Tech Universe favourites: Thursday 20 December

By Miraz Jordan

The Whale Alerts app tries to prevent ships from colliding with whales. Photo / Thinkstock
The Whale Alerts app tries to prevent ships from colliding with whales. Photo / Thinkstock

WHALES ONLINE: There aren't many North Atlantic Right Whales left in the world, and one of the main causes of death for the animals is collisions with ships. The problem, of course, is knowing where the whales are. That's where a new iOS app has a part to play. Acoustic buoys listen for whale calls and send the data to an iOS device in a nearby ship's bridge. Between the whale calls, GPS and a vessel's Automatic Identification System it manages to mark the locations of the whales in near real-time. The Whale Alerts app is free to use, and designed for vessels that travel along the East Coast of North America where the whales live. Two words: Maui's Dolphins.

SKY HIGH TV COSTS: You know all those TV screens in long-haul planes? How much do you think they weigh collectively? The answer is: a lot. And by ripping out the TV screens and replacing them with iPads, Singapore-based Scoot have cut 7% off the weight of their planes.

Some passengers must pay to rent the iPads, while others get them free. Or just bring your own, I guess.

FLY AND DRIVE: The 3-wheeled PAL-V flying car is in a class of its own - Personal Air and Land Vehicles. The small, sleek 2-seater handles like a motorcycle on the roads. Stop and unfold the single rotor and propeller though and you can fly it as a gyrocopter. It flies below 1200 metres, runs on petrol and can reach speeds of up to 180 Kph both on land and in the air. Now that would be a great holiday vehicle.

6 BY 6: Honda's little U3-X uncicyle has grown up into the UNI-CUB. The UNI-CUB is a seat on a single self-balancing omnidirectional wheel, powered by a Lithium-ion battery. You move, control speed and direction by shifting or weight, or with an optional app for a smartphone or tablet. The UNI-CUB can climb gradients, has a range of 6 Km, and can reach a top speed of 6 Kph. Now even that annoying walk from the lounge sofa to the fridge needn't be so much trouble.

INSIDE GUIDE: Engineers from the University of Nevada have created an indoor navigation system for blind people. Navatar runs on a standard smartphone and combines low-cost sensors with the digital 2D architectural maps that are already available for many buildings. The system locates and tracks a user inside the building, finding the most suitable path, and provides spoken step-by-step instructions. That means the user can leave the phone in their pocket, freeing up their hands for a cane or to touch known landmarks. This could have wider user for many people, such as visitors to a huge and complex building.

SWAP SHOP: In Israel drivers of the electric Renault Fluence ZE don't need to worry about flat batteries and an 8-hour recharge. The 250 Kg battery can be removed, so switch stations use robots to swap the flat battery for a full one - a 5-minute process. A full battery lasts for around 185 Km, and a navigation computer called Oscar not only knows where all the switch points are, but warns the driver when the battery's running low. Instead of buying the battery with the car, owners lease the battery and access to the switch stations. The Better Place system is a private initiative. Having robots swap out batteries is a smart idea.

BICYCLE SKYCYCLE: In some places they elevate the local light trains that run through and across cities. London's considering a system of elevated bike lanes called SkyCycle. The idea is to separate cyclists from both cars and pedestrians and give them their own routes across town and between train stations. The bike lanes would be limited to certain routes, like a motorway, with fixed entry and exit points, and cyclists would pay a small fee to use them. Cyclists, pedestrians and drivers are all sure to like that solution.

CLIMBING CHAIR: People who use wheelchairs aren't too keen on steps. A new prototype robotic electric wheelchair from the Chiba Institute of Technology in Japan uses 4 wheel drive and 5 axes to climb over obstacles. It uses its wheels as legs to climb a step when the user drives it with a joystick. If it's on uneven ground the wheelchair also makes sure the seat remains level. Sensors allow the wheelchair to assess steps and other obstacles. The user can also extend stabilisers and line up the wheels to turn in a circle. The designers now need to test the wheelchair with a variety of users. Not requiring curb cuts would be a good thing in itself.

CARDBOARD ROLLS: The cardboard wheelchair from Israel costs less than $10 in materials - durable recycled cardboard, plastic bottles and recycled tires. The wheelchair weighs around 9 Kg and can carry up to 180 Kg. It withstands water and humidity and can be made on largely automated production lines. The wheelchair comes from the inventor of the cardboard bike. At that price you could buy half a dozen to keep as spares.

HOLD YOUR TONGUE: If you rely on an electric wheelchair you need some way to control it. The Tongue Drive System from Georgia Institute of Technology puts the control into the user's mouth. An inconspicuous dental retainer includes sensors, a rechargeable lithium-ion battery and an induction coil to charge the battery. The retainer is moulded to fit tightly around the wearer's teeth. Meanwhile the person has a tiny magnet attached to their tongue. As the wearer moves their tongue data from the sensors is sent to a smartphone and interpreted to move a cursor on a computer screen or to move the wheelchair. So it is all in the way you hold your mouth.

POLLY WANT A SCOOTER: Pepper the African grey parrot was a noisy bird, until he got his very own Bird Buggy and could follow his owner around. The 4-wheeler is driven by a joystick that the bird moves with his beak from his perch just behind it. Sensors in the front of the buggy help prevent it from bumping into things when pepper's driving skills fail. The buggy also has an autonomous docking feature so it finds home base and docks once Pepper's left the vehicle. Scooters beat crackers any day.

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_a2 at 30 Jul 2014 06:51:53 Processing Time: 595ms