07 to 10 June 2011 Tech Universe Digest

Tech Universe: Tuesday 07 June 2011

  • BRAKES NOT KIDS: Aucklander Matagi Iasoni Taufa’u has invented a device to stop cars from running over kids in driveways. The April Stop puts a trip-switch on a car’s mudflap. If it’s triggered it sets off a device under the bonnet that instantly engages the brakes without any driver input. The April Stop has had a public trial, but now needs backing for production. Let’s keep the kids safe.
  • UPS ABS: Giant package delivery company UPS want to increase their fuel efficiency. One solution they’re testing is plastic trucks that run on diesel. The ABS plastic trucks are around 450 Kg lighter than standard sheet-aluminium trucks. The reduced weight and the smaller engine the lighter trucks need make them 40% more fuel efficient. The company’s no lightweight, but the trucks will be.
  • DRAW THE LINE ON DISEASE: Many children and pregnant women in developing countries die from fairly easily diagnosed conditions such as preeclampsia. One problem is that the standard tests, although relatively inexpensive are still too costly in such places. Student at Johns Hopkins University in the USA have created a ‘pen’ that reduces the cost of testing from 50 cents to one third of a cent per time. Draw a line on paper with the pen then add a drop of urine. If a particular condition exists the urine reacts with chemicals in the ink and the line changes colour. Saving lives can sometimes be really simple.
  • CLOUD ASTRONOMY: The Square Kilometre Array telescope, to be hosted by either Australia and New Zealand or South Africa, will consist of 3,000 radio dishes. Those behind the ANZ bid plan to use ‘theskynet’, a citizen science application to help share and use the data the Array produces. The grid Cloud computing initiative could harvest the computing and storage power of computers around the world. It’s based on open source Nereus V Cloud computing technology. Hey, if we’re doing all the work what do the astronomers do?
  • SMART GRAVES: One Seattle company is bringing QR codes to tombstones. A smartphone and a free app allow visitors to learn about the person buried in the grave, and also to leave messages and record stories. It’s a good thing holograms aren’t quite ready for use yet.

Tech Universe: Wednesday 08 June 2011

  • MINGLING WITH THE HERD: We’re used to seeing footage in wildlife documentaries of herds of animals thundering across the Savannah as they’re startled by the aircraft the film crew are flying in. German company Microdrones are offering a new way to film animals or anything else for that matter. Using their MD4-1000 model they’ve been filming in the Serengeti. The quad rotor device can fly for up to 70 minutes and carry a payload, such as a camera, of around 1 Kg. It beats using a huge lens from a far away Landrover.
  • WASTED ENERGY: Canadian company Enerkem is setting up a new plant that aims to transform 100,000 tons of trash each year into ethanol. They collect household waste, pull out anything that can be recycled and shred the rest. They heat the shredded waste to 750°, trapping any hydrogen and carbon monoxide that escape. They filter out impurities and then convert the gases to ethanol. Trash power: full of potential.
  • LIGHT RELIEF: The University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei have been able to entangle 8 photons and then manipulate and observe them all simultaneously. This beats the previous record of entangling 6 photons. They achieved this feat by using a very bright ultraviolet laser source that produces entangled pairs of photons more often than lower powered lasers. But we can’t keep doubling laser power indefinitely.
  • BIKINI BOOST: A New York designer has created a solar powered bikini that can charge your USB-based device, and you can even go swimming in it. Each bikini takes up to 80 hours to create and uses 40 flexible photovoltaic panels and conductive thread. Of course the cost of each bikini reflects the time and materials involved. A standard solar powered charger may be a better bet.
  • SUPER TENT: Students from North Carolina State University designed concept for a 176 square metre inflatable living space that could house 6 astronauts on Mars. It’s made from textiles. Some textiles protect from radiation, others use a polyurethane substrate to keep the air in, while yet another reflects UV rays. Shaped like a dome, any meteors should just bounce off. What about warmth though?

Tech Universe: Thursday 09 June 2011

  • DOTS BEFORE THE EYES: Dynamic Eye sunglasses, invented by a US physicist, use liquid crystal for the lenses. But they have a special feature: a small sensor in the nose bridge detects glare and sends a signal to a microcontroller. The controller changes the lens to display a tiny black square in front of the eye to block the glare. As the wearer moves the black dot moves too. All the necessary components fit within the frame of the glasses. Because the US Air Force funded some of the research the first people likely to see these sunglasses will be fighter pilots. Just imagine programming these to block out other things you don’t want to see!
  • SMALL GIANT: Traditionally we think of a Hummer as an enormous petrol guzzling behemoth. But the new MEV Hummer HX is a smaller electric resort vehicle. It comes in various configurations, including 2 or 4 seats, with removable doors and roof, and with a rear mount for a golf bag. It can travel 96 Km on a charge, or 160 if you spring for the lithium batteries. Excessive is still excessive even when there’s less of it.
  • ADVANCED SONAR: We know about the dogs that work with military forces, but it turns out the US Navy is also working with dolphins and sea lions. Dolphins use their sonar abilities to find mines, even if the mines are buried in the seafloor or floating around. Sea lions can not only find mines, but also attach lines to explosives to help recover them. We’re still trying to make machines do what animals can already do.
  • SMART DOORBELL: A British teenager has created the Smart Bell, a doorbell with a Sim card that can dial your cellphone and allow you to talk to whoever rang the bell. It also produces a little bit of white noise to give the impression that it’s using an intercom rather than a remote phone call. The product is about to be released by some of the big British retailers. Oh, no more missing out on courier deliveries — if they bother to ring the doorbell.
  • PASSING HAIKU: If you’re pleased with yourself for using strong passwords for your online activities consider how long a brute force attack would take to crack them. Using free tools and current low cost GPUs you might find that a 7 character password would take less than 20 minutes to crack. Time to start thinking about haiku instead.

Tech Universe: Friday 10 June 2011

  • LOW FLIER: There’s a new airport in Hamburg, Germany. It has 300 buildings and 40 planes and cost $4.8 million to build. It’s only 150 m² in size though. That’s because it’s the world’s largest model airport. It’s a scale model of the Hamburg airport and was built with amazing attention to detail. 90 vehicles move autonomously around the model, run by a sophisticated computer control system. Small wires lift many planes in apparent takeoffs and landings. The whole thing took 7 years and 150 people to build. All the fun of an airport with no jet fumes or security screening.
  • HIGH FLIER: A Danish non-profit organisation last year tried to launch a one-person rocket. That launch failed, but a few days ago they succeeded with the second attempt. This one reached 2 km, rather than the 16 km they hoped for. Unfortunately the rocket veered off course so was shut down by remote control. They’re not ready yet to carry a human on the flight but they count this second attempt as a success. Every space programme starts with problems
    (actual launch at approx 5 minutes 40 seconds in.)
  • CAST A LITTLE LIGHT: Toshiba created special limited edition OLED lamp, that uses solar powered rechargeable batteries, for use in areas of Japan affected by the recent earthquake. It’s producing only 100 units and none will be available for general sale. At full strength the lamp is as bright as a desk lamp and can be used for several hours before the batteries run out. At 10% brightness — about as bright as a mobile phone — it will last for 20 hours or more. A nice idea, but only 100 units seems like a publicity gag rather than a helpful contribution.
  • HIGH SPEED CAMO: Traditionally military camouflage users splodges of muted colours to make a person or equipment difficult to see. Another approach though is to use bright geometric patterns. At high speed such patterns can be extremely confusing for a viewer. They can make objects appear to be moving faster or slower than they really are or make an object appear to be in a different position than it really is. Although such dazzle camouflage was tested and rejected in a couple of wars, the authors of one study point out that vehicles of that time were moving too slowly to really make use of the effect. So then they wouldn’t be hidden when they’re standing still…
  • SOLAR TREE SAVER: There’s a 2 mile long tunnel in Belgium, but it doesn’t go underground or through a hill. Instead it’s built to shelter trains from falling trees, and more than 16,000 solar panels have been installed on the roof. The power it produces can help power trains and the Antwerp station. Building the tunnel meant they didn’t have to fell protected trees from an ancient forest. So it’s a win all around.

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. Above are the links from last week.

While I find all the items interesting, some are just cooler than others. I’ve marked out those items.