20 to 30 May 2014 Tech Universe Digest

Two weeks worth of Tech Universe today! One day the column wasn’t published.

Press One For Resuscitation.

Press One For Resuscitation.

Tech Universe: Tuesday 20 May 2014

  • A NOD TO RACING: With a tilt to the left and a roll to the back one driver in demo laps before the Indy 500 car race race will be driving his modified car by head movements alone. Biting down on a mouth tube applies the brakes, while head tilts steer and accelerate. The driver is a quadriplegic, disabled in a Speedway crash in 2000. The car’s fitted with overhead cameras that track and measure the movements of the driver’s head and relay the commands to the steering wheel and pedals via an onboard computer. A GPS warning system and steering system help make sure the car doesn’t stray off the track and the car can be controlled remotely from the pit. For the demo laps a safety officer will ride along and can take over the controls if necessary. That’s definitely levelling the playing field. Gizmodo.
  • A NEW CHARGE: Lithium ion batteries are extremely useful, but they degrade fairly quickly, charge relatively slowly and can pose a fire risk. Power Japan Plus are developing a Dual Carbon Battery that doesn’t have those problems. Made almost exclusively of carbon, the Ryden dual carbon battery is safer, more sustainable and has a longer lifetime. Both anode and cathode are made of carbon, which is also its only active material. It’s rated for more than 3,000 charge cycles and charges 20 times faster than lithium ion batteries. Production begins later this year and batteries should be suitable for medical devices and satellites. It’s carbon all the way down. Power Japan Plus.
  • ON THE ROAD: It doesn’t sound like a huge thing to say that a bus in the US recently travelled more than 1100 Km in 24 hours, although it’s certainly a long and gruelling trip. It’s a bit further than the drive from Wellington to Cape Reinga. The bus though was electric and charged periodically throughout the day. Its trip was on a specially designed circuit that simulated both commuter and central business district routes and drive cycles. The bus averaged 46 Kph and its makers claim it recorded an average fuel economy of nearly 11.5 kilometres per litre. The electric buses are already in use on various places around the US. Those must have been good fast charges. Proterra.
  • IN THE HOLE: Oops: deep hole is deep and strong. The robotic deep-sea vehicle Nereus was exploring almost 10,000 metres down in the Kermadec Trench. That’s the second deepest oceanic trench in the world. Recently, 7 hours into a planned 9 hour dive at the deepest extent of the trench, the researchers lost contact with the vessel. After a search they found debris from Nereus floating on the sea surface nearby. The researchers figure a portion of the vehicle probably imploded under the pressure which was around 16,000 pounds per square inch. What’s astonishing is that it could withstand that kind of pressure in the first place. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
  • FLUSH DRIVE: An electric screwdriver is a wonderful thing, but if you’re not careful it’s easy to sink a screw too deep and then have to fill the depression it leaves. Black+Decker’s AutoSense drill does a smart thing: it detects the change in torque when a screw’s wider head hits the surface of the material you’re working with and stops itself with an automatic clutch so the screw ends up flush. Micro adjustments are available to tweak the depth of the screw. That’s a useful development in screwdriver technology. Black+Decker.

Tech Universe: Wednesday 21 May 2014

  • BIRDS EYE VIEW: Millions of birds die each year after flying into windows and other glass surfaces. The problem, of course, is that glass is both transparent and reflective so all they see is sky and landscape rather than the glass. Unlike humans, birds can see in the ultraviolet spectrum. Ornilux include a patterned UV reflective coating in their glass that birds can see, but we can’t. The coating adds a mesh-like pattern that the birds can easily detect and avoid. Now to get the skyscraper owners to actually install it. Ornilux.
  • PUT A LID ON IT: The lids on takeaway coffee cups don’t handle spills well. Viroa’s new design for the plastic lid makes drinking more enjoyable and reduces spills. The high-impact polystyrene lid includes a small drink well, so the experience is more like drinking from a real cup and you can smell the aroma of the liquid. The position of the opening to drink from also means that if you jostle the container the liquid is less likely to splash out, and even if it does, it mainly falls back to the drink well rather than splashing on your clothes. Even small improvements can have very welcome consequences. Viora. Video:
  • STAY FOCUSSED: To cut or weld with a laser beam demands a lot of power, and there’s another problem: the beam’s energy deforms the mirrors that are focusing it. When the mirrors deform so does the laser beam, then it loses intensity and effectiveness. German researchers found a way to deal with this problem: they heat up the mirrors to a precisely controlled level to counteract the deformation. The researchers made a ceramic mirror with a copper layer on the front and built-in temperature sensors and filaments. The sensors detect any change from heating, then software sends a calculated current through the filaments to heat the mirrors and balance out the deformation. If you can’t beat them, join them. Fraunhofer Institute.
  • TOP OFF THE LAKE: In the Swiss Alps an enormous engineering project is underway linking two lakes at different altitudes to boost hydroelectric power generation. Lake Limmern lies around 630 metres below Lake Mutt. It’s straightforward to generate about 480 MW of power as water falls through turbines from the top lake. Sometimes though the system produces more energy than current demand, so this project adds the ability to pump water back up the mountain to be stored in Lake Mutt. Then, when it’s needed, the water can again drop through the turbines for extra power. By using the excess to pump the water up to the higher lake again, the system effectively stores excess energy until it can be useful. The plant should go into operation around 2016. It’s always that problem of supply and demand. Axpo.
  • SOUNDING BLUE: Thanks to dye that’s sensitive to temperature the Chromosonic experimental electronic textile changes colour and pattern in response to both touch and sound. The fabric is hooked up to an Arduino so nichrome wires woven into the material respond to sound and change the fabric’s colours. Or just press a hand against the fabric to warm it and bring out different colours. I’m surprised the music industry copyright lawyers aren’t already making sure this won’t be able to play music. Wired. Video:

Tech Universe: Thursday 22 May 2014

  • STAY IN TOUCH: Braille is important for many blind people, so why not use it on a phone? OwnFone’s Braille Phone is available in the UK and uses custom 3D printing to produce the front and back. The phone can be personalised with 2 or 4 Braille buttons pre-programmed to call friends, family, carers or the emergency services. It also has a 3D printed keypad. A regular smartphone may offer more options for most people. BBC.
  • HEART WARMING: Researchers or doctors may want to implant an electronic device in a human body, but those devices are really just lumps of stuff that aren’t compatible with biological tissue. An implant needs to be stiff at room temperature, but then soft and flexible enough to wrap inside the body. Researchers are working on shape memory polymers and thin flexible electronic foils that respond to the body’s environment and become less rigid when implanted. The rigid devices become soft when heated. Before being implanted they’re given the shape they’ll need inside the body then released back to a rigid form. After implant, the device then warms and takes the required shape. Researchers aim to next make smaller devices with more sensory components. UT Dallas.
  • TURN THE U: Skylock is a U-shaped bike lock, but it doesn’t need a key. Instead it connects via Bluetooth with an app on your smartphone to unlock. You can deliberately tap an unlock button, or allow the lock to sense when you’re nearby and auto-unlock. If your phone’s not around, capacitive touch buttons on the device itself let you unlock it. Don’t worry about the lock’s battery running out either as solar panels take care of that. Log the Skylock into a local WiFi network and it alerts you if anyone disturbs the bike, thanks to a built-in accelerometer. If you have an accident the lock is able to alert authorities for you. But is that Bluetooth connection secure? Skylock.
  • STEMMING THE PROBLEM: Carrying around a bike lock can be annoying, but the Stemlock uses a different approach. It integrates into the bike’s stem and with a turn disassociates the handlebars from the fork. That means that no-one could ride off on your bike. You need a special tool to take the stem apart to replace it so that offers an extra layer of protection. Of course, they could still perhaps wheel it away on the back wheel, put it in the back of a truck or simply strip it for parts. IXOW.
  • NOT A FRIDGE MAGNET: Funnily enough, a magnetic resonance imaging machine uses magnets to do its work. They’re a far cry from the magnets you stick on the fridge though. With energy measured in Tesla units, a standard clinical magnet can help doctors make images of a brain or other bodily tissue. Doctors commonly use magnets as strong as 1.5 or 3 Tesla in MRI machines. GE’s new MRI machine though generates a 7T magnetic field — 140,000 times stronger than the magnetic field around the Earth. The MRI machine produces very high quality images but must be charged for around 40 hours before use. The machine is also cooled over 2 weeks with 10,000 litres of liquid helium to a temperature of 4 degrees Kelvin above absolute zero in order to achieve superconductivity and generate the powerful magnetic field. Oh, and it’s 3.3 metres long and weighs 36,287 Kg. Try sticking that on the fridge. GE Reports.

Tech Universe: Friday 23 May 2014

  • RIDE GOES BEFORE A FALL: If you think you’re a hard core thrill seeker you may want to try the Falcon’s Fury ride in Florida. It’s a 102 metre tall freestanding drop tower. At the ride’s highest point the chairs pivot 90 degrees to a face-down dive position. On release the ride plunges straight down at 96 Kph, until just before stopping the chairs pivot back to a regular position. The ride includes 5 or 6 seconds of freefall, and the wait time at the top is variable so you can’t predict when the drop will begin. It might pay to do that one on an empty stomach. SeaWorld Parks.
  • POLYMER HEAL THYSELF: IBM Research discovered a new class of polymers that are stronger than bone, able to heal themselves, light-weight, and 100% recyclable. Thermosetting plastics are given a shape then baked so they keep that shape. Once you no longer need the item though it can’t be recycled. Like those plastics, the new polyhexahydrotriazine material, or PHT, is light and easy to work with, but incredibly hard and heat resistant. Where it differs is that if broken it can join up again, and by adding some sulphuric acid it can be fully reverted back to its base state. And there’s its weakness. ExtremeTech.
  • OUTSIDE POWER: Medical workers may soon want to help treat illness or alleviate pain by placing electroceutical chips inside the body. These could be tiny electronic gadgets such as pacemakers or nerve stimulators. But of course such devices need power. Far-field electromagnetic waves, such as those used by radio, travel over long distances, but either reflect off human and animal bodies or are absorbed as heat. On the other hand, near-field waves, already used for hearing aids, can transfer power only over short distances. Researchers at Stanford created a mid-field wireless transfer by making use of how waves change their travel when they encounter a different material. The researchers implanted an electronic pacemaker device smaller than a grain of rice, then held a power source about the size of a credit card just above it, sending power wirelessly. Such an external wireless power source could handily recharge implanted devices. Keep a power source in your wallet for handy charging. Stanford School of Engineering.
  • 300 IN ONE: Scientists have been able to study the brain by using fluorescent proteins that show where activity is taking place. Until now, though, they’ve really only been able to make snapshots. Now researchers have been able to use light-field imaging to capture all the activity from the whole brain in 3D and at high speed. Light-field imaging creates 3-D images by measuring the angles of incoming rays of light. By optimising a light-field microscope the team were able to study a small sea worm that has only 302 neurons in its body while it carried out activities such as crawling. The team hope to next improve the resolution of the microscope to be able to see dendrites that branch out from neurons and to speed up the computation that’s required. A few hundred neurons is a good start. MIT News Office.
  • SUN ON THE WATER: The DIY solar water pump from Pumpmakers is designed for people who have problems accessing a good supply of clean water or who rely on pumps that are hard to maintain. It can be pumped by hand when the sun’s not shining and resists salt water corrosion. Most parts can be produced locally and can be supported locally too. The pumps work up to a depth of 100 metres and can produce up to 18,000 litres of water per day, easily replacing other pumps that have already been installed. That could be a great project for a village. Pumpmakers.

Tech Universe: Tuesday 27 May 2014

  • LOSE WEIGHT FAST: If you’d like to experience Zero G weightlessness you may be interested in the offerings from Swiss Space Systems. Over the course of each 90 minute parabolic flight their planes perform 15 parabolas, each providing between 20 and 25 seconds of weightlessness. Flights are available starting from a couple of dozen locations around the world, including Singapore and the Philippines. Then you have to come back down to Earth. Swiss Space Systems.
  • PRESS ONE FOR RESUSCITATION: If you had to perform CPR to save a life would you know how to do it? Just watching a few TV shows probably won’t equip you to carry it out correctly and without harming the person needing help. The Cardio First Angel doesn’t need batteries or power to help you perform CPR correctly. It’s a large padded button you place on the patient’s chest. The design and shape of the device help ensure it’s correctly positioned. Press the button to perform compressions. The button clicks when you press hard enough and clicks twice when your timing is right, at 80 to120 compressions per minute. That’s one for the office first aid kit. Cardio First Angel.
  • INSIGHTS IN SIGHT: A holographic display from DARPA puts battlefield data over a soldier’s natural field of vision, identifying friendly and enemy forces on land and air in real time. The Urban Leader Tactical Response, Awareness and Visualization device overlays data over what the wearer can see, so it doesn’t interfere with their view of events. A soldier can see where other forces, vehicles, hazards and aircraft in the local environment are even when they aren’t visible. The augmented reality device isn’t yet even at prototype stage, so it may be a while before US soldiers are using it in the field. What you can’t see can hurt you. Gizmodo.
  • INSIDE SPIN: It rotates at 18,000 revolutions per minute and is small enough to fit inside a human cell. The technique used by researchers at the University of Texas relies on AC and DC electric fields to assemble the parts. The nanomotor created by the research team was able to spin continuously for 15 hours. Load the motor with biochemicals and it could be used as a way to release drugs inside cells, perhaps to control diabetes or target cancer. Or, of course, for recreational use. University of Texas.
  • SOMETHING IN THE AIR: Is plugging in your phone to charge it too much of a hassle? WattUp is a system from Energous that lets you wirelessly charge smartphones, tablets, and other small gadgets from several metres away. A transmitter with small antennas sends radio waves to a receiver attached to the phone and you can walk around and still use the phone while it charges. The energy receiver converts the radio waves to DC power to charge the device. At the moment WattUp can power two devices at once, but the company aim to eventually power more. One down side though is that charging takes about twice as long as plugging in at the wall. Still, not being tethered to the wall while charging is very convenient. Technology Review.

Tech Universe: Wednesday 28 May 2014

  • GO BANANAS: Ahh, fruit, fresh from the 3D printer. With a splash of this and a few drops of that you can create any fruit shape, taste, texture, size and flavour you choose. The 3D fruit printer from Dovetailed takes individual liquid droplets with different flavours and combines them into any fruit you design. The printer’s specially aimed at chefs and anyone interested in adding creativity to meals. Banana shaped apples, anyone? Dovetailed. Video:
  • LIGHT ALL THE WAY: Light sensors, such as the one in your camera, are generally only sensitive to certain wavelengths, for example being able to detect visible light but not infrared. Researchers at the University of Surrey though used fullerene nanorods to create light sensors that can detect the full spectrum of light, from ultraviolet to visible and near-infrared. The sensors are flexible, and can be produced cheaply with conventional laser printers, rather than needing specialised manufacturing. These sensors could increase the scope of what regular cameras can do, and make it cheaper for surgeons to view tumours before surgery. The photos could be amazing. KurzweilAI.
  • NO MORE SECRETS: If you like to know all about your car’s performance and diagnose every glitch and twitch from engine noise to wiper blades, from brakes to airbags, then the MECH5 system might be exactly what you need. The cloud-based system gives you access on any device connected to the Internet to the data from your car’s Electronic Control Unit. Plug in a small device to the car’s diagnostic circuit and install an app on phone, tablet or computer. Then you can read all the data the car has and interact with it too, perhaps testing wipers, lights, window controls or any electronic system within the vehicle. Because all you need is an Internet connection you can run the diagnostics from beside the car or the other side of the world. This could allow a car’s regular mechanic, for example, to diagnose and perhaps fix problems for a driver who has broken down while out on a trip. Fleet managers could find this particularly useful. MECH5.
  • SOFT TOUCH: You’re using a projector in a classroom and want to scroll or enlarge the image, or perhaps highlight certain parts or draw boxes and arrows. Rather than having to go back to the computer, Epson’s EB-595WT projector allows you to touch the screen itself, either with a finger or a special pen. A touch sensor unit covers the projected screen with infrared light that detects a touch via a camera embedded in the main unit. That makes it possible to operate the tool buttons of an electronic white board and scale and scroll the screen with a touch. Teachers everywhere can only dream. Tech-On!
  • STAY IN TOUCH: If your phone and tablet have trained you to expect any surface to be a touchscreen then you’ll be glad to learn about Thermal Touch from Metaio. The system takes data from both infrared and visible light cameras and blends it so that any object around you is touchable. The infrared camera detects the residual heat on an object after it has been touched and can distinguish between a touch and simply putting a finger near an item. Software could then use the touch to provide additional information, for example providing direction after you’ve touched a map. The system could work in future with glasses, like those from Google. In the prototype the cameras are attached to a tablet. Next: gloves with heatable fingertips for using the system in the cold. KurzweilAI.

Tech Universe: Thursday 29 May 2014

  • THE WHEEL OF TRASH: Rubbish gets carried out to harbours by storm water. In Baltimore though they’re intercepting that trash before it can get loose in the harbour, thanks to a Solar Powered Water Wheel Trash Interceptor. The water wheel includes a floating dumpster and a trash-loading conveyor system powered by water current and solar power. A floating boom funnels debris, such as logs, bottles, tires, takeaway cups and whatever else comes along to the front of the conveyor where it is scooped up by the conveyor belt before it falls into the dumpster barge. In the wheel’s first 3 months of operation it collected around 59,000 Kg of debris. That’s a great use for a wheel that could be copied by a great many places with harbours. Gizmodo.
  • CLEVER CROCS: Kenya’s Mara River is home to around 4,000 hippos, who can be very territorial and aggressive. One problem is that downstream the water is often polluted with hippo poop — around 10 Kg per day per hippo. Researchers wanted to measure water quality where the hippos hang out, but for obvious reasons, didn’t want to venture too close. That’s where robotic boats come in. The boats use Android smartphones for onboard computing and are designed to navigate autonomously, working alone or in groups. Around 60 cm long, each boat is shaped to resemble the front part of a crocodile, since the hippos tolerate crocs for the most part. The plastic airboats skim over the surface of several hippopotamus pools in the river, scanning the river bottom for deposits of hippo dung and making various measurements of water quality. That’s smart thinking, with the crocodile disguise. Carnegie Mellon.
  • UNDER WRAPS: Among its other collected items the British Museum has 8 mummies from Egypt and Sudan. What’s special about these mummies is that they were imaged in high definition via CT scans. The x-ray data allows us to see what’s under the wraps: jewellery, faces, hair, bone problems, even fatty plaques in arteries. The visualisations are part of a current exhibition of the mummies that’s open until late in 2014. It seems a better option that physically unwrapping the dead. New Scientist.
  • LIGHT RIDE: The Marbel Board is an electric skateboard with an app for your phone. The app gives you 3 pre-defined ride modes, and full control over top speed and acceleration levels. It also lets you map and share rides, and lock the board so no-one else can ride it. The carbon fibre and kevlar deck helps keep the weight down to around 4.5 Kg but the lithium ion battery and brushless motor give a top speed of 30 Kph and a range of around 16 Km. That’s another one that could help you leave the car at home. Marbel.
  • THE BOARD SHOWS GO: Boosted’s motorised Boards put a 40 volt lithium ion phosphate battery just behind the front trucks of a skateboard and a motor at the back. Twin brushless motors spin the rear wheels via carbon belts. The board can carry up to 110 Kg and has a top speed of around 30 Kph. To drive the board use the remote — push the throttle rocker button forward to go and back to slow down and stop. Stopping causes the motor to send a bit of juice back to the battery. A single charge will carry you around 10 Km but if you run out of juice at least you can just push the board like any other. Wired.

Tech Universe: Friday 30 May 2014

  • WANT YOUR EARTH TV?: Do you have broadband at home? What say you were living or working on the Moon — would you want it there too? Of course you would. Luckily researchers can make that happen. A demonstration signal transmitted data over the 384,633 kilometres between the Moon and Earth at a download rate of 622 megabits per second. Upload achieved 19.44 megabits per second. Four separate telescopes in New Mexico sent pulses of infrared light. Since turbulence in air can disrupt a signal 4 signals were sent in order to increase the chances of one getting through without problems. A receiver mounted on a satellite orbiting the moon collected the light and focused it into an optical fibre that can be amplified and sent further. Having shown the technique works, a signal like this could be used in various space missions, even as far as Mars. Priding will be very interesting, once there’s commercial opportunity involved. The Optical Society.
  • BLOWING IN THE WIND: Liam seems like a perfectly good name for an almost silent wind turbine you could have at home. Its yearly output averages between 300 and 2500 kilowatts, depending on wind speed and roof height. The turbine itself weighs only 55 Kg and has a diameter of 1.5 metres, though a miniature version is also available with a diameter of 75 cm. Liam produces only around 45 decibels of sound, or around the same level as rain. The spiral shape of the blades draws wind into the turbine, so others can be placed nearby without being affected. It seems like every home could have one. Inhabitat.
  • CAN SEE THE TREES IN THE FOREST: Finland has 30 billion trees in its dense forests — about 70% of the country is forested. That’s a problem for power companies trying to work out where they can run lines and to monitor existing lines. Usually they survey areas from helicopters which is both expensive and time-consuming. The Sharper Shape company though say drones could do the job instead. Their Octocopter drone is fitted with 8 rotors and a Lidar. It collects data that is then processed to create a model within a centimetre accuracy of all the poles, pylons and isolators. What’s more they can model every tree and vegetation growth so a power company can understand risks to the lines. The system is fully automated, drastically reducing the amount of time required to complete a survey. One problem they face though is getting clearance from authorities for the drones to fly without a nearby human operator. Drones: so useful, yet so worrying. BBC.
  • WHEELS DOWN: Parents of young children may have to deal with special car seats, strollers, accessories and of course, the child itself even for a trip to the shops. The Doona transforms between stroller and carseat with an easy fold. A cover can protect the car seat from possibly dirty wheels and the seat buckles in just like any other. Many parents will be glad not to have to carry the car seat around; wheeling is so much easier. SimpleParenting.
  • MOVING HOUSE: If you live in an 18 square metre apartment then you may consider a folding bed to help make the most of the very limited space. The CityHome, designed by MIT, is a very special folding bed that allows you to transform the space into whatever you need. It’s about the size of a cupboard and contains not only a bed but also a dining room table, kitchen surface, a cooking range, a closet, and multipurpose storage. Internal motors produce each item as required when you wave a hand, speak a command or touch a panel. The whole thing can also move a metre or so each way, meaning you could squeeze up space in an area you’re not using for the moment to make another area larger. That’s one kind of mobile home. Fast Code Design.