The fact that so many people are stuck at home makes for strange opportunities. Italy’s confined populace has taken to singing from the balconies — and now researchers are asking them to use those same balconies to help accomplish a bit of citizen science.
The project, created by the Italian National Research Council, aims to take widespread samples of light pollution in the country. The question of “light trespass,” or how much light from outside our homes reaches inside them, isn’t a particularly easy one to test without access to those homes. So they’re asking people to collect that information themselves.
Using their phone and a special app, some 7,000 Italians participated in an initial run of the experiment two weeks ago. All they needed to do was turn off all the lights in their place, go to their window or balcony, and point their phone at the brightest light source they could see.
The resulting data showed that the average light trespass in Italian cities is nearly twice that of homes in the country — not exactly surprising, but it’s important for even supposedly obvious conclusions to be quantified and supported with evidence. Sure, it’s brighter in the city — but how much brighter? What type of light is it? More data means better understanding of even the most basic questions.
“With this experiment, we wanted to bring citizens closer to measurement techniques, to let them see the often complex process and allow them to participate in the scientific method,” Alessandro Farini, one of the organizers of the experiment, told Nature. (I contacted the researchers for more information but have not heard back.)
The experiment was so successful that #scienzasulbalcone, or “science on the balcony,” is having an encore — new measurements taken last week and a final one tomorrow night. The team issued revised instructions to its participants in order to better characterize the data they bring in.
Anyone interested in helping is asked to find a light bulb they can easily check the wattage on, then calibrate their phone by leaving only that light on and using their phone’s ambient light sensor to measure its output. This will help calibrate the system, since some phones are more sensitive to light than others. Once they’re done, they can make another measurement out their window or off the balcony, and submit that.
As autonomous cars and robots loom over the landscapes of cities and jobs alike, the technologies that empower them are forming sub-industries of their own. One of those is lidar, which has become an indispensable tool to autonomy, spawning dozens of companies and attracting hundreds of millions in venture funding.
But like all industries built on top of fast-moving technologies, lidar and the sensing business is by definition built somewhat upon a foundation of shifting sands. New research appears weekly advancing the art, and no less frequently are new partnerships minted, as car manufacturers like Audi and BMW scramble to keep ahead of their peers in the emerging autonomy economy.
To compete in the lidar industry means not just to create and follow through on difficult research and engineering, but to be prepared to react with agility as the market shifts in response to trends, regulations, and disasters.
I talked with several CEOs and investors in the lidar space to find out how the industry is changing, how they plan to compete, and what the next few years have in store.
Their opinions and predictions sometimes synced up and at other times diverged completely. For some, the future lies manifestly in partnerships they have already established and hope to nurture, while others feel that it’s too early for automakers to commit, and they’re stringing startups along one non-exclusive contract at a time.
All agreed that the technology itself is obviously important, but not so important that investors will wait forever for engineers to get it out of the lab.
And while some felt a sensor company has no business building a full-stack autonomy solution, others suggested that’s the only way to attract customers navigating a strange new market.
It’s a flourishing market but one, they all agreed, that will experience a major consolidation in the next year. In short, it’s a wild west of ideas, plentiful money, and a bright future — for some.
The evolution of lidar
I’ve previously written an introduction to lidar, but in short, lidar units project lasers out into the world and measure how they are reflected, producing a 3D picture of the environment around them.
We start with a view of Earth, then speed out past the Kuiper Belt into deep space.
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