Tech Universe: Monday 30 July 2012
- ANNIE GET YOUR GUN: Need a gun? Perhaps you could print your own. One US gunsmith did just that, with a .22-caliber pistol partly made out of plastic, 3D-printed parts. The main body of the pistol was made of plastic, though the chamber was made of solid metal. It’s a scary thought that anyone who can download a plan could create a gun of their own. Legislators, are you ready to amend the gun laws? ExtremeTech.
- SPACE PRINTING: Astronauts travelling even to Mars will have to take with them everything they need. So maybe it would make sense to include a manufacturing plant of some kind. A 3D printer may be part of the answer. On recent multiple zero-gravity flights 2 modified off-the-shelf 3D printers were tested, printing a scaled down wrench and various other objects. Since 3D printing works at least to some extent in zero G this does seem promising. Made In Space.
- SHIELD IN THE BOX: NASA’s Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator is a heat shield for spacecraft. Unlike the current huge rigid structures though this aeroshell, made of kevlar and other heat resistant materials, is packed a little like a parachute. That means more space is available for the main payload. When it’s needed for re-entry the aeroshell is inflated by nitrogen gas and forms a cone ahead of the craft. Tests so far have been successful. That’s some impressive heat resistance.
- DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE: Where’s a doctor when you need one? Patients in hospitals may gain better access to doctors via iRobot’s RP-VITA Telemedicine Robot. The roughly person sized robot can be operated by an iPad touchscreen and access clinical data in real time. A nurse may work directly with a patient while the doctor can consult form a distance. The robot can also connect with diagnostic devices such as otoscopes and ultrasound, and an electronic stethoscope. The robot can find its own way around the hospital with mapping and obstacle avoidance features. That’s really useful if it can let doctors see more patients more effectively. iRobot.
- DON’T TOUCH: Many public toilets can flush without you needing to press a button, dispense soap, water and paper towels all with the wave of a hand. And that helps prevent the spread of infectious diseases. Now Japanese firm Shikoku has developed a toilet paper dispenser that issues a folded length of paper without needing to be touched. The Camitool dispenses paper in fixed lengths and cuts it like scissors. It’s easy to take the paper without actually touching the device too, so no germ sharing there. How much does it all really matter if you wash your hands at the end? DigInfo TV.
Tech Universe: Tuesday 31 July 2012
- FAR AND DEEP: In 2026 Nasa will survey Jupiter’s frozen moon, Europa. The mission will include exploring the moon’s liquid oceans, buried under 6 Km of ice, using the Deep Phreatic Thermal Explorer called DEPTHX. Distance from Earth means the vehicle will have to work autonomously so it includes numerous sensors and processors. It will communicate with a mother craft via a fibre optic tether and WiFi. Two variable-buoyancy engines sense water temperature, salinity and pressure to adjust its relative buoyancy. The vessel uses sensors and processors to navigate autonomously. The farther we go, the greater the challenge. Gizmodo.
- FAR AND WIDE: The High Energy Stereoscopic System II telescope started operation in Namibia recently. Its 28 metre mirror is dedicated to observing the most violent and extreme phenomena of the Universe via gamma rays. The telescope has the largest mirror area among such instruments worldwide, and has 4 times more pixels per sky area than the smaller telescopes. The telescope is well-placed for observing the Southern skies. That mirror’s around 7 car lengths in diameter, or in other words, big. H.E.S.S.
- SHORT SPIN: McCamley’s vertical axis wind turbines are designed to be mounted on buildings. They start spinning at wind speeds as low as 1.8 m/s and can continue working even in storm force winds. They can even operate in gusting and turbulent winds from any direction, but don’t create much vibration or noise. These turbines are intended for use in cities and in testing have shown no bird or bat strikes. Maybe more buildings will start to incorporate wind turbines with a design like this. McCamley.
- CARPETS AT SEA: The Wave Carpet is a new approach to wave energy from Knowledge Based Systems, Inc. It uses large floating segments that are connected together, move easily and iron out fluctuations in power. Controls are embedded and energy can be stored without needing to connect to an existing grid. But by blocking sunlight from areas is it going to create problems for fish or plants? Knowledge Based Systems, Inc.
- ROBOT FARMERS: Huge farms of solar panels are a good thing, but installing them takes a lot of labour. German companies are developing mobile robots to install ground-mounted solar panels day and night, in all sorts of weather. That saves time and money. A robot could cut installation costs in half for a 14-megawatt solar plant, for example, and pay for itself in a year. The robot is an arm mounted on a vehicle that carries the panels. Cameras give the robot arm a 3D view for lifting the panels into place. The current robot can mount panels in place on frames that have already been erected by people. Workers then must also screw the panels in place and make the electrical connections. There’s an obvious upgrade path for future versions of the robot. Technology Review.
Tech Universe: Wednesday 01 August 2012
- F1 DOCTORS: Formula 1 cars include all kinds of sensors and send all kinds of data back to a team of engineers who make adjustments either during or after a race to improve the car’s performance. Meanwhile hospitals rely on paper charts and 4-hourly observations on patients needing health care. Now the Birmingham Children’s Hospital is testing an adaptive system originally designed for Formula 1 cars to monitor patients. One key factor is that the system learns what’s normal for each patient. Sensors and monitors collect continuous data on heart rate, respiration, oxygen levels and blood pressure to allow doctors to make better decisions. The hospital can only afford to test the system with a few patients and must regularly delete data. It’s sad when health care has to struggle to catch up with car racing. BBC.
- NICKEL JUMPERS: Robots have been able to walk on water, but a robot from China’s Harbin Institute of Technology can jump on water too. The secret lies in superhydrophobic nickel feet that prevent the legs from sinking because pockets of air form around them. two spring-loaded jumping legs send the robot around 15 cm into the air and a distance of around 30 cm. Those superhydrophobic substances sound like lots of fun. Wired.
- SPINNING FOILS: The Bay of Fundy lies between Maine and Canada and experiences huge tides. The Ocean Renewable Power Company plans to tap into those tides with a commercial TidGen Tidal Energy Power System that will produce up to 3 megawatts. A frame is set on the ocean floor and supports rotating foils that move with the tide to power a central permanent magnet generator. Invisible, yet effective. Ocean Renewable Power Company.
- REDUCE REUSE REORBIT: There are a bunch of dead satellites still orbiting the planet, but DARPA’s Phoenix Program aims to recycle their parts and use them in new free-flying space systems. The plan is to send worker satellites up to harvest still functional items such as antennas and solar arrays and then to bring them to a factory satellite that can robotically operate on and build a new satellite while in orbit. The grappling arms and other instruments will be remotely operated from Earth. Let’s hope satellite makers start building them with reuse in mind. io9.
- PAINT PEEL: What say your military vehicles end up in the middle of chemical warfare, perhaps with nerve gas being lobbed around? How do you decontaminate the vehicles effectively? A new paint from The Defence Science and Technology Laboratory has been created to handle that. The paint’s undercoat is made of a polymer that acts like a weak glue, while the topcoat is a super-absorbent silica gel that can stop nerve gas from getting inside a vehicle. The weak glue of the base allows a contaminated topcoat to be easily peeled off and disposed of. Researchers plan to also develop paints that change colour to warn of a chemical attack, and coats that can actually neutralise noxious chemicals. So now I guess someone’s developing a nerve gas that contains a paint stripper additive too. The Engineer.
Tech Universe: Thursday 02 August 2012
- SHEAR TOUCH: Human skin is very sensitive, and can even distinguish between 3 types of mechanical strain: pressure, which comes straight down; shear, a frictional slide along the surface; and torsion, a twisting motion. One challenge of robotics is to give a robot similarly sensitive skin. A flexible sensor that might do the job has been created by an engineer at Seoul National University. Polymer fibres 100 nanometres wide and 1 micrometre long are coated with metal to make them electrically conductive. Sheets of fibres are sandwiched together, making them interlock, and are wired with current. As the material is pressed, twisted or brushed it changes the sensor’s electrical resistance. Work like this really brings home just how complex and sophisticated the human body is. Nature.
- OOPS: Iris scanners are pretty much leading edge biometric security devices, but it seems they have a flaw. A team at the Universidad Autonoma de Madrid recreated the image of an iris from digital codes of real irises stored in security databases. Then they printed out synthetic images of irises. In testing against a commercial iris scanner the fake was successful 80% of the time. This means that systems that store iris patterns to allow secure access are now a bit more vulnerable than they used to be. But spy movies just won’t be as impressive if the villains simply print out an iris scan instead of taking hostages. BBC.
- DIRECT HIT: General Motors wants a car’s warning system to help alert drivers to cyclists in the driver’s blind spot or pedestrians stepping out from behind a parked car, as well as other potential hazards. The cyclists or pedestrians need to carry a smartphone using Wi-Fi Direct and with a customised app. Wi-Fi Direct has a reach of around 200 metres and connects devices directly together. That means the car can detect cyclists and pedestrians more quickly than if the signal had to go through a cell tower. Now the car’s alert system needs to be able to reliably alert the driver only to actual hazards, and not just every pedestrian or cyclist on a busy street. General Motors.
- CHARGE PAD: Electric vehicles have a couple of major drawbacks: having to plug them in and how long charging takes. Qualcomm’s Wireless Electric Vehicle Charging system is soon to be tested in London. It uses inductive charging that transfers power from a pad in the floor or road to a receiver on a car. Having charging pads available in many locations could mean cars could be charged when parked at a destination such as home or work. That carpark at work could soon cost far more than you can afford. Qualcomm.
- GIVE BACTERIA THE SLIP: Bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus grow on anything. Even Teflon doesn’t stop biofilms from clinging to the surface. But scientists at Harvard created Slippery-Liquid-Infused Porous Surfaces that prevent more than 99% of harmful bacterial slime from forming on a surface. An immobilised layer of liquid creates a hybrid surface that is both smooth and slippery. The surface repels both water and oil-based liquids and even prevents ice or frost from forming. Biofilms just fall off, because the surface is so slippery. Just think of the things you wouldn’t need to clean if they were coated with this. Science, Space and Robots.
Tech Universe: Friday 03 August 2012
- VIRTUAL 4 EYES: A new mixed reality technology from Canon is about to go on sale. It adds computer-generated virtual objects to the real world in real time, at full scale, and in three dimensions. The MR tech is intended for engineers who are designing and building new products. A video see-through head-mounted display includes 2 video cameras and 2 displays. Images are sent via cable to a computer for processing. Then graphics or design data is overlaid on the images and sent back to the displays on the helmet to show the combined image to the wearer. Images appear full-size. Simulating an object takes about 250 megabytes of video data per second but using 2 cameras and two displays produces too much data to transfer by wireless. It sounds promising for entertainment too, once the whole wireless problem is sorted out. IEEE Spectrum.
- UPSTARTS: Researchers at Sandia National Laboratories are looking at Vertical Axis Wind Turbines to see if they can produce energy more cheaply than the horizontal turbines that look more like propellers. VAWTs can be turned by wind from any direction, and they’re less complicated and easier to maintain than horizontal axis turbines. But the motion of these vertical turbines isn’t smooth as they change orientation with and against the wind, leading to increased wear and tear. Also the curved blades have to be around 100 metres long, which can be a challenge to build. But I’m sure engineers can rise to that challenge. Discovery News.
- SOFT SOLDIERS: Harvard University is developing an endurance suit for the US military. The proposed suit will be made from soft wearable assistive devices to help delay the onset of fatigue and improve the body’s resistance to injuries when carrying heavy loads. Stretchable sensors will monitor the body without impeding movement. It seems soldiers are becoming technology delivery systems. Harvard University.
- DIZZY SOLDIERS: US soldiers in Afghanistan are about to add another kilo to the equipment they carry. The Soldier Body Unit is a 1 Kg pack with 4 blast sensors, to collect data on concussions and traumatic brain injuries. The data from the sensors will go to medical staff trying to find better ways to protect soldiers from the effects of bomb blasts. Those endurance suits would help carry the extra gear. Gizmodo.
- NEURAL CLOUD: When it comes to detecting breast cancer a Fine Needle Aspirate biopsy is a painful but necessary way to gather a tissue sample. But assessments of samples aren’t always very accurate, and then more samples must be taken. In the 2012 Google Science Fair a 17 year old girl took top prize with a cloud-based neural network that can assess such biopsies with 99.1% sensitivity to malignancy. Her network also learns and increases sensitivity as it gains more data. The artificial brain detects patterns that are too complex for humans and could soon be deployed to hospitals. Teenagers seem to be making some solid contributions to science and technology these days. MSNBC.
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.