Space

With stadiums closed, TV networks turn to live esports broadcasts

Posted by | coronavirus, COVID-19, Electronic Arts, Entertainment, espn, esports, Extra Crunch, Facebook, Gaming, league of legends, Market Analysis, Media, mlb, NASCAR, NBA, newzoo, nfl, nhl, Riot Games, Space, TC, Twitch | No Comments

The COVID-19 pandemic has wiped out the spring seasons for professional sports and associated revenue for TV networks, but esports is filling part of that void.

Gaming companies behind titles licensed by each major league are the winners in this unexpected shift; Electronic Arts (EA) is first among them with FIFA, Madden NFL, NBA Live and NHL in its EA Sports portfolio and more than 100 esports events planned for 2020. The way EA, networks and sports leagues are responding to production challenges in this crisis will reshape the esports market going forward.

Millions of people sheltering in place has created a breakout opportunity for esports broadcasting:

  1. A large portion of the internet-using population is at home 24/7, with screens as their main entertainment outlet;
  2. Sports fans have few competitive live events to watch;
  3. Broadcasters like ESPN, CBS, and Sky lost their most valuable content for attracting live viewers and need alternative content;
  4. Star athletes and non-sports celebrities are stuck at home with wide-open schedules.

In late March, 900,000 viewers tuned into Fox Sports for Nascar’s iRacing series, with 1.1 million watching in early April; the network has also broadcast Madden NFL tournaments with NFL commentators and athletes. ESPN is televising NBA players facing off against each other in NBA 2K (by Take-Two Interactive) and pro drivers (and other pro athletes like Manchester City striker Sergio Aguero) are racing each other in Codemasters’ F1 2019 game. ESPN has broadcast competitive play of non-sports games with League of Legends (by Riot Games) and Apex Legends (by EA) tournaments.

To be clear, ratings for these events have varied widely, but networks and game companies are rethinking how esports is broadcast, which will advance its pop-culture appeal.

Games adapting pro sports are best bridge to non-gamers

Esports is a massively popular activity with its own large piece of turf in pop culture, but it hasn’t secured a central role. Research firm Newzoo pegs the global audience of “esports enthusiasts” at 223 million. But unlike soccer and basketball, esports is siloed because it caters to viewers who are generally avid gamers. The action is extremely fast, so commentary by a streamer rarely helps outsiders understand what is going on enough to become engaged.

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Air Force gives a rare look at the research going to orbit in its X-37B spaceplane

Posted by | aerospace, Air Force, air force research lab, Boeing, Defense Department, department of defense, Gadgets, Government, hardware, military, NASA, science, Space, Space Force, TC, x-37b | No Comments

The X-37B spaceplane sounds like something out of a sci-fi novel, and its mysterious past is equally evocative. What does the military put in this long-term orbital vehicle? Turns out it’s exactly the kind of neat, but not mind-blowing, science you’d expect to find in such a thing — though solar-powered masers do sound pretty cool.

Also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle, the Boeing -designed X-37B has performed five prior missions, amounting to a total of nearly eight years in orbit; the last mission alone was 780 days. But while the craft’s owners (the Air Force, though it is used by many others) are proud to tout its remarkable longevity and reliability, they rarely if ever admit what they’re sending up, or what (if anything) it brings down.

While it’s fun to think that it may be truly top secret Area 51-type stuff, it’s much more likely that it’s just run-of-the-mill classified military research. The Defense Department bankrolls an enormous amount of basic science as well as advanced technology, and some of that is bound to require testing in space. While we love and respect our Russian friends with whom we share the ISS, the Pentagon would seem to prefer they didn’t run its experiments, so they have the X-37B.

On one occasion the Air Force said that the craft tests “advanced guidance, navigation and control, thermal protection systems, avionics, high temperature structures and seals, conformal reusable insulation, lightweight electromechanical flight systems, advanced propulsion systems, advanced materials and autonomous orbital flight, reentry and landing,” which narrows it down a bit.

For the spaceplane’s sixth mission, the various departments involved have broken tradition and given details on the payloads. That’s no small feat, given it’s an operation combining the resources of the Air Force, Space Force, Naval Research Lab and NASA.

The most broadly interesting experiment has to be a solar-powered microwave laser, or maser, built by the NRL. The device “will transform solar power into radio frequency microwave energy which could then be transmitted to the ground.”

Image Credits: U.S. Air Force courtesy photo

The key word there is could, as this type of wireless energy transmission has been pursued for decades. It’s doubtful that a foot-wide solar cell can produce enough energy to be beamed to the surface in measurable levels, but proving the concept piece by piece is something that has to be done in space. And for all we know they’ve already sent multiple precursor device up there on previous missions.

Don’t worry that this is some kind of orbital beam weapon that fries surface-dwellers: The total amount of energy collected by a foot-wide cell would be difficult to change into a form that’s harmful a few feet away, let alone 200 miles up through the entire atmosphere. It could, however, be used to beam power to receptive spacecraft or (conceivably) to interfere with poorly protected adversary spacecraft.

Two other experiments on board are from NASA, and they have to do with seeing how various items react to being exposed to the space environment. “One is a sample plate evaluating the reaction of select significant materials to the conditions in space. The second studies the effect of ambient space radiation on seeds,” said Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett.

Last — that we know of — is FalconSat-8, an Air Force Academy satellite that will be performing its own unspecified experiments once released into its own orbit by the X-37B. It is itself “an educational platform that will carry five experimental payloads for USAFA to operate

This rather large number of items being brought to space is made possible by a “service module” attached for the first time to the aft of the craft and containing some of the hardware.

It’s unknown how long this mission will be, but if it’s anything like the others, it will be on the order of months or years.

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R&D Roundup: Sweat power, Earth imaging, testing ‘ghostdrivers’

Posted by | artificial intelligence, autonomous systems, coronavirus, COVID-19, cybernetics, esa, Extra Crunch, Gadgets, Health, imaging, Lidar, machine learning, MIT, National Science Foundation, plastics, satellite imagery, science, self-driving car, Space, TC, technology, telemedicine | No Comments

I see far more research articles than I could possibly write up. This column collects the most interesting of those papers and advances, along with notes on why they may prove important in the world of tech and startups.

This week: one step closer to self-powered on-skin electronics; people dressed as car seats; how to make a search engine for 3D data; and a trio of Earth imaging projects that take on three different types of disasters.

Sweat as biofuel

Monitoring vital signs is a crucial part of healthcare and is a big business across fitness, remote medicine and other industries. Unfortunately, powering devices that are low-profile and last a long time requires a bulky battery or frequent charging is a fundamental challenge. Wearables powered by body movement or other bio-derived sources are an area of much research, and this sweat-powered wireless patch is a major advance.

A figure from the paper showing the device and interactions happening inside it.

The device, described in Science Robotics, uses perspiration as both fuel and sampling material; sweat contains chemical signals that can indicate stress, medication uptake, and so on, as well as lactic acid, which can be used in power-generating reactions.

The patch performs this work on a flexible substrate and uses the generated power to transmit its data wirelessly. It’s reliable enough that it was used to control a prosthesis, albeit in limited fashion. The market for devices like this will be enormous and this platform demonstrates a new and interesting direction for researchers to take.

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R&D Roundup: Smart chips, dream logic and crowdsourcing space

Posted by | artificial intelligence, communications satellites, Extra Crunch, facial recognition, Gadgets, image-processing, neural network, quantum computing, quantum cryptography, science, Space, voyager 2 | No Comments

I see far more research articles than I could possibly write up. This column collects the most interesting of those papers and advances, along with notes on why they may prove important in the world of tech and startups.

This week: crowdsourcing in space, vision on a chip, robots underground and under the skin and other developments.

The eye is the brain

Computer vision is a challenging problem, but the perennial insult added to this difficulty is the fact that humans process visual information as well as we do. Part of that is because in computers, the “eye” — a photosensitive sensor — merely collects information and relays it to a “brain” or processing unit. In the human visual system, the eye itself does rudimentary processing before images are even sent to the brain, and when they do arrive, the task of breaking them down is split apart and parallelized in an amazingly effective manner.

The chip, divided into several sub-areas, which specialize in detecting different shapes

Researchers at the Vienna University of Technology (TU Wien) integrate neural network logic directly into the sensor, grouping pixels and subpixels into tiny pattern recognition engines by individually tuning their sensitivity and carefully analyzing their output. In one demonstration described in Nature, the sensor was set up so that images of simplified letters falling on it would be recognized in nanoseconds because of their distinctive voltage response. That’s way, way faster than sending it off to a distant chip for analysis.

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Relativity Space expands its rocket-printing operations into an enormous new Long Beach HQ

Posted by | 3d printing, Gadgets, hardware, launch services, launch vehicles, Relativity Space, robotics, rocketry, Space, TC | No Comments

Building a rocket is a big operation, even when you’re printing them from the ground up, like Relativity Space . The launch startup is graduating from its initial office, which is a bit cramped for assembling rockets, to a huge space in Long Beach, where the company will go from prototype to first flight.

We recently visited Relativity at their old headquarters, which had the scrappy (literally — there were metal scraps everywhere) industrial feel you’d expect from a large-scale hardware startup. But except for the parking lot, there didn’t seem to be anywhere to put together… you know, a rocket.

So it was no surprise when co-founder and CEO Tim Ellis said that the company was just starting the process of moving to a gigantic new open-plan warehouse-style building in Long Beach.

Relativity CEO Tim Ellis is obviously excited about the new HQ.

“It’s a big step,” Ellis told TechCrunch. “It’ll actually be the first factory we fully build out with 3D printers. This new space is actually big enough that we’ll be printing the first and second stages, and the fairing at the same time. The new ceiling height is approximately 40 feet, which will allow us to build taller — about twice the height of our current facility. We’re on track to start shipping parts to Stennis for testing later this year.”

In addition to the three “Stargate” printers that can print parts up to 15 feet high, they’ll have three more that can go up to 20 feet and two that can go up to 30. It’s a bit hard to imagine a single printed rocket part 30 feet tall until you’ve seen some of the pieces Relativity has already made.

Not only do the rockets take up a lot of space, but the company itself is growing.

“From two years ago to now we’ve over 20X-ed our entire footprint as a company,” Ellis pointed out. In other words, it was starting to feel a bit overpopulated in their old spot near LAX.

This the space as it is now; the image up top is a render of how it will look once active.

Assembly of the launch vehicle, called Terran 1, its Aeon engines and R&D will all take place in the new HQ. It’s nearly 120,000 square feet, and will be built as a very high-tech manufacturing operation indeed. There will be no fixed tooling, meaning the factory can be rapidly reconfigured, and will be highly automated. The company’s 3D printers aren’t like the simple ones used for rough prototyping, but enormous, carefully monitored robot arms that perform real-time analysis of the metal they are laying down.

“It’s really the first autonomous factory, and it’s not just for rockets,” Ellis said. “Once we prove out the factory with this first launch vehicle, we’re convinced this works towards our long-term plan of launching factories to Mars and building a wide range of products that you’re going to need there. It’s on the path for the long-term vision but also a way for us to be a pioneer in this new value chain for aerospace.”

“It’s going to be cool,” he added.

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Maxar and NASA will demonstrate orbital spacecraft assembly with a new robotic arm

Posted by | aerospace, Gadgets, Government, hardware, Maxar, NASA, robotics, Space | No Comments

NASA has awarded Maxar an estimated $142 million contract to demonstrate in-orbit spacecraft refueling and assembly of new components using a custom robotic platform in space.

The space infrastructure dexterous robot, or SPIDER, program will be part of NASA’s Restore-L mission to demonstrate automation of proposed orbital tasks like reconfiguring or repairing a satellite or manufacturing new components from scratch.

The first thing the Restore-L spacecraft will do is show that it can synchronize with, capture, connect with and refuel a satellite in orbit, then release it into a new orbit. Afterwards the craft will use the Maxar-built robotic arm to assemble a multi-panel antenna reflector, then test it.

Last, a separate piece of hardware, Tethers Unlimited’s MakerSat, will extrude a beam some 10-20 meters long, which will be inspected by the parent satellite, then detached and reattached to demonstrate its robustness.

“We are continuing America’s global leadership in space technology by proving we can assemble spacecraft with larger and more powerful components, after launch,” said NASA’s Jim Reuter in a news post. “This technology demonstration will open up a new world of in-space robotic capabilities.”

There’s no hard timeline for the mission yet, but it’s intended to take off the mid 2020s. This isn’t a small-scale experiment that can fly up next week in an Electron — it’s a big, expensive one that will likely take up most of a large rocket’s payload.

Although it’s only a demonstration, a Maxar representative pointed out that it is very close to what would be an operational system on other satellites in the future. It has also been previously demoed on the ground, though of course that’s no substitute for the real thing.

Robotic arms are something of a specialty for Maxar, which has delivered six total for NASA, including the one on Insight (currently on the Red Planet) and the Mars 2020 Rover (due to receive its official, inspirational name any day now).

We’ll have Maxar’s head of space robotics onstage at TC Sessions: Robotics + AI in March at UC Berkeley, so be sure to join us there if you’d like to hear more about the business of building space robots.

SPIDER will be integrated with the spacecraft bus Maxar is building for @NASA Restore-L project, which will refuel a satellite in low Earth orbit. SPIDER will enable spacecraft components to be robotically assembled and reconfigured while on-orbit. Learn more: pic.twitter.com/XfPquzmsKi

— Maxar Technologies (@Maxar) January 31, 2020

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MicroEJ is taking over IoT on Earth and beyond

Posted by | Android, Developer, esa, European Space Agency, Flash, Google, Internet of Things, IoT, Iridium, Java, satellite communications, smartphone, smartphones, Space, TC | No Comments

The internet of things (IoT) market is expanding at a rate where distinguishing it as a separate category is beginning to seem a bit absurd. Increasingly, new products — and updates of existing ones — are smart and/or connected. One company is changing the fundamental calculus behind this shift by lowering the barrier considerably when it comes to what it costs to make something ‘smart,’ both in terms of the upfront bill of materials, along with subsequent support and development costs.

MicroEJ CEO Fred Rivard took me through his company’s history from its founding in 2004 until now. Much of those earlier years were spent in development, but since around 2012 or so, the French company has been deploying for IoT devices what Android is to smartphones — a flexible, extensible platform that can operate on a wide range of hardware profiles while being relatively easy to target for application and feature developers. MicroEJ takes the ‘code once, deploy anywhere’ maxim to the extreme, since its platform is designed from the ground up to be incredibly conservative when it comes to resource consumption, meaning it can run on hardware with as little as one-tenth or more the bill of materials cost of running more complex operating platforms — like Android Things, for instance.

“We take category of device where currently, Android is too big,” Rivard said. “So it doesn’t fit, even though you would like to have the capability to add software easily devices, but you can’t because Android is too big. The cost of entry is roughly $10 to $15 per unit in hardware and bill of material — that’s the cost of Android […] So it would be great to be able to run an Android layer, but you can’t just because of the cost. So we managed to reduce that cost, and to basically design a very small layer that’s1000 times smarter than Android.”

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NASA’s space pallet concept could land rovers on the moon cheaply and simply

Posted by | Artemis, Gadgets, Government, hardware, lunar lander, Moon, NASA, robotics, science, Space, TC | No Comments

Establishing an enduring presence on the Moon will mean making a lot of landings — and NASA researchers want to make those landings as reliable and cheap as possible. This robotic “pallet lander” concept would be a dead simple (as lunar landers go) way to put up to 300 kilograms of rover and payload onto the Moon’s surface.

Detailed in a technical paper published today, the lander is a sort of space pallet: a strong, basic framework that could be a unit in many a future mission. It’s still a concept and doesn’t really have a name, so space pallet will do for now.

It’s an evolution of a design that emerged in studies surrounding the VIPER mission that was intended to “minimized cost and schedule” and just get the rover to the surface safely. In a rare admission of (at least theoretically) putting cost over performance, the paper’s introduction reads:

The design of the lander was based on a minimum set of level 1 requirements where traditional risk, mass, and performance trade parameters were weighed lower than cost. In other words, the team did not sacrifice ‘good enough’ for ‘better’ or ‘best.’

It should be noted, of course, that “good enough” hardly implies a slapdash job in the context of lunar landers. It just means that getting 5 percent more tensile strength from a material that costs 50 times more wasn’t considered a worthwhile trade-off. Same reason we don’t use ebony or elm for regular pallets. Instead they’re using the space travel equivalent of solid pine boards that have been tested into the ground. (The team does admit to extrapolating a little but emphasizes that this is first and foremost a realistic approach.)

“While most subsystems use off-the-shelf parts, one emerging technology needed for a lander like this would be Terrain Relative Navigation used for precision landing,” said Logan Kennedy, lead systems engineer for the concept. “Testing is under way!”

The space pallet would go up aboard a commercial launch vehicle, such as a Dragon atop a Falcon 9 rocket. The vehicle would get the pallet and its rover payload into a trans-lunar injection trajectory, and a few days later the space pallet would perform the necessary landing maneuvers: attitude control, landing site selection, braking, and a soft touchdown with the rover’s solar panels facing the sun.

Once on the surface, the rover would go on its merry way at some point in the next couple hours. The lander would take a few surface images and characterize its surroundings for the team on Earth, then shut down permanently after 8 hours or so.

Yes, unfortunately the space pallet is not intended to survive the lunar night, the researchers point out. Though any presence on the moon’s surface is a powerful resource, it’s expensive to provide the kind of power and heating infrastructure that would let the lander live through the freezing, airless cold of the Moon’s weeks-long night.

Still, it’s possible that the craft could be equipped with some low-key, self-sustaining science experiments or hardware that could be of use to others later — a passive beacon for navigation, perhaps, or an intermittent seismic sensor that detect nearby meteorite impacts.

“One concept involved unfolding solar panels to last for a whole lunar day (~14 Earth days) and technology exists to survive the lunar night and even longer,” said Kennedy in response to a question about putting science instruments on board. “NASA’s Science Mission Directorate aims to take advantage of all opportunities for science investigations and intends to provide scientific experiments/instruments for all landers traveling to the lunar surface as long as they align with our needs and goals.”

Even should the space pallet not be pursued further than concept stage, the team writes in the paper, “it is important to note that these and other derived technologies are extensible to other lander designs and missions.”

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NASA’s VIPER lunar rover will hunt water on the Moon in 2022

Posted by | Artemis, Gadgets, hardware, NASA, robotics, science, Space, TC | No Comments

NASA is looking for liquid gold on the Moon — not oil, but plain-old water. If we’re going to have a permanent presence there, we’ll need it, so learning as much as we can about it is crucial. That’s why the agency is sending a rover called VIPER to the Moon’s south pole — its first long-term surface mission since 1972.

VIPER, or the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, will touch down in December 2022 if all goes according to plan. Its mission: directly observe and quantify the presence of water in the permanently shadowed polar regions.

These perennially dark areas of the Moon have been collecting water ice for millions of years, since there’s no sunlight to melt or vaporize it. NASA already confirmed the presence of water ice by crashing a probe into the general area, but that’s a bit crude, isn’t it? Better to send a robot in to take some precise measurements.

VIPER will be about the size of a golf cart, and will be equipped with what amounts to prospecting gear. Its Neutron Spectrometer System (mentioned yesterday by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine ahead of this announcement) will let the rover detect water beneath the surface.

When it’s over a water deposit, VIPER will deploy… The Regolith and Ice Drill for Exploring New Terrain, or TRIDENT. Definitely the best acronym I’ve encountered this week. TRIDENT is a meter-long drill that will bring up samples for analysis by the rover’s two other instruments, a pair of spectrometers that will evaluate the contents of the soil.

By doing this systematically over a large area, the team hopes to create a map of water deposits below the surface that can be analyzed for larger patterns — perhaps leading to a more systematic understanding of our favorite substance’s presence on the Moon.

waterhunt

A visualization of Moon-based water ice under the surface being mapped by the VIPER rover

The rover is currently in development, as you can see from the pictures at the top — the right image is its “mobility testbed,” which as you might guess lets the team test out how it will get around.

VIPER is a limited-time mission; operating at the poles means there’s no sunlight to harvest with solar panels, so the rover will carry all the power it needs to last about a hundred days there. That’s longer than the U.S. has spent on the Moon’s surface in a long time — although China has for the last few years been actively deploying rovers all over the place.

Interestingly, the rover is planned for deployment via a Commercial Lunar Payload Services contract, meaning one of these companies may be building the lander that takes it from orbit to the surface. Expect to hear more as we get closer to launch.

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Bosch’s new ‘ear’ for the Space Station’s Astrobee robot will let it ‘hear’ potential mechanical issues

Posted by | aerospace, artificial intelligence, astrobotic, Bosch, Gadgets, international space station, machine learning, northrop grumman, outer space, Space, spaceflight, TC | No Comments

Bosch is set to launch a new AI-based sensor system to the International Space Station that could change the way astronauts and ground crew monitor the ISS’s continued healthy operation. The so-called “SoundSee” module will be roughly the size of a lunch box, and will make its way to the ISS via Northrop Grumman’s forthcoming CRS-12 resupply mission, which is currently set for a November 2 launch.

The SoundSee module combines microphones with machine learning to perform analysis of sounds it picks up from the station, which it can use to effectively establish a healthy baseline, and then continually use new audio data to compare in order to get advance notice of potential mechanical issues via changes that could signal problems.

SoundSee will be mobile via installation on Astrobee, an autonomous floating cube-shaped robot that took its first totally self-guided flight in reduced gravity in June this year. Astrobee’s roving role is a perfect way for Bosch’s SoundSee tech, which it developed in partnership with Astrobotic and NASA, to work on and develop its autonomous sensing tech, which it will eventually use to provide info about how systems are currently performing on the ISS, and when specific systems might need maintenance or repairs — ideally before it becomes an issue.

The first autonomous flight of Astrobee took place in June, 2019 on the ISS

As with other things that Astrobee is designed to help with, SoundSee’s ultimate aim is to automate things that the astronaut crew of the ISS currently have to do manually. Already, SoundSee has been undergoing extensive ground testing here on Earth in a simulated environment similar to what it will experience on the ISS, but once in space, it’ll face the real test of its intended use scenario.

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