Science & Technology

Power tool technology

ShaperTechnological advances in today’s world are occurring at a bewilderingly fast pace in almost every domain of human endeavour, nowhere more so than in the actual hardware that is used. Aside from the obvious rapidly changing electronic gadgetry like smartphones and laptops, other hardware like the tools used in the workshop or home building projects, which are not normally associated with technological wizardry, are also morphing into complicated beasts. Just as with computers and smartphones, power tools used in the home and on the construction site are also constantly evolving as companies make incremental improvements to their product offerings while startups develop game-changing innovations that have the potential to disrupt the whole industry. It was not that long ago when the industry standard for power tools were big and heavy contraptions that required plugging into an independent power source or mains socket to operate them. Enter Lithium-ion technology and although more wieldy wired power tools are now readily available, today the more common industry standard are battery-powered versions of the same tools that can compete in power and operational capacity with their wired equivalents. Yet even today, other fundamental changes are on the horizon that are poised to change this space once again. The current system of recharging cordless tools involves the removal of the battery pack itself for recharging on bespoke charging stations. In tomorrow’s world, battery packs will not need to be removed from their tools for recharging. Instead power tool batteries will receive power through inductive charging simply by being in proximity to a charging source, so one can imagine a power tool where every time it is put down on the work table, begins recharging itself automatically, always ready for its next use. But it is not just incremental advances like this that are changing the power tools landscape, some other ideas under development are potential game-changers. The work going on at one startup called Shaper is a perfect example. They are working on a router-esque type of device where instead of relying on the precision and skill of the operator to make accurate cuts, the device itself auto-corrects for any operator inaccuracies by independently moving the cutting tool through the workpiece.  One can easily start to see how this sort of technology could quickly become the de-facto standard in other power tools. Imagine a power drill, where the chuck auto-corrects itself to position the drill bit with absolute precision over the desired drill point, drilling to the exact pre-set depth, or a circular saw or jigsaw that positions the cutting blade precisely over the workpiece and at the correct angle to make that perfect beveled cut. This type of technology has the potential to revolutionize how power tools operate and will allo

The new space race

Blue Origin, the space firm set up by the founder, Jeff Bezos, has, for the first time, successfully carried out a launch as well as a successful landing of its re-usable spacecraft designed to take humans to the boundary of space. The Blue Origin project, unlike some of the other private space endeavours, has actually been developed from scratch, with both the launch vehicle and spacecraft together being referred to as New Shepard. The BE-3 rocket engine that propels the craft into space can act as both the take-off thruster as well as a precision-descent system. During this most recent trial of the spacecraft, the returning space vehicle was first slowed down by a series of air brakes and aerodynamic fins before the BE-3 thruster re-ignited and enabled the rocket to touch down on its four legs at its original launch pad. Besides serving as a proof of principle test for Blue Origin, the successful completion of the trial has actually made it possible for the firm to trump Elon Musk’s space company, SpaceX, in the development a multiple-use launch vehicle. But it must be kept in mind that the Blue Origin launch vehicle is meant to boost it’s space capsule only to the edge of space and only for a short period while SpaceX’s space launch system provides full orbital insertion capabilities.

The next DIY revolution in the making

CRISPRCRISPR genome editing is among one of the most revolutionary innovations in biology that has happened in recent times, enabling professional biomedical researchers to easily create incredibly specific DNA modifications to almost any living cell. One biologist now hopes to make the technique accessible to amateur bio-hackers and DIY biologists everywhere so that just about anybody can try their hand at bio-hacking that is normally the exclusive domain of professionals. Dr. Josiah Zayner of the synthetic biology lab at NASA intends to sell biology sets to the general public that will include everything a fledgling scientist requires to accomplish CRISPR modifications to micro-organisms. For $130 US dollars, one will able to re-engineer bacteria to feed off of an alternative food source and for $160 US dollars, anyone will be able to modify the gene in yeast that will change its color to red. Now that’s an expensive hobby but a cool one!

Smart eyeglasses for everybody

SmartEyeGlassesResearchers at the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland have created a smart eyeglass screen that could encourage more consumers to start using smart eyewear. To produce the screens, the scientists employed a method called Lightguide Optics that allows the lenses to be clear, thin, and light-in-weight, while at the same time manufacturable into almost any shape.  One the problems with Google Glass was its very noticeable retinal display screen which often led to users becoming conscious of at being stared at.  The new screens would overcome this drawback by being almost unnoticeable to others around the user and would very likely pave the way for more universal adoption of smart spectacles technology. The graphics formed on the new screens appear within the user’s vision field and are equivalent to seeing a transparent 60-inch television from only three meters away. Screens made with this new technique are able to be constructed out of both glass and plastic and are therefore able to be integrated into existing smart eyewear.  The Finnish research institute has since spun-off a derivative company, Dispelix Oy, to commercialize the technology and is in the process of collaborating with smart eyewear makers with the aim of getting the technology into consumer hands by 2016.

Increasing agricultural yields with nanoparticles

TomatoNanoparticlesScientists at Washington University in St. Louis have recently used nanoparticles to dramatically increase the mass of tomato fruits as well as their intrinsic antioxidant levels. The new research study demonstrated that simply applying zinc oxide and titanium dioxide nanoparticles to plant leaves was enough to significantly enhance the tomato plant’s capacity to increase photosynthesis and to absorb minerals from the soil. Titanium oxide is already known to raise chlorophyll levels in plants’ leaves which leads to a boost in photosynthetic processes, while zinc is a cofactor that increases the efficiency of enzymes produced by the plant. When a plant needs to grow, the nutrients it requires are not usually readily available in a form that the plant can use, so it releases enzymes into the soil which coerce microorganisms to transform inaccessible nutrients into something that the plant is able to absorb. The scientists also discovered that the deposition of the nanoparticles directly on to the plant’s leaves as an nanoparticle aerosol caused a much higher uptake of minerals from the soil than if the aerosol was applied directly to the soil itself. Not only did their tomato fruits grow over 80 percent bigger compared with no-treatment plants, the treated plants’ fruits also demonstrated a dramatic increase in lycopene levels. Lycopene is an antioxidant that makes tomatoes as well as other fruits (and some vegetables) red in color while also being associated with a reduced likelihood of many forms of cancer in humans that regularly eat lycopene-enriched produce. Further analysis of the  enlarged tomatoes showed that nanoparticle levels were well under those allowed by the USDA and were substantially below those found in traditional fertilizer. The group is currently working to refine their method by reformulating their nanoparticle aerosol to include the other elements that plants require for growth in the hope that they can increase yet further the yields from edible plants.

Google Lunar X Prize comes one step closer to being awarded

google_lunar_xprizeMoon Express, one of the space start up companies competing for the US$ 30 million Google Lunar X Prize, has just signed a contract with Rocket Lab to facilitate its lunar aspirations. The deal has been lauded as the first non-public contract between private businesses to attempt a landing on the moon. The agreement will require Rocket Lab to supply the launch solution for Moon Express’s spacecraft using its newly-developed Electron rocket system. The contract between the two companies specifies that Rocket Lab is initially going to implement two launches of the Moon Express lander in 2017, with a third launch planned for an as yet undecided future date. The Moon Express MX-1 lander has been designed primarily to win the Google Lunar X prize, but the company is also looking to the future hoping to eventually start providing services to organizations and businesses that need to access the moon. The initial plan for the unmanned MX-1 was for it to reach a geosynchronous orbit by piggybacking on a commercial satellite launch, but the new deal with Rocket Lab has opened the way for further private development of direct access to the Moon. Moon Express has used some of the latest technologies such as  3D printing and low-cost electronic sensors to reduce costs of accessing the Moon. Meanwhile, Rocket Lab hopes that the deal will enhance the commercial opportunities of its novel space delivery system, which has incorporated some new technologies such as electrical energy pumps and composite fabrication. Rocket Lab hopes that its unique rocket system will someday be able to haul over 100 payloads a year into space at very low cost.

Project Sunroof

Project SunroofA new venture from Google is being targeted at encouraging you to get your home off the grid. Operated by Google Maps, Project Sunroof can tell individual homeowners how much sunlight is striking their roof as well as just how much they may be able to shave off their electricity costs. According to Google, it already has all the details it needs to develop detailed maps of your roof’s candidacy for photovoltaic applications. It integrates Google Maps’ extensive data source of aerial photos with 3D modeling of your roofing system, taking into consideration cover provided by neighboring bodies, sun-path through the sky, as well as cloud and temperature patterns at your home. This information is then used to produce a customized evaluation of your roofing’s solar-harvesting potential. It also tells you the amount of hours of useful sunlight your roof is subjected to, just how much of that is readily available for future solar panels attached to your roof, along with the financial savings you will get if you decide to proceed. In addition, quotations are generated for various situations, such as renting the photovoltaic panels or taking on a loan to pay for them or even buying them with cash savings. Google claims the numbers are based on existing solar sector rates and take into consideration government and state tax credits, energy refunds from utility companies, renewable resource credits as well as online metering. Project Sunroof is currently only available to residents of Boston, San Francisco and Fresno, but Google indicated that it will soon grow to cover the entire United States before being available internationally.

Apple acquires Beats

BeatsApple has said that it is going to be acquiring headset brand and music-streaming firm Beats Electronics. The acquisition will cost Apple $3bn, which is the biggest purchase the company has ever made. As part of the acquisition, Beats co-founders Jimmy Iovine and Dr Dre will become employees of Apple. Beats was established in 2008 by music creator Jimmy Iovine and hip-hop idol Dr Dre and up until not so long ago was most recognised for its earphones. Just recently, it also began a subscription-based songs streaming service. Apple already has its own music retrieval service, the iTunes Store, and just released iTunes Radio in 2013. However, in spite of having been an early leader in selling music over the internet, the company has actually been encountering ever-increasing competition from the likes of Spotify, Pandora and Rdio. The acquisition of Beats signifies a tactical digression for Apple, which has a track record for building fresh products, instead of procuring smaller-sized companies. In addition to headsets, Beats markets earphones and mobile speakers, and has actually established joint ventures with carmakers and computer system producers to incorporate its BeatsAudio technology in their devices, which may have also contributed to the allure of the future Apple subsidiary.

Private space company takes an important step forward

Orbital Sciences Corporation (OSC) has launched its demonstration robotic vessel to the International Space Station (ISS). Called Cygnus, it will be the second type of space ship to re-supply the ISS. If successful, the American space agency, NASA, will pay for a further seven flights to the space station. Afixed atop an Antares rocket, the launch appeared to go perfectly. Cygnus will have to use its own rockets and will take four days to reach the ISS. As part of the demonstration, Cygnus will also perform some extra manoeuvres to ensure it is up to fulfilling its mission. However, once at its destination, space_stationthe ISS robotic arm will guide the freighter to its attachment point on the ISS. Cygnus is currently carrying 700kg of food and equipment for the ISS crew. As in earlier missions by its competitor vessel, the Dragon, the ship will be filled with waste when it is time for it to undock, and is programmed to burn up in earth’s atmosphere. The launch is the latest attempt to privatize the business of supplying the ISS and other low-Earth orbit space missions by the American space agency. It is hoped that using private companies to supply the ISS will be followed by the privatization of the transport of astronauts to and from the ISS in the near future. The US space agency is relying on these private companies to save it money that can then used for more exciting ventures, such as going to Mars. Nasa has now successfully supported two private space companies in generating the capability of getting cargo to the ISS. Unlike the primarily US-based company, SpaceX Corporation, which makes the Dragon capsule, OSC has both US and European involvement, for example, the pressurised cargo container is produced by Thales Alenia Space located in Italy, which based its designs on the now-retired shuttle cargo programme it was involved in.

The Future is (LED) Bright

Light-emitting diodes have been around for many years. In the past, they have been used as indicators on electrical and electronic devices. This was mainly due to their limited colour availability (usually red), but these days other colours are now commonplace, and the light emitted is much brighter. LEDs are reputed to last for up to 100,000 hours, compared with the 1,000 hours of incandescent light-bulbs and the 15,000 hours of compact fluorescent lamps. The technology is also much more energy efficient, using up to 90% less energy than incandescent bulbs. The long lifespans and low energy use make LEDs economically attractive. Traditional light bulbs emit a lot of heat wasting a lot of energy. But LEDs are able to emit much more light for the same amount of electricity. As a result, LED lighting is beginning to nudge out more traditional incandescent and fluorescent lighting in a number of industrial and consumer areas. For example, manufacturing and other businesses are replacing traditional forms of lighting in their factories as a way to reduce operating costs and increase efficiency post-recession. Car manufacturers are increasingly using LEDs over a broader range of their models. LED grow lights are increasingly being adopted for indoor agricultural production both on the industrial scale as well as LED grow lights for the individual indoor garden. And even in the home of consumers, LEDs are beginning to replace other types of lighting, particularly the incandescent variety.  Production of incandescent 100-watt bulbs has stopped in the US and Europe, while production of 60-watt bulbs has been stopped in Europe and is being phased out in the US. From 2014, incandescent bulbs of 40 watts or above will be banned in the US.