20 to 24 January 2014 Tech Universe Digest

There was no Tech Universe on Monday 20 January 2014.

Tech Universe: Tuesday 21 January 2014

  • TALKING INTO THE WIND: How about putting a wind farm in your phone? Researchers at the University of Texas have designed and tested micro-windmills each about 1.8 mm at its widest point. 10 tiny windmills could fit on a grain of rice, while hundreds could be embedded into a sleeve for a smartphone. Wave the phone in the air or hold it by the window on a breezy day to recharge it. Hundreds or thousands of the windmills could be manufactured on a single wafer at low cost. The question is, how long would it take to charge the phone? University of Texas.
  • HEAD START: If you hit your head hard the brain keeps going inside your skull and starts to crumple. The result can be concussion or brain damage. If you fall off a bike at 24 Kph your brain may be subjected to a force of around 220G. After around 300G you’re sure to suffer serious brain damage. Conventional polystyrene helmets are designed to absorb some of the energy and give your skull and brain more time to slow down, reducing the force of impact. One British designer has found that cardboard, formed into a dual offset honeycomb design, crumples and absorbs more of the impact so you experience around 70G rather than 220G. That gives your brain longer to slow down and can reduce the risk of serious injury even further. The helmets are already on sale in the UK. Those are some seriously high impact forces. BBC.
  • OPEN SPACES: It’s so frustrating when you can’t find a space to park your vehicle near your destination. But equip parking spaces with sensors that detect when they’re occupied and Audi’s Urban Intelligent Assist can sort that out for you. A smartphone app connects with the car’s on-board navigation system which can then display which streets have spots and when they may open up, based on historical data and nearby events. The app can also work out how long it’ll take for you to reach your destination, even taking into account your driving style which the app learns as you drive. Which could all just increase your frustration when the driver ahead of you steals the space. Wired.
  • A DUSTY JOB: Astronomers want to study the dust grains that form around dying stars and then go on to create planets and stars. That’s impossible to do on site so they’re planning to create the atmosphere of a star in the lab. Project Nanocosmos will build 3 five metre long machines working with hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, silicon, titanium, iron and other metals at 1500 C. The simulation chambers in Spain and France will allow them to study physical and chemical processes that create interstellar dust. So, no travel perks with that job. Gizmodo.
  • BOOST THE BUS: In Milton Keynes in the UK 8 new electric buses will take to the roads soon. After charging overnight via cable the bus travels 25 Km along its assigned Number 7 route between Bletchley and Wolverton. At each end of the route a wireless induction charger is embedded in the road and the driver lowers a charging plate beneath the bus. During a 10 minute rest stop the bus receives a booster charge ready for another run. The booster charges mean the buses can use smaller, lighter batteries that in turn reduce the power required to run the bus. That seems so much better than ugly overhead trolley wires. BBC.

Tech Universe: Wednesday 22 January 2014

Bee with backpack.

Bee with backpack.

  • BUZZ FOR BIZ: A bee with a backpack! Bee populations are in decline around the world and that’s bad news for pollinating plants of all kinds, but especially our food supplies. Australian researchers are attaching 2.5mm x 2.5mm chips to 5,000 honey bees around Hobart. As the bees approach known food sources or hives recorders capture the data from the chips and build up a picture of bee behaviour and the way the insects move through the landscape. The data will be used to help farmers and others increase productivity. That’s a lot of buzz for business. CSIRO News.
  • WHEEL ON BOARD: A skateboard has so many wheels, and you have to push it to get it going. Future Motion’s Onewheel is an electric vehicle that puts a single self-balancing large wheel in the middle of a board and drives it with a direct drive electric hub motor. To ride the board you put one foot on each side of the wheel: one in front and one behind, and lean to steer it. The LiFePO4 battery has a range of 6 to 9 Km and carries you at up to 20 Kph. The fast charger takes 20 minutes for a full charge. The whole board weighs 11 Kg. That’s a bit of weight to carry if the battery dies or once you reach your destination. Future Motion.
  • JUMPING JACKS: Plug your phone in to charge over night and once it’s fully charged the rest of the time is just wasted. The JUMP charging cable from Native Union puts that wasted time to good use. The cable includes a small lithium polymer battery pack. Once the device detects that the phone is fully charged it starts charging itself. When you grab your phone in the morning, grab the cable too. If you run out of juice the small battery pack in the charging cable can charge the phone to about one third. That’s a very clever idea. Native Union. Video:
  • OFF-ROAD NAVIGATION: The CycleNav Smart Bike Navigator from Schwinn connects with an app on your Bluetooth smartphone, attaches to the handlebars and helps you navigate within the USA with flashing lights and spoken directions. An Instant Replay button lets you hear any directions you just missed. The device includes a headlight and a rechargeable battery that lasts 10 hours while the phone app handles stats for the ride. Directions specific for cyclists rather than just driving directions meant for cars is a handy feature. Schwinn Bikes.
  • CHANGE IN CHARGE: It’s possible to charge devices wirelessly, but the distances involved have to be very small. Researchers at Duke University can extend that range with a superlens using low-frequency magnetic fields. The lens is an array of hollow blocks etched with spirals of copper wire. The coils transmit and confine magnetic fields into a narrow cone of focused high intensity power. More development could perhaps mean that in future devices can be wirelessly charged wherever they are in a suitably equipped room. That could work wonders for electric vehicles too. Duke University.

Tech Universe: Thursday 23 January 2014

  • HIGH SPEED WINE: As you pour that next glass of wine think about how many grapes went into making it and how the grapes were selected. Pickers get the grapes from the vine but only the ripe ones must go on through for processing. Traditionally this has been done manually, but an optical grape sorter machine can do it faster. Each morning the vintner selects 200 perfect grapes and feeds them into the sorter which takes photos and creates a composite image of an ideal grape. Then bulk grapes are fed in and the machine snaps a picture of each at 10,000 frames per second. Each grape is compared to the ideal and selected for wine or ejected with a blast of air. Where 15 people can sort 2 tons of grapes per hour the machine takes only 12 minutes. That kind of repetitive work is exactly what computers should be doing. Modern Farmer.
  • ROGUE CURTAINS: A lot of heat can come into a building when the sun shines through windows. In large office blocks air conditioning may compensate for that, at the cost of some electricity. Researchers at the University of California have developed a smart curtain fabric that doesn’t need batteries, processors or electricity to work. The fabric expands when lit up and contracts when the light goes off. Take a plastic polycarbonate membrane and layer on carbon nanotubes to create the smart fabric. As the nanotubes absorb light they produce heat which causes the plastic but not the nanotubes to expand. The process is very quick — it takes only a fraction of a second. It seems the smart curtains at the moment are tiny, but perhaps one day they could be big enough to cover an office window. With no way to control smart curtains like these, just watch out for those days where patchy fast-moving clouds keep covering the sun. UC Berkeley.
  • BRACED FOR ACTION: Many children around the world are born with a club foot. If it’s not treated they will be unable to walk properly and may lose access and opportunity for education and employment. In developing countries the braces that can help correct the problem are somewhat makeshift and may be expensive, poorly designed and difficult to use. Students from Stanford University have designed a colourful injection moulded plastic brace featuring removable shoes that looks like a toy the kids would want to play with. It’s easy for parents to use and best of all costs only $20. The plastic braces could mean many more children around the world have their club foot problem successfully corrected. You’d think 3D printing could be useful with a project like this too. Wired.
  • CAR CARES: Your car may include various logging devices that you probably have no access to, even if there’s a data port. Truvolo is a small device that plugs into that port and links with smartphone and cloud apps. The device allows for sophisticated tracking, including monitoring speed, detecting engine problems, tracking travel by purpose and giving information about nearby mechanics or petrol stations. It aims to help you manage all the cars in your household, save petrol and improve your driving safety. That would mean all the cars would have to be new enough to include the necessary computer tech. Truvolo.
  • SPARKLING DOG: Would you like to make your dog a bit more visible at night? The NightDawg Dog Collar from Nite Ize will let you see your dog wherever she is even on the darkest night. The nylon collar embeds both a reflective stripe and a light-transmitting flexible polymer core with 2 modes: glow and flash. The red LED light from the collar shines for 100,000 hours from a replaceable lithium button battery and is visible from up to 300 metres. The battery supplies around 75 to 100 hours of power. Unfortunately the collar is available only for medium sized dogs, so your Chihuahua is out of luck. Curiosite.

Tech Universe: Friday 24 January 2014

  • EYES ON THE APP: In the West End of London drivers with a smartphone may have more chance of finding a park. Smart parking sensors will detect whether a bay is vacant or not. An app allows drivers to see on a real-time map which bays are vacant and even pay for the parking. The scheme hopes to reduce pollution and congestion in an area where a driver will typically spend 15 minutes looking for a parking spot. Shouldn’t drivers be watching the road rather than looking at their phones? BBC.
  • GLASSY: Sugoi’s RPM Zap jacket should help cyclists be seen at night. It includes a layer of highly reflective ground glass pixels, screen-printed onto its exterior. In daylight the jacket looks like any other colourful coat, but at night the ground glass picks up any nearby light, for example, from car headlights, and reflects it evenly across the whole surface of the clothing. That means the whole jacket lights up without batteries or LEDs, making the wearer shine out. Now you can go clubbing in your bike jacket. Gizmodo. Video:
  • CATCH A COLD COMET: The Rosetta spacecraft from the European Space Agency has been sleeping while it travels far from the sun. Its true mission has now begun though: it’s chasing after a 4.6 billion year old comet heading towards the sun. Once it catches up, Rosetta will orbit comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko studying how sunlight melts it to create a tail. In November Rosetta will release a small craft to land on and sample the surface of the comet. The data it gathers should help us understand how Earth’s oceans were formed. Landing on a comet will be a huge challenge. New Scientist.
  • SOUNDS IN SIGHT: Researchers at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid have developed a pair of glasses for blind people that can help them navigate, along with a cane or guide dog. The glasses include two tiny cameras that send images to a stereo vision processor that turns the images into sounds that indicate position and distance. The sound is amplified and sent to bone conduction headphones. The system is cheaper and less bulky than similar systems on the market. A prototype exists and has been tested with considerable success with blind people in real environments. That could be a very useful adjunct to a cane. Universidad Carlos III de Madrid.
  • GLUE A BROKEN HEART: If surgeons perform open heart surgery they have to choose how to close things up again. Sutures and staples can be slow to apply and can cause further damage. Surgeons might prefer glue, but currently available substances don’t work in the presence of liquid, or can’t stand up to the heartbeat, or are even toxic. Now researchers have created a special glue that only becomes active when exposed to UV light. That gives surgeons more scope in using the glue. The substance is flexible, strong and biodegradable too. The glue has worked well on pig hearts and now needs to be tested on people. Presumably the glue would work well on other body parts too and could save a lot of time and injury. Scientific American.