07 to 11 November 2011 Tech Universe Digest

Tech Universe: Monday 07 November 2011

  • 16 PROPS: The e-Volo team in Germany recently tested their first electric multi-copter with a human flight. The flight lasted 1 minute 30 seconds. The e-Volo multicopter has 16 propellers and weighs 80 Kg including batteries. Onboard computers control most aspects of flight, so the pilot uses a simple joystick. It’s a bit raw at the moment: the pilot on a chair balanced on a Swiss ball and surrounded by propellers. I don’t think the trendy crowd will pick this up. e-Volo.
  • SPACE DOCK: China’s Shenzhou 8 spacecraft and Tiangong 1 space station module have successfully docked in orbit for the first time. The docking was fully automated. In a couple of weeks the craft will separate and then dock again as another test of the procedures, then Shenzhou 8 will return to Earth. This is an important step in China developing a full space station. Discovery News.
  • TRACTORS IN SPACE: When NASA want to gather material in space or on another planet they use robot arms or passive collectors. But it would be much easier just to draw material in to the robot or craft, maybe via a tractor beam like the ones we’ve seen on Star Trek. That’s why they’re investigating laser beams. In an atmosphere objects can be trapped in an area where two laser beams cross. In space they could perhaps use specially shaped laser beams which have proven their capabilities in lab settings. We just want actual tractor beams. BBC.
  • GECKO TANK: The new small robot from Simon Fraser University in Canada is shaped like a tank, with treads to move it around. It can go straight up or down walls, or even over a cliff, transitioning from a horizontal surface to a vertical one. The Tailless Timing Belt Climbing Platform (TBCP-11) uses a special adhesive on its treads that mimics the dry, sticky toe pads of a gecko. Adhesion depends on Van der Waals forces — weak but attractive forces that occur between molecules. It’s like the homeopathy of stickiness — a little goes a long way. Simon Fraser University.
  • WIND CATCHER: People who complain about the noise of wind turbines may like to look at the Australian Eco Whisper Turbine. It has a new parabolic shape that its makers claim reduces noise while increasing efficiency. It also looks good and seems more compact. It’s designed for sites such as shopping centres, airports and remote communities. It could be just one more dish on the roof. Renewable Energy Solutions Australia.

Tech Universe: Tuesday 08 November 2011

  • ANY OLD STEEL?: In London, England, a habitable sculpture called the ArcelorMittal Orbit has been completed. The tower is the architectural landmark of the 2012 London Olympic Games and is memorable at the least. If you can, imagine a tower with steel scaffolding still attached, but that scaffolding has been warped and bent and twisted beyond recognition, painted red and broken away. The new tower is twice the size of the Eiffel Tower, taller than the Statue of Liberty and will provide an observation platform as well as host other uses. It’s just twisted. Kuriositas.
  • 17 MONTHS FOR MARS: After 17 months the 6 crew of the Mars500 mission have returned from their trip to Mars — their simulated trip. Their mission for the European Space Agency was designed to study key key psychological and physiological effects of a long space mission in close quarters and isolation. The crew spent their ‘trip to Mars’ isolated in a 4 hermetically sealed interconnected habitat modules in a Moscow building. Sounds like all the hardship and none of the fun. European Space Agency. Video of the inside of the ‘spacecraft’:
  • 32 SPEED: The CORDON multi-target photo radar system from Peak Gain Systems can track and identify up to 32 different vehicles across four lanes of traffic at once. It takes a shot of the license plate, records the speed and collects two different high resolution views of each vehicle — wide angle and close up. It also handles Infrared for night time and GPS data. There’s no hiding from speeding tickets. Peak Gain Systems.
  • GO FOR THE LIGHT: The way Earth’s lit up at night aliens shouldn’t have any trouble finding us if they’re looking. But how about the other way round? Could we find signs of advanced civilisations on exoplanets by looking for signs of artificial light? The spectra of artificial lights on distant objects would remain constant while light reflected from a star would vary. Scientists from Harvard and Princeton Universities in the US think it’s an approach that could work. The biggest problem just now is how faint the light would be. Unless maybe advanced aliens wouldn’t waste energy polluting the skies with superfluous light. Technology Review.
  • ROAD CHARGERS: One problem with electric vehicles is the need to plug them in or park them on a special charging mat. Folks without a garage, such as many Wellingtonians, are just out of luck. One option car makers are exploring is dynamic wireless charging — as you drive along the road embedded chargers send power to a receiver underneath the car. Of course, current batteries can’t pick up a charge quickly enough, roads would need to be modified and someone somewhere will need to figure out the money. Cars could use supercapacitors to store energy rather than batteries though as they work well for fast, frequent charging. All very interesting, but hardly likely to happen any time soon. Scientific American.

Tech Universe: Wednesday, 9 November 2011

  • BELATED BETS: Want to beat the casino with a bit of clever cheating? Look out for the cameras. One UK casino chain is checking out software that can spot cheating at the roulette table and alert the croupier. Cameras and the software watch for people putting down their chips after last bets has been called and the wheel is already in motion. The system can also watch for chips of the wrong colour that can give away cheating but might not be noticed by the croupier. First rule of casinos: your system can’t beat theirs. New Scientist.
  • BONE PRINTS: Sometimes surgeons have do very complex procedures, maybe involving bones. They can do 3D scans to get images of the area they’ll work on, but getting a physical model may be far too slow and costly to be practicable. One surgeon in Scotland has found a cheaper way to do things. He sent 3D scans to a 3D printing firm in Europe and had the low-cost model back within a week. It seems obvious they should spring for their own 3D printer. BBC.
  • SHIRT CHARGES: Wouldn’t it be great if your shirt could charge your phone while you sit at your desk? Belgian company Imec have created a standard office shirt that includes a hidden thermoelectric generator. The generator produces 1mW when sitting and 2mW when walking, more in cooler temperatures. The shirt could easily power health-monitoring devices, such as for wireless electrocardiography. And at Christmas time you could wear your own little flashing lights. Imec.
  • UNTOUCHED PHONE: The Korean SKY Vega LTE Android Smartphone uses its front-facing camera to detect gestures such as a swipe or a shake for actions such as answering calls. Using 4G LTE technology it also allows for high-speed downloads and uploads and fast HD multimedia. Oops, shaking your fist at an unwanted caller may just answer their call. Pantech.
  • ROBOPHOTO: Eddie’s a party photographer. This robot wields a DSLR camera and roams a party looking for a person. When it finds one it centres them in the image, takes the photo and can upload it directly to Flickr. Infrared sensors detect obstacles. A Kinect allows the robot to identify people and centre them in the frame. It seems to have a bit of a problem detecting personal space though. Microsoft Robotics Blog. Video (shows the robot at work starting around 4.5 minutes in):

Tech Universe: Thursday, 10 November 2011

  • MINICAM: If you like to always keep a camera to hand but find even your cellphone is too huge and clunky you might like the JTT CHOBi CAM Pro. It records jpg images that are 4032 × 3024 pixels. It records HD video — 1280 x 720 pixels at 30fps. The microSDHC / SD Card can hold up to 64 GB. Charge the battery and transfer images via USB, and send video out to TV via the AV output port. But its biggest feature is its tiny size: at 43 × 21 × 12mm you could actually lose it in your pocket. Maybe hang it round your neck like a pendant? Far East Gizmos.
  • THE MARS CLUB +1: The Russian Federal Space Agency’s Phobos-Grunt spacecraft is now on its way to Phobos, the biggest moon orbiting Mars. When it arrives in 2013 it will pick up a soil sample and send it back to Earth. The craft is carrying the Chinese Yinghuo-1 satellite and instruments from France, Finland, Bulgaria, and a non-profit space research group. Mars is sure the cool place to be this year — NASA have just found a bunch of new and different Mars rocks, and now the Russian Federal Space Agency are on their way too. Follow the mission: @Phobos-Grunt. Wired.
  • OPEN DOOR PRISONS: The point of a prison is to keep people in, so it’s a bit alarming that hackers can open prison doors remotely. Researchers found a vulnerability in computer systems used to control facilities at US federal prisons. They found they could open cell doors and shut down comms systems remotely and with cheap equipment. Authorities have confirmed their research. The researchers found that almost all the control systems were associated with an Internet connection. I hope they fixed the vulnerability before telling the world about it. Ars Technica.
  • GECKO FEET ARE STRONG: Researchers from the University of Kiel in Germany created a new dry adhesive tape patterned with tiny hairs. It can be used thousands of times without losing its grip thanks to the Van der Waals forces it relies on for its stickiness. The forces operate at a molecular level, and are what allow a gecko to stick to walls and ceilings. The silicone tape leaves no sticky residue and works underwater. What we really want to know is: does it make the same noise as velcro? New Scientist.
  • SUNS ALIVE!: Physicists in Europe are planning the world’s biggest and most intense laser, 200 times more powerful than the most powerful lasers that currently exist. The Extreme Light Infrastructure Ultra-High Field Facility will produce 200 petawatts of power for less than a trillionth of a second. 200 petawatts is more than 100,000 times the power of the world’s combined electricity production. Wide laser beams will be focused down to a tiny spot, producing conditions so extreme they don’t exist even in the centre of our sun. Scientists hope to be able to study particles of matter and antimatter torn apart by the intensity of the beam. Be careful where you aim that thing! The Telegraph.

Tech Universe: Friday 11 November 2011

  • HOP ASIMO HOP: Honda’s Asimo robot is already famous. Now it’s had an upgrade and can run fast, hop and pour a drink. Sounds like the perfect butler. BBC.
  • GUIDE ROBOTS: People who are blind rely on white canes or maybe guide dogs. The NSK robo-dog is being designed to replace the dogs. The quadruped robot has cameras and sensors to help a human walk around. The robot can walk at 3.8 Kph and navigate steps. You’d want to wear earmuffs though as the mechanics are quite noisy. Still, it’s an interesting idea. TechCrunch.
  • SOFT SHOE SHUTTLE: Tourists who go into space aboard the Virgin Galactic craft in a year or two will be kitted out in personalised flight suits and soft-soled shoes. They’ll also wear a soft flight helmet. The helmet will contain headphones, microphone and an oxygen mask that can be attached in an emergency. The shoes and helmet are soft to help prevent injuries while the tourists float about in zero-g. Are they going to be floating or playing rugby? SPACE.com.
  • UPPITY WRISTBAND: Jawbone’s Up is a wristband and smartphone app that tracks your sleep and your movements during the day. The wristband can tell when you’ve fallen asleep and vibrates to wake you in the morning. The app helps you track what you’re eating and asks how you feel after eating. Just wait till it’s hooked in to FourSquare. Mashable.
  • SLIMMING BUTTON: Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh created a pendant that tracks your activities to help combat obesity, including food intake, shopping patterns, and activity levels. A camera, accelerometer, and GPS send data to a computer for analysis. The eButton can track a lot of data points, such as TV watching, where food is bought, and how long the wearer spends eating. The eButton’s being used in a pilot study, and is not available commercially. eButton sounds so much better than spy button. University of Pittsburgh.

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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.