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How much higher could proposed tariffs against China push laptop prices?

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A new report has attempted to quantify just how much proposed tariffs against Chinese imported goods could raise prices on electronic devices, with the results concluding that you could wind up paying an additional $100 or more on your next laptop.

The report was commissioned by the Consumer Technology Association, which obviously has a vested interest in how the Trump administration’s proposal (tariffs up to 25 percent that would affect many tech items) would impact its members’ bottom lines. Nonetheless, its central premise — that phones, laptops, drones, and video game consoles would face price increases due to the proposed tariffs — doesn’t require much of a stretch of the imagination to envision, given how many of these products either come from China or are built with Chinese-sourced components.

One notable finding from the report is that prices for laptops would likely increase across the board, not just for systems directly imported from China. While those notebooks would see the biggest increase — an estimated 21-percent jump in the price for Chinese imported laptops and tablets — the report believes that prices for all models would rise 19 percent. This is a bit more extreme than the report’s estimates for cell phones, where it thinks Chinese import prices would increase 22 percent, but overall price would “only” rise 14 percent.

The report calculates that the price of an average laptop would rise roughly $120 if the proposed tariffs were enacted, pushing the average laptop cost to over $600 for U.S. consumers. As a result of the tariffs, laptop and tablet purchases would decline by 35 percent, according to the report. Manufacturing in Vietnam, Taiwan, and Mexico would be the biggest beneficiary of what would be a major salvo in the U.S.-China trade war, and in fact the Taiwanese tech industry is apparently already feeling the effects of the proposed tariffs.  

The accuracy of the report’s findings could be put to the test when and if the administration goes through with the tariffs, but one of its conclusions would still seem indisputable: Despite the tariffs, China would remain the largest importer of laptops and tablets into the U.S., commanding 80 percent of the market. The Chinese economy would definitely be hurt by the proposed tariffs, but it seems like the wallets of American consumers looking to buy a new laptop could be hurt just as much.

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NSF releases footage from the moment Arecibo’s cables failed

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Enlarge / The instrument platform and the cables that until recently supported it, as viewed from the suspended walkway that allowed researchers to service them.

Today, the National Science Foundation released video taken at the moment the Arecibo Radio Observatory’s cables failed, allowing its massive instrument platform to crash into the dish below. In describing the videos, the NSF also talked a bit about the monitoring program that had put the cameras in place, ideas it had been pursuing for stabilizing the structure pre-collapse, and prospects for building something new at the site.

A quick recap of the collapse: the Arecibo dish was designed to reflect incoming radio radiation to collectors that hung from a massive, 900-ton instrument package that was suspended above it. The suspension system was supported by three reinforced concrete towers that held cables that were anchored farther from the dish, looped over the towers, and then continued on to the platform itself. Failure of these cables eventually led to the platform dropping into the dish below it.

Let’s go to the video

The video of that collapse comes from a monitoring system put in place in the wake of the cable failures. Due to the danger of further cable breaks, the NSF had instituted no-go zones around each of the three towers that supported the cables. With no personnel allowed to get close enough to inspect the cables, the staff started monitoring them using daily drone flights, one of which was in progress during the collapse. In addition, a video camera was installed on top of the visitor’s center, which had a clear view of the instrument platform and one of the support towers.

As you can see from the video, the drone was examining the area where the cables looped over the support towers. Specifically, it was examining the tower that had supported the one main cable that had failed earlier—note that one of the gaps that the cables pass through is unoccupied. While it was filming, individual wires in the cable started snapping, and the cable failed completely shortly afterward. The remaining connection visible there, which was connected to the scientific instrumentation, survived a bit longer before the plunging platform pulled it apart.

In the second segment of video, the view from the visitor’s center shows how the failure of the cables at that tower affected the rest of the system. With one of the three support anchors gone, the instrument platform dropped toward the dish in between the remaining two. This created off-axis forces that caused the tops of those towers to be wrenched off the rest, resulting in about 60 feet of reinforced concrete plunging to the ground below. At the same time, backstay cables that ran from the tower to the ground came loose and swung around wildly.

Despite all this destruction, the NSF’s decision to keep the areas around the towers clear of personnel ensured that nobody was injured. And the visitor’s center, which is near one of the towers, managed to escape without significant damage.

Before and after

Ashley Zauderer, who was NSF’s program manager for Arecibo, described some of the ideas the NSF had considered once the cables started breaking. These were mostly focused on releasing some of the strain on the remaining supports. Ideas that were initially analyzed included easing tension off the backstay cables, which would allow the platform to droop toward the dish a bit, reducing the forces on the cables. Another idea she mentioned was to take some of the hardware off the platform, reducing its weight. But this would require a helicopter and placing personnel on the platform, which was considered a high-risk activity.

While these plans were being evaluated, the telescope’s operators started monitoring the cables using a drone in order to avoid putting humans at risk. Over the past weekend, Zauderer said, the drone footage had revealed several individual wires in the cables snapping, and she implied that this meant that everyone knew a collapse was inevitable.

Even before that, however, there wasn’t a lot of optimism about the ideas Zauderer mentioned. John Abruzzo, an engineer at the firm hired to evaluate options for Arecibo, said, “the probability of success was not that high.” In almost every case where operations and repairs of this sort had been attempted, Abruzzo said, the structure at risk was in relatively good condition, something that was not true at Arecibo.

What are the future prospects for the site? Ralph Gaume, director of NSF’s Division of Astronomical Sciences, said that this isn’t an easy question to answer. While funds had been allocated to stabilize and potentially repair the observatory—replacement cables had been ordered when the first one snapped—the NSF can’t simply reallocate the money to anything new without congressional approval. And those funds are well short of what’s needed to build anything new at the site, which means Congress would also have to get involved in determining what’s possible.

And nobody on the press call was interested in speculating about how interested Congress might be in acting.

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Meet Ravn X—a fully autonomous, air-launched rocket for small satellites

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An Alabama-based startup unveiled a launch system unlike any other on Thursday in Jacksonville, Florida.

The company is named Aevum, and until now it has largely operated in the background. But now, it’s ready to show off some hardware, and it’s starting with the “Ravn X” launch system’s first stage. This autonomous aircraft and launch vehicle measures 24 meters long and has a wingspan of 18 meters. It has a gross takeoff mass of 25,000kg—massive for an uncrewed aerial vehicle.

Also, Ravn X looks really slick. Without a pilot on board, the drone can pull significantly higher g-loads and steeper ascent trajectories as it releases a rocket at altitudes between 10 and 20km.

“We claim that our aircraft is a first stage because it actually contributes delta V,” Jay Skylus, Aevum’s founder and CEO, said in an interview with Ars.

It’s physics

A physicist by training, Skylus founded Aevum in June 2016 after a few years at NASA and several commercial space companies, including Boeing and Firefly Aerospace. His company presently has about 180 full-time employees and has so far conducted about five rounds of Angel investment fundraising. It is aiming to launch its first orbital mission in 2021.

Launching with an airplane-like first stage is the key to developing truly responsive launch, he said, because planes can take off in varying weather conditions from multiple locations. The Ravn X first stage, he said, can fly from any 1-mile runway.

However, existing air-launch systems—Northrop Grumman’s Pegasus booster and Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne vehicle—actually start with negative delta V, despite releasing their rockets at an altitude of about 10km, Skylus said. This is because after the rocket is released from the aircraft, it takes several seconds for the plane’s pilots to pull away to a safe distance, and by the time the rocket ignites its engines, it is accelerating back toward Earth.

“When you do that analysis, you end up finding that ground launch is superior to any kind of piloted air launch platform,” Skylus said. “We thought no way this is going to work. There was not a solution that was sustainable. The physics did not favor this, so we have to come up with something else.”

This led the company to its concept of an autonomous first stage. After its unveiling, this vehicle will begin a test flight campaign, with taxi testing, full avionics integration, a flight termination system, and more. This first model will serve as a “workhorse” for the test campaign, and Skylus said the plan is to bolt its engines onto a second airframe for a launch campaign.

Testing rocket engines

Even as it has finalized the Ravn X first stage, Aevum has been developing a rocket capable of delivering 100kg to about 500km Sun-synchronous orbit. This rocket has two liquid-fueled engines for its main stage, each with 5,000 pounds of thrust and a single upper-stage engine. These engines have been hot-fire tested beyond their full duration burns, Skylus said, and have gone through qualification and acceptance testing.

Both Ravn X and the launch vehicle use Jet-A fuel, which is available at nearly all US airports, for propellant. Compared to RP-1, this causes a 1 to 2 percent performance penalty on the rocket engines, but the key is to provide a response capability. “We did not want to be in a position where we had to have fuel delivered,” Skylus said. Initially, the company will fly missions from Cecil Spaceport, which is managed by the Jacksonville International Airport.

The US military definitely seems interested in the concept. Lt. Col. Ryan Rose, chief of the Space and Missile Systems Center’s Small Launch and Targets Division at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, attended Thursday’s rollout. He described the company’s efforts as “bold” and “innovative.”

Moreover, Aevum claims it has secured launch contracts worth more than $1 billion over the next decade, including the Air Force’s ASLON-45 mission, which is currently targeted for Ravn X’s first launch.

Listing image by Aevum

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Nation-state backed hackers going after COVID vaccine supply chain

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Enlarge / A climate controlled thermo haulage truck trailer outside the Pfizer Inc. facility in Puurs, Belgium, on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020.

Bloomberg | Getty Images

Cyber attackers have targeted the cold supply chain needed to deliver COVID-19 vaccines, according to a report detailing a sophisticated operation likely backed by a nation-state.

The hackers appeared to be trying to disrupt or steal information about the vital processes to keep vaccines cold as they travel from factories to hospitals and doctors’ offices.

According to the report by IBM’s threat intelligence task force, which advises companies and the public sector on cyber security, they targeted organizations associated with a cold chain platform run by the Gavi vaccine alliance, a public-private partnership for developing immunization for poorer countries.

Many of the COVID-19 vaccines have to be kept cold to keep them from spoiling. Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine must be kept between minus 70C and minus 80C, while Moderna’s shot needs to be transported at minus 20C.

The attackers pretended to be an executive at a Chinese supplier of ultra-cold refrigeration to mount a phishing campaign trying to obtain usernames and passwords, the report said.

Nick Rossmann, IBM’s global lead for threat intelligence, said he believed the hackers were either looking to disrupt the vaccine delivery process or steal intellectual property.

“One side of it is cyber espionage: How do you get vaccines out? How is the manufacturing process working for refrigeration? How are you managing the entire logistics chain?” he said. “There’s also potential for disruption, being able to launch attacks that disrupt vaccines, and their distribution to undermine trust in them around the world.”

He added that it was vital to treat the vaccine supply chain as “a new type of global critical infrastructure” to help them secure the products that could help end the pandemic.

“These refrigeration companies are not going to have the same security tools that advanced financial institutions have,” he said.

The news prompted the US cyber agency on Wednesday to issue a formal alert to other groups involved in the cold supply chain.

Claire Zaboeva, senior strategic cyber threat analyst at IBM, said it could be the “tip of an iceberg” in a larger global campaign, as the hackers try to find holes in security and jump between companies and governments involved in the mass vaccination programs.

“It was an extremely well-researched and well-placed campaign. And that does potentially point to a very competent person or team,” she said.

The IBM report described a hacking campaign that spanned six countries, aimed at the European Commission’s customs and taxation unit, and organizations in energy, manufacturing and technology. The campaign started in September and the task force discovered the threat in October.

The IBM researchers do not know if the hackers were successful at gaining entry to the networks.

“Today’s report highlights the importance of cyber security diligence at each step in the vaccine supply chain,” said Josh Corman, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency’s chief strategist for healthcare.

The FBI has been notified of the attacks. The Gavi vaccine alliance said it had “strong policies and processes in place to prevent such phishing attacks and hacking attempts” and that it would continue to strengthen its security.

The European Commission said it was aware of the campaign and had taken “necessary steps” to mitigate the attack. It added that it takes cyber security seriously and investigates every incident.

Additional reporting by Kadhim Shubber in Washington DC.

© 2020 The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved Not to be redistributed, copied, or modified in any way.

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