Microsoft pushes autonomous drones to new heights

How do you teach an autonomous drone to fly itself? Practice, practice, practice.

Now Microsoft is offering a way to put a drone’s control software through its paces millions of times before the first takeoff.

The cloud-based simulation platform, Project AirSim, is being made available in limited preview starting today, in conjunction with this week’s Farnborough International Airshow in Britain.

“Project AirSim is a critical tool that lets us bridge the world of bits and the world of atoms, and it shows the power of the industrial metaverse — the virtual worlds where businesses will build, test and hone solutions, and then bring them into the real world,” Gurdeep Pall, Microsoft corporate vice president for business incubations in technology and research, said today in a blog posting.


UW wins NASA grant to create a spacey contest

Cave rover team
NASA’s robotics team drives a test rover called CaveR into Valentine Cave at Lava Beds National Monument in California. One of the CaveR engineers is perched on a lava ledge, a marker of one of the lava flows in the cave. (NASA Photo)

NASA has awarded the University of Washington a $499,864 grant to develop a competition that calls on students to turn a simulated lava tube into a habitat suitable for harboring humans on the moon or Mars.

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TakeFlight revs up simulator-based flight training

TakeFlight CEO Brandon Seltz
TakeFlight CEO Brandon Seltz takes the controls at a workstation equipped with software that guides users through the flight training process. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

The makers of software such as Microsoft Flight Simulator usually say their programs are meant for entertainment, not actual flight training — but there’s a venture called TakeFlight Interactive that’s using enhanced simulations to get future pilots up to speed more quickly.

Part of the enhancement is adding a virtual instructor to the mix.

“There’s so much latent power in a desktop simulation,” Brandon Seltz, founder and CEO of the Redmond, Wash.-based venture, told GeekWire. “But the instructional element of flight training has never been simulated.”

TakeFlight is taking on that challenge: The company’s developers have created an assortment of software modules for general, commercial and military flight training that includes a voice assistant to let you know when you should pull back on the controls or give the throttle a push.

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Make-believe mission to Mars begins in Hawaii

HI-SEAS habitat
The terrain surrounding the HI-SEAS habitat on Mauna Loa looks like Mars. (Univ. of Hawaii Photo)

Six volunteers – including two with connections to Washington state – have begun eight months of being cooped up in a Hawaii habitat that’s meant to simulate life on Mars.

The Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation project, known as HI-SEAS, is one of several long-running experiments that use earthly environments as a training ground for future Red Planet expeditions. This is the fifth simulated mission to be staged on the slopes of Mauna Loa on Hawaii’s Big Island, 8,200 feet above sea level.

The University of Hawaii at Manoa has conducted the simulations since 2012, thanks to $1.2 million in NASA funding. The best-known simulation lasted for a year and ended last August, paralleling the “Year in Space” mission conducted by NASA astronaut Scott Kelly on the International Space Station.

NASA re-upped with a $1 million grant for Mission 5, plus Mission 6 in 2018.

During the simulation mission, the volunteer crew will be confined to a 36-foot-wide geodesic dome, except when they don bulky mock spacesuits for treks across Mauna Loa’s Mars-like terrain.

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Crew ends a year on Hawaii’s make-believe Mars

Image: Simulation crew
Andrzej Stewart, chief engineering officer for the HI-SEAS simulation, looks around after emerging from a habitat in Hawaii. Other crew members celebrate in the background. (Credit: Univ. of Hawaii)

After spending 365 days cooped up in a habitat and mock spacesuits in Hawaii, six volunteers say astronauts can cope with an even longer, real-life mission to Mars and back.

“A mission to Mars in the close future is realistic,” said Cyprien Verseux, a French biology student who was part of the HI-SEAS simulation crew. “I think the technological and psychological obstacles can be overcome.”

Verseux and his crewmates were held in isolation for an entire year inside the 1,200-square-foot habitat on the slopes of Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano. They were allowed to venture outside only for scientific expeditions while wearing simulation spacesuits.

The experiment is part of a NASA-funded program aimed at identifying psychological, technological and logistical factors that might pose challenges for a long-term mission to Mars. This was the fourth and longest simulation managed by HI-SEAS at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

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