Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

Strange but true: Scientists unveil 'Octobot'

A team of Harvard University researchers has created the world's first autonomous, untethered, entirely soft robot, dubbed "the Octobot": Photo / Lori Sanders
A team of Harvard University researchers has created the world's first autonomous, untethered, entirely soft robot, dubbed "the Octobot": Photo / Lori Sanders

The "octobot" is a soft touch

A team of Harvard University researchers has created the world's first autonomous, untethered, entirely soft robot.

The small, 3D-printed robot, nicknamed the octobot, could pave the way for a new generation of completely soft, autonomous machines.

"One long-standing vision for the field of soft robotics has been to create robots that are entirely soft, but the struggle has always been in replacing rigid components such as batteries and electronic controls with analogous soft systems and then putting it all together," said one its creators, Professor Robert Wood.

The Harvard team has ovecome the hurdles through a mix of new approaches, such as using pneumatic technology to create a reaction inside the bot that transforms a small amount of liquid fuel into a large amount of gas, flowing into the octobot's arms and inflating them like a balloon.

To steer the reaction, they use a microfluidic logic circuit, which controls when the liquid fuel decomposes to gas in the octobot.

"This research demonstrates that we can easily manufacture the key components of a simple, entirely soft robot, which lays the foundation for more complex designs."

Even birds have evil stepdads

Scientists at Deakins University in Australia have investigated how zebra finches warn their chicks (pictured) about warm temperatures before they're even born. Photo / Andy TD Bennett
Scientists at Deakins University in Australia have investigated how zebra finches warn their chicks (pictured) about warm temperatures before they're even born. Photo / Andy TD Bennett

We all know that type of step-parent: the one who brings their own kids into a blended family and treats their newly-inherited ones like dirt.

Now scientists have found the same sinister dynamic exists in a type of African desert-dwelling male bird, which favours his biological sons and alienates his stepsons.

The species is the black and white southern pied babbler, whose chicks are raised by both parents as well as other adult birds.

The group's dominant male bird appears to decide which of the subordinate males to tolerate in the group, and those it doesn't like are essentially pushed out of the group by their stepdads.

They're then forced to join other groups as subordinates or to live alone - something many alienated human teens out there can likely relate to.

"Nepotism has likely played a vital role in the evolution of family life in this species," said the study's author, Martha Nelson-Flower of the University of British Columbia.

Man "jump-started" out of coma with ultrasound

US researchers have "jump-started" the brain of a young man in a coma using low-intensity focused ultrasound pulsation targeted at his brain's thalamus. Photo / Martin Monti/UCLA
US researchers have "jump-started" the brain of a young man in a coma using low-intensity focused ultrasound pulsation targeted at his brain's thalamus. Photo / Martin Monti/UCLA

A 25-year-old man recovering from a coma has made remarkable progress after a treatment at the University of California to jump-start his brain using ultrasound.

The technique uses sonic stimulation to excite the neurons in the thalamus, an egg-shaped structure that serves as the brain's central hub for processing information.

"It's almost as if we were jump-starting the neurons back into function," said study lead author Dr Martin Monti.

"Until now, the only way to achieve this was a risky surgical procedure known as deep brain stimulation, in which electrodes are implanted directly inside the thalamus."

The new approach directly targeted the thalamus, but non-invasively, and the researchers had expected a positive result.

However, Monti said further study was needed before it could be determined whether other people recovering from comas could be helped.

"It is possible that we were just very lucky and happened to have stimulated the patient just as he was spontaneously recovering."

Zebra finch are already preparing for climate change

By calling to their eggs, zebra finch parents may be helping their young prepare for a hotter world brought on by climate change.

Scientists have been investigating what's called "incubation calling" - where birds call to their unborn chicks.

Suspecting that the calls help them anticipate their new environment, Dr Mylene Mariette and Professor Kate Buchanan, of Australia's Deakin University, recorded the incubation calls of the finches nesting in outdoor aviaries during naturally changing temperatures.

They observed that finch parents called to their eggs only during the end of the incubation period and only when the maximum temperature rose above 26C - and were later able to show the birds were indeed preparing the chicks for warmer temperatures.

The research would add to growing efforts by scientists to understand the impact of global warming on species' survival.

The battery you can eat

Dr Christopher Bettinger of Carnegie Mellon University demonstrates the edible battery he and his colleagues have created. Photo / Bettinger lab
Dr Christopher Bettinger of Carnegie Mellon University demonstrates the edible battery he and his colleagues have created. Photo / Bettinger lab

Non-toxic, edible batteries could one day power ingestible devices for diagnosing and treating disease.

A team of scientists has just reported on progress towards creating batteries made with melanin pigments, naturally found in the skin, hair and eyes.

Building on earlier studies, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in the US experimented with battery designs that used melanin pigments at either the positive or negative terminals, various electrode materials such as manganese oxide and sodium titanium phosphate, and cations such as copper and iron that the body uses for normal functioning.

"We found basically that they work," said team member Dr Hang-Ah Park.

"The exact numbers depend on the configuration, but as an example, we can power a 5 milliwatt device for up to 18 hours using 600 milligrams of active melanin material as a cathode."

Although the capacity of a melanin battery was low relative to lithium-ion, it would be high enough to power an ingestible drug-delivery or sensing device.

It could be used, they said, for sensing gut microbiome changes and responding with a release of medicine, or for delivering bursts of a vaccine over several hours before degrading.

- NZ Herald

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