Beautiful animated air traffic patterns

Air traffic data is great fodder for visualizations. Case in point, this lovely animation of a day of flights titled "North Atlantic Skies" by air traffic control firm NATS. (via Laughing Squid)

Why birds fly in a V formation

Why do birds fly in a "V" formation? Scientists at the UK's Royal Veterinary College attached sensors to endangered ibises migrating from Austria to Tuscany. What they confirmed is that the aerodynamics of V flocking helps the birds conserve energy and that they optimize this by careful positioning and timing their wing flaps. "Precision formation flight astounds scientists" (Nature)

An airship boom in Southern California

Photo: the Aeroscraft in a hangar in CA. Image: Worldwide Aeros, Inc.

In the Los Angeles Times, an article about an aerospace industry boom of sorts in Southern California, involving new twists on an old technology: airships. Who's buying? The military, and other government agencies, primarily for defense and surveillance purposes.

[I]n recent years, the affordability of airships as well as developments in high-definition cameras, high-powered sensors and other unmanned technologies have turned these oddball aircraft from curiosities of a bygone era to must-have items for today's military. And airships increasingly are being used for civilian purposes.

The federal government is buying blimps, zeppelins and spy balloons, and many of these new-generation hybrid "lighter than air" aircraft are taking shape across California.

"So much is going on with airships in California now," Pasternak said. "It wasn't this way 10 years ago."

Of note, the difference between airships, blimps, and zeppelins:

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Solar Impulse plane lands, completing world's first intercontinental flight powered by the sun (photos)

Photo: REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal

The Solar Impulse plane project president and pilot Bertrand Piccard lands after a 19-hour flight from Madrid at Rabat's International airport, June 5, 2012. The plane landed in Morocco on Tuesday, completing the world's first intercontinental flight powered by the sun to show the potential for pollution-free air travel.

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Toddler kicked off plane after iPad deprivation tantrum

A family from Washington state had to cancel an island vacation when their flight was grounded after their 3-year-old son pitched a tantrum.

The toddler had been quietly playing with an iPad while waiting for the plane to take off, the father said. When the iPad was taken away—you know how all electronics must be stowed during takeoff and landing—all hell broke loose.

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Solar-powered airplane "Solar Impulse" attempts transcontinental flight

Photo: REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

A Solar Impulse aircraft takes off at Payerne airport May 24, 2012, piloted by André Borschberg. The Solar Impulse HB-SIA prototype aircraft, which has 12,000 solar cells built into its jumbo-jet-sized wings (about 200 feet long), attempted its first intercontinental flight from Switzerland to Morocco with a few days for a technical stop and a change of pilot in Madrid. This flight will act as a final rehearsal for the 2014 round-the-world flight.

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Will the FAA stop prohibiting electronic devices on commercial flights?

As I noted in a Boing Boing post yesterday, there's news of a possible change ahead for in-flight gadget rules in the US.

The Federal Aviation Administration currently prohibits passengers from using electronic devices on commercial flights when the plane is below 10,000 feet in altitude. But the FAA announced this week that after widespread demands to modify restrictions, there may be new efforts to review whether devices like the iPad or phones in "airplane mode" can be permitted safely during takeoff and landing.

Aviation journalist and pilot Miles O'Brien, who uses his iPad for navigation while flying his own plane, joined KPCC's Patt Morrison show today to discuss the news. Here's a direct MP3 link to the radio segment. It's a good listen.

What good is half a wing?

One of the most common arguments you'll hear against evolution (or, at least, one of the most common arguments I heard growing up amongst creationists) had to do with transitional forms. An eye is a valuable thing, this argument goes. But half an eye? That's just a disability.

Like many of the really common arguments against evolution, this one crumbles the minute you start to apply the slightest bit of fridge logic. Sure, half an eye is less useful than a full eye. (Or, more accurately, a clustering of light-sensitive cells don't have all the functionality of a modern eyeball and optic nerve system.) But, if most of the other creatures have no eyes, and you have a few light-sensitive cells, you've got an advantage. And an advantage is all it takes.

Now apply that to the evolution of birds. One of the cool things about this process is that it appears that feathers evolved before flight. In fact, feathers seems to have evolved rather independently of flight.

You might ask: What's the point of that? How are feathers an advantage if they can't help you fly? Is this just about looking pretty? Maybe. But on his blog, The Loom, Carl Zimmer presents another hypothesis. Feathers and wings, even without flight, might have given their owners a physical advantage over bare-skinned cousins. The birds in this video aren't flying. You can see that their feet don't leave the ground. But the act of flapping those feathers around helps them to walk up inclines that would otherwise be impassable walls. That's enough to escape a predator and live to breed another day. And it's also pretty damn astounding to watch. You'll find more footage at The Loom.

Video Link

Who is fixing your plane, and how? Frontline dumpster-dives into repair outsourcing

[Video Link]

On the newly revamped PBS program Frontline last night, an investigative report by Miles O'Brien (co-produced with the Investigative Reporting Workshop) on the "outsourcing of major airline repair work to lower-cost independent maintenance operations in the U.S and abroad."

[FRONTLINE] was invited to visit AMECO, one of Asia's largest MROs, in Beijing, which overhauls United Airlines' wide-bodied fleet [Boeing 747 and 777]. FRONTLINE wanted to talk with workers about the quality of their workforce, the competitiveness of the industry and their regulatory compliance records. AMECO cancelled the trip at the last minute.

FRONTLINE also investigates ST Aerospace Mobile in Alabama, which now does heavy repair work for several major airlines, including United Airlines, Delta Air Lines and US Airways. Through interviews with company mechanics and an examination of both government and company records, the investigation raises serious questions about the quality and experience of the workforce; the use of foreign workers with limited English proficiency; and the alleged use of unauthorized airline parts. One ST employee worries that the current system of maintenance and repair will end in "a smoking hole at the end of the runway."

After watching footage of FRONTLINE's interviews with mechanics at ST Aerospace in Alabama and reading company documents, veteran FAA inspector Linda Goodrich tells FRONTLINE, "Something's seriously wrong here, and we need to investigate this."

Miles is doing a live chat as I publish this post (12pm ET), you may want to pop in.

Video, deeper background, lots of meaty data here: FLYING CHEAPER (pbs.org).

Here's an introduction to the piece. Miles is on Twitter, has a website here, and there's a New York Times piece this week about his report and the broader retooling of Frontline.

This piece is a follow-up to Flying Cheap, his earlier investigation into larger airlines' outsourcing of flights to obscure regional airlines.

Will recent "parcelbomb" threat block inflight WiFi and cellphone use?

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[Image: Bricked Sky, submitted to the Boing Boing Flickr Pool by Cameron Russell]

Over at New Scientist, Paul Marks speculates that "the long-awaited ability to use a cellphone or Wi-Fi connection on an aircraft might become a casualty of the latest aviation security threat."

It is not yet known whether the cellphones in the printer bombs were intended to be triggered remotely. They may have been intended simply as timers, as in the 2004 Madrid train bombings. But future devices could take advantage of wireless communication.

In-flight Wi-Fi "gives a bomber lots of options for contacting a device on an aircraft", Alford says. Even if ordinary cellphone connections are blocked, it would allow a voice-over-internet connection to reach a handset.

"If it were to be possible to transmit directly from the ground to a plane over the sea, that would be scary," says Alford's colleague, company founder Sidney Alford. "Or if a passenger could use a cellphone to transmit to the hold of the aeroplane he is in, he could become a very effective suicide bomber."

Aircraft bomb finds may spell end for in-flight Wi-Fi (New Scientist)

Is inflight videochat in the US illegal? United Airlines thinks so

Boing Boing partner John Battelle was on a WiFi-enabled flight last night, and wanted to say bedtime-goodnight to his kids using videochat. Lots of parents tuck their kids into bed over video when they're far from home. What gentler, more loving example of the power of the internet could there be? Nope. A United Airlines flight attendant told John that this was prohibited because terrorists could use this to coordinate attacks.
201003101937.jpg So what's a curious guy to do? To the Internet! Which is exactly what I did. Responses starting pouring in. Including one from a pal at the State Department, who echoed my basic goal: To use video chat to tuck my kids into bed isn't a crime. Or at least, shouldn't be.

The flight attendant just showed me the United policy manual which prohibits "two way devices" from communicating with the ground. However, the PLANE HAS WIFI. To combat this, not unlike China, United and other airlines have blocked Skype and other known video chat offenders. Apparently, they missed Apple iChat. Oops.

An FAA guidebook says inflight video chat is to be discouraged because it can be annoying to seatmates, but that's very different than banning something because it's a terrorist weapon.

Read: Video Chat on the plane illegal? (battellemedia.com)