Categories
GeekWire

First Mode’s zero-emission ambitions get a $200M boost

Seattle-based First Mode and the Anglo American mining company have signed a binding agreement to combine First Mode with Anglo American’s nuGen effort to develop a zero-emission system for hauling ore. The transaction, which is expected to close next month, values the newly combined business at around $1.5 billion and includes a $200 million equity injection from Anglo American.

The outlines of the business combination plan were first announced in June. At that time, Anglo American said the terms of the agreement were non-binding, and the financial details weren’t released.

First Mode is an engineering company that initially focused on providing expertise for space projects such as NASA’s Perseverance rover mission and the Psyche mission to a metal-rich asteroid. But in recent years, it’s devoted increasing attention to carbon-reduction technologies for heavy industry.

The company provided the hydrogen-fueled hybrid power plant for Anglo American’s nuGen mining truck, which made its debut in South Africa this year as the world’s largest zero-emission vehicle.

“First Mode was founded in 2018 with the goal of building the barely possible,” Chris Voorhees, First Mode’s president and CEO, said today in a news release. “We have done just that, and our mission is now to rapidly decarbonize heavy industry by dramatically reducing our customers’ greenhouse gas emissions. I can’t imagine a team better suited to this urgent challenge.”

Categories
GeekWire

Boeing’s last 747 has left the building

Nearly 55 years after Boeing started production of its jumbo 747 jet, the last model of the iconic airplane left the company’s factory in Everett, Wash., closing a chapter in aviation history.

“For more than half a century, tens of thousands of dedicated Boeing employees have designed and built this magnificent airplane that has truly changed the world,” Kim Smith, Boeing’s vice president and general manager for 747 and 767 programs, said in a statement after Tuesday night’s rollout.

Workers and VIPs gathered at the Boeing plant to watch the plane, wrapped in a green protective skin, emerge from the giant assembly building. The 747-8 will go on to other facilities for painting and fitting-out, with delivery to Atlas Air scheduled in early 2023. Atlas plans to operate the cargo freighter as well as the second-last 747 to be delivered for Kuehne + Nagel, a Swiss logistics company.

Back in the 1960s, Boeing engineer Joe Sutter designed the 747, the world’s first twin-aisle airplane, to carry 400 passengers or more on long-haul flights. Production began in 1967, and the first plane entered service with Pan Am in 1970.

For decades, the 747 was celebrated as the “Queen of the Skies” — and it played supporting roles in movies ranging from “Airport ’77” and “Air Force One” to the 2020 sci-fi movie “Tenet.” More than 1,500 of the planes were produced.

But as the aviation industry came to focus on fuel efficiency and point-to-point route planning, the business model for the passenger 747 became obsolete. In recent years, the 747 has increasingly been used for cargo rather than passengers, and the baton has been passed to other wide-body jets such as the 767, 777, 787 and 777x.

Categories
GeekWire

Defense Innovation Unit explores Northwest tech frontier

If space is the next frontier for national security, then the Pacific Northwest may well be the new frontier for that next frontier.

That’s the word from Steve “Bucky” Butow, an Air Force brigadier general who is now director of the space portfolio at the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit.

“I really think that the best news story out of the Pacific Northwest is just how impactful this region is in the new space economy,” Butow told me. “It’s not widely recognized, but I think that’s going to be changing here in the near future.”

Butow and his teammates at the DIU got an on-the-ground look at Seattle’s tech frontier this week during a series of meetings and site visits in the region. Among the tour’s highlights were meetings with executives at Amazon and Microsoft (which just won contracts to help build the Pentagon’s Hybrid Space Architecture), a roadshow workshop with entrepreneurs and venture capital investors, and a stopover at SpaceX’s satellite facility in Redmond, Wash.

Categories
GeekWire

Microsoft and Lockheed Martin team up on defense tech

Lockheed Martin and Microsoft say they’re deepening their strategic relationship to help power the next generation of computing and communications technology for the Department of Defense.

Cloud-based services play a key role in that relationship. Under the terms of an agreement announced this week, Lockheed Martin will become the first non-governmental entity to operate independently inside the Microsoft Azure Government Secret cloud.

Categories
GeekWire

Software tool estimates what quantum computing can do

What’ll it take to solve the quantum computing challenges of the future? Microsoft has an app for that — and now developers around the world can have it, too.

The app is called the Azure Quantum Resource Estimator. It’s a software tool that was originally developed for Microsoft’s internal use. The tool is already guiding the company’s effort to develop full-stack quantum computers, and now it can also help outside developers figure out how much computing power they’ll need to execute a given quantum algorithm in a reasonable amount of time.

That’s a key question, because the guidelines used for classical computing don’t necessarily apply to the quantum frontier. Unlike classical computers, quantum computers take advantage of an environment where a quantum bit — better known as a qubit — can represent a one and a zero at the same time.

Quantum approaches can be far more efficient than the standard binary computing approach for solving particular kinds of problems: optimizing a network, for example, or figuring out how to design a synthetic molecule to perform a specific chemical task.

“We’ll be able to study, for example, how to help remove harmful gases from the atmosphere,” Krysta Svore, distinguished engineer and vice president of quantum software at Microsoft, told me.

“Ten years ago, we thought it would take a billion years’ run time on a quantum computer,” Svore said. “That’s a really long time to wait. But over the last decade, we’ve been able to bring that down to a month’s run time on a quantum computer … using exactly the resource estimator, this tool, to understand the cost of the algorithm. And we’ve been able to redesign our hardware accordingly as well.”

Categories
GeekWire

Australian airline orders electric planes for the Outback

It’s only fitting that 20 of Eviation’s all-electric Alice commuter airplanes are destined to be based in Alice Springs.

That’s the upshot of the Arlington, Wash.-based company’s deal with Northern Territory Air Services, a scheduled airline and charter aircraft operator that’s headquartered in the town known as the capital of the Australian Outback.

“Australia is recognized around the world for its breathtaking scenery, and adopting carbon-free technologies is fundamental to preserving the environment for future generations,” Ian Scheyer, the CEO of NTAS, said today in a news release announcing a letter of intent to acquire the planes. “Eviation’s all-electric Alice aircraft provides us with the opportunity to chart a sustainable path forward in connecting communities across the country.”

Alice is designed to take on flights ranging from 150 to 250 miles — which fits the parameters for many of NTAS’ flights. Scheyer said electric aviation will make it possible for his company to provide “cost-effective and convenient passenger and cargo flights across the Outback.”

Categories
Cosmic Tech

German robotics team wins Avatar XPRIZE showdown

Robotic life imitated art this weekend at a telepresence contest in California, and Germany’s Team NimbRo is $5 million richer as a result. The payoff came at the end of the $10 million ANA Avatar XPRIZE competition in Long Beach, sponsored by Japan’s All Nippon Airways and organized by the XPRIZE foundation.

The contest incentivized technologies that allow operators to perform real-time robotic operations remotely — a la the fictional blue-skinned androids who are linked to humans in the “Avatar” movie series (with “Avatar: The Way of Water” premiering next month). The concept is also center stage in “The Peripheral,” a sci-fi novel by William Gibson that’s been adapted for the screen on Amazon Prime Video.

Ninety-nine teams signed up for the Avatar XPRIZE in 2018, kicking off rounds of competition that led to the Nov. 5 finals at the Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center. The robots had to weigh less than 160 kilograms (350 pounds) and be controlled wirelessly.

This weekend, 17 finalist teams from 10 countries brought in their robotic telepresence systems to perform a series of remote tasks such as traversing an 80-foot-long obstacle course strewn with boulders, flipping switches, using a power drill to unscrew a bolt, and selecting the roughest rock in a collection based strictly by feel.

For the finals, the avatars were controlled by outside judges from a separate room, rather than by team members. Points were awarded based on how quickly and how well the tasks were performed. NimbRo’s robot did all 10 tasks in five minutes and 50 seconds.

A robot built by a French team called Pollen Robotics accomplished all the tasks in 10 minutes and 50 seconds, earning the $2 million second prize. Boston-based Team Northeastern came away with the $1 million third prize. The other $2 million of the prize purse was awarded last year to the teams advancing to the finals.

Categories
GeekWire

First Mode sets up test site for zero-emission trucks

First Mode is establishing a proving grounds between Seattle and Portland to test and optimize giant zero-emission hauling trucks and the hydrogen-based infrastructure they’ll depend on.

The Seattle-based engineering venture says its leased facility at the TransAlta Centralia Mine, 85 miles south of Seattle, will include 7,500 square feet of office space and 20,000 square feet of outdoor yard space. “We plan to expand our footprint and activities in the future,” First Mode said in an emailed statement.

First Mode’s first job in Centralia will be to bring in a fleet of Komatsu 930E-4 ultra-class haul trucks and retrofit them with hybrid battery and hydrogen fuel cell power plants. Such conversions follow the model set in May, when the Anglo American mining company successfully deployed a proof-of-concept hybrid haul truck at its Mogalakwena mine in South Africa. First Mode developed the hybrid power plant for that truck, the world’s largest zero-emission vehicle.

“The First Mode Proving Grounds in Centralia is a critical next step in our mission to help heavy industry eliminate diesel and transition to clean energy,” First Mode CEO Chris Voorhees said today in a news release. “The site will support both the optimization of ultra-class haul trucks and the full infrastructure associated with diesel-free mobility and the production and distribution of clean energy.”

Categories
GeekWire

MagniX adds hydrogen to its carbon-free aviation menu

MagniX has been working on electric propulsion systems for years, but now the Everett, Wash.-based venture is adding hydrogen fuel cells to its power repertoire for carbon-free flight.

The expansion plan follows up on MagniX’s partnership with Universal Hydrogen, announced two years ago, and on last month’s initial flight test of an all-electric Eviation airplane equipped with MagniX’s 650-kilowatt motors.

Last year, MagniX and Universal Hydrogen said they’d work with Plug Power and AeroTEC to create a Hydrogen Aviation Test and Service Center at Grant County International Airport in Moses Lake, Wash., where the Eviation flight test took place.

Today MagniX said it would start developing hydrogen fuel cells to complement its battery electric and hybrid electric propulsion systems.

Categories
Fiction Science Club

‘The Peripheral’ brings sci-fi prophet’s vision up to date

The future may not be evenly distributed, but there’s a dystopia-inducing concentration of it in “The Peripheral,” a science-fiction novel by cyberpunk pioneer William Gibson.

Now the novel has been turned into a streaming-video series distributed on Amazon Prime Video, and it turns out that Gibson’s future is more like the present than it was when the book was published in 2014.

“We initiated our writers’ room three weeks before the pandemic hit and the country shut down,” series producer/writer Scott B. Smith recalls. “There’s something called ‘the Jackpot’ in the story, which involves a kind of multi-vector apocalypse. And we felt like we were watching that happening in real time.”

Smith discusses how his team created the screen version of “The Peripheral” — and how Gibson’s world of the future squares with the challenges of the present — in the latest episode of Fiction Science, a podcast that focuses on the intersection of science and technology with fiction and popular culture.