The Final Days Of The Fire Lookouts

For more than a century, the United States Forest Service has employed men and women to monitor vast swaths of wilderness from isolated lookout towers. Armed with little more than a pair of binoculars and a map, these lookouts served as an early warning system for combating wildfires. Eventually the towers would be equipped with radios, and later still a cellular or satellite connection to the Internet, but beyond that the job of fire lookout has changed little since the 1900s.

Like the lighthouse keepers of old, there’s a certain romance surrounding the fire lookouts. Sitting alone in their tower, the majority of their time is spent looking at a horizon they’ve memorized over years or even decades, carefully watching for the slightest whiff of smoke. The isolation has been a prison for some, and a paradise for others. Author Jack Kerouac spent the summer of 1956 in a lookout tower on Desolation Peak in Washington state, an experience which he wrote about in several works including Desolation Angels.

But slowly, in a change completely imperceptible to the public, the era of the fire lookouts has been drawing to a close. As technology improves, the idea of perching a human on top of a tall tower for months on end seems increasingly archaic. Many are staunchly opposed to the idea of automation replacing human workers, but in the case of the fire lookouts, it’s difficult to argue against it. Computer vision offers an unwavering eye that can detect even the smallest column of smoke amongst acres of woodland, while drones equipped with GPS can pinpoint its location and make on-site assessments without risk to human life.

At one point, the United States Forest Service operated more than 5,000 permanent fire lookout towers, but today that number has dwindled into the hundreds. As this niche job fades even farther into obscurity, let’s take a look at the fire lookout’s most famous tool, and the modern technology poised to replace it.

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A Virtual Tour Of The B-17

The Boeing B-17 “Flying Fortress” is arguably the most recognizable aircraft of the Second World War. Made infamous by the daring daylight strategic bombing runs they carried out over Germany, more than 12,000 of these four-engined bombers were produced between 1939 and 1945. Thanks to the plane’s renowned survivability in battle, approximately 60% of them made it through the war and returned home to the United States, only to be rounded up in so-called “boneyards” where they were ultimately cut up and sold as scrap. Today there are fewer than 50 intact Boeing B-17s left in the world, and of those, only 11 remain airworthy.

One of them is Nine-O-Nine, a B-17G built in April 7, 1945. This particular aircraft was built too late to see any combat, although in the 1950s she was fitted with various instruments and exposed to three separate nuclear blasts for research purposes. It’s actually not the real Nine-O-Nine either, the original was scrapped after it completed eighteen bombing runs over Berlin. Without a combat record of its own, this bomber was painted to look like the real Nine-O-Nine in honor of its incredible service record of never losing a crewman.

Since 1986, Nine-O-Nine has been owned by the Collings Foundation, who operate her as a living history exhibit. The bomber flies around the United States with an entourage of similarly iconic WWII aircraft as part of the Wings of Freedom Tour, stopping by various airports and giving the public a chance to climb aboard and see the pinnacle of mid-1940s strategic bombing technology. History buffs with suitably deep pockets can even book a seat on one of the scheduled 30-minute flights that take place at every stop on the Tour.

I was lucky enough to have the The Wings of Freedom Tour pass through my area recently, and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to experience this incredible aircraft first hand. The fact that I’m equal parts a coward and miser kept me from taking a ride aboard the 74 year old Nine-O-Nine, at least for now, but I made sure to take plenty of pictures from inside this lovingly restored B-17G while it was safely on the ground.

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Secrets From A 1969 Analog Computer

Today, most of what we think of as a computer uses digital technology. But that wasn’t always the case. From slide rules to mechanical fire solution computers to electronic analog computers, there have been plenty of computers that don’t work on 1s and 0s, but on analog quantities such as angle or voltage. [Ken Shirriff] is working to restore an analog computer from around 1969 provided by [CuriousMarc]. He’ll probably write a few posts, but this month’s one focuses on the op-amps.

For an electronic analog computer, the op-amp was the main processing element. You could feed multiple voltages in to do addition, and gain works for multiplication. If you add a capacitor, you can do integration. But there’s a problem.

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Hackaday Celebrates 15 Years And Oh How The Hardware Has Changed

Today marks exactly 15 years since Hackaday began featuring one Hack a Day, and we’ve haven’t missed a day since. Over 5,477 days we’ve published 34,057 articles, and the Hackaday community has logged 903,114 comments. It’s an amazing body of work from our writers and editors, a humbling level of involvement from our readers, and an absolutely incredible contribution to open hardware by the project creators who have shared details of their work and given us all something to talk about and to strive for.

What began as a blog is now a global virtual hackerspace. That first 105-word article has grown far beyond project features to include spectacular long-form original content. From our community of readers has grown Hackaday.io, launched in 2014 you’ll now find over 30,000 projects published by 350,000 members. The same year the Hackaday Prize was founded as a global engineering initiative seeking to promote open hardware, offering big prizes for big ideas (and the willingness to share them). Our virtual connections were also given the chance to come alive through the Hackaday Superconference, Hackaday Belgrade, numerous Hackaday Unconferences, and meetups all over the world.

All of this melts together into a huge support structure for anyone who wants to float an interesting idea with a proof of concept where “why” is the wrong question. Together we challenge the limits of what things are meant to do, and collectively we filter through the best ideas and hold them high as building blocks for the next iteration. The Hackaday community is the common link in the collective brain, a validation point for perpetuating great ideas of old, and cataloging the ones of new.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the last 15 years of Hackaday is how much the technological landscape has changed. Hackaday is still around because all of us have actively changed along with it — always looking for that cutting edge where the clever misuse of something becomes the base for the next transformative change. So we thought we’d take a look back 15 years in tech. Let’s dig into a time when there were no modules for electronics, you couldn’t just whip up a plastic part in an afternoon, designing your own silicon was unheard of, and your parts distributor was the horde of broken electronics in your back room.

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Echos Of The Cold War: Nuclear-Powered Missiles Have Been Tried Before

On August 8th, an experimental nuclear device exploded at a military test facility in Nyonoksa, Russia. Thirty kilometers away, radiation levels in the city of Severodvinsk reportedly peaked at twenty times normal levels for the span of a few hours. Rumors began circulating about the severity of the event, and conflicting reports regarding forced evacuations of residents from nearby villages had some media outlets drawing comparisons with the Soviet Union’s handling of the Chernobyl disaster.

Today, there remain more questions than answers surrounding what happened at the Nyonoksa facility. It’s still unclear how many people were killed or injured in the explosion, or what the next steps are for the Russian government in terms of environmental cleanup at the coastal site. The exceptionally vague explanation given by state nuclear agency Rosatom saying that the explosion “occurred during the period of work related to the engineering and technical support of isotopic power sources in a liquid propulsion system”, has done little to assuage concerns.

The consensus of global intelligence agencies is that the test was likely part of Russia’s program to develop the 9M730 Burevestnik nuclear-powered cruise missile. Better known by its NATO designation SSC-X-9 Skyfall, the missile is said to offer virtually unlimited flight range and endurance. In theory the missile could remain airborne indefinitely, ready to divert to its intended target at a moment’s notice. An effectively unlimited range also means it could take whatever unpredictable or circuitous route necessary to best avoid the air defenses of the target nation. All while traveling at near-hypersonic speeds that make interception exceptionally difficult.

Such incredible claims might sound like saber rattling, or perhaps even something out of science fiction. But in reality, the basic technology for a nuclear-powered missile was developed and successfully tested nearly sixty years ago. Let’s take a look at this relic of the Cold War, and find out how Russia may be working to resolve some of the issues that lead to it being abandoned. Continue reading “Echos Of The Cold War: Nuclear-Powered Missiles Have Been Tried Before”

Apollo’s PLSS And The Science Of Keeping Humans Alive In Space

Ever since humans came up with the bright idea to explore parts of the Earth which were significantly less hospitable to human life than the plains of Africa where humankind evolved, there’s been a constant pressure to better protect ourselves against the elements to keep our bodies comfortable. Those first tests of a new frontier required little more than a warm set of clothes. Over the course of millennia, challenging those frontiers became more and more difficult. In the modern age we set our sights on altitude and space, where a warm set of clothes won’t do much to protect you.

With the launch of Sputnik in 1957 and the heating up of the space race between the US and USSR, many firsts had to be accomplished with minimal time for testing and refinement. From developing 1945’s then state-of-the-art V-2 sounding rockets into something capable of launching people to the moon and beyond, to finding out what would be required to keep people alive in Earth orbit and on the Moon. Let’s take a look at what was required to make this technological marvel happen, and develop the Portable Life Support System — an essential component of those space suits that kept astronauts so comfortable they were able to crack jokes while standing on the surface of the Moon.

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Retrotechtacular: Predictions That Just Missed It

Few occupations are more fraught with peril than predicting the future. If you are a science fiction author, it might not matter, but if you are trying to design the next game-changing piece of hardware, the stakes are higher.

It seems like, for the most part, even if you manage to get some of the ideas right, the form is often way off. Case in point: telemedicine. Today you can visit a doctor using video conferencing with your phone or a PC for many common maladies. A new idea? Not really. Hugo Gernsback wrote about it in Radio Electronics back in 1955.

Gernsback wrote:

The average medical doctor today is overworked and short-lived. There are never enough doctors anywhere for the world’s constantly multiplying population. Many patients die because the doctor cannot reach them in time, particularly at night and in remote regions.

…[H]e can only see a few [patients] during the day. With increasing traffic congestion, many doctors refuse to make personal calls — execept in emergencies. Even then they arrive often too late. Much of this dilemma will be archaic in the near future, thanks to the Teledoctor.

Gernsback envisioned a doctor using what we now call Waldos similar to what people use to manipulate radioactive material. These super mechanical hands (Gernsback’s words) would allow the doctor to write a prescription, pour liquids, or even diaper a baby thanks to a sense of touch built into them.

Oddly enough, Gernsback’s vision included renting a teledoctor from the drugstore for $3.50 a day. This way, the doctor could call on you and then follow up as well. The drug store would deliver the machine and it would — get this — connect to your phone:

A cord with the a telephone plug attached to the teledoctor instrument is now plugged into a special jack on your telephone. Future telephones will be provided with this facility. The TV signals and telehand electronic signals, etc., will all travel over the closed circuit telephone lines.

In a footnote, Gernsback notes that you can’t send a 525-line TV signal on current phone lines, but a 250-350 line picture was possible and that would be sufficient.

Visionary? In some ways, maybe. The basic idea is coming true today, although it isn’t likely doctors will do surgery or inject you remotely in your home anytime soon. The special telephone plug sort of came true and is already obsolete. The images, by the way, are the ones that accompanied the original article in Radio Electronics.

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