Tech Roundup

Apps to Save The Planet

The Environmental Protection Agency is saving Earth one app at a time.

The Light Bulb Finder, a mobile phone application that helps homeowners pick more energy-efficient bulbs, was the overall winner of the Environmental Protection Agency's Apps for the Environment challenge.

Second-place finisher was Hootroot, which lets users calculate the carbon footprint of a trip using different modes of transportation. The app tacks onto Google Maps' database and looks similar to the standard directions app in Apple iOS devices.

EPA launched Apps for the Environment in June 2010, challenging contestants nationwide to use agency data to build a tool that addressed one of seven priorities, according to Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, including reducing the effects of climate change, improving air and water quality, and making environmental equality a larger part of the social justice debate.

The agency chose five winning apps from 38 submissions. In lieu of prize money, the winners' apps will be promoted on EPA's website and they can sell the tools in other venues.

Apps for the Environment is part of a governmentwide push to farm out government-generated data to the public so that entrepreneurial developers can use it to create nonprofit or profit-making software, mobile apps and other tools. The repository has uploaded 1,575 data sets in the past year.

Government data have been used to build successful apps for the insurance and financial industries, among others. Federal agencies also have built many of their own apps in the past two years.

- Joseph Marks

Border Security 2.0

The Homeland Security Department plans to open bidding on a 10-year contract to replace a failed $1 billion border surveillance project.

Whereas the now-defunct Secure Border Initiative network consisted of a one-size-fits-all installation along the southwest border, the new integrated fixed towers contract calls for structures equipped with wind-resistant ground radars and surveillance cameras that already are available on production lines, supporting power generation and devices capable of displaying captured images and data. This arrangement will provide Customs and Border Protection agents with a full view of illicit border crossings, drug trafficking and other criminal activity.

DHS officials are looking for commercial products that can be deployed immediately. In addition, vendors must provide maintenance and support.

Auditors in November 2011 slammed the department's $1.5 billion border security plan, saying, among other things, it didn't include a believable price estimate.

- Aliya Sternstein

Up in the Air

The Army's Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle was supposed to take to the air last spring. But, that's now, er, up in the air, and the Army Space and Missile Defense Command has gone mum on when the football-field sized airship will take its first flight. The LEMV is to hover over a battlefield with a mess of sensors for up to three weeks, though no one has ever explained how the Army will feed its crew. The Naval Research Laboratory uses its only blimp, the MZ-3A, to test sensors, and program man-ager Steve Huett says, "you can operate an airship for 40 percent of the cost of fixed-wing aircraft or helicopters." That works only if the airship gets airborne.

- Bob Brewin

Moon Shot

NASA is planning an unmanned test flight of its Orion space capsule in early 2014. In a notice on the Federal Business Opportunities procurement website, the space agency said the orbital flight is "key to providing test data that is critical to influence design decisions and validate Orion spacecraft systems in flight environments that cannot be duplicated on the ground."

Orion is designed to carry astronauts to the moon and possibly Mars.

The agency said this flight will test the entry, descent and landing functions, including the heat shield, propulsion, guidance, navigation, control and parachute recovery systems of the Orion capsule, designed to carry four astronauts on deep space missions, and return to Earth with an ocean splashdown, as the Apollo moon missions did.

- Bob Brewin

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