11 to 15 March 2013 Tech Universe Digest

Tech Universe: Monday 11 March 2013

  • BRIGHT EYE: Canon’s new 35mm CMOS image sensor is intended for video purposes such as security cameras and astronomy. The sensor features pixels measuring 19 microns square and use new circuitry that reduces noise. That makes it extremely sensitive to low light. In an example video shot in a dark room lit only by 3 burning incense sticks, the face of the person holding the incense was clearly visible. So, no more need to use such dazzlingly bright lights at night for city safety? Canon.
  • SMART ALERT: Women in urban India are using their smartphones to improve their safety. They send reports of incidents of sexual harassment and abuse to the Safecity.in website which adds the reports to a map. Anyone requesting alerts will be sent them based on location. Meanwhile the free SafeTrac app has an SOS button to alert emergency contacts and lets relatives or friends track the user’s journey. Those aren’t the only apps or devices women are turning to either. It seems it’s a sadly thriving market. Collective action is always a good thing though. Business Insider.
  • BRAKE FOR CYCLISTS: Some new Volvo cars will automatically detect pedestrians and cyclists, using a radar in the front grille and a camera between the windscreen and rearview mirror. If the system detects a potential collison it sounds an alarm and applies the brakes. The system doesn’t yet detect animals such as deer or horses, but engineers are working on adapting it for that. Braking’s fine, but could lead to its own problems if swerving would be a better option. Use with caution. BBC.
  • LIKE A RAY: We’ve seen folks flying through the air in wingsuits, but the Oceanwings wetsuit is designed to let you glide underwater. The neoprene suit stretches a membrane between the legs and between each arm and the body to create a sense of flying through the water rather than swimming. Be prepared to hold your breath for a while though. Inhabitat.
  • PLASTIC TO PLASTIC: One of my reservations around 3D printers is to do with how much plastic they use and add to the environment. The Filabot though doesn’t just consume spools of plastic thread. The Filabot can grind and melt plastic objects such as milk jugs, bottles and other types of plastics, along with bad prints, to make new filament. Make friends with a printer user and sell them your waste plastic. Filabot.

Tech Universe: Tuesday 12 March 2013

  • INSPIRING BIKES: In London they’re making some big changes to the roads, adding two-way segregated cycle tracks along around 25 Km of bike routes. A network of Quietways will take cyclists along peaceful side streets so they can avoid dealing with heavy traffic. The goals including encouraging cycling and making it safer and more friendly, while reducing motor vehicles and air pollution. The scheme will also include analysing data on accidents, trials of electric bike hire schemes, integration with rail networks and even training. What an inspiration.
  • UP, DOWN, TURN AROUND: Project Zero is an electric tilt-rotor aircaft that takes off and lands like a helicopter, but flies like a plane. Project Zero’s 2 electric powered integrated rotors lie within the wingspan of the aircraft and can be rotated more than 90 degrees. The rotors are horizontal during take off and landing but are moved to the vertical to work as propellers during flight. When on the ground the propellers can rotate freely in the breeze, working as wind turbines to help recharge the batteries. That’s a cunning use of the propellers. Wired.
  • UP THE LINE: Many fish have a line of nerve cells that runs from head to tail. Those nerve cells detect vibrations and other data from the water and help them move around without bumping into other fish in a school. The nerves also help them determine the speed and direction of currents, hover in place and even swim upstream. A European engineering team has taken that information and applied it to an underwater robot called FILOSE, Robotic FIsh LOcomotion and SEnsing. Tiny electronic sensors monitor pressure differences in the water flowing around the robot and should make it more efficient in swimming upstream and hovering in place. Go against the flow. Discovery News.
  • WAVING TIME: Would you like your house to respond to hand waving? Spanish designers have created a prototype house where a wave of the hand will turn on the lights. The system uses a Kinect sensor and projects images on the wall or floor — for example an alarm clock, a web page or a computer game. Do we really want our houses to be monitoring our every move? BBC.
  • EYE ON THE BALL: The British Royal Navy’s frigates are getting a powerful new radar system from BAE Systems. The Advanced Radar Target Indication Situational Awareness and Navigation, or ARTISAN, is a medium range 3D surveillance radar. It can detect an object as small as a tennis ball travelling at 3 times the speed of sound more than 25 Km away. It cuts through interference equivalent to 10,000 conflicting mobile phone signals. The system can also monitor more than 800 objects simultaneously at a range of between 200 and 200,000 metres. Don’t try playing tennis with a warship. Strategic Defence Intelligence.

Tech Universe: Wednesday 13 March 2013

  • SLOW FLOW: Wind turbines tend to be placed high up on towers to catch the air, but what say they could be only a metre or two off the ground and horizontal? The Solar Vortex system created by scientists at the Georgia Institute of Technology places blades horizontally to catch the flow created by warm air as it rises and cool air as it falls. The blades funnel the airflow into a vortex and turn a turbine. Because the blades are close to the ground, whose temperature varies slowly through the day, the flow of energy is fairly constant, peaking just after nightfall when demand is often greatest. The researchers calculate that a 10 metre turbine will produce 50 kilowatts of power. Surely they could apply that notion to places like train stations where quite a bit of heat is created at ground level too. New Scientist.
  • CHATTY FLIGHTS: Virgin Atlantic’s Boeing 787s are highly connected to the Internet. Every piece of the plane has an internet connection, including engines, flaps and landing gear, alerting pilots to potential aircraft problems while in flight. Each flight could generate half a terabyte of data. I’m guessing encryption and security of all that data will be their next big challenge. Computerworld UK.
  • SCAN PLAN: 3D printers are old news now. You still need to feed the printer digital files with plans for creating objects though. That’s where the MakerBot Digitizer comes in — it’s a 3D scanner to create those plans. Two lasers and a webcam quickly scan objects up to about 20 cm in diameter. The scan can then be sent to the printer, for instant replication. We can guess what will be the first thing most 14 year old boys will scan and print. CNN.
  • LET THE SUN SHINE IN: Bridges and other structures made of concrete need careful maintenance to repair any small surface cracks before they cause big problems. Researchers at Yonsei University in South Korea have developed a self-healing protective coating for concrete. Their healing agent doesn’t freeze even in very low temperatures and contains polymer microcapsules. In the capsules is a solution that turns into a water-resistant solid when light reaches it. That means that a crack exposes the interior to light, breaks the capsules and releases solution to solidify and fill the crack. Houseowners would love that product too. Technology Review.
  • FACE TALES: Dermalog’s facial recognition system isn’t trying to put names to faces. Instead it’s guessing intent and mood. The system assigns a probable gender and age based on a face and then further derives a mood, such as happy. One purpose for this is to detect possible fraudsters, using the theory that faces can give away complex emotions and signals. Fraudsters are probably pretty happy, by and large. PC Pro.

Tech Universe: Thursday 14 March 2013

  • ALL IN THE HEAD: A surprising 300 to 500 people per month in the US lose part of their skull thanks to disease or accident. Now Oxford Performance Materials can help such patients by printing out replacement bone on their 3D printer. The polyetherketoneketone structure contains specially designed textures and holes to encourage the growth of cells and bone. Recently one US man had 75% of his skull replaced with a printed bone. And the head bone’s connected to the printer bone. Gizmodo.
  • MODERATELY BRIGHT IDEAS: Turning a dimmer switch to control a single light is one thing, but painting light and dark onto a tablet and having a set of robotic lights respond is a whole other level of sophistication. The Lighty system handles all the hard work by computing the movements needed for a set of a dozen robot lights in the ceiling. The user simply paints light or dark onto a representation of the room on a tablet and the lights immediately respond with just the right amount of light in the right places. A camera in the ceiling allows the display to update instantly. It should also allow you to program favourite patterns of lighting. DigInfo News.
  • JUST REMOVE AIR: The Varstiff smart textile will be useful for emergency responders. The material is malleable and can be easily shaped into any form. When a vacuum is applied to it the material becomes rigid and achieves hardness equivalent to that of a conventional plastic. That means it can be used as an emergency immobiliser for accident victims. The creators suggest it could have other uses as well in areas like sports and leisure, or for making adjustable seats in cars. That’s hard to argue with. Tecnalia.
  • TEAM WORK: The Internet is designed to route around damage, finding alternate pathways if one particular device fails. Now imagine that capability in the chips that drive devices themselves. A team of engineers at the California Institute of Technology has developed self-healing integrated computer chips. They first created tiny power amplifiers then zapped them multiple times with a high-power laser. In less than a second the chips developed a workaround. The trick was that the chips included sensors to monitor temperature, current, voltage, and power. A custom-made application-specific integrated-circuit took all the data they produced and figured out how to work around the damage. It all seems very fractal. Caltech.
  • POWER TO THE PEOPLE: In developing countries cellphones can crucially allow farmers to find the best prices for their products, or let traders make payments. But charging the phones can represent half the total cost of the device. Cell signals are weak which drains batteries fast yet power supplies are scarce. A cellphone owner may need to walk kilometres and pay a high price to charge their phone. Buffalo Grid’s portable charging station for 10 devices may make a huge difference to local economies. A 60 watt solar panel charges a battery that is taken to villages by bike. When a cellphone owner sends an SMS, a charging point on the battery is activated for 1.5 hours. And we complain about walking to the next room to get the charger. New Scientist.

Tech Universe: Friday 15 March 2013

  • WRIST LOCK: Ever tried tying your shoe laces with just one hand? Bebionic’s V3 prosthetic hand has changed the life of one man in the UK who’s wearing it. The hand’s controlled by muscle movements in his arm, and allows him to tie his laces, make coffee and deal cards, among other things. One thing is that the wrist doesn’t actually flex. Instead he can unlock it, rotate and then lock it again to get the hand in the position it’s needed for. We shouldn’t ever take what we have for granted. Gizmodo.
  • WIND POLE: The Aeronautics and Astronautics University in Beijing have created an unusual vehicle to explore the Antarctic — it’s a wind powered Polar Rover. The prototype robot uses a 1.2 metre tall wind turbine rated at 200 watts as its source of power and operates out of China’s Antarctic research station. The rover’s automated driving system assesses ice and snow terrain, uses satellite navigation and an autopilot and is equipped with atmospheric sensors, a snow sampler, and geography and geology analysers. The vehicle has already covered more than 2,500 Km in the Antartic during its research. Nice use of available resources there. Urban EarthTechling.
  • TECH IN REACH: The Kinect and the LEAP Motion both offer ways to control a device with gestures alone. Now pmdtechnologies from Germany have designed the CamBoard pico, a 3D depth sensor. They say their system uses extremely accurate depth measurement for gesture control. Their system is intended for manufacturers to include in their products, rather than for users to control existing devices. Everyone wants to just wave their hands to get things done. TechCrunch.
  • NEIGHBOURS AHOY: In Lagos, Nigeria, there’s a slum settlement over a lagoon where shanties are held out of the water by stilts. But one architect buidling a school for 100 kids has taken the stilts away in favour of making the building float. The school’s built on a base of 256 used plastic drums. Locally sourced wood is then used for the 3 story construction which provides a playground and both enclosed and open classrooms. The roof holds solar panels and harvests rainwater. There’s no problem in a flood, either as sensors detect environmental changes and activate a compressor that pumps air into a buffer zone at the base of the school. The designers hope next to create floating houses that can be docked together to create communities. Sit down, you’re rocking the school. Designboom.
  • FLOAT THE BOAT: In a disaster or during military operations there may not be infrastructure where it’s needed. For example, workers may need to cross a river or unload supplies from ships where there are no wharves. The Tactically Expandable Maritime Platform is one possible solution. It’s a system of linking robotic shipping containers to form a floating platform, bridge, runway or island. The containers have motors so they can move, even turning in place. A computer program instructs them to assemble themselves into whatever shape is needed, such as an island. Perhaps as a bonus the containers could be towed to where they’re needed rather than being carried on the ship transporting them. Daily Pennsylvanian.