With A Big Enough Laser, The World Is Your Sensor

It’s difficult to tell with our dull human senses, but everything around us is vibrating. Sure it takes more energy to get big objects like bridges and houses humming compared to a telephone pole or mailbox, but make no mistake, they’ve all got a little buzz going on. With their new automated laser, the team behind VibroSight++ believes they can exploit this fact to make city-scale sensing far cheaper and easier than ever before.

The key to the system is a turret mounted Class 3B infrared laser and photodetector that can systematically scan for and identity reflective surfaces within visual range. Now you might think that such a setup wouldn’t get much of a signal from the urban landscape, but as it so happens, the average city block is packed with retroreflectors. From street signs to road studs and license plates, the team estimates dense urban areas have approximately 7,000 reflectors per square kilometer. On top of those existing data points, additional reflectors could easily be added to particularly interesting devices that city planners might want to monitor.

Once VibroSight++ has identified its targets, the next step is to bounce the laser off of them and detect the minute perturbations in the returned signal caused by vibrations in the reflector. In the video below you can see how this basic concept could be put to practical use in the field, from counting how many cars pass over a certain stretch of road to seeing how popular a specific mailbox is. There’s a whole world of information out there just waiting to be collected, all without having to install anything more exotic than the occasional piece of reflective tape.

If this technology seems oddly familiar, it’s probably because we covered the team’s earlier work that focused (no pun intended) on using reflected laser beams for home automation in 2018. Back then they were aiming a much smaller laser at blenders and refrigerators instead of license plates and street signs, but the concept is otherwise the same. While we’ll admit the technology does give off a distinctive Orwellian vibe, it’s hard not to be intrigued by the “Big Data” possibilities afforded by the team’s upgraded hardware and software.

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WSPR May Hold The Key To MH370 Final Position

The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 after an unexplained course change sent it flying south over the Indian Ocean in March 2014 still holds the mystery of the wreck’s final location. There have been a variety of efforts to narrow down a possible search area over the years, and now we have news of a further angle from an unexpected source. It’s possible that the aircraft’s path could show up in radio scatter detectable as anomalously long-distance contacts using the amateur radio WSPR protocol.

WSPR is a low-power amateur radio mode designed to probe and record the radio propagation capabilities of the atmosphere. Transmit beacons and receiving stations run continuously, and all contacts however fleeting are recorded to an online database. This can be mined by researchers with an interest in the atmosphere, but in this case it might also provide clues to the missing airliner’s flightpath. By searching for anomalously long-distance WSPR contacts whose path crosses the expected position of MH370 it’s possible to spot moments when the aircraft formed a reflector for the radio waves. These contacts can then either confirm positions already estimated using other methods, or even provide further course points. It’s an impressive demonstration of the unexpected data that can lurk in a trove such as the WSPR logbook, and also that while messing about on the airwaves the marks we leave behind us can have more benefit than simply bragging rights over the DX we’ve worked.

If this WSPR business intrigues you, then have a read of the piece in our $50 Ham series about it.

Header: Laurent ERRERA from L’Union, France, CC BY-SA 2.0.

[via Southgate ARC]

Your Phone Is Now Helping To Detect Earthquakes

Most people’s personal experience with seismographs begins and ends with simple childhood science experiments. Watching a pendulum make erratic marks on a piece of paper while your classmates banged on the table gave you an idea on how the device worked, and there’s an excellent chance that’s the last time you gave the concept much thought. Even among hackers, whose gear in general tends to be more technologically equipped than the norm, you’re unlikely to find a dedicated seismograph up and running.

But that’s not because the core technology is hard to come by or particularly expensive. In fact, one could say with almost absolute certainty that if you aren’t actively reading these words on a device with a sensitive accelerometer onboard, you have one (or perhaps several) within arm’s reach. Modern smartphones, tablets, and even some laptops, now pack in sensors that could easily be pushed into service as broad strokes seismometers; they just need the software to collect and analyze the data.

Or at least, they did. By the time you read this article, Google will have already started rolling out an update to Android devices which will allow them to use their onboard sensors to detect possible earthquakes. With literally billions of compatible devices in operation all over the planet, this will easily become the largest distributed sensor network of its type ever put into operation. But that doesn’t mean you’re going to be getting a notification on your phone to duck and cover anytime soon.

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Hackaday Links: February 23, 2020

If you think your data rates suck, take pity on New Horizons. The space probe, which gave us lovely pictures of the hapless one-time planet Pluto after its 2015 flyby, continued to plunge and explore other, smaller objects in the Kuiper belt. In January of 2019, New Horizons zipped by Kuiper belt object Arrokoth and buffered its findings on the spacecraft’s solid-state data recorders. The probe has been dribbling data back to Earth ever since at the rate of 1 to 2 kilobits per second, and now we have enough of that data to piece together a story of how planets may have formed in the early solar system. The planetary science is fascinating, but for our money, getting a probe to narrowly miss a 35-kilometer long object at a range of 6.5 billion km all while traveling at 51,500 km/h is pretty impressive. And if as expected it takes until September to retrieve all the data from the event at a speed worse than dialup rates, it’ll be worth the wait.

Speaking of space, if you’re at all interested in big data, you might want to consider putting your skills to work in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. The Berkeley SETI Research Center has been feeding data from the Green Bank Telescope and their Automated Planet Finder into the public archive of Breakthrough Listen, a 10-year, $100 million initiative to scan the million closest stars in our galaxy as well as the 100 nearest galaxies for signs of intelligent life. They’re asking for help to analyze the torrents of data they’re accumulating, specifically by developing software and algorithms to process the data. They’ve set up a site to walk you through the basics and get you started. If you’re handy with Python and have an interest in astronomy, you should check it out.

Staying with the space theme, what’s the best way to get kids interested in space and electronics? Why, by launching a satellite designed to meme its way across the heavens, of course. The Mission for Education and Multimedia Engagement satellite, or MEMESat-1, is being planned for a February 2021 launch. The 1U cubesat will serve as an amateur radio repeater and slow-scan TV (SSTV) beacon that will beam down memes donated to the project and stored on radiation-hardened flash storage. In all seriousness, this seems like a great way to engage the generation that elevated the meme to a modern art form in a STEM project they might otherwise show little interest in.

It looks as though Linux might be getting a big boost as the government of South Korea announced that they’re switching 3.3 million PCs from Windows to Linux. It’s tempting to blame Microsoft’s recent dropping of Windows 7 support for the defenestration, but this sounds like a plan that’s been in the works for a while. No official word on which distro will be selected for the 780 billion won ($655 million) effort, which is said to be driven by ballooning software license costs and a desire to get out from under Microsoft’s thumb.

And finally, in perhaps the ickiest auction ever held, the “Davos Collection” headed to the auction block this week in New York. The items offered were all collected from the 2018 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where the world’s elites gather to determine the fate of the 99.999%. Every item in the collection, ranging from utensils and glassware used at the many lavish meals to “sanitary items” disposed of by the billionaires, and even hair and fluid samples swabbed from restrooms, potentially holds a genetic treasure trove in the form of the DNA it takes to be in the elite. Or at least that’s the theory. There’s a whole “Boys from Brazil” vibe here that we find disquieting, and we flatly refuse to see how an auction where a used paper cup is offered for $8,000 went, but if you’d like to virtually browse through the ostensibly valuable trash of oligarchs, check out the auction catalog.

Florence Nightingale: The Lady With The Data

When you think of Florence Nightingale, you probably imagine a nurse with a lamp, comforting soldiers. Indeed, Florence is considered the mother of modern nursing. But she also made serious contributions in statistical data analysis, and used the diagram named after her, the Nightingale rose diagram, to convince the British Parliament to enact sanitation reforms that saved hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lives.

During the Crimean war, Florence worked around the clock as head nurse in an overcrowded field hospital. But she also found time to create graphs to illustrate the terrible conditions of that field hospital to members of British Parliament. The sanitation reforms she led greatly improved the life of the soldiers in battle, and widespread adoption of her hygienic practices vastly reduced mortality rates of humanity in general.

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