Tech Universe: Monday 13 May

By Miraz Jordan

British Aerospace Jetstream have made a plane that can fly itself. Photo / Thinkstock
British Aerospace Jetstream have made a plane that can fly itself. Photo / Thinkstock

RIGHT FOR FLIGHT: An 800 Km flight from Warton in Lancashire to Inverness in Scotland isn't really anything special, unless it's a drone passenger jet flying on commercial routes and controlled by a pilot on the ground. That's the flight that a British Aerospace Jetstream made recently. There was a pilot aboard who handled the takeoff and landing but otherwise the aircraft flew on auto, testing its detect-and-avoid technology on fake objects fed into the computer during flight. It will be a big step, having drone aircraft flying passengers to their destinations, but surely safety considerations would keep a pilot aboard, just in case.

GLUED TO THE WALL: Scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology wanted to create a robot that could climb walls. While other robots have used the technique that allows geckos to climb, these robots use thermoplastic adhesives to stick to the wall temporarily.

When the adhesive is warmed it flows into the kind of gaps found on rough surfaces. At a critical temperature above 70 degrees the adhesive is very tacky allowing the robot foot to stick to the wall. Cool it again and the robot can kick free and move a step. In tests, a 1 Kg droid slowly carried a 7 Kg weight up walls made of wood, plastic, stone and aluminium.

Now they need to find a way to speed up the heating and cooling.

FIGURING THE FORESTS: In 2020 the Biomass satellite will be launched by the European Space Agency to weigh the Earth's forests. Its radar system will be able to sense the trunks and big branches of trees from orbit. Then the satellite will calculate the amount of carbon stored in the world's forests and allow researchers to better understand the role forests play in the carbon cycle and climate. Not all of the world's forests though: the satellite will not be permitted to operate over North America, Europe and the Arctic in case it interferes with missile early-warning and space-tracking systems. Defence against protection is a difficult trade-off.

HAIRY FLIGHT: The satellite ESTCube-1 is testing out a new method of propulsion.

Solar sails reflect photons from the sun to push the spacecraft forward. The new method uses wires with a positive charge that extend from the craft and repel positively charged protons. The repulsion pushes the craft. The tiny satellite is only 10 cm wide and its 10 metre long positively charged wire is only half the width of a human hair. While this tiny craft is only a test, full size craft with 100 wires, each 20 Km long, could move quickly enough to reach Pluto in less than 5 years.

Manufacturing 20 Km wires with a diameter less than a human hair will be challenging enough.

IN THE HOLE: Suppose you want to hide from microwaves, how might you do it?

Surprisingly, researchers at Duke University discovered all it takes is a cheap 3D printer and some plastic with holes in just the right places. Of course, it's those holes that are the key. Algorithms determined the location, size and shape of the holes so they deflect microwave beams. A hole in the centre of the disc is where an object to be hidden must be placed, then microwave beams must travel through the side of the disc. The holes guide the microwaves around the object, effectively hiding it. So it'll be a while before humans can hide using this technique.

Miraz Jordan,

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