Space: Who controls nano-satellites?
What: The satellite industry used to be controlled by the governments of large countries but now the cost of building and launching satellites has plunged to the point where even small start-ups can do it. A US start-up called Swarm Technologies managed to launch a nano-satellite using an Indian rocket after having been denied permission to do so by the FCC, who argued that the satellite was too small to be detected by the Space Surveillance Network (SSN), a sensor system used to detect and track objects in space. The Swarm satellite is a quarter of the size of a “cubesat” which at 10cm3 is currently the smallest object approved for spaceflight. Swarm argued that they could improve radar reflectivity or use the satellite’s GPS to track it and went ahead with the launch. It is not clear where their ground stations are located .
Implications: It is not clear whether the FCC is being unduly bureaucratic or not (private operators argue that Swarm’s satellites are definitely trackable). However, being able to launch satellites without permission poses threats on the ground and in space. It is possible that a 3rd country other than the US and India may have authorised the launch, which would be just as bad. This is not a good move by Swarm given that their intended application is connectivity for the Internet of Things, so being denied FCC approval means that they could not offer such a service in the USA.
Energy: 200 gigawatt solar farm
What: The Saudi Arabian government and the SoftBank $100bn Vision Fund plan on spending $200bn to build a solar farm capable of generating 200 gigawatt (GW) of electricity by 2030. To put that into context, the total solar capacity globally today is 400GW and the total nuclear generating capacity is less than 200GW. The first phase of the project will create a solar farm that generates 7.2GW in 2019 which is almost 5 times bigger than the current world leader (the Chinese Tengger Desert Solar Park). This first phase will cost $5bn, of which the Softbank Vision Fund will provide $1bn. They expect subsequent stages of the project to be financed from profits from the electricity generation created by the preceding stages. The project will include a ‘network of batteries’ but no details are provided .
Implications: Despite an abundance of cheap oil, the Saudi Arabian government sees the economic merits in this project because they have a huge amount of available land and plenty of sunshine – as does Australia. It is a pity our government cannot take such a foreword looking view.
Virtual Reality: Google acquires novel camera technology
What: Google has acquired Lytro, a start-up that made a revolutionary ‘light-field camera’ which allowed the photographer to choose the focus of the picture after the shot was taken. The camera worked by positioning an array of micro lenses between the main lens and the image sensor to capture not only the intensity of the light but also its direction. Unfortunately, the camera was too bulky and expensive and never caught on, so Lytro pivoted to making cameras for VR capture where their advantage is that they can capture the full volume of the image and thereby bring depth into the VR imagery. It is not clear what Google intend to do with the technology, but they bought it at a bargain basement price of $25m to $40m dollars. Lytro raised over $200m (including from marquee investors such as Andreesen Horowitz and NEA) and was valued at $360m in its last funding round in 2017 .
Implications: As computational photography grows in capability it becomes possible to create all sorts of new camera functions, but unfortunately for companies such as Lytro it also means that smartphone cameras are becoming very effective substitutes for other technologies such as DSLR or clever solutions like Lytro’s.
Computing: A computer for 10 cents
What: IBM have announced what they claim is the world’s smallest computer: a chip that is smaller than a grain of salt and costs 10 cents. The chip contains the same processing power as an x86 chip from 1990 and includes an optical communications transceiver. It is intended for local applications such as tracking physical items and performing analysis on their data. It is not clear when this technology will be released to the market .
Implications: Edge computing, where processing power is placed close to the user or the source of data, is a growing market as the Internet of Things takes hold. Local processing power helps prefilter data (e.g. to set alarms) and avoids unnecessary communication costs. Intel have been pursuing this market for about 4 years with their Edison chips but the IBM technology will be a game changer in terms of cost and size if the claims prove out.
Healthcare: Cuffless blood pressure monitoring
What: For many people their blood pressure is a critical health marker and they need to measure it regularly. Even though blood pressure measurement devices are now cheap, they use a cuff which must be placed on the arm and thus are inconvenient and too bulky to be carried in a pocket. US researchers have published an alternative method which is cuffless and could ultimately be built into a smartphone. The technique, which has been prototyped in a device attached to the smartphone, uses combined pressure and photoplethysmography sensors in combination with an app on the phone. A photoplethysmography sensor meaures blood volume and is the technology in the heart rate sensor of the Apple watch and similar devices. The user puts their finger on the sensor and the device instructs them to increase the pressure until it has completed its reading .
Implications: The smartphone is becoming a major platform for healthcare devices. The processing power, camera, screen and app system can be exploited by attachments designed for specific measurements. It has already been applied for cytology, dermatology, ultrasound and other applications, and has the added advantage of being able to transmit measurements immediately to a carer.
 IEEE Spectrum
Agtech: Distributed water production
What: The plight of Cape Town in potentially becoming the world’s first major city to run out of water has focussed the world’s attention on the importance of abundant and clean fresh water. Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and the Indian company Tata have sponsored a competition called the “Water Abundance Xprize” which offers $1.5m of prize money to the first team to come up with a way of extracting 2,000 liters of water per day from the atmosphere using 100% renewable energy, at a cost of no more than 2 cents per litre . This week 5 finalists were announced including a team from the University of Newcastle. The latter’s technique involves using a desiccant (drying agent) to collect water from the atmosphere at night and then using solar energy to release humid warm air onto a cooling and condensation device .
Implications: Distributed production techniques are transforming the electricity grid. Perhaps solutions such as these being developed for the prize could have the same impact on the water grid.
Healthcare: A pacemaker for the brain
What: DARPA is funding research to develop a feedback control system for the brain using deep brain stimulation (DBS). The aim is to treat people with disorders such as post-traumatic stress syndrome when they are not amenable to other therapies. The system works by using electrodes implanted in the brain to detect EEG signals and then correlate these with mood. An intermittent DBS signal is applied in response to detection of a mood change. The intent is that this will correct the mood swing. At present 2 research teams are working on the problem by testing their ideas on epileptic patients who already have electrodes implanted in the brain to detect seizures .
Implications: Our brain has approximately 86 billion neurons and the state-of-the-art at present is that we can only attach a few hundred electrodes to neurons. Remarkably, despite the tiny proportion of our brain that we can ‘read’, scientists are able to infer much information about what is happening in our head. Treatments such as these may alter the future of psychiatry.
Retail: Determine the perfect fitting shoe with your mobile phone
What: While we think we know our shoe size, the actual size you require varies according to brand and style. For example, people with wide feet find that shoes of the same size can have a dramatically different fit. An Israeli startup called Invertex, which has just been acquired by Nike, has an answer to this problem using a mobile phone app. The Invertex solution enables you to create a 3D scan of your foot using your phone’s camera and then by either identifying the shoe online or pointing your phone camera at a shoe in-store it will inform you of the size that gives the perfect fit for that particular shoe .
Implications: Invertex represent a rapidly growing segment of the retail market which is virtualising shopping that previously you needed to do in-store. Similar technologies are being applied to furniture shopping (e.g. Modsy as described in Tech Omens Issue 3 )
Professor Hugh Bradlow is President of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering. He is recognised as a global leader in telecommunications technology, including being named by Global Telecom’s Business in the top 100 most powerful executives in the global telecoms Industry two years in a row, and by Smart Company as one of the 12 most influential people in Australian ICT.