Tech Universe: Monday 23 July 2012
- WATER DETECTIVE: NASA’s RESOLVE has the job of finding water on the moon. The Regolith and Environment Science and Oxygen and Lunar Volatiles Extraction payload is designed to be added to a rover that will drive over the surface of the moon to map the distribution of water ice and other useful compounds. It will also drill into the lunar surface and measure water vapour. The prototype is being tested on Mauna Kea in Hawai’i to find weak points and help train controllers. Finding water’s one thing, but setting up a system to extract useful water will be a huge undertaking. NASA.
- CLOSE UP: Navies tend to be concerned about mines attached to the hulls of their ships. They send out divers equipped with sonar cameras, to search for underwater mines. Recently Hovering Autonomous Underwater Vehicle robots have been assigned the task. New algorithms from MIT vastly improve their ability to navigate and use short-range sensors that have a limited field of view. The robot first makes a low-res image, then the algorithm plots a path around the hull and through propellers and rudders for a speedy and efficient high-res scan. The goal is to be as fast and efficient as divers. Presumably they only need to do that plot once and then use the info again for subsequent scans. MIT News.
- LONG LOST KISS: A pair of pressure-sensitive soft plastic lips on a large plastic egg from Singapore-based Lovotics lets users wirelessly send kisses to one another. The Kissenger’s lips contain pressure sensors and actuators. As you kiss them the changes in pressure and shape are sent to a receiving device where actuators recreate the sensations for your distant partner. The company want to help improve relationships where the partners are far away from one another, but it’s easy to see how else this might be used. Inspired perhaps by The Big Bang Theory TV show? New Scientist.
- BLINK: Inkjet printers can be very frustrating when the nozzles clog up. The nozzles need to stay open, but without the ink drying up. University of Missouri engineers realised this problem has been solved by the human eye where eyelids spread a film of oil over the layer of tears so they don’t evaporate. The engineers use an electric field to move a droplet of silicone oil in and out of place over the inkjet nozzle preventing the ink from drying and clogging. Other devices could benefit too, such as biological tissue printers and rapid prototyping systems. There’s a lot to learn from nature. University of Missouri. Video:
- FRESH EYES: The Bio-Retina is designed to restore sight to those suffering from retinal degenerative diseases. The tiny 5,000 pixel artificial retina can be implanted in the eye with only a local anesthetic in a 30 minute procedure. It’s good enough to recognise faces or watch TV. The implant receives its power wirelessly from a rechargeable, battery-powered mini laser on a pair of glasses. Clinical trials are expected in 2013. This goes way beyond glasses and contact lenses for helping eyesight. Nano Retina.
Tech Universe: Tuesday 24 July 2012
- ROCK ON: The US Naval Research Laboratory recently invested in a chunk of rock. The solid slab of granite weighs 34,000 Kg and is almost 28 square metres in size. It’s not the world’s biggest doorstop though, but rather a Gravity Offset Table. The slab has been precision honed to be within +/- 0.0018 inches flat across its surface, and will be used to precisely simulate the frictionless motion of objects in space. How they get it dead level is another matter. US Navy.
- NO HIDING PLACE: In places like deep open pit mines or dense urban areas GPS signals just don’t reach. That’s where Locata has a role to play. The system sets up its own network of 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi-band signal stations that covers an area with positioning signals. The system can help mining companies keep track of their diggers and trucks, for example. Unlike GPS which requires incredibly precise atomic clocks to help determine position, Locata uses a proprietary methodology to synchronise all the ground stations. Wired.
- SWIM, CLIMB AND CRAWL: After a disaster ships may bring relief supplies but then have trouble delivering them if port facilities have been destroyed. The Captive Air Amphibious Transporter is a way around that problem. The vehicle has large buoyant treads, either inflated with air or filled with a lightweight foam. That means it can paddle through water, climb over sea walls and crawl across beaches, mud and ice fields. The CAAT can easily be carried in a standard shipping container, so ordinary cargo ships could also be used to deliver relief supplies. I thought that’s what helicopters were for. Discovery News.
- SIX PACK: The DynaRoach is a 6-legged robot from Georgia Tech that can run across the surface of sand at up to 1.8 Kph. The robot is 10 cm long and weighs only 25 grams. The surface of sand behaves a lot like a fluid and the robot’s leg push off it on contact, rather than sinking in. But I guess it can’t stop running or it’ll sink. New Scientist.
- CULTURED TABLET: The Inye tablet computer is designed for the African market. The low-cost device runs Google Android, gives its users access to the internet and allows them to play media files and watch movies. It also runs some special apps, such as one designed to raise awareness about HIV, and others related to water and sanitation. The Nigerian developer wants to help preserve local culture. Apart from the low cost it’s not clear why this tablet is different from any other. BBC.
Tech Universe: Wednesday 25 July 2012
- TRANSPARENCY: How about if the windows in your house or office could not only let you see outside but also generate electricity? Photoactive plastic can convert infrared light into an electrical current but is nearly 70% transparent to the human eye. New polymer solar cells from the University of California are transparent, lightweight and flexible, and can be produced in high volume at low cost. That could mean windows you can still see through but that generate power just by being there. Now that’s passive energy. University of California.
- PASSWORD GAMES: Researchers at Stanford University think they could be onto a new technique for secure passwords. They had test subjects play a computer game that involved intercepting falling objects by pressing a key. The players were secretly learning a sequence of key presses that they weren’t consciously aware of. On successive rounds players made fewer errors when this sequence cropped up. The idea is that this implicit learning technique could form the basis of a security system where a person would learn a password without consciously knowing what it was. I wonder if it still works if you’re really tired, or have the flu? And how would you reset a password like that? New Scientist.
- SHAKEY WAKEY: A paralysing spinal cord injury may leave a person with little or no feeling in their hands but the Mobile Music Touch device could help improve sensation. The device is a small box attached to the back of a glove. It’s used with a piano keyboard and vibrates the wearer’s fingers to indicate which keys to play. After using the glove some participants in a test were able to feel textures in their clothing or the heat from a cup of coffee. The researchers think the glove may be helping to renew dormant brain activity. It sounds too easy to be true. Georgia Tech.
- GASSED BOTTLES: Plastic waste is an environmental problem, and dealing with it isn’t easy. But an Egyptian student has identified a new low-cost catalyst that can break down plastic waste and generate biofuel. The high yield aluminosilicate catalyst breaks down plastic waste to create methane, propane and ethane. Those products can then be used for generating energy. Nice: feed in useless plastic bottles and bags and take out useful gases. Green Prophet.
- TINY SOUNDS: Swedish scientists are working with quantum acoustics, where tiny units of sound may have a wavelength of only 3 millionths of a metre. They use a single electron transistor as a microphone to detect sound waves on the surface of a crystalline microchip. The sound waves are so small, with a frequency of almost 1 gigahertz, they’re governed by quantum law rather than classical mechanics. Who knew sound could be quantum too? Chalmers University of Technology.
Tech Universe: Thursday 26 July 2012
- AIR SUIT: Those great lumbering space suits from the Moon landings might not be the best for other uses or other places. NASA’s designing a new suit that can take astronauts to asteroids, Mars or the Moon. The Z-1 prototype needs to be flexible enough to handle almost anything. Along with bearings at the joints for increased mobility, the suit includes a port on the rear so an astronaut can dock it with the spacecraft and climb in and out. That would avoid having to use an airlock, potentially saving precious air. Good thinking, NASA. Popular Mechanics.
- UP IN THE AIR: Large scale disasters are challenging for everybody and in every way, but a UK scientist believes that drone aircraft could be a huge help. Disaster drones could help emergency services from the air with minimal human supervision. First responders could send out a call for an aerial overview of a particular area. That call could go to a co-ordinated system of drones, perhaps half a metre in size, that launch and gather the real-time data that’s needed. The challenge is to create a system that allows drones to be co-ordinated, and efficiently share information. The implications of a system like that for civil defence are enormous, though it’s also easy to see how it could be used or misused for controlling civil unrest too. BBC.
- SMALL AND WILY: Drone aircraft don’t need to be large. Micro-aerial quadrotor vehicles from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory are only 50 centimetres by 50 centimetres. They use a camera pointed at the ground to navigate and pick landing spots, rather than relying on GPS like other full-size craft. Before launch a human operator tells the drone where it is and where its objective is. Then the miniature drone uses the camera and onboard software to figure out where it’s going and how to avoid obstacles. Indoor tests have been successful and now researchers will give the drones more complex environments to work with. An overview of any complex situation is very handy. New Scientist.
- GOLDEN AIR: One way to survey land is to send teams of geologists out. Another way is to use hyperspectral imaging from aircraft, as the US Geological Survey have recently done in Afghanistan. Airborne hyperspectral sensors measure light reflected from the earth. In their survey the USGS flew nearly 37,000 Km in 43 days to gather more than 800 million pixels of data. The results show that Afghanistan is rich in minerals that could help support its development. That would be a good use for drone aircraft of any size. US Geological Survey.
- HOT JACKET: Polychromelab jackets use a fabric that’s both waterproof and breathable, but more importantly includes clever warming and cooling features. One side of the reversible 3-layer fabric jacket is black, to absorb warmth from the sun. The other side’s a reflective silver to keep in body heat. Or turn the jacket inside out to reflect the sun’s heat and stay cool. Watch out that you don’t blind people nearby with your glare. GizMag.
Tech Universe: Friday 27 July 2012
- ALGAE FUEL: Brazil has plans for the world’s first plant to produce biofuels from seaweed. On site already is a factory that produces ethanol from sugar cane. But it also produces 1 Kg of CO2 for each litre of ethanol. The seaweed plant will use the CO2 to speed up photosynthesis and produce 1.2 million litres of algae-based biofuel per year. That ethanol production creates a lot of CO2. PhysOrg.
- FARM THE SUN: The UK’s largest solar farm has now opened with 12 hectares of solar PV panels. It will produce enough electricity to power 1,000 homes. The estate is also used for growing some crops and livestock. Perhaps they should include a seaweed processing plant too. Daily Mail.
- FLASH POWER: Big data centres chew through electricity, both for running the servers and for cooling them. Research at Princeton University may drastically cut that power need, by using solid state memory. A new software technique substitutes flash memory for RAM by promoting it in the hierarchy of how the servers look for data. The flash memory is cheaper than RAM, faster than a hard drive, draws less power, and allows the computer to generate less heat. Those factors help cut the energy required. Savings sometimes come from unusual sources. Princeton University.
- TRUST NOTHING: Next time you’re plugging in your computer look carefully at the power strip. The Power Pwn looks like a good solid power strip but it’s actually a device for testing the security level of a wired or wireless computer network. Alongside the power points are hacking software and Wi-Fi, ethernet and Bluetooth connectors. DARPA helped fund the device as a tool for governments and corporations to test their security. Spies are everywhere. BoingBoing.
- ELECTRON FLAWS: Electronics are sensitive to damage from radiation, but we may not have realised just how sensitive. And as electronics become ever smaller even the tiniest amounts of damage can have a huge effect. Researchers from Vanderbilt University used a combination of lasers and acoustic waves to precisely pinpoint the size and location of defects buried deep inside electronics, as though X-raying them. This method is so accurate it detects disruption in the positions of electrons. The researchers found many more defects in their testing than other techniques have found. Watch out for those solar flares folks. Vanderbilt University.
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 as supplied. The items that were published in The Herald may differ slightly.
While I find all the items interesting, some are just cooler than others. I’ve marked out those items.