December 6, 2013
To a butterfly, even the slightest torrential downpour can feel like getting pelted by a barrage of bowling balls. And as the insects take cover, the slightest residual moisture touching their wafer-thin wings can also hinder their ability to fly. Fortunately, the little critters evolved uniquely textured wings that excel at repelling water and dirt.
Scientists have known this for some time. But it’s the remarkable wingspans belonging to the blue morpho butterfly, a tropical species native to rainforest regions of Central and South America, that’s of particular interest to scientists as of late. The special ridged patterns on the surface, similar to nasturtium leaves, has been found to repel liquids at a rate that surpasses even the heralded water-shedding capabilities of the lotus leaf.
“For years industry has been copying the lotus. They should start thinking about copying butterflies and nasturtiums,” MIT engineering professor Kripa Varanasi tells BBC News. “We believe these are the most super-hydrophobic surfaces yet.”
Varanasi is best known as the head of the research team that developed LiquiGlide, a slippery surface technology that’s been shown to enable ketchup to slide easily out of the bottle. His latest findings, published in the journal Nature, demonstrate how another fabricated material featuring this added wrinkle may indeed be the most water-resistant stuff on earth.
So, how does this novel material work? As shown in the video, the silicon surface features raised ridges no more than 0.1 millimeter (1/250th of an inch) high, which cause falling droplets of water to flatten like a pancake before immediately breaking apart into smaller, scattered droplets. The smaller the droplets, the faster they bounce off a surface. The amount of time the liquid is in contact with the material is considerably less this way—about a third less, in fact, than it would be with other water-repellant materials.
So what’s the great advantage of a material that can stay drier than the rest? Since smaller droplets are easily repelled, less water on a surface means less likelihood of frost buildup. Commercially, such a material would be of special interest to the aviation industry. Engineers are constantly looking for ways to prevent ice from forming on planes’ wings; this frozen layer can alter airflow and put the aircraft at risk of stalling. Anti-icing systems that melt the ice are already built into airplanes to combat such issues, but a superhydrophobic coating would provide an additional safeguard against the risk. The ridged texture could also be applied to the blades of wind turbines for improved performance and fabrics, which could be used to design clothing that better shields us from the elements.
For now, Varanasi and his research team are working on structural tweaks that they hope will make the material even more water-resistant. They believe increasing the number of ridges may do the trick. “I hope we can manage to get a 70 to 80 percent reduction [in contact time],” he says in a press release. “We can reduce it further.”
December 5, 2013
There’s a reason why big city mayors like New York’s Michael Bloomberg have pushed hard for the widespread adoption of bike sharing programs. Getting people to collectively start pedaling, instead of driving, can ease traffic congestion, reduce the strain on the public health system and clear up air quality in one fell swoop.
But try telling that to the sweaty business executive in the three-piece suit who’s straining to pedal uphill to make it to an important board meeting on time.
Now, the Boston-based startup Superpedestrian has an innovative alternative for those who still want to enjoy all the benefits of bicycling, but with a lot less grunting. Their pedal assist device, called the Copenhagen Wheel, can be easily slipped onto almost any bicycle as a lightweight modified rear wheel that provides a motorized boost for moments when riders need it most, like, for instance, going uphill. Sandwiched between what looks like two metallic red hubcaps is an intricate system comprised of a 350 watt electric motor and a 48 volt lithium-ion battery that combine to generate an energy output that amounts to more than four times what an average person can muster by just pedaling.
Though the company is keeping mum on how the patent-pending technology works, we do know that the system utilizes what’s called regenerative braking to continuously recharge the onboard battery. Such systems, typically integrated into electric cars and hybrids, convert the kinetic energy involved in stopping a moving vehicle’s forward momentum, as brakes are applied, into stored power. The resulting output gives the modified bicycle a range of 30 miles and a potential top speed of 20 mph.
In some ways, the Copenhagen Wheel does for electric bicycles what Apple did for mobile computing with the smartphone and tablets, in shrinking down all the necessary components into a compact 12-pound module. The minimalist design eliminates the need for certain parts, such as an external throttle, and even includes enhancements like a sensor system designed to automatically track the rider’s pedaling patterns, the shape of the terrain and other environmental conditions to determine when extra power is needed. The device also features built-in Wi-Fi so riders can access the data via a smartphone app, which displays fitness-related metrics such as distances traveled and calories burned.
The idea for the wheel was conceived back in 2009 when Assaf Biderman, an inventor and associate director of the SENSEable City Laboratory at MIT, was tasked by the mayor of Copenhagen to figure out a way to motivate more locals to adopt bicycles as a viable mode of transportation. During his research, he found that many deemed bikes as impractical due to a variety of reasons, ranging from the strenuousness of traveling long distances to not wanting to show up at work covered in sweat.
Pedal-assisted electric bikes, or e-bikes, have gained popularity over the last decade, rising steadily to account for 12 percent of all bicycle sales worldwide. Millions have been sold in Asian countries, such as China, where bicycles often serve as a main mode of transport. But the technology’s reach stalls out when it comes to ardent bike enthusiasts, many of whom consider the vehicles to be too clunky. For them, pedal-assisted riding barely resembles the true bicycling experience, and all its joys.
“So we said, let’s think of something that is really elegant that keeps the natural pure experience of riding. Just pedal,” Biderman told Public Radio International.
The Copenhagen Wheel is on sale now for $700, with the earliest shipments scheduled for the the beginning of 2014. And it’s only then that we’ll learn whether the technology lives up to its claims in the rockier parts of the real-world.
December 4, 2013
There are “pet owners” and then there are “pet parents.” For the latter, there isn’t an effort to a great or a price too high to make their little ones feel like part of the family.
Over the years, the multi-billion dollar pet market has happily catered to these truest of animal lovers, making it possible for them to spoil their precious furballs with facials and manicures at dog spas, specially-concocted fragrances and custom-designed orthopedic pet beds. Being so attached, you can imagine the separation anxiety pet parents experience when they’re at work or vacationing for an extended amount of time.
To alleviate this stress, a Minnesota-based startup has invented a two-way petcam that enables both owner and pet to connect and interact remotely in a manner similar to Skype or Apple’s FaceTime. The $350 PetChatz device features a “chew-proof” intercom-sized unit with a built-in speakerphone, camera system and interactive LCD screen that can be plugged into any wall outlet.
Connected via Wi-Fi, owners would then use an app on their computer or mobile device to start a “chat” session, which can be recorded and shared with others. A special ring tone signals to the pet that someone’s calling and an additional motion and sound detection system can be set up to notify parents of any activity around the house. While technically dogs or cats don’t have the ability to chat, people can use the “Greet & Treat” system to reward their pets by dispensing tasty treats and even special scents that are kept in a refillable hidden compartment.
PetChatz was created by Mark Kroll, a medical technology developer with more than 350 patents to his name. He holds the title of Minnesota’s most prolific inventor. The idea came to him about a decade ago when, while he was Skyping with his daughter, the family’s labrador recognized her voice and came running into the room. Kroll later collaborated with veterinary technician Lisa Lavin to to develop PetChatz and other similar long-distance technologies under a new venture called Anser Innovation.
“As a pet parent myself, I understand how strongly people feel about their pets,” says Lavin, who estimates that she has spent a total of $11,200 on vet bills and $80 a month on dog food for both of her live-in poodles. “We miss them. We feel guilty when we’re away on vacation and this is a way to alleviate that separation anxiety.”
If there is one aspect of these extravagant pet parenting products that some might find troubling, other than the cost, it’s that promoting them involves a great deal of anthropomorphizing. Though dogs and cats are intelligent, they still aren’t human, and treating them as such hints at a kind of resolute denial to accept the fact that they may not even enjoy being the benefactor of pricey skin treatments. Some experts think its a stretch to believe that the critter on the other end even recognizes a person being displayed on a screen.
“This product introduces the potential for interaction between the dog and the technology,” Margaret Duxbury, an animal behavior professor at the University of Minnesota, told the Star-Tribune a year ago. “It will certainly be disappointing if the dogs don’t respond at all [to PetChatz]. Perhaps they will respond to the voice but not recognize that the picture is of their owner. Does that even matter if they respond to the voice?”
Lavin claims that the company has since tested the device, with pet and human subjects, and discovered that pets can be easily trained to at least recognize the ring in a manner similar to a Pavlovian response. (Some animals have even been trained to be government spies.) As for whether a pet knows who’s on-screen, she says that would depend on how much visual technology the pet has been exposed to.
“What we found was that the pet who spends a lot of time watching TV is more likely to be compelled to recognize your image on the screen and follow commands than one who doesn’t,” she says.
What’s important, she emphasizes, is that this device does more for the emotional welfare of the owner than for the pet. If there is any benefit for the pet (besides food), she adds, it’s that the pet, especially dogs, receives some stimulation during the day, which animal behaviorists agree can do wonders for their well-being.
PetChatz is slated to be available for purchase on the product’s website and at select independent pets stores nationwide during the first quarter of 2014. For now, the company is taking pre-orders for the device. Packets of special treats and essential oil drops will also be available in the near future.
On “60 Minutes” the other night, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos made drones fun again. They’re usually associated with clandestine warfare, but Bezos showed interviewer Charlie Rose–along with the millions of others watching–how the unmanned aircraft can be cool little gizmos that become a part of our daily lives–in this case by delivering stuff you ordered from Amazon right to your doorstep.
Bezos used the program to reveal the wonders of Amazon’s “octocopter,” a mini-drone with the capability of achieving the Holy Grail of e-commerce–deliveries within 30 minutes. This is still years away, as Bezos acknowledged, but it’s clear he thinks drones will one day be as ubiquitous as Domino’s drivers.
Bezos’ demo had the desired effect–his octocopter was all over the Internet on Cyber Monday, burnishing Amazon’s reputation as a company gliding along the cutting edge of customer service. Some derided the the whole thing as little more than a beautifully orchestrated publicity stunt, given the not insignificant hurdles commercial drones still need to clear. Other websites, such as The Telegraph in the U.K., piled on. It produced a list of nine things that could go “horribly wrong”–from drone hackers to long weather delays to packages falling from the sky.
The truth is, we won’t really know all that can go wrong–or right–with commercial drones until closer to 2020, at least in the U.S. It could happen sooner, but the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been moving slowly and cautiously, not surprising, considering that we’re talking about tens of thousands of pilotless vehicles buzzing around in public airspace. Extensive drone testing at six still-to-be-named locations won’t begin until next year, almost a year and a half behind the schedule set by Congress.
Me, my drone and I
But let’s step back for a minute and forget about messy things like political and legal realities. If Bezos is right, more personal drones are inevitable. Many, no doubt, will be used to make deliveries. (That already appears to be happening in China.) But what else will they be able to do?
Plenty, if you believe some of the ideas that have been floated. And those little flying machines could become a lot more personal than most of us would have imagined.
Consider the possibilities:
1) I’m ready for my selfie: Not long ago, a group of designers from a product strategy firm named frog staged a workshop with the purpose of imagining ways that drones could become a much bigger part of our lives. One idea was an aircraft called the Paparazzi, and, true to its name, it would be all about following you around and recording your life in photos and videos. It would then feed everything directly to your Facebook page. Yes, it sounds ridiculously self-indulgent, but then again, who could have imagined our obsession with self portraits on phones?
2) Cut to the chase: Here’s another idea from the frog workshop, a drone they named the Guardian Angel. Described as the “ultimate accessory for serious runners,” it would act as a trainer or exercise companion by flying ahead and setting the pace. It could conceivably tap into data from a heart monitor a runner is wearing and push him or her harder to get pulse rate up. Or it could use data from a previous run and let a person race against himself. In short, these drones would be like wearable tech that you don’t actually wear.
3) Take that, Siri: Researchers at M.I.T., meanwhile, have developed a personal drone app they’ve named Skycall, which serves as a personal tour guide. Sure, you can listen to your smartphone give you directions, but this app/drone combo would actually show you the way. It works like this: You tell the app on your phone where you want to go and it would then identify and contact the nearest unmanned aircraft. It would show up, like a flying cab, and lead you to your destination.
4) Allow me to revel in my greatness: A British drone maker has designed one that’s a variation of the Paparazzi mentioned above, although his is geared more to outdoor types, such as mountain bikers,snowboarders and surfers. It tracks a person through a smartphone and, from overhead, takes a steady stream of photos and videos to capture his or her awesomeness for posterity.
5) An idea whose time has already come: Finally, Dan Farber, writing for CNET the other day, raised the prospect of what he called a “Kindle Drone.” He sees it as a device about the size of a baseball, loaded with sensors and a camera, that would serve as a guard and personal assistant. On one hand, it could roam your house gathering data and generally making sure everything’s in order. On the other, you could direct it to go find your phone.
Now that has potential.
Video bonus: Here’s a drone in action in China, delivering a cake from the air.
Video bonus bonus: It’s safe to say this is the only engagement ring delivered by drone.
Video bonus plus: Need to map the Matterhorn. No problem, drones at your service.
More from Smithsonian.com
December 3, 2013
In the west, we have a cultural distaste for most bugs. We’re the land of pesticides, systematically going to great lengths to avoid or get rid of them. Even the word “bug” in everyday vernacular has evolved to connote unsavory behavior.
But to the chagrin of the most aversive entomophobes, much of the scientific literature has found that as many as 1,7000 species are not only safe to eat, they’re also nutritiously more beneficial than much of the food we normally consume. Compared to beef, “a six-ounce serving of crickets has 60 percent less saturated fat and twice as much vitamin B-12 than the same amount of ground beef,” according to a PBS NewsHour report. Besides being a good source of lean protein, bugs are genetically distant enough from us that transferable diseases such as mad cow or feral pig disease won’t ever be a concern. There’s a reason why, for 80 percent of the world’s nations, insects are actually an essential part of people’s diets.
Yet, to satiate the culinary preferences of the few, an agricultural system has been set up that devotes over two-thirds of the world’s farmland to raising livestock, while ultimately yielding only half an ounce of cooked beef for every pound of feedlot grain. The sheer amount of grain that goes into producing meat in the United States alone each year is enough to feed nearly 800 million people during that time. Meat production is also responsible for 20 percent of all the greenhouse gases, according to a report in the Guardian.
For San Francisco-based software engineer Daniel Imrie-Situnayake, this approach to food production for a rapidly growing population isn’t only inefficient, it’s simply unsustainable. His response was to develop, along with a team of entomological experts, a DIY open-source bug farming kit that he hopes to make commercially available in the near future, possibly as early as the beginning of 2014.
Each Tiny Farms kit comes with all the necessary equipment, including a bug starter pack, to hatch and cultivate your choice of insect. With an instruction guide, tutorials as well as software to track, manage and interact with a community of bug farmers, novices will be guided through all aspects of the process. Though a purchase price for the kit hasn’t been determined, the company promises the materials will be low cost and readily available worldwide.
The concept was designed for enthusiasts to take advantage of the fact that though the world is already crawling with these potentially edible critters, only a few large-scale, food-grade insect producers exist. Assurances of food-grade sanitation matters because wild insects may be contaminated with pesticides, metals and other chemicals. With the enclosed kits, owners can rear herds for personal consumption (silkworm pancakes, anyone?), to feed other animals or to sell them on the market for as much as $15 per 1,000 crickets.
“The bottleneck now is supply,” Imrie-Situnayak writes on Xconomy. “With only a couple of food-grade insect farms like World Ento and Chirp, the industry’s total production capacity is relatively small. At this moment, any entrepreneur with the resources to start a cricket farm has a guaranteed market for their produce.”
As cold-blooded invertebrates, insects generally don’t expend energy to keep warm and thus require less natural resources to thrive. For instance, they use their exoskeletons to seal in and preserve water when it’s hot rather than sweating the way mammals do. The United Nations, in encouraging insect consumption, points out that insects, such as crickets, require six times less feed than cattle, four times less than sheep and two times less than pigs to reap the same amount of protein. On the whole, they’re much easier to raise.
“Insect rearing can be very simple and low-tech. Also, unlike grazing mammals, they don’t need large horizontal areas to live in, and they can be stacked in a vertical environment for maximum efficiency of limited space,” Phil Torres, a conservation biologist at Cornell University, tells Modern Farmer. “Many insects certainly do adapt well to farm-like environments. Numerous species can be raised in high densities, especially compared to mammals, so you can get a much higher nutritional output per unit area used to raise them.”
Besides Tiny Farms, a growing number of eco-conscious bugstock advocates are exploring various tacts to help change people’s perceptions of insects as food. In Spain, bug farmer Laetitia Giroud raises crickets to be milled into an unrecognizable fine powder that can be used as an ingredient in desserts such as cookies. And in Montreal, a team of students from McGill Univeristy has been awarded the 2013 Hult Prize ($1 million) to start grasshopper farms in developing regions in Mexico, Thailand and Kenya. The resulting yields would then be grounded and turned into flour for bread and other baked goods.
Tom Turpin, an entomologist at Purdue University and fellow insectivore, argues however that the only way for insect farming to reverse some of the environmental strain brought about by meat production is to scale it up to a similarly massive level. “It doesn’t mean we couldn’t do it,” he tells Business Insider. “But we haven’t spent the time culturing insects in the way we have cultured plants and animals for that food purpose.”
But for now, perhaps the biggest hump continues to be that much of the world’s food-producing systems and the communities built around them also depends on the eradication of bugs, rather than the harvesting of them. While agencies like the U.S. Agency for International Development and British Locust Control are geared toward preserving important crops such as wheat and barley, there’s a certain misguided irony in such efforts to wipe out swarms of insects that are essentially complete proteins in order to protect an incomplete one.