SciTech Now Episode 234

In this episode of SciTech Now, archaeology students in North Carolina are using ground-penetrating radar in an attempt to solve a Revolutionary War mystery; the prevalence and dangers of counterfeit microchips; as more universities offer gaming science degrees, some students can now see a future in video game design; and inside the extreme sport of drone racing.


Coming up... using modern tools to understand history...

I am very excited by it.

And, you know, personal items just bring you close to either soldiers -- Soldiers wore rings like this.

...counterfeit microchips -- a small, hidden danger...

If it's a counterfeit part that has malicious things inserted in it, then you can have information loss.

And in worst case, your hardware can get taken over remotely.

...entrepreneurs of tomorrow...

So they have a hands-on opportunity to deal with sourcing issues and financing issues and even things like supply chain.

...and finally, the extreme sport of drone racing.

It's a racecar, so you always have to make the fine adjustments to be a little bit faster than the other guy, which would be changing the propeller, changing the motor, or tilting your camera a little higher as you get better.

It's all ahead.

Funding for this program is made possible by...


I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Welcome to 'SciTech Now,' our weekly program bringing you the latest breakthroughs in science, technology, and innovation.

Let's get started.

Can technology help solve a Revolutionary War mystery?

We take you to Greensboro, North Carolina, where archaeology students and faculty are harnessing ground-penetrating radar to unearth facts at the site of an 18th-century battle.

Let's take a look.

See right here?

You see how this signal gets a little different right here?

See how the signal is?

It's kind of dark.

It's darker right in there.


Ari Lukas is cutting or fertilizing the grass.

He trying to solve a Revolutionary War mystery.

That rolling tool he's using is ground-penetrating radar.

Looks like we're doing -- Every half-meter, we're gonna do a transect.

Archaeology students and faculty from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro are investigating a forest clearing at Guilford Courthouse National Military Park in Greensboro.

So, this is saying, 'Hey, there's something unusual here'?

Yeah, and if you look up here, it has to go across meters.

Each one of these is -- We think it's about two meters.

So it tells you actually to come out here about three meters.

That's kind of where it starts.

And it actually kind of goes for about another meter.

It's about a meter-and-a-half wide.

Probably evidence of the road.


What do you think when you see that?

It's kind of cool.

It is.

You know, that's the kind of cool thing about this because, like you said, you don't really know for sure what's underneath the ground.

It's like it makes your imagination go wild, so it's kind of fun 'cause it kind of brings out the kid in all of us.

You know what I mean?

You're like, 'What could it be?!'


[ Radar pings ] Back on March 15, 1781, British soldiers fought through three lines of American troops and militiamen in the area.

It was all happening through thick woods, and the smoke was hanging in the air.

There was a lot of what we call small firefights.

Despite having an army half the size, the colonials fought a bloody battle, trying to slow the British advance through the South.

So, General Greene thought this was good ground because there were three ridgelines he could put his troops on.

And then he would have a good avenue of escape if he didn't win the battle, and General Greene never really expected to win the battle.

Archaeologists want to find what's known as the 'retreat road.'

It's the path on which General Nathanael Greene led his troops to escape.

While the general area of the battle is known, the specific locations aren't.

And that's what the archaeology really is about -- the locations and the artifacts and telling the story.

We don't know the location of the courthouse.

And of course, the courthouse is the landmark of the time.

500 British soldiers were killed or wounded.

The Patriots suffered 300 casualties and retreated.

But it was a costly victory because the British lost almost a quarter of their army.

That set the stage for their eventual surrender at Yorktown and the end of the revolution.

Those are the facts, but understanding history is knowing much more than facts.

In the past, archaeologists would make sample test digs around a property in hopes of finding something.

We're kind of subtracting from 10, so it's a little different.

So we're gonna be at seven.

But that random digging is expensive and time-consuming.

Examining an area with ground-penetrating radar digging is much more efficient.

And it sends a radio wave down.

And so the whole thing that GPR looks for is change -- the more change, the better.

So if this was sand all the way down, you'd get the same signal all the way down.

But if it's a big rock wall or something under there, it'll hit that change.

And once it hits that change, it sends a signal back like that and says, 'This is not what I've been going through.'

So that's basically what we look for when we're doing that, and we can look -- This is the profile.

So what you're actually looking at is the slice downward.

It could be a soil change.

It could be a rock.

It could be a geologic change.

So it's just showing us contrast within the Earth's surface.

The data is loaded into a computer, which creates a profile image of what's belowground.

You see that road starting to pop up, that side road that we saw?

And as we move through these profiles, we can go down and see other things start.

These materials are different kinds of knife blades that you can see here.

These items were found when the radar detected a concentration of objects, along with what turned out to be a row of stones.

Archaeologists dug 11 test pits and 6 trenches near the site.

Almost 900 items were brought to the university's archaeology lab, cleaned, and catalogued.

'X' percent are found that relate to the kitchen.

I could say how many are related to architecture, how many related to the battle.

The exact location of the retreat road isn't pinpointed yet, but historians have a much better idea of its likely location.

I am very excited by it.

And, you know, personal items just bring you close to either soldiers -- Soldiers wore rings like this, but so did everyday people.

So the hardest thing for us is to be able to hold something up and say, 'This is definitely a soldier's.'

I think it's important to know it to place this whole landscape in its context.

From hoverboards to cars, counterfeit microchips are cropping up in many electronic devices that permeate our daily lives.

These chips are so small that they're easily overlooked by consumers, but as more and more faulty parts infiltrate the market, Carnegie Mellon professor Ken Mai advises it's time to take notice.

Professor Mai, thanks for joining us.

So, microchips are in all kinds of things around our households, around our lives.

What's the difference if there's a counterfeit versus a real one?

Well, there are a number of dangers that can crop up from a counterfeit design.

I mean, the first sort of most benign one would be that it performs less well or is less reliable.

But if you have a counterfeit part in something like a charger for a battery of a cellphone or a toy, that can start a fire in your house.

Or if it's a counterfeit part that has malicious things inserted in it, then you can have information loss, identity theft.

And in worst case, your hardware can get taken over remotely by a malicious entity.

What's the incentive to put a counterfeit one in there?

Just because it's cheaper?

Largely, the counterfeiters, they're driven by a profit motive.

So it is cheaper for them to, for example, recycle a part from some e-waste and then scrub it, make it look like a little bit better part, and then sell it back into the supply chain.

How prevalent is this?

Unfortunately, it's incredibly prevalent.

The DoD has done a number of studies where they've found, actually, counterfeit parts in deployed military systems.

And there have been wholesale counterfeit systems, routers, that have been sold into the government supply chain.

And so, in 2008, for example, entire Cisco routers were found to be entirely counterfeit, sold to a number of government agencies.

When you talk about the electronic supply chain, it's huge, right?

There's so many different vendors that are responsible for this and that part, and, 'Well, I'll make the casing and you make the battery.'


Right, so, how do you tackle a problem that stretches this far?

The government's tried some regulatory fixes, but the supply chain is so complicated and global that it's nearly impossible to fix it that way.

So both the government and academia have been looking at different ways you can solve it from a technical side, but, again, the supply-chain issues mentioned is so complex that you can't solve it from a regulatory standpoint.

So [Chuckles] is there a solution to the problem?

I think, like many things, there are solutions that can help, but there's no panacea, right?

There's no one thing you can do that's gonna fix the entire problem and solve it once and for all.

Okay, so, you've been working on something at Carnegie Mellon, a 'chip odometer'? What is that?


So what we've been working on is a circuit block that you can put onto new chips that essentially emulates a VIN number, the odometer, and a flight-data recorder for a chip so that you can authenticate its provenance, know exactly when it was manufactured, what kind of chip it's supposed to be, and how old it is and how long it's been in the supply chain.

And so this will foil things like chip recycling, where there are entities that will take e-waste, rip the chips off of the e-waste, scrub them up, often mark them as newer or better chips than they were, and then sell them back into the supply chain.

So, how do you protect yourself from this if this is so pervasive?

From a consumer standpoint, this is very difficult, right?

This is really something that the equipment manufacturers and assemblers need to work on.

But as a consumer, you can look at the source of your electronics.

You know, maybe you don't buy it off eBay.

You buy it from a big-box store.

But even then, if you buy it from a big-box store, if it's been returned, swapped with a counterfeit part, it's also difficult to tell.

Is there a connection between the new credit-card chips that everyone's getting in their credit cards as the credit-card companies update?

The connection there is mainly from the standpoint of security through hardware.

So, the new credit cards have a small chip inside of them that's read by the reader that you have to shove your card into, and it takes a couple extra seconds.

But that does a secure information exchange, and that is certainly better than just feeding your credit-card number through the machine through the magnetic stripe.

Unfortunately, the U.S. is somewhat behind the rest of the world in that type of technology.

I think many people probably just recently got issued their smart-card-enabled credit cards, but in Europe and in Asia, that's been popular for a number of years.

So, you've got a prop there, two chips.

What's on there?

So, there's one counterfeit chip, and there's one genuine chip.

And the point of the prop is just to show that they look nearly identical.

And unfortunately for manufacturers, sometimes they go through different batch runs, so often even the manufacturer can't tell -- without completely taking the chip apart -- which one's real and which one's not.

And that would take a ton of time and money.

That's right.

It's extremely difficult to tell, and, again, often they'd require a scanning electron microscope scanning of the surface or completely taking the chip apart and de-layering it in order to know which one's counterfeit and which one's not.

Is the microchip industry or the semiconductor industry doing something to stop this?

Up till now, the economic concern hasn't been large enough that they've been doing modifications of the chips and that sort of thing on a large scale, but there are certain companies that do secure chips that have worked on this problem before.

All right.

Ken Mai from Carnegie Mellon University.

Thanks so much for joining us.

All right. Thank you.

[ Keyboard clacking ]

As more universities offer degrees in gaming sciences, students like those competing at a college computer-game showcase in Southern California see a future and a career in video-game design.

Here's a look.

The next generation of video-game developers are taking center stage.

This team from UC Irvine was the judges' choice at the annual Intercollegiate Computer Game Showcase.

The event drew in game-development teams from campuses across Southern California.

The winning team created the game 'Guesstimate,' which is pretty much what it sounds like -- a guessing game that uses shapes and colors.

Most of these teams plan to turn their degrees and creations into a career.

I'm actually a computer-game-science major at UCI.

And I'm hoping to, you know, get into a company.

Blizzard is nearby.

I would love to work for them, especially out of college, but, you know, also interested in developing my own games soon as I graduate from college.

The gaming industry has grown into a mutlibillion-dollar universe, with college programs offering degrees in the craft.

What was thought of as goofing off at one time, today is a true career path.

Adam should know.

He was one of those early goof-offs from the 1980s.

He brought games like 'Gato' and 'Tetris' to the marketplace.

He served as a judge this year and says creating games in college can propel your career path into hyperdrive.

And that's what the Activisions and the Blizzards and all those people look at is, you know, they want experience.

And now you can get some experience at a college level.

It doesn't have to be at a job.

In gaming terms, judges say the industry's still an 'open world.'

New developers have multiple avenues to route their games into the hands of players.

The gaming market in the last few years, it's kind of changed a little bit.

I think there's a lot more opportunities for smaller teams to make games and actually distribute them, especially with early access on Steam.

Kickstarter is a great way to get funding for your games.

Another design team, that created the game 'Titan Mining,' may be headed in that direction after college.

I have considered going into the game industry.

As far as what level I'll be going into, I'm not entirely sure yet.

I've been discussing with some of my friends about starting up some kind of an indie company or doing a Kickstarter or something like that.

There may be millions of dollars to be made on the next big thing, [Chuckles] but in true gamer fashion, some of these designers have a 'take it or leave it' attitude when it comes to jumping into the business.

My major right now isn't specifically game science.

It's computer science and material sciences.

But I wouldn't hate it, and, in fact, I would like it a lot.

So we'll see.

One university in Potsdam, New York, is taking steps to educate student entrepreneurs on how to use science and technology to develop inventions and grow a business in today's marketplace.

Here's the story.

Our job is to find inventions and ideas and help to drive the market feasibility of those ideas, identify a business model, get through the technological and feasibility side, build the prototype, get through proof of concept.

In 2010, Clarkson University started the Young Entrepreneurs and Innovators program.

Student business owners exchange equity in their company for tuition at Clarkson University.

Every student starts a business in their freshman year.

Students learn how to use science and technology to develop their ideas, then receive training and assistance in rapid prototyping, feasibility, marketing, Web and app development, and branding -- all those things that are traditionally leaded in a startup, tailored to each individual student and idea.

My name is Bryce Brandish.

I'm 19 years old, and I'm from southern Vermont.

I go here to Clarkson University.

I'm a junior chemistry major with a business minor.

And today I'm gonna talk to you about the black-ice melter, also known as the ISL System.

Growing up in southern Vermont, I dealt a lot with snowy, wintery roads, and my first accident was in the middle of winter, and I slid on black ice.

And I said, 'Now, how could I have stopped this?

What makes this stop?'

And everybody was like, 'Well, studded snow tires,' and I had those, and it just doesn't help you.

And I said, 'Well, what if it was just like driving on the racetrack again?'

And I said, 'Let's get rid of the snow, let's get rid of the ice, and let's sublimate it.'

And that's where the sublimating microwaves came in, and I designed a product that would sublimate all of the ice, snow, slush, and rain in front of your tires, creating a dry driving experience, no matter the day, no matter the weather.

Blue Sphere Industries is controlled-environment agriculture, so what that means is an enclosed building where you control the entire environment around the agriculture system.

It's closed off to the outside, as well as controlling all the lighting, watering, nutrient conditions, and the growth profile of the plants.

The pie-in-the-sky dream -- to have several full-scale farms filled with these, as well as selling equipment and trying to help feed the needy, the poor, feed the world when we run out of arable land to feed the population.

I am the co-founder of Renoun Ski Company, and we design and build a ski that is instantly adaptable for the conditions present, that changes its stiffness based on how you're riding and what you are riding on.

We are incorporating a new material in our ski, a material that's never been seen before in the industry.

And by doing this, it allows us to make a ski that can change its characteristics, its stiffness profile instantly, while you ride on the snow, without using any electronics and completely passive process.

So they have a hands-on opportunity to deal with sourcing issues and financing issues and even things like supply chain and managing their inventory right here while they're on campus to give them a chance to make decisions, to take risks in a more controlled environment.

These days, you can't build an economy around one village or one town.

We're not competing against Buffalo or the Mid-Hudson region.

We're competing against the world.

If you're gonna compete at that level, you have to have a cohesive, connected team, and this approach has given us that opportunity.

Entrepreneurship and small-business creation is absolutely essential to create jobs.

The creation of jobs is what enables a community to be sustainable, both economically and in terms of the quality of life for the citizens who will stay in a community.

[ Keyboard clacking ]

Multirotors, more popularly known as drones, are being outfitted with video technology to place people in the pilot seat.

This technology allows users to experience the thrill of flight without the risk of getting hurt.

We take you to a racing league that allows pilots to compete in this extreme sport now skyrocketing in popularity.

[ Electronic music plays ]

MultiGP is a grassroots racing league.

Whenever you are looking to race FPV, race multirotors -- or drones, like a lot of people like to call them -- you need a place to do it.

And so that's what the grassroots effort of MultiGP is focused on.

It's our goal to find a place in every city, a field in every city, and put coaches and train people in those fields so, that way, we can have a real sport occurring all over.

As of October 2015, MultiGP has 140 local chapters around the world and over 3,000 registered pilots.

This sport is growing.

We started about three months ago in our group with about five or six guys.

It was just a couple of friends that wanted to start the group.

Now we have almost 150 members.

And every day, there's always somebody new getting on it.

At a recent event in Orlando, pilots competed to improve their national rankings.

So, as a pilot, you come to the official monthly race if you want to be ranked on their leaderboard to determine how good of a pilot you are.

By participating, you gain points.

They go to the overall score that you would have if you participate in each of these events.

The MultiGP website lists upcoming races.

It also provides pilots key information they need to compete.

They register, and it gives them a frequency.

And that frequency is what they use to fly.

And then I tally up the points, and, at the end of six months, it also gives them a total of points for the championships.

Like all competitors, MultiGP pilots are constantly searching for ways to gain an edge.

So, part of racing is studying the track and looking at your machine and saying, 'Okay, how can I tune this machine for my next race?

What will I need? Speed?

Will I need agility?'

That stuff you have to take into consideration when you're gonna go fly.

And it's part of the tuning process.

If you're -- Let's say today you're racing in a track that's a really long track with minimal turns.

You can use really big motors, and you'll be able to have a lot of speed.

The track was really interesting.

They actually did an upper raised gate where you had the opportunity to shoot a small hole and save some time, and so that was really exciting.

It's a racecar, so you always have to make the fine adjustments to be a little bit faster than the other guy, which would be changing the propeller, changing the motor, or tilting your camera a little higher as you get better.

I have it written down.

The people who are in this sport right now, this is the early adopters.

They're technology people.

They are computer people.

They're people.

It's a bunch of nerds at a park, really.

That's how I like to refer to it.

But it's a great culture of people who create.

[ Motor whirring ]

A small video camera on the drone literally gives pilots a bird's-eye view.

While essential to the sport, remotely controlling a flying vehicle this way is definitely a learned skill.

Racing a multirotor is similar to real racing in that you have a course, you're trying to follow that course, and you're trying to go as fast as you possibly can.

But what's different is it starts off a little disorienting for most people.

This is a set of FPV goggles.

It provides a real-time video feed to the camera that's on board.

So this our link to being in control.

Most of the time, you start off flying around.

You're trying to get a feel.

'How high am I?

Am I going up? Am I going down?'

The first time I took off, your equilibrium is so confused.

You're just in a different plane.

You're turning and banking, and your body is sitting still.

It's really awkward.

It takes awhile to get used to it.

You have to operate the throttle, which makes you go up and down.

The ailerons is what makes you bank left and right, the pitch, which makes your nose go up or down, and the rudder, which rotates the quad around the horizontal axis.

All those four controls have to be used at the same time.

And it takes a lot of patience, a lot of practice to be able to master those four controls.

And there is no substitute for 'stick time.'

The more you fly, the better you're gonna get.

And it's not always about how fast you are.

It's how good you fly through the track.

As with any racing sport, the thrill of speed is a big attraction, but MultiGP boasts a huge advantage over others.

As you get older, you get wiser.

You start to mitigate risk.

You're less likely to put yourself at harm.

Here, you're able to race aggressively, head-to-head, in a really exciting format, without the risk of hurting yourself.

It's all the fun of competing in racing without any of the physical risk.

I used to ride sport bikes.

I had a couple bad accidents on it.

I get the same kind of adrenaline rush racing this, and I get to come home in one piece, so mission accomplished.

And that wraps it up for this time.

For more on science, technology, and innovation, visit our website, check us out on Facebook and Instagram, and join the conversation on Twitter.

You can also subscribe to our YouTube channel.

Until next time, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.

Funding for this program is made possible by...