Aerogel could help facilitate agriculture on Mars

19 Jul 2019

An artist’s depiction of Mars. Image: © 3000ad/

This week in future tech, scientists from the US and the UK conducted a study to see if vegetables and plants could be grown on Mars under a layer of aerogel.

A team of scientists from Harvard, the California Institute of Technology and the University of Edinburgh recreated Mars-like conditions in a lab to test out aerogel greenhouses and see if they could accommodate plant life at minus 100 degrees Celsius, which is typically the temperature at night on Mars.

Aerogel, which is a lightweight silica material that consists primarily of air, allows sunlight to pass through it to reach photosynthetic plants. A layer of aerogel 2cm to 3cm thick could potentially protect plants from the harsh conditions on Mars, but doesn’t solve the whole host of other problems relating to farming on another planet.

The scientists working on this project noted that the aerogel filtered out 60pc of the harmful ultraviolet radiation that reaches Mars, and more than 99.5pc of the ultraviolet C radiation affecting the planet.

The greenhouse effect raised the temperature of the ground beneath the aerogel covering by 50 degrees Celsius, which could be enough to thaw out ice trapped beneath the surface and jump-start a localised version of the water cycle.

It seems like a somewhat more realistic solution than other suggestions people have made on how to terraform Mars. Scientists previously suggested using 250km-wide mirrors to melt Mars’s polar ice caps, while Elon Musk suggested nuking the planet to release the carbon dioxide trapped in its surface.

A crewless boat performed a commercial shipping operation for the first time

In May, an uncrewed vessel caught a box of oysters in Essex. The 39ft-long aluminium-hulled boat then transported this box of oysters to Belgium, crossing the English Channel, without a single human on board to guide it to its destination.

This was the first ever crewless boat to perform a commercial shipping operation. During its journey, it was closely monitored by four people in a control centre in Essex, where the ship’s developer, Hushcraft, is headquartered.

With hybrid generators, satellite links, CCTV, thermal cameras, and an automatic identification system on board to warn approaching vessels of its position, the ship could reduce the cost of many commercial trips around the world because there is no need to recruit, train or pay a crew to work on the ship.

It also saves the space and money it costs to install features for human passengers, such as bathrooms and kitchens, on traditional ships. Then there’s the added benefit that there’s no risk to human life.

However, there are plenty of obstacles, technological and otherwise, preventing this type of boat from becoming a common sight on the seas. Prof Lawrence Brennan, an expert on admiralty and maritime law from Fordham University School of Law, told BBC that a single failure in communication between vessel and base could result in ghost ships.

“Unmanned ships may be stopped by pirates, by disabling shots or damaging the ship’s propeller and rudder,” Brennan explained.

Dr Karolina Zwolak, head of the navigation section at the Institute of Navigation and Marine Hydrography of the Polish Naval Academy, was one of the brains behind the oyster delivery.

Zwolak agreed with Brennan that there are currently limitations to the technology that only “human creativity, experience and non-schematic thinking” on board could resolve.

An AI virtual assistant now answers queries on Moscow’s transport department hotline

The city of Moscow has employed a new robot to help citizens recover impounded cars in the Russian capital.

In 2014, the Russian government introduced the virtual assistant to give answers to simple questions relating to matters such as opening hours. In 2018, the robot handled 4.5m queries, which is four times more than in 2017, and now the AI processes requests relating to cars that have been impounded due to parking violations.

The robot asks for the car’s registration number, then tells the caller where it is, what needs to be done to recover it and what documents the owner should bring to reclaim it. Andrey Savizkiy, head of the city’s contact centre, said that the robot will be able to process 100pc of calls relating to impounded cars by the end of the year.

“In the case of impounded cars, the robot isn’t just more economical, but also a more effective solution in stressful situations. People whose cars have been impounded are often in a terrible mood and try to vent their emotions on the operator,” he added.

Although there’s a lot of anger directed towards the virtual assistant, it also hears more than 10,000 ‘thank yous’ per month from grateful callers.

According to the statistics, the robot helps callers at twice the speed of a live assistant, but the option to speak to a human operator remains available for individuals with particularly complex queries.

Demand for EVs in China has dropped, but is surging elsewhere

There was once a time when China was placing orders for 2,000 electric buses in one go but, after a drop in government financial support, the demand has significantly decreased.

China hopes to have full electrification of its bus fleet by 2027, but that seems unlikely according to an IDTechEx report on the possibility of China meeting that target. The report noted that there are still 1m largely unauthorised buses doing school runs.

IDTechEx CEO Raghu Das examined whether Europe would be able to pick up China’s slack and get 20,000 pure electric buses on the road each year.

With Paris committing to 800 and London committing to even fewer, the outlook isn’t great. However, in the long term, London, Los Angeles and New York look set to become heavy purchasers in five to 10 years, when the technology, particularly relating to batteries, improves.

The conclusion of IDTechEx’s study is that it won’t be Europe or America that pick up the slack for China, but rather India. The report outlined some of India’s ambitious plans for electric vehicle (EV) deployment.

“It is in India that the missing 20,000 or more electric buses yearly are likely to be ordered if electric bus demand is to recover globally,” Das wrote. “India has announced energetic moves to replace 150,000 diesel buses and it will add more in order to cope with chronic air pollution.”

According to Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan, the state’s EV policy envisages introducing 1m EVs by 2022, as well as a fleet of 3,000 pure electric buses. Meanwhile, the state of Andhra Pradesh recently announced that 350 electric buses will be deployed to five cities there.

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Kelly Earley was a journalist with Silicon Republic