The weirdest, wackiest and coolest sci/tech stories of 2014

Drones dominate but space, robots and algorithms shake the world.

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The weird and wacky

Sifting through the sometimes wacky world of high-tech can be a lot of fun. This year we have a mix of great stories about space, truly advanced software, drones and one story about a guy who has an antennae attached to his skull. What more could you want? Take a gander.

RELATED: The weirdest, wackiest and coolest sci/tech stories of 2014 (so far!)

The weirdest, wackiest and coolest sci/tech stories of 2013

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REUTERS/Ints Kalnins

Nice head

Artist Neil Harbisson, who has an antenna permanently attached to his skull, speaks during the Riga Comm 2014 innovation conference in November.  His Wikipedia entry says the antenna lets him perceive visible and invisible colors such as infrareds and ultraviolets via sound waves as well as receive images, videos, music or phone calls directly into his head via external devices such as mobile phones or satellites.

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NASA confirmed that its Pluto-bound spacecraft came out of hibernation over the weekend to get ready for its July 2015 encounter with the dwarf planet. Moving at light speed, the radio signal from New Horizons – currently more than 2.9 billion miles from Earth, and just over 162 million miles from Pluto – needed four hours and 26 minutes to reach NASA’s Deep Space Network station in Canberra, Australia. New Horizons will begin observing the Pluto system on Jan. 15. 

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Drone gangs

Could a small pack of drones be launched from the underside of a B-52 to swarm a target or gather intelligence? That in part is what researchers at Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are looking to explore. The research agency recently put out a Request For Information to explore the feasibility and value of launching and recovering volleys of small unmanned aircraft from one or more existing large airplanes – think B-52, B-1, C-130.

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Guns galore

If you need a measure of the daily security pressure your local airport’s Transportation Security Administration personnel are under you need look no further than the fact that its agents have discovered more than 1,850 firearms, 1,471 of which were armed by the way, so far this year. And it is the third year in a row the number has gone up – from about 1,500 in 2012. The numbers are crazy stupid when you think about all the attention any of these gun discoveries gets and the amount of media attention focused on airline security in general. A TSA spokesman when asked if the TSA has a theory on why so many more guns are being brought onboard airlines, Tweeted with me today that “The vast majority of passengers just tell law enforcement, ‘I forgot.’ We continue to remind passengers they can check them.”

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It’s all about the fish

Sometimes it takes a fish to do a man’s job. Scientists at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have developed a sensor-laden, synthetic Sensor Fish that can be used to swim into hydropower facilities like dams to evaluate structures and other environmental systems. Using Sensor Fish, PNNL researchers say they can measure the various forces juvenile salmon experience as they pass through dams. The Sensor Fish initially was designed to evaluate dams equipped with a common type of turbine along the Columbia River, the Kaplan turbine. The pressure change, they found, is akin to traveling from sea level to the top of Mount Everest in blink of an eye, the PNNL researchers said in a release.

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Rocketship down

In one of the sad stories of the year, Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo crashed in October taking with the life of one pilot, badly injuring another and likely delaying for a long time the advent of potential space tourism. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said at the time that it appeared the lever that controls the SpaceShipTwo’s deceleration system might have been deployed too soon. How or if that caused the crash is unknown.

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REUTERS/Skip Peterson

Swarming drones

The Air Force is pondering what it would take to develop a small, low-cost unmanned aircraft that it could fly in swarms to handle a number of applications such as protecting a given area or quickly gathering intelligence. From the Air Force: “The thought is to develop an inexpensive, configurable and producible on demand air vehicle. A number of military applications can be envisioned for an air vehicle with such a capability. One potential application is to use hundreds or thousands of such units in a campaign to overwhelm an enemy’s air defenses and “punch a hole” to enable higher value, less replaceable [aircraft] to engage or monitor enemy systems.

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Amplifier operates at a speed of one trillion cycles per second

DARPA announced that a solid-state amplifier developed under its Terahertz Electronics program was recognized by Guinness World Records as the fastest ever recorded -- one terahertz (1012 GHz), or one trillion cycles per second — 150 billion cycles faster than the existing world record of 850 gigahertz set in 2012.

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How do I know you’re lying? My “Star Wars” algorithm told me

Two researchers with BAE Systems’ Adaptive Reasoning Technologies Group have taken home a $25,000 prize for developing an algorithm that can help detect who's trustworthy and who isn't. The algorithm – known as JEDI MIND -- was developed as part of crowdsourcing challenge that took place between nearly 40 competitors backed by The Office of the Director of National Intelligence and its Intelligence Advanced Research Project Activity (IARPA) group.

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The black art of super secure software obfuscation

Given enough computer power, desire, brains and some luck, the security of most systems can be broken. But there are cryptographic and algorithmic security techniques, ideas and concepts out there that add a level of algorithmic mystification that could be built into programs that would make them close to unbreakable. That’s what the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) wants for a new program called Safeware. The basic (and I mean basic) idea of software obfuscation is to make the important underlying code or intelligence of an application untouchable (or as untouchable as possible) by an intruder or anyone else looking to access its information.

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Printed car options

In September researchers from Oak Ridge National Laboratory and other partners including Cincinnati Incorporated, and Local Motors showed off their 3D-printed electric car to the International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago. The researchers say the two-seat car, known as Strati, is built almost entirely of carbon-reinforced plastic, including the body and chassis and took 44 hours to make. The researchers noted that other experimental cars have used 3D printed parts before but this was the first to use the technology almost exclusively.

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Image technology would move way beyond X-Rays

Getting a better view inside mostly dense objects like corrosion in aircraft wings and welds on ships or even gunpowder hidden in suitcases are just a few of the applications researchers at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency are hoping to develop with a new program called Intense and Compact Neutron Sources (ICONS). With ICONS DARPA is actually looking to develop a portable unit able to generate both neutrons and X-rays.

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To fight $5.2B worth of identity theft IRS may need to change the way you file taxes, get refunds

Crime in this case is paying lots of scammers. Based on preliminary analysis, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) estimates it paid $5.2 billion in fraudulent identity theft refunds in filing season 2013. As a result the IRS needs to implement changes in a system that apparently leaks like a sieve and such changes could impact legitimate taxpayers by delaying refunds, extending tax season and likely adding costs to the IRS. Coming changes could include new filing deadlines and changes in the way the IRS processes returns.

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DARPA looks to build James Bond-like armored super vehicle

It does indeed sound like requirements for a James Bond-esque truck: a largely invisible, semi-autonomous armored vehicle that can pretty much go anywhere at a good clip. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency wants to make the imagined a reality with a program called Ground X‐Vehicle Technologies (GXV‐T). The GXV should be able to among other things, the ability to traverse diverse off-road terrain, including slopes and various elevations; advanced suspensions and novel track/wheel configurations; extreme speed; rapid omnidirectional movement changes in three dimensions.

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REUTERS/Kenneth Armstrong

Hitchhikers guide to bots

The hitchBOT is seen posed next to Highway 17 north of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, and a portion of the Trans-Canada Highway Aug. 5, 2014. The hitchhiking robot is taking a journey across Canada.

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A big chip

IBM researchers earlier this year said they developed a human brain-inspired computer chip loaded with more than 5 billion transistors and 256 million “synapses,” or programmable logic points, analogous to the connections between neurons in the brain. In addition to being one of the world’s largest and most complex computer chips ever produced it requires only a fraction of the electrical power of conventional chips to operate.

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Your food on a drone

Visitors are served by an Infinium-Serve Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) that is designed to serve food and wait tables, at the National Productivity Month exhibition in Singapore Oct. 7, 2014. The UAV, a prototype designed by firm Infinium Robotics that specializes in UAV solutions, aims to free up restaurant staff to do "higher value tasks" by accurately delivering food orders up to five kilograms to tables within a premise by means of anti-collision algorithms.

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REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Elon Musk dumps on AI

Superstar entrepreneur Elon Musk set off a storm earlier this year when he said artificial intelligence was humanity’s biggest threat. “I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence. If I were to guess at what our biggest existential threat is, it's probably that... With artificial intelligence, we are summoning the demon. In all those stories with the guy with the pentagram and the holy water, and he's sure he can control the demon. It doesn't work out." Musk more than dabbles in AI with his companies however as his Tesla cars make use of it and he this year invested in a company called Vicarious that develops AI technology.

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The speed of business

Airbus teamed with a company called Aerion to develop a supersonic business jet. The joint effort provides expanded engineering capabilities to Aerion as it enters a design phase in which propulsion systems, structures, avionics and equipment are specified and sourced. Under the current timeline, Aerion hopes to get its Mach 1.6-speed jet, known as the AS2 off the ground around 2019.

Drones on water

The Office of Naval Research (ONR) this year showed off a system that lets it swarm a number of unmanned boat drones in unison that could be used for a number of intelligence gathering or military applications. Called CARACaS (Control Architecture for Robotic Agent Command and Sensing) the system can be put into a transportable kit and installed on almost any boat. It allows boats to operate autonomously, without a sailor physically needing to be at the controls—including operating in sync with other unmanned vessels; choosing their own routes; swarming to interdict enemy vessels; and escorting/protecting naval assets.

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Data center reactor?

Network World’s Mark Gibbs wrote about Lockheed Martin’s development of a “small” 100MW nuclear fusion plant called the Compact Fusion Reactor (CFR) that could be demonstrated in about one year. This reactor is a “hot fusion” design in which a containment vessel using superconducting magnets traps plasma heated to thousands of degrees through nuclear fusion. It would appear that Lockheed has solved one of the biggest problems in hot fusion systems, namely how to create a dense, stable plasma; a problem that has eluded many other experiments.

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Armageddon much?

The Washington Post wrote an interesting article in October that said the US was stockpiling old nuclear weapons to determine whether they could be good for blasting earthbound asteroids. The story cited a Government Accountability Office report on the National Nuclear Security Administration, an agency that manages the nation’s atomic-weapons arsenal. The NNSA described the old warheads as an “irreplaceable national asset” that should be kept around “pending a senior-level government evaluation of their use in planetary defense against earthbound asteroids,” according to the report.

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The tractor pull

Australian National University physicists say they built a tractor beam that can repel and attract objects, using a hollow laser beam. It is the first long-distance optical tractor beam and moved particles one-fifth of a millimeter in diameter a distance of up to 20 centimeters, around 100 times further than previous experiments, the researchers said. The new technique is versatile because it requires only a single laser beam. It could be used, for example, in controlling atmospheric pollution or for the retrieval of tiny, delicate or dangerous particles for sampling. The researchers can also imagine the effect being scaled up. Here Dr. Vladlen Shvedov (L) and Dr. Cyril Hnatovsky adjust the hollow laser beam in their lab.

It’s a Google balloon world

Google’s Project Loon Internet balloons are now launching at an astonishing rate of 20 every day and, according to the company, they’re remaining aloft 10 times longer than they were last year, with 100 days now normal and 130 days being the record. Project Loon is a network of high-altitude balloons designed to connect people in rural and remote areas, help fill coverage gaps, and bring people back online after disasters.

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C’mon Steve

From my colleague Buzzblog: Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak has done this kind of thing before, deflating a slice of Apple lore. In 2011 he told Buzzblog that the well-established date of Apple’s founding -- April 1, 1976 -- was actually “murky” to his mind, meaning not that he didn’t recall but that he didn’t agree. And recently he told Bloomberg that the quaint “founded in a garage” tale – a staple for many a startup besides Apple – was less than it has been portrayed in his case. From a Washington Post account: “The garage is a bit of a myth. It’s overblown. The garage represents us better than anything else, but we did no designs there. We would drive the finished products to the garage, make them work and then we’d drive them down to the store that paid us cash.”

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REUTERS/Mike Brown

Space test

NASA successfully launched Orion the first spacecraft built for astronauts destined for deep space since the Apollo missions. Ultimately destined for deep space travel the unmanned test flight tested many of the riskiest elements of leaving Earth and returning home in the spacecraft including the jettison of the launch abort system; the separation of the Orion crew module from its service module ahead of its reentry though Earth’s atmosphere; the heat shield, which will experience temperatures near 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit and how Orion’s computers handle the radiation from the Van Allen Belt.

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Comet stuff

The European Space Agency launched the Rosetta mission in 2004 and this fall it completed its primary mission: Land on a comet. The probe landed on the comet on but an anchoring system problem hampered long-term investigations into the origins of Earth and the solar system. Still Rosetta made a number of discoveries still being explored by scientists.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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