Scan-Copter

Usually, I don’t blog much about work or serious topics in general. However, there are some really interesting developments taking place in the survey world at the moment and after all, there’s nothing cooler than playing with lasers, just ask any Bond baddie.

PrometheusIn the Ridley Scott movie Prometheus a group of scientists discover an ancient alien planet and they map a network of underground tunnels using floating laser scanners. The scanners float like small hovering balls and then fly off whilst laser scanning the passages. They then send back scan data to the crew on the space ship allowing them to view the 3-D data in real-time.

slide1The truth is that the technology seen in the movie isn’t all that far away from reality. In Morocco, I used a vehicle mounted laser scanner called a Dynascan to drive around stockpiles of phosphate in order to carry out volume calculations.

The Dynascan LiDAR system contains an integrated Inertial Navigation System (INS), Real Time Kinetic Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) and a high-speed, lightweight and portable laser scanner. Just like in the movie, we can see the data being collected in real-time.
But now there is the scan-copter –  a quad-copter drone strong enough to lift the 10kg scanner plus the INS and GNSS equipment. A total station and prism are used for tracking the unit in a continuous topo mode so that the scan data can be processed to an acceptable accuracy. If you didn’t follow that last sentence, never mind, what it means is that so long as you have a line of sight to the copter then you can use the data. Sadly this means that it can’t fly off on its own (out of sight) to collect data, so it’s not quite as cool as in the movie.

It’s early days for the technology, accuracy is in the 2-3cm range and a second version is being developed. Now if someone would just invent that hover-car that we all dream of when we are stuck in traffic jams….

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Visit http://www.scan-copter.com to see a video of the scanner in use…

When technology goes backwards

The retirement of Concorde, ten years ago today, might just represent the largest technological leap backwards since the retirement of the space shuttle. Concorde was a source of National pride, we could cross the Atlantic at supersonic speeds and (for those who could afford it), arrive in New York in just under three hours. Today, that trip would take around nine hours – three times as long.

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20 Concorde planes were built in an Anglo-French collaboration.

There is a great story of how two SR71 Blackbird fighter pilots were advised to make way for Concorde. Sitting there in their space-suits, they would have seen the remarkable and distinctive plane coming past them, full of passengers, flying comfortably at altitudes normally reserved for top-secret aircraft.

Following the tragic crash at Paris in 2000, low passenger numbers and the high cost of maintenance saw the Concorde plane retired and with it the dream of supersonic air travel. It is unlikely that the plane will ever fly again due to safety concerns, also there are very few pilots who have the necessary skills to pilot the plane.

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Cloud Atlas: film review

cloud_atlasNormally with a review, I like to start with a potted summary of the film. Cloud Atlas though, is not an easy film reduce to a few pithy lines, but here goes…

The film follows a number of ‘souls’ through the ages in a series of linked vignettes. As the film progresses, we see how the characters souls evolve and how humanity will strive to overcome the threat of tyranny and oppression.

I watched Cloud Atlas with a large group of friends on a pretty small TV. That was shame because the special effects in the movie are really beautiful and deserve to be seen on a big screen. Watching with a group was interesting, we all liked the film, but many people commented afterwards that they hadn’t a clue what it was about and would have to watch it again.

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a bridge too far?

At three hours long, Cloud Atlas already demands a huge chunk of your time and for me, it wasn’t great enough for me to watch over just to fill in some of the blanks. As I mentioned in the summary, the film follows a number of souls as they are reincarnated through the ages. The narrative structure is very clever as we see how events in the past mirror (and influence) those in the future. Some may find the device of using the same actors in different eras to be distracting, but I found that the performances were so good that this aspect worked well.

Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Ben Whishaw, Jim Sturgess, Hugo Weaving, and Hugh Grant. That’s an impressive list of A-list talent and all deliver notable performances, especially Tom Hanks who demonstrates an excellent range.

The decision by the Wachowskis (who directed The Matrix movies) to alter the novel’s structure, which presented the story in a conventional chronological order does demand much of the audience. The  jumping back and forth in time element of the movie leads to a certain choppiness, but I commend the film-makers for not pandering to convention.

Honestly, this is the first film in ages where I have spent a while thinking about it afterwards. It is a little pretentious, especially towards the end, where I felt that the film-makers were being deliberately opaque whilst telling us that we were listening to something important. Essentially, the theme is that souls can evolve and maybe change over time, and having the same actors playing different characters in different time periods is how this is expressed on-screen.

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Halle Berry, Halle Berry & Halle Berry
Tom Hanks, Tom Hanks & Tom Hanks

Cloud Atlas is a passionate and ambitious film, with a huge and sprawling scope. It does smack rather of a giant folly, some had claimed that the novel was un-filmable. Cloud Atlas does not pander to its audience, nor compromise in its story telling by dumbing down and for that, we should be grateful. However, I think that to fully appreciate the movie, one has to have read the book on which it is based (which I have not). For this reason alone, the film will lose some of its audience. It is worth noting that David Mitchell who wrote the book has praised the film in interviews, describing it as “magnificent”.

rating: 7/10

Back to the future – but not quite yet.

Yesterday was NOT the day that Marty McFly went into the future with Doc Brown. This prank, where the dashboard image is photo-shopped to show the current date has happened many times. Total Film magazine pulled off a memorable hoax back in 2010 that fooled many into believing that they had reached the day McFly travelled to the future.

These days, you don’t even have to do your own photo-shopping, you can just visit this site and copy the image onto twitter. I felt compelled to write this after reading another post from WordPress blogger ‘Perceiving Life’ who had been deceived into thinking that yesterday was Back To The Future Day.

Should you forget the date, here is a link to a handy countdown clock.

Cat vision

Regular visitors to ryesoftheGeek might have read a previous post on cat intelligence. Like many cat owners, I am often intrigued by the behaviour of the animal. This post takes a cats eye view of the world, thanks to the work of artist and researcher Nickolay Lamm.

Artist Nickolay Lamm has produced the images below that show the difference between how a human’s view of the world differs to that of a cat’s. Nickolay’s fascinating website can be found here.

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The cat is able to see more details in the dark because the shape of their eye and their larger corneas. They also have extra rod cells which means they can sense motion in the dark better than humans.

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Cats don’t have it all their way though – they lack as many light receptors (cones) in their eyes, so they cannot discern colours as well as humans. This image also shows the wider field of view that cats have. Note that these are artists impressions based on real science – but scientists cannot agree on what colours a cat can see. Some think that they can only see in grey and blue.

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Another shot to demonstrate the cats superior night vision.

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We are able to see objects clearly at 30 to 60 meters away, but Cats lack the muscles necessary to change the shape of their eye lenses. They have to be much closer to an object for it to appear in focus.

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Life can go by in a blur…

Anyone who has owned a cat will notice that they sometimes ‘squint’ their eyes, my wife calls this the ‘shutty eye game’. As it turns out, this is likely to be a form of communication, where the cat is expressing affection or ease – at least according to Wikipedia. You may also notice that your cat doesn’t blink very often, they don’t need to blink like we do in order to keep their eyes lubricated. Cats have a third eyelid (or nictitating membrane) which moves horizontally across the eye from the inside to outside, which helps to keep the eye lubricated.

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Grumpy cat was not impressed with the poorly photo-shopped spectacles.

Before you go out any by your cat some prescription glasses, it is worth noting that their eyesight is augmented by a superb directional sense of hearing, and by their whiskers – which are tactile hairs.

Cats’ whiskers are extremely sensitive to minute air currents and should never be cut. This is because the whiskers primary role is to act like a ruler to help the cat determine if it can fit through a narrow opening.

Cowboys and Aliens: film review

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A film about a chap in chaps

A group of towns people are abducted by Aliens who are intent on stealing our planets gold. Cowboys and Aliens features a stellar cast that includes Harrison Ford, Daniel Craig, Olivia Wilde and Sam Rockwell. On paper then, Cowboys and Aliens should be a fun, action packed B movie.

As it turns out, I enjoyed the first third of the film, which plays out like a classic Western. Harrison Ford does his gruff thing well and Daniel Craig is superb as the ruthless, yet sensitive tough guy. Then the aliens turn up and start shooting up the towns folk, and the film falls apart.

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rargh…

For one thing, the aliens have flying ships which scoop people up, but they can’t shoot straight or even hit static targets. Later on when we do meet the aliens, the CG creations fail to blend with the practical effects and just don’t cut it as characters. They are just amorphous blobs to be shot at. When you look at what Neill Blomkamp achieved with creature design in District 9 on a tiny budget, such failings are pretty surprising.

What’s really annoying about the film is how it’s directed. Jon Favreau has loads of scenes with the actors posing, or silhouetted against a sunset. It feels false and artificial, there is a blandness and lack of conviction that grates.

While we’re on the subject of artificiality, did Daniel Craig’s trousers need to be quite so thin and tight around his manly buns? For a PG13, we also get to see about as much naked Olivia Wilde as the director could get away with. Both of these people are beautiful enough, without the enforced titillation that the director employs.

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No one scowls like Harrison Ford

I think that the director and cinematographer got together and went over the script looking for excuses to find some scenes where they could focus on Craig’s pectoral manboobs. The other default being to instead focus on Harrison Ford’s scowl.

I also had a problem with some of the line-readings, many of which felt like a first run through. Particularly poor is Olivia Wilde, who’s like a deer stuck trapped in the headlights. For most of the film, she has a fixed wide, blank eyed stare and can’t hold her own in scenes with Ford or Craig.

But what’s really irritating is that the film just isn’t any fun. Only Harrison Ford gets to impart a slight amount of camp silliness in his slightly over the top performance at the beginning of the film.

The plot is pretty bonkers, not surprising in such as film, but there are random ideas that had potential if only they’d been developed further. There’s a Christ metaphor in there as a character returns to life and an overall theme of unity and tolerance as Cowboys and Indians cooperate against a common enemy. There’s also a redemption theme to Daniel Craig’s character that should have been the central tenet of the movie.

With a better script, a lighter tone and a better director then – the film could have been a lot of fun. Sadly, what we have here is a film that squanders a stellar cast and a significant budget. disappointing.

Rating: 3/10

Immappancy

As a cartographer, I knew about map distortion and how the commonly used ‘World Map’ employs a Mercator projection that distorts the continent of Africa. I also knew that Africa is ‘big’, but even so, this graphic came as a surprise. It’s a great example of an ‘image being worth a thousand words’.

The size of africaThe mercator map that we are all familiar with was designed for sea travel and allowed sailors to draw straight lines from port to port. This enabled them to sail according to these lines guided by using a constant compass bearing. The side effect of this is that the land masses are distorted.

Any map projection will always introduce distortion. However, there is the controversial Gall-Peters map, which was intended to be an ‘area accurate map’.  No world projection is good at preserving distances everywhere; Peters’s and all other cylindric projections are especially bad in that regard because east-west distances inevitably balloon toward the poles. For more on Gall-Peters, check out the Wikipedia article.

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