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FIRST LOOK - Breakthroughs and trends in the world of technology
Panama Canal

Global Commerce
We Can Dig It

Designated as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World by the American Society of Civil Engineers, the Panama Canal was the moon shot of its day. The $375 million, 34-year project removed enough rubble to bury Manhattan 12 feet deep. Tens of thousands of workers perished from disease or accidents before the 50-mile link between the Pacific and Atlantic finally opened in 1914. Today, the thriving but maxed-out waterway is halfway through an equally ambitious — though far less perilous — $5.25 billion expansion to accommodate huge new “post-Panamax” ships that can carry three times the cargo of the vessels able to squeeze through now. The deeper, wider Panama Canal will include a new lane and two new flights of triple locks, requiring crews to dredge 130 million cubic meters of rock and soil. The upgraded waterway, which doubles existing capacity and aims to recycle 60 percent of the 52 million gallons currently lost to the sea per transit, is expected to open in early 2015. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers sees the increased traffic as a potential “game changer” for American ports. In preparation, some are already dredging harbors, purchasing towering new cargo cranes, and improving infrastructure. – Mary Lord

AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco

Investigators at the Fraunhofer Institute for Reliability and Microintegration IZM in Berlin have figured out how to make the flexible, wearable circuit board from polyurethane, a plastic often used as a sealant. They fitted it with sensors that monitor breathing in the chest and stomach areas, and ironed it onto baby-size PJs.

Smart Jammies

Sudden infant death syndrome, or crib death, is responsible in the United States for around 2,225 deaths a year of children from birth to 12 months. But German researchers have developed a stretchable, printed circuit board that could be fitted into a one-piece sleeper and would signal an alarm if a baby stops breathing. Investigators at the Fraunhofer Institute for Reliability and Microintegration IZM in Berlin have figured out how to make the flexible, wearable circuit board from polyurethane, a plastic often used as a sealant. They fitted it with sensors that monitor breathing in the chest and stomach areas, and ironed it onto baby-size PJs. The flexible circuit could also be used in pressure bandages for burn wounds; the sensors would help nurses to fit them onto patients with more precision. Meanwhile, a sister organization, the Fraunhofer Institute for Open Communications Systems, has come up with a hardware/software device that would enable patients undergoing physical rehabilitation to do their physiotherapy exercises at home. The “physio box” plugs into a TV and runs videos of training programs developed especially for the patient, based on a 3-D biomechanical computer model of him or her. A video camera records each session and sends the results to a physiotherapist who can monitor a patient’s progress and adapt the exercises, as needed. A set of sensors can be placed in a chest strap, cane, or watch to measure vital signs and send the data to a smartphone. – Thomas K. Grose

PHOTO © VERHAERT Masters in Innovation/iStock

Patent Litigation
Patent Litigation
Big Award
to CMU

Semiconductor manufacturer Marvell Technology Group has vowed to seek to overturn a federal jury’s decision to award Carnegie Mellon University $1.17 billion in a patent infringement suit. In 2009, CMU sued Marvell, saying the Bermuda-based company had improperly used technology invented by José Moura, a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Aleksandar Kavcic, a former Ph.D. student who is now a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Hawaii. The technology involves how accurately hard disk-drive circuits read data from high-speed magnetic disks. CMU said as many as nine Marvell devices — involving billions of chips — used the patented technology without proper licenses, and in late December the jury agreed. The company sells a billion chips a year to manufacturers ranging from Sony to Dell. CMU said the verdict struck a blow for academic research, and vowed it would always strongly protect discoveries of its faculty and students. But Marvell insists that the methods covered by the patents “cannot practically be built in silicon, even using the most advanced techniques available today.” The award comes at a time when many big-name high-tech companies are filing more and more patents, and rivals are challenging them in court. Last summer, Apple won a $1 billion judgment against Samsung over iPhone patents. – TG 


portable wind turbine called Revolver
Wind Turbines
to Tote

One day, we may be lugging our own personal wind turbines. International design company frog has unsheathed an umbrella-size, portable wind turbine called Revolver. It can generate 35 watts from a mere breeze, or enough juice to power a laptop, small light, or radio, or recharge a cellphone or other small electronic gadget. The Revolver, which won a 2012 Braun Prize for sustainable design, is housed in a slender tube. Push its outer layer upward, and out pop four curved, flexible blades made of silicone, and a tripod stand. Why would anyone want one? Well, frog says, there are times when power for devices is hard to come by -- on camping trips, say, or at outdoor music festivals. Also, as Hurricane Sandy forcefully demonstrated last fall, power outages after storms can last for days or weeks. In that sort of situation, most folks would find that even a small amount of off-grid power is very handy. – TG


Translation Technology

Translation Technology
All Eyes and Ears

Say you’re in a foreign land and don’t know the language. You don a pair of glasses, which picks up the unfamiliar phrases spoken to you and then translates them in real time into subtitles on the lenses. Well, that may be coming, but not quite yet. Recent Oxford University engineering graduate Will Powell last year demonstrated a device using Google’s augmented-reality glasses and Microsoft’s API translator software. It was able to understand basic phrases in Spanish and translate them into subtitles, but only after a rather long pause. Getting computers to understand words is tough enough. The basic, smallest units of oral speech are called phonemes, and English has 44 of them. A more robust system being developed by Microsoft uses sequential triplets of phonemes called senones, and there are 9,000 in English. But computers that can understand senones are likely to be more accurate. Microsoft and other translation programs, according to the Economist, use deep neural networks, or software comprising virtual neurons that are arranged like brain neurons — layers. But as the article notes, once a program can understand words, it still has to understand grammar, syntax, colloquialisms, and concepts, and that’s tough. A phone-call translator developed by Japan’s NTT DOCOMO, stumbles — like Powell’s glasses — if someone says anything more complex than, “How are you?” DARPA funded for five years a “speech to speech” translation program for Pashto, Arabic, and Dari called TransTac. It got to an impressive 80 percent accuracy level. That might be Ok if you need to order a pita sandwich in Baghdad. But it’s hardly good enough to use in combat zones. – TG

Photo CREDIT: iStock

Biodiversity Green Wall, Edible Green Screen and Water Harvesting Demonstration Project
State Universities
STEM on Sale

It costs more to educate engineers and budding scientists. Accordingly, around 45 percent of large public research schools charge higher tuition for those majors. Given that salaries are higher in STEM fields, complaints are few. But a task force set up by Florida’s Republican Gov. Rick Scott recommends the opposite tack — freezing tuition at state universities for students enrolled in STEM, while letting rates for humanities students — and other majors deemed to have poor job prospects, rise. Will lower STEM-degree prices bring in more students? Probably not, many experts say. As one public policy expert told “Getting humanities majors to become engineering majors is probably a stretch.” Past efforts to entice students into STEM studies with extra grant money have failed, Time notes, and a report last year found that most high schoolers had no expectation of entering STEM fields, largely because they felt unprepared. – TG

Photo CREDIT: iStock

Electric Vehicles

Electric Vehicles
Magnetic Yield

Driving an electric car means having to plug it in, and that can be an inconvenience. One answer is wireless recharging using high-frequency electromagnetic fields, but some have questioned possible health risks. Professor Lorne Whitehead from the University of British Columbia has developed an alternative method that uses what he calls “remote magnetic gears.” One magnet is mounted in the car; the other is installed at a parking station connected to the grid. The station’s transmitter magnet creates a magnetic field that turns the in-car receiver magnet, driving a small generator that recharges the battery. Four charging stations have already been installed at UBC’s Vancouver campus, and the charges from each have proved to be more than 90 percent as efficient as a cable charge. David Woodson, managing director of UBC’s building operations, says the feedback from drivers has been very positive. “In particular, the main comment from our drivers is that they don’t have to mess around with plugging the car into the grid on rainy days — definitely a key feature in Vancouver.” – Pierre Home-Douglas

Photos courtesy of Infinity USA and University of British Columbia


International Development

International Development
Tapping New Talent

The U.S. Agency for International Development, which channels economic, development, and humanitarian aid to overseas recipients, has created seven university development labs under a new program called the Higher Education Solutions Network. The goal, it says, is to “harness the intellectual power of great American and international academic institutions” and apply “new science, technology, and engineering approaches and tools to solve some of the world’s most challenging development problems.” Initial funding for the network totals $26 million, but that sum could reach $130 million over five years. The seven colleges — six American, one Ugandan — were selected from 500 applications. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s lab will publish “consumer reports” for policymakers and donors to use to assess which technologies are the most effective for specific needs. Uganda’s Makerere University’s will research how to make African countries more resilient against natural and political stresses. The University of California, Berkeley, will establish a new field in “development engineering.” The center at the College of  William and Mary will create a consortium of researchers ranging from computer scientists to epidemiologists to analyze data to help USAID make evidence-based decisions. Duke University will launch a social entrepreneur accelerator. Michigan State University’s lab will research sustainable food production. And Texas A&M University will have a Center on Conflict and Development. – TG

Photos courtesy of USAID/Duke University


Clearer Skin

Acne is the scourge of the teen years. Some 75 percent of teens have to deal with the unsightly — and sometimes disfiguring — skin ailment. Popular treatments can have troubling side effects, ranging from irritation and redness to peeling and scaling. Some products have been improved by nanotechnology, which allows treatment agents to be better targeted. And nanotech drugs can also be devised that have strong antimicrobial properties. But the best drugs, says Adam Friedman, an assistant professor of dermatology at the Montefiore-Albert Einstein College of Medicine, would combine both effects. Friedman’s team developed a skin cream that does just that. It includes nanoparticles of benzoyl peroxide, a known acne-fighter, and chitosan, which comes from the shells of crustaceans. Chitosan is well-known for its antimicrobial effects. Indeed, it’s used in food packaging to stop spoilage. In a recent paper, Friedman and his colleagues report that their topical therapy not only killed bacteria that cause acne but also inhibited inflammation. – TG


ZNASA’s new spacesuit prototype, Z1

Climb Right In

Well, it’s clear who was the inspiration for the look of NASA’s new spacesuit prototype, its first in 15 years. The white suit with the lime-green trim looks quite a bit like the one worn by Buzz Lightyear, the stalwart space jockey in Pixar’s Toy Story films. But despite the wink to ol’ Buzz, NASA’s engineers have designed a suit that would allow astronauts to move around more comfortably during space walks or treks on heavenly bodies. In fact, the outfit — called Z1 — has a suit port that allows it to be attached to the outside of a space vehicle. That would allow an astronaut to climb into the rear of the suit from inside the vehicle, whereupon the suit detaches from the craft. So, there’s no need for an airlock. It is a highly flexible one-piece suit — not the trousers, top, helmet design of past suits. NASA has devised a new portable life-support system, PLSS 2.0, that attaches to the suit. And its large bubble helmet affords astronauts a wider view of the next space frontier. – TG

PHOTOS courtesy of NASA

Identification TechnologyIdentification Technology
Wrist Full
of Dollars

Each year, more than 121 million people visit Disney theme parks. And come this spring, many of them will be wearing rubber wristbands that will allow them to quickly make purchases, often avoid long lines for popular rides, and reserve great seats for the evening fireworks. The radio frequency identification, RFID, bands can be stored with all sorts of data, from credit card numbers to FastPass codes to the names and birthdates of children. Visitors can opt into the MyMagic+ “vacation management system,” and limit just how much info they want to provide the park. In addition to being able to preschedule no-wait slots for up to three top rides, the bands allow users to make cash- or credit card-free purchases of goodies, from souvenirs to food. If they include their kids’ names and birthdates, when the children run into Mickey or Goofy or Snow White, they’ll get a personal greeting. In areas where wearers do have to wait for rides, the bands can trigger interactive diversions. Disney hopes the new technology will allow its staff to better manage the throngs of visitors to its parks, and it also clearly hopes to use the info gleaned to more precisely target individual visitors with personalized special offers. It’s a Big Data world, after all. – TG

Photo courtesy of Kent Phillips/Disney

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