Tech Universe: Monday 10 September 2012
- DRINK THE SEA: In many countries salt water is readily available, but drinking water is in short supply. The open-source Eliodomestico water still is designed to be easy to manufacture locally and to supply 5 litres of drinking water after a day in the sun. In the morning you add a bucket of sea water. The sun boils the water in the black top portion and the steam is condensed in a lower section. Then in the evening the bowl of water is removed and carried to where it’s needed. A simple and elegant solution to a real-world problem. Humans Invent. Video:
- INTERVAL TRACKING: The sun appears to move through the sky all day, meaning if solar panels are to gain the maximum energy they need to track the sun’s apparent motion. One way to do that it to add tracking motors to each panel. A cheaper way may be to use a special battery-powered robot from QBotix in the US. The robot trackers move from one panel to the next, calibrating and positioning each panel for optimum efficiency. The robots enable the panels to generate up to 15% more electricity. The robots are all equipped with GPS, sensors and a wireless connection to send back data on each panel. GigaOM.
- BLIND STRIKE: BAE Systems’ Striker HMSS helmet gives the pilot of a Eurofighter Typhoon jet and augmented reality view of the surroundings, even through the solid hull of the aircraft. Cameras all around the aircraft are linked wirelessly to the BAE helmet. Whichever direction the pilot looks, the system provides the view from the appropriate cameras. A helmet-mounted display also helps the pilot communicate with the aircraft. When the pilot looks in the right direction at a target and presses the Fire button the system calculates the object’s co-ordinates and sorts out accurate targeting. It’s scary that a person can ‘look’ through a solid object and fire a weapon towards that point. BBC.
- DECODER RING: Imagine wearing a battery-powered ring with flash memory that holds a code. When you touch your finger to a touchscreen the ring sends tiny voltage spikes through your hand to the screen. Then software on the device reads the spikes and accepts the code. This decoder ring is a prototype at Rutgers University. It could be used for passwords, gaming or even just sharing a device so it know who the active user is. So long as each device doesn’t require a different ring. Technology Review.
- THINKOCOPTER: At Zhejiang University in China there’s a quadcopter that can be controlled by thought alone. The person controlling it wears an Emotiv electroencephalography headset. As the wearer thinks, a limited set of commands is sent by Bluetooth to a laptop, then by wireless to the hovering aircraft. Clenched teeth and blinking also contribute commands. An on-board camera means the user can see what the quadcopter sees or take photos. The researchers see this as a useful tool for people with disabilities. And photographers. It also opens up scary possibilities for sci-fi novels with thought controlled flying devices that carry weapons. New Scientist.
Tech Universe: Tuesday 11 September 2012
- ROACH CONTROL: Researchers at North Carolina State University have developed a remote control interface for cockroaches. They attached a 0.7 gram backpack to Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches then wired a microcontroller to the antennae and abdomen. By sending charges through the microcontroller they were able to direct the cockroaches in patterns of movement. The overall aim is to use cockroaches to collect and transmit information, for example, finding survivors in a building that’s been destroyed by an earthquake. They may ‘only’ be cockroaches, but it still seems wrong. North Carolina State University.
- CARPET TALES: A team at the University of Manchester in the UK has created a smart carpet that can tell if you fall over, or if a stranger’s walking on it. The carpet’s underlay contains optical fibres that create a 2D pressure map. Sensors around the edge send data to a computer that analyses footfalls. An alarm can sound when a change is detected, so it could alert to a fall, for example. The system could learn patterns of regular footsteps and then detect changes that indicate the onset of mobility problems in the elderly, or the presence of a stranger. That could make for a nice household alarm system too. New Scientist.
- WOODEN VESTS: Kevlar and carbon fibre are known for their strength and stiffness. They are also somewhat costly. But cellulose nanocrystals can be stronger and are certainly cheaper. The US Forest Service has opened a pilot plant in Wisconsin to produce cellulose nanocrystals from wood by-products such as wood chips and sawdust. The nanocrystals could be used in products that more commonly use kevlar or carbon fibre. I wonder what other countries with commercial forests might consider producing a material like this? Gizmag.
- BRAINS IN THE LEG: US researchers have built and tested a prosthetic lower limb that can be controlled in real time by brain signals. The EEG signals are fed into a computer that in turn controls the prosthesis. Tests with an able-bodied subject have been successfully completed and now they need to test someone with a spinal cord injury. It’d be interesting to see where this line of work ends up in a couple of hundred years. Technology Review.
- SLIM LINE SUITS: Once people leave the protection of Earth’s atmosphere they need space suits. But the designs need to differ according to where the astronaut is: space, the Moon, or perhaps the next goal: Mars. And current designs are also very bulky and difficult to work in. MIT are developing a new line of skin tight elastic suits, which can also be patched on the go. The suits would allow an astronaut maximum freedom to move. The fabric itself supplies the pressure we need to survive in a vacuum and it contains sensors for helping to regulate heat and other processes. Less bulk for more progress sounds like a great trade. Space Industry News.
Tech Universe: Wednesday 12 September 2012
- 4 BY 50: In Linz, Austria, recently a whole swarm of 50 quadrotors performed a synchronised light show in the night sky. The Cloud in the Web show featured 50 AscTec Hummingbird quadrocopters all communicating via radio and performing a preprogrammed exhibition. That’s 50 times the fun. DVICE.
- SIGHTS AND SOUNDS: We’ve seen devices that help blind people see their surroundings with sound. Now researchers from the Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in Korea have a pair of glasses that show deaf people loud sounds and identify where they come from. Seven microphones on the frame pinpoint sounds then LEDs inside the frame light up when a sound is above a certain threshold. The glasses use a laptop in a backpack to process the signal. The idea is to help deaf people react to sounds that would cause a hearing person to take action, such as a car horn or a warning shout. Why a laptop, in these time where a smartphone has so much processing power? New Scientist.
- SWAP SHOP: In Israel drivers of the electric Renault Fluence ZE don’t need to worry about flat batteries and an 8-hour recharge. The 250 Kg battery can be removed, so switch stations use robots to swap the flat battery for a full one — a 5 minute process. A full battery lasts for around 185 Km, and a navigation computer called Oscar not only knows where all the switch points are, but warns the driver when the battery’s running low. Instead of buying the battery with the car, owners lease the battery and access to the switch stations. The Better Place system is a private initiative. Having robots swap out batteries is a smart idea. BBC.
- QUIET HANDS: The Bebionic3 prosthetic hand is a stronger, tougher, more accurate version of an earlier model. New electronics and software allow for improved control, while new designs make the hand quieter, stronger and more functional. So if you upgrade a prosthetic hand, what happens to the old one? MedGadget.
- ENERGY WAVES: The first commercially licensed grid-connected wave-energy device in the US is being launched next month. The Ocean Sentinel has been deployed off the cost of Oregon. Energy is generated by a shaft in the buoy that moves up and down with the waves. Small devices called wave riders float farther out in the ocean and communicate with the onboard computer in each buoy to optimise the energy capture. A cable carries the electricity to shore. It’s great to see more exploration of wave energy. Kurzweil AI.
Tech Universe: Thursday 13 September 2012
- HEARTS AND PHONES: A 17 year old student in the US wanted to tackle one of the problems of health-care access in developing countries. She created a prototype EKG that needs only a cellphone and a small circuit board. The circuit board reads and amplifies the slight fluctuations in voltage as the heart beats, then sends the signal via Bluetooth to a cellphone. A Java app on the phone then displays the EKG signal for a doctor to read. Her approach could bring better health care to countries where sophisticated medical equipment is beyond reach, especially since many have ready access to cellphones. Probably a lot of previously costly health care could be handled by a small device and a cellphone. The Mary Sue.
- REMOTE DOCTORS: It seems rural areas everywhere are short of doctors. In some US states the MDLive system is helping rural dwellers get the health care they need without long trips to the city. The system uses videoconferencing equipment to allow patients to consult a doctor. A nurse may also be present and carry out physical examinations. With well-qualified nurses around it makes sense that the doctor doesn’t need to be there in person. KurzweilAI.
- PHOTO FINISH: Scientists need extremely short bursts of laser light in order to study the motion of electrons. The shorter the burst the more detail they can gather. Ideally they’d like to capture movements of electrons during chemical reactions. That’s why the University of Central Florida are so pleased with their latest short pulse of laser light: it was the briefest yet, at only 0.000000000000000067 seconds. And if that’s too many zeroes for you to grasp, it’s officially known as 67 attoseconds, beating the previous record by 13 quintillionths of a second. That’s a mighty brief blip. Wired.
- PHOTON PAIRS: Quantum teleportation is a technique that sends the quantum state of an object such as a photon to make a distant photon’s state identical to the original. Now scientists from the University of Waterloo in Canada have managed to do this across 143 Km, or roughly the minimum distance between the ground and orbiting satellites. The information was sent between the Canary Islands of La Palma and Tenerife. This success could be the first step in quantum communications via satellite. We’re going to have to stop using ‘rocket science’ as the standard for something being hard and start using ‘quantum teleportation’ instead. University of Waterloo.
- WINDOW DETECTIVE: There are systems to detect whether a window is open or closed, but mostly they need the windows to be wired up. Now there’s a new system that needs neither wires nor batteries. A sensor embedded in the window frame detects whether a window is closed, partially or fully open. It sends the data wirelessly to a base station that can be accessed directly or via smartphone. The sensor itself draws its power from sunlight and ambient heat. Mass production is expected by end of the year. Then you need a proximity-enabled app to alert you before you leave home that one of the windows is still open. Fraunhofer Institute.
Tech Universe: Friday 14 September 2012
- GOING DOWN: 2,119 metres below the sea floor off Japan a drill has just collected samples of rock. This is a world record for depth, but the plan is to go even deeper, to 2.2 Km. The Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology is studying a deeply buried coal formation to tackle fundamental scientific questions related to the co-evolution of Earth and life. The Chikyu research vessel that has drilled this far is capable of drilling as much as 10 Km below sea level, reaching the mantle, the plate boundary seisomogenic zones and the deep biosphere. How do they know they can drill that deep if they haven’t done it before? Integrated Ocean Drilling Program.
- CRASH BUTTON: ICEdot is US service that allows medical and other services to find information about a person in case of emergency. Their new product is a tiny button that attaches to a bike helmet. The button contains an accelerometer to detect the sudden motion and impact that suggest a crash. If the sensor registers a suspected crash it uses Bluetooth to signal your phone and start a countdown. If you’re OK you cancel the countdown, but if you don’t cancel then the phone sends GPS and other data to nominated emergency contacts. It’s very clever to automate the whole procedure like that. Gear Junkie.
- SHADOW MOVES: The Ghost is an armband that could help you play sports better. The Arduino-based device can be programmed with movements from another sports person — perhaps a tennis player or golfer. Then vibrating pads and sensors in the hand and armband help the wearer replicate the movements. The sensors detect the twisting and flexing of the wearer’s joints. LEDs give visual feedback on stroke accuracy, while the vibrating units help guide the path of the arm. That could probably be a valuable tool in physiotherapy and work such as stroke rehab too. Phys.org.
- MAGNETIC MUSCLES: A researcher at Edith Cowan University in Australia tested a device to help athletes and others recover from muscle strain, and it looks like it works. The e-cell device uses pulsed electromagnetic field therapy which is already known to help the healing of bone fractures and osteoarthritis. The results showed a rapid return of strength and range of motion, significantly reducing swelling and tenderness. This could be useful not only for athletes but in post-op care for joint replacements. Edith Cowan University.
- SWEET SWEAT: Diabetics need to keep careful track of their blood sugar. A tiny new biosensor from the Fraunhofer Institute measures glucose from body fluids such as sweat or tears, without the standard needle prick. The sensor uses an electrochemical reaction activated with the help of an enzyme. The chip is only 0.5 mm by 2 mm and uses less than 100 microamperes of power, meaning it could be worn for weeks or months. A monitor converts sensor readings to digital form and sends the data wirelessly to a small receiver. Eventually the biochip could perhaps control an implanted pump to administer the right dose of insulin. But you do need to keep crying or sweating. Fraunhofer Institute.
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.