New MIT Technology to Help Drones Dodge Obstacles May Make Deliveries Easier

Jonathan How, MIT
Jonathan How, MIT

New technology developed by MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) may help drones dodge collisions as they fly, making things like drone pizza delivery a whole lot more plausible on a large scale.

Whether you’re a human or a drone, moving through a city always involves a certain amount of uncertainty. Will that light turn green as you approach? Will a pedestrian bump into you? Will a pigeon fly in your face? Will there be a sudden road closure for a parade, or a newly installed crane at a construction site? And if there’s one thing that machines tend to be bad at, it’s dealing with uncertainty. For a fast-flying drone, navigating with a static map just won’t cut it in the real world.

So CSAIL researchers created NanoMap, a new system that can model uncertainty, taking into account that, as a drone flies, the conditions around it might change. The technology helps the drone plan for the fact that it probably doesn’t know precisely where it is in relation to everything else in the world. It spends less time calculating the perfect route around an obstacle, relying instead on a more general idea of where things are and how to avoid them, allowing it to process and avoid potential collisions more quickly.

It features depth sensors that constantly measure the distance between the drone and the objects around it, creating a kind of image for the machine of where it has been and where it is going. “It’s kind of like saving all of the images you’ve seen of the world as a big tape in your head,” MIT researcher Pete Florence explains in a press release. “For the drone to plan motions, it essentially goes back into time to think individually of all the different places that it was in.”

In testing, the NanoMap system allowed small drones to fly through forests and warehouses at 20 miles per hour while avoiding potential collisions with trees and other obstacles.

The project was funded in part by the Department of Defense’s DARPA, so it could be used as part of military missions, but it would also be helpful for any kind of drone-based delivery—whether it’s ferrying relief supplies to combat zones or your latest Amazon Prime package.

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Now that Prime Day is over, and with Black Friday and Cyber Monday still a few weeks away, online deals may seem harder to come by. And while it can be a hassle to scour the internet for promo codes, buy-one-get-one deals, and flash sales, Amazon actually has an extensive coupon page you might not know about that features deals to look through every day.

As pointed out by People, the coupon page breaks deals down by categories, like electronics, home & kitchen, and groceries (the coupons even work with SNAP benefits). Since most of the deals revolve around the essentials, it's easy to stock up on items like Cottonelle toilet paper, Tide Pods, Cascade dishwasher detergent, and a 50 pack of surgical masks whenever you're running low.

But the low prices don't just stop at necessities. If you’re looking for the best deal on headphones, all you have to do is go to the electronics coupon page and it will bring up a deal on these COWIN E7 PRO noise-canceling headphones, which are now $80, thanks to a $10 coupon you could have missed.

Alternatively, if you are looking for deals on specific brands, you can search for their coupons from the page. So if you've had your eye on the Homall S-Racer gaming chair, you’ll find there's currently a coupon that saves you 5 percent, thanks to a simple search.

To discover all the deals you have been missing out on, head over to the Amazon Coupons page.

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How Do Astronauts Vote From Space?

Astronaut Kate Rubins casts her ballot from space.
Astronaut Kate Rubins casts her ballot from space.
NASA

Earlier this week, NASA announced that astronaut Kate Rubins had officially cast her vote from a makeshift voting booth aboard the International Space Station. As much as we’d like to believe her ballot came back to Earth in a tiny rocket, the actual transmission was much more mundane. Basically, it got sent to her county clerk as a PDF.

As NASA explains, voting from space begins the same way as voting abroad. Astronauts, like military members and other American citizens living overseas, must first submit a Federal Postcard Application (FPCA) to request an absentee ballot. Once approved, they can blast off knowing that their ballot will soon follow.

After the astronaut’s county clerk completes a practice round with folks at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, they can start the real voting process. The astronaut will then receive two electronic documents: a password-protected ballot sent by the Space Center’s mission control center, and an email with the password sent by the county clerk. The astronaut then “downlinks” (sends via satellite signal) their filled-out ballot back to the Space Center attendants, who forward it to the county clerk. Since the clerk needs a password to open the ballot, they’re the only other person who sees the astronaut’s responses. Then, as NPR reports, they copy the votes onto a regular paper ballot and submit it with the rest of them.

Though Americans have been visiting space for more than half a century, the early jaunts weren’t long enough to necessitate setting up a voting system from orbit. That changed in 1996, when John Blaha missed out on voting in the general election because his spaceflight to Russia’s space station Mir began in September—before absentee voters received their ballots—and he didn’t return until January 1997. So, as The Washington Post reports, NASA officials collaborated with Texas government officials to pass a law allowing astronauts to cast their ballots from space. In the fall of 1997, David Wolf became the first astronaut to submit his vote from a space station. The law is specific to Texas because most active astronauts reside there, but NASA has said that the process can be done from other states if need be.