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Lockheed Begins Construction on NASA’s Quiet Supersonic Aircraft

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Lockheed Martin and NASA are bringing us one step closer to supersonic travel over land.

The firm’s advanced design and development division, Skunk Works, has begun manufacturing the first part for the X-59 Quiet Supersonic Technology (QueSST) aircraft.

For nearly 30 years, the Aérospatiale/BAC Concorde turbojet-powered supersonic passenger airliner operated at a speedy Mach 2.04 (1,354 mph at cruise altitude).

Now, NASA and Lockheed Martin are collaborating to bring supersonic passenger travel back: Earlier this year, the space agency chose Skunk Works to design, build, and test the Low Boom Flight Demonstrator.

“The start of manufacturing on the project marks a great leap forward for the X-59 and the future of quiet supersonic commercial travel,” program manager Peter Iosifidis said in a statement.

One of the biggest issued with the Concorde was its sonic boom—the sound associated with shock waves created by an object traveling through the air faster than the speed of sound—on the ground.

A prohibition on supersonic flight over land meant the aircraft could travel at its phenomenal speeds only over the Atlantic.

Illustration of the X-59 QueSST as it flies above NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in California (via Lockheed Martin/NASA)

So, Lockheed and NASA are trying something new.

“The long, slender design of the aircraft is the key to achieving a low sonic boom,” according to Iosifidis.

Designed to cruise at 55,000 feet at a speed of about 940 mph, the X-59 QueSST will (fingers crossed!) reduce the loudness of a sonic boom to that of a gentle thump—about as loud as a car door closing.

Based on NASA’s official timeline, the X-plane will conduct its first flight in 2021, gliding above select U.S. communities to measure public perception of the noise.

Data collected will help NASA establish new rules to overturn current regulations banning supersonic travel over land.

The agency has already begun, earlier this month conducting a series of quiet supersonic research flights using F/A-18 jets off the Texas Gulf Coast.

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Professor Finds 30-Year-Old Apple Mac Computer (And It Still Works and Loads Games)

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A New York professor had Gen Xers taking a trip down memory lane when he posted images of a dusty, 30-year-old Apple IIe computer, in full working order, on Twitter on Saturday.

John Pfaff, a law professor at Fordham University, discovered the old computer, the third model in the Apple II series launched in 1983, in his parents’ attic. He was shocked to find that it still switched on and even allowed him to load previously saved games.

“Put in an old game disk. Asks if I want to restore a saved game. And finds one!,” Pfaff, 44, tweeted. “It must be 30 years old. I’m 10 years old again.”

The professor tweeted pictures of the 1980s games that were saved on the computer, including the adventure game Neuromancer and the sports game Olympic Decathlon.

Pfaff went on to restore the saved game of Adventureland, the first text command game released for microcomputers and released by Scott Adams in 1978.

“What shall I do next,” reads the prompt on the screen. “This is tricky, because three decades later I can’t quite remember where I left off this round of Adventureland.”

Pfaff also found old letters typed on the computer by his father, who passed away last year. “My dad passed away almost exactly a year ago. It’s amazing to come across something so ‘ordinary’  from him’, he tweeted.

He also found floppy disks with several different games, and posted a photo of them side-by-side with a Mario Kart 8 game for the Nintendo Switch, for comparison.

“My kids thought things were insanely retro when my wife and I played NES Super Mario on the oldest’s Switch,” Pfaff said. “Tomorrow morning their definition of retro is going to shift.”

The Apple IIe was one of most long-standing computers of the Apple II series, which marked Apple’s first launch of a personal computer aimed at a consumer market — branded towards American households rather than businessmen or computer hobbyists.

Pfaff said he enjoyed providing a bit of nostalgia to his Twitter followers. “I’m so happy that this [Twitter thread] seems to have brought back so many good memories for so many people.”

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IBM AI Loses Debate to Human Champion

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In the battle of man versus machine, crushing defeats by DeepMind’s artificially intelligent Go and StarCraft gaming systems tipped the scales in favor of automation.

But humankind is making a comeback.

On Monday, IBM’s seven-year-old AI debating system Project Debater went head-to-head with a mortal world debate champion Harish Natarajan in a public contest.

The pair, moderated by Intelligence Squared host John Donvan, delivered arguments for and against the resolution “We should subsidize preschool.”

With just 15 minutes to prepare for the event, Project Debater and Natarajan each delivered a four-minute opening statement, four-minute rebuttal, and two-minute summary.

A tall, sleek monolith with a rectangular mouth of blue sound waves, the IBM machine’s knowledge base consists of about 10 billion sentences, collected from newspapers and journals.

In a live debate, it searches for short pieces of text in its massive digital library to defend or oppose the motion.

“This requires a deep understanding of human language and its infinite nuances and very precise stance identification,” creators Ranit Aharonov and Noam Slonim wrote in a blog post. “[That’s] something that is not always easy for humans and is certainly very difficult for computers.”

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In a matter of seconds, Project Debater can remove redundant argumentative texts, select the strongest remaining claims and evidence, arrange them by theme, and create a narrative of support or contention.

It also listens to and digests the opponent’s responses, building a counterstatement in a “surprisingly charming and human-sounding” way, according to Donvan.

Project Debater debuted in June, participating in its first live public event before a small audience. At this week’s IBM Think conference in San Francisco, it faced off against Natarajan in front of a large in-person audience, with many more watching via livestream (video above).

The winner was determined by his (Natarajan’s) or her (Project Debater’s) ability to convince the audience of the persuasiveness of their arguments. Results were formulated in a real-time online poll.

Before the debate, 79 percent of the audience agreed that preschools should be subsidized, while 13 percent disagreed (8 percent were undecided). After hearing both sides present, 62 percent agreed that preschools should be subsidized, while 30 percent disagreed—clinching Natarajan’s win.

Despite the setback, IBM should consider this a win: More than half of participants said that Project Debater better enriched their knowledge about the topic, compared to only 20 percent for Natarajan.

“Ultimately, what we saw was that the interaction of man and machine could be enriching for both,” Slonim said in a statement following the debate. “It’s not a question of one being better than the other, but about AI and humans working together.”

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‘Alita: Battle Angel’ Taps Performance Capture Tech to Elevate Effects

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Alita: Battle Angel is a thrilling mix of powerful cyborgs, post-apocalyptic cities, and gory fights. The sci-fi movie’s action sequences are courtesy of an advanced innovation: performance capture technology.

The futuristic flick, which hits theaters on Feb. 14, follows Alita (Rosa Salazar), an abandoned cyborg who becomes a fierce warrior to fight corrupt forces. This plot would be hard to accomplish with basic animation, however, performance capture technology enabled the movie’s team to generate lifelike special effects, PCMag reported.

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“This is the tech we’ve been developing. In an earlier test shoot, for [a movie that never got made, based on the novel] Brother Termite, when aliens were arriving, we had an actor perform with an umbrella rig around his head—12 cameras—everywhere,” Jon Landau, the producer of the film, told PCMag. “We saw a future where we would use that facial performance capture to drive performance rather than animating it.”

To make this digital vision possible, Alita: Battle Angel’s team partnered with Weta Digital, a visual effects company based in New Zealand. Unlike other animation systems, this performance capture technology doesn’t interfere with actors’ performances.

Rosa Salazar as Alita in ‘Alita: Battle Angel’ (Photo Credit: PCMag)

“The giant system [we have today], when it loses a data point, it’s still able to solve for the skeleton and what the muscles do,” Landau added. “[In our partnership with] Weta Digital … we’re now [able] to create Salazar’s performance from the inside, driving the performance from a muscle base—not putting a mask on the actor through animation—to make sure we are living up to the performance that Salazar is giving us.”

According to Weta Digital, performance capture technology notes details of an actor’s face performance, analyzes how their muscles move, and then maps these motions onto a virtual character. (For example, see Salazar above with dots on her face during the filming process.) What makes this technology cool is that it provides animated figures with human-like reactions, so directors can keep a good shooting flow without stopping to map every facial movement.

“I’m pretty technically proficient and I usually do my own visual effects supervisor role, but now I get to geek out with [Weta Digital],” Robert Rodriguez, Alita: Battle Angel’s director, told PCMag. “We can take it to another level having them and their knowledge.”

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