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.
This is both fun and thought-provoking. Would we send brains into space and capture their thoughts and memories?:
Visual effects veteran Hasraf ‘HaZ’ Dulull has written and directed this riveting faux documentary chronicling humanity’s first steps into deep space.
Set in the not-too-distant future, the story unfolds as project personnel talk about the mission and their various roles within it. But just as things start to get rolling, the team is confronted with something far more profound.
Tech Universe: Monday 06 May 2013
- MICROSCOPIC MOVES: People have made movies before by animating small toy figures, but the world record for small now goes to IBM with their animated atoms. Researchers used their scanning tunneling microscope to make a stop-motion film where the characters and action are formed by positioning individual carbon monoxide molecules and their component carbon and oxygen atoms, and using copper 111 as the surface of the animation. But are the characters well rounded? IBM.
- CRANKING: It’s only a concept at the moment but the 4StrikeBike wants us to pedal with our hands as well as our feet. To that end it adds pedals to the handlebars. The crankshaft has a special freewheel system that allows the bike to be cycled with both arms and legs or with the legs alone, or the hand pedals can each be fixed in place in their highest position and allow the handlebar to be like that on a normal bike. There could be a lot of power in that bike. 4StrikeBike.
- PRINT SHOOT: There are plenty of problems around guns, but one is that if the wrong person gets hold of a gun people can be killed. Safe Gun Technology is creating a fingerprint reader to effectively lock a gun unless an authorised user is holding it. The fingerprint reader can be set to allow multiple users. The company has created a prototype of a Remington 870 pump shotgun often used by US law enforcement and is now working on adding its system to handguns. While those intent on crime can probably disable this kind of thing easily enough it may at least stop some kids from shooting one another. Safe Gun Technology.
- TWO IN THE SUN: The Sunseeker Duo will be not only the fastest solar-powered plane ever built but it will also be the first to carry a passenger. The solar cells have an efficiency of almost 23% so the Duo will have enough power to maintain a steady climb on direct solar power. Meanwhile folding wings mean it can fit into a regular hangar in spite of its 22 metre wingspan, or it can quickly be taken apart and transported in a special trailer. No tow plane required. Solar Flight.
- STEP CHANGE: Wheelchair users aren’t specially thrilled by steps. But if they use the Japanese Unimo electric chair perhaps they’ll change their minds. The wheelchair looks more like an armchair and is designed for rest homes and hospitals. Instead of wheels it uses rubber crawler tracks and can do a 360 degree turn in a confined space such as a lift. It can also climb over a step that’s 15 cm high. That means it can move on rutted roads, gravel roads in parks and in sand on beaches and other places where conventional electric wheelchairs and mobility scooters cannot travel smoothly. The user controls the chair with a joystick. So how many hospitals have rutted roads and sandy beaches? Tech-On.
Tech Universe: Tuesday 07 May 2013
- GLOVE ALERT: If you work with toxic substances it’s a fairly safe bet that you wear protective clothing such as gloves. Even so, how can you tell when a toxic substance may be present? Researchers at the Fraunhofer Research Institution for Modular Solid State Technologies EMFT engineered a glove that recognizes if toxic substances are present in the surrounding air. Custom-made sensor materials are embedded in the glove along with sensor-activated dyes. If a toxic substance is detected the glove changes colour, for example, from white to blue. That’s handy. Fraunhofer.
- DEADLY DNA: After a crime police may take DNA from a suspect to match with DNA found at the scene. If the samples manage to get accidentally mixed the DNA may falsely show a suspect was at a crime scene. But there are some DNA sequences, called nullomers, which don’t exist naturally because they’re incompatible with life. Tagging a suspect’s sample with nullomers can help show when samples have been mixed, and may clear some wrongly accused people. In tests which diluted the DNA samples 100,000 times, the nullomers were still identifiable, and didn’t interfere with analysis of the original DNA profile. In some countries such deadly nullomers could mean the difference between life and death for an accused person. New Scientist.
- BUG EYED: Insects such as bees and flies have compound eyes that give them a panoramic view and great depth perception. Now US researchers have created a camera that uses a hemispherical array of 180 microlenses that give it a 160 degree field of view and the ability to focus simultaneously on objects at different depths. Those features could make the camera extremely useful for security cameras, surgical endoscopes and micro aerial vehicles. Ah, but it’ll be the software that’s really crucial. Wired.
- THE BANDED HUMAN: The Myo armband measures the electrical impulses produced by physical activity. But it’s no ordinary life logger counting steps or tracking heart rate. Instead it’s a gesture control device. A flick of the wrist may call up the next slide in a presentation, or perhaps clench your hand to stop video playback. Squeeze an imaginary trigger to fire a weapon in a game. The device pairs with gadgets via Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy, uses rechargeable Lithium-Ion batteries and an ARM processor. It features a 6-axis inertial measurement unit for motion sensing. Presumably it works equally well on either arm and could perhaps even be worn on the leg. Thalmic Labs.
- FULL COLOUR PLASTIC: The ProDesk3D printer doesn’t limit you to printing with just a single coloured filament. Instead it offers true full colour printing through its 5 colour PLA cartridge system that mixes primary colours. It is capable of printing objects down to 25 microns and uses a dual-extruder head to provide PVA-based support material alongside the main design. 3D printing seems to be maturing quickly. BotObjects.
Tech Universe: Wednesday 08 May 2013
- BEES WITH BRAINS: Carbon fibre RoboBees created at Harvard University are about the size of a coin and weigh less than a tenth of a gram. Although they have to be tethered to a power supply and controller they fly vertically and horizontally with ease. The independently controlled wings flap at up to 120 times per second using piezoelectric actuators. Such tiny robots could be used for environmental monitoring, or perhaps pollinating crops where real bees are in short supply. Now the researchers want to find tiny power supplies and computers that can let the bees off their leashes. One day the skies may be full of tiny robots. Harvard University. Video:
- OIL SOAK: Boron nitride is also known as white graphene and it can do a particularly useful job: cleaning up organic pollutants from waterways. The material has a large surface area for its weight, so it can mop up a lot of pollutants. In recent tests researchers found it could mop up 29 times its own weight in engine oil yet still float on water. Then the oil can be driven out in a furnace or by being ignited so the sheet of boron nitride can be used again. Even better would be to find a way to extract the oil so it could be used productively. BBC.
- SILVER EAR: A team from Princeton University recently used 3D additive printing to create an ear with embedded electronics. They combined a matrix of hydrogel and calf cells to form cartilage with silver nanoparticles that form an antenna. Potentially electric signals from the printed ear could be connected to a person’s nerve endings and restore or enhance human hearing. I guess the calf cells would be replaced with human cells. EurekAlert.
- SPIN CHARGE: An integrated motor drive and battery charger for electric vehicles may reduce charging time from 8 hours to two. The new power transfer method involves a rotating transformer that includes the motor and inverter in the charger circuit to increase the charging power at a lower cost. At the moment the system works in the lab, but the researchers aim to enhance it for industrial use. Getting those charging times down is crucial. Chalmers University of Technology.
- SEIZURE SIGNALS: Australian researchers have had success predicting epileptic seizures in a group of people who experienced between 2 and 12 seizures per month. They did it with two devices: one is implanted between the skull and brain surface to monitor long-term electrical signals in the brain. The other is implanted under the chest and sends signals recorded in the brain to a handheld device. The handheld device used red, white and blue warning lights to indicate the likelihood of a seizure. After a month of simply recording EEG data an algorithm was developed for each person. Although the warnings weren’t always correct, 8 of the 11 patients had their seizures accurately predicted between 56% and 100% of the time. Which, after all, is a lot better than no warning at all. The University of Melbourne.
Tech Universe: Thursday 09 May 2013
- GOODBYE HERSCHEL: We all know the need to maintain equipment we use — adding oil to the car, tightening up the bike chain. But when that equipment is out in space and it runs out of liquid helium coolant it turns out that’s just hard luck. The Herschel Space Observatory has been collecting loads of data since 2009, but the other day it ran out of coolant and observations have ceased. Astronomers will continue to analyse all the images and other data the HSO recorded though and may yet make new discoveries. The spacecraft will soon be propelled to a stable orbit around the Sun where it will remain indefinitely. Rescue mission anyone? European Space Agency.
- A DIFFERENT STRIPE: TV crime shows frequently have a computer quickly sorting through thousands of faces to identify a suspect, but that kind of facial recognition doesn’t work well for identifying animals by their patterning. That led researchers at MIT to develop a system called SLOOP that could help conservationists. The system uses algorithms to recognise patterns such as stripes or spots and produces a short list of likely candidates. The images are then turned over to crowdsourcing, asking online users to pick the most similar pair. Researchers need this kind of system when studying creatures such as whale sharks or skinks, where it’s by far easier and quicker to take a photo than to catch the animal and tag it. Turn it into a pattern-matching game and people are sure to play it. MIT News.
- PAPER TRAILS: Laser Enabled Advanced Packaging is a way to create really thin RFID tags — thin enough to be able to embed them in a sheet of paper. That could open up possibilities in stopping counterfeiting in bank notes or for tracking paper documents. It could also reduce the price of RFID tags, meaning they could be more widely used. North Dakota State University.
- SNEAK PEEK: Imagine walking up to a shop window and after a few moments ads related to the object you’re looking at start to play. The SideWays eyetracking device uses an ordinary video camera and a special program to assess where you’re looking. It first recognises the corners of your eyes and then works out where your pupils are and which direction you’re looking in. A prototype device was able to track the gazes of 14 testers, though it can be confused by glasses and can’t recognise when people look up or down. The developers want to work next on being able to recognise multiple gazes at once. Before long the watchers will know more about us than we know ourselves. New Scientist.
- FIRE LIGHT: Put the Voto in a hot cooking stove and the small fuel cell creates and stores energy for an LED light or to charge cell phones. The device has two parts: a fuel cell box contains fuel cards designed to derive energy from the heat of charcoal burning around the box. The other part is a rechargeable handle that remains outside the stove to collect and store the energy. Disconnect the handle after the fire cools and use it to charge a phone or light the included LED. The Voto is designed for developing nations where cookstoves and kerosene lamps are the norm. It’s a superb idea, though the initial cost could be a barrier for those who most need this and similar gadgets. Point Source Power.
Tech Universe: Friday 10 May 2013
- A NEW WHEEL: Bike wheels have spokes, as we all know. Except for Loopwheels — bicycle wheels with integral suspension. They’re designed for smaller folding bikes that don’t usually have any room for suspension. The wheels reduce vibration and give a smoother ride. Rather than spokes radiating to the rim from a central hub, Loopwheels have 3 oval loops of carbon composite material between the hub and the rim. Aluminium extrusion connectors attach the springs to the hub and rim. That’s a clever idea. Loopwheels. Video:
- THE WIND AND THE LIGHT: The new LED streetlights PingQuan, China are interesting. Rather than being connected to the grid via underground wires each one has its own HoYi! wind turbine, two 280 watt solar panels and a storage battery, allowing it to function completely off-grid. I guess maintenance costs could be quite a bit higher than regular streetlights though. Inhabitat.
- DNA TO GO: Extracting DNA is no easy task, given that it involves a centrifuge, lots of toxic chemicals and 20 or 30 minutes of work. Researchers compare it with picking up human hairs using a crane. A handheld device from the University of Washington does the job easily in 3 minutes thanks to microscopic probes and electric fields. DNA-sized molecules stick to the probe and are trapped on the surface ready for collection and analysis. The handheld device can handle 4 human fluid samples at a time, but it should scale easily to handle the more usual 96. Perhaps this could be useful for crime scene forensics. University of Washington.
- TB ON A STICK: If a doctor suspects you have TB it can take a couple of weeks to culture a sample and make a diagnosis that may or may not be accurate. A new microfluidic device the same size as a standard lab slide can reduce that wait time to a couple of hours. The new system detects DNA from the tuberculosis bacteria in small sputum samples. The device amplifies any target DNA sequences and captures them with polymer beads. Then a miniature nuclear magnetic resonance imager identifies the TB. Test results from known samples produced no false positives and were highly accurate. The device isn’t yet ready for real-life use yet, but it could be very valuable for controlling the spread of TB in developing countries. This move to handheld medicine is very encouraging. KurzweilAI.
- TWO FACED ADS: There’s a poster on a bus stop in Spain. As seen by most adults it displays an innocuous message, but viewed from lower down, where a child would see it, there’s a phone number and information about getting help if you’re being abused. The aim of course is to help children even where they’re being accompanied by an adult who’s abusing them. The ad uses lenticular printing which many of us are familiar with from cards that show different pictures depending which way you turn them. How long until junk food advertisers twig to this? The Verge.
An opportunity came my way on Saturday 04 May 2013 to join a bus tour to the West Wind windfarm I often see when I walk our dogs round the top of Mt Victoria. As we walk our circuit and look across Wellington we sometimes spot the majestic arms of the turbines peeking above the western hills.
Of course, I also often write about wind turbines in my Tech Universe column for the NZ Herald Online, so I was interested to get a closer look.
I’ve visited the lone turbine on Brooklyn Hill several times, but West Wind is much much bigger. The towers are around 70 metres tall, while each of the 3 blades is 40 metres long and weighs around 10 tonnes. By comparison, the Brooklyn Hill wind turbine is around 31 metres tall and each blade is 13.5 metres long.
See my review of the walk from the Brooklyn Hill wind turbine to the radar station in Te Kopahou Reserve.
An added attraction was a stop to see the New Zealand Fur seals on the South Coast, so I signed up for the tour.
The wind farm
The Wellington Rover bus picked 8 of us up outside the City Council offices, while a couple of other buses picked up others in the group at the railway station. All together there were three 9-seater buses on the tour. It was a mild day with some light cloud, occasional sunshine and no wind — perfect for the 4 hour tour.
Our driver, Craig, was friendly and knowledgeable, and looked after all of us really well.
After a short drive out through Karori and down to South Makara Road all 3 buses met up at the gate to Terawhiti Station on the corner with Oteranga Bay Road.
The wind farm itself has 62 turbines in total within the bounds of the massive 53 square kilometre Station. That’s 13,000 acres for the metrically challenged.
We spent a few minutes admiring views at the base of one of the turbines. They’re huge, with enormous blades which seem to disappear in an optical illusion as they reach the bottom of their arc.
I find the turbines majestic and quite beautiful with their smooth curves and regular shape. Certainly seeing lines and groups of them spread across the landscape is spectacular.
Terawhiti Station is huge. It went on and on and on. It was more like driving through a national park than through a farm. The hills are covered with bush and scrub, inhabited by wild goats, wild pigs, even deer, apparently. There are also farm animals: cattle and sheep. Hawks hovered overhead playing in the air currents as they came off the turbines.
We drove up rough roads until we reached the first of the turbines and in other parts of the tour too. Some roads were steep and relatively narrow, while others, created for transporting the turbines, were wide and easy.
The power company created a temporary wharf at Oteranga Bay on the South Coast and built 33 kilometres of roads so as to transport everything into place. We saw occasional notices of height restrictions for vehicles: 12.5 metres, or 11 metres.
At one place our guide pointed out the remnants of the gold mining that took place in the late 1800s. He mentioned a time when there were maybe a thousand miners. Most gave up quickly when a seam they’d found stopped suddenly, thanks to Wellington’s fractured landscape. It could take months of hard graft to find where any seam continued.
Māori settlements were in the area too. We saw the vestiges of one area where they would trap the wood pigeons or kereru that would gather to feast on the fruits of the trees.
Down by Oteranga Bay one area is sectioned off because it was an urupa, or graveyard.
The Army had a presence in the area in World War Two. As with most of Wellington’s hills they installed bunkers, creating roads so they could bring in the supplies they needed. We didn’t visit any of the bunkers or even spot any of them on our tour though.
Apparently Oteranga Bay was also where in the early days the farmers would drive their cattle to so they could be loaded on to barges to be taken to market. Driving them on the tracks over the hills would have taken days.
At some point we stopped at the old homestead on the coast for a toilet break. There’s a rather surprising large flat area of grass by the sea with a couple of houses on it, one of them the old homestead.
Then it was a short drive down to and briefly along the coast to the spot where the seals haul out. Our guides gave us a cup of tea (or coffee or soft drinks) and a muffin or two. Then we had some free time to wander around and observe the seals, without getting close enough to bother them.
There were probably a dozen or more seals sunbathing on the beach, with perhaps a couple of dozen more on the rocks or in the sea nearby. Apparently in July and August there can be hundreds on the beach. Even the ones we saw were pretty pongy. When there are hundreds on the beach the stench must be overpowering.
Our guide explained something interesting to us too: seals move on land with a looping motion like a caterpillar, while sealions lift up and walk on their flippers. The New Zealand Fur Seal (its official name) is actually a sealion.
The seals on the beach are males — the females are away out at sea fishing and looking after any pups.
Not far away were various small fishing and recreational boats, and several divers were in the water too. While access through Terawhiti Station is extremely limited, those with a good 4-wheel drive vehicle can drive around the coast on the beach from Owhiro Bay. In New Zealand the Queen’s Chain is a strip of public land along beaches and beside rivers, that allows access to the water even where private land might seem to lay claim to the beach.
See photos and videos by Aimee Whitcroft who organised the tour.
As the tour wore on I became more and more aware of what a privilege it was to be taking part in it. Terawhiti Station is enormous, rugged and beautiful.
The wind turbines are enormous, sleek and beautiful. There are so many of them, and they stretch into the distance on the ridges of the folded hills.
In retrospect it seems obvious that they require a huge amount of infrastructure. All the roading that had been created so they could be trucked into place was impressive. There are even spare turbines in one storage spot along the route we took.
I count myself lucky to have seen the seals. I have seen them before, at Red Rocks and also when my partner bought me a brief helicopter tour of the South Coast for a birthday once. But every time we can enjoy the creatures around us is special.
I was thrilled to have learned about the gold mining past and the Māori settlements, and enjoyed the isolation, the rugged terrain, and the beautiful warm still day with part cloud, part sun, and views my iPhone didn’t do justice to. The other people on the tour were interesting and pleasant, and the driver was friendly, helpful and knowledgeable.
A bonus of the tour was the opportunity to look back at Brooklyn Hill from the western side. I’ve looked down on this section of coast from Te Kopahou Reserve, and from above on our helicopter tour, so this completed my mental image of the area.
All in all it was a fabulous way to spend a morning.
Tech Universe: Monday 29 April 2013
- PEDAL CHARGER: Gadgets you use while cycling, such as for GPS, can quickly run out of juice, so wouldn’t it be handy if all your pedalling could help charge them up? The Atom does just that, charging an iPhone 1% for every two minutes of pedaling. It easily attaches to the axle on the rear wheel and charges devices via a USB cable or by powering its own battery that can later be used as an external battery for your phone. Because it’s siphoning off some of the energy from pedalling it adds a slight drag to the bike — about the same as a 0.3% gradient, and uses internal gearing to maximise efficiency. That beats draining your phone just to track a ride. Gizmodo.
- GET THE SUNSHINE IN: IBM are working on a High Concentration Photovoltaic Thermal system that can make the most of the solar energy it concentrates. Usually solar collectors are limited in how much sunshine they gather as otherwise they’d simply get too hot. This highly efficient and low cost collector will be cooled by water that will remove some of the heat and could itself be used for air conditioning. The system uses a large parabolic dish made from many mirror facets and photovoltaic chips, while a tracking system determines the best angle based on the position of the sun. It converts 30% of collected solar radiation into electrical energy. The cooling system is inspired by the hierarchical branched blood supply system of the human body. Engadget.
- PATCH GAMES: One child in 50 is likely to have a problem with amblyopia where one eye is weaker than the other. The traditional treatment is to have the child wear an eye patch for months. Researchers at McGill University think a better option may be to have the kids play Tetris — it worked in a small study with 18 adults. They had volunteers wear special goggles for an hour a day while playing Tetris. The goggles allowed one eye to see only falling blocks, while the other eye could see only the resting blocks. After two weeks their vision had improved more than that of a control group. I’ll bet most kids would prefer the video games to the eye patch. BBC.
- FLYING THUMBS: It can be hard work typing on a tablet’s touchscreen keyboard. After studying millions of English-language tweets that originated from mobile devices a team of researchers has designed a new KALQ keyboard layout optimised for typing with thumbs. After several hours of training novice users were able to reach 37 words per minute on the new layout — the fastest thumb typing speed ever reported. The layout puts most vowels by the spacebar, on the righthand side, and the most commonly used letters are clustered. Left handers can swap orientation, and key size can be changed to match thumb size. Several hours of training for typing on a touchscreen? That’s dedication. GigaOm.
- BIG HEAD: Bike helmets are fine when they’re on your head, but a pain to carry round when they’re not. Carrera’s foldable bicycle helmet has a flexible frame, elastic fitting system and adjustable side straps that adapt the helmet to the shape of the head. An included belt wraps around the folded helmet so it attaches easily to the bike frame when not wearing it. Now, if they could just find a way to also make it fold flat. Carrera.
Tech Universe: Tuesday 30 April 2013
- RIGHT LIGHTS: Light pollution is a huge waste of energy and money, damages our health and stops us from enjoying the natural wonders of the night sky. Unfortunately conventional sodium or mercury vapour streetlights contribute to the problem, scattering and leaking light in all directions. Now a team of researchers has an idea for LED streetlights that send a rectangle of light on to the street where it’s useful. A special lens focuses the light’s rays so they travel parallel to each other in a single direction, while a reflecting cavity captures any rays that escape. Meanwhile a diffuser reduces glare. Now they’re working on a prototype that can prove the concept. Let’s keep the skies dark. BBC.
- NO BOOM IN IRON: There are quite a few problems with fertiliser, one of which is its potential for use in home made bombs. Researchers at the Sandia National Lab found something that could help: mix in some iron sulfate, a waste product from steel foundries. They say that the new mix not only prevents the use of the fertiliser to make bombs, but also helps the fertiliser’s performance by improving the pH of soil and increasing the levels of iron in food. It sounds like a simple way to do a lot of good. Technology Review.
- LIVING PRINTS: Researchers studying how the human liver works also need to test how drugs interact with it. Now they can print tiny livers for themselves. A 3D printer created by US company Organovo makes livers half a millimetre deep and 4 millimetres across that can perform most functions of the real thing. The printer works by building up layers of hepatocytes and stellate cells and also adds cells from the lining of blood vessels. The miniature livers can be used for studying the effects of drugs, but the company has a goal of creating full size livers suitable for transplant. And perhaps being able to print tiny livers for testing can free up more of the real thing for transplants. New Scientist.
- THE ENEMY WITHIN: Pancreatic cancer is very difficult to treat, partly because of the way it spreads to other parts of the body. US biologists may have found a way to defeat it though, by using genetically modified bacteria to deliver radiation directly to the cancer cells. Studies in mice have been very successful. The technique uses a bacterium, modified with the radioactive compound rhenium-188, that can burrow inside key immune cells. The researchers believe that after further development and testing this technique could supplement standard treatments. Just point those bacteria the right way. Wired.
- GROWING DIESEL: We may have the University of Exeter to thank if we can fill up our trucks soon with diesel produced not from oil but from bacteria. The diesel produced by their special strains of E. coli bacteria is almost identical to conventional diesel fuel and the engines that run on it won’t need any modification. The next challenge is to make the process commercially viable. Bacteria — so useful. University of Exeter.
Tech Universe: Wednesday 01 May 2013
- A MOTE IN THE MOUSE: Back in the day a computer would fill a huge room; now you often carry one in your pocket. Researchers at the University of Michigan are working on smart dust, with prototypes only a cubic millimetre in size. Their Michigan Micro Motes include sensors to monitor temperature or movement then send data via radio waves. Of course you’ll be wanting to know if these microscopic computers need AA batteries. The idea is that they’d scavenge energy from nearby sources, perhaps via a solar panel or by exploiting temperature differences. Although this all seems more a fantasy than a practicality, the Michigan team has implanted a Micro Mote inside a mouse tumour so that it can report back on its growth. There may yet come a day when a magician can sprinkle a handful of dust and wave a wand to work miracles. New Scientist.
- SOAPY SAVINGS: Mosquitoes famously help transmit malaria — a big problem in some parts of the world. Hundreds of thousands of people die from malaria each year. That’s why two students in Burkina Faso invented a mosquito repelling soap. Faso Soap, is made from karate citronella, and other secret local herbs. Who needs nano-stuff? Low tech can also save lives. Clutch.
- DID YOU SAY?: The Chinese Si-Rui brand cars are gaining voice recognition supporting Mandarin Chinese. Soon drivers will be able to us voice commands for the radio, TV and DVD player, media player and navigation system. For example, apart from just playing the next song, a driver may be able to say “Search gas station” to find the nearest place to fill up. Actually, it’s the DVD controls that concern me. Nuance.
- EARTH AND WATER: Hydrophobic materials are usually made from thin polymer coatings that degrade when heated and are easily destroyed by wear. This reduces their usefulness in equipment for taking salt out of water or in steam-based power plants. Researchers at MIT created a new class of hydrophobic ceramics that can endure both extreme temperatures and rough treatment. That’s an achievement because ceramics generally attract water, rather than repelling it. It’s rare-earth oxides that do the trick. By fusing them into a solid ceramic form through sintering the result is materials with strong hydrophobic properties. Technology Review.
- THE THINKING PHONE: We already control lots of devices with our brains — it’s just that the signals pass through an intermediary such as fingers or voice box to do it. Now Samsung’s Emerging Technology Lab want to let us be more direct. Their research involves a cap studded with EEG-monitoring electrodes. They’ve already shown that people can concentrate on an icon blinking at a distinctive frequency to launch an app and make selections within it, for example. Unlike traditional EEG monitors that can take nearly an hour to set up this cap takes only a few seconds as it doesn’t require any gel. At this stage it’s all very slow and clunky, but further research should help speed things up. It’s good to see plenty of research going on around controlling devices by thought alone. Technology Review.
Tech Universe: Thursday 02 May 2013
- TELL-TALE BREATH: Swedish researchers using a simple, commercially available breath sampler found they were able to detect up to a dozen different drugs, including methadone, amphetamine, methamphetamine and cocaine in the breath of testers. The analyser collects micro-particles from breath on a filter which is sealed and stored for later analysis. Later analysis using liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry reveals the trace of drug use on the breath. It stands to reason that our breath can reveal what’s gone into our bodies. Phys.org.
- SWIM TIMER: Serious sportspeople may aim to keep their hearts beating within a specific rhythm range while training. For those on dry land there are various gadgets available, but for swimmers it’s another matter. It’s not only waterproofing that’s the problem, but that most devices may interfere with swimming. A Lebanese device clips to the forehead, just below swimming goggles to measure heart rate and keep track of laps and turns. The Instabeat device reads the temporal artery and displays a readout in the goggles. It weighs 30 grams and the rechargeable lithium-ion battery lasts for 8 hours. And conversely, this one may help the land-based athletes too. MedGadget.
- THIRD ARM: Imagine you’re an engineer out in the field working on unfamiliar equipment in an unfamiliar environment. There’s a lot of potential for messing up. A robot arm could help, by relaying video back to base or from base back to you, by pointing out which parts to use, where to start or where items belong. The Mobile Repair and Operations prototype pairs with a smartphone and can overlay on the phone’s screen guides such as arrows or signs. At the worksite a microphone, video and projector on the robot arm can be used to help the engineer with the job, or potentially guide them to safety in an accident. If the robot could also offer a hand that would be even more useful. BBC.
- WAVING WALLS: Rather than just sticking solar panels on the roof of a house one architect believes they could instead be incorporated in the walls in the form of fabric strips. At least one house in Germany has used this idea. The Soft House features a network of textile strips on the facade with integrated photovoltaic cells, generating up to 16,000 watt-hours of electricity. The strips can move with the sun and be angled to maximise shade in summer or light in winter. Fabric strips wouldn’t immediately spring to mind as being able to withstand years of weather. Discovery News.
- BETTER BATTERIES: Australian researchers have found a way for electric vehicles to travel further on a charge. A material based on Germanium stores 5 times more energy and can carry a car twice as far on one charge as the batteries currently in electric vehicles. What’s more the material is cost-effective, easy to synthesise and allows a battery to charge more quickly. What’s not to like? University of Wollongong.
Tech Universe: Friday 03 May 2013
- DELIVERY DOG: Search and rescue is a hazardous job, especially in collapsed buildings. In fact there may be some places where only a robot shaped like a snake could reach. How to get the robot into place may still be a problem though, so why not send in the dogs? Researchers attached a snake robot via a harness to a trained recue dog and sent the dog into a collapsed training building. The dogs are trained to bark when they find a point of interest. At that time the researchers trigger the harness to fall off the dog and release the robot. The robot is then able to writhe and slither around, relaying video back to the rescue team. Now they need a robot dog to deliver the snake robot. BBC.
- SEND A ROBOT: All those huge wind turbines generating electricity are doing a great job, but they have to be inspected regularly and that’s quite a challenge. Of course it’s the ideal job for a climbing robot like the HR-MP20 that can run up the wind turbine and crawl out onto the blades. The little 4-wheeler works wirelessly, hanging on with magnets and can carry cameras, sensors and various inspection devices. The robot weighs 9 Kg and can climb at up to 13 metres per minute. Its radio control range is around 760 metres in line of sight. That’s quite an inspection gadget. Helical Robotics.
- TOUCHING ROBOTS: Our skin is an amazing sensor, detecting even the lightest of touches. Matching that with an artificial skin that can detect touch, for robots, for example, is a big problem. Now researchers at Georgia Tech may be onto something. They built tiny arrays of around 8,000 transistors bundled together with nanoscale crystals of zinc oxide, a semiconducting material. These taxels produce electronic signals when subjected to a mechanical force such as a touch. They’re about as sensitive as a human fingertip too — much more sensitive than previous approaches to the problem. Taxels: nice name. io9.
- THE SPOKEN WEB: There are plenty of people who have no access to the Internet: even if they had a computer they still can’t read and write. The Voices project in Africa lets users of specially created web content control it by speaking, listening to the page and by pressing certain buttons on their phone. The system can also push voice messages out to individual handsets, allowing for the creation of a voice version of Twitter called Tabale. One problem is that many languages, such as Bambara spoken in Mali, haven’t been studied sufficiently for good voice recognition. Technology can bring huge benefits, but there’s still so much research yet to be done. New Scientist.
- THE QUIET TUK: In some parts of the world the 3-wheeled tuk-tuk serves as a taxi. Now Terra Motors in Japan are introducing an electric version that can travel 50 Km on a 2 hour charge while carrying several passengers. The Philippines plan to replace 100,000 of their petrol-powered tuk-tuks with electric vehicles by 2016. The electric vehicles are quieter and will help reduce air pollution. They look quite swoopy too. TechCrunch.
Sometimes life changes happen suddenly.
Back in March I took all the MacTips I (and a handful of others) had written between 01 January 2012 and 28 February 2013 and compiled them into a book I optimistically named A MacTips Sparkler, Volume 1, March 2013. Buy a copy for yourself.
When I chose that title I was expecting to follow up over the next few years with Volumes 2, 3 4 and so on. I launched the book around 27 March 2013, a day or so before the Easter break.
After a few days off, offline and at the beach, I sat down to work on Tuesday 02 April and thought
Nooo, I really don’t want to write another MacTip.
Then I considered the idea of stopping MacTips, of never writing another one again, and a feeling of utter relief washed over me. After 13-some years of writing weekly (sometimes twice-weekly) Tips for users of Apple products it was time to change direction.
Decision made I took action, informed subscribers and readers and set the site up to be sold, as explained in TidBITS: MacTips.info Web Site Goes Up for Auction:
Miraz Jordan is auctioning off her 13-year-old MacTips.info Web site, complete with nearly 1,000 posts. As of this writing, the price is at $3,400, which doesn’t seem bad at all for that amount of content and a site that averages 30,000 unique visitors per month (with a peak of 105,000 visitors in January 2012), along with 350 email subscribers, 600 Twitter followers, 2,100 RSS readers, 400 YouTube channel subscribers, and 500 Facebook “likes.” The Flippa auction is slated to end on 7 May 2013.
I’ve never sold a website before, though I’ve sold plenty of items on New Zealand’s local auction website, TradeMe. It turns out the principles are the same: give it a clean, establish relevant data points, list with plenty of helpful information.
The first bid came in almost immediately, meeting the reserve price, and as I write several bidders are slowly ratcheting up the price. With a week to go I’m optimistic of earning a bit of very welcome cash. My budget’s been extremely tight for quite a few years now and I’m looking forward to things easing.
And with the 4 to 6 hours per week I’m gaining by not writing MacTips and looking after the site? My partner says I should take it easy and relax for a while, so I’m doing that.
I’m also putting a bit more energy into another informational website I set up a couple of years ago: Run Spot Run is a site for people in Wellington, New Zealand who have dogs. It reviews local off-leash areas (and some enjoyable on-leash walks), and carries bits of news of interest to its target audience.
Meanwhile, I continue to write my Tech Universe column for the NZHerald Online, 5 days per week. I am available though for part-time, casual and short-term jobs writing or training. Let me know if there’s something I can do for you.
Tech Universe: Monday 22 April 2013
- STICK TO IT: One problem surgeons have is how to anchor skin grafts so they have time to heal. Stitches and staples are useful, but cause their own trauma to the skin. And we all know that sticky dressings usually fall off if they get wet. A team at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in the US took inspiration from a parasitic worm that lives in the guts of fish. They’ve created a patch that’s covered with microscopic needles. Like the spikes on the parasite, the needles easily penetrate skin, but then swell up and lock in place. There’s less trauma, and the patch is 3 times stronger than materials currently used for burns patients. Tests in animals have proven the patch a success. You’d think that would be handy for ordinary sticking plasters too. BBC.
- THE BIG PICTURE: The US military uses long-wave infrared cameras to detect humans at night by their heat signatures. That works well, but the cameras are so large they have to be mounted on vehicles and they’re costly too. It would be much more convenient if individual soldiers could carry them. That may soon happen though as the latest prototype LWIR camera has a sensor whose pixels are so small 12 would fit across a single human hair. The pixels are configured in a high-resolution 1280×720 focal plane array. The new cameras are relatively cheap, but their perfomance is comparable to that of the larger imagers. That’s one more item for soldiers to carry. DARPA.
- BIG THINGS; SMALL PACKAGES: When it comes to powering devices the choice is between capacitors that release energy quickly but can store only a small amount and batteries that store a lot but release or recharge slowly. A new microbattery from the University of Illinois manages both high power and high storage. The batteries can also recharge 1,000 times faster than competing technologies. The team have achieved this feat with a 3 dimensional microstructure for both anode and cathode. Now the obvious question: how long until these batteries are being implemented in our gadgets? University of Illinois.
- PILL POPPER: People may take too many prescription painkillers on purpose or by accident, and may die as a result. Students at Brigham Young University created Med Vault to help reduce such overdoses. Their pill container resists tampering and breaking and dispenses pills only on a schedule programmed in by a pharmacist. Patients must key in an access code to retrieve pills that are ready to be dispensed. Let’s hope the pain’s not bad enough to prevent them keying in the access code. Brigham Young University.
- YELLOW GOLD: From sulphur to plastic — a team at the University of Arizona has used a new chemical process to transform waste sulphur into a lightweight plastic that can be used to make batteries. Lithium-sulfur, or Li-S, batteries are more efficient, lighter and cheaper than those currently used. The new plastic is easy and inexpensive to produce on an industrial scale and makes use of a waste product from refining fossil fuels. The process adds an unnamed chemical to sulphur to polymerise it. Making waste products useful is always a good idea. University of Arizona.
Tech Universe: Tuesday 23 April 2013
- CARAVAN CLASS: The 8.5 metre 2014 Land Yacht travel trailer from Airstream is a very upmarket caravan. It uses luxury materials and Italian design in its 3 rooms. A bedroom, bathroom, living area and a hideaway galley kitchen provide enough room for 5 people to holiday or even live in. Features include hidden LED lighting, ducted air conditioning, a powered awning and a hidden storage area under the bed. Its look remain classic Airstream though. No need to rough it while caravanning. Wired.
- AGING ANTS: How do you track individual ants in a colony of thousands? With barcodes, of course. A team of Swiss scientists glued barcodes to hundreds of ants and recorded all their movements for more than a month. Then they used video to analyse the position and orientation of every ant twice a second. They also tagged ants with different colours to denote their age, which allowed them to see how ants undertook different tasks as they grew older. Pity the lab technician who had to glue on all the barcodes. Ars Technica.
- HOUSING SPHERES: If you’re building habitations in extreme environments you can expect that they’ll be pretty unusual. At The Ekinoid Project that means spheres raised up off the ground and self-sufficient so they don’t need infrastructure such as pipelines, powerlines and sewage systems. Each sphere would be around 10 metres in diameter and could be joined to several other spheres to create a hub. At the moment the project is only in its early design stages, but it looks intriguing. And somewhat alien. The Ekinoid Project.
- THE INNER ROBOT: In keyhole surgery it’s very handy for surgeons to actually be able to see what they’re doing. One technique may be to use tiny robots. But the problem lies in how the robots can crawl around on the slippery surfaces inside the body. Researchers from the University of Leeds used a treefrog as their model when they created the feet on their robot. The feet use capillary action to adhere to even wet surfaces, but on a scale of a thousandth of a millimetre to gain enough adhesion. Their prototype robot is still too large to be used in surgery, but they aim to sort that out soon. Caution: robots inside. University of Leeds.
- A SUNSHINE BUZZ: South Korean researchers have created a hybrid energy harvester using silicon nanopillar solar cells and piezoelectric generators. Since it captures solar and sound energy simultaneously, it can still generate power even if one source is absent, for example when the sun’s not shining. The hybrid harvester could be particularly useful in moving vehicles. Keep that engine roar up. PhysOrg.
Tech Universe: Wednesday 24 April 2013
- BIG DIFFERENCE: The world’s oceans receive 80% of the solar energy that arrives on our planet. To make use of some of that energy China may soon be home to the world’s largest Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion power plant, supplying 10 megawatts. The OTEC system takes the natural temperature difference between surface and bottom of the ocean in tropical regions and uses it to create power consistently 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. This plant’s still a fairly small pilot though. A fullscale 100 megawatt OTEC plant could produce the same amount of energy in a year as 1.3 million barrels of oil while decreasing carbon emissions by half a million tons. All by exploiting a difference in temperature. Lockheed Martin.
- WATER YOUR PHONE: The MyFC PowerTrekk, developed at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, uses ordinary water and connects via USB to extend battery life for devices of up to 3 watts. What’s more the water doesn’t need to be completely clean, and can be fresh or salt water. The charger is both a fuel cell and a portable battery, providing a direct power source as well as a storage buffer for the fuel. Inside the unit is a small recyclable metal disc. When you pour water onto it hydrogen gas is released and combines with oxygen to convert chemical energy into electrical energy and provide between 20% and 100% of a battery charge. Now that’s a charger to keep around. KTH Royal Institute of Technology.
- FORK IT IN: The HapiFork may help you eat better, by counting bites and vibrating to alert you when you eat too quickly. Studies have suggested that eating more slowly improves digestion and helps control weight, so if you take more than one mouthful every 10 seconds the fork lets you know. The fork synchs with a smartphone and also has a web dashboard. The electronics it needs are housed in the handle and can be removed before washing. Data from test users shows people take about 70 fork bites per meal. Reduce portion size too. CNN.
- SENSITIVE ROBOTS: Nobody want to be roughed up by a robot, so researchers at Harvard have developed a very inexpensive tactile sensor for robotic hands to make them more sensitive. The TakkTile sensor is intended for commercial inventors, teachers, and robotics enthusiasts. The sensor adds a layer of vacuum-sealed rubber to a tiny barometer that senses air pressure. Added to a robotic hand, it helps pick up a balloon without popping it, or pick up a key and use it to unlock a door. The sensors can be built using relatively simple equipment and standard fabrication processes. This is particularly important for medical and personal care work too. Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
- KEEP MOVING: The Karma Chameleon at Concordia University in Canada is working on interactive electronic fabrics that harness and store energy directly from the human body, then use the power to change the visual properties of the garments. The project weaves electronic or computer functions into the fibres which consist of multiple layers of polymers. It’s not yet possible to manufacture clothing with the new composite fibres but the designers in the project are creating conceptual prototypes. For example, garments could change their shape and colour while being worn, or capture the energy from human movement to charge a smartphone. Now hook it up to mood detectors so your clothes can reflect how you feel. Concordia University.
Note: there was no Tech Universe on Anzac Day, 25 April.
Tech Universe: Friday 26 April 2013
- RUN IN PLACE: While you play video games your character may run, walk, jump and be incredibly athletic. Meanwhile, chances are you’re sitting comfortably. Virtuix hope to change that with their omnidirectional treadmill, a natural motion interface. The Omni is a small octagonal platform, with an enclosing rail above it to hold you in place. As your onscreen character moves, so do you. You can walk and run in any direction, stand still, look around and generally be more engaged in your character. Add a VR headset for the full immersive experience. That could be a whole more fun at the gym too. Virtuix.
- COOLING STEAM: If you have an electric car then you may have to trade off heating and air conditioning against the distance you can travel on a battery charge. Researchers at MIT are working on a new thermal battery that can be used for either heating or cooling. Water is pumped into a low-pressure container, evaporating and absorbing heat in the process. Then an adsorbant material pulls water vapour out of the container, keeping the pressure low so more water can be pumped in and evaporated. That process keeps the passengers cool. Or the heat that’s released from adsorption can be used to warm up the passenger compartment. Eventually the system needs to be recharged, which could use heat from a solar water heater, and happen while the battery’s charging. A steam engine in a car, eh? Technology Review.
- LIVING ON THE RIVER: The WaterHouses are smart, 34 eco-friendly apartments in Hamburg, Germany. They’re actually built directly on the Elbe river, connected to shore by footbridges. A building control system provides a touchscreen to individually adjust heating and cooling, while heating and hot water come from a geothermal heat pump system and solar thermal elements in the facades. And when the river floods, do they rise with the tide? WaterHouses.
- LIVING ON THE ROAD: The Kiwi designed Romotow isn’t your ordinary caravan. It features an aerodynamic shape and plenty of glass, and is lightweight for added fuel efficiency. Its big point of difference though is that the main body is contained within a shell. The inside portion with the indoor living area can be swivelled by 90 degrees, leaving the outer shell as a covered outdoor area. Unfortunately the caravan’s still only a design awaiting a protoype but it would be great to see these on New Zealand’s roads. Romotow.
- PICKABOT: Industrial robots are superb at tirelessly repeating the same action over and over without change, for example in welding parts. But Industrial Perception are aiming to give robots the ability to make some decisions for themselves, for example, picking a particular object out from a pile of many objects. Their robots use multiple 3D sensors and engineered algorithms to carry out assigned tasks. The robots start by creating a real time digital 3D model of the scene. Then they search for a specific shape by fitting a 3D mesh of the desired object over the shapes in their field of vision. Finally the robots act on the object, perhaps picking it up and moving it. They may be slower than a human worker, but can work without breaks and without tiring. No smoko for robots. Singularity Hub.
Commander Chris Hadfield is definitely someone to follow on Twitter. He frequently posts gorgeous photos of Earth from the International Space Station. Now he has a video showing us how he goes about taking those photos:
Throughout his ISS mission, CSA Astronaut Chris Hadfield has been taking some of the most incredible photos of Earth ever seen. In this video, the Station Commander takes us to the best seat in the house to gaze at the visual splendour of the Earth. He shares his techniques and his passion for capturing the fleeting glimpses of our changing world that has galvanized a vast and diverse audience of space-lovers.
Just look at that giant lens!
Hadfield also frequently makes movies about how things work in space. They’re absolutely worth watching too.
Tech Universe: Monday 15 April 2013
- HOT SLIME: The BIQ House in Hamburg runs on algae. The facade of the building includes 129 bioreactors containing microalgae that generate biomass, provide heat and offer some soundproofing. An energy management centre harvests and stores solar thermal heat and algae to to create hot water. That’s one building where the green slime stays. Daily Mail.
- THINK IT SO: Fingerprints or iris scans may be used to protect important data or facilities, but such systems are slow and expensive. Researchers at UC Berkeley may be able to create a low-cost and fast way to use thoughts for computer passwords. In tests they had people wear a low-cost Neurosky MindSet that connects via Bluetooth. Test subjects were given a task such as imagining singing a song of their choice. The distinct brainwaves were enough to authenticate users on the computers. Now that would have to be easier than remembering hundreds of passwords, but how does it handle tiredness or the influence of medication? UC Berkeley.
- PHONE IT IN: Smartphones can do a lot of clever things, but how about reading fingerprints, scanning irises and identifying a face? AOptix has hardware and an app that turns an iPhone into a mobile biometric reader. A special case around the phone collects fingerprints, while the phone’s camera is used for iris scanning and facial recognition, and the built-in microphone collects recordings of the voice. The user can add notes and email data back to base. This isn’t for the general public though and is likely to be used by government agencies. That’s a lot of power in a small device. Wired.
- SMART READS: Have a reading assignment for your studies? Maybe you diligently read the whole book, or perhaps you flick through a few pages, or maybe you never even open the book. Beware the power of ebooks: your lecturer may know just which pages you have and haven’t read, what notes you made or where you failed to highlight key parts. CourseSmart technology allows lecturers to track the progress their students make through digital textbooks. It collects data and then creates an engagement index for each student that can highlight factors such as how often the student opened a particular textbook. On the other hand, it won’t know if a student makes notes on paper or in a separate computer file. The New York Times.
- A LONG VIEW: A camera featuring a low-power infrared laser beam and superconducting nanowires can tell when a single photon has hit. With that information it can create high-resolution 3D images from up to 1 Km away. The infrared capability means the camera detects a wide variety of different items, like clothing, that don’t normally reflect laser beams well. The camera could perhaps be used to scan a forest from a plane, or scan the ocean floor. One problem is that superconductors have to be cooled to a few degrees above absolute zero, so this won’t be a handheld gadget any time in the near future. 3D from a single camera isn’t bad. Wired.
Tech Universe: Tuesday 16 April 2013
- IN A SPIN: E-Volo’s VC200 is a two-seater volocopter that should soon be granted a provisional airworthiness certificate. The developers aim for a flight time of more than 1 hour, and a speed of more than 100 Kph. The minimum flight altitude is around 2,000 metres. The electric Volocopter is a vertical takeoff and landing craft that uses many propellers placed within a circular frame above the body of the craft. The whole craft broadly resembles a helicopter without a tail. That looks like a fun way to fly. E-Volo.
- ON THE GAME: The Reactive Grip from Tactical Haptics is a device for gamers that brings a more realistic sense of using weapons during a game. Slider bars in the handle move as the player uses various weapons in a game, for example simulating the kick of a gun or the resistance of fighting with a sword. The system also has potential for sportspeople and surgeons. The developers hope to fund developer kits later this year. It seems slow going with making interactions with virtual worlds feel more realistic. Road To VR.
- HANDS FREE: One US man who lost both hands after a vehicle accident now has bionic hands he can control directly or through an iPhone app. The i-Limb Ultra Revolution hands from Touch Bionics have 5 individually powered fingers, including a fully rotatable thumb. The app lets him choose from 24 different types of grip patterns. He can now easily pick up a pen or a lolly, use an electric drill, play pool or shake hands. Prostheses have made huge advances in such a short time. CNN.
- DON’T HANDLE THE FRUIT: Fingerprints are still a really useful tool in crime fighting, but one area where they haven’t been used is with food. It’s pretty tricky to lift a print from porous surfaces like those on fruit and vegetables. Forensic scientists at the University of Abertay in Dundee modified a substance known as Powder Suspension and were able to lift high quality prints from onions, apples and tomatoes. Which goes to show that criminals should stick to their crime and not take breaks for snacks. BBC.
- PLANE WORRYING: A commercial airline pilot and IT security consultant recently gave a talk that showed an Android phone with a special app could take control of a plane. The transmissions between an aircraft and the control tower aren’t secured, so he used them to demonstrate the hijack possibilities on a virtual plane. What’s next? No taking phones on planes? Net Security.
Tech Universe: Wednesday 17 April 2013
- ANY OLD BITE: Snake bites, bee stings and many other things can fill your blood with venom. So how can that venom be removed? The answer may lie in a nanosponge invented by researchers at the University of California. The nanosponges are made of a biocompatible polymer core wrapped in a natural red blood cell membrane. In tests with mice the nanosponges lowered mortality rates to around a half or even a tenth, depending on when the nanoparticles were injected. This means the nanosponges could be used as a generic therapy for toxins, rather than the current method of using specific remedies for specific bites and stings. Perhaps that could eventually mean an over the counter kit travellers could carry for emergency use. U-T San Diego.
- VISIBLE BRAIN: Researchers have problems studying the brain because they simply can’t see through the lipids or fats that surround each cell. Instead they have to slice a brain into sheets only a fraction of a millimetre thick and study each sheet separately. In the process they may sever vital connections or introduce deformities. A new technique from Stanford University called Clarity uses a hydrogel to replace the lipids that hold everything in place. The result is a brain that is transparent to light and permeable to molecules that can act as markers. Researchers can now study the brain or in fact any organ much more easily. It’s just a pity techniques like these can’t be used on live brains. io9.
- LIT UP BRAIN: US researchers used tiny devices containing LEDs the size of individual neurons to activate brain cells in mice. The LEDs caused the mouse brains to release dopamine, a chemical associated with pleasure. The LEDs, thinner than a human hair, were housed in a fibre implanted deep into the brain, so the mice were free to run around, go through a maze or run on a wheel. The researchers used the LEDs to reward the mice for specific behaviours. The devices may be used in future to learn more about the brain or perhaps for pain control. And eventually, we’d guess, may end up in the same markets as illegal substances. Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
- LIGHT WORK: More than 19% of the world’s electricity consumption is accounted for by lighting. A prototype tube LED from Phillips could bring huge savings of both money and electricity because at 200 lumens per watt it’s twice as efficient as lights currently used in offices and industry. Philips expects the light to go on the market in 2015. Save even more by installing windows and skylights too. BBC.
- KIDNEY EXCHANGE: People whose kidneys fail may need to wait a very long time for a donor organ. A team at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston achieved a breakthrough in growing a new functioning kidney for a rat. They used a collagen scaffold made from healthy rat kidneys and a wash of human stem cells in a bath of oxygen and nutrients. The kidneys grew and were shown to function in a rat, although only at 10% efficiency. This approach could eventually lead to human kidneys being grown from a recipient’s own stem cells, based on kidneys from a pig. Which would change a great many lives, if it’s ever actually achieved. New Scientist.
Tech Universe: Thursday 18 April 2013
- BABY PRINTS: Prenatal sonograms give those expecting a baby an exciting glimpse of the new life within. But what if those parents are blind? One Brazilian industrial designer solves that problem with 3D printing. Sophisticated programs take the sonogram data and turn it into a simulation or a life size printed model. The simulations are useful to doctors who may be able to discover things like a cleft lip or Downs Syndrome. The 3D models make it possible for visually impaired family members and friends to appreciate the fetus. A full model of a fetus at 12 weeks costs around $200. Let’s hope those costs can be reduced. Tech Page One.
- LIE BACK AND PEDAL: Electric bicycles are one thing, but Outrider USA makes recumbent electric trikes that can travel at up to 65 Kph. Choose between pedal only, electric only, or pedalling with electric assist. Range is up to 265 Km if you do some of the work or 175 Km if you don’t. The Lithium Polymer battery charges from 0% to 100% in 180 minutes. It looks like a nice ride. Outrider USA.
- REMEMBER THE CHARGE: While older batteries had an annoying memory effect caused by incomplete charging or discharging, lithium-ion batteries don’t. Or so we thought. Scientists have now found that in fact LiFePO4 batteries, such as those used in electric vehicles, can suffer the effect too. The good news is that the effect is tiny and can probably be counteracted in the software used for managing the battery. The last thing we need is for expensive electric vehicle batteries to run out after a brief trip to the shops. PhysOrg.
- SWIPE THAT: Fujitsu Laboratories are working on a new user interface that detects finger positions and gestures so you can interact with real world objects such as pieces of paper and books. A camera and projector together detect fingertip position, while a processor compensates for potential errors like those caused by curved pages in open books. That means, for example, that you could select part of a document with your finger and automatically capture the data into your computer. Tap or swipe to turn the page? DigInfo TV.
- A LONG VIEW: The Thirty Meter Telescope will be the world’s largest optical telescope when it’s completed on the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawai’i. Construction is to start early in 2014, with observations starting in 2021. As one of the largest optical telescopes in the world, it should be able to observe light from 13 billion years ago and track extrasolar planets. That’s a particularly huge telescope to have on the ground. New Scientist..
Tech Universe: Friday 19 April 2013
- PATCH PERFECT: Many people need to monitor their health closely, perhaps after a stay in hospital. The Bio-patch sensor is a skin patch that’s as thin as a piece of paper. It’s inexpensive, versatile and comfortable to wear. The patch measures bioelectrical signals through the skin. Exactly what it measures depends on where it’s worn: it measures electrocardiography on the chest, but brainwaves on the skull. On the forearm it tracks muscle response. The wearer can analyse the readings in their smartphone, or data can go straight to a health worker for professional analysis. There’s a tiny battery in the patch, which is equipped with wifi too. KTH The Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm.
- VIDEOS BY NUMBER: Have you been watching videos online? If they were smooth and easy you can probably thank the data centre hosting the videos for using redundancy, data distribution and cueing techniques. Any individual video is likely to be cut up, duplicated and stored across different discs to help create a smooth and unbroken experience. But that approach also uses a lot of electricity. A new technology called network coding may be able to reduce both redundancy and power draw. Rather than storing copies of videos, the system uses algorithms to transform the data that makes up a video into a series of mathematical functions. Devices can then use the functions to compensate for missing portions of the data. There’s logic in that. Technology Review.
- WORD SHAKE: If you have to spend a while on a treadmill perhaps you’d like to do some reading at the same time? It’s not easy though as your head bobs up and down. Engineers at Purdue University have created ReadingMate to solve the problem. The system adjusts text on a monitor to counteract the bobbing motion of a runner’s head and allows them to read normal-size text on a small monitor mounted in front of the machine. Because our eyes already try to compensate for the movement the system can’t just move the text in synch with the head, so an algorithm handles the calculations. A system like this could be helpful for pilots or people operating heavy machinery to compensate for turbulence while trying to read from a display. Meanwhile, maybe an audio file is a better choice. Purdue University.
- CLEAN ON COMMAND: LG’s RoboKings are voice activated robot vacuum cleaners. Clap twice to pause operation. The smart cleaner can move towards the user by recognising the direction the voice is coming from. It can also remember the corners of a room and efficiently locate obstacles thanks to 3 ultrasonic sensors. Upper and lower cameras help the robot to clean dark places. The cleaner operates at 48 decibels for up to 100 minutes on a charge. Voice control’s a handy feature. FarEastGizmos.
- HOME PRINTER: A team of architects in Amsterdam has a 3D printer that’s 6 metres tall. They’re planning to use it to print a whole canal house from different types of plastics and wood fibres extruded through a flexible tube. The architects draw their plans on a computer and feed them to the printer. The printer will first create exterior walls, followed by ceilings and individual rooms, then finally furniture. The pieces will then be assembled on site. This project is an experiment to prove the concept, although the cost will likely be more than for a conventional house. And the great thing is it’s easy to produce scale models beforehand on a regular sized 3D printer. Let’s just hope it can work with plastics produced from renewable sources. BBC.
Recently I published another ebook. This one’s for people who use Apple products such as Macs, iPhone and iPads, and the software that runs on them.
Add sparkle to your work and leisure or just enjoy some sparks of ideas. A MacTips Sparkler, Volume 1, March 2013 is chock full of tips about using Macs, iPhones and iPads.
Perhaps this would appeal: How to fill a series of dates in Numbers.app? Or this: How to Track Friends with your iPhone?
Sick of running out of battery on your laptop before you notice? This Tip will help: Review: Low Battery Saver app.
Did you lose a file? How about using the Recover lost data Tip? Or maybe your Trash has eaten up your hard drive without your spotting it? This is the Tip for you: Hazel remembers to empty the Trash, that secret hoarder of files.
Buy A MacTips Sparkler now: US$10.
Oh, and please tell your friends and family about the book too. There’s something in it for almost everyone.
Readers loved these Tips
Here are just a few of the comments that have been left on these Tips (edited for length)
Thanks! This was so easy! Your info was a great help.
Thanks for the tip about how to get the path in spotlight. I’ve been incredibly irritated by Spotlight presuming you want to open a file rather than just locate it for attachment.
Thanks, this has been bothering me for a wee while.
Thank you! Didn’t think I could do this myself! Saved me so much time! SO Helpful!
That was fantastic. Not only solved my problem but gave me another useful tool. I now know how I can use overtype. I just didn’t know I had accidentally engaged it. Thanks to Miraz for walking me through it.
Perfect!! Thank you!!
Thanks so much for the tips! Now I can enjoy reading in bed with my iPAD3. (I was so frustrated and cursed for the supposedly nice feature of tilting.)
If they all found these Tips so useful, I’m sure you will too. In fact, I’m so sure, that if you buy the book and don’t find anything useful in it, let me know within 7 days and I’ll give you a full refund.
My other ebooks
This is my third MacTips ebook. The other two were originally published on the Kindle bookstore but can now be bought from MacTips:
Tech Universe: Monday 08 April 2013
- FLY THE DRAGON: Festo’s BionicOpter is a flying robot shaped like a dragonfly. Flapping wings propel it in all directions, allow it to hover in midair and to glide without beating its wings. The wings can flap, tilt and twist. With a wingspan of 70 cm and a body length of 48 cm, the model dragonfly weighs 175 grams. A thin foil covering over a carbon fibre frame is used for the wings, while the body is made from flexible polyamide and terpolymer. That’s a hefty and impressive dragonfly. Festo.
- A JELLY BY ANY OTHER NAME: Our oceans are vast, but still they’re filling up with pollutants. At Virginia Tech a team is creating life-like autonomous robot jellyfish that could help with cleaning up pollution, monitoring the environment or surveillance for the military. Models range in size from a few inches to a couple of metres. The RoboJelly is being designed to operate on its own energy, perhaps powered by hydrogen found in water or by batteries. Real jellyfish have no central nervous system, can move vertically on their own, but depend on the ocean for horizontal movement. The main focus of the programme is to understand propulsion systems found in nature. Maybe we need laws to specify that all these imitations of natural organisms should be made to look not like the real thing. Virginia Tech.
- CHARGING MICROBES: It would be mighty convenient to create clean energy from plentiful bacteria. It turns out that proteins on the surface of bacteria can produce an electric current by simply touching a mineral surface, as researchers from the US and the UK discovered recently, using a synthetic version of the bacteria. The researchers say the bacteria show great potential as microbial fuel cells. I guess you’d have to feed and water the fuel cells from time to time too. University of East Anglia.
- SCENT SCREENING: Scientists at the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology have invented a smelling screen. Odours from vapourising gel pellets are fed into air streams from each corner of the screen. Fans manipulate the streams of air to make it seem as though the scent is coming from a particular spot on the screen, for example an image of a flower. The screens could be used in advertising or for museums. Imagine a supermarket full of them. New Scientist.
- FLOAT A MORTGAGE: Finland is creating its first floating village in Pori. The 16 houses are designed to withstand extreme winds and wave conditions, and incoprorate energy-saving systems and technologies. Prefabricated modules are assembled on site then lifted onto pontoons which are floated into place and anchored to the seabed. Heat recovery systems help reduce energy bills. Utility connections go through the piers. So, they’re more like houseboats that don’t go anywhere. Inhabitat.
Tech Universe: Tuesday 09 April 2013
- SAY AHH: Just as your fingerprints are unique to you, so is the chemical signature in your breath, thanks to metabolites, the products of the biochemical processes in your body. Although a breathprint changes during the course of a day, the distinctive signature is still highly specific to an individual and could be a useful tool for diagnosing illness. More research is needed, but there are some interesting possibilities here. io9.
- SAY OHH: Veterinarians and doctors performs procedures on their patients on the basis of various scans and images. Thanks to an engineering student at the University of Notre Dame though they may soon be able to use 3D printed models to prepare for a procedure. The engineer made a CT scan of an anesthetised rat and sent the data to a 3D printer which then created a skeleton in white plastic and a removable set of lungs in green or purple. If doctors could create such prints of their human patients before a tricky surgery they could practice beforehand. Imagine being take copy a replica of your own skeleton and organs too. Wired.
- SAY GO: All those roads we drive on need to be regularly surveyed for damage and then repaired. Surveying is a laborious and expensive process. Or at least, it was — now a laser scanner can do the job more quickly, at less expense and with greater precision. The scanner’s attached to a standard vehicle and then measures the evenness of roads across a span of 4 metres with a laser beam. Measurements are accurate to between 0.15 and 0.3 millimetres. GPS and and an inertial measurement system track the orientation and position of the vehicle at all times while it travels at up to 100 kph. It would be useful to combine that with a street mapping car. Fraunhofer Institute.
- SAY ANYTHING: People with severe hearing impairments may need middle ear implants that require complex operations lasting several hours. The surgery carries a high risk and is expensive. A new and affordable hearing aid is much easier to implant and could be done in an outpatient surgery with a small incision at the side of the eardrum. A piezoelectric micro-actuator is placed directly at the connection between the middle and inner ear and sends acoustic signals to the inner ear, enhancing hearing. Researchers have working prototypes but now need to develop optimised components for testing next year. Easier and cheaper are a winning combination. Fraunhofer Institute.
- DOUBLE COLOUR: It’s hard to get good colour in a photo taken in low light. Most cameras use a system of colour filters that cause a lot of the light to be lost, leaving muted colours. A new system from Panasonic takes a different approach. Their micro colour splitter uses red and blue deflectors arranged diagonally across 4 pixels. The intensity of light can be determined from pixels without the splitters and high speed computation helps create a final image with colours that can be twice as bright. Small, fast computers make some very interesting things possible. DigInfo TV.
Tech Universe: Wednesday 10 April 2013
- FRIED WASTE: Fry up the fish and chips. But then what do you do with the used oil? It seems many in London tip it down the drain. The city spends £1 million per month clearing the drains of 40,000 fat-caused blockages. But now they’re getting smart and setting up a fuel plant that will run on the waste fat and grease, supplemented by other waste vegetable oil and animal fats. The plant will produce 130 Gigawatt hours a year of renewable electricity. That’s enough to run just under 40,000 average-sized homes. Now for the smarter part: the businesses that currently tip the fat down the drain could organise to sell it direct to the power plant. The Guardian.
- DNA 1 2 3: A DNA testing chip from Panasonic and IMEC is only half the size of a business card, yet it automates all the stages of obtaining genetic information, including preprocessing. The device takes only a short time to do this rather than the days or weeks normally needed. A worker injects blood and a chemical into the chip then inserts it into a machine the size of a small desktop printer. Around an hour later information on SNPs is produced. SNPs are variations in a single DNA base among individuals that can be used to identify genes related to illness. This can allow health workers to select drug therapies that should work and avoid those that may have severe side effects for an individual. Health care improves another notch again. DigInfo.TV.
- DISCARD THE KNOWN: A doctor may use a biopsy to diagnose cancer. That can be painful and expensive. But tumour cells may also be circulating in the blood, though perhaps at a rate of one tumour cell per billion cells. If the tumour cells could be captured and assessed maybe a biopsy wouldn’t be required. US researchers have built a microfluidic device that can quickly grab nearly any type of tumour cell from the bloodstream, even without knowing their molecular characteristics. The device combines magnetic labeling of cells and microfluidic sorting to pull out the tumour cells, by discarding the other cells, such as blood cells, whose characteristics are known beforehand. One problem is that a cancer may need to be quite advanced before cells circulate. It’s a handy idea though, that once you’ve discarded the known everything that’s left must be the unknown. Technology Review.
- TURBINE TRICKS: Making wind turbines isn’t an easy job. Items such as the blades may need to be stored for a while as part of the process, and at 50 metres long and weighing a couple of tons they take up a lot of space. Then when it’s time to pull them from the stack locating the right part can be a challenge too. The Fraunhofer Institute’s solution is to attach a locator the size of a small paperback book to each module. GPS tracks its position to within a metre, while a motion sensor detects when the part is being moved and signals the move to a monitor. Previously such tracking could take a day or two, but the new system takes only 5 minutes. Who knew making wind turbines was so tricky? Fraunhofer Institute.
- SHAPED CHARGE: The synthetic carbon anodes EnerG2 make increase the storage capacity of lithium-ion batteries by up to 30% without requiring a new battery design or a different manufacturing process. This was achieved by optimising the surface area, pore size, and pore density of carbon for different applications. That could mean gadgets that go longer between charges or perhaps electric cars that travel further. And it’s all in the shape of the carbon molecules. Technology Review.
Tech Universe: Thursday 11 April 2013
- BUILD ON AIR: Many cities are full of tall towers. The wind often funnels between them, so why not make use of it as it does? PowerWINDows can be installed on the sides or roofs of buildings to generate electricity. The turbines don’t have huge swooping blades, but rather look like windows with a sparse venetian blind. The blades move vertically up and down. The new kind of turbine is quieter, cheaper to run and safer than current wind turbines. Presumably they suck some of the energy out of the flow of air between buildings which could also make for a better environment for pedestrians and cyclists. The University Of Wollongong.
- SNARK BY THE NUMBERS: Some of the news stories you read may have been written by an algorithm rather than a human. Narrative Science is a company that trains computers to write news stories. Feed in data such as statistics from a sports match or a political race and the algorithm turns out a perfectly readable story that may not be readily distinguishable from one written by a human. The algorithm uses complex rules about the subject matter and templates written by trained journalists to create the stories. Clients can also customise the tone of the stories to be, for example, well-educated or snarky. This item was written by a human. Wired.
- CONNECT THE DROPS: Scientists at the University of Oxford have been using a 3D printer to make materials with some of the properties of living tissues. The new type of material connects thousands of water droplets encapsulated within lipid films. The network of drops can carry electrical signals from one side of the network to the other and could perhaps help deliver drugs to targeted points within the body. So far they’ve created networks of up to 35,000 droplets, but the networks could be bigger. The droplet networks can also be designed to fold themselves into different shapes after printing. All with a drop of water and some oil: astonishing. University of Oxford.
- WELL-ARMED: Civil rights and aid workers in some countries face risks such as being kidnapped or even killed. The Civil Rights Defenders campaign group has developed a smart bracelet intended to help. The bracelet can be triggered manually or automatically. When triggered it uses phone and sat-nav to send messages to Facebook and Twitter warning that its wearer is in danger and providing a location. Other staff nearby will also be alerted. Keep those batteries charged. BBC.
- PUSH OFF: The COMAN humanoid robot is being developed in Europe. It doesn’t have a head or hands, but is just under a metre tall and weighs around 30 Kg. The robot features a combination of stiff and compliant joints that give it a spring in its step. Stabilisation control also means it keeps its balance on a moving platform or if it’s given a bit of a shove. No pushing the robots! IEEE Spectrum.
Tech Universe: Friday 12 April 2013
- POPE ON WHEELS: When the Pope goes on tour he rides in an armour-plated limousine, though it usually has an engine. The next one though may be powered by pedals. The pedal-powered Popemobile will be ready in a few months. It includes 8 mm bullet-proof Plexiglass windows, solar panels, blast-proof body panels and a built-in oxygen supply. All up it costs around $315,000. Not including the cyclist who gets to power it. That must be one hefty bike. ETA.
- RESCUE MOVES: The PETMAN from Boston Dynamics looks like a rescue worker in its flame-retardant suit and gas mask. It high-steps, squats and rotates like a human to make its way through dangerous terrain too. It’s not a human though, but a humanoid robot manufactured for the US Defense Department’s Chemical and Biological Defense programme. The wires that give it away: the development team is still working on its ability to manoeuver past rubble, navigate uneven spaces and retain its balance. Getting to the right spot’s one thing, but will it be able to take the right actions when it gets there? Wired.
- STOP DROP: At Harvard University scientists have created a material that can either be super-slippery or can make a sliding drop stop dead. A two-layer structure means the adaptive material morphs when deformed. A liquid film covers an elastic sheet whose pores grow when stretched. That roughens the surface as the coating changes shape. It also makes the material more opaque. That could offer new techniques for cleaning, or perhaps make it possible for campers to use tents that let the sun shine in but keep rain out. Though a sheet of plastic can already let sun in while keeping water out. New Scientist.
- A LITTLE GOES A LONG WAY: Mars is a long way away. In fact, pretty much everywhere except the Moon is too far away for humans to realistically travel to because of the time it would take and the cost. That’s why researchers at the University of Washington are working on a fusion-powered rocket that could speed up travel times and cost less. The research team developed a type of plasma encased in its own magnetic field. When a magnetic field compresses the plasma it leads to nuclear fusion, or at least, in lab tests it does. One grain of this material has as much power as around 4 litres of rocket fuel. That would considerably reduce the weight of fuel needed for long trips. Perhaps this could help the robot missions explore more distant places too. University of Washington.
- HOLD THAT SHOT: It can be very hard and very expensive to get rid of shaking with a handheld camera. Stabilised systems generally use heavy weights and gimbals, with may require metal arms and special vests. The MōVI from Freefly is a relatively lightweight piece of kit to digitally stabilise the camera. The handheld rig features a completely custom-made gimbal and 3-axis gyroscope so the camera remains rock steady even when the operator’s hands and arms are moving significantly. When will it be applied to guns, I wonder? Gizmodo.
Tech Universe: Monday 25 March 2013
- FULL FATHOM TWO THOUSAND: When the Apollo 11 mission blasted off carrying the folks who would be the first to walk on the Moon it was powered by 5 F-1 engines. Those engines burned for a few minutes, and then fell into the Atlantic Ocean, as they’d done their job. Now an expedition has recovered many pieces and filmed many more from almost 5 Km down. Remotely Operated Vehicles did the work, communicating with the recovery vessel via fibre optic cable. The expedition recovered enough major components to create displays of two flown F-1 engines. After more than 40 years in salt water, the components will be stabilised to prevent further corrosion. Good job! Bezos Expeditions. Video:
- BIGGER EFFICIENCY: At around 400 metres long the Maersk Triple-E container ship is designed for efficiency, economy of scale and the environment. When complete it will be the world’s largest ship, carrying the equivalent of 18,000 twenty-foot containers. A U-shaped hull allows it to fit in more containers than previous models. It has a deadweight of 165,000 metric tonnes, a top speed of 23 knots and a crew of only 19. The design includes numerous features to improve efficiency and reduce CO2 emissions by 50%. We won’t see this giant here in New Zealand though as it will operate in China. The ship is about 13 times as long as a blue whale and nearly 1,000 times the weight. World’s Largest Ship.
- UNDER THE SKIN: If you have a condition that requires frequent blood tests you may end up feeling like a pin cushion. A team in Switzerland may be able to reduce all those needle jabs down to one. They’ve developed a 14 mm long device that can be inserted into the interstitial tissue just beneath the skin of the abdomen, legs or arms. Once in place it checks for up to 5 different substances in the blood and sends its data to a nearby smartphone via Bluetooth. The implant can remain in place for months before it needs replacing. Early tests show it reliably detects both cholesterol and glucose in blood as well as some other common substances. That would have to be better than having blood samples drawn frequently. BBC.
- FISH FOR BRAINS: Neuroscientists at Howard Hughes Medical Institute are working towards a Brain Activity Map. They recently took a fish larva and used high-speed light sheet microscopy to image the activity in most of its brain down to single cells. They did the imaging quickly enough to more or less see the neurons working. Next the researchers need to correlate specific brain activity with behaviour, and then to advance to more complex brains. The day is coming, however slowly, when we’ll be able to do this with human brains. Nature.
- FACING EMOTIONS: Zoe the talking head is an avatar being developed by Cambridge University. An actress was filmed over several days speaking around 7,000 sentences and expressing various emotions. Those recordings are used as elements in a visual avatar that can be given texts to speak and express in a realistic way. The lifelike face displays emotions such as happiness, anger, and fear, and changes its voice to suit any feeling the user wants it to simulate. The developers hope to eventually be able to use any face provided by photos, and perhaps to use the avatar on computers and smartphones. Cambridge University.
Tech Universe: Tuesday 26 March 2013
- SEEN FROM ON HIGH: Trucks and bikes aren’t a very good combination. The truck driver high up in their cab may not even see the lowly cyclist. In London construction trucks have been disproportionately involved in cyclist accidents. That led the London Cycling Campaign to suggest a redesign of the standard truck, or at least the sides of the front of trucks. Their suggestions include reducing the overall height of the truck, the height of the driver’s seat, and adding side windows that would allow the driver to see a cyclist or pedestrian alongside. Those side windows could make a huge difference. The Guardian.
- EAR WORKS: We all know the problem of ill-fitting earbuds, so how do people get hearing aids or in-ear monitors that fit perfectly? Well, it would be handy to have an accurate model of the ear canal. In the past the ear was filled with resin that hardens over 15 minutes or so. The Lantos ear-scanner does things differently. A 3D scanner with an optical tip is inserted deep into the ear canal where a membrane fills with dyed water. The scanner then captures hundreds of images of the inside of the membrane as it conforms to the shape of the ear canal. Sophisticated software creates a 3D model of the ear canal, ready for an accurately personalised device to be manufactured. Though they probably don’t used 3D printing for that. Wired.
- CONCRETE USE FOR WASTE: Concrete is a notorious source of CO2 because we use so much of it. Engineers from Kansas State University have developed a concrete made from biofuel byproducts such as corn stover, wheat straw and rice straw that doesn’t create quite so much CO2. The high-lignin ash byproducts also react chemically with the cement to make it considerably stronger. This means crops can be harvested for food, while leftover material can be used in biofuels and the wast products from that process can be used in concrete. Very efficient. Kansas State University.
- A TITAN OF POWER: Multi-use Titanium Dioxide from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore can produce energy, generate hydrogen, and desalinate water. It can also be formed into flexible solar cells and can double the lifespan of lithium-ion batteries. It can even be used in new antibacterial bandages. The low-cost nanomaterial is formed by turning cheap and abundant titanium dioxide crystals into nanofibres that can then be fabricated into filter membranes. Surely it can be paired up with the wonder material graphene to achieve world peace and prosperity? Nanyang Technological University.
- WHAT’S OLD IS NEW: Invicta Plastics in the UK has created the world’s first rigid, food-safe products from 100% recycled plastic bottles, lids and milk cartons. Their new processes called rPETable and rNEWable use high quality recycled plastics rather than virgin polymers. That should dramatically reduce plastic waste. edieWaste.
Tech Universe: Wednesday 27 March 2013
- QUICK STOP: Veti-Gel is a liquid that can not only immediately stop bleeding but also initiate healing. The plant-based polymer holds its own pressure onto the wound and at the same time activates Factor 12 and platelet cells, creating a tight seal. While it has obvious military applications, it could also be useful for any of us to stop bleeding after a cut or scrape. Though the name is more suggestive of animal care. Humans Invent.
- NEURONS IN SIGHT: Stanford’s new micro-endoscope lets a doctor not just look inside your body without cutting you open, but see with astonishing resolution. The new endoscope is as thin as a human hair with a resolution four times better than previous devices of similar design. The prototype can resolve objects about 2.5 microns in size. With further development this single-fibre endoscope could let doctors analyse neuronal cellular biology in brain tissue or perhaps detect various forms of cancer. Handling the device must be a challenge. Stanford University.
- HUB HOPES: Construction should start soon on Hope City, an ICT hub just outside Accra in Ghana. The aim of the new city is to bring together and promote technology and innovation in Africa. The plans include a university and hospital, as well as housing, recreation and everything a city needs. The technology park will also include a 75 story 270 metre high building expected to be the highest in Africa. Other African countries have already developed their own IT hubs, so this one is part of a growing trend. Meanwhile, back on the farm… CNN.
- FAST ONE: The Colibri electric car recharges in 2 hours from a domestic power point, but 20 minutes at a public charging station will bring the battery up to 80%. The car’s range is 100 Km, while its top speed is 120 Kph. The 3 door electric vehicle is a single-seater, with room in the boot for a bag and a couple of crates. Gull-wing doors on the sides help protect you from the rain as you get in and out. This is the kind of vehicle that would be perfect for city-wide car-sharing schemes. Colibri.
- UP AND AWAY: The Swiss have plans for getting into space. Swiss Space Systems plan to launch small satellites into orbit from the back of an A300 aircraft. A test flight should run in 2017, departing from the airport in Payerne, Switzerland. The plane will carry a small shuttle to around 10 Km, after which the shuttle will use its own rockets to climb to 80 Km. Finally a small upper-stage rocket will then boost the 250 Kg payload to 700 Km where it will orbit. Both the A300 and the shuttle will then land back at base. Perhaps all those Swiss mountains give them a bit of a head start too. Wired.
Tech Universe: Thursday 28 March 2013
- HOUSE FOR U: An Abod is a tiny home that can be constructed by 4 people in one day using stock materials. It’s intended as a home for slum dwellers or people who have been left homeless by a disaster such as a hurricane. The building is in the shape of a catenary arch, so it resembles an upside down U. The lightweight home can include kitchen, bathroom and various other options. Translucent panels allow for natural light. Basic units are around 3 by 3.5 metres, though add-ons can extend that, and units can be connected together. Simple, and elegant — a great solution. Abod.
- BIG BOTTLE IS WATCHING: Do you have a fancy container for pills that lets you divide them up by weekday so you know which ones to take when? It still doesn’t help you remember to actually take the pills. AdhereTech’s smart bottles will change all that. The bottle includes lights, speakers, a battery that lasts 45 days, 3G and LTE, and sensors that measure humidity and how many pills are left inside. Your pharmacist sends your medication regimen to AdhereTech’s servers which communicate with the pill bottle. If you forget to take your meds you could get a phone call, text message or email to prompt you, or the bottle itself could light up or chime. If the bottle still doesn’t detect that you’ve taken out a pill it could contact your doctor or family. Then there’s just that gap between taking the pill out of the bottle and remembering to swallow it. Wired.
- WASH MONITOR: Hospitals are full of sick people, some of whom die from an infection that comes about because of their visit. Hospital staff are required to wash their hands thoroughly to help alleviate this problem, but not all do. The IntelligentM bracelet vibrates when its wearer has scrubbed sufficiently. It reads RFID tags on hand-washing and sanitising stations and includes an accelerometer that detects how long an employee spends washing. RFID tags can also be placed outside hospital rooms and on some equipment. The idea is to help staff monitor themselves, though managers can also collect data from the bracelets for analysis. Add a few more tracking sensors to the bracelets and that could start to be very intrusive technology. Technology Review.
- DATA SHAPING: Sometimes the Internet is pretty crowded and traffic can come to a bit of a standstill. Major events such as the Olympic Games, for example, can put a strain on networks as large numbers of people and devices try to send messages, videos and other data all at the same time. Now Monash University have found a way to squeeze in extra data, making more efficient use of the available channels. By tweaking the way data is transmitted over long distances they were able to transmit a signal of 10 terabits per second over more than 850 Km. That compares to a standard ADSL 2+ speed of around 6 megabits per second. This technique for transmitting data means existing infrastructure could carry vastly more data, alleviating the need to keep laying more cables. Doing more with what we already have: that’s the best kind of improvement. Monash University.
- DRINK AND BE DRIVEN: In a New Orleans taxi when you develop a thirst? No problem, if you’re in one of the 250 taxis that now feature a drinks machine. A touchscreen display in the car lets you order a soft drink or iced tea that’s dispensed from a vending machine in the back of the seat. Drinks cost 99 cents and are paid for by credit or debit card. What, no chippies to go with it? PSFK.
There was no Tech Universe over Easter.
Tech Universe: Tuesday 02 April 2013
- DROWN NO MORE: In Tehran RTS Labs is developing a ship-based quadcopter designed to rescue people at risk of drowning. It’s operated from a central control cabin, but activates when people shout for help. It locates those in need of rescue with an infrared camera and releases life preservers directly over them. The robot’s designed to help rescue those at risk of drowning near the coastline, but could also be used for monitoring, imaging and firefighting. Imagine one of these at every surf lifesaving station. RTS Lab.
- GUTSY GRIZZLE: The Grizzly RUV is an all-terrain robot from Clearpath Robotics. It can cruise for up to 12 hours at up to 19 Kph, with a maximum payload of 600 Kg. The front axle articulation means it can drive over 6 inch obstacles yet still keep all its wheels on the ground. The utility vehicle can pull heavy equipment, carry sensors or payloads, and supports the open source Robot Operating System. Now, that would be handy, and fun. Clearpath Robotics.
- BREATHE EASY: People waiting for a lung transplant may have to spend a long time in hospital hooked up to equipment that deprives them of mobility. Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh are developing an artificial lung and blood pump small and light enough to wear for up to 3 months before surgery. University of Pittsburgh.
- OIL SUCKER: A research team from Zhejiang University in China has created an aerogel with a density lower than that of helium. The ultra-light aerogel is the world’s lightest material at 0.16 mg per cubic centimeter and is formed by freeze drying. The aerogel can absorb up to 900 times its own weight in oil and could be useful for cleaning up oil spills at sea, as it doesn’t absorb water. Then the gel could be squeezed to recover the oil as it will bounce back after being compressed. It should be cheap to transport too, seeing as it weighs so little. Zhejiang University.
- NO MORE RICE: Dropped your phone in the river? With Dry Box it may be possible to rescue it. The system is a specialised oven: take the battery out of the phone and place the phone in the Dry Box for around half an hour to vaporise the water. The Dry Box service is available in certain malls in Texas. That beats burying it in a bag of rice to draw out the moisture. Dry Box.
Tech Universe: Wednesday 03 April 2013
- AUDI, WHERE’S MY CAR?: German carmaker Audi is undertaking an interesting experiment: at one specially equipped parking garage the cars park themselves. All the driver has to do is step out of the car at the door and call it back with a smartphone app when they’re ready to leave. The garage contains numerous laser systems that map the environment in 3D. Meanwhile the cars are equipped with radar and wireless receivers so they can find their own way to an empty spot. And then surely the payment system could be automated too. Technology Review.
- WATERING STATIONS: Those of us who drive vehicles fuelled by petrol know we’ll find plenty of petrol stations along most routes we travel. But battery powered vehilces risk running out of juice far from a charging station. Israeli company Phinergy have created a battery that creates energy by mixing ambient air, water and aluminium. Their Metal Air would allow drives to simply add water every few hundred kilometres to continue their journey. So in future we may need only roadside cafes: a coffee for the driver and a bucket of water for the car.
- MOTION CAPTURES: Actroid-SIT is a lifelike robot from the Japanese firm Kokoro. She functions autonomously, talking and gesturing while interacting with people. She makes eye contact and gestures in the direction of a person trying to speak to her, handling interruptions gracefully. People speaking to the robot found her gestures helped make her seem more friendly, sensitive, sophisticated, and warm. Which proves it’s the subtleties that count. IEEE Spectrum.
- KEEP YOUR COOL: We all know the problem of a car left in the summer sun — the burning steering wheel, the blast of heat when you open the door. Researchers from Stanford University have designed an entirely new form of panel using nanostructured photonic materials that cools even when the sun is shining by efficiently radiating heat back into space. It does this by emitting thermal radiation very efficiently at a wavelength for which the atmosphere is nearly transparent. Their new panel reflect sunlight and emits thermal radiation at just the right wavelength. The material is made of quartz and silicon carbide and achieves a net cooling power of more than 100 watts per square metre. The panels could replace solar panels used to power air conditioners that cool a building. And in the very hot countries that could be very welcome. Stanford University.
- WARMTH FROM THE SEA: Researchers at Fraunhofer Institute for Chemical Technology have a new idea for building insulation: seaweed. Neptune Grass, deposited on Mediterranean beaches by the sea, generally ends up in landfill. It turns out though that it’s virtually non-flammable, resistant to mould, and can be used as insulation without chemical additives. Processing removes the sand and produces short strands that can be stuffed or blown into the required space. The fibres act as a buffer, absorbing water vapour and releasing it again without impairing its own ability to keep the building insulated. No smell, or does the processing handle that too? Fraunhofer Institute for Chemical Technology.
Tech Universe: Thursday 04 April 2013
- CHIPS WITH EVERYTHING: Some people turn to surgery to deal with excess weight, but researchers from Imperial College London may soon be able to plug a smart microchip into the vagus nerve to do the job. The chip uses a chemical layer to monitor the vagus nerve and then sends electrical impulses along the nerve to signal the parts of the brain that control eating. The chip could, for example, send a signal that the wearer has eaten enough and doesn’t need to eat more. Initial animal trials have proven the concept and human trials could take place within the next 3 years. I wonder if it would need regular calibration. BBC.
- THE DYE IS FAST: Burn injuries can be horrific anyway, but some are fatal, especially to young children, because of the bacteria that grow under the dressing and cause Toxic Shock Syndrome. Nanocapsules within a prototype dressing from the University of Bath include a dye. If the wound becomes infected the toxins break down the capsules, releasing the dye. That means medical staff can quickly see when there’s a problem and work to treat it. Testing on humans should begin within the next 5 years. That sounds as though it could have much wider application than just burn dressings for children. University of Bath.
- HEALING THE GAPS: Diarrhoea can kill children in developing countries, but it’s difficult to get lifesaving packs of rehydration fluids to remote spots. On the other hand, Coca-Cola is available pretty much wherever you go on Earth. That’s a sad statement on priorities, but it’s a fact of life. The ColaLife project brings those two things together, by packing AidPods between the necks of bottles in crates of Coke. Each AidPod contains an anti-diarrhoea kit. The kits exploit unused space in crates and are designed to act as a measuring cup and container for made-up solution. The kit’s being tested in Zambia, partly to find the right way to distribute it without subsidies. Wired.
- FREE RIDE: In 2014 Pittsburgh is launching a sharing programme with 500 bikes and 50 stations. The programme should help promote tourism and good health, while opening up the city for its residents. A member of the scheme can take a bike from and return it to any station. Stations are solar powered and use wifi to transmit real-time information about the number of available bikes and empty docks. Potential cyclists can see the info online or via a smartphone. Bikes are maintained regularly so cyclists have a smooth ride. Will they have bike lanes too? Pittsburgh Bike Share.
- DOTS AND DASHES: Quantum dots in a forest of nanowires may sound like an exotic dinner dish, but actually it could be the formula for an efficient photovoltaic solar cell. Quantum dots can be manufactured at room temperature from abundant, inexpensive materials that don’t require extensive purification. Engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are embedding them in nanowires that provide both enough conduction to easily extract a charge and sufficient depth for light absorption. Between the two the cells that use them could be more efficient than current cells. A drizzle of dots? MIT News.
Tech Universe: Friday, 5 April 2013
- BUZZING AROUND: Firefighters often work in the dark or in buildings filled with smoke and almost always in unfamiliar environments. It can be hard for them to find their way around. Researchers at the University of Sheffield have created a helmet with vibrating pads inside. Ultrasound sensors on the outside of the helmet detect nearby walls and other obstacles then transmit signals to the pads inside. Firefighters can use the vibrations to help guide them through the building. The vibrations also mean the firefighter can still see and hear normally while receiving guidance. And enjoy a bit of a scalp massage at the same time. University of Sheffield.
- SECRET SEARCH: There’s a lot of help available online for those being abused or subjected to violence, but if they visit they may risk further victimisation if their abuser finds the web history or other signs of seeking help. At Newcastle University researchers have created techniques to avoid this problem. One is an app that selectively cleans a browser history removing any trace of a search for support while leaving other electronic trails intact. Another is single-use QR codes that lead to a help URL the first time they’re used, but after that lead to neutral sites such as those for News. Another idea is to use Near Field Communications so that someone standing beside a poster, for example, could access help but once they move away the information is no longer available. Selectively cleaning the browser history would have to be a challenge. Newcastle University.
- THROUGH THE FOG: W-band radar is about the size of a cigarette packet, unlike the much larger conventional radar. It’s also more energy efficient and has a higher resolution. It uses short wavelengths around 3 mm and penetrates non-metallic and non-transparent materials, such as clothing, plastic surfaces, paper, wood, or even snow and fog. This could be useful for helicopter pilots working in low visibility because of dust or smoke or for monitoring places like container ports. The system is only a prototype now but could be ready for market within a couple of years. There are so many ways now to see what can’t normally be seen. Fraunhofer Institute.
- RUST SLEEPS IN LIGHT: Propylene oxide is needed for many plastics, toiletries and other products such as antifreeze and paints. But the process to make the compound creates undesirable waste products. Copper could help create the compound while avoiding the waste, but tends to bind with oxygen itself, and that’s not helpful. Now engineers at the University of Michigan have found that bright light reverses oxidation in carefully structured copper. That means there’s potential for a new process for creating propylene oxide without all the waste products. That’s good news for the planet, but will prices drop too? University of Michigan.
- CO2 FARM: There’s a lot of CO2 in the air — more than most would like, in fact. But how about if that CO2 could be used as a source of energy? Scientists at the University of Georgia can transform the carbon dioxide trapped in the atmosphere into useful industrial products, and maybe soon into biofuels. While plants can easily process atmospheric CO2, it’s been hard for us. The new technique involves genetically modifying a microorganism called Pyrococcus furiosus. The organism usually feeds in the ocean near geothermal vents where it’s very hot. By modifying the organism they can make it do its work at much lower temperatures, using it to convert CO2 into fuel. That’s the story: eat waste and create fuel. University of Georgia.
Tech Universe: Monday 18 March 2013
Tech Universe: Tuesday 19 March 2013
- MID-AIR THIEF: An eagle may grab its prey on the fly. That inspired a team at the University of Pennsylvania to add such snatching capabilities to a drone. The team attached a 3D-printed, 3-fingered claw to a 10 cm motorised leg on a drone. As with an eagle, the leg and claw can trail behind after snatching an object, meaning the flier doesn’t need to slow down. Being able to add arms and legs to drones in this way could make them useful for carrying out repairs, fetching parcels or perhaps pruning trees, rather than just flying about spying on things. Imagine a whole new approach to bag-snatching — hang on to your phone if you hear an engine. New Scientist.
- ROBOTS, ROBOTS ALL AROUND: Want to learn to swim? The Swimoid robot is designed to help coaches improve a swimmer’s performance. It moves along the bottom of a pool filming the swimmer above. AN LCD on the top of the robot lets swimmers see how they’re doing. Meanwhile a coach at the side of the pool can watch the swimmer’s strokes and provide feedback. That could probably also be readily modified to give feedback on speed and timings, and the like. University of Tokyo.
- PICK ONE: If you need a wheelchair to get around in a city, maybe the Robot for Personal Intelligent Transport System from Hitachi could replace the chair? Pick a destination on a smartphone or a tablet then let the pathfinding system sort out the route. The robot travels at up to 6 Kph, using a stereo camera and laser rangefinders to avoid collisions and map its position. It’s still a concept vehicle at the moment, but it sounds interesting. Engadget.
- NEW OR OLD?: Alzheimer’s is the source of a lot of grief. People with the disease can suffer from debilitating symptoms. But they’ve generally had the disease for quite a while before any symptoms appear, and as always, early diagnosis gives them more options. US company Neurotrack have developed a computer-based cognitive test that can diagnose the disease 6 years before symptoms show up. An eye-tracking device monitors eye movements as a patient compares new and old images that appear briefly on a screen. An analysis of the eye movements detects perturbations on the hippocampus, the first part of the brain to be affected by Alzheimer’s, then assigns a score. The score is a good indicator of who will later develop Alzheimer’s. The researchers hope to eventually create a smartphone app consumers can use. Now we need some good treatments too. Counsel & Heal.
- LEANER TV: So you’ve decided to splurge on a new TV, but do you have the wall space to hang it on? And what about all the hassle of actually attaching it to the wall? DesignLine TVs from Philips have taken at least some of the hassle away: they don’t hang on the wall, but lean against it. The smart LED TV is a frameless sheet of glass which offers full HD. It also lets you share content with devices such as iPads. And actually, you can still hang it on the wall if you like. Watch that vacuum cleaner! Philips.
Tech Universe: Wednesday 20 March 2013
- ON THE BALL: Millions of people around the world don’t have a source of light once the day grows dark. The SOCCKET soccer ball aims to play a part in bringing light to the night. Inside the ball is a small pendulum that harnesses kinetic energy as it moves during play. That turns a generator that feeds a rechargeable battery. An LED light plugs into the ball for when play is done. 30 minutes of play can supply 3 hours of light. The waterproof foam ball doesn’t need inflation and can’t be deflated. It has a 6 watt output capable of powering the included lamp for more than 72 hours. Nice work: play during the day and enjoy the light at night. Uncharted Play.
- GORILLA IN THE BACKGROUND: People wandering across the background of a video can be really annoying. But provided the video background is static researchers at Max Planck Institute for Informatics can remove the intruders with some very clever software. The system uses other frames of the video to establish what should be visible, then uses smoothing techniques to make colour consistent. While the software had some problems with complex scenes, it was often very successful. You just can’t ever believe what you see. Max Planck Institute for Informatics.
- EYE BEAMS: Could plastic retinas help you see? Scientists at the Italian Institute of Technology have developed a flexible organic polymer that converts light into electrical stimulation without needing an external power supply. In a study they grew neurons on the photovoltaic polymer, then placed damaged retinas on a piece of glass coated with the polymer. When they shone a light onto the retinas, it caused neuron activity similar to that in an undamaged retina. Daylight levels of brightness caused a good response, though dimmer levels didn’t work well. Eventually this technology may help people with retinitis pigmentosa and some forms of macular degeneration. There will be many people wishing them good speed on that. Technology Review.
- KEEP PUMPING: People waiting for a liver transplant have a tricky time of it. When a donor liver is found it’s packed in ice and chemicals then rushed to its destination. But all too often the liver deteriorates in transit and can’t be used. A new device from the University of Oxford should improve the chances of livers arriving in good shape. It keeps a donated liver at body temperature for 24 hours or more, and supplies it with blood, sugar, oxygen and nutrients. In some tests livers survived for 72 hours. The device works like a human body, pumping blood and nutrients through the liver and monitoring it for changes. The scientists say the device could be modified for other transplantable body parts too. In hindsight an artificial body seems a bit obvious. New Scientist.
- FROM RAGS TO RESIN: Photovoltaic solar panels are a good source of clean energy, but unfortunately components of the panels are generally made from petroleum products. BioSolar’s components made from renewable cotton derived from rags and resin from castor beans can replace petroleum-based plastic panels and save the manufacturer money. It’s encouraging to see renewable sources gradually replacing petroleum, and at least rags aren’t a food source. BioSolar.
Tech Universe: Thursday 21 March 2013
- PEAS IN A PAD: If you’ve ever grabbed a pack of peas from the freezer to cool down a sprain or injury then you’ll appreciate FrozenPeaz. Rather than petroleum gel, the packs are made with Zemea propanediol balls, and they in turn are made from fermented corn syrup. The product uses Clear Ice Solution to absorb and retain heat and cold and is both flexible and reusable. But while you may always have peas in the freezer, will you have the right size FrozenPeaz pack when you need it? MedGadget. Video:
- SET PHASERS TO SOUND: A laser amplifies light, causing photons of a specific and very narrow wavelength to travel in the same direction at the same time. But how about if you could do that with sound phonons? Scientists at NTT Basic Research Laboratories in Japan have created a phaser that confines phonons, or sound waves, to a very narrow wavelength. But while light can travel through a vacuum, phonons need a medium to carry them. That means the phaser is confined within its creating device. Such coherent sound could be used for ultrasound medical imaging, high-precision measurements and other purposes. Do not listen directly to the phaser. Wired.
- INVISIBLE PRINTING: 3D printers have been accepted fairly quickly but the new tabletop 3D laser lithography printer from Nanoscribe adds a quirk. The Photonic Professional GT produces tiny objects in the sub-micrometer range in seconds instead of minutes. Handy next time you need an invisible cat print. Nanoscribe.
- GREEN WALLS: Walgreens in the US is planning a net zero energy retail store in Illinois. Solar panels and wind turbines will generate electricity while geothermal technology and ultra-high-efficiency refrigeration will supply heat. Energy-efficient building materials, LED lighting and using daylight will help make the building so energy efficient it actually creates more than it consumes. If they could apply this to all their 8,000 stores they could have a significant positive impact. That shows commendable initiative. Walgreens.
- THE LONG VIEW: If you’re going to cheat a casino then you need to make sure you play your cards right. One cheater in Melbourne managed to clean up $32 million by having an accomplice hack into the high-resolution security cameras. The accomplice tipped the player off as to what cards he was playing against. Which just goes to show that anything that can be used to protect you can also be used as a weapon against you. Herald Sun.
Tech Universe: Friday 22 March 2013
- 17 YEAR OLD BIOFUEL: Bored of an evening? You could always create an Algae Biofuel Lab, as one 17 year old student in the US did to win a $100,000 science prize. Sara Volz used artificial selection to establish populations of algae cells with high oil content. Her research could reduce the cost of the normally quite costly biofuels. Kids today! Intel.
- ON THE SWIM: Salamandra robotica II is a Swiss amphibious salamander-like robot. The robot has four legs and an actuated spine that let it both swim in water and walk on the ground. It’s an updated version of an earlier model and lets researchers explore body and limb coordination in robots and animals like lizards that have a sprawling posture. That’s a versatile robot. If only it could fly too. Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. Video:
- POLICE NOTICES: Heading for Mexico City? If you like, the police will track your every move, thanks to their dedicated smartphone app. And if you need to call for help the app will do that for you too. Just hope the police aren’t too busy to answer the phone as the call isn’t automatically routed to an emergency number. The aim is to increase safety and help the police respond more quickly to emergencies. Will it also alert you if you stray into the wrong neighbourhoods? Wired.
- THE HIGH STREET: Google Street View is commonly associated with photos of buildings on streets — it’s all in the name, after all. Recently though they added views on and from Everest Base Camp, Mount Kilimanjaro and several other of the Seven Summits. Let others brave the snow and wind, and do your mountain climbing from your own desk. Google Official Blog.
- FIND THE ZEBRA: A rare disease is usually defined as one that occurs in less than 1 in 2000 of the population, and may be referred to as a zebra, because it’s rare and unexpected. Of course, that’s still a lot of people who can be affected. Because the diseases are rare though, they’re also hard and slow to diagnose, so doctors and others are likely to turn to web searching for help. The FindZebra search engine is dedicated to the diagnosis of rare diseases. The search engine crawls a specially selected set of curated databases on rare diseases, and tests have shown it to return better results than generic and general search engines such as Google. Get ready to zebra your symptoms. Technology Review.
Tech Universe: Monday 11 March 2013
- BRIGHT EYE: Canon’s new 35mm CMOS image sensor is intended for video purposes such as security cameras and astronomy. The sensor features pixels measuring 19 microns square and use new circuitry that reduces noise. That makes it extremely sensitive to low light. In an example video shot in a dark room lit only by 3 burning incense sticks, the face of the person holding the incense was clearly visible. So, no more need to use such dazzlingly bright lights at night for city safety? Canon.
- SMART ALERT: Women in urban India are using their smartphones to improve their safety. They send reports of incidents of sexual harassment and abuse to the Safecity.in website which adds the reports to a map. Anyone requesting alerts will be sent them based on location. Meanwhile the free SafeTrac app has an SOS button to alert emergency contacts and lets relatives or friends track the user’s journey. Those aren’t the only apps or devices women are turning to either. It seems it’s a sadly thriving market. Collective action is always a good thing though. Business Insider.
- BRAKE FOR CYCLISTS: Some new Volvo cars will automatically detect pedestrians and cyclists, using a radar in the front grille and a camera between the windscreen and rearview mirror. If the system detects a potential collison it sounds an alarm and applies the brakes. The system doesn’t yet detect animals such as deer or horses, but engineers are working on adapting it for that. Braking’s fine, but could lead to its own problems if swerving would be a better option. Use with caution. BBC.
- LIKE A RAY: We’ve seen folks flying through the air in wingsuits, but the Oceanwings wetsuit is designed to let you glide underwater. The neoprene suit stretches a membrane between the legs and between each arm and the body to create a sense of flying through the water rather than swimming. Be prepared to hold your breath for a while though. Inhabitat.
- PLASTIC TO PLASTIC: One of my reservations around 3D printers is to do with how much plastic they use and add to the environment. The Filabot though doesn’t just consume spools of plastic thread. The Filabot can grind and melt plastic objects such as milk jugs, bottles and other types of plastics, along with bad prints, to make new filament. Make friends with a printer user and sell them your waste plastic. Filabot.
Tech Universe: Tuesday 12 March 2013
- INSPIRING BIKES: In London they’re making some big changes to the roads, adding two-way segregated cycle tracks along around 25 Km of bike routes. A network of Quietways will take cyclists along peaceful side streets so they can avoid dealing with heavy traffic. The goals including encouraging cycling and making it safer and more friendly, while reducing motor vehicles and air pollution. The scheme will also include analysing data on accidents, trials of electric bike hire schemes, integration with rail networks and even training. What an inspiration.
- UP, DOWN, TURN AROUND: Project Zero is an electric tilt-rotor aircaft that takes off and lands like a helicopter, but flies like a plane. Project Zero’s 2 electric powered integrated rotors lie within the wingspan of the aircraft and can be rotated more than 90 degrees. The rotors are horizontal during take off and landing but are moved to the vertical to work as propellers during flight. When on the ground the propellers can rotate freely in the breeze, working as wind turbines to help recharge the batteries. That’s a cunning use of the propellers. Wired.
- UP THE LINE: Many fish have a line of nerve cells that runs from head to tail. Those nerve cells detect vibrations and other data from the water and help them move around without bumping into other fish in a school. The nerves also help them determine the speed and direction of currents, hover in place and even swim upstream. A European engineering team has taken that information and applied it to an underwater robot called FILOSE, Robotic FIsh LOcomotion and SEnsing. Tiny electronic sensors monitor pressure differences in the water flowing around the robot and should make it more efficient in swimming upstream and hovering in place. Go against the flow. Discovery News.
- WAVING TIME: Would you like your house to respond to hand waving? Spanish designers have created a prototype house where a wave of the hand will turn on the lights. The system uses a Kinect sensor and projects images on the wall or floor — for example an alarm clock, a web page or a computer game. Do we really want our houses to be monitoring our every move? BBC.
- EYE ON THE BALL: The British Royal Navy’s frigates are getting a powerful new radar system from BAE Systems. The Advanced Radar Target Indication Situational Awareness and Navigation, or ARTISAN, is a medium range 3D surveillance radar. It can detect an object as small as a tennis ball travelling at 3 times the speed of sound more than 25 Km away. It cuts through interference equivalent to 10,000 conflicting mobile phone signals. The system can also monitor more than 800 objects simultaneously at a range of between 200 and 200,000 metres. Don’t try playing tennis with a warship. Strategic Defence Intelligence.
Tech Universe: Wednesday 13 March 2013
- SLOW FLOW: Wind turbines tend to be placed high up on towers to catch the air, but what say they could be only a metre or two off the ground and horizontal? The Solar Vortex system created by scientists at the Georgia Institute of Technology places blades horizontally to catch the flow created by warm air as it rises and cool air as it falls. The blades funnel the airflow into a vortex and turn a turbine. Because the blades are close to the ground, whose temperature varies slowly through the day, the flow of energy is fairly constant, peaking just after nightfall when demand is often greatest. The researchers calculate that a 10 metre turbine will produce 50 kilowatts of power. Surely they could apply that notion to places like train stations where quite a bit of heat is created at ground level too. New Scientist.
- CHATTY FLIGHTS: Virgin Atlantic’s Boeing 787s are highly connected to the Internet. Every piece of the plane has an internet connection, including engines, flaps and landing gear, alerting pilots to potential aircraft problems while in flight. Each flight could generate half a terabyte of data. I’m guessing encryption and security of all that data will be their next big challenge. Computerworld UK.
- SCAN PLAN: 3D printers are old news now. You still need to feed the printer digital files with plans for creating objects though. That’s where the MakerBot Digitizer comes in — it’s a 3D scanner to create those plans. Two lasers and a webcam quickly scan objects up to about 20 cm in diameter. The scan can then be sent to the printer, for instant replication. We can guess what will be the first thing most 14 year old boys will scan and print. CNN.
- LET THE SUN SHINE IN: Bridges and other structures made of concrete need careful maintenance to repair any small surface cracks before they cause big problems. Researchers at Yonsei University in South Korea have developed a self-healing protective coating for concrete. Their healing agent doesn’t freeze even in very low temperatures and contains polymer microcapsules. In the capsules is a solution that turns into a water-resistant solid when light reaches it. That means that a crack exposes the interior to light, breaks the capsules and releases solution to solidify and fill the crack. Houseowners would love that product too. Technology Review.
- FACE TALES: Dermalog’s facial recognition system isn’t trying to put names to faces. Instead it’s guessing intent and mood. The system assigns a probable gender and age based on a face and then further derives a mood, such as happy. One purpose for this is to detect possible fraudsters, using the theory that faces can give away complex emotions and signals. Fraudsters are probably pretty happy, by and large. PC Pro.
Tech Universe: Thursday 14 March 2013
- ALL IN THE HEAD: A surprising 300 to 500 people per month in the US lose part of their skull thanks to disease or accident. Now Oxford Performance Materials can help such patients by printing out replacement bone on their 3D printer. The polyetherketoneketone structure contains specially designed textures and holes to encourage the growth of cells and bone. Recently one US man had 75% of his skull replaced with a printed bone. And the head bone’s connected to the printer bone. Gizmodo.
- MODERATELY BRIGHT IDEAS: Turning a dimmer switch to control a single light is one thing, but painting light and dark onto a tablet and having a set of robotic lights respond is a whole other level of sophistication. The Lighty system handles all the hard work by computing the movements needed for a set of a dozen robot lights in the ceiling. The user simply paints light or dark onto a representation of the room on a tablet and the lights immediately respond with just the right amount of light in the right places. A camera in the ceiling allows the display to update instantly. It should also allow you to program favourite patterns of lighting. DigInfo News.
- JUST REMOVE AIR: The Varstiff smart textile will be useful for emergency responders. The material is malleable and can be easily shaped into any form. When a vacuum is applied to it the material becomes rigid and achieves hardness equivalent to that of a conventional plastic. That means it can be used as an emergency immobiliser for accident victims. The creators suggest it could have other uses as well in areas like sports and leisure, or for making adjustable seats in cars. That’s hard to argue with. Tecnalia.
- TEAM WORK: The Internet is designed to route around damage, finding alternate pathways if one particular device fails. Now imagine that capability in the chips that drive devices themselves. A team of engineers at the California Institute of Technology has developed self-healing integrated computer chips. They first created tiny power amplifiers then zapped them multiple times with a high-power laser. In less than a second the chips developed a workaround. The trick was that the chips included sensors to monitor temperature, current, voltage, and power. A custom-made application-specific integrated-circuit took all the data they produced and figured out how to work around the damage. It all seems very fractal. Caltech.
- POWER TO THE PEOPLE: In developing countries cellphones can crucially allow farmers to find the best prices for their products, or let traders make payments. But charging the phones can represent half the total cost of the device. Cell signals are weak which drains batteries fast yet power supplies are scarce. A cellphone owner may need to walk kilometres and pay a high price to charge their phone. Buffalo Grid’s portable charging station for 10 devices may make a huge difference to local economies. A 60 watt solar panel charges a battery that is taken to villages by bike. When a cellphone owner sends an SMS, a charging point on the battery is activated for 1.5 hours. And we complain about walking to the next room to get the charger. New Scientist.
Tech Universe: Friday 15 March 2013
- WRIST LOCK: Ever tried tying your shoe laces with just one hand? Bebionic’s V3 prosthetic hand has changed the life of one man in the UK who’s wearing it. The hand’s controlled by muscle movements in his arm, and allows him to tie his laces, make coffee and deal cards, among other things. One thing is that the wrist doesn’t actually flex. Instead he can unlock it, rotate and then lock it again to get the hand in the position it’s needed for. We shouldn’t ever take what we have for granted. Gizmodo.
- WIND POLE: The Aeronautics and Astronautics University in Beijing have created an unusual vehicle to explore the Antarctic — it’s a wind powered Polar Rover. The prototype robot uses a 1.2 metre tall wind turbine rated at 200 watts as its source of power and operates out of China’s Antarctic research station. The rover’s automated driving system assesses ice and snow terrain, uses satellite navigation and an autopilot and is equipped with atmospheric sensors, a snow sampler, and geography and geology analysers. The vehicle has already covered more than 2,500 Km in the Antartic during its research. Nice use of available resources there. Urban EarthTechling.
- TECH IN REACH: The Kinect and the LEAP Motion both offer ways to control a device with gestures alone. Now pmdtechnologies from Germany have designed the CamBoard pico, a 3D depth sensor. They say their system uses extremely accurate depth measurement for gesture control. Their system is intended for manufacturers to include in their products, rather than for users to control existing devices. Everyone wants to just wave their hands to get things done. TechCrunch.
- NEIGHBOURS AHOY: In Lagos, Nigeria, there’s a slum settlement over a lagoon where shanties are held out of the water by stilts. But one architect buidling a school for 100 kids has taken the stilts away in favour of making the building float. The school’s built on a base of 256 used plastic drums. Locally sourced wood is then used for the 3 story construction which provides a playground and both enclosed and open classrooms. The roof holds solar panels and harvests rainwater. There’s no problem in a flood, either as sensors detect environmental changes and activate a compressor that pumps air into a buffer zone at the base of the school. The designers hope next to create floating houses that can be docked together to create communities. Sit down, you’re rocking the school. Designboom.
- FLOAT THE BOAT: In a disaster or during military operations there may not be infrastructure where it’s needed. For example, workers may need to cross a river or unload supplies from ships where there are no wharves. The Tactically Expandable Maritime Platform is one possible solution. It’s a system of linking robotic shipping containers to form a floating platform, bridge, runway or island. The containers have motors so they can move, even turning in place. A computer program instructs them to assemble themselves into whatever shape is needed, such as an island. Perhaps as a bonus the containers could be towed to where they’re needed rather than being carried on the ship transporting them. Daily Pennsylvanian.
Recently we bought a 1 acre property on the west coast around 90 minutes drive north of Wellington. Along with the property we bought a tiny caravan — 2 metres by 3 metres, so we can occasionally stay the night.
It’s a short 5 minutes walk to the beach, even though we can’t actually see the sea from our place. The beach itself is wide and flat and stretches for miles.
On my last visit I took my DSLR and tried for a few shots of this and that.
I quite like this one of a gull at the water’s edge. In the background is Kapiti Island, some 22 Km distant in a straight line.
A little further up the beach were these 3 birds, again with Kapiti Island in the background.
Our property has a gorgeous unobstructed view to the Tararua Ranges in the East. I was up before sunrise to see a tiny sliver of crescent Moon rising just before the sun — yes, that white dot isn’t a speck of dust, but the merest sliver of the Moon. The sun’s about to burst forth from behind the mountains which themselves are behind the tall grasses and sundry bushes on our bit of land.
It was spectacular to be up before dawn. The skies up there are so dark too: for the first time I’ve actually seen the Coalsack — the dark area of sky in the Crux constellation. I’ve never seen it before because the sky has never been dark enough to see all the stars around it.
One night I aim to take my telescope up with me and spend some time enjoying those dark skies. We have few neighbours, and they have even fewer lights. There are no streetlights nearby and we’re a good distance from the nearest rather small centres of population: 7 Km and 15 Km in a straight line.
Tech Universe: Monday 04 March 2013
- OUT OF THE FIRE: When firefighters search a building for people who need rescue the smoke and flames make it very hard to see. Although they use infrared cameras, the lenses can be blinded by intense fire. Italian researchers have created a system that uses an infrared laser to penetrate areas of thick smoke and flames. The laser beam reflects off any objects or people within the area. Then an imager decodes the data to create a 3D image of everything inside the room, even people who may be moving. This holographic image effectively allows firefighters to see through the smoke and flames that previously blinded them. The next challenge is to make the system portable. Yes, portable would be a real advantage. BBC.
- LIVELY FINGERS: In the TV shows the bad guys cheerfully cut off a person’s finger to use it on the fingerprint scanner to open the safe. In future though they may need the whole, live person. A test device in Rapid City in the US checks haemoglobin in the finger to make sure the owner is still alive. The machine not only identifies a fingerprint but also checks that blood is pulsing beneath it. Take that, TV villains: in future you’ll have to kill the guard after the fingerprint scan instead of before. CBC.
- THE WIRELESS BRAIN: There have been some useful developments in hooking people up to computers with an interface wired into their brain. It usually involves a large chunk of the device sticking out of the top of their head and connected to wires though. Now neuroengineers at Brown University have created a wireless, broadband neural sensing device that can relay signals from up to 100 neurons in someone who’s freely moving around. The low power devices have been working in animals for a year already. One tiny part of the device is implanted on the cortex. From there it sends signals through a wire to a larger can that does all the work. The device transmits data at 24 Mbps via 3.2 and 3.8 Ghz microwave frequencies to an external receiver. Induction charging makes 6 hours of operation possible. The device still needs a lot of work before it can be tested in humans. So long as the control goes only one way: the wearer of the device controls external objects and can’t be controlled themself. Brown University.
- PLASTIC TREES: Petroleum-based plastics are a menace in the environment, but what say they could be broken down by microbes at the end of their useful life? Researchers at the University of South Carolina believe they can make plastic from the sap of evergreen trees. The rosin and turpentine derived from trees is rich in hydrocarbons similar to those in petroleum. Now they’re working on developing polymers from trees to create useful products. Aha, another reason to chop down trees. University of South Carolina.
- SEEING DOUBLE: We all know you need two lenses to capture a 3D image, but it seems no-one told Panasonic. Their new 2.1-Mpixel CMOS image sensor combines a lenticular lens and mirror elements separate out light into two streams. A processor then combines them again into a 3D image. It can apply this 3D imaging technique to images within around 1 metre of the lens. That could redefine a one-eyed view. Panasonic.
Tech Universe: Tuesday 05 March 2013
- SWALLOW THIS: Tiny computers small enough to be swallowed could monitor your internal health or release drugs and medicine inside your body. The Kinetis KL02 microcontroller unit is roughly 2 millimeters on each side. The chip includes a processor, RAM, ROM, clock and I/O control unit. Its memory is measured in kilobytes, but it also includes a 12-bit analog to digital converter and a low-power UART to help with translating data. Remember to swallow without chewing. Wired.
- OUR ROBOT CARERS: Carebot P37 S65 from the University of Salford reminds its elderly patients to take medication and exercise. It also answers questions and tells jokes. It recognises faces and can be programmed with speech therapy and object recognition exercises to help people with dementia. Video conferencing and SMS capabilities mean the robot can also connect its patient with the outside world. The human-sized robot is just a prototype though, and needs investors to take it through to trials and further development. It’s going to need a much better name though. University of Salford.
- BELTS WITHIN BELTS: You know about the two Van Allen radiation belts around Earth, don’t you? They’re two distinct zones of trapped, highly energetic charged particles. After the Relativistic Electron Proton Telescope was launched in August 2012 it was supposed to wait months before being turned on so testing could be carried out. For various reasons it was turned on only 3 days after launch though — just in time to catch a big burst of radiation from the sun. That burst first enlarged the Van Allen Belts and then caused a third to be created. A month later the extra ring was destroyed by another powerful eruption from the sun. A lucky chance: the right place at the right time. NASA.
- BANDS OF INFLUENCE: Gesture control is a really fun thing: wave a hand, flick a finger to make a device respond in a certain way. The Kinect, with its sensors, has been one way to achieve such control. The Myo controller from Thalmic Labs takes a very different approach. It’s a band you wear on your arm. It uses embedded electrodes to detect activity in muscles that contract or relax in the course of moving the hand and arm. The signals are then sent wirelessly to an app that translates the gestures into commands. The electrodes don’t even need to make direct contact with the skin. The first generation can recognise around 20 gestures. That could inspire a whole new breed of magicians and illusionists. New Scientist.
- LITTLE BOXES: The Modularflex is a foldable disaster housing unit from Argentina that packs flat and can be assembled in about half an hour. Each unit has hinges half way up the walls. That means a module can collapse flat for easy and low cost transport and storage. The units are formed from insulated thermal panels with optional doors and windows, and can be connected together to create larger structures. The basic 7.4 square metre module includes electrical wiring and LED lights. Modules could also be used as living quarters in places like mining camps. The flat-pack storage and delivery really sets these ones apart. Smart Planet.
Tech Universe: Wednesday 06 March 2013
- A MARS FLING: Dennis Tito is planning a private mission to Mars in 2018. The Inspiration Mars Foundation aims to inspire and wants to take advantage of the way the planets line up in 2018. At that time it a round trip to Mars will take only 501 days. As it happens, it will also be solar minimum, so exposure to solar radiation should be at its lowest. The mission is to send a woman and man to fly around Mars — within 160 Km — and return to Earth safely. The Foundation say they already have the technology derived from NASA and the International Space Station. What they need though is funding. Those will be two brave astronauts: almost 2 years alone together in a tin can only to fly around Mars and head home again. Inspiration Mars.
- STILL GOOD: If you’ve looked at the Best Before date on the packaging of food in the cupboard lately you might have thrown away items that in fact were still safe to eat. Perhaps more useful than a printed date would be packaging that can test the food. European researchers have created a cheap sensor made of plastic that can do just that. The circuit’s designed to monitor acidity levels and to be included in food packaging. The plastic device takes readings from an analog sensor and converts it to digital form. It can behave a bit erratically at low temperatures, so complex maths is used to derive accurate readings. You could use a scanner, or perhaps your phone, to assess the food’s quality. Well, Best Before doesn’t mean you can’t eat it after that date; just check it first. Eindhoven University of Technology.
- DEEP SEAL DIVING: The cold, dense bottom waters of the Antarctic are a key driver of the global ocean circulation and therefore of the earth’s climate. But scientists have been trying to work out exactly where in the Antarctic these waters originate. Now, thanks to southern elephant seals, and some tech including sophisticated satellite data and oceanographic moorings, they’ve found the info they needed. Researchers tagged the seals and then watched where they went — generally places inaccessible to the researchers themselves. Some of the seals even dived as deep as 1800 metres into a layer of dense water. Thanks to the seals the researchers have been able to solve a mystery they’ve been puzzling over for several decades now. Did the seals receive suitable compensation for their work? Antarctic Climate & Ecosystem CRC.
- STRIP TESTS: Urine tests can be annoying, what with collecting the sample in a bottle and taking it to a lab. Uchek tests for 25 different health issues by using an iPhone to take a photo of a test strip dipped in urine. The tests can help check for diabetes, urinary tract infections, cancers, liver problems and general health. The strip has to be placed on a special mat to normalise the colours, whatever the lighting conditions. An app takes a photo and analyses it. The inventor aims to make such checks easier and quicker in developing countries, given how widespread cellphones are. Even if it’s only one health worker who has the phone, that’s still a huge advance. BBC.
- DUNKING SERVERS: Generally you’d try to keep your electronics separate from liquids as the combination can lead to bad things. At the University of Leeds though all the components of the new Iceotope server are completely immersed in 3M Novec cooling liquid. That liquid transfers waste heat to water pipes that then disperse the heat through domestic radiators. The cooling liquid is more than 1,000 times more effective at carrying heat than air is and should cut server energy consumption for cooling by between 80% and 97%. The other good news is that the system doesn’t need all the fans, air conditioning and pumps that servers normally require. Cheaper, quieter, more energy efficient and takes less space: that’s a win all round. University of Leeds.
Tech Universe: Thursday 07 March 2013
- LONDON AT LARGE: A new picture of London has appeared: it’s a 320 gigapixel panorama compiled from 48,640 individual images shot over a period of 3 days and processed over a period of 3 months. If printed at normal resolution, the photo would be 98 metres long and 23 metres high — almost as big as Buckingham Palace. It beats Street View, that’s for sure. BT Group.
- SURGERY GAMES: During keyhole, or laparoscopic, surgery doctors insert tiny video cameras and instruments into your body so they can operate without having to make a large incision. That requires quite some deftness, and the ability to work while watching a screen. Surgeons have to be able to translate a 2D image on a screen into 3D movements. One study in Italy had surgeons play Wii games for 5 hours per week. In later tests on a laparoscopy simulator the surgeons who played the games outperformed a control group who didn’t. The researchers say these results suggest that motion-sensing gaming consoles could supplement surgical training at a very low cost. Next time you’re in for an op check whether the surgeon is a video gamer. NPR.
- A LEG UP: In Japan elderly or disabled people may be better able to move around thanks to the Hybrid Assistive Limb now certified for use there. The power-assisted pair of legs is a nursing-care robot that detects muscle impulses to anticipate and support the wearer’s body movements. The exoskeleton is made from metal and plastic and is already being used in some 150 hospitals and other facilities. Those are two good legs to stand on. Discovery News.
- COOLING FIELDS: Heat is a major limiting factor with computer chips, but researchers at the Carnegie Institution found a new efficient way to pump heat using crystals even on the nanoscale. They started with ferroelectric crystals that are electrically polarised in the absence of an electric field. When they applied an electric field they caused a giant temperature change in the material, pumping heat away. Mind you, in a computer that heats still needs to go to somewhere — laps may stay warm for a long time yet. Carnegie Institution.
- GOGGLE SPOT: The Brilliantservice headset from Japan gives you augmented reality through a set of goggles. The goggles cover both eyes with 720p see-through displays and use the Viking OS to provide face recognition, painting and the ability to open apps. A camera over the nose makes it possible to recognise gestures. The prototype is still only in its early stages and is not intended to come to market. Instead the company’s looking for headset manufacturers who want to use their OS. Next up: augmented reality OS wars? Discovery News.
Tech Universe: Friday 08 March 2013
- SLOW BUT SOLAR: The carbon fibre Solar Impulse plane has the wingspan of a 747 but only weighs as much a Honda Prius. Its 4 turboprop engines are powered entirely by batteries and solar panels. This year the plane will fly from California to New York, maintaining an average altitude of almost 9,000 metres where the engines operate with maximum efficiency. The plane travels at only around 80 Kph. The plane itself could make the trip non-stop, but with a single pilot aboard, the flight will be broken up into 5 sections. At that speed the flight from Auckland to Sydney would take around 27 hours. Discovery News. [Note: after this item was published it attracted two critiques: one of the
Honda Priusmention and the other of the
turboprop engines. Both were lifted straight from the original Discovery News article.]
- NEW SALTS: NASA’s Aquarius/SAC-D spacecraft has been gathering salinity data from the top 2 cm of the oceans. Now the data’s been verified NASA have released a map that shows how salty the oceans are around the world. Interesting items include the large patch of freshwater that appeared in the eastern tropical Pacific in the winter, and the large patch of highly saline water across the North Atlantic. That variation in salinity must have a huge effect on plant and animal life in the oceans. NASA.
- WAVE A LETTER: Tapping out letters on the cramped keyboard of a smartphone is always challenging, so researchers at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology looked for an alternative. The airwriting glove lets wearers write letters in the air, as if using an invisible board or pad. The system adds sensors such as acceleration sensors and gyroscopes to a thin glove. As the wearer moves their hand, writing in mid-air, the glove records the movements and sends them wirelessly to a processor. The processor distinguishes between movements such as drinking coffee and actual writing, then decodes the writing into text. Now the scientists are working on refining the writing recognition and making the whole system smaller. Hmm, printing or cursive? Karlsruhe Institute of Technology.
- TWO FOR ONE: Researchers at MIT have demonstrated that graphene is highly efficient at generating electrons when it absorbs light. Unlike materials like silicon and gallium arsenide, when graphene absorbs a photon it generates multiple electrons capable of driving a current. The other materials generate only a single electron. That could mean graphene has potential in solar cells and for light sensors such as night vision goggles. Unfortunately it’s all pretty much a concept just now, but further research should lead to some practical applications. What can’t graphene do? Technology Review.
- LET THE SUN SHINE IN: Ivanpah in California is nearly ready to start work as the world’s largest solar thermal plant. The power system is built on federal land in the desert, covering more than 1400 hectares. More than 300,000 mirrors are controlled by software to track the sun and focus sunlight on boilers on top of 3 towers, each 140 metres tall. The sunlight heats water to create steam and generate electricity. The plant should supply the power needed by 140,000 homes. That’s about 100 homes per hectare. Ivanpahsolar.com.
Tech Universe: Monday 25 February 2013
- FULL TIME HANDYMAN: Soon one man in Rome will receive a prosthetic hand. That’s not so rare these days, but his new hand is different: it’ll be connected directly to nerves in his arm so he can both control it and receive touch signals from its skin sensors. All the fingertips, the palm and the wrist will send sensations into his nervous system. Only experience will show whether he can wear his new hand full time or will need to remove it for a rest. The sensitivity will need to be carefully tuned too. The Independent.
- FLIPPER FLAP: In Japan there’s at least one lucky Loggerhead Turtle. 25 year old Yu lost her front legs during a shark attack, but that doesn’t stop her swimming: now she wears rubber flippers attached to a vest. Workers at the Suma Aqualife Park, where Yu lives, have developed various versions of the prosthetics over the last 4 years, but using the vest seems to be the most successful. Kindness to animals is one of the best traits in humans. Phys.org.
- CHIPPING AWAY AT IMAGES: Your smartphone photos aren’t necessarily very smart, and improving them in software can suck up both battery and time. A chip developed by MIT is designed to improve photos in hardware, making the process both quicker and less energy intensive. For example, the chip could handle creating a high dynamic range photo by blending 3 exposures. Where software might take several seconds to perform the processing, the new chip could do it in a few hundred milliseconds. A working prototype of the chip already exists, but now the challenge is to get it into gadgets. More, bigger, better photos — of course we want it. Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
- SOAKING IN IT: Coal-fired power stations create a lot of carbon dioxide that is expensive and energy intensive to capture. Current methods use liquid capture materials that are then heated. A new material may make things easier and cheaper though. It’s a photosensitive metal organic framework that soaks up lots of CO2. A single gram of the material has a huge internal surface area — as big as a football field. Once the material has soaked up as much CO2 as it can hold it can be exposed to sunlight to release the gas. You have to wonder what other gases are produced that aren’t being captured. Monash University.
- PHOTON LOCK: Electricity grids are becoming more complex, as more sources of energy start contributing. That means that control messages must be sent around to ensure a smooth supply. But those messages must be both trustworthy and delivered without delays, and also secured from people with bad intent. The key to achieving this may be quantum cryptography which uses single photons to produce secure random numbers between users. The random numbers are then used for authentication and encryption. Demonstrations have shown that this technique can work quickly and effectively, and can be scaled up as needed. It’s all handled by a small device known as a QKarD. This is where light controls electricity, rather than the other way round. Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Tech Universe: Tuesday 26 February 2013
- DRIVEN TO DRINK: Billboards don’t need to simply be blots on the landscape. Lima, Peru is a place where it seldom rains, although humidity is usually around 98%. The University of Engineering and Technology created a billboard beside the highway that harvests moisture in the air to make fresh, drinkable water, available through taps at the base. The billboard is expected to generate some 96 litres of water every day for the community. It sounds like the kind of thing that should catch on quickly. Discovery News.
- CHARGE CHARGE: In the UK the government will cover up to 75% of the estimated £1,000 to £1,500 cost of installing charging points for electric vehicles in garages and driveways. They also have funding available for local councils and train operators to install publicly available charging points. That may help get electric vehicles moving. BBC.
- POWER POWER: Residents of Feldheim, Germany, decided to take their town off the grid ond go with 100% renewable energy instead. 47 wind turbines and an array of solar panels provide the power they need, though residents must carefully monitor and adjust their usage. Locally produced agricultural wastes help feed a biogas plant that runs heating systems, and helps reduce smells previously caused by the wastes. Residents now enjoy lower than average costs for electricity. Their next plan is to build storage facilities that can hold enough power to meet demand for 2 days. Ah, the power of collective action. TreeHugger.
- BETTER THAN A MIRROR: Stand in front of one store in Tokyo and move around. The mannequin in the window will mimic your movements. The MarionetteBot uses a Kinect to capture and analyse the movements of a person in front of it. Then a motor moves 16 wires to make the mannequin’s pose match. The mannequin was a hit with passers-by. How long did it take before passers-by tried rude gestures? Technabob.
- STRING THEORY: The Vo-96 Acoustic Synth is a small device that uses the harmonic content from strings, or any musical instrument, to create new sounds. On an acoustic guitar the battery-powered device sits between the sound hole and bridge and changes the waveforms the guitar produces as it’s being played. That’s different from an electronic synthesiser that alters the sounds after they’ve been created. Fresh sounds are on their way. Create Digital Music.
Tech Universe: Wednesday 27 February 2013
- FLIPPING MINI: Maybe you’ve done a backflip or two in your time, but were you ever driving a Mini Cooper at the time? Guerlain Chicherit, rally driver and freestyle skiier, was. He drove the highly modified Mini up a ramp like those used for a standard quarter pipe, did the backflip and landed as planned on a snow bank. Definitely don’t try that one at home. Wired.
- GETTING THE DROP: Sick of your windscreen fogging up? If we understood better how water droplets adhere to surfaces then perhaps we could do something about that. Researchers at MIT were able to adapt a scanning electron microscope to push and pull droplets across a surface with a tiny wire. They found that a key factor in determining whether a droplet sticks to the surface is the angle of the droplet’s leading and trailing edges relative to the surface. They also found that surface texture is crucial to adhesion, and droplets stick more on a rough surface. The researchers have now developed a mathematical system for precisely predicting droplet behaviour. Or maybe make windscreens with superhydrophobic coatings? MIT News.
- UP IN THE AIR: When you draw with a pen on paper you’re applying ink in 2 dimensions. The 3Doodler is a different kind of pen. It resembles a soldering iron, but its heated tip extrudes 3mm ABS or PLA melted plastic so you can draw 3D shapes by lifting it up in the air. The pen weighs less than 200 grams and measures 180mm by 24mm. You may need a steady hand for this. 3Doodler.
- BRAIN BOX: Many of us spend all day looking at a computer screen, filling our heads with information, some of it useless. What say the computer could read our mind and adjust the information flow to suit our needs? A team at Tufts University are working on that. They’ve created a headset that beams infrared light into the wearer’s prefrontal cortex. Some light is absorbed while the rest is reflected back. By measuring the reflected light the system can tell when the wearer is concentrating intently. When that data is matched to what’s on the computer screen the system can make better predictions about what’s useful and what’s not. This kind of flow control could be specially useful for drivers or air traffic controllers. And employers. New Scientist.
- FALLING ELECTRICITY: What do you do if you have an old open-pit mine lying around that you no longer need? Well, you could turn it into a hydroelectric energy scheme. In Ontario one power company has plans to use an abandoned open-pit iron ore mine for a pumped storage hydroelectric project. It would create a waterfall 5 times the height of Niagara Falls from the slag mountain to the mine pit below. At night the company would use cheap electricity to pump water up to a reservoir. Then releasing the water during the day would generate 400-megawatts of power they could sell at high prices. Buy low, sell high is a handy maxim. The Globe and Mail.
Tech Universe: Thursday 28 February 2013
- HOLD THE PHONE: Fujitsu’s Stylistic S01 is a specialised Android smartphone designed for elderly users. The large handset is waterproof, easy to hold and includes a phsyical shutter button for the camera. On the back is a special tab that can be pulled out in an emergency to activate an alarm and send out text messages. The phone has large buttons and simplified widgets on the touchscreen, designed for those with less dexterity. A single touch selects an option but doesn’t launch an app, so it’s hard for accidental touches make unexpected things happen. A press and hold is needed to launch the app you want. Slide the phone into a cradle to charge, or use the included microUSB port. Sometimes making things harder to use is a good idea. Engadget.
- BUTTON SPEECH: After a violent attack almost 3 decades ago one UK man was left unable to speak. Now, thanks to a tablet computer and specialised app he can finally speak again. The tablet displays buttons he can tap for words and phrases then speaks for him. A simple but life-changing app. BBC.
- A WEEK IN SPACE: The ArduSat from Nanosatisfi is a tiny satellite that’s open for anyone in the general public to run experiments, take pictures or design and run games in space, all for a tiny fee. The satellite is 10 cm on each side, weighs 1 Kg, and filled with sensors such as cameras, a Geiger counter, spectrometer, magnetometer, and Arduinos. Set up an experiment, send it in and after some checking it runs for a week before results are returned. Who’d have thought space exploration could be so accessible? Nanosatisfi.
- INCOMING!: The Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System, ATLAS, being set up by the University of Hawai’i will identify small asteroids that could potentially hit the Earth. Two observatories, around 100 Km apart will each use four 25.4 cm telescopes, with 100 megapixel cameras to scan the visible sky twice each night and flag anything that moves for closer observation. Although the telescopes are fairly small the system is very detailed and can pinpoint threats. ATLAS isn’t the only programme hunting for asteroids but it can quickly identify the smaller space rocks, while others are making slower and deeper surveys. Spotting asteroid threats is fantastic, but then what do we do? Gizmodo.
- WAVING NOT TOUCHING: A flat, flexible, transparent polymer sheet may not sound very exciting, but researchers in Austria have made one do some very interesting things with images. Fluorescent particles that suffuse the sheet capture incoming light and channel some of it to optical sensors around the edges. A computer then combines the signals to construct a greyscale image. The trick is in working out where each bit of light that strikes the edge sensors actually came from. Because light dims as it travels, brightness is the key. The resolution on the prototype is low, but advanced sampling techniques can enhance it. The film could be used as a transparent overlay on TV images to allow viewers to use gestures rather than touch to interact with the display. That’s an interesting step in gesture control. Optical Society of America.
Tech Universe: Friday 01 March 2013
- AT A STRETCH: Stretchy electronics could make it possible for us to wear all kinds of smart gear. But such things always need a source of power, and that’s usually batteries. If the battery doesn’t stretch then there’s a problem. A team at Northwestern University are on track to solve that problem with a battery that can stretch to 3 times its size without a loss in performance, and also be charged by induction. The battery, which resembles a sticking plaster, uses islands of energy-storing materials dotted on a stretchy polymer. The wires that connect the pockets of power are looped into S shapes, so they straighten out as the material stretches. Unfortunately the prototype only runs through 20 charge and discharge cycles, so there’s a bit of development yet to do. Get ready to wear your smartphone. BBC.
- HIGH-FLYING PLASTIC: Flying a single engine Cessna from Sydney to London is quite a feat, but Jeremy Rowsell will be doing it on his own, and using an unconventional and untested fuel. Rather than standard aviation fuel, he’ll be using a fuel that’s made only from recycled plastic waste. His purpose is to raise awareness about this type of fuel, along with breaking a record or two. If all that waste plastic can be turned into something useful then why aren’t we doing it already? At Altitude.
- MORE LIGHT AND HEAT: Supermarkets use nearly 10 times as much energy as a normal household. They need to keep food frozen or just cool, shoppers pleasantly warm and the store well-lit. Fraunhofer Institute has developed ways to cut the power bills by 25%, mainly through clever systems for dealing with heating, cooling and light. A combined central refrigeration system takes waste heat from freezers and uses it to warm the store. Surplus heat is turned into cool air through a geothermal heat pump and used to reduce the power required for chillers. Meanwhile, to reduce the energy needed for lighting they had the novel idea of installing windows in the roof. They did fit the skylights out though with microscreens that allow only indirect light to pass through. I bet shoppers spend more under natural light too. Fraunhofer Institute.
- A NEW LIGHT: Retinitis pigmentosa and other diseases cause the eye’s photoreceptors to degenerate and eventually die, which means the person goes blind. Retina Implant, a German company, has developed an artificial retina that may restore some vision. The artificial retina is a 3 millimeter square chip that contains 1,500 photodiodes. Light strikes the diodes which then give off a weak electrical signal. That signal’s boosted to allow the wearer to see. A battery behind the ear provides the power. In a study most patients had some limited vision restored, being able to see cutlery, letters, their own hands or the faces of family members. Presumably more diodes means better vision. Technology Review.
- A SOUND SUIT: The SpiderSense suit from the University of Illinois uses ultrasonic reflections to alert the wearer to nearby objects or people. The suit has microphones embedded, so when the ultrasound detects someone approaching small robotic arms in the suit exert a growing pressure on the body. The wearer can then feel the pressure and avoid the approaching object. In tests wearers were able to detect someone approaching 95% of the time. With more sensors the suit could have a higher resolution. The creators believe a device like this could be useful for cyclists or for blind people. It’s that other 5% you have to worry about. New Scientist.
Tech Universe: Monday 18 February 2013
- SHOPPING SPIKE: In places where the streets are routinely icy it can be handy to have spikes in the soles of your boots. The spikes are great for traction on ice, but not so good for indoor use, so if you’re walking to the shops you have a problem. Enter Meindl’s boots with retractable spikes. The wearer flips out a dial on the heel to extend the 6 spikes or flips it back in to retract them. Simple. Gizmag.
- ARMED WITH 3D: Makers of prosthetics tend to be commercial groups, and their products can be very costly. One teen in the US, with no training in prosthetics set about building a robotic hand just for fun. After some success in that he set himself the goal of creating a really functional prosthetic arm. With 3D printing and a clever use of Arduino, Bluetooth and an EEG headset to control movement he’s come up with a functional robotic arm that costs only $250. Any number 8 wire in there? Make.
- DRINK OF CLAY: The University of Virginia has found a simple way to help people in the Limpopo province in South Africa to clean up their drinking water. Their MadiDrops are ceramic discs that each last around 6 months while they filter impurities from water. The trick is in the silver or copper nanoparticles that are embedded in the discs. Local workers can create the low-cost discs and filters that use similar technology, so building local businesses and communities. The filters are made of local clay, sawdust and water and kill 99.9% of the pathogens in water poured through them. It’s great to see the locals can take control of the process and benefit from the manufacture and supply as well as the use of the filters. University of Virginia.
- ON TRACK: As you move around taking and uploading photos, checking in with Foursquare, tweeting and the like you know you’re leaving tracks that could be followed. But actually tracking someone would require a fair bit of dedication. Raytheon’s Rapid Information Overlay Technology software pulls all the data together and makes it a whole lot easier. Then it not only tracks, but can use the data it’s gathered to predict where you might be, when, and what you might do. Don’t feel paranoid; they really might be tracking you. The Guardian. Video:
- HEALING HOT FLASHES: The NAND cells in conventional flash memory such as the commercial SSDs in your computer or smartphone can be programmed and erased a few thousand times. Now Macronix have created a cell that heals itself when heated to 800 C and can be programmed and erased more than 100 million times. Heating plates built into the cells consume a little extra energy, but also allow for faster erasing, though Macronix don’t yet know why. It’ll be a while before these cells are available commercially. A little warmth can go a long way. Extreme Tech.
Tech Universe: Tuesday 19 February 2013
- KEY MESSAGES: When parents lend teenagers their car it tends to provoke anxious moments. Ford’s MyKey system allows for differing levels of access to a car’s systems by different users, recognised by the key they use. One key may allow a driver to travel at top speed, while another may limit the top speed to or below the maximum speed allowed on the roads. Ahhh, a hacker’s delight. BBC.
- HAVE YOU SEEN THIS PENGUIN?: One way to film penguins for a nature documentary is for camera operators to hang out for months in freezing hides. Another is to add robot penguins to a colony, as John Downer Productions did for the BBC documentary called Penguins — Spy in the Huddle. The company deployed 50 fullsize robot penguins that concealed cameras. The penguincams walked, got back up when knocked over, and even laid their own eggcams. They sent their data back via a satellite uplink and operated in temperatures as low as -60C. Spy robot penguins: brilliant! John Downer Productions.
- WHERE ARE YOU REALLY?: Smartphones these days may include apps to monitor the location of another smartphone user. If you’ve ever used such apps you may have noticed that a city location can be quite inaccurate — it may show a bus journey including a dip in the harbour, for example. Researchers at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid almost doubled the acuracy of GPS signals in a city with a system designed for use in cars. The system includes GPS, but also an Inertial Measurement Unit. That unit has 3 accelerometers and 3 gyroscopes measure changes in speed and maneouvres performed by the vehicle. Then a computer takes all the data and corrects errors in the geographic coordinates. The researchers hope to do away with the specialised device though and use the hardware already in smartphones to handle the measurements. It’d be good to know my partner’s not actually plunging into the harbour on the bus home from work. Universidad Carlos III de Madrid.
- TRACKING SHIPS: As ships move along trade routes they leave long tracks of elevated nitrogen dioxide levels behind them. Measured from space by the Aura satellite, those tracks are clearly visible in some areas where ships follow a narrow range of routes. Ships aren’t the only creators of NO2 though — offshore drilling and agricultural burning can also create the pollutant. NO2 can harm cardiovascular and respiratory systems. The Ozone Monitoring Instrument aboard the Aura satellite and other instruments are helping scientists study NO2 levels in the atmosphere. It’s scary to realise those tracks are being formed. NASA.
- SNOW DOWN: It’s Day One for you taking up snowboarding and before you know it you’re rocketing down a slope out of control. The Boarder Kontrol is a snowboard for beginners. The board includes a blade that can be lowered into the snow to work as a brake. The rider pulls on a leash to slow down and releases it to raise the blade and speed up again. The boards aren’t designed for individual purchase but to be used in snow schools and at resorts. That’s not a bad starting point. Boarder Kontrol.
Tech Universe: Wednesday 20 February 2013
- BOATING IN A BOX: Carting a small boat about can be a problem. The Transporter packs down into a self-contained box, small enough to carry on a quad bike, that takes only moments to reassemble at your destination. A single compartment holds all the other sections, including nose, pontoons, lifejackets and oars. While on the water seats are around the edges of the boat where the pontoons are so it’s very stable. Clever. Better-Outdoors.com.
- KEEP THE RUBBISH FLOWING: The landfills near Oberlin, Ohio, aren’t just storing rubbish. Instead they’ve replaced coal for around half of the town’s energy supply. Anaerobic methane fermentation can turn 1 million tons of municipal solid waste into 1 megawatt of power, so two nearby landfills compress, filter, and dry emitted methane gas before sending it into the local utility grid. By 2015 Oberlin expects to source around 90% of its energy from landfill and other renewables such as hydro, solar and wind. Keep creating rubbish, folks. Good.
- RETHINK THE JEANS: Wearing denim jeans? They were brought to you courtesy of cotton, 42 litres of water, up to 15 vats of dye, an array of harmful chemicals and heaps of energy. In other words, the environmental cost is probably much higher than the price tag suggests. A researcher at Heriot-Watt University thinks the environment could be better off if jeans were made of sustainable wood instead. The Tencel fibre is made of cellulose, while digital printing gives it the appearance of stone-washed denim. Tencel requires only 20% of the water, energy and chemicals needed to manufacture conventional jeans. It’s worth thinking about. Heriot-Watt University.
- TRIPLE CHARGE: Lithium ion batteries are very popular for all kinds of devices. But they can discharge quickly and be relatively slow to recharge. One problem is that the silicon anodes break down because they are constantly swelling and shrinking as the battery charges and discharges. A team of researchers developed a replacement: silicon nanoparticles etched with pores that increase the surface area and allow expansion and contraction without breaking down. The new technique allows batteries to recharge within 10 minutes and hold 3 times as much energy as existing batteries. A 10 minute recharge would be a dream. Time of India.
- MOVE OVER TV: As television moves from analogue to digital it frees up parts of the wireless spectrum known as white space. Those frequencies penetrate walls, bend around hills and travel long distances. That’s good news for delivering broadband Internet over WiFi which can take up those frequencies. In Africa there are plenty of places with no Internet. In fact they may also have no phone, no electricity and little else going for them, except for the sunshine. A new scheme is bringing Internet to the schools though, by using solar panels to power wireless signals that can be delivered by a traditional TV antenna to smartphones and tablets. The same solar panels can also power the chargers needed to keep the devices running. Maybe all the TV channels could be replaced by WiFi and deliver the programmes online? New Scientist.
Tech Universe: Thursday 21 February 2013
- WATCH THE STATS: The SmartBall from Catapult Sports will capture masses of data for sports players, their coaches and fans. Players wear a GPS tracker so the system knows where they are on the field. Meanwhile the ball contains a sensor. Beacons inside the ball transmit 5 times per second, sending as far as around 5 metres. Signals are received by one or more nearby players. Data is sent from the players to the sidelines and collated to create a 2D model of how the players and the ball move on the field. Coaches can track in detail both how the players perform and how they’re interacting with the ball. The data could also be used to provide fans with more info about the game. This conjures up an image of a future where robots love sports for the stats goodness, while humans watch for the plays. Wired.
- SHOWING THE WAY: Oxford University reckon a car could learn routes you regularly drive, such as the way to work or the kids’ school, and then do the driving for you. Their version of a self-driving car uses lasers on the front and a camera on the roof of the car to create a 3D image. The sensors also notice unfamiliar objects such as pedestrians. Once the car knows a particular route it could drive that portion. The aim of this approach is to keep costs lower than those for a fully self-driving car. So many people drive the same routes each day. Handing over some of the driving could be a relief. The Telegraph.
- MOVIE MIX: Many Worlds is a 15 minute movie whose plot changes according to the mood of the audience, or more particularly, certain members of the audience. As the audience enter the cinema 4 are selected to represent the rest and to wear small sensors that capture heart rate, muscle tension, brainwave activity, or skin conductance. As they watch the movie an algorithm assesses the captured data and chooses which prerecorded version of a scene to show next. A responsive soundtrack is also used to control mood, perhaps making it more discordant to create more fear if the audience seems bored. Have fun discussing that movie with friends who saw it at a different session. Many Worlds.
- ROBOTS AT LARGE: The VGo telepresence robot makes it possible for 7 year old Devon Carrow to attend school in New York. His robot goes everywhere the rest of the class go: to the library, the auditorium and the lunchroom, though a teacher has to lift the robot up any stairs. That’s not too hard though as it weighs only a little over 8 Kg. The other kids take it all in stride and treat Devon as though he were physically present. The teacher uses a microphone that allows Devon to hear her, while it helps other students hear her too. It’d be interesting to see how it works out if multiple students, or even all of them, had robots at school while they stayed home. Yahoo!
- CYCLISTS AFLOAT: In Eindhoven in The Netherlands the Hovenring is a special roundabout bridge for pedestrians and cyclists. The bridge is circular, 72 metres in diameter, and suspended from cables that hang from a 70 metre pylon in the middle. A counterweight and M-shaped supports help keep the bridge from swaying or twisting. One problem was the steep climb up to the bridge, so they lowered the road to make a more gentle slope. That’s how to keep cyclists and walkers safer. Inhabitat.
Tech Universe: Friday 22 February 2013
- MIRROR SHIMMER: The European Southern Observatory needs a new mirror on one of its telescopes. The mirror’s 1.12 metres across, which is a fair size, but it’s also only 2 millimeters thick — thinner than most glass windows. When the mirror’s installed it will be continuously deformed to correct for the blurring effects of the Earth’s atmosphere and so create much sharper images. That’s why it’s so thin. To change its shape 1170 actuators apply a force on 1170 magnets glued to the back of the thin shell. They can do that up to 1,000 times per second. The whole thing’s controlled by very sophisticated special-purpose electronics, of course. Oh, and those 2 millimetres of glass were ground from an original block that was more than 70 millimetres thick. That’s an extremely sophisticated system. European Southern Observatory.
- COASTER IN CHARGE: The onE Puck from Epiphany is basically a thick drinks coaster. Inside is a Stirling engine though, so when you put a hot or cold drink on top of it electricity is generated. And what do you do with that electricity? Charge your phone, of course. That’s a nice asset in the office. Epiphany onE Puck.
- LOGGING ROADS: A team of engineers analysed the cellphone call logs of 680,000 Boston-area drivers, tracing commutes anonymously from origin to destination. They found that during rush hour 98% of roads in the Boston area were below capacity while 2% had more traffic than they could handle. Roads that connected different areas of the city tended to be most congested. They also found it was a small number of drivers from just a few areas who caused congestion, because they made particularly intensive use of the problematic roads. By reducing traffic in just a few areas planners could make everyone’s trip faster and smoother. Now what will they actually do about it? The Boston Globe.
- GENETIC EXPERTS: Ordering a medical test is one thing, but interpreting the results needs a lot of skills and knowledge. While most doctors can handle things like blood tests, working with DNA sequencing test results may require very specialised expertise. Coriell Life Sciences in the USA aim to help with ordering, storing, and interpreting whole-genome-sequence data for doctors. One aspect of the service is that the genomic data is stored in one place, then doctors can order various analyses and interpretations of parts of it. The doctor receives a report, then adds data to the patient’s medical records and explains what it all means. Technology’s hard enough to keep up with; medical technology must be a nightmare for doctors. Technology Review.
- WALKING ON AIR: Volvo’s V40 hatch is designed to help protect pedestrians who end up being hit. Sensors in the front bumper detect when a pedestrian has been hit then trigger an airbag that inflates near the bottom of the windscreen. The airbag is designed to prevent head injuries which are the biggest cause of death for pedestrians. Pedestrians: check the car’s make and model before throwing yourself in front of it. The Daily Telegraph.
Things aligned today and I set off to Shelley Bay for the first bike ride in a while. I pulled up and parked the car just where some old piers stand in the water, with
Danger signs all over them. The closest was several metres from the shore, through some maybe head-height water.
After I’d unloaded the bike from the back of our ‘new’ old car I glanced up and realised a seagull was hanging from the side of one pier, fluttering in vain to free itself from some old discarded fishing line.
Now, I’ve never really cared for seagulls, I think because when I attended the old Christchurch Girls’ High School as a pupil we would eat our lunches in Cranmer Square, surrounded by gulls screaming for tidbits of food.
But I don’t like to see any living thing suffering, and this poor seagull obviously was.
There was no way I could reach it though to attempt to free it.
I looked around: there was nobody nearby who had a boat or diving equipment who I could approach to see if they’d rescue the bird. After a few moments I realised I could call the SPCA to see if they’d be able to help.
That’s where my problems started. It was easy to open up my iPhone and search for the SPCA. Except the best result goes to the Auckland page. After further searching I located Wellington’s contact phone number. The iPhone’s smart and detects phone numbers in web pages. I tapped the number, tapped a confirmation that I wanted to call it and waited.
After a couple of tries it went through — and I heard a series of rapid pips that I believed was the ‘number disconnected’ signal.
Well, that wasn’t helpful, but I thought maybe it was some quirk of poor cell reception. I went into the nearest business — an art studio of some kind — where I was able to use their landline. I still couldn’t get through.
The artist checked the phone book for me while I was busy calling up the whitepages in my web browser. Nothing helped: the number just ‘pipped’ at me.
Then I tried Directory Services. They had the same number, but did offer to put me through to the Upper Hutt SPCA. I figured they could help me reach the local group, but reached only an answerphone.
Friends I tried to call were out.
By now, of course, I was wondering if all this hassle were worth it for
just a seagull. But suffering is suffering, and I didn’t want to give up on the poor thing.
Finally I rang the vet service I’ve been using for a couple of decades now and explained the problem. The staff member tried calling the SPCA, with no success. Then she suggested she could try faxing them and I provided details.
Hooray! That worked! A few minutes later, after I’d anxiously headed out for a couple of Km into potential cellphone deadzone, and then started back, an SPCA worker called me back and promised to take a look at the situation.
Inspectors are also called upon to rescue sick, injured, stray or lost animals and wildlife. They attend more than 2,000 incidents of this kind each year. [Miraz's note: that's an average of 5 or 6 per day!]
Not too long after that the SPCA inspector arrived on scene. He realised he’d need a boat and went round to nearby businesses to see if he could find one. One was available, but with no oars.
Ultimately we had to abandon the bird to its sad fate. In the hour or so that had passed it had almost stopped struggling anyway, probably exhausted.
Inspectors are appointed by the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) to enforce the Animal Welfare Act 1999. … All of the Animal Welfare Inspectors’ work and legal costs are entirely funded by donations from the public. We do not receive any government funding to carry out this work.
Before the SPCA inspector left I mentioned the problem with the phone. He said they have 5 incoming and 4 outgoing lines that are always so busy even he can’t get through when he needs to. It seems I’d heard an overloaded tone rather than a disconnected tone.
9 phone lines and they’re overloaded — for a service funded entirely by donations and part of whose work is to enforce a law. Doesn’t that seem wrong?
I wonder how much the seagull incident cost?
Tech Universe: Monday 11 February 2013
- MARTIAN PIXELS: If you’d like to examine the surface of Mars in minute detail you could set up a space mission and travel there. Or you could download the high resolution image the European Space Agency has released. The image comprises 2702 individual swaths of the martian surface that together represent 87.8% of the entire planet. 61.5% of the entire surface is mapped at a resolution of 20 m per pixel or better. Some spots are missing because the relevant image was particularly affected by dust or atmospheric effects. The images were captured over around 10 years by the Mars Express craft, using a high-resolution stereo camera. Metre by metre we’re filling in the picture of our solar system. ESA.
- UP DOWN TURN AROUND: Ricoh’s omnidirectional camera takes a full 360 degree panoramic image in one shot. Two fisheye lenses each cover 180 degrees of view. The prototype camera combines the 2 pictures, then sends them wirelessly to a tablet or smartphone. The image works like a regular panorama, but you can also see up and down, and if you zoom out, the image becomes a sphere. DigInfoTV.
- FAR FLYING HORNETS: The Black Hornet Nano is more than just a toy helicopter. In the hands of British forces in Afghanistan it’s a battery-powered mini-drone equipped with a camera that relays video and still images to a handheld control terminal. The 16 gram 10 cm drone can be piloted directly or programmed to follow co-ordinates using GPS at up to 35 Kph. The drones have a range of 800 metres and can fly for up to 30 minutes. That’s quite a range. BBC.
- UV MELT: Manufacturing processes sometimes need objects to be held in place temporarily, for example with a light adhesive. But separating them may require an unwelcome force. The adhesion strength of an organic substance developed by AIST can be varied by shining light on it. Shine green light on the substance and it solidifies, while under UV light, it gradually liquefies. The light doesn’t heat or cool it, but only changes how liquid it is. The material is a weak adhesive, but the researchers hope to increase its strength. You’d think there would be medical applications for a substance like that too. DigInfo News.
- SHIVER THE TIMBERS: The hulls of ships accumulate bacteria that increase drag, reduce energy efficiency and block or clog undersea sensors. What’s more, the biofilm may attract seaweed, worms, and mussels. One way to help prevent this build-up is to use toxic paints that kill bacteria but are bad for the environment. Now researchers at Duke University think that ships could shake the bacteria off, literally. They’ve developed a material that deforms in response to electricity. Flicking a switch could cause the coating to move and deform, shaking off bacteria and other organisms. So would it take a single big shake now and again or frequent tiny shakes? Duke University.
Tech Universe: Tuesday 12 February 2013
- IN CHARGE: There you are, out in the bush camping, when you feel an urgent need to check your phone, which is now out of juice, even supposing you could get a signal. Don’t worry, just make a cup of tea with the PowerPot and let it charge your phone while the water boils. The pot itself can be used with almost any heat source, such as a wood fire or a propane burner and includes a built-in USB connector so you can charge all your devices. The pot uses the temperature difference between the heating plate on the bottom and the inside of the pot to generate power. How many cups of tea does it take to charge a phone? PowerPot.
- EGG TIME: Take a pot of water, add an egg or two, bring to the boil, and then hope you get the timing right for a perfectly cooked egg. Or, take an egg from the fridge, nestle it in the Eggxactly egg cup and tap the lid to start cooking. The device uses stretchy heating elements that enclose the egg and a microprocessor to control cooking time, reducing energy use to around 1% of the pot and boil method. It sounds great, but you may need to be in the UK for this one. Eggxactly.
- WRITE RIGHT: The Lernstift is a pen that could be handy for people who still actually write by hand. The pen contains motion, text recognition and pressure sensors, batteries and Linux-based electronics that detect when you’ve made a spelling or grammar mistake. If it detects an error it vibrates to alert you. The pen can also be used in calligraphy mode to help learn letter shapes. Charmingly, the website explains that the pen will ‘alarm’ you when you make a spelling mistake. Lernstift.
- CLEAN BEAM: The toilets on a plane aren’t the easiest to use, what with the cramped space and the special fixtures. Because blind people may find them even harder to use that sighted people do the School of Design at Hong Kong Polytech have created a BrailleWise system to help. The system adds a beam at waist height around the toilet compartment. The beam includes text and symbols in Braille to explain where amenities such as toilet rolls are located. That’s a simple and elegant solution. The Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
- GAS DOWN: If you’re creating a $40 million gas platform out at sea one thing you don’t want it to do is sink while it’s still being built. Yet that’s what happened to Iran’s latest 1,850 tonne structure a few days ago. Iran has the world’s second-largest natural gas reserves after Russia. Reports say no one was injured in the accident. At least it didn’t explode. The Globe and Mail.
Tech Universe: Wednesday 13 February 2013
- GREEN BEER: The Alaska Brewing Company is being a bit clever and using its own brewing process to power the brewery with a unique boiler system. A furnace burns the waste accumulated from the brewing process, creating steam to power the majority of the brewery’s operations. Previously they shipped the spent grain out at high cost to be used for other purposes such as stock feed. The spent grain steam boiler should offset the company’s yearly energy costs by 70%. That’s a nice bit of almost perpetual motion there. Associated Press.
- LIGHT TOUCH: Epileptic seizures range from the minor to the incredibly disruptive and dangerous. Although many people are able to control their seizures with drugs, around 40% of people with epilepsy can’t control the seizures at all. Now researchers at the University of California have succeeded in controlling seizures in mice by using an EEG-based computer system. When the system detects a seizure it activates thin fibre-optic strands implanted in the brain. The light turns on certain proteins that stimulate or inhibit specific neurons in the brain and so arrest ongoing electrical seizure activity. The research with mice could lead to better ways to help people with uncontrollable seizures. That’s some skilled brain manipulation. UC Irvine.
- MONITORING THE MONITORS: TV programmes often have security guards watching banks of screens that show what carefully placed cameras see. When guards spot a problem they take action. Researchers at Universidad Carlos III of Madrid have just made that kind of system smarter by having software analyse the images in real time. Anomalies, such as a vehicle moving in the wrong direction, set off an alert for a human to investigate. They say the system could be used for public and road safety and will work with existing surveillance cameras. Which is all fine, so long as it’s someone else the cameras are watching. Universidad Carlos III de Madrid.
- ROSE TINTED LENSES: O2Amps glasses enhance our view of oxygenated blood beneath the skin. That can help medical staff identify veins or detect bruising. One variant though, with Oxy-Iso lenses, may be able to help people who are red-green colour blind. Tests so far are producing positive results. The lenses hinder the perception of yellows and blues through at the expense of enhancing reds and greens, so may be dangerous for driving. Solutions are just never that easy. Txchnologist.
- ISLAND OF THE SUN: The Swiss are building 3 islands in Lake Neuchâtel. Each island is 25 metres across, contains 100 photovoltaic panels, and serves as a laboratory to demonstrate the efficacy of floating concentrated solar power plants. The power generated by each island will be sent via cable to the electricity grid on land. Those PV panels have to go somewhere, so why not on a lake? Clean Technica.
Tech Universe: Thursday 14 February 2013
- FRESH EYES: The Second Sight Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System is now on the market in the US. If the name’s too long for you, think bionic eye for blind people. 60 electrodes are implanted in the retina and interact with glasses fitted with a special mini camera. When tested on 30 people who were completely blind the system allowed some to see a little, while others could read newspaper headlines. The prosthesis replaces the function of photoreceptors in the eye that send impulses for the brain to convert into images. Things are definitely looking up for those with vision problems. Business Insider.
- CLEANER COAL: People have long burned coal to provide heat or light and generate electricity, but the combustion produces all kinds of pollutants. Chemical looping replaces burning with a much cleaner process. Instead of making coal react with air, the looping process exposes it to oxygen-bearing materials such as iron oxide. The reaction produces nearly pure carbon dioxide gas and iron metal. The CO2 is easy to capture, while the iron goes on to react with oxygen, creating heat that’s used to make steam and generate electricity. That’s an improvement, but there’s still all the surplus CO2. Technology Review.
- SAY AAH, ROBOTS: In Scotland some trainee medical staff are using lifelike robots to practice their skills. The robots are computer controlled and can react moment by moment to the actions of the trainees. The robots are designed to display symptoms such as asthma, heart attacks and infections. So long as they don’t treat live people too much like the dummies they practiced on. BBC.
- SPEED TAGGING: Tagging big fish such as tuna, marlin and sharks to track them isn’t new, but the tags themselves need to be carefully designed to penetrate the skin and be retained for as long as possible. Thanks to the 3D printing possibilities of fused metal powder CSIRO has been able to rapidly develop better tags. Conventional machining meant delays of a couple of months for each iteration of a design. With the 3D printer though it takes only a couple of days. Half a dozen iterations, with testing and refinements, have led them to develop an effective fish tag. Who knew fish tags were so complicated? CSIRO.
- NEEDLES OUT: Live vaccines against diseases such as HIV and malaria can save many lives. But they need to be kept at a constant very cold temperature and must be delivered with a needle, which brings contamination risks. Now scientists at King’s College London have been able to create a dried live vaccine that remains stable and effective at room temperature. They also created a microneedle array from the dried vaccine and successfully used it to vaccinate test mice. The patch has many tiny very sharp needles that quickly dissolve and distribute the vaccine in the skin. This research could lead to much improved vaccination rates in developing countries and elsewhere. Presumably too the patches can be applied by people without medical training. King’s College London.
Tech Universe: Friday 15 February 2013
- UNFOLDING DRAMA: Pull the 25 Kg Hungarian Moveo electric scooter from the back seat of your car, spend a few minutes unfolding it and slotting in the seat, then you can zoom off round town at up to 45 Kph. A full charge takes an hour and will carry you for around 35 Km. At your destination fold the scooter in two and wheel it along behind you like a suitcase. The carbon-composite body is designed to protect you from all the parts that might make you grubby. It’s an interesting idea, but the initial unfolding seems a bit fiddly. Gizmag.
- THE FINE PRINT: There’s plenty of talk about 3D printing for large objects such as fish tags or airplane parts, but Nanoscribe GmbH have created a speedy 3D printer for objects smaller than the diameter of a human hair. The laser lithography printer uses ultra-short laser pulses to polymerise and dissolve photosensitive materials leaving the desired structure. Then tiny areas of a structure can be stitched together to create a larger object. The technique is a hundred times faster than older methods. That’s precision printing. Karlsruhe Institute of Technology.
- OLD NEWS: First there were storytellers, then newspapers, radio, TV, blogs, Twitter, rubbish bins… In London the Renew newspaper recycling bin doubles as an open-air information screen. The fibreglass bins have screens at each end that display news and information such as where nearby hire bikes are. The news is drawn from journalists or feeds from magazines. The screens can also be used for emergency messages. No news is good news. The Guardian.
- KILLER PACKAGE: An ongoing problem with cancer treatment is to kill just the cancer cells and not the healthy tissue around them. A capsule developed at UCLA wraps a protein that destroys cancer cells in a nanoscale shell that degrades harmlessly in non-cancerous cells. Tests on lab mice showed significant reduction in tumour growth. Using a protein avoids the risk of genetic mutation posed by gene therapies and the risk to healthy cells from chemotherapy. That’s a helpful targeting system. UCLA.
- DROP SHIPPING: The DropTag combines a battery, a low-energy Bluetooth transmitter, an accelerometer and a memory chip. Attach it to a parcel before shipping and it logs any g-forces above a set risky shock level while in transit. The parcel’s recipient can then use a smartphone app to scan the tag and see if the parcel was mishandled during shipping, even without opening it. And if the tag says transit was smooth but the parcel’s contents are still broken, what claim do you have then? New Scientist.