US Warns Airliners Flying in Persian Gulf Amid Iran Tensions

U.S. diplomats warned Saturday that commercial airliners flying over the wider Persian Gulf faced a risk of being “misidentified” amid heightened tensions between the U.S. and Iran.

The warning relayed by U.S. diplomatic posts from the Federal Aviation Administration underlined the risks the current tensions pose to a region crucial to global air travel. It also came as Lloyd’s of London warned of increasing risks to maritime shipping in the region.

 

Concerns about a possible conflict have flared since the White House ordered warships and bombers to the region to counter an alleged, unexplained threat from Iran that has seen America order nonessential diplomatic staff out of Iraq. President Donald Trump since has sought to soften his tone.

 

Meanwhile, authorities allege that a sabotage operation targeted four oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, and Iran-aligned rebels in Yemen claimed responsibility for a drone attack on a crucial Saudi oil pipeline. Saudi Arabia directly blamed Iran for the drone assault, and a local newspaper linked to the al-Saud royal family called on Thursday for America to launch “surgical strikes” on Tehran.

 

This all takes root in Trump’s decision last year to withdraw the U.S. from the 2015 nuclear accord between Iran and world powers and impose wide-reaching sanctions. Iran just announced it would begin backing away from terms of the deal, setting a 60-day deadline for Europe to come up with new terms or it would begin enriching uranium closer to weapons-grade levels. Tehran long has insisted it does not seek nuclear weapons, though the West fears its program could allow it to build atomic bombs.

 

The order relayed Saturday by U.S. diplomats in Kuwait and the UAE came from an FAA Notice to Airmen published late Thursday in the U.S. It said that all commercial aircraft flying over the waters of Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman needed to be aware of “heightened military activities and increased political tension.”

 

This presents “an increasing inadvertent risk to U.S. civil aviation operations due to the potential for miscalculation or misidentification,” the warning said. It also said aircraft could experience interference with its navigation instruments and communications jamming “with little to no warning.”

 

The Persian Gulf has become a major gateway for East-West travel in the aviation industry. Dubai International Airport in the United Arab Emirates, home to Emirates, is the world’s busiest for international travel, while long-haul carriers Etihad and Qatar Airways also operate here.

 

In a statement, Emirates said it was aware of the notice and in touch with authorities worldwide, but “at this time there are no changes to our flight operations.”

 

Qatar Airways similarly said it was aware of the notice and its operations were unaffected.

 

Etihad, as well as Oman Air, did not respond to a request for comment Saturday about the warning.

 

The warning appeared rooted in what happened 30 years ago after Operation Praying Mantis, a daylong naval battle in the Persian Gulf between American forces and Iran during the country’s long 1980s war with Iraq. On July 3, 1988, the USS Vincennes chased Iranian speedboats that allegedly opened fire on a helicopter into Iranian territorial waters, then mistook an Iran Air heading to Dubai for an Iranian F-14. The Vincennes fired two missiles at the airplane, killing all aboard the flight.

 

Meanwhile, Lloyd’s Market Association Joint War Committee added the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman and the United Arab Emirates on Friday to its list of areas posing higher risk to insurers. It also expanded its list to include the Saudi coast as a risk area.

 

The USS Abraham Lincoln and its carrier strike group have yet to reach the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which a third of all oil traded at sea passes. A Revolutionary Guard deputy has warned that any armed conflict would affect the global energy market. Iran long has threatened to be able to shut off the strait.

 

Benchmark Brent crude now stands around $72 a barrel.

 

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Scientists Use DNA of Dust to Trace Where an Object’s Been

Clothing, medicine and other items in one’s environment all have genetic markers, or fingerprints, that provide clues to where they came from, according to scientists.

Researchers are analyzing the microorganisms in dust particles that land on surfaces and are using artificial intelligence to read and classify the unique genetic codes of the microbes that vary from place to place.

“It is the collection of bacteria, fungi, viruses, protozoa that are present in any environment,” said Jessica Green, microbial systems expert and co-founder of Phylagen, a company that is building a microbial map of the world. Phylagen is collecting dust from different places and turning it into data by studying the DNA of the microscopic organisms in the particles.

​Exposing labor abuses

Phylagen says its findings will provide real world applications. The California-based company says one application involves companies that outsource the manufacturing of products, such as clothing.

According to Human Rights Watch, unauthorized subcontracting of facilities in the apparel industry occurs often, and it is in these places that some of the worse labor abuses happen.

Phylagen is digitizing the genome of different locations by working in more than 40 countries and sampling the dust in hundreds of factories. The goal is to create a database so the microbes on each product can be traced.

“We sample the DNA of the products, and then, we use machine learning algorithms to map what is on the product with the factory, and can therefore verify for brands that their goods are made by their trusted suppliers in factories where you have good labor conditions, good environmental conditions versus unauthorized facilities which can be really detrimental,” Green said.

Tracking diseases, ships

With a database of distinct microbial DNA, Green said other possible future uses could include predicting the outbreak of disease and helping law enforcement track the movement of ships, since shipping logs can be falsified. Even counterfeit medicines could be traced as the database of microbial information grows, she said.

“We can sequence the DNA of seized counterfeit pills, cluster together pills that have similar microbial signatures and then use that to help both pharmaceutical companies and the government, the U.S. government, gain some intelligence about how many different sources of these manufacturing facilities are there,” Green said.

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Vietnam’s Tech Futurists Lay Out Economic Alternatives

Nations racing to develop 5G technology that is fast enough to power the next stage of innovation range from South Korea to Finland, but a young contender wants to jump into the game: Vietnam.

The Southeast Asian country announced with much fanfare this month that a test of fifth generation telecommunications technology, in the form of a phone call, was successful.

The call to test 5G matters, not just for the internet, but for Vietnam’s goal of building a digital economy.

That future economy could be filled with deliveries by drone, machine learning to detect cyber attacks, and digital health records — or the economy could stick to traditional businesses like agriculture and tourism, as a new government report lays out.

Vietnam’s Ministry of Science and Technology jointly launched a report on the digital economy with its Australian counterpart Wednesday, laying out four possible scenarios. Each scenario is at a different level of digitalization, depending on how thoroughly Vietnam adopts new technology.

“I request industries and provinces to improve their awareness of, and responsibility in, steering the science and technology development, and continue to strengthen the relevant legal and policy framework,” Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said in a speech.

“It is critical to focus on the development of the national innovation system,” he added, “putting the businesses at the heart of this system while promoting the linkages among research institutes, universities, and businesses to create and accumulate intellectual assets to fuel economic development in a rapid, inclusive, and sustainable manner.”

In the report titled “Vietnam’s Future Digital Economy: Toward 2030 and 2045,” the four scenarios offer a blueprint for policymakers.

In the first option, the country reaches its full technological potential in the next two decades, with smart cities, high productivity, and high-skilled talent in an economy geared toward services.

In the second scenario, little has changed in that time, with the economy relying on cash and low-wage labor to export farmed goods and natural resources.

Those are the two extremes, while the two remaining scenarios fall somewhere in between, depending on whether Vietnam is more technology consumer or exporter.

“The next wave of digital technologies — artificial intelligence, blockchain, the internet of things, and platforms and cloud-based services — has the potential to transform Vietnam into Asia’s next high-performing economy,” said Lucy Cameron, the lead author of the report. “Vietnam will need to seize these substantial opportunities while carefully navigating a number of risks.”

There are signs the digital technology is already catching on in Vietnam.

Besides the research and development of 5G, companies are using robots in their warehouses, like the country’s largest dairy, Vinamilk, and DB Schenker, a German logistics firm operating in Vietnam. FPT, a domestic electronics business, used artificial intelligence to create a chat bot and made it available to third-party software developers. The gaming startup VNG is introducing virtual reality to its players.

It is not all good news. The rise of ride-hailing apps has been linked to a drop in the use of public transit around the world, and that is happening in Vietnam, too. Local press recently reported a decline in bus use, while the increase of ride hailing has led to clogged city streets.

Even in a best case scenario, there are four potential drawbacks to an increasingly connected Vietnam, according to the report, which is supported by CSIRO’s Data61, the data and digital specialist arm of Australia’s national science agency. They include more threats to cyber security, higher borrowing to fund infrastructure and technological spending, a shortage of technical talent, and reliance on external companies for products and services.

How far Vietnam takes its technological evolution, of course, is up to Vietnam.

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Scientists Build Microbial Map to Trace Where an Object Has Been

Scientists say they have new ways of tracking where clothing, medicines and other items are made, making it harder for unscrupulous businesses to sell items that don’t work or violate laws. The new tools are made possible by using machine learning to profile the unique DNA combinations of invisible microbes that vary from place to place. This technology was highlighted at the Milken Institute Global Conference in Los Angeles, as VOA’s Elizabeth Lee reports.

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US Says It May Scale Back Some Huawei Trade Restrictions

The U.S. Commerce Department may soon scale back restrictions on Huawei Technologies after this week’s blacklisting made it nearly impossible for the Chinese company to purchase goods made in the United States, a 

department spokeswoman said Friday. 

The Commerce Department may issue a temporary general license to allow time for companies and people who have Huawei equipment to maintain reliability of their communications networks and equipment, the spokeswoman said. 

The possible general license would not apply to new transactions, according to the spokeswoman, and would last for 90 days. 

A spokesman for Huawei did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

The Commerce Department on Thursday added Huawei to a list of entities that are banned from doing business with U.S. companies without licenses. 

The entities list identifies companies believed to be involved in activities contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States. 

Potential beneficiaries of the temporary license could include internet access and mobile phone service providers in thinly populated places such as Wyoming and eastern Oregon that purchased network equipment from Huawei in recent years. 

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Spotting Fires from the Earth, Air and Space

Wildfires are often discovered by aircraft pilots, drivers or spotters in observation towers. Increasingly, remote sensors — on the ground, in the air and on board satellites — are alerting authorities when fires break out, and experts say technology will increasingly be a part of the future of firefighting.

A blaze that raged last August in a canyon near Los Angeles threatened vital communications links. Remote cameras gave firefighters crucial information to save the installations, said Troy Whitman of Southern California Edison, an electric utility company. 

Whitman serves as a liaison with firefighting agencies, and he shares information from a new camera network that Edison installed throughout much of its service area. Those 13 million hectares are challenging, he said, “mountains, deserts, very remote areas where fires may not be detected for minutes, sometimes even days in the forest if it’s a lightning strike.”

Electronic lookouts

More than 100 cameras provide a view of 60 percent of the company’s service area in Southern and Central California. More cameras are on their way, all monitored in an operations center in suburban Los Angeles, where remote spotters watch computer monitors and meteorologists track weather data from remote sensing stations.

Fires up and down the U.S. West Coast are getting fiercer, and 10 of California’s 20 most destructive blazes have occurred since 2015.

A California report last month, “Wildfires and Climate Change,” said the state’s fire season has become nearly year-round, and one-quarter of the California’s population lives in fire-prone areas. 

“Climate is changing,” said Brian Chen, who manages Edison’s wildfire mitigation efforts. “We’ve had many years of drought leading up to this, which has caused millions of trees across the state to die or be weakened because of disease,” he added. “We’ve also had a history of fire suppression policy, which has not kept our forests healthy,” he said.

More residents are also living closer to wilderness areas, in places like Paradise, a once idyllic northern California town destroyed by wildfire in November. At least 85 people died and 14,000 homes were destroyed by the so-called Camp Fire, which investigators announced Wednesday was sparked by the transmission lines of another utility, Pacific Gas and Electric.

At least half of the state’s most destructive 20 fires have been caused by power lines or electrical equipment, and spread because they started in isolated areas that were difficult for firefighters to reach. California fire officials say electrical mishaps account for a smaller proportion of all wildfires, and blame others on careless debris burning, out-of-control campfires, arson or smoking.

Southern California Edison is upgrading its infrastructure, replacing bare transmission lines with insulated cables. Pacific Gas and Electric also plans to install new cameras and weather stations. Both companies face lawsuits over recent wildfires, and Pacific Gas and Electric filed for bankruptcy in January, facing billions of dollars in claims.

Destructive fires are also tracked by NASA, the U.S. space agency, which also monitors the health of our planet using “aircraft observations … from manned aircraft and unmanned aircraft,” said Vince Ambrosia of NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. He says the main focus today, however, is on satellite data retrieved by NASA and its partners, including the European Space Agency, and shared with the public and global firefighters. 

The information helps before, during and after a wildfire.

“We can do active fire detection,” said Natasha Stavros of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “We can also do observations of the type of vegetation that’s there,” she said, assessing moisture content and how readily vegetation will burn.

She says an instrument called GEDI has been sent to the International Space Station to measure levels of biomass, the trees and brush that provide fuel for fires, by monitoring how forests store and release carbon. Other satellites track the height of flames and the spread of smoke and other pollutants.

Airborne and space-based sensors provide real-time data, and NASA and its partner agencies have built a “long-term collection library … going back to the 1980s to look at transitioning stages of wildfires throughout our last 50 years or so,” Ambrosia said.

Experts say that fire is part of nature’s ecosystem, but fire season is getting longer and fires more intense, and remote sensing helps firefighters deal with the challenge. The last month’s California report on wildfires recommends increased use of advanced imaging from the air and space, artificial intelligence to enhance data analysis, and a more comprehensive approach to fire prevention and response.

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Tracking Fires from the Earth, Air and Space

Wildfires are often discovered by aircraft pilots, drivers or spotters in observation towers but also increasingly by remote sensors, which alert authorities to fire outbreaks. Mike O’Sullivan reports from Los Angeles that a new ground-based camera system and satellites in space are helping firefighters to monitor wildfires.

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Trump Lifts Tariffs on Mexico, Canada, Delays Auto Tariffs 

Bogged down in a sprawling trade dispute with U.S. rival China, President Donald Trump took steps Friday to ease tensions with America’s allies: lifting import taxes on Canadian and Mexican steel and aluminum and delaying auto tariffs that would have hurt Japan and Europe. 

 

By removing the metals tariffs on Canada and Mexico, Trump cleared a key roadblock to a North American trade pact his team negotiated last year. As part of Friday’s arrangement, the Canadians and Mexicans agreed to scrap retaliatory tariffs they had imposed on U.S. goods, according to four sources in the U.S. and Canada who spoke on condition of anonymity ahead of an announcement. 

 

In a joint statement, the U.S. and Canada said they would work to prevent cheap imports of steel and aluminum from entering North America. China has long been accused of flooding world markets with subsidized metal, driving down world prices and hurting U.S. producers. 

Some in Washington were urging Trump to take advantage of the truce with U.S. allies to get even tougher with China.

China is our adversary,'' said Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb.Canada and Mexico are our friends. The president is right to increase pressure on China for their espionage, their theft of intellectual property and their hostility toward the rule of law. The president is also right to be deescalating tension with our North American allies.”

 

Earlier Friday, the White House said Trump was delaying for six months any decision to slap tariffs on foreign cars, a move that would have hit Japan and Europe especially hard.

Trump still is hoping to use the threat of auto tariffs to pressure Japan and the European Union into making concessions in trade talks. “If agreements are not reached within 180 days, the president will determine whether and what further action needs to be taken,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement. 

Trade weapon

 

In imposing the metals tariffs and threatening the ones on autos, the president was relying on a rarely used weapon in the U.S. trade war arsenal — Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962 — which lets the president impose tariffs on imports if the Commerce Department deems them a threat to national security. 

 

But the steel and aluminum tariffs were also designed to coerce Canada and Mexico into agreeing to a rewrite of North American free trade pact. In fact, the Canadians and Mexicans did go along last year with a revamped regional trade deal that was to Trump’s liking. But the administration had refused to lift the taxes on their metals to the United States until Friday. 

 

The new trade deal — the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement — needs approval of the legislatures in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Several key U.S. lawmakers were threatening to reject the pact unless the tariffs were removed. And Canada had suggested it wouldn’t ratify any deal while the tariffs were still in place. 

Trump had faced a Saturday deadline to decide what to do about the auto tariffs. 

 

Taxing auto tariffs would mark a major escalation in Trump’s aggressive trade policies and likely would meet resistance in Congress. The United States last year imported $192 billion worth of passenger vehicles and $159 billion in auto parts. 

Legitimate use?

 

“I have serious questions about the legitimacy of using national security as a basis to impose tariffs on cars and car parts,” Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said in a statement Friday. He’s working on legislation to scale back the president’s authority to impose national security tariffs under Section 232.

In a statement, the White House said that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has determined that imported vehicles and parts are a threat to national security. Trump deferred action on tariffs for 180 days to give negotiators time to work out deals but threatened them if talks break down. 

 

In justifying tariffs for national security reasons, Commerce found that the U.S. industrial base depends on technology developed by American-owned auto companies to maintain U.S. military superiority. Because of rising imports of autos and parts over the past 30 years, the market share of U.S.-owned automakers has fallen. That has caused a lag in research and development spending that is “weakening innovation and, accordingly, threatening to impair our national security,” the statement said. 

 

The market share of vehicles produced and sold in the U.S. by American-owned automakers, the statement said, has declined from 67% in 1985 to 22% in 2017.

But the statistics don’t match market share figures from the industry. A message was left Friday seeking an explanation of how Commerce calculated the 22%.  

In 2017, General Motors, Ford, Fiat Chrysler and Tesla combined had a 44.5% share of U.S. auto sales, according to Autodata Corp. Those figures include vehicles produced in other countries. 

 

It’s possible that the Commerce Department didn’t include Fiat Chrysler, which is now legally headquartered in the Netherlands but has a huge research and development operation near Detroit. It had 12% of U.S. auto sales in 2017. 

 

The Commerce figures also do not account for research by foreign automakers. Toyota, Hyundai-Kia, Subaru, Honda and others have significant research centers in the U.S. 

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