I write a Tech Universe column for the NZ Herald. This is a fun assignment: Tech Universe brings 5 headlines each day about what’s up in the world of technology. Here are the links from last week.
While I find all the items interesting, some are just cooler than others. I’ve marked out those items.
Tech universe: Monday 29 November 2010
- DREAMS IN ORBIT: The Terrestar-1 satellite was launched in 2008, but since its owners went bankrupt it’s up for grabs at a bargain price. A not for profit group are raising funds to buy it so they can bring Internet to places like Papua New Guinea, Indonesia or Africa. How about an international Web Aid concert?
- BROAD REACH: Europe’s Hylas-1 satellite brings broadband at 10Mbps to 350,000 subscribers in remote locations. It’s orbiting 36,000km above the equator. Usually frequency and power are fixed before launch but the Hylas (Highly Adaptable Satellite) can be reprogrammed at any time from the Control Centre. Satellites for Internet are very trendy.
- RESCUED BY A BEAR: Wounded soldiers need to be extracted from the battlefield — a risky job, perfect for a robot. The Battlefield Extraction-Assist Robot, or BEAR, is an all-terrain remote controlled humanoid robot with a Teddy Bear face. It’s designed to locate, lift and carry wounded soldiers out of harm’s way. It’s 1.8 metres tall, rolls on tracks and can carry 227 kg. That’s a hefty teddy bear.
- PERSONAL SPY: A smartphone app called Jigsaw totally keeps tabs on you. It monitors your phone’s GPS, microphone and accelerometer for patterns characteristic of routine activities. In particular it can track your physical activity and store it for later analysis. Forget the pedometer; this app tracks everything.
- DOWN TO EARTH PLASTIC: Scientists at Temple University in the USA are testing a possible alternative to concrete. 30,000 plastic bottles make 1 ton of Plastisoil. It’s cheaper than cement and takes less energy to produce, while disposing of unwanted plastic. What’s more, stormwater passes through it, rather than running off, and pollutants like motor oil could even be filtered out. But do harmful chemicals from the plastic leach out instead?
Tech universe: Tuesday 30 November 2010
- GTAC: It’s amazing how much information can be stored in DNA. Hong Kong researchers have shown how to change words into into DNA-ready code, so they could be stored in bacteria. They convert letters to an ASCII number, then render that in Base 4, then match each digit to a DNA base equivalent. Then they break data into packets with checksums, and place them in bacteria. 1 gram of E. coli could hold 900 terabytes of data. Be careful with the anti-bacterial handwash!
- HLP SND AMBLNCE: Like it or not, people do try to send SMS messages to emergency services. The US are planning to make their 911 system accessible to text messages, pictures, and videos. The system could also allow automated sensors, such as personal medical devices, to make emergency calls. The change will mean upgrading equipment, training staff, and covering costs. Just watch out for autocorrect on the txt messages.
- SUB STALKER: Modern submarines can run submerged for thousands of kilometres, so tracking them ties up ships and crew. An automated robo-frigate, with no crew, could do the job more easily, especially as crew comfort would be irrelevant. Such a vessel is still being designed, but DARPA has contracts out for it. I guess the enemy won’t think to employ hackers to sabotage the comms.
- DRIVING LIGHT: Heavy vehicles burn more fuel and create more pollution. Cars are generally made of aluminium and steel — both fairly heavy. Swinburne University of Technology in Australia, figure lasers, rivets and glue may allow lightweight magnesium to be used too, overcoming traditional problems in working with the metal. Lasers spot-heat the magnesium, allowing rivets to be inserted, while glue helps hold everything together. Better not make cars too lightweight: a good Canterbury Nor’Wester could lift them off the road.
- SMART PLASTER: A sticking plaster normally just covers over broken skin. A team at Yonsei University, South Korea, created a skin patch that uses corrugated microporous polystyrene that releases a liquid as the patch distorts. This could release pain medication as inflamed tissue flexes. Although I’m sure some athletes will use it to enhance performance more accurately.
Tech universe: Wednesday 01 December 2010
- SUNSHINE WHEELS: Take a solar-powered wheelchair, put it in the sunny United Arab Emirates and you have a formula for travel. Haidar Taleb is on a record-breaking 320 Km voyage across the desert in a chair he designed and built himself. He wants to raise awareness of disability and sustainability. The chair travels at around 18 Kph, while the solar panels charge four 20-watt batteries and provide shade. I guess that’s an outdoor wheelchair. Haidar’s journey.
- FASTER THAN A SPEEDING BULLET: The Bloodhound SSC will be powered by a Falcon rocket and an EJ200 jet engine that together produce 21 tons of thrust. The body will be made of thin alloy, while the wheels, at 97 Kg each, will be made of a solid aluminum alloy. This car is being built to challenge the world land speed record in 2012, and is expected to reach 1600 Kph — faster than a bullet. Its clear subtext though is to inspire and educate. Engage. Bloodhound SSC:
- I THINK I CAN: It took only 5 minutes for test subjects to learn to move a cursor up and down with their thoughts alone. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania combined brain-scanning and feedback techniques to help test subjects learn to control a computer cursor just by thinking about moving it. Today the cursor; tomorrow the click.
- HORN CHOPPER: Rhino poaching is a problem in South Africa — in particular, catching the poachers. And that’s where the UAVs come in. The National Defence Force is thinking about using an unmanned drone helicopter to spot and photograph the poachers. I’m picking that the poachers will add larger anti-drone weapons to their kit.
- COW POWER: Huishan Dairy in China is installing a system to collect methane from cow dung and turn it into electricity — on a massive scale. The dairy runs 250,000 cows. The power system will will capture 20 million cubic metres of biogas and produce 5.6 megawatts of power from just 30,000 cows. That’s enough power for 3,500 American-size households. If you look at things the right way, there’s no such thing as waste.
Tech universe: Thursday 02 December 2010
- OFF-EARTH TIRES: You wouldn’t want a flat tire on your Moon Buggy — it’d be a long, long walk to a service station. That’s why NASA and Goodyear developed an award-winning airless tire. 800 load bearing interwoven springs contour to the ground surface and provide traction. The springs are stiff yet flexible so the vehicles can travel fast over rough terrain without giving you a bumpy ride. If you bump your head there’s no ambulance to fetch you either.
- MISSED ON PURPOSE: The XM-25 Counter Defilade Targeting Engagement System is a big gun that shoots big rounds — 25mm high-explosive rounds. A laser sight on the weapon gives the range to the target and guides the round, via a chip, to a short distance from the target. Then the round explodes. The round could be fired into a room through a window and then explode, while a conventional round would simply be spent in the far wall. Computer chips or not, I refuse to call any gun ‘smart’.
- FEELSCREEN: A Microsoft patent uses pixel-sized shape-memory plastic cells to create an actual tactile surface. When ultraviolet light strikes the shape-memory plastic it deforms, creating a texture layered over the computer screen. Different frequencies of light make the polymer hard or soft. Yup, feels like plastic.
- DRIVE ON WATER: The Sealegs rigid inflatable boat is a 3-wheel drive. On land each of three retractable 63 cm wheels has its own hydraulic motor and all-terrain tire. On the water a 150-horsepower outboard motor pushes the boat to 75 Kph. Add wings for an all-purpose sailing flying driving car.
- SEE IT; DON’T TRY TO SAY IT: MicroVision’s SHOWWX+ pico laser projector plugs right in to your iPad or iPhone and projects photos and movies to a handy flat surface. It displays at 15 lumens with a 5,000:1 contrast ratio. Yup, that’s the ‘Show double you ex plus’. Memorable, just like ‘iPod’ or ‘iPhone’.
Tech universe: Friday 03 December 2010
- A DOUBLE-EDGED METER: Streetline, based in San Francisco, put sensors in parking spaces and tie parking meters into a wireless network. Signs guide motorists to vacant spaces, while meters can take cash or credit card. The down side: quicker fines, as a live feed shows not only vacant spaces, but expired meters. Easier parking; more fines.
- POLISHED DESIGN: Warsaw’s new Inspiro underground carriages are made of aluminium, so are significantly lighter than usual, and they’re 97.5% recyclable. Reduced weight means lower energy consumption. Designed by Siemens and BMW, carriages are spacious, with wide doors, and large electronic displays for system maps. Just because something will last 50 years doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be recyclable.
- A DIM IDEA: Sunstrike, or even just oncoming bright headlights, can be a real problem. Imagine if Dynamic Eye technology were incorporated in windscreens. Dynamic Eye sunglasses include a layer of liquid crystal, and a small camera. The glasses put an extra layer of pixels between your retinas and the sun, providing targeted shade. It beats holding your hand up in front of your eyes.
- SPOT THE DIFFERENCE: We think of computers helping people, but sometimes it’s the other way round. Electric signals in our brains fire before we even know we’ve seen something odd. To search photos quickly for unusual details the C3Vision system displays around 10 images per second to a human viewer. An EEG monitor soon shows which images may be of interest. Computer and brain: a good team.
- KIWI SPACE (PDF): Kiwi company Rocket Lab signed a deal with US company L2 Aerospace to turn some of its rocket technology into commercial products. L2 Aerospace supply commercial, civilian and military markets. Lifting Kiwi know-how to new heights. (PDF)