19 to 13 December 2013 Tech Universe Digest

Tech Universe: Monday 09 December 2013

  • LEAN ON THIS: A carved wooden cane to help you walk, or at least keep you from falling, can be a thing of beauty. But the Isowalk has brains in its favour. It’s shaped to make it move with you as you walk, and it conforms itself to each individual user. The intelligent walking aid is made of carbon fibre and urethanes, has a shaped and tilted handle and a moving foot-shaped foot that mean it automatically positions itself for each next step. The hand grip is designed to be comfortable to hold and can be reversed to fit either hand. The developers are also creating a connection kit to interact with a smartphone to track distance, recovery and location, and biometric data such as cardiovascular levels. It seems that even just in the shape of it the walking aid beats out a wooden cane. Isowalk. Video:
  • PUSH LESS RIDE MORE: The Copenhagen Wheel was developed at MIT to turn an ordinary pedal-powered bike into an electric bike. The wheel replaces the rear wheel from your bike and connects with a smartphone app. The smart wheel learns how you pedal, captures energy when you brake or go downhill and can provide a boost when you need some extra push. The technology is contained within a casing that sits around the hub and inside the spokes of the wheel. If it just replaces a regular wheel you may need to watch out for thieves nipping off with it, though the app provides a lock feature. Superpedestrian.
  • RUN FOR THE PHONE: If you’re the kind of person who goes for a morning jog then add a myPower device to give your phone a day’s charge while you run. The device clips to your hip and stores the kinetic energy from your run so you can later charge your phone. 45 minutes of running with myPower can give your iPhone an extra 7 to 8 hours of battery life. Nice idea, once it comes to market. myPower.
  • GO FOR A SPIN: The PAL-V ONE is a 2 seater hybrid car and gyroplane: a personal air and land vehicle. On the ground it’s a 3-wheeled motorcycle, so just drive from home to the airport. At the airport spend a few minutes unfolding the single rotor and propeller. Then take off and fly below 1,200 metres to your destination. The vehicle can reach speeds of up to 180 Kph both on land and in the air. Getting the pilot’s licence may be one of the biggest stumbling blocks for the vehicle. PAL-V.
  • DRONE ALONE: Online retailer Amazon want to speed up shipping to customers who live within 16 Km of one of their distribution centres. They plan to introduce drones to ship smaller packages. The drone would pick the package off a line in the warehouse and drop it at its destination, then return for the next package. First though Amazon need approval from the Federal Aviation Administration and to sort out safety issues. How the drone chooses the drop site is an interesting question. Prime Air.


Tech Universe: Tuesday 10 December 2013

  • RECURSIVE WASTE: Jet engines are notoriously noisy. Using piezoelectric material, engineers built an extremely sensitive and thin aluminium membrane to capture vibrations caused by the sound and turn them into electricity. The sensors don’t produce a lot of electricity: it’s just enough to power a noise-cancelling device to quieten the jets. The same technique could be used to reduce the noise of industrial machinery. That’s a nice touch: capture a waste product and use it to reduce the waste. Discovery News.
  • SHOW PHONE: The Russian YotaPhone features 2 screens: one normal capacitive touch screen on the front and an extra e-ink screen on the back. The e-ink screen’s always on and can display information without waking the phone. That should translate to longer battery life. The Android phone features a 1.5GHz dual-core processor and a 12 megapixel rear camera. That could be handy for displaying things like addresses or maps while you find your way to a destination. BBC.
  • GIANT AT SEA: The Prelude FLNG is a ship, a very big ship in fact. The Floating Liquefied Natural Gas facility will be the biggest floating production facility in the world. It’s 488 metres long and 74 metres wide, and will displace around 600,000 tonnes of water — the same amount of water as 6 of the largest aircraft carriers. It will draw 50 million litres of cold water from the ocean every hour to help cool the 5.3 million tonnes per annum of liquids it will produce. The massive vessel is headed for the Browse Basin off Australia. So presumably it will add an equal amount of warm or hot water back into the ocean. I wonder how the fish and other creatures will respond to that. Shell.
  • A STEP CHANGE: A Mexican entrepreneur has developed a low-cost system to capture energy from cars driving along the road, or even from pedestrians. The idea is to use a polymer ramp step around 5 cm high. As the vehicle passes over the ramp it compresses a bellows which compresses air. The air passes through a hose and eventually to a turbine that produces electricity. Constantly squeezing steps would make walking a bit of an adventure, and I suspect drivers wouldn’t enjoy the ride. Alpha Galileo.
  • PARTICLE PILLS: Nanoparticles that carry drugs right to where they’re needed in the body may be the key to sorting out what ails you. One limiting factor though is that they need to be injected. US researchers have developed a type of nanoparticle that can be delivered in pill form. These nanoparticles are coated with antibodies that interact with the walls of the intestine, allowing the nanoparticles to enter the bloodstream. Tests in mice have had success, so it still may be a few years before you’ll be swallowing a nanoparticle pill before breakfast. MIT News.

Tech Universe: Wednesday 11 December 2013

  • THE AI OF CROWDS: Crowds can lead to people being crushed or trampled, but researchers in Saudi Arabia are developing an artificial intelligence system to spot the dangers. First black and white images are reduced to pixelated outlines where more pixels suggest more people, though clothing can confuse the readings. Then infrared cameras read body heat. Data goes to a neural network that learns the characteristic features of crowd movement. When the team tested the system on footage of a hajj pilgrimage it produced results like those from human spotters. Although a hajj can bring a million or more people together, a system like this could be useful in places like railway stations and for watching crowds that form spontaneously, such as at marches and rallies. That could have interesting applications for traffic flow too. New Scientist.
  • MAKE MANY BONES: The neurosurgeon in Alabama needed to do a very tricky surgery attaching metal plates to neck bones without damaging the spinal cord. After making some CT scans, he turned to a desktop 3D printer and printed out the bones he’d be working on at actual size. With an actual model in hand he could order screws and plates that fit the 3D printed spine model, and work out how to direct the screws. Ultimately the surgery on Sophi the tiny Yorkshire Terrier took much less time than usual for such operations and has given Sophi back her freedom to play. Medical specialists of all kinds must find the possibilities of 3D printing very powerful. Makerbot.
  • FAST AND FAR: The 200 HP Voxan Wattman motorbike can reach 100 Kph in 3.4 seconds and has a top speed of over 160 Kph. That’s not bad for an electric bike whose 12.8 kWh battery takes only 30 minutes to charge to 80% from a household socket. A full charge will take the bike almost 200 Km. This isn’t a little shopping bike then. Voxan.
  • SPRAY AND BREATHE: One way to kill pathogens, for example in commercial kitchens, is to use heat or dangerous chemicals such as chlorine. Another way is to use ozone which can kill things like like e-coli, salmonella, staph aureus and pseudomonas a. The Eco3Spray is a handheld spray bottle that converts tap water into ozone on demand using a diamond electrolytic process. Workers can spray ozone onto surfaces, leaving no residue, rather than handling hazardous chemicals. It sounds too easy. Eco3Spray.
  • TREASURE THE TECH: The technology we use today relies heavily on all kinds of metals. Researchers at Yale University studied how easy it would be to substitute other metals if one suddenly became unavailable, and the news was bad. For some widely used metals such as copper, chromium, manganese and lead, no good substitutes exist for their major uses. Rare earth elements, including the dysprosium needed for computers and wind turbines, europium and yttrium, used in flat panel displays, and thulium and ytterbium, used in laser technologies would also be extremely hard to replace. Their conclusion? We’d better make sure we recycle the metals we rely on — which makes good sense anyway. Yale News.

Tech Universe: Thursday 12 December 2013

  • UPHILL’S A BREEZE: Skiers and snowboarders like to slide down mountains, and often aren’t excited by the need to use a chairlift or rope tow to be hauled up again. The UpSki is designed to make going up much more fun. It’s effectively a round 4.5 Kg kite or parachute that the skier attaches to a harness on their body and that pulls them along. The kite is controlled by the attached short lines. The biggest problems seem to be that the sail can block the skier’s view of what’s ahead and there may be a risk of tangling skis in the lines. UpSki.
  • A VIEW UNFOLDS: Optical telescopes need huge chunks of heavy glass to do their work. For telescopes that go into space the glass is fragile, bulky and very costly to deal with. DARPA’s Membrane Optical Imager for Real-Time Exploitation program aims to use lightweight polymer membrane optics instead of glass. Membrane optics diffract light rather than reflecting or refracting it. In the past such membranes have been to inefficient to use but DARPA has been able to increase the efficiency to 55%. The membrane is etched with circular concentric grooves that focus the light onto a sensore which converts it into an image. The light weight of the membrans, which are about as thick as kitchen plastic wrap, could allow for giant space telescopes perhaps 20 metres across that unfold when they reach their destination. Etching grooves on plastic that thin will be a challenge. DARPA.
  • LEND AN ARM: When you exercise your muscles after an injury it would help to be able to see exactly the effect of each particular movement. The R-cloud support robot does just that for arm rehabilitation. Sensors measure the force of each muscle and the angle of the arm then send the data to a screen that overlays the information graphically on an image of the arm. The robot also has pneumatic muscles that assist the user with required movements. Measurements are also added to a database to help with rehabilitation training in future. That would surely also be useful for athletes to help them train for sports such as archery where correct arm movements are fundamental. DigInfo.tv.
  • INKED TO THE BONE: If you’re unlucky an accident may damage your bones. In future a surgeon may turn to the BioPen to reconstruct the bone. The BioPen, from the University of Wollongong, is a handheld device that works like a 3D printer. In the pen head it combines cell material inside a biopolymer with a gel material then the surgeon draws with the ink mixture to fill in a damaged section of bone. A low powered ultra-violet light source attached to the pen solidifies the material while the surgeon works. Once the material has been applied the cells multiply and rebuild the damaged area. That’s a new way for surgeons to sign their work. University of Wollongong.
  • YOUR SHOE IS CALLING: As with all sports and exercise you need to take some care when running so you don’t sprain something or tear a ligament. That’s why researchers from the Fraunhofer Institute are developing a smart running shoe. Sensors and microelectronics integrated into the sole of the shoe collect data about the runner and warn them about incorrect foot position, asymmetric loading, exhaustion or overload. The system includes accelerometers and GPS sensors, a microcontroller, RF module, and batteries. Data goes via Bluetooth to a smartphone app and on to a website that can sort out a customised training programme. Recharge the shoes by placing them on the charger. It’s not quite a shoephone, but may be better. Fraunhofer.

Tech Universe: Friday 13 December 2013

  • WHERE THE WIND BLOWS: Skyscrapers are very exposed to the wind, and at 530 metres tall the Pertamina Energy Tower to be built in Jakarta will be well placed to harvest wind energy. The tower features an integrated wind funnel at the top to generate electricity from prevailing air currents. Interestingly the tower will be the headquarters for state-owned oil and gas corporation. A curved facade and exterior sun shades will also help save energy by reducing the need for artificial lighting and providing shade from the hot equatorial sun. The building should be complete by 2020. It’s good to see big oil exploring alternatives. Dezeen.
  • FAST FOOD: The European Splendid project aims to help kids eat better and adopt healthier lifestyles. Kids in Sweden and The Netherlands will use various sensors to track how they eat. One sensor functions like a scale, measuring how quickly food leaves the plate placed on it. Another is a wearable microphone that records how the wearer chews their food. Study participants will also provide information about how full they feel after a meal, how much they’ve eaten and exercised. Medical experts will analyse the data and give the kids advice about diet and exercise. BBC.
  • MOVING DATA: Garments from Athos in Canada are designed to help you work out. As you move the apparel records and analyses movements of up to 14 muscles, breath and heartbeat, while a 3-axis accelerometer tracks motion. The sensors in the clothing send data via Bluetooth to your smartphone where an app translates it into meaningful information. Remove the sensors before washing the clothes though. That’s some serious motion tracking. Athos.
  • SWALLOW THE TAN: Batteries that contain lithium can be dangerous in devices used inside the human body. So a team from Carnegie Mellon University are developing a battery that relies on melanin, a pigment that occurs naturally in our skin when we tan, and sodium ions in a steel mesh structure. The power output is low compared with standard batteries, but it could run a device for up to 5 hours. The researchers found that natural melanin is better at holding charge than synthetic versions. New Scientist.
  • DEATH AND THE ROBOT: The Virtobot is a robot designed for forensic autopsies. The robot can collect the imaging equipment it needs, including still and 3D images, and then scan the body with various sensors and in predetermined patterns. It can also place markers and carry out a CT scan. The robot can also analyse the images it receives. That sounds like a robot that will be specially useful during natural and other disasters with high death rates. MedGadget.
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