Mark Grossman: What’s in a Robot Name? IRNG — Imaginative Robot Name Gap

22 August 2013

Militarily, the United States is unsurpassed. American soldiers are expertly trained. American weapons exceed those of any other nation in terms of both sophistication and sheer power. American military technology is a wonder to behold. We have long left the world of the 1960’s — a world in which pundits could place the U.S. on the wrong side of a weapons gap with any other nation. Sadly, however, another gap has emerged at the very center of this superior military technology: the Imaginative Robot Name Gap.

Robots are the ultimate symbols of high-tech. Their characteristics and capabilities are not just amazing, they’re really cool.  Putting aside America’s amazing techno-military resources, consider our robot naming resources.  After food, America’s top export is advertising.  America has Hollywood, the motion picture glitz capital of the world.  With these formidable, creative resources, why can’t our military and defense contractors seem to be able to come up with cool, or even exciting, names for military robots?

Now, we’re not speaking in terms of actual military strength, resiliency, audacity or, most of all, technology. Rather, we’re speaking in terms of imagination when it comes to naming robots. The U.S. may be first in every other category, but in imaginative robot names, I doubt that the U.S. could rank among the top 50 nations in the world.

The issue is America’s IRNG — Imaginative Robot Name Gap.

Consider Boston Dynamics’ amazing four-legged robot that carries more than 400 pounds through terrain too rough for wheels. Not only does this robotic marvel travel, it travels fast. Imagine this resilient four-legged chrome and steal monster swiftly moving through an almost impassible forest, relentlessly making its way to its destination — no — its target. Laden with a fifth of a ton of gear, its continuous, intrepid movements strike terror into the hearts of any enemy. Pretty scary, in a cool sort of way, isn’t it?

But what do they call this marvel? The Jungle Rat? The Mountain Devil? The Spider? None of these names made the cut. Instead, this robotic wonder is called “Robo-Mule.” [1]


Gee, I bet it took all of 20 seconds to think that one up. Sure, this robot actually does exactly what a mule used to do, but is this any kind of a name to give to this amazing ‘bot?

Some commentators have tried to conceal this dead zone of unimaginative robot naming by pointing out that this tough practical robot deserved this drab, anticlimax of a name because it is inelegant.

Inelegant? These are load-carrying ‘bots intended to accompany the Marines on treks through rough terrain in hostile territory. Nobody’s expecting the Robo-Mule to pirouette through the jungles and mountains like a ballerina. But that doesn’t mean this robot can’t have a cool, or even menacing, name.

A robot’s name doesn’t have to match its function. The name just has to sound good.  Consider American over-the-road trucks.  Trucks are called “Ram,” “Ranger,” “Silverado,” and “Avalanche.” And what do trucks do? They haul stuff. Do these brand names have anything to do with hauling stuff? Rams don’t haul anything. Rangers don’t haul stuff, they patrol around. Who knows what a Silverado is anyway? And the Chevy Avalanche? What does an avalanche have to do with hauling anything? These names just sound cool. This is what advertising can do with trucks. Why can’t we do as much for our military robots?

And to underline my point, let’s extend the truck analogy. Suppose, instead of “Ram Tough,” it was “Mule Tough?” How about changing Chevy Silverado to the “Chevy Mule?” If DARPA ever got a hold of the Chevy Avalanche, they’d rename it the “Chevy Sinkhole.”

Worse yet, “Robo-Mule” isn’t even a new name. It was given to another, earlier model, over 10 years ago, and quickly discarded.  Who would have ever dreamed that this cast-off, retread of a name would be fished out of the dumpster and given to a state-of-the-art military ‘bot . . . again?

To give the reader a better appreciation of the dreary history military robot naming, let’s take a melancholy stroll down “Unimaginative Robot Name” Lane.

In 2002, Boston Dynamics [2] created a four-legged robot for military use. This robot could carry only 320 lbs of gear. It made a sound like a swarm of bees. An experienced cow-tipper could put this ‘bot out of action. If tipped, it couldn’t get back up. However, for a short time, it had one thing in common with Boston Dynamics’ newest robotic quadruped. This 2002 robot was briefly named “Robo-Mule.”

With the creation of the first four-legged military robot more than a decade ago, a new era of really cool robotic technology dawned. Tragically, the christening, and re-christening, of this same robot created the Imaginative Robot Name Gap.

It was an exciting time for those of us who closely follow military robot-naming.  During those idyllic days, I was optimistic and hopeful.  The name “mule” was a let-down, but a chance for redemption came when the developers of the first model of this four-legged robot announced they were giving it a new name. My relief was only surpassed by my hopes. What would the new exciting “brand” be? What new and clever, yet terrifying, name would be selected. I was sure it would be a name that would strike fear into the hearts of any enemy.  Then, the new name was announced.

“Big Dog.”

Well, . . . I still don’t know what to say about the name “Big Dog.” [3] To use a metaphor involving heat would imply excitement. The name “Big Dog” is anything but exciting. So, instead of saying the name-change was like jumping from the frying pan into the fire, let’s just say that replacing “Robo-Mule” with “Big Dog” was something like jumping from the refrigerator into the deep freeze.  I still can’t get over it.  Big Dog!”

Was that the best they could do?

Ignoring the fact that, functionally, this robot really has nothing to do with a dog, let’s see if we can use this new name as a “creative starting point.” Did anyone consider substituting different words with similar meanings for “Big” and “Dog?” Words that were more . . . exciting?

Instead of “big,” how about “monster?” Instead of “dog,” how about “pit bull” or “rottweiler?” Better yet, “wolf.” “Monster Wolf.” Even better — wolves aren’t load-bearing, pack animals, so there’s no such thing as a pack-wolf. But why not reverse the “pack” and the “wolf” and change the name to “Wolf Pack.” Give each robot the scary name of a pack of wolves with the word “pack” as a sort of pun referring to the robot’s ability to haul heavy gear like a pack animal.

Well, . . . no matter. We’re locking the barn door long after the robot has been named.  We’re stuck with “Big Dog.”

The year was 2005. Boston Dynamics announced a new and improved four-legged ‘bot. This new robot was less noisy and traveled a bit faster than the “Big Dog Mule.” These improvements were good news, but new developments weren’t the critical issue. The important issue was the new name. Would it be imaginative enough?

The suspense left me with a sinking feeling. I’d been disappointed before.  But my fears faded when the new robot was described as more of an equine, horse-like, robot. This was exciting. Boston Dynamics had developed a swift robo-horse. The horse metaphor would provide a treasure-trove of exciting name possibilities. What would I have called it? Maybe the Coldblood Trotter, the Tiger Horse, or the Warlander.  When the announcement came, what was the new name?

“Alpha Dog.”

Let’s recap: “Mule” was followed by “Big Dog.” “Big Dog” was followed by the — oh, so imaginative — “Alpha Dog.” [4] Another 15 seconds of creative thought invested in the newest robot name. I guess moving from the name “Dog” to anther animal was too big a creative leap — even after the developers described the new robot as horse-like. After all, who would have thought to name a horse-like robot after a horse instead of a dog?!

I could see the imaginative robot name gap taking on the proportions of an undersea trench. But, before we move on, let’s stop to ask: Why “Alpha?” Alpha means “first,” but this is the second model. Maybe alpha means “leader,” like an “alpha wolf.” But these machines don’t operate in coordination with each other? So there is no dominant or even lead robot. Well, who knows? And . . . there’s no point in rehashing the retention of the word “Dog” in the name. I said all I have to say about that yawn-boring name a few paragraphs ago.

After our nation fell into this “Big Alpha Mule Dog” tar-pit of lame robot names, I had all but given up hope when something amazing happened. With one new robot and one new name, the Imaginative Robot Name Gap seemed to all but disappear.

In 2011, Boston Dynamics developed the “Robo-Cheetah.” [5] Reaching speeds up to 18 mph, it was the fastest four-legged robot on earth. This new ‘bot left the Robo-Mule (or “Big Alpha Dog” or whatever) far behind and not just in terms of speed, but in style.

This robot boasts a “cat-like spine,” which “flexes and extends” with the robot’s galloping stride. And does it gallop — “constantly tipping forward, falling, and regaining equilibrium with every step.”

Slap an American flag on each one of these and paint the word “CHEETAH” in bold red, white and blue letters all over it. On the very front of the ‘bot, paint a big cat face with a ferocious expression. Then, ship these off to the battlefield. The robot name gap is closing fast!

I don’t know what happened to produce this fantastic name. Something must have disrupted the normal robot naming process. I can only guess that, by some amazing coincidence, the military’s “robot namer,” (let’s call him, Major Dullman,) and the military contractor’s “robot brander,” (let’s call him VP Mildew,) were both out sick that day. Of course, none of the remaining crew could think of a single name. Then, a teenager inadvertently stumbled into the room. Realizing that the new robot looked like a giant cat, he or she probably said, “Cool, a robotic cheetah.” Then, asked where the nearest soft drink machine was located. The rest is robot-naming history.

My faltering faith in our ability to close the gap was all but restored with “Robo-Cheetah.” I could see a light at the end of the tunnel, which would, of course, prove to be a train coming in the opposite direction.

This brings us, full circle, back to the present — the 2012 announcement by Boston Dynamics of the creation of an amazingly advanced descendant of their “Alpha Big Dog.” Yes, everything about this new ‘bot is better, except its name: “Robo-Mule.” Dullman and Mildew were back on the job again and at the top of their form. No one wasted even 10 or 20 seconds on this one. They just took the oldest discarded name they could find in the wastebasket and slapped it on this amazing triumph or modern robotic technology.

I began having nightmares in which DARPA announced that even Robo-Cheetah has been renamed “Robo-Cuddles the Tabby Cat.” I’d awake, covered with sweat, shouting, “No!”  “No!”  As soon as I awoke, however, I knew it was only a dream. I knew because “Robo-Cuddles the Tabby Cat” was far too imaginative a name for Dullman and Mildew. They’d rename Robo-Cheetah something like “Robo-Pig” or “Robo-Snail.”

As the hours tick by, our strategic preparedness, in terms of imaginative robot names, is diminishing to almost nothing. We want our robots to confront the enemy and incapacitate them with fear — not uncontrolled laughter. Of course, the enemy will be defeated with the aid of these formidable robotic weapons. But after each victorious battle, the sound of derisive enemy laughter at our pathetic robot names will still be ringing in the ears of our victorious soldiers. They deserve better. Yes, our soldiers deserve robots with imaginative names.

The critical robot naming crisis is going from worse to much worse. Lame robot names are becoming part of the culture of our techno-military development process. Potential military contractors are catching on. Lame robot names attract military attention. In other words, the sillier and more unimaginative the robot’s name, the better.

We can see an example of this downward trend played out in a project undertaken by Virginia Tech and funded by the U.S. Navy, which led to the development of a “life-like, autonomous” underwater robot. [6] About the size and weight of a man, this ‘bot consists of a central core of components in a waterproof shell connected to eight moving arms. [7] The drone is capable of feats of amazing speed, endurance, and versatility while patrolling the ocean depths on “underwater surveillance missions.”

The naming possibilities were staggering. Perhaps, stingray, shark, barracuda, or something really scary, like “devilfish.” But no sooner had I thought these happy thoughts than I realized I was dreaming dreams. These experienced defense contractors, working directly with the military, were firmly in grip of the military-industrial complex’s robot misnaming machine.

And I was right. What did they name this intrepid sentinel of the deep?


No, that’s not a typo. The name was “Robo-Jelly.” Then, they changed the name. By this time, however, I was both sadder and wiser. I didn’t get my hopes up. But even my lowered expectations weren’t enough of a cushion. The name was changed from “Robo-Jelly” to “Cyro, the robotic jellyfish.” How cute. He should have his own cartoon show, like “Barney,” the dinosaur.

Jellyfish can certainly be a bit unpleasant. They’re all squishy, and they sting. But, somehow, being swarmed by a by a school of Robo-Jellies just isn’t the same thing as being swarmed by a school of Robo-Sharks or Robo-Devilfish is it?

While the underwater robotic technology of other nations will be far inferior to our own, their robots will have names that will send a shiver down your spine. You’ll be a bit apprehensive even before you see one. However, what will happen when our enemies hear about an approaching school of U.S. “Robo-Jellies?” Will this name fill them with fear? Or will this name evoke nothing more than a vision of being swarmed by waitresses with marmalade at IHOP?

Just imagine yourself as the only American at a cosmopolitan gathering. Foreign friends brag about their nations’ new telecommunications satellites and ionospheric heaters — all of which have formidable, even frightening, names. Then, in condescending tones, someone will ask you about how America’s doing with its new robot made out of Jello. You’ll try to explain that there’s no Jello involved and that the actual name is “Cyro the Jellyfish.” But your attempted explanation will be lost as the group dissolves into deafening laughter.

Moments later, still stinging from your Robo-Jelly humiliation, you’ll attempt to reenter the conversation only to be met with the same looks and tones as the same foreign friends ask pointed questions about the continuing development and deployment of “Robo-Jackass.” Again, you’ll try to explain that its name is “Mule” or “Big Dog” or “Alpha Dog.” As you are trying to defend your nation’s superior technology, you’ll find yourself hampered and, then, trapped in the tangled web of America’s farcical automatonic nomenclature. The Imaginative Robot Name Gap strikes again.

Update: 5 October 2013 — Boston Dynamics presents Robo-Cheetah’s smaller sibling: the well-named “WildCat.” [video] [story]  I found this story and video on RT.  I bet the Russians are green with envy!  [Additional links below]

Robo Wildcat Update Links:

Terrifying Wildcat military robot can hunt down any human in 9 seconds

Boston Dynamics Releases Its Four-Legged WildCat Robot

Watch that robo-WildCat go: Boston Dynamics’ newest four-legged robot – Los Angeles Times

This Video of a Cyborg Quadriped Will Have You Gasping in Terror

Have You Seen the Military’s ‘Throwable Robots?’

Meet Wildcat, The Military’s Wireless Running Robot: VIDEO

Watch as four-legged robot known as WildCat purrs along at 16 mph (video)

Four-Legged, DARPA Running War Robot Released (VIDEO)

Wildcat: the fastest legged robot in the world

Links and Notes:

[1] Robo-mule: The military’s rugged new wilderness beast

[2] Boston Dynamics – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

[3] Big Dog

[4] Meet AlphaDog, the terrifying robot horse the military’s building

[5] The Pentagon’s ‘freakily fast’ robo-cheetah

[6] Large robotic jellyfish could one day patrol oceans

[7] Meet Cyro, the robotic jellyfish that will haunt your dreams


Mark Grossman: Australia’s Megafauna — The Forgotten Giants of Prehistory

Mark Grossman: Australia’s Megafauna — The Forgotten Giants of Prehistory

8 August 2013

Everyone remembers the dinosaurs, but what happened after the dinosaurs went extinct?  They left a vacuum filled by giant and often forgotten animals: the megafauna.  The term megafauna, “big animals,” covers several groups of giant creatures.  However, naturalist Richard Owen honored only the oldest members of the group with the special name, “dinosaur.”  The remaining giants, those that roamed the earth between 10,000 and 40,000 years ago, are known by the (too general) term “megafauna.”

Today, Australia boasts a unique collection of animals.  Not only do these creatures look exceptional, they are also exceptional in terms scientific classification.  The duck billed platypus is classified as a mammal, but has a much lower body temperature than other mammals and lays eggs–earning it a special mention whenever biologists formulate a list of standard mammalian characteristics.  Indeed, the platypus is so “different” that the first reports of its discovery were denounced as “a fraud.”

Australia, also, has a large variety of marsupials, a group of animals that carry their immature young in a pouch for a period of time after birth.  Not surprisingly, the prehistoric Australian megafauna also include a wide variety of now-extinct marsupials.

Throughout millennia, arid periods threatened the survival of Australia’s megafauna, but one particular arid period, their last, coincided with the arrival of homo sapiens.  There is intense debate about whether climate or human interference caused the extinction.  Perhaps, it was some of both.

However, extinction is not necessarily the same as “dying out.”  The megafauna are no more, but many of their direct descendants roam Australia today–miniature versions of their ancient ancestors.  The modern kangaroo and wombat are direct descendants, “distant children,” of monstrously huge versions of themselves.  And huge they were.  New and more precise methods of calculating the size of the ancient mammals has revealed that they may have been much larger than previously thought.

Prehistoric Australia’s strange collection of giant wildlife included Diprotodon, the Giant Wombat. Unlike its relatively petite, modern descendant, this wombat weighed as much as two tons.  The remains of these giant creatures have been found all over Australia.

The Giant Short-Faced Kangaroo, Procoptodon, the largest known kangaroo that ever existed, stood about 7 feet tall and weighed 500 pounds.  Its feet looked a bit like horse hooves having only one large toe on each foot.  Each of its front paws had two long fingers with large claws. A full-size, lifelike replica is on permanent display, along with other ancient Australian animals, at the Australian Museum.

The Marsupial Lion, Thylacoleo, was not quite as big as the modern lion, but had just as strong a bite.  In fact, this creature had the strongest bite for its size of any known mammal species, living or dead.  Its long muscular tail was similar to that of a kangaroo, and it may even have been able to climb trees.  The Marsupial Lion is thought to have hunted large animals such as the giant wombat and giant kangaroo.

The Demon Duck of Doom, Bullockornis, is older than the typical megafauna species.  Although living closer to the age of dinosaurs, it was just too unusual to omit.  This flightless bird was about 8 feet tall and weighed about 500 pounds.  Thought to be carnivorous, Bullockornis had a huge beak, suitable for “shearing,” which probably explains its threatening name.

The giant turtle, Meiolania, had disturbingly devilish horns making its head almost 2 feet wide (measured from the tip of each horn).  The horns prevented the giant turtle from withdrawing its head into its shell–but who was going to mess with it anyway.  Pulling its tail was not a good idea either.  The tail was ringed with armor-like skin and was tipped with spikes.  At about 8 feet long, most animals probably just got out of this turtle’s way as it crawled across the prehistoric landscape.

One cannot research these giant creatures without stumbling across the fact that all continents had megafauna–not just Australia.  North America had one of the most famous species and one of the last to go extinct, the Wooly Mammoth.  This enormous version of the modern elephant roamed the northern extremes of North America about 12,000 years ago.

At one-ton (2,000 pounds), Andrewsarchus was the largest carnivorous land mammal that ever lived.  Bearing a resemblance to the hyena, on which it preyed, it might be the biggest dog-like creature that ever lived.  It was certainly larger than the than biggest prehistoric dog, Canis Diris, the Dire Wolf.  At 150 pounds, the Dire Wolf was a featherweight compared to Audrewsarchus, but more than a heavyweight compared to its descendant, the modern wolf.  Remains of the Dire Wolf have been found alongside those of the Saber Toothed Tiger in the La Brea Tar Pits of Los Angeles.

Perhaps the species that suffered the most indignity at human hands was a giant version of the modern armadillo, Glyptodon.  It lumbered through the forests of South America and was about the size of a modern VW bug.  Slow and meaty, human hunters had both the patience and ingenuity to hunt and kill this strange creature.  Not only was its meat used for food, its shell was used as a kind of prefabricated living shelter.  In terms of size, its shell provided something like the Torrid Zone equivalent of an igloo.  As human food and housing demands increased, the number of giant armadillos decreased until the prehistoric housing bubble burst when this natural producer of “prefabricated housing solutions” went extinct.

Image Links:

The Giant Wombat, Diprotodon

Giant Kangaroo, Procoptodon

The Marsupial Lion, Thylacoleo

Demon Duck of Doom, Bullockorn

The Giant Turtle, Meiolania

Wooly Mammoth


Dire Wolf

The Giant Armadillo, Glyptodon


M Grossmann of Hazelwood, Missouri

& Belleville, Illinois

About the Author


Mark Grossman: Robotic Bees and Mini-Drone Surveillance Bees

25 July 2013

Scientists at Harvard are working on the development the first robotic bee. They hope that their robo-bee will, someday, be able to pollinate flowers and crops just like the organic original: the honeybee.

Beginning in 2009, Harvard’s “Micro Air Vehicles Project” has used titanium and plastic to replicate the functions, if not the appearance, of the familiar honeybee. The robo-bee pops up, complete with wings, from a quarter-sized metal disk. The the creators hope that, one day, “robo-bees” will be engineered to fly in swarms, live in artificial hives, and coordinate both their target locations and pollination methodologies.

In fact, the researcher’s vision of the future “robo-bee” is so striking that one writer expressed the wish that the project’s spokesperson add the phrase “for the good of all mankind” to each progress report. Without it, readers might be reminded of all the movies “about technology that eventually destroys mankind.” In fact, the robo-bee may help save us or, at least, save our food supply.

Bees have been dropping like (the proverbial) flies for over 7 years now. The current bee depopulation was termed a “disappearance,” then, a “die-off” and, now, is formally referred to as “Colony Collapse Disorder.” The decline in bee populations continues at an alarming rate. However, bee die-offs are not just a part of modern life. There have been a number of die-offs in that last couple of centuries. The original European honeybee disappeared from Europe long ago. Its successor, our modern honeybee, was imported from Turkey into Europe and, then, into the United States.

Bees get a lot of scientific attention because they are vital to American agriculture, which is vital to the American economy. Without bees, production of some of our most profitable crops would be impossible. Every few weeks, a news article announces the discovery of “the cause” of the threatened bee “extinction.” Blaming pesticides is almost fashionable. However, these sensational claims do little more than draw attention to particular studies, and the involved researchers. In fact, there probably isn’t a single cause. The current die-off seems to be the result of several factors working together. Sadly, our familiar honeybee may be gone long before the exact combination of factors can be found.

The puzzle goes like this. A bee (1) has a parasite like varroa mites; (2) is exhausted by transport over long distances; and (3) is exposed to a particular pesticide. Alone, none of these factors would kill a bee. Even all of these put together wouldn’t kill a bee. However, all of these put together might weaken the bee’s immune system. Then, with a compromised immune system, the bee contracts, and dies from, a completely unrelated disease. That disease is the final cause the bee’s death. However, the underlying cause is an immune system compromised, not by one factor, but by a particular combination of several factors. For now, that combination remains a mystery.

While science fiction films have portrayed the replacement of human beings with robots, films have never explored the possibly sinister side of robo-bee. Imagine a robotic “Stepford Bee” hiding quietly in the wings waiting for death of the last honeybee. And, then, a “brave new” technological world–without any bees at all!

There is something a bit creepy about human-engineered bees pollinating crops grown from human-engineered seeds. One writer described the disturbing vision as “swarms of tiny robot bees . . . pollinating those vast dystopian fields of GMO cash crops.”

By the way, one developer of those “GMO cash crops,” Monsanto, sponsored a recent “Bee Health Summit” in Saint Louis, Missouri. A company spokesperson acknowledged that the beekeepers might have heard some “scary stuff” about Monsanto. The summit is the company’s effort to “introduce itself to the beekeeping industry” and “raise their comfort level.” And there was some discomfort with one beekeeping guest commenting, “I can’t believe I’m at Monsanto.”

On the comforting side, Monsanto is after one of the oldest and most clearly identified factors in declining bee health, the parasitic varroa mite, which spreads a variety of viruses to honeybees. Researchers with Beeologics, one of Monsanto’s recent acquisitions, are planning to use RNA, a genetic regulator that determines how a plant or insect “works.” The RNA would be fed to the bee and, then, would be ingested by the mites. Once in the mite’s system, the RNA would “turn off” the mite’s virus transmitting gene.

With this RNA intervention, and other technologies, our honeybees may yet be saved from relative extinction.  Then, their robotic replacements would have to remain on the shelf.  But hold on. Genetically engineering the mite is only one step closer to genetically engineering the honey bee. So, we may be saved from robotic bees by . . . GMO bees?

Well, as our GMO bees pollinate our GMO crops, we can only feel a pang of sorrow for our robo-bee languishing in the shadows. With a revived, genetically engineered super-honeybee, where could a robotic bee go? What would it do?

No problem.  Harvard’s Micro Air Vehicles Project had that covered from the beginning.  The project’s published reports also suggest potential military uses. So, robo-bee, with some market repositioning, becomes the world’s smallest drone.

Well, if Monsanto “saves” the honeybee, who will be interested in our newly re-branded and repositioned mini-drones? Again, possibly Monsanto, which, at least once in the past, retained a private security contractor “to protect its GMO crops.”   The “protection” was less exciting than it sounds. It was limited to the simple monitoring of public information.

Still, what security company couldn’t use swarms of surveillance mini-drones?  So, if Monsanto needs security in the future, robo-bee might play a part in the security provider’s services.

Finally, we end up with yet another, unexpected vision of our future.  Just picture it.  We stand watching the setting sun as swarms of genetically engineered super-bees pollinate “dystopian fields of GMO cash crops,” while we, ourselves, are closely surveilled by swarms of robo-bees or, rather, “mini-drones.”

Why does everything just keep getting weirder?

The End?

[Author’s Note: Actually, Robo-Bee is a long, long way from rolling off the assembly line and into the fields. Even farther away are the technologies and knowledge necessary to genetically engineer anything as complicated as an insect.]

Selected Source Links:

Harvard scientists unleash the robot bees

Robotic Bees to Pollinate Monsanto Crops, 04/08/13, Russ McSpadden

Monsanto hopes to win over beekeepers with cure, 06/14/13, Georgina Gustin

Mark Grossman: The Nano Hummingbird – The Original Bird ‘Bot

12 December 2013

[Nano Hummer Video]

On 17 February 2011, DARPA announced the development of the first fully functional robotic bird. [1]  The “Nano Hummingbird” or, as it is also less imaginatively called, the “Nano Air Vehicle” (“NAV”), was the successful result of a project started in 2006 by AeroVironment, Inc. under the direction of DARPA. [1] Robots, by definition, must “do work.”  And the Nano-Hummer was the first fully functional bird-drone designed and able to perform surveillance and reconnaissance missions.

This robotic hummingbird can remain aloft for 11 minutes and attain a speed of 11 mph. [1]   With a skeleton of hollow carbon-fiber rods wrapped in fiber mesh, coated in a polyvinyl fluoride film, [5] and carrying “batteries, motors, and communications systems; as well as the video camera payload,” the robo-hummer weighs just .67 ounces. [1]

Designed to be deployed in urban environments or on battlefields, this drone is can “perch on windowsills or power lines” and even “enter buildings to observe and its surroundings” while relaying a continuous video back to its “pilot.” [video] [1]

In terms of appearance, the Nano-Hummer was, and is, quite like a hummingbird.    Although larger than the typical hummingbird, Nano-Hummer, is well within the size range of the species and is, actually, smaller than the largest of real hummingbirds. [1]   With a facade both shaped and colored to resemble the real bird, the Nano-Hummer presents the viewer with a remarkable likeness of a hummingbird. [1]

The Nano-Hummer isn’t stealth in the sense of evading radar.  Nor is it “cryptic,” that type of camouflage that blends, or disappears, into the surrounding terrain.  Rather, with the appearance of a hummingbird, the designers used a type of camouflage called “mimesis,” also termed “masquerade,” as concealment.  A camouflaged object is said to be “masqueraded” when the object can be clearly seen, but looks like something else, which is of no special interest to the observer.  And such camouflage is important to a mini-drone with the primary purpose of surveillance and reconnaissance. [1]

Designing this drone on the “hummingbird model,” however, was not done only for the purpose of camouflage.  The project’s objective included biomimicry, that is, biologically inspired engineering. [8] With the hummingbird, its amazingly diverse flight maneuvers were the object of imitation.  However, UAV’s head researcher, Matt Keennon, admits that a perfect replica of what “nature has done” was too daunting. [5]  For example, the Nano-Hummer only beats its wings 20 times a second, which is slow motion compared to the real hummingbird’s 80 beats per second. [video] [5]

Whatever the technical shortfalls, this bird-bot replicates much of the real hummingbird’s flight performance. [5]  Not only can it perform rolls and backflips [video] but, most important of all, it can hover like the real thing. [video] [5]  Part of the importance of the ability hover relates to its reconnaissance and surveillance functions.  Hovering allows the video camera to select and observe stationary targets.  However, the “hover” of both hummingbirds and bees attracts so much attention from developers of drone technology because it assures success in the most difficult flight maneuver of all — landing.  In fact, landing is the most complex part of flight, and the maneuver most likely to result in accident or disaster.

When landing, a flying object must attain the slowest speed possible before touching down.  Hovering resolves the problem neatly by assuring that the robot can stop in midair and, therefore, touch the ground or perch as zero speed.  Observe the relatively compact helicopter landing port in contrast to the long landing strip required by an airplane which must maintain forward motion when airborne.

The drone has a remarkable range of movement in flight much like the real hummingbird. [1] Nano-Hummer “can climb and descend vertically; fly sideways left and right; forward and backward; rotate clockwise and counter-clockwise; and hover in mid-air.” [1]  Both propulsion and altitude control are entirely provided by the drone’s flapping wings. [video] [1]

This remote controlled mini-drone can be maneuvered by the “pilot” without direct visual observation using the video stream alone. [1] With its small camera, this drone can relay back video images of its location. [1] The camera angle is defined by the drone’s pitch.  In forward motion, the camera provides a continuous view of the ground.  Hovering provides the best camera angle for surveying rooms. [video] [5]

To DARPA, it was particularly important that this drone demonstrate the ability to hover in a 5 mph side-wind without drift of more than one meter. [1]  The CIA’s “insectothopter,” a robotic dragonfly was developed in the 1970’s. [image] [3] This unmanned aerial vehicle “was the size of a dragonfly, and was hand-painted to look like one.” [3]  Powered by a small gasoline engine, the insectothopter proved unusable due to its inability to withstand even moderate wind gusts. [video] [3]

The Nano-Hummingbird was named by Time Magazine as one of the 50 best inventions of 2011 [4] and has paved the way for the development of a whole generation of bird inspired ‘bots, including Prioria’s “Maverick,” [image] [video] and, the even more “bird-like,” Robo-Raven, which is still in development by the Army Research Laboratory. [image 1] [video] [video] Also, the development of this first small bird-bot brought the U.S. Air Force one step closer to one of the goals on its wish list: “flocks of small drones.” [7]

A flock of small drones sounds really cool – as long as the flock isn’t after me.





























Taxes & The IRS — One of those Certain Things

1 August 2013

From time to time, the Internal Revenue Service becomes a particular focus of public dissatisfaction.  Not that the IRS wasn’t, well, less than popular already.  Sadly, just this kind of situation is often an invitation to con artists.  So, you might hear some amazing claims.  These particular claims are anything but new.  A little over 10 years ago, several self-styled “experts” were touring the United States speaking to groups and appearing on radio and TV talk-shows asserting that Americans didn’t have to pay their income taxes.  The amazing claim was that, somehow, it’s legal to ignore your IRS tax obligation.

It isn’t.  This is a reminder of that simple fact.

Generally, these “experts” rely on one or more of these four false assertions.  (1) The power to tax incomes isn’t in the Constitution.  (2) Our income tax system is “voluntary.”  So, no one actually has to pay income tax.  (3) Our paper currency isn’t real money.  So we have no real income on which to base an income tax obligation.  (4) The speaker/author has followed his or her own advice, and not paid income taxes for several years, without any consequences.

(1) The United States income tax is both legal and, certainly, constitutional.  How do we know?  It’s written in the Constitution.  The authors of our income tax legislation took no chances.  They proposed and amended the Constitution to assure the legality of an income tax.  The 16th Amendment specifically authorizes the U.S. Government to levy an income tax: “The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration.”

(2) Our income tax system is voluntary.  In most nations of the world, government inspectors determine how much tax a citizen owes.  Then, government collectors “collect” those taxes.  This is an involuntary system.  In the United States, however, the government allows citizens to calculate their own yearly taxes and submit a “return,” together with their payment before a certain date: April 15th of the following year.  Therefore, our system of income taxation is voluntary.

Generally, the IRS takes a taxpayer’s word for the amounts of the taxpayer’s income, deductions, and tax owed.  Actual audits are rare with very few spot checks.  Notwithstanding the recent admitted misconduct of some IRS officials and the resulting scandal, appropriate audits are most often undertaken when evidence suggests that a taxpayer’s return is inaccurate.  Of course, if the taxpayer does not voluntarily submit a return or fails to fully pay their tax obligation, by the April 15th deadline, the IRS will take steps to forcibly collect the tax owed with considerable penalties and a rather high rate of interest.  So, our system is voluntary, but only if you volunteer–in time.

(3)  Our paper currency is real money.  The last actual connection between U.S. currency and our physical gold and silver reserves ended in the mid 1960’s with the government only ending the regulation of the price of gold (“pegging” our currency to gold) in 1973.  Federal Reserve Notes are “legal tender (real money) for all debts public and private.”  How do we know?  It’s written on every Federal Reserve Note.  A refusal to accept Federal Reserve Notes as legal tender (money) in the United States is a crime.

(4) Sometimes, the tax-defying “expert” will point out that they, themselves, haven’t paid their income tax in one, two, or three years without incident.  To underline their defiance, a few claim to have submitted a return filled out in some colorful or creative way including a written assertion that they legally do not have to pay income tax.  Again, a few claim to have done this for as many as three years, but never four.  Why?  One statute of limitation on prosecution for income tax evasion is four years.  The IRS waits out the limitation period to allow these promoters to rack-up the maximum number of prosecutable federal offenses and, then, . . . prosecution followed by a stay in the slammer.

It’s one thing to make an honest, even foolish, mistake calculating one’s income tax.  That isn’t even a crime.  The taxpayer is just asked to pay any unpaid tax obligation with interest and penalties.  However, it’s another thing when the potential tax payer knows they should pay and refuses.  And yet an altogether worse thing when a person who knows they should pay, refuses, brags about it, and encourages others to do the same.  Again, this brings a stay in the slammer.

In the future, do yourself a favor and don’t fall for the assurances of any scammer who asserts that they have found some previously undiscovered loophole that allows them, or anyone else, not to pay the federal tax on income.  Likewise, advise your friends and acquaintances that these scammers, at best, are wrong and, at worst, “are a few cans short of a six-pack.”

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Mark Grossman: Sunshine — Not As Bad As We Thought?

18 July 2013

In an episode of the animated television series, King of the Hill, one of the characters says, “Truth is like sunlight.  People used to think it was good for you.”  Probably, your great-grandmother would have said that you should always tell the truth and that you should stay healthy by getting outdoors in the sunlight.

For the last 50 years, however, most of us have been splashing on sunscreen, wearing special sunglasses and opaque outerwear in an effort to avoid the sun’s rays.  In other words, we have been avoiding unfiltered sunlight like the plague.  The plague we were avoiding was skin cancer.  However, recent research seems to indicate that there is a cost to our sunless lifestyle.  Perhaps, “cost” is the wrong word.  A better word is “tradeoff.”

In the UK, and throughout the world, greater numbers of both children and adults are suffering serious Vitamin D deficiencies.  Human beings and animals naturally make Vitamin D when solar UV (ultraviolet) rays shine on our exposed skin.  When we started hiding from the sun, dietary supplements were supposed to provide the daily nutritional requirement once supplied almost exclusively by the sun’s rays.  However, for many, oral supplements do not seem to be providing even the minimum Vitamin D needed to maintain health.

Throughout the organic world, sunlight is closely related to the production of Vitamin D.  Exposing organic substances to direct sunlight is the primary method used to produce Vitamin D for human supplements.  Milk, when exposed to sunlight, develops an extremely effective form of the vitamin called D3.

Normal levels of Vitamin D do more than prevent a malformation of the bones called rickets.  Vitamin D deficiency is linked to hypertension, depression, obesity, dementia, cancer, osteoporosis, diabetes, multiple sclerosis and, the biggest of them all, heart disease.

University of Edinburgh scientists discovered that our skin, when exposed to sunlight, releases nitric oxide into our blood, which helps lower blood pressure and protect the heart from disease, cardiac arrest, strokes, and attacks.  Statistically, our reduced exposure to sunlight may have increased heart disease more than it decreased skin disease.  Indeed, rates of skin cancer have continued to increase even as our exposure to potentially carcinogenic UV rays has decreased.

Certainly, there are disadvantages to avoiding sunlight.  After all, human beings as a species have lived and thrived for thousands of years with direct exposure to substantial levels of UV rays.  So, maybe sunlight is good for us.  Or . . . maybe it isn’t.

As we hear the latest discoveries describing the benefits of sunlight, it is important to remember that UV rays are also used to sterilize medical instruments.  There are even special UV lamps that are placed in heating and cooling ducts to kill mold, bacteria, and viruses in the air.  These must be installed deep within the ductwork to avoid exposing people to the direct light of these lamps.  But why does this kind of lamp light pose a danger to people?

What we call sunlight contains a particular range of the UV radiation that seriously damages the DNA of bacteria and viruses.  The damage can be so severe that these small organisms cannot successfully reproduce.  So they die.  That is how UV radiation kills germs.  That same range of UV radiation can do the same thing to human skin cells.  The light damages the cell’s DNA causing cell death or genetic mutation, which can lead to the development of skin cancer.  The potentially carcinogenic effects of UV radiation are both direct and well understood.  It would be unwise to ignore this danger.

So, what is the answer?  Do we bask in the sun or avoid the sun?  Without giving medical advice, as I am not qualified to do so, I’ll venture a guess.  Perhaps neither seeking nor avoiding the sun is the answer.  Rather, what is needed is moderation.  Based on your skin type, and with consideration of your individual risk factors, moderate exposure to sunlight is probably healthy and less risky than is generally thought.  So, exposure to a moderate amount of unfiltered sunshine is a good thing.  However, if you regularly work or play outdoors, the prolonged exposure is probably less healthy and more risky.  So, break out the sunscreen, UV sunglasses, and protective outerwear.  With prolonged UV exposure, these precautions just make good sense.

Also, keep in mind that excessive sunlight has unfortunate cosmetic effects causing premature aging of the skin.  The word “tan,” to describe the effects of sunlight on human skin, also describes the process used to produce leather goods.  Leather shoes look good.  Leather faces do not.

On a lighter and stranger note, a woman in Seattle, Navenna Shine, is planning to live on sunshine.  She hopes to survive on light without any food other than water and tea.  Her “Living on Light Experiment” is based on an Indian regimen practiced by a group called inediates, who live without food.  Correction: Inediates “say” they live without food.  It is widely reported that modern practitioners of this ancient discipline have almost all been caught cheating.  Reportedly, one was even caught in a fast food restaurant.  Of course, we should be sympathetic.  If, as most suspect, living without food is fatal, sneaking an occasional Happy Meal isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative.

Selected Sources:

Sunlight Could Reduce Death Rate From All Causes

Scared of the Sun – the Global Pandemic of Vitamin D Deficiency

Information on Vitamin D

5 Amazing Properties of Sunlight You’ve Never Heard About

Radiation: A Sterilization Method

Disinfection: An Overview – Ultraviolet Radiation Ultraviolet Radiation

Can People Live on Only Sunlight and Water?

“Truth is like sunlight.  People used to think it was good for you.”

King of the Hill, Season 2: Episode 14 “Remember Mono”

[n9] Am I deficient in Vitamin D? | Vitamin D Council

[n10] Hypovitaminosis D – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

[n11] Time in the Sun: How Much Is Needed for Vitamin D? – US News and World Report


[n12] How do I get the vitamin D my body needs? | Vitamin D Council

[n13] How Much Sun Exposure Do I Need for Vitamin D?