08 to 12 August 2011 Tech Universe Digest

Tech Universe: Monday 08 August 2011

  • SEALED WITH A ROBOT: We may think of robots as industrial workers or toys, but some elderly Japanese survivors of this year’s tsunami see them as friends. Two Paro robotic seals were donated to residents at a retirement home near the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Residents care for the pet robot seals as though they were live animals, but without the problems live pets bring. Residents are finding great comfort from their pet robots. Might the seals be too perfect though? Live pets are always a bit unpredictable. The Guardian reports.
  • WHERE ARE YOU?: LocataLite is a sort of highly accurate ground-based GPS out of Australia. The transmitters contain timing chips that are cheaper and less accurate than the atomic clocks used in GPS satellites. But they use the timers to keep in sync with one another rather than keeping accurate time as the satellites do. The technology can locate items to within a couple of centimetres. Smartphones and other devices could use this system for accurate positioning. Checkins will be so much more precise. MIT Technology Review has details.
  • GO FOR CYCLISTS: Cyclists know only too well the problem of traffic lights that don’t detect their presence. Pleasanton in the US is using a microwave motion and presence sensor called the Intersector to detect cyclists and extend or trigger the light. This is just one of the measures the town is using to be more friendly to cyclists. Smart idea, Pleasanton. Contra Costa Times has the rest.
  • CAR POWER: An electric car has batteries. Those batteries store power. That’s the point. But what say you needed power in an emergency? Could you plug the car batteries in to your house to power the lights, heating and other systems? Nissan say you can, with their Leaf electric vehicle. The Leaf’s battery system could power a house for 2 days, using Nissan’s control device. Which really shows up how much energy cars require. Nikkei.com.
  • SOUND SPECS: The vOICe lets people see with their ears. Sunglasses contain a tiny webcam. Images are fed to a pocket PC which then turns them into sounds sent to headphones. Differences in pitch, loudness and other aspects of the sounds clue the wearer in to their surroundings. For example, higher frequencies indicate higher objects, white is loud and black is quiet. One drawback is that it takes 3 months of training to use the device. I bet kids would learn it quicker. Discovery News has more details.

Tech Universe: Tuesday 09 August 2011

  • 1-HOUR PROCESSING: Anthrax — every time there’s one of those ‘unknown white powder’ scares it takes hours to send samples to a lab, run tests and receive a confirmation. Cornell and University of Albany researchers have created a 1-hour portable lab to do the job from a sample containing as few as 40 microscopic spores. The machine automatically takes cells from the sample, analyses DNA and detects anthrax spores. The device could also provide broad analysis of a suspect’s DNA. The lab relies on a microfluidic chip to do the work. Life gets more like CSI every day. The Cornell Chronicle Online has details.
  • INVISIBLE INK REVISITED: The surface tension of a fluid is important in determining what size holes it can flow into. Researchers have put that information to good use and created a chip with letters created from Watermark Ink. The chip is glass that contains coral-like structures and treated with certain chemicals. Letters are revealed only when specific liquids are applied. That could have many uses. More at Discover Magazine.
  • ANCIENT 3D: Next time students of the University of California head off to an archaeology dig they may have a new item in their toolboxes — a Microsoft Kinect. But it’s not for playing games. Instead they’ll use it to make high-quality, low-cost 3D scans of dig sites. Back in the US researchers will be able to interact with the model in the 360-degree, 16-panel immersive virtual reality environment called StarCAVE. A special tracking device allows accurate handheld scans. Because the Kinect streams data at 40 megabytes per second, the biggest problem has been to reduce the amount of data collected. It’ll be good when the StarCAVE can go along on the digs too. University of California
  • RATS: McAfee recently took over a Command & Control server. It had been used by an unknown party to break into more than 70 organisations and companies around the world, including the United Nations, The International Olympic Committee and others. Logs reveal data was secretly harvested from those organisations over more than 5 years. Some of the organisations infiltrated, such as the Olympic Committees, have information that is of no particular commercial value. Operation Shady RAT shows that this was a huge-scale intrusion, likely perpetrated by a well-resourced group such as a nation. Did no-one tell the perpetrators those medal tables go up on the web for everyone to see? McAfee.
  • HOT AND COLD: Researchers at The University of Nottingham, Ningbo China, have developed a novel non-deformed energy storage phase change material that can retain and release heat according to specific temperature requirements for a building. It should allow building owners to seriously reduce costs for heating and cooling. The material can be ‘fixed’ to a particular temperature. Above that level it absorbs excess heat. It can be manufactured in various shapes and sizes, or as a spray on microscopic film. How about using it for clothing? University of Nottingham have more details.

Tech Universe: Wednesday 10 August 2011

  • ROBOTROLLEY: The Lockheed Martin Squad Mission Support System is a robotic luggage trolley of sorts. It’s job is to carry packs, water and other supplies that squads of Warfighters need for a mission. A soldier programs a handheld unit either with a prescribed route or to follow a particular individual. Then the carrier trundles along behind, even over rough terrain. The vehicle weighs around 1700 Kg and can carry payloads up to around 550 Kg. When did soliders morph into Warfighters? Lockheed Martin fill in the specs.
  • ROAD CHARGES: One problem with electric cars is plugging them in to recharge. The Evatran Plugless Power wireless/proximity charging system is a step forward. The system is around 90% efficient from wall to car. The car needs a charge receiver, and is positioned over a sending unit on the floor. Positioning doesn’t need to be too exact, and can be up to half a radius off. If it’s 90% efficient where does the other 10% go? Autoblog green has photos.
  • ELECTRIC RIDE: BRD RedShift electric motorcycles are for the street or motocross. They weigh around 110 Kg and are good for 15 to 60 Km of motocross riding or 80 Km of street riding. The makers claim the electric drivetrain delivers more control, feedback, and confidence than the internal combustion version. And a whole lot more quiet. See the details at Wired.
  • LET THE SUNSHINE IN: What say instead of bolting solar cells on to the roof they actually were the roof? Dyesol in Australia and Tata Steel in Europe have produced building panels around 3 metres long that incorporate dye solar cells. Although less efficient than solar cells that use silicon wafers they are cheaper to produce and more effective at generating electricity from lower levels of light. They could even be used on flat roofs and walls. Soaking it in. Read more at The Green Horizon.
  • CLIPPY COMES TO CARS: Are there buttons on your car dashboard that you still haven’t quite figured out? And have you lost the manual anyway, if you ever had one? New models of Audi cars come with an avatar that displays on the Mulitmedia Interface of the dash and explains the systems to you in plain language. The Avatar-based Virtual Co-driver System can also show pictures and videos to help you out. Ask a question in a complete sentence and the avatar will respond. Voice communication is always available, but graphics and videos aren’t available at speed or if the system hears signs of stress in your voice. Here’s hoping it’s not perky and chirpy. Science Daily has the explanations.

Tech Universe: Thursday 11 August 2011

  • MICRO MANUFACTURE: Physicists at the Argonne National Laboratory, USA, can control micro-robots using magnetic fields. The scientists cause the robots to form into shapes, pick up, transport and put down other non-magnetic particles. The micro-robots exert a very small force on other objects, making them suitable for precise tasks with fragile objects. So the scientists are micro-managers. Argonne National Laboratory.
  • EASTERN TREK: If half a million people each year visit the new Red Sea Astrarium project in Aqaba, Jordan, it will make a profit. The theme park will cover 74 hectares and offer both hotels and entertainment elements, including a Star Trek-themed space-flight adventure ride. The King of Jordan is known to be a fan of Star Trek. Make it so. The National reports.
  • PUMP TARGETS: Do you use an insulin pump? You might have to start worrying about malware. One diabetic security researcher who is connected to an insulin pump and glucose monitor at all times has found that his wireless device is vulnerable. An attacker could intercept the wireless signals and broadcast a deliberately incorrect stronger signal causing harm to the wearer. While improbable, it’s not impossible. I guess incorporating machines into our bodies just increases our vulnerabilities. Computerworld explores the techniques and implications.
  • BACTERIAL TRANSISTORS: The bacterium Geobacter sulfurreducens allows electron transport across long distances, meaning it functions as a nanowire. Conductivity compares favourably to that of synthetic conducting polymers, commonly used in the electronics industry. By adding a third electrode a biofilm made of these bacteria could act as a transistor. Just watch where you use those antibacterial wipes! Science Daily explains the details.
  • QUICK PARKING: The German Frauenhofer Institute are trying to take some of the hassle out of parking. Using a small VIATAG passive RFID chip stuck to the windscreen of a car their system can determine how long the car was parked and take the fees directly out of a nominated account. The reader works from up to 8 metres away and registers cars on entry and exit. The sticker self-destructs when removed from the windscreen so isn’t vulnerable to being stolen. That could save so much hassle. Now apply it to replacing parking meters. Frauenhofer Institute.

Tech Universe: Friday 12 August 2011

  • TERMINAL POD: A shuttle bus from one airport terminal to another is so clunky. You have to wait till it arrives, crowd on with everyone else, stow luggage, crowd off again… At London’s Heathrow Airport they’ve introduced small driverless electric cars instead that follow a dedicated guideway. Key in your destination on the screen then sit back and relax. At the other end a video will show you how to get from the pod to your gate. At the moment the pods operate between Terminal 5 and a couple of parking lots. Quiet, comfortable and spacious — it may be the best part of your trip. New York Times writes it up.
  • NO SMALL MATTER: The Payload for Antimatter Matter Exploration and Light-nuclei Astrophysics is a satellite that’s been orbiting the Earth for the last 5 years. Part of its mission was to find antimatter, and it seems to have achieved that goal. In the first 2 years it detected 28 anti-protons — 3 times as many as it should have randomly encountered. That suggests that there’s actually a thin band of antimatter around the planet that could be tapped into for medical or other applications. They may need to speed up the rate of harvest though. Details at Wired.
  • OTHERS STOLE THIS: One problem for law enforcement is trying to make sense of an ever growing mass of data. Tel Aviv University in Israel reckon they can use algorithms to sift such data and predict where criminals may be. They’re developing high-powered context-based search algorithms to analyse digital data on-the-fly. They may for example connect emails, phone calls and credit card transactions to create a probability map of a suspect’s location. They see it as similar to the purchasing suggestions Amazon make if you buy a book online. The crooks would love this: if you liked stealing this Audi, you may also like to steal a BMW… American Friends of Tel Aviv University reveal the plan.
  • GOT SLURRY?: Massachusetts Institute of Technology have a way to make more of rechargeable electric car batteries. Most of the weight in those batteries is just structure, and doesn’t actually generate power. The new batteries use a slurry of tiny particles of a lithium compound mixed with liquid electrolyte. The flow of slurry across a membrane causes a current. Researchers estimate it can create 10 times more power per unit volume than conventional batteries. Batteries could be recharged by replacing the slurry in a couple of minutes, or with an electric current. Convenient: buy a can of slurry if you run out of juice on the road. New Scientist has more details.
  • DIAMONDS TO PLOWSHARES: Diamond-like carbon coatings can significantly reduce friction. At the Frauenhofer Institute in Germany, researchers are discovering that using the frictionless coating on ploughing equipment could save a lot of fuel. The coating is also very hard and can protect equipment, making it more durable. Who said farming wasn’t a high-tech industry? Frauenhofer Institute.

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.