Tech Universe: Friday 12 April

By Miraz Jordan

POPE ON WHEELS: When the Pope goes on tour he rides in an armour-plated limousine, though it usually has an engine. The next one though may be powered by pedals. The pedal-powered Popemobile will be ready in a few months. It includes 8 mm bullet-proof Plexiglass windows, solar panels, blast-proof body panels and a built-in oxygen supply. All up it costs around $315,000. Not including the cyclist who gets to power it. That must be one hefty bike.

RESCUE MOVES: The PETMAN from Boston Dynamics looks like a rescue worker in its flame-retardant suit and gas mask. It high-steps, squats and rotates like a human to make its way through dangerous terrain too. It's not a human though, but a humanoid robot manufactured for the US Defense Department's Chemical and Biological Defense programme.

The wires that give it away: the development team is still working on its ability to manoeuver past rubble, navigate uneven spaces and retain its balance. Getting to the right spot's one thing, but will it be able to take the right actions when it gets there?

STOP DROP: At Harvard University scientists have created a material that can either be super-slippery or can make a sliding drop stop dead. A two-layer structure means the adaptive material morphs when deformed. A liquid film covers an elastic sheet whose pores grow when stretched. That roughens the surface as the coating changes shape. It also makes the material more opaque. That could offer new techniques for cleaning, or perhaps make it possible for campers to use tents that let the sun shine in but keep rain out. Though a sheet of plastic can already let sun in while keeping water out.

A LITTLE GOES A LONG WAY: Mars is a long way away. In fact, pretty much everywhere except the Moon is too far away for humans to realistically travel to because of the time it would take and the cost. That's why researchers at the University of Washington are working on a fusion-powered rocket that could speed up travel times and cost less. The research team developed a type of plasma encased in its own magnetic field. When a magnetic field compresses the plasma it leads to nuclear fusion, or at least, in lab tests it does. One grain of this material has as much power as around 4 litres of rocket fuel.

That would considerably reduce the weight of fuel needed for long trips. Perhaps this could help the robot missions explore more distant places too.

HOLD THAT SHOT: It can be very hard and very expensive to get rid of shaking with a handheld camera. Stabilised systems generally use heavy weights and gimbals, with may require metal arms and special vests.

The M?VI from Freefly is a relatively lightweight piece of kit to digitally stabilise the camera. The handheld rig features a completely custom-made gimbal and 3-axis gyroscope so the camera remains rock steady even when the operator's hands and arms are moving significantly. When will it be applied to guns, I wonder?

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