Archive for October 2007

Robot Cannon Kills 9

South Africa – SA National Defence Force spokesman brigadier general Kwena Mangope says the cause of the malfunction is not yet known…

Media reports say the shooting exercise, using live ammunition, took place at the SA Army’s Combat Training Centre, at Lohatlha, in the Northern Cape, as part of an annual force preparation endeavour.

Mangope told The Star that it “is assumed that there was a mechanical problem, which led to the accident. The gun, which was fully loaded, did not fire as it normally should have,” he said. “It appears as though the gun, which is computerised, jammed before there was some sort of explosion, and then it opened fire uncontrollably, killing and injuring the soldiers.” [More details here — ed.]

Other reports have suggested a computer error might have been to blame. Defence pundit Helmoed-Römer Heitman told the Weekend Argus that if “the cause lay in computer error, the reason for the tragedy might never be found.”

Electronics engineer and defence company CEO Richard Young says he can’t believe the incident was purely a mechanical fault. He says his company, C2I2, in the mid 1990s, was involved in two air defence artillery upgrade programmes, dubbed Projects Catchy and Dart.

During the shooting trials at Armscor’s Alkantpan shooting range, “I personally saw a gun go out of control several times,” Young says. “They made a temporary rig consisting of two steel poles on each side of the weapon, with a rope in between to keep the weapon from swinging. The weapon eventually knocked the pol[e]s down.”

According to The Star, “a female artillery officer risked her life… in a desperate bid ” to save members of her battery from the gun.”

But the brave, as yet unnamed officer was unable to stop the wildly swinging computerised Swiss/German Oerlikon 35mm MK5 anti-aircraft twin-barrelled gun. It sprayed hundreds of high-explosive 0,5kg 35mm cannon shells around the five-gun firing position.

By the time the gun had emptied its twin 50-round auto-loader magazines, nine soldiers were dead and 11 injured.

Robot Cannon Kills 9, Wounds 14 on Danger Room

Inauguration Day for Alien Signal-Hunting Telescope

Today, in the remote northeast corner of California, technology innovator and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen will hit the big red button.

No, he won’t be throwing heavy-duty machinery into an emergency shutdown, nor will he be sending ICBMs screaming from their silos (traditional functions for ruddy buttons). Instead, he’ll be christening a new telescope that, in its significance, could eventually outpace the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria.

The famous technologist will be inaugurating the initial 42 antennas of his namesake, the Allen Telescope Array (ATA) – the first major radio telescope designed from the pedestal up to efficiently (which is to say, rapidly) chew its way through long lists of stars in a search for alien signals. Within two decades, it will increase the number of stellar systems examined for artificial emissions by a thousand-fold. The ATA will shift SETI into third gear.

In past practice, this elementary fact of antenna life was routinely diluted by the high cost of the receiver equipment. Check out the cryo-cooled, quiet-as-death receivers at the focus of any other radio telescope, and you’re looking at a million dollars’ worth of electronics. That’s why the Very Large Array – the iconic radio telescope in New Mexico that you’ve seen in a raft of sci-fi films – has only 27 antennas. That number was a compromise between structural and electronic costs.

Today, you can festoon the focus of your antenna with high-grade receivers for about one percent of the old price. So the paradigm has changed, and today it’s better to build a large number of small antennas, rather than a small number of large antennas.

The individual dishes of the ATA are 6 m in diameter, small enough that you can’t see them from California state route 89, even though they’re barely a mile beyond its eastern berm. Like slow-growing lotus blossoms, these antennas have methodically erupted on a lava-littered heath 300 miles northeast of San Francisco during the last four years. Eventually, 350 dishes will grace the Hat Creek Observatory site. But the 42 now up and running are equivalent in collecting area to a 40 m single-dish antenna – and that’s large enough to start doing some serious science. — Inauguration Day for Alien Signal-Hunting Telescope