14 to 17 April 2014 Tech Universe Digest

Tech Universe: Monday 14 April 2014

  • DOTS IN CHARGE: StoreDot’s prototype smartphone battery and charger can do its work in just 30 seconds. It relies on bio-organic nanodots that enable rapid charging. The prototype is about the size of a laptop charger but the creators aim to make it smaller in time for production. A 30-second charge could forgive a lot of weight and size. Mashable.
  • WEEDS ON THE RUN: Airports have to patrol their runways checking for and removing weeds which can create a hazard for aircraft. One way to do that is to just routinely spray weedkiller, but those chemicals can end up doing harm in groundwater. France’s Orly Airport’s tractor outfitted with sensors locates weeds then squirts those weeds directly with herbicide. The Weedseeker patrols at night using infrared sensors to detect the weeds. A geolocation function prevents areas from being over-treated or missed completely, while a computer and a specially designed spray boom attachment designed for taxiways handle the herbicide application. Unfortunately the vehicle still requires a human to drive it, but surely one day that will be automated too. Modern Farmer.
  • CHANGE THE SHEETS: Graphene has a great future in electronics, because it has 100 times greater electron mobility than silicon. However, it’s been hard to produce in large amounts so that’s slowed its commercial uptake. Now Korean researchers have a new method of growing graphene without reducing its desirable properties and the process holds out hope for increasing commercial use. The new method synthesises large-area graphene into a single crystal on a germanium semiconductor so fragments align and join up without defects at the boundaries. That creates a large sheet of graphene, ready for use. PhysOrg.
  • IN THE ZONE: Helicopters are very useful for transporting loads in difficult territory. The US Military has been using them with no crew aboard in Afghanistan to supply remote bases. In that case though the drone requires a prepared landing site and a technical specialist at the drop zone to guide the helicopter in by remote control. Their Autonomous Aerial Cargo/Utility System is a drone with a difference as it automates the entire process. With just a few minutes training a soldier can use a tablet to call in a resupply to an unprepared landing site. Sensors allow the helicopter to see and react to overhead power lines, trees, and objects on the ground. If the landing site is busy the drone automatically diverts and scans the area to find a nearby alternative. The system can be fitted to different types of helicopter too, even those normally flown by a human, and could be a way to make better use of older machines. Hacking that system could be very productive for an enemy force. Ars Technica.
  • SENSITIVE MAN: The British military use a mannequin to test equipment such as chemical and biological suits for soldiers. Now they have a new model that can move its head, arms and legs to mimic walking, marching, running, sitting, kneeling and lifting its arms to sight a weapon. The new Porton Man has more than 100 sensors all over its body so scientists can carry out real-time analysis on equipment such as chemical and biological suits. The mannequin features very light but highly durable carbon composite body parts. It’s no dummy then. Ministry of Defence.

Tech Universe: Tuesday 15 April 2014

  • BADGE THE BIKES: Lights make it easier for a bike to be seen at night, but Brainy Bike Lights think there’s more to it than that. Their lights display a recognisable symbol of a bike because research at Oxford University has shown this will make them stand out more amongst the clutter of lights. The LED lights are visible at up to 20 metres, can be static or flashing, and can be easily attached and removed. The front light has a battery life of around 50 hours in flashing mode, while the rear light will last for around 200 hours. Both lights use AA batteries. Nice idea, but is the symbol big enough to distinguish or will drivers be puzzling over what it is? Brainy Bike Lights. Video:
  • HIDDEN TREASURE: In the Meridiist Infinite phone from Tag Heuer is made from titanium, carbon and rubber and the screen from sapphire crystal. That screen also contains an invisible solar panel. In both natural and artificial light the solar panel generates enough energy to charge the phone. That’s a move in the right direction. Tag Heuer.
  • SMALL TREASURES: M3D’s Micro 3D printer has a tiny footprint on a desk: it’s a cube, 185 mm per side, that weighs around 1 Kg. It also levels and calibrates itself so should be easier to use than some other printers, and its app contains a library of objects ready for printing. Because the device is so small, the items it prints are also small: objects up to 116 mm tall and around 73 millilitres in volume. It seems 3D printers are evolving all the time. M3D Micro.
  • TREES GO HIGH-TECH: Supercapacitors are high-power energy devices useful in industry, cars, electronics and aviation. But they cost a lot to make and their high-quality carbon electrodes are difficult to produce. Scientists at Oregon State University found the cellulose in trees can be heated in a furnace in the presence of ammonia and turned into carbon membranes, the building blocks for supercapacitors. The process is quick, inexpensive and fairly friendly to the environment. The methane byproduct could also be captured and used as a fuel or for other purposes. There’s more to a tree than meets the eye. Oregon State University.
  • GESTURE GUARDIAN: Some devices may accept a fingerprint as an unlocking mechanism, but once unlocked anyone could pick them up and use them. The Georgia Institute of Technology want to add security by constantly checking that only an authorised user is at work. We all have a distinct pattern of speed and pressure in taps and swipes when we use a device. The LatentGesture system monitors those gestures and can lock the device if the pattern doesn’t match what’s expected. In tests the system was nearly 98% accurate on an Android smartphone and 97% correct on Android tablets. A system like that could perhaps allow different levels of access to different users of a device, preventing children from making in-app purchases, for example. How about drunk texting? Georgia Institute of Technology.

Tech Universe: Wednesday 16 April 2014

  • IT’S FOOD, JIM: Most of us can’t afford our own personal chefs and dieticians, but perhaps 3D printing could help us with our food. A European programme called Personalized Food Using Rapid Manufacturing For The Nutrition Of Elderly Consumers is aimed at frail elderly people who have trouble chewing or swallowing food. At the moment they are often given pureed food, but that generally doesn’t appeal much and can be unappetising, which can lead to weight loss, reduced energy and less zest for life. The idea of the project is to establish an individual’s needs and preferences and then use 3D printers at the manufacturing level to create tasty and appealing individual frozen meals that can be microwaved ready for eating. It’s an interesting idea. Performance.
  • DON’T ADD WATER: US researchers are working on polymers that could serve as transient resistors and capacitors. The idea is that once the electronics have completed their task, or become inconvenient or a liability, they could be triggered to dissolve. In one demonstration the researchers added a drop of water to a clear polymer composite base with the electrical leads for a blue LED embedded inside. The water degraded the polymer and melted it away so the light went out. Eventually this could perhaps lead to credit cards that could be triggered to destroy themselves if stolen, or sensors attached to food that would naturally degrade, showing the food was no longer fresh either. Their lab must be a very dry environment. Iowa State University.
  • GOING UP?: Every day a couple of hundred thousand people commute between La Paz in Bolivia and its former hilltop suburb, the city of El Alto, home to the highest international airport in the world. The problem is that a sheer-sided canyon turns that commute into a 15 Km journey by road via the head of the canyon. The solution is to install 3 cable car lines up the side of the canyon, with each line capable of carrying 3000 people per hour in each direction. The 11 Km cable car will be the longest urban cable car system in the world once it’s complete. Oh, and La Paz is 3650 metres above sea level, so the air will be thin up there. Hmmm, 200,000 people divided by 9,000 per hour … well, it’s a start. New Scientist.
  • OVER HERE!: If you fly to another city your aircraft is probably being tracked by radar. A tower sends out a signal that bounces back from a transponder on the plane, giving away its identity and altitude so the location can be determined by calculation. That method allows a controller to determine a plane’s location within around 3 Km. On the other hand the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) location system uses inertial data and GPS so the plane itself can determine its location to within around 30 metres. That location can be relayed to ground stations every second meaning much more precise tracking is possible, while weather and traffic movements can be sent back to pilots. That seems like a useful development. GigaOm.
  • SEA CHANGE: US Navy researchers took a radio-controlled P-51 replica plane powered by an off-the-shelf and unmodified two-stroke internal combustion engine and sent it off on a flight. The unusual thing though is that the plane was powered by a liquid hydrocarbon created from carbon dioxide and hydrogen recovered from sea water. The test flight proved the concept of seawater as a fuel source, but now the researchers need to scale up the process for commercial modular reactor units. Imagine a refuelling ship that floats around creating fuel from the sea beneath it. U.S. Naval Research Laboratory.

Tech Universe: Thursday 17 April 2014

La Paz cable car.

La Paz cable car.

  • LET THE INK RUN: An inkjet printer generally makes a print head run back and forth across a piece of paper fed through by rollers. The whole machine is usually fairly large, even if it’s portable. The ZUtA Pocket Printer handles printing by getting rid of the bulk of the device and turning the print head into a robot that finds its own way across a page. The prototype is about the size of a large mouse and can print images and text from any device in greyscale on any standard size page. The printer has a rechargeable battery with a power switch and connects directly to smartphones and computers. The inkjet lasts for more than 1,000 printed pages and the Lithium Polymer battery lasts for more than one hour per full-charge. Bluetooth makes the connection to the device you’re printing from. That seems a sensible advance. ZUtA Pocket Printer.
  • HOT SPOT: Wearable tech needs a power source, so Korean researchers have developed a glass fabric-based thermoelectric generator that’s extremely light and flexible and produces electricity from the heat of the human body. What’s more the generator can be bent up to 120 times without degrading its performance. The thermoelectric materials were made to be like a liquid and then screen printed onto a glass fabric. That allowed the researchers to do away with thick substrates which remove some of the thermal energy and make the device heavier. As a wristband the device will generate power based on the difference in temperature between human skin and the surrounding air. Perhaps one day underwear will routinely include a power source like this. Eurekalert.
  • CLAMMED UP: In only a little more than a minute an Atlantic Razor Clam can burrow up to 70 cm into packed sand. It achieves this by opening and shutting its valves, turning solid soil into liquid quicksand. That interested MIT researchers who studied the action and then created a robot that can dig at the same rate of around 1 cm per second. Their first prototype requires a significant rig of machinery to propel it and can reach a depth of only 20 cm, but they aim to improve that, of course. Such a device could be used for anchoring large vessels or perhaps for detonating mines or laying undersea cables. So clams shutting is only half the story. BBC.
  • HOW MANY BARS DO YOU HAVE?: Some soldiers in remote spots may have real problems with communications as there may simply be no coverage for phones or other devices. The US military have a way to deal with that though: turn drone aircraft into flying hotspots. They plan to mount a scalable, mobile millimeter-wave communications backhaul network on small unmanned aerial vehicles to provide a 1 Gb/s capacity. This would give the troops the same kind of connection as a 4G cellphone network elsewhere. Field testing has shown this approach could work. DARPA.
  • ON THE WING: The Swiss team behind the Solar Impulse 2 plane aim to fly around the world between April and July 2015 using only solar energy, day and night. The single-seater aircraft has a 72 metre wingspan, compared with the 68.5 metres of a Boeing 747-8I, but weighs about the same as a car. 17,000 solar cells supply the power, recharging energy dense lithium batteries during the day which in turn power the craft at night. The plane uses better carbon composite materials and thinner solar panels than the previous model which flew across the US last year. Apart from all the other challenges, the pilots will spend some 500 hours alone in a 3.8 cubic metre unpressurised cockpit, up to 5 or 6 days at a time in temperatures between negative and plus 40 C. And you thought flying to the UK in the cheap seats of a regular plane was challenging. Solar Impulse.

There was no Tech Universe on Friday, 18 April 2014, as it was Easter.