Visions of the future tend to be clear-cut. Cars will drive themselves. Air taxis will fill the skies. Smartphones will have notches. The renderings and trend reports tend to elide the messy road map to that future. Yes, advances in lightweight materials, electric propulsion, and aeronautic controls have put the dream of electric people-packing quadcopter drones within reach. A few more years of development, a few more after that of regulatory wrangling, and boom: takeoff.
But while an armada of companies are working on delivering that new class of aircraft, one California startup isn't waiting for the invention of the hydraulic shovel to get in on this gold rush. It's headed into the mines, pickax in hand.
“All of those things have a future in aviation, but it’s going to take a really long time,” says SkyRyse CEO Mark Groden. Instead of holding off until those electric VTOLs are ready, his company is developing tools to make flying helicopters easier, safer, and cheaper by taking the load off the human pilot. It's like the airborne equivalent of Tesla's Autopilot, a step between what we have now, and the the ubiquitous electric, autonomous, flying machines envisioned by the likes of Uber, Airbus, and Bell Helicopter.
Of course, being a startup newly out of stealth with $25 million in funding, SkyRyse has plenty of ambition—and the associated buzzwords and boasts. SkyRyse is “the first technology-enabled air mobility company to operate in the US,” according to a press release. “One day we expect to be the largest transportation company in the world,” Groden says.
For now, the company seems to be taking an unusually reserved and realistic approach to making short distance air travel more accessible, starting by modifying a Robinson R44 helicopter. “The Toyota Camry of the sky,” Groden calls it, for its ubiquity among law enforcement agencies, first responders, and traffic and news crews. His team retrofit the copter with cameras for a 360-degree exterior view, forward-looking radar, a computer to process the data, and a screen to display pertinent information for the pilot. Groden wouldn't offer much more than that in the way of details, but SkyRyse is looking to hire perception and sensing software engineers, along with flight control and avionics experts. It already has recruited aerospace expertise from Airbus, Boeing, and SpaceX, as well as engineers from Tesla, Ford, and the US military.
To prove its concept, SkyRyse struck a deal with the small city of Tracy, California, about 60 miles inland from Silicon Valley. It’s providing flights for first responders, including police and fire personnel, to scenes of medical emergencies. When a request for help comes in, those first responders contact SkyRyse, whose employees head to the municipal airport and ready the chopper. (There's no running, Groden insists—adrenaline spikes aren't useful here.) The company has analyzed every step of a deployment, aiming to reduce the time it takes to get into the air.
“We can get skids off the ground significantly faster,” says Groden. The company doesn’t want to give away all its secrets yet, but it involves giving the pilots more information to speed things up without compromising safety. For example, traditionally a helicopter pilot will do a manual check to make sure the entire area is clear before spinning up the blades. That can even involve opening the door and looking around. With SkyRyse’s camera, that can be done on a screen, or automated. Once in the air, the helicopter’s radar provides extra information about the terrain below, helpful when visibility is poor. The pilot is still in full control, but hopefully has a slightly easier job and a lower cognitive load.
For a city like Tracy, population 89,000, buying and running a helicopter, including paying for pilots, costs millions of dollars. Calling in air support when it’s needed is also expensive. An urgent hospital transfer by helicopter can run $10,000 to $30,000 per flight. When a local girl went missing a few years ago, authorities called in a C130 plane from the Coast Guard to help with the search, at a cost of $10,000 per hour.
SkyRyse says it can provide the same services at an order of magnitude lower cost with high utilization. Having one helicopter stationed in Tracy, on call to any emergency service, means it gets used extensively. The technology fitted to it helps by reducing the time and complexity for takeoff and flight.
So far, the company has delivered an old helicopter with some fancy new features. And that's the point. It's starting with something deliverable, with concrete improvements. SkyRyse is looking to a future when more of the tasks of flying can be handled by automation. That’s optimistic, but not unreasonable—other established firms like Sikorsky and Aurora Flight Sciences are developing self-flying helicopters.
“Technology is doing a really great job to connect us virtually, but not physically,” says Groden, who has been building drones and flying machines since his teens. (He's now 28.) One day he wants to fix that, with an app that will summon a flying machine, like you summon a car today, but he’s agnostic about what that machine is. If electric flying cars have been perfected, great. If not, he’ll make the best use of the available tech.
As others like Uber, which has the same ambition, are finding, the regulatory hurdles to launching a flying car service with a innovative type of aircraft are not so easily cleared. But by starting modestly now, working with first responders, collecting data, and building deliverable technology, SkyRyse hopes to be riding the crest of a wave in new air transportation that looks promising for the 2020s.
It certainly looks retro, with the design and body of an old-school IZh 21252 “Kombi” car — the Kombi came from a Soviet era car maker from the 1970s. It’s a bold design decision, a vintage throwback akin to the Fujifilm Instax camera.
So, will the company’s CV-1 “supercar” stand up to Tesla’s electric empire?
A limited number of Tesla vehicles have been sold in Russia in the past few years.
Kalashnikov didn’t give any pricing details for the potential vehicle, but the specs that the company provided didn’t exactly stack up with Tesla.
Tesla’s electric vehicles boast much more impressive stats. The CV-1 claims to have about a 200-mile range and go from 0 to 60 mph in 6 seconds. Tesla’s newest affordable sedan, the Model 3, has a 220-mile range and a long-range battery that reaches 310 miles. The Model 3 can reach 60 mph in 3.5 seconds.
If the concept car isn’t that impressive to you, check out the gun maker’s walking robot named Igoryok, also unveiled at the defense show this week.
On December 13, 2011, Paul Allen, the reclusive billionaire and cofounder of Microsoft, stood in front of a group of reporters in Seattle and told them about his wild new plan.
Wearing the tech-Brahmin uniform of navy blazer, dress shirt, and conspicuously absent tie, Allen made some introductory remarks and then rolled a video simulation of a strange beast of an aircraft leaving an oversize hangar. This was Stratolaunch. It would be the largest airplane, by wingspan, ever created. The twin-fuselage, catamaran-style aircraft would be a flying launchpad, its purpose to heave a half-million-pound rocket ship to cruising altitude and then drop it, whereupon the rocket would ignite its engines for a fiery ascent into space. Allen’s hope was that this extraordinary bird would be able to do quick laps between the ground and the stratosphere, making access to space no more exotic than a New York–to–Boston commuter flight.
Burt Rutan took the microphone next. Rutan, a gregarious designer of exotic aircraft, wore a light-blue work shirt and sported huge Elvis-style muttonchops. He was the original architect of the outlandish endeavor and the person who had sold Allen on the project. “Right here in front of us is a very large mistake,” he said, landing heavily on the word mistake and jabbing his finger at a model of the plane. The problem, he explained, was that no one in the room could possibly grasp how friggin’ big Stratolaunch would be. For them to have any sense, they’d have to understand that even a Boeing 747 would seem like a Tinkertoy in comparison. Rutan’s devilish grin said it all: This would be a plane to defy the imagination. The plane, he and Allen said, would take its first flight in 2015.
Three years past that target date, the plane finally exists, and as Rutan promised, it is one big mama. As I discovered, nothing—not even a Rutan-approved scale model—can prepare you for an encounter with it.
This past December I traveled to the Mojave Air and Space Port, a desert city of giant industrial structures in Southern California, where Stratolaunch was built. The plane’s facility on the eastern edge of the port stands out among the other structures. After walking through some drab offices, I was escorted into the approximately 100,000-square-foot hangar. The gleaming white Stratolaunch didn’t just fill the expanse; it reached into every corner of it. There was no way to take in the monster with a single glance. Starting near its tail, I walked through and around it, craning my neck and stretching on my tiptoes to gather mental snapshots of the two fuselages and the white drag strip of a wing and stitch them together into one panoramic picture.
Everything about Stratolaunch is supersized. It has six screaming Pratt & Whitney turbofan jet engines, salvaged from three 747s. Its maximum takeoff weight is 1.3 million pounds. It’s got more than 80 miles of wiring. Most astounding is its 385-foot wingspan, the spec that puts Stratolaunch in the history books. That number may not seem remarkable, but on a single airplane wing 385 feet is an eternity. It’s a football field plus the end zones and a little bit more. If the Wright brothers had begun their initial Kitty Hawk flight at the tip of one Stratolaunch wing, they could have completed the journey and done it twice more before they reached the other end.
Though the two fuselages look identical, only the right one has a cockpit, largely preserved from one of the 747s, with a throttle, foot pedal, and even some analog displays that a commercial pilot working in the 1970s might find familiar. One of the seats is covered by a sheepskin-like cushion of the type often found in New York City taxis. Looking out the window, the second fuselage is so far away that it looks like a plane sitting on an adjacent runway.
It’s hard to imagine this mammoth structure rising into the air. But the team—without Rutan, who retired in 2011—has been methodically taking it through a series of tests: bearing its own weight, firing its engines, taxiing down 2-plus miles of runway. Allen promises Stratolaunch will ascend as early as this fall.
Thousands of people will turn their eyes to Mojave when that first flight happens. But after that, what? The original plan was to create a more reliable and flexible way to shoot satellites into space. But while Stratolaunch’s development has dragged on, the private space industry has leaped ahead. Other billionaires, notably Elon Musk, have dazzled the world with fiery launches and wild achievements such as reusable rockets and orbiting sports cars. The industry is becoming increasingly competitive, and numerous companies are scheming to lower the cost and increase the reliability of rocket launches. Musk’s SpaceX was going to supply Allen with the rockets Stratolaunch would carry, but it ditched the project years ago.
The mammoth aircraft inevitably brings to mind the Spruce Goose, the much-mocked giant airplane and pet project of tycoon Howard Hughes. Allen had visited the legendary plane in its home in an Oregon museum. That plane (it was actually made mostly of birch, not spruce) was intended to send supplies and soldiers to combat during World War II, but it flew only once, for just a mile, long after the conflict was over. Stratolaunch, too, could be obsolete before its massive wing ever reaches the sky. Is biggest better? Maybe. Maybe not.
But have you seen this thing?
As a teenager, Paul Allen was a sci-fi and rocketry nerd. He dreamed of becoming an astronaut, but that ambition was scuttled by nearsightedness. His childhood bedroom was filled with science fiction and space books. Bill Gates remembers Allen’s obsession. “Even when I first met him—he was in tenth grade and I was in eighth—he had read way more science fiction than anyone else,” says Gates, who later founded Microsoft with Allen. “Way more.” One of Allen’s favorites was a popular science classic called Rockets, Missiles, and Space Travel, by Willy Ley, first published in 1944. As Allen tells it in his memoir, he was crushed when he visited his parents as an adult and went to his old room to reference a book. He discovered that his mother had sold his collection. (The sale price: $75.) Using a blowup of an old photo of the room, Allen dispatched scouts to painstakingly re-create his boyhood library.
Allen never stopped thinking about space. In April 1981, during crunch time for Microsoft’s most important project—developing an operating system for the upcoming IBM personal computer—Allen up and left, joining a colleague on a field trip to Florida to see the first space shuttle launch. (Gates, for the record, still seems a bit annoyed about that.) “It was unbelievably impressive,” Allen says now of that launch. But he never seriously imagined getting involved in rocketry, until he met Burt Rutan.
Rutan had been hooked on airplanes since he was 8 years old. He started gaining recognition in the 1970s, selling plans for small aircraft that intrepid enthusiasts could build for themselves. His designs reimagined what a plane could be, changing up the placement of fins, wings, and even cockpits. In 1982 he started his company, Scaled Composites, in the California desert. He built planes that looked like praying mantises and others that had the whimsy of a Playmobil toy. (Five of his creations are now on display in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.) The company changed ownership several times over the years, until Northrop Grumman acquired it a decade ago.
As Scaled Composites churned out cunning, award-winning designs, it became the aviation equivalent of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, staffed by stubborn outcasts who had been lured by the charisma of their iconoclast boss. “It was the dream job,” says Matt Stinemetze, Scaled’s chief engineer, who joined in his early twenties. “Burt was this legendary designer who designed all these home-builds that were weird and backward. It was almost like we always made these very different things because we could.”
By 1996, Allen, who had long since left Microsoft and was pursuing an eclectic range of investments (including snapping up the Portland Trail Blazers), had begun exploring the idea of delivering broadband from the sky. He heard about a Rutan creation he thought might be useful for this enterprise, and he flew to Mojave in his personal Boeing 757 to ask about it face-to-face. Nothing came of the conversation that day—except that Rutan learned Allen was a “space nut” with money to spend.
It was a fateful connection. A few years later, when Rutan was contemplating building the first private rocket that could send a human into space, he made a pilgrimage to Seattle to visit Allen. One aspect of his plan, he said, was to launch a manned spaceship from an airplane, not a launch pad. Rutan thought he could do it with less than $20 million.
Allen saw in Rutan’s idea an opportunity to open up space the same way he and Bill Gates had popularized computers. He agreed to fund the spaceship, and they closed the deal with a handshake. They also decided to enter the competition for the Ansari XPrize, which offered $10 million to the first team to send a person into suborbital space twice in two weeks using the same equipment.
Rutan called that effort SpaceShipOne. Richard Branson, another billionaire fascinated by space, and who knew Rutan, caught wind of it and raced to the Mojave. He chipped in $1 million in exchange for branding the rocket ship with the Virgin logo. Branson’s ultimate interest was space tourism—high-priced, suborbital thrill rides—and he felt that SpaceShipOnecould give him a high-profile start.
On September 29, 2004, a SpaceShipOne test pilot barely, but triumphantly, crossed the 62-mile border between Earth’s atmosphere and space. Five days later, another pilot repeated the trick. Rutan and Allen won the XPrize.
Allen’s excitement at the achievement was dampened by his increasing anxiety. The first few SpaceShipOne sorties were tense affairs, with unplanned spins and even a near-crash landing. The space shuttle Columbia’s fatal 2003 reentry into Earth’s atmosphere, which killed seven astronauts, was still fresh, and he was haunted by the prospect that they might lose one of the pilots. As Allen later wrote, when the rockets fired during the prize-winning SpaceShipOne flight, Branson asked him, “Isn’t this better than the best sex you’ve ever had?” Allen thought otherwise. “If I was this anxious during any kind of interpersonal activity, I couldn’t enjoy it very much,” he told himself. Branson wanted to license the SpaceShipOne technology from Allen for space tourism, and Allen agreed. Branson’s effort to develop Virgin Galactic ended up marred by two fatal accidents, the exact scenario that had frightened Allen. (Virgin Galactic is still planning to send customers for a 90-minute whirl.) Allen was out of the space race.
He turned his focus to his new institute on the human brain, a real estate push in his native Seattle, and a different kind of ship: his roughly 414-foot yacht, known as the Octopus.
Rutan, meanwhile, was thinking about the Brobdingnagian airplane that would eventually become Stratolaunch. In 1992 he had been summoned by Antonio Elias, a senior executive at a commercial space company called Orbital Sciences Corporation, to meet with a small group. Elias was exploring the idea of building a heavy spacecraft that could be launched from a giant airplane.
One problem with ground-based rockets is that they can take off from only a small number of facilities, like the Kennedy Space Center or Vandenberg Air Force Base, where competition for launch time creates long delays. A plane-based launch would create new possibilities.
But a plane that big had other challenges. Rutan’s analysis concluded that to deliver the weight of the rocket Elias was talking about—up to 640,000 pounds—you’d need a wingspan of almost 400 feet. That wing had to be strong too. In addition to two fuselages and tons of fuel, it would be carrying a set of jet engines and that massive vehicle. Rutan planned to build the plane from nonmetal composites, rather than aluminum, to keep the weight down, but making the composite strong enough presented another problem. Rutan solved this dilemma in part with a process called pultrusion, in which a machine pulls a material at a constant rate and then bakes it until it hardens, a way to mold huge segments of the plane with a consistent strength. This technique let the engineers manufacture the very long spars that fortify the giant wing.
Rutan began working on a design, even as he realized that the odds were against it ever being built. Using traditional construction methods and materials, the price tag might stretch past a billion, perhaps even reaching the cost of a nuclear aircraft carrier. He figured he could build it more cheaply, especially if he took his scavenger mentality to the limit. “I reasoned that if I could lift out engines, pylons, landing gear, actuators, electricals, and cockpit stuff from 747s, it was doable for us,” he says.
Over the next 20 years, Rutan worked with three prospective customers as he continued designing what he referred to as the Big Airplane. He won’t say who the customers were, but none of them took the step of commissioning it.
Then Allen decided to get back in the space business.
When I first talked to Allen, he was vague about why he decided to fund Stratolaunch. “I did my thing, we won the prize,” he says, speaking by video conference from Santa Fe, New Mexico, in the former home of Georgia O’Keeffe. It’s one of at least seven properties he owns. He’s seated with his legs stretched out on a deep couch, almost swallowed up by giant patterned seat cushions. I’m talking to him from Seattle, and I’m not sure if his lack of eye contact with me is a result of shyness or because my screen image isn’t aligned with the camera. “Burt Rutan planted a seed that he wanted to do something orbital with a scaled-up plane,” he finally says.
Allen later said he had another reason: He’d been watching as NASA pulled back on space operations and private businesses emerged to fill the gaps. The terrain was becoming irresistible, and he figured this was his opportunity.
Let Richard Branson offer suborbital thrill rides to civilians. Let Elon Musk go to Mars. Allen suspected there was another business proposition. The cost of building satellites was dropping as computers, cameras, and sensors became cheaper and more powerful. Their uses were growing too. They could be used to detect illegal ocean fishing—another Allen-funded project—or monitor humanitarian crises. If there were a reliable and thrifty way to launch satellites, people might come up with more uses, creating an even bigger market. That’s what happened with PCs.
Allen thought air launches could hasten that process. They are not as sensitive to weather as those held at traditional vertical launch facilities, allowing for more flexible takeoffs. They could also be more affordable, as the airplane can be reused many times. But no one had ever built an air-launch system capable of heaving super-heavy payloads into orbit.
Allen incorporated the Stratolaunch company and set about building the huge hangar for the plane in Mojave, next to Scaled Composites. (The plane’s original codename was Maliboo, but the Scaled Composites people called it Roc, after the giant bird of prey in Middle Eastern mythology. Rutan jokes that it’s really an acronym for Rutan’s on Crack.)
Allen was still queasy about putting lives in peril, but this time he had a rationale. “There’s a distinction between taking someone’s ticket for a joyride in space and having a commercial test pilot who knows the risk,” Allen says. Even so, he admits that it takes fortitude to send any human into the great void. “It’s different than having a bug in Microsoft Word or something,” he adds. “You have to be comfortable that something bad might happen—it’s a whole other level of anxiety.”
Though retired, Rutan still sits on the Stratolaunch board. He makes a point to credit the designers at Scaled Composites, albeit in his own fashion: “Burt Rutan designed different configurations for the Big Airplane for over 20 years,” he says, referring to himself in the third person. “But Burt is not the designer of the airplane in Mojave now.”
That’s kind of a shame because, as Rutan describes it, his original vision for Stratolaunch was even more radical than the plane now in a hangar in the Mojave spaceport. He had situated the cockpit toward the tail, attached to a massive foil connecting the dual fuselages. The pilot’s placement at the back of the aircraft would offer a view of the rest of the vehicle, making it easier to control. Stratolaunch’s current CEO, Jean Floyd, explains that the designers determined that the rear cockpit and its foil put too much weight at the back of the plane, so they switched early on to a design where the two fuselages would be connected only by the main wing.
The team worked to speed up construction by using off-the-shelf parts whenever possible, the most conspicuous example being the repurposing of three 747s. But the surface of the plane had to be created from scratch. “This vehicle has some of the largest composite components ever built in the world, made by hand by fabricators, all made by our guys,” says Jacob Leichtweisz-Fortier, who works on the plane. The most massive pieces were 285-foot spars that give the wing its resiliency, each one weighing 18,000 pounds. The team first constructed the wing out of the gargantuan spars and built the rest of the plane around it.
The plane’s extreme size led to some unexpected complications: The scaffolding needed to assemble the wing had to be about 40 feet high. “It starts to look like a building,” Stinemetze says. “In fact, the way California treats it, it is a building. It has to meet codes for sprinklers and electrical power.” When the plane was ready to emerge from its scaffolding and get towed out of the hangar, just lowering it 2 feet to the ground took eight hours, Floyd says.
While the plane was taking shape, Stratolaunch was struggling to find rockets to launch. For a few years, Allen’s company searched for a replacement for SpaceX and finally settled on the Pegasus XL rocket, built by Orbital ATK. (Orbital is also owned by Northrop Grumman.) But the choice of rocket was anticlimactic. More than 40 Pegasus rockets have already launched from the air, usually from a converted Lockheed L011 Tristar, a commercial airliner that is almost completely retired. It calls into question the whole Stratolaunch enterprise. Why build the world’s biggest aircraft just to launch a rocket with a small payload that can be shot off from a creaky out-of-service plane?
For Stratolaunch to fulfill its promise, Allen realized, he would have to build his own rockets. In 2016, Stratolaunch began that process. “At first we looked at using off-the-shelf engines, even rebuilding surplus space shuttle engines,” Allen says. But then the company’s engineers realized that new technologies, especially 3-D printing, would be more efficient. “You can just print these engines almost from scratch for so much less,” Allen says, estimating that a new engine can be printed for about a fifth of the cost of repurposing space shuttle overstock. Stratolaunch formed a team of rocket designers, led by SpaceX’s former head of propulsion, Jeff Thornburg. The company will test its engines at a NASA facility in Stennis, Mississippi.
Sharing their road map publicly for the first time, Thornburg and Floyd laid out their plans for Stratolaunch: Its first custom rocket ship will be considerably bigger than the Pegasus, able to transport multiple satellites or other payloads. This medium-size rocket is nicknamed Kraken, after the legendary Icelandic sea monster. Floyd says customers will be able to use it to get satellites into low Earth orbit for less than $30 million, a competitive price and about half of what SpaceX charges for a launch of its Falcon 9 rocket. Floyd estimates that Kraken will be operational in 2022.
The next steps are more ambitious. In a project codenamed Black Ice, Stratolaunch is designing reusable space planes that will take off from the big airplane and go into orbit. The first one will be programmed to open its bay doors once in orbit and release its payload, perhaps even a fleet of satellites, into space. And then it will return to Earth. The idea is not all that different from the original space shuttle, which was a reusable vehicle that could also steer itself down from orbit to land on a runway. It can “come back and land at Mojave where the plane is waiting, the fuel system is waiting,” Floyd says. “You roll up underneath the plane, you refuel, you put the next payload in, and you go again.” Finally, Stratolaunch aims to build a second version of Black Ice that can carry astronauts. That ship won’t be flying for at least a decade.
But by then, who knows what Stratolaunch’s competitors will be up to? Though Allen reportedly plans to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on his space enterprise, and is its sole investor, billions are being plowed into companies such as Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, both of which are trying to cut costs in the private space industry with reusable booster rockets that take off from the ground, not air launches. The companies have deals with NASA and commercial customers worth billions of dollars. Traditional defense contractors are also developing their own orbital rockets. And a new generation of people are thinking up new approaches to space. Earlier this year came news that a startup called SpinLaunch was developing a system in which a catapult-like contraption could efficiently zip satellites into orbit, aiming to cut prices to less than $500,000 per launch. Investors include Airbus Ventures and Kleiner Perkins.
Stratolaunch is not commenting on whether it has any customers signed up. Floyd suggests the business part of Stratolaunch is a work in progress. “They love this,” he says, “but this has to fly first.” In other words, get the thing in the air, then they’ll talk.
Flying the thing might be less of an issue than landing it. That’s what Chris Guarente, chief test pilot for Scaled Composites, tells me as I take Stratolaunch to the skies. Virtually, at least. We are sitting in the cockpit of the Stratolaunch simulator, a few hundred feet away from the real thing in its giant hangar. I’m wearing a gray flight suit and a helmet. Guarente, known to everyone as Duff (a test pilot thing, I guess), is instructing me on how to use the standard 747 controls—throttle, pedals, yoke—to taxi down the long Mojave runway.
Even before we take off, I can see why Rutan thought of putting the cockpit in a tail section. It’s tricky to compensate for the fact that, while we are on the far right of the runway, seemingly only inches from the sands, the left fuselage is 100 feet away; yes, it’s coming with us. Finally, after our speed mounts on a very long taxi, I pull back the yoke and we slowly ascend. Ahead of us is a mountain range, maybe 5,000 feet high. My altimeter—one of those analog dials with a needle pointing to the number—keeps rising, and I’m up to 11,000 feet when we clear it. Duff instructs me to make some turns and see how the plane responds.
“Every objective you have during that flight is based on ‘What do I need to do to know I can land this airplane,’ ” says Duff, who flew F-16s in the military. On Stratolaunch’s maiden voyage, the pilots won’t even retract the landing gear. “It’s just one more thing that could go wrong,” Duff tells me. He repeats once more, as if I’d missed it, “The mission is to familiarize the pilot and make sure the airplane is capable of landing.”
I mention that it’s a bit alarming to hear him talk about the plane’s ability to land in the conditional. “We do believe it is capable of landing,” Duff says. “But this is the first time you find out if it really is.”
One tricky part of the landing, Scaled’s Stinemetze says, might be handling a touchdown from one side of an awkward two-fuselage configuration. “You can touch that other boom down before you’re on the ground, so there’s all these weird things that can happen,” he says.
The first flight is supposed to happen soon. Maybe September. Maybe a bit later. Next year they will see how the plane flies with a Pegasus attached. Once the plane takes off with a rocket in tow, the Scaled Composites contract could end, at which point Allen’s company would be the sole entity in charge of the aircraft. Stratolaunch will remain based at its Mojave hangar while its engineers prepare it for more tests. As early as 2020, the Stratolaunch crew will release the rocket from its hitch 35,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean. The rocket will ignite its boosters and begin a two-minute ascent into space.
For some members of the team that’s been building Stratolaunch for seven years, though, the rockets are an abstraction. “We just want to see this gigantic airplane fly,” says Niki Dugue, one of Scaled Composites’ engineers.
Allen isn’t one to show exuberance, and when he speaks about the plane he focuses on its future utility. “When you see that giant plane, it’s a little nutty,” he says. “And you don’t build it unless you’re very serious, not only about wanting to see the plane fly but to see it fulfill its purpose. Which is getting vehicles in orbit.”
Yet it’s pretty easy to fathom that building the world’s biggest plane is, for Allen, as much about an adventure worthy of the sci-fi books he painstakingly recovered after his mother sold them off.
It certainly was for Burt Rutan. “This airplane should be called the Savior,” he says. We are in his sprawling lakefront home in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Rutan calls it the “cabin.” The walls of his in-home museum are festooned with awards, mementos, and models of his creations. His trademark muttonchop sideburns are gray, but his wide blue eyes are still as vivid as high-altitude sky.
To explain why he refers to Stratolaunch that way, the septuagenarian springs out of his chair and looks toward the ceiling with his jaw theatrically dropped, as if the double-barreled white beast has suddenly appeared in his living room.
“Almost everybody who sees it for the first time says, ‘Jeeeee-zus Christ!’ ” he says, lifting his arms and shaking his hands in hosannas. “And that’s why you call it the Savior.”
It’s like the rockets hardly matter. Let the bird fly.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. On June 11, a self-driving Cruise Chevrolet Bolt had just made a left onto San Francisco’s Bryant Street, right near the General Motors-owned company’s garage. Then, whoops: Another self-driving Cruise, this one being driven by a Cruise human employee, thumped into its rear bumper. Yes, very minor Cruise on Cruise violence.
According to a Department of Motor Vehicles report, the kind any autonomous vehicle tester must submit to the state of California after any incident, both vehicles escaped with only scuffs. “There were no injuries and the police were not called,” Cruise reported.
A single incident does not a metaphor about self-driving technology make, but Cruise has had flurries of bumping and rear-ending incidents in San Francisco, where it has tested its technology since 2016. Many of these are unserious and relatively unremarkable, the sort of thing that might happen to a human driver and that an insurance company would never hear about.
Some are scarier, meriting check-ins to the hospital or legal wranglings. A California motorcyclist filed a lawsuit against GM, alleging a lane-changing Cruise AV knocked him off his bike and injured his back and shoulder. (GM settled the suit in June.) Some have been weird. One Cruise car got slapped by a cabbie. Another took a golf ball to the windshield while driving near a city course. (No, yelling “fore!” does nothing for a robot.)
Why the bumps and bruises? Well, because humans. To its credit, Cruise has chosen to test its cars in a super-challenging environment, the dense and oft-surprising streets of San Francisco. (In January, at least one pedestrian leapt into a Mission neighborhood crosswalk, “shouting, and struck the left side of the Cruise AV's rear bumper and hatch with his entire body,” according to a DMV report.) Here, there are many opportunities to capture data on edge cases, the sorts of road activity (Traffic! Weird lane changes! Foul fog! Construction zones!) that self-driving cars need to understand before they can perform perfectly every time.
The company also says it purposefully programs its cars to be almost too-cautious, to brake when, for example, a cyclist even hints that she might be darting across the road. Last year, CEO Kyle Vogt told reporters that Cruise wants to nail safety before it can focus on smoothing out the herky-jerky behavior that might leave riders a bit queasy, and fellow road users a bit confused. (The company plans to launch a limited driverless taxi service in 2019.)
That said, the rear-endings demonstrate that the technology is far from perfect. Cruise cars follow road laws to a T, coming to full stops at stop signs and braking for yellow lights. But human drivers don’t—and Cruise cars will be self-driving among humans for decades to come. “There has to be a way for these cars and people to share the road in a more efficient manner and understanding manner,” a Cruise spokesperson said.
And that’s annoying, because humans are deeply imperfect. The fact that a driver Cruise trained to work with these vehicles still managed to rear-end one emphasizes exactly how flawed they are. To create a robot that operates with perfect safety among people, the vehicles just might have to learn to emulate some of their worst qualities. Just as long as they don't start slapping people.
Pyrotechnics Pro Explains the Art of Those Massive Fireworks Shows
Ever wonder how those massive fireworks spectacles get off the ground? From black powder to barium, music to mortars, pyrotechnics pro Jim Souza, whose company puts on the Macy's 4th of July Show in New York, explains the year-long process behind putting on a major performance.
In the four months since an Uber self-driving car struck and killed a woman in Arizona, the ride-hail company’s autonomous vehicle tech has stayed off public roads. The governor of that state banned Uber from testing there; the company let its autonomous vehicle testing permit lapse in California; it pulled its vehicles off the streets of Pittsburgh, home to its self-driving R&D center.
Until today, when self-driving chief Eric Meyhofer announced in a blog post that Uber would return its self-driving cars to the roads in Pittsburgh. With a catch. For now, the vehicles will stay in manual (human-driven) mode, simply collecting data for training and mapping purposes. To prep for the tech’s return to the public space, Uber has undertaken a wholesale “safety review”, with the help of former National Transportation Safety Board chair and aviation expert Christopher Hart.
The broader impact of that review—whether it can put this tech back on the road while preventing the sort of crash that killed Elaine Herzberg—remains to be seen. But already, Uber has addressed one key piece of its robotic technology: the humans who help it learn.
When the National Transportation Safety Board released its preliminary report on the Uber crash in May, it noted that the company’s self-driving software had not properly recognized Herzberg as she crossed the road. But it also noted that Uber’s system relied on a a perfectly attentive operator to intervene if the system got something wrong. As far back as World War II, those who study human-machine interactions have said this kind of reliance is a mistake. People just can’t stay that alert for long periods of time.
This is a problem for self-driving car developers, who believe testing on public roads is the only way to expose their tech to all the strange, haphazard things that happen there. But testing imperfect robots among the living means relying on flesh-and-blood babysitters to take the wheel.
The changes Uber announced today, though still light on details, focus on that attention issue, and seem to bring the company up to speed with the standards of the industry, safety driver-wise. Two weeks ago, it laid off all its safety drivers—over 100 in San Francisco and Pittsburgh—and began hiring around for a new “mission specialist” role.
Now, rather than depend on a single operator to both monitor the road and the AV technology, as it did in the months leading to the crash, Uber will put two “mission specialists” in each car. (Some of these new roles were filled by old safety drivers, who were invited to re-apply for the positions.) One will sit behind the wheel and monitor the road, and one will sit in the passenger seat and make notes about the environment the software’s operations. Other companies, like GM’s Cruise and Nutonomy, also test with two operators in each vehicle.
Uber has also added a driver monitoring system into its testing vehicle. No longer will the company rely on stern warnings and good faith to ensure that its operators are paying perfect attention to the road. Instead, Uber will use a driver-facing camera to monitor the position of the operator behind the wheel’s head.
Uber says the software-enabled camera should be able to tell whether the driver’s head is tipped down to look at something like, say, a phone, or turned to, say, rubber-neck. If the system detects that the driver has stopped looking at the road, it will emit a loud beep, a system similar to that used by General Motors’ semiautonomous Super Cruise feature. (Whether humans can properly snap to attention after that sort of warning and orient themselves enough to prevent a crash is still a matter of debate.) Meanwhile, a remote mission specialist will receive an alert that a driver isn’t being sufficiently attentive, and can tune into a live feed of what’s happening inside the car. That specialist should be able to communicate via laptop with the specialist in the passenger seat if anything has gone especially awry.
Uber says it has also retooled the central console tablet inside its vehicles, the sort of screen that safe driving experts say can be dangerously distracting for those behind the wheel. Because the safety driver will no longer be charged with monitoring the self-driving technology, the interface will mostly just show the turn-by-turn navigation system. Uber declined to share specifics about changes to the tablet’s interface.
“This is a a responsible, reasonable move to fall closer in line with others who are testing in the area,” says Bryan Reimer, who studies human-machine interaction at MIT. The head monitoring system is “a major step in the right direction,” he says, but notes Uber should also consider an eye-tracking setup. He and his colleagues have found that what a driver’s eyes are doing—staring at the horizon versus scanning the road—is the best predictor of whether they are actually paying attention.
It’s a weird irony: As they work to get rid of human drivers forever, autonomous vehicle developers first need a thorough understanding of how humans drive.
How Tom Cruise Learned to Fly His Own Helicopter Stunt for Mission: Impossible – Fallout
Tom Cruise is famous for doing his own stunts, and he's back in Mission: Impossible – Fallout with what might just be the most dangerous one yet–spinning a helicopter around while diving down over a waterfall. Cruise learned to fly at Airbus's base in Texas — so WIRED's Jack Stewart went to find out what it takes.
Are you an entrepreneur who specializes in selling handcrafted soaps and artisanal candles? Are you an entrepreneur who doesn’t specialize in anything at all? Congratulations, you’re pre-qualified to be America’s next shipping magnate.
At least, that’s what Amazon wants you to believe.
Amid soaring sales, the Seattle-based e-commerce giant launched the Amazon Delivery Service Partner program this week to convince you— yes, you— to get delivering packages.
The new program goes a huge step beyond the gig economy side-hustle that is Amazon Flex. The Amazon Delivery Service Partner program wants entrepreneurs to start your very own package delivery business — even if those entrepreneurs have no prior experience with shipping logistics..
A brochure about the new program details everything that interested would-be shipping magnates will need to launch their delivery business, and that means purchasing vans, handheld devices, uniforms, car insurance, fuel cards, and hiring drivers.
The strategy appears to be Amazon’s latest attempt to solve its so-called “last-mile” problem with ensuring that everything customers order online gets to their front doors. Fast. And because the company takes its two-day delivery promise seriously, it seems willing to enlist just about anyone to help it reach its goal with lures of six-figure bumps to their bottom lines.
Amazon says “successful owners” can earn $300,000 in annual profit running a 40-vehicle delivery fleet. Never run a delivery fleet? Not to worry: Amazon will provide “technology and operational support.” That means that even if you have to build up (and pay for) your own delivery fleet, Amazon assures deals on Amazon-branded vehicles, uniforms, gas, insurance plans, and other things you’ll need to run your own service.
While it’s unclear whether you’ll be able to add a cool 300 grand to your profits, at least you’ll be able to add another line to your extensive resume: expert delivery driver. The hustle is real.
U.S. millennials are quick to whip out their wallets for pricey avocado toast and craft beer. But when it comes to rewarding the waiters and bartenders who serve them, those wallets often stay closed.
Ten percent of millennials don’t tip at all when dining out compared with only three percent among the older generations, according to a study released Monday by CreditCards.com, an online credit card marketplace.
And those millennials who do tip at restaurants tend to leave a median gratuity of 15 percent, less than the overall average. Gen-Xers, baby boomers and the oldest Americans, the so-called Silent Generation, are more generous, leaving between 18 and 20 percent.
“It was interesting to see that millennials are the worst tippers—because the typical restaurant worker a millennial,” CreditCards.com senior industry analyst Matt Schulz said in an interview. “It’s self-defeating.”
The study was conducted for CreditCards.com by market-research firm GfK, which gathered data last month from 1,000 Americans aged 18 and older. Millennials were defined as between the ages of 18 and 37.
Beyond those poor waiters, taxi drivers and baristas fared even worse with their millennial customers. Apparently even the suggestion that a tip is expected puts some of these young people off. Eighteen percent of millennials surveyed said they typically decline to leave any amount when presented with pre-entered tipping options—say if they’re in a taxi or taking a Lyft or Uber.
Why are these American youth, many of whom work in tip-reliant industries, so cheap? The answer may be economic. “Millennials’ financial struggles are a big reason they tip less,” Schulz said.
But other data point to a more cynical explanation. Millennials do tend to spend more of their disposable income eating out, according to 2017 data from Merrill Lynch. After all, that tip can pay for dessert.
But twenty and thirty-somethings aren’t the only skinflint demographic. Men, southerners, westerners, parents with young children, lower earners and the less educated said they tip less in restaurants than the overall median of 18 percent, according to the study.
Who, then, leaves the largest tips?
The study found people who are college educated, over the age of 65, from the Northeast and Midwest, and women all reported leaving a median of 20 percent—an above average tip.
Like many cliches, “flying under the radar” has a literal, real-world history. As the new object-detection technology proliferated in the years after World War II, military pilots knew it had trouble seeing things at low altitudes, where buildings and hills severely limit its range. And so pilots would hug the terrain, flying beneath the radio waves that would detect their presence.
For the most part, that low-level limitation has been tolerable (unless, of course, you were the target of the aerial attack in question), and hasn’t slowed the growth or hurt the safety record of the airline industry that came to rely on the systems for safe passage through crowded airspace. But aviation is bracing for a variety of twists and turns that will change what flies where—and how we look at it. Drones will cross the skies delivering pizza, coffee, or sneakers. Flying cars will whisk passengers across town. Automated search and rescue vehicles will fan out to find lost hikers.
As compelling as these visions are, the vehicles can’t stay invisible to the air-traffic-control systems that need to track them and keep everybody safe. Though conventional mechanical radar systems—those large dishes that rotate in endless circles—will still form the backbone of aviation tracking systems for the foreseeable future, new tools will have to help fill in the blind spots.
And so Raytheon set its sights a bit lower. The defense contractor has developed a low-power radar it says can fill in the gaps missed by conventional systems. Instead of having single units that sit on towers or mountaintops, spinning and scanning up to 200 miles out, Raytheon proposes distributing smaller digital systems, en masse, across the landscape.
The one-square-meter units—think of a big, white, upright pizza box—use active electronically scanned array technology that is more precise and more tunable than what’s in use now. And when spread across the terrain on cell towers, buildings, and hilltops, they should be able to track aircraft at much lower altitudes.
The scanners can monitor large swaths of real estate or zero in on specific targets, says Michael Dubois, Raytheon’s lead engineer on the program. “This ‘agile-beam’ concept allows you to redirect a pencil-like beam to follow a target, whether it’s a flying car or an airplane or a drone,” Dubois says. And, while conventional radar systems can only track a few targets, these systems can keep their eyes on many. You can do that with higher resolution and much faster update rates, the engineer added, since the beam never rotates away from the target.”
Active electronically scanned arrays are already in use in modern fighter jets, including the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Lightning II. Here, the technology should be much less expensive, and since it’s distributed, won’t pick up as much radio frequency interference from buildings, weather, or land masses. Units can be networked together to increase resolution and more precisely filter out that clutter. This could be key to tracking small drones and giving autonomous air vehicles enhanced situational awareness at low altitudes. And it has a few tricks in its arsenal.
“You can track aircraft, but you can also leverage it for microscale weather analysis, including 3-D wind information, and down to extremely localized tracking that could help future air vehicles as well as the general public,” Dubois says. “When you get into really small areas, you can even help, for instance, hobbyists flying model rockets or airplanes or drone operators working to ensure a clear path for their own flights.”
Low-power radar networks will likely be one of a variety of solutions for future air mobility, with another key being ADS-B, the increasingly ubiquitous system that uses GPS data to automatically broadcast an aircraft’s position. ADS-B has its own limitations: To work, it must be installed on the aircraft in question. It can’t monitor weather or look for birds. So radar still matters.
In a recent demonstration for government agencies, Raytheon’s system actively tracked flights within 20 miles from a single unit, and provided detailed enough data to “guide a pilot to touchdown with surgical precision,” the company says. The low-power radar technology—now actually in its third generation in the development pipeline—can be ready by mid-2019, with large-scale production following that. Raytheon promises costs similar to or better than full-size radar systems covering the same area.
Government agencies running air-traffic-control networks will likely be the main target for this system to start, but the new tech could also appeal to the military and industry customers. In the meantime, Raytheon is working to develop all the possible applications for the tech, so that, one day, flying under the radar will be nothing more than a tired cliche.
What’s the shiniest, most exciting new technology for transportation? Well, there are plenty of candidates! We’ve got the self-driving car and drones big enough to carry people. Elon Musk is getting ready to bore hyperloop tunnels. When it comes to moving humans around, the future looks to be merging with sci-fi.
But from where I stand, the most exciting form of transportation technology is more than 100 years old—and it’s probably sitting in your garage. It’s the bicycle. The future of transportation has two thin wheels and handlebars.
Modern tech has transformed the humble two-wheeler, making the bike-share model possible: You check out a bike from a docking station, use it for an hour or so, then return to any other docking station. The concept was tried back in the ’60s but failed miserably because no one could track where the bikes went.
Today, that’s been solved with smartphone-ized tech: GPS, Bluetooth, RFID, and mobile-payment systems. And bike sharing has unlocked a ton of American interest in navigating cities on a bike: Usage has grown from 320,000 rides in 2010 to 28 million in 2016. In China, where gridlock in cities like Beijing is infamous, the trend has grown even faster.
But cooler tricks are possible. We’re now seeing dockless bike sharing, where all the tech is crammed into each bike, eliminating the need for docking stations. When riders are done, they just park and lock the bike and walk away; the bike simply awaits the next user. This makes the systems cheaper (those docks cost a lot), so dockless bikes can be rented for as little as a buck an hour.
“It’s personal mobility for the last mile,” as Euwyn Poon, cofounder of dockless bike-sharing firm Spin, says.
Dockless also creates something like self-governing internet logic, with bikes as packets routed where they’re needed, rather than where docks will fit. This seems to make bike sharing more fair: Seattle city councilmember Mike O’Brien has observed anecdotally that dockless bike sharing is used by a broader demographic, in part because it’s super cheap and the bikes can circulate outside the well-off downtown neighborhoods.
Want even more inventiveness and innovation? Behold the next phase arriving in a few years: dockless electric bikes. Batteries are cheaper and lighter than ever. One US firm, Jump Bikes, has custom-designed dockless ebikes sprinkled around San Francisco and Washington, DC. CEO Ryan Rzepecki suspects they’ll eclipse the appeal of regular bike sharing, because you could arrive at work without being drenched in sweat. “The number of people who are willing to ride electric bikes is probably 10X that of people who are willing to ride a regular one,” he says.
Clearly the bike-share revolution has limits. It probably won’t work outside urban areas. And if too many bikes flood a city, dockless systems can produce chaotic piles of bikes on certain sidewalks and streets, as has happened in China. This is a pretty solvable problem, though, if cities decide to limit the number of dockless bikes.
So sure, bring on the self-driving cars. Dig those hyperloops! But for a world that’s rapidly urbanizing and heating, the truly cool tech is bikes. And bike sharing has oodles of civic benefits too, says Elliot Fishman, director of Australia’s Institute for Sensible Transport: It relieves pressure on public transit, produces vanishingly small emissions compared to cars, and, at least with nonelectric bikes, boosts the overall exercise level (duh!).
Best of all, the bike-tech revolution reminds us that innovation isn’t always about the totally new. It’s often just as powerful to blend a robust, old tool that works well with a bit of new tech to make it better. Sometimes you truly don’t need to reinvent the wheel.
U.S. officials warn of attacks, including on nuclear plants
Cyber-attacks underway since at least March 2016, U.S. says
Russian hackers are conducting a broad assault on the U.S. electric grid, water processing plants, air transportation facilities and other targets in rolling attacks on some of the country’s most sensitive infrastructure, U.S. government officials said Thursday.
The announcement was the first official confirmation that Russian hackers have taken aim at facilities on which hundreds of millions of Americans depend for basic services. Bloomberg News reported in July that Russian hackers had breached more than a dozen power plants in seven states, an aggressive campaign that has since expanded to dozens of states, according to a person familiar with the investigation.
Critical manufacturing sectors and commercial facilities also have been targeted by the ongoing "multi-stage intrusion campaign by Russian government cyber actors."
Cyber-attacks are "literally happening hundreds of thousands of times a day," Energy Secretary Rick Perry told lawmakers during a hearing Thursday. "The warfare that goes on in the cyberspace is real, it’s serious, and we must lead the world."
Separately Thursday, the U.S. sanctioned a St. Petersburg-based “troll farm,” two Russian intelligence services, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin and other Russian citizens and businesses indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller on charges of meddling with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
A joint analysis by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security described the hackers as extremely sophisticated, in some cases first breaching suppliers and third-party vendors before hopping from those networks to their ultimate target. The government’s report did not say how successful the attacks were.
The Russian hackers "targeted small commercial facilities’ networks where they staged malware, conducted spear phishing, and gained remote access into energy sector networks," according to the Homeland Security alert.
An industry-government partnership provided potential indicators of compromise for electric companies following Thursday’s announcement, said Scott Aaronson, vice president of security and preparedness at the utility trade group Edison Electric Institute. The federal government alerted grid operators to a threat targeting the energy and manufacturing sectors last summer, but the incident didn’t affect operations, he said.
The hackers deliberately selected targets and methodically went after initial victims as a way to reach their ultimate prizes, including industrial control systems used by power plants and other infrastructure. Their tactics included sending spear-phishing emails and embedding malicious content on informational websites to obtain security credentials they could then leverage for more information and access.
And once they obtained access, the attackers "conducted network reconnaissance," and moved within the systems to collect information on industrial control systems.
The government’s alert on Russian cyber-attacks does not cover suspected meddling by the country in the 2016 election.
An October report by researchers at Symantec Corp., cited by the U.S. government Thursday, linked the attacks to a group of hackers it had code-named Dragonfly, and said it found evidence critical infrastructure facilities in Turkey and Switzerland also had been breached.
The Symantec researchers said an earlier wave of attacks by the same group starting in 2011 was used to gather intelligence on companies and their operational systems. The hackers then used that information for a more advanced wave of attacks targeting industrial control systems that, if disabled, leave millions without power or water.
The disclosure comes amid mounting calls from lawmakers to step up protection of the nation’s electric grid. Senator Maria Cantwell, the top Democrat on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, pushed for a cyberthreat assessment of the grid last year, to better defend the infrastructure against potential attacks.
"I hope today’s belated response is the first step in a robust and aggressive strategy to protect our critical infrastructure," Cantwell, a Democrat from Washington state, said in an emailed statement.
U.S. intelligence officials have long been concerned about the security of the country’s electrical grid. The recent attacks, striking almost simultaneously at multiple locations, are testing the government’s ability to coordinate an effective response among several private utilities, state and local officials, and industry regulators.
Many of the targeted power plants are conventional, but the attacks included at least one nuclear power plant in Kansas, Bloomberg News reported in July. While the core of a nuclear generator is heavily protected, a sudden shutdown of the turbine can trigger safety systems. These safety devices are designed to disperse excess heat while the nuclear reaction is halted, but the safety systems themselves may be vulnerable to attack.
The operating systems at nuclear plants also tend to be legacy controls built decades ago and don’t have digital control systems that can be exploited by hackers.