Leading the News
Ocado Develops Specialized Grocery Warehouse Robot With Suction Gripper.
MIT Technology Review (11/28) reports on a warehouse robot developed by Ocado, “the world’s largest online-only grocery retailer,” that “features a small suction cup at the end of a movable arm, which can be lowered onto a product to pick it up using a vacuum.” The article explains, “Rather than build accurate 3-D models of product packaging and use image recognition to pick up items, engineers at Ocado realized that every grocery crate the robot will deal with actually contains multiple items that are all the same. That means the robot only needs to work out how to easily pick one object out of the box, rather grabbing particular items from a jumbled mess.” MIT Technology Review noted that earlier this year, “Amazon crowned an Australian arcade claw crane-style robot as the star picker at its annual Robotics Challenge.”
Forbes (12/1, Olson) reports that two Microsoft Kinnect cameras mounted above the arm help it “see the objects as a mountainous terrain, on which it designates white dots to target with its nozzle.” Alex Harvey, head of Ocado’s roughly 100-person robotics and autonomous systems department, says, “The goal is to eventually have one robot that can grasp all 50,000 grocery products,” though teaching the arm recognition of all these products would take too long, so the company created a 3D vision system to allow it to identify gripping points. Forbes explains that Harvey’s team is drawing inspiration for how its robotic solutions will pick items from the methods human pickers use. Next year, some of the company’s picking staff will wear electronic gloves that transmit data about things like how hard a tomato should be grasped. The company is also working on a human-hand like solution made with translucent plastic tubes controlled with compressed air, as well as a human-sized robot with cameras and a telescopic torso. Forbes says Ocado “currently processes 160 products per hour, per person, across its four British warehouses, and it’s been improving that rate by around 3% each year.”
API Study Finds STEM Education Critical To Expanding Energy Sector Career Opportunities.
DailyEnergyInsider (12/1, Martin) reported that a recent American Petroleum Institute study found that “a bachelor’s degree in a science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) field more than doubles the likelihood that an individual will pursue a career in the oil and natural industry.” API President and CEO Jack Gerard said, “The oil and natural gas industry will experience significant turnover and growth in the years to come, greatly expanding career opportunities for women and communities of color. This study shows that STEM education is the key to creating a workforce that reflects the many faces of this great nation with skilled workers of all backgrounds.” The API projects that nearly 1.9 million total jobs will be created within the oil and gas industry through 2035, and that “almost 707,000 of those jobs will likely be filled by minorities and 290,000 of those jobs will likely be filled by women.”
Documentary Illustrates Abuses In For-Profit College Sector.
MarketWatch (12/2) runs an article on “Fail State,” a recently released documentary which examines the for-profit college industry. The film makes the case that “aided by sympathetic lawmakers, cuts to public funding for higher education and motivated by a drive to increase their bottom line, for-profit colleges have lured students into taking on high levels of debt with little concern for their future.” The article describes some of the abuses revealed in the film adding that the “Obama administration even took a stab at reining the schools in — an effort that now hangs in the balance since Donald Trump became president. Stakeholders are meeting this week as part of sessions convened by Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education to rewrite Obama-era rules on how borrowers...can access loan forgiveness when they’ve been ripped off by their schools.”
Stanford Reports Another Data Security Lapse.
The Wall Street Journal (12/1, Korn, Subscription Publication) reports Stanford University announced that data from around 10,000 employees intended to be confidential was available on a shared drive accessible by all students, faculty, and staff at the business school for six months. The school notified faculty and staff on Friday. It was the third such announcement in the past two weeks at the university. The exposed data included all non-faculty employees from August 2008 and included Social Security numbers and salaries.
Rep. Foxx Releases Update Of Higher Education Act.
The Wall Street Journal (12/3, Belkin, Korn, Subscription Publication) reports Rep. Virginia Foxx on Friday released a 542 page updating of the Higher Education Act, which the Journal says could result in a yearlong effort on the bill. The bill would reform student loans, rules governing for-profit colleges, and require more reporting of graduates’ employment. The act has been labeled the Promoting Real Opportunity, Success and Prosperity Through Education Reform (PROSPER) Act. Meanwhile, in the Senate, Senate Education Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander and Ranking Member Sen. Patty Murray are planning to work on their own bill. Alexander said Foxx’s bill is “a first step with many good ideas,” but Murray said, “House Republicans are choosing a partisan path that would hurt students by cutting billions in financial aid, undermining protections for survivors of sexual assault, and loosening standards for-profit colleges.”
NYTimes: Congress Should Make It Easier For Student Borrowers To Enroll In Income-Based Repayment Plans.
The New York Times (12/2, New York (NY), Times, Subscription Publication) editorializes on student debt, which it says is “hurting the economy and casting a shadow over the lives of struggling borrowers.” The Times says the situation could be improved “by making it easier...to enroll in an existing income-driven federal student loan repayment plan.” The Times also describes situations in which those who have defaulted on loans have had state certifications and licenses revoked, making it difficult or impossible for them to work. The Times favors legislation before the House and Senate that would automatically enroll “borrowers who miss four months of federal student loan payments...in the income-driven plan.” It also urges states to “rethink policies that drive their neediest citizens ever deeper into debt and despair.”
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Research and Development
NASA Partnering With Bradley University To Design 3D Printed Habitats.
The Chicago Tribune (11/22) reports that NASA and Illinois’ Bradley University are partnering to launch the “3-D Printed Habitat Challenge,” a competition open to all with the goal of determining how to use 3D printing to autonomously build habitats on Mars. The competition aims to overcome Mars’ inhospitable atmosphere “by finding the habitat technology that best utilizes the materials there to support human life.”
GM To Launch Autonomous Ride-Hailing Service As Soon As 2019.
The Washington Post (12/1, Holley) reported Ray Wert, the head of Storytelling and advanced technology communications at General Motors, on Friday “said...that the company is rushing to launch autonomous vehicles for a ride-hailing service that could compete with Uber and Lyft, the latest example of how aggressively the legacy carmaker is pushing to stay at the forefront of automotive innovation.” Wert also announced “those robotic vehicles – battery-powered Chevy Bolts that are being developed by Cruise Automation, a subsidiary – will appear on American streets without a driver in 2019.” The Post added “GM officials haven’t said where they plan to launch autonomous ride-sharing fleets or how many vehicles they might include, but the company’s chief executive, Mary Barra, said this week that they believe the ‘biggest opportunities are in the coastal areas.’”
Shapeshifting Metals Could Be New Future Of Aviation Technology.
A feature story for Wired (12/3, Stockton) reports on the potential use of shapeshifting metals on airplane wings, which “affects virtually every aspect of flight, and making them from metal that can change its shape in midair could make your journey smoother, safer, and more efficient.” NASA Glenn Research Center Engineer Othmane Benafan is quoted saying, “If you look at conventional aircraft technology, you have so many moving parts,” which are “essential,” and “how pilots steer, reduce turbulence, take off, land, and basically do everything else besides glide aimlessly.” However, “actuators, cables, motors, lubricant, hydraulic gear, and other bits needed move those parts around take up weight and space – precious resources on any aircraft,” and one design alternative “is to move those wing parts using shapeshifting metals.” Darren Hartl, an aerospace engineer at Texas A&M University, “believe the first shape memory alloy controls will pass through the FAA’s compliance regulations and onto real world planes within a decade.”
Additional Tax Burden On Graduate Students May Result In Less Research.
Aerospace America (12/1, Miller) reported that a provision in the House version of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act which “would count a grad student’s reduced or waived tuition as income” may cut into research funding or result in less research conducted. Marc Mignolet, head of aerospace and mechanical engineering graduate programs at Arizona State University, said that the provision would mean that “funding agencies” will “have to give us more money, or if they don’t give us more money, less research will get done.” In an industry where new graduates can earn $60,000 a year, it already can be a “big challenge to recruit graduate students to live on a stipend of $25,000, Mignolet says.” Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) said, “It’s difficult to see how anybody could actually take a position as a graduate assistant if you have to pay that burdensome amount of taxes.” Students in STEM fields account for “more than half of graduate students who don’t pay tax on their tuition waivers,” according to data collected by the American Council on Education. Bill sponsor Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX) said at a November 28 talk at the American Enterprise Institute that the Congressional conference committee will “address” the issue, among others.
Silicon Valley Firms Say They Want Greater Political Diversity.
The Wall Street Journal (12/1, Seetharaman, Koh, Wells, Subscription Publication) reports that Silicon Valley companies are increasingly trying to develop greater political diversity, including more conservatives as well as women and minorities. Still the Journal says that can be difficult as liberal views are dominant in these firms. The Journal adds that it attempted to speak with employees at tech companies who had contributed to Republicans, but received few responses.
Nonprofit Helping Released Inmates Transition To Silicon Valley Jobs.
CNBC (12/3) profiles The Last Mile, a nonprofit founded by venture capitalist Chris Redlitz and his wife Beverly Parenti, “which teaches computer coding to inmates at some of California’s toughest prisons.” The program “has the unique challenge of teaching inmates – some of whom have been incarcerated since before the dotcom boom – how to code on computers that aren’t even connected to the Internet.” The program’s graduates “have found real-world success in a competitive industry after leaving prison, and of the twenty-or-so alumni who have been released, none have returned.”
Solar Panel Industry Braces For Potential US-China Trade War.
The New York Times (12/1, Bradsher, Subscription Publication) says the solar panel industry is poised to be President Trump’s “first test of whether his harsh language toward China will result in significant trade measures – and whether those moves would help restore American businesses.” The Administration “has indicated it may raise the stakes by authorizing tariffs on all solar panel imports, including those from Southeast Asia,” prompting American and Chinese solar panel industries to brace for a potential “clash that could begin as soon as January.” The Times explains China now manufactures more than two-thirds of the global solar panels, driving “down global prices by close to 90 percent over the past decade.” American solar panel manufacturers maintain that the “cheap panels have been unfairly financed by the Chinese government,” as even some Chinese manufacturers that “have struggled with losses and had trouble making loan payment have been able to stay afloat.”
Engineering and Public Policy
EPA Announces Decision To Maintain Biofuel Quota.
The New York Times (11/30, Tabuchi, Subscription Publication) reports that the Administration announced on Thursday that it will “stick closely to the current rules and quotas for fuel: Refineries must blend about 20 billion gallons of biofuel – much of it ethanol made from corn – into the nation’s gasoline supply, a level largely unchanged from last year.” Several health and environmental groups oppose the decision, arguing that new research shows “that ethanol is no cleaner than gasoline.” Oil refiners are also disappointed in the decision, characterizing it as “the continuance of a policy they have called ‘rigged.’” AgWeek (12/1, Chase) reported that although the final numbers “fall short of the full potential of the U.S. biofuels industry,” biofuels producers and retailers consider it a measured victory that the quota was not lowered. The Washington Post (12/1, Grandoni) reports that the EPA’s ruling on how much renewable fuel is required to be mixed into the nation’s transportation fuel supply left “no one happy,” which according to the old adage, “might be a sign of a good compromise.” CNBC (12/1, Fallon) reported, “America’s Corn Belt and fossil fuel proponents are unlikely to drop their support for Trump over the decision, but both groups expressed disappointment over the announcement.” On Thursday, the American Petroleum Institute “said EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is being forced to implement a broken Renewable Fuel Standard that needs reform.”
Trump To Meet Oil Industry Representatives On Biofuel Policy.
Reuters (12/1, Renshaw, Valdmanis) reports President Trump “has agreed to meet with representatives of the oil refining industry and their legislative backers to discuss the nation’s biofuels program, according to two sources briefed on the matter.” Reuters says the meeting “could set the stage for negotiations over possible legislation to overhaul the U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard – a 2005 law that requires refiners to blend increasing amounts of biofuels like ethanol into the nation’s gasoline each year, the sources said, asking not to be named.” One of the sources told Reuters the meeting is expected to be scheduled for the week of Dec. 11, but the White House declined to comment.
EPA To Reverse Obama-Era Rule On Mining Cleanup Funding. The Hill (12/1, Cama) reports the Environmental Protection Agency “said Friday it will not issue a regulation to ensure that hard-rock mining companies can pay for the costs to clean up their mines when they’re finished.” The Hill states that the decision reverses “a proposal that the Obama administration had issued a year ago,” which “would have applied to companies mining non-coal minerals such as gold, silver, copper or lead, requiring them to demonstrate financial responsibility through means like bonds or insurance.”
Report: Pentagon Increasingly Focusing On AI, Big Data.
The Washington Post (12/3, Davenport) reports that according to a new report from data science and analytics firm Govini, the DOD is “increasingly focused on the notion that the might of US forces will be measured as much by the advancement of their algorithms as by the ammunition in their arsenals,” and is seeking to “develop the technologies of the next war” by increasing “spending in three key areas: artificial intelligence, big data, and cloud computing, according to a recent report.” The report says “investment in those areas increased to $7.4 billion last year, up from $5.6 billion five years ago...and it appears likely to grow as the armed services look to transform how they train, plan, and fight.”
Autonomous Vehicles, Infrastructure Discussed At Western Governors’ Association Meeting.
The Arizona Republic (12/2, Pohl) reports on a Saturday event at the Western Governors’ Association meeting in Phoenix where government officials and corporate representatives discussed the future of infrastructure and self-driving vehicles. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao was among the speakers, offering “brief comments” on the “rapidly” advancing technology that is making the present time one of the most “transformational eras in history.” The Republic reports that Chao criticized regulations that hinder the development of infrastructure projects, saying, “By removing unnecessary and duplicative or seldom used regulations from the regulatory agency, we can ensure that resources are spent on actually improving safety, rather than paperwork exercises.” She added, “That means the regulatory process will be data-driven, based on risk-based analysis and rooted in sound science.” The Republic writes that self-driving vehicles were also a topic at the event, with ride-sharing companies floating the idea of offering their services through a subscription model similar to Netflix.
Indiana Considers Autonomous Vehicle Use, Testing Within State.
The Columbus (IN) Republic (12/3) reports, “Self-driving cars may be years from reality for the average driver, but state officials want to act now to try to ensure Indiana is part of researching and developing the technology.” Next year, Gov. Eric Holcomb (R) will be asking for authorization from legislators to test and operate autonomous vehicles within the state. Although the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration considers a fully autonomous vehicle to be “a future technology,” it issued “voluntary guidance” in September on safety elements that designers should review and consider when designing autonomous vehicles.
Senate Driverless Car Legislation Hits Roadblocks.
The Hill (12/3, Zanona) reports, “A driverless car bill that had been speeding through the Senate hit a speed bump in the upper chamber this week,” as numerous senators have placed holds on the legislation. While the sponsors of the bill “hope to iron out some of the kinks over the next few weeks, but it’s unclear whether major sticking points, such as concerns over safety and trucks being excluded from the legislation, can be easily resolved.” Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) is quoted saying, “Some folks have some holds on it. There are some folks who have some issues. We’re going to keep working on it.” The Hill adds that the bill’s goal “is to help the car industry speed up the deployment and testing of autonomous vehicles by gradually waiving traditional automobile standards – like steering wheels and brake pedals – for up to 80,000 vehicles,” adding that under the legislation, “the Department of Transportation (DOT) would have the authority over for setting industry safety standards, pre-empting a patchwork of varying state laws.”
Cape Wind Abandons Associates Plan For Wind Farm Offshore Cape Cod.
The AP (12/1) reported Cape Wind Associates of Massachusetts is ditching “its long-stalled plans for a wind farm” off the coast of Cape Cod. The company “notified the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management this week that it has ceased operations and was surrendering its federal lease for 46 square miles in Nantucket Sound.” Dennis Duffy, vice president of Cape Wind Associates, “disclosed the official notice Friday.” The company “proposed the nation’s first offshore wind farm with a 130-turbine project 16 years ago, but it was dealt major setbacks including the termination of critical agreements with utility companies in 2015.”
Bloomberg News (12/1, Ryan) reported Cape Wind has “suffered a slow death.” According to Bloomberg “efforts to develop the 468-megawatt offshore farm, proposed to supply power to Cape Cod and the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, began in 2001 but came up against relentless opposition from a mix of strange bedfellows including the Kennedy family and billionaire industrialist William Koch.”
The Boston Globe (12/1, Chesto) reported that the “first devastating blow for the ambitious offshore installation for Nantucket Sound came in early 2015, when National Grid and Northeast Utilities — which had agreed to buy electricity from Cape Wind — canceled their contracts with the developer.” In 2016, “state regulators yanked permission for a power line connection, further reducing the already slim prospects of the project moving forward.” Later that year, “Cape Wind foes successfully lobbied lawmakers on Beacon Hill to prevent its backers from benefitting from a major energy bill that requires utilities to buy large amounts of offshore wind.”
Texas Power Producers Eye Benefits of DOE Proposal.
The Houston Chronicle (12/1, Handy) reported that Texas’ grid does not come under the jurisdiction of FERC, so it won’t be directly impacted by the Energy Department’s proposal to prop up coal-fired and nuclear power producers if approved later next week. However, some Texas-based power companies are arguing that the state grid is facing the same reliability issues raised by the DOE plan. Companies like Houston’s Calpine Corp. and NRG Energy claim that unless the state’s wholesale power market is changed to help keep them profitable, they could be forced to scale back investments in existing and new power plants necessary “the steady flow of electricity into the grid.” Meanwhile, the Texas Industrial Energy Consumers, a group that represents some of the biggest power users in the state, contends that these “alarms raised by power companies are a ploy to boost profits and thwart competition from wind and solar energy.”
Questions Remain About Performance Of Florida Grid Following Hurricane Irma.
The South Florida Sun Sentinel (12/3) reports customers of Florida Power & Light “consumer advocates and state legislators are still simmering over the effectiveness of the company’s electric grid upgrades,” during the hurricane season “and whether the utility can do more to prevent storm-driven power outages.” Hurricane Irma was “the first test of a 10-year upgrade of Florida Power & Light Co.’s grid. FPL touted its nearly $3 billion in upgrades as a success” but “the storm knocked out power for 90 percent of its customers.” The “judgment initially falls” to the Florida Public Service Commission. But the PSC,” which came down hard on FPL after rotted poles were discovered after Hurricane Wilma in 2005, has done little to follow up.”
Qualcomm Partnering With University Of Michigan College Of Engineering To Open Thinkabit Lab.
Crain’s Detroit Business (11/30) reports that Qualcomm and the University of Michigan College of Engineering are scheduled to launch the “Thinkabit Lab” at Detroit’s Michigan Engineering Zone on Thursday. The goal of the program is to help close the STEM skills gap, and officials “expect the initiative to reach 1,500 Detroit-area high school students in its first year before expanding to reach 3,000 middle and high school students annually.”
The AP (12/1) also covers this “business-academic collaboration” to establish “a program that aims to introduce middle-school students to science, technology, engineering and math careers.” The AP reports that activities at the lab “include learning basic programming and designing and building robotic devices.”
Oracle To Host California Charter School.
The New York Times (12/3, Singer, Subscription Publication) reports that in “a new twist on the evolving relationship between big tech companies and schools,” California-based business software services giant Oracle is constructing a $43 million building that will host Design Tech High School, an existing charter school that serves about 550 students. The Times explains tech companies are competing in “a race to shape students’ education and use schools to train their next generation of workers.” Ford Motor Company and SpaceX, for example, have added trade or private schools on their campuses; however, Oracle is the first company to “put public school students a short walk from the chief executive.” While some parents and school board members were initially concerned that Oracle would gain “outsize influence over the school,” the company “reassured the community by embracing the school’s culture, rather than insisting on the reverse.” Oracle and the school also “held numerous discussions to establish each side’s role and responsibilities.”
Oregon Students Compete In FIRST LEGO League Qualifying Tournament.
The Roseburg (OR) News-Review (12/3) reports Oregon students on 117 different teams convened at South Umpqua High School on Saturday to compete in the FIRST LEGO League Qualifying Tournament. Five of the Oregon teams will advance to the championship tournaments, to be held in January next year. This year, the theme “involved hydrodynamics and improving human water use and water quality.” Teams designed, built, and programmed robots, and “put together projects to solve water-related problems.” Teams were also judged according to “LEGO League’s core values, which include ‘coopertition,’ a combination of cooperation and competition, and ‘gracious professionalism,’ which means they encourage and support each other and their fellow teams.” Tournament director Cynde Pakros said the competition not only provides students with lessons in engineering, but also “encourages kids by having them do the work themselves and think independently.”
Commentary: Texas Must Prioritize Computer Science Education.
In a piece for the Austin (TX) American Statesman (12/3, Subscription Publication), TechNet’s executive director for Texas and the Southeast, Mona Charen, laments that “Texas, once a leader in computer science education, is falling behind.” The state’s tech sector employs more than 600,000 people and contributes $117.2 billion to its economy, but “there are still more than 45,000 job openings in Texas that require computing skills – and these jobs pay 75 percent more than the national median annual salary.” Charen notes, however, that “only 19 percent of Texas high schools offer advanced placement computer science, and less than three percent of students in the state took a computer science course last year.” Charen calls on the state “to develop a comprehensive plan to expand K-12 computer science education statewide,” and “incentivize school districts to offer computer science courses.” She also recommends investing “in professional development programs to train a corps of teachers to lead these courses.”
Iowa High School Students Invited To Submit Proposal To NASA Student Launch.
The AP (12/3) reports Cedar Falls High School’s Science, Technology And Rocketry Students team (STARS) earned fifth place at the Team America Rocketry Challenge and an invitation “to submit a proposal to participate in the NASA Student Launch.” STARS will culminate its “intensive process lasting throughout the school year” in April, when the students “will travel to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., and launch an 8-foot tall, 4.5-inch diameter fiberglass rocket weighing 15 to 20 pounds that the members are preparing to build.” The AP explains NASA’s Student Launch began at the high school level 17 years ago, and has since expanded to the college level. Through the project, “NASA works with students to ‘introduce them to a real-world technology challenge and maybe get them interested in working for NASA someday,’ Fred Kepner, an education specialist at the center, said in a phone interview.”