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Trump ban on Chinese drone parts risks worsening wildfires

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Enlarge / Photo taken on Aug. 28, 2020 shows the wreckage at the site where a wildfire swept through in Vacaville of Solano County in northern California.

Xinhua News Agency | Getty Images

The US interior department’s decision not to buy more drones with Chinese parts has made it more difficult to fight wildfires, according to an internal departmental memo, which lays bare one cost of the Trump administration’s crackdown on Chinese technology.

The memo, which was written by the department’s Office of Aviation Services earlier this year, found that by the end of the year, the department will have carried out only a quarter of the controlled burning it might otherwise have done had it gone ahead with planned drone purchases.

The US is experiencing one of its worst years for wildfire outbreaks thanks to hot weather and a lack of firefighters. And while none of those appear to have happened on federal land, government insiders warn the de facto ban on buying drones with Chinese components risks making the situation worse.

The internal memo, which was written earlier this summer and has been seen by the Financial Times, warned: “[The department’s current fleet] must expand to meet the demand of preventative measures mandated for the reduction of wildfire via vegetation reduction.”

It found that by the end of the year, the department will only have carried out 28 per cent of the controlled burning it could have done had it purchased 17 new drone-based firefighting systems as planned.

David Bernhardt, the interior secretary, announced the crackdown on Chinese-made drones last year, amid concerns about the national security implications of flying them over federal lands. It was one of a wider set of actions the Trump administration has announced targeting Chinese technology companies.

The department has the largest civilian drone program in the federal government, used for everything from firefighting to monitoring wildlife. But it has been mostly unable to fly since last year, when Mr Bernhardt decided all 810 departmental aircraft should be grounded pending a review into the security risks they pose, given that they all contain Chinese parts.

Mr Bernhardt did allow an exemption for carrying out controlled burning on federal land, a regular method of halting wildfires in their tracks. But at the same time, Susan Combs, one of his assistant secretaries, said that no new drones should be purchased without her authorization, which she has not since given.

This decision halted the planned purchase of 17 new Ignis systems, which are used to start controlled fires. Without them, the internal memo says the department has either used aircraft manned by firefighters—putting lives at risk—or not carried out the burning at all.

It said: “Denying the acquisition of UAS [drone] aerial ignition devices directly transfers risk to firefighters who must use manned aircraft to complete these missions rather than a safer option utilizing UAS.” And it recommended restarting the planned purchases—something that has not yet happened.

The interior department said: “Secretary Bernhardt is committed to deploying all resources necessary to protect human health and safety. The secretary’s order grounding the department’s drones achieves these important objectives while addressing serious national security concerns that were raised in classified briefings late last year.”

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

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New USB-C dock triples M1 Mac external monitor support, Anker says

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If you have an M1-based Mac, Apple says you’re limited to just one external monitor. But Anker, which makes power banks, chargers, docks, and other accessories, this week released a dock that it says will boost your M1 Mac’s max monitor count to three.

The 4250 Anker 563 USB-C docking station, spotted by MacRumors, connects to a USB-C port on your computer (which doesn’t have to be a Mac) and can also charge a laptop at up to 100 W. Of course, you’ll also need to plug in the dock’s 180 W power adapter. Once connected, the dock adds the following ports to your setup:

  • 2x HDMI (version not specified)
  • 1x USB-C (3.1 Gen 1): charges devices at up to 30 W
  • 1x USB-A (3.1 Gen 1): charges devices at up to 7.5 W
  • 2x USB-A (2.0)
  • 1x 3.5 mm headphone jack
  • 1x Ethernet
Port selection.
Enlarge / Port selection.

You’ll need the two HDMI ports and DisplayPort to add three monitors to an M1 MacBook. There are some notable limitations, though.

If you were hoping to use a trio of 4K displays, you’re out of luck. The dock can only support one 4K monitor at a time, and the output will be limited to a 30 Hz refresh rate. Most general-use monitors and TVs run at 60 Hz, and monitors can reach up to 360 Hz. 4K monitors will even hit 240 Hz this year. Running 4K at 30 Hz may be fine for watching movies, but for fast-paced action, things may not appear as smooth to keen eyes used to 60 Hz and beyond.

If you add a second external monitor via the Anker 563, a 4K screen will still run at 30 Hz via HDMI, while the DisplayPort will support up to 2560×1440 resolution at 60 Hz.

There are more disappointing caveats when looking at a tri-monitor setup. The 4K monitor will run at 30 Hz, but you can no longer use another monitor at 2560×1440. Instead, the additional two monitors are limited to 2048×1152 resolution and 60 Hz refresh rates. If the display doesn’t support 2048×1152, Anker says the monitor will default to 1920×1080.

You also have to download DisplayLink software, and you must be running macOS10.14 or Windows 7 or later.

Apple says that “using docks or daisy-chaining devices doesn’t increase the number of displays you can connect” to an M1 Mac, so don’t be surprised if there are hiccups during operation.

Anker isn’t alone in trying to do what Apple says can’t be done, as noted by The Verge. Hyper, for example, offers options for adding two 4K monitors to an M1 MacBook, one at 30 Hz and one at 60 Hz. That list includes a $200 hub with a similar port selection to the Anker 563 and a two-year limited warranty (the Anker dock gives 18 months). It works via DisplayPort Alt Mode, so you don’t need a DisplayLink driver, but it still requires the pesky Hyper app.

Plugable offers docking solutions that claim to work with M1 Macs for a similar price to the Anker dock, and they also limit 4K to 30 Hz.

Some docks have even more limitations when it comes to the M1, though. CalDigit notes that for its dock, “users cannot extend their desktop over two displays and will be limited to either dual ‘Mirrored’ displays or 1 external display depending on the dock.”

Alternatively, and for several hundred dollars more, you could buy a new MacBook and upgrade to an M1 Pro, M1 Max, or M1 Ultra processor. Depending on the device, those chips can support from two to five external displays, Apple says.

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Qualcomm’s Snapdragon “8+ Gen 1” salvage operation moves the chip to TSMC

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Qualcomm

Qualcomm’s mid-cycle “plus” chip refresh—the Snapdragon 8+ Gen 1—has been announced. As usual, Qualcomm is promising some modest improvements over the existing 8 Gen 1 chip. The company said the chip will provide “10 percent faster CPU performance,” thanks to a 200 MHz peak CPU boost (up to 3.2 GHz now) and a 10 percent faster GPU. The real shocker is a “30 percent improved power efficiency” claim for the CPU and GPU.

For the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 Plus, Qualcomm is moving the chip from Samsung Foundry to TSMC, which is apparently where the power improvements are coming from. That’s a serious slam against Samsung’s 4 nm process versus TSMC’s 4 nm process, but it lines up with earlier reports of troubles at Samsung Foundry.

Swapping foundries as part of a mid-cycle upgrade is not normal, and it seems that Qualcomm has a bit of a salvage operation on its hands with the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1. The chip has not fared very well in the real world, with the CPU regularly turning in lower benchmark scores than 2021’s flagship Snapdragon 888.

Qualcomm doesn’t do all that much for phones year over year to begin with, and it is regularly years behind Apple’s SoC team. Usually, the one reliable upgrade Qualcomm can deliver is some measurable percentage of benchmark improvements. The GPU managed to improve for 2022, but to see the CPU horsepower decrease after Qualcomm claimed it would be 20 percent faster is a major disappointment. After a foundry change and a CPU MHz boost, Qualcomm’s 2022 CPU might finally be faster than its 2021 counterpart.

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The same phone for 25 years? iFixit on right to repair’s remaining obstacles, hope

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The fight for the right to repair remains an active battle as various companies and lawmakers claim worries around safety, cybersecurity, and design innovation. But with concerns about e-waste, device quality, and the health of independent repair shops mounting, advocates like iFixit CEO Kyle Wiens are keeping their gloves up. In the lead up to Ars Technica’s first annual Ars Frontiers event in Washington, DC, last week, we held a livestream with Wiens exploring this critical tech issue.

Making a federal case of it

Tech repairs got complicated in 1998 when Congress passed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act [PDF]. Section 1201 of the copyright law essentially made it illegal to distribute tools for, or to break encryption on, manufactured products. Created with DVD piracy in mind, it made fixing things like computers and tractors significantly harder, if not illegal, without manufacturer permission. It also represented “a total sea change from what historic property rights have been,” Wiens said.

This makes Washington, DC, the primary battleground for the fight for the right to repair.

“Because this law was passed at the federal level, the states can’t preempt. Congress at the federal level reset copyright policy. This fix has to happen at the US federal level,” Wiens told Ars Technica during the Road to Frontiers talk.

The good news is that every three years, the US Copyright Office holds hearings to discuss potential exemptions. Right to repair advocates are hoping Congress will schedule this year’s hearing soon.

Wiens also highlighted the passing of the Freedom to Repair Act [PDF] introduced earlier this year as critical for addressing Section 1201 and creating a permanent exemption for repairing tech products.

Apple’s promising, imperfect progress

Apple’s self-service repair program launched last month marked a huge step forward for the right to repair initiated by a company that has shown long-standing resistance.

Wiens applauded the program, which provides repair manuals for the iPhone 12, 13, and newest SE and will eventually extend to computers. He emphasized how hard it is for iFixit to reverse-engineer such products to determine important repair details, like whether a specific screw is 1 or 1.1 mm.

Apple’s program also offers repair tools, particularly benefiting independent repair shops, Wiens noted. But that doesn’t mean Apple can’t be more repair-friendly.

“What Apple is doing wrong in this case is they continue to embark on this strategy where they have paired specific parts to the phone,” Wiens explained.

“If you take two brand-new iPhone 13s and you swap the screens, you’re not necessarily going to get all the functionality that you would expect, which is strange because if you take two cars and you swap the engines, they work just fine. … You take two Samsungs, and you swap the screens, they work just fine.”

The exec worries that despite Apple claiming it wants to provide a detailed service history, this tactic can result in the banning of aftermarket parts.

“The repair economy, the circular economy around iPhones, is significant. … It creates a lot of jobs,” Wiens said. “Apple could easily short-circuit that economy by employing these cryptographic locks to tie parts to phones. Then this would tie into Section 1201 because it might potentially be illegal to circumvent those locks to make an aftermarket part work again.”

A repairable future

Wiens envisioned a world where gadgets not only last longer but where you may also build relationships with local businesses to keep your products functioning. He lamented the loss of businesses like local camera and TV repair shops extinguished by vendors no longer supplying parts and tools.

“I think it’s incumbent on all of us to say, what kind of economy do we want? Do we want a main street where we have local people that know how to fix and maintain our things? Or do we want a factory assembly line where we manufacture stuff in Asia, we dump it here, use it for however long it works, and then there’s no maintenance plan for it,” Wiens said.

He also discussed the idea of giving gadgets second and even third lives: An aged smartphone could become a baby monitor or a smart thermostat.

“I think we should be talking about lifespans of smartphones in terms of 20, 25 years,” Wiens said.

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