17 to 21 October 2011 Tech Universe Digest

Tech Universe: Monday 17 October 2011

  • 8-SPEED CHAIRS: People who use a RoChair wheelchair don’t push the rims of the wheels to get around. Instead the user has a handlebar in front of them that they ‘row’ forward and back. The bar provides propulsion on both forward and backward strokes. 8 gearing ratios and disc brakes make the chair more powerful too. The propulsion lever can be stowed to allow the chair user to work at a desk or sit at a table. Row, row, row your chair gently down the street. RoChair.
  • LUNAR PROSPECTS: Some parts of the moon are rich in precious titanium ore. NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has been imaging the Moon’s surface in 7 different wavelengths at different resolutions, revealing its chemical composition. The titanium could be useful for future mining on the moon because it’s efficient at retaining solar wind particles, such as helium and hydrogen. At least the Moon’s already a rocky wasteland so any mining won’t disrupt plants and wildlife. Space.com.
  • WHATCHA DOIN WILLIS?: If you’re in charge of a bunch of military drone vehicles the last thing you want is for them to be infected by malware. And the next last thing is to report the malware to your superiors. At Nevada’s Creech Air Force Base in the US the cockpits were recently found to be logging the keystrokes of the pilots. When techs try to remove the keylogger it keeps coming back. Meanwhile some independent researchers think the keylogger may be an internal Department of Defense security monitoring package. It’s so reassuring when the right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing. TechZwn.
  • DEVIL WATCHER: Blue Devil Block 2 sounds like a good title for a horror film, but actually it’s the codename for a US military blimp that may soon hover over Afghanistan. It can keep watch over almost 100 square Km at a time, hovering up to 6 Km high. The helium filled blimp is 113 metres long with a volume of 40,000 cubic metres. It uses wide area cameras and other eavesdropping equipment, then signals base with a laser. Sounds like an easy target for those being watched. Wired.
  • STICKIES: Solar panels are costly and need installers who know what they’re doing. 3M have created a film of organic photovoltaic material that you stick on your windows. In full sun a square metre of the film could charge a smartphone. The film blocks around 80% of the visible light and 90% of the infrared. The film generates only about 20% as much electricity as a traditional silicon solar panel, but is far easier to install. But surely the whole point of a window is to let in light? Why not stick it on a wall instead? ITworld. Video:

Tech Universe: Tuesday 18 October 2011

  • ROBOT WARS: The US Navy’s X-47B is a jet-powered, autonomous stealth fighter drone. Current test flights are fine-tuning the systems required to land with precision on the moving deck of an aircraft carrier. Testing actual carrier launches and landings is expected in 2013. If they’re working on an autonomous aircraft carrier too things could really start to get interesting. Or scary. Northrop Grumman.
  • ROCKET SCIENCE: 36,880 metres in 92 seconds, at speeds of 3,516 km/h — that was the Qu8k rocket, launched by a team of amateurs from the Black Rock Desert in Nevada. It came back to ground just 5 Km from the launch site after an 8.5 minute flight. The creators were able to recover all parts of the rocket after its flight and could prepare it for further launches. It’s not just the rocket, though: payload is all. Universe Today. Qu8k
  • BATTERIES EVER READY: Sanyo’s newest rechargeable eneloop batteries can sit in the emergency kit in your cupboard for 5 years and still have a 70% charge ready when you need to use them. What’s more you can recharge them approximately 1,800 times. The nickel-metal hydride batteries come in AA and AAA sizes and are charged at the factory via solar energy. It’s a shame the new batteries are only available in Japan to start with. Sanyo.
  • ALL-SEEING BALL: Panorama photos are fiddly to create, what with setting up a tripod and carefully swivelling the camera just the right amount between each shot. The Ball Camera does away with all the fuss — just throw it into the air and catch it again. When the Ball reaches the apex of its flight its 36 fixed-focus 2 megapixel mobile phone camera modules snap a spherical panorama. The image can later be transferred to a computer where the user can interactively explore the entire panorama, zooming in if they want to. The camera was created as part of a Diploma thesis. It’s easy to think of uses for a device like that. Ball camera.
  • CHANNELLING OIL: The Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X CHALLENGE 2011 results have been announced. The winner is an oil skimmer from Team Elastec / American Marine that can recover more than 17,000 litres of oil per minute from seawater. The skimmer uses grooved discs to maximise a channeling effect and pull oil from the water. Perhaps all oil transport ships should be required to carry such equipment for quick deployment in case of a spill. X Prize Foundation.

Tech Universe: Wednesday 19 October 2011

  • MONSOON WATCH: France and India have collaborated to create and launch the 1 tonne Megha-Tropiques satellite that will study patterns of the monsoon. The satellite’s low-inclination orbit around the equator means it will pass over India almost 12 times a day. The satellite will share its data with meteorological organisations in Europe and the US. In case they start having monsoons too? BBC.
  • SALTY MAGNETS: How big’s that hard drive in your computer? 500 megabytes? A terabyte? That’s nothing. Researchers at the Institute of Materials Research and Engineering in Singapore have found out how to store 18 terabytes on a disc. A new electron-beam lithography process uses sodium chloride, or salt, to enhance the developer solution. The salt allows magnetic clusters to pack together more efficiently and with greater density. The new approach uses the same sort of equipment and technology currently used to create disk media, rather than requiring a whole new setup. A pinch of salt makes so many things better. Ars Technica.
  • GREEN BY RED LIGHT: A high power red LED prototype from OSRAM Opto Semiconductors converts 61% of the electrical energy it receives into light — a new record in efficiency. The chip emits at a wavelength of 609 nm and achieved a record value of 201 lm/W at an operating current of 40 mA. LED colour mixing systems can produce any kind of white light, such as Neutral, Warm or Daylight. Once in production the new prototype will reduce power consumption. Warm daylight sounds good. OSRAM Opto Semiconductors.
  • NISSAN LEAD THE CHARGE: If you have an electric vehicle you probably need to leave it overnight to charge up. Wouldn’t it be so much better if it took only 10 minutes to charge? Nissan say they now have that technology. The new system uses tungsten oxide and vanadium oxide for the electrode inside a capacitor instead of carbon. Unfortunately it could take a decade to commercialise the technology. That 8 hour charging time is a significant drawback. NYDailyNews.com.
  • RADIO BRAKES: Computer scientists at Saarland University in Germany want to make bikes wireless by doing away with brake cables. Their calculations suggest their system would be 99.999999999997% safe. Sensors in the handgrip detect how tight you’re holding on. Once a specific pressure threshold is crossed a radio signal is sent to a disc brake. If it’s all configured correctly the bike can brake within 250 milliseconds. That means that at 30 Kph a cyclist has 2 metres to react to danger. Best hope you’re not terrified by a situation that needs a burst of speed or those brakes may be a problem with you holding on too tight. Alpha Galileo.

Tech Universe: Thursday 20 October 2011

  • SUBBING: If you fancy the idea of owning a submarine for yourself or your family then the C-Quester or C-Explorer models from U-Boat Worx may interest you. The C-Questers can dive to 100 metres with a couple of people aboard, while the C-Explorers can carry between 1 and 5 people to 1,000 metres. An acrylic sphere gives a 360 degree view and Li-ion batteries handle power needs. Go on, you know you want one! U-boat Worx.
  • SPACEPORT 1: Spaceport America in New Mexico is the world’s first commercial spaceport. The spaceport will be home to Virgin Galactic and has a 3.2 Km long and 61 metre wide runway that can handle the VSS Enterprise and VMS Eve craft. The Terminal Hangar Facility was dedicated in a ceremony a couple of days ago. Start your preparations now — commercial space flights begin soon. Scientific American.
  • PREDICT THE OBVIOUS: The police in Santa Cruz, California are testing out software that predicts where a crime might happen. Locations of past incidents flag likely future crime scenes, and police can put in extra patrols in those areas. Mathematicians at Santa Clara University noticed that crimes may occur in geographical clusters so their software predicts where crimes such as burglary and theft may next occur. Hmmm, let’s see: that notorious bad part of town? Yes, I predict a crime may occur there today. New Scientist.
  • CELL ENERGY: Scientists at the Joseph Fourier University of Grenoble in France have created a biofuel cell. It uses glucose and oxygen at concentrations found in the body to generate electricity. They’ve demonstrated a small version of their device working while implanted in a living rat. This means that all kinds of prosthetics and implants could be powered by the body, rather than needing batteries that must be changed out quite often. Their current biocell is about the size of a grain of rice, but the power draw of some prosthetics may require a larger version. Keep up the sugar intake folks. BBC.
  • NANNY CAR: Ford want their cars to help you keep track of your health — perhaps monitoring blood sugar levels, for example. One of their research projects adds health monitoring apps to the in-car Internet-connected computer. The car can track a wireless glucose monitor, or get online allergy alerts. Diabetics who use a wireless monitor could find their car alerting them to low blood sugar levels, and people with allergies may find the windows automatically roll up if pollen levels are high. Aucklanders caught up in traffic snarl-ups could find a car like that very useful. Technology Review.

Tech Universe: Friday 21 October 2011

  • IRIS MATCH: Researchers from the University of Notre Dame in Indiana have found that iris scanners may be able to do more than just determine the identity of the person whose eye is being scanned. Their system was able to determine with 90% accuracy whether a person was Chinese or Caucasian. They had less success determining gender, but expect accuracy to increase as they identify common data points. Iris scanners analyse 1024 sample regions of the iris and generate a code of binary numbers. A 70% match is sufficient to determine an identity accurately. The chance of a greater than 70% match between 2 irises is less than 1 in 10 billion. Two eyes, two irises, 7 billion people on earth — that make your iris pretty much unique. New Scientist.
  • HYDROPHOBIA: We all know someone who’s spilt coffee or wine on their computer keyboard. We’ve all heard the cries of anguish. Korean scientists hope to prevent that anguish with their superhydrophobic surface of nanorods made from zinc oxide. The nanorods work a bit like bristles, separated by air. They keep water droplets off by ‘bouncing’ them away. Next the researchers hope to protect devices that are completely submerged. Just being able to use my phone in the rain without anxiety would be a good start. Discovery News.
  • PUBLIC SHOPPING: Some people prefer to avoid the salesperson while shopping, but it won’t be easy in the 109 Men’s department store in Shibuya, Japan. The store’s installed digital interactive clothes hangers equipped with RFID chips. When a shopper picks up a hanger it triggers certain images and videos to be played on a nearby display. The hanger’s chip could also trigger changes in the store’s lighting or music. The chips can even help store owners track metrics such as how often an item is picked up or how effective its placement is. One more reason to shop online! CScout Japan.
  • SHOPPER TRACK: A shopping centre in Queensland will log mobile phone locations to track how often their customers visit, which stores they like and how long they stay. It’s using unique mobile phone radio frequency codes to pinpoint location within 2 metres. Phones off while shopping, I think. News.com.au.
  • BLACKBERRY SAFETY: Abu Dhabi and Dubai both experienced steep drops in the number of traffic accidents last week — down by 40% and 20% respectively. The reason, according to local Police? The BlackBerry servers were in melt-down. Enough said. Put the phone down. The National.

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.