06 to 10 May 2013 Tech Universe Digest

Tech Universe: Monday 06 May 2013

  • MICROSCOPIC MOVES: People have made movies before by animating small toy figures, but the world record for small now goes to IBM with their animated atoms. Researchers used their scanning tunneling microscope to make a stop-motion film where the characters and action are formed by positioning individual carbon monoxide molecules and their component carbon and oxygen atoms, and using copper 111 as the surface of the animation. But are the characters well rounded? IBM.
  • CRANKING: It’s only a concept at the moment but the 4StrikeBike wants us to pedal with our hands as well as our feet. To that end it adds pedals to the handlebars. The crankshaft has a special freewheel system that allows the bike to be cycled with both arms and legs or with the legs alone, or the hand pedals can each be fixed in place in their highest position and allow the handlebar to be like that on a normal bike. There could be a lot of power in that bike. 4StrikeBike.
  • PRINT SHOOT: There are plenty of problems around guns, but one is that if the wrong person gets hold of a gun people can be killed. Safe Gun Technology is creating a fingerprint reader to effectively lock a gun unless an authorised user is holding it. The fingerprint reader can be set to allow multiple users. The company has created a prototype of a Remington 870 pump shotgun often used by US law enforcement and is now working on adding its system to handguns. While those intent on crime can probably disable this kind of thing easily enough it may at least stop some kids from shooting one another. Safe Gun Technology.
  • TWO IN THE SUN: The Sunseeker Duo will be not only the fastest solar-powered plane ever built but it will also be the first to carry a passenger. The solar cells have an efficiency of almost 23% so the Duo will have enough power to maintain a steady climb on direct solar power. Meanwhile folding wings mean it can fit into a regular hangar in spite of its 22 metre wingspan, or it can quickly be taken apart and transported in a special trailer. No tow plane required. Solar Flight.
  • STEP CHANGE: Wheelchair users aren’t specially thrilled by steps. But if they use the Japanese Unimo electric chair perhaps they’ll change their minds. The wheelchair looks more like an armchair and is designed for rest homes and hospitals. Instead of wheels it uses rubber crawler tracks and can do a 360 degree turn in a confined space such as a lift. It can also climb over a step that’s 15 cm high. That means it can move on rutted roads, gravel roads in parks and in sand on beaches and other places where conventional electric wheelchairs and mobility scooters cannot travel smoothly. The user controls the chair with a joystick. So how many hospitals have rutted roads and sandy beaches? Tech-On.

Tech Universe: Tuesday 07 May 2013

  • GLOVE ALERT: If you work with toxic substances it’s a fairly safe bet that you wear protective clothing such as gloves. Even so, how can you tell when a toxic substance may be present? Researchers at the Fraunhofer Research Institution for Modular Solid State Technologies EMFT engineered a glove that recognizes if toxic substances are present in the surrounding air. Custom-made sensor materials are embedded in the glove along with sensor-activated dyes. If a toxic substance is detected the glove changes colour, for example, from white to blue. That’s handy. Fraunhofer.
  • DEADLY DNA: After a crime police may take DNA from a suspect to match with DNA found at the scene. If the samples manage to get accidentally mixed the DNA may falsely show a suspect was at a crime scene. But there are some DNA sequences, called nullomers, which don’t exist naturally because they’re incompatible with life. Tagging a suspect’s sample with nullomers can help show when samples have been mixed, and may clear some wrongly accused people. In tests which diluted the DNA samples 100,000 times, the nullomers were still identifiable, and didn’t interfere with analysis of the original DNA profile. In some countries such deadly nullomers could mean the difference between life and death for an accused person. New Scientist.
  • BUG EYED: Insects such as bees and flies have compound eyes that give them a panoramic view and great depth perception. Now US researchers have created a camera that uses a hemispherical array of 180 microlenses that give it a 160 degree field of view and the ability to focus simultaneously on objects at different depths. Those features could make the camera extremely useful for security cameras, surgical endoscopes and micro aerial vehicles. Ah, but it’ll be the software that’s really crucial. Wired.
  • THE BANDED HUMAN: The Myo armband measures the electrical impulses produced by physical activity. But it’s no ordinary life logger counting steps or tracking heart rate. Instead it’s a gesture control device. A flick of the wrist may call up the next slide in a presentation, or perhaps clench your hand to stop video playback. Squeeze an imaginary trigger to fire a weapon in a game. The device pairs with gadgets via Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy, uses rechargeable Lithium-Ion batteries and an ARM processor. It features a 6-axis inertial measurement unit for motion sensing. Presumably it works equally well on either arm and could perhaps even be worn on the leg. Thalmic Labs.
  • FULL COLOUR PLASTIC: The ProDesk3D printer doesn’t limit you to printing with just a single coloured filament. Instead it offers true full colour printing through its 5 colour PLA cartridge system that mixes primary colours. It is capable of printing objects down to 25 microns and uses a dual-extruder head to provide PVA-based support material alongside the main design. 3D printing seems to be maturing quickly. BotObjects.

Tech Universe: Wednesday 08 May 2013

  • BEES WITH BRAINS: Carbon fibre RoboBees created at Harvard University are about the size of a coin and weigh less than a tenth of a gram. Although they have to be tethered to a power supply and controller they fly vertically and horizontally with ease. The independently controlled wings flap at up to 120 times per second using piezoelectric actuators. Such tiny robots could be used for environmental monitoring, or perhaps pollinating crops where real bees are in short supply. Now the researchers want to find tiny power supplies and computers that can let the bees off their leashes. One day the skies may be full of tiny robots. Harvard University. Video:
  • OIL SOAK: Boron nitride is also known as white graphene and it can do a particularly useful job: cleaning up organic pollutants from waterways. The material has a large surface area for its weight, so it can mop up a lot of pollutants. In recent tests researchers found it could mop up 29 times its own weight in engine oil yet still float on water. Then the oil can be driven out in a furnace or by being ignited so the sheet of boron nitride can be used again. Even better would be to find a way to extract the oil so it could be used productively. BBC.
  • SILVER EAR: A team from Princeton University recently used 3D additive printing to create an ear with embedded electronics. They combined a matrix of hydrogel and calf cells to form cartilage with silver nanoparticles that form an antenna. Potentially electric signals from the printed ear could be connected to a person’s nerve endings and restore or enhance human hearing. I guess the calf cells would be replaced with human cells. EurekAlert.
  • SPIN CHARGE: An integrated motor drive and battery charger for electric vehicles may reduce charging time from 8 hours to two. The new power transfer method involves a rotating transformer that includes the motor and inverter in the charger circuit to increase the charging power at a lower cost. At the moment the system works in the lab, but the researchers aim to enhance it for industrial use. Getting those charging times down is crucial. Chalmers University of Technology.
  • SEIZURE SIGNALS: Australian researchers have had success predicting epileptic seizures in a group of people who experienced between 2 and 12 seizures per month. They did it with two devices: one is implanted between the skull and brain surface to monitor long-term electrical signals in the brain. The other is implanted under the chest and sends signals recorded in the brain to a handheld device. The handheld device used red, white and blue warning lights to indicate the likelihood of a seizure. After a month of simply recording EEG data an algorithm was developed for each person. Although the warnings weren’t always correct, 8 of the 11 patients had their seizures accurately predicted between 56% and 100% of the time. Which, after all, is a lot better than no warning at all. The University of Melbourne.

Tech Universe: Thursday 09 May 2013

  • GOODBYE HERSCHEL: We all know the need to maintain equipment we use — adding oil to the car, tightening up the bike chain. But when that equipment is out in space and it runs out of liquid helium coolant it turns out that’s just hard luck. The Herschel Space Observatory has been collecting loads of data since 2009, but the other day it ran out of coolant and observations have ceased. Astronomers will continue to analyse all the images and other data the HSO recorded though and may yet make new discoveries. The spacecraft will soon be propelled to a stable orbit around the Sun where it will remain indefinitely. Rescue mission anyone? European Space Agency.
  • A DIFFERENT STRIPE: TV crime shows frequently have a computer quickly sorting through thousands of faces to identify a suspect, but that kind of facial recognition doesn’t work well for identifying animals by their patterning. That led researchers at MIT to develop a system called SLOOP that could help conservationists. The system uses algorithms to recognise patterns such as stripes or spots and produces a short list of likely candidates. The images are then turned over to crowdsourcing, asking online users to pick the most similar pair. Researchers need this kind of system when studying creatures such as whale sharks or skinks, where it’s by far easier and quicker to take a photo than to catch the animal and tag it. Turn it into a pattern-matching game and people are sure to play it. MIT News.
  • PAPER TRAILS: Laser Enabled Advanced Packaging is a way to create really thin RFID tags — thin enough to be able to embed them in a sheet of paper. That could open up possibilities in stopping counterfeiting in bank notes or for tracking paper documents. It could also reduce the price of RFID tags, meaning they could be more widely used. North Dakota State University.
  • SNEAK PEEK: Imagine walking up to a shop window and after a few moments ads related to the object you’re looking at start to play. The SideWays eyetracking device uses an ordinary video camera and a special program to assess where you’re looking. It first recognises the corners of your eyes and then works out where your pupils are and which direction you’re looking in. A prototype device was able to track the gazes of 14 testers, though it can be confused by glasses and can’t recognise when people look up or down. The developers want to work next on being able to recognise multiple gazes at once. Before long the watchers will know more about us than we know ourselves. New Scientist.
  • FIRE LIGHT: Put the Voto in a hot cooking stove and the small fuel cell creates and stores energy for an LED light or to charge cell phones. The device has two parts: a fuel cell box contains fuel cards designed to derive energy from the heat of charcoal burning around the box. The other part is a rechargeable handle that remains outside the stove to collect and store the energy. Disconnect the handle after the fire cools and use it to charge a phone or light the included LED. The Voto is designed for developing nations where cookstoves and kerosene lamps are the norm. It’s a superb idea, though the initial cost could be a barrier for those who most need this and similar gadgets. Point Source Power.

Tech Universe: Friday 10 May 2013

  • A NEW WHEEL: Bike wheels have spokes, as we all know. Except for Loopwheels — bicycle wheels with integral suspension. They’re designed for smaller folding bikes that don’t usually have any room for suspension. The wheels reduce vibration and give a smoother ride. Rather than spokes radiating to the rim from a central hub, Loopwheels have 3 oval loops of carbon composite material between the hub and the rim. Aluminium extrusion connectors attach the springs to the hub and rim. That’s a clever idea. Loopwheels. Video:
  • THE WIND AND THE LIGHT: The new LED streetlights PingQuan, China are interesting. Rather than being connected to the grid via underground wires each one has its own HoYi! wind turbine, two 280 watt solar panels and a storage battery, allowing it to function completely off-grid. I guess maintenance costs could be quite a bit higher than regular streetlights though. Inhabitat.
  • DNA TO GO: Extracting DNA is no easy task, given that it involves a centrifuge, lots of toxic chemicals and 20 or 30 minutes of work. Researchers compare it with picking up human hairs using a crane. A handheld device from the University of Washington does the job easily in 3 minutes thanks to microscopic probes and electric fields. DNA-sized molecules stick to the probe and are trapped on the surface ready for collection and analysis. The handheld device can handle 4 human fluid samples at a time, but it should scale easily to handle the more usual 96. Perhaps this could be useful for crime scene forensics. University of Washington.
  • TB ON A STICK: If a doctor suspects you have TB it can take a couple of weeks to culture a sample and make a diagnosis that may or may not be accurate. A new microfluidic device the same size as a standard lab slide can reduce that wait time to a couple of hours. The new system detects DNA from the tuberculosis bacteria in small sputum samples. The device amplifies any target DNA sequences and captures them with polymer beads. Then a miniature nuclear magnetic resonance imager identifies the TB. Test results from known samples produced no false positives and were highly accurate. The device isn’t yet ready for real-life use yet, but it could be very valuable for controlling the spread of TB in developing countries. This move to handheld medicine is very encouraging. KurzweilAI.
  • TWO FACED ADS: There’s a poster on a bus stop in Spain. As seen by most adults it displays an innocuous message, but viewed from lower down, where a child would see it, there’s a phone number and information about getting help if you’re being abused. The aim of course is to help children even where they’re being accompanied by an adult who’s abusing them. The ad uses lenticular printing which many of us are familiar with from cards that show different pictures depending which way you turn them. How long until junk food advertisers twig to this? The Verge.