Tag Archives: leveraging tech

geoengineers forced to proceed slowly

Would-be geoengineers must listen to the public – opinion – 03 October 2011 – New Scientist.

It is no surprise that a proposed test of a climate engineering technology has raised hackles despite being environmentally benign

The world’s first field test of a technology that might, one day, cool global temperatures has been put on hold for at least six months, amid disquiet.

In October, the skies above Norfolk in the UK were scheduled to host a giant balloon attached to a 1-kilometre pipe that would harmlessly spray water droplets into the air. The work could be the first practical step in combating the effects of climate change.

The test is part of a research programme that aims to evaluate the feasibility of Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering (SPICE). This is just one of many proposals for technologies that could manipulate the climate through “solar radiation management” – if ever deployed, it would involve spraying reflective particles into the stratosphere to deflect a proportion of sunlight.

It is by no means clear that these ideas will ever become reality. The SPICE project has become a lightning rod for discussion and debate, however, because it is the first solar radiation management technology to be officially tested outside the lab.

Now the body overseeing all this, the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, has decided it needs further consultation with “stakeholders”, such as environmental organisations, before going ahead.

Atmospheric liposuction

Writing in The Guardian, activist and writer George Monbiot described the project as a “complete waste of time” and geoengineering as “atmospheric liposuction”. The ETC group, an international technology watchdog, denounced the trial as an “unhelpful provocation” likely to undermine international climate negotiations.

The SPICE team are quick to point out that the test itself does not constitute geoengineering – they are simply testing a delivery mechanism for spraying particles, and observing the movements of the balloon. But although the process may be environmentally benign, it is proving somewhat toxic socially.

It may be tempting to dismiss opposition to SPICE as anti-scientific, but there are good reasons to scratch beneath the surface of these views. Experience with previous science-society controversies such as the genetically modified crops debate or the continuing concerns over nanotechnologies shows that public mistrust is only partly based on scientific grounds. When members of the public are given the opportunity to discuss emerging areas of science, they often bring perspectives to the table that the scientific community may have missed.

Beyond questions about the safety or unintended side effects of geoengineering, there are deeper issues outside the remit of a purely scientific investigation. Is the intentional manipulation of the climate acceptable in principle? Will geoengineering technologies be likely to cause international conflict? Whose voices will be represented in decision-making about research and deployment? These are questions that should not be restricted to scientific or political elites, and opposition to seemingly benign scientific tests must be seen against this backdrop. What the SPICE test represents is just as important as its physical effect.

Most people are not experts on the science of geoengineering, but we can all claim to have some expertise in making moral and social judgements. Opinions that may appear irrational from a scientific perspective often seem less so when considered through a social, political or ethical lens. Incorporating these broader public views into decision-making about research and development is essential when the stakes are so high and uncertainty so great.

Ideology and technology

Research by Dan Kahan and colleagues at Yale University has repeatedly demonstrated that public attitudes about science are coloured by an ideological filter. Risk perceptions are not simply a matter of weighing up the pros and cons of a particular technology: they are also judgements about the role of science in society. If you are generally predisposed – for entirely legitimate reasons – to be sceptical about the value of grand, high-tech solutions to societal problems, and dubious about the capacity of governments and industry to regulate them, then the SPICE test is likely to set alarm bells ringing.

This position is not irrational in any meaningful sense of the word. Whether or not to deploy geoengineering is clearly a value judgement. But so is the decision about whether to conduct research into it at all. Moreover, there are good reasons for taking these broader perspectives seriously. The lesson for scientists from the controversy over GM crop trials is that ignoring seemingly unscientific opposition is counterproductive. Public engagement should not be considered as an opportunity to “sell” new technologies. When the public perceives this to be the case, opposition is likely to harden.

Incorporating public perspectives is also unlikely to deliver easy answers. In research conducted recently by the Understanding Risk group at Cardiff University, UK, members of the public expressed a range of views about SPICE. Most were willing to entertain the notion that the test should be pursued as a research opportunity. But very few were unconditionally positive about either the idea of solar radiation management or the test itself.

When such a critical issue is at stake it is perhaps inevitable that debates will be characterised by hyperbole and inflammatory rhetoric. But it is vital to remember that public attitudes towards science are not simply read off from scientific risk assessments. The SPICE test is a deeply symbolic development, and opposition towards it must be understood in this context.

Adam Corner is a research associate in the School of Psychology at Cardiff University, UK, focusing on the communication of climate change and public engagement with emerging technologies such as geoengineering.

New Oil Remediation Tech takes $1mil Xprize

Disc Spins Its Way to $1 Million Oil Spill Clean Up Prize: Scientific American Podcast.

When oil started spewing from BP’s Macondo well in April 2010, there weren’t too many options for cleaning it up. Concentrated slicks on the ocean surface could be set ablaze. Booms kept oil off the shores, as long as the waves stayed calm. And chemical dispersants of unknown toxicity could be sprayed to break up oil patches.

But thanks to the Wendy Schmidt X Prize that won’t be true next time. A company from Illinois known as Elastec / American Marine won the $1 million first prize by tripling previous clean up rates.

Over 10 weeks this summer, 10 finalists out of 350 entrants demonstrated their technology at the largest outdoor saltwater wave test facility in North America. Elastec’s Grooved Disc Skimmer scooped up 4,670 gallons of oil per minute and didn’t leave much behind.

The machine looks like a giant, thick, grooved vinyl record spinning at high speed to capture nearly 90 percent of the oil on the waters. And there’s no shortage of oil spills for it to work on. The latest is underway in New Zealand, as a stranded cargo ship leaks heavy oil onto a coral reef and local beaches.

Quake-prone Japanese Area Runs Disaster System on Force.com

Quake-prone Japanese Area Runs Disaster System on Force.com | PCWorld.

A coastal region of Japan due for a major earthquake and possible tsunamis has implemented a cloud-based disaster management system run by Salesforce.com.

Shizuoka Prefecture, on Japan’s eastern coast in the central region of the country, lies curled around an undersea trough formed by the junction of two tectonic plates. It has been rocked by repeated large temblors in past centuries, collectively called “Tokai earthquakes,” and the central government has warned that with underground stresses high another is imminent.

The local prefectural government began to build a new disaster management system last year, the initial version of which went live in July. It is based on Salesforce.com’s platform-as-a-service offering, Force.com, which hosts hundreds of thousands of applications.

“It would have cost a lot more to run our own servers and network, and if a disaster happened managing something like that would be very difficult, especially if the prefecture office was damaged,” said Keisuke Uchiyama, a Shizuoka official who works with the system.

Japanese prefectures are the rough equivalent of states.

The system is currently hosted on Salesforce.com’s servers in the U.S. and goes live when an official disaster warning is issued by the government. It links up information about key infrastructure such as roads, heliports and evacuation centers.

Salesforce.com says it combines GIS (geographic information system) data with XML sent from Japan’s Meteorological Agency. Users can also send email updates from the field using their mobile phones, with GPS coordinates and pictures attached.

Uchiyama said the original plan was to allow open access, but budget cuts forced that to be postponed and it is now available only to government workers and disaster-related groups. The system was implemented with a budget of about 200 million yen (US$2.6 million) over its first two years, down from an original allotment of about 500 million yen over three years.

He said it was used to keep track of the situation last week when a powerful typhoon swept through central Japan.

The obvious downside to a hosted system is that key infrastructure is often destroyed during natural disasters. After the powerful earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan’s northeastern coast in March, some seaside towns were completely devastated and went weeks without basics like power or mobile phone service. Local communities turned to word-of-mouth and public bulletin boards to spread information and search for survivors.

“If the network gets cut, it’s over,” said Uchiyama.

Flying sphere for disaster recon

Flying sphere the size of a basketball that can travel at 37mph | Mail Online.

Its Japanese developers call it the ‘Futuristic Circular Flying Object’ and it’s designed to go where humans can’t.

The radio-controlled sphere, roughly the size of a basketball, was built for search and rescue operations, specifically to fly in and out of buildings weakened by earthquakes or other natural disasters.

The device uses its onboard camera to transmit live images of whatever it sees.

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Radio-controlled: The 'Futuristic Circular Flying Object' uses an onboard camera to transmit live images of whatever it sees

Radio-controlled: The ‘Futuristic Circular Flying Object’ uses an onboard camera to transmit live images of whatever it sees

The sphere was built for search and rescue operations, specifically to fly in and out of buildings weakened by earthquakes or other natural disasters

The sphere was built for search and rescue operations, specifically to fly in and out of buildings weakened by earthquakes or other natural disasters

The airborne device zips through the air, glides smoothly around corners, and negotiates staircases with ease, all the while emitting a soft hum

Flying object: The device zips through the air, glides smoothly around corners, and negotiates staircases with ease, all the while emitting a soft hum

The black, open-work ball looks like a futuristic work of art, but it can hover for up to eight minutes and fly at 37mph — although it does slow down for open windows.

 

Fumiyuki Sato, at the Japanese Defense Ministry’s Technical Research and Development Institute, invented and built the vehicle for roughly 110,000 yen (£865 / $1,390) with parts purchased off the shelf at consumer electronics stores.

He said: ‘Because of its spherical shape, it can land in various positions and tumble to move around the ground.’

It zips through the air, glides smoothly around corners, and negotiates staircases with ease, all the while emitting a soft hum.

Inventor: Fumiyuki Sato, at the Japanese Defense Ministry's Technical Research and Development Institute, invented and built the vehicle for roughly £865

Inventor: Fumiyuki Sato, at the Japanese Defense Ministry’s Technical Research and Development Institute, invented and built the vehicle for roughly £865

Slick: The black, open-work ball looks like a futuristic work of art, but it can hover for up to eight minutes and fly at up to 37mph

Slick: The black, open-work ball looks like a futuristic work of art, but it can hover for up to eight minutes and fly at up to 37mph

 

Resourceful: Mr Sato built the sphere with parts purchased off the shelf at consumer electronics stores

Resourceful: Mr Sato built the sphere with parts purchased off the shelf at consumer electronics stores

Measuring 42cm, it boasts eight manoeuvrable rudders, 16 spoilers and three gyro sensors to keep it upright. It is made of lightweight carbon fiber and styrene components for a total weight of 340grams.

If its lithium batteries lose power, it’s been designed simply to roll to a stop to minimise the chance of damage.

‘When fully developed, it can be used at disaster sites, or anti-terrorism operations or urban warfare,’ Mr Sato said.

Meanwhile, he added, there’s the pure fun of testing it.