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Attack of the drones: the mystery of disappearing swarms in the US midwest | Drones (military)

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At twilight on New Year’s Eve, 2020, Placido Montoya, 35, a plumber from Fort Morgan, Colorado, was driving to work. Ahead of him he noticed blinking lights in the sky. He’d heard rumours of mysterious drones, whispers in his local community, but now he was seeing them with his own eyes. In the early morning gloom, it was hard to make out how big the lights were and how many were hovering above him. But one thing was clear to Montoya: he needed to give chase.

As he approached the drones in his car, they “took off very fast” and Montoya tried to follow. He confesses hitting 120mph before losing track of them. “They were creepy, really creepy,” he says. “I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s almost as if they were watching us.”

That night, Vince Iovinella, deputy sheriff at Morgan County Sheriff’s Office, received more than 30 calls from locals reporting drones “zipping around all over the place” – Iovinella himself saw one with red, white and green lights that he also tried to chase. “It outran me,” he recalls.

Meanwhile, neighbouring Nebraska and Kansas were also dealing with their own mysterious drone swarms. From December 2019 to January 2020, residents of the three states were perturbed by multiple sightings of numerous unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) with wingspans of up to 6ft flying between 6pm and 10pm in grid formations. On the same night that Iovinella was receiving calls, a Nebraska deputy reported seeing 30 to 50 drones in the sky. Witnesses were alarmed by the size and speed of the vehicles. “It got to the point that we were fixing to take up arms,” says Mike, 39, from Lindon, Colorado, who wishes to retain partial anonymity.

But as quickly as the drones came, they disappeared. “That was it, they were gone,” Montoya says. More than a year later, no one knows who was behind the drones. Despite an investigation involving the FBI, US Air Force and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), there are no official answers. Amazon, Google and Uber have denied involvement, and so did a local air force base. “Somebody’s doing something and nobody’s saying anything about it,” Montoya summarises. But even “somebody doing something” is now up for debate: one reporter claims the drones never existed at all.

What really happened in the sky above the American Midwest in those fateful winter months, and what can the incident tell us about new technology and old fears?

Did the mystery drones really exist and, if so, why can’t anyone find out who was behind them? Is a new type of conspiracy theory being born? Are drones the new UFOs?

First things first, there are videos. On YouTube, you can easily find footage of blinking lights hovering over houses, farms and highways in Colorado. It’s evident at least some of these lights belonged to drones, although it’s harder to determine if these drones really were 6ft wide. In early 2020, Douglas D Johnson, a research affiliate with the Scientific Coalition for Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Studies, used America’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to uncover reams of FAA documentation about the drone mystery. Johnson’s research revealed that law-enforcement officers in 16 Colorado and Nebraska counties personally witnessed the drone activity, with one Kansas state trooper using night-vision goggles to estimate one drone had a 10ft wingspan.

Brett Tingley is a journalist for The War Zone, a defence news publication. He believes the documents prove something strange did occur. “There are consistencies among the eyewitness reports that suggest these drones possessed longer flight times than most off-the-shelf UAS [unmanned aircraft systems],” he says. He believes the witness testimony “appeared legitimate enough to local and state law enforcement, and the FAA, to take the sightings seriously”.

Still, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a frenzy. On 29 January 2020, Vice reporter Aaron Gordon published an article claiming the mysterious drone sightings were “a classic case of mass hysteria” – in an earlier article he noted that the Colorado Department of Public Safety (CDPS) flew a Multi-Mission Aircraft for nearly five hours in Colorado on 6 January that year and found no suspicious drone activity. Johnson calls the Vice article “shoddy”, but Tingley concedes some sightings could have been hysteria, particularly after the drones made national news. Some officials even became a little hysterical: deputies in Nebraska reported finding “space potatoes” after chasing drones through a field. In actual fact, the lumpy brown objects were a farming product used to fill irrigation ruts in fields.

Lights in the sky: ‘If a drone has a flight plan on board it will execute its mission without any control from the ground. It’s very hard to do anything about it’.
Lights in the sky: ‘If a drone has a flight plan on board it will execute its mission without any control from the ground. It’s very hard to do anything about it’. Photograph: Brad McGinley/Getty Images

Iovinella agrees that “hysteria built up quickly” and says some witnesses were undoubtedly looking at planes. But: “I was irritated by people saying we didn’t see nothing because that’s not true,” he says. “I know what was happening those first few days of the drones. They were there.”

By 6 January 2020, a multi-agency taskforce had been set up to investigate – the FBI, Federal Aviation Authority, Air Force and local law-enforcement officials made up the team of 70. However, the taskforce disbanded by 22 January after drone sightings dramatically dropped off. FAA communications manager Ian Gregor now says: “We did not receive any information that enabled us to determine what exactly it was that people reported seeing and, if they were drones, who was flying them.” In a separate investigation, the CDPS examined 23 drone sightings between 6 and 13 January and determined 13 sightings were planets, stars, or “small hobbyist drones”. Six sightings were determined to be “atmospheric conditions or identified commercial aircraft”, while four sightings remained unidentified.

Witnesses such as Placido Montoya aren’t best pleased with the taskforce’s inconclusive investigation, nor the CDPS’s explanations. “I don’t feel safe. I looked up and I felt I was being violated,” he says. Iovinella stresses that investigations only began after sightings had died down and “the drones had already moved on”.

Why is it so difficult to determine who is flying a drone? In 2018, Gatwick had to cancel hundreds of flights after drones were spotted by the runway. Chaos reigned between 19 and 21 December while police and the military investigated. On 21 December, a couple were arrested – they were later awarded £200,000 compensation for false imprisonment. On 23 December, police said it was “a possibility” there was never a drone at all. In April 2019, police and Gatwick officials claimed the incident was potentially an inside job.

James Scanlan is a design and engineering professor who runs Southampton University’s Strategic Research Centre in Autonomous Systems. He says if an individual is controlling a drone from the ground, then radio frequencies can be used to determine where the transmission is coming from. “The problem comes where there’s a drone that’s flying with radio silence, so it’s not transmitting, no one’s transmitting to it – it might have a flight plan on board so it executes its mission and doesn’t need any control from the ground,” he says. “It’s very hard to do anything about those.”

Clues can, of course, be found in the drones themselves – which is why witnesses in Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas wanted to shoot them down. Because these drones were reportedly very large and very fast, some assumed they were military. In early January 2020, FE Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming denied ownership of the drones after inquiries from local newspapers.

So who could possibly possess the kind of technology seen over the American skies last winter? Locals speculate about drug dealers, secret government operations or foreign spies. But Scanlan notes that you or I could purchase powerful drones. “There’s a commercial drone on the market called the Penguin B from a Latvian company that is about 6ft in wingspan and has a very long endurance, so I could go and fly those tomorrow.”

To this day, Tingley still receives emails claiming the mysterious drones never went away. Mike, the witness from Lindon, runs a 3,700-member Facebook group. “We still have people on there who’ve been keeping a very close eye on drone activity,” he says. Mike says the drones interfered with his mobile phone connection and believes they were equipped with audio surveillance, “because the moment we identified the location and pointed a camera up there, they suddenly went blackout.” Other witnesses have made similar claims.

Mike says claims of mass hysteria are “frustrating”, but then references ufologist and conspiracy theorist Milton William Cooper. Asked if he himself identifies as a conspiracy theorist, Mike says: “No, I tend to vet pretty much every lead and if I do not find credible evidence to support that lead I will not push forward with it.” Five minutes later, he begins discussing footage of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “Take the frame-by-frame footages of the towers coming down and compare that to a controlled demolition…”

The individuals in Mike’s Facebook group encompass everyone from curious witnesses to people who believe the drones somehow caused the coronavirus. Some are self-confessed UFO enthusiasts – mystery drones, after all, are unidentified flying objects by another name. In 2018, the top two websites for reporting UFOs revealed there has been a rapid decline in worldwide UFO sightings since 2014. In January 2019, drone researcher Faine Greenwood claimed, “This decline coincides with the period when relatively advanced drone technology first became truly accessible to consumers” in a Slate article entitled, “Drones are the new flying saucers.” In emails about the mystery drones uncovered by Douglas, one FAA official remarked, “Not too long ago we would have called these ‘UFOs’.” Their colleague replied: “Yep! Now everything is a drone!”

In her article, Greenwood explains that this is likely down to good old human psychology. “If we see something we can’t identify, we’re likely to slot in whatever seems most plausible – and what seems plausible may change depending on current events and modern fears.” Greenwood cites multiple instances in which pilots mistakenly reported drone sightings. (In 2016, police reported that a passenger plane at Heathrow collided with a drone before the UK’s transport minister clarified, “It may have even been a plastic bag.”)

Conspiracy theory expert Daniel Jolley, a psychology professor at Northumbria University, says even when drone incidents are real, mystery can breed suspicion. “When people hear about such things, they interpret this information in line with their prior beliefs… If you believe that powerful forces are up to shady things and generally have a mistrust of official information, you could be more likely to see a hidden motive.”

But Greenwood also believes, “We absolutely should be concerned about the malevolent use of consumer drones.” Johnson says he has obtained documents from America’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission that show there were 57 drone-related security events at NRC-licensed facilities between 2014 and 2019; only five of these incidents were deemed resolved. He has also discovered that on two nights in September 2019, security guards reported seeing a number of drones flying over the largest power plant in the US, Palo Verde Generating Station in Arizona.

In January 2021, a year after Montoya first saw drones in the night sky, the Pentagon released a new strategy to counter small drones, with official documents stating, “Technology trends are dramatically transforming legitimate applications of [small drones] while simultaneously making them increasingly capable weapons in the hands of state actors, non-state actors and criminals.”

Many of the FOIA documents obtained by Johnson were redacted, including witness photographs of drones in FE Warren documents. Was the whole thing real or imagined? A conspiracy or a covert operation? Could it even be a bit of both? Some suspicious drone hobbyists believe the FAA itself orchestrated the mystery so they could enforce tighter regulations. On 26 December 2019, the FAA proposed that all but the smallest drones should broadcast tracking signals to allow them to be remotely identified.

One thing is evident: drones, real or imagined, are capable of causing chaos. “What caught me off guard is we have no answers to this day and it’s like everybody is OK with it,” Montoya says. At first, he thought Amazon was behind the drones. Now he wonders whether it could be the government or foreign powers. Before we end our call, he offers up one final theory. “It could have been aliens,” he says, with a laugh.

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Amazon to let Prime users unsubscribe in two clicks to comply with EU rules

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There were complaints of ‘a large number of hurdles’ to unsubscribe from Amazon Prime such as complicated menus, skewed wording, confusing choices and warnings.

Amazon has committed to making it easier for users to cancel their Prime subscription to comply with EU rules.

The tech giant will now let consumers in the EU and EEA unsubscribe from Amazon Prime with just two clicks, using a prominent cancel button.

This came following a dialogue with the European Commission and national consumer protection authorities. Complaints had been issued to the Commission by the European Consumer Organisation, the Norwegian Consumer Council and the Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue.

These consumer authorities noted “a large number of hurdles” to unsubscribe from Amazon’s service, such as complicated navigation menus, skewed wording, confusing choices and repeated nudging.

Amazon made initial changes last year, labelling the cancel button more clearly and shortening the explanatory text. This text will now been reduced further so consumers don’t get distracted by warnings and deterred from cancelling.

“Consumers must be able to exercise their rights without any pressure from platforms,” said EU commissioner for justice Didier Reynders.

“Opting for an online subscription can be very handy for consumers as it is often a very straightforward process, but the reverse action of unsubscribing should be just as easy. One thing is clear: manipulative design or ‘dark patterns’ must be banned.”

Amazon has committed to implementing the new changes on all its EU websites and for all devices. The tech giant will be monitored by the European Commission and national authorities to ensure it complies with EU consumer law.

“Customer transparency and trust are top priorities for us,” an Amazon spokesperson said.

“By design we make it clear and simple for customers to both sign up for or cancel their Prime membership. We continually listen to feedback and look for ways to improve the customer experience, as we are doing here following constructive dialogue with the European Commission.”

Amazon has had a number of dealing with the European Commission over the years regarding its business practices. The tech giant was hit with a Statement of Objections in 2020 based on its use of marketplace seller data.

In 2017, an EU case led by competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager also accused Amazon of cutting an illegal deal with the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg to drastically lower its tax bill.

The country was ordered to recoup €250m in back taxes. However, Amazon won its appeal against this ruling last year, as the EU’s general court said the European Commission didn’t provide the “requisite legal standard” to prove Amazon received favour from tax authorities.

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How to read: a guide to getting more out of the experience | Books

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Why read books, in this day and age? “Haven’t we all secretly sort of come to an agreement, in the last year or two or three, that novels belonged to the age of newspapers and are going the way of newspapers, only faster?” wrote Jonathan Franzen, tongue firmly in cheek, in a 2010 essay. The comment feels trenchant a decade later, in an era marked by a saturation of streaming platforms, short-form video, podcasts and screen adaptations of said podcasts.

The proportion of non-readers in Australia has grown in recent years: results of the 2021 National Reading Survey found that 25% of people reported not reading a single book in the previous year – up from 8% in a 2017 survey.

Any bibliophile can easily rattle off a list of reasons for reading. Books enlighten and challenge us, they transport us to different worlds, they reflect essential truths about the human condition.

“People who read well and read a lot learn more, pick up more general knowledge … and can then be better critical consumers of what they read,” says Prof Pamela Snow, co-director of the Science of Language and Reading lab at La Trobe University.

So, within our busy lives, how do we better find the time for books? How can we get more out of the reading experience?

Skim/deep

We commonly interact with texts in different modes. In skimming through an article, taking in a few lines – a headline and subheadings, for example – we might gain a general but shallow understanding of its meaning. We also scan texts for specific numbers, names, or ideas – a quantity in a recipe, say.

Then there’s deep reading, what the scholars Dr Maryanne Wolf and Dr Mirit Barzillai define as “the array of sophisticated processes that propel comprehension and that include inferential and deductive reasoning, analogical skills, critical analysis, reflection, and insight. The expert reader needs milliseconds to execute these processes; the young brain needs years to develop them.”

Reading on screens has turned us into adept text skimmers. An influential 2005 study that analysed how reading behaviour had changed over the previous decade – coinciding with the global rise of the internet – found that online reading was characterised by “more time spent on browsing and scanning, keyword spotting, [and] one-time reading … while less time is spent on in-depth reading, and concentrated reading”.

Wolf has advocated for the need to cultivate a “bi-literate” reading brain, one capable of both deep reading processes and the skim reading more commonly associated with screens.

“Readers must engage in an active construction of meaning, in which they grapple with the text and apply their earlier knowledge as they question, analyse, and probe,” she and Barzillai have suggested. One technique for in-depth reading of narrative texts is RIDA: to Read, Imagine the scene, Describe it to yourself, and Add more mental detail by noting powerful imagery or salient passages.

Woman reading textbooks in library
Our brains should ideally be ‘capable of both deep reading processes and the skim reading more commonly associated with screens’. Photograph: Jacobs Stock Photography Ltd/Getty Images

Physical books, rather than devices like smartphones, tend to support more focused reading, says Baron, though she says the choice of medium is ultimately a matter of personal preference.

Screens themselves are not inherently detrimental to our ability to focus, says the head of the visual and cognitive neuroscience laboratory at the University of Melbourne, Prof Trichur Vidyasagar.

“People often have the belief, particularly concerned parents, that if you spend too much time on screen devices your concentration may get poorer. That’s not necessarily true,” he says. “If used correctly and not at the cost of other useful activities, they can greatly benefit learning.”

The key is the internet’s boundless potential for distraction. “When you use the screen, there are so many hyperlinks, so many sites, stories, and rabbit holes to go into,” Vidyasagar says. The temptation to multitask – “an illusory myth,” he says – can be hard to resist. “If you think you’re multitasking, what you’re actually doing is switching between two tasks at a rapid rate, and your performance in both goes down.”

“When you read a [physical] book it’s quite different – you can’t get distracted as easily.”

Research in university students has found that comprehension is generally higher for print reading. “There is something about reading digitally that seemingly increases the speed at which students move through the text and this processing time translates into reduced comprehension,” one study found. “The findings are especially true when you’re talking about longer materials,” Baron says, adding as a caveat that research tends to focus on academic rather than leisure reading.

Results seem to differ slightly for dedicated e-reader devices. One study, in which participants read a 28-page mystery story by Elizabeth George either in print or on a Kindle, found no differences in most standard comprehension measures. The print readers, however, were better at reconstructing the plot and chronological aspects of the story – potentially because “the physical substrate of paper provides material placeholders” for events within the story.

Rediscovering joy and meaning

Dr Judith Seaboyer, formerly a senior lecturer in literary studies at the University of Queensland, who retired last May, recently went through a fiction dry spell. “There’s so much good stuff to listen to [on the radio], so much good journalism out there to read, and I was finding that I wasn’t reading novels any more.”

“As somebody … who’s done a PhD in contemporary literary fiction, and taught it for over 20 years – you think I’d know [reading books] is worth doing.”

What broke Seaboyer out of her slump was reading new work by an author she loves – Ali Smith’s Companion Piece. Synthesising ideas and making comparisons across multiple texts is also a known strategy for deepening reading comprehension, so some might find it helpful to dig into multiple books by the same author.

Seaboyer’s advice is to read with curiosity and to carefully consider an author’s choices, which can lead to a deeper understanding of language, characters and plot. “Jot things down, annotate your book, write things in the margin,” she says. “Some publishers are putting out reading guides now – that’s often quite useful.”

Nabokov believed that “One cannot read a book: one can only reread it”. For him, revisiting books – like the process of regarding a painting – meant the mind first “takes in the whole picture and then can enjoy its details”.

“You [might] remember that you really loved reading Austen,” Seaboyer says. “It’s interesting to be thinking as you read … now that I’m older and wiser, am I seeing any of this any differently than I did when I was 18?”

“There are ways to be kind to yourself, to allow yourself the opportunity not to understand something the first time through, or to say … maybe there’s a different book I should read first,” Baron says. “It’s like reading James Joyce: if you want to start with Ulysses, good luck. If you start with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, you’ll have a better shot at working your way in.”

Copy of Ulysses by James Joyce
‘It’s like reading James Joyce: if you want to start with Ulysses, good luck.’ Photograph: Martin Argles/The Guardian

If reading solely for pleasure, abandoning books that are not bringing enjoyment could, in fact, increase reading time. Of frequent readers surveyed in 2021 – those who consumed at least one book a month – 54% reported not finishing a book if they disliked it. As a result, they “move[d] on more quickly to the next book for greater enjoyment … and have fewer and shorter gaps between books”.

For those wanting to read more – for relaxation or self-improvement – Baron suggests committing to short but regular periods of reading, similar to time set aside for exercise or meditation.

The speed question

Some people are naturally fast readers – celebrated academic Harold Bloom claimed to be able to read 1,000 pages an hour in his prime. Most adults, according to 2019 analysis, read English nonfiction silently at a rate of between 175 and 300 words a minute, and fiction at a rate of 200 to 320.

While speed reading techniques or apps may seem alluring for the time poor, they’re unlikely to work without compromising understanding.

“Fast readers are not necessarily better at reading comprehension,” Vidyasagar says.

There are no shortcuts to reading faster. Becoming a better reader requires persistence and “dealing with the frustration at not seeing overnight results”, Snow says. “It’s like any skill – learning a musical instrument, learning to drive a car.”

A 2016 review of the science of reading found that reading can be improved in the same way all other skills are developed: through practice. “The way to maintain high comprehension and get through text faster is to practise reading and to become a more skilled language user.”

“If two goals of reading might be to learn for the long haul, and to think – that may be part of enjoyment, that may be part of learning – then what’s the hurry?” Baron says. “Why are we feeling like the White Rabbit?”

For Seaboyer, reading a good book is akin to a meditative experience . The “wonderful, immersive process that is deep reading” reliably brings her pleasure. “Something else is picking you up, and moving your mind and body and soul into a different space so you can think about the world differently.”

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Is a lack of standards holding immersion cooling back? • The Register

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Comment Liquid and immersion cooling have undergone something of a renaissance in the datacenter in recent years as components have grown ever hotter.

This trend has only accelerated over the past few months as we’ve seen a fervor of innovation and development around everything from liquid-cooled servers and components for vendors that believe the only way to cool these systems long term is to drench them in a vat of refrigerants.

Liquid and immersion cooling are by no means new technologies. They’ve had a storied history in the high-performance computing space, in systems like HPE’s Apollo, Cray, and Lenovo’s Neptune to name just a handful.

A major factor driving the adoption of this tech in traditional datacenters is a combination of more powerful chips and a general desire to cut operating costs by curbing energy consumption.

One of the challenges, however, is many of these systems employ radically different form factors than are typical in air-cooled datacenters. Some systems only require modest changes to the existing rack infrastructure, while others ditch that convention entirely in favor of massive tubs into which servers are vertically slotted.

The ways these technologies are being implemented is a mixed bag to say the least.

Immersion cooling meets rack mount

This challenge was on full display this week at HPE Discover, where the IT goliath announced a collaboration with Intel and Iceotope to bring immersion-cooling tech to HPE’s enterprise-focused Proliant server line.

The systems can now be provisioned with Iceotope’s Ku:l immersion and liquid-cooling technology, via HPE’s channel partners with support provided by distributor Avnet Integrated. Iceotope’s designs meld elements of immersion cooling and closed-loop liquid cooling to enable this technology to be deployed in rack environments with minimal changes to the existing infrastructure.

Ice’s chassis-level immersion-cooling platform effectively uses the server’s case as a reservoir and then pumps coolant throughout to hotspots like the CPU, GPU, or memory. The company also offers a 3U conversion kit for adapting air-cooled servers to liquid cooling.

Both designs utilize a liquid-to-liquid heat exchanger toward the back of the chassis, where deionized water is pumped in and heat is removed from the system using an external dry cooler.

This is a stark departure from the approach used by rival immersion-cooling vendors, such as LiquidStack or Submer, which favor submerging multiple systems in a tub full of coolant — commonly a two-phase refrigerant or specialized oil.

While this approach has shown promise, and has even been deployed in Microsoft’s Azure datacenters, the unique form factors may require special consideration from building operators. Weight distribution is among operators’ primary concerns, Dell’Oro analyst Lucas Beran told The Register in an earlier interview.

Standardized reference designs in the works

The lack of a standardized form factor for deploying and implementing these technologies is one of several challenges Intel hopes to address with its $700 million Oregon liquid and immersion cooling lab.

Announced in late May, the 200,000-square-foot facility, located about 20 miles west of Portland at its Hillsboro campus in the US, will qualify, test, and demo its expansive datacenter portfolio using a variety of cooling tech. The chipmaker is also said to be working on an open reference design for an immersion-cooling system that’s being developed by Intel Taiwan.

Intel plans to bring other Taiwanese manufacturers into the fold before rolling out the reference design globally. Whether the x86 giant will be able to bring any consistency to the way immersion cooling will be deployed in datacenters going forward remains to be seen, however.

Even if Intel’s reference design never pans out, there are still other initiatives pursuing similar goals, including the Open Compute Project’s advanced cooling solutions sub project, launched in 2018.

It aims to establish an ecosystem of servers, storage, and networking gear built around common standards for direct contact, immersion, and other cooling tech.

In the meantime, the industry will carry on chilling the best ways it can. ®

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