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NASA’s Mars Helicopter Prepares for Its First Flight

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Before heading off to search for signs of long ago Martian microbes, NASA’s Perseverance rover will first undertake what may be the most technologically exciting part of its mission: flying a helicopter.

Packed under the belly of Perseverance, a car-size robotic vehicle that landed on Mars last month, is Ingenuity, a four-pound mini-helicopter intended to demonstrate that flying on another planet is possible.

NASA officials announced on Tuesday that they had selected the site for this demonstration of extraterrestrial hovering — just north of where it landed.

“That area naturally needs to be flat,” Håvard Grip, the NASA engineer who serves as the chief pilot for Ingenuity’s flights, said during a news conference on Tuesday, “and it needs to have few obstacles — rocks and the like — that could pose a danger to the helicopter on landing.”

The rover has already driven past that location and will now head back. Perseverance will carefully drop off Ingenuity and then back away to observe the flights from about 200 feet away. Ingenuity is scheduled to take off no earlier than April 8, although Bob Balaram, the chief engineer of Ingenuity, said that could move up or back by a few days.

“It will have 31 Earth days to attempt to be the first helicopter to fly on another planet,” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division. “It isn’t intended to collect science, but because its mission is so focused, it is, at its core, innovative.”

NASA officials have described this as a “Wright brothers moment” for space exploration, and on Tuesday, the agency revealed that Ingenuity includes an artifact from the first Wright airplane that took off from Kitty Hawk, N.C., in 1903.

“We are very proud to honor that experimental aircraft from long ago by carrying a small piece of fabric,” Dr. Balaram said.

The fabric is about the size of a postage stamp and attached to a cable on the underside of the solar panel, Dr. Balaram said.

Until 1997, all of the spacecraft sent to the surface of Mars had been stationary landers. But that year, the Pathfinder mission included something revolutionary for NASA: a wheeled robot. That rover, Sojourner, was roughly the size of a short filing cabinet, and planetary scientists quickly realized the benefits of being able to move around the Martian landscape. Four more NASA rovers including Perseverance have since followed to the red planet.

Ingenuity is in essence the aerial counterpart of Sojourner, a demonstration of a novel technology that may be used more extensively on later missions. The body of Ingenuity is about the size of a softball with four spindly legs sticking out. Two sets of blades, each about four feet from tip to tip, will spin in opposite directions to generate lift.

Flying on Mars is not a trivial endeavor. There is not much air to push against to generate lift. At the surface of Mars, the atmosphere is just 1/100th as dense as Earth’s. The lesser gravity — one-third of what you feel here — helps with getting airborne. But taking off from the surface of Mars is comparable to flying at an altitude of 100,000 feet on Earth. No helicopter on our planet has flown that high, and it’s more than two times the typical flying altitude of jetliners.

Using a processing chip that is comparable to what was found in cellphones a few years ago, Ingenuity has about 150 times the computing power available to the much larger Perseverance rover.

“It provides the computing, which is necessary for a lot of the navigation and image processing functions” Dr. Balaram said.

The first flight is to be a modest up-and-down, rising up to an altitude of just 10 feet. “And then we will hover in place for about 30 seconds and make a turn with the helicopter while we’re hovering,” Dr. Grip said. “And then come down and land again.”

Ingenuity will make up to five flights. The first three are designed to test basic capabilities of the helicopter. The final two flights could travel farther, but NASA officials did not want to speculate how much farther.

Since Perseverance’s flawless arrival at Mars on Feb. 18 within a 30-mile-wide crater named Jezero, engineers have been checking out the spacecraft and its instruments. That includes the first few short drives and firing a laser that vaporizes rock and soil to identify chemical elements.

Two microphones on Perseverance have been recording some of the sounds of the red planet, including the rustling of winds, the clicking of the laser as it zapped a rock about 10 feet away and the metallic clanking and scratching noises of the rover’s six wheels as they rolled across the terrain.

“Everything is going great so far,” Kenneth Farley, the mission’s project scientist, said last week during a virtual presentation at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. “But this is mostly the checkout phase. We’re not actually doing full-bore science yet.”

Dr. Farley said the scientists have already spotted signs of wind erosion on some rocks. Other rocks looked as if they had shaped by the flow of water. “This is quite promising for our study,” he said. The scientists also saw rocks with holes with them, which might be volcanic rocks that trapped bubbles of gas in them as they cooled.

The main science exploration will begin in early summer after the end of the Ingenuity tests.

Perseverance cannot take a direct route to a river delta at the rim of Jezero because of a treacherous field of sand dunes that lies between. Instead it will drive around the sand dunes.

The team members are still deciding whether to go to the north, a faster route, or to the south, which looks more geologically intriguing because it includes sites with mineral deposits that might be remnants of the river delta.

Scientists working with other NASA spacecraft at Mars have also announced new discoveries. Data from InSight and its sensitive seismometer, tracking the path of seismic vibrations through Mars, suggest that the planet’s core is between 1,125 and 1,155 miles in radius. That is larger than some earlier estimates.

“Such a large core implies that a relatively low mean density of the core,” Simon Stähler, a seismologist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich said in a presentation for the planetary science conference last week.

That points to lighter elements like oxygen mixed in with the iron and sulfur that make up most of the core, Dr. Stähler said. This finding could further understanding of how Mars and other rocky planets formed.

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Whole Foods will soon let customers pay for groceries with palm scan

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Whole Foods will soon let customers pay for groceries using its parent company’s palm-scanning technology.

Amazon said Wednesday its palm-scanning system — currently used in about a dozen of its brick and mortar stores — will debut at a Whole Foods in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, the first of many planned rollouts at other locations.

The system uses Amazon One technology, which employs high-tech imaging and algorithms to create and detect a “unique palm signature” based on the ridges, lines and veins in each person’s hand.

Its high-tech sensors don’t require users to touch the scanning surface, like Apple’s fingerprint technology does.

Instead, palm-reading tech uses computer vision and depth geometry to process and identify the shape and size of each hand they scan before charging a credit card on file.

Amazon One will debut at a Whole Foods in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood, with many rollouts at other locations planned for the future.
Amazon One will debut at a Whole Foods in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, with many rollouts at other locations planned for the future.
Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

The company said that the palm-scanning tech will be offered as just one of many payment options at participating Whole Foods Stores and that it won’t impact store employees’ job responsibilities.

“At Whole Foods Market, we’re always looking for new and innovative ways to improve the shopping experience for our customers,” said Arun Rajan, senior vice president of technology and chief technology officer at Whole Foods Market.

Palm images used by Amazon One are encrypted and stored in a “highly secure” cloud, and customers can request to have their palm data deleted.

The company claims palm-scanning tech is more private than other biometric alternatives, such as facial recognition.

Amazon One builds on the “Just Walk Out” technology that Amazon uses in its Go stores, which detects the items shoppers pick up and charges them once they leave — without the need for a checkout line

Amazon is also planning to expand the cashier-less technology to Whole Foods, as reported by The Post.

Meanwhile, the tech could be good for its bottom line. The online behemoth aims to sell its palm-scanning tech to other companies like retailers, stadiums and office buildings.

Amazon One scanner
The scanner uses high-tech imaging and algorithms to create and detect a unique palm signature which is then encrypted and stored in a secured cloud.
Amazon

Last September, it said it was in “active discussions with several potential customers.” But it is unclear if it has progressed on any of those fronts.

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Apple’s new iPad Pros and TV remote don’t have U1 locators to help find them in your couch

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Apple has been quietly sticking special locator beacon chips into some of its new iPhones that’ll let you unlock your car and find lost items through walls — the latter thanks to the $29 AirTags announced today — but sadly, you won’t find that chip in the new M1-based iPad Pros or the long-awaited new Siri remote for the Apple TV.

Apple confirmed to us that the U1 locator chip, which uses pulses of ultra-wideband (UWB) radio to broadcast its precise location, won’t appear in the Siri remote. We’re waiting on final bulletproof confirmation about the iPad Pros, but it also doesn’t appear in their product page, spec sheet, or press release. Last year’s iP ad Pros didn’t include a U1 chip, either.

Is Apple expecting us to stick AirTags to our iPads and TV remotes to escape the jaws of the ever-ravenous couch? Unlikely, but the company has been pretty choosey about which devices get the chip so far. You can find it in the iPhone 11 and newer (but not the iPhone SE) and the Apple Watch Series 6 (but not the Apple Watch SE), but we’re pretty sure it hasn’t made its way to any iPads or MacBooks that have been announced since the chip’s introduction in September 2019.

Theoretically, Apple could build an ecosystem where any Apple device can easily find any other Apple device (not to mention UWB devices from Samsung, which is also deeply invested in the tech and has its own AirTag-like device as well). But for now, you’ll primarily just be using your phone to find AirTags, not other gadgets, except perhaps your future car.

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Your iPhone has a completely hidden app. Here’s how to find and use it

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Apple’s iPhone is full of hidden features and tricks we’re constantly discovering. For instance, did you know the Notes app has a hidden document scanner? Yeah, pretty cool. The latest hidden feature that’s been popping up on Twitter and blogs is another type of scanner, dedicated to QR codes, and it’s better than the one built into the camera app.

Indeed, you would already be able to filter QR codes utilizing the easy route in Control Center, or simply open the camera application and it will check a QR code. Also, you’re correct. Both of those strategies turn out great. However, the committed Code Scanner application accepts the position above and beyond by introducing a greater amount of the data I need to see about an examined code.

For instance, the camera application utilizes a little notice at the highest point of the screen to open a connection or show you data, though the devoted Code Scanner application makes it exceptionally clear what’s inside the QR code you just checked. Yet, here’s the rub: The Code Scanner application isn’t found on your home screen, nor is it found in iOS 14’s new App Library.

As should be obvious, the best way to discover the Code Scanner application is to utilize the iPhone’s Spotlight search include. Go to your iPhone’s home screen and swipe down in the center of the screen. An inquiry bar will show up at the highest point of your screen, alongside application and alternate route ideas underneath. Type either code or scanner. As you type, you’ll see the Code Scanner application symbol appear as an application idea. Tap to open it.

The flashlight icon at the bottom of the screen acts as a flash to illuminate a code if your phone is struggling to read it.

If you don’t have the QR scanner shortcut added to Control Center yet, here’s a post showing you how to customize Control Center to your liking. For more hidden features, check out our list for iOS 14. We also cover more general, but useful features in iOS 14.

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