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FIRST LOOK - Breakthroughs and trends in the world of technology
Photos courtesy of The Dark Energy Survey

Get the Drift

Jellyfish may be the bane of beachgoers worldwide, but Virginia Tech researchers have found much to admire —and to mimic. The invertebrates’ very low metabolic rate means they use little energy to move, and they inhabit a wide range of depths and temperatures. That makes them an intriguing model for a new type of autonomous underwater robot being developed by mechanical engineering professor Shashank Priya and his graduate students. Last year, the team unveiled a hand-sized robo-jellyfish. This year, they floated a battery-powered prototype named Cyro that’s just over 5.5 feet across and weighs 170 pounds. Its electronic guts are housed in a waterproof, dome-shaped shell covered in a squishy silicone “skin,” with eight mechanical arms underneath for maneuvering. The research is part of a $5 million nationwide project funded by the U.S. Navy to develop self-powered surveillance robots that can remain submerged for long periods without repair and be used to monitor ocean currents or enemy combatants, study aquatic life, or map the sea floor. Researchers hope to eventually design a bio-inspired control system that operates more like real jellyfish, which have no central nervous system and use a diffused network of nerves to move. – Thomas K. Grose

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Secrets of Swat

Does any baseball batter have a perfect swing? Not really. Even the best hitters miss or foul roughly two-thirds of the time, on average. Hitting a speeding baseball requires “exquisite control at the very fastest speed, and that’s really, really tough to do,” explains Noel Perkins, a University of Michigan mechanical engineering professor. So Perkins invented a device that could help batters get closer to the holy grail of a perfect swing. It’s a small, flat box that attaches to the base of a bat, below the knob. Inside are wireless sensors that collect a range of motion metrics, including bat speed at impact; reaction time; and whether a swing is level, an upper cut, or a chop. The data then are transmitted to a computer that almost instantly turns the information into a 3-D visual that quickly shows a coach what a batter’s doing wrong — or right. Perkins, whose research was funded by two bat manufacturers, is working with the college to commercialize the device, which probably could be built for as little as $30. Of course, even batters who hone their swing using Perkins’ invention may not lift their batting averages much higher than today’s most consistent sluggers. Even a perfectly hit baseball can be caught. – TG

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Time Travelers

One of the airline industry’s little secrets is that even when planes are ready to leave the gate, there’s no telling precisely when they’ll arrive at their destination. Changes in weather, flight patterns, and bottlenecks throw estimates off an average of seven minutes — delays that waste fuel and irritate passengers. To improve predicted arrival times, General Electric recently joined forces with Alaska Airlines to create a contest called Flight Quest, which was hosted on Kaggle, a crowdsourcing platform for data-prediction competitions. A team from Singapore led by French actuary Xavier Conort won the $100,000 first prize. Four other teams also received awards totaling $140,000. Conort’s team used a two-month set of flight data not normally released publicly to create an algorithm that improved estimates by 40 to 45 percent over current industry standards. That could save travelers up to 5 minutes at the gate, and help airlines trim fuel and time crew costs. A second Flight Quest contest is planned to find a way to use data to improve flight strategies once a plane is airborne — such as helping pilots avoid bad weather and stay on schedule. Now if only there were an algorithm to prevent lost baggage. – TG

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Alarmed by a waning interest in science among Japanese youth, Shimizukubo Elementary has launched a pilot “science communication” program for all grade levels. The public school’s 152 pupils happen to be minutes from the prestigious Tokyo Institute of Technology, which has lent not only its microscopes but its scholars in the quest to encourage scientific inquiry. Kids get to tour labs, hear talks by professors, and meet foreign exchange students — all to build a sense of wonder and fun. Now in its third year, the program has made a difference, says vice principal Takayuki Hayakawa, recalling a class of third graders mesmerized by the university’s termite research. Getting students excited about science and technology is more than just an academic issue for this school. It’s located in Tokyo’s once-thriving tech hub, though only about 4,000 small tech companies remain, down by half in recent decades because of outsourcing abroad and a shortage of domestic skilled labor. The 2011 nuclear accident at Fukushima, says Hayakawa, also highlights the need to educate a more critical, scientifically literate population. Despite the school’s efforts to engage students, however, even the whiz kids inexplicably still say they “hate” science. —Lucille Craft

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Food Supply
Midas Touch

Golden Rice has long been the cause célèbre of bioengineered foods. Developed around a dozen years ago by German and Swiss researchers, the grain is engineered to help combat vitamin A deficiency, a cause of blindness and death in the developing world. A Lancet study estimated that 668,000 children younger than age 5 die from this scourge each year. Greenpeace and other environmental groups opposed to genetically modified foods have long fought against Golden Rice, stymieing planting efforts. Anti-Golden Rice activists claim it’s better to treat vitamin A deficiency with supplements or food-fortification programs. But, as a recent article on the website Project Syndicate explains, supplemental programs cost $4,300 for every life saved, and fortification efforts cost $2,700. The engineered rice? Just $100 for each life saved. Two new studies found that two ounces of Golden Rice can provide 60 percent of the daily recommended intake of vitamin A. As this evidence mounts, the Philippines will allow Golden Rice to be grown there later this year, and Bangladesh and Indonesia are set to soon follow. The Guardian now reports that Australian researchers are working on a banana that will boost not only Vitamin A levels, but iron levels, too. – TG

Photos by Marcin Szczepanski


Incest App

Dating can get tricky in Iceland, where most of the nation’s 320,000 residents trace their ancestry to a small group of 9th century Viking settlers and thus are distantly related to one another. But the population’s homogeneity and penchant for record-keeping also has its benefits. Biotech company deCODE Genetics used genealogical information to compile the Book of Icelanders, an online database covering 95 percent of all Icelanders of the past 300 years. The company recently ran a contest to find new ways to use its database. The winners were three University of Iceland software engineering students, who developed the App of Icelanders for Android smartphones. (An iPhone version is in the works). Users simply bump phones to find out if they’re related. The app includes an Incest Prevention Alarm that lets individuals who are very closely related know that they’re the kind of cousins who shouldn’t be kissing. – TG

Photos courtesy of istock

Man-made Quakes?

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a process used to extract natural gas from shale, has helped produce an energy bonanza in the United States. But forcing of huge amounts of water mixed with chemicals and sand underground to release the trapped gas remains unpopular with environmentalists. Some critics say that beyond polluting groundwater, fracking causes earthquakes. Can it? Studies show that fracking itself only very rarely causes seismic activity. However, burying the wastewater afterwards could indeed be a culprit. A recent study at England’s Durham University looked at 198 human-caused quakes since 1929 and found that fracking caused just three of them, all quite small. Mining and the filling of reservoirs were much more likely to set off quakes. Another study, led by the University of Oklahoma and published in the journal Geology, found that the deep burial of fracking wastewater, or slickwater, probably sparked a magnitude 5.7 temblor in rural Oklahoma in 2011, which damaged 14 houses. Experts told National Geographic News that geologists have long known that wastewater injected into old, dry oil wells can cause quakes. But the Oklahoma Geological Survey poured cold water on the Geology study, saying it determined from its data that the state’s rare quake was “the result of natural causes.” – TG

Photos courtesy of istock

Green Design
Palmy Skies

City planners wanted the new terminal at Queen Alia International Airport in Amman, Jordan, to incorporate green technologies as a way to deal with extreme temperatures that can range from scorching during the day to bone-cold at night. So British architects Foster + Partners came up with a design inspired by the leaves of local desert palms. The low-rise structure features a series of domes that branch out from supporting columns. Viewed from the sky, the domed roof is also meant to evoke the billowing fabrics of a Bedouin tent whose geometric design allows daylight to bathe the concourse. The building is constructed of heat-dissipating concrete made from local gravel, requiring less energy to make and reducing maintenance costs. The terminal also has open-air courtyards — another nod to local historic architecture — with plants and trees that help filter pollution. Reflecting pools bounce sunlight into the building, designed in modules to allow for future expansion. That’s smart planning, given that traffic at the airport is expected to increase from 3.5 million passengers to 12 million by 2030. – TG

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Royal Salute, Redux

On June 25 at Buckingham Palace, Her Majesty herself will present specially designed trophies to the five inaugural winners of the biennial Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering. The honorees, who were announced in mid-March, will share the £1 million ($1.53 million) prize as well as the credit for being the Internet’s chief architects. Robert Kahn, Vinton Cerf, and Louis Pouzin created the Internet’s fundamental infrastructure. Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web. And Marc Andreessen designed the pioneering Mosaic browser that made the Web accessible to the masses. The award was meant to be engineering’s Nobel Prize, replete with front-page headlines. But the world’s media largely ignored the announcement, undercutting the stated intention of inspiring more young people to join the discipline’s ranks. It was also supposed to place a spotlight on ground-breaking innovation that benefits humanity. Although the Internet was a world-rocking invention whose potential benefits have yet to be fully realized, it’s still regarded by most people as a utility. No wonder news editors yawned. – TG

Photos courtesy of IStock

Duct work

If water pipes could speak, would they warn of impending leaks and ruptures? Researchers in Australia, which spends nearly $1 billion a year to repair broken or cracked pipes, think so. A team led by engineer Fang Chen, a professor at Sydney’s University of New South Wales and former dean of electronic and information engineering at Beijing’s Jiaotong University, developed a machine-learning algorithm that can analyze information about a pipe’s breakage history, age, size, location, surrounding soil type, and other variables. The system then recommends which pipes the water utility should repair or replace. The researchers, whose work is backed by the government-funded National Information and Communications Technology Australia (NICTA), estimate that their method will cut costs by roughly one-third through reduced need for expensive emergency digging and doing preventive work before pipes burst or leak. Trials in the city of Wollongong demonstrated the invention’s accuracy. NICTA is now collaborating on a two-year program called Sydney Water to determine its efficacy in Australia’s biggest city. If successful, the system could help local and overseas water companies improve service along with their cash flow.
– Chris Pritchard

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Tumor Trap

For cancer patients, a major worry is that some tumor cells will make their way into the bloodstream and eventually spread to other parts of the body, or metastasize. These circulating tumor cells (CTCs) are difficult to track, and thus to treat. Five years ago, researchers at the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Engineering in Medicine developed a chip that could detect some CTCs that were covered in a common protein. Now the center’s engineers have developed the CTC-iChip, which can find all types of metastasizing cancer cells. The chip initially removes all but white blood cells and CTCs from a blood sample. It then isolates the CTCs by using magnetic nanoparticles that attach to and remove the white cells. The CTCs can be detected even at very low levels, then analyzed in a lab. Early detection of CTCs would let doctors begin therapies more rapidly to halt or slow metastasizing cells. Moreover, studying the captured CTCs may yield insights on how cancers evolve. – TG

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