03 to 06 March 2014 Tech Universe Digest

Tech Universe: Monday 03 March 2014

  • QUICK CHAT: Communications are always a problem in a disaster, but the Instant Network Mini should help. The 11 Kg backpack takes only a few minutes to set up as a network provider. Its secure 2G GSM network can provide up to 5 concurrent calls within a radius of 100 metres and enable text messages to be sent to thousands of people. The GSM base transceiver station connects to a host network over a satellite connection. That’s the kind of equipment any NGO or aid office could keep on standby, next to their regular emergency kit. Vodafone.
  • SWEET SPOT: A device from GSMA can monitor blood sugar levels continuously without needing constant pin pricks to draw blood. The device attaches to the body and send signals via short range wireless to a small handheld monitor. The data is then sent on to a cloud-based app. Users can then download data with their smartphone or a computer. This means that people with diabetes can tell at any time what their blood sugar levels are. This system could allow people with diabetes to participate more easily in activities such as endurance sports. That should be a huge relief for some. BBC.
  • FUN IN THE SUN: If you live in Europe you may have bought yourself an Xkuty One electric scooter. The 42 Kg machine has a 1200 W motor and can travel between 40 and 100 Km depending on battery, at up to 35 Kph. With the Spark parking unit the scooter can be recharged with solar energy too. The Spark is a small shelter with solar panels on the roof. Drive the scooter in, plug it in and leave the batteries to charge. That’s a nice pairing. Xkuty. Video:
  • SQUEALING KEYS: With a Nokia phone and some Treasure Tags you need never lose your keys, bag or wallet again. Each tag is about the size of a box of matches and weighs only 13 grams. Pair the tag to the app on the phone and attach it to the item you want to keep track of, then if the two are separated both will emit a loud tone. One phone can be paired with up to 4 tags. The coin cell battery in the tag should last up to 6 months. A customisable spoken message could be much more fun than a simple tone. Nokia.
  • FIT FOR SKIING: Rented ski boots may not fit just how you’d like them to, but custom 3D printed insoles could make your feet more comfortable. ALPrint let you download and print off a simple calibration mat. Stand on the sheet of paper, take a photo of your feet with the cellphone app and add some data about your weight, then their service calculates the correct dimensions for your insole. They print the insole with thermoplastic material on their 3D printer and send out the finished item. Now when you rent ski boots you could just slot in your own insole and head for the slopes. New Scientist.

Tech Universe: Tuesday 04 March 2014

  • SALTY SOLUTIONS: While California suffers from extreme drought work is underway to build a huge desalination plant on the coast. The plant will process around 375 million litres of seawater per day. By the time the plant’s finished in 2016 it should provide around 180 million litres of fresh drinking water per day — enough for 112,000 households. Which isn’t that many in he scheme of things. NPR.
  • BRICK IN THE WALL: How do you stop a tornado? Well, a great big wall might help. One US scientist analysed how tornados form in the Tornado Alley area of the US and has a proposal. He suggests building a series of walls 300 metres high and 50 metres wide to help weaken or block the airflows that turn destructive. He says that walls in North Dakota, along the border between Kansas and Oklahoma to east, and in Texas and Louisiana could forever diminish the tornado threats. And what else would they do? Popular Science.
  • HUFF AND PUFF: US scientists have been doing their sums. They found that, at least in theory, a large number of offshore wind turbines, in the right spot, could reduce the impact of a hurricane. Models of Hurricane Katrina found that 78,000 wind turbines, stationed within 100 Km of shore, would not only produce 300 gigawatts of electricity but could have reduced storm surge up to 79% and drained some 148 Kph from the wind speed. So if they could do that to a hurricane, how would they affect normal winds and tides? Discovery News.
  • HANDS MAKE WORK FOR THE IDLE: Some people and institutions have 3D printers that lie idle for much of the time. Meanwhile some people need a hand — literally, because they were born without a hand or an accident has lost them their hand. The Robohand project aims to match up these two groups to allow people to get a prosthetic hand for thousands of dollars less than it would normally cost. Free designs are published on Thingiverse and candidates are assessed by the organisation before prints are made using materials like medical Orthoplastic and stainless steel. Brilliant! GigaOm.
  • SAWS ON HIGH: Pruning very tall trees generally involves lots of hanging around on ropes. A tree-pruning robot though may be able to do the job instead. A robot developed in Japan encircles a 25 cm diameter tree near the bottom and then climbs straight up or in a spiral motion with a chainsaw at the ready to clear away small branches. An umbrella-like shade at to top of the robot keeps cut branches away from the mechanism. The robot uses its own weight to support itself against the tree so is in little danger of falling. When finished it climbs back down the tree to the ground. Gizmodo.

Tech Universe: Wednesday 05 March 2014

  • PRINTS FROM PHOTOS: When you take a photo the image sensor in your camera includes a unique pattern of noise thanks to slight imperfections. Tiny variations in silicon chips create differences in the light response of a sensor. That adds a pattern of inconsistent responses, interference, or noise, to every image the sensor captures. At the moment that noise can’t be removed or faked without detection. The noise is generally invisible to those looking at the photos, but can be extracted and used like a fingerprint by forensic investigators. And that could help law enforcement track down those responsible for images of child sexual abuse, or anyone else who creates photos in relation to a crime. Studies of images found on social networking sites have been moderately successful in matching the images to one another or the camera that took them. While that may not be definitive enough to stand up in court it could be one useful strand of evidence among many. Fingerprints are often undesirable around a camera but these could be invaluable. Scientific American.
  • GAME ON: An important part of the game of golf is being able to select the right club to hit the ball the right distance. Many golfers don’t correctly estimate those distances, but the Game Golf system can sort that out. Attach a small plastic disc to the end of each club in your bag then clip on the belt unit. The belt unit contains a GPS and a chip reader that can tell which club you’re using when you tap the plastic marker to the box. After the shot walk to where the ball is and repeat the process. The system can then work out how far you hit the shot and which club you used. Later attach the device to your computer and send the data to a website that then produces stats, maps and other data to help you with your game. The data may be more useful on the spot, but better late than never. Wired.
  • HEALTH IN FOCUS: In sub-Saharan Africa Kaposi’s sarcoma is one of the most common forms of cancer and late diagnosis leads to a low survival rate. Testing usually requires precision electronics to heat and cool bits of of herpes virus DNA. Engineers at Cornell University have created a KS-Detect device that uses the sun’s rays instead. A sample moves along a channel on a chip. The chip is placed beneath a disc where the edges are cooler than the centre thanks to a lens that focuses the sun’s rays on the disc. As the sample moves along the channel it is alternately cooled and heated causing a reaction that amplifies traces of the herpes virus DNA until there’s enough to detect with a smartphone. The device could be easily modified to check for other diseases instead. The whole thing could make it possible for people to be tested where they live rather than having to travel to a possibly distant medical centre. Then all they need is the treatment to be available and affordable. New Scientist.
  • PUMP AND TWIST: The heart is one of several muscles in the body that not only stretch and relax but actually twist while they work. The bottom of the heart twists as it contracts in a counterclockwise direction while the top twists clockwise. That means the pumping action resembles wringing out a towel. It’s hard for those developing models of the heart to replicate that twisting motion, but now a team at Harvard University have developed a material that can do it. A modified pneumatic artificial muscle is embedded within a matrix made of a soft silicone elastomer that allows the muscle to twist. Now they can deactivate certain artificial muscles to mimic particular kinds of damage to the heart. They hope now to develop biocompatible versions of the matrix, and ultimately a new kind of implantable cardiac device. So a twisted heart is actually perfectly normal. Science Daily. Video:
  • HIGH HOPES: The Indian Space Research Organisation has created a 4 metre high prototype of a human space capsule. The capsule will fly on India’s Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle for a test flight this year, although it’s not yet ready for a human crew. The aim will be to remotely test some in-flight controls and see how the module survives the stresses of re-entry and landing at sea thanks to two parachutes. More space expertise must be a good thing. New Scientist.

Tech Universe: Thursday 06 March 2014



  • SUIT DOWN: If astronauts can wear space suits to protect them from cold and vacuum why can’t deep sea divers wear a similar suit to protect them deep under the sea? The one-of-a-kind Exosuit is an atmospheric diving system. The suit fits a single occupant and keeps them at a standard surface atmosphere even as deep as 300 metres. The suit includes pressure sensitive footpads, 18 rotary joints, water-jet thrusters, oxygen for up to 50 hours, and a fibre optic tether for a live video feed, two-way communication and so those on the surface can monitor the diver. The suit is made from aluminium alloy and weighs around 240 Kg. The tricky part is clearly getting in and out of the suit and the ocean. io9.
  • DEEP RAYS: Deep under the sea are many pipelines, often set as deep as 3 Km and at a pressure of 300 atmospheres. Leaks can be serious, but checking the pipes for incipient damage can be almost impossible. Companies often use X-rays to inspect pipes, but X-ray machines and their sensors are expensive and delicate. They just wouldn’t survive those undersea pressures. Engineers recreated an X-ray detector and added a rugged case to protect from the extreme pressures. The detector then fits inside a larger machine attached to a deep-sea submersible rig that latches onto a pipeline and slides along it, inspecting every inch for defects. That must be a mighty slow job. GE Reports.
  • SILKEN STRENGTH: If you break a bone doctors may use metal alloy screws and plates to hold it together while it heals. If the screws and plates start to corrode you, you may be up for a second operation to remove them. Biodegradable polymers could be used instead, but they’re a lot of work to insert as they’re too soft to care their own thread, and they can trigger inflammation. US scientists have been experimenting with silk as an alternative. They dissolved silk in alcohol, poured the solution into moulds shaped like implants and baked them. Tests with rats showed the resulting implants were strong enough to carve their own thread into bone, were biodegradable, and didn’t cause inflammation. There has to be a downside though. New Scientist.
  • AN EASY SHOT: Getting a flu vaccination every year often means visiting a medical centre and being jabbed with a needle. Research with a prototype vaccine patch suggests it may soon be easier and we could do it ourselves. The patches consisted of arrays of 50 microscopic needles about as tall as the thickness of a few hairs. Tests where volunteers applied patches to themselves, without vaccine, showed that the volunteers were capable of correctly applying the patch. The volunteers also said the patches were much less painful than a standard jab with a needle. The next step is a clinical study of the vaccine patches in humans. That would make the annual shots easier, that’s for sure. Georgia Tech.
  • A SHARP LOOKOUT: European Space Agency’s Gaia mission has put a huge camera in space, with two telescopes feeding it images. Its job is to map stars in the Milky Way, discerning objects up to 400,000 times dimmer than those visible to the naked eye. Its measurements are so accurate they compare to measuring the width of a human hair at a distance of 500 km. That’s thanks to the 940 million pixels in the camera. Of course that would create huge images, but onboard processing reduces the file size for transmission back to base. The craft is now in orbit about 1.5 million Km away from Earth and has sent back calibration images. Once some minor issues have been dealt with the Gaia mission should start sending back images for real, including perhaps asteroids that could pose a threat to Earth. And if it spots such a dangerous asteroid, then what? The Conversation.

There was no Tech Universe on Friday, 7 March 2014.