12 to 16 September 2011 Tech Universe Digest

Note: I had a couple of days off, so there was no Tech Universe on Monday or Tuesday.

Tech Universe: Wednesday 14 September 2011

  • RESCUE ROBOT: The Gemini-Scout Mine Rescue Robot, designed by Sandia National Laboratories, is a small tracked vehicle that can cross rough ground and rubble, go up and down steps and stairs and handle being partially submerged. Cameras and gas sensors send data back to an operator, and a thermal camera detects heat signatures. The robot’s intended for mines , to help rescuers assess conditions. The controls are based on an Xbox 360 to make them easier to learn. So will an enterprising games designer start making ‘rescue’ games? Discovery News.
  • WHERE’S THE BAT?: The GPS Logger from Telemetry Solutions weighs only 10 grams, and most of that is because of the battery. Data stored on the chip can be downloaded wirelessly from up to 500 metres. At that size the loggers are small enough to be used on bats, but they could also be used for objects we’d like to keep track of too. Don’t bats live in caves where GPS wouldn’t reach? Technology Review.
  • JELLY BATTERY: The liquid electrolyte in most lithium batteries is volatile and hazardous. UK researchers blended a rubber-like polymer with a conductive, liquid electrolyte to create a ‘jelly’. The jelly can replace the liquid electrolyte, and make the batteries safer and a great deal cheaper. Safety’s good but cheaper is even better. BBC.
  • USE STEAM, PUNK: A couple of centuries ago steam engines were all the rage. Then came internal combustion. But motor vehicles are notoriously inefficient at converting fossil fuels into mechanical kinetic energy, and much of the generated energy is lost anyway as heat. Engineers at BMW EfficientDynamics are exploring adding steam power to vehicle engines. The Turbosteamer Project recovers heat from the engine exhaust and uses it to create steam to power an expansion turbine that generates electrical energy. Weighing up to 15 Kg, the unit should help save up to 10% of the fuel on a long journey. Never underestimate the driving power of hot air. BMW.
  • FUTURE GHOSTS: You think of a ghost town as a place that has outlived its usefulness, abandoned by residents who no longer want to live there. But in New Mexico Pegasus Global Holdings, a technology company, plans to build a new ghost town modeled after a typical American town of 35,000 people. They plan to spend $200 million to build a complete town, with roads, houses and commercial buildings, but no people, so that scientists and others can test their ideas. An example might be testing how to deliver solar systems to different kinds of buildings, or how efficiency differs between old and new buildings. And with no actual human beings around to mess up the study results. The Washington Post.

Tech Universe: Thursday 15 September 2011

  • AIR SUPPORT: In Tomball, Texas, the police are covering more ground with a gyroplane. It’s a tiny 2-seater with no doors or roof, that resembles a helicopter but costs a whole lot less. A rear-mounted propeller provides speed, while angled blades overhead gain lift from the air flowing beneath them. It takes off and lands in a short distance and can hover at a relatively low speed. Because it uses regular petrol it costs only around $50 per hour to operate. Sounds like a great idea for anywhere without too much wind or rain. Jalopnik.
  • CAMPERBOAT: The Sealander Amphibious Camping Trailer is a nifty wee 380 Kg caravan, or boat, depending how you want to use it. Double sealed air chambers prevent capsizing, while a small electric motor drives you around on a lake. It’s a little under 4 metres long and only 1.6 metres wide and easy to tow behind your car. Inside are seats that fold out to make a bed, cooking and bathroom facilities, fridge and heating. Specially handy if a flash flood swamps your camp site. Red Ferret. Sealander. Video.
  • A LOVELY BUNCH OF COCONUTS: Tokelau is home to around 1500 people and its highest point is 5 metres above sea level. Pretty much all its fuel — kerosene, gasoline and natural gas — is shipped in from New Zealand. But not for long: solar photovoltaic cells and batteries will take over by next year. And if the sun’s not enough, coconut oil will fuel a purpose-built generator. Researchers estimate that 600 square metres of solar cells and 600 coconuts per day will meet all the power needs. I wonder why wind and marine power don’t feature too? New Scientist.
  • COHERENT HEADLIGHTS: Lasers offer a coherent, focused beam of light that can be pointed at a specific place. They’re also highly efficient. BMW engineers are developing laser headlights with a reduced energy consumption that could mean fuel savings too. The lasers won’t shine directly on the road, but will be converted into a form that’s suitable for use in road traffic. They should mean less dazzling for oncoming drivers, and because they’re tiny they may allow for changes in headlight positioning and body styling. Just so long as there’s no way at all those lasers can shine directly on to anything they could damage. BMW i8 Concept.
  • A PHONE IS A PHONE IS A PHONE: Be honest: your smart phone is really just a tiny computer that can make phonecalls. Some people, especially those born in the earlier decades of last century, find cellphones of any kind rather tricky to use. Yet a phone they can keep in their pocket would be ideal. John’s Phone sorts out that problem. It makes phonecalls, and can store 10 numbers on speed dial. It can take almost any kind of SIM, and use most networks. It clearly shows how much charge the battery has — a charge that lasts up to 3 weeks on standby or 4 hours for talking. On the back is a cleverly attached paper address book and pen. The phone has 3 volume settings: mute, normal and loud and can vibrate too. A small screen also displays recognised numbers. If you actually want a cellphone and not a computer this sounds ideal. John’s Phone.

Tech Universe: Friday 16 September 2011

  • SAIL BY WIRE: Out in space the solar wind can push against a huge sail to propel a spacecraft. A Finnish project takes away the sail itself and replaces it with wires. Long conductive wires only 25 mm in diameter are charged up to 20,000 volts. That creates an electric field that extends out 100 metres from the wire. Photons from the solar wind push against the field to drive the spacecraft. This is a low energy propulsion, but the acceleration of 1 mm per second per second adds up to a good speed fairly quickly. The electric solar sail will be tested on a European satellite in 2012. Shields out. Dvice.
  • ROCKET SCIENCE: NASA’s new Space Launch System, or SLS, will lift the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle into orbit and beyond. A liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propulsion system and solid rocket boosters will initially lift 70 metric tons. Eventually though that will increase to 130 metric tons. A modular architecture will allow the SLS to be carefully configured according to specific needs for each launch. Will ‘SLS’ capture the imagination the way the name Saturn did? NASA.
  • BALL OF FIRE: If an industrial building is burning it presents firefighters with the huge problem of finding out what gases, chemicals and temperatures they’ll face. The Intel Fireball is a sphere the size of a tennis ball. It contains a low power WiFi transmitter, and sensors for various gases and temperature. The firefighter throws the Fireball into the building and a small server in the firetruck relays data to smartphones. Surely there would be a case for making such sensors a permanent part of industrial buildings. Laptop.
  • LIGHT RELIEF: LEDCourt is a system of LED lights that replace the traditional markings on multi-purpose courts. Flip a switch to mark out a court for basketball, volleyball, tennis or various other sports with embedded LED lights. No game play if the power’s out though. Gizmag.
  • CUTE SCOOT: The BMW Concept e is a design for an electric scooter. One feature is that instead of rear-view mirrors it includes cameras in the tail light array that feed images to 2 LCD monitors in the cockpit. A completely flat battery can charge from a household supply in 3 hours and then power the scooter for 100 Km of regular use. And the scooter looks good too. BMW Blog.

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 as supplied. The items that were published in The Herald may differ slightly.

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