19 to 23 September 2011 Tech Universe Digest

Tech Universe: Monday 19 September 2011

  • QUIET SKY: After a major collaboration between 47 agencies, Australia and New Zealand have submitted their bid to host the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope. Western Australia offers exceptional radio quiet for the SKA. If we win it’ll put both countries at the forefront of international science. The final decision is expected in early 2012. Go on, let’s have parties on the waterfront and flags flying on cars for this beauty. Senator the Hon Kim Carr press release. Australia and New Zealand SKA project:
  • GO FOR A SPIN: Kids have to learn to keep a bike upright, so how about helping them out? Instead of training wheels, the Gyrobike cleverly uses a self-balancing wheel to keep the bike upright. A Nickel Metal Hydride battery powers a disc spinning gyroscopically inside the front wheel, making it very stable. There are a few adults who might like that training aid too. Gyrobike.
  • IRONBOT: Swim, bike, run — an Ironman challenge is extremely tough. In Hawai’i 3 robots powered by Panasonic batteries are to tackle the Ironman course. It’s expected they’ll finish it in around 168 hours. One robot swims, another cycles and the third runs. Two of the robots are around 25 cm tall, while the swimmer is 51 cm long. Good luck little robots. PhysOrg.
  • GOOD VIBRATIONS: Video games are all very well, but if you’re shot or stabbed in a game you don’t actually feel anything. The Kajimoto research group aim to change that with devices that make you feel as though an object has passed through your body. The device puts a small vibrator on the top and bottom of your hand, for example. The top element vibrates strongly and then fades as the lower element picks up the vibration. This fools the brain into feeling an object pass through the hand from top to bottom as it connects sensations from the two touch points. That should sharpen up a player’s game. Diginfo TV.
  • BRIDGING THE POWER GAP: Wireless sensors, used in remote locations for monitoring bridges or equipment, need a constant supply of power. But replacing batteries can be a gargantuan task, so why not harvest natural kinetic energy instead? Researchers at MIT created an inexpensive coin-sized device to gather energy from low-frequency vibrations such as those along a pipeline or bridge. The microelectromechanical system, MEMS, is a microchip with a small bridge-like structure anchored to the chip at both ends. As the bridge vibrates it generates electricity in a piezoelectric material on its surface. It’s energy that makes the world go round. Science Daily.

Tech Universe: Tuesday 20 September 2011

  • AIR PARTS: UK firm EADS own Airbus. They’re experimenting with using 3D printing to make complex shapes that can’t be manufactured with conventional techniques. Their additive-layer manufacturing machine can make intricate forms from high-grade metal. Software works out which elements of a part need to bear weight or resist stress and places material just where it’s needed. This means the parts can be made more lightweight, leading to greater fuel efficiency. It’s not what you put in but what you leave out that’s important. Technology Review.
  • HUGELY TOUCHING: You may think the touchscreen surface on your smartphone or tablet is pretty cool, but Visual Planet’s touchfoil technology turns any surface of almost any size into a touchscreen. Well, any size is up to around 4 metres. The transparent film is only millimetres thick and rolls for storage or transport. The touchfoil is a transparent nanowire embedded polymer that senses pressure, such as from a finger or the wind, and translates it to a computer interface. It’s not the newest tech around, but it’s still impressive. Singularity Hub.
  • A QUIET LIFE: Electromagnetic fields are all around us, what with cellphones and WiFi and whatnot. The town of Green Bank, West Virginia in the USA is becoming a haven for people who want to escape the radiation that surrounds them. Nearby radio telescopes put Green Bank in a ‘quiet zone’, where wireless is banned. Around 5% of Americans believe they suffer from Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity — exposure to electromagnetic fields makes them physically ill, with symptoms like headaches and chronic pain. WiFi pollution’s only going to get worse till something else replaces it too. BBC.
  • KIDDIPAD: A school district in Maine, USA, is giving an iPad to every one of its 250 kindergarten kids. One goal is to improves the kids reading levels, and tests in the next couple of months will show whether the iPads have helped or not. Meanwhile the school district is making sure the kids have plenty of outdoor time and time with adults, rather than just abandoning them to a gadget. More attention is certain to bring good results. New England Cable News.
  • BLOODWORK: Scientists have had some success with creating artificial tissue in the laboratory, but that tissue still needs a blood supply. Now researchers think they can print artificial blood vessels using their BioRap 3D printer and multiphoton polymerization. Brief but intensive laser impulses help molecules to crosslink, creating an elastic solid of biomolecules. You kind of expect Leonard McCoy to pop up any moment here. Fraunhofer Institute.

Tech Universe: Wednesday 21 September 2011

  • METAL RAIN: The Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite was launched by NASA in 1991 to study numerous chemical constituents of the atmosphere. But in a couple of days it’s coming home, or rather crashing to Earth, maybe at a spot near you. The spacecraft will break into pieces during re-entry, though only some of it will burn up in the atmosphere. It’s expected to re-enter on or around 23 September in a zone between 57 degrees north latitude and 57 degrees south latitude and may be strewn across 800 Km. Watch out for fireballs and red hot pieces of metal NASA.
  • STETHOPHONE: Researchers from the University of Oxford are doing their bit for health in developing countries with a new stethoscope. An external microphone attached to the base of an egg cup focuses and collects sounds such as the heartbeat. This feeds into a smartphone, creating phonocardiograms. Computer analysis of the recordings helps diagnose health problems. Cellphones are common even in developing countries, making this a cheap option where medical services are scarce. Sounds like it’d beat a regular stethoscope hollow. medGadget.
  • KEEP THE DOCTOR AWAY: There aren’t many doctors in in the Punjab region of northern India. But that doesn’t stop locals from getting appointments with physicians. Healthpoint is a for-profit service that beams doctors in via broadband and a large screen TV. A consultation costs less than $1, and diagnostic tests cost very little too. Local health workers run routine tests and send the results to a doctor for analysis. Low cost broadband and reliable wireless communication are increasing in the area, making this kind of medicine more practicable. Hmm, lessons here for us too? Technology Review.
  • HIGH FLYING VIDEO: Science educator James Drake took 600 still images of Planet Earth rolling by below the ISS. He pulled the images from the Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth database. Then he combined them all into a timelapse video. The video shows a trip down the planet from around Vancouver to Antarctica, with the ionosphere and stars too. Spot the gigantic light pollution from the cities. Infinity imagined. Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth
  • OUT OF THE BLACK: Black boxes from crashed planes are searched out for their data to explain the accident. But just think if black box data could be retrieved and analysed to help prevent crashes in the first place. Researchers are using cluster analysis to mine flight data for unusual elements. Some airlines monitor 88 flight parameters throughout each flight, but cluster analysis can show up anomalies without having specific parameters in mind. This analysis could pinpoint aircraft that need a closer inspection than usual, or human error. Is there an app for that? MIT news.

Tech Universe: Thursday 22 September 2011

  • CLOSER TO AUS: China Communications Service is about to lay a new US$100 million undersea cable between Auckland and Sydney. Work should begin before the end of 2011. More competition, more bandwidth — it’s all good. CommsDay.
  • SICK TEES: Scientists at Carlos III University in Madrid, Spain, have created an intelligent T-shirt prototype for patients. It monitors temperature, heart rate and other physiological parameters. It can also locate the patient within the hospital and determine whether they are seated, lying down, walking or running. The T-shirt sends data wirelessly to a monitor that displays the patient’s location and vital signs in real time. Preprogrammed alarms can alert doctors to problems such as increased heart rate or temperature. No sneaking off to the cafe for a quick snack then. ScienceDaily.
  • GAS BRICKS: Hydrogen may be a good alternative to fossil fuels, but it’s difficult to store. Its atoms are tiny and can easily escape from many containers. It turns out that activated carbon that incorporates a platinum catalyst bonds the hydrogen atoms and releases them as required. This could allow the gas to be stored at ambient pressure and room temperature in lighter, cheaper and safer storage tanks. How about dropping a few ‘bricks’ of carbon into a car’s fuel tank? MIT news.
  • KNOCK YOUR PHONE OUT: Researchers at the University of Michigan have an idea called E-MiLi for extending the life of your smartphone battery. Even when a smartphone isn’t active it’s still listening for incoming signals and searching for a clear communication channel. That uses power and drains the battery. Energy-Minimizing Idle Listening slows down the WiFi card’s clock, but jolts it back to full speed when the phone notices information coming in. Researchers believe E-MiLi could reduce energy consumption by around 44%, although it would require software and firmware upgrades. If they can pretty much double battery life that would be a real winner. University of Michigan.
  • BOUNDLESS STORAGE: Oops, hard drive full! Those videos and music files sure do eat through the disc space. Bitcasa software aims to stop you from ever seeing that message again. It actually stores most of your data in the cloud, but makes it appear as though it’s stored on your machine. The software does some clever work to predict which files should be stored locally, and also allows you to set preferences. Umm, requires fast Internet, yes? Technology Review.

Tech Universe: Friday 23 September 2011

  • URBAN CUTIE: Urbee is a 2-seater 3-wheeler hybrid car from Canada. It’s designed to use the power that solar panels on the roof of your garage collect. A single cyclinder 8 HP ethanol powered engine can extend its range or be used to charge the batteries. The body shell is created by additive 3D printing. While only 1 vehicle has been produced so far, the company hope to go into mass production in 2014. Very cute, but at only 1 metre high some of those suburban 4-wheel drive monsters may just roll right over it. BBC.
    Urbee
  • PICK AND MIX MODELS: Paleontologists don’t like to risk their precious fossils by handling them so in the past have made moulds to create replicas. The moulding process may introduce inaccuracies, and the moulds wear out after several uses. Enter 3D printing. First a CT or laser scanner captures the surface without touching it. Software creates a template than can be resized. Then models are reproduced on a 3D printer as often as needed. The ability to scale also means that parts from different skeletons can be mixed and matched to create a single individual model for study. That’s a subtle but important shift in capabilities, that could enhance citizen science too. Scientific American.
  • GAME FOR LIFE: Proteins have a complex 3D structure, yet in a microscope appears flattened. If pharmacologists are to create drugs to interact with proteins, for example in AIDS research, they need a 3D picture. Yet while computers are great at many things they’re not as good as humans at spatial reasoning and have failed at this kind of puzzle. Now gamers have produced an accurate model of one such structure in 3 weeks through a special science puzzle gaming site called Foldit. Competing teams played a fun-for-purpose video game that came up with the answer scientists needed. It’s all fun and games until the health problem’s cured. Sydney Morning Herald. Foldit
  • KEEP THAT DATA MOVING: Optic fibre cables carry data at high speed on the Internet, but the routers that data must pass through are slow. Photonic chips would speed them up though, and Australian researchers have made tiny nanowires that should help. The nanowires are 1000 times thinner than a human hair, in a special type of glass known as chalcogenide. The glass changes optical density according to the applied light intensity and that changes the way light moves along the wire. Let’s keep that data speeding along folks. Swinburne University.
  • WEIGHTLESS CABLES: Researchers at Rice University have demonstrated that carbon-nanotube cables can carry as much current as copper wires. The nano cables are strong but flexible and carry about 100,000 amps of current per square cm. Yet they weigh far less than copper wires, so could help save fuel in vehicles. The wires don’t corrode and they don’t lose energy to heat, so they could work well for computers too. Surely cables don’t add that much weight to a vehicle? Would the difference even be measurable? Technology Review.

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.

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