Jan. 4, 2016 – Growing a “brain in a dish”, the prospect of creating designer babies, and the possibility of detecting the first signs of extra-terrestrial intelligence–these are just some of the most important scientific news stories of 2015, according to some of the world’s leading scholars celebrating the year’s achievements.

The question posed to the top thinkers was this: what do you consider the most interesting recent scientific news and what makes it important? Back came a smorgasbord of essay-length answers from more than 100 contributors to, the online salon for scientists, philosophers and followers of the “third culture” merging science and the humanities.

Many referred to an astonishing advance in gene editing, a technique for swapping and changing individual bases on the DNA molecule called Crispr-Cas9. It raises the prospect of engineering the human “germline” by tinkering with the genes of sperm, eggs and IVF embryos.

The use of Crispr means that any living organism’s genome can be cheaply and accurately edited at any location along its DNA, writes Mark Pagel, professor of evolutionary biology at Reading University, in his contribution to the Edge Question 2016.

“By modifying genes in potential mother’s and father’s egg or sperm cells, they will go on to produce babies ‘designed’ to have some desired trait, or to lack some undesirable trait.”

He added: “The first truly and thoroughly designed humans are more than just the subjects of science fiction: they are on our doorstep, waiting to be allowed in.”

Meanwhile, Professor George Church, a Crispr expert at Harvard University, believes in the future we could be discussing the augmentation of the human brain, either electronically or biologically – which includes surgical enhancements involving neural networks grown from individual nerve cells.

The autism expert Simon Baron-Cohen, of Cambridge University, cites the revolutionary developments in stem cell biology. He is excited by the ability to “reprogramme” skin cells into nerve cells, and then using them as a kind of “brain in a dish”, as the most important event of 2015.

The technique, he explains, is potentially more useful and ethical for the understanding of the human brain than taking tissue samples from dead patients or using animals in experiments. It could be the game-changer needed in the understanding of what occurs in autistic children, Professor Baron-Cohen writes.

Alison Gopnik, a psychologist at University of California, Berkeley, is fascinated at how, in the past couple of years, toddlers have begun to use computers on their own, using interfaces that no longer require adult supervision.

“For the first time, a toddler can directly control a smartphone or tablet,” Professor Gopnik says.

“Is this a cause for alarm or celebration? We don’t know and we won’t know for at least another 20 years when today’s two-year-olds grow up.”

Intelligence beyond Earth is the focus of several answers to the question. The discovery of many hundreds of planets, and the possibility of many more, has created a fresh stir in the decades-long search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (Seti).

The Kepler Space Observatory, for instance, has provided information suggesting there may be about 10 billion Earth-sized planets orbiting the “habitable” zone of their stars, writes Mario Livio, an astrophysicist and author.

“The publication of this empirically-based estimate marked a critical point at which the quest for extrasolar life transitioned from mere speculation to an actual science,” Dr Livio writes.

Martin Rees, the Cambridge astronomer, is equally excited about the potential now for discovering radio signals from intelligent life, given that 2015 was the year when Russian investor Yuri Milner financed a more methodical search for intelligent radio signals from deep space.

“Even optimists rate the probability at only a few per cent,” Lord Rees writes. But he adds: “A manifestly artificial signal – even if we couldn’t decode it – would convey the momentous message that ‘intelligence’ has emerged elsewhere in the cosmos.”

FAA Announces Small UAS Registration Rule

December 14, 2015 WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) today announced a streamlined and user-friendly web-based aircraft registration process for owners of small unmanned aircraft (UAS) weighing more than 0.55 pounds (250 grams) and less than 55 pounds (approx. 25 kilograms) including payloads such as on-board cameras.

The Registration Task Force delivered recommendations to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta and Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx on November 21. The interim final rule incorporates many of the task force recommendations.

“Make no mistake: unmanned aircraft enthusiast are aviators, and with that title comes a great deal of responsibility,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “Registration gives us an opportunity to work with these users to operate their unmanned aircraft safely. I’m excited to welcome these new aviators into the culture of safety and responsibility that defines American innovation.”

Registration is a statutory requirement that applies to all aircraft.  Under this rule, any owner of a small UAS who has previously operated an unmanned aircraft exclusively as a model aircraft prior to December 21, 2015, must register no later than February 19, 2016. Owners of any other UAS purchased for use as a model aircraft after December 21, 2015 must register before the first flight outdoors. Owners may use either the paper-based process or the new streamlined, web-based system.  Owners using the new streamlined web-based system must be at least 13 years old to register.  Owners may register through a web-based system at:

Registrants will need to provide their name, home address and e-mail address. Upon completion of the registration process, the web application will generate a Certificate of Aircraft Registration/Proof of Ownership that will include a unique identification number for the UAS owner, which must be marked on the aircraft.

Owners using the model aircraft for hobby or recreation will only have to register once and may use the same identification number for all of their model UAS. The registration is valid for three years.

The normal registration fee is $5, but in an effort to encourage as many people as possible to register quickly, the FAA is waiving this fee for the first 30 days (from Dec. 21, 2015 to Jan 20, 2016).

The online registration system does not yet support registration of small UAS used for any purpose other than hobby or recreation – for example, using an unmanned aircraft in connection with a business. The FAA is developing enhancements that will allow such online registrations by spring of 2016.

The estimate for 2015 sales indicates that 1.6 million small unmanned aircraft intended to be used as model aircraft are expected to be sold this year (including approximately 50 percent of that total during the fourth quarter of 2015). With this rapid proliferation of new sUAS will come an unprecedented number of new sUAS owners and operators who are new to aviation and thus have no understanding of the NAS or the safety requirements for operating in the National Airspace System (NAS).

“We expect hundreds of thousands of model unmanned aircraft will be purchased this holiday season,” said FAA Administrator Huerta. “Registration gives us the opportunity to educate these new airspace users before they fly so they know the airspace rules and understand they are accountable to the public for flying responsibly.”  Registration will provide a means by which to quickly identify these small unmanned aircraft in the event of an incident or accident involving the sUAS.

“Unmanned aerial systems can make farms safer, more efficient, and more environmentally friendly – and that helps everyone,” said Maryland farmer Chip Bowling, president of National Corn Growers Association. “If you’re stuffing a stocking with a hobby drone this holiday, take advantage of the free registration window and get it registered.”

“UAS have important applications for agriculture, and we need rules and regulations that will put this technology in farmers’ hands. The National Corn Growers Association has taken a leadership role on this issue from the beginning, working with the UAS industry, federal regulators, and others to find a way forward. Let’s continue to work together on common-sense rules that create a culture of safety and responsibility, while ensuring farmers have the access, tools, and training to take full advantage of UAS technology,” said Bowling.
The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International estimates that agriculture will account for as much as 80 percent of all commercial UAS use. Applications of unmanned aerial systems include crop scouting; early detection of pest infestations and crop disease; more precise application of fertilizers and other crop inputs; and reducing the need for humans in potentially dangerous tasks.

FAA Releases Drone Registration – Rulemaking Process has Begun

November 23, 2015, Elizabeth A Tennyson, AOPA Communications – The FAA has accepted the final recommendations of its drone registration task force and begun the rulemaking process, moving the agency one step closer to establishing registration procedures ahead of anticipated record holiday sales of drones. The task force, which included AOPA, focused on producing recommendations that would encourage compliance by making registration easy and free while including an educational component to help drone owners understand the rules affecting their operations.  The FAA said it has been working on a proposed rule to govern drone registration, which is now under review by the FAA and Department of Transportation, but no timeline has been set for completing the rulemaking process.

“The real goal is to create a culture of accountability and safety—and that means giving operators the information they need to fly safely while making it as easy as possible for them to participate in the system,” said Jim Coon, AOPA senior vice president of government affairs, who represented the association on the panel. “This is a good start, but the drone industry is relatively new, and we need to be prepared to make adjustments as we learn more.”

In addition to AOPA, the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Registration Task Force Aviation Rulemaking Committee included 24 organizations representing the manned and unmanned aircraft communities, drone manufacturers, and retailers such as Amazon and Walmart that hope to use drones in their businesses.

“Coming to consensus on the complex issues surrounding drone registration was challenging given the short time period and diverse perspectives in the group,” said Coon. “Throughout the process AOPA argued for rules that would ensure safety, protect the National Airspace System, and support participation and innovation in the drone community. We hope to see the drone industry continue to develop technical solutions that will help make it possible for them to safely share the National Airspace System with manned aircraft.”

The group’s final recommendations include creating an electronic registration system accessible through the Web or an app, providing an electronic certificate of registration and a personal registration number that can be used on all of an owner’s UAS, and requiring that the registration number (or registered serial number) be marked on all UAS before they are flown.

The task force recommended that any drone with a maximum takeoff weight of 250 grams, just under 9 ounces, or more be registered. But several task force members suggested that a heavier weight might be more appropriate. AOPA and others noted that very little research has been done on the effects of a small drone strike, making it difficult to make a well-reasoned recommendation as to what size drone poses a meaningful threat. They urged the FAA to expedite its research in that area and review the weight requirement for registration based on its findings.

Under the task force recommendations, drone owners would need to provide their name and address in order to receive a registration number. Providing email addresses and phone numbers would be optional.

Drone owners would need to complete a one-time online registration form, submitting information such as name, phone number and address. Unlike a driver’s license, registration would not require an operator to pass a flying test.  Drone owners would then receive a registration number to mark on all their drones. The drone owner would have the same registration number their entire life and would only need to revisit the website if they were to change personal information, such as their address. Before selling a drone, owners would remove their registration number, and the new owner would attach their number.

Owners also would have the option to provide the serial number for their aircraft, which could then be used as the registration number, in most cases eliminating the need to mark the aircraft. Otherwise the FAA-assigned registration number would need to be marked in a “readily accessible” location—defined as a place that can be viewed without using tools—on the aircraft.

To protect children, the panel recommended that no one under the age of 13 be allowed to register an aircraft, instead requiring younger owners to register under the name of a parent or guardian.

And to help drone operators fly safely, the task force recommended that the registration process contain an educational component that could be similar to the information provided by the Know Before You Fly campaign.

The FAA established the task force to come up with solutions for identifying the operators behind reckless drone flights. Earlier 2015,  a drone crashed near the White House, and another crashed into the seating area at the U.S. Open.

The FAA is working with manufacturers and UAS organizations on safety efforts like “Know Before You Fly” ( ) to educate unmanned aircraft users about where they can operate within the rules. The agency is also supporting the National Interagency Fire Center’s “If You Fly, We Can’t” efforts to help reduce interference with firefighting operations.

The FAA also asks that pilots or any concerned citizens report unauthorized drone operation to local law enforcement. The FAA wants to send a clear message that operating drones around airplanes and helicopters is dangerous and illegal. Unauthorized operators may be subject to stiff fines and criminal charges, including possible jail time.


NAGC Announces Partnership with AG IDG

The National Agricultural Genotyping Center and Ag Innovation Development Group signed a Memorandum of Understanding stating the parties will work together to accelerate the commercialization of agricultural technology.  The technologies created will increase farm production, improve sustainability and increase income.

“Partnerships like this are important to the economic future of American farmers,” said Richard Vierling, Ph.D., director of research for NCGA. “We need to attract more money into agricultural startups. Vetting technology through NAGC will help identify commercially viable technologies and lower the risk for investors.”

NAGC, a joint venture between the National Corn Growers Association and Los Alamos National Laboratory, will provide research and testing services to both public and private researchers. The center will translate scientific discoveries into solutions for production agriculture, food safety, functional foods, bioenergy and national security.

The partnership developed as AgIDC focuses on commercializing early stage innovations. AgIDC identifies and protects novel technology, forms startup companies and takes an active role in management.

“Ag Innovation Development Group was founded to help increase the efficiency of commercializing university research in the agricultural sector to benefit farmers,” said Ag Innovation Development Group CEO Pete Nelson. “A core part of this mission is to partner with farm organizations and their commercialization efforts. The partnership with NAGC will allow us to achieve this mission and ultimately grow more startup companies in the agricultural sector.”

Background Nov. 13, 2012: The National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) and Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) announce the incorporation of the National Agricultural Genotyping Center (NAGC). Structured as a non-profit initiative for the purpose of agricultural development, the NAGC will leverage the benefits of high-throughput genotyping with the support of two of the nation’s most prominent organizations in the fields of science and agriculture. With incorporation complete, the NAGC now seeks partners looking to become a part of this project.

“In the coming years, genotyping is expected to be a part of every aspect of agriculture from breeding to production to the table,” said DeVonna Zeug, chair of NCGA’s Research and Business Development Action Team. “NAGC will also be a driver for business development and a conduit for new technology into agriculture.”

NAGC was created to ensure high-throughput genotyping is available to everyone and utilizes Los Alamos’s Multiplexed Oligonucleotide Ligation-PCR (MOL-PCR) platform to generate highly accurate information faster and more cheaply than currently possible. MOL-PCR is able to detect desirable genetic variations in DNA sequences, the presence of specific pathogens, and other agents. Identification of these variations has important applications in crop and livestock breeding programs, the development of drugs and vaccines and the diagnosis of human, animal and plant disease.

The access to genotyping technology available at NAGC will help drive scientific discoveries and translate these discoveries into solutions for production agriculture, food safety, functional foods, bioenergy, and national security.   “As a national security science laboratory, we find the prospect of working with NACG exciting,” said Dr. David R. Pesiri, leader of Los Alamos’s Technology Transfer Division. “Agricultural security is a key element of national security and our partnership with NAGC complements this aspect of our mission.”

For further information on the Center, its objectives and organizing partners, click here. Those interested in becoming part of the National Agricultural Genotyping Center project may contact NCGA Director of Research and Business Development Dr. Richard Vierling directly by clicking here.

Founded in 1957, the National Corn Growers Association represents more than 38,000 dues-paying corn farmers nationwide. NCGA and its 48 affiliated state organizations work together to create and increase opportunities for their members and their industry.  For more information on NCGA, click here.

Los Alamos National Laboratory, a multidisciplinary research institution engaged in strategic science on behalf of national security, is operated by Los Alamos National Security, LLC, a team composed of Bechtel National, the University of California, The Babcock & Wilcox Company and URS for the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration.

Los Alamos enhances national security by ensuring the safety and reliability of the U.S. nuclear stockpile, developing technologies to reduce threats from weapons of mass destruction and solving problems related to energy, environment, infrastructure, health and global security concerns.  For more information on LANL, click here.

Busting Myths About the FAA and Unmanned Aircraft

In response to inquiries, we are providing additional information on UAS operations and the regulations that apply to those operations. Here are some common myths and the clarifying facts.

Myth #1: Unmanned aircraft are not aircraft.

Fact – Unmanned aircraft, regardless of whether the operation is for recreational, hobby, business, or commercial purposes, are aircraft within both the definitions found in statute under title 49 of U.S. Code, section 40102(a)(6) [49 U.S.C. § 40102(a)(6)] and title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations section 1.1.[14 C.F.R. § 1.1].

Section 40102(a)(6) defines an aircraft as “any contrivance invented, used, or designed to navigate or fly in the air.” The FAA’s regulations (14 C.F.R. § 1.1.) similarly define an aircraft as “a device that is used or intended to be used for flight in the air.” Because an unmanned aircraft is a contrivance/device that is invented, used, and designed to fly in the air, an unmanned aircraft is an aircraft based on the unambiguous language in the FAA’s statute and regulations.

In addition, Public Law 112-95, Section 331(6),(8), and (9) expressly defines the terms “small unmanned aircraft,” “unmanned aircraft,” and “unmanned aircraft system” as aircraft. Model aircraft are also defined as “aircraft” per Public Law 112-95, section 336(c).

Myth #2: Unmanned aircraft are not subject to FAA regulation.

Fact  – All civil aircraft are subject to FAA regulation under law: 49 U.S.C. § 44701. For example, 14  C.F.R. part 91 applies generally to the operation of aircraft.

Myth #3: The FAA doesn’t control airspace below 400 feet

Fact – The FAA is responsible for air safety from the ground up. Under 49 U.S.C. § 40103(b)(2), the FAA has broad authority to prescribe regulations to protect individuals and property on the ground and to prevent collisions between aircraft, between aircraft and land or water vehicles, and between aircraft and airborne objects. Consistent with its authority, the FAA presently has regulations that apply to the operation of all aircraft, whether manned or unmanned, and irrespective of the altitude at which the aircraft is operating. For example, 14 C.F.R. § 91.13 prohibits any person from operating an aircraft in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another.

Myth #4: UAS flights operated for commercial or business purposes are OK if the vehicle is small and operated over private property and below 400 feet.

Fact – All UAS operations for commercial or business purposes are subject to FAA regulation. At a minimum, any such flights require a certified aircraft and a certificated pilot. UAS operations for commercial or business purposes cannot be operated under the special rule for model aircraft found in section 336 of Public Law 112-95. To date, only two UAS models (the Scan Eagle and Aerovironment’s Puma) have been certified for commercial use, and they are only authorized to fly in the Arctic. Public entities (federal, state and local governments and public universities) may apply for a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA). The FAA reviews and approves UAS operations over densely-populated areas on a case-by-case basis.

Myth #5: There are too many commercial UAS operations for the FAA to stop.

Fact – The FAA has to prioritize its safety responsibilities, but the agency is monitoring UAS operations closely. Many times, the FAA learns about suspected commercial UAS operations via a complaint from the public or other businesses. The agency occasionally discovers such operations through the news media or postings on internet sites. When the FAA discovers UAS operations in violation of the FAA’s regulations, the agency has a number of enforcement tools available to address these operations, including a verbal warning, a warning letter, and legal enforcement action.

Myth #6: Commercial UAS operations will be OK after September 30, 2015.

Fact – In the 2012 FAA reauthorization legislation (Public Law 112-95), Congress told the FAA to come up with a plan for “safe integration” of UAS by September 30, 2015. Safe integration will be incremental. The agency is writing regulations, which will supplement existing regulations that currently are applicable to the operation of all aircraft (both manned and unmanned), that will apply more specifically to a wide variety of UAS users.  The FAA expects to publish a proposed rule for small UAS – under about 55 pounds – later this year. That proposed rule likely will include provisions for commercial operations.

Myth #7: The FAA is lagging behind other countries in approving commercial drones.

Fact – This comparison is flawed. The United States has the busiest, most complex airspace in the world, including many general aviation aircraft that we must consider when planning UAS integration, because those same airplanes and small UAS may occupy the same airspace.
Developing all the rules and standards we need is a very complex task, and we want to make sure we get it right the first time. We want to strike the right balance of requirements for UAS to help foster growth in an emerging industry with a wide range of potential uses, but also keep all airspace users and people on the ground safe.

Myth #8: The FAA predicts as many as 30,000 drones by 2030.

Fact – That figure is outdated. It was an estimate in the FAA’s 2011 Aerospace Forecast. Since then, the agency has refined its prediction to focus on the area of greatest expected growth.

We believe that the civil UAS markets will evolve within the constraints of the regulatory and airspace requirements. Once enabled, commercial markets will develop and demand will be created for additional UAS and the accompanying services they can provide. Once enabled, we estimate roughly 7,500 commercial sUAS would be viable at the end of five years.