Author: Uponsci

250 Km/h Without a Driver: Indy Autonomous Cars Gear Up for Race

There will be cars at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Saturday but no drivers in sight as racing teams mark a milestone in autonomous vehicle development.

Nine single-seaters will take part in the Indy Autonomous Challenge (IAC), a competition with a $1 million prize that aims to prove “autonomous technology can work at extreme conditions,” said Paul Mitchell, CEO of co-organizer Energy Systems Network (ESN).

Cars will not race on the “Brickyard” track at the same time but will start one after the other — with the winner being the fastest over two full-speed laps.

Teams are made up of students from around the world. Each group was given the same Dallara IL-15 car, which looks like a small Formula One vehicle, and the same equipment, which includes sensors, cameras, GPS and radars.

On race day, it is not drivers that will make the difference — but about 40,000 lines of code programmed by each team. 

The software kickstarts the engine and a powerful computer wedged in the bucket where the driver usually sits.

The MIT-PITT-RW team, the only one made up entirely of students without supervision, got their car only six weeks ago.

Engineering student Nayana Suvarna, 22, does not yet have a driving license but was nonetheless reluctantly designated as team manager. 

“I didn’t know anything about car racing,” she said with a smile, “but I’m becoming a fan.”

The MIT-PITT-RW’s car hit 130 km/h in testing, but Suvarna believes it capable of overtaking 160 on Saturday. 

‘Generation of talent’


Other teams have gone much faster. 

The car belonging to the PoliMOVE team, a partnership between the universities of Alabama and Politecnico in Milan, drove past the pits at around 250 km/h on Thursday.

But the car skidded at the next turn, spinning 360 degrees before coming to a stop on the inside lawn. 

“It was a miracle we didn’t crash,” said Sergio Matteo Savaresi, professor at Politecnico.

There was no glitch to blame: only cold tires and a slight oversteer. 

“We actually reached the very limit of the car,” said Savaresi, who oversees the PoliMOVE team. 

“A professional driver at that speed with tires like these would have done exactly the same.”

The Robocar, made by manufacturer Roborace, has held the speed record for an autonomous car since 2019, clocking in at 282 km/h — but on a straight course, not a circuit.

The concept of self-driving cars has captured imaginations since the 1950s, but the tech needed to make them a reality has been boosted over the past five years.

Most big car manufacturers are working on autonomous driving projects, often in collaboration with tech giants such as Amazon, Microsoft or Cisco.

IAC participants do not see speed as the primary goal. 

“If people get used to seeing cars like these going 300 kilometers per hour… and they don’t crash,” said Savaresi, they may eventually think that such cars are safe “at 50 kilometers per hour.”

According to a Morning Consult survey published in September, 47 percent of Americans considered autonomous vehicles less safe than those driven by humans.

The race’s other goal is to enable tech sharing. 

Mitchell said several teams plan to make their code publicly available and open source after the competition.

“So, you’re going to take some of the most advanced AI algorithms ever developed for autonomous vehicles, and put it out there for industry, for startups, for other universities to build on.”

The project also aims to “develop a generation of talent,” Savaresi said.

“The people who are competing in this challenge are going to go and start companies, they’re going to go work for companies. And so I think the innovations from this competition will live on for many years.”


UN Prepares Polio Vaccination Campaign for Children in Afghanistan 

U.N. agencies are preparing to launch a polio vaccination campaign for all children under 5 in Afghanistan, a country where the potentially crippling disease persists despite a more than three-decade-long campaign that has nearly eradicated it worldwide.

Vaccine doses will begin to be administered in Afghanistan on November 8 for the first time in three years, now that the country’s new Taliban government has granted approval.

“This is a huge development that now we can go all across Afghanistan and deliver the vaccine house to house,” Dr. Hamid Jafari, the World Health Organization’s director of polio eradication for the Eastern Mediterranean region, told VOA.

Jafari described the upcoming campaign as “a real combination of excitement and extreme fear — excitement because it looks like a real opportunity to eradicate wild polio virus finally.”

Warning that the virus might still be “lurking in some hard-to-reach populations,” he said it’s critical that the WHO “maintain this momentum to vaccinate our children so that the virus has nowhere to go.”

“Both Afghanistan and Pakistan really actually need to switch gears,” Jafari declared.

Polio’s presence in Afghanistan and in neighboring Pakistan, where a U.N. polio vaccination effort begins in December, means the disease can still spread globally. Rotary International, which coordinates a global polio eradication program, predicts “hundreds of thousands of children could be paralyzed” if polio is not eliminated within 10 years.

The WHO announced the vaccination campaign on Tuesday, five days before the observance of World Polio Day, part of Rotary International’s Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI).

Since the GPEI began in 1988, when there were 350,000 cases in 125 countries every year, polio cases have been cut by 99.9%, according to Rotary International.

The Taliban prohibited teams organized by the U.N. from conducting door-to-door vaccinations in parts of Afghanistan under their control over the past three years.

The ban and the recently ended war in Afghanistan prevented vaccines from being administered to 3.3 million of the country’s 10 million children over that period.

Taliban support

The Taliban did not comment on the agreement, but Jafari said, “The Taliban have always been supportive of polio eradication. … In fact, the polio education program started in Afghanistan when they were in government” previously from 1996 to 2001.

Jafari said the Taliban vaccination restriction “was imposed purely for considerations of security and the nature of conflict at the time, and that has now obviously changed drastically. So their commitment to support polio education remains, and this is an expression of that.”

He said the WHO has always “maintained dialogue” with the Taliban, in keeping with its “very neutral and impartial program” that enables children to be vaccinated “wherever they are.”

Carol Pandak, head of the PolioPlus program at Rotary International, said in an interview with VOA that GPEI continues to be successful, noting only two cases of polio have been detected in the recent past, one in Afghanistan and the other in Pakistan.

“We have gone the longest time ever since detecting a case of the wild poliovirus. We’ve reached almost nine months, but now is not the time to be complacent,” she cautioned. “We need to build on this progress. We need to continue immunizing children against polio, and we need to intensify our disease detection systems so that with so few cases we’ll be able to tell and prove that there is no polio circulating.”

Pandak said that while Rotary International was “cautiously optimistic” about the progress made this year, “we need to also focus on other diseases, especially for children, because some of their immunization campaigns have been canceled due to COVID. So we really need to be able to protect children from diseases such as polio, even during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Earlier this month, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus celebrated Henrietta Lacks, a woman whose cervical cells were used to develop the polio vaccine, by acknowledging her “contribution to revolutionary advancements in medical science.”

The “HeLa cells” from Lacks, an African American, are the oldest and most used human cell line in existence. They were taken from her without permission at Johns Hopkins University in 1951 before her death, and their use has resulted in many other medical breakthroughs and research involving maladies such as AIDS and cancer.

Some information for this report came from Reuters.


Major Oil Producer Saudi Arabia Announces Net-zero by 2060

One of the world’s largest oil producers, Saudi Arabia, announced Saturday it aims to reach “net zero” greenhouse gas emissions by 2060, joining more than 100 countries in a global effort to try and curb man-made climate change.

The announcement, made by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in brief scripted remarks at the start of the kingdom’s first-ever Saudi Green Initiative Forum, was timed to make a splash a little more than a week before the start of the global COP26 climate conference being held in Glasgow, Scotland.

Although the kingdom will aim to reduce its emissions, Prince Mohammed said the kingdom would do so through a so-called “Carbon Circular Economy” approach. That approach focuses on still unreliable carbon capture and storage technologies over efforts to actually reduce global reliance on fossil fuels. The announcement only pertains to Saudi Arabia’s efforts within its national borders and does not impact its continued aggressive investment in oil and exporting its fossil fuels to Asia and other regions.

“The transition to net zero carbon emissions will be delivered in a manner that preserves the kingdom’s leading role in enhancing the security and stability of global energy markets, particularly considering the maturity and availability of technologies necessary to manage and reduce emissions,” a statement by the Saudi Green Initiative forum said.

The kingdom’s oil and gas exports form the backbone of its economy, despite efforts to diversify away from reliance on fossil fuels for revenue.

The global summit COP26 starting Oct. 31 will draw heads of state from across the world to try and tackle global warming and its challenges. It is being described as “the world’s last best chance “to prevent global warming from reaching dangerous levels. The summit is expected to see a flurry of new commitments from governments and businesses to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases.

Leaked documents first reported by the BBC emerged Thursday showing how Saudi Arabia and other countries, including Australia, Brazil and Japan, are apparently trying to water down an upcoming U.N. science panel report on global warming. The documents are purportedly evidence of the way in which some governments’ public support for climate action is undermined by their efforts behind closed doors.

Saudi Arabia has pushed back against the recommendation that fossil fuels be urgently phased out of the energy sector. Instead, the kingdom is touting, thus enabling nations to continue burning fossil fuels by sucking the resulting emissions out of the atmosphere, according to Greenpeace, which obtained the documents.

The kingdom repeatedly seeks to have the report’s authors delete references to the need to phase out fossil fuels, as well as the panel’s conclusion that there is a “need for urgent and accelerated mitigation actions at all scales,” according to the leaked documents

Earlier this month, the United Arab Emirates – another major Gulf Arab energy producer – announced it too would join the “net zero” club of nations with a target to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. 

The UAE did not announce specifics on how it will reach this target but said its Ministry of Climate Change and Environment would work with the energy, economy, industry, infrastructure, transport, waste, agriculture and other sectors on the government’s strategies and policies to achieve net zero by 2050.

The UAE says it is home to three of the largest solar facilities in the world and is the first country in the Middle East to deploy nuclear power.


PM Ardern: New Zealand Must Be 90% Vaccinated to Reopen

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Friday the country will end its strict COVID-19 lockdown once 90% of its citizens are fully vaccinated. 

The nation of 5 million people has been among the best in the world at containing the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, largely because New Zealand closed its borders for most of the last 18 months to non-residents. 

The strategy to eliminate COVID-19 worked for the most part, with the nation reporting only 28 deaths over the course of the pandemic. Earlier this year, much of the country had all but returned to normal. 

But in August, the Delta variant of the virus prompted an outbreak in the nation’s largest city, Auckland. The city of 2 million has been locked down for much of the past nine weeks. 

At a news conference in the capital, Wellington, Ardern said, while the nation should be proud of all it achieved during the early months of the pandemic, the delta variant has made it very hard to maintain its elimination strategy. She said rather than remain locked down, the way to move forward is through vaccinations. 

Ardern said, based on consultations with experts and examination of data, officials established the 90% vaccination criteria for each of the nation’s 20 district health regions. She said, once that target is reached in a given district, people will be free to do what they want, as long as they provide proof of vaccination. 

The prime minister said, “Basically, if you want to be guaranteed that no matter the setting that we are in that you can go to bars, restaurants and close-proximity businesses like a hairdresser, you’ll need to be vaccinated.” 

The New Zealand Health Ministry says 58 percent of the total population has been fully vaccinated as of Friday. 


Some information for this report was provided by The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse. 



Researchers in Uganda Start Trials for HIV Injectable Drug

Uganda has kickstarted a trial for the injectable HIV drugs cabotegravir and rilpivirine. Researchers and those living with HIV say the trial will likely end pill fatigue, fight stigma, improve adherence and ensure patients get the right dosage.

The two drugs have been in use as tablets. The World Health Organization last year licensed their use as injectables.

While the two injectables already went through trials in Europe and North America, this will be the first time they are tested in an African population for efficacy and safety in an African health care system.

Uganda is one of three African countries, along with Kenya and South Africa, which got approval from the WHO to carry out the trials. However, Kenya and South Africa have yet to acquire approvals to start their trials, expected by the end of the year.

Uganda and Kenya will both have three trial sites and there will be two in South Africa, with a total of 512 participants — 202 from Uganda, 160 from Kenya and 150 from South Africa.

Dr. Ivan Mambule, the lead project researcher at the Joint Clinical Research Center, says participants will need one injection every two months.

“We are going to choose participants who are already on ART [anti-retroviral treatment] and are stable on ART. And we will randomize them to either continue on their normal treatment, which is the pill that they’ve been taking, or to switch them to this injectable. The injection is on the buttock,” he expressed.

Uganda has 1.4 million people living with HIV/AIDS. Barbara Kemigisa who is living with HIV and founded the Pill Power Foundation working with rural women, says the injectable drugs will increase adherence to treatment and ensure people get the right dosage.

“One of the things that affects adherence is the fact that people have to hide medicine. In the village, people are hiding medicine in the kitchen roof, in trees, in bushes, in a baby’s shoe…If someone is wrapping the medicine in like five plastic bags and digs a hole in the garden and keeps the medicine there, by the time someone is taking that medicine, it’s no longer medicine, it’s poison,” Kemigisa points out.

Nicholas Niwagaba, who has worked with young people living with HIV welcomes the trial, saying it will reduce the pill burden and fight stigma.

“Young people feel like, this is a lot of pills to take. Those who are on the first line, they will have to take one tablet a day. There are those who are on second line and they have to take more than one pill and they have to take it in the morning and in the evening. And of course, this requires you to have actually a balanced diet which is really a challenge for most of young people especially those from vulnerable communities,” he says.

According to the WHO, there are 25.7 million people living with HIV in Africa. With only the pill currently available to manage the scourge, this injectable may come as a relief for people living with HIV/AIDS. 


New Zealand Scientists Investigate Microplastics’ Impact on Climate Change

New Zealand scientists have found that microplastics have a direct impact on global warming. They published the first study linking airborne plastic fragments and fibers to climate change Wednesday. They also found that microplastics, which have been widely detected on land and in rivers and oceans, are detrimental to health.

This is the first study to investigate the effects of airborne microplastics on climate. The plastic fragments and fibers are carried by the wind. Microplastics are created by the breakdown of carpets, clothing and paint, as well as tires and larger plastics that degrade over time.

Researchers in New Zealand have found that for now, their influence on climate change is small. But if the global average concentration of microplastics increases to levels already seen in some cities, the impact “will be significant,” they say. 

Laura Revell, an atmospheric chemist at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, said the airborne particles do affect the environment.

“They are good at scattering solar radiation, or sunlight, back to space, which causes a minor cooling influence on Earth’s climate, and they also are quite good at absorbing the infrared radiation that is emitted by the Earth, which means they also contribute to the greenhouse effect,” she said. “But overall, it is that interaction with sunlight that plays out. So, overall, they have a very, very small cooling influence on Earth’s climate.”

Revell said laboratory studies have shown that microplastics can damage lung tissue. Aquatic organisms such as zooplankton can also mistake the plastic for food, which can interfere with the ocean’s carbon cycle, where carbon is recycled naturally by the environment.

“I wouldn’t want anyone to get the idea that this is actually a good thing in terms of climate change and that they are offsetting the effects of greenhouse gas warming because, for a start, the effect is very small in the present day and then there are also these other damaging effects to humans and to other ecosystems.” 

Researchers have estimated that globally, 5 billion tons of plastic waste have accumulated in landfills and the natural environment to date. They have warned that amount could double over the next 30 years if current trends in plastic production and waste management continue. 

The research is a collaboration between New Zealand’s University of Canterbury and Victoria University of Wellington.

It is published in the leading scientific journal Nature.


In Colombia, Blinken Announces Deal to Curb Amazon Deforestation

After a day of high-level talks in Colombia, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced on Thursday a regional partnership to address deforestation in the Amazon rainforest.

“We’ll give much-needed financial assistance to help manage protected areas and Indigenous territories, and we’ll help scale up low-carbon agricultural practices to farmers throughout the Amazon,” he said in the capital, Bogota, after touring its botanical gardens.

“This new regional partnership will help prevent up to 19 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere while capturing another 52,000 metric tons of carbon, and we estimate it will save — save — more than 45,000 hectares of forest,” Blinken added.

The Amazon spans eight countries in South America, including Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. The Amazon and other rainforests are crucial because they take in carbon dioxide and produce about one-fifth of the world’s oxygen. About a third of Colombia is in the Amazon.

Colombian President Ivan Duque has ambitious climate goals, including zero deforestation by 2030. Blinken observed in his remarks that Duque won an International Conservation Award this year from the International Conservation Caucus Foundation.

UN conference

Blinken’s announcement came a little more than a week before the United Nations Climate Change Conference, known as COP26, opens in Glasgow, Scotland, where about 100 world leaders will discuss climate change and how to combat it.

In Glasgow, “the entire planet is hoping for important announcements — actions,” he said.

The secretary was wrapping up a trip to Ecuador and Colombia that focused on discussing migration policy and upholding democracy.

“The core focus of this trip for me, my first trip to South America as secretary of state, is how we make democracies deliver for our people,” Blinken said minutes before the talks began. “That is our common challenge. It’s our common responsibility. And that’s true in our countries and it’s true across the hemisphere.”

Blinken said many common issues would be discussed during the U.S.-Colombia High-Level Dialogue, including COVID-19, the climate crisis and migration.

“We know that one way we can deliver is by working closely with our partners and allies on the biggest challenges we face, and that’s exactly what the United States and Colombia are doing,” Blinken said.

Blinken told reporters Wednesday after meeting with Duque that the two countries have many areas of potential cooperation, including cloud computing, health technology and agriculture.

The United States is asking countries in the Western Hemisphere to step up pledges to tackle the immediate challenges of irregular migration as it expands eligibility for legal migration to the United States.

Migration ministerial

Blinken held talks Wednesday with more than a dozen officials from Latin America at a regional migration ministerial in Bogota. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas joined the gathering virtually.

The United States discussed options, including assisting with voluntary returns to their home countries for migrants who do not have valid asylum claims.

Duque confirmed that his government had received resources from the U.S. to tackle what he called ”the most complicated migration crisis in the world”: the Venezuelan migration crisis.

In a speech earlier Wednesday in Ecuador, Blinken outlined several challenges that democracies face in the Western Hemisphere, including corruption, civilian security, and the economic and social well-being of the people.

He said he was optimistic they could be overcome and noted that the survival of a democracy driven by ordinary people was vital to the shared future of the region.​

VOA’s Nike Ching contributed to this report. Some information came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.


Texas Asks Supreme Court to Leave Restrictive Abortion Law in Place

The U.S. state of Texas on Thursday urged the U.S. Supreme Court to leave in place its restrictive law banning most abortions after the administration of President Joe Biden had asked the country’s highest court to block the statute. 

In its court filing, Texas, the second most populous U.S. state, defended an order by a three-judge 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel that allowed the anti-abortion law to go back into effect after a lower-court judge put it on hold.  

The state contended, “In sum, far from being demonstrably wrong, the Fifth Circuit’s conclusion that Texas is likely to prevail was entirely right.” It told the high court there was no reason to rush into a decision pending further review at the appellate level. 

The Biden administration has argued that the law is “clearly unconstitutional” because it bans abortions at roughly six weeks of a pregnancy, long before a fetus can survive outside the womb. In its major abortion rulings, the Supreme Court has made it clear that states can regulate but not prohibit abortions before the point of fetal viability, about 22 to 24 weeks into a pregnancy. 

Since the law went into effect, clinics in Texas say abortions in the state are down by about 80%, with women going to clinics in other states to obtain abortions. 

The Texas abortion law is unique in that it also gives private citizens the right to sue anyone who performs or assists a woman in getting an abortion. Individual citizens can be awarded $10,000 for bringing successful lawsuits.

Aside from the Texas case, in December, the Supreme Court is considering whether to uphold or overturn a Mississippi law that bans abortions after 15 weeks.


Warming Temperatures Could Spark Conflicts in Global Hot Spots, Reports Say 

More than just altering the environment, climate change is threatening to permanently and dangerously reshape the global security landscape, according to a series of new assessments by U.S. military, intelligence and security officials.

The reports, ordered earlier this year by U.S. President Joe Biden as part of an effort to better confront the impact of climate change, warn no country will be spared, and that some parts of the world already may be reaching a tipping point.

“As climate change converges with other drivers — especially geostrategic competition, emerging technology and global-demographic trends — it is reshaping the risk landscape,” the Department of Homeland Security said in its climate change strategic framework, released Thursday.

“The corrosive impact of these trends will make nations increasingly vulnerable to domestic instability, with sweeping implications for regional and border security and core national security interests,” it added.

Preparing for calamities

Defense officials said they are already being forced to prepare for worst-case scenarios, from mass migration events to shifts in the balance of power in key regions to the possibility some countries could collapse outright, spawning “instability across the globe.”

“Competitive advantage in the future will go to those who can fight and win in this rapidly changing strategic and physical environment,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said.

The Pentagon’s risk assessment warned climate change is likely to spark instability in at least four regions – the Middle East and South Asia, Africa, Europe, and Central and South America – with three of them likely to see increased demand for humanitarian aid.

The U.S. intelligence community’s National Intelligence Estimate on climate change is even more dire, pointing to looming disaster for key countries in South and East Asia, and in Central America.

And where existing governments are unable to meet the challenges of climate change, insurgents and terrorists appear poised to exploit the situation.

“We assess that most of the countries where al-Qaida or ISIS have a presence are highly vulnerable to climate change,” the intelligence estimate warned.

Countries in Central Africa, already confronting rising terror threats, also may find themselves overwhelmed.

“Under-resourced and ill-equipped militaries will face severe strains when they are called upon to respond to more natural disasters in their own and neighboring countries,” the assessment said.

In Central America, prolonged dry spells and excessive rains could force 30% of the working population to flee.

No country spared

U.S. intelligence officials also warn that even countries with the most resources could find themselves at odds, predicting intense competition between the U.S. and China over key mineral and clean energy technologies by 2040.

“The United States and others … are in a relatively better position than other countries to deal with the major costs and dislocation of forecasted change, in part because they have greater resources to adapt, but will nonetheless require difficult adjustments,” according to the estimate.

“Adjusting to such changes will often be wrenching, and populations will feel negative effects in their daily lives,” it said. “The impacts will be massive even if the worst human costs can be avoided.”


South Korea Takes Another Step Toward Reaching the Moon

A global giant in technology completes a space launch as it aims to eventually send a probe to the moon. Plus, NASA launches its latest deep-space explorer and a look at a robot that turns humidity into drinking water. VOA’s Arash Arabasadi brings us the Week in Space.