How power plays could open new frontiers in space

As more and more hardware goes into Earth orbit, and eventually to the moon and Mars, where will the power to run all those machines come from?

That’s one of the questions under consideration at a State of the Space Industrial Base workshop that’s being conducted this week at Seattle’s Museum of Flight.

The workshop, hosted by Space Northwest, is bringing together government, academic and commercial leaders to assess the state of advanced power and propulsion for space missions, as well as the outlook for a Department of Defense initiative known as Hybrid Space Architecture.

Input from the workshop will be combined with insights gained at two other workshops in Florida and New Mexico to help the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit produce its annual report about the space industry’s potential contributions to sustaining America’s leadership on the final frontier.


DARPA boosts Microsoft’s quantum computer concept

The Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is laying down a bet on Microsoft’s long-running effort to create an industrial-scale quantum computer that takes advantage of the exotic properties of superconducting nanowires.

Microsoft is one of three companies selected to present design concepts as part of a five-year program known as Underexplored Systems for Utility-Scale Quantum Computing, or US2QC. The DARPA program is just the latest example showing how government support is a driving force for advancing the frontiers of quantum computing — at a time when those frontiers are still cloaked in uncertainty.

“Experts disagree on whether a utility-scale quantum computer based on conventional designs is still decades away or could be achieved much sooner,” Joe Altepeter, US2QC program manager in DARPA’s Defense Sciences Office, said in a news release. “The goal of US2QC is to reduce the danger of strategic surprise from underexplored quantum computing systems.”


Echodyne wins $20M contract for border-scanning radar

Kirkland, Wash.-based Echodyne says it’s won a $20 million, five-year contract from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection Innovation Team to widen deployment of the company’s compact radar systems — and to explore new applications for the radars at America’s borders and ports.

Today’s announcement marks the latest round of good news for the Seattle-area startup, which was spun off from Intellectual Ventures in 2014 with backing from Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, Madrona Venture Group and other investors.

Echodyne is one of several Gates-backed ventures that make use of metamaterials, a type of electronic array that makes it possible to “steer” a flat-panel antenna without moving parts. The company has been working with the Department of Homeland Security and industrial partners to adapt its radar systems to monitor movements across border areas — including drone flights.

Thirty EchoGuard radar systems have already been delivered under the terms of the indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contract, Echodyne said in a news release.


Anduril expands to Seattle for defense tech

Anduril HQ
One of Anduril’s sentry towers stands tall at the company’s HQ in California’s Orange County. (Anduril Photo)

Irvine, Calif.-based Anduril Industries says it’s opening a new office in Seattle and will be hiring engineers to work on defense technologies.

“We are building bigger and better systems for our military as quickly as we can,” Palmer Luckey, the venture’s founder, said in a news release. “The incredible pool of talent in the Seattle area helps us accelerate that.”

Founded in 2017, Anduril develops hardware and software centered around Lattice, an AI backbone allowing for real-time information analysis across the company’s range of products. Those products include a surveillance drone called the Ghost, an interceptor drone called the Anvil, medical transport drones and a border monitoring system that relies on sensor-equipped sentry towers.

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Echodyne raises $20M for next-gen radar systems

Echodyne radar system
Echodyne’s flat-panel radar antenna is small enough to be held in your hand. (Echodyne Photo)

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and other investors have contributed to a fresh $20 million funding round for Kirkland, Wash.-based Echodyne, a company that makes use of exotic metamaterials to build high-performance radar technology for government and commercial markets.

In today’s announcement, Echodyne said the additional capital will enable the company to meet growing demand for its EchoGuard 3D surveillance radar, expand its distribution channels and continue to invest in the development of sensors for commercial drones, autonomous vehicles and other applications.

The latest round’s other investors include firms that have previously backed Echodyne, including Madrona Ventures, NEA, Vulcan Capital and Lux Capital. But there’s a new backer on board as well: Vanedge Capital, which is based in Vancouver, B.C. Vanedge managing partner Moe Kermani will be added to Echodyne’s board of directors.

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Amazon patents drone surveillance as a service

Drone surveillance plan
A diagram shows how Amazon’s patented geofencing arrangement would zero in on a potential break-in while screening out a view of the house next door. (Amazon Illustration via USPTO)

Amazon has patented a system for providing home security surveillance as a service, but the real innovation has to do with avoiding surveillance of the home next door.

Just don’t expect to sign up for the service, or freak out over it, anytime soon.

For one thing, Amazon patents lots of ideas that never see the light of day. (Remember Jeff Bezos’ airbag-equipped smartphone?) For another, the newly published patent sprang from an application that was filed four years previously — and Amazon’s strategy for drone operations as well as security services has almost certainly evolved since 2015.

A big roadblock to surveillance drones is that the Federal Aviation Administration is still working out the regulations regarding commercial drone flights in neighborhoods — particularly when the flights are done autonomously, beyond the operator’s line of sight. (Even drone surveillance of industrial facilities such as railyards can spark controversy.)

The patent application, attributed to inventors Kalidas Yeturu and Howard Lee Huddleston Jr., calls for making use of the drones that Amazon is developing for package deliveries.

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How IoT could bring hackers into your kitchen

Internet of Things and the cloud
Pixabay Illustration

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Tens of billions of devices, ranging from coffee makers to cars to spacecraft, could someday be connected to global networks thanks to what’s known as the Internet of Things, or IoT, and cybersecurity experts say that could open up a whole new universe for hackers and eavesdroppers.

Consider the humble coffee maker, for example: University of North Carolina techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufekci suggested that if Chinese authorities wanted to, say, root out Muslim activists in the country’s far western Xinjiang region, they could watch for the telltale sign of coffee or tea being brewed before morning prayers.

“Your coffee maker has an IP [address], and it might be at risk of identifying these people, because if I wanted one piece of data from the region, that would be my thing. … It’s a very synchronized hour, that’s the whole point of it,” Tufekci said here last weekend during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

“Holy crap, we were just talking about coffee making, right? And now we’re talking about taking people to send to internment camps,” she said. “These lines are not as far apart from one another as one would think.”

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Could airport drone disruption happen here?

Drone test
A drone flies over a New York test site. (NUAIR Alliance Photo via NASA / Eric Miller)

Hundreds of flights have been canceled and tens of thousands of airline passengers have been stranded because of the buzz of unauthorized drones over London’s Gatwick Airport — demonstrating how disruptive a simple aerial strategy can be.

Military forces have been called up to hunt down the elusive drone operator, and the crisis has prompted calls to tighten up flight restrictions near Britain’s airport. But on that score, U.S. airports appear to be in a better position to guard against drone disruption.

British regulations call for a no-drone zone within 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) of an airport’s perimeter, while the Federal Aviation Administration restricts drone flights in a five-mile radius around airports such as Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

In more sensitive areas, such as the National Capital Region around Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, restrictions are in force within a much wider radius — ranging from 15 to 30 miles, depending on the type of activity.

Sea-Tac spokesman Perry Cooper told GeekWire that the airport’s operations team hasn’t had any reports of drone incidents, and that it works in collaboration with the FAA on drone monitoring.

The FAA, meanwhile, says that it works with the Department of Homeland Security, the lead agency in drone security issues.

In October, language written into FAA reauthorization legislation gave Homeland Security and the Justice Department the authority to counter the use of drones for “nefarious purposes.”

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NASA reviews security after data breach

Pleiades supercomputer network
NASA’s computer servers include the Pleiades supercomputer network. (NASA Photo)

NASA says it is reviewing its network security processes and procedures after a computer break-in exposed Social Security numbers and other personal information about the space agency’s current and past employees.

The breach was discovered in October, and its full extent and impact has yet to be determined. NASA says it will provide identity protection services to all those who have potentially been affected.

NASA Watch, an independent website founded by former NASA employee Keith Cowing, first brought the incident to light in a posting on Dec. 18 that quoted an internal NASA memo. The memo suggests that agency employees who were hired, transferred or left NASA between July 2006 and October 2018 may be affected.

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New crypto needed for quantum computing age

Quantum computing report
A new report from the National Academies says it’ll be at least a decade before quantum computing becomes powerful enough to crack today’s public-key cryptography, but it could also take that long to develop a new data-encoding system to protect against hacking. (National Academies Illustration)

new report from computer scientists estimates that it’s likely to be at least a decade before quantum computing tools become powerful enough to compromise the current system of public-key cryptography that serves as the foundation for data security and financial transactions.

But it could also take a decade or more to replace current crypto tools with new protocols that would be resistant to quantum hacking, according to the report, published today by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine.

Therefore, the report’s authors say, it’s urgent to begin the transition toward such “post-quantum” protocols — which can range from increasing the size of encryption keys to developing new lattice-based systems such as NewHope and Frodo.

The study was sponsored by the federal Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and meshes with policy strategies laid out in September during a White House quantum information science summit. Like the White House strategy document, the National Academies study points out that the rise of quantum computing will have deep implications for national security.

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