30 June to 04 July 2014 Tech Universe Digest

Tech Universe: Monday 30 June 2014

The pants say ow.

The pants say ow.

  • A BRIEF HIGH: In Tel Aviv next year some travellers will be able to fly through the air — for 500 metres anyway. A pilot scheme from skyTran will suspend 2-person cars from elevated magnetic tracks around 7 metres off the ground as way to avoid congested roads. The 500 metre loop is a test track before setting up a commercial version. Travellers will be able to call up a car on their smartphone to meet them at a specific station and then head directly to their destination at up to 70 Kph. If the Israeli pilot works out then other projects in India and the US should be able to go ahead. How many stations can there be on a 500 metre track? BBC.
  • COOL RUNNINGS: NASA’s latest prototype space rover does its roving a bit differently: floating upside down and rolling along the underside of ice above. The untethered vehicle is operated through a satellite link. Why roll along the underside of ice? Well, after much more development this vehicle may eventually be destined for Jupiter’s moon Europa where such skills may be required. A rover like that could surely also be useful for research on planet Earth. Gizmodo.
  • RUMBLE STRIPS: Airport runways are noisy places. Amsterdam’s extremely busy Schiphol Airport is in a flat area too so noise travels a long way — up to 32 Km. But then researchers noticed things were a bit quieter after local farmers ploughed their fields. Now they’ve installed some carefully researched landscaping that helps deflect some of the noise up into the sky. GPS-guided robot excavators were used to create noise-deflecting ridges, spaced about 11 metres apart. That’s about the same length as large-wavelength, low-frequency, long-range rumbles. Every airport should have them. Wired.
  • BRAINS IN THE TEETH: Some sports and activities leave players vulnerable to concussion. But establishing the severity of an impact to the head and deciding whether to take a player off the field is no simple matter. Stanford University is approaching the problem with a mouthguard equipped with accelerometers that can directly measure skull accelerations. Recording thousands of impacts has allowed researchers to see that players’ heads frequently sustain accelerations of 10 G, and sometimes even 100 G — 30 times as much as astronauts experience during launch or reentry. Infrared proximity sensors in the mouthpiece determine whether the mouthguard is actually being worn, and allow software to ignore impacts that may be caused by dropping. The researchers hope that eventually the mouthguard will be able to report serious impacts as they happen, allowing coaches to make better decisions about withdrawing players from the field. That’s a nice way to piggyback on existing technology. Stanford News.
  • A SOUND IDEA: The manufacture of microchips depends on thin film technology. The current approach is really just to spray on the film, but with little control. Australian researchers have discovered that high-frequency sound waves provide that missing control and precision. Tuning the sound waves also allowed the researchers to create any pattern they wanted on the surface of a microchip. Thin film coatings are or could be used for paint, wound care, 3D printing, micro-casting and micro-fluidics. What other materials could sound control? RMIT University.

Tech Universe: Wednesday 02 July 2014

  • TAKE IT TO HEART: If you use a Pacemaker you may need a risky surgery after about 7 years to replace the battery. A flexible piezoelectric energy harvester developed by Korean researchers could do away with those battery replacements. The researchers tested the nanogenerator in rats whose small body movements provided enough energy to stimulate the animal’s heart. The researchers say this nanogenerator could be used for Pacemakers and for other implantable medical devices. Keep moving if you want to stay alive. ScienceDaily.
  • TONGUE TWISTER: Some paraplegics with electric wheelchairs sip and puff with a straw to get around. That’s tricky to learn though and exhausting so US researchers tried something else. Tests showed that with a magnetic titanium tongue piercing and a wireless headset a user has more and easier control over the wheelchair and other systems and the users preferred it. Now the researchers aim to reduce the size of the headset. Wired.
  • BUG PAPER: Unfortunately it was only a short-lived campaign for World Health Day, but one Sri Lankan newspaper produced an issue whose ink was laced with citronella essence. The idea was to help keep mosquitoes and Dengue fever at bay. It seems the locals mainly read the paper in early morning and in the evening, just when mosquitoes are most likely to strike. Articles in the paper also provided information about dengue fever and its prevention. Sri Lanka is one place where Dengue fever affects thousands of people each year. While the sales and readership of the paper increased, there was no word on whether this could be an effective way to reduce the spread of Dengue. Core77.
  • TOUCHING: Camping on rough ground? A thin rubber sheet can cushion you from rocks when you sleep, but you’ll still be aware of the uneven surface. A thicker sheet would help, but then it’s bigger and heavier to carry. German scientists have found a way to hide or mask shapes so they can’t be felt, and eventually that could lead to camping mattresses that really are thin, light and comfortable. Their mechanical invisibility cloak is based on a specially structured polymer. The crystalline material consists of needle-shaped cones, whose tips meet. The size of the contact points is calculated precisely to hide objects below. That camping mattress may be a way off though. Karlsruhe Institute of Technology.
  • SALTY SOLUTION: Most solar cells are made of silicon. Some thinner, cheaper and lighter cells are made from cadmium telluride. The problem is that manufacturing them requires expensive and highly toxic chemicals. Now researchers have found they can use a much cheaper, non-toxic alternative, magnesium chloride in manufacturing. The chemical can be extracted from sea water, and is cheap enough to bring the cost of solar cells down enough that solar generation can rival conventional power generation in price. One big problem remains: tellurium is extremely rare. Let’s hope there’s a good recycling plan in place for solar cells at the end of their useful life. BBC.

Tech Universe: Thursday 03 July 2014

  • PACK IT IN: Want to sit for a minute and enjoy the sunset or watch a street performer or even just wait for a ride? If the ground or wall or bench is damp or dirty you may end up standing. The Matador pocket blanket folds up so small into its pouch that you could actually keep it in your pocket for such occasions. The water repellant and puncture resistant material is made from high-tech HyprLyte Nylon that is less than 90 microns thick, yet very durable. The blanket comes with an attached pouch and has fold lines sewn in so you have no problem packing it up again after use. I can think of a time or two that would have been very handy. Matador.
  • BENCHED: Take a seat in a Boston park and you may be able to charge your smartphone. The city is installing several Soofas — solar-powered benches — that offer phone charging and also connect wirelessly to the Internet to upload location-based environmental information, such as air quality and noise-level data. This is the kind of thing every city could do with. Soofa.
  • WHAT A DRAG: The dimples on a golf ball reduce the drag caused by air resistance, but they’re fixed and don’t adapt to conditions. Researchers at MIT have created a material called Smorph that can change its surface in real time. So far they’ve made a sphere but hope to eventually be able to create any shape that’s desired, such as an aircraft wing or car body. The team made a ball of soft rubberlike material with a stiff skin. When they extracted air from the hollow interior the ball shrank and its surface wrinkled. At a certain degree of shrinkage, the smart morphable surface can produce a dimpled pattern that’s very similar to that of a golf ball. By controlling the interior pressure the team can control the amount of dimpling and therefore the drag. They might need to warn passengers on any planes that make use of smorphing: it could be alarming to look out the window and see the wing crumpling mid-flight. MIT.
  • THE SALES TRACK: When you visit an online store the website owner probably tracks exactly which pages you visit, in which order, how long you spend on each page, as well as what you buy and how long it is before you return. Real world stores just can’t gather such detailed tracking information. One Spanish company aims to change that. Their approach starts with low-power sensors on the ceiling and shelves, linked by Bluetooth, that detect any movement up to 50 metres away. Meanwhile the smartphones many shoppers carry are constantly searching for Wi-Fi. By tracking those pings and correlating them with data from the movement sensors the company say they can tell where each customer is to within 1.5 metres at any given moment. Add in purchase records, and a store can work out which products are being ignored, which ones customers look at but don’t buy and how customers move around the store. Maybe data like that would help them to organise their stores to better suit the customers too. New Scientist.
  • POCKET PROTECTOR: Those wanting to detect explosives have to use bulky equipment and rely on tedious sample preparation by a trained operator. A nanodevice developed in Israel though can identify several different types of explosives in real time, even at a distance of several metres from the source. The prototype is portable yet powerful, using highly sensitive but tiny transistors able to detect numerous chemical threats simultaneously through changes in their electrical conductance. Even in highly contaminated conditions the device was able to detect some explosive particles as much as 5 metres from the source. The next problem must be how to zero in on the explosive item. Phys.org.

Tech Universe: Friday 04 July 2014

  • PROTECT THE VEG: Seen any Ladybirds recently? While the insect may be uncommon, the Australian Ladybird farming robot could become something we see a lot of in parts of the countryside. The ground robot was designed and built specifically for the vegetable industry. It can conduct autonomous farm surveillance, do mapping, classification, and detection for a variety of different vegetables. The solar powered robot has an array of sensors such as lasers, cameras and hyper spectral cameras for detecting vegetable growth and pest species, either plant or animal, and has an arm for doing weeding, or perhaps, in future, harvesting. It’s when the humans are classified as pests that we have to start worrying. University of Sydney.
  • LONG LIVERED: Speed is crucial when it comes to organ transplants. A donated organ can last anywhere between 5 and 24 hours, even when packed in ice and a special solution. A team from the US has been working on supercooling rat livers, which would normally last around 12 hours. The supercooling has kept the livers viable for up to 4 days. First a solution that helps keep the liver alive is pumped into the liver. The organs were then cooled to -6C, but didn’t freeze thanks to a specially tailored glucose compound in the solution. The longer the kidneys were kept before being used the less likely recipient rats were to survive, but the technique shows promise for use in humans. Even a slight easing in the time constraint could save many lives. Wired.
  • NOT SO LONELY GOATHERD: Herding sheep and goats in Western Turkey can mean living out in the wilderness for long periods of time. That means also being far from both entertainment and information.. With a solar-powered donkey though the shepherds can charge their laptops, surf the web, or run some lights to help them through the dark hours. A donkey is used to carry a solar panel and all the associated peripherals to gather energy during the day. Each panel can generate between 5 and 7 kilowatts of electricity. Half the cost of the plug and play solar packs is covered by the government to support development in the countryside. Daily News.
  • YOU ARE FEELING SLEEPY: The Drift Light is a 530 lumen LED light bulb that plugs into a regular light socket. But it has a special power: set the switch and the bulb can either gradually dim to off or dim to a preset level so it works as a night light. The dimming takes around 37 minutes, mimicking a sunset and promoting relaxation. The bulb also emits a less blue light than many other bulbs, as blue light has been shown to disrupt sleep cycles. The bulb has an average lifespan of 30,000 hours. Having it work without setting up WiFi or other special gear is a bonus. Drift Light.
  • ON TRACK: Planes fly all over the world, which makes them perfect for tracking birds and other wildlife. First researchers attach tracking devices to the animals. Then commercial aircraft are equipped with antennae and receivers. Then as they fly along their normal routes they can track nearby animals. The data that’s gathered can help researchers find migration routes and learn about the habits of the animals. As part of the project partner organisations are helping to develop smaller tracking devices so the range of animals to be tracked can be extended. Now add in software to let passengers see what animals they’re flying over to get the public really engaged. Smithsonian.