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drones

Good luck avoiding mosquitoes

You can’t stop them, you can only hope to contain them.

Living in an area with so many mosquitoes means local officials can’t just ignore them, right? Harris County tries to lower the number of bugs both by spraying and introducing natural predators. The county can’t eradicate them entirely, but it can try to control bugs that have tested positive for diseases like the West Nile virus.

In Harris County, the mosquito problem peaks during the late summer months.

“It spikes up August and September, when it’s high time for hurricane weather that may trigger mosquito breeding to occur,” said Eddie Miranda, a Harris County Public Health spokesman.

Public health trucks rumble through the streets, spraying low-dose pesticides like pyrethrin and malathion to poison mosquitoes. It doesn’t hurt humans to the same degree, although people sensitive to pesticides should go indoors when crews come around. Crews spray one or twice a week in some parts of Midtown, downtown and the Northside.

The county has an app (iOSAndroid) that lets residents enter a ZIP code and find out where spraying is planned. It also includes a digital form to request mosquito breeding site inspection.

There are also other new, natural strategies from county teams to eliminate the pests, such as introducing carnivorous plants and predator bugs to chew them up. Which is good, considering a recent study found a species of mosquitoes found in the South are laying eggs that are better able to survive winter months.

[…]

The New York Times’s Wirecutter has good options for mosquito repellants that aren’t meant to be applied to flesh. Top among their recommendations are Thermacell products, which release a scent-free vapor into the air and rids the immediate vicinity of mosquitoes.

You can spray and kill clouds of mosquitoes in your yard with pyrethrins spray, which targets the nervous system, but it won’t do much for repelling bugs. Citronella candles are also bunk — researchers have disproven the myth that the smell turns mosquitoes off.

Eliminate any still water that’s been outside your home for more than two days. Harris County Public Health recommends replacing the water in your pet’s bowls and birdbaths frequently to avoid mosquito larvae. Check flower pots, open barrels and toys as well.

Bugs need a cozy hiding place such as leaves clogging storm drains. The county recommends sweeping up the first signs of autumn to keep larvae from having a place to feed.

The story has more info about staying skeeter-free – wear long sleeves and long pants, always a delightful prospect in the Houston summer, and slather yourself with DEET – but do mind thosen prevention steps. The big guns around here include high tech traps, dragonflies and damselflies, and mutant mosquitoes. We’re playing the long game, y’all.

Uber’s vision for the future

I feel like this is more wishcasting than real planning. Still, some of it may happen, and if nothing else we should be aware of what it’s all about.

When Uber envisions the future, it not only wants to put urban air taxis and drones in the skies. It also wants to transform how people navigate cities and how they live in them.

Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said the San Francisco-based tech company wants to turn today’s cities that are getting denser and more polluted into “cities of the future that are fundamentally green and built for people.” To do that, he said, cities need transportation options that range from cruising down the street on an electric scooter to commuting through the skies.

“We want not just to be the Amazon of transportation but also the Google of transportation,” he said.

One of the first places Uber wants that to play out is Dallas-Fort Worth: It’s one of the first three markets for Uber Elevate, an initiative to launch the aerial ride-sharing service.

[…]

Uber gave a progress report and made splashy announcements at its third annual Uber Elevate Summit. It announced the first international market for the air service: Melbourne, Australia. It revealed that Uber Eats is working with McDonald’s to deliver Big Macs and fries by drone. It touted the progress of six aviation companies that are designing the aircraft. And it dived into specifics, such as economics, safety and FAA-required certification. It showed off its different modes of transportation, from its new self-driving Volvo SUV to electric scooters.

Through splashy presentations and showroom floor exhibits, Uber and its business partners tried to build the case that urban air taxi service is not a far-fetched idea but one that’s coming to fruition.

Uber went public in May. The tech giant’s growth has been fueled by venture capital, but it is spending billions of dollars and has yet to turn a profit. That hasn’t slowed development of its aerial ride-sharing service. It expects to start flight demonstrations next year and launch commercial service in a few cities, including Dallas, in 2023. Eventually, it wants the urban air taxis to become autonomous.

Mark Moore, Uber’s director of engineering for vehicle systems, said he’s already seen some of the aircraft take flight. He declined to name the companies that are flight testing, saying they’re keeping quiet for competitive reasons.

“It’s incredibly impressive,” he said. “They’re nothing like helicopters.”

We first heard of Uber Elevate back in 2017. They had a goal at that time of rolling out a demo in 2020, so as far as their public pronouncements go, they’re on schedule. There re other operators in this space, one at Texas A&M that is working on flying motorcycles, with a test date of 2020, and a different kind of flying vehicle, based on battery power, that is farther away from reality. Beyond those two, we’ll just have to take Uber at their word that there are other companies testing prototypes now.

The challenges are not just technical.

Moore said the next four years will focus on demonstrations that “prove out the safety, noise and performance” of the vehicles.

In 2023, he said it will launch to paying customers in Dallas — but with a limited number of vehicles and limited operations. He said he expects five aircraft per manufacturer at launch. That will grow to about 50 per manufacturer in 2024. But, he said, some manufacturers may not be ready in time.

In Dallas, the average trip is expected to be 20 to 25 miles, Moore said.

But one of the major questions is whether Uber can win over regulators and the public. Unlike other tech innovations, early adopters won’t just use a new kind of technology. They’ll fly in public, so that affects the people driving, walking or living on the ground below, whether or not they choose to opt in.

[…]

“Uber is obsessed with making these vehicles as quiet as possible,” he said.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s acting administrator, Dan Elwell, said he’s enthusiastic about urban air taxis but acknowledged that their development gives him more to worry about.

“Everyone is riveted by this, especially me, but then I put on my FAA regulator hat and I got a whole new bucket of stuff to lose sleep over,” he said in a speech at the summit. “What you see is the ideal way to transporting people across cities. When I look at it, I see car-sized vehicles with multiple rotors hanging over dense urban populations.”

All that was discussed in the first Uber Elevate link I posted above. Noise is also a concern – much is done to abate highway noise for residences, but the only way to do that for aerial vehicles is to make the vehicles themselves as quiet as possible. How t ameliorate the “death from above” concerns, well, that’s going to be a key question. All this from a company that burns money faster than 747s burn jet fuel. I’ll keep an eye on this, but don’t be surprised if the next major update is that the timelines have been pushed back.

Let’s use mutant mosquitoes to fight Zika

What could possibly go wrong?

The Bayou City’s teeming mosquito population spawns in dark, wet nooks and carries a slew of deadly tropical diseases that could ravage the region.

So Houston is pondering a sneak attack, something akin to a Trojan Horse. Harris County officials are negotiating with a British biotech company, Oxitec, to create and release mutant mosquitoes genetically engineered so that after they’re set loose in the wild, offspring die, and the mosquito population dwindles.

Deric Nimmo, principal scientist at Oxitec, said it is a paradigm shift – “the release of mosquitoes to control mosquitoes.”

If an agreement is finalized, Harris County could become one of the first locations in the United States to use the mosquitoes, going far beyond the chemicals and public-awareness campaigns the county has long relied upon.

[…]

Oxitec spun off from Oxford University 15 years ago to commercialize proprietary strains of insects, namely mosquitoes. The hope is that they can help reduce populations of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which carry the Zika virus, dengue fever and chikungunya, among other deadly illnesses. The mosquitoes are common in the Houston region.

Oxitec inserts a “self-limiting gene” into a male mosquito and releases several into the environment. Those mosquitoes then mate with females – Oxitec claims their special males out-compete normal males – and the resulting offspring die before they become adults. Over time, the overall population of the Aedes mosquito declines.

Male mosquitoes do not bite and can’t spread disease.

The company has conducted field trials in Brazil, Panama and the Cayman Islands and says it has reduced the Aedes mosquito populations by up to 90 percent in each location.

“It looks like we’re going to do or plan to do some sort of trial initially to test out the system,” Nimmo said.

Oxitec has yet to try out its technology in the U.S.

[…]

According to the FDA, if Oxitec wanted to conduct a field trial in Harris County, the company would have to submit an environmental assessment to the agency.

Another complication: Regulatory authority over Oxitec’s mosquitoes would then likely shift to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Mustapha Debboun, director of the Harris County Mosquito Control Division, said working with Oxitec could provide another tool in the fight against Zika and other mosquito-borne illnesses.

“We’re not abandoning the tried-and-true” approaches, said Harris County Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, who has been leading the efforts. “We’re willing to see – What can we add to the tried-and-true that can make this better, especially considering that the tried-and-true has some flaws?”

Unseasonably warm weather has prompted the division to boost staff during winter months. It has seven investigators now, compared to four, and two additional public education staffers, Debboun said.

In August, officials nearly doubled the number of Aedes mosquito traps across the county to 134. Harris County also continues to partner with Microsoft to develop high-tech traps that will sense and nab only certain species of mosquitoes, like those that carry Zika or dengue, and eventually hopes to utilize drones to find and target hot spots.

After receiving a federal grant, the county hopes by May to start research on whether mosquitoes in the region that could carry Zika are developing resistance to certain pesticides. The county also will use that money to test more mosquitoes for Zika, Debboun said.

“The crucial part of all this is to find out if the mosquito has the virus in it,” he said.

Yes, remember the Microsoft Mosquito Drone story? Nice to hear about it again, even if there isn’t much to report yet. As far as Oxitec goes, their approach is one I’ve heard about as a possible way to limit the growth of the A. aegypti population and the many diseases it helps propagate. Maybe it will work without serious unanticipated side effects, but we would be the US pioneers for such a test. I’m not sure how I feel about that, but as the consequences of doing too little are West Nile and Zika, I’m not sure how wishy washy one can be about this. What do you think?

Super Bowl security

There will be a lot. You may or may not get to hear about it.

When an expected 1  million people descend on Houston for 10 days of Super Bowl concerts, contests and championship football, they will be protected – and watched – by a security operation built on secrecy, technology and the combined efforts of dozens of agencies.

Unlike in recent Super Bowls, however, the public here won’t likely see lines of officers with fatigues, military-style rifles and armored vehicles.

The message for visitors? Relax and enjoy the fun.

“We don’t think we need to display a heavy militaristic presence to provide a safe environment,” said Executive Assistant Houston Police Chief George Buenik, who heads the event’s public safety committee. “We are keeping it a lower visible presence, meaning we are not going to be displaying all of our resources and assets, just like we are not getting into numbers or specifics. A lot of our security plan is what we consider confidential.”

[…]

The hype, media attention, massive crowds and more than 100 million expected television viewers make for an over-the-top party but also offer a unique challenge for law enforcement.

Keeping such events safe has grown even more complex in recent years, with the proliferation of terrorist attacks and new technology and social media that can connect or inspire like-minded persons.

The Houston events will be spread out across the city, from the football game at NRG Stadium to live concerts, fan festivals and other events at Discovery Green and the George R. Brown Convention Center 13 miles away.

Lakewood Church – which sits between the two sites in a former indoor sports arena near Greenway Plaza – will host an NFL Gospel Celebration.

Law enforcement agencies have been preparing for the events since not long after Houston was selected in May 2013 to host the big game.

Delegations have been sent to the last three Super Bowls to learn and figure out what might be done differently in the Bayou City. Houston has experience with big crowds, having previously hosted the Super Bowl in 1974 and 2004 and other big events.

The city is expected to spend about $5.5 million, mostly for security, but that is expected to be reimbursed by the game’s host committee.

The federal government also is covering some security costs, with the FBI; Homeland Security; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and other agencies participating, though those details are – not surprisingly – not available.

Local preparations have included combing through NRG Stadium and other Super Bowl-related venues and installing additional surveillance cameras in key areas, but authorities decline to reveal exactly what they are doing.

NRG Stadium will be surrounded by a special zone, where police will control foot traffic and commercial vendors. And the nearby Astrodome – which originally had been considered for special events – will remain shuttered.

Flight restrictions will be in place for certain aircraft, and a “No Drone Zone” is expected to be declared, as it has for previous Super Bowls.

And local law enforcement officers are racking their brains to think of new threats they might have missed. Representatives of various local, state and federal entities gathered in recent days in a conference room at NRG Stadium to think up new scenarios and how they would respond.

I don’t remember what the number of visitors for Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2004 was. I do remember that the number far exceeded the total number of seats available in Reliant Stadium, enough to make me wonder what these people were traveling for, if they couldn’t see the actual game. What I’m getting at is that I don’t know if that “one million people descending on Houston” estimate is realistic or not, but based on past history it is a lot higher than you might think. Regardless, I’m sure we’re all relieved to know that the city will be reimbursed for its police and other Super Bowl security-related expenditures. My general advice to avoid the area at all costs unless you really have to or really want to remains in effect.

Building a better mosquito trap

I love this story.

Microsoft Mosquito Drone

Harris County officials are teaming up with tech-giant Microsoft to find and research mosquitoes that could carry the Zika virus or other mosquito-borne diseases, the county public health department said Tuesday.

As part of “Project Premonition,” 10 traps will be placed across Harris County. Each trap can transmit data on when the mosquito was trapped, the temperature, barometric pressure and humidity during capture, according to a statement from the public health department.

Drones could then be used to help detect mosquito hot spots and to set and collect traps, according to the news release. The data collected could be used to predict when and where certain mosquito-borne diseases occur, ideally before they occur.

“We believe autonomous systems and cloud computing have enormous potential to improve monitoring and prediction,” said Microsoft lead researcher and project lead Ethan Jackson in the statement. “This partnership with Harris County’s state-of-the-art mosquito control program creates a unique opportunity to apply and shape next-generation technologies together with public health leaders.”

The computerized traps can filter out other flies and insects that aren’t being targeted. County officials emphasized that mosquitoes carrying Zika had not yet been detected in Harris County.

Follow that link in the story for the techie details behind this. Why not study mosquitoes to see where they are most prevalent, and base your response on that rather than spraying indiscriminately? Makes sense to me. Just please don’t anyone take a potshot at one of the drones if you see one in your neighborhood. It’s a bad idea on many levels.

Here come the drones

Look! Up in the sky!

Companies in Austin and Addison on Wednesday became the first two firms to become officially credentialed to operate unmanned aircraft systems under a new training and safety program that officials said promises to boost Texas’ place in the emerging drone market.

At a statewide conference hosted by the Texas A&M University System’s Corpus Christi campus and its engineering extension service, officials presented HUVRdata, of Austin, and Aviation Unmanned, of Addison, with their certificates, among the first granted in the nation since the Federal Aviation Administration announced new rules governing the use of drones.

The new program, though voluntary, provides a way for drone operators who register with the Federal Aviation Administration to become certified in safety and operational procedures, a step advocates say will be key to expanding the commercial applications of low-level unmanned aircraft without endangering commercial air traffic or clogging airspace since drone use mushroomed in recent years.

Under current FAA rules, “it’s like getting a tag for your car but not having to get a driver’s license,” said Joe Henry, director of outreach and commercialization at the Lone Star UAS Center for Excellence and Innovation, which is part of new program. “This certification is the driver’s license.”

“Through this credentialing program that will ensure the safety of operations for unmanned aircraft systems, Texas is in a position to be a leader in this emerging industry,” he said.

With the new credentials, which the A&M center and similar programs in five other states have been approved to grant, conference officials said operations safety can be assured, a step that will allow the drone industry to grow as more companies find ways to utilize the technology, and perhaps slow a surge of new state laws aimed at privacy and safety issues.

[…]

In Texas, drones already are used by the wind-power, oil and gas and transportation industries to provide aerial inspections and mapping, and for port and border security and coastline monitoring. As a business hub for many of those concerns, as well as home to the NASA’s Johnson Space Center, which is developing unmanned craft to explore Mars, Houston stands to be a center for the growing industry.

“If you have a public company that’s trying to integrate this new technology into their operations, they want to make sure that whomever they hire to do that work is qualified to it properly and safely,” said Bob Baughman, CEO and founder of HUVRdata. “This credentialing program is important because it’s an industry partnership with the FAA to make sure that operators know the FAA rules, know how to safely operate their UAS, and so companies know who is certified and qualified when they hire them. As this technology develops, as UAS isused more, credentialing will become even more important.”

Drones have also been used by, among other things, environmental scientists to track bird habitats and invasive species, and S&R groups like Texas EquuSearch, which had to fight for their right to employ them. They’re employed for movie and TV filming as well, as the Mythbusters can attest. The drone has flown, so it’s a matter of how we regulate them now. I won’t be surprised to see this issue come up in the 2017 Legislature.

TxDOT to spur research on driverless cars

Among other things.

The state could fund research into self-driving cars, jet packs and hover cars if a new proposal by the Texas Department of Transportation is funded.

In a presentation Thursday to the Texas Transportation Commission, TxDOT Deputy Executive Director John Barton said the agency plans to begin working with universities around the state to explore and test “emerging transportation technologies.” He said the initiative would make the state’s transportation system more efficient and better prepared for transformative technologies that are already in development such as Google’s driverless car.

“The disruptive force of the Google car is a dominant issue we have to be aware of,” Barton said.

Along with self-driving cars, Barton also suggested that TxDOT might test out jet packs, hover cars and drones. He also touted the idea of “solar panel roadways,” in which solar panels would be embedded in roads, generating energy and melting snow and ice.

“These are the technologies that we know are real and are coming upon us quickly,” Barton said.

Barton said the project would involve launching “test beds” to try out futuristic concepts and determine how to implement them. It would also use “think tanks” to draw “the brightest minds across the globe” to explore challenges facing the state’s transportation system and to make recommendations to TxDOT and state lawmakers.

TxDOT plans to request $50 million from lawmakers during next year’s legislative session to fund the initiative for two years. The proposal will come on top of the agency’s biennial budget request of $20 billion, which agency officials have said is as much as $5 billion short of what is needed to maintain current congestion around the state as population grows.

“We’re asking them to fund the program for us,” Barton said. “If they choose not to, we may continue to move forward trying to find other funding strategies.”

That’s…surprisingly cool, especially coming from an inside-the-box organization like TxDOT. It should be noted that technology of tomorrow like driverless cars could help ameliorate TxDOT’s long-term budget shortfall, though probably not soon enough to make a difference. There was a bill to enable the use of driverless cars in Texas filed in the last Legislature. I’m sure that will come up again next year, perhaps a bit earlier in the session this time. I’m glad to see TxDOT take a leadership role in this. Perhaps now we can finally get those flying cars we were promised so many years ago.

Texas EquuSearch wins one in court

Good.

Texas EquuSearch will resume flying drones during their search-and-recovery missions after a federal appeals court ruled Friday that a government “cease and desist” order banning their use wasn’t valid.

In February, a Federal Aviation Administration official sent the volunteer group an email, saying its use of unmanned aircraft to search for missing people was illegal.

“He was overstepping his boundaries,” Equu­Search founder Tim Miller said Friday after the Washington, D.C.-based appellate court issued its ruling.

Texas EquuSearch stopped using drones after receiving the government’s email, then filed a lawsuit against the agency.

[…]

Although the court’s decision dismissed the lawsuit, it achieved the desired results of confirming that Texas EquuSearch could continue using drones, said Brendan Schulman, who represented Texas EquuSearch in the case.

“The FAA’s instructions to stop using (drones) were not legally binding. They were just advisory in nature,” Schulman said.

See here for the background. As I said at the time, I could see no good reason why Texas EquuSearch should be barred from using drones in its search-and-rescue missions. There should certainly be some regulation of drone use, but any sensible set of rules should allow for this kind of use. (Fun question to ask at your next candidate forum: Which should be regulated more tightly, guns or drones?) I’m glad to see them get this ruling.

EquuSearch sues over drones

This ought to be interesting.

Texas EquuSearch filed suit Monday against the federal government to overturn the grounding of its fleet of aerial drones used to search for missing people.

Tim Miller, founder and director of EquuSearch, said the Feb. 21 Federal Aviation Administration order prohibiting the operation of four drones has meant the nonprofit organization has not used them in three active searches for missing people in Katy, Louisiana and Oklahoma.

Miller said the 4-foot-long drones have led to the discovery of 11 missing individuals and allow searchers to view large stretches of wooded areas, fenced property and bodies of water.

“I was hoping we’d get a response from them that was more positive and we didn’t have to go to this extreme,” Miller said of the FAA. “It’s time-consuming for us, and God only knows what the outcome is going to be.”

Brendan Schulman, a New York attorney representing Texas EquuSearch, said the lawsuit seeks to confirm the rights of nonprofits to use civilian drone technology for the nation’s benefit.

“There is no legal basis for the FAA to order Texas EquuSearch to halt its humanitarian activities,” Schulman said in a statement. “It is also incomprehensible, as a matter of policy and common sense, that the FAA would deem ‘illegal’ the use of a technology that can reunite missing people with their families, after decades of allowing the same technology to be used in the same way for recreational purposes.”

Here’s a bit of background on this. I couldn’t find a story from February 21 or a copy of the order on the FAA webpage, so this will have to do. The Texas Legislature passed a bill last year that largely forbade private organizations from using drones but left them available for law enforcement agencies; I presume Texas EquuSearch falls under that, or perhaps they built in another exemption for them. In any event, I see no good reason why Texas Equusearch should not be able to use drones for their tasks. Sure, the FAA should regulate their usage so that there’s no interference with other flying objects, but a ban makes no sense to me. I hope they can work this out, and if not I hope Texas EquuSearch prevails in court. Grits has more.

Environmental drones

Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! A plane! A drone!

One year into a $260,000 two-year grant from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, [civil engineer Thom] Hardy and his crew of biologists, geographers and spatial analysts have used the drone to track bird habitat in Galveston Bay and the growth of invasive tamarisk on Texas rivers.

It has identified pockets of water in the drought-ravaged Blanco River for removing nonnative fish and conducted surveys of fly-fisherman on a portion of the Guadalupe River. The drone can track ecosystems along a proposed pipeline or power line route, Hardy said, and map canal vegetation to help weed control.

“If you need an image and take the pilot out of it, this is cheaper and quieter” and safer, he said.

Once launched, via a kind of bungee cord, the battery-powered plane can reach 60 miles per hour, though it typically flies at half that speed.

The drone generally flies at an altitude of 400 to 600 meters and has a range of roughly 10 miles. In each trip, the cameras can take up to 700 overlapping images, which the researchers upload to computers and inspect using spatial analysis software. After a whoosh on launch, the plane has a soft whinny, and silhouetted against the sky, it looks like a miniature version of a stealth fighter plane.

[…]

The Texas State drone program is one of several state or local agencies authorized to fly unmanned craft in Texas, according to a list the Federal Aviation Authority released in April in response to a suit from the Washington-based Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, the A&M Texas Engineering Experiment Station headquartered in College Station, the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Houston Police Department also have had authorization to operate drones, according to the list.

Seems like a pretty reasonable use of the technology, and as the story notes it’s a lot cheaper for researchers like these than hiring a Cessna to do the same work. But if you think this is a conspiracy theory waiting to happen, you’re not wrong.

In April, U.S. Reps. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Joe Barton, R-Ennis, co-chairmen of the congressional bipartisan privacy caucus, told the FAA acting administrator that they were concerned about “potential privacy implications” involving drones.

Austin-based conservative talk show host Alex Jones has taken those anxieties and amplified them. In a YouTube video taken at the Steiner Ranch and posted in late May, Jones and members of the Steiner family take turns firing weapons at remote-controlled helicopters meant to stand in for the drones. The video has been viewed nearly 500,000 times.

See the recent kerfuffle about non-existent “EPA drones” in Nebraska for the way this will eventually play out. I’d post a link to the Jones video but I fear for my sanity even looking for it.