Tech Universe: Monday 15 July

By Miraz Jordan

Researchers are creating a new way for electric wheelchairs to be controlled. Photo / Thinkstock
Researchers are creating a new way for electric wheelchairs to be controlled. Photo / Thinkstock

NODDING ALONG: You may use a wheelchair, but if you're paralysed from the neck down controlling it is a challenge. Unless you go for the new GyroSet system. It does away with things like chin-controlled joysticks or puffer tubes that make talking almost impossible. Instead the wheelchair user wears a headset. The headset constantly detects the position of the head, sending data wirelessly to an Android tablet that interprets the movements and signals the electric wheelchair to move. It's just a tilt to the left and a lean to the right.

USE A MAP: Here you are relaxing on your way home as your car drives itself when it suddenly comes to a dead stop. You look around to see you're in a tunnel. The car lost its GPS signal and no longer knows where it is. Do you a) walk to the nearest exit? That scenario could be a bit of an oops. A team at the Toyota Technological Institute in Chicago realised it would be helpful for a car to scan its surroundings as it drives itself and then compare what it sees to a map.

Two cameras on the car feed images to an app that compares the route to a map from OpenStreetMap. Intersections, bends in the road and a motion sensor all help determine where the car is at any given moment. It takes only 20 seconds of driving on average to work out where the car is. When tested in Karlsruhe, Germany, the system placed the car to within 3 metres of its actual position as measured by a GPS unit. It's night time and you're relaxing as your car drives itself...

PIPES ALIVE: Nuclear power plants are complex places with some very dangerous and often radioactive parts. Nevertheless, to keep them working well it's a good idea to inspect them carefully. It's the kind of job a snake robot from the Carnegie Mellon Biorobotics Lab can handle superbly. The robots carry a camera so they can send images back to base and can go around multiple bends in pipes, unlike conventional borescopes. Hmm, presumably if the robot snake has been inside a radioactive chamber it will be radioactive itself: different snakes for different pipes.

POWER TO THE PEOPLE: The Akademik Lomonosov won't be so much a ship as a floating nuclear power plant — the first of a series. By 2016 the Russian vessel will be able to provide energy and heat to hard to reach areas as well as drinking water to arid regions. The floating power plant displaces 21,500 tons, carries a crew of 69 and can power a city of 200,000. The vessel can also be modified to work as a desalination plant producing 240,000 cubic metres of fresh water per day. It can't propel itself though so has to be towed to its destination. I guess they'll need robot snakes too.

CANNED HEAT: Scared off by the price of solar panels, or that these days they seem to be full of nanotech? One enterprising resident of Seattle made his own panels from recycled drink cans and some plastic tubing. He uses the system to keep his home office warm. It took 275 cans, flat black spray paint, a couple of fans from old computers and some Plexiglass. The solar-powered fans suck cold air from the office into a frame, the sun heats the air as it passes through the cans and then warm air flows into the office. That's pretty clever.

Miraz Jordan, knowit.co.nz

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