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From The Editors Technology

Farm Robots are Replacing Human Agricultural Workers Faster than we Thought

Having overwhelmed the urban way of life, technology is now spreading its tentacles across rural America, what with robotics taking over the agricultural sector in a big way.

More and more autonomous machines are performing a host of labor-intensive jobs such as planting, plowing, weeding, pruning and harvesting, to name a few.

The speed with which agricultural mechanization is happening is, in part, due to the Trump administration’s stringent immigration policies – one of the contributors to the acute shortage in the supply of farm workers.

But again, blaming Trump for all of America’s woes would be a tad unfair, in that farm labor shortage was a reality even before he took over the Oval Office, though there is no denying the fact that his policies may have somewhat compounded the problem.

A 2017 survey of agricultural labor availability, conducted by the California Farm Bureau Federation, found that farmers across the Golden State were facing difficulty getting enough workers to fulfill a variety of their agricultural requirements, including “planting, cultivating and harvesting food and other crops.”

About 55 percent of the surveyed growers reported experienced worker shortages, while 69 percent of those who depended on seasonal workers reported “shortages of varying degrees,” especially where the work required the “most intensive hand labor, such as harvesting tree fruits and grapes.”

“The findings are consistent with results from a similar 2012 survey conducted by CFBF, in which over half of all respondents reported shortages,” the survey report said.

The shortage could also not be blamed on any lack of alacrity on the part of farmers in terms of recruiting efforts and offering higher wages and other incentives; the reality is that there just weren’t enough potential employees available to hire.

“The survey respondents included farm employers growing a diverse range of crops and commodities across the state, including both labor-intensive crops and those that do not require significant employee involvement,” said the report.

“A large majority of the respondents grow tree fruit, winegrapes or nuts; respondents also included growers of table grapes, vegetables, rice, wheat, corn, hay and nursery crops, as well as dairy and livestock producers.”

It, therefore, makes sense for growers to turn to mechanized and robotic alternatives to address the worsening labor situation, and they are not complaining as they discover that the transition can drive better yields and reduce their input costs.

An increasing number of large farming companies are, in fact, championing the automation cause by investing in technology firms and by testing these next-gen farm robotics made possible by advancements in processor technology.

“We’re seeing more and more of a move towards just technology in general, whether it’s robotics or mechanization,” Ryan Jacobsen – a wine grape grower and CEO of the Fresno County Farm Bureau – told CNBC last year.

“We’ve seen some incredible improvements there, and for us to remain competitive in California just because of so many areas of cost and the lack of needed individuals to help us bring in the harvest we’re going to have to rely upon this technology,” Jacobsen added.

Fendt, a German manufacturer of agricultural equipment, has been developing high-precision small Xaver robots that are designed to operate in swarms 24/7.

These field robots of the near future are light-weight, mobile and cloud-controlled, with fewer sensors, robust control units and a clear hardware structure, making them “extremely reliable and productive.”

The Fendt website says that “the use of a large number of small, identical robots operating in a swarm enables smooth running of the job, even in the event of the failure of a single unit.”

“Their light weight results in a high level of safety and negligible soil compaction,” claims the website.

Then there are harvest robots that use electronic sensors and techniques based on technologies used in advanced driver-assist systems and semi-autonomous cars.

“What I tell people is, we’re like self-driving cars,” Gary Wishnatzki – a Florida strawberry farmer and co-founder of Harvest Croo Robotics – told CNBC.

“We don’t have to be perfect. We just have to be better than the humans — and believe me humans damage a lot of fruit, too, when they’re picking and packing it,” he added.

To give you an idea of how efficient these agricultural robots can be, a single strawberry-harvesting robot can autonomously do the work of 30 farm employees, autonomously picking clean a 25-acre strawberry field in a matter of three days.

While the burgeoning agricultural mechanization industry and the advent of farming robotics are expected to drastically cut down the need for human intervention, there will always be a place for skilled workers.

“I don’t think automation or robotics will ever replace the farm worker,” Tom Nassif – CEO Western Growers, the trade association for agricultural producers in the West and Southwest – told CNBC.

“It will certainly cut down on the number of people we need to plant, thin and harvest our crops,” he added.

Precision farming, an offspring of the agriculture-technology marriage, is expected to become a $240 billion market by 2050, according to Goldman Sachs.

Lawrence De Maria, an analyst at William Blair, compares the surge in precision farming using advanced robotics to the Green Revolution, in so far as driving agricultural productivity is concerned.

“I think that this is the next great wave of agricultural productivity,” De Maria told Investor’s Business Daily.

He added: “The implementation of precision agriculture with automation will drive yields and reduce input costs for growers.

“It could rival the Green Revolution and mechanization as great drivers of agricultural productivity.”

Europe is not far behind when it comes to innovative agricultural technologies, what with Spanish company Agrobot working on a strawberry harvester, with as many as twelve robotic arms that can pick fruits more deftly than human hands can ever manage, and what’s more is that the machines are capable of unmanned navigation, as well.

England-based Dogtooth Technologies is developing its own version of a robotic fruit- harvester capable of not only autonomously locating and harvesting fruits that are ripe and ready for the picking but also grading their quality.

So, for better or for worse, an agricultural revolution is imminent; in fact, it’s happening as you read this!

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From The Editors Technology

Tesla Set to Launch Right-Hand Drive Version of Model 3 in the UK, Next Week

In a Thursday tweet (Apr 25), Tesla CEO Elon Musk revealed his company’s plan to launch the RHD version of its latest and, relatively, more affordable electric vehicle, the Tesla Model 3, in the UK next week.

The UK order page goes live “around May 1 or 2,” followed shortly by Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong, while deliveries are expected to begin sometime in the latter half of 2019.

Also, if Musk’s tweet is anything to go by, the company is “hoping to cover all of Eastern Europe this year,” as well.

The billionaire entrepreneur did not offer any timelines, though; however, with his penchant for taking to Twitter at the drop of a hat, we can rest assured there’ll be more from him on that.

Meanwhile, keeping in mind Musk’s reputation of over-committing at times, there is always the possibility that the UK launch may not happen as early as he promises.

But again, with Electrek reporting that an RHD version of the Model 3 was spotted on the I-280 in California, last month, it appears his company is ready to meet the deadline, this time around.

As for pricing for the UK market, there hasn’t been a formal announcement, so far, but Musk did say last month that with country-specific taxes & import duties, we can expect a 25% hike on the US price of $35,000, which would mean a starting price of around £33,900 across the Atlantic.

It goes without saying, that with the UK launch and subsequent launches in other RHD countries, Tesla is looking to offset the loss of $702 million ($4.02 per share) it suffered in the first quarter of 2019 – largely, a consequence of low delivery numbers and issues with costs and pricing adjustments.

Although a loss was on the cards, nobody was expecting it to be as huge as it turned out to be, as Kelley Blue Book’s executive publisher Karl Brauer pointed out in an emailed statement, according to Tech Crunch.

“Everyone expected a first-quarter loss for Tesla, but nobody expected it to be this big,” he wrote. “What’s interesting is how there really isn’t a single, substantial factor driving this.”

According to Brauer, the contributing factors include tax rebate loss, increasing competition, and the saturation of the “initial rush” for the Model 3, not to mention competition from within from other Tesla alternatives.

However, he is hopeful that Tesla would somehow ride the tide and see this lean phase through.

“This is the new normal for Tesla,” he told Tech Crunch.

As for Musk, he’s happy to blame the 37 percent revenue loss in QI on the season, saying that people were disinclined to buying cars in winter.

Is he suggesting that all automakers experience a drop in sales revenue during the winter season? Or is it just Tesla cars they don’t like buying in winter?

Musk has, however, said that the company would change its production and delivery strategy to avoid a repeat of Q1.

“We don’t want a situation again like we had in Q1, where essentially, all the cars were arriving to customers worldwide, all at the same time,” Musk said.

“So it just makes sense to plan production according to demand moving forward,” he added.

As for the Model 3 variants being made available in the UK, your guess is as good as mine!

Will the company offer RHD versions of the two new Model 3 variants it announced last year?

In a series of tweets in mid-2018, Musk announced two new variants of the Model 3 – the dual-motor, all-wheel drive (AWD) Model 3 and the Performance version, which Musk said was capable of zero to 60mph in just 3.5 seconds

While the single motor rear-wheel-drive base model option remains, US buyers can opt for an upgraded version at an additional $5,000, which would not only give them AWD, but also an improved range of 310 miles and a zero to 60mph time of 4.5 seconds, with a top speed of 140mph.

To put that in perspective, the base Model 3 has a maximum range of 220 miles and its stationary to sixty miles per hour time is 5.6 seconds.

The $78,000 Performance version is not only good enough to give the BMW M3 a run for its money – in terms of speed and handling – but it can also “beat anything in its class on the track,” claims Musk – a tall claim, indeed, considering the fact that the M3 is quite a gladiator in the sports sedan arena.

As mentioned, the Performance is capable of zero to sixty in a mere 3.5 seconds, in addition to having a top speed of 155 mph, with a maximum range of 310 miles on a fully juiced-up battery.

The two-motor configuration in the AWD Model 3, including Performance, is conceptualized along the lines of the Model S, with the front motor optimized for range and the one on the back built for power.

Musk claims the car is capable of safely taking you to your destination on any one engine, should the other break down.

If you don’t already know, the all-wheel-drive system in an electric vehicle works differently from that of a petrol or a diesel car where the front and back axles are mechanically connected via a driveshaft so that power is transferred from a single source to all four wheels.

Tesla makes the Model 3 an all-wheel drive by putting another motor up front to power the front wheels, which in effect means that the only connection between the two axles is the surface it drives on, referred to as “through-the-road” system.

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Entertainment From The Editors

First Trailer for Final Season of ‘Game of Thrones’ Released: Premiering April 14, 2019

HBO has released the first teaser trailer of the final season of Game of Thrones, premiering April 14, 2019.

While the first six seasons had ten episodes each and the seventh had seven, the eighth and final season is going to have only six episodes.

However, rumor has it that each new episode will be ninety minutes long – about feature film-length.

At the post-Golden Globes bash on Sunday, HBO chief Richard Plepler claimed that he had seen parts of all six episodes of the upcoming season of GOT, according to ‘Variety.’

“It’s a spectacle. The guys have done six movies. The reaction I had while watching them was, ‘I’m watching a movie’,” Plepler was quoted by the magazine as saying.

Speaking highly of showrunners Benioff and Weiss, Plepler told ‘Variety.’

“They knew the bar was high. They’ve exceeded the bar. I’ve watched them twice without any CGI and I’m in awe. Everybody’s in for an extraordinary treat of storytelling and of magical, magical production.”

The one-and-a-half-minute trailer of the fantasy drama television series is entirely focussed on the Stark children – Jon Snow (Kit Harrington), Sansa (Sophie Turner), and Arya (Maisie Williams) – who are apparently reuniting at the family crypt at Winterfell.

Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright) is, however, missing from the teaser, which is not really surprising given there’s no love lost between him and his siblings, especially in his new avatar as the Three-Eyed Raven.

As Jon Snow walks past the statue of his mother, Lyanna Stark, a feather falls to the ground and Jon turns around to look, as if he heard the feather fall behind him.

The brief trailer shows the three siblings walk past the statues of their fallen family members, hearing voices from the past – voices of Lyanna, Ned, and Catelyn whispering bygone events – as they go through the foreboding Winterfell crypt.

They finally come to the end of the hallway and guess what, they are standing face to face with their own statues even as an eerie winter chill creeps up towards them, blowing out their torch and forcing them to draw their swords.

There’s hardly anything that the teaser gives away and, for all we know, the entire footage could have been shot purely for marketing purposes and, probably, doesn’t even include actual scenes from the season – but that’s just a thought.

That said, whatever little the teaser has revealed has been enough to send GOT fans in a tizzy, with many a speculation flying around.

Here are some reactions on Twitter.

Game of Thrones | Season 8 | Official Tease: Crypts of Winterfell (HBO)

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From The Editors Technology

Volvo’s Performance Brand Gives First Glimpse of its All-Electric Polestar 2

Polestar, Volvo’s EV performance brand, on Thursday (Jan 3) released the first image of the Polestar 2 – the company’ debut all-electric vehicle, which it believes will give the Tesla Model 3 a run for its money.

While Polestar has promised to reveal the full specifications of this non-hybrid EV during the official unveiling a few weeks from now, it did give us a peek into the car’s potential by releasing a few of its features.

Here’s a bulletized list of whatever has been made known, so far, about this would-be “Tesla killer.”

o Polestar 2 will go into production shortly after the long-range hybrid, the Polestar 1, enters the assembly line later this year, which means we’re probably looking at a 2020 date.

  • It will be a four-door “fastback” body-type car.
  • The performance vehicle’s electric motors will generate about 400 horsepower.
  • The car will be good for 300 miles (about 483 kilometers) on a single full charge.
  • It will sell at a price point similar to that of the Tesla Model 3.
  • Polestar 2 will be the first car to feature the Google Android HMI – the all-new automobile-specific, smartphone-independent version of Google Assistant.

While Polestar continues to play the Tesla Model 3 comparison card, it has somewhat backed out from the “Tesla-killer” narrative it had initially pursued.

“We are not saying it’s a Tesla killer, we are here to vividly compete with them in the market,” Polestar CEO Thomas Ingenlath had said in a July 2018 statement.

“We will launch Polestar 2 in the second half of 2019 and production will begin around the start of 2020,” he said.

Speaking to Ward Auto, the Polestar chief had also said that the company saw Tesla and Porsche as its “competitive set.”

Okay, so we don’t know much about the Polestar 2 other than what we’ve discussed above, but we do know a bit about the Google Android HMI feature the car is set to debut with.

Last year, Volvo announced that its next-generation Sensus infotainment system would include a host of Google services, including Google Assistant, Google Maps as well as apps available through the Google Play Store.

“Bringing Google services into Volvo cars will accelerate innovation in connectivity and boost our development in applications and connected services,” Henrik Green – Volvo’s senior VP for research and development – had said at the time.

“Soon, Volvo drivers will have direct access to thousands of in-car apps that make daily life easier and the connected in-car experience more enjoyable,” he said.

The announcement was, however, first made by the two companies at the 2017 I/O Developer Conference.

The collaboration between the automaker and the tech giant will see several Google services and apps getting embedded into Volvo’s next-gen Sensus infotainment system in a way that will allow drivers to use the services independently – no need for a smartphone.

Google Maps will play a key role in new Volvos’ navigation systems, offering users real-time traffic data, map updates as well as proactive route change suggestions – a feature that has already proved its utility on smartphone Google Maps.

The Google Assistant will be as useful an inclusion as any other, providing a central voice interface for future Volvos, which will allow drivers to manipulate in-car functions like air-conditioning, sun-roof and windows, as well as use apps for sending messages and controlling music, using voice commands.

Google Play Store will include a plethora of approved downloadable apps with Google’s affirmation that its screening system will ensure that driver distraction is minimal, and that more can be done from the dashboard than ever before.

The previous version of Volvo’s Sensus ran on a large portrait-oriented touch-sensitive display, integrated into the car’s dashboard, which controlled navigation, HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning) and media, as well as allowing access to a limited number of apps.

“The Google partnership to be entered into is an important strategic alliance for Volvo Cars,” Green said.

“The Android platform, Google services and Google’s working relationship with app developers in-house and worldwide will help us further improve the Volvo car experience,” he added.

Volvo will, however, continue to develop its own apps and connected services independent of its partnership with Google.

Google’s Android offers a “turnkey” solution to automakers that can use the automobile-specific operating system just like smartphone manufacturers do.

We got a glimpse of the system’s apparent utility at the 2017 I/O, where Google demoed the system on a Maserati.

Not only Volvo, but Audi is also partnering with Google to introduce a similar infotainment system based on Android Nougat 7.0, allowing users access to the same Google Maps, Google Assistant and apps that are found in Android Auto – again, without the need for an Android smartphone.

With the infotainment system not cornering users to use Android devices, more tailored choices can be made available to enhance their in-car experience.

Google also announced a fresh user interface (UI) and new Google Maps features for the Google Auto to make it smarter and more user-oriented.

A new group-messaging feature and a Rich Communication System (RCS) are also being introduced to the Android Auto.

Additionally, third-party integration is being upgraded to include integrated search results, and more, to further enhance user experience.

In an attempt to address security and hacking concerns, Google is also going to increase the frequency of feature and security updates.

Moving back to Volvo’s next-gen Sensus, it’s going to offer a far bigger choice of apps on the Google Play Store than ever before, including thousands of other car-specific apps that can be accessed using the cars’ integrated 4G LTE connectivity.

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From The Editors Science

Nancy Grace Roman: The “Mother of Hubble’” is Dead at 93

American astronomer Nancy Grace Roman, one of the first female executives at NASA and the space agency’s first chief of astronomy, passed away on Christmas Day after a prolonged illness. She was 93.

According to the Washington Post, Laura Verreau, a cousin, confirmed that the NASA pioneer breathed her last at a hospital and that she had lived in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and had no immediate survivors.

In a tweeted tribute, NASA Administrator Kin Bridenstine said that Dr. Roman’s contributions to the space agency would live on and that his prayers were with the deceased’s family.

Dr. Roman will always be remembered as the “Mother of Hubble” for her role in making one of the largest and most versatile telescopes a space reality.

Named after Edwin Hubble, one of the most prominent astronomers of all time, the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) has been providing humankind with great science ever since it was put into low-Earth orbit in 1990 – and is still going strong.

Considering the skepticism over viability and cost that the Hubble program had faced ever since the concept was first floated by Lyman Spitzer Jr. back in 1946, Roman’s contribution is even more commendable.

She was instrumental in coordinating with astronomers and mobilizing a nationwide lobbying effort when government cuts in public spending in 1974 forced Congress to cancel the Hubble funding.

In an account of the development of Hubble entitled, “The Universe in a Mirror,” space historian Robert Zimmerman writes:

“During the 1960s and early 1970s there was no one at NASA who was more important in getting the first designs and concepts for Hubble funded and completed.

“More importantly, it was [Dr. Roman] more than anyone who convinced the astronomical community to get behind space astronomy.”

What’s even more praiseworthy is the fact that she achieved all of that at a time when science and space were considered a man’s domain.

Back then, it was almost a taboo for aspiring young women to even contemplate taking up science as a profession.

“I still remember asking my high school guidance teacher for permission to take a second year of algebra instead of a fifth year of Latin,” she recalled during an interview with NPR (National Public Radio).

“She looked down her nose at me and sneered, ‘What lady would take mathematics instead of Latin?’ That was the sort of reception that I got most of the way,” she said.

Not only did she do the unthinkable, but she also laid the path for other women to follow, advocating for women in the sciences by way of creating awareness as a public speaker and educator.

Ironically, Roman’s immense contribution to the Hubble program “is often forgotten by our younger generation of astronomers who make their careers by using Hubble Space Telescope,” her former colleague at NASA and the agency’s current chief astronomer, Ed Weiler, told the Voice of America in 2011.

“Regretfully, history has forgotten a lot in today’s Internet age, but it was Nancy in the old days before the Internet and before Google and e-mail and all that stuff, who really helped to sell the Hubble Space Telescope, organize the astronomers, who eventually convinced Congress to fund it,” he said.

Born in Nashville, Tennessee, Roman’s interest in the skies started developing at an early age; she was only eleven when she and her school friends formed an astronomy club.

By the time she reached high school, she had already made up her mind about pursuing a career in astronomy, the all-around discouragement notwithstanding.

By 1949, Roman had graduated from Western High School in Baltimore, Maryland, got a bachelor’s degree in astronomy from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, and a doctorate in the same field from the University of Chicago, in Illinois.

After her PhD., Roman worked at the University’s Yerkes Observatory for six years, eventually leaving the job because of the limited options for women that prevailed at the university back then.

Roman’s tryst with her alma maters continued, as she joined the Swarthmore College Board of Observers in 1980 where she served until 1988.

In her capacity as NASA’s first chief of astronomy, she was the main architect of the agency’s astronomy program, traveling the length and breadth of the country to hold meetings with astronomy departments, updating them about the program’s progress, educating and motivating astronomers, and more.

During her 21-year stint at the space agency, Roman held several positions, including Chief of Astronomy and Solar Physics and Chief of Astronomy and Relativity, to name a couple.

During a campus visit in the 1980s, when Roman was asked by a faculty member about the reason behind her success, she replied with a spontaneous, “The ability to write and speak easily and well,” she recounted in an article entitled, “Following my lucky star,” published in the ‘Science’ magazine in December 2016.

Explaining her reply, she wrote:

“I answered this way because many of the activities I engaged in during my 21-year career running NASA’s astronomy program—justifying projects to my supervisors, Congress, and the Bureau of the Budget; meeting with the research community to spark interest in the possibilities of observations from space; speaking to lay audiences to excite them about basic science—required that I present my case clearly and concisely.”

She went on to say that she still believed that communication was a key factor in her success, but with the benefit of hindsight she realized that “perseverance—or stubbornness—and a certain amount of luck were equally important.”

RIP, Nancy Grace Roman!

Here are some Twitter tributes to the “Mother of Hubble.”

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From The Editors Science

Astronomers Find New Way to Map ‘Dark Matter’ Using Deep-Space Imagery

Although dark matter exists only in theory, scientists strongly believe that it is an all-pervasive reality in galaxy clusters, accounting for 85 percent of all matter in the known and unknown universe.

Their conviction is based on astrophysical observations such as unexplained gravitational forces, which, obviously, can’t come from nothing.

Meaning, while they can see the powerful gravitational effects of the so-called dark matter, they can’t really see the matter itself; hence, the name.

Well, they now have a reason to rejoice as a new study claims to have found a way to track the dark matter.

Using deep-space imagery captured by the Hubble Telescope, astronomers Mireia Montes (School of Physics, University of New South Wales, Australia) and Ignacio Trujillo (Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias, La Laguna, Tenerife, Spain) were able to see the invisible matter in an unprecedented light, literally.

The powerful data from the Hubble Frontier Fields program of the NASA/ESA-owned telescope enabled Montes and Trujillo to demonstrate that the faint light emitted by abandoned stars in galaxy clusters, known as intracluster light (ICL), actually follow the distribution of dark matter within them.

“We have found a way to ‘see’ dark matter,” said Montes, who’s the lead author of the joint study published online in the MONTHLY NOTICES of the Royal Astronomical Society.

“We have found that very faint light in galaxy clusters, the intracluster light, maps how dark matter is distributed,” she added.

Experts believe that this new dark matter-hunting technique will lead the way to more discoveries about this mysterious phenomenon that permeates almost all of the universe.

“There are exciting possibilities that we should be able to probe in the upcoming years by studying hundreds of galaxy clusters,” says study co-author Ignacio Trujillo.

A galaxy cluster is a collection of galaxies bound together by each other’s powerful gravitational forces.

Our own Milky Way is part of a ‘Local Group’ of 54 galaxies spanning 10 million lightyears, which in turn is part of a much larger group of hundreds of thousands of galaxies known as the Laniakea Supercluster spanning 500 million lightyears.

Due to the strong galactic influences at play in a cluster, stars are sometimes torn away from their home galaxy and drift aimlessly through the cluster.

These galactic orphans emit the faint intracluster light, or ICL, discussed earlier, which aligns with the gravitational forces of the invisible dark matter, which is how Montes and Trujillo were able to locate its position.

“The reason that intracluster light is such an excellent tracer of dark matter in a galaxy cluster is that both the dark matter and these stars forming the intracluster light are free-floating on the gravitational potential of the cluster itself—so they are following exactly the same gravity,” says Montes.

“We have found a new way to see the location where the dark matter should be, because you are tracing exactly the same gravitational potential,” she said, adding, “We can illuminate, with a very faint glow, the position of dark matter.”

In the past, astronomers have used “gravitational lensing models” to follow the distribution of dark matter within clusters, which, for all practical purposes, is a complex time-consuming method.

Montes and Trujillo compared the distribution of ICL they discovered with previous dark matter maps created through the gravitational lensing method and found that both distribution patterns were identical.

“These stars have an identical distribution to the dark matter, as far as our current technology allows us to study,” Montes said.

The Montes-Trujillo way of doing things is simpler, more efficient and faster because all that is needed is deep-space imagery.

This new method will now make it possible for astronomers to study many more clusters in the shortest possible time.

“This method puts us in the position to characterize, in a statistical way, the ultimate nature of dark matter,” Montes said.

“The idea for the study was sparked while looking at the pristine Hubble Frontier Field images,” said Trujillo.

“The Hubble Frontier Fields showed intracluster light in unprecedented clarity,” he said adding that “the images were inspiring.”

“Still, I did not expect the results to be so precise. The implications for future space-based research are very exciting,” he added.

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From The Editors Technology

IBM’s AI-Enabled Fingernail Sensor Can Monitor Your Health All Day Long

IBM Research has developed a “one-of-a-kind” fingernail sensor prototype that is designed to detect deformation of your fingernail through integrated strain gauges as you go through your daily tasks.

It can detect the subtle changes and stresses your fingernail is subjected to as your grab objects, handwrite, type, open a doorknob, turn a key, and so on, all of which give a sense of your grip strength.

Now, grip strength is a great indicator of a person’s overall health and vitality and can serve as an effective screening tool to assess a broad range of health-related issues.

It can even predict the onset of certain conditions such as Parkinson’s Disease, Alzheimer’s Disease, stroke, and death.

“It’s designed to capture everyday movement by people in their daily lives — whether they are at home, outside, or in a car,” Ajay Royyuru, VP Healthcare and Life Sciences Research at IBM, was quoted by Digital Trends as saying.

“It’s lightweight, wireless, and unobtrusive,” he told the tech and lifestyle website, adding that a team was “working to get the device even smaller, so that it is just a speck on your fingertip.”

He went on to say that grip strength can provide valuable insights “into chronic conditions such as schizophrenia and Parkinson’s Disease.”

He also said: “In one cardiovascular disease study, reduced grip strength was a better predictor of death than blood pressure.”

The data collected by the tiny sensor is assimilated by a small computer, which then transfers information related to the wearer’s grip quality to an AI- and machine learning-enabled smartphone app that can detect tremors, bradykinesia (slowness of movement), and dyskinesia (abnormality or impairment of voluntary movement), all of which are fundamental manifestations of Parkinson’s Disease.

The system will allow clinicians to monitor patients as they go about their day-to-day activities and take necessary action based on AI- and Machine Learning-analysed clues and indicators into the progression of their individual conditions.

Skin-based sensors can be equally effective in capturing motion, muscle health and nerve cells to help clinicians monitor patients, in addition to gauging their emotional state by interpreting changes in sweat gland activity.

However, skin sensors are not particularly suitable for older patients as they are likely to cause infections and other problems.

This is one of the main reasons why IBM Research started exploring the possibilities of harnessing information from subtle bends to the fingernail as we use our hands through the day and analyzing the data through artificial intelligence and machine learning to better understand disease progression in patients.

“Our team realized it might be possible to derive interesting signals from how the fingernail bends throughout the course of a day, as we use our fingers to interact with our environment, and tap into the power of AI and machine learning to analyze and derive valuable insights from that data,” said IBM Research in its Dec 21 press release.

“For example, the data can show us if someone is likely to be performing an activity in their home, activities such as holding and operating everyday objects in the kitchen,” Royyuru told Digital Trend.

He added: “Over time, the A.I. system can not only identify what the actions are, but also detect patterns in the data which could reveal insights about the user.

“[For instance], we could see abnormalities in the data that show someone’s medication is wearing off and tremors are increasing or that grip strength is weakening during certain periods of the day.

“This can help provide insights about disease progression or state of well-being, such as spikes in stress.”

The research paper entitled “Wearable Nail Deformation Sensing for Behavioral and Biomechanical Monitoring and Human-Computer Interaction” was published in the journal ‘Scientific Reports’ on Friday (Dec 21).

Lead author of the paper Katsuyuki Sakuma was assisted in the study by his team of researchers from the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center in New York.

“By pushing computation to the end of our fingers we’ve found a new use for our nails by detecting and characterizing their subtle movements,” said the IBM Research press release, concluding that the study “has also served as the inspiration for a new device modeled on the structure of the fingertip that could one day help quadriplegics communicate.”

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From The Editors Health

FDA Issues Stern Warning to Genetech for Marketing Unapproved Stem Cell Medicines

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Thursday (Dec 20) said it had sent a letter to San Diego-based Genetech, Inc, warning the company for marketing non-FDA-approved stem cell products and for non-compliance with “current good tissue practice (CGTP) and current good manufacturing practice (CGMP) requirements.”

The agency has also issued warning letters to other manufacturers and healthcare providers involved in non-FDA-approved stem cell treatments.

The rebuke came in the wake of recent cases of serious infections following unapproved stem cell therapies.

At least a dozen patients in three states fell critically ill after receiving non-FDA-approved stem cell injections derived from umbilical cord blood, said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in a report published Thursday (Dec 20).

A CDC investigation team led by Kiran Perkins discovered that seven patients in Texas, four in Florida, and one in Arizona were seriously infected after receiving Genetech-processed and Liveyon-distributed stem cell injections or infusions.

The infections, ranging from bloodstream and joint infections to epidural abscesses, among others, were so serious that all twelve patients had to be hospitalized; thankfully, no deaths were reported.

FDA approval for stem cell use is subject to meeting two main criteria: one, all stem cell products have to be derivatives of umbilical cord blood, and two, they can only be used in hematopoietic and immunologic reconstitution.

The CDC findings reveal that as many as eleven of the twelve infected patients were treated for pain or orthopedic conditions, which are non-hematopoietic in nature and, therefore, constitute a breach of FDA guidelines.

“[The] investigation highlights the serious potential risks to patients of stem cell therapies administered for unapproved and unproven uses other than hematopoietic or immunologic reconstitution,” says the report.

It goes on to point out that “many companies, clinics, and clinicians continue to market products from various sources as treatment for orthopedic, neurologic, and rheumatologic conditions without FDA approval.”

“The letters we’re issuing today to manufacturers, health care providers and clinics around the country are a reminder that there’s a clear line between appropriate development of these products and practices that sidestep important regulatory controls needed to protect patients,” said FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb in a press release.

Gottlieb assured that not only was the FDA committed to introducing new policies to ensure safe manufacturing practices for stem cell-based medicines, it was also mobilizing additional resources for the proper enforcement of these policies.

“We remain committed to supporting the development of safe and effective cell-based regenerative medicine and advancing our comprehensive regenerative medicine policy framework,” said the FDA commissioner.

“These efforts include our work to encourage manufacturers to engage with the FDA early so that we can provide guidance about any applicable regulatory requirements,” Gottlieb added.

While the agency is steadfast about taking action against non-compliers, it also wants to ensure that patients are not deprived of access to “safe and effective regenerative medicine products as efficiently as possible,” said Peter Marks, director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research.

Companies that fail to mend their ways are likely to face “enforcement action such as seizure, injunction or prosecution,” warns FDA.

Perkins and his team ran tests on sealed vials at the Texas and Florida clinics where the patients received treatment and arrived at the conclusion that the bacterial contamination of the products occurred before distribution, effectively putting the responsibility on questionable manufacturing practices.

“Umbilical cord blood cannot be decontaminated after collection because there are currently no validated processes for sterilization, so manufacture of derived products must be highly controlled to prevent distribution of contaminated products,” the researchers wrote in their report.

The fact that both Genetech and Liveyon are registered with FDA does not mean they have the agency’s approval for, respectively, processing and distributing these products.

“The Genetech-processed, Liveyon-distributed product is not FDA-approved or lawfully marketed,” says the CDC report.

“Though Genetech and Liveyon are registered with FDA, such registration is not a form of FDA approval,” it said, adding that “FDA registration alone does not demonstrate compliance of firms or their products with the law.”

The CDC appealed to healthcare givers and receivers to report “any adverse events related to treatment with the Genetech/Liveyon products or any unapproved stem cell therapies to FDA’s MedWatch Safety Information and Adverse Event Reporting Program.”

In the letter to Genetech, FDA’s Program Division Director for the Office of Biological Products Operations, Karlton Watson, listed several significant CGTP and CGMP deviations, in addition to the earlier deviations the agency had already informed the company about.

“FDA has found additional significant deviations upon further review of the information collected during the June 2018 inspection,” read the letter addressed to Genetech president Edwin N. Pinos.

“The deficiencies include, but are not limited to, the following,” Watson wrote, going on to list 19 instances of non-compliance, in detail.

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From The Editors Science

Rocket Lab Launches 13 CubeSats on its First NASA Mission – Its Third Orbital Launch in 2018

An Electron launch vehicle belonging to California startup Rocket Lab lifted off on Dec 16 from the company’s Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula at 07:33 pm local time (01:33 am EST).

It was carrying with it a payload of as many as 13 small satellites for NASA’s  ELaNa (Educational Launch of Nanosatellites) program.

The Sunday launch was not only the company’s first NASA mission but also the space agency’s first launch under its Venture Class Launch Services (VCLS) program.

NASA is currently in contract with three space companies, including Rocket Lab, Firefly Aerospace and Virgin Orbit – a spinoff of British space company Virgin Galactic – to provide dedicated launch vehicles for the VCLS initiative.

“The NASA Venture Class Launch Service contract was designed from the ground up to be an innovative way for NASA to work and encourage new launch companies to come to the market and enable a future class of rockets for the growing small satellite market,” said ELaNa-19 mission manager Justin Treptow in a Dec 4 press release.

“Matching ELaNa-19 with the Electron rocket gives these advanced scientific and educational satellites first-class tickets to space while providing valuable insight for potential NASA missions in the future,” Treptow added.

While the mission itself was called ElaNA-19, the Electron that made it happen was named “This One’s for Pickering” in honor of the late New Zealand-born scientist, Sir William Pickering, who immigrated to California as a young man, headed the NASA team that developed the United States’ first satellite called Explorer 1, and also served as the director of the space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), in Pasadena, California.

After MECO (Main Engine Cut-Off), the first-stage booster separated and dropped back towards Earth for an intended plunge into the Pacific Ocean.

Meanwhile, the second-stage continued on with its payload, propelled by a single Rutherford engine that fired for about six minutes to give the rocket the required speed to beat the planet’s gravity and enter orbit.

Developed in-house by Rocket Lab, all of the Rutherford’s primary components are 3D-printed and it uses battery-powered pumps – all of which translates to reduced manufacturing time and, more importantly, reduced costs.

Nine minutes into the launch, the Curie kick-stage separated from the second-stage Electron booster and entered coast phase, flying for about forty minutes before firing its main engine, which uses a “green” monopropellant to produce 120 N, or 27 lbf, of thrust (1 lbf = 4.44822 Newton.

After a 90-second burn, which stabilized the kick-stage’ trajectory, the thirteen nanosatellites were deployed in an elliptical orbit at an inclination of 85 degrees, some 500 kilometers above Earth.

“All payloads deployed!! Perfect mission,” Beck tweeted, confirming the release of the nanosats.

The thirteen nanosats that are now orbiting Earth include those built by American academic institutions as well as NASA-developed ones, including the Compact Radiation Belt Explorer (CeREs) satellite from the space agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and the Advance Electrical Bus (ALBus) from NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio.

While the CeREs will study how energized electrons escape from the Earth’s radiation belts, the ALBus will demonstrate an advanced power management and distribution system and solar array deployment technologies.

Also among them is a US Naval Academy-developed RSat that will test robotic arms designed for future spacecraft that will service orbiting satellites.

The Sunday launch was Rocket Lab’s third orbital mission of the year, having successfully put three small satellites into orbit on behalf of Spire Global and Planet in January, and six small satellites as recently as last month.

The November mission, nicknamed “It’s Business Time,” saw the successful launch of two Lemur-2 satellites, two Proxima satellites, a CICERO 10 satellite, and an Irvine01 Cube Sat.

It also launched a NABEO drag sail built by Germany’s HPS GmbH (High-Performance Space Structure Systems GmBH) for the purpose of testing a technique that will help reduce space junk by deorbiting small satellites at the end of their operating lives with the help of atmospheric drag.

Speaking to Spaceflight Now last month, Beck said that despite the launch delays this year, Rocket Lab had laid the groundwork for a faster launch manifest.

“With the motor controller, we haven’t rushed to get back to the pad,” he said at the time.

“What we’ve, in fact, done is taken our time to really set the business up to succeed in a high volume kind of way,” Beck said.

With a new high-volume factory in Auckland and one in Huntington Beach, California, Rocket Lab is looking at a production capability of one new launch vehicle every week.

Between its New Zealand launch site and an under-construction launch pad at Wallops Island, Virginia – expected to be operational by the third quarter of 2019 – Rocket Lab has up to 16 Electron launches planned for 2019, according to Beck.

“Our goal by the end of next year is to be launching once every two weeks, and as we move into 2020, launching once a week,” Beck said, adding that the company was “tracking a pretty big pipeline of customers, and we’ve been very fortunate that people have put their trust in us.”

With its growing backlog, the company is contemplating more launch sites, including one in Scotland and a second in the U.S.

On Nov 15, Rocket Lab announced it had managed to raise $140 million, closing a Series E funding round led by Future Fund – Australia’s independently managed sovereign wealth fund.

The Series E round was also joined by other existing investors, including Khosla Ventures, Bessemer Venture Partners, DCVC (Data Collective), Greenspring Associates, Promus Ventures and K1W1, as well as new investor, Accident Compensation Corporation of New Zealand.

“This funding also enables the continued aggressive scale-up of Electron production to support our targeted weekly flight rate,” Beck said at the time.

“It will also see us build additional launch pads and begin work on three major new R&D programs,” promising to unveil the specifics sometime “in the new year.”

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From The Editors Health

First Successful Childbirth After Uterus Transplant From Dead Donor

Whether you look at it as a medical milestone or an act of Providence, the fact remains that a 32-year old Brazilian recipient of a uterus from a dead donor has given birth to a healthy baby-girl in an absolute first of its kind.

The organ came from a 45-year-old unnamed woman who had voluntarily agreed to donate her organs before her death from brain hemorrhage; she had had three normal vaginal deliveries during her short lifespan.

The beneficiary, whose identity is also not being made public, was suffering from a condition called  Mayer-Rokitansky-Küster-Hauser(MRKH) syndrome – a female reproductive-system-disorder that causes underdeveloped or totally missing uterus.

With no apparent abnormalities to the external genitalia of MRKH syndrome sufferers, the condition usually stays undiscovered until the affected woman is diagnosed with primary amenorrhea – failure to get menstrual periods by the age of sixteen.

The transplant took place in 2016, with the recipient giving birth to a perfectly normal baby girl weighing 2.5 kilograms (5.6 pounds) on Dec 15, 2017, through Caesarean section.

The achievement is all the more impressive if you consider that ten similar attempts in the U.S., Czech Republic and Turkey had ended in failure, although successful birth using a uterus from a living donor has been achieved eleven times since the first success in 2013.

Despite that, it’s not a perfectly viable option, in that finding a woman who would willingly give away her uterus is never going to be easy unless a family member or a close friend agrees to make the sacrifice.

However, the latest breakthrough opens the door for women with MRKH syndrome, or other uterine infertility issues, to have children of their own rather than going for adoption or surrogacy options.

Lead researcher of the procedure, Dr. Dani Ejzenberg, from Hospital das Clínicas at the University of São Paulo in Brazil, has published his “proof of concept” in the journal ‘Lancet.’

“The first uterus transplants from live donors were a medical milestone, creating the possibility of childbirth for many infertile women with access to suitable donors and the needed medical facilities,” said Dr. Ejzenberg.

“However, the need for a live donor is a major limitation as donors are rare, typically being willing and eligible family members or close friends,” he explained.

“The numbers of people willing and committed to donate organs upon their own deaths are far larger than those of live donors, offering a much wider potential donor population,” Dr. Ejzenberg added.

What also works in favor of using uteruses from deceased donors is the fact that it eliminates the risks attached to a live transplant, in addition to the relatively low costs it entails.

Out of the ten failed attempts using the dead donor method, one involved a 23-year-old woman who also had MRKF syndrome.

While the woman was successful in achieving pregnancy after getting a uterus from a dead donor in Turkey, he motherhood aspirations came to an abrupt halt when her pregnancy was terminated due to unforeseen complications merely six weeks after conception.

The recent success is a testimony to the determination of researchers who believed in the concept and continued to pursue the idea of effecting birth using the uterus of a dead donor.

Not only has the research opened a promising new avenue for childless couples throughout the world, but it also provides access to important information on how to see such pregnancies through to a full term for a successful delivery.

“Uterine transplant and subsequent pregnancies, including from live donors, have previously been reported, but this is the first case of a successful pregnancy from a deceased donor,” Andrew Shennan – professor of obstetrics at King’s College London, who was not part of the research – was quoted by the Independent as saying.

“Successful pregnancy, without evidence of any compromise in spite of the uterus (womb) being without oxygen for eight hours before transplant, was unique,” Shennan told the online newspaper.

The medical team after the baby's birth.
The medical team after the baby’s birth.

While there could have been a number of reasons behind Dr. Ejzenberg and his team’s success, timing was the key factor, believe the researchers.

The procedure involved removing sixteen eggs from the recipient’s functional ovaries five months prior to the transplant, out of which fifteen were fertilized and eight resulted in embryos which were preserved for implantation at a later date.

Seven months after the Sep 2016 transplant, with regular menstrual periods and no signs of organ rejection, one of the preserved embryos was implanted.

It was the timing of this implant that proved to be the key factor in achieving success.

In all of the failed attempts in the past, the embryo implant was done at least a year after the uterus transplant.

While it is not confirmed that the early implant actually made the difference between success and failure, researchers believe it’s a highly plausible rationale.

As is typically the case in transplants like this, the uterus was removed during delivery to eliminate complications from having to take immunosuppressants to fight rejection.

“The only other pregnancy following a uterine transplantation from a deceased donor was in 2011 in Turkey,” said Dr. Srdjan Saso, from the Imperial College London – also quoted by the Independent.

“This attempt was unsuccessful and led to miscarriage two years later, which led to doubts whether deceased donation could work,” he reportedly said.

“Our hope, as we plan to kick-start the UK programme at the beginning of 2019, is for the deceased donor uterine transplant programme to grow alongside its ‘live donor’ counterpart, prove achievable and successful so that both women with willing donors in their families, and those not, can have a real option of carrying a healthy pregnancy,” Dr Saso concluded.