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Microscopic Robots Learn To Move Like White Blood Cells

Tue, 10/28/2014 - 16:41

Microscopic beads Juan Aragones, Josh Steimel, and Alfredo Alexander-Katz

In the 90s kids show The Magic School Bus, eccentric teacher Ms. Frizzle took her class for a wild ride in a sick student’s immune system -- only to be attacked by white blood cells. White blood cells tracked the bus using the same chemical traces they follow to find infected sites or navigate their way to viruses. If microscopic robots could replicate this complex navigation system, which is shared by many different cells and bacteria, doctors could use them to provide real-time updates on internal structures or distribute drugs to specific targets within a body.

MIT physicists have begun to work toward this vision by developing a microscopic machine that can imitate certain movements of white blood cells and bacteria. In the study, published in Physical Review Letters, scientists used two tiny metal beads to model the tumbling action of bacteria as they migrate toward areas of higher friction.

The simple robot was manipulated with a rotating magnetic field, which propelled the machine to walk, or tumble, forward on a modeled cell surface. The model housed a complex terrain with varying degrees of friction created by layering vitamin particles and protein molecules to simulate the terrain of a cell surface. Through this artificial landscape, the machines automatically gravitated towards vitamin particles, areas that created higher friction.

Now, replace this model cell surface with an actual cell surface. The friction isn't created by particles on glass, it's created by the cell's surface receptors. The binding sites of these receptors are often the targets for many drugs.

“We could eventually use this as a way to tag on things and take them to remote places in your body and monitor different conditions in your body. That’s really far down the future,” says Alfredo Alexander-Katz, a professor at MIT and an author of the study.

The next step for scientists is to test the robot on live cells created in-vitro, says Alexander-Katz. It’s much different to create machines that will bind to a real cell than a model surface. So for now, tiny robots that infiltrate your body may be just as fictional as a magic morphing school bus.

Future Airplanes Might Replace Windows With OLED Screens

Tue, 10/28/2014 - 14:50

Windowless Airplane Concept Centre for Process Innovation

There may be no such thing as a window seat on the airliners of the future. A concept released by the U.K.’s Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) envisions airliners with thinner walls, made by doing away with cabin windows altogether. In their place, CPI sees OLED screens lining entire interior walls, which would show passengers the sky around them.

Weirdly, the OLED screens aren’t CPI’s selling point. Instead, their stated goal is fuel efficiency. A lighter airplane uses less fuel, and ultimately generates fewer emissions. From CPI:

For every 1% reduction in weight, the approximate fuel saving is 0.75%. If you save weight, you save fuel. And less fuel means less CO2 emissions into the atmosphere and lower operational cost... everyone wins.

Riding a metal tube through the sky at hundreds of miles an hour is strange enough with only a small portal to see the world below. Using OLED screens instead of windows means that passengers could see much much more of the sky than they’re used too. (Perhaps too much, if these humorous photoshopped versions of the concept art are any indication). 

OLED screens are thin, lightweight, and flexible. Arrayed in panels along the cabin walls and ceiling, the screens could show the outside world (as captured by wide-angle panoramic cameras on the outside of the plane) at a resolution of 150 dpi. CPI expects that the technologies needed to manufacture large OLED panels will be ready in about five years. Introduction into airplanes, along with airplanes specifically made without windows, will come later.

Until then, enjoy every window seat.

Watch a video about the concept below:

Big Pic: Jupiter Gets An Eye In Its Storm

Tue, 10/28/2014 - 14:05

True-Color Jupiter, April 21, 2014 NASA, ESA, and A. Simon (Goddard Space Flight Center)

When the Hubble Telescope snapped this true-color image in April, NASA scientists found Jupiter staring right back at them. That black dot is Ganymede's shadow, crossing Jupiter's Great Red Spot, creating an eerily blank-looking eye. It is almost certainly the eye of a large and emotionally stunted monster.

The shadows of Jupiter's four major moons--Ganymede, Io, Europa, and Callisto--often cross its surface, the Hubble team reports. So this image is actually not so rare, just well-aligned. Ganymede is the solar system's largest moon, so its shadow is especially impressive.

For another example of unintentionally spooky stuff in space, check out this image of the sun that NASA captured earlier this month.

Shipping Containers Could Relay Quantum Information Across Oceans

Tue, 10/28/2014 - 13:15

Cargo Ship Glen via Flickr

Physics says that if two particles are entangled on a quantum level, they are permanently linked -- a change in one particle will instantaneously affect the other one, no matter the distance between them. That’s something that could be fantastic for quickly transporting information across vast distances … but only if we can figure out how to use it.

Scientists (and corporations) are already building working computers that rely on quantum entanglement. Now one of the biggest challenges for quantum computing is distance. Unlike our current computing networks, which swiftly move information across thousands of miles via super-speedy cables, quantum computing doesn't have the same reach yet. The longest distance over which information has been transferred via a quantum network is just 300 kilometers, which might someday be enough for conveying information around a city or region, but not really enough for international quantum computing--especially across an ocean. 

Now, scientists think they might have found a decidedly old-fashioned way to solve the ocean problem. The solution is already in use at ports around the world: the humble container ship. Scientists writing in a paper posted to arXiv.org have proposed using shipping containers to transport critical parts of a computing network from one side of the ocean to the other. The container ships will function kind of like a Pony Express, but instead of carrying messages, the cargo will be slightly different: they'll be moving quantum objects.

The quantum objects might be made of diamond or silicon, and they would be entangled with other particles in a similar object across the world. While the quantum objects themselves won't take up much space, keeping them stable (so that people can actually recover the information) is a big challenge. The objects that we have so far can only keep the particles secure for short periods of time and at really chilly temperatures, so refrigeration and support infrastructure would take up the rest of the shipping container.  

In the weird world of quantum computing, the objects won't contain the information itself. Once the containers get to their destination, the objects can be used to instantaneously transfer the information stored in qubits from the paired object on the other side of the world.  

Other researchers are working on building repeaters that can keep all the entangled particles intact over long distances, but they tend to be really finicky machines—and on the seafloor, if something went wrong, repairing them would be extremely difficult and impractical. Enter the cargo ship, which is large enough to store the massive amounts of equipment, and relatively accessible for repairs.

With the cargo method, the lag won't be in the information transfer, just in travel time—how long it takes for the container ship to get from one side of the ocean to another.

In an age when transportation only seems to be getting faster on a personal delivery level, with same day and drone delivery on the rise, cargo shipping can seem like it moves at a snail’s pace. (Travel time on container ships has slowed considerably in recent years out of a desire to cut greenhouse gas emissions, and is similar today to the speed of vessels back in the 1900's.) In this case, hauling the quantum objects across the ocean could take weeks. But until scientists develop the equivalent of underwater telegraph cables for quantum computing, cargo ships, even with their slow pace, might be the missing link in a growing technological field.

For the rest of us, transporting information via traditional hard drives (spy cape and aluminum briefcase optional) is going to be a more practical option.

Plan To Save Great Barrier Reef Is 'Inadequate,' Scientists Say

Tue, 10/28/2014 - 12:17

The Great Barrier Reef, 2003 Image provided by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center's Landsat Team using data courtesy the Australian ground receiving station teams

The Australian government has been working on a plan for taking care of the Great Barrier Reef over the next four decades—but scientists say it's inadequate. The Australian Academy of Science released today an 11-page critique of the government's latest draft of its "Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan."

"Basically, the plan as it's formulated currently isn't sufficient to turn around the downward trajectory of the Great Barrier Reef," biologist and academy member Terry Hughes told Australian broadcaster ABC.

Home to thousands of species of fish, coral, mollusks, and birds, the Great Barrier Reef is one of the most bio-diverse places on Earth. It's extensive enough to see from space. In 1981, UNESCO designated nearly the entire reef a world heritage site, for its beauty and scientific importance.

In recent years, however, UNESCO officials have threatened to place the site on their endangered list because of the reef's rate of deterioration. The reef has lost half its coral cover since the mid-1980s. It's also in danger due to government-approved plans to build ports and dredge parts of the reef. Many "endangered" world heritage sites are located in war-torn regions in Afghanistan and Syria, the New York Times notes. That said, the U.K.'s historic buildings in Liverpool and the U.S.' Everglades National Park are also endangered sites.

"It would be very damaging to Australia's reputation" to join the list, Hughes told the U.K.'s Guardian.

The 2050 sustainability plan is supposed to help keep the reef out of danger by laying out how the government will regulate and guide port development in the reef. The plan also states a number of measurable goals, such as limiting how much city runoff gets into the reef's water and plans for increasing the populations of certain sea mammals and turtles. But the Australian Academy of Science says the plan is inadequate on a number of fronts. For example, the plan doesn't have a quantifiable coral-cover recovery goal, such as "restore X percent of the coral," while some of the plan's goals, such as restoring the populations of certain fish species, don't have feasible actions to back them up.

This draft of the plan has been under fire from conservationists since its release. "Overall, it is not business as usual, but it is close enough to it," WWF-Australia campaigner Louisse Matthiesson told the New York Times in September. This seems to be an ongoing problem: Even UNESCO was none too pleased with the Australian government's efforts after an endangerment-listing warning in 2013.

Smoke Rings And A Giant Six-Legged Robot, From Maker Faire 2014

Tue, 10/28/2014 - 10:15
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In September, Popular Science attended World Maker Faire at the New York Hall of Science. We saw giant robots, tiny Tesla coils, and musical instruments made out of anything you can imagine. Check out some of the coolest projects with us!

Just outside of Boston, an intrepid group of humans is building a giant hexapod robot. Nicknamed Stompy, the behemoth will be large enough to crush cars beneath its feet. But before they finish Stompy (and presumably use him to take over the world), the members of Artisans Asylum came to Maker Faire to show off some of their less destructive projects…like a smoke-ring vortex cannon made out of a trashcan.

Your Washing Machine Could Charge Your Smartphone Someday

Tue, 10/28/2014 - 08:45

Wireless Charging Alison Seiffer

Hanging out in the kitchen? Chances are, you—and your smartphone—are within 15 feet of the refrigerator. Right now, two companies are planning for a future in which that means you could get the charge on your phone topped off.

Haier, a large-appliance maker, and Energous, a wireless-charging startup, have signed an agreement to develop their products together, Computerworld reports. The companies are thinking of placing Energous' WattUp transmitters inside Haier appliances, such as refrigerators and washing machines. The transmitters would send a charge through the air to any small devices nearby that have their own WattUp receivers embedded and turned on. Spend enough time in rooms with WattUp transmitters and you might never have to plug your phone or smartwatch into a charger again.

That's the idea, at least. Energous isn't selling anything yet (they're still working on their receiving chips, it seems), but they aim to roll out a product by Thanksgiving 2015, according to Computerworld. Meanwhile, its competitors are also seeking to charge your devices wirelessly and from a distance. WattUp works by sending charge over radio-frequency waves, while other products in development work via magnetic resonance (WiTriCity) and sound waves (uBeam).

In addition to sticking WattUp transmitters in other people's products, Energous seeks to make its own wireless charging "routers," analogous to WiFi routers. 

[Computerworld]

Interstellar Travel Won't Look Anything Like The Movie

Tue, 10/28/2014 - 07:58

The Very Green Interior Of An Imagined Colonial Transporter Rick Guidice/NASA Ames Research Center via Wikimedia Commons

Christopher Nolan's Interstellar imagines a human journey to planets beyond our star. But that kind of trip would seem impossible in today's terms. Fortunately, a DARPA-funded task force is already working to make it happen in the next century.

Mae Jemison, leader of the 100 Year Starship Project (100YSS) told Popular Science that enormous challenges stand between human beings and colonizing a distant star system. But she believes 100YSS can bring together the diversity and creativity of invention necessary to make it happen.

Jemison has had a rare vantage point on human spaceflight. An engineer, physician, and—for six years—a NASA astronaut, she became the first woman of color in space when she orbited Earth in space shuttle Endeavour. Often, astronauts talk about the "overview effect" from space, a sense of oneness with Earth and its people. But Jemison says she found herself drawn in the opposite direction. 

"I looked down and I saw the Nile River go by, the pyramids, and my hometown Chicago, and I tried to make myself afraid. Outside of this hatch are forces totally inhospitable to human life," she said. "But I couldn't feel it. I would have loved to be up there in a bubble with just my cat."

The fact is, Jemison never strayed far from Earth. Shuttle astronauts, from the perspective of a solar traveller, barely got off the planet. No human being has gone beyond orbit of the far side of this planet's moon. Crossing the distances Interstellar imagines will involve gigantic leaps in technology and human infrastructure. Nolan gets it wrong, Jemison says, in populating his epic with vehicles that look a great deal like those travelling around Earth today.

The Not-So-Different Future In the 'Interstellar' trailer, Matthew McConaughey sets off for the stars in a ship that looks a lot like the ones we use to orbit Earth. Paramount Pictures and Warner Brothers

She likens Interstellar's challenge to crossing the Sahara desert—another vast, lifeless space that humans have nonetheless tamed. But in the 53 years since the Yuri Gagarin made the first trip into Earth's orbit, crewed missions have yet to make a substantial fraction of a trip to a foreign star. Like the nomads who build cultures around desert crossings, Jemison says our entire approach to space travel will have to change before we attempt the interstellar vastness.

Right now, a lack of powerful yet efficient propulsion limits human civilization to this solar system. For example, the Voyager I probe, launched in 1977, speeds away farther from Earth than any other spacecraft. In 2013 it became the first in interstellar space. However, it will be another 40,000 years before it even remotely enters another star's neighborhood. Any mission making the journey to a habitable exoplanet must move a much larger weight much faster—approaching a substantial fraction of light speed—to make the trip in even several generations.

Of the many technologies Jemison says might accelerate a spaceship to that velocity (and, equally as important, deccelerate on the other end), only one exists today: nuclear fission. Some power plants, military submarines, satellites, and aircraft carriers convert heat from decaying atoms into energy. But no reactor has ever propelled a space engine, partly because of the dangers and inefficiencies of fission, and partly because of international treaties governing the use of nuclear power.

Where fission fails, its cousin might succeed. That is, if we can ever make it work. Fusion—smashing together atoms to form larger elements while releasing incredible energy—powers every star in our universe. With some ingenuity, it could also help us reach them.

To illustrate the diffierence between fission and fusion, consider America's nuclear assault on Japan in 1945 used fission bombs and had a combined blast area of about 20 square miles. The blast of the largest fusion bomb ever tested, meanwhile, affected 1,520 square miles.

"We can't separate the vehicle from what it's doing and what it's carrying—it's got to be different."

The prospect of fusion-powered spaceflight is tantalizing, but efforts to even build an efficient reactor on Earth have stalled for several decades. Antimatter, produced in tiny, fizzling samples at CERN, annihilates with still greater power when it contacts matter. Yet scientists have only produced a few particles of the exotic substance, and the record storage time is 1,000 seconds before spontaneous annihalation. In short, we have a long way to go before filling up a gas tank with antimatter. Jemison also points to the possible construction of vast solar sails to catch photons and accelerate a craft over huge distances. Huge earthbound lasers and power sources could then propel the craft without the need to drag interstellar engines along.

But Jemison says propulsion is just the first and most obvious problem an interstellar ship's engineers have to address, and that this point is where many science fiction films like Interstellar fail. "One of the issues with applying today's space technology to the future is it blocks our way of thinking," she says. She would like to see a movie explore a more radical vision.

"Even the inside of the Enterprise [from Star Trek] looks a lot like what we have today, with grey walls and military hierarchies and buttons everywhere," she says. "We can't separate the vehicle from what it's doing and what it's carrying. It's got to be different." We should expect a starship built in 2114 to be as alien to us as the International Space Station would be to a biplane pilot in 1914. 

A ship making the journey to another solar system will likely have to leave without any plan to return. It'd also need to contain an environment that could nourish and protect decades or centuries' worth of travelers. Jemison says a lush, green ship might carry the first outbound crew. Components would self-repair, and food would grow within the walls. (Such engineering challenges plague Mars colonization ideas today.)

Even a giant, antimatter-driven, self-sustaining space colony, however, might fail on its journey. A suitable starship must be more than sustainable and powerful. It must also protect its inhabitants. Using today's technologies, an enormous lead shield would have to separate the ship's inhabitants from harsh radiation out there in the universe. (Some suggest a hollowed-out asteroid.) But in the future, magnetic technologies now bending radiation at cancer in the body might scale up to deflect gamma rays like Earth's protective magnetosphere. 

So, let's say we do build a ship that can safely carry a population over lightyears. It will be useless without a vibrant, skilled community to inhabit it, Jemison says. "That crew that goes, whether it's 50 or 10,000, needs to reflect the diversity of the planet it comes from—cultural, gender, and socioeconomic." About 10,000 travelers would be the minimum—any fewer than that, and genetic fitness would take a hit (see chart below).

Space Colony Genetic Variation About 40,000 people would be needed to seed a genetically fit deep-space colony, according to one study. Illustration by Katie Peek/Popular Science; chart adapted from Acta Astronautica

To bolster diverse thinking, Jemison invited researchers from wide-ranging fields onto the project, and set up programs designed to involve people without science PhDs in space travel. Today, fashion professor Karl Epselund, for example, investigates interstellar clothing for the project. And more than $2 million for advanced aerospace manufacturing training has already reached Orange Coast Community College in California, where many students now go on to work for SpaceX, according to dean Doug Benoit. Jemison says the longterm goal is to expand the base of skilled laborers and technicians who one day will form the bulk of a large interstellar crew. 

The course to a space-faring future for humanity is long and riddled with nebulae of uncertainty. Overcoming them will involve a generational shift in human ambition. Jemison says she's glad Nolan's film has built up buzz around the idea of interstellar adventures, but that she wishes such sci-fi films would show more creativity in their vision.

"I'm a little sad that the impetus of the movie is we've screwed the planet up," she says. "I hope the reason we do this will be more positive."

To Kill Malaria Parasite, Feed Bacteria To Mosquitoes

Mon, 10/27/2014 - 15:46

Blood Meal An Anopheles albimanus mosquito bites a human. These species is a malaria vector in Central America.

The deadly malaria parasite, a protozoan named Plasmodium, rides inside the bellies of mosquitoes to get from human to human. While some scientists have proposed using genetically engineered or sperm-free mosquitoes to fight malaria, a new method aims straight for the stomach: Researchers have found that feeding mosquitoes bacteria inoculates the insects against Plasmodium. And if the mosquitoes can't carry the malaria parasite, they can't accidentally pass it on to the humans they bite.

In a study published last week in PLOS Pathogens, scientists introduced a bacteria called Chromobacterium Csp_P to a population of malaria- and dengue-infected mosquitoes. They found that in addition to wiping out a substantial chunk of the mosquitoes, it killed the Plasmodium pathogens in the stomachs of the survivors. They believe Chromobacterium-spiked traps could infect wild mosquitoes, effectively vaccinating them against malaria. Ideally, short-lived mosquitoes will contract Chromobacterium before they reach humans.

The Johns Hopkins team thinks the Chromobacterium fights Plasmodium in two ways. First, it activates mosquitoes' immune systems, which then destroy the malaria parasites as collateral damage. But Chromobacterium also kills Plasmodium and the dengue virus in laboratory cultures. This means it probably pumps out a slurry of chemicals that attack Plasmodium directly. The scientists speculate that these toxins might one day be used to fight malaria in people.

Researchers isolated the Chromobacterium from the mosquito species Aedes aegypti. There is no evidence that the bacteria can infect humans, but, Science reports, more research must still be done before scientists are sure its toxins are safe to use in the human body.

The fight against malaria in the developing world has ramped up in recent years. The WHO reports that efforts to combat the disease saved 3.3 million lives between 2000 and the end of 2013, but billions remain at risk--primarily in Africa. With treatment-resistant strains appearing, there is a demand for creative assaults on the parasite.

Chromobacterium is not the first bioagent deployed against malaria. Mosquito-killing diseases have joined chemical sprays and breeding disruption in the fight against the epidemic-carrying bugs for decades. But, if Chromobacterium works as planned, it would be the first dual-action bioagent, killing the disease and its biting vector.

'3-D Cutter' Othermill Goes On Sale

Mon, 10/27/2014 - 15:00

An Othermill Other Machine Co.

You can think of an Othermill as the opposite of a 3-D printer. Instead of building up objects from raw materials, Othermills create objects by cutting away a larger block of material into something smaller. They're like tiny robotic sculptors, similar to the artists who chisel away at a big block of marble until it becomes a work of art.

Like home 3-D printers, however, Othermills are made to fit on a tabletop. And they've gone on sale this week, so just as with 3-D printers, you can now buy one.

One Othermill machine costs $2,200. It carves materials that are softer than its cutting instruments, including certain woods and plastics, printed circuit boards, and certain metals like brass, copper, and aluminum. The machine has a precision of one one-thousandth of an inch (about 0.02 millimeters) and works faster than 3-D printers do. Users load programs into the Othermill in popular file formats, which are listed on the Othermill website.

What can you make with all that? In a press release, Othermill's manufacturer, a San Francisco-based startup called Other Machine Co., talks about letting small businesses prototype electronics quickly. Meanwhile, Other Machine Co.'s Instructables profile has some more whimsical suggestions. There's a Halloween stamp kit, a tiny synth that makes eight-bit music, and a light-up necklace cut from circuit boards. You could potentially incorporate all of these at once into your Halloween costume.

The Othermill isn't the only tabletop "3-D cutter" you can buy. In March, Make magazine listed a few other options, including both commercially available carving machines and machines that are still Kickstarter projects. Othermill itself began as a Kickstarter project last year and only finished shipping products to its backers last month, the company reports. Now it's up and manufacturing for all customers.

Video: Bionic Boots That Let You Run Up To 25 MPH

Mon, 10/27/2014 - 14:15
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In September, Popular Science attended World Maker Faire at the New York Hall of Science. We saw giant robots, tiny Tesla coils, and musical instruments made out of anything you can imagine. Check out some of the coolest projects with us!

Ever wanted to run like an ostrich? When Keahi Seymour was a teenager, he decided to create shoes that would let him emulate the birds’ springy gait and match their top speed—45 miles per hour. Many years and a dozen prototypes later, Seymour came to Maker Faire to show off the latest version of his “bionic boot.” This prototype boosts his pace to a brisk 25 miles per hour, but Seymour won’t rest until he can take the human body to the next level, and outrun some of Earth’s fastest land animals.

Why Does My Dog Kick When I Scratch His Belly?

Mon, 10/27/2014 - 13:30

Belly Rub Lindsey G via Flickr CC by 2.0

It’s called the sweet spot. That perfect place on your dog’s belly or sides that, when scratched, causes your pet’s foot to go into crazy automatic kicking mode. Every dog owner knows where to find this magical region on his or her canine, as it usually offers up unmitigated joy.

As delightful as this puppy kicking is to watch, this reaction is actually a means of self-protection for your pet. It’s called the scratch reflex, and it’s an involuntary response that exists to keep your dog safe from dangerous bugs or irritants.

Underneath certain portions of your dog’s skin, there are collections of neural pathways that are connected to the spinal cord. When these nerves are activated – either by a scratch or a tickle – they quickly send messages to the spinal cord, which then instructs the dog’s leg to kick. For some dogs, the kicking can be more pronounced depending on how much scratching they feel.

“Dogs that have allergies in particular, it tends to be really easy to illicit that scratch reflex, because the dogs are borderline itchy anyway,” says Lore Haug, a veterinarian and animal behavior expert for Texas Veterinary Behavior Services. “But when you rub their skin more, it accentuates the scratching.”

According to Haug, the scratch reflex came about as way for animals to protect themselves against irritants on their bodies, especially invading bugs that could carry diseases. For example, if a dog has fleas running around on its skin, the insects’ itchiness will cause the scratch reflex to activate. Then, perhaps the kicking will knock some of the fleas off, alleviating the source of the itch.

It’s similar to the reflexes seen in humans, which usually exist to protect us in some way. “Let’s say you touch a hot stove, and before your brain recognizes it’s painful, the spinal cord recognizes the pain, and you involuntarily jerk your hand back,” Haug says. “If you had to wait until your conscious brain recognized something was in danger, your delay in reaction time could cause an injury or even death in some cases.”

The scratch reflex can be useful for your veterinarian to determine if your pet is suffering from any nerve damage, kind of like when your doctor tests your knee reflexes during checkups. Also, since the reflex is more for swatting away pesky bugs, it doesn’t necessarily mean your dog likes being scratched in that particular area. But of course, some dogs do enjoy a good rub on the belly. You’ll just have to pick up on cues from your pet to figure that out.

Lifeguard Drone Ready For Mass Production [Video]

Mon, 10/27/2014 - 12:45

Pars Drone Demonstrator RTS Labs

In the not too distant future, swimmers in distress may look up to the sky for help and find, not a lifeguard, but a drone, delivering a life preserver in their moment of need. Designed by Amin Rigi and RTS Labs in Iran, the Pars drone is a robotic lifesaver. First demonstrated in 2013, Rigi is launching an RTS Labs offshoot, RTS London, to mass produce the drones.

Here’s how Popular Science first covered the Pars drone in 2013:

The Pars Aerial Rescue Robot is designed to work as a mobile lifesaver dispensary, flying out to those in need and dropping vital flotation aids until better help can be secured. As currently designed, Pars starts with a quadrotor, which makes sense: quadrotors are versatile platforms, beloved by scientists because the machines can do things like test eagle arms and Kinect-based navigation. Quadrotors are also relatively strong. That means Pars wouldn't have any trouble carrying life preservers as well as a sophisticated navigation software and infrared cameras.

Since then, the drone has undergone a series of tests and improvements, moving from concept to prototype to demonstration. Here’s an early test, using an eight-rotor drone, a single inner tube, and a courtyard:

This next video starts off with animation about the drone concept, before cutting to tests with a working model. In one striking trial, the hexarotor reaches a swimmer in 22 seconds, more than a full minute faster than a lifeguard who started at the same time. 

The undersides of the hexarotor arms carry LED lights, so at night swimmers can see the drone coming to save them. The video also gives away an important detail: Pars is still remotely piloted by a human.

Future plans for the drone include floating stations with solar panels where several can recharge simultaneously, as well as more advanced features so drones can save lives on their own. With RTS London launched to manufacture these drones, the beaches of the future might just be safer thanks to some friendly robots.

'Littlefinger' Actor From 'Game Of Thrones' Stars In Rosetta Mission Promo

Mon, 10/27/2014 - 11:40

Aiden Gillen Ambition

We’ve been telling you all along that the Rosetta mission is incredible—the spacecraft has traveled for 10 years and some 250 million miles, and on November 12, it’ll become the first spacecraft ever to land on a comet. Now it appears that Aidan Gillen, the guy who plays ‘Littlefinger’ on HBO’s Game of Thrones, is also getting behind the mission. In a sci-fi short named Ambition, Gillen's character explains why Rosetta is awesome.

For a long time, the origins of water and indeed life on our home planet remained an absolute mystery. So we began searching for answers beyond Earth. Where could all this water have come from? In time we turned to comets -- one trillion celestial balls of ice, dust, complex molecules left over from the birth of our solar system…

The flick, which was a collaboration between Platige Image and the European Space Agency, is mostly about overcoming failure. That’s because the Rosetta mission was originally intended to launch on an Ariane 5 rocket in 2003, to rendezvous with a comet named 46P/Wirtanen in 2011. Then, in 2002, an Ariane 5 rocket exploded while launching a communications satellite, putting the Rosetta mission in jeopardy. Undaunted, the mission launched in 2004 instead on another Ariane 5 rocket, with a new comet in its crosshairs.

“Ambition, stubbornness, nothing has changed,” says Gillen’s character in Ambition. “We fall. We pick ourselves up again, and we adapt.”

Watch the video here:

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Chemists Find A New Chemical Bond

Mon, 10/27/2014 - 10:00

Bromine, Hydrogen, Bromine Photos of both the bromine and hydrogen samples were taken by Heinrich Pniok (www.pse.mendelejew.de), CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

Fresh evidence suggests there exists a type of chemical bond that nobody has ever seen before, Chemistry World reports

Not that they haven't looked. In the early 1980s, chemists searched for--but couldn't find--evidence of this type of bond after some theorized it should exist. The bond occurs between two heavy atoms with a hydrogen atom, which is light, in the middle. Normally, chemical bonds only happen when the bonding reduces the potential energy of the system. In this case, the potential energy of the system is higher after bonding. Still, the bond appears because something called the vibrational zero point energy decreases so much, it stabilizes the system. The bond is called a vibrational bond.

Now, two recent experiments found evidence of a bromine-hydrogen-bromine molecule with vibrational bonding, Chemistry World reports. One found the bond by creating exotic versions of hydrogen. The discovering team created isotopes of hydrogen by replacing hydrogen's electrons with exotic particles called muons. Only muonium made vibrational bonds with the bromine atoms.

These new findings were made possible by quantum chemistry techniques, which allowed researchers to calculate the vibrational zero point energy of the system, Chemistry World reports. Such techniques didn't exist back in the 1980s.

[Chemistry World]

The Co-Robots In 'Interstellar' Are Gorgeous--And Silly

Mon, 10/27/2014 - 09:00

When humans finally set foot on an alien world, they’ll be joined by robots. That’s not a bold prediction. It’s a statement of the obvious. Machines have already beat us to Mars and proven their worth as tireless scouts, surveyors, and sample collectors. A manned expedition will no doubt include at least one bot, if not a whole fleet of them.

What’s less obvious, though, is the form these robots will take. Some might take familiar shapes, like wheeled or tracked rovers, or a flock of microsatellites that can provide useful aerial footage. But what about robots assigned to work directly with astronauts, moving safely and helpfully within the same vehicles and environments as their human masters? Would they be humanoids, like NASA’s present-day experimental bot, Robonaut 2, which is currently being tested aboard the International Space Station? Or would they be more alien themselves, with bodies and behaviors that support humans, without physically mimicking them?

In the upcoming movie Interstellar, we see the latter option. The robots that accompany a manned expedition to another world are monolithic space oddities, rectangular slabs whose plank-like segments can decouple and rotate to pull off a variety of actions. The trailers offer brief examples, such as bipedal walking and a flailing sort of cartwheel across the surface of a body of water.

They are beautiful, eye-catching designs. They’re also pretty ridiculous.

The bots are called TARS and CASE. They are beautiful, eye-catching designs. They’re also pretty ridiculous.

The movie’s director, Christopher Nolan, has shared very little about the robot’s design, telling Empire that it’s quadrilateral, and that, “you've got four main blocks, and they can be joined in three ways.” It’s a visually arresting approach, and one with no real-world precedent. Therefore, there’s no basis for praise or abuse, in terms of predicting where robotic locomotion is headed. And hey, cool robots look cool, which is more than good enough for Hollywood.

Still, there’s plenty that’s silly about this design when it comes to the field of collaborative robotics, or co-bots, which can function alongside humans without causing confusion or injury.

The go-to example of the state of the art in co-bots is Baxter, a two-armed robot laborer from Massachusetts-based Rethink Robotics that can be taught to perform menial, repetitive tasks—such as grabbing specific parts from a conveyor belt. Best of all, Baxter isn’t going to kill you, the way that some industrial robotics might if you were to wander past the safety measures that keep auto-assembly bots separated from their human co-workers. Baxter is, above all things, social and safe. And while Baxter isn’t exactly space-worthy, its two best features are worth considering for the planetary explorers to come.

Baxter At Work Rethink Robotics The Importance of Appearing Earnest

Baxter is one of the most expressive robots on the planet. By adjusting its on-screen eyebrows, the tablet-like face can instantly signal confusion over a command. And by turning that face on its stalk-like, articulated neck to face you, Baxter provides the unspoken confirmation that this machine is listening to you, or waiting for your next order, or even acknowledging your approach. Baxter doesn’t speak, but it communicates in ways that most robots can’t.

This is a crucial feature for a co-bot, and the differentiating factor between a robot that works effectively alongside people, and one that simply invades your personal space. “Let’s say you have a robot that listens to voice commands,” says Dmitry Berenson, a roboticist at Worcester Polytechnic Institute who works with collaborative robotic systems. “If it doesn’t seem to acknowledge what you said, people are going to get confused.” Imagine a human who doesn’t answer a request with a verbal confirmation, or thumbs up, or even the tiniest of nods. With fewer social skills and hardware than most humans, an unresponsive co-bot can quickly become a source of frustration and a less efficient collaborator. “Sometimes, the usability of the robot depends on how well you can interact with it,” says Berenson.

Now imagine a robot whose job is to pitch in during emergencies on some remote celestial body, where a single slip-up could kill an explorer. A system that requires an audible verbal exchange, and possibly even a direct communications link, doesn’t inspire much confidence as a co-bot. As Berenson points out, expressivity doesn’t mean creating a cutesy humanoid or eerily life-like android. Baxter makes do without a nose, mouth, or voice. Jibo, the social robot designed by MIT roboticist Cynthia Breazeal, has stunned backers and the greater robotics community with its non-anthropomorphic, icon-based interaction, using colors and shapes to quickly connect with users (It’s racked up $2.2 million in funding on Indiegogo.). As slick as Interstellar’s bots look, a perpetual poker face isn’t an asset for any co-bot, much less one you have to interact with through a space suit.

Hand in Hand Robonaut 2 shakes the hand of a fellow astronaut. NASA The Stay-Puft Co-Bot

Baxter’s other standout feature is safety. The robot’s actuators are built to yield. In training mode, you can physically walk it through its assigned task, guiding its limbs throughout the workspace. During standard operations, Baxter’s limbs will still move when pushed on. In fact, Baxter stops moving as soon as it detects an approaching human, to further minimize the risk of accidental collisions.

This level of caution is smart for a manufacturing bot, but probably overkill for a full-fledged co-bot, particularly one designed to assist astronauts. According to Berenson, the more compliant a robot’s actuators are, the less precision and strength they’re capable of. If a space co-bot is intended to fill in for humans, punching away at tightly spaced buttons and controls, its limbs and motors might have to exert more force and yield less than Baxter’s. Likewise, a bot with enough power to walk, swim, and be of any use to planetary explorers probably shouldn’t be all that compliant.

"You don’t want sharp angles around people in space suits."

What a space co-bot should be, however, is squishy. Robonaut 2 has hard components, but its limbs are padded and self-contained, with no exposed joints to crush errant biological fingers. A thoroughly soft robot, like the gas-powered systems demonstrated by researchers at MIT, would likely fall on the wrong side of compliance vs. power tradeoff. But the bots in Interstellar are on the opposite end of that spectrum and appear to be something of a co-robotic menace. “You don’t want sharp angles around people in space suits,” says Berenson. “That could cause a problem. Having softness is just good practice for most robots. There’s not much of a reason not to have a little padding.”

Until we know when and where humanity is headed, it’s impossible to sketch out a complete design for the space co-bots to come. In fact, with all due respect to Baxter, we have yet to produce a co-bot on Earth—a robot that freezes when you come near isn’t much of a collaborator. But it’s safe to say they’ll be nothing like the stark, featureless bots in Interstellar. They’ll be expressive, ready to communicate in obvious as well as subtle, non-verbal ways. And they’ll be soft to the touch, prepared to execute orders in close quarters, without accidentally crushing or killing the very people they were built to assist.

Walking On Water From Interstellar, copyright Paramount Pictures

The Week In Numbers: The World's Highest Freefall, A Paralyzed Man Walks, And Driverless Cars Learn To Speed

Sun, 10/26/2014 - 10:00

135,000 feet: New freefall world record, set Friday morning over Roswell, New Mexico. That's 7,000 feet higher than the previous record-holder, Felix Baumgartner.

57 years: Age of Alan Eustace, the Google executive who dove through the upper stratosphere.

Eustace Hangs From His Parachute Paragon Space Development Corporation

40 billion: Number of habitable worlds scientists believe may exist in our galaxy--just one of the amazing facts we learned in our coverage of the science of the movie Interstellar

98,000: Number of new Ebola cases that could hit Liberia soon without immediate assistance. 

Ebola ward in Lagos, Nigeria. CDC Global via Flickr CC By 2.0

149 mph: New speed record for driverless cars. Audi says an automated RS7 hit the mark on a closed course. 

A 2014 Audi RS7 According to Audi, a driverless version of this car set a driverless speed record. Sarah Larson, via Wikimedia Commons

4 years: Time Darek Fidyka spent paralyzed after getting stabbed in the back. An injection of brain cells to his spine helped him walk again

David Nicholls (left) and his son Dan, who is paralyzed. The Nicholls Spinal Injury Foundation provided funding for the research. Nicholls Spinal Injury Foundation (nsif)

Will Wormhole Travel Ever Be Possible?

Sun, 10/26/2014 - 09:00

Travel By Wormhole jodipheonix via DeviantArt

As a curious species, humans have long dreamed of traveling to the farthest depths of space. That's the major theme of the upcoming science fiction epic Interstellar, which will take Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway to the places we hope to one day reach ourselves. Except for that tiny hiccup called deep space travel.

The universe is big. And along with its enormous size, it's also incredibly spread-out; any neighboring planets, stars, and galaxies are depressingly distant. Proxima Centauri, the closest star to Earth, for example, is 4.22 light years away. If the fast-moving Voyager spacecraft attempted to reach Proxima Centauri, it would take the tiny probe more than 80,000 years to get there.

So how are we supposed to explore the universe in a way that won’t take us thousands of generations? Among the many concepts researchers have devised, one technique has remained particularly popular, especially in the realm of science fiction: shortcuts, or theoretical tunnels known as wormholes.

Wormholes are thought to be highly unstable, and the insertion of foreign matter might cause them to collapse completely.

In theory, wormholes are tunnel-like connections made out of spacetime, offering a shorter distance between two vastly separated areas of the universe. The idea is that space travelers can use these tunnels to make space commutes much shorter than thousands of years. Numerous books, TV shows, and films have utilized the wormhole concept for deep space travel—from Dr. Arroway's mysterious alien-filled journey in Contact to the Bajoran Wormhole, which allows access to the unexplored Gamma Quadrent in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

This plot device will be utilized yet again in Interstellar. In the film, a band of astronauts travel through a newly discovered wormhole connecting widely separated areas of space-time, in order to find a new world to call home. It sounds incredible, as if all our space travel fantasies can come true. But is it possible? Could humans one day use a wormhole to travel to another galaxy or beyond?

The science says it’s highly unlikely, yet possible. However, to make a traversable wormhole, we're going to need a lot of specific conditions and an understanding of where these amazing secret passages come from.

What is a wormhole?

Up until the early 1900s, Newton’s theory of gravity held supreme. It was the idea that all objects in the Universe—including you and me—have an innate force within us that attracts other objects. The larger an object, the greater this intrinsic gravitational pull. This explains why we “stick” to the Earth instead of flying off into space.

But in 1915, Albert Einstein completely tore that idea apart. He theorized that gravity is actually the result of a warping in spacetime (a combination of space and time into one continuum). Essentially, an object’s very existence deforms space and time around itself, creating an imprint on the universe.

And it’s this deformation of space-time that gives rise to gravity’s effects. “Suppose that there’s you and another mass. You deform the spacetime around you and the mass deforms the space-time around it, and you’re both falling into each other’s wells,” says Richard Holman, a physics professor at Carnegie Mellon University.

Now here's the part where this all ties into wormholes. According to Einstein and his colleague Nathan Rosen, a wormhole is actually deformed space that has warped in such a way to connect two different points in space-time. The result is a tunnel-like structure that could be straight or curved, linking two areas of the Universe that are incredibly far apart.

Einsteinian mathematical models predict that wormholes exist, but none have ever been found. Fumio Abe, an astrophysicist at Nagoya University, has proposed a way to search for large wormholes (big enough for a spaceship) by looking at a star’s brightness when it moves in front of the tunnel. An effect called gravitational lensing would cause the brightness to fluctuate in a unique way.

However, chances are that we’re not going to find big wormholes any time soon.

Enter If You Dare SGAlteran via DeviantArt The problem with wormholes

So far, physicists haven’t determined a way in which wormholes would form naturally in the Universe.  However, theoretical physicist John Wheeler said it’s possible that wormholes may spontaneously appear and disappear, according to his quantum foam hypothesis (the idea that virtual particles are, quite weirdly, popping in and out of existence at all times).

Unfortunately, Wheeler theorized that these impromptu wormholes would be super small, appearing at the Planck scale. That’s about 10-33 centimeters long. In other words, the wormhole would be so small that it'd be almost impossible to detect.

Let’s suppose, however, that we could find tiny wormholes as they pop into existence: We might be able to make them bigger. And to do that, you’d need a funky material called exotic matter.

“The rule of ordinary matter in the universe is that it has positive energy density and positive pressure,” says Eric Davis, a senior research physicist at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Austin. “Exotic matter is a little bit different. It’s matter that has negative energy density and/or negative pressure. You can have a clump of matter with negative energy and positive pressure or visa versa.”

Negative properties of exotic matter might push the sides of a wormhole outward, making it large enough—and stable enough—for a person or a spaceship to fit through it. Except exotic matter isn’t exactly easy to come by; it exists only in theory, we don't know what it looks like, and we have yet to know where to find it.

But say we surmount even that in our hypothetical. We’ve found a tiny wormhole, we somehow have obtained some exotic matter, and we’ve expanded and stabilized the tunnel to be big enough to fit a spaceship. Holman explains that it’s possible inserting anything that isn’t exotic matter would destabilize the wormhole completely. In other words: Entering a wormhole could immediately kill you.

Wormholes come with a lot of caveats, but here’s an even bigger one. Wormholes could very well connect two completely different space-times; i.e. the entry point might exist in a completely different era. That means traversing via wormhole comes with the risk of winding up in a different time in the universe's history. Some have even theorized that wormholes could connect completely different universes altogether. Wrap your head around that one for a second.

When it comes to the prospect of using wormholes for space travel, Davis is a bit more optimistic than Holman, explaining that harnessing exotic matter is all you need to create your own functional wormhole from scratch. (He’s currently working on a way to create exotic matter in his lab at Icarus Interstellar.) Holman takes a more realistic approach.

“If you really could do it, with all the exoplanets and stars out there, you’d figure someone ‘else’ would already have done this,” Holman explains. “And as far as we could tell, from looking at a decent fraction of the universe, we’re not seeing any evidence of that. That starts telling you that you may just have to travel the hard way.”

Wormhole qingqing3 via Flickr CC by 2.0

Glitch Art, Rare Rainbows, And Other Amazing Images Of The Week

Sat, 10/25/2014 - 10:00

Glitch Art 3-D printing mishaps, like the one shown in the photo, are becoming an art form. There's something philosophical about machines unintentionally creating art.There's an entire Flickr group named "The Art of 3D Print Failure" dedicated to showcasing sometimes beautiful, or downright unsettling 3-D printing mistakes.  Flickr/clfcool

The Week In Drones: Monitoring Macaques, Vineyard Helpers, And More

Fri, 10/24/2014 - 17:30

Grapevines In A Vineyard, Napa Valley Jim G, via Wikimedia Commons

Here's a roundup of the week's top drone news: the military, commercial, non-profit, and recreational applications of unmanned aircraft.

Pocket Drone

Made by Cyphy Works, this tiny hexarotor solves one big problem for small drones -- short battery life -- by replacing it with an entirely different problem: tethering. The drone carries 250 feet of filament behind it, connected to a cell phone. The pilot uses the phone to steer the drone, and the drone draws on the cell phones battery power. The limitations of the tether are big; it does make the drone much harder to hack.

Watch it fly through an office below:

Vineyard Flyer

Earlier this month, Yamaha tested a remote controlled helicopter drone at vineyards in California. Vintners have already used drones to better understand their crops, but so long as drones are remote controlled, the labor savings of robotic crop monitoring will remain out of reach. Still, the fact that Yamaha is excited to show off a drone before it has autonomy is a good sign for the future of drone-assisted farming, if not so great for the present.

Threats To The Crown

Earlier this week, the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom published a report on "The Security Impact Of Drones." The report discusses a variety of threats drones might pose to the U.K. back home. The report also weighs in on the ethics of using drones for war with a fairly reasoned response. From the summary:

There is no convincing ethical objection to acquiring RPA, while the ethical acceptability of their armed use is dependent on context and control. Indeed, it may be positively ethically desirable to use them rather than other kinds of firepower which are less capable of avoiding civilian casualties and which expose UK military personnel to avoidable risk.

Northern Pig-tailed Macaque Similar to the kinds of macaques researchers used drones to monitor in Malaysia. JJ Harrison via Wikimedia Commons

Monitoring Monkeys, Fighting Malaria

This week researchers published a study about using drones to track malaria in Malaysia. Humans and monkeys wore GPS trackers, and the drones flew over the island to map changes in environment and development. The goal: tracking a monkey-specific strain of malaria that has started to cross over to humans.

Soccer And Skycameras

It’s been a busy couple of weeks for drones at soccer matches. Last week, during a match between Serbia and Albania in Belgrade, a drone carried an antagonistic Albanian flag. The drone was so disruptive that the game was abandoned halfway through. Earlier this week, in Manchester, police arrested a man for flying a drone over a soccer match. The drone was a quadcopter, and the 41-year-old man piloting it was over in a nearby parking lot.

Did I miss any drone news? Email me at kelsey.d.atherton@gmail.com.