πŸ‘½ FiToSci September 2021 Edition: Airbus Air Taxi, Amazon Astro, De-extinction, Amateur Astronauts, Holograms, and More

Hey there, I'm Emil Protalinski. This is FiToSci, a monthly newsletter that tracks how humanity is taking the fiction out of science fiction. Make sure to star this email to easily reference September's highlights:

πŸš— Transportation/logistics: Airbus announced an air taxi for 2025.

πŸ€– AI/robots: Amazon unveiled a $1,000 home robot named Astro.

🧬 Biotech/bioscience: Colossal launched to resurrect extinct species.

πŸš€ Space: SpaceX completed the first all-civilian space mission.

πŸ•ΆοΈ Augmented/virtual reality: Engineers created touchable holograms.

I recommend skipping to the sections you like, opening what you find interesting in a separate tab, and bookmarking links for later reading. Let's get started.

πŸš— Airbus announced the CityAirbus NextGen electric take-off and landing (eVTOL) vehicle. CityAirbus NextGen, which can travel up to 80 km at 120 km/h, would create noise levels under 70 dB when landing β€” about the level of regular traffic or a vacuum cleaner. As one of the two commercial aircraft giants, Airbus brings credibility to the eVTOL race like no other company before. Airbus hopes to get its four-seater air taxi test flying in 2023 and certified by 2025.

πŸš— Xpeng said its fifth-generation flying car, X2, would launch in 2024. The two-passenger vehicle, which was unveiled in July, has allegedly undergone over 15,000 test flights.

πŸš— Airlogix unveiled a prototype of its Hammerhead eV20, an autonomous eVTOL delivery drone scheduled for manufacturing in Q3 2022. Hammerhead eV20 would be able to transport up to 20 kg of payloads like medical containers, emergency kits, and rescue robots at top speeds of 90 km/h and over a range of 100 km.

πŸš— Maverick Aviation unveiled a hands-free jetpack prototype with an estimated flying speed of up to 30 mph. The jetpack, set to see its first manned test flight next summer, features an autopilot system and can be reconfigured as a remotely operated heavy-lift drone.

πŸš— Students built Stella Vita, a solar-powered RV that can travel at up to 730 km on a sunny day and as much as 600 km at night with a fully charged battery. To put Stella Vita on the map, the group set out on a month-long 3,000-km road trip in the "solar house on wheels," concluding on October 15.

πŸš— Intel's Mobileye announced plans to launch a robotaxi service in Germany in 2022. A pilot in Munich will drive the rollout, with Mobileye seeking regulatory approvals to scale up across Germany and other European countries later this decade.

πŸš— WeRide unveiled Robovan, its first Level 4 autonomous electric cargo van. The company partnered with automaker Jiangling Motors and delivery firm ZTO Express to commercialize, and mass produce the Robovan for urban logistics, but they didn't provide a timeline.

πŸš— Baidu's DeepWay unveiled Xingtu, a Level 3 autonomous electric heavy-duty truck capable of traveling 300 km on a single charge with a full 49-ton load. Baidu is aiming to commercialize Xingtu in June 2023.

πŸš— Walmart tapped Argo AI for its first multicity autonomous vehicle delivery service. Ford Escape hybrids equipped with Argo's self-driving tech will distribute Walmart orders later this year to customers in Austin, the District of Columbia, and Miami.

πŸš— FedEx started testing Paccar autonomous truck prototypes equipped with Aurora self-driving software. With human backup drivers, the trucks will drive nearly 500 miles autonomously between Dallas and Houston multiple times per week.

πŸš—πŸ€– The AI-powered cameras Amazon installed in delivery vans earlier this year started punishing drivers for unfounded "mistakes" and even safety precautions like checking side mirrors. The dystopian driver system responsible for evaluating worker performance cuts into delivery company revenues and driver bonuses.

πŸš—πŸ€– Siemens debuted an autonomous charging system for electric vehicles, which charged its first autonomous truck in tests with Einride AB. A robot helper would plug in the vehicles in cases where drivers are unwilling, disabled, or absent because the vehicle is autonomous.

πŸš—πŸ€– Xpeng unveiled a rideable robotic unicorn for kids that can respond to their voice, facial expressions, and body language. The unicorn blurs the lines between a toy robot and an autonomous vehicle, featuring object recognition, target tracking, and obstacle avoidance.

πŸ€– Amazon announced Astro, a $1,000 home robot with a 10-inch display for a face and a customizable payload area. Effectively an Echo Show on wheels, Astro obeys commands to go to a specific room, recognizes faces and delivers items to a particular person, plays music, follows you, keeps you in frame during video calls, shows you the weather, and answers questions like any Alexa device. Astro can also patrol your house when you aren't home and broadcast a live feed from its periscope camera to your phone. Astro can't replace your Roomba, climb stairs, go outside, nor do anything that requires limbs, which, along with the leaked surveillance controversies, is likely why Amazon's first robot is available invite-only.

πŸ€– Unlimited Robotics unveiled Gary, a service robot for the home and office, available in 2022. The team also announced Ra-Ya, its developer platform for building robotic apps that could turn Gary and its two robotic arms into Rosie from The Jetsons.

πŸ€– iRobot released the Roomba j7, an autonomous robot vacuum that can automatically avoid dog poo. The new Roomba's computer vision can also detect charging cords, shoes, socks, and other items that end up on the floor.

πŸ€– Segway introduced Navimow, a robotic lawnmower that uses GPS to stay on your lawn without installing a buried boundary wire. Navimow will also stop its cutting blades if it detects a pet or child is close.

πŸ€– Months after its Boston Dynamics acquisition, Hyundai announced Factory Safety Service Robot, a modified version of its $74,500 quadruped dog-like robot Spot. The pilot project puts Spot in a Kia plant to identify personnel near dangerously hot machinery, flag fire hazards, detect open doors, patrol at night, and alert management of anything amiss.

πŸ€– Agility Robotics announced that its $250,000 Digit bipedal robot is ready to work in warehouses. Unlike the company's research-focused bipedal robot Cassie, which learned to climb stairs in May and completed an outdoor 5K race in July, Digit is more about accomplishing menial but essential tasks in environments designed for humans.

πŸ€– Panasonic's Atoun demoed Koma 1.5, a transformable exoskeleton prototype that helps the wearer lift heavy items in any terrain. Koma 1.5 has a button to switch from Buggy Mode, which is for rolling across flat surfaces like factory or warehouse floors, to Two-Legged Mode, which is for climbing stairs or over obstacles.

πŸ€– D-ID launched Speaking Portrait, a tool for turning photos into animated deepfakes Γ  la Harry Potter. Building on MyHeritage's Deep Nostalgia that animates old photos, Speaking Portrait lets users control the subject's movements and what they say in the generated video by providing a source video, audio clip, or even a text file with a script.

πŸ€– Researchers defeated facial recognition tech by strategically applying software-generated makeup patterns. A two-camera system in a hallway correctly identified an individual in 47.57% of frames when wearing no makeup, 33.73% of frames with random natural makeup, and just 1.22% of frames with the adversarial natural makeup scheme.

πŸ€– The U.S. Air Force used AI for automated target recognition for the first time as part of a "live, operational kill-chain." The purpose of the new capability is "shortening the kill chain and accelerating the speed of decision-making."

πŸ€– Researchers found that AI is abysmal at detecting breast cancer during screenings. Out of the 36 mammogram AI systems, 94% were less accurate than a single radiologist, and 100% were less accurate than two or more radiologists working together.

πŸ€– OpenAI effectively killed the customizable AI chatbot that a writer used to reincarnate his dead fianceΓ©'s personality. It turns out that iterating on OpenAI's GPT-3 model will not bring the movie Her to life.

πŸ€–πŸ§¬Researchers demonstrated a brain-machine interface that interprets the brain signals for individual finger movements in macaque monkeys. Like Neuralink's similar achievement, the system is efficient enough to fit on an implantable device, potentially giving those who have lost limb function a more natural control option over advanced prostheses or even their own hands.

πŸ€–πŸ§¬ Researchers engineered a bionic arm featuring tiny robots that vibrate muscles at amputation sites to let patients think, behave, and function as they once did. Since they could focus their sight away from the upper limb, the neural machine interface helped subjects with the bionic arm revert to natural behaviors from before their amputation.

πŸ€–πŸ§¬ Engineers created cell-sized microrobots that can be propelled and steered in the human body by air bubbles and ultrasound waves. The tiny robots could one day perform targeted drug delivery without requiring bulky onboard batteries.

πŸ€–πŸ§¬ Engineers built a robot chef that 3D-prints chicken breast cutlets and cooks them with multi-wavelength lasers. The process retains more moisture and shrinks the chicken less than traditional methods, resulting in 3D-printed, lasered chicken that apparently tastes like… chicken.

🧬 Colossal launched as the "de-extinction company" to genetically resurrect wooly mammoths and other species to fight climate change. Using the gene-editing tool CRISPR, Colossal wants to add over 60 wooly mammoth genes into the cells of an embryo of an Asian elephant and artificially add genetic diversity to other animal species with small surviving populations. The startup also hopes to develop artificial wombs to grow its wooly mammoth embryos, use Pleistocene Park as a rewilding site, and ultimately produce entire mammoth populations. Let's just collectively agree not to let them anywhere near dinosaurs.

🧬 Researchers reported that the world's first attempt to use CRISPR to treat blindness showed hints of success in preliminary results. Of the six people who received the gene therapy, two could better sense light and see colors while two others improved in tests like navigating a maze.

🧬 Sanatech Seed started selling the first CRISPR-edited food: a tomato. The Sicilian Rouge High GABA tomato's genome was edited to remove an autoinhibitory domain and enable four to five times more gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), an amino acid believed to help reduce blood pressure and aid in relaxation.

🧬 Researchers brewed lab-grown coffee using cells harvested from plant leaves. The method would take at least four years to produce a commercial product, has a lower water footprint, requires less transportation, has no seasonal dependency, and doesn't need pesticides.

πŸ§¬πŸš€ Scientists harvested water and oxygen from artificial moon dust. If the prototype water extraction device can replicate its results with soil on the moon, about half of which consists of oxygen-rich silicon or iron oxides, future astronauts would have an easier time establishing a permanent lunar base.

πŸ§¬πŸš€ Scientists created AstroCrete, a concrete-like substance for building planetary bases by mixing simulated Mars soil with astronaut blood that can be even further strengthened with urine, sweat, and tears. If the material works with real Mars soil, it could completely change the logistics and costs of sending construction materials to the Red Planet.

πŸš€ SpaceX successfully launched and landed the world's first all-civilian space mission, accelerating a new era of space tourism. Inspiration4's capsule included the largest contiguous window ever flown to space, offering a 360-degree view for the quartet of amateur astronauts: billionaire Jared Isaacman, community college educator Sian Proctor, physician assistant Hayley Arceneaux, and aeronautical engineer Chris Sembroski. Conceived and financed by Isaacman mainly to raise awareness for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, Inspiration4 orbited Earth for three days before splashdown in the Atlantic. The space tourists spent six months training but did not fly the private spacecraft, which was operated by ground-based flight teams and onboard guidance systems.

πŸš€ Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak launched Privateer, a space garbage company. Privateer hopes to keep "space safe and accessible to all humankind" by playing in the orbital debris removal market.

πŸš€ DARPA announced Space-BACN (pronounced "space bacon"), a program requesting proposals for how to create optical inter-satellite links that would enable inter-satellite communication. The agency is asking companies to design optical terminals that can offer 100 Gbps data rates, require at most 100W of power, and cost less than $100,000 per unit.

πŸš€ Researchers developed an algorithm that leverages signals broadcast by SpaceX's Starlink satellites to offer a GPS alternative. Like its core internet-providing function, Starlink's accuracy for navigation and global positioning would improve with additional satellites.

πŸš€ Scientists proposed a new geoengineering method that could brighten low-lying clouds, reflecting more sunlight to space and cooling down the Earth. Inspired by the brighter clouds produced by ship emissions, marine cloud brightening would rely on spraying seawater to achieve a similar effect.

πŸš€πŸ•ΆοΈ NASA revealed that astronauts on the International Space Station use Microsoft's HoloLens while repairing scientific and exercise equipment. Using the AR headset in space provides documentation and step-by-step instructions while allowing users to maintain vision and free their hands for low-gravity work.

πŸ•ΆοΈ Engineers created touchable holograms, bringing us closer to a Star Trek-style holodeck. The system is based around a pseudo-holographic display that uses glass and mirrors to make a 2D image seemingly hover in space. A new technique called aerohaptics then pairs volumetric display technology with a Leap Motion sensor, precisely directing air jets to create the sensation of touch on your hands, fingers, and wrists. The project could lead to feeling the handshake with someone's virtual avatar and other remote interactions from teleconferencing to telesurgery.

πŸ•ΆοΈ Nreal launched Nreal Air, a lighter, cheaper version of its AR glasses shipping in December 2021. The sunglasses cut costs in an attempt to familiarize consumers with watching content on built-in micro OLED displays, so they lack the outward-facing cameras needed for more AR features and still require tethering to your phone for processing and power.

πŸ•ΆοΈ iQIYI announced the QIYU 3, a VR headset set to compete with Facebook's Oculus Quest 2. The QIYU 3 is priced at 3,499 yuan (about $540), meaning the Quest 2's $399 price tag still undercuts it if Facebook ever enters the Chinese market.

πŸ•ΆοΈ Details about next year's Oculus Quest Pro started to leak, including eye-tracking cameras, face tracking cameras, and a new 4K camera on the front for color mixed reality passthrough. Meanwhile, Oculus consulting CTO John Carmack announced that Facebook would release an unlocked operating system build with full root access for the Oculus Go headset, meaning owners could modify and improve the discontinued hardware that the Quest succeeded.

And that's September. As a treat for reading right to the very end, check out Samsung's plan to "copy and paste" the human brain onto neuromorphic chips. This doesn't exactly fit into one of the categories above, but it sure sounds like bringing sci-fi to life.

Feel free to reply to this email with comments or questions; I respond to every reply. Follow FiToSci on Twitter and forward this issue to a friend who would enjoy it. See you next month!