If You See Anything, Say Something? Math on a Plane

Remember September 2016 2015? That was the month that [Ahmed Mohamed] brought a modified clock to school and was accused of being a terrorist. The event divided people with some feeling like it was ignorance on the part of the school, some felt the school had to be cautious, some felt it was racial profiling, and others thought it was a deliberate provocation from his possibly politically active parents. In the end, [Ahmed] moved to Qatar.

Regardless of the truth behind the affair, this month we’ve seen something that is probably even less ambiguous. The Washington Post reports that a woman told an Air Wisconsin crew that she was too ill to fly. In reality, she was sitting next to a suspicious man and her illness was a ruse to report him to the crew.

Authorities questioned the man. What was his suspicious activity? Was he assembling a bomb? Carrying a weapon? Murmuring plans for destruction into a cell phone? No, he was writing math equations. University of Pennsylvania economics professor [Guido Menzio] was on his way to deliver a speech and was reviewing some differential equations related to his work.

[Menzio] says he was treated well, and the flight was only delayed two hours (which sounds better in a blog post then it does when you are flying). However, this–to me–highlights a very troubling indicator of the general public’s level of education about… well… everything. It is all too easy to imagine any Hackaday reader looking at a schematic or a hex dump or source code could have the same experience.

Some media has tried to tie the event to [Menzio’s] appearance (he’s Italian) but I was frankly surprised that someone would be afraid of an equation. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but a math equation won’t (by itself) down an aircraft. I’ve heard speculation that the woman might have thought the equations were Arabic. First of all, what? And secondly, what if it were? If a person is writing in Arabic on an airplane, that shouldn’t be cause for alarm.

It sounds like the airline (which is owned by American Airlines) and officials acted pretty reasonably if you took the threat as credible. The real problem is that the woman–and apparently, the pilot–either didn’t recognize the writing as equations or somehow feared equations?

Regardless of your personal feelings about the clock incident, you could at least make the argument that the school had a duty to act with caution. If they missed a real bomb, they would be highly criticized for not taking a threat seriously. However, it is hard to imagine how symbols on a piece of paper could be dangerous.

While the mainstream media will continue to focus on what this means for passenger safety and racial profiling, I see it as a barometer of the general public’s perception of science, math, and technology as dark arts.

Debunking the Drone Versus Plane Hysteria

The mass media are funny in the way they deal with new technology. First it’s all “Wow, that’s Cool!”, then it’s “Ooh, that’s scary”, and finally it’s “BURN THE WITCH!”. Then a year or so later it’s part of normal life and they treat it as such. We’ve seen the same pattern repeated time and time again over the years.

The mass media tech story cycle. Our apologies to Gartner. Curve image: Jeremykemp [ CC BY-SA 3.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons
The mass media tech story cycle. Our apologies to Gartner. Curve image: Jeremykemp [ CC BY-SA 3.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons
Seasoned readers may remember silly stories in the papers claiming that the Soviets could somehow use the technology in Western 8-bit home computers for nefarious purposes, since then a myriad breathless exclusives have predicted a youth meltdown which never materialised as the inevitable result of computer gaming, and more recently groundless panics have erupted over 3D printing of gun parts. There might be a British flavour to the examples in this piece because that’s where it is being written, but it’s a universal phenomenon wherever in the world technologically clueless journalists are required to fill column inches on technical stories.

The latest piece of technology to feel the heat in this way is the multirotor. Popularly referred to as the drone, you will probably be most familiar with them as model-sized aircraft usually with four rotors. We have been fed a continuous stream of stories involving tales of near-misses between commercial aircraft and drones, and there is a subtext in the air that Something Must Be Done.

The catalyst for this piece is the recent story of a collision with a British Airways plane 1700ft over West London approaching London Heathrow. The ever-hyperbolic Daily Mail sets the tabloid tone for the story as a drone strike, while the BBC’s coverage is more measured and holds a handy list of links to near-miss reports from other recent incidents. This incident is notable in particular because a Government minister announced that it is now believed to have been caused by a plastic bag, and since there is already appropriate legislation there was little need for more. A rare piece of sense on a drone story from a politician. The multirotor community is awash with plastic bag jokes but this important twist did not seem to receive the same level of media attention as the original collision.

Are multirotors unfairly being given bad press? It certainly seems that way as the common thread among all the stories is a complete and utter lack of proof. But before we rush to their defence it’s worth taking a look at the recent stories and examining their credibility. After all if there really are a set of irresponsible owners flying into commercial aircraft then they should rightly be bought to book and it would do us no favours to defend them. So let’s examine each of those incident reports from that BBC story.

Continue reading “Debunking the Drone Versus Plane Hysteria”

Advanced Beer Carrier, or How To Get Beer Onto A Plane


[Badmonky] was facing a life crisis. How could he enjoy the hard-to-find German beers from his homeland while living in Princeton, New Jersey? Sure, you can find many good imports if you try, but that may come at a hefty price. Plus, the lesser known beers are completely unavailable in the States. Of course the solution is to import them himself after each trip home. He just needed a way to get as much beer on a plane as he possibly could.

We’d have no problem walking down the aisle with a couple of cases of cold ones, but let’s be honest here. Security won’t even let you on the plane with a bottle of water these days much less a case of tallboys. [Badmonky] hacked together this custom carrier so that it could be checked as luggage while protecting the frothy goodness. Two limiting factors to consider are size and weight. He started with the latter, calculating that 24 bottles would remain under his 50 pound limit. From there he selected a sports bag and picked up sheets of foam which were perforated using a hole saw. Alas the size constraint forced him to leave three of the (now empty?) vessels behind.

The bottles ride upside down and made the international voyage without incident. In retrospect he would have picked a roller-bag as this thing is hard on your shoulder after a trip through the airport and the public transit ride home.

The real question in our mind: why didn’t he check a keg?

How to watch your own videos on a plane: barf bag

Air travellers take note, [Asthmaticatom] figured out how to comfortably watch your own videos on the plane. We know you always have your phone with you, now you just need to find a barf bag. A little bit of papercraft turns the waste disposal device into a neat little hanging dock.

The bag in the image above is actually upside down. A rectangle the same size as your phone’s screen is ripped out of the top. The metal clasp used to seal the top of the bag is rolled up to hold the phone securely in place. The bottom of the sack has a flap which acts as a one-way catch. When it is shoved into the crevice on top of the monitor it holds the whole thing in place.

Of course we don’t remember ever having been on a plane where there was a monitor in the seat in front of us, but perhaps we’re just buying tickets on the wrong airlines.

[via Reddit]

Airline antics with Lara the robot


Lara, the robot pictured above, is the first humanoid robot to pass security and have her own seat on a plane. The reason she had to travel via airline was that FedEx had lost and damaged her on previous trips. On the way back from Robofest, which she placed 5th in, security didn’t really want to let her on the plane. They’re lucky they didn’t all get detained. Fortunately, Robofest made the news and one guard had seen it. They call Lara autonomous, but state that she can only move her limbs based on commands. Their reason for calling her autonomous is that she doesn’t need to be tethered to a computer to do this. Does that really qualify as autonomy?