Drone Vs. Airplane? Who Will Win? Science Knows.

Ignore the article, watch the video at the top of the page. The article is about some idiot, likely not even a hacker, who bought a drone somewhere and nearly rammed it into a plane. He managed this with concentrated idiocy, intention was not involved. While these idiots are working hard to get our cool toys taken away, researchers elsewhere are answering the question of exactly how much threat a drone poses to an airplane.

droneexplode_thumbAirplanes are apparently armored to withstand a strike from an 8lb bird. However, even if in a similar weight class, a drone is not constructed of the same stuff. To understand if this mattered, step one was to exactly model a DJI Phantom and then digitally launch it at various sections of a very expensive airplane.

The next step, apparently, was to put a drone into an air cannon and launch it at an aluminum sheet. The drone explodes quite dramatically. Some people have the best jobs.

The study is still ongoing, but from the little clips seen; the drone loses. Along with the rest of us.

Perhaps the larger problem to think about right now is how to establish if a “drone” has actually been involved in an incident with a passenger aircraft. It seems there are a lot of instances where that claim is dubious.

Physics or Phiction?

Do you remember Gilligan’s Island? For many people of a certain age, “The Professor” was our first impression of what a scientist was like. Even in those simpler times, though, you probably couldn’t find anyone like the professor; a jack of all trades, he sort of knew everything about everything (except, apparently, how to make a boat).

Real scientists tend to hyper-specialize. Getting grant money, publication pages, and just advancing the state of the art means that you get more and more focused on more obscure things. It is getting to the point that two scientists in the same field may not be able to really understand each other. You see the same thing in engineering to some degree. Not many digital designers can talk about the frequency dependence of Early effect in bipolar transistors, but not many device gurus can talk intelligently about reservation techniques for superscalar CPUs.

There’s now a website that lets you guess if a physics paper title is real or if it made up jibberish. The site, snarXiv, gets the real titles from arXiv, the site that contains many preprint papers. For example, we were asked to guess if “Brane Worlds with Bolts” was a real paper or if it was “Anthropic Approaches to the Flavor Problem.” (For the record, it was the one about branes.) Give it a whirl!

Testing the Speed-of-Light Conspiracy

There are a number of ways to measure the speed of light. If you’ve got an oscilloscope and a few spare parts, you can build your own apparatus for just a few bucks. Don’t believe the “lies” that “they” tell you: measure it yourself!

OK, we’re pretty sure that conspiracy theories weren’t the motivation that got [Michael Gallant] to build his own speed-of-light measurement rig, but the result is a great writeup, and a project that includes one of our favorite circuits, the avalanche transistor pulse generator.

setupThe apparatus starts off with a very quickly pulsed IR LED, a lens, and a beam-splitter. One half of the beam takes a shortcut, and the other bounces off a mirror that is farther away. A simple op-amp circuit amplifies the resulting pulses after they are detected by a photodiode. The delay is measured on an oscilloscope, and the path difference measured with a tape measure.

If you happen to have a photomultiplier tube in your junk box, you can do away with the amplifier stage. Or if you have some really fast logic circuits, here’s another project that might interest you. But if you just want the most direct measurement we can think of that’s astoundingly accurate for something lashed up on breadboards, you can’t beat [Michael]’s lash-up.

Oh and PS: He got 299,000 (+/- 5,000) km/sec.

Ig Nobel Prizes: GoatMan, Volkswagen, and the Personalities of Rocks

Every year, the Journal of Improbable Research issues its prizes for the craziest (published) scientific research: the Ig Nobel Prize. The ceremony took place a couple nights ago, and if you want to see what you missed, we’ve embedded the (long) video below. (Trigger warning: Actual Nobel laureates being goofy.)

The Stinker

It’s hard to pick the best of freaky research, and the committee did a stellar job this year. The trick is that they don’t give the prize away to quacks — you won’t ever get one with your perpetual motion machine, for instance. Nope, the Ig Nobels go to the kookiest science that could actually end up being useful. So we get projects like the effect of wearing polyester on the sexual activity of rodents in “reproduction” and a study on the perceived personalities of different rocks for marketing purposes in “economics”.

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Citizen Scientist Radio Astronomy (and More): No Hardware Required

We sometimes look back fondly on the old days where you could–it seems–pretty easily invent or discover something new. It probably didn’t seem so easy then, but there was a time when working out how to make a voltage divider or a capacitor was a big deal. Today–with a few notable exceptions–big discoveries require big science and big equipment and, of course, big budgets. This probably isn’t unique to our field, either. After all, [Clyde Tombaugh] discovered Pluto with a 13-inch telescope. But that was in 1930. Today, it would be fairly hard to find something new with a telescope of that size.

However, there are ways you can contribute to large-scale research. It is old news that projects let you share your computers with SETI and protein folding experiments. But that isn’t as satisfying as doing something personally. That’s where Zooniverse comes in. They host a variety of scientific projects that collect lots of data and they need the best computers in the world to crunch the data. In case you haven’t noticed, the best computers in the world are still human brains (at least, for the moment).

Their latest project is Radio Meteor Zoo. The data source for this project is BRAMS (Belgian Radio Meteor Stations). The network produces a huge amount of readings every day showing meteor echoes. Detecting shapes and trends in the data is a difficult task for computers, especially during peak activity such as during meteor showers. However, it is easy enough for humans.

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Fixing the Ampere: Redefining the SI Unit

We all know that it’s not the volts that kill you, it’s the amps. But exactly how many electrons per second are there in an amp? It turns out that nobody really knows. But according to a press release from the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), that’s all going to change in 2018.

The amp is a “metrological embarrassment” because it’s not defined in terms of any physical constants. Worse, it’s not even potentially measurable, being the “constant current which, if maintained in two straight parallel conductors of infinite length, of negligible circular cross-section, and placed 1 meter apart in vacuum, would produce between these conductors a force equal to 2 x 10–7 newton per meter of length.” You can’t just order a spool of infinite length and negligible cross-section wire and have it express shipped.

So to quantify the exact number of electrons per second in an amp, the folks at NIST need an electron counter. This device turns out to be a super-cooled, quantum mechanical gate that closes itself once an electron has passed through. Repeatedly re-opening one of these at gigahertz still provides around a picoamp. Current (tee-hee) research is focused on making practical devices that push a bit more juice. Even then, it’s likely that they’ll need to gang 100 of these gates to get even a single microamp. But when they do, they’ll know how many electrons per second have passed through to a few tens of parts per billion. Not too shabby.

We had no idea that the amp was indirectly defined, but now that we do, we’re looking forward to a better standard. Thanks, NIST!

Thanks [CBGB123B] for the tip!

Laser Sequencer uses Arduino to Enable Super-Microscope!

[Philip]’s Laser control Arduino shield.

[Philip Nicovich] has been building laser sequencers over at the University of New South Wales. His platform is used to sequence laser excitation on his fluorescence microscopy systems. In [Philip]’s case, these systems are used for super-resolution microscopy, that is breaking the diffraction limit allowing the imaging of structures of only a few nanometers (1 millionth of a millimeter) in size.

Using an Arduino shield he designed in Eagle, [Philip] was able to build the system for less than half the cost of a commercial platform.

The control system is build around the simple Arduino shield shown to the right, which uses simple 74 series logic to send TTL control signals to the laser diodes used in his rig. The Arduino runs code which allows laser firing sequences to be programmed and executed.

[Philip] also provides scripts which show how the Arduino can be interfaced with the open source micro manager control software.


As well as the schematics [Philip] has provided STEP files and drawings for the enclosure and mounts used in the system and a detailed BOM.

More useful than all this perhaps is the comprehensive write-up he provides. This describes the motivation for decisions such as the use of aluminum over steel due to its ability to transfer heat more effectively, and not to use thermal paste due to out-gassing.

While I can almost hear the cries of “not a hack”, the growing use of open source platforms and tool in academia fills us with joy. Thanks for the write-up [Philip] we look forward to hearing more about your laser systems in the future!