How Microsoft’s affordable Kinect video game system is changing the world of advanced robotics
A sudden gust of wind blew a six-bladed, remote-controlled helicopter over a white bus half buried in bricks and busted slabs of concrete. Jimmy Tran, a Ryerson University doctoral candidate, scrambled at the multi-levered controls as the device shot toward the horizon. “I had to land it as fast as possible,” he says. “ I didn’t want to hit power lines or cars.”
Despite his efforts, the hexarotor, now a mess of shattered blades and smashed chip boards, sits among the piles of electronics at Ryerson’s Network-Centric Applied Research Team’s (N-CART) lab. “That’s 5,000 bucks, another 1,000 for the parts to repair, plus man hours,” says Alex Ferworn, who oversees N-CART. But it could have been much worse—if not for one piece of hardware cradled under the helicopter. Ferworn’s group uses robots and computers to help search and rescue, bomb disposal and crime scene investigation teams. The day the chopper crashed they were testing a new technique to map rubble using a 3-D scanner that generates images to help rescuers.
And that scanner did not cost tens of thousand of dollars, like the scanners on most unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). It cost $150, and it came from a Microsoft Kinect video game.
It’s the crumpled piece of hardware that was left hanging under the chopper at the crash site, and it saved the project simply because it is so cheap to replace. “Something that costs 150 bucks, we’ll laugh about it. It’s change,” says Ferworn. Now, he says, the only lasting result of the gust of wind, aside from a few costly repairs, is that everyone is calling Jimmy, the pilot, “Crash.”
Scenes from the dying days of the protest in St. James Park
Portrait of an accused predator
Years before Col. Russell Williams was an accused double murderer, he was a rookie instructor at the Canadian Forces flying school in Portage la Prairie, Man. He was such a standout in the cockpit that his boss, Major Greg McQuaid, selected him for the farewell flight of “Musket Gold,” a now-defunct air force demonstration team that peaked in the 1970s. “I handpicked him because of his skill,” McQuaid told Maclean’s. “I knew he would do a good job. I liked the guy, he was sharp, and he had all the characteristics of a good military officer and a good pilot.”
It was 1992, and the four-man team spent two months training for the big finale, practicing turns and formations in their bright yellow, single-engine TC-134s. Musket Gold’s last hurrah was captured on VHS video, and it was Russ Williams, then a young lieutenant, who edited the footage, added some background music, and gave it to his fellow flyers as a keepsake. When McQuaid first heard about the shocking charges against his old friend—two counts of first-degree murder and two counts of sexual assault—he immediately thought of that old VHS tape. “He showed no indication that he could do something like this—zero, absolutely none,” he says. “He fit in well and got along well with everybody, and was respected by everybody.”
Shale gas could one day replace coal in power plants and gasoline and diesel for cars and trucks
Mike Markham used to hold a match under his faucet and light the tap water on fire. He’d get a small blue flame or an explosive orange fireball, depending on the day. “I had to check to see if I still had a moustache,” he says. Markham lives on an 80-acre farm in Fort Lupton, Colo. There are about eight natural gas wells within a few miles of his property, which he says are causing methane gas to migrate into his water.
The problem, which also affected about 100 of Markham’s neighbours who get water from the same aquifer, ended this year when the drilling companies changed pipe infrastructure and introduced filters and holding tanks to remove the gas before it entered household sinks. The aquifer is still contaminated, but local concerns about water quality aren’t going to stop the nearby drilling. That’s life on the front lines of what might be the biggest energy revolution in generations.
How a group of nuns in Milan got caught up in the drug trade
A small group of priests bustling through the streets and buildings surrounding the Madre Cabrini convent in the heart of Milan, Italy, weren’t on their way to give alms to the poor. They weren’t on their way to church. They were watching for drug smugglers, and—underneath the collars and vestments—were actually carabinieri, members of Italy’s national police force. Last week they swapped the cassocks for bulletproof vests, and, with guns drawn, kicked down the convent’s wooden doors. “The nuns were absolutely puzzled,” says Rocco Papaleo, captain of the carabinieri’s investigation unit and head of the team that made the bust. “They can’t get around it. They’re still wondering what happened.”
A group of skywatchers set their sights on secret space missions—including a U.S. Air Force project
An orbiting weapons platform, a spy plane, or a decade-old, billion-dollar money pit. The U.S. Air Force’s X-37B space planes are a cloak-and-dagger project, but their secret orbits are known, and that discovery was made, in part, by Canadians. They’re part of an international organization of volunteer skywatchers who’ve been tracking secret government satellites for over 30 years.
The purpose of the planes is now a closely guarded secret, but they started as an open NASA project before being moved to the air force, so some information about them is known. The first X-37B is on the ground following its initial mission, which lasted from April to December 2010, and its sister is currently in orbit. They look like miniature versions of the space shuttle, with stubby wings for gliding at high altitudes, a solar panel array that keeps them powered in space, and a cargo bay about the size of a standard pickup truck’s bed. They’re also fully robotic, and their launches led to speculation, especially from the Chinese and Russian governments, that the U.S. was attempting to weaponize space.
Juliana Chiovitti and Tom Henheffer check out classic cars, from Dodge Chargers and Z28 Camaros to ancient Ford trucks and Chevy convertibles at the Cruise Nationals championships during the Toronto Auto Show.
Juliana Chiovitti and Tom Henheffer check out some new gadgets hitting the road this year from BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Lexus and Honda.
Tom Henheffer and Juliana Chioviti report on some of the world’s most expensive cars, the Bugatti Veyron, Aston Martin 117 and Tesla Roadster.
Tom Henheffer and Juliana Chiovitti report on the Acura NSX and Jaguar CX-16 at the Toronto International Auto Show.