Tech Universe: Monday 13 May 2013
- RIGHT FOR FLIGHT: An 800 Km flight from Warton in Lancashire to Inverness in Scotland isn’t really anything special, unless it’s a drone passenger jet flying on commercial routes and controlled by a pilot on the ground. That’s the flight that a British Aerospace Jetstream made recently. There was a pilot aboard who handled the takeoff and landing but otherwise the aircraft flew on auto, testing its detect-and-avoid technology on fake objects fed into the computer during flight. It will be a big step, having drone aircraft flying passengers to their destinations, but surely safety considerations would keep a pilot aboard, just in case. New Scientist.
- GLUED TO THE WALL: Scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology wanted to create a robot that could climb walls. While other robots have used the technique that allows geckos to climb, these robots use thermoplastic adhesives to stick to the wall temporarily. When the adhesive is warmed it flows into the kind of gaps found on rough surfaces. At a critical temperature above 70 degrees the adhesive is very tacky allowing the robot foot to stick to the wall. Cool it again and the robot can kick free and move a step. In tests, a 1 Kg droid slowly carried a 7 Kg weight up walls made of wood, plastic, stone and aluminium. Now they need to find a way to speed up the heating and cooling. New Scientist.
- FIGURING THE FORESTS: In 2020 the Biomass satellite will be launched by the European Space Agency to weigh the Earth’s forests. Its radar system will be able to sense the trunks and big branches of trees from orbit. Then the satellite will calculate the amount of carbon stored in the world’s forests and allow researchers to better understand the role forests play in the carbon cycle and climate. Not all of the world’s forests though: the satellite will not be permitted to operate over North America, Europe and the Arctic in case it interferes with missile early-warning and space-tracking systems. Defence against protection is a difficult trade-off. BBC.
- HAIRY FLIGHT: The satellite ESTCube-1 is testing out a new method of propulsion. Solar sails reflect photons from the sun to push the spacecraft forward. The new method uses wires with a positive charge that extend from the craft and repel positively charged protons. The repulsion pushes the craft. The tiny satellite is only 10 cm wide and its 10 metre long positively charged wire is only half the width of a human hair. While this tiny craft is only a test, full size craft with 100 wires, each 20 Km long, could move quickly enough to reach Pluto in less than 5 years. Manufacturing 20 Km wires with a diameter less than a human hair will be challenging enough. New Scientist.
- IN THE HOLE: Suppose you want to hide from microwaves, how might you do it? Surprisingly, researchers at Duke University discovered all it takes is a cheap 3D printer and some plastic with holes in just the right places. Of course, it’s those holes that are the key. Algorithms determined the location, size and shape of the holes so they deflect microwave beams. A hole in the centre of the disc is where an object to be hidden must be placed, then microwave beams must travel through the side of the disc. The holes guide the microwaves around the object, effectively hiding it. So it’ll be a while before humans can hide using this technique. redOrbit.
Tech Universe: Tuesday 14 May 2013
- THE ROBOT OR THE CREAM?: HERB is a sophisticated Home Exploring Robot butler being built at Carnegie Mellon University. Its role will be to perform challenging manipulation tasks in places where people live and work. Its first task was to separate an Oreo cookie from its cream — a surprisingly challenging task for a robot, but obviously an essential skill. In the end one side prevailed … Carnegie Mellon University.
- GENERATOR PLANT: When researchers at the University of Georgia in the US wanted to find a better way to generate electricity they studied plants — photosynthesis, to be precise. Using structures called thylakoids, plants capture photons of sunlight and convert them into almost an equal number of electrons, splitting water atoms into hydrogen and oxygen. The electrons eventually create sugars that allow the plants to grow. The researchers manipulated proteins contained in the thylakoids, interrupting the pathway along which electrons flow. Then they added carbon nanotubes to act as electrical conductors. Their approach resulted in greater levels of electrical current than those reported in similar systems. They suggest this system could be used for remote sensors or other portable electronic equipment that requires less power to run. We’re still only playing catch-up with nature. PhysOrg.
- C+ FOR FRUIT: LED lamps are the in thing for those wanting to save energy. It turns out they also boost the amount of Vitamin C in tomatoes grown under them. Researchers at Wageningen University suspended special LED modules between the plants around tomato clusters, exposing the tomatoes to extra light. Some varieties of tomatoes grown under the LEDs contained up to twice as much vitamin C as the tomatoes not exposed to the lights. Hmmm, is there any effect LEDs are having on us then? Wageningen University.
- TOUCH TO LOCK: Fumbling with doorkeys while juggling an armload of shopping is never fun. With a Kevo doorlock all you have to do is touch it, and let your iPhone handle the unlocking side of things. If you don’t have an iPhone, you can buy a key fob instead. The smartphone app also lets you send an electronic key to other people, such as tradespeople, and you can revoke access at any time. The lock uses military grade PKI encryption to protect you, and works via Bluetooth Smart Ready Technology. The lock also has a standard key for when you’ve lost your smartphone. It’s helpful that you don’t have to actually work the phone to make the door unlock — just having the phone in your pocket is all it takes. Kevo.
- BABYGRAMS: An ultrasound picture of a foetus is so flat. Pioneer’s new hologram service in Japan creates a 3D image of a developing baby, using a compact hologram printer. A full colour hologram takes 120 minutes to produce, while a single colour takes only 90 minutes. The hologram is visible within a 23 degree viewing angle and in white light. I wonder how that extra level of detail will affect those who later go on to miscarry? DigInfo TV.
Tech Universe: Wednesday 15 May 2013
- LIGHT CYCLE: Revolights City v2.0 bike light kits are riveted right into the rims of the wheel. The light shines forwards onto the road, but also makes the bike visible from all angles. The white light stays at the front of the front wheel, while the red rear light stays at the back of the back wheel. The arcs of light are formed by LEDs powered by Lithium-ion batteries and programmed to detect your speed and blink on as they pass the front or rear of the bicycle. Batteries last about 4 hours and can be recharged via USB. That’s some pretty clever engineering. Revolights.
- EASY PHONE HOME: Should your 4 year old have their own cellphone? After all, if there’s an emergency it would be great for them to be able to call you for help. But on the other hand there are plenty of risks and costs to be considered. The 1stFone is designed for very young children. It’s quite small, can be programmed with up to 12 numbers but doesn’t have a screen or internet access and can’t send texts. Which just leaves the lessons about what constitutes an emergency. BBC.
- THE WRITE PHONE: Folks in the US with a hearing problem can get some help from a screen on their phone. The Hamilton Captioned Telephone uses the free US Captioned Telephone Service to display the words spoken by the other party on a 7 inch backlit color display as you participate in a phonecall. Luckily you can choose a font size if your eyesight’s not too great either. Red Ferret.
- VIRTUAL TUNNELS: Old-fashioned robbers would tunnel into a vault to extract quantities of cash from a bank. These days it takes a computer and co-ordinated raids on ATMs. Recently a worldwide gang of criminals drained $45 million dollars from ATMs in just a few hours by using bogus swipe cards with fraudulently increased withdrawal limits. First attackers breached a couple of Middle Eastern banks and tinkered with access codes and withdrawal limits. Then data was loaded onto random cards that use a magnetic strip, such as hotel key cards. Finally operatives all over the world used the cards to withdraw cash from ATMs. See what can be achieved with a bit of planning. Seattle Times.
- HERE TODAY AND GOOGLE TOMORROW: NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey have been making images of our planet for 30 years or more, and now those images have been put to good use. Google Timelapse lets you view images of various parts of the globe in sequence from 1984 to 2012 so you can easily observe changes. For example, watch the Aral Sea dry up, or as irrigation appears in Saudi Arabia. Be prepared for some disturbing viewing. Google Timelapse.
Tech Universe: Thursday 16 May 2013
- A PLANE BOX: Care to own your own plane? Maybe the single engine, piston-driven Synergy would be for you. The aircraft has a unique shape with a double box tail that reduces drag. Its creators claim twice the speed for a given horsepower, or triple the economy for a given speed, and that it can land at low speeds on local airfields. The shape will turn heads too. Synergy.
- JELLY SPY: Cyro is a robotic jellyfish from Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering. The robot has 8 aluminium arms and a flexible silicone covering, and is designed propel itself through the water the way a real jellyfish would. It’s almost 2 metres wide, weighs nearly 80 Kg and can swim for around 4 hours thanks to its nickel metal hydride battery. Cyro could be used to monitor fish, clean up after oil spills or maybe to carry out surveillance for the military. The next problem is to find a longer-lasting power source. CNN.
- THE WEATHER CROWD: The Samsung Galaxy S4 smartphone is crammed full of sensors: thermometer, barometer, hygrometer and a magnetometer to measure ambient temperature, air pressure, humidity and the Earth’s local magnetic field strength. This is being exploited by an online service called WeatherSignal, which says it can use this data to crowdsource real-time weather information and publish it on a website. This all relies on users installing and running a free app, but then why not? New Scientist.
- STEELING THE ATMOSPHERE: Steel production accounts for as much as 5% of the world’s total greenhouse-gas emissions because it’s mostly produced by heating iron oxide with carbon. A new technique uses an alloy of chromium and iron, both of which are plentiful and cheap. What’s more the process creates no emissions other than pure oxygen and yields metal of exceptional purity. The process could be suitable for smaller-scale steel factories, but a commercially viable prototype is still several years away. It’d be good to see the atmosphere filling with oxygen for a change. MIT News.
- IT’S A SNAP: Memoto’s 5 megapixel camera measures only 36 by 36 by 9 millimeters and holds 8 Gb worth of photos. It’s designed to clip on to your lapel and capture images every 30 seconds. Then it applies algorithms to the images to find the most interesting ones. You can then simply transfer the photos to your computer, or upload them into a service that filters the day’s photos down to around 30 key moments. The life logger is designed to stop taking photos though if it’s put in a pocket or on a table. Smile, you’re on Memoto Camera. Technology Review.
Tech Universe: Friday, 17 May 2013
- MOVIES IN SIGHT: Some people, such as the vision or hearing impaired, find movies challenging or perhaps even pointless as they may not see or hear what’s going on. Captioned screenings are rare, and current personal captioning devices that fit inside a cup holder with a screen attached are bulky, display text out of the line of vision to the screen, and distract other patrons. Now some cinemas are introducing Sony Entertainment Access Glasses that display captions only to those wearing them. The captions appear to float a couple of metres in front of the wearer. Audio tracks also describe the action on the screen for blind people. Of course, this depends on the movie maker supplying captioned tracks and on the theatre having the necessary digital equipment. Next thing to work on: translation subtitles. All Tech Considered.
- THE INSIDE STORY: Traditional umbrellas are tricky to work with: they quickly turn inside out in a decent gust of Wellington wind, may poke someone’s eye out if you’re not careful and are likely to block your vision as you keep the rain off your face. The Rainshader has a new approach, based on the shape of a motorcycle helmet. It’s particularly aimed at people watching sports who need to be able to see the action while keeping the rain at bay. The makers claim it’s virtually impossible to blow inside out, and its fibre glass ribs and rubber handle mean you’re less likely to be zapped by lightning in a thunderstorm. So it’s a bit like an expanded hood really. Rainshader.
- A $2 CLEAN: Clean water is essential to our survival, but it can be expensive to remove bacteria and other harmful particles. At the Indian Institute of Technology researchers found that silver nanoparticles combined with an aluminium composite can do the job at low cost. As water flows through the filter the nanoparticles oxidise, releasing ions that kill viruses and bacteria, and neutralise toxic chemicals such as lead and arsenic. In tests a 50 gram composite filtered 1500 litres of water without needing reactivation. The researchers estimate a family of 5 could have clean drinking water for a year from a single $2 filter. That could prove affordable for people even on extremely limited incomes, though even better would be for governments to supply filters for free. New Scientist.
- ONE UP: The semiconductors in our electronics, carry along the electrical charge of electrons, and that’s good. But electrons in the presence of a magnet have a property that’s not being used: they have spin, up or down. One spin state aligns with the magnetic field, while the other opposes it, which could be used to mark the 1 or 0 of a computer bit. A team at the University of Delaware have confirmed the previously only theoretical presence of a magnetic field generated by electrons, which could in turn allow them to exploit the spin property. Or maybe electronics just make your head spin. University of Delaware..
- DRONE RESCUE: The Canadian Mounties are onto it — recently they saved the life of someone whose car had flipped at night in remote Saskatchewan by sending out a drone to search. The Draganflyer X4-ES helicopter drone was flown towards the driver’s last known location where it used an infrared camera to search for life signs. Nearby searchers on the ground were able to rescue the driver once the drone had pinpointed his location. This seems a perfect use for drones. Royal Canadian Mounted Police.