, said the three authors of a study released Wednesday in the journal Science Robotics.

For example, it would have been ideal for going inside the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan, said study co-author Seth Hutchinson, an engineering professor at the University of Illinois.

The bat robot flaps its wings for better aerial maneuvers, glides to save energy and dive bombs when needed. Eventually, the researchers hope to have it perch upside down like the real thing, but that will have to wait for the robot’s sequel.


Like the fictional crime fighter Batman, the researchers turned to the flying mammal for inspiration.

“Whenever I see bats make sharp turns and perform upside down, perching with such elegant wing movements and deformations, I get mesmerized,” said another author, Soon-Jo Chung, a professor of aerospace at the California Institute of Technology.

The Bat Bot has nine joints and measures slightly less than 8 inches from head to tail. Its super-thin membrane wings span about 1½ feet. The flexible flapping — as much as 10 times per second — acts “like a big power amplifier,” Hutchinson said.

The researchers still need to add cameras, build more drones and get permission from federal agencies to fly them, but Hutchinson said these bat robots could be flying around work sites and disaster zones within five years. It’s already taken three years and cost $1.5 million, including a team of experts from Brown University who studied bat flight, Hutchinson said.

Outside robotics experts were impressed, but cautious.

Smaller fixed-wing drones have problems with maneuverability and four rotors are not efficient, so a bat-inspired design is “a very intriguing line of research,” University of Pennsylvania engineering professor Vijay Kumar said in an email. However, he noted, “it is too early to tell if these designs will actually be superior.”

Silicon Valley & Technology

Data: Self-Driving Cars Need Less Human Help Than in Past

Self-driving car prototypes appear to be getting better at negotiating California streets and highways without a human backup needing to intervene, according to data made public Wednesday by California transportation regulators.

The data reflect safety-related incidents reported by 11 companies that have been testing more than 100 vehicles on public roads, primarily in the Silicon Valley neighborhoods where the technology has grown up. The reports were made to California’s Department of Motor Vehicles, which posted them online.

The documents catalog the number of times from December 2015 through the end of November that humans took control from a car’s software for safety-related reasons.

Waymo shows improvement

Waymo, as Google’s self-driving car project was recently rebranded, did far more testing than the other 10 companies combined.


Waymo reported that its fleet drove itself more than 635,000 miles with 124 safety-related “disengagements” — the equivalent of two incidents every 10,000 miles. That was a notable improvement over the prior year, when there were eight incidents per 10,000 miles.


A reportable disengagement happens when the technology fails or the backup driver takes control out of concern the car is malfunctioning.

Collisions must be reported


Though imperfect, the data are the best peek the public gets into the fiercely competitive world of self-driving cars and how the prototypes are performing. California required the disengagement reports as part of regulations governing testing on public roads. Separately, the state also requires companies to report any collisions involving its cars.

The Department of Motor Vehicles has been working on regulations that will define how the technology can be rolled out to the public when companies believe it is ready. When that will happen depends on several factors, including regulators’ readiness and company confidence the vehicles are safe.

Final rules due in six weeks

While Tesla’s Elon Musk has been bullish, talking about months rather than years, companies such as Waymo have suggested 2017 or 2018 is more realistic.


The state expects to release final version of the “public operation” regulations within six weeks, according to Melissa Figueroa, a spokeswoman for California’s top transportation official.

The Department of Motor Vehicles made public a first draft in December 2015, nearly a year after final rules were supposed to be in place, and has since revised the language based on developments at the federal level and input from industry and other groups.

Silicon Valley & Technology

Tokyo Olympic Medals to Be Made from Recycled Phones

The medals for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics will be made from metals reclaimed from discarded cell phones.

Olympic organizers say they are asking the Japanese public to donate old phones or other old electronic appliances in an effort to collect as much as eight tons of metal to produce the 5,000 gold, silver and bronze medals that will be awarded during both events.

Starting in April, special boxes for donated phones will be placed in offices and phone stores.

“A project that allows the people of Japan to take part in creating the medals is really good,” said Tokyo 2020 sports director Koji Murofushi, according to the BBC. “There’s a limit on the resources of our Earth, so recycling these things will make us think about the environment.”

The move was met with support from former U.S. Olympic gold medalist Ashton Eaton, who won back-to-back gold medals in the decathlon. He tweeted that he was tempted to come out of retirement to vie for one of the medals.

This will not be the first time recycled materials have been used to make Olympic medals. For the 2016 Rio Games, the bronze and silver medals were made in part from recycled products.

Silicon Valley & Technology

German, Dutch Teams Take Top Honors at Hyperloop Competition

Last weekend in Los Angeles, 27 international teams gave us a preview of what could be the future of transportation. The idea sprang from the mind of Elon Musk, CEO of Space X, but the engineering was done by universities and companies all over the world. VOA’s Kevin Enochs reports.

Silicon Valley & Technology

White House to Add ‘Skype Seats’ to Daily Press Briefing

Four people will join the daily White House press briefing on Wednesday, as the “inaugural panelists” for “Skype seats,” press secretary Sean Spicer said.

The cyberseats are an attempt by the Trump administration to open the briefings to a more diverse group of journalists, as well as allow outlets without traditional White House access and outside the nation’s capital at the briefings.

The White House has not said how the Skype panelists were selected, although Spicer said that anyone applying for the seat must live at least 80 kilometers from Washington.

Taking part Wednesday via video conferencing will be Natalie Herbick of FOX 8 TV in Cleveland, conservative talk radio host Lars Larson, Kimberly Kalunian of WPRI Radio in Rhode Island, and Jeff Jobe of Kentucky’s Jobe Publishing.

“I look forward to virtually welcoming them to the briefing room,” Spicer said Tuesday.

Skype, owned by Microsoft, is the world’s largest video calling service.

In announcing the Skype seats on January 23, Spicer said, “I think this can benefit us all by giving a platform to voices that are not necessarily based here in the Beltway.”

The press secretary told Yahoo News he hoped to make the video conferencing with journalists a daily occurrence.