All posts by Tom James

A bearing on magnetic north growing farther away all the time

compassScience writer Quinn Norton tests a new sense, that of always knowing what direction North is via an ankle-attached bracelet that indicates true north using vibrations from eight internal buzzers:

The Northpaw is based on the Feelspace, a project organized by the Cognitive Psychology department of Universität Osnabrück in Germany. The principle is simple and elegant. The buzzers signal north to the wearer. The wearer gets used to it, often forgetting it’s there. They just start getting a better idea of where they are through a kind of subconscious dead reckoning.

Quinn has written about similar direction-sensing enabling technologies before.

I recall something like this in Lords and Ladies by Terry Pratchett. PTerry gifts his elves with “poise” – the ability always to know where they are.

[via Slashdot, from h+ Magazine][image from ★lex on flickr]

All day cruising down the space corridor

light_linesAnother gorgeously science-fictional concept: that of the constantly shifting gravitational corridors in the solar system that will allow for the rapid transit of spacecraft around the Sun:

Scientists in the U.S. and Germany are attempting to map the corridors to allow them to be used by spacecraft exploring the solar system. One of the researchers, Shane D. Ross from the Virginia Polytechnic Institute in the U.S. described the system as a series of low energy corridors that wind between planets and moons. Once a spacecraft entered a corridor it would “fall” along the tube, much as an object falls to Earth.

If and when there is a substantial demand for intra-system space traffic these channels in space will become like the shipping lanes of the oceans of Earth.

[from Physorg][image from TheAlieness GiselaGiardino²³ on flickr]

Robot hop

military-robotIn the latest of your monthly dose of robot drones coming to a theatre of war hopefully-some-distance-from-you we have news that DARPA have developed a remote military robot with the capability to jump over walls:

Most of the time, the shoebox-sized robot – which is being developed for the US military – uses its four wheels to get around.

But the Precision Urban Hopper can use a piston-actuated “leg” to launch it over obstacles such as walls or fences.

The robot could boost the capabilities of troops and special forces engaged in urban warfare, say researchers.

It occurs to me that in a couple of decades this kind of robot could have developed into a truly terrifying war machine. Imagine thousands of tank-sized versions of these, each containing a really pissed-off synthetic cat brain programmed to zap humans with a tactical high-energy laser.


[from the BBC, via h+ Magazine][image from h+ Magazine]

Solar roadways

solarroadwaysOne of those brilliant ideas that I wish I had thought of first: paving roadways with electricity-generating solar cells. Idaho-based startup Solar Roadways have been awarded $100 000 to develop their road-based solar panel technology:

The 12- x 12-foot panels, which each cost $6,900, are designed to be embedded into roads. When shined upon, each panel generates an estimated 7.6 kilowatt hours of power each day. If this electricity could be pumped into the grid, the company predicts that a four-lane, one-mile stretch of road with panels could generate enough power for 500 homes. Although it would be expensive, covering the entire US interstate highway system with the panels could theoretically fulfill the country’s total energy needs.

Furthermore the panels would create road markings with embedded LEDs.

It occurs to me that roads are the perfect media for ground-source heat pumps as the constant passage of cars heats up the road surface, even on cold days. When a new road is laid down (or an existing road is resurfaced) you fill it with the necessary pipework and plug it into the heating systems of nearby houses. Heat pumps would be more useful in urban areas of more northern, colder countries than solar panels due to shorter days in the winter.

[via Physorg][image from Physorg]

Nanotechnologically self-repairing circuits

selfheal_x220Researchers at the University of Illinois have developed a means by which nanotube-filled capsules could repair electronic circuits when they are damaged:

Capsules, filled with conductive nanotubes, that rip open under mechanical stress could be placed on circuit boards in failure-prone areas. When stress causes a crack in the circuit, some of the capsules would also rupture and release nanotubes to bridge the break.

“Many times when a device fails, it’s because a circuit or capacitor burns out,” says Bielawski. “This is critical in situations where you can’t repair it — in satellites or submarines.” To address the problem, engineers currently build redundancy into a system. Self-healing circuits could make devices for remote applications more lightweight, more efficient, and cheaper, says Bielawski.

Consumer electricals have become increasingly cheap and disposable over the past few years. If this technology is adopted widely and improved could it lead to electricals that continue to function well for many decades? It seems unlikely that companies would choose to lose built-in obsolesence as a marketing tool, but if technologies increase in durability and strictly hardware-based improvements tail off (i.e. it becomes more economical to achieve improvements in performance through software tweaks, instead of relying on Moore’s Law) could it be that we find ourselves with the same mobile-phone/$multi-purpose_personal_electronic_widget for many years, which continually repairs and rebuilds itself when damaged?

[from Technology Review][image from Technology Review]