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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.

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GeekWire

First Mode enters second stage of clean energy quest

First Mode, a Seattle-based engineering company, says it’s agreed to a business combination with the zero-emission truck development effort led by the Anglo American mining company.

The deal follows up on First Mode’s work with Anglo American on its nuGen Zero Emissions Haulage Solution, which uses a hybrid hydrogen-battery powertrain on ore-hauling trucks. First Mode designed and built the powerplant in partnership with several other companies.

In May, Anglo American unveiled the first converted nuGen monster truck at its platinum mine in Mogalakwena, South Africa. The newly combined business, operating under the First Mode name, would convert Anglo American’s fleet of 400 trucks to the nuGen system. It would also provide associated site infrastructure for battery charging as well as hydrogen production and refueling. First Mode says converting 400 ultra-class haul trucks to zero-emission systems is equivalent to taking 280,000 carbon-emitting cars off the road.

“We started First Mode to solve meaningful and difficult problems,” Chris Voorhees, president and CEO of First Mode, said in a news release. “Climate change and energy security are the paramount challenges of our time, and I am so proud this will be First Mode’s focus as we enter this next phase of growth. Now is the right time, and this is the right team, to build the barely possible for this extraordinary set of problems.”

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GeekWire

Stratolaunch hits new heights with world’s biggest plane

Stratolaunch says its mammoth carrier airplane rose to its highest altitude yet during its seventh flight test over California’s Mojave Desert.

The aerospace venture, which was established by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen more than a decade ago but is now owned by a private equity firm, reported a peak altitude of 27,000 feet during today’s test.

If all goes according to plan, the twin-fuselage Roc airplane could begin flying Stratolaunch’s Talon-A hypersonic test vehicles for captive-carry and separation testing as early as this year.

One of the prime objectives for today’s three-hour flight at the Mojave Air and Space Port was to gather data on the aerodynamic characteristics of the plane, including a pylon structure from which the rocket-powered Talon-A vehicles will be released and launched.

Roc’s seventh flight came a week after the sixth flight test, which couldn’t achieve all of its objectives.

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GeekWire

Radar love: Echodyne attracts $135M in new funding

KIRKLAND, Wash. — Echodyne, the radar platform company backed by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, is announcing its biggest influx of funding to date: a $135 million round co-led by Gates and Baillie Gifford, a high-profile investment management firm based in Scotland.

Other investors include Seattle-based Madrona Venture Group and Vulcan Capital, as well as Northrop Grumman, NEA and Vanedge Capital. Echodyne CEO Eben Frankenberg said the newly announced round brings total investment to $195 million, which makes the trend line for the eight-year-old company’s fundraising efforts look like a hockey stick.

“It’s the hockey stick on the raise, and we hope it’s the hockey stick on the growth of the company,” Frankenberg told me.

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. Frankenberg’s company focuses on compact radar systems that can track drones and other aircraft, or can be installed on drones or autonomous vehicles.

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World’s widest airplane lands early after flight test

Stratolaunch says the sixth flight test of its super-sized Roc carrier airplane ended earlier than planned when the team ran into an unexpected issue.

“While completing Roc testing operations, we encountered a test result that made it clear we would not achieve all objectives for this flight,” the California-based company, which was created by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen more than a decade ago, said in Twitter update. “We made the decision to land, review the data, and prepare for our next flight.”

Stratolaunch’s 385-foot-wide, twin-fuselage airplane is the world’s largest aircraft by wingspan. Stratolaunch has been testing Roc at Mojave Air and Space Port in preparation for using the plane as a flying launch pad for rocket-powered hypersonic test vehicles.

The company, which was acquired from Allen’s estate by a private equity firm in 2019, didn’t specify the nature of the test results that led to the decision to land. For what it’s worth, one of the flight’s key objectives was to expand the testing envelope for the center-wing pylon that will carry and release the hypersonic vehicles.

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GeekWire

Another record for calculating pi: 100 trillion digits!

Three years after Seattle software developer Emma Haruka Iwao and her teammates at Google set the world record for calculating pi precisely, they’ve done it again. Thanks to Iwao and Google Cloud, we now know what pi equals to an incredible precision of 100 trillion digits.

Why pi?

Mathematicians have been working out the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter for millennia, going back at least as far as the Babylonians (who figured it at 3.125). It’s important for scientists and engineers to know the irrational number’s value with a high degree of precision, but beyond a certain point, it’s really all about showing how well an algorithm or a computer network can handle more practical problems.

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Fiction Science Club

‘Email From the Future’ imagines a world without greed

Visions of Utopia go back to the year 1516, when Thomas More literally wrote the book on the subject — but is it an outdated idea to envision a world where today’s biggest problems are solved?

Michael Rogers, who styles himself as a “Practical Futurist,” doesn’t think so. His day job is to lay out visions of the future for audiences ranging from startups to Boeing, Microsoft and other Fortune 500 companies. In a new book called “Email From the Future,” he describes a future world of 2084 where ideas that may seem impractical today end up taking care of climate change, wealth inequality, culture wars and other ills that afflict today’s society.

“Going toward the future is a little like sailing upwind,” Rogers says in the latest episode of Fiction Science, a podcast that focuses on the intersection of science and fiction. “You have to tack back and forth around the obstacles, but every once in a while you have to raise up your head and look, and make sure you’re still going in approximately the right direction.”

If Rogers’ vision comes to pass, we’re in for a big course correction: His tale incorporates moves to limit executive pay, institute a tax on robots (first suggested by Bill Gates in 2017), cut carbon emissions to zero by 2040 and create a climate reparations fund. Along the way, ultra-rich tech titans become as extinct as the titanosaurs.

“In my book, there is a realization specifically around climate change and the fact that it’s going to cost trillions of dollars to fix the planet,” Rogers told me. “So there’s again a big social shift in which the ultra-rich no longer look like heroes. They actually look like people who are withholding resources that could be saving lives.”

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GeekWire

Mammoth zero-emission mining truck makes its debut

After years of development, the world’s largest zero-emission vehicle was unveiled today at a South African platinum mine, with a hydrogen-fueled hybrid powerplant designed and built by Seattle-based First Mode.

Anglo American’s three-story-tall, 200-ton nuGen hybrid mining truck received a grand sendoff from South African President Cyril Ramaphosa at the Mogalakwena open-pit platinum mine. “It is a smart step for Anglo American, but a giant leap for South Africa’s hydrogen economy as we move into the future,” Ramaphosa said. “The hydrogen economy is beckoning us as a country and as an industry.”

Chris Voorhees, president and CEO of First Mode, said zero-emission industrial power will play a key role in addressing the global climate crisis. Large trucks currently account for 70% to 80% of diesel fuel consumption at Anglo American’s mines, but one nuGen truck is expected to keep the equivalent of carbon dioxide emissions from 700 cars out of the atmosphere.

“At First Mode, we know we are at a ‘fire-everything’ moment,” Voorhees said in a news release. “The urgency in front of us requires that we deploy every tool and every technology to battle climate change. I’m so proud of the team and our partnership with Anglo American, focused on decarbonization at the source to effect the meaningful, necessary change we all seek.”

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Boeing is moving its HQ from Chicago to Virginia

More than two decades after the Boeing Co. moved its headquarters from its Seattle birthplace to Chicago, the aerospace giant is planning to do it again — this time, heading for Arlington, Va.

Boeing confirmed a report about the move that appeared today in The Wall Street Journal. Arlington already serves as the headquarters for Boeing’s defense, space and security business unit, and the company said it would develop a new research and technology hub in Northern Virginia.

“We are excited to build on our foundation here in Northern Virginia,” Boeing’s president and CEO, Dave Calhoun, said in a news release. “The region makes strategic sense for our global headquarters given its proximity to our customers and stakeholders, and its access to world-class engineering and technical talent.”

Boeing didn’t provide a timetable for the HQ switchover.

The move to Arlington in the Washington, D.C., area reflects a classic corporate strategy to have the company’s executive offices close to where the federal government’s purchasing decisions are made.

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GeekWire

Aviation collection reportedly sold to Walmart heir

Three and a half years after his death, another one of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s passion projects — the extensive collection of aviation and military artifacts that was housed at the Flying Heritage & Combat Armor Museum in Everett, Wash. — has reportedly been sold off by his estate.

Air Current magazine reported late last week that the museum’s entire collection was sold “in its entirety.”

“Many of the projects are being crated for shipment to their new home while the flying aircraft are being readied for cross-country trips,” the magazine said on its Facebook page. “One man’s dream has come to an end, but another man’s dream has just begun.”

The collection’s new owner is Steuart Walton, the grandson of Walmart founder Sam Walton, according to Scramble, a publication of the Dutch Aviation Society.

Walton is the co-founder of Runway Group, a holding company with investments in northwest Arkansas; and the co-founder and chairman of Game Composites, a company that designs and builds small composite aircraft.

He serves on the board of directors for Walmart and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, among other organizations, and is a licensed pilot as well as an aircraft collector. His net worth has been estimated at $300 million.