04/26/17 1:00pm

UBER CLAIMS IT’LL BE TESTING A FLYING TAXI NETWORK IN TEXAS BY 2020 Meanwhile, in Dallas: Uber announced yesterday that the company plans to have a set of flying taxis called the Uber Elevate Network in testing stages in both the DFW area and Dubai in about 3 years. If everything goes as planned, the network would deploy VTOLs (that’s vertical take-off and landing vehicles, which mix elements of a small helicopter and a plane) that run entirely on electricity. Uber’s set to work with Dallas-based Hillwood Properties to develop landing sites equipped with recharging stations — though the technology for VTOLs themselves still has to be developed, too. [Texas Tribune; more herepreviously on Swamplot]

04/13/17 4:30pm

REST OF THE ALAMO TO BE REMEMBERED IN GHOSTLY GLASS ECHOES Meanwhile, in San Antonio: New renderings are out of the plans for a redo of the Alamo’s streetscape, showing the missing pieces of the mission-fort’s compound’s original courtyard outlined in glass walls. The structure was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2015; the under-development master plan for redoing the area around the existing structure would cede nearby street territory to pedestrians, landscaping, and the glass wall markers. The redesign would also use glass panels in the ground to showcase the buried rubble of some of the original compound walls, uncovered in last year’s digging around. [The Rivard Report]

01/09/17 5:30pm

HOUSTON AND SAN ANTONIO COMPANIES JOIN UP IN SPROUTING TEXAS POT MARKET Meanwhile, in La Vernia: Kyle Hagerty provides an update on Houston-based aeroponics company Indoor Harvest’s plan to team up with San Antonio-based Alamo CBD in an attempt to become of the medical pot dispensing organizations the state of Texas will have to license as part of the 2015 Texas Compassionate Use Act. If all goes as planned, Indoor Harvest and Alamo will merge, then set up a 10-acre property in La Vernia, TX, to provide Vermont-based Vyripharm with pot products of specific chemical profiles — most importantly, with consistent levels of cannabidiol, a non-psychoactive pot compound being studied for potential treatment of certain cancers and forms of epilepsy. Vyripharm, in turn, is setting up research agreements with a bunch of medical institutions in Houston and Galveston.  Hagerty notes that legal pot is one of the fastest growing industries in the country — though as UH professor Gina Warren pointed out this summer, indoor pot farming is a hugely energy- and water-intensive industry, with little regulatory infrastructure in place yet to address potential local or regional impacts. [Houston BisNow]

11/30/16 5:30pm

LICENSE SUSPENSION RECOMMENDED OVER FATAL CALIFORNIAN BALCONY COLLAPSE Meanwhile, in Berkeley: The California Contractors State License Board filed a formal complaint yesterday against the company that worked on the Liberty Gardens Apartments — where a cantilevered balcony in unit 405 collapsed last year, killing 6 of the 13 people standing on it. The board says that Segue Construction (which hired contractors to frame the faulty balcony) deviated from the specified building plan for the balcony, including swapping the plywood called for in the design for multiple sheets of specifically-not-OK oriented strand board. The agency also says the balcony collapsed when it did because of water-intrusion-related dry rot, potentially related to the balcony’s questionable waterproofing — not done in the way the design called for, and completed on “unknown dates” between May 2005 and August 2006 by another contractor. No charges are being filed by the Alameda County district attorney’s office, but the regulatory board is asking that Segue’s license be suspended or revoked. [California Contractors State License Board via KCBS]

11/15/16 3:15pm

PERMITS ISSUED TO STORE TEXAS WIND ENERGY IN GIANT UNDERGROUND SALT CAVE, TOO Meanwhile, in Tennessee Colony: As Fairway works on retrofitting some of those giant salt caves south of the Astrodome to store crude oil, a company called APEX says it has the permits all lined up to outfit a cavern in Anderson County’s Bethel Salt Dome to store some of Texas’s excessive wind energy. The plan, if the company gets the rest of the necessary funding, is to buy excess electricity from the grid to run an air compressor, pumping air into a salt chamber as deep as the Empire State Building is tall. That compressed air (with a boost from some natural gas combustion) would then be used to turn a turbine when needed. Energy analyst Paul Denham tells David Fehling that only a few spots in the US along the Gulf Coast have the kind of salt dome geology being put to work by the Bethel project (and by the only other major compressed air plants in the world, currently operating in Germany and Alabama); a few other companies, however, are now working on taking underground caverns out of the equation. [Houston Public Media; previously on Swamplot]

09/16/16 4:30pm

UBER’S SELF-DRIVING CARS HIT STREETS WITH ACTUAL PASSENGERS, DRIVERS JUST IN CASE Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh: As of Wednesday, Uber is letting some of its customers opt into possible pickup by its fleet of heavily tricked-out self-driving Ford Fusions. The rollout is the company’s first testing of the autonomous cars with real passengers in the urban wild; so far, they still come equipped with a prepared-for-takeover human in the driver’s seat (as well as a data-monitoring shotgun rider). Paying passengers interact with the car from the back seat via electronic tablet, which shows them the LiDAR data the car collects and allows them to take selfies. TechCrunch’s Signe Brewster got to check out one of the cars as part of a press preview and reports that the car’s driving was “so normal it got a little bit boring” by the end; Brewster does note that he “had a flurry of butterflies the first time the car encountered an obstacle — an SUV backing into the road. You don’t notice how many unexpected incidents occur during a routine drive until you ask a robot to take the wheel.” [WTAE, TechCrunch; previously on Swamplot]

09/13/16 2:45pm

THE NEXT BIG HURRICANE REBUILD WILL GO MUCH FASTER IF YOU START ON IT NOW Meanwhile, in Brownsville: Housing advocates in Dolly-battered South Texas have since developed a disaster response program optimistically called Rapido; new legislation (similar to a bill that failed in the last Texas legislative session) is in the works to make Rapido-style “precovery” response a statewide standard. The program involves the fast deployment of permanent 1-room housing “cores” that can be quickly assembled by local workers and then added onto later; the bigger component of the program, Leah Binkovitz writes this week, is extensive pre-planning initiatives in potential disaster areas, instead of what housing advocate John Henneberger calls “reinventing disaster recovery from a blank sheet of paper every time there’s a disaster.” Binkovitz writes that the program calls for preemptive outreach “to determine what kind of disaster housing would be most appropriate, who could build it, who would be eligible to receive it and what resources would be available. That conversation should even include whether folks want to rebuild in vulnerable neighborhoods and how to offer alternatives.” [Urban Edge; previously on Swamplot]

09/09/16 2:45pm

THE CASE OF THE SPECULATIVE RUBE GOLDBERG-STYLE LONG DISTANCE HOME ARSON ATTEMPT Meanwhile, in Kerikeri: Gag orders surrounding a set of insurance fraud and blackmail investigations have recently expired, bringing to light details of New Zealand investigators’ suspicions that British expat Chris Robinson may have burned his own house down while out of town in 2013. Investigators of the fire, which destroyed Robinson’s multi-million-dollar home and Mercedes, found burn marks suggesting a flame accelerant, as well as records of a remote login to a home computer on the night of the fire. Traces of the software program used to access the home machine were found on Robinson’s travel laptop, though he deleted the program the morning after the blaze. The investigators eventually presented a proof of concept video in court demonstrating one theoretically possible method of starting a fire remotely: the investigators cued a printer to print, which pulled down a sheet of paper which was taped to a string, pulling a switch that caused a small heating element to set some matches on fire (enough to ignite the accelerant that appeared to have been splashed around the house). The case fell apart because investigators didn’t produce evidence of a sent print command; though the insurance company still won’t pay out for the house, Robinson was acquitted. He did, however, lose an associated court case over an attempt to blackmail the insurance company; during sentencing, the judge took into consideration a previous UK conviction for posing as an Irish priest to solicit-slash-extort donations to a nonexistent charity. [Stuff via The Independent]

08/25/16 2:00pm

RRC: YOUR DRINKING WATER PROBABLY HASN’T BEEN POISONED BY THOSE WELLS WE WEREN’T TRACKING Meanwhile, in Austin: The Texas Rail Road Commission is hiring a geologist to look through the 10,000-or-so permits for oilfield waste disposal wells it’s approved since 1982, in an effort to figure out which ones were drilled into potential drinking water supplies.  Kiah Colliers reports this week that the agency (which since 2005 has had nothing to do with railroads) says it’s let through a “handful” of exceptions to the don’t-pump-fracking-liquids-into-water-zones-someone-might-need-later rules, and that they probably aren’t much of a risk, but the agency doesn’t actually know how many times it’s happened (and the EPA doesn’t have records of giving the required OKs). Colliers also notes that even other Texas officials in charge of water quality in frack-heavy areas of the state aren’t necessarily aware that disposal wells are ever allowed near potentially drinkable water supplies, quoting an assistant manager at the Middle Pecos Groundwater Conservation District’s response to a description of the policy as “Now why in the hell would they do that? [Texas Tribune]

08/04/16 1:45pm

RESPONDING TO A FLOOD OF COMPLAINTS ABOUT FLOOD INSURANCE Meanwhile, in New York: A few months after a joint Frontline and NPR investigation noted how profits for insurance companies administering the National Flood Insurance Program regularly peak after flooding disasters, a new report issued by the office of New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman says there’s a lack of accountability in the program that is likely costing taxpayers millions and cheating the homeowners the program is designed to serve. The AG’s office “has now found flood insurance does not cover what it promises in its ads, that many engineers and others hired to evaluate damage were not qualified and that homeowners were wrongly prevented from seeing copies of their own reports,” reports NPR’s Laura Sullivan. In response, FEMA says it has adjusted its rules and will continue to do so to make sure costs of obtaining outside services are justified and documented. [Frontline; NPR]

07/15/16 1:30pm

LONGABERGER EMPTIES 7-STORY PICNIC BASKET FOR SALE OR FORECLOSURE Meanwhile, in Newark: Yesterday Ohio-based basket weaver Longaberger finished moving the last of its employees out of its former corporate headquarters, a replica of the company’s Medium Market model (albeit 160 times larger than life). The company, which saw a 90 percent drop in sales between 2000 and 2014, is currently trying to sell off the building, which consists of a 7-story office structure behind a stucco-over-steel faux-woven facade, complete with 2 enormous handles that heat up to prevent icing in the winter.  The company has accumulated more than half a million dollars in unpaid taxes on the property; if a buyer cannot be found, the city may foreclose and offer the structure up for public auction. [Columbus Dispatch via Houston Chronicle]

06/10/16 4:45pm

WHY THAT ONE HOME IN THE BRAZOS FLOOD ZONE DIDN’T FLOOD Meanwhile, in Abbeville: The giant water-filled tubes of California-based AquaDam are getting some love from a homeowner with property near last week’s mandatory evacuation zone south of Houston. Upon hearing the Brazos River Authority’s flood predictions, Randy Wagner says he drove to the company’s Louisiana headquarters to pick up the 400-ft.-long structure, and deployed it around his house in Rosharon: “I was the crazy guy,” Wagner told KHOU. “Everybody was kinda going by, laughing at me. But today they are really impressed . . . ” The dams are marketed most heavily for construction purposes, but also as a replacement for sandbag barricades in flood situations. Notable past deployments include the Ft. Calhoun Nuclear Generating Station in Blair, Nebraska where the dams successfully kept out 2 ft. of water from the nuclear plant during flooding in 2011 — until the AquaDam was accidentally popped. [KHOU, New York Times]

05/31/16 5:00pm

DEPT. OF PUBLIC SAFETY TO UT: PLEASE DITCH THE PHOTOS OF FLOOD-RELATED CHEMICAL SPILLS WE DIDN’T NOTICE Meanwhile, in Austin: Texas Department of Public Safety officials have recently asked the University of Texas to remove an online collection of aerial photos taken by the Texas Civil Air Patrol during major flooding events, Marty Schladen writes in this weekend’s El Paso Times. The request comes after the Times reported earlier this spring on what appeared to be photos in the database showing a number of chemical spills not captured in any other state monitoring records, including spills along the Trinity river north of Galveston Bay; other photo sets previously on the site reportedly included shots of Houston sewage treatment plants being flooded on Tax Day, as well as possible unreported spills along the Colorado, Sabine, Red, and Pecos rivers since 2014. DPS Spokesman Tom Vinger tells the Times that pulling the photos is a matter of protecting privacy — “for example, there could be pictures of deceased individuals prior to family members being appropriately notified first,” says Vinger. Non-emergency-responders can still ask for the photos via Public Information Act request. [El Paso Times]

05/25/16 1:00pm

CHINESE COMPANY PREPARING TO TEST 1400-PASSENGER TRAFFIC-STRADDLING TUNNEL BUS Meanwhile, in Changzhou: Engineer Song Youzhou tells Xinhua News that the first full-scale model of the road-straddling Transit Explore Bus may be ready for testing by July or August. The developers say the 2-rail “land airbus” system could pick up as many as 1,400 passengers lowered in through the top from a series of elevator-equipped station platforms; the vehicle could drive straight over traffic jams (assuming those jams are less than 7 ft tall) without having to slow down. Song’s version of the tunnel-train concept was first introduced in 2010 but reappeared at this month’s Beijing Intel High Tech Expo with more solid plans for development. Funder TBS Shipping’s animated 3-D concept video can be viewed here. [Xinhua, CityLab]

05/09/16 2:15pm

UBER AND LYFT PULL OUT OF AUSTIN, PREPARE FOR CAPITOL Meanwhile, in Austin: Uber and Lyft ceased operations today after a city proposition to overturn requirements for drivers including fingerprint-based background checks was shot down by voters over the weekend. The measure was blocked by 56 percent of the vote, despite $8.6 million in campaign spending by the 2 rideshare companies. State senator Charles Schwertner immediately promised to file state legislation to overturn the matter during next year’s session, implying that the Austin rules (which are less stringent than those required by Houston) are “for the sole purpose of stifling innovation and eliminating competition.” El Paso state representative Joe Pickett, however, suggested that “the most minimal thing that state government could do” would be to leave the issue up to individual cities. [Austin-American Statesman; previously on Swamplot]