Techtastic - 11 September 2018

Wiggin LLP, Media, Technology and IP Law Firm
None of us here at Techtastic Towers has yet been called up for astronaut training (NASA's casual disregard for our talents is both puzzling and increasingly upsetting) and so we are unable to comment on whether plugging fractures in the International Space Station with one's fingers is included in the organisation's manual on Depressurisation And How to Avoid Getting Sucked Out Of Your Ship Faster Than You Can Say 'Lickety-Split'. At least, that's what aspiring space-farers like us expect the manual to be called. Anyway, although forcing your extremities into the holes in your spaceship is probably not right at the very top of NASA's list of recommended safety techniques, it briefly did the job for the ISS's crew when a tiny hole was discovered in one of the Soyuz capsules docked to the station. The astronauts subsequently followed up with cloth, sealant and some tape, which seemed to hold things together for a bit, allowing Alexander Gerst, the spaceman with the magic fingers (and who wouldn't want that soubriquet?), to get back to more routine duties.

Most intriguingly, reports that the hole was caused by a micro-meteorite were quickly scotched by Dimitry Rogozin, the head of Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, who alleged that it was either the product of shoddy workmanship on the ground, which doesn't exactly say much for the Russian space programme, or possibly even calculated sabotage by one of the astronauts onboard. This theory was in turn quickly refuted by James Oberg, a former NASA engineer, who said "The issue is not that there's a sabotage or something funny going on with the men and women in space. It's something going on in the mind of the guy recently given control of the Russian Space Program. Mr. Rogozin used to be a Deputy Prime Minister in charge of the Defense Industry, which included missiles." Worrying stuff, particularly in the wake of President Trump's recent announcement that he intends to create a new branch of the US military dedicated to fighting wars in space. In the meantime, we understand from NASA that "flight controllers are working with the crew to develop a more comprehensive long-term repair", which is no doubt reassuring if you're inside a leaky metal can hurtling round the earth at 17,150 miles an hour.

An extra pair of hands

We imagine Mr. Gerst would have preferred to use a pair of robot hands instead of his own to keep the ISS's supply of air on the inside of the ISS, rather than the outside, which even those of us with limited time in space (so far) recognise is definitely not where it should be (you see, NASA, we do know what we're talking about). So, future NASA missions may wish to make use of a telepresence robot developed in Japan called Fusion, which attaches to the user and provides them with an extra pair of remotely controlled robot arms. At the moment, the arms require a separate human operator but the developers foresee a time when AI could enable them to work autonomously (though, who's to say they wouldn't have grabbed Mr. Gerst's finger and just stuck it in the hole themselves? After all, AI, by definition, isn't dumb, right?). "Think of it" says one of the researchers who worked on the robot, "as two people in one body", which is kind of mind-bendy and exciting, really, isn't it?

Talking of leaks

Alex Cruz, Chairman and Chief Executive of BA, probably wishes he'd had the help of Mr. Gerst or at least Fusion the robot to plug the airline's customer data security systems, following its announcement last week of a cyberbreach affecting 380,000 of its customers. The airline has said it will compensate passengers for any financial loss, which could lead to large payouts, given the number of customers affected. The National Crime Agency and the Information Commissioner's Office are currently investigating the hack, which BA has labelled a "malicious criminal attack". Shares in IAG, which owns the company, fell on the news by around 3% (worth about £408 million), reflecting investor concerns regarding the impact of the breach on trading, and the potential for substantial fines under the GDPR, which the media has been quick to flag could amount to £500 million. Here at Techtastic Towers, we tend to view media suggestions that the ICO will fine at the top end of the possible scale as unnecessarily hyperbolic, but even a significantly smaller sum would be expensive. For those concerned that their data may have been compromised, BA says the breach related to bookings made between 10.58pm on 21 August and 9.45pm on 5 September and that it is in the process of contacting all affected customers.

AIr raising

If news of the BA hack means you've lost your faith in airlines but you want to keep flying, you could always try drone racing instead. It's fast, frenetic and there are crashes, too, but nobody falls out of the sky when the worst happens, which is particularly nice. To whet your appetite, the Drone Racing League has just announced a $2 million autonomous drone racing competition backed by Lockheed Martin, in which autonomous drones developed by teams of AI engineers will be pitted against human-piloted machines. According to the organisers, it's likely that a human will win next year's event, but by "2020, it’s anyone’s race". Bang goes another – and in this case, short-lived – field of human superiority. And, while we're on the topic of bangs, take a look at this amazing video captured by a drone in the middle of a firework display. It's awesome.

Opportunity knocked…but not out?

We close this week with a call to spare a thought for one of the loneliest drones in the galaxy, NASA's Opportunity rover, which has been lost on Mars and out of contact with humanity since a planet-wide dust storm on June 10. According to John Callas, Opportunity project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Labs, "The Sun is breaking through the haze over Perseverance Valley, and soon there will be enough sunlight present that Opportunity should be able to recharge its batteries". Let's hope so. Apparently, if there is no signal after 45 days, the plucky little rover – which, with 14 years under its once whirring drive-belt has survived almost 60 times longer than its planned 90-day mission – will "probably never recover". Space fans have been rallying on Twitter to post messages of support around the hashtags #SaveOppy and #WakeUpOppy, and the pictures of solitary tracks and dust devils in the arid Martian landscape are pretty moving, we have to say.

© Wiggin LLP 2018

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