Tech Universe: Monday 15 July 2013
- NODDING ALONG: You may use a wheelchair, but if you’re paralysed from the neck down controlling it is a challenge. Unless you go for the new GyroSet system. It does away with things like chin-controlled joysticks or puffer tubes that make talking almost impossible. Instead the wheelchair user wears a headset. The headset constantly detects the position of the head, sending data wirelessly to an Android tablet that interprets the movements and signals the electric wheelchair to move. It’s just a tilt to the left and a lean to the right. GyroSet.
- USE A MAP: Here you are relaxing on your way home as your car drives itself when it suddenly comes to a dead stop. You look around to see you’re in a tunnel. The car lost its GPS signal and no longer knows where it is. Do you a) walk to the nearest exit? That scenario could be a bit of an oops. A team at the Toyota Technological Institute in Chicago realised it would be helpful for a car to scan its surroundings as it drives itself and then compare what it sees to a map. Two cameras on the car feed images to an app that compares the route to a map from OpenStreetMap. Intersections, bends in the road and a motion sensor all help determine where the car is at any given moment. It takes only 20 seconds of driving on average to work out where the car is. When tested in Karlsruhe, Germany, the system placed the car to within 3 metres of its actual position as measured by a GPS unit. It’s night time and you’re relaxing as your car drives itself … New Scientist.
- PIPES ALIVE: Nuclear power plants are complex places with some very dangerous and often radioactive parts. Nevertheless, to keep them working well it’s a good idea to inspect them carefully. It’s the kind of job a snake robot from the Carnegie Mellon Biorobotics Lab can handle superbly. The robots carry a camera so they can send images back to base and can go around multiple bends in pipes, unlike conventional borescopes. Hmm, presumably if the robot snake has been inside a radioactive chamber it will be radioactive itself: different snakes for different pipes. GigaOm.
- POWER TO THE PEOPLE: The Akademik Lomonosov won’t be so much a ship as a floating nuclear power plant — the first of a series. By 2016 the Russian vessel will be able to provide energy and heat to hard to reach areas as well as drinking water to arid regions. The floating power plant displaces 21,500 tons, carries a crew of 69 and can power a city of 200,000. The vessel can also be modified to work as a desalination plant producing 240,000 cubic metres of fresh water per day. It can’t propel itself though so has to be towed to its destination. I guess they’ll need robot snakes too. RT News.
- CANNED HEAT: Scared off by the price of solar panels, or that these days they seem to be full of nanotech? One enterprising resident of Seattle made his own panels from recycled drink cans and some plastic tubing. He uses the system to keep his home office warm. It took 275 cans, flat black spray paint, a couple of fans from old computers and some Plexiglass. The solar-powered fans suck cold air from the office into a frame, the sun heats the air as it passes through the cans and then warm air flows into the office. That’s pretty clever. Fair Companies.
Tech Universe: Tuesday 16 July 2013
- TIME BALL: The Bradley is a wristwatch. It has neither digital display nor hands though: instead it has a couple of magnetic balls that indicate hour and minute to those who touch or look at it. The watch face has ridges that mark out 12 hours. The hour ball runs around a channel on the side of the watch, and the minute ball uses a channel on the top. If the magnetic connection is lost a gentle shake restores it. Eone.
- TOUCHING TONES: Imagine if the exact position of your fingers on a piano key could affect the sound that was produced. TouchKeys add a capacitive surface to keys on any piano-style keyboard. Sensor overlays precisely measure the location, contact area and even pressure of the player’s fingers on the key surfaces. Data goes via USB to a computer to control synthesis software to create expressive effects including vibrato, pitch bends, timbre changes and improved emulations of non-keyboard instruments. Learning to play keyboard could have just become a lot harder. TouchKeys.
- HEAD SHOT: Those who play sports are liable to suffer impacts to the head. But how serious is that impact? The Reebok Checklight is a cap that can be work under a helmet or on its own. A green light on a tab at the back shows the cap is on and functioning. A yellow light reports a moderate impact, while a red light indicates a severe impact. The cap’s gyroscope, accelerometers, and microprocessor are connected through flexible electronics for a real-time impact display. With the light behind the head, an audible alarm could be a handy thing too. Reebok.
- COUGH HERE: Pneumonia kills many children all round the world, yet it’s easy to treat with antibiotics. Part of the problem is that in some places it’s not easy to get access to a trained healthcare worker who can diagnose the distinctive cough by listening to it. Researchers from Australia and Indonesia recorded children with and without pneumonia coughing then trained a computer algorithm to tell the difference. The algorithm is very accurate and requires only a microphone and small computer. In fact, it would make an ideal smartphone app. It’s starting to seem as though one of the most effective forms of aid to some developing countries would be smartphones and the services they need to support them. Healthline.
- OFF BY ONE: How long is a year, a day, a second? Scientists need an incredibly accurate measure. Since 1967, the second has been defined as the duration of 9,192,631,770 oscillations of the microwave radiation absorbed or emitted when a caesium atom jumps between two particular energy states. Special clocks called Caesium atomic-fountain clocks are used to measure this frequency and set national time standards. But these clocks aren’t accurate enough: after 100 million years they may be out by as much as one second. Now scientists are working with optical lattice clocks that measure the average emission frequency from several thousand trapped atoms, rather than just a single atom. There’s no room for rough and ready estimations in that work. Nature.
Tech Universe: Wednesday 17 July 2013
- SPY TRICKS: There’s been no doubt recently that communications via the Internet or even just computers are wide open to being spied on. We still need to get messages across space and time though, and can’t always hold a private conversation in a sealed room. Apparently Russia’s handling this by buying electric typewriters to prepare top-secret documents. They seem to realise that won’t stop leaks though, with their statement that ‘every typewriter has its own individual pattern of type so it is possible to link every document to a machine used to type it’. We need a worldwide Cone of Silence. AFP.
- CHAT FOR DUMMIES: That 14 year old girl chatting online may not only not be 14, or a girl, she may in fact not even be a person. Negobot is a chatbot from the Spanish University of Deusto whose purpose is to fool sexual predators into believing she is real. The bot starts off as a passive and neutral participant in general online chatter. If groomed though the bot relies on game theory to provide convincing conversation that is not flat and predictable in the way chatbots usually are. What’s more her chat is designed to use typos, and language errors typical of teenage girls. Negobot has already been implemented and trialled actively on Google’s chat service. Make her adult and there are clear possibilities for a useful service that clients would pay for. Independent.
- THE THINKING ARM: The wearer of a Modular Prosthetic Limb controls the robotic arm with their thoughts. The modular limb can replace the natural arm’s motor and sensory function and includes 100 sensors that feed back temperature, pressure, joint angles and acceleration. Where nerves and muscles are still viable the prosthesis makes use of them. Quadriplegics though need cortical implants to convey neuronal information to electronic sensors in the prosthesis. Those who wear the limb need to do up to to 30 minutes a day of mental imagery exercises to re-establish the cortical signals that control the arm and hand. Surely daily use would cover that exercise? University of Arizona.
- LEGS OF GOLD: Our human skin can simultaneously sense touch, humidity and temperature, but at the moment artificial skin can detect only touch. That means that someone with a prosthetic limb is missing out on useful sensations. A team at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology is working on a flexible sensor that could add those sensations to artificial limbs. Their sensor uses gold nanoparticles laid on a plastic substrate. How thick the substrate is and how it bends allow it to detect pressure and sensitivity. The new system is at least 10 times more sensitive in touch than current touch-based e-skin systems. Little by little prosthetic limbs are closing in on the real thing. American Technion Society.
- ATLAS UNBOUND: ATLAS is a 2 metre tall 150 Kg bipedal robot that may go to work for the US military. Hydraulically driven joints allow it to not only carry heavy objects but adjust very quickly if it loses its balance. The head includes a lidar so it can create a 3D map of its surroundings. At the moment it has a tether for power and cooling water, but the developers aim to make a version without a tether. DARPA say its purpose will be humanitarian rather than adversarial. Our favourite robots. Technology Review.
Tech Universe: Thursday 18 July 2013
- 5 BY 5: That last hard drive you bought may well have been a 3 terabyte monster, but researchers at the University of Southampton hope to increase that to 360 terabytes on a medium that can withstand heat up to 1000 C and last forever. The data is recorded via self-assembled nanostructures created in fused quartz, using polarised light to write files with a laser in layers of nanostructured dots separated by 5 millionths of a metre. The information encoding is realised in 5 dimensions: the size and orientation in addition to the three dimensional position of these nanostructures. The fives have it. University of Southampton.
- A FORK ON THE ROAD: The first thing you may notice about the Strassenfeger II, Querschläger II and Brandstifter II electric bicycles from Electrolyte is that instead of two front forks there is only one rather bulky fork. That fork though contains a 250 watt motor, 320 Wh battery pack and electrical controller that can drive the bike for between 60 and 100 Km at up to 25 Kph. Having all that gear in the fork protects it from weather and dirt and also shaves some 10 Kg off the weight compared with similar electric bikes. You have to wonder why there’s no right fork to spread the load. Gizmag.
- SCOOTS AND LEAVES: The Belgian Be.e is a frameless bio-composite electric scooter, with a monocoque body made from plants instead of plastic and steel. The monocoque body’s external skin supports the load without needing a frame or plastic panels. The even better news is that the flax and bio-resin used in the body are sustainable, lightweight and strong. Waarmakers. Video:
- DOG DISCUSSIONS: The FIDO system is wearable technology for dogs. Imagine you’re an emergency responder whose dog is searching rubble. Wouldn’t it be useful if the dog could send back detailed messages such as that a person they’ve located is dead or alive? One early test device equipped a dog vest with an Arduino microprocessor and 4 different sensors. The dogs could activate the sensors to set off a tone by biting, tugging or just putting their mouth nearby. Next up is obviously to train the dogs to assess injuries too. Technology Review.
- SENSOR ON A STICK: It’s very useful to be able to sense and measure temperature and humidity in the environment, but if sensors are large, bulky and costly that’s definitely a hindrance. Researchers in Japan have created a small, thin stick-on sensor that also costs comparatively little, and even powers itself. The devices include a highly integrated MEMS sensor, an antenna and a power generation and storage layer made from an organic semiconductor nanofibre that’s still being developed. Each sensor becomes part of a wireless network that sends data to a central processor. Sensors can detect various environmental factors such as CO2, temperature, infrared light, dust, and even electromagnetic field strength. The question is though, what surfaces will they stick to, and will they too readily fall off? Phys.org.
Tech Universe: Friday 19 July 2013
- UPLIFTING SOUNDS: Sound waves with frequencies just above human hearing can levitate tiny particles and liquid droplets and even move them around. Researchers from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology found a way to move droplets of liquid by using multiple vibrating plates, each generating its own sound frequency. Varying the frequency allowed them to move the acoustic field and the liquid trapped inside. The team were also able to merge liquids with solids, dissolving coffee in a water droplet, and to lift and spin larger objects, such as toothpicks. They aim to eventually move dense objects such as steel by changing the shape of the reflecting surface to create a stronger acoustic force. This technique could perhaps be developed to allow chemical components to be combined without touching hard surfaces that could contaminate them, or in working with DNA. A sound prospect. Science.
- BOTS IN BALANCE: The gymnast spins round the horizontal bar, releases, and executes a perfect landing. This isn’t the Olympic Games though, but a bipedal robot gymnast capable of executing flips, handsprings, and high-bar acrobatics. Now I want to see them on the rings. io9.
- PUZZLE PROOF: Jigsaw puzzles for kids have a few large pieces, while those for adults have many and more delicate parts. The Karlsruhe Institute of Technology though used sophisticated injection moulding tools to create a jigsaw puzzle that has only 3 pieces, each less than 1 mm in size. They used lithography, electrodeposition, and moulding, while the moulds themselves are created with the help of X-ray deep-etch lithography. The puzzle pieces prove a highly accurate precision process for producing microstructures from various metals, ceramics, or plastics. Such tiny parts may be used in watches, engines, or medical products. And tiny jigsaw puzzles. Karlsruhe Institute of Technology.
- JUST ADD WATER: Cube satellites orbiting Earth have become popular recently, but how about sending the tiny spacecraft deeper into space? That’s the idea behind the CubeSat Ambipolar Thruster — to send a 5 kg satellite into deep space to explore asteroids and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, but at 1/1000th the cost of previous missions. The propellant for the thruster is unusual: water, ionised into a superheated plasma and exhausted behind the craft to drive it forwards. The thrust is low, but long in duration and very efficient. The spacecraft will be launched into low Earth orbit then climb into deep space in a spiral pattern to escape Earth. CubeSat Ambipolar Thruster.
- DEEP MARS: The Mars Express spacecraft carries High Resolution Stereo Cameras as part of its mission to study the martian atmosphere and climate, mineralogy and geology, and to search for traces of water. Thanks to those cameras we can now fly through Hebes Chasma in the northernmost part of Valles Marineris in high resolution. The almost 5 minute movie starts by zooming in on the whole planet to locate the 8 Km deep Hebes Chasma not far from the equator on Mars and then tours the area in stunning detail. That’s a superb way to make what could be dry data real. European Space Agency.