Robotic insect powered by laser beam takes flight

May 17, 2018

Engineers at the University of Washington have created an insect-sized robot powered by laser beam. According to the team who created it, RoboFly and miniature drones like it, could help with time-consuming tasks like surveying crop growth on farms and detecting gas leaks.

RoboFly in an engineer's hand

RoboFly is slightly heavier than a toothpick. Photo: University of Washington

Cheaper to make and small enough to slip into tighter spots than drones, robotic insects have hundreds of useful applications if only engineers knew how to give them wings. Too small for propellers, and too light for the electronics required to power their wings, robotic insects have remained thoroughly grounded…at least until now.

Slightly heavier than a toothpick, RoboFly is the first robo-insect ever to take flight thanks to technology developed by a team of mechanical engineers at the University of Washington.  Their solution to the power problem is to use laser technology. To power RoboFly, a laser beam is pointed at a photovoltaic cell, attached above the device, which converts the laser energy into enough electricity to operate its wings via a tiny onboard circuit.

“It was the most efficient way to quickly transmit a lot of power to RoboFly without adding much weight,” said co-author Shyam Gollakota, an associate professor in the UW’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering.

By adding a microcontroller to the circuit, the engineers also gave RoboFly a brain, allowing it take its first independent flaps. According the university’s report, the controller sends voltage in waves to mimic the fluttering of a real insect’s wings.

“The microcontroller acts like a real fly’s brain telling wing muscles when to fire,” said co-author Vikram Iyer, a doctoral student in the UW Department of Electrical Engineering. “On RoboFly, it tells the wings things like ‘flap hard now’ or ‘don’t flap.’”

For now, RoboFly can only take off and land. Once its photovoltaic cell is out of the direct line of sight of the laser, the robot runs out of power and lands. However the team hopes to soon be able to steer the laser so that RoboFly can hover and fly around, the report said.

Future RoboFlies can also look forward to more advanced brains and sensor systems that help the robots navigate and complete tasks on their own, Fuller said.

“I’d really like to make one that finds methane leaks,” he said. “You could buy a suitcase full of them, open it up, and they would fly around your building looking for plumes of gas coming out of leaky pipes. If these robots can make it easy to find leaks, they will be much more likely to be patched up, which will reduce greenhouse emissions. This is inspired by real flies, which are really good at flying around looking for smelly things. So we think this is a good application for our RoboFly.”

“Before now, the concept of wireless insect-sized flying robots was science fiction. Would we ever be able to make them work without needing a wire,” co-author of the project and assistant professor in the UW Department of Mechanical Engineering, Sawyer Fuller, said. “Our new wireless RoboFly shows they’re much closer to real life.”

The team will present its findings on 23 May 2018 at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Brisbane, Australia.

Source: University of Washington


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Sake grown on trees?

May 5, 2018

Scientists at the Japanese Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute have developed a method to produce “wood alcohol”, which they hope will become a popular beverage in the country.

Cherry wood is one of the types that has been used so far to create “wood sake”

You may have heard of “Kuchikamizake”, a special kind of sake in which human saliva functions as a fermentation starter (after the rice has been chewed and spat out), but how about sake made from trees? Scientists at Japan’s Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute recently announced they have managed to create just this. By fermenting wood through a process similar to that used to make the traditional Japanese rice wine, the researchers have created an alcohol suitable for drinking, which retains the aroma of the wood, the Japan Times reported. The resulting “wood alcohol” tastes similar to alcohol aged in wood barrels, like whisky, and could be on shelves within three years.

Until now, methods used for the alcoholic fermentation of wood (for instance, in the production of biofuels) required the wood to be processed with sulphuric acid and heated to a high temperature to dissolve the cellulose or plant fibres, rendering the resulting product unsafe for drinking.

In the newly-invented method, the wood is crushed into microscopic chips which are mixed with yeast and an enzyme to start the fermentation process. Because no heat or harmful chemicals are used in the process, the alcohol created retains the aroma of the specific type of wood, and is suitable for drinking.

Using this process, the scientists produced 3.8 litres of liquid with an alcohol content of around 15% – similar to that of sake – from four kilograms of cedar wood. The researchers have produced alcohol from birch and cherry wood.

According to reports, the institute, which has a partial mandate from the Japanese government, plans to commercialise the venture with a private-sector partner, and begin selling wood sake within three years. It says it hopes the product will push demand for domestically grown wood in the future.

“We thought it would be interesting to think that alcohol could be made from something around here like trees,” Kengo Magara, a researcher responsible for the development project, was reported as saying.

“In Japan, there are about 1,200 species of trees. I hope people will be able to enjoy alcoholic drinks made from trees peculiar to each region.”

Sources: The Japan Times; Daily Nation

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An egg-cellent source of renewable energy

February 17, 2018

Researchers from Osaka City University in Japan have discovered that using proteins taken from egg whites could help facilitate the carbon-free production of hydrogen.

Although hydrogen is considered clean fuel because it emits nothing but water when burnt, the creation of the gas itself is a less eco-friendly affair. Currently, the mass production of hydrogen involves the burning of fossil fuels, a process which releases harmful carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Scientists have discovered that is possible to generate hydrogen for fuel cleanly using a photocatalyst like solar power by creating a fluid to store the substance. But free-moving and randomly located molecules and particles in the fluid can interfere with the process of producing hydrogen and scientists have long searched for a way to immobilise them.

A team of scientists at Osaka City University believe they have found the solution. The researchers, led by Professor Yusuke Yamada, have developed a method in which the protein contained in egg whites can be harnessed to build crystals with lots of tiny holes to trap these particles.

“We found protein was a useful tool” to generate hydrogen in a lab without using a fossil fuel, the professor told AFP.

The whites of chicken eggs, which are inexpensive and inexhaustible, consist of porous lysozyme crystals.

“Lysozyme crystals have a highly ordered nanostructure and, thus, we can manipulate the molecular components when they accumulate in the crystals,” Hiroyasu Tabe, a special appointment research associate at the Graduate School of Engineering at the university, said. The crystal structure can be easily analysed with X-ray technology.

The change brought a sense of traffic control to the molecular interactions and improved the efficiency of clean, hydrogen production, Yamada was cited as saying. The discovery was published in the February edition of the scientific journal “Applied Catalysis B”.

Hydrogen is considered by many as the ultimate clean energy. If an efficient method to generate the gas can be found, it could be used to power everything from cars to buildings.

Source: Osaka City University; AFP



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Low-cost origami 3D-printing technique could improve bone implants

November 7, 2017

Scientists at Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) in the Netherlands have created a new way to print flat structures which self-fold into complex shapes according to a pre-planned sequence. The research has many applications, including the potential to improve bone transplants, the university said.

Essentially a combination of the Japanese paper-folding art of origami and 3D printing, the technique created by Amir Zadpoor and his team of researchers is means of creating shape-shifting constructs without the high costs or manual labour usually associated with this process.

Zadpoor’s team used an Ultimaker, one of the most popular 3D printers, and PLA, the most common printing material available. “At about 17 Euro’s per kilo, it’s dirt cheap”, said Zadpoor. “Nevertheless, we created some of the most complex shape-shifting ever reported with it.” The process is also fully automated and requires no manual labour whatsoever.

Zadpoor’s team achieved this by creating a technique in which they simultaneously printed and stretched the material in certain spots. “The stretching is stored inside the material as a memory”, PhD researcher Teunis van Manen explained. “When heated up, the memory is released and the material wants to go back to its original state.”

The researchers also alternated the thickness and the alignment of the filaments in the material.

“What makes the team’s shape-shifting objects so advanced is the fact that they self-fold according to a pre-planned sequence,” TU Delft wrote about the project.

“If the goal is to create complex shapes, and it is, some parts should fold sooner than others”, Zadpoor explained. “Therefore, we needed to program time delays into the material. This is called sequential shape-shifting.”

This approach marks an important step in the development of better bone implants for two reasons, the researchers explained. Firstly, it makes it possible to create prosthetics with a porous interior which allows a patient’s own stem cells to move into the structure of the implant and attach themselves to the interior surface area, instead of just coating the exterior. This will result in a stronger, more durable implant.

Secondly, with this techniquenanopatterns that guide cell growth can be crafted on the surface of the implant, TU Delft explained.

“We call these ‘instructive surfaces’, because they apply certain forces to the stem cells, prompting them to develop into the cells we want them to be”’, said PhD researcher Shahram Janbaz. “A pillar shape, for instance, may encourage stem cells to become bone cells.”

It is impossible to create such instructive surfaces on the inside of a 3D structure. “This is why we decided we needed to start from a flat surface,” said Zadpoor.

Other applications for the research include printed electronics (“by using this technique, it may be possible to incorporate printed, 2D-electronics into a 3D shape,” Zadpoor said) and flat-pack furniture. “Shape-shifting could definitely turn many of our existing 2D worlds into 3D worlds’, he said. “We are already being contacted by people who are interested in working with it.”

Source: TU Delft 


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Tesla releases first ‘affordable’ Model 3 electric cars to early buyers

July 30, 2017

CEO of Tesla, Elon Musk, has handed over the first 30 of the company’s long-anticipated “affordable” electric car, the Model 3, to employee buyers, Reuters reported.

The Model 3 (Photo: Steve Jurvetson [CC BY-SA 4.0] creativecommons.org)

The Model 3 (Photo: Steve Jurvetson [CC BY-SA 4.0] creativecommons.org)

The Model 3, which will cost USD 35,000, is a departure from Tesla’s earlier luxury electric cars and marks the first step in Musk’s strategy to turn his company into a profitable, mass-market electric car maker, Reuters said.

The basic model has a range of 220 miles (350 km) on a single charge, while the longer-range version of the Model 3, retailing at USD 44,000, manages 310 miles (500 km).

Speaking to reporters at the company’s Fremont, California factory on Friday 28 July, Musk said the Tesla Model 3 already has over 500,000 advance reservations.

Tesla has only manufactured 50 of the vehicles so far, including 20 for testing purposes but plans to produce 500,000 next year – a six-fold increase on its 2016 production levels. A simpler Model 3 design will greatly reduce potential assembly-line problems, Musk was reported as saying.

According to the company, new buyers are not likely to receive their car until the end of 2018. Musk acknowledged it would be “quite a challenge” to build the car during the early days of production: “We’re going to go through at least six months of manufacturing hell,” he was quoted as saying.

The Model 3 interior (Photo: Steve Jurvetson [CC BY 2.0] creativecommons.org). 

The Model 3 has been designed with a minimalist interior, including a streamlined dashboard devoid of buttons or knobs and a 15-inch touchstream display.

“The Model 3 is part of Musk’s broader plan to build a clean energy and transportation company that offers electric semi-trailer trucks, rooftop solar energy systems and large-scale battery storage systems,” Reuters said.

Apple analyst Gene Munster says he believes the launch of the Tesla Model 3 could be as big as the launch of the first iPhone.

“Over the next 10 years, the Model 3’s value, in combination with its technology, has the potential to change the world and accelerate the adoption of electric and autonomous vehicles,” Business Insider cited a note written by Munster on 6 July. “We believe we will eventually look back at the launch of the Model 3 and compare it to the iPhone, which proved to be the catalyst for the shift to mobile computing.”

Source: Reuters; Business Insider

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Images taken by Japanese camera space drone on ISS released

July 21, 2017

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has released the first group of photos and videos movies taken by its zero-gravity autonomous camera drone, known as the JEM Internal Ball Camera (or “Int-Ball”), aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

Photo: Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency

The JEM Int-Ball is the Agency’s first camera drone that can record video while moving in space under remote control from the ground, JAXA said.

Its main purpose is to optimise cooperation and communication between flight controllers on the ground and the astronauts on board, and to eliminate the need for onboard astronauts to take photographs: a task which currently accounts for around 10% of working hours.

Manufactured using 3D printing, and adopting modern drone technology, the orb-shaped camera is able to move autonomously in space and record still and moving images under remote control by the JAXA Tsukuba Space Center, JAXA said. It is also really cute – with CNN calling it the “cutest little orb since Star Wars’ BB-8 droid.”

The recorded images and videos taken by the floating camera can be checked in real time by flight controllers and researchers on the ground, and then fed back to the onboard crew, the agency said.

Int-Ball was received on board the ISS’s Japanese Experiment Module known as “Kibo” on 4 June 2017, and the images were released on 14 July.

Source: The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)

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Babies can distinguish between different languages while still in the womb, study finds

July 21, 2017

Babies are able to recognise the difference between English and Japanese a month before they are born , a scientific study published in the journal NeuroReport, has found.

 

The study, conducted by a team at the University of Kansas, used a sample of 24 women in the US, all around eight months pregnant, to test whether foetuses responded differently to the rhythm of a language that was new to them.

The languages used were English and Japanese, which have very different rhythms; English is spoken in irregular bursts resembling Morse code, while Japanese is characterised by a more regular tempo.

The researchers played an audio clip in Japanese followed by one in English, spoken by the same bi-lingual speaker. Then, using one of just two fetal biomagnetometers available in the US fitted to the maternal abdomen, they measured the babies’ heartbeats, breathing and other body movements in response the the audio.

The results showed that the babies’ heart rates changed when they heard the unfamiliar Japanese, but that there was no variation when they heard the English – demonstrating that they recognised a rhythmical difference between the two.

One previous study using ultrasound technology has yielded similar results but the University of Kansas study marks the first time the finding has been made  using the most accurate technology available.

“The previous study used ultrasound to see whether fetuses recognised changes in language by measuring changes in fetal heart rate,” said Utako Minai, associate professor of linguistics at the University of Kansas and the lead researcher on the study.

“The speech sounds that were presented to the fetus in the two different languages were spoken by two different people in that study. They found that the fetuses were sensitive to the change in speech sounds, but it was not clear if the fetuses were sensitive to the differences in language or the differences in speaker, so we wanted to control for that factor by having the speech sounds in the two languages spoken by the same person.”

“The biomagnetometer is more sensitive than ultrasound to the beat-to-beat changes in heart rate,” she said.

Experts say the study indicates that language development begins before birth – and will pave the way for further research in this area.

“These results suggest that language development may indeed start in utero,”  said Minai.

“Foetuses are tuning their ears to the language they are going to acquire even before they are born, based on the speech signals available to them in utero.

“Pre-natal sensitivity to the rhythmic properties of language may provide children with one of the very first building blocks in acquiring language.

“We think it is an extremely exciting finding for basic science research on language. We can also see the potential for this finding to apply to other fields.”

Source: The University of Kansas

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