The week in gadgets: Mars drones, Tesla updates, and Android takes a hit from Apple

2 Feb 2015

A proposed helicopter camera drone for Mars. Concept image by NASA JPL

A look at gadget happenings, as NASA investigates how to fly drones on Mars, Apple takes a bite out of Android’s marketshare, and Tesla’s P85D electric car gets a speed upgrade over the air.

How to fly drones on Mars

Scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) are investigating the use of camera-equipped drones to help guide the Curiosity rover on Mars. This additional viewpoint would help rovers to better navigate Martian terrain, scouting ahead and seeing over large obstacles.

However, helicopters work on Earth because the rotation of their blades in our dense atmosphere generates the lift required. Mars has a lesser gravitational force than Earth, which should make flying easier, but its atmosphere is about 100 times less dense, which means that helicopter blades would need to be much bigger, lighter and/or spinning much faster to get the lift required.

So far, the 1kg proof-of-concept Mars Helicopter being tested in NASA’s 7.6m vacuum chamber has achieved lift at about 2,400rpm. In future, these drones could accompany Mars rovers and greatly increase the distances which scientists can remotely travel and explore.

Apple puts a dent in Android, blocks Google’s fingerprint ID plans

Figures from market research firm ABI research show that Android smartphone shipments fell for the first time in the fourth quarter of 2014. The timing is particularly notable considering the holiday shopping season typically marks a quarterly increase in shipments, but instead Android’s figures fell from 217m shipments in Q3 2014 to 206m in Q4.

This dip has been attributed to Apple’s growth in the market – which will come as no surprise to anyone following the iPhone-maker’s record-breaking figures announced during last week’s earnings call.

Apple’s shipments increased 90pc from quarter to quarter, rising from 39m to 75m shipments in Q4 following the release of the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus.

Smartphone unit shipments 2014

It was also revealed last week that Android’s flag-bearing flagship, Google’s Nexus 6, would have featured a fingerprint scanner if not for Apple taking control of the best technology on the market.

According to Dennis Woodside, the former CEO of Motorola Mobility, fingerprint identification was on the cards for the Nexus 6, but Apple’s ownership of Authentec, supposedly the best supplier in market, left Google’s phone-manufacturing arm with an ‘all or nothing’ choice.

Stores will have to keep gold Apple Watch locked up

After a phenomenal financial quarter, next up for Apple is the Apple Watch, which CEO Tim Cook confirmed will start shipping in April.

In the intervening weeks, we expect plenty of rumours to be produced by the Apple mill, and last week’s finest comes from 9to5Mac with the claim that gold-plated versions will require stores to be outfitted with safes.

Fuelling speculation that the Apple Watch will be a pricey piece of wearable tech, it’s thought that an expensive gold edition will be stored in custom-designed safes equipped with MagSafe chargers in stores. Hype much?

Tesla cars get faster with a software update

If the future of motoring is Tesla’s range of electric vehicles, then we are driving towards a time when improving your car’s performance could be as simple as downloading a software update.

That’s exactly how Tesla’s dual-motor Model S P85D got a 0.1-second acceleration upgrade last week. The over-the-air update to the car’s inverter algorithm was announced by Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk on Twitter and will make the car 3pc faster, which brings its acceleration to a level comparable to some of the world’s fastest sports cars.

And the P85D was plenty fast even before this update, as demonstrated by implementation of the car’s ‘insane mode’.

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Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.