The archetypical robot is a man of metal, a harsh mechanical construct contrasted sharply with the soft fleshiness of the humans that built it. A team of engineers, led by Michael T. Tolley of the Harvard Microrobotics Laboratory, created instead a soft robot. Using a flexible body, the robot moves like a flailing starfish over all terrain.
Their work was recently published in the journal Soft Robotics, and curiously it highlights something the robot lacks: a tether. While previous attempts at soft robots used tethers for better communication with their flopping mechanical beasts, if a robot is to truly navigate the world, it can’t have anything holding it back. This new robot, a flopping pink "X", has an optional electrical power tether, but can use a battery pack as well.
The robot’s body is mostly silicon, with hollow glass beads added to lighten it. Inside, a series of cavities and tubes formed six “pneu-nets”, or pneumatic network inside the robot. Actuators inside the central part of the robot inflate and deflate these nets, making the robot move. Controls were mounted on an Arduino, and the soft robot had a GoPro camera as a visual sensor.
DARPA funding in part supported the design of this robot. While there’s no immediate application yet, a robot that can survive in ice, over fire, and under great pressure has potential as a future rescue tool.
Watch it squirm over fire, across ice, and survive under a car tire below:
The global population continues to grow, and climate change is already tangibly reducing food harvests. Can agriculture adapt to be both more productive and more resilient?
One answer to that question may be "add fungus.” Issie Lapowsky reports today for WIRED that a Seattle-based startup named Adaptive Symbiotic Technologies is almost ready to put a fungi-based product on the market that enables rice, corn, and other crops to bear up amazingly well during drought and temperature extremes.
According to Lapowsky, the product, called BioEnsure, is a blend of microscopic fungi that Dr. Rusty Rodriguez and his wife, Dr. Regina Redman, first discovered in the 1990s. They had been trying to figure out how some plants were able to grow in the barren soil and peak 150 degree-Fahrenheit temperatures at the center of Yellowstone National Park. They discovered that fungi had colonized the plants and essentially lent them extra resilience. When the fungi were removed in the lab, the plants failed under the same heat.
Since 2008 Redman has been tweaking fungi blends to work with wheat, soybeans, rice, and corn crops.
BioEnsure has been proven in real-world conditions, Lapowsky writes:
During the drought that destroyed much of the cropland in the Midwest in 2012, for instance, BioEnsure-treated corn crops generated 85 percent more yield than plants that were not treated. And in temperate climates, BioEnsure has been proven to increase output by 3 to 20 percent. What’s more, says [AST vice president of business development Zachery] Grey, BioEnsure appears to be particularly effective on organic crops, which aren’t treated with chemicals and other additives for protection.
AST has been nominated (along with 16 other contestants) for a Securing Water for Food award by the U.S. Agency for International Development. The young company's next big hurdle may not be extreme weather, reports Lapowsky, but the influence of the agriculture-industrial complex that reaps massive profits from chemicals that BioEnsure could render unnecessary.
But it was worth 25! (In 2014, each copy will cost you $5 on the newsstand.)September 1939 Popular Science Things We Take For Granted Now Were Brand New, Like... Cameras in Police Cars Movie Camera In Police Car Puts Evidence On Film. There's no arguing with the testimony of this movie camera. Popular Science And Windshield Wiper Fluid This Windshield Wiper Washes It, Too! Windshields are automatically washed and scrubbed with clean water by a new automobile accessory available on a popular make of car. Turning a dashboard switch sends a stream of water from a small reservoir tank across the windshield glass, and the standard wiper blade completes the cleaning operation. Popular Science Some Inventions Were Not So Great Like this baby walker, for parents who never want to touch their children. Engineer Builds Baby Walker. To teach his young son to walk, a Swiss engineer built the curious apparatus shown above. Pairs of wooden arms are strapped at one end to the infant's legs and at the other to the legs of an adult, so that the latter can control the baby's leg movements. A harness connected to a pulley on an overhead wire holds the child upright while it is taking its first steps. Popular Science And behind-the-back cigarette holders. (Seems perfectly safe.) Novel Cigarette Holder Keeps Smoke From Eyes. If smoke getst in your eyes, or you are warned to stay away from cigarettes, you may welcome the solution to both these problems adopted by the Englishman pictured above. Using a length of semiflexible metal tubing to put distance between his cigarette holder and its mouthpiece, he heads upwind to read his paper, undisturbed by falling ashes or eye-watering tobacco smoke. Popular Science Other Inventions Were Awesome, But Never Made It Doughnut Dunkers! Because food on a stick is always a good idea. Handle On Doughnut Is Boon To Dunkers. Major hazards involved in the popular indoor sport of dunking doughnuts in hot coffee are said to be greatly reduced by the invention of a new type of "sinker" with a baked-in handle that should prove a boon to all dunking enthusiasts. Triangular in shape, the improved doughnut is fried around a wooden handle, making it far easier to maneuver in and out of a steaming draught of Java. Popular Science And air-conditioned bedding All-Season Quilt Is Air-Conditioned By means of an electric fan, air that is artificially heated or chilled is blown through a flexible hose into the lining of the coverlet. Here the air is distributed evenly over the entire area of the quilt through branching air ducts, finally filtering through the porous inner lining. Popular Science And musical cakes. Musical Cake Plays A Tune. A diminutive music box is embedded in the bottom of the cake, and set off when a string is cut with the knife that cuts into the cake. Eighteen separate tunes are available, ranging from "Rockabye Baby" all the way to "Who's Afraid Of The Big, Bad Wolf?" Popular Science Long Reads
A feature-length article documents researchers who were putting patients into a coma to try to cure their cancer. Read it in its entirety (and absurdity) here: Can "Frozen Sleep" Cure Cancer?
You can read the full September 1939 issue here.COLLISION "A giant meteor running wild through space... may strike the Earth and spread havoc with its impact and scorching breath." Popular Science archives
The sun has been regurgitating a lot of solar flares these days, and now, a couple will be knocking at Earth’s door this weekend.
The originator of these flares is a particularly complex sunspot called AR2518, which is currently facing our planet. Late Monday night, the spot produced a minor solar flare (class R1) that lasted for six hours, but then on Wednesday at 1:45 p.m. EST, it upchucked a whopping X1.6-class solar flare, which is pretty darn strong.
Both flares have launched large outbursts of magnetic fields, known as coronal mass ejections – or CMEs – at high velocity straight toward Earth, according to NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center. The CME associated with Monday’s flare is expected to hit tonight, while the more intense CME is expected to arrive Friday afternoon to evening. Earth experiences CMEs all the time without issue, but if they're strong enough, CMEs can cause geomagnetic storms and sometimes, extreme radio blackouts.
Although Wednesday’s solar flare was somewhat strong, the magnitudes of these incoming CMEs aren’t that intense, historically speaking. (Although, as the Sun is nearing peak activity on its 11-year solar cycle, we may be seeing more -- and stronger -- storms soon.) What makes this event so unique, however, is that Earth will experience two CMEs in close succession to one another – a situation that is pretty rare. That means scientists are being cautious about what to expect. “The two CMEs could be interacting on their way to Earth’s orbit, or beyond Earth’s orbit,” says Thomas Berger, director of NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC), meaning the flares could potentially amplify each other in some way.
Ultimately, no one really knows how these storms will impact each other. Given this uncertainty, NOAA has issued a moderate to strong G3 geomagnetic storm watch for Friday. The rating indicates that the incoming magnetic fields may cause some problems with radio communications, as well as voltage irregularities in northern latitudes of the United States. Grid operators and even FEMA have been notified, just in case.
Fortunately, NOAA doesn’t expect the impacts of the CMEs to be unmanageable. “There’s really no concern for electronics down here on the ground,” says William Murtagh, program coordinator of the Space Weather Prediction Center. Murtagh notes that some studies have implied that electronics at higher altitudes and higher latitudes, such as planes flying near the poles, might be more vulnerable to geomagnetic storms. The biggest concern with electronics on the ground would be a loss of power, but Murtagh says the storms aren't strong enough to cause such a blackout.
Still, they’ll be watching the events closely. Additionally, Wednesday’s eruption also produced an Earth-bound solar radiation storm, but that has only amounted to an S1 rating (the lowest on the NOAA scale). When solar radiation storms reach a level of S3 or above, NOAA will advise the FAA to start rerouting flights away from the poles to avoid radiation exposure. NASA mission control will also direct astronauts into more hardened portions of the International Space Station.
Meanwhile, there is one pretty awesome byproduct of these two solar flares. The storms could produce some pretty intense auroras, which may be visible in northern parts of the United States tonight and tomorrow. So if you living in Maine or the Dakotas (or even New York), make sure you have your camera handy. Chances are your DSLR will work just fine.To learn more about solar storms, check out our previous coverage:
An international agreement to phase out use of chemicals that damage the ozone layer appears to be working. A new report finds that ozone-depleting substances in the atmosphere are down by 10 to 15 percent, and that the ozone layer is by and large getting thicker.
The reason is that nations have followed through on commitments made under the Montreal Protocol and related pacts to phase out use of chloroflurocarbons (CFCs) and halons, according to the new assessment (PDF) released this week by the United Nations Environment Program and the World Meteorological Organization. About 300 scientists contributed to the report.
The ozone layer is a thin film of gas in the stratosphere. It protects the Earth from the Sun's ultraviolent rays, which can cause skin cancer, eye damage, and other forms of ill health for both animal and plant life on Earth.
CFCs and halons were common in products like refrigerators, fire-fighting foams and aerosol spray cans. But from the early 1970s onward, evidence mounted that UV radiation broke down these compounds in the mid-stratosphere (about six miles above the Earth's surface), resulting in the release of chlorine and bromine atoms that break down ozone (O3) molecules. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that one chlorine atom can rip apart over 100,000 ozone molecules.Ozone Layer Progress The ozone layer has shown signs of recovering from human-caused damage since a worldwide ban on ozone-destroying substances began in 1989. UNEP/WMO
After the Montreal Protocol came into effect in 1989, countries began phasing out manufacture and use of ozone-destroying substances. There have been signs in the past 10 to 15 years that the atmosphere's "ozone column" is thickening in places, suggesting that the ban is working. The new report estimates that by 2050, the ozone layer in the Arctic and middle latitudes should return to roughly the condition it was in in 1980. Because natural atmospheric conditions cause air pollutants to concentrate over the poles, the seasonal ozone hole over Antarctica each spring (which has caused changes in the summer climate of the Southern Hemisphere) will take longer to heal.
A side benefit of CFC reduction is that it may be helping to blunt the progress of global warming, since CFCs are also powerful greenhouse gases. The assessment estimates that in 2010, lowered emissions of ozone depleters equated to keeping around 10 metric gigatons of CO2 out of the atmosphere, “which is about five times larger than the annual emissions reduction target” for 2008-2012 under the Kyoto Protocol climate treaty.
There are some warnings in the report as well. Some of the compounds being swapped in for ozone depleters – such as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) – are also potent greenhouse gases. If their use increases as predicted, they will contribute quite a lot to surface temperature rises.
As well, carbon tetrachloride (CCl4) levels remain unexpectedly high, even though the substance was banned under the Montreal Protocol. Participants in the treaty reported no new emissions of CCI4, which was used in fire fighting and dry cleaning, between 2007 and 2012. NASA credits the high levels to "unidentified industrial leakages, large emissions from contaminated sites, or unknown CCl4 sources."
The UN assessment also warns that the options available for stopping future damage to the ozone layer are becoming limited as most of the most straightforward actions play themselves out. These have ranged from ending the production of ozone-harming substances, to the destruction of "banks" of destructive chemicals and upgrading to appliances that don't contain CFCs. Presumably more ingenuity will be required on humanity's part to continue making progress -- by coming up with new, safe chemicals and technologies -- as well as not repeating the mistakes of the past.