Out Of The Fire; Lively Fingers; The Wireless Brain; Plastic Trees; Seeing Double. Swallow This; Our Robot Carers; Belts Within Belts; Bands Of Influence; Little Boxes. A Mars Fling; Still Good; Deep Seal Diving; Strip Tests; Dunking Servers. London At Large; Surgery Games; A Leg Up; Cooling Fields; Goggle Spot. Slow But Solar; New Salts; Wave A Letter; Two For One; Let The Sun Shine In.
OUT OF THE FIRE: When firefighters search a building for people who need rescue the smoke and flames make it very hard to see. Although they use infrared cameras, the lenses can be blinded by intense fire. Italian researchers have created a system that uses an infrared laser to penetrate areas of thick smoke and flames. The laser beam reflects off any objects or people within the area. Then an imager decodes the data to create a 3D image of everything inside the room, even people who may be moving. This holographic image effectively allows firefighters to see through the smoke and flames that previously blinded them. The next challenge is to make the system portable. Yes, portable would be a real advantage. BBC.
LIVELY FINGERS: In the TV shows the bad guys cheerfully cut off a person’s finger to use it on the fingerprint scanner to open the safe. In future though they may need the whole, live person. A test device in Rapid City in the US checks haemoglobin in the finger to make sure the owner is still alive. The machine not only identifies a fingerprint but also checks that blood is pulsing beneath it. Take that, TV villains: in future you’ll have to kill the guard after the fingerprint scan instead of before. CBC.
THE WIRELESS BRAIN: There have been some useful developments in hooking people up to computers with an interface wired into their brain. It usually involves a large chunk of the device sticking out of the top of their head and connected to wires though. Now neuroengineers at Brown University have created a wireless, broadband neural sensing device that can relay signals from up to 100 neurons in someone who’s freely moving around. The low power devices have been working in animals for a year already. One tiny part of the device is implanted on the cortex. From there it sends signals through a wire to a larger can that does all the work. The device transmits data at 24 Mbps via 3.2 and 3.8 Ghz microwave frequencies to an external receiver. Induction charging makes 6 hours of operation possible. The device still needs a lot of work before it can be tested in humans. So long as the control goes only one way: the wearer of the device controls external objects and can’t be controlled themself. Brown University.
PLASTIC TREES: Petroleum-based plastics are a menace in the environment, but what say they could be broken down by microbes at the end of their useful life? Researchers at the University of South Carolina believe they can make plastic from the sap of evergreen trees. The rosin and turpentine derived from trees is rich in hydrocarbons similar to those in petroleum. Now they’re working on developing polymers from trees to create useful products. Aha, another reason to chop down trees. University of South Carolina.
SEEING DOUBLE: We all know you need two lenses to capture a 3D image, but it seems no-one told Panasonic. Their new 2.1-Mpixel CMOS image sensor combines a lenticular lens and mirror elements separate out light into two streams. A processor then combines them again into a 3D image. It can apply this 3D imaging technique to images within around 1 metre of the lens. That could redefine a one-eyed view. Panasonic.
SWALLOW THIS: Tiny computers small enough to be swallowed could monitor your internal health or release drugs and medicine inside your body. The Kinetis KL02 microcontroller unit is roughly 2 millimeters on each side. The chip includes a processor, RAM, ROM, clock and I/O control unit. Its memory is measured in kilobytes, but it also includes a 12-bit analog to digital converter and a low-power UART to help with translating data. Remember to swallow without chewing. Wired.
OUR ROBOT CARERS: Carebot P37 S65 from the University of Salford reminds its elderly patients to take medication and exercise. It also answers questions and tells jokes. It recognises faces and can be programmed with speech therapy and object recognition exercises to help people with dementia. Video conferencing and SMS capabilities mean the robot can also connect its patient with the outside world. The human-sized robot is just a prototype though, and needs investors to take it through to trials and further development. It’s going to need a much better name though. University of Salford.
BELTS WITHIN BELTS: You know about the two Van Allen radiation belts around Earth, don’t you? They’re two distinct zones of trapped, highly energetic charged particles. After the Relativistic Electron Proton Telescope was launched in August 2012 it was supposed to wait months before being turned on so testing could be carried out. For various reasons it was turned on only 3 days after launch though — just in time to catch a big burst of radiation from the sun. That burst first enlarged the Van Allen Belts and then caused a third to be created. A month later the extra ring was destroyed by another powerful eruption from the sun. A lucky chance: the right place at the right time. NASA.
BANDS OF INFLUENCE: Gesture control is a really fun thing: wave a hand, flick a finger to make a device respond in a certain way. The Kinect, with its sensors, has been one way to achieve such control. The Myo controller from Thalmic Labs takes a very different approach. It’s a band you wear on your arm. It uses embedded electrodes to detect activity in muscles that contract or relax in the course of moving the hand and arm. The signals are then sent wirelessly to an app that translates the gestures into commands. The electrodes don’t even need to make direct contact with the skin. The first generation can recognise around 20 gestures. That could inspire a whole new breed of magicians and illusionists. New Scientist.
LITTLE BOXES: The Modularflex is a foldable disaster housing unit from Argentina that packs flat and can be assembled in about half an hour. Each unit has hinges half way up the walls. That means a module can collapse flat for easy and low cost transport and storage. The units are formed from insulated thermal panels with optional doors and windows, and can be connected together to create larger structures. The basic 7.4 square metre module includes electrical wiring and LED lights. Modules could also be used as living quarters in places like mining camps. The flat-pack storage and delivery really sets these ones apart. Smart Planet.
A MARS FLING: Dennis Tito is planning a private mission to Mars in 2018. The Inspiration Mars Foundation aims to inspire and wants to take advantage of the way the planets line up in 2018. At that time it a round trip to Mars will take only 501 days. As it happens, it will also be solar minimum, so exposure to solar radiation should be at its lowest. The mission is to send a woman and man to fly around Mars — within 160 Km — and return to Earth safely. The Foundation say they already have the technology derived from NASA and the International Space Station. What they need though is funding. Those will be two brave astronauts: almost 2 years alone together in a tin can only to fly around Mars and head home again. Inspiration Mars.
STILL GOOD: If you’ve looked at the Best Before date on the packaging of food in the cupboard lately you might have thrown away items that in fact were still safe to eat. Perhaps more useful than a printed date would be packaging that can test the food. European researchers have created a cheap sensor made of plastic that can do just that. The circuit’s designed to monitor acidity levels and to be included in food packaging. The plastic device takes readings from an analog sensor and converts it to digital form. It can behave a bit erratically at low temperatures, so complex maths is used to derive accurate readings. You could use a scanner, or perhaps your phone, to assess the food’s quality. Well, Best Before doesn’t mean you can’t eat it after that date; just check it first. Eindhoven University of Technology.
DEEP SEAL DIVING: The cold, dense bottom waters of the Antarctic are a key driver of the global ocean circulation and therefore of the earth’s climate. But scientists have been trying to work out exactly where in the Antarctic these waters originate. Now, thanks to southern elephant seals, and some tech including sophisticated satellite data and oceanographic moorings, they’ve found the info they needed. Researchers tagged the seals and then watched where they went — generally places inaccessible to the researchers themselves. Some of the seals even dived as deep as 1800 metres into a layer of dense water. Thanks to the seals the researchers have been able to solve a mystery they’ve been puzzling over for several decades now. Did the seals receive suitable compensation for their work? Antarctic Climate & Ecosystem CRC.
STRIP TESTS: Urine tests can be annoying, what with collecting the sample in a bottle and taking it to a lab. Uchek tests for 25 different health issues by using an iPhone to take a photo of a test strip dipped in urine. The tests can help check for diabetes, urinary tract infections, cancers, liver problems and general health. The strip has to be placed on a special mat to normalise the colours, whatever the lighting conditions. An app takes a photo and analyses it. The inventor aims to make such checks easier and quicker in developing countries, given how widespread cellphones are. Even if it’s only one health worker who has the phone, that’s still a huge advance. BBC.
DUNKING SERVERS: Generally you’d try to keep your electronics separate from liquids as the combination can lead to bad things. At the University of Leeds though all the components of the new Iceotope server are completely immersed in 3M Novec cooling liquid. That liquid transfers waste heat to water pipes that then disperse the heat through domestic radiators. The cooling liquid is more than 1,000 times more effective at carrying heat than air is and should cut server energy consumption for cooling by between 80% and 97%. The other good news is that the system doesn’t need all the fans, air conditioning and pumps that servers normally require. Cheaper, quieter, more energy efficient and takes less space: that’s a win all round. University of Leeds.
LONDON AT LARGE: A new picture of London has appeared: it’s a 320 gigapixel panorama compiled from 48,640 individual images shot over a period of 3 days and processed over a period of 3 months. If printed at normal resolution, the photo would be 98 metres long and 23 metres high — almost as big as Buckingham Palace. It beats Street View, that’s for sure. BT Group.
SURGERY GAMES: During keyhole, or laparoscopic, surgery doctors insert tiny video cameras and instruments into your body so they can operate without having to make a large incision. That requires quite some deftness, and the ability to work while watching a screen. Surgeons have to be able to translate a 2D image on a screen into 3D movements. One study in Italy had surgeons play Wii games for 5 hours per week. In later tests on a laparoscopy simulator the surgeons who played the games outperformed a control group who didn’t. The researchers say these results suggest that motion-sensing gaming consoles could supplement surgical training at a very low cost. Next time you’re in for an op check whether the surgeon is a video gamer. NPR.
A LEG UP: In Japan elderly or disabled people may be better able to move around thanks to the Hybrid Assistive Limb now certified for use there. The power-assisted pair of legs is a nursing-care robot that detects muscle impulses to anticipate and support the wearer’s body movements. The exoskeleton is made from metal and plastic and is already being used in some 150 hospitals and other facilities. Those are two good legs to stand on. Discovery News.
COOLING FIELDS: Heat is a major limiting factor with computer chips, but researchers at the Carnegie Institution found a new efficient way to pump heat using crystals even on the nanoscale. They started with ferroelectric crystals that are electrically polarised in the absence of an electric field. When they applied an electric field they caused a giant temperature change in the material, pumping heat away. Mind you, in a computer that heats still needs to go to somewhere — laps may stay warm for a long time yet. Carnegie Institution.
GOGGLE SPOT: The Brilliantservice headset from Japan gives you augmented reality through a set of goggles. The goggles cover both eyes with 720p see-through displays and use the Viking OS to provide face recognition, painting and the ability to open apps. A camera over the nose makes it possible to recognise gestures. The prototype is still only in its early stages and is not intended to come to market. Instead the company’s looking for headset manufacturers who want to use their OS. Next up: augmented reality OS wars? Discovery News.
SLOW BUT SOLAR: The carbon fibre Solar Impulse plane has the wingspan of a 747 but only weighs as much a Honda Prius. Its 4 turboprop engines are powered entirely by batteries and solar panels. This year the plane will fly from California to New York, maintaining an average altitude of almost 9,000 metres where the engines operate with maximum efficiency. The plane travels at only around 80 Kph. The plane itself could make the trip non-stop, but with a single pilot aboard, the flight will be broken up into 5 sections. At that speed the flight from Auckland to Sydney would take around 27 hours. Discovery News. [Note: after this item was published it attracted two critiques: one of the Honda Prius mention and the other of the turboprop engines. Both were lifted straight from the original Discovery News article.]
NEW SALTS: NASA’s Aquarius/SAC-D spacecraft has been gathering salinity data from the top 2 cm of the oceans. Now the data’s been verified NASA have released a map that shows how salty the oceans are around the world. Interesting items include the large patch of freshwater that appeared in the eastern tropical Pacific in the winter, and the large patch of highly saline water across the North Atlantic. That variation in salinity must have a huge effect on plant and animal life in the oceans. NASA.
WAVE A LETTER: Tapping out letters on the cramped keyboard of a smartphone is always challenging, so researchers at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology looked for an alternative. The airwriting glove lets wearers write letters in the air, as if using an invisible board or pad. The system adds sensors such as acceleration sensors and gyroscopes to a thin glove. As the wearer moves their hand, writing in mid-air, the glove records the movements and sends them wirelessly to a processor. The processor distinguishes between movements such as drinking coffee and actual writing, then decodes the writing into text. Now the scientists are working on refining the writing recognition and making the whole system smaller. Hmm, printing or cursive? Karlsruhe Institute of Technology.
TWO FOR ONE: Researchers at MIT have demonstrated that graphene is highly efficient at generating electrons when it absorbs light. Unlike materials like silicon and gallium arsenide, when graphene absorbs a photon it generates multiple electrons capable of driving a current. The other materials generate only a single electron. That could mean graphene has potential in solar cells and for light sensors such as night vision goggles. Unfortunately it’s all pretty much a concept just now, but further research should lead to some practical applications. What can’t graphene do? Technology Review.
LET THE SUN SHINE IN: Ivanpah in California is nearly ready to start work as the world’s largest solar thermal plant. The power system is built on federal land in the desert, covering more than 1400 hectares. More than 300,000 mirrors are controlled by software to track the sun and focus sunlight on boilers on top of 3 towers, each 140 metres tall. The sunlight heats water to create steam and generate electricity. The plant should supply the power needed by 140,000 homes. That’s about 100 homes per hectare. Ivanpahsolar.com.