24 to 28 June 2013 Tech Universe Digest

Tech Universe: Monday 24 June 2013

  • STEP UP: How many ways are there to generate electricity? A lot, obviously. Now add one: the SolePower shoe insole that charges portable electronics while you walk. The generating device is built into a standard insole. The charging cable can be threaded with the laces and a small battery can be worn around the ankle or attached to the top of the shoe. As you walk or run the battery charges. When you need to charge your phone or other device plug it in to the battery. Nice: now a long walk with GPS active on your phone needn’t leave you with a dead phone at the end. SolePower.
  • CHEMICAL WARS: The human body is full of sodium and potassium, while computer devices use a lot of silicon. Unfortunately those chemicals don’t mix well, making it tricky to use silicon based devices such as sensors in and around humans. Such sensors could be particularly useful, for example, in detecting whether a patient is likely to reject a newly transplanted organ. Now researchers at Ohio State University have found that an aluminium oxide coating can protect a silicon sensor inside the body for up to 24 hours. Unfortunately the body still sees the coating as a foreign object, but it could be a short-term solution that makes some medical tests possible. That’s a little progress that could make a lot of difference to some people. GigaOm.
  • ARMOURED PHONE: Applying a plastic screen protector to phones and tablets has always been a hassle and they tend to reduce image quality. Liquid Armor is a nanotech coating that bonds to the surface at the molecular level, making it more resistant to water, dirt and scratches. So why aren’t manufacturers already coating screens with this? Liquid Armor.
  • A TWIST ON CORK: How to seal up bottles of wine? There’s the screw cap, or the cork you have to take a corkscrew to. Soon, though, there will also be the screw cork that has a thread matching a thread on the inside of the bottle top. Twist it out, and then twist it back in to save the rest of the wine. The Helix cork and bottle create an airtight seal and are the product of 4 years of testing and research. Let’s drink to that. The Drinks Business.
  • BIG GREEN: The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has produced an interactive cloud-free map of the world’s vegetation. The map is created from satellite data. Four of the 17 recorded channels generate 2 terabytes of data each week, and each week’s 80,000 x 40,000 pixel image is around 13 gigabytes in size, with a resolution of 500 metres per pixel. Pixel by pixel analysis of vegetation changes from week to week may give early warning for outbreaks of drought, hazardous fire conditions, or even when malaria may break out in Sub-Saharan Africa. I’m sure the big agencies will be using that map regularly. Green Vegetation.

Tech Universe: Tuesday 25 June 2013

  • NOW HEAR THIS: Sometimes you’d just like everyone around you to be quiet. But 3 year old Grayson Clamp in the US was thrilled to hear for the first time. Grayson didn’t receive hearing aids though. The problem was he was born without the crucial cochlear nerves that carry auditory signals from the inner ear to the brain. Doctors instead placed a microchip on his brain stem to bypass the cochlear nerves altogether. Adults have received such aids before to help them hear better but this is the first time it’s been used on someone who’s completely deaf. Doctors hope Grayson’s young brain will be able to adapt to use the implant to replace normal hearing. Kids these days can do almost anything it seems. CBS News.
  • BRAINS: The brain is a massively complex organ that researchers are studying closely. The European Human Brain project has spent 10 years cutting one donated brain into 7,400 slices and scanning each slice. The scans have created the BigBrain Atlas, an accessible, highly accurate 3D anatomical model of the human brain available to researchers. Each slice took about 1000 hours of nearly continuous labour to prepare and scan. The BigBrain Atlas is only one smaller part of the larger Human Brain project. That’s a very intensive scanning project. MedGadget. Video:
  • THE FABRIC TRAP: Bed bugs are particularly unpleasant and seem to be a growing problem. Thanks to a special material created by researchers at Stony Brook University though they may soon be less of a problem. A new Fibertrap fabric acts as a web of microfibres 50 times thinner than a human hair which entangle and trap bed bugs and other insects. The microfibres trap bed bugs by attaching to microstructures on their legs. That stops them moving, which prevents them from feeding and reproducing. The microfibres are safe for humans and pets, and unlike with chemical treatments the insects cannot develop a resistance. It’d be interesting to know if using the fabric in mosquito nets would help control mosquitoes too. Stony Brook University. Video:
  • HERE COMES THE SUN: SunnyBot is a lamp with a difference. Rather than shining a bulb on your work it captures and reflects actual sunlight towards any point you direct it to. The robot uses a fully automated intelligent optical positioning system to identify the position of the Sun and track it throughout the day. It rotates the mirror via two linear actuators to ensure your selected target is always illuminated. If the weather turns bad the robot puts itself on standby or turns itself off. Built-in solar cells keep the robot working. That first adjustment to point it to the right spot could be the tricky one. SunnyBot.
  • SWAP AND DRIVE: It takes a few minutes at a petrol station to refuel a car, while an electric vehicle can take hours to charge. A Tesla Model S though will be ready to go quicker than any other car. Pull into any suitably equipped Tesla station where the battery is replaced with a fully charged unit. It takes only a couple of minutes. The Tesla car is driven over a charging point. Automated equipment comes up under the car, unbolts the discharged battery and bolts in a charged one, tightening the bolts to factory specifications. Pay and drive away. Better hope they have a good supply of already charged batteries. Tesla.

Tech Universe: Wednesday 26 June 2013

  • GREEN ON THE GROUND: Planes do two main things. They fly through the air for the most part, needing powerful engines to do so. But they also spend a chunk of time moving around on the ground as they taxi into position or line up with the terminal. For taxiing they don’t need so much power — in fact, small electric motors could often do the job, saving on jet fuel, pollution and overall costs. The Electric Green Taxiing System powers electric motors on the aircraft’s main wheels. Power electronics and system controllers give pilots total control of the aircraft’s speed and direction during taxi operations. In some of those huge airports around the world using electric motors for taxiing could make a lot of difference. Green Taxiing.
  • IN THE FLOW: So you’re on your motorbike and need a bit of help with directions. Do you stop and unfold a paper map or haul out the GPS unit? Or do you simply issue a voice command to your helmet and see the information directly on your visor? Moscow-based LiveMap are going with an augmented reality GPS system built directly into a carbon fibre bike helmet. The system provides a full-colour, translucent picture projected right on the visor as in an F-35 fighter helmet. It provides an unobstructed view that doesn’t distract the rider. The developers are working on a prototype at the moment, and aim to release the helmet in the English-speaking world first, as that’s where voice recognition is best right now. I bet Ngauranga Gorge and Manukau don’t do well with voice recognition. LiveMap.
  • A SILENT RIDE: If you’re in the Special Forces the noise of a regular motor vehicle won’t help you sneak up on the bad guys. The Zero MMX electric motorcycle will though because it’s pretty much silent. Its heat signature is minimal and an override switch lets the headlight be turned off. The bike’s rugged enough to go through a metre of water, while a keyless ignition makes for quick starts. The battery packs can be swapped out in under a minute for the long distance missions but will carry a rider for a couple of hours at up to 135 Kph. Now, in the hands of the bad guys… Wired.
  • ON THE SPOT: At one time asbestos was very popular as an insulation material. Now it’s known to be dangerous to health, but is still present in many buildings. One problem is to know if asbestos fibres are floating around in the air, especially if tradespeople are working on a building, potentially stirring up fibres. Current methods mean hours of waiting, but a team from the University of Hertfordshire has created a low cost portable asbestos detector that gives on the spot results. The new devices shines a laser whose light is scattered by asbestos fibres in a pattern that gives them away. Presumably you have the point the thing in the right direction in the first place. Business Wire.
  • ROCKING THE ICE: What’s underneath all the Antarctic ice? A rocky landscape of mountains, rolling plains, gorges and valleys is the answer. In some spots that ice is 3 Km thick. The ice doesn’t just lie around on the landscape though. In many places it flows to the sea which can have an effect on sea levels around the planet. Bedmap2 is a map of the landscape beneath the ice. The map has been created by combining millions of data points from satellites, laser readings and ground measurements over two decades. Scientists will be able to use the map to model the behaviour of the ice sheet in the future, making more accurate predictions of behaviours that could affect the daily lives of each of us. Three kilometres of ice is almost impossible to imagine. British Antarctic Survey.

Tech Universe: Thursday 27 June 2013

  • A WALK IN THE PARK: Volvo would like to save you the agony of driving round a huge car park looking for an empty spot. Their concept car finds and parks in a vacant space all by itself, without the driver inside. It’s also smart enough to interact with other cars and pedestrians without calamities. Transmitters in the road let the driver know the service is available. The driver activates Autonomous Parking from a smartphone then walks away from the car. They can pick the car up later at the same place. That could be so handy in parking buildings. Volvo Car Group.
  • BOTTLE, WHAT BOTTLE?: Look, if it’s a frosty cold drink you’re after then why not just make the bottle out of ice? In Colombia, known to be rather warm, Coke have launched a bottle made out of ice. No need to deal with an empty can, glass or plastic bottle, just drop it on the ground when you’re done. It’s an eco-friendly bottle, for sure, unless you consider how much energy it must take to keep the bottles frozen from factory to end customer. Adverblog.
  • SUN AND WIND: Wind turbine? Solar power? Why choose? The McCamley turbine encases wind turbine blades in an outer frame topped with solar cells. The structure is friendly to bats and birds too as the outer frame keeps them away from the blades. The lightweight turbines are designed for cities and intended to go on top of buildings, with several legs to distribute the load. The design is compact and makes hardly any noise. There are so many options these days for alternative power University of Bath.
  • SIMPLY LIGHT: It seems everyone wants to bring light to developing countries so they can get away from kerosene lamps. The S1 Solar LED Lamp is another contender. A day’s charge with the integrated solar panel allow the LEDs to provide 4 hours of light. Or, with access to grid power, a couple of hours charging will do the trick. The light has an adjustable handle so it can point towards the sun in the day or hang from a wall or stand on a table at night. Maybe they could add in a tiny wind power generator too? D.light Design.
  • UP, DOWN, UP: How often does your electricity go out? It’s a nuisance when it does, but after all, in places like New Zealand the power supply is pretty reliable. Of course, you may lose Internet for a bit, but the power comes back, your modem flashes its lights and all’s well. Not so in places like Africa where the electricity supply is really unreliable. That’s where the BRCK modem comes in to keep you online whatever happens. It works like a mobile phone, switching between wi-fi and 3G when a fixed line network is down. Add a SIM card to connect anywhere in reach of a cell tower. An 8 hour battery and an antenna to boost signal strength mean it can work almost anywhere. It’d be very handy for disaster relief too. BBC.

Tech Universe: Friday 28 June 2013

  • SPIN DRIFT: The Rosphere from the Technical University of Madrid is intended to travel regularly around fields to monitor conditions and tell farmers the best time to water or otherwise tend their crops. As a sphere though it needs a way to make it move and keep it going if it’s not on a slope. The trick, it seems, is to have control systems swing on a spindle at the centre of the hollow device. The swing of the electronics inside makes the sphere roll. Drive wheels at either end of the spindle allow for setting the ball in motion, or for steering by moving just one drive wheel. Cameras, sensors and comms form the working parts of the sphere which can also be remote controlled. It would be interesting to add a mechanism like that to a football just for fun. BBC.
  • POWER HUNGRY: If you’re travelling with your laptop you may want to conserve as much battery juice as possible. But on the other hand perhaps you really need to plug in that USB peripheral you’ve been toting along. Maybe it would help to know just how much power each device draws. The Centech USB Power Meter plugs into the computer’s USB port and then you plug the peripheral into it. An integrated LED display shows you just how much power that device is drawing. It has several modes, including real-time, per second average, maximum and minimum. Knowing how power hungry a device is and then being able to do something about it are unfortunately very different things. Everything USB.
  • BRIGHT EYES: Facial recognition is popping up everywhere these days in the name of safety and security, or even just thanks to casual photos by folks on the street. The privacy glasses being developed by Japan’s National Institute of Informatics aim to help. Light from near-infrared LEDs on the glasses can’t be seen by the human eye, but appears bright on an image recorded by a camera. Eleven lights are placed near the eyes and nose as these are crucial for facial recognition. Of course, for cameras that aren’t affected by infra-red light this particular method won’t work. Just look for the person in the weird glasses, you can’t miss her! DigInfo TV.
  • COOL RUNNING: The TriMet Portland-Milwaukie light rail line in the USA has been designed to capture power from braking trains and use it for accelerating trains. As trains brake the energy released is stored in a supercapacitor, rather than being lost as heat. When demand spikes, such as when trains accelerate, the supercapacitor delivers instantaneously. Lose some, win some. Wired.
  • FLIGHT PATHS: Unlike buses, or planes for that matter, trains assemble a group of carriages to be towed by one engine. The carriages can hold passengers or cargo, can be dropped off by one engine and picked up by another to reach the correct destination. Clip-Air wants to apply that concept to air travel. A pilot would be in charge of engines, wings and a framework that can pick up modules. Passengers or cargo would be assembled into modules to be carried by a plane. In that way an aircraft could carry perhaps two modules of passengers and one of cargo, leaving each at a different airport along a route and picking up other modules. And best of all, perhaps we cattle class customers wouldn’t have to suffer the business class with their leg room, beds and fancy meals as they could be segregated into a module on their own. Clip-Air.
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