28 July to 01 August 2014 Tech Universe Digest

Tech Universe: Monday 28 July 2014

The PD-100 Black Hornet is a tiny helicopter - so tiny, in fact that it fits in the palm of the hand and weighs only 16 grams.

The PD-100 Black Hornet is a tiny helicopter – so tiny, in fact that it fits in the palm of the hand and weighs only 16 grams.

Tech Universe had a good run of 4 years, but has unfortunately been cancelled in a reshuffle. Thursday’s was the last new Tech Universe; the next 6 are my Favourite items from 2014.

  • CLEAR THINKING: Rather than wearing glasses to read a computer screen, how about letting the screen show a corrected image to suit your eyes? US researchers are working on a prototype display that does just that. The idea is to put a special filter in front of the display. The filter is a slab of acrylic topped with a plastic screen pierced with thousands of tiny, evenly spaced holes, creating a light field display. This means the screen controls the way individual light rays emanate from the display, leading to a sharper image without degrading contrast. The system uses an algorithm that takes account of the viewer’s prescription for corrective lenses. The algorithm alters the light from each individual pixel so when it’s fed through a tiny hole in the plastic filter, rays of light reach the retina in a way that re-creates a sharp image. Nice idea: make the computer do the work, rather than the user. Technology Review.
  • TAKE THE PLUNGE: Sochi in Russia now has the longest and highest pedestrian suspension walkway in the world. The 550 metre bridge isn’t really intended to take you between two points though. Rather it offers several spots for bungee jumping, with a 200 metre drop, along with some stunning views. Eight cables, each 52 mm in diameter, hold the bridge and the bungee platform in place. Each cable can hold more than 300 tonnes, making the bridge extremely strong. Some of us may just prefer to enjoy the view. Gizmodo.
  • SOMETHING IN THE AIR: Optical fibres can transmit data very effectively, but there are places where they can’t be used, such as in a nuclear reactor or in space. The key to the efficiency of an optical fibre is that its structure traps light beams and guides them like a pipe, rather than letting them disperse. Now researchers at the University of Maryland have found a way to send laser beams across long distances in the air while keeping them focused as though they’re in an optical fibre. The trick is to create a wall of low-density air surrounding a core of higher density air by using very short, very powerful laser pulses. The technique effectively creates a pipe in the air along which light beams carrying data can be transmitted. The waveguides have worked over short distances of only a metre but the researchers are working on increasing that distance to at least 50 metres. So people really will be able to pluck stats out of thin air soon. University of Maryland.
  • THE BODY IN PRINT: Trainee doctors have to learn a great many things. One of the first of course is human anatomy. But the main way to do that is to study actual human cadavers. That introduces problems with shortages, problems in handling and storage and the fact that some cultures or religions may prohibit their use. Monash University are solving all those problems with 3D-printed body parts based on scans of real anatomical specimens. The high resolution, accurate colour reproductions contain no human tissue, yet the kit provides all the major parts of the body required to teach anatomy of the limbs, chest, abdomen, head and neck. The parts look like the real thing, yet are inexpensive to produce and easy to store. Pranksters could have a lot of fun with that. Monash University.
  • TARGET ACQUIRED: What do malaria parasites and military tanks have in common? Both can be spotted with the technology that runs an anti-tank Javelin missile detector. Australian scientists based their malaria-finding technique on Fourier Transform Infrared spectroscopy which provides information on how molecules vibrate. The Focal Plane Array imaging detector they used was originally developed for Javelin anti-tank heat seeking missiles. The fatty acids of malaria parasites create an infrared signature that lets scientists detect the parasite early in its life, and determine how many are in a blood smear. That means we can detect malaria at its very early stages, making treatment easier and more effective. The test delivers results in 4 minutes and can work with a single blood cell. It also doesn’t need a highly trained technician. A quick and easy test that can save lives. Monash University.

Tech Universe: Tuesday 29 July 2014

  • FOOD FOR ENERGY: Unsold fresh food is a problem for any supermarket. Some may reduce the price or send still usable food to charitable schemes or local safari parks and zoos. But if there’s still food left then it’s likely to just go to waste. Now Sainsbury in the UK are taking all that otherwise unusable leftover food and putting it through an anaerobic digester to create electricity. The food waste is turned into bio-methane gas, which is then used to generate electricity. That electricity is then supplied direct to one of the stores, with surplus going into the national grid. Sainsbury say they generate enough energy to power 2,500 homes each year. A byproduct of the process is a good fertiliser used by local farms. Sainsbury.
  • FEAST OR FARMING: It’s convenient to place wind farms out in the sea where the winds are good and any noise doesn’t bother too many people. But adding structures to the environment is bound to have an effect and it seems some wind farms are turning into artificial reefs. A wind farm reduces fishing and boat traffic nearby: a perfect opportunity for invertebrate animals to take up residence. But in at least a couple of cases that’s drawn the attention of seals who can forage successfully amongst the more dense sea life. UK scientists observed 11 harbour seals outfitted with GPS tracking tags frequenting two active wind farms and moving systematically from one turbine to the next in a grid pattern. Now the researchers want to study whether the wind turbines are causing an increase in overall biomass or are just helping seals wipe out their prey species. Clever seals. Christian Science Monitor.
  • BREATHE EASY: Dust mites are all around us but many people have an allergic reaction to them. Luckily researchers at the University of Iowa have developed a vaccine against the allergens. The approach is to administer specially-encapsulated particles only 300 nanometers in size with sequences of bacterial DNA that direct the immune system to suppress allergic immune responses. The nanotreatment has been tested in the lab and on mice with success, but more testing is needed before it can be used by humans. University of Iowa.
  • BIKE WITH A PUSH: If you have a load to carry while cycling you may consider a trailer. Then of course you have to pedal harder and work more. The Brouhaha Bicycle cargo trailer wants to ease the load, thanks to its electric motor that goes when you go and brakes when you brake, resulting in virtually no extra effort on the part of the cyclist. The idea is that your pedalling still drives the bike itself, but the trailer and its load uses its own power. That could make a bike delivery service a viable proposition. Brouhaha.
  • FLAWED FINDINGS: Imagine picking out one single distinctive blade of grass in a football field. US researchers have developed an explosives detector that is even more sensitive than that. Their plasmon laser sensors could perhaps take over the job of sniffing out bombs from the dogs who currently do the work. The detector consists of a layer of cadmium sulfide, a semiconductor, laid on top of a sheet of silver with a layer of magnesium fluoride in the middle. Also present are natural surface defects that interact with molecules from unstable nitro groups. The device works by detecting the increased intensity in the light signal that occurs as a result of this interaction. The sensor could perhaps be used in airports and could be helpful for biomolecular research. Hooray for the flaws that make this function. UC Berkeley.

Tech Universe: Wednesday 30 July 2014

  • HOT SNAPS: By turning your phone into an infrared scanner you could detect heat leaks from your home, over-heating circuitry and wiring, and even see your way in the dark without a light. The FLIR One iPhone imaging accessory does just that, detecting invisible heat then combining heat signature information with a live camera image to deliver a composite thermal heat image. Detectors in the device gather infrared light and turn it into a thermogram that then displays on screen in various colours from cool blue to hot red. FLIR One runs off its own internal battery and can thermal scan for up to 2 hours. Get ready to block off those heat leaks. Mashable.
  • SENSITIVE SEATS: Falling asleep at the wheel of a car is a sure way to end up in an accident. The European project, Harken, aims to prevent driver fatigue and sleepiness with a sensor system that measures heartbeat and respiratory rate. Cleverly, it embeds the sensors into the seat cover and the seat belt. The system detects the mechanical effect of the heart beat and respiratory activity, while filtering and cancelling the noise caused by the moving vehicle. The system has been tested on closed tracks so far, but needs some real-world tests to develop further. Embedding the sensors into standard car parts would certainly make their use more likely. Biomechanics Institute, IBV.
  • PRINTERS IN SPACE: If you have a 3D printer to hand you may enjoy the 21 free plans for space objects available now from NASA. You can print scale models of the near and far sides of the Earth’s Moon, for example, or maybe the Gale Crater, the Rosetta spacecraft or the asteroid Vesta. It almost makes one want a 3D printer. 3D Print.
  • JUST LOOKING: The PD-100 Black Hornet is a tiny helicopter — so tiny, in fact that it fits in the palm of the hand and weighs only 16 grams. It’s actually a military drone that can fly up to 20 minutes while providing real-time video via a digital data link from one of the 3 embedded cameras. It operates remotely with GPS navigation. Its electric propellers and motors make it almost undetectable. The drone provides valuable surveillance to troops on the ground. That could be so handy for so many things for civilians too. US Army.
  • GROWING PLASTIC: Using plant material to make plastics takes multiple steps, a fair bit of energy and it may divert food crops. Now Italian scientists are finding a way to use waste food scraps such as rice hulls, cocoa pod husks and spinach and parsley stems instead. They discovered that dissolving cellulose from cotton and hemp in the common chemical trifluoroacetic acid converted the cellulose directly to an amorphous form suitable for moulding into plastic. Unfortunately this easy one-step process may work well in the lab with controlled samples, but may not scale because waste products can have variable qualities. It’s worth a try though. New Scientist.

Tech Universe: Thursday 31 July 2014

  • THE BEST THING SINCE FRESH BREAD: You buy a loaf of bread and then before you know it there’s mould on it. That’s because as soon as it’s baked it interacts with microbes, fungi and yeast in the air. One way to delay that process is by adding preservatives to the bread mix. Brazilian researchers though have tried adding natural preservatives to the packing material rather than to the bread itself. The compounds are derived from plants such as oregano and clove that have antimicrobial properties and are used to make an edible film. The edible film goes inside the bread bag and keeps the bread mould-free for up to 15 days at room temperature. That should save those awful moments of indecision about whether the slice at the end of the otherwise mouldy packet is still OK to eat. Science Alert.
  • IN THE BLOOD: Blast some white blood cells with long-wave Ultraviolet A waves and the results are interesting. Nothing happens for most people, but the DNA from those who have cancer is easily damaged. Cells from people with pre-cancerous conditions show an intermediate response. This finding, tested on around 200 people with melanoma, colon and lung cancer or with no cancer, could perhaps mean that a routine bood test in future could reveal the presence of cancer. This would be good news for those who currently rely on invasive and slow biopsies. First though, a great deal more testing is needed to prove the results can be repeated. BBC.
  • PHONING IN THE RAIN: Perhaps you find that a rainstorm degrades your cellphone signal. That can be pretty annoying. It could also be useful. Research in Burkina Faso shows that the change in cell phone signals caused by heavy rains can be used to calculate the amount of rain that’s fallen in places where there are few traditional rain gauges. That data in turn could help predict floods and allow for early warnings, or help communities battle malaria. One stumbling block though is getting telcos to cooperate and provide information on cell-phone signal quality. That’s an ingenious approach. GeoSpace blog.
  • NO HIDING PLACE: These days large numbers of people carry cellphones, and that could help rescuers find them in a disaster. A Swiss system uses a drone to find people via their cellphone signal. In the sky is a drone with two antennas that sniff out the data packets from a phone when WiFi mode is active. On the ground, a computer tracks the drone in real time and displays coloured dots when phones are detected. In tests, the system has been able to detect signals to within 10 metres accuracy. Presumably the system carried on the drone could also be hand held for even more flexibility. Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne.
  • SUNNY HOPES: The Sunswift solar car is the fastest electric vehicle over a distance of 500 kilometres, on a single battery charge. The Australian car took to a 4.2 kilometre circular racetrack to break a world record, achieving an average speed of more than 100 Kph. Although the car ran only on battery during this attempt, the current car usually uses solar panels on the roof and hood to charge the 60 Kg battery. The university students who design the car hope it will meet Australian road registration requirements within a year, then maybe it’ll find its way into general use. Hello sunshine. UNSW.

Tech Universe Favourites: Friday 01 August 2014

  • MONEY DOWN THE DRAIN: You spend a fortune to heat the shower water then it just flows down the drain after briefly touching your body, taking all that expensive heat with it. EcoDrain gets some of that heat back from the waste water and uses it to warm the rest of the shower water. The device is a simple heat exchanger that passes clean cold water in a separate pipe through the hot waste water. The cold water picks up heat as it flows past, so less hot water is required to give you the warm shower you’re after, saving both power and money. The device has no moving parts and needs no electricity to run. There’s a thing that could be made a standard fitting in new buildings. EcoDrain.
  • LOOKING GOOD: Some gadgets allow wheelchair users to steer by eye movements alone. The problem though is that the users have to stare at the device and lose the opportunity to look around, and it can also be very slow to operate. A team at Imperial College London have developed smart software that analyses eye movements and can distinguish between looking around and an intention to move in a particular direction. It also responds within 10 milliseconds to a person’s intention to move — a speed that feels instantaneous. The system uses two cameras trained on the eyes and a laptop to analyse the images from the cameras. The developers say the hardware required can be low cost as it’s the software that does the hard work. That’s exactly what software should be: doing more work so we can do less. New Scientist.
  • A TOT STOP: If you’re teaching your child to ride a bike you may be worried about being able to stop them if they’re heading for danger. The MiniBrake should do the job: it gives you the power to remotely bring their bike to a gentle stop. The MiniBrake is fitted just above the rear wheel on a small bike. A remote operates from up to 50 metres away to deploy the brake, lowering it to apply pressure to the wheel and slow the bike. If the battery’s depleted or the remote is out of range the device automatically deploys as a safety measure. A moving bike will be stopped within about half a metre. Many parents would welcome this, surely. MiniBrake.
  • UPHILL SPECIAL: Skiers fully expect a lift to take them to the top of a mountain, so why shouldn’t city cyclists get a lift up hills? In Trondheim, Norway, the Trampe bicycle lift does just that. The road up the hill is 130 metres long. To one side is a rail with a footplate every 20 metres. Stand on your bike beside the rail, put your foot on the plate and then enjoy the ride at about 1.5 metres per second. Cyclists in hilly cities anywhere will surely welcome this. Trampe.
  • SLOT CARS: The valet parking at Düsseldorf airport is handle by robots. Book parking online then drop your car at the valet parking spot and confirm on a touch screen that no-one’s in the car. The robot measures the vehicle, picks it up with a forklift-like system, and places it in one of 249 reserved parking slots. The robot also knows when to have the car ready for returning passengers as it accesses flight data and customer trip information. A smartphone app lets passengers make any changes they need. But do you have to tip the robots? Mashable.