14 to 18 July 2014 Tech Universe Digest

Tech Universe: Monday 14 July 2014

The Oru Kayak folds up into a box for easy carrying.

The Oru Kayak folds up into a box for easy carrying.

  • COOK WITH FLARE: Are saucepans all the same? Lakeland’s Flare saucepan breaks the mould, heating food 44% faster than conventional models. High-performance fins channel heat from a gas flame across the bottom and up the sides of the pan, resulting in really efficient, even heat distribution. The means the pans heat more quickly, saving both electricity and time. That also means the food cooks more quickly without burning or scorching. The pans are also available for other hobs, including electric, ceramic and halogen, and in various sizes, including frypans. Channeling heat: it makes sense. Lakeland.
  • FISH EYE VIEW: If you stand around in the river fishing do you worry that the fish will see you and be frightened away? If so, Columbia’s polyester Solar Camo shirt may be right for you. Most of the time it looks like a plain blue shirt. When UV light hits it though the pattern and colour change, breaking up the solid blue into a blocky camouflage-style pattern of darker and lighter shades, with the aim of hiding you from the fish. Fooling fish is fun. Gear Junkie.
  • NO CHARGE: Do you leave your phone charger plugged in at the wall even after disconnecting your phone? That wastes a bit of electricity as the charger’s still using standby power, and there’s a bit of a fire risk. The Finnish ASMO charger avoids both problems because it shuts down when you disconnect your phone, totally isolating itself from the electric grid. On the other hand, the device will automatically start charging when you plug its cable into your phone. That’s an idea that should catch on. ASMO Charger.
  • A BIT DOTTY: British researchers found that by stacking a 7 nanometre thick layer of the phase change alloy germanium-antimony-tellurium between 2 layers of a transparent electrode they could use a tiny current to draw images. These stacks form nanopixels just 300 by 300 nanometres in size, and can be electrically switched on and off at will, creating coloured dots in an extremely high-resolution display. Any display based on this technology would have extremely low energy consumption because only those pixels that actually change would have to be refreshed. Just how high a resolution can the human eye perceive? University of Oxford.
  • CRACKED: Bridges and buildings made of concrete may develop cracks over time. Those cracks may then become dangerous faults. Researchers at North Carolina State University have created a skin of electrically conductive paint connected to electrodes around the perimeter that can reveal where and when cracks form. A computer program runs a small current between two of the electrodes at a time, cycling through a number of possible electrode combinations. If the skin’s conductivity decreases, that means the structure has cracked or been otherwise damaged. Sophisticated algorithms both register damage and determine where that damage has taken place. At the moment the technique has been successfully demonstrated on concrete beams less than a metre wide, but the next step is to scale up to larger structures. Surely this could be used beyond concrete? North Carolina State University.

Tech Universe: Tuesday 15 July 2014

  • THE EYES SHOW IT: Tests for Alzheimer’s disease can usually only pick it up once brain damage has already occurred. But now regular eye tests could lead to early diagnosis because a key biomarker for the disease can be identified in the retina and lens of the eye. Two different techniques of using substances to show signs of beta-amyloid in the eye had a high rate of success in correctly determining which members of a set of volunteers did or did not have the disease as later verified by PET scans. That’ll be good news for many people. The Telegraph.
  • WHITE ON WHITE: Many parts of the Arctic are remote and inaccessible, which makes studying wildlife such as polar bears very hard indeed. US researchers though have discovered that satellite images can help them gather information about the mammals almost as accurately as ground surveys, but at lower cost. Biologists at the University of Minnesota used satellites to capture images of polar bears in Foxe Basin, Nunavut, in the Canadian Arctic. Their images counted a similar number of bears to those counted in an aerial survey. One problem though is that aerial surveys are better able to show demographics such as family groups and cubs. Another challenge is that the researchers need better ways to analyse the satellite images. So there’s a problem for the mathematicians out there. Live Science.
  • THE OTHER HALF: O3b Networks is busy placing broadband satellites into an unusual medium Earth orbit at an altitude of 8,062 kilometres. Four more were launched just the other day. The relatively low orbit reduces the latency involved in sending signals to and from satellites. The O3b satellites are intended to bring broadband communications to the “other three billion” people on the planet who currently have no connection at all or remain underserved, including parts of Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, Asia and the Pacific Ocean Islands, including the Cook Islands. The satellites provide coverage within 45 degrees of latitude north and south of the equator. Half the planet is a huge goal. Space News.
  • GET OUT THE LEAD SUIT: Worried about or just interested in the radiation all around you? The MiniSpec radiation detector is for you. It’s smaller than a golf ball, portable and inexpensive, yet more efficient and accurate than many existing technologies that cost far more. The system is a miniaturised gamma ray spectrometer, which means it can measure not only the intensity of radiation but also identify the type of radionuclide that is creating it. You may have heard about Geiger counters — this is much more sophisticated. The device has WiFi so it can be connected to the Internet, or used remotely. Unfortunately development hasn’t finished yet, so the MiniSpec isn’t yet available commercially. There are endless possibilities here for those who promote products based on health scares. Oregon State University.
  • HIT NO MISS: The .50-caliber self-guiding EXACTO bullet from DARPA finds its own way to its target. The rounds hit targets that are offset from where the sniper rifle is aimed by manoeuvring in flight to compensate for weather, wind, target movement and other factors that could impede successful hits. How long before big game hunters get their hands on this kind of technology? DARPA.

Tech Universe: Wednesday 16 July 2014

  • GRILL OR FILL?: The barbecue may be packed away for the winter, but next time you go to use it will the gas bottle have enough in it? The Refuel Smart Propane Gauge does away with the guesswork. The bottle sits on a donut shaped base that connects to a magnetic sensor. To find out how much gas is left tap the sensor for an LED light readout or check the app on your smartphone, provided the grill is near a Wi-Fi network. That’s a nice touch, with the smartphone app. Quirky.
  • QUICK CHIP: It takes a slow, expensive test using radioactive materials to distinguish between the two main forms of diabetes mellitus which have different causes and treatments. And that usually means a trip to hospital. Now researchers from Stanford University can do that test in a few minutes with a few drops of blood from a finger prick and a microchip. Each $20 chip can also be used for around 15 tests. The glass plates forming the base of each microchip are coated with an array of nanoparticle-sized islands of gold, which intensify a fluorescent signal, enabling reliable antibody detection. The test is so inexpensive and easy to use it could enable broad screening and early detection of type-1 diabetes. Stanford University.
  • WHERE TO?: Helsinki aims to make the private car obsolete by vamping up its round-town transport system to be all-encompassing. The aim is to provide an array of options so cheap, flexible and well-coordinated that private cars would end up being more expensive, less convenient and harder to use. A traveller would use a smartphone app to specify an origin and a destination. The app would then co-ordinate the best way to travel, and accept payment. Travel could include driverless cars, ferries, bike shares and buses, depending on the traveller’s preferences. The Kutsuplus mini-bus service already does some of this. That’s a bold idea, transforming even the idea of transport. The Guardian.
  • STRONG BLACK: What’s so dark it absorbs all but 0.035% of visual light? A British made material called Vantablack made of carbon nanotubes. It is so dark that the human eye cannot understand what it is seeing. Shapes and contours are lost, leaving nothing but an apparent abyss. The material’s designed for astronomical cameras, telescopes and infrared scanning systems, and of course the military will find uses for it. The material packs carbon nanotubes together so tightly that light can’t get in. Any light that squeezes into the gaps between the nanotubes bounces around until it’s almost entirely absorbed. The material also conducts heat 7.5 times more effectively than copper and has 10 times the tensile strength of steel. Nothing to see here then. The Independent.
  • BOOTING UP: US Marines carry a lot of equipment, and some 7 Kg of batteries to power it all. They spend a lot of time on their feet though so Lockheed Martin has developed a boot that transforms kinetic energy from the full motion of footsteps into a functional power source, generating up to 1.5 watts of power per foot. The additional equipment in the boot adds only a few grams extra weight. Now they plan to optimise the design and make it more rugged and better suited to use by the military. After that, we all want some of the kinetic action for charging our phones. Lockheed Martin.

Tech Universe: Thursday 17 July 2014

  • FOLDED FREEDOM: A fold-up kayak? The Oru Kayak folds up into a box for easy carrying. The 3.7 metre kayak weighs 12 Kg and folds in a few minutes into a box less than a metre square. The skin is a double-layered polypropylene rated for 20,000 fold cycles, while the fold pattern allows the skin to act as a monolithic structural unit, without the need for an internal frame. A rigid floorboard reinforces the cockpit and doubles as the lid of the box. Once you’re finished with the kayak it can be fully recycled. Fitting the kayak in the boot of the car would have to be a bonus. Oru Kayak.
  • FAST AND CURIOUS: Would you rather walk through a Qylatron Entry Experience Solution or an airport security scanner? The Qylatron was used recently in Brazil for World Cup match crowd screening. Rather than screening bags on a conveyor belt, the machine has 5 pods. Hold a ticket up to a pod and it opens for your bags. Then you walk through a scanning gate to the other side of the pod where your bags are ready to be collected when you hold the ticket to the pod again. Because the machine can screen 5 people and their bags at once it’s quicker than airport scanners. It’s also more secure as bags aren’t just left on a conveyor for anyone to pick up. The pod door turns red and calls a security guard if the scanner detects any suspicious objects. Speeding up such security scans would be welcomed by all. Wired.
  • FAST AND POROUS: Flash memory technology has allowed us to store a lot of data in a small package: just think of the memory card you use in a digital camera. Resistive random-access memory packs even more into an even smaller space — maybe a terabyte of data on a device the size of a postage stamp. That’s more than 50 times the data density of current flash memory. Now a team at Rice University have found that using porous silicon oxide material can improve the RRAM in many ways, including ease of manufacture and increased endurance. What’s a postage stamp again? Rice University.
  • JUMP START: When water droplets spontaneously jump away from superhydrophobic surfaces during condensation, they can gain electric charge in the process. Researchers did some testing with interleaved flat metal plates, some with a hydrophilic surface, connected through an external circuit. Jumping droplets carried charge from one plate to the other as water condensed from the atmosphere and the charge difference was harnessed to provide power. The amount of power generated isn’t huge but a device like this could be invaluable to people in remote spots with few other options. A device that both creates fresh water and generates power could be very handy for some. Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
  • ODD BALL: Carbon buckyballs are made of 60 carbon atoms arranged in pentagons and hexagons to form a sphere. After they were discovered in 1985 carbon nanotubes and graphene were also discovered. Now researchers at Brown University have created a similar sphere with boron, using 40 atoms. The borospherene they’ve developed consists of 48 triangles, 4 seven-sided rings and 2 six-membered rings. Several atoms stick out a bit from the others, making the surface of borospherene somewhat less smooth than a buckyball. They don’t yet know what it might be useful for, but one idea is hydrogen storage. But the utility is for others to figure out. EurekAlert.

Tech Universe: Friday 18 July 2014

  • IT’S A BOT!: If you’re expecting your domestic robot to have arms, a head with a face and legs or wheels then Jibo will surprise you. Jibo is a family robot — friendly, helpful and intelligent, but it looks more like a desk fan. The device can see, hear and speak, communicating and expressing itself using natural social and emotive cues. Artificial Intelligence algorithms learn your preferences to adapt and fit into your life. It can remind you of tasks and events, send and receive messages, take photos, be a screen for video calls, including turning in the right direction. There’s a lot of potential here. Jibo.
  • WAVING: FloWave is a circular pool 25 metres in diameter. It’s not for swimming in though. Instead it can generate waves from any direction and function as a real sea simulator. Why? Well, before a company spends millions of dollars installing structures such as wave turbines on or under water it’s useful to find out how the sea currents and the turbines will interact. The 5m deep tank contains 2.4 million litres of fresh water. Around the circumference are 168 absorbing wave makers. 28 submerged flow-drive units can drive current across the tank in any direction, with maximum current velocities of 1.6 metres per second. Does fresh water behave the same as salt water though? FloWave. Video:
  • WIND BAGS: The London Array is an offshore wind farm in the UK. It has 175 turbines and an installed capacity of 630 megawatts — when the wind blows. But it’s those lulls in production that are the problem, as with all wind or solar arrays. One idea is to use energy that’s surplus to run compressors that fill flexible bags with air. The bags are then stored somewhere between 80 metres and 500 metres below the surface of the sea. When generation falls because the wind drops that air can then be run through a turbine to pick up the slack. The thing is that the London Array alone would require up to 812,000 cubic meters of compressed air to compensate for a one-day lull. That would need 27,500 bags if the bags were 5 metres across, or 23 bags if they were 41 metres across. Then you also need ballast and strong rope. The ideas are interesting but still need a lot of work. Bubblewrap for the larger denizens of the deep! IEEE Spectrum.
  • PEW PEW: The Russian Platform-M combat robot is to be used for gathering intelligence, discovering and eliminating stationary and mobile targets, providing firepower support and guarding important sites. The vehicle, equipped with optical-electronic and radio reconnaissance locators, runs on tracks and is armed with a Kalashnikov rifle and 4 grenade launchers to destroy targets in automatic or semiautomatic mode. What could possibly go wrong? Soviet Outpost.
  • FACE THE WALL: Flip a touchscreen over and you’ll quickly find the other side doesn’t work the same way at all. Unless it’s the TransWall, a two-sided, touchable, and transparent display wall, developed in Korea. The TransWall could be useful in places where it’s important to keep people physically separated but where they still need to communicate, such as an isolation room in a hospital. The wall uses a surface transducer to provide audio and vibrotactile feedback to the users. A holographic screen film is inserted between the sheets of plexiglass, and beam projectors installed on each side of the wall project images that are reflected. That means people can work on either side of the glass, sharing images and interacting to play games or simply communicate. Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. Video: