June 19, 2016: The Power of TV and The Rise of The Machines

The Power of Television

As I mentioned in our Newsletter a couple of weeks ago, we were recently honoured by a visit from Justin Huntsdale from ABC Illawarra. Justin recorded a video interview which aired on ABC News24 yesterday. As far as I know this is the first time the Greeny Flat has been on television and the effect on our website was dramatic. By 9am we had so much traffic that our server was overloaded and by the end of the day we had had more visitors than we usually get in a month. Which goes to show how powerful Television can be for spreading ideas. My dream is to see less doom and gloom and more hope and inspiration being spread this way.

The ABC piece also brought a LOT of new subscribers to this Newsletter so I would like to take this opportunity to welcome you and to thank all our subscribers, new and old, for your interest, support and for helping to spread the word about living more sustainably. Please feel free to contact me via our Contact Form if you have questions, comments or suggestions for things you would like us to write about. For those who missed it, the video is available to view on the ABC website at the following link. Thank you Justin for creating a great little piece that succinctly gets the point across and helps to spread the word about Climate Action at home.

Please click on the image above to visit the ABC website and view the video.

Please click on the image above to visit the ABC website then click on the first photo to view the video.

The Rise of the Machines

Spatial Technologies' mapping drone takes to the sky.

Spatial Technologies’ mapping drone takes to the sky.

As I started to write last week before my laptop battery went flat, I recently had the great privilege of spending a few days with Anton van Wyk from Spatial Technologies, a Melbourne-based company specialising in Geographical Information, Surveying and UAV (Drone) Mapping. Our goal was to complete aerial surveys of four potential sites for solar farms. Unfortunately the weather was uncooperative and we only got three sites done but it was a real eye-opening experience for me.

About six months ago I joined a group of local residents concerned about Climate Change and formed a company aimed at reducing our community’s greenhouse gas emissions. We named the company Renewable Energy Wingecarribee Pty Ltd and our initial focus is on building large-scale renewable energy projects in the Wingecarribee Shire Council area. So far we have identified four promising sites with potential for solar farms, i.e. good solar access, low potential for other uses and proximity to power lines. We are now undertaking a Feasibility Study on these four sites to determine whether they hold commercial potential. As part of that process we need to have the sites surveyed and detailed contour plans drawn up. We could have commissioned a surveyor to do this on the ground but we discovered that it is MUCH cheaper and quicker to do it by drone mapping. So we have hired  Spatial Technologies to do the job.

The process is pretty straightforward, Anton lays out a series of flight paths for each site, gets the drone in the air, uploads the flight path to the drone then the drone automatically flies to the right height, precisely following the flight path and taking high-resolution aerial photographs every few meters across the entire site.

Photo showing the video screen on the drone controller. Note the pre-programmed, zig-zagging flight path with dots at each photo location.

The video screen on the drone controller showing the pre-programmed, zig-zagging flight path with dots at each photo location.

Everything is controlled by GPS and each flight path is limited in length by a battery life of about 15 minutes. When it completes a flight the drone returns to where it started so that Anton can land it, replace the battery and prepare it for the next mission.

As mentioned earlier, the weather was not very cooperative on the days Anton was here. In fact he said it was the windiest conditions he had attempted to fly in. The drone is only capable of 36km/h so winds gusting above 30km/h can create serious problems. At worst the drone could simply be blown away and, if it blew out of range of the controller, there’s no telling where it might end up. We were right on the edge of those conditions and we could see from the ground that the drone was struggling to follow its predetermined path. It was getting buffeted around by the wind gusts pretty heavily and Anton was concerned that this would lead to blurry photographs which would give an inaccurate contour plan. But everything turned out really well and we got wonderfully clear and detailed photos of every inch of the sites we flew. Anton has now run those through his computer software and produced exceptionally detailed site plans which we can use for planning and developing our solar farms.

Screenshot of one of the completed site plans and an aerial photo

Screenshot of one of the completed contour plans and an aerial photo of one of the sites.

It was truly remarkable watching this little drone do its work. Anton is a pilot so he enjoys manually taking off and landing the drone but, in reality, he doesn’t need to. All he really needs to do is change the battery and upload the flight paths. Computers do the rest.

As a result we are getting highly detailed site plans plus aerial photography of four large sites for less than $4,000 with only two days of site work. We didn’t try to get comparable quotes from traditional surveyors but my guess would be that we could have easily paid $4,000 for each site, got less detailed contour plans and without the added bonus of aerial photographs. So this drone mapping service is great for our company’s efforts to build our renewable energy projects.

It also left me with some strong and lingering misgivings about where the human race is headed. A drone is basically a flying robot and we are currently at the beginning of a robot revolution. Businesses and industries all around the world are rapidly developing technologies that allow machines to replace people. From huge factories building Tesla cars and batteries ‘manned’ almost exclusively by robots, to self-driving cars, home automation systems, robotic vacuum cleaners, self-service check-out lines in supermarkets and even the new automatic tellers in banks that can do almost all the things a person used to do. Humans are being replaced by computers and robots all over the place.

On one level, and in the short term, all of these things make people’s lives a little bit easier. One man, Anton, was able to complete in two days and with very little physical effort, what it would have taken a team of three people a couple of weeks of hard work to do only a few short years ago. In some ways this is great but where does is all of this take us in the long term?

What is society going to look like if machines take over most of the jobs?

Even more concerning to me is the fact that all of the work the drone did required a certain amount of planning on Anton’s part and then very little input from him. How long will it be before Anton doesn’t even need to be there? Currently Anton is telling the machines what to do and they are doing it extremely efficiently. But it’s not a very long step from here to where the machines are telling us what to do. Once we start adding artificial intelligence into the mix things could get seriously creepy.

Currently we are in control. We are directing the machines to do things for us AND we have control over their power supply. As a last resort we can pull the plug. But it’s not hard to see a situation where we hand control of energy supplies and manufacturing to computers… then what happens? Soon we may not have the ability to turn them off… they might have the ability to turn us off! I’m not kidding… think about when we first heard about drones, it wasn’t because they were doing helpful things for people like mapping sites for solar farms, no… it was during the Iraq War. The first use that drones were put to was for killing people.

If I let my imagination go down this path, I pretty quickly find myself in ‘Terminator’ country where the last surviving humans are in a desperate struggle against the machines. Or I’m in ‘Wall-E’ where machines do absolutely everything for the humans who can’t even stand up and walk by themselves anymore. Or, worse still, in ‘The Matrix’ where machine wars have poisoned the atmosphere and blocked out the sun so people have become the power supply for the machines, bred and harvested for their electrical energy and kept subdued by a virtual reality.

Coming soon to the air near you....

Coming soon to the air near you….

Okay, enough of that. I try hard to focus primarily on what I can do here and now to help make the world a better place. That is what the Greeny Flat is all about and that is what Renewable Energy Wingecarribee is about too. We believe that building solar farms will help reduce our communities greenhouse gas emissions which, in turn, will help to protect the planet and its people from the damaging effects of climate change. This little flying robot is helping with that and, for now at least, that’s a good thing. Another very good thing would be if Hollywood produced movies that gave people ideas for a future we might actually WANT to help create. I’m a great believe in the idea that we get what we focus on. If we focus on all the things wrong in the world and on all the things that we fear most then we play a part in making those things happen. I think it’s important to recognise what we don’t want then move on to focus on what we DO want. If we can imagine it we can make it…. actually I think it’s deeper than that… I think that if we imagine it we WILL make it so it’s vital that we spend more time and energy imagining a peaceful, healthy, productive, wonderful future full of music and laughter, good food, clean air and water, thriving ecosystems and content people than we spend focusing on the things we’re afraid of. Unfortunately the media and movie industries seem to take the opposite approach which is one reason why I don’t watch television (except, of course, when there’s a story about the Greeny Flat).

Reader Feedback about Magnetite

In last week’s Newsletter I wrote about how Magnetite retrofit double-glazing is helping my sister make her Canberra townhouse more energy efficient. I received the following comments about Magnetite from Marcus, a reader in the Southern Highlands…

‘I did have a look at Magnetite when I was planning our window upgrade. Whilst it is certainly cheaper than full double glazing, I realised that to be effective, I would have to refurbish the existing sash units to reduce gaps, etc. I could have spent many happy hours doing this (or paying a fortune to have it done). Going for full double glazing was obviously a much better option (and probably cheaper, if you consider the work involved in refurbishing the sash units). I think you might have made this point in this Greeny Flat newsletter, as the Magnetite units are unlikely to do a good job if the original units are leaking like sieves.’
Marcus is absolutely right that completely replacing old windows with new double-glazed units (especially casement or awning windows that provide MUCH better air sealing than double-hung or sliding windows) will certainly result in better energy performance but I’m not sure that it will be more cost-effective in all cases. In my sister’s case, she did get quotes for completely replacing those three small windows and the cost would have been three times as much as the Magnetite. As for the air sealing, she feels like the Magnetite does an excellent job for a reasonable cost. It probably depends a fair bit on the way the building is constructed. Perhaps my sister’s old windows were installed in such a way that they were much more difficult and expensive to replace than Marcus’s. I’m not sure of all the details but, if you’re considering retrofitting old windows, I think it’s worth looking at both options and weighing up the pros and cons in your particular case. Both Marcus and Cate are happy with the results they have achieved even though they went in different directions.

22 Ways to Reduce Energy Use Before Installing Solar Panels

Speaking of conserving energy… as my good friend Manny likes to says, ‘You’ve got to REduce before you PROduce’.

Meaning that, before you install solar panels on your house (or any building for that matter) it is very important to find ways to conserve energy wherever possible first so that you can keep the size, cost and embodied energy of the solar system down to a minimum. This week I came across a good article from The Conversation that lists 22 ways to do just that.

Magnet Fridges

Magnet fridge (Source: Gizmag)

Magnet fridge (Source: Gizmag)

One of the suggestions in the article above is to get rid of old and inefficient fridges. Soon we may have a completely new option to replace old fridges with ones that use magnets instead of compressed gases to cool the air inside. According to this Gizmag article, magnetic fridge technology has been around for a while but it is only just becoming a cost effective option for reducing the energy consumption and greenhouses gases associated with refrigeration.

That’s all for this week. Thanks for reading. Next week we’ll discuss the Cradle-to-Cradle philosophy and how it applies to Welsh cars.


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