Interesting tech from 2010

Tech Universe Highlights 2010

Tech Universe is taking a break over the summer. We’ll be back with more of the latest technology news from around the globe in the New Year. Meanwhile, here are some of my favourite items from 2010.

  • LIFE BIKE: In rural Africa ambulances are rare. The Zambulance is a bicycle fitted with a trailer that has a mattress, privacy curtain and intravenous hangers. After 12 months in one Ugandan community the number of women who died in childbirth dropped from 30 to zero, thanks to the Zambulance. High tech or low, it’s the effect that counts.
  • SMS FOR YOUR LIFE: Volunteer health care workers in Rwandan villages are saving lives with their cellphones, in spite of long walks to charging stations. They report on the pregnant women in their care, then the health clinic sends text messages with advice. And to think I find it annoying when the charger’s in the next room.
  • WHEEL OF SPEEDING: Constant exhortations to reduce our speed on the roads just don’t seem to do the job, but we’ll slow down to win money. Speed cameras photograph motorists and send fines to those who exceed the limit. But anyone obeying the law is entered in a lottery to win the fines. In a test in Stockholm average speeds dropped by 20%. That’s a more positive spin on that creepy TV ad about, uh, something we do wrong on the roads.
  • ECO METROPOLIS: Residents are moving in to Masdar, a new ecocity in the United Arab Emirates. Buildings are placed to maximise shade and airflow. Cars are banned — instead driverless electric vehicles travel through underground tunnels. A nearby a 54-acre photovoltaic field, incineration and water treatment plants service the city. The city will be constantly monitored and finetuned to maximise performance. An interesting destination for ecotourists.
  • BACK TO NATURE: PlanIT Valley is a new eco-city being planned in Portugal. The city will collect data from a network of sensors, in the way the human nervous system works. An urban data centre ‘brain’ will control and recycle waste, water and power. Each building will also have its own computer as a failsafe. Natural features are deliberately used to play a part in the recycling system. This is definitely one to watch.
  • CROWDED WEATHER: The Old Weather crowdsourced science project asks you to read through handwritten ship’s logs looking for weather data. The handwritten logs are too variable for reliable text recognition, but the human eye can discern the contents. Marine weather data from early 20th century logs can help build up historic patterns as a basis for projections. The thrills, the spills, the weather reports.
  • WIND STALKERS: The Windstalk wind farm concept doesn’t use conventional turbines. Instead 55 metre high ‘stalks’ sway in the wind, producing energy from alternating layers of electrodes and ceramic discs made from piezoelectric material. The wind compresses the discs and generates power. I’d have a windstalk in my back yard.
  • SMELLER RAT: Giant African pouched rats are the latest recruits to an organisation called APOPO. They sniff out the TNT in landmines. Two deminers and 2 rats can clear a 200 square-metre minefield in 2 hours. The rats are generally too light to be able to set off a landmine. Once upon a time it was sniffer dogs. New technology’s always smaller and lighter though. APOPO.
  • COW POWER: Huishan Dairy in China is installing a system to collect methane from cow dung and turn it into electricity — on a massive scale. The dairy runs 250,000 cows. The power system will will capture 20 million cubic metres of biogas and produce 5.6 megawatts of power from just 30,000 cows. That’s enough power for 3,500 American-size households. If you look at things the right way, there’s no such thing as waste.
  • NUMB GUMS: Soon your dentist may dab a healing peptide gel onto a tooth cavity rather than drilling and filling. That really will hurt the dentist more than it hurts us.
  • BLOWN AWAY: Blunt umbrellas — a Kiwi innovation — withstand even Wellington gales. What it takes is double struts, floating ribs and special Blunt strengthening tips. Hang on! Brolly Sailing could be the latest Wellington sport!
  • USB FOR YOU AND ME: Somehow a USB plug is always upside down when you try to insert it into your computer. The Flipper USB finally has a solution: it works either way up. Why did it take so long for someone to think of that?
  • OW, OW, OW: A traditional vaccination is a pain in the arm. A new tiny Vaccine Patch has hundreds of microscopic needles that painlessly dissolve into your skin. Anyone can apply the patch and there are no needles to dispose of afterwards. No pain, no muss, no fuss.
  • WIND UP WATER: A fully working prototype used UV light to sterilise a specially constructed bottle of water in 2 minutes. A custom filter in the bottle removes impurities, then a wind-up Ultra Violet bulb completes the job. Tests show the bottle sterilises 99.9% of bacteria and viruses — especially important in the developing world. No bacteria, sure, but what about heavy metals?
  • I THOUGHT IT MOVED: The Modular Prosthetic Limb includes 22 degrees of motion, has independent control of all 5 fingers, and weighs the same as a human arm. It’s controlled by a surgically implanted microarray in the brain. The wearer thinks and the hand responds. Just like a bought one.
  • TECHY TEABAG: Fill a teabag with nanoscale fibres to filter out contaminants and active carbon to kill bacteria and you have a cheap but effective water filter. Stellenbosch University have invented filters and reusable water bottles to help the hundreds of millions of people around the world who rely on unsafe water. Add them to the aid packages now.
  • LEFT CLICK: Devices to drive electric wheelchairs often rely on the user physically clicking a button on a plate inside their mouth. That can make eating and talking a bit tricky. The University of Bristol put a microphone in an earbud to ‘hear’ and identify 4 different tongue clicks. It then transmits commands to a chair or robotic arm. Does a double-click just go in circles?
  • KILLER PAINT: MRSA ‘superbugs’ don’t stand a chance against a new paint. The paint binds carbon nanotubes to an enzyme called lysostaphin that slices open cell walls and within 20 minutes destroys only staph bacteria. This mix isn’t an antibiotic, and is safe in the environment. It sounds too good to be true.
  • DREAMS IN ORBIT: The Terrestar-1 satellite was launched in 2008, but since its owners went bankrupt it’s up for grabs at a bargain price. A not for profit group are raising funds to buy it so they can bring Internet to places like Papua New Guinea, Indonesia or Africa. How about an international Web Aid concert?
  • HEAVY WALKER: Kiwi invention the Rex Bionics exoskeleton lets wheelchair users stand and walk, even up and down stairs. At 38Kg it adds a bit of weight, but what’s a few kilos to be able to walk? It’s one giant step.
  • SKIN PRINTS: Add specially cultured cells to an ordinary inkjet printer and you can print skin over a patient’s burn wounds. Well, in mice, anyway. But can you refill the cartridges?
  • FIRE BIKES: Not all fires need a big fire engine. Sometimes all it takes is one person and a tank of water. Liverpool now sports two $64,000 BMW Fire motorbikes, each equipped with pumps, 50 litres of water and chemical foam. The riders’ clothing is designed for both bike wear and fire fighting. Smart idea; traffic jams shouldn’t stop them either.
  • WATER, WATER: Drifting in a life raft at sea? Kim Hoffman’s Sea Kettle liferaft has a built-in desalination plant. You pump seawater into a reservoir in the roof where it evaporates to condense into collectors. The raft provides enough drinking water for 5 people per day. Many a drop to drink, after all.
  • EMBRACE A BABY: In many parts of the world low birth weight babies face hypothermia and incubators are not available. The Embrace Infant Warmer is a kind of high-tech sleeping bag whose sealed wax pouch is heated with hot water. The Embrace is inexpensive and easy to use. Rock a bye baby, in the heat pouch.
  • COLD POWER: Vaccines must be kept cold and that’s impossible in some countries. The University of Pennsylvania’s idea could save lives. 75% of the world’s rural inhabitants get cellphone signals — from towers powered by diesel generators, solar or wind. So how about using their surplus power for cooling vaccines and treating water? Efficiency could save lives.
  • INFLATED MILITARY: Russia’s newest military vehicles look like tanks, fighter jets and missile launchers, even to radar and thermal imagers. But they don’t sound like tanks. That’s because they’re low-cost, light weight, blow-up decoys designed to inflate the size of the military presence in an area. Cheap and cheerful.
  • WOOD CHIPS: Trees in the Amazon are being microchipped as a way to authenticate that they were logged sustainably. Data from the chip tells where the tree was grown and which sawmill processed the lumber. Engineers give each tree its own ID card containing a chip. Just like ear tags on cows, really.
  • RHINO ALARM: More than 200 rhinos have been slaughtered in South Africa this year, so game wardens are testing out embedded GPS units. They insert a GPS chip and alarms connected to satellite and cellphone systems into the animal’s horn. If the rhino behaves in unusual ways, such as sleeping for too long, the alarm alerts a warden to investigate. Once the poachers know about the chips I imagine they’ll start dehorning the rhinos.
  • A LIGHT DISINFECTANT: HINS-light uses a narrow spectrum of visible-light wavelengths. It excites molecules contained within bacteria, producing species that can kill MRSA and other superbug pathogens. The light is claimed to be harmless to people, so could be used to continuously disinfect hospital wards and isolation rooms. A little light helps everything.
  • SUNSHINE WHEELS: Take a solar-powered wheelchair, put it in the sunny United Arab Emirates and you have a formula for travel. Haidar Taleb is on a record-breaking 320 Km voyage across the desert in a chair he designed and built himself. He wants to raise awareness of disability and sustainability. The chair travels at around 18 Kph, while the solar panels charge four 20-watt batteries and provide shade. I guess that’s an outdoor wheelchair. Haidar’s journey.

Notes: I write a Tech Universe column for the NZ Herald. This is a fun assignment: Tech Universe brings 5 headlines each day about what’s up in the world of technology.