All posts by Duncan Geere

DIY auroras: how to make your own space weather

If you've ever taken a trip to Iceland, northern Norway or Canada in the hope of catching a glimpse of the aurora borealis and left disappointed, then I've got some good news for you. It's possible to create artificial aurorae. Unfortunately, you'll need to detonate a nuclear bomb in the atmosphere to do it. 

That's the finding of a study of newly-declassified Cold War tests that took place in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Both the US and USSR conducted military exercises that involved exploding nuclear devices at heights from 16 to 250 miles above the surface, with codenames like "Argus" and "Hardtack".

“The tests were a human-generated and extreme example of some of the space weather effects frequently caused by the sun,” said Phil Erickson, assistant director at MIT’s Haystack Observatory, Westford, Massachusetts, and co-author of the study.

“If we understand what happened in the somewhat controlled and extreme event that was caused by one of these man-made events, we can more easily understand the natural variation in the near-space environment.”


The aurora borealis, and its southern-hemisphere equivalent - the aurora australis, occur when the Sun belches out high-energy particles that collide with the Earth's magnetic field. The impact of that collision makes changes to the magnetic field that create auroras, and can also damage power grids.

In the Cold War tests, the nuclear explosions released enough energy to cause similar perturbations in the Earth's magnetic field, resulting in aurorae being seen above places close to the equator that would never normally see it - like the Apia Observatory in Western Samoa.

Some even created artificial radiation belts around our planet - layers of charged particles held in place by magnetic fields. These belts remained in place for weeks, and in one case years, causing satellites that passed through them to fail.

"Such atmospheric nuclear testing has long since stopped, and the present space environment remains dominated by natural phenomena," wrote Nasa's Mara Johnson-Groh. 

"However, considering such historical events allows scientists and engineers to understand the effects of space weather on our infrastructure and technical systems." 

The full details of the study were published in the journal Space Science Reviews.


First came self-lacing trainers – now it’s auto-fitting surgical gowns

Remember Marty McFly's self-lacing Nikes from Back to the Future 2 - the ones that, when slipped onto his feet, automatically tightened to the correct size without effort? Well, they were made a reality in 2016.

So what's next? Well the answer, improbably enough, is "surgical gowns". Japanese researchers have built a surgical gown that healthcare workers can put out without any help from anyone else that auto-adjusts to the right size. It's called a "Selfgown".

Conventional surgical gowns have strings or a belt that have to be done up around the neck and waist to keep them in place. However, doing that yourself introduces the risk of contamination, so an assistant has to do it.

The Selfgown comes with a special spring along the neckline instead of strings, while sticky tape and a special perforation is used for the waist belt. The result is a self-donning, self-adjusting gown that anyone can put on or take off without risking contamination. 

Zero risk

In fact, there's almost zero risk of infectious substances splashing from the gloves, because the wearer can take off the gown while wrapping the gloves inside-out at the same time. That's different from a conventional gown, where the gloves must be removed first.

That's big news in crisis situations - the use of a gown that can be put on quickly and safely is more important than ever in a world at increasing risk of pandemics like Ebola and Zika. 

"We finally established a self-donning, self-adjusting system after 18 months of research, making 41 prototypes while conducting 17 animal experiments, 5 clinical trials and incorporating evaluations from over 100 surgeons in Japan and overseas", said Kiyokazu Nakajima, who led the research team that invented the Selfgown.

"We were able to develop this groundbreaking gown through advice from infection control and critical care specialists. We wish to widely promote our achievement.” 


How to turn the Moon into an interplanetary petrol station

With all the talk about humans going to Mars, sometimes we forget about the Moon. Sure, it's been 45 years since humans last visited, but there are plenty of good reasons to revisit our nearest heavenly neighbor.

One of the biggest is that the Moon could be a handy stop-off point for wider travel through the solar system. Nasa is already planning a space station that'll orbit the Moon and act as a staging ground for the Mars missions of the early 2030s. 

But exactly what that lunar depot might look like is still a little unclear. That's why the California Institute of Technology recently hosted the 2017 Caltech Space Challenge, asking students from around the world to propose designs for a lunar launch and supply station.

In an article on The Conversation, some of those students outlined what they see as the best approach. They suggested creating several small robotic bases on the surface of the Moon that would mine ice, manufacture liquid rocket fuel from it, and transfer that to passing spacecraft. With just three different types of rovers and a few small robotic shuttles, deep space missions could be refuelled in lunar orbit. 

Robotic workers

The first rover would explore and find ice-bearing locations. The second would build a launchpad there, as well as roadways, while a third collects the ice and delivers it to storage tanks and the processing plants that split it into hydrogen and oxygen using solar power. Finally, lunar supply shuttles would transfer that fuel into space.

The best place for this interplanetary petrol station would be the 'Lagrangian point' in between the Earth and the Moon. That's the scientific term for the place where the Earth and Moon's gravitational forces are equally strong, cancelling each other out. It's stable, making it a perfect pit stop.

The biggest benefit of this approach is that rockets bound for Mars wouldn't need to carry all their heavy fuel with them when they launch from the Earth's surface. That means more scientific and colonisation can be carried instead, tripling the possible payload they can carry with them.

"By helping us escape both Earth’s gravity and dependence on its resources, a lunar gas station could be the first small step toward the giant leap into making humanity an interplanetary civilization," wrote the students.

You can read their full plan over on The Conversation


This robot bird will scare real birds away from airports

 Birds are bad news for airports. As well as the risk of a "bird-strike" downing a plane, they cause material damage estimated to run into billions of pounds a year.

To control the populations of birds, airports use pyrotechnics, sound cannons, lasers and other technological systems. But birds get used to them over time and learn to fly around them.

That's why roboticists from the University of Twente have developed a lifelike robotic bird that will patrol the landing strip, scaring real birds away at Edmonton International Airport in Canada.

The bot, which has been codenamed "Robird", mimics the appearance and flight of a falcon. It's the creation of Clear Flight Solutions - a spin-off company from the University - which collaborated on a Canadian drone services firm called Aerium for the project.

Drone Project

 Robird is part of a large-scale drone project at Edmonton, which will not only keep planes safe but also observe wildlife, inspect buildings and take 3D measurements. For three months, Robird's effectiveness at scaring away birds will be carefully monitored.

‘This is a historic step for the Robird and our company,’ says Nico Nijenhuis, the CEO of Clear Flight Solutions.

“We currently operate our Robirds in a variety of places, but taking the step towards full integration within daily operations at an airport is huge. For years, there has been a lot of interest from airports. To now officially start integrating our operations at a major Canadian airport is absolutely fantastic.” 


Your personality is your best defence against losing your job to a robot

Scared of losing your job to a robot? We all are. But psychologists at the University of Houston believe they've begun to figure out who's most at risk.

In a study of 346,660 people, a team led by assistant professor of social and personality psychology Rodica Damian looked at personality traits and vocational interests in adolescence, along with intelligence and socioeconomic status.

“We found that regardless of social background, people with higher levels of intelligence, higher levels of maturity and extraversion, higher interests in arts and sciences … tended to select (or be selected) into less computeriseable jobs 11 and 50 years later,” the team wrote in a paper published in the European Journal of Personality. 

Not Optimal

 Every 15-point increase in IQ predicted a seven percent drop in the probability of a job being computerised, while an increase in maturity or in scientific interests also lessens the likelihood of losing you job to robots.

The findings, the researchers say, suggest that a traditional education may not be optimal for coming changes in the nature of work. However they did acknowledge that the educational system has already changed substantially since the survey participants were at school (in the 1960s).

“Perhaps we should consider training personality characteristics that will help prepare people for future jobs,” she said, suggesting that people could be guided towards better social interactions, industrious behaviour or interest in activities related to arts and sciences.

“By preparing more people, at least more people will have a fighting chance.” 


A capsule robot just took its maiden voyage – through a pig’s colon

Colonoscopies are not the most pleasant of experiences. Doctors use a thin, flexible tube to examine the inside of your large intestine and look for ulcers, polyps and other signs of cancer.  It's uncomfortable at best, and painful at worst.

But biomedical engineers from Vanderbilt University's Medical Centre in Nashville believe that they've developed a better solution. They've built an autonomous 'capsule robot' that uses magnets to traverse the inside of a colon.

There are two components. The first is an internal capsule that has a camera and a 'tail' that lets doctors control tools attached to it. The second is a robotic arm which moves around above the body, not touching the skin but guiding the internal capsule where it needs to go. Pulling, rather than pushing, the colonoscope means it's less likely to get stuck on protrusions. 

"Since the external magnet pulls the capsule robot with the tether segment from the front or head of the capsule, instead of a physician pushing the colonoscope from behind as in traditional endoscopy, we're able to avoid much of the physical pressure that is placed on the patient's colon - possibly reducing the need for sedation or pain medication," said Keith Obstein, corresponding author on a paper describing the technology (which has not yet been peer-reviewed).

Reverse view

The team also programmed the arm to perform a manoeuvre called a 'retroflexion', where the colonoscope turns around to get a reverse view. In testing on pigs, the machine successfully performed a retroflexion 30 times, taking an average of 12 seconds to perform each one.

"Not only is the capsule robot able to actively maneuver through the GI tract to perform diagnostics, it is also able to perform therapeutic maneuvers, such as biopsies of tissue or polyp removal, due to the tether - something that other capsule devices are unable to do," added Obstein, who presented his work at the Digestive Disease Week conference 2017. 

Following the tests on pigs, human trials are expected to begin at the end of 2018. Until then, the team will work on optimising the algorithms that control the colonoscope, improving its manoeuvring performance.


This smartwatch prototype will move on your wrist so you can never ignore it

Have you ever wished your smartwatch could rotate? 

Me neither, but engineers at Dartmouth College and the University of Waterloo in the United States have developed a prototype smartwatch face that can not only rotate, but hinge, translate, rise and orbit too.

"Users want smartwatches that fit their lifestyles and needs," said Xing-Dong Yang, assistant professor of computer science at Dartmouth, who developed the prototype, named "Cito". 

The goal of the project is to improve how smartwatches deliver data to the wearer. As examples, they suggest that a watch could automatically orbit around its strap to keep the face aimed at the user whatever the orientation of the wrist. 

Or it could rise toward a user to alert them of a notification if a user is playing a game, hinge to let someone else look at the face, or slide along an arm to reveal the face if it's hidden under a shirt sleeve.

Exciting dances

Those movements can be performed individually or combined into more exciting dances at will. As well as being purportedly more convenient for users, it's hoped that the technology could deliver benefits to users with physical disabilities or other impairments.

"We recognize that our work investigates a radical idea, but our hope is that we also show how a methodical and principled approach can explore any such radical visions," the research team wrote in a paper that'll be presented at the ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Denver, Colorado on 10 May.

"Consumers will question the need for smartwatches if the devices are just not convenient enough," said Yang. 

"Cito proves the true potential of smartwatches and shows that they can be functional and fun."


The first soft synthetic retina works just like a camera

Human vision depends on the retina. Just like the image sensor in a digital camera, it sits at the back of the eyeball and converts light that falls onto it into electrical signals that are sent to the brain. 

Around the world, however, there are many people with inherited or acquired diseases that damage the retina, damaging sight in the process. In that past, treating them has involved implanting rigid, hard materials that only provide limited benefits.

But now a chemist at Oxford University named Vanessa Restrepo-Schild has used synthetic tissues to develop an artificial retina that more closely resembles human biology. It's made of soft water droplets and biological cell membrane proteins.

Eye environment

Just like the real thing, the cells act like pixels, responding to light and creating electrical signals that could be used to stimulate the neurons at the back of the eye. The soft retina is less invasive than a mechanical device, and less likely therefore to be rejected.

"The human eye is incredibly sensitive, which is why foreign bodies like metal retinal implants can be so damaging, leading to inflammation and/or scarring," said Restrepo-Schild. 

"But a biological synthetic implant is soft and water based, so much more friendly to the eye environment."

Shapes and signals

So far, the retina has only been tested in laboratory conditions and in monochrome. The next step is to see how well it performs as an implant and expand its capability to recognise colours and possibly even shapes and signals.

"I have always been fascinated by the human body," said Restrepo-Schild. 

"I want to prove that current technology can be used to replicate the function of human tissues, without having to actually use living cells."

The full details of the technology were published in a paper in the journal Scientific Reports.


This prosthetic hand has a built-in eye for added accuracy

There are definitely times - mostly when ferreting around under the sofa or behind the fridge for a lost object - when you've probably wished you had an eye on your hand.

Well, it seems that even the creepiest dreams can come true. Biomedical engineers at Newcastle University have developed a prosthetic hand that's fitted with a camera.

The cool thing isn't just that it has a camera, but that the hand can use that camera to make it easier to pick things up. The goal is to bypass the normal processes which require a prosthetic hand owner to see an object, and then physically stimulate the right muscles in the arm that trigger the movements in the prosthetic limb.

Instead, by taking a picture of an object in front of it, the robotic hand can assess the object's size and shape and trigger the right movements without intervention from the user.

"Prosthetic limbs have changed very little in the past 100 years – the design is much better and the materials’ are lighter weight and more durable but they still work in the same way," said Kianoush Nazarpour, co-author of a paper describing the technology. 

"Using computer vision, we have developed a bionic hand which can respond automatically – in fact, just like a real hand, the user can reach out and pick up a cup or a biscuit with nothing more than a quick glance in the right direction." 

 Neural networks

The system uses neural networks to recognise different objects, and then match them with the kind of grip they require. 

"The computer isn’t just matching an image, it’s learning to recognise objects and group them according to the grasp type the hand has to perform to successfully pick it up," said Ghazal Ghazaei, lead author on the paper.

It's capable of four different kinds of grip - palm wrist neutral (such as when you pick up a cup); palm wrist pronated (such as picking up the TV remote); tripod (thumb and two fingers) and pinch (thumb and first finger). 

“The beauty of this system is that it’s much more flexible and the hand is able to pick up novel objects – which is crucial since in everyday life people effortlessly pick up a variety of objects that they have never seen before,” Nazarpour added.

Ultimately, the goal of the project is to build a bionic hand that can do much more - sensing pressure and temperature, and transmitting that to the brain. The team would also like to allow the brain to control the hand directly, as opposed to connecting to muscles. 

“[The camera-equipped hand] is a stepping stone towards our ultimate goal,” said Nazarpour.  

“But importantly, it’s cheap and it can be implemented soon because it doesn’t require new prosthetics – we can just adapt the ones we have.”


This new battery concept could give electric cars a 1000km range

One of the biggest challenges when designing an electric car is where to put the batteries. 

Every vehicle has hundreds to thousands of separate battery cells, each surrounded by a housing and connected to the car systems and sensors. This complex design takes up space - more than 50 percent of the area dedicated to batteries inside the car is taken up with housing and contacts.

But now a team of engineers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Ceramic Technologies and Systems (IKTS) has developed a new battery concept that could substantially decrease the amount of space needed for housing and contacts - meaning more batteries can fit in the same car.

Their system stacks battery cells directly one above the other across a large area, as opposed to the traditional approach where individual cells are strung side-by-side in small sections. The direct connection to each cell in the stack allows current to flow over the entire surface of the battery, significantly reducing electrical resistance.

"With our new packaging concept, we hope to increase the range of electric cars in the medium term up to 1000 kilometers," said Mareike Wolter, Project Manager at Fraunhofer IKTS. 

Metallic tape

The key to being able to do this is a new electrode - in this case, a metallic tape coated on both sides with ceramic storage materials. One side is the battery's anode - the other is the cathode.

Developing each material is a complex process, involving a suspension of powdered ceramics mixed with polymers and electrically conductive materials.

"We use our expertise in ceramic technologies to design the electrodes in such a way that they need as little space as possible, save a lot of energy, are easy to manufacture and have a long life," said Wolter.

The research is still a work-in-progress right now, but the concept is being scaled up to larger battery cells which can be installed in real electric cars. Initial tests are due for 2020, but Wolter is optimistic that this should take place without difficulties:

"One of the core competencies of our institute is to adapt ceramic materials from the laboratory to a pilot scale and to reproduce them reliably," she said.