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Thursday, July 30, 2015

Solar-generated power: All sunshine?

by Mark Ollig

The folks at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) recently made public their 2015 study, “The Future of Solar Energy.”

This detailed, 356-page report depicts solar energy as possibly becoming the leading source of generated electricity, worldwide.

It says use of solar-energy electrical production can also be considered a “tool” for decreasing global CO2 (carbon dioxide) emissions.

When planning for large solar-energy production facilities, the geographic location where demand for electricity is needed is taken into account.

The less populated, geographically larger, and more sun-drenched (and drought-stricken) US southwest area, is a desirable location for building huge solar-generated power plants.

Their current drought continues to diminish the water supply needed for hydro-produced electricity-generation output; increased production of solar-generated power makes sense to pursue.

In fact, a recent article in Greentechmedia, reports California has increased its solar power generation to make up for the loss in hydropower production.

In the EU (European Union), bringing solar electricity generated from “solar farms” in their more sunlit southern regions, to the higher populated areas of their country requires expensive, new electric transmission lines.

Installation of these lines are, at times, subject to protest by people living along a planned transmission line route.

Germany has had much success with Solar PV (photovoltaic – “photo” meaning light and “voltaic” meaning voltage) solar electrical power generating systems.

Last month, PV Magazine reported global PV solar energy installations will soon reach a cumulative capacity of 200 GW (gigawatts–billion watts).

They reported this amount of power would be equal to the energy output of 30 coal or nuclear plants combined.

Based upon this information, over 100 million tons of CO2 will be kept from being dispersed into the earth’s atmosphere every year because of the use of solar energy.

According to SEIA (Solar Energy Industries Association), the current solar power generated in the US could now supply the combined electrical power needs for one year to: Hawaii, Rhode Island, Alaska, and Vermont.

The solar energy industry is creating and supporting new high-tech jobs.

According to the Solar Foundation’s National Solar Jobs Census, there were a reported 173,000 “solar workers” as of November 2014.

In a typical residential solar-energy generating system, a solar energy company normally provides and installs the PV system on the roof of a customer’s home.

The solar energy company would also be responsible for meeting the PII (permitting, interconnection, and inspection) rules and procedures.

By the end of 2014, MIT reported PV installed systems accounted for a majority of solar electric generation worldwide; including the US.

PV “wafer-based crystalline silicon” solar cell technology is used in approximately 90 percent of the installations.

Half of these PV systems are used by utility-scale plants, with the balance shared between residential and commercial installations.

Solar PV systems also qualify for tax-incentives; such as the ITC (investment tax credit), and MACRS (modified accelerated cost recovery system), which is an accelerated depreciation used for solar assets.

Since about 2008, the US PV power capacity has grown from less than 1,000 MW (megawatts– million watts) to over 18,000 MW.

Since 2001, PV capacity worldwide has increased about 47 percent each year.

Some of the costs for solar PV systems include the PV solar panel modules, and solar micro-inverters used for converting DC energy captured by the panels into AC electricity used in the home or business.

Additional expenses include: regulatory compliance, electrical grid connections, cabling, and attachment hardware.

End-user online websites for monitoring, receiving reports, and performing diagnostics on their solar PV system, are also used.

It is estimated by 2050, globally, 25,000 GW of zero-carbon emission energy (like solar) will be necessary in order to prevent hazardous anthropogenic (human caused) air pollution.

This will be needed in order to offset the estimated 25 TW (terawatts–trillion watts) of power the globe will be using in 2050.

This means the US will need a land area for solar PV generation of roughly 12,740 square miles using present-day PV solar technology and hardware methodology.

The total square miles of the 48 contiguous states of the mainland US is 3,119,884 square miles.

For those of you doing the math, this ends up being slightly less than one-half of 1 percent (+0.4083).

MIT’s study also included a thorough glossary covering many acronyms and solar-power-related terminology.

You can read the complete MIT “The Future of Solar Energy” report at

The future of solar PV electrical energy-producing systems is growing.

They are becoming an alternative and a supplementary electrical power source for individuals and businesses; and an auxiliary power addition for commercial electrical utilities.

Solar energy companies are also installing “community solar gardens.”

These eliminate homeowners from having to have solar panels and associated equipment installed at their residences; but still benefit from solar-generated electricity.

Minnesota Public Radio recently aired a 4-minute, 30- second segment discussing Xcel Energy’s community solar gardens.

Here is the link for it:

Solar energy will be providing up to 10 percent of Minnesota’s electricity needs by 2030, Xcel Energy said in the radio segment.

Increased, widespread use of this green technology, will reduce our carbon dioxide footprint; helping to save this planet’s environment for future generations.

(Above photos Public Domain)

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Technology, scientists, and funding may find extraterrestrials

by Mark Ollig

Can cutting-edge technology, $100 million, and the assistance of a world-renowned physicist finally answer the question, “Are we alone?”

A bold, new initiative called the “Breakthrough Listen” project, will be funded by a 10-year, $100 million operating budget through its founder, Yuri Milner, a Russian entrepreneur and venture capitalist.

It’s been reported as the most extraordinary scientific research effort for extraterrestrial life in the universe ever undertaken.

Milner said he’s also known as “a technology investor from Silicon Valley.”

Yuri Milner was born in 1961; the same year Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space.

The reason his parents named Milner “Yuri” was so that he would be inspired by what Gagarin had accomplished.

In a well-attended press conference last Monday at The Royal Society in London; Milner, world-renowned theoretical physicist Professor Stephen Hawking, and other panel members from the scientific community addressed journalists and reporters.

“There is no greater question. It’s time to commit to finding the answer to search for life beyond Earth. We are alive. We are intelligent. We must know,” Hawking said, using his computerized voice synthesizer.

“Somewhere in the cosmos, perhaps, intelligent life may be watching these lights of ours, aware of what they mean,” he stated before the many members of the press in attendance.

Geoff Marcy, a Professor of astronomy at the University of California, in Berkeley, said new electronic high-bandwidth technology systems being developed will simultaneously scan 10 billion separate radio wave frequencies using field-programmable gate arrays and graphical processing units.

Breakthrough Listen will use advanced technology, such as “optical search,” and will develop powerful software for examining the search results.

Beyond our own Milky Way galaxy, they will be listening for messages from the 100 closest galaxies.

Breakthrough Listen will also be joining and supporting the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) community.

The most powerful telescopes on Earth will examine the center of our galaxy for any indications or transmission signals representing intelligent life.

This initiative will search the approximately 1 million stars closest to Earth for signs of life on the planets orbiting them.

The 100-meter Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT) located in West Virginia is one of the telescopes to be used by Breakthrough Listen.

The total GBT dish surface area, or parabola, is 2.3 acres; roughly the size of two football fields.

Another telescope to be used to search for signals in space which would suggest signs of extraterrestrial life is the 64-meter Parkes Radio Telescope in New South Wales, Australia.

It is the southern hemisphere’s largest telescope.

The website for the Parkes Radio Telescope is

The Hubble Space Telescope has brought us some amazing views of our universe; yet, it is unable to tell us whether life – or intelligent life for that matter – exists elsewhere in this celestial ocean we are floating in.

In addition, the Hubble is no longer being maintained as in years past, via Space Shuttle visits, and is projected to be operational for just another five or six years.

The search for other life in the universe could also be discovered with an extremely powerful new radio telescope to be placed in outer space soon.

Construction of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the much improved replacement for the 25-year-old Earth-orbiting Hubble, is nearing completion.

It is being built by NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency.

The JWST is scheduled to launch in October 2018. It will orbit the sun and be located nearly 1 million miles from the Earth.

This powerful new telescope will be “the premier observatory of the next decade,” and will see much further back in time than the Hubble – about 13.5 billion years, when the universe’s first stars and galaxies began forming.

The JWST website is:

I refer back to the Breakthrough Listen project.

What if the folks working on this project do confirm extraterrestrial intelligent life on some far away planet – and what happens if those distant inhabitants are technically evolved enough to become aware of us, and make contact?

How should humanity respond?

Should we even take the risk of responding?

Breakthrough Message, a second initiative funded by Milner, will sponsor an “international competition to generate a message representing humanity and planet Earth, which might one day be sent to other civilizations,” per Breakthrough Initiatives website.

A $1 million prize will be awarded to whoever creates a message which best characterizes our planet, and the humans living here.

Yours truly is currently crafting a well-thought-out message for their consideration.

Breakthrough Initiatives search results for finding extraterrestrial life “out there” will be made available to the public. You can follow them at

This columnist strongly encourages you to watch this exceptionally-informative and well-organized press conference at
I end this column regarding the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, with this sentence by Professor Stephen Hawking, “It is important for us to know if we are alone in the dark.”

Friday, July 17, 2015

FCC addresses US citizens traveling to Cuba

by Mark Ollig

Since diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba reopened, questions have arisen about when US citizens can begin planning their next vacation there.

Americans wishing to visit Cuba strictly for tourism will still need to wait a bit; however, you can visit now if your travel purpose meets certain criteria.

Some of them include: family visits, or if you’re a teacher, researcher, or journalist; or if you’re visiting to partake in athletic competition, educational, or religious activities.

The complete US government criteria list is comprised of 12 categories of authorized travel to Cuba.

So, while booking your plane flight with a destination to the José Martí International Airport in Havana, you may want to know what the current status of using your cellphone, or the Internet, is in Cuba.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) posted a telecommunications “frequently asked questions for travelers to Cuba” section July 10 on their website.

One of the questions asked included: Will my US mobile phone work in Cuba?

“Not in most cases,” replied the FCC.

The reason is, many US telecommunication carriers do not have cellular roaming service agreements with the Cuban national telecommunications company, known as ETECSA.

The FCC does say visitors can rent a SIM card (subscriber identity module – a “smart card”) with pre-paid minutes to use while in Cuba from Cubacel (ETECSA’s mobile phone subsidiary).

One can also rent or buy a compatible mobile phone while still in the US to use when you arrive in Cuba. These phones may be obtained from mobile communication companies such as: Cellular Abroad, Cello Mobile, or Mobal.

Once your plane’s wheels touch down in Cuba, you could rent a mobile phone from Cubacel; the FCC reports they have offices in Terminals 2 and 3 at the José Martí International Airport in Havana.

Folks in the US will be able to call you in Cuba if you’re using a Cuban mobile phone or SIM; they cannot call you directly on your US mobile phone, because of the non-roaming in Cuba.

Callers from the US need to dial 011, and 53 (Cuba’s country code), followed by the Cuban telephone number, which contains eight digits for a mobile phone.

The FCC provides this example of calling Cuba from a US landline: 011-53-5555-5555.

When placing a call from Cuba to the US using a Cuban landline phone, you’ll need to obtain a Cuban pre-paid calling card.

You would dial 166, then the card code, and press the hash/pound/octothorp key (#). Next dial 119 (the international line access code), then a “1” which is the US country code, followed by the three-digit area code and seven-digit phone number you want to call; ending with the hash key again.

Your somewhat humble, telephone call-processing translations programmer knows the hash key tells the telephone processing system that no more digits are expected, and to process the call without delay.

Yes, it is a very lengthy dialing process, isn’t it?

Of course, you could pay more for a simpler process by placing the call back to the US from your Cuban hotel room’s landline phone.

The FCC said calls from a Cuban tourist hotel to the United States cost around $2.50 per minute.

This calling process is much simpler: dial 119, then a 1, followed by the three-digit area code and seven-digit phone number.

Now that we have an idea on how to place phone calls, what about accessing the Internet when we get to Cuba?

In larger Cuban cities, like Havana and Santiago de Cuba, Internet cafés, or “telepuntos” are available where a person can purchase an Internet “access ticket.”

This access ticket provides a username and password, and grants a person access to the public computers and Internet by the minute or the hour.

The cost of Internet access is approximately $4.50 per hour.

One should take into consideration that Cuban Internet connection speeds are not uniform, and a particular Internet access gateway may not have the bandwidth for supporting video or voice calls.

If you access the Internet from a larger Cuban hotel accommodation, they usually will provide a computer or business center, where better-quality Internet access is available at a cost of $6-$10 per hour.

Here in the US, we are used to being able to access the Internet via large Wi-Fi coverage areas, such as inside a coffee house; however, Wi-Fi coverage is not yet as easily accessible in Cuba.

However, starting this month, Cuba intends to begin offering Wi-Fi availability in 35 of its government-run centers at a price of $2 per hour.

The US Department of the Treasury’s “frequently asked questions related to Cuba” (including the 12 categories of authorized travel Cuba), was updated May 5, and is available online.

You can read this document file at:

The FCC website is: 

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Gigantic robots to battle one-on-one

by Mark Ollig

What happens when a 15-foot-tall, 12,000-pound, gasoline-powered, US MegaBot robot named Mark II, challenges a 13-foot-tall, 9,000-pound, highly-advanced, Japanese Kuratas robot named Suidobashi?

Why, they meet to determine who can defeat the other in robotic combat.

“We have a giant robot, you have a giant robot. You know what needs to happen. We challenge you to a duel,” dared one of the MegaBot co-founders in a recent video directed to the Kuratas robot makers.

This challenge to Japan’s Suidobashi robot was readily accepted in a response video by its makers.

Both of these gigantic robots look as if they belong in a “Transformers” movie.

The Mark II was built by MegaBots, Inc., a company involved in the creation of giant fighting robots.

“MegaBots are 15-foot-tall, internally-piloted humanoid robots that fire cannonball-sized paintballs at each other at speeds of over 120 miles per hour,” according to a statement on their website:

The futuristic-looking Suidobashi robot is equipped with twin reloading Gatling-like guns, and it traverses via four wheeled “legs.” It is made by Japan’s Suidobashi Heavy Industry, which produces next-generation robots and robot control systems.

Their website page says they are, “An organization which aims to spread human ride robots. We mass-produce and sell prototype KURATAS by Kogoro Kurata.”

You can view their many robotic videos at the website:

The MegaBots robotic-duel challenge video can be seen at:

The response video by the Suidobashi maker is at:

The battle between Japan’s Suidobashi robot and the US MegaBot’s Mark II robot is tentatively scheduled for June 2016.

Robots exchanging punches with each other is nothing new.

How many of you remember a certain 1960s television episode when “Robby the Robot” and the “Lost in Space” robot, battled each other?

Of course, the “Lost in Space” robot won the battle – as it took place during an episode of “Lost in Space.”

In 2000, TV’s “Comedy Central” broadcast a show called “BattleBots,” which had engineering-minded folks designing and building robots which fought each other.

The show included four robotic weight classes ranging from 60 to 340 pounds.

“BattleBots” ran until 2002; however, it started up again last month to what have been reported to be “favorable reviews.”

The upcoming robotic sporting competition between Mark II and Suidobashi is receiving a lot of attention, and shows signs of becoming a well-attended, and probably a Pay-Per-View event.

With very tall and several-ton robots battling with each other, one wonders if events like these will grow in popularity with the public.

You might recall the February 2008 column yours truly wrote about robots brawling with each other inside a popular Minnesota venue.

“Humdinger 2” and “Chucker” were engaged in robotic combat during the Midwest Robotics League competition at the Mall of America, in Bloomington.

I attended this event in person, as my youngest son was a member of the St. Cloud Technical College’s robotics team, which was one of the schools taking part in the competition.

Preparation for this event required students to learn programming and robotic skills.

They accomplished this by designing, building, testing, and operating their robots.

During the competition, crowds of people watching became very engaged and vocal, while the robots battled with each other.

The robotic contest was comprised of two aluminum-framed and titanium-hulled, remote-controlled, 15-pound motorized robots.

They engaged in combat with each other inside a rectangular, impact-resistant, polycarbonate enclosed arena.

The students controlled the robots via radio, and would repair them during breaks in between competition events.

These smaller robotic contests have evolved into today’s “monster-sized” robotic competition – at least in the case of Suidobashi and MegaBot’s Mark II.

The MegaBots’ Mark II robot is piloted by two humans, and uses caterpillar treads for its “feet.”

This robot is able to quickly fire 3-pound cannonball-sized paintballs from any of its 20 rotating cannon-gun barrels.

It cost a reported $175,000 to build the MegaBot Mark II, while the Suidobashi robot came in at a cool $1 million.

MegaBots cofounder, Gui Cavalcanti told that the Japanese robot “is about three times faster than we are . . . their tech is currently more advanced.”

The other MegaBots co-founder, Matt Oehrlein has a Minnesota connection. He obtained his MS and BS electrical engineering degrees from the University of Minnesota.

Meanwhile, Suidobashi Heavy Industry’s CEO Kogoro Kurata was recently quoted as saying, “Giant robots are Japanese culture.”

So, it appears the gauntlet has been thrown down.

A video showing MegaBot’s Mark II using its car-smashing “reloading paintball firing weapon” can be seen on their YouTube channel:

The Feb. 18, 2008 Bits and Bytes column about the Midwest Robotics League competition at the Mall of America, be viewed at:

An agreed upon “neutral” robotic field-of-battle location is yet to be determined.

Folks, this is going to be an exciting contest.

Minutes before this epic battle of mechanical giants begins, we could be hearing famed boxing ring announcer Michael Buffer saying: “Let’s get ready to rumble, in the robotic jungle!”

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Early Bird still soars, 50 years later

by Mark Ollig    

It was April 6, 1965, and Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey was vice president of the United States, and chairman of the National Aeronautics and Space Council.

On this date, he witnessed (via close circuit TV) NASA’s rocket launch of the first ITSO (International Telecommunications Satellite Organization) satellite called: IntelSat 1 F-1, and nicknamed “Early Bird.”

The satellite was dubbed Early Bird in reference to the old adage: “The early bird catches the worm.”

Early Bird was the world’s first commercially used communications satellite.

The Space and Communications Group of the Hughes Aircraft Company constructed its cylindrical shape for the Communications Satellite Corporation (COMSAT).

Electronics contained inside the 85-pound satellite performed the switching magic for 240 simultaneous telephone calls. 

There was also one channel used for broadcasting live television programs between North America and Europe.

Additionally, Early Bird could relay telegraph signals, and facsimile (fax) transmissions.

It could not perform all of these functions simultaneously, so commercial companies vied for obtaining time to use specific satellite services. 

Early Bird’s payload included two 6-watt transponders, and operated on an allocated frequency bandwidth of 50 MHz (megahertz).

NASA used a Thrust Augmented Delta D rocket to place the Early Bird into a geosynchronous orbit above the Atlantic Ocean, along the Earth’s equator, at a distance of some 22,300 miles. 

From what I understand, a “geosynchronous orbit” is when a satellite’s orbital speed matches the speed in which the planet is turning. The high earth-orbit allows the satellite to position itself in the same location above the Earth’s surface as it travels the planet in a circular orbit.

Ground satellite stations can then focus their antenna towards a fixed location in the sky, ensuring a direct-line-of-sight to the satellite; thus allowing the uninterrupted sending and receiving of signaling data.

The Early Bird would orbit over the same location between North America and Europe. 

In October 1945, famous science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke,correctly predicted the use of orbital satellites while writing a paper titled: “Extra-Terrestrial Relays – Can Rocket Stations Give Worldwide Radio Coverage?”
“The development of rockets sufficiently powerful to reach “orbital” and even “escape” velocity is now only a matter of years,” Clarke wrote in his paper printed in the technical magazine, Wireless World. 

Clarke may have been thinking of the powerful V-2 rockets developed by Wernher von Braun, who also developed the Saturn V rocket used by NASA to reach the moon.

I first became curious about the Early Bird satellite, strangely enough, while watching a YouTube video of heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali fighting Cleveland Williams.

This boxing match took place Nov. 14, 1966, inside the Astrodome in Houston.

“I’d like at this time to compliment the thousands of people in the United Kingdom, who, where it is nearly four-o’clock, are jamming the theaters over there, to see our telecast via the Early Bird satellite,” announced Don Dunphy, who was calling the fight from ringside. 

Not only did the Early Bird satellite transmit live television broadcasts between North America and Europe, it also completed the switching for transatlantic telephone calls.

I located a May 7, 1965, LIFE magazine, and read an article about the satellite, cleverly titled: “The Early Bird Gets the Word.”

Yes indeed, folks, what a wonderful play on words those writers came up with back in 1965. 

The Early Bird satellite’s outer surface was encased in some 6,000 silicon-coated solar cells it used for power. 

These solar cells converted the sun’s energy into electricity to power the internal electronic components, as the satellite itself did not contain any batteries.

The satellite is noted for providing television splashdown coverage in December 1965, of the Gemini 6 spacecraft. 

Early Bird was removed from operation in January 1969; however, it was reactivated in July, when the communications satellite to be used during the Apollo 11 moon mission failed. 

It was then deactivated in August 1969.

In 1990, Early Bird was revived for a brief period in celebration of its 25th anniversary.

Intelsat (established in 1964 as the first commercial satellite services provider) uploaded a video of Early Bird’s April 6, 1965, launch from Cape Canaveral, FL, to its YouTube channel viewable here:

Real-time satellite tracking website:, monitors approximately 17,200 objects in the sky. 

You can search where the IntelSat 1 F-1 Early Bird satellite is presently located, via its International Designator Code: 1965-028A.

Check out this link to see Early Bird’s current location:

The 50-year-old Early Bird satellite still soars high above the Earth.