17 to 21 February 2014 Tech Universe Digest

Tech Universe: Monday 17 February 2014

  • HELMET HEAD: Fancy a bit of underwater touring? The Aqua Star underwater scooter could be the thing. The battery powered vehicle can carry 2 people for up to 2.5 hours at a speed of 5 Kph. Dual engines allow for both vertical and horizontal movement at the same time — it can dive down to 12 metres. The vehicle includes scuba tanks and a built-in helmet, providing up to 70 minutes of oxygen. Would you really want to be the pillion passenger underwater? PhysOrg.
  • SLIDING SPEED: Checking biopsy samples for signs of cancer is labour intensive and time consuming, especially if you include the time and effort of preparing slides for study under a microscope. Researchers at University of Washington developed a prototype microfluidic device to make the process easier. The prototype can perform the basic steps for processing a biopsy, using fluid transport to process the tissue and keeping the original tissue biopsy intact to produce a 3D image. The device is only in its early stages, but in future may allow for a cancer diagnosis within minutes. University of Washington.
  • ROBOT, WHERE ART THOU?: If you’ve ever queued for hours to get into a museum or art gallery only to spend the next hour pushing through crowds and trying to see over heads you may appreciate the Tate Britain gallery’s new robot viewing programme. After Dark is an online experience that allows people all over the world to explore Tate Britain at night. Robots will travel around the galleries at night, controlled by viewers via a web site. Viewers will be able to chat with others online at the same time, making the visit a shared experience, though they may still have to queue to control the robot. At least you’ll be queuing in the comfort of your own home. BBC.
  • CROWDS OF SCIENCE: People with great ideas for gadgets use sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo to get the general public to fund them. But what about science? Not to be left out, the Experiment site handles crowdfunding for science. With projects such as Using Genetic Techniques to Protect Fiji’s Fisheries and Are microbes melting the Greenland ice sheet? and fields as diverse as palaeontology, engineering and education there’s probably something to interest most folks. If you’re a scientist and you know it, click the mouse. Experiment.
  • BRIGHT LIGHTS: The Czech Republic is soon to be home to the High Repetition-Rate Advanced Petawatt Laser System. The high power laser will deliver peak powers greater than one petawatt (1,000,000,000,000,000 watts) at a repetition rate of 10 Hz, with each pulse lasting less than 30 femtoseconds, or 0.00000000000003 seconds. This will make possible scientific research in areas such as medical imaging, particle acceleration, biophysics, chemistry and quantum physics. Rocket science is so mundane these days. Lawrence Livermore National Labs.

Tech Universe: Tuesday 18 February 2014

  • CUTTING EDGE: Surgeons removing cancerous tumours must cut carefully to remove cancer cells while leaving healthy cells intact. Even with high-powered magnifiers it’s hard to spot cancer cells. Special glasses from Washington University will make it easier. The glasses use video, a head-mounted display and a targeted molecular agent that attaches to cancer cells, making them glow when viewed with the glasses. Tumours as small as 1 mm in diameter can be spotted with the aid of the glasses. That’s a great boost to precision and accuracy. Washington University.
  • CELL BLOCK C: Some researchers have been printing living cells with what amounts to an inkjet printer. But that technique leaves many of the cells damaged or dead. Scientists at Houston Methodist Research Institute are taking a different approach. Their method of Block-Cell-Printing not only leaves almost 100% of the cells alive but also lets the researchers use many different cell types. BloC-Printing guides living cells into hook-like traps in a silicone mould. Cells flow down a column in the mould, past trapped cells to the next available slot, eventually creating a line of cells. When the mould is lifted away, the living cells remain behind. EurekAlert.
  • AT A PINCH: The tubeless bike tire from Schwalbe has two valves instead of the more usual one. One valve allows you to inflate the chamber closest the rim to a high pressure. That keeps the tyre tight to the rim and provides a buffer for hits that could cause punctures. Meanwhile, the other valve is for the outer chamber which can be inflated to a lower pressure to reduce rolling resistance over uneven ground and provide greater traction. No tube, but twice as much pumping. BikeRadar.
  • CLOTHES MAKE THE SKATER: At this year’s Winter Olympics the US speed skating team are wearing heavily designed Mach 39 suits. The athletes weren’t just measured in the usual way, but instead wore motion capture sensors while being tracked while skating. The data was used to create fibreglass mannequins in various poses that underwent tests in wind tunnels to discover how different materials and designs affected air flow. The results shaped the design of the suits which used moulded polyurethane, different materials and tiny dimples in the fabric to modify airflow. Meanwhile, in the actual event, it seems vents at the back to allow for airflow may be slowing the athletes down. Where does technology end and athleticism begin? New Scientist.
  • DEAD AHEAD: That GPS navigation system in your car can be very helpful, except when the signal drops in dead areas. That’s no longer a problem with the u-blox 3D Dead Reckoning chip. The chip uses accelerometers, gyroscopes, and speed sensors to calculate the exact location reached since the last GPS data was received. It measures direction, speed and distance travelled. That’s a time-honoured method of dead reckoning that could come in very handy. U-blox.

Tech Universe: Wednesday 19 February 2014



  • WHEELS UP: So you’re a wheelchair user who drives a car. That involves a lot of messing about transferring to and from the car, folding and unfolding the chair, stowing the chair and so on. Kenguru takes a different approach: you stay in your chair. The car has a single large rear door, operated by remote, that lifts up, and a ramp that drops down to allow the wheelchair to enter. The single-person electric car has a top speed of 40 Kph, a range of 96 Km and takes 8 hours to fully recharge. The steering wheel comes in the form of a handlebar or joystick, while large windows provide great visibility. A simple, clever idea that could transform lives. Kenguru.
  • SCOOT SCOOT: The URB-E electric scooter can run 32 Km on a single charge, and has a top speed of 24 Kph, but its biggest feature is that it folds up to about the size of a small wheeled shopping bag. That means you can easily take it on the bus or tain, especially since it weighs only 12 Kg. You can add a small rack to carry a briefcase too. The scooter’s made from machined recyclable aircraft grade aluminium and the Lithium Ion battery takes 3 hours to charge. Bus to office in a jif. URB-E. Video:
  • BOOT SCOOT: Colombia is just one of many countries where active landmines are a danger to the general population. But one Colombian designer is working on shoes that can alert the wearer to the presence of a landmine nearby. The idea is to add a metal detector to the shoe, with a sensor that sends a signal to a device on the wearer’s wrist. The device is still being developed, but it sounds like a good idea. VOA News. Video:
  • IN HER EAR: A cochlear implant electrically stimulates the auditory nerve, helping many people around the world to hear. The implants require a small transmitter to be attached to the skull, with a wire down to a joint microphone and power source by the ear. Researchers at MIT have developed a low-power signal-processing chip that could wirelessly recharge a cochlear implant. The implant would run for about 8 hours per charge. Instead of using an external microphone the new implant would make use of the ability of the ear to hear sounds and use a low-power chip to convert that sound to an electrical signal. Not needing the external device would mean wearers wouldn’t need to worry about it being damaged by water or getting lost or broken. That the device is even less visible is a bonus too. MIT News.
  • THINK UP: Thanks to researchers at the University of Minnesota you can fly a quadcopter just by thinking about it. You need an EEG cap with 64 attached electrodes that pick up signals from the brain’s motor cortex. The signals go to a computer, are decoded, then sent via WiFi to control the quadcopter. Students testing the system need 10 to 20 hours training on a virtual system before working with the real thing. In future a system like this could let people with disabilities more easily perform everyday tasks such as using the Internet. Presumably training for one purpose, such as flying a quadcopter also develops the skills you need for something like operating a cursor. National Science Foundation .

Tech Universe: Thursday 20 February 2014

  • WHALE OF A COUNT: One way to survey whales is to circle above them in a small plane and count. That’s a risky business though and finding a way to automate the count would be a good idea. The DigitalGlobe’s WorldView-2 platform uses extremely high-resolution satellite pictures and image-processing software to detect whales on or near the ocean’s surface. Tests with counting southern right whales off the coast of Argentina showed the automated count captured 89% of the whales spotted in a manual search of the images. Researchers hope that higher resolution satellite images and improved image processing will boost that accuracy and allow researchers to track other species and in more locations. And I bet small planes can’t get very far out to sea either. Discovery News.
  • CHIPPING AWAY AT COSTS: When manufacturers make paper they take biomass such as wood chips and separate the material into lignine and cellulose, then use the cellulose to make paper. That separation’s not an easy thing to do though. It’s a costly process that needs high pressures and temperatures. A new biodegradable solvent produces very pure lignine and requires much less energy than traditional methods. The solvent should lead to at least 40% lower energy costs and 20% less CO2 emissions in paper production. That’s a huge energy savings Eindhoven University of Technology.
  • THE DIMENSIONS OF CRIME: Police in Queensland will soon use the Zebedee handheld laser scanner to map crime scenes. The 3D scanner has already been used in mining, and in capturing the inside of the Leaning Tower of Pisa but will allow police to make better images of crime scenes. While someone walks through an area the LiDAR scanner moves on a spring that allows an inertial measurement unit to do its work, meaning no GPS is required. Software later takes the data points and prepares a 3D image from the capture. It’s not clear how fine the resolution is: had the vase been moved or not? Computerworld.
  • POINT, THEN SHOOT: Shooting something, or someone, on purpose involves correctly lining up the target in the sights before pulling the trigger. TrackingPoint rifles use a laser range finder to lock onto a moving target, add a virtual tag to the target and stop the gun from being fired if the target isn’t correctly lined up. Meanwhile, software in the scope compensates for 16 variables, including temperature, the expected spin drift of the bullet and the direction the wind is blowing. The US Army is testing the weapons for use in places like Afghanistan where military targets may be mixed in with civilians and accuracy is absolutely essential. If it helps reduce unintended shootings that must be a good thing. BBC.
  • HOVERING: Flat land, flat water, even choppy water: the Amphibious Trimaran with Aerostatic Discharge can cross them all. The amphibious vehicle is a combination of hovercraft, airboat and pontoon inflatable boat. It’s the kind of thing that would be very useful in the debris-filled streets of a flooded city, on sensitive mudflats and even on the dangerous ice of a Canadian lake in winter. The vehicle shows exceptional stability at speeds of up to 90 Kph over water or 120 Kph over snow and ice. The deck can be arranged for passenger seating, cargo or a mixture of both, and has standing room for up to 9 people, plus the pilot. The vehicle is driven by a single readily available 140 hp 2.0 L Ford Duratec car engine and would be suitable for rescue or military operations, as well as research, hunting, fishing and just having fun. Get ready to ride.

Tech Universe: Friday 21 February 2014

  • WARM HANDS COLD SNOW: Snowboarders and others who routinely go out and about in freezing temperatures may be interested in the Chaval Response-XRT heated gloves. Lithium-Polymer batteries provide enough juice for a full day of downhill skiing. The heavy leather gloves include a thin layer of polymer heating film and are programmed to be able to regulate the temperature separately in different parts of the glove as the hands cool or warm. How about some solar panels on there too? GearJunkie.
  • SHINE A LITTLE LIGHT: Big stores like to know where their shoppers are in the building because then they can do much more personalised marketing, perhaps offering coupons based on what the shopper is looking at. Philips have a system that uses the store’s lights to determine location. The idea is that connected lights in the store establishes a grid. An app on the phone exchanges data with the lights and so locates the shopper on that grid. The customer’s phone app may then receive coupons, directions to complementary ingredients or other offers. Even the lights are spying on us. GigaOm.
  • MOVE THE MOUNTAIN: There’s a lot of work underway to find the best way to deliver drugs to tumours, but US researchers are working on bringing cancer cells to a drug instead. Glioblastoma cells in the brain move around by latching on to nerves and blood vessels. The researchers created a polymer rod 6 millimetres long. Inside is a thin film that mimics nerves and blood vessels. The brain cancer cells in tests worked their way up the rod, then met a blob of gel that killed them. Analysis showed the cancer cells were actually moving rather than just growing in a new spot. The technique could be useful for moving cancerous tumours to locations where they are more easily removed. Little did they know the fate awaiting them at the end of their journey. New Scientist.
  • MAPS IN SPACE: Need a good map of Ganymede, Jupiter’s seventh moon? NASA has you covered with the first global geologic map of Ganymede. The surface of the moon is more than half as large as all the land area on Earth. The map combines the best images obtained during various flybys since 1979 and illustrates surface features, such as furrows, grooves and impact craters. That’s sure to be handy if you’re ever driving that way. NASA.
  • DONE WITH MAGNETS: To keep your food cold you put it in a fridge. That fridge uses a chemical refrigerant and a compressor to do its work. GE found a way to use a water-based fluid instead, passing it through a series of magnets in order to transfer heat. This magnetocaloric technology was developed more than a century ago but the materials it required to be efficient at room temperature have only recently been created. The team are currently working on making the device small enough to fit in a household fridge and in making a large drop in temperature require only a small amount of power. Let’s hope it’ll stop the fridge from whirring, buzzing, clicking and moaning too. Inhabitat.