10 to 14 February 2014 Tech Universe Digest

Tech Universe: Monday 10 February 2014

  • STEP BY STEP: When you buy new shoes they usually come with a flimsy little insole designed to suit all feet. Your feet though are unique. Sols insoles are custom designed then 3D printed in nylon and all you need to do is provide a video of your foot. A 10 second video provides a complete set of data points used to generate a highly-accurate model for the 3D printer. The insoles are ultra-thin, washable, and odour-proof orthotics that store and return up to 75% percent of energy output in each footstep. That’s easy. Sols. Video:
  • DROP BY DROP: It’s always raining or snowing somewhere on Earth, and soon the Global Precipitation Measurement Core Observatory will know exactly where that is thanks to its observations every 3 hours. The international satellite network carries 2 instruments to measure and observe small particles of rain, ice and snow: the Dual-frequency Precipitation Radar and the GPM Microwave Imager. Together, DPR and GMI will observe the size, intensity and distribution of raindrops and snowflakes. The Observatory will fly 407 Km above Earth in an orbit inclined 65 degrees to the equator, and provide data useful for studying climate change, freshwater resources, floods and droughts, and hurricane formation and tracking. Good water information is so essential. NASA.
  • UNDERGROUND INTELLIGENCE: Farmers are keen to irrigate crops with just the right amount of water: use too much and it wastes water and money and can damage crops, while too little can stunt growth. How to establish the right amount of water is a challenge that could be helped with sensors ploughed into the fields. The University of Manchester is currently testing low-cost, low-power sensors that will measure soil temperature and moisture content then transmit the data wirelessly to the surface. An RFID reader mounted on a tractor collects the data as it moves over each node and also provides power to the sensor. Data beats guesswork every time. New Scientist.
  • MORE ZAP: Electricity often flows through copper wires, but with enough current the wire may heat up and deform. By combining copper with carbon nanotubes Japanese researchers realised a 100 times higher maximum allowable current density yet with an electric conductivity equivalent to that of copper. The composite is not likely to deform very much with a large current either. More current, less heat: it sounds as though electronics could get a boost. Tech-on!
  • ROCKETY SPLIT: A rocket launch is one of the loudest noises ever created by humans. It’s so loud that the spacecraft itself could suffer physical damage. That’s why the ESA’s Large European Acoustic Facility exists. It’s a huge sound chamber where engineers test spacecraft to make sure they won’t fall apart during launch. Pieces of rockets are hung inside the 15 metre tall room and wired with sensors. Then enormous speakers recreate the sound of a launch. The engineers say no human could survive inside the room during a test, so the soundproofing of the chamber is pretty important. Gizmodo.

Tech Universe: Tuesday 11 February 2014

The Elio.

The Elio.

  • ONE TWO THREE: A 1 litre, 2 seater 3 wheeled car that uses 2.8 litres of petrol per 100 Km and can reach speeds of over 160 Kph — that’s the Elio. The composite body panels and solid body help keep the car quiet. It’s a compact car where the passenger sits behind the driver, and the boot can hold an airline carry-on bag. The low cost car runs on an inline, 3 cylinder, 0.9 litre, 55 HP, fuel-injected, SOHC gas-powered, liquid-cooled, automotive engine. It’s definitely distinctive. Elio Motors.
  • A SENSE OF TOUCH: A prosthetic arm and hand can change the life of an amputee. But if the hand can’t sense how firmly or delicately to grasp an object it’s still rather clumsy. European researchers connected touch sensors in an artificial hand to electrodes surgically embedded in the remains of nerves in an amputee’s upper arm. A computer converted the sensor output into a form the nerves could recognise. In tests the wearer was able to control how forcefully he grasped objects, and feel their shape and stiffness, as well as distinguishing between objects by shape and firmness. The system needs further work to make it truly wearable, and a great deal more testing, but it brings more hope for amputees. Live Science.
  • THE HUNGER BALLOONS: With a balloon in your stomach you’ll feel full faster, eat less and lose weight. The Obalon gastric balloon system comes in the form of a capsule you swallow. It has a tiny tube attached that’s used to inflate the balloon, but then detaches and is removed. The balloon stays in the stomach for a month, then up to 2 more balloons can be added if necessary. Eventually though a doctor uses an endoscope to remove the balloons. The Obalon system aims to help obese people avoid gastric bypass surgery. That balloon would need to be pretty tough. Obalon. Video:
  • COLD, COLDER, COLDEST: While space is extremely cold — around 3 degrees Kelvin — NASA plans to make an even colder spot, aboard the International Space Station. The Cold Atom Lab aims to reach a low temperature of 100 pico-Kelvin. That’s one ten-billionth of a degree above Absolute Zero, possible because of the low gravity on the ISS. At that temperature, in theory at least, all the thermal activity of atoms stops, making the concepts of solid, liquid and gas irrelevant and creating new forms of energy. The team will be working with Bose-Einstein Condensates which show quantum effects. That’s definitely cool research. Geek.
  • ARE YOU THERE?: After an avalanche rescuers have around 15 minutes to recover alive anyone who’s trapped. Avalanche transceivers help locate victims, but are very expensive so many skiers and walkers don’t carry one. What most people do carry though is a smartphone so the Galileo-LawinenFon system from the Fraunhofer Institute hooks in to that. The system processes magnetic field signals in 3D for pinpoint accuracy, and also uses the combined signals of the USA’s GPS, Europe’s Galileo and Russia’s GLONASS satellite systems. The Galileo-SmartLVS is a dongle connected to the mobile phone via USB. It includes a 3D magnetic field antenna for picking up signals, an analog-digital converter, a satellite navigation receiver, acceleration sensors and a reserve battery. An app takes all the data and makes it useful for searchers. The system has been successfully tested and should be available in a couple of years, though researchers hope to increase its range from the current 30 metres. That 30 metre range could severely hamper its usefulness. Fraunhofer Institute.

Tech Universe: Wednesday 12 February 2014

  • HIGH ON SNORING: Snoring can be very disruptive, but the Snore Activated Nudging Pillow with included microphone could be helpful. If it detects snoring it automatically inflates an internal air bladder which increases the pillow’s height by nearly 8 cm. That’s enough to wake you so you turn over and stop snoring. No 40 winks with that nudging. Gizmodo.
  • RIGHT LIGHT: Wear a headlamp and it shines a light in the direction you turn your head. That may be fine for following a path, but doesn’t work so well for something like reading. The Mola Headlamp by Snow Peak does things a little differently. It uses gravity and a counterweight to compensate for the difference between head movements and eye movements. That means the light shines on where you’re looking, rather than where your head is pointing. The feature can be easily turned off if you don’t need it though. Heady stuff. Wired.
  • BRAIN GAMES: If you’re a professional skier you probably have your fair share of collisions and crashes, and a helmet will protect your brain. The Skull Orbic H.I. MIPS helmet by POC is made from Expanded Polypropylene and can withstand numerous impacts before you have to replace it. The helmet includes a system of stress-strain sensors in the liner that record, collect and memorise any deformation. Once one or a combination of impacts exceed a predefined level an indicator light turns from green to red. Then it’s time for a new helmet. Go for green. Gear Junkie.
  • BREATH OF LIFE: Australian researchers developed an optical fibre laser that emits 25 times more light than other lasers operating in the mid-infrared frequency range. At that wavelength many important hydrocarbon gases absorb light, meaning this could lead to more sensitive analysis, perhaps to use breath as a diagnostic tool for diseases, or to detect dangerous gases. For example, if someone has diabetes their breath will contain traces of acetone. Maybe a routine breath test will one day be something that happens at the doctor’s office rather than in a car. The University of Adelaide.
  • ALL FALL DOWN: Falls can be a problem for older people who may not be able to get up again. If they live alone it may be hours or even days before help arrives. Some people carry an emergency alarm, but if they don’t have it on them or if they’re unconscious that doesn’t help much. The safe@home system takes another approach. Sensor boxes are installed on the ceiling like smoke detectors. If a box detects an emergency, it notifies an alarm unit in the home which immediately phones or uses the Internet to call for help. The system uses highly sensitive optical and acoustic sensors that determine the location and condition of a person as well as their movements within a room. It can detect a fall and a motionless state and also responds to cries for help. Tests have gone well and the system may be on the market late in 2014. Can it distinguish between a fall and a nap on the couch though? Fraunhofer Institute.

Tech Universe: Thursday 13 February 2014

  • CHIPS WITH THAT?: The early bird may just look at the worm, leaving the catching side of things till later in the day. Researchers at the University of Oxford know this because they attached microchips to more than 2,000 songbirds to help them discover how the birds found their meals. They also fitted an array of feeding stations with microchip detectors and then moved some of the feeders every day. The problem the birds have is that over winter they must feed enough to survive, but not so much they slow down and become food for predators. The researchers found the birds scout out food locations in the morning, then feed later in the day before night falls. That means the birds can be nimble early in the day, escaping predators, and digest their meal in peace at night. So, an early bird that catches a worm may become the worm itself. Scientific American.
  • GUMMING UP THE WORKS: Lithium ion batteries store a lot of energy so are widely used in computers, handhelds and even planes. But the liquid or gel electrolyte can leak and create a fire or chemical burn hazard. Now researchers at Washington State University have developed a gum-like lithium battery electrolyte which works just as well but adheres to the other battery components, reducing the risk of leakage. Many people will be glad to hear that. Washington State University.
  • LESS ZAP, MORE TRAP: Mammograms are an important screening tool for detecting breast cancer, but they aren’t 100% accurate. German researchers have found a technique that counts photons allows a reduced dosage of harmful X-rays while improving the accuracy of detection. Radiological Society of North America.
  • SPONGE GUN: RevMedx have a new product that could save lives on the battlefield. Their pocket-sized syringe injects small specially coated sponges into wounds. Each sponge is coated with antimicrobial, blood-clotting substance and expands from its original 1 cm size to fill a wound’s cavity and stop bleeding in 15 seconds. Compared to packing a wound with gauze it’s much quicker and more efficient. Markers on the sponge can be detected by an X-ray machine to help make sure all sponges are removed once the patient reaches the hospital. That sounds like essential equipment for any first aid kit. Discovery News.
  • PILL POST: Some people have to take numerous prescriptions at specific times. Managing all the pills can be a difficult chore. The PillPack service in the US takes most of the work out of it. Send the prescriptions to the online pharmacy and they return labelled sealed packets of combinations of pills, dated and timestamped. All you have to do then is open a packet at the time it shows and take the contents. The service manages refills and ships out the packages every 2 weeks. That’s good thinking. PillPack.

Tech Universe: Friday 14 February 2014

  • MAGNETIC SOUNDS: Nanomotors are rocket-shaped metal particles, perhaps made from gold-ruthenium. Get them inside a living human cell, make them active and they could homogenise the cell’s contents or act as battering rams to puncture the cell membrane. Either way, the cell could be destroyed, which could be a handy way to deal with cancer cells. One problem till now has been that until now the motors required toxic fuels and would not move in biological fluid. Researchers from Pennsylvania State University seem to have solved that problem with powerful ultrasonic waves that make the motors extremely active. The researchers are also able to steer the motors with magnetism. This finding could mean that in future such motors could perform various kinds of diagnoses and therapy. Yup, those are nanobots all right.
  • STRAIGHTEN UP: Graphene can conduct electricity 200 times faster than silicon, which makes it extremely interesting for those who make computer chips. The problem is that when it’s chopped up to fit on a chip it loses those conductive properties because of uneven edges. Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology found a way to grow graphene, rather than chopping up larger sheets. That led to smooth edges that channel electrons and better conductivity. Let’s get those electrons flying right. GigaOm.
  • BLOWING IN THE WIND: The autonomous Tumbleweed robot is designed to help researchers gather data on the spread of deserts. The robot uses light sails inside a flexible steel frame to catch the wind to drive it across the terrain. The Tumbleweed’s motion provides kinetic energy to power an onboard computer, sensors and motor. No data desert here then. Wired.
  • FLY MY PRETTIES, FLY: The UK’s top secret Taranis drone has successfully flown, possibly in Australia. The flights each lasted up to an hour. The Taranis is the prototype for Britain’s first stealth combat drone. Its low profile and acute angles are designed both for speed and to avoid detection by radar. The craft, about the size of a small fighter jet and capable of carrying weapons, can fly without a pilot, but is usually controlled from the ground. Warfare becomes more remote every day. BBC. Video:
  • INSIDE THE RAIL: You have trams whose wheels run inside rails, and trains whose wheels run on top of rails, but the new hybrid tram-train in Sheffield, England, has both. In 2016 the vehicle will arrive at the edge of Sheffield from Rotherham Parkgate via rail tracks and then switch seamlessly to run on tram tracks to the city centre. Passengers won’t have to switch services, making for an easier journey. One problem is that trams often make tighter turns than trains so the hybrid vehicle has to have specially designed wheels to avoid derailing at junctions and corners. Similar systems have been used in Germany, New Jersey and Ottawa, but this will be the first in the UK. Simplifying travel for the passengers will definitely be a winner. Wired.