08 April to 12 April 2013 Tech Universe Digest

Tech Universe: Monday 08 April 2013

  • FLY THE DRAGON: Festo’s BionicOpter is a flying robot shaped like a dragonfly. Flapping wings propel it in all directions, allow it to hover in midair and to glide without beating its wings. The wings can flap, tilt and twist. With a wingspan of 70 cm and a body length of 48 cm, the model dragonfly weighs 175 grams. A thin foil covering over a carbon fibre frame is used for the wings, while the body is made from flexible polyamide and terpolymer. That’s a hefty and impressive dragonfly. Festo.
  • A JELLY BY ANY OTHER NAME: Our oceans are vast, but still they’re filling up with pollutants. At Virginia Tech a team is creating life-like autonomous robot jellyfish that could help with cleaning up pollution, monitoring the environment or surveillance for the military. Models range in size from a few inches to a couple of metres. The RoboJelly is being designed to operate on its own energy, perhaps powered by hydrogen found in water or by batteries. Real jellyfish have no central nervous system, can move vertically on their own, but depend on the ocean for horizontal movement. The main focus of the programme is to understand propulsion systems found in nature. Maybe we need laws to specify that all these imitations of natural organisms should be made to look not like the real thing. Virginia Tech.
  • CHARGING MICROBES: It would be mighty convenient to create clean energy from plentiful bacteria. It turns out that proteins on the surface of bacteria can produce an electric current by simply touching a mineral surface, as researchers from the US and the UK discovered recently, using a synthetic version of the bacteria. The researchers say the bacteria show great potential as microbial fuel cells. I guess you’d have to feed and water the fuel cells from time to time too. University of East Anglia.
  • SCENT SCREENING: Scientists at the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology have invented a smelling screen. Odours from vapourising gel pellets are fed into air streams from each corner of the screen. Fans manipulate the streams of air to make it seem as though the scent is coming from a particular spot on the screen, for example an image of a flower. The screens could be used in advertising or for museums. Imagine a supermarket full of them. New Scientist.
  • FLOAT A MORTGAGE: Finland is creating its first floating village in Pori. The 16 houses are designed to withstand extreme winds and wave conditions, and incoprorate energy-saving systems and technologies. Prefabricated modules are assembled on site then lifted onto pontoons which are floated into place and anchored to the seabed. Heat recovery systems help reduce energy bills. Utility connections go through the piers. So, they’re more like houseboats that don’t go anywhere. Inhabitat.

Tech Universe: Tuesday 09 April 2013

  • SAY AHH: Just as your fingerprints are unique to you, so is the chemical signature in your breath, thanks to metabolites, the products of the biochemical processes in your body. Although a breathprint changes during the course of a day, the distinctive signature is still highly specific to an individual and could be a useful tool for diagnosing illness. More research is needed, but there are some interesting possibilities here. io9.
  • SAY OHH: Veterinarians and doctors performs procedures on their patients on the basis of various scans and images. Thanks to an engineering student at the University of Notre Dame though they may soon be able to use 3D printed models to prepare for a procedure. The engineer made a CT scan of an anesthetised rat and sent the data to a 3D printer which then created a skeleton in white plastic and a removable set of lungs in green or purple. If doctors could create such prints of their human patients before a tricky surgery they could practice beforehand. Imagine being take copy a replica of your own skeleton and organs too. Wired.
  • SAY GO: All those roads we drive on need to be regularly surveyed for damage and then repaired. Surveying is a laborious and expensive process. Or at least, it was — now a laser scanner can do the job more quickly, at less expense and with greater precision. The scanner’s attached to a standard vehicle and then measures the evenness of roads across a span of 4 metres with a laser beam. Measurements are accurate to between 0.15 and 0.3 millimetres. GPS and and an inertial measurement system track the orientation and position of the vehicle at all times while it travels at up to 100 kph. It would be useful to combine that with a street mapping car. Fraunhofer Institute.
  • SAY ANYTHING: People with severe hearing impairments may need middle ear implants that require complex operations lasting several hours. The surgery carries a high risk and is expensive. A new and affordable hearing aid is much easier to implant and could be done in an outpatient surgery with a small incision at the side of the eardrum. A piezoelectric micro-actuator is placed directly at the connection between the middle and inner ear and sends acoustic signals to the inner ear, enhancing hearing. Researchers have working prototypes but now need to develop optimised components for testing next year. Easier and cheaper are a winning combination. Fraunhofer Institute.
  • DOUBLE COLOUR: It’s hard to get good colour in a photo taken in low light. Most cameras use a system of colour filters that cause a lot of the light to be lost, leaving muted colours. A new system from Panasonic takes a different approach. Their micro colour splitter uses red and blue deflectors arranged diagonally across 4 pixels. The intensity of light can be determined from pixels without the splitters and high speed computation helps create a final image with colours that can be twice as bright. Small, fast computers make some very interesting things possible. DigInfo TV.

Tech Universe: Wednesday 10 April 2013

  • FRIED WASTE: Fry up the fish and chips. But then what do you do with the used oil? It seems many in London tip it down the drain. The city spends £1 million per month clearing the drains of 40,000 fat-caused blockages. But now they’re getting smart and setting up a fuel plant that will run on the waste fat and grease, supplemented by other waste vegetable oil and animal fats. The plant will produce 130 Gigawatt hours a year of renewable electricity. That’s enough to run just under 40,000 average-sized homes. Now for the smarter part: the businesses that currently tip the fat down the drain could organise to sell it direct to the power plant. The Guardian.
  • DNA 1 2 3: A DNA testing chip from Panasonic and IMEC is only half the size of a business card, yet it automates all the stages of obtaining genetic information, including preprocessing. The device takes only a short time to do this rather than the days or weeks normally needed. A worker injects blood and a chemical into the chip then inserts it into a machine the size of a small desktop printer. Around an hour later information on SNPs is produced. SNPs are variations in a single DNA base among individuals that can be used to identify genes related to illness. This can allow health workers to select drug therapies that should work and avoid those that may have severe side effects for an individual. Health care improves another notch again. DigInfo.TV.
  • DISCARD THE KNOWN: A doctor may use a biopsy to diagnose cancer. That can be painful and expensive. But tumour cells may also be circulating in the blood, though perhaps at a rate of one tumour cell per billion cells. If the tumour cells could be captured and assessed maybe a biopsy wouldn’t be required. US researchers have built a microfluidic device that can quickly grab nearly any type of tumour cell from the bloodstream, even without knowing their molecular characteristics. The device combines magnetic labeling of cells and microfluidic sorting to pull out the tumour cells, by discarding the other cells, such as blood cells, whose characteristics are known beforehand. One problem is that a cancer may need to be quite advanced before cells circulate. It’s a handy idea though, that once you’ve discarded the known everything that’s left must be the unknown. Technology Review.
  • TURBINE TRICKS: Making wind turbines isn’t an easy job. Items such as the blades may need to be stored for a while as part of the process, and at 50 metres long and weighing a couple of tons they take up a lot of space. Then when it’s time to pull them from the stack locating the right part can be a challenge too. The Fraunhofer Institute’s solution is to attach a locator the size of a small paperback book to each module. GPS tracks its position to within a metre, while a motion sensor detects when the part is being moved and signals the move to a monitor. Previously such tracking could take a day or two, but the new system takes only 5 minutes. Who knew making wind turbines was so tricky? Fraunhofer Institute.
  • SHAPED CHARGE: The synthetic carbon anodes EnerG2 make increase the storage capacity of lithium-ion batteries by up to 30% without requiring a new battery design or a different manufacturing process. This was achieved by optimising the surface area, pore size, and pore density of carbon for different applications. That could mean gadgets that go longer between charges or perhaps electric cars that travel further. And it’s all in the shape of the carbon molecules. Technology Review.

Tech Universe: Thursday 11 April 2013

  • BUILD ON AIR: Many cities are full of tall towers. The wind often funnels between them, so why not make use of it as it does? PowerWINDows can be installed on the sides or roofs of buildings to generate electricity. The turbines don’t have huge swooping blades, but rather look like windows with a sparse venetian blind. The blades move vertically up and down. The new kind of turbine is quieter, cheaper to run and safer than current wind turbines. Presumably they suck some of the energy out of the flow of air between buildings which could also make for a better environment for pedestrians and cyclists. The University Of Wollongong.
  • SNARK BY THE NUMBERS: Some of the news stories you read may have been written by an algorithm rather than a human. Narrative Science is a company that trains computers to write news stories. Feed in data such as statistics from a sports match or a political race and the algorithm turns out a perfectly readable story that may not be readily distinguishable from one written by a human. The algorithm uses complex rules about the subject matter and templates written by trained journalists to create the stories. Clients can also customise the tone of the stories to be, for example, well-educated or snarky. This item was written by a human. Wired.
  • CONNECT THE DROPS: Scientists at the University of Oxford have been using a 3D printer to make materials with some of the properties of living tissues. The new type of material connects thousands of water droplets encapsulated within lipid films. The network of drops can carry electrical signals from one side of the network to the other and could perhaps help deliver drugs to targeted points within the body. So far they’ve created networks of up to 35,000 droplets, but the networks could be bigger. The droplet networks can also be designed to fold themselves into different shapes after printing. All with a drop of water and some oil: astonishing. University of Oxford.
  • WELL-ARMED: Civil rights and aid workers in some countries face risks such as being kidnapped or even killed. The Civil Rights Defenders campaign group has developed a smart bracelet intended to help. The bracelet can be triggered manually or automatically. When triggered it uses phone and sat-nav to send messages to Facebook and Twitter warning that its wearer is in danger and providing a location. Other staff nearby will also be alerted. Keep those batteries charged. BBC.
  • PUSH OFF: The COMAN humanoid robot is being developed in Europe. It doesn’t have a head or hands, but is just under a metre tall and weighs around 30 Kg. The robot features a combination of stiff and compliant joints that give it a spring in its step. Stabilisation control also means it keeps its balance on a moving platform or if it’s given a bit of a shove. No pushing the robots! IEEE Spectrum.

Tech Universe: Friday 12 April 2013

  • POPE ON WHEELS: When the Pope goes on tour he rides in an armour-plated limousine, though it usually has an engine. The next one though may be powered by pedals. The pedal-powered Popemobile will be ready in a few months. It includes 8 mm bullet-proof Plexiglass windows, solar panels, blast-proof body panels and a built-in oxygen supply. All up it costs around $315,000. Not including the cyclist who gets to power it. That must be one hefty bike. ETA.
  • RESCUE MOVES: The PETMAN from Boston Dynamics looks like a rescue worker in its flame-retardant suit and gas mask. It high-steps, squats and rotates like a human to make its way through dangerous terrain too. It’s not a human though, but a humanoid robot manufactured for the US Defense Department’s Chemical and Biological Defense programme. The wires that give it away: the development team is still working on its ability to manoeuver past rubble, navigate uneven spaces and retain its balance. Getting to the right spot’s one thing, but will it be able to take the right actions when it gets there? Wired.
  • STOP DROP: At Harvard University scientists have created a material that can either be super-slippery or can make a sliding drop stop dead. A two-layer structure means the adaptive material morphs when deformed. A liquid film covers an elastic sheet whose pores grow when stretched. That roughens the surface as the coating changes shape. It also makes the material more opaque. That could offer new techniques for cleaning, or perhaps make it possible for campers to use tents that let the sun shine in but keep rain out. Though a sheet of plastic can already let sun in while keeping water out. New Scientist.
  • A LITTLE GOES A LONG WAY: Mars is a long way away. In fact, pretty much everywhere except the Moon is too far away for humans to realistically travel to because of the time it would take and the cost. That’s why researchers at the University of Washington are working on a fusion-powered rocket that could speed up travel times and cost less. The research team developed a type of plasma encased in its own magnetic field. When a magnetic field compresses the plasma it leads to nuclear fusion, or at least, in lab tests it does. One grain of this material has as much power as around 4 litres of rocket fuel. That would considerably reduce the weight of fuel needed for long trips. Perhaps this could help the robot missions explore more distant places too. University of Washington.
  • HOLD THAT SHOT: It can be very hard and very expensive to get rid of shaking with a handheld camera. Stabilised systems generally use heavy weights and gimbals, with may require metal arms and special vests. The MōVI from Freefly is a relatively lightweight piece of kit to digitally stabilise the camera. The handheld rig features a completely custom-made gimbal and 3-axis gyroscope so the camera remains rock steady even when the operator’s hands and arms are moving significantly. When will it be applied to guns, I wonder? Gizmodo.