Tech Universe favourites: Monday 24 December

By Miraz Jordan

An unmanned Dragon freighter during its splashdown, after leaving the International Space Station. Photo / AP
An unmanned Dragon freighter during its splashdown, after leaving the International Space Station. Photo / AP

BECAUSE IT'S OUT THERE: The 100 Year Starship has won seed funding from DARPA and others. It aims "to assure that human travel beyond our solar system and to another star can be a reality within the next century". The founders say that the project will generate transformative knowledge and technologies that will benefit all of us. The project is led by a former NASA astronaut and will bring in experts from many disciplines to achieve their goal. This and the SpaceX Dragon - it's a great time to be a space enthusiast.

TALKING HANDS: The Ukrainian EnableTalk claims to be the voice of sign language. The system includes a pair of virtual reality gloves that send signals via Bluetooth for computer processing. The gloves include a microcontroller, 15 flex sensors, accelerometer, gyroscope, and a compass in order to define the position of the glove in space. They also have a lithium ion battery and a USB port for charging and for synching with the computer.

A person wears the glove and uses sign language to communicate. The glove captures the hand movements then sends signals to the processor that turns the signs into spoken words. So can they make the reverse work too? Speak and the gloves create the signs?

POINT AND CLICK: Gesture control is the in thing. Leap Motion's new 3D motion control system can distinguish your individual fingers and track your movements down to a 1/100th of a millimeter. The Leap device plugs into a USB port, while software on your computer does the gesture recognition. Unlike systems that detect larger motions, such as those of an arm, this system can detect a fingertip or pen. That's a new line in gestures.

OIL SUCKERS: Engineers at Rice University have created sponges made of carbon nanotubes with boron mixed in that could be used to soak up oil spills from water. The sponge is extremely hydrophobic: it doesn't absorb any water, but just floats on the top. It's magnetic though so can be moved and directed with magnets. The main attribute though is that it soaks up 100 times its weight in oil which can then be squeezed or even burned out without harming the sponge. The sponge can then be used again. Now let's see them devise oil tanks filled with the sponges in the first place so oil never spills.

CELLPHONE TRIGGER: We've seen plenty of TV shows where a call to a cellphone triggers an explosion. In India farmers are doing something much more useful. If they irrigate their fields, an electric pump may feed water into the pipes. But power cuts are frequent and a farmer may have to walk many miles to flick the switch. By giving the pump a cellphone connection the farmer can make a call to the pump to check if the power's on. If it is then a second call starts the pump, which sends a confirmation SMS. Next perhaps a small webcam so the farmer can see if everything's working right?

100 TO 1: There are hundreds of thousands of old unexploded landmines scattered around the world. Finding them is a huge and time consuming task. The metal detectors alert to 100 objects that eventually turn out to be junk, such as shrapnel, car parts or cans for every 1 landmine. That wastes precious time in a task that could already take another century. Red Lotus Technologies in the US has an idea that could help: Pattern Enhancement Tool for Assisting Landmine Sensing. A monitor displays the shape of the object found by a metal detector, then based on the shape, the operator can decide to investigate further or move on. The inventors describe it as like an X-ray for the soil. It's crazy that projects like these have to rely on fundraising and charity.

STAND ALONE: An alternative to a wheelchair for a paraplegic is the TEK Robotic Mobilization Device from Turkey. The wheeled device allows the user to stand, sit and bend over while holding them securely with supporting belts. The electric device means the user is mobile, and in fact it fits in smaller spaces than a wheelchair. The user easily enters the device while it's in front of them, and they can move it from a parking place to where they need it with a remote. All it needs now is a better name.

MARATHON SUIT: Two weeks after starting the London Marathon the final competitor finished the course. The competitor may have been slow, but considering she's paralysed from the chest down and was walking with the aid of a bionic ReWalk suit it's an unparalleled achievement. Motion sensors and an onboard computer system read the wearer's intentions and move the suit in response, allowing them to walk. So you decide: is 2 miles per day a slow walk or a fast one?

BABY STEPS: In Kenya there's only one doctor for every 10,000 people. On the other hand, nearly 75% of people there own a mobile phone, and many use it for going online. With limited access to medical services, many women die because of complications in pregnancy. The Baby Monitor trial project is assessing whether automated phone calls can help with this problem. Women receive a long phonecall at regular intervals and provide answers to questions about the progress of their pregnancy. Women trialling the system currently visit health workers who ask the same questions to see if the automated system is getting it right. If it works correctly, the system should advise whether progress is normal or the woman should visit a health clinic.

FROM THIN AIR: The Eole Water wind turbine is ingenious. We're used to wind turbines creating electricity, but this one draws water out of even dry desert air. The turbine contains a generator, cooling compressor and humidity condenser to extract water from air, then the water runs down into a storage tank from where it can be drawn off by an ordinary tap. The WMS1000 turbine can produce up to 1200 litres of water per day. Who knew dry air actually held so much water?

DRINK THE SEA: In many countries salt water is readily available, but drinking water is in short supply. The open-source Eliodomestico water still is designed to be easy to manufacture locally and to supply 5 litres of drinking water after a day in the sun. In the morning you add a bucket of sea water. The sun boils the water in the black top portion and the steam is condensed in a lower section. Then in the evening the bowl of water is removed and carried to where it's needed. A simple and elegant solution to a real-world problem.

DON'T WASTE WASTE: There's one resource that isn't in short supply around the world: urine. Three teenage girls in Africa developed a generator that produces 6 hours of power for every litre of urine fed into it. Most people produce a couple of litres of urine per day. The device uses an electrolytic cell to extract hydrogen from the urine. The hydrogen is then purified with a typical water filter and fed into a cylinder of liquid borax to remove excess humidity. From there the purified hydrogen can power a generator to produce 6 hours of electricity. Couldn't that revolutionise city or even household sewage systems! I wonder what the waste products are.

HEAT SEEKING BRA: Around 3 years after a breast cancer tumour starts to grow, and long before it can be detected by current means, the body creates additional blood vessels with a distinctive heat signature. The First Warning System looks like a sports bra but contains sensors that measure cell temperature changes and uses Internet-based pattern recognition software to detect possible tumours. Wearers visit a website or view data on their smartphone. Clinical studies have shown the bra returns highly accurate results. When detected early, breast cancer can generally be treated successfully. Do other cancers work in a similar way? Could other clothing items be used in this way too?

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