World Tech Update: May 8, 2015

Network World | May 8, 2015

Coming up on WTU this week Microsoft's Surface 3 tablet goes on sale, the FAA approves special drone flights and an autonomous car hits the road.

We'll start this week with Microsoft's new Surface 3 tablet that went on sale globally. It's one of the best reviewed tablets, but it comes at a time when the global tablet market continues to shrink. Startaing at 500 dollars the new tablet runs full Windows 8.1 and will be upgraded to Windows 10 later this year. That means you can run full desktop applications, which you couldn’t do on the company’s Surface RT and you can’t do on Apple’s iPad. The tablet comes with a one year subscription to Office 365 which includes productivity software like Word, Excel, PowerPoint and others. After that it's 70 dollars a year. Microsoft is aiming Surface 3 at students and families. The device comes with a stylus and a type cover with track pad is available for 130 dollars. The tablet is available now in two different configurations at 500 and 600 dollars.

The US Federal Aviation Administration is going to allow tests of drones in urban areas as well as outside the pilot's line of site, possibly paving the ay for operations such as the aerial delivery of packages. PrecisionHawk, a drone manufacturer, will be surveying crops in rural areas using unmanned aircraft flying outside of the pilot's direct vision, while BNSF Railroad will test the unmanned aircraft systems to inspect their rail infrastructure beyond visual line-of-sight in isolated areas. News network CNN will be testing drones for news gathering in urban areas.

Staying with drones, here's one from NASA that can take off like a helicopter and fly like a plane. It's called Greased Lightning and during its most recent test, the remote controlled drone successfully transitioned from helicopter to airplane; rotating its wings and titling its rotors. The NASA prototype is a VTOL aircraft, short for vertical takeoff and landing, which is useful in places that don't have a long runway. VTOL aircraft already exist -- the US military's V22 Osprey is one -- but designing such an aircraft is challenging because of the unique aerodynamics. NASA is working on the prototype to better understand the potential of electric propulsion across all types and sizes of aircraft. Initially Greased Lighting could be used as an unmanned aerial vehicle for surveillance, mapping or package delivery, but that will be a ways off. NASA’s next step in developing the plane is to confirm its aerodynamic efficiency.

The bezel on your phone is that small black border around the touch screen. China's ZTE wants to get rid of it. Our Beijing correspondent Michael Kan got to check out the Nubia z9. The 5.2 inch screen extends across the glass surface edge to edge making it feel a bit more compact. While some were concerned that the lack of bezel would make the phone hard to use we didn't find that in our tests. The phone itself is a high end 4G handset and will go on sale later this month in China for 35-hundred yuann or 574 US dollars. It's unclear whether the phone will come to markets outside China.

We've heard a lot about self driving cars and now the first autonomous truck is taking to US roads. While this license plate signifies an autonomous vehicle, a driver still needs to be at the wheel, ready to takeover in certain conditions. The Freightliner Inspiration truck can operate on highways at what the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration defines as Level 3 of autonomous capabilities. That means the driver can let the truck control all safety critical functions under certain traffic and environmental conditions. On its own the truck can maintain a legal speed, stay in the selected lane, keep a safe breaking distance from other vehicles and slow or stop based on traffic and road conditions. It does this using a combination of cameras and radar.