16 to 20 January 2012 Tech Universe Digest

Tech Universe: Monday 16 January 2012

  • JUST BREATHE: European scientists are developing biosensors that can detect the presence of tumour markers of lung cancer in exhaled breath. Our breath contains all kinds of organic compounds, and cancer doesn’t have a single marker. Instead several compounds together can betray it. Tecnalia developed novel materials sensitive enough to detect the compounds medical teams are interested in. Being able to detect tumours early improves the chances of being cured. Sensitive materials, eh. Like a dog’s nose? Tecnalia.
  • PAWSED: PAWS may just save your life one day. It stands for Portable, All-Terrain, Wireless System — a lightweight night and day camera that straps on to a search and rescue dog and sends a wireless signal back to a human controller nearby. A trained dog can search through rubble or a collapsed building, while a rescue commander can watch what it sees. An infrared view can cut through dark spaces, Once the dog locates someone who’s trapped the rescue team can go in. The UK makers had to source a camera that weighed even less than a standard helmet cam so a dog could wear it. Does the dog get a helmet too? BBC.
  • WALKABOUT: Ekso Bionics hope their new exoskeleton can help people with paraplegia to walk on their own. It’s intended for medical facilities where people can be supervised while they train to use it. A physiotherapist helps control the device with a remote, while the human inside it needs to learn to balance their upper body. In case you think this sounds familiar, Ekso were previously called Berkeley Bionics. If you can walk unassisted now, don’t take it for granted. IEEE.
  • SHIFTING SANDS: Teaching robots to walk on a hard surface is tricky enough. On sand it’s enormously more difficult because sand shifts, and the feet sink in. Engineers from Tohoku University in Sendai, Japan, have been studying how a small model robot foot walks in sand. They plan to use this data for full-size robots. Eventually they hope to help robots walk on any kind of sand or loose soil. And maybe it could be applied to exoskeletons too. New Scientist.
  • EVERYONE KNOWS WHERE YOU ARE: The US Government runs the current Global Positioning System, and that introduces problems of a political nature. Now China has its own version of GPS in operation. Beidou make available location, timing and navigation data in China and surrounding areas. 10 satellites are currently in orbit for Beidou, while another half dozen should launch soon. Then the network will be doubled over the next few years. Beidou should be correct to within 10 metres for civilians, but the Chinese military can access more accurate data. What’s good for everyone is that the system is compatible and interoperable with the world’s other navigation systems. Meanwhile the European system called Galileo should be up and running in a few years. Location, location, location. BBC.

Tech Universe: Tuesday 17 January 2012

  • POD PILGRIMS: The pods are coming to Amritsar, India. Transport pods, that is. As many as 500,000 Sikh pilgrims visit the Golden Temple each year, and authorities are concerned about the building degrading because of vehicle emissions. The electric pods will help carry visitors to the shrine. The personal rapid transit system is like the one at Heathrow Airport in London. 200 automated electric pods will shuttle an average of 100,000 passengers per day over 3.3 Km of track. Each pod will carry 6 passengers, and must withstand both 50 degree Celsius heat and monsoon rain. There are surely plenty more places that could use this kind of system. New York Times.
  • BOTTLE SEATS: The 2012 Ford Focus Electric uses sustainable Repreve fabrics. The hybrid blend fabric is created from used plastic water bottles and polyester fibre manufacturing waste. Each car keeps 22 bottles out of the landfill. That’s a drop in an ocean of plastic water bottles. Repreve.
  • ENERGY GO ROUND: The Energy Return Wheel suspends a wheel within a wheel. As the wheel touches the road a special rubber membrane between the two absorbs energy and noise and returns the energy later in the cycle. This has the potential to save fuel and to offer a smoother ride. Moreover the tire is airless so punctures aren’t a problem. The wheel can be used on any vehicle. If the ride’s smoother, long distance travel may be less tiring too, I guess. Energy Return Wheel.
  • TAG YOU’RE OUT: Wheelchair users need those specially marked parking spots but often the spots are used by those who shouldn’t be there. New Zealand’s Car Parking Technologies may have a solution. Their system provides eligible drivers with an electronic tag. Sensors in the parking spots detect the tag and instantly notify parking enforcement personnel when a car with no tag stops there. The system costs about the same as the current permit system, and could be easily adapted for other kinds of reserved parking too. Even better: just connect it to an instant fine system. Gizmag.
  • SUPERSPEED TRAINS: China has just tested a train that will speed through the countryside at up to 500 Kph. The train’s made of plastic reinforced with carbon fibre and has a maximum tractive power of 22,800 kilowatts. Officials say it won’t necessarily travel that fast though as they have concerns about safety. The landscape would just be a blur at that speed. PhysOrg.

Tech Universe: Wednesday 18 January 2012

  • HE’S ALIVE, JIM: Would you like to win US$10 million? All you have to do is create a working medical device like the tricorder used on Star Trek. The Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize wants competitors to come up with a portable, wireless device that fits in the palm of your hand and accurately monitors and diagnoses 15 health conditions. The device must also be easy to use, to have a shot at winning. Go. Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize.
  • COLD STORAGE: Cramming bits onto a hard drive is one way to store computer data. IBM hope there may be another way. Conventional storage has the spin of atoms aligned and that causes problems. This new technique used counter-aligned spin. Researchers were able to store a magnetic-memory bit in just 12 iron atoms. While this would allow much denser data storage there is a problem. Researchers had to assemble each bit under a scanning tunneling microscope and the data was only held for a few hours. Oh, and it was at almost zero degrees Kelvin. It’s all in the way you spin the data. Technology Review.
  • HIGH HOPES: The Baluarte Bridge was recently completed in Mexico and is now the tallest suspension bridge in the world. It is 1,124 metres long, supported by 152 steel suspenders, with a 520 m central span and 4 lanes suspended at a height of over 400 metres. The Eiffel Tower would easily fit underneath. The bridge cuts 6 hours travel time off travel between Durango and Mazatlán and should help open up travel in Mexico. That’s one way to get high in Mexico. Presidency of the Republic.
  • INVISIBLE STYLES: There are cameras all over the place, and facial recognition software has become alarmingly accurate. But what say you don’t want to be easily recognised by security software? Hoods and masks may not be allowed in many places, but some clever make up and hair styles could do the job. Computer Vision’s Dazzle technique takes its name from Word War 1 camouflage that appeared to break up the shapes of warships. Using patterned makeup and carefully cut hair could fool facial recognition software. Which profilers could see as a reason in itself to suspect a wearer. CV Dazzle.
  • SHARP-EYED BIRD: The US Army has some new drones that can take off vertically, hover and reach an altitude of up to 6 Km. The A160 Hummingbird carries a 1.8 gigapixel colour camera that can provide real-time video streams at 10 frames a second. Operators can use the camera to track up to 6 objects on the ground, even if they’re moving in different directions. Those are some scary capabilities. BBC.

Tech Universe: Thursday 19 January 2012

  • WINDOW TV: Samsung’s Smart Window is a large TFT LCD touchscreen. It can be completely transparent and function as a window in the wall of your house. But wait, there’s more. It also lets you use apps such as for weather or recipes, or to check Twitter, and works as a TV. It has day and night modes, and apparently doesn’t show what you’re watching to the outside world. SO the neighbours won’t know about your secret shopping channel obsession. Gizmodo.
  • SEA ROCKET: Russia’s Phobos-Grunt spacecraft was meant to be on its way to Mars. Instead it failed after launch late last year and entered a decaying orbit. The other day it re-entered the atmosphere, breaking apart and scattering debris into the Pacific. The Pacific seafloor must be littered with dead spacecraft by now. Scientific American.
  • NUDGING SPACE: It’s not only the Phobos-Grunt launch that went very wrong. One that was kept quiet until the craft was rescued was the US Air Force’s $2 billion AEHF-1 communications satellite. It failed to reach its required orbit when a fuel line clogged. Controllers had to find another way to boost it thousands of miles into place. Eventually they used hundreds of tiny thruster manoeuvres. At least it should be a while until that one comes down in the Pacific. Wired.
  • ROCKET BRICKS: Here’s one rocket that shouldn’t end up in the Pacific: it’s made of 120,000 Lego bricks and took 250 hours to build. It’s a 5.76 metre tall scale model of the Saturn V rocket, complete with gantry, liquid fuel tanks and the NASA Astrovan. Maybe you shouldn’t try this at home: the model was built by an Australian LEGO Certified Professional. Really? Certified to work with Lego? The Brick Man.
  • DOLPHIN DETECTORS: The US Navy has 80 bottlenose dolphins in San Diego Bay that have been trained to detect mines and drop acoustic transponders nearby. Apparently dolphins have been used several times in the last decade to detect mines, in part because of their powerful sonar. Perhaps they could also be trained to locate bits of failed spacecraft. The Atlantic Wire.

Tech Universe: Friday 20 January 2012

  • 3D CHINA: China Central Television is launching a 3D TV channel as a trial. Viewers with 3D sets and high definition digital TV set-top boxes can watch their service. 3D channels are already available in Japan, South Korea and India. I’m surprised there’s enough 3D content to actually fill a channel. BBC.
  • GO SOLO: The Solowheel is a gyro stabilised, electric unicycle about the size of a briefcase. It’s powered by a lithium-ion battery, and has fold out footpegs. Step on and travel 25 to 30 Km at 16 Kph over rough pavement. When you arrive fold it up and carry it with you. That’d be very handy for those who commute by train. Solowheel.
  • WILL FLY FOR OIL: We hear a lot about military uses for drones, but the Aeryon Scout micro unmanned aerial vehicle, based in Nome, Alaska, has been proving its worth to citizens. The drone flies on 20-minute missions from the beach in Nome and sends back images of ice in the Bering Sea. Why? To help a tanker carrying much-needed oil to find its way as close to Nome as possible then lay out a 1.6 Km hose back to shore. Sounds like every city and town should have its own drone. The Anchorage Daily News.
  • WHALERCOASTER: Whales are tricky to track because they swim deep under the sea for much of the time. US researchers have been radio-tagging whales with sensors to record the orientation, depth and speed of whales as they swim. Eventually the tags fall off, surface and send back their data. The Track Plot software from a computer scientist at the University of New Hampshire in Durham displays the data in video animations. The data helps researchers understand the behaviour of whales. The video shows a path that would make a pretty good roller coaster ride. Science Now. Video:
  • FAMILY FINDER: In a crisis aid workers have a lot to do very quickly. Researchers from The University of Manchester in the UK, created software to quickly and accurately locate missing people and to point people towards safe zones, all using mobile phones. The Where’s Safe app replies to an SMS with info about safe areas. The REUNITE software and web app accepts phone recordings by aid workers of people separated from their families. These are uploaded to a website, transcribed and used to help find displaced people. Info can then be sent back to the aid worker’s phone. Crowdsourcing, crisis and cellphones: a great combination. The University of Manchester.

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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.