• These military drones fly themselves…
  • Watch this spacecraft do a “belly flop”…
  • How AI is tackling weather predictions…

Dear Reader,

Given all of the exciting developments around therapies and vaccines for COVID-19 over the last week, it was easy to miss one of the biggest stories of the year.

No, I’m not talking about Google’s DeepMind team using artificial intelligence to accurately figure out how proteins are folded using just an amino acid sequence. And I’m not talking about SpaceX’s 100th successful flight…

I’m talking about spies, Russian spies. In fact, I’m talking about one of the greatest hacks of all time.

They have infiltrated:

  • More than 425 of the U.S. Fortune 500 companies

  • All ten of the top ten U.S. telecommunications companies

  • All five branches of the U.S. military

  • The U.S. Pentagon

  • The U.S. State Department

  • NASA

  • The National Security Agency (NSA)

  • The Department of Justice

  • The Department of Homeland Security

  • The Office of the President of the U.S.

  • All five of the top five U.S. accounting firms

  • And countless other government agencies and corporations

And the news barely got a whisper from the media. Yet the story is so big and so widespread, it is hard to comprehend the implications. And there is so much more to this story. Get this…

The Russian-backed operation cleverly hacked into the systems of an information technology (IT) company called SolarWinds. SolarWinds develops IT software that helps companies and governments monitor network performance, servers, and applications. This software is also used to configure networks, analyze network traffic, monitor storage, analyze web performance, and many other day to day operational IT functions.

SolarWinds’ software is used by more than 300,000 customers worldwide. And here is how clever the hackers were…

Once they had infiltrated SolarWinds’ software repository, they altered a new version of SolarWinds’ Orion IT product to contain malicious code that enabled the hackers to access any network where the software had been installed.

And since March of this year, customers of SolarWinds unknowingly began installing the new software versions containing the malicious code. It was a classic Trojan horse.

But because the use of SolarWinds’ software is so widespread among U.S. corporations and government entities, it was remarkably effective.

None of this is speculation. It has already happened. The hack was ingenious, but not in a good way, of course.

And it is going to take months, probably years, to untangle this mess and figure out everything that was compromised.

Now let’s turn to today’s insights…

Here come the skyborgs…

The U.S. Air Force just revealed that it is developing autonomous unmanned drones that are powered by artificial intelligence (AI). The program is ominously named “Skyborg.”

We aren’t talking about small recreational drones here. These are large drones capable of flying alongside fighter jets on combat missions.

Skyborg Drone

Source: U.S. Air Force

Of course, the U.S. military has used unmanned drones for years now. But historically, these drones have been human-operated. They can be flown from anywhere in the world via a satellite connection.

What’s unique about these skyborgs is that they will be fully autonomous. That speaks to the incredible advancements that have happened with AI over the last 12 months.

And these skyborgs will serve an important function. They will be used to deflect attention away from fighter jets and other manned operations.

That’s because they are relatively cheap to produce. At a cost of “just” a few million dollars per drone, the Air Force sees these skyborgs as disposable. They will be used to protect human life and more expensive equipment. And this will change the face of air warfare forever.

To make these unmanned drones a reality, the Air Force has awarded contracts to three defense contractors – Boeing, General Atomics, and the much smaller defense technology firm Kratos. These three companies will be responsible for producing the skyborgs.

And the timeline is aggressive.

The Air Force expects to have fully autonomous drones up and running next year for testing. And they expect these skyborgs to be operational by 2023. As the calendar has almost turned to 2021, that’s just a couple of years away. It speaks to how fast AI and autonomous technology are now progressing.

The overall aerospace industry is experiencing somewhat of a reignition right now thanks to AI, materials science, and developments in advanced propulsion technology. While these developments will certainly affect the military, they will also enable advancements in the transportation industry and space exploration.

The SN8 Starship just completed its first high-altitude launch…

SpaceX just hit yet another milestone. It successfully launched the SN8 Starship to an altitude of 41,000 feet. This was the Starship’s first high-altitude launch.

We last talked about the Starship back in August. To bring new readers up to speed, this is the spacecraft that will facilitate the next manned mission to the Moon. It’s also the spacecraft that will ultimately put humans on Mars.

What makes this high-altitude launch so impressive is that the Starship did not launch from a booster. It took off right from the ground, powered by three Raptor rocket engines. No fancy launch pad was required. It just fired up and took off.

And as is usually the case with SpaceX, there is more to the story.

The goal wasn’t a successful return mission back to the ground. SpaceX wanted to test the spacecraft at high altitudes, as well as test the unique approach to returning the spacecraft for landing.

Rather than gliding back down to the ground on wings like the space shuttles used to do, the Starship was designed to float back down to the ground as if in a “belly flop.” And that’s exactly what the SN8 did with incredible stability.

But it got better…

As the SN8 neared the landing pad, it flipped itself into a vertical position in order to prepare for an attempted landing.

Check it out:

Starship’s Landing Process

Source: Extreme Tech

Here we can see the “belly flop and flip” concept in action. And keep in mind, this spacecraft is more than 164 feet tall. It looks like a stainless-steel corn silo flying through the air. The fact that it is able to flip itself vertically as it approaches the ground with such precision is amazing.

Of course, SpaceX still has work to do to perfect the landing technique. This test didn’t have the soft landing SpaceX is looking for.

In this case, there wasn’t enough pressure in one of the valves feeding fuel to the Raptor engines. The engines weren’t able to generate enough thrust to soften the landing, and the Starship blew up on impact.

I’m sure the media will spin this as a failure. But make no mistake about it – this mission was an incredible success.

Remember, SpaceX works like a Silicon Valley company. It tests, iterates, fails, and then tests some more.

This was the first high-altitude test launch of the Starship. Both the launch and the “belly flop and flip” technique worked perfectly. That’s a big win.

All SpaceX has to do now is resolve the issue that prevented a soft landing. I wouldn’t bet against the team at SpaceX. The company will have the landing process perfected within the next two test flights.

It won’t be long at all before we see a Starship in orbit…

AI is going to tackle weather forecasting…

We’ll close today with another example of how far artificial intelligence has come.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has teamed up with the Google AI team to do something that’s never been done before. The NOAA has agreed to put more than a decade’s worth of weather data onto Google Cloud so that Google can turn its AI loose on the data sets.

Historically, NOAA has kept its weather data close to the chest, using supercomputers to predict weather patterns and make forecasts. While sophisticated, this model is still highly unreliable. That’s why it agreed to turn over the data to Google.

My hope is that Google allows the DeepMind team to tackle this project.

We talked earlier this month about how DeepMind developed AI software that can predict the folding of a protein with incredible accuracy. This will be known as one of the biggest scientific breakthroughs of the century.

Clearly, DeepMind has the expertise to take on difficult projects like this. That said, it’s not clear if DeepMind will be involved.

Still, I believe AI and machine learning will improve weather forecasting and longer-term predictions. It’s possible Google’s AI can even develop microclimate models that can make hyperlocal predictions. Such models could tell us when it was going to rain on one side of town but not the other.

Perhaps even more interesting, AI could help model the global climate. This has historically been an immense challenge due to the complexity of modeling at such an incredible scale. This could give us an accurate read on how the climate is changing and how these changes are likely to impact agriculture, temperature levels, sea levels, and coastal cities.

Such a model could potentially give us advanced notice for large events like hurricanes and typhoons that pose a major threat to people living in certain places as well.

So it’s great to see this partnership. We’ll see some good scientific advancements come from this.


Jeff Brown
Editor, The Bleeding Edge

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