What’s new? One Month To Mars; Flying Trucks; Pineapple Cars; Power Step; Light Phone. Swarm Of Bots; Cheap Plastic Chips; Can’t Sleep? Count Photons; Electric Flight; Flexi Screen. Heavy, Much?; Just Right Coffee; In The Headlights; Sick Stick; Think It Up. Who’s The Fool Now?; Goal; Enduring Chip; Slow Heat; Goop Scoop. Locked On Video; Heat And Light; They Know Where You Are; Internet Kill Trowel; Ride Time.
Tech Universe: Monday 04 April 2011
- ONE MONTH TO MARS: If the VASIMR VF-200 rocket works out it could take people to Mars in only 40 days. The thrust and performance will soon be tested on the International Space Station. The VAriable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR) is an electric thruster. Two radio wave antennas turn a gas such as argon into superheated plasma while a magnetic field directs the motion of the plasma into a directed flow. The thrust it produces is small, but continuous. Rocket science just may be harder than you thought.
- FLYING TRUCKS: The Swiss are building a new power plant inside a mountain at Nant de Drance, 2,000 metres above sea level. It’ll generate 600 MW from the water pressure differential caused by a 300 metre drop. The problem is they need some very heavy equipment to build the plant but there are no roads. Access will be by a 5.6 Km tunnel that hasn’t yet been completed. To bring in all the heavy equipment they’re using a heavy duty cable railway, that ‘flies’ the machinery through in. I wonder if they fly in the workers too?
- PINEAPPLE CARS: Brazilian scientists can make tough plastics from pineapples, bananas and other plants. The strength of the nanocellulose fibres rivals Kevlar, but the fibres are renewable and the plastic biodegrades. Because the new plastics are around 30% lighter, but 3 or 4 times as strong they could be valuable for making cars, dramatically increasing fuel economy. But if it biodegrades so well, how long to the cars last?
- POWER STEP: Wouldn’t it be great if your heartbeat or footsteps could supply power for your phone or MP3 player? Researchers from Georgia Tech have announced a viable nanogenerator, with sufficient power to light an LED. The nanogenerator is a flexible computer chip. As it flexes the chip converts pressure into electrical energy thanks to zinc oxide nanowires which generate an electric current when strained or flexed. The researchers are still working on improving the power output but expect the chips to be on the market within 5 years. And the phone could monitor your heart rate at the same time.
- LIGHT PHONE: French company, Wysips, have created a screen overlay for your phone or tablet computer. But it’s not just a standard screen protector. Instead it’s a 100 micron thick transparent photovoltaic film. As the film is exposed to sunlight or other sources it turns the light into energy. The idea actually is to integrate the film directly into the LCD during manufacture. At the moment 6 hours of outdoor light should fully charge a typical cellphone, but improvements are on their way. Ideal for trampers and outdoor workers, I’d say.
Tech Universe: Tuesday 05 April 2011
- SWARM OF BOTS: The iMobot from UC Davis, USA, is a small reconfigurable modular robot prototype with four controllable degrees of freedom. Although it looks a bit like two bricks glommed together it can crawl, arch, flip itself up, and lift itself into a camera platform. It’s designed for search and rescue operations. Individual robots can be clustered together into larger robots for particular tasks. Self-assembling, like Replicators?
- CHEAP PLASTIC CHIPS: European researchers created a computer chip made of plastic and gold and containing 4,000 plastic transistors. It can run 16 hardcoded instructions at 6 hertz and can only process information in 8-bit chunks. Printing processes may soon allow the transistors to be printed rather than etched on. A cheap, flexible chip like this could be used for simple sensors monitoring pipes or packaging. And let’s hope the plastic’s made from biodegradable organic sources.
- CAN’T SLEEP? COUNT PHOTONS: A team at Columbia University, USA, has created single-photon avalanche diodes that detect individual photons. One application is specialised camera chips to measure fluorescence for medical purposes. Amazing.
- ELECTRIC FLIGHT: PC-Aero’s Elektra One plane is a one-seater, all-electric craft. It can fly 3 hours or more than 400 Km on a charge. On its First Flight it flew up to 500 metres in the air and used only half the charge. It’s competing to win NASA’s CAFE Green Flight Challenge. Don’t plan on flying with a friend.
- FLEXI SCREEN: A team from Osaka University, Japan, have created a new type of touch screen that has a flex interface. Usually when you scroll on a computer screen parts of the document move outside the viewing area. With the flex screen though, the document ‘stretches’ and ‘compresses’ so the whole thing remains on screen, but only the central part is viewed normally. On a map, this could mean that you don’t lose the context of the portion you’re viewing. It sounds weird, but it looks interesting.
Tech Universe: Wednesday 06 April 2011
- HEAVY, MUCH?: You thought you couldn’t see gravity. Well, the European Space Agency’s GOCE satellite has provided enough gravity data for researchers to produce a geoid map. The geoid is the surface of an ideal global ocean in the absence of tides and currents, shaped only by gravity. The globe shows regions of blue, orange and red, reflecting how gravity is distributed. And it looks like we’re in a red zone.
- JUST RIGHT COFFEE: Is your coffee always too hot or too cold? Coffee Joulies are small ‘beans’ made from polished food-grade stainless steel. Inside is a phase change material that melts at 60C. That means the beans quickly cool your coffee when it’s very hot. But as it cools the beans slowly release the heat again keeping it at a drinkable temperature for longer. Goldilocks would have loved these magic beans.
- IN THE HEADLIGHTS: Genesis Illumination have created a StunRay intended for law enforcement. A brief flash of high-intensity light generally causes someone to freeze, allowing a police officer to easily apprehend a suspect. Lenses focus the light from a 75 watt lamp into a targeted beam that can be aimed right at suspects. Better than bullets, but what a handy tool for criminals!
- SICK STICK: In Malaysia a new law aims to prevent people malingering and taking sick days when they’re not sick. To verify their claim of being sick workers will no longer get a certificate from a doctor, but instead will lick a piece of cottonwool. Then they put the cottonwool into a SickVerify USB stick. When they plug the USB stick into a computer software starts a 3 minute test of the saliva for antibodies and cortisol, indicative or recent pain or illness. The device is claimed to be 98.9% accurate. I see a market for forgery here: earn extra cash when you’re sick by supplying saliva samples.
- THINK IT UP: Students at Ryerson University, Canada, have created a new prosthetic, the Artificial Muscle-Operated Arm. It’s relatively inexpensive, easy to use and doesn’t require invasive surgery. The user wears a headset that records their brain signals and sends them wirelessly to a microprocessor in the arm. If the signal matches a command in the onboard database the arm moves accordingly — the wearer thinks ‘up’ and the arm moves up. The next step for the team is to make the fingers work independently. Just beware the out of memory crashes.
Tech Universe: Thursday 07 April 2011
- WHO’S THE FOOL NOW?: Gmail Motion was supposed to be an April Fools joke. The idea is that you use body movements for handling your email, such as pointing a thumb over your shoulder to reply. But the folks at ICT MxR Lab took up the challenge and created it for real using a Microsoft Kinect sensor. Nice one all around. Google announcement
The real thing
- GOAL: German researchers want to track what’s going on in football games. Or rather, coaches and managers might want to track every movement of the ball and the individual players. And so researchers are using tracking chips and computer algorithms to analyse games and players. It’s not really about the game, after all.
- ENDURING CHIP: Back in 2005 a tetraplegic woman in the US had a tiny silicon electrode array implanted in her brain. It was part of a BrainGate system — hardware and software that senses signals from the brain connected with body movements. The system allows people to control computers, wheelchairs or bionic limbs by thought alone. 1,000 days later the electrode array was still working, though not perfectly. The woman and her electrode are still participating in trials even today. Happy news.
- SLOW HEAT: The Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft set off towards Jupiter and Saturn in the early 1970s, and they’re doing fine on their journeys. But, they’re slowing faster than they should and physicists have been puzzled. Now they’ve finally figured it out. It turns out heat was being reflected back from another part of the craft, causing a very slight push towards the sun, away from the direction of travel. Maybe it is rocket science, after all.
- GOOP SCOOP: Ever tried picking up a blob of ketchup or mayonnaise? You probably didn’t have much luck, even trying to scoop it with a flat piece of card or the like. The Furukawa Kikou robot known as SWITL does it astonishingly cleanly and with ease. Details of how its done are scarce, but it’s quite the thing to see, so check the video.
Tech Universe: Friday 08 April 2011
- LOCKED ON VIDEO: Zdenek Kalal created software that allows a video camera to lock on to an object and track it even as it moves, and to identify one face in a crowd. The Predator algorithm can recognise patterns, objects and faces, once they are selected on screen. The software could allow people with disabilities to use computers more easily, or could be used for video post-production, in robotics or for many other purposes. It’s easy to imagine hundreds of uses, in fact. This is one to watch.
- HEAT AND LIGHT: The thing about the sun is that it provides both light and heat, so solar energy is making use of only one aspect. A new polymer-based solar-thermal device does double duty. The device includes oil filled tubes. The sun shines through the tubes and onto a spray-on polymer photovoltaic that converts the light to electricity. Then the tubes deliver superheated oil to a heat pump to deliver heat. The tubes collect both visible light and infrared heat. Making energy from both heat and light, that’s smart.
- THEY KNOW WHERE YOU ARE: Current methods of tracking a computer’s physical location by its IP address may be out by as much as 35Km (sorry NCIS). A new method uses thousands of markers and is much more accurate. The technique starts by measuring ping times and translating that to an outer radius. Then they narrow the radius by sending data packets and checking which routers are used. Finally they ping likely landmark servers. On average they narrow the radius to 690 metres, sometimes 100 metres. The whole thing works without the user’s permission, though proxies can void the results. A miss is as good as 100 metres.
- INTERNET KILL TROWEL: A 75 year-old woman in Georgia (near Russia, not USA) didn’t have enough money to live on so was digging up copper wire to sell. With a bit of digging with her trowel she severed the main Internet lines for eastern Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia. There could be a nice ‘protection’ racket in there for anyone who owns a trowel.
- RIDE TIME: In San Francisco complex maths might get you to your meeting on time, in a luxury sedan, not a cab. You’ll pay a premium, but that could be better than not getting there at all. Uber is a startup that hires luxury cars. Tell Uber’s custom smartphone app you need a ride and the phone tells the company where you are, and handles payment as you’ve already registered with a credit card. Uber’s computer system works out where cars are needed. Passengers rate the driver through the app too. The system also monitors weather and events for better planning, constantly refining the prediction algorithm. Sounds like the cab you call when you’re not calling a cab.
Notes: 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. Above 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.