Tech Universe 2013 favourites: Gadgets for good

Antarctic researchers sometimes want to explore what's beneath the ice. Photo / Thinkstock
Antarctic researchers sometimes want to explore what's beneath the ice. Photo / Thinkstock

SQUISH THE ROBOT: The Sub-Ice Rover is a 1,000 Kg submersible craft that carries 27 sensors and tools. One of its most remarkable features though is that it can fit through a 76 cm wide hole and then expand to full size once it's in place.

The problem is that researchers in the Antarctic sometimes want to explore what's beneath that 2.5 Km thick shelf of ice. To do that they hot drill a hole, but the hole is only 76 cm wide, which limits the kinds of instruments they can deploy. A submersible would normally be out of the question. This submersible folds up into a pencil shape to fit through the hole. In the water, joints bend outward along the tube's sides, unfolding it into its normal configuration. That's a nice way to solve the problem.

THE BANDED HUMAN: The Myo armband measures the electrical impulses produced by physical activity. But it's no ordinary life logger counting steps or tracking heart rate. Instead it's a gesture control device. A flick of the wrist may call up the next slide in a presentation, or perhaps clench your hand to stop video playback.

Squeeze an imaginary trigger to fire a weapon in a game. The device pairs with gadgets via Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy, uses rechargeable Lithium-Ion batteries and an ARM processor.

It features a 6-axis inertial measurement unit for motion sensing. Presumably it works equally well on either arm and could perhaps even be worn on the leg.

TIME BALL: The Bradley is a wristwatch. It has neither digital display nor hands though: instead it has a couple of magnetic balls that indicate hour and minute to those who touch or look at it. The watch face has ridges that mark out 12 hours. The hour ball runs around a channel on the side of the watch, and the minute ball uses a channel on the top. If the magnetic connection is lost a gentle shake restores it.

5 BY 5: That last hard drive you bought may well have been a 3 terabyte monster, but researchers at the University of Southampton hope to increase that to 360 terabytes on a medium that can withstand heat up to 1000 C and last forever. The data is recorded via self-assembled nanostructures created in fused quartz, using polarised light to write files with a laser in layers of nanostructured dots separated by 5 millionths of a metre. The information encoding is realised in 5 dimensions: the size and orientation in addition to the three dimensional position of these nanostructures. The fives have it.

KEEP AN EYE ON THE PLANET: UrtheCast's cameras have been launched and will soon be streaming live satellite images of the Earth into any computer that asks for them. The cameras are being installed onto the International Space Station and will provide a continuous almost-live view of the surface of the Earth. That Space Station circles the Earth 16 times per day and provides coverage between 51 degrees North and 51 degrees South, which includes New Zealand. One camera has a resolution of 5 metres, while a 4K video camera can create videos up to around 90 seconds long at a resolution of 1 metre. No more waiting for Google Maps to be updated.

WATCHING US WATCHING YOU: Take a good-looking cylinder and pack it full of sensors. Add a smartphone app and you may have a Canary home security system. The Canary contains an HD video camera with night vision and a wide angle lens, and multiple sensors that track everything from motion, temperature and air quality to vibration, sound, and activity. Use your smartphone to control the Canary, receive alerts when something seems wrong or just to check on how things are going at home. The makers claim the only setup needed is to plug in the device, though there must be settings for alerts and so on. At the moment the product is at prototype stage, but it sounds like a great way to keep an eye on dogs, family members and possessions while you're out and about.

BUILD YOUR OWN CAMERA: The Bigshot camera is specially designed as a learning experience for kids. The 3 megapixel camera arrives as parts that must be correctly assembled for it to work. Accompanying materials help the kids learn about what's going on, for example, how LEDs work. A hand crank lets the camera be used even if the battery has gone flat and a rotating lens wheel allows for regular, panoramic and 3D shots. The world needs more toys like this.

LENS ALONE: Sony's new QX100 camera does away with the body and keeps only the lens. The lens itself includes a shutter release, memory card slot and rechargeable battery so it can be used as a standalone camera. The Cyber-shot DSC-QX100 camera features a 20.2 MP Exmor RCMOS sensor and a Carl Zeiss lens with 3.6x optical zoom. But with no viewfinder, pointing the thing correctly may be tricky. That's where a smartphone comes in: connect via WiFi and you can see what the lens sees, release the shutter, start and stop movie recordings, and adjust common photographic settings all on the phone. Photos are recorded to both phone and camera. The lens can be up to around 10 metres from the phone, depending on the environment, while a removable clip makes it easy to attach to a smartphone. That's an interesting challenge to the smartphone takeover of photography.

FUN CUBED: Moss toy robots use carbon steel ball joints and neodymium magnets moulded into the corners of cubes to fit modules together, no wiring required. Different coloured faces on the modules send, receive or pass through power or data. Modules may include sensors such as distance, brightness or microphone, connectors, wheels or battery. Use Bluetooth modules to communicate with a smartphone or computer. The whole robot is powered with a rechargeable lithium polymer battery. It's a snap.

NET OIL: Imagine you're on a ship at the site of an oil spill. Now imagine you could throw a net overboard to break down that oil, leaving biodegradable compounds in its place. Scientists at Stony Brook University have created that net in the form of a photocatalytic nanogrid made from copper tungsten oxide. Once the net has done its work it can be used again for another spill. The catalyst uses the whole solar spectrum to break down hydrocarbons in water. What's more the nets actually assemble themselves during the manufacturing process. The creators speculate that a similar product and process could be used in future for washing clothes without needing water. How long though does the oil breakdown take?

LITTLE BOXES: The Modularflex is a foldable disaster housing unit from Argentina that packs flat and can be assembled in about half an hour.

Each unit has hinges half way up the walls. That means a module can collapse flat for easy and low cost transport and storage. The units are formed from insulated thermal panels with optional doors and windows, and can be connected together to create larger structures.

The basic 7.4 square metre module includes electrical wiring and LED lights. Modules could also be used as living quarters in places like mining camps. The flat-pack storage and delivery really sets these ones apart.

HITTING THE WALL: In the UK house sparrows are losing their habitat and numbers are declining far enough to add them to the list of endangered species. Even improved insulation in houses means fewer spots for the birds to nest. Keen house owners can help though, with the Bird Brick, a fire-clamped cavity brick that can be built into walls and to provide a sustainable nesting site for the birds. Five hand-made bricks assemble to create a small, round opening plugged with a brick stopper that includes a hole large enough for sparrows and similar small birds. The stopper is there to allow humans to open up the cavity if it needs cleaning out. If new buildings were to include a few of the bricks perhaps the sparrow population would increase. An approach to consider for New Zealand endangered birds perhaps?

Miraz Jordan, knowit.co.nz

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