December 20, 2013
It’s probably the one toy that’s proven, again and again, to be fun for all ages. Grown-up Lego-maniacs, which include artists, musicians and engineers, can spend as much as 20 hours a week snapping together extravagant creations like this 43-foot long X-Wing Fighter replica. Some clever AFOLs (Adult Fans of Legos), as they’ve been whimsically referred to, have even gone on to create more functional objects. Christina Stephens, an amputee, showed watchers on YouTube how she built a Lego prosthetic leg.
The Lego Group, recognizing the wider potential of its signature product, launched a series of Lego Mindstorm kits in the mid-90s to enable inventors and other tinkerers to apply the same assembling versatility to advanced fields such as robotics and computing systems. The kits, combined with smartphones, have since been used to develop sophisticated machines, such as a robotic pianist as well as a working 3D printer.
The triumph of Romanian AFOL Raul Oaida’s air-powered Lego car falls somewhere in between something meant “just for kicks” and a practical prototype. Comprised of more than 500,000 Lego pieces, the yellow-and-black hot rod can be driven at speeds of up to 17 mph (check out the video). Bestowing the life-sized hot rod with true motorized capabilities involved constructing a propulsion system that links four orbital engines, which, altogether consist of 256 pistons. Somewhere within the plastic machinery is the fuel source, likely a canister that’s designed to release compressed air to power the engine.
The video shows Oaida and his collaborator, Australian entrepreneur Steve Sammartino, cruising down a street in Melbourne at a much slower cruising speed than what the vehicle is supposedly capable of. Sammartino said that they didn’t want to push the vehicle to go any faster because, as he writes on his YouTube account, “We drive it slow as [we] are scared of [a] giant [Lego] explosion.”
Tech blog ExtremeTech reasons that at higher speeds the fragile Lego pieces would likely succumb to the heat generated by the engine:
“Presumably there is a hard limit on how much air pressure the Lego cylinders can withstand, and thus how high the engine can rev. Or considering the blocks are almost certainly glued together, maybe the limiting factor is heat dissipation—those pistons, without any kind of real air or liquid cooling, are probably generating a fairly large amount of heat.”
No one expects this experiment to spur any kind of commercialized technology, as the makers have said that the Super Awesome Micro Project was, from the start, nothing more than a hobbyist-driven campaign. In fact, after Sammartino started sending out tweets calling for funding, he would go on to inform prospective investors to not expect anything in return except taking pride in making something like this possible.
“There will be NO fiscal return on this,” he wrote in the Super Awesome Micro Project prospectus. “Regard it as a techie/hacker community project where committed funds are philanthropic in nature. This project has high risk and may fail.”
Oaida had previously received some notoriety in 2012 when he commemorated the end of the U.S. space shuttle program by launching a balloon-lifted Lego Space Shuttle to an altitude of more than 100,000 feet. For the car, he spent around $25,000 to piece together and ship it from Romania to Melbourne. While the vehicle was damaged by changes in temperature in transit, he was able to easily replace some of the warped parts.
“I built it once, so I knew I could fix anything that would be broken on it,” Oaida said in a podcast interview.
October 30, 2013
There might have been a time when throwing on a white bedsheet with two little round holes for Halloween could pass as quite scary. However, the very nature of celebrating those “things that go bump in the night” has always been about making the supernatural as super-realistic as possible. At parties, for instance, awards for the best costume typically go to the most detailed and impressive fabrications. A costume, after all, is only as frightening as it is believable. Even haunted houses today have become extravagant and sophisticated showcases that rival some Hollywood productions.
“In the beginning, people would joke about spaghetti for brains and grapes for eyeballs,” haunted house producer Steve Kopelman told NBC News in a recent report. “Now you have animatronics [and] dramatic advances in technology … so you get the realism you couldn’t have until the last decade.”
But since we can’t all go all out like that neighbor with the Wi-Fi networked robotic zombies in his front yard, here are five high-tech suggestions for keeping up with the Uncle Festers this Halloween:
1. Meet the Ghost Drone
If your neighbor happens to be YouTube user Alton Porter, then good luck figuring out how to out-creep the locals. He recently gave everyone a preview of how he plans to greet trick-or-treaters this year when he uploaded a video showing a R/C quadrocopter drone dressed up as a flying (remote-controlled) ghost, complete with led lights for glowing eyes. And as he mentions on his YouTube page, it didn’t cost much at all—that is if don’t already own a quadrocopter, which would run you about $500.
“I was shopping at Target and saw the complete ghost hanging up on the Halloween rack for $10.00,” he wrote. “I installed the led lights. The ghost is very light.”
2. When Being Yourself is Creepy Enough
For those who are all out of costume ideas, the website thatsmyface.com has an idea that lets anyone get away with showing up at Halloween parties as just themselves—without coming off as “lame.” The startup, based in Beaverton, Oregon, offers a service in which customers can send in a photo of themselves to be used to manufacture a wearable 3D printed mask. Comprised of a material the company describes as a “hard resin composite in full 24-bit color with a matte varnish,” the $299 facial replication features holes through the eyes and nostrils and, as you can see from the video, is eerily lifelike. Customers can also order action figures of themselves and, for the extremely vain, a full bust can be printed for $2,000.
With thatsmyface.com, customers can also thoroughly freak out their friends. Surreptitiously order a mask, using a photo of a friend, and dress as that friend’s doppelgänger.
3. For When Rubber Body Parts Just Don’t Hack It
Need something more convincing than those contrived gushing wounds with rubber organs poking out? Well, there’s an App for that. NASA engineer Mark Rober has recently released iWound, a fake-wound latex insert that cleverly features a slot for a smartphone. Once placed securely inside, the smartphone’s touchscreen can create the illusion of a real-life beating heart by running a free app that plays video of the live organ in a continuous loop. The entire set-up also includes a selection of bloody stab wound T-shirts for $23.50. The iWound insert itself costs $34.50.
4. Turn Your Room Into a Horror Movie
If you’re the type who thinks spooking someone out is worth any price, look no further than the “Exorcist bed.” ScareFactory, a haunted house warehouse, packages the steel-frame bed as an elaborate fright gag setup, with an optional levitator and grip switch, for upwards of $5,000. Spastically-possessed actor is sold separately.
5. …Like a Really Scary Horror Movie
Fans of the Exorcist bed might also like to double up on the fright factor with a rigged door that creates the illusion of zombies violently trying to break in. Hi-Rez Designs sells a HD quality video panel that can be installed on any entrance to make it appear as if there is a clear window in the door; in this particular video, a vicious nurse touting a menacing syringe approaches the window from a hallway. The company also offers full prop kits ($149) that feature mechanical hands reaching through the door to enhance the effect. With gorifying your own home becoming so much easier these days, who needs to go to a haunted house?
Use the Force, But What Ever You Do, Don’t Take It This Far!
A company named WickedLasers, has taken the concept of science fiction movie props into a perhaps all-too-realistic realm. Their Spyder S3 is the first mass-market product to feature a 445 nanometer wavelength direct blue diode portable laser that projects a powerful 1 Watt beam, which is enough heat to burn skin or blind someone. For $299, anyone can start wielding one of these babies and what’s perhaps even more surprising is that the company guarantees that the Arctic Spyder S3 is “100% legal under U.S. federal law and federal safety requirements.” The company also sells a Star Wars-inspired light saber for $200.
As frightening as an ultra-realistic light saber can be, this is one case where it may just be best to stick to fake guts or simple facepaint.
May 24, 2013
Summer in America unofficially begins this weekend, and with it come the late afternoon and middle-of-the-night thunderstorms that are Nature’s version of shock and awe. But as common as they are, much about thunder and lightning remains a mystery. In fact, scientists are still debating what actually causes those amazing flashes across the sky.
Here are eight recent findings related to storm-watching:
1) Come to the dark side: The dazzling thunderbolts get all the attention, but within each thunderstorm are invisible intense bursts of gamma rays, which have become known as “dark lightning.” Scientists recently discovered that the two types of lightning seemed to be connected, that there’s a gamma ray discharge immediately before a bolt shoots through the sky, although no one’s quite sure what that connection is. The good thing about dark lightning is that it dissipates quickly so it can’t really hurt anyone on the ground. But if you should be so unlucky and fly through a thunderstorm, a release of dark lightning nearby could expose you to a significant dose of radiation. Which is just one more reason for pilots to fly around them.
2) When planes go bump in the night: By the middle of the century, transatlantic flights could get a whole lot bumpier if a team of British scientists is right. They’re projecting that, because of climate change, the chances of encountering significant turbulence will increase by between 40 and 170 percent. Most likely, they say, the amount of airspace where nasty turbulence occurs will double. But wait, there’s more. They predict that the average strength of turbulence will also increase by 10 to 40 percent.
3) The pain in rain lies mainly in the brain: A study published earlier this year concluded that lightning could actually trigger migraines and other headaches. The researchers asked 90 chronic migraine sufferers to document when they developed migraines during a three-to-six month period, and then tracked that data against lightning strikes within 25 miles of the migraine victims’ homes. Their analysis found a 28 percent increased chance of a migraine and a 31 percent chance of a non-migraine headache on days when lightning struck nearby. So what’s the connection? Not absolutely clear. Some have suggested that high pressure increases the risk of migraines, while others have argued that low pressure can increase the risk. And still other research has failed to show that there even is a definite connection.
4) Hi, I’m Big Data and from now on I’ll be doing the weather: IBM obviously is big on Big Data–it’s pretty much building its future around it–and not long ago it launched a weather analysis project it calls “Deep Thunder.” Using complex algorithms and massive computing power, the company is compiling data around the physics of the atmosphere over a number of major cities. With the resulting mathematical models, the company says it should be able to predict up to 40 hours ahead of time how much rain will fall in a particular location—with 90 percent accuracy.
5) Now if it could only get the lightning to charge your phone: In case you can’t figure it out on your own, there’s now an app that tells you when lightning is nearby. Called Spark, it’s a product from WeatherBug, available on Android and iPhones, that tells you where the nearest lightning strike is, based on data from the Total Lightning Network and your phone’s GPS. And this isn’t just about getting the lowdown on lightning near you. It also allows you to check on what’s happening at GPS locations you’ve saved on your phone–such as your favorite golf course.
6) And now, time for a cosmic interlude: Two Russian researchers say they have more evidence that lightning is caused by the interaction of cosmic rays with water droplets in thunderclouds. Their theory is that cosmic rays–which are created in deep space by star collisions and supernovae–zoom across space and the ones that pass through Earth’s upper atmosphere create showers of ionized particles and electromagnetic radiation. And that, the scientists contend, causes lightning when it passes through a thundercloud. The other popular theory is that lightning occurs when collisions between ice crystals and hailstones in storm clouds separate enough electric charge to cause a high electric field. The debate goes on.
7) Now that’s shock and awe: The U.S. Army is developing a weapon that allows it to shoot lighting bolts along a laser beam directly into a target. So, basically, they’ve figured out how to fire lightning. Called the Laser-Induced Plasma Channel, it can be used to destroy anything that conducts electricity better than the air or ground surrounding it.
8) Just don’t name the kid “Flash:” And just in case you wondered, 70 percent of Americans who responded to a survey by Trojan Brand Condoms said that they’ve had sex during a nasty storm.
Video bonus: You’ve never seen lightning quite like this, slowed down so that one flash is drawn out to last six minutes. You can watch every incredible step of the way.
Video bonus bonus: And here’s what it’s like to have lightning strike next to you.
Video bonus bonus bonus: That’s right, a bonus bonus bonus because you can never watch enough lightning strikes. Here’s a collection of lightning shooting upward.
More from Smithsonian.com
October 15, 2012
The International Association of Police Chiefs held its convention in San Diego earlier this month and one of the booths drawing a lot of attention belonged to a California company called AeroVironment, Inc.
It’s in the business of building drones.
One of its models–the Raven–weighs less than five pounds and is the most popular military spy drone in the world. More than 19,000 have been sold. Another of its robot planes–the Switchblade–is seen as the kamikaze drone of the future, one small enough to fit into a soldier’s backpack.
But AeroVironment is zeroing in on a new market–police and fire departments too small to afford their own helicopters, but big enough to have a need for overhead surveillance. So in San Diego, it was showing off yet another model, this one called the Qube.
The camera never blinks
AeroVironment likes to tout the Qube as just what a future-thinking police department needs–a flying machine that fits in the trunk of a cop car–it’s less than five pounds and just three feet long–can climb as high as 500 feet and stays airborne as long as 40 minutes.
Outfitted with high-resolution color and thermal cameras that transmit what they see to a screen on the ground, the Qube is being marketted as a moderately-priced surveillance tool ($50,000 and up) for keeping fleeing criminals in sight or being eyes in the sky for SWAT teams dealing with hostage situations or gunmen they can’t see.
A few police departments have already taken the plunge into what are officially known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)–big cities like Miami, Houston, and Seattle, but also smaller towns, such as North Little Rock, Ark., Ogden, Utah and Gadsen, Ala. Most used Homeland Security grants to buy their drones and they all had to be specially authorized by the FAA to fly them.
So far, they haven’t flown them all that much because the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) doesn’t yet allow drones to be used in populated areas and near airports, at an altitude above 400 feet, or even beyond the view of the operator. But that’s going to change, with the FAA estimating that by the end of the decade, at least 15,000 drones will be licensed to operate over the U.S.
I spy a pool party
So how is this going to work? What’s to keep all those unmanned aircraft from hitting planes or helicopters or crashing into buildings? And what’s going to prevent them from spying on private citizens or shooting video of pool parties?
The FAA is wrestling with all that now and, given the need to ensure both safe skies and individual privacy, the agency may have a hard time nailing down regulations by August, 2014, the deadline Congress set earlier this year with the goal of opening up public airspace to commercial drones in the fall of 2015.
The feds are already behind schedule in selecting six locations in the U.S. where they’ll test drones to see if they can do what their manufacturers say they can do and, more importantly, if they can be kept from flying out of control. Later this month, however, at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, the Department of Homeland Security will start grading different drones on how well they perform when lives are at stake, say with a hostage situation, or a spill of hazardous waste or a search and rescue mission.
For a technology still largely seen as a deadly, and controversial, weapon for going after suspected terrorists, it couldn’t hurt to be able show how a drone can help find a lost kid or save an Alzheimer’s patient wandering through the woods.
Not so private eyes
Still, the idea of police departments or government agencies having access to flying cameras makes a lot of people uneasy. This summer, when a rumor started on Twitter that the EPA was using drones to spy on American farmers, it shot through the blogosphere, was repeated on TV, and then in condemning press releases issued by several congressmen–even though it wasn’t true.
As Benjamin Wittes and John Villasenor pointed out in the Washington Post earlier this year, the FAA isn’t a privacy agency. It’s loaded with aviation lawyers. Yet it will be dealing with some very dicey issues, such as how do you define invasion of privacy from public airspace and who can get access to video shot by a drone.
To quote Wittes and Villasenor:
“The potential for abuses on the part of government actors, corporations and even individuals is real — and warrants serious consideration before some set of incidents poisons public attitudes against a field that promises great benefits.”
Judging from a pair of surveys on the subject, the public is already pretty wary. Of those recently surveyed by the Associated Press, about a third said they are “extremely concerned” or “very concerned” about how drones could affect their privacy.
Another national poll, taken this summer by the Monmouth University Polling Institute, found that while 80 percent of the people surveyed like the idea of drones helping with search and rescue missions and 67 percent support using them to track runaway criminals, about 64 percent said they are “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” about losing their privacy.
And they definitely don’t like the notion of police departments using them to enforce routine laws. Two out of three people surveyed said they hate the idea of drones being used to issue speeding tickets.
When robots fly
Here’s more recent research on flying robots:
- No crash courses: NASA scientists are testing two different computer programs to see if they can help drones sense and then avoid potential mid-air collisions. In theory, an unmanned aircraft would be able to read data about other flying objects and change its speed and heading if it appeared to be on a collision course.
- What goes up doesn’t have to come down: Two recent innovations could dramatically increase the flight time of both giant drones and handheld ones. Lockheed Martin has found a way to recharge its huge Stalker drones wirelessly using lasers, allowing them to stay airborne for as long as 48 hours. And Los Angeles-based Somatis Technologies is working on a process to convert wind pressure and vibrations into energy and that could triple the battery life of hand-launched drones to almost three hours.
- Get your protest souvenir photos here: Russia is stepping up its drone program and will continue to use them to monitor street protests.
- The face is familiar: The Congressional Research Service released a report last month suggesting that law enforcement agencies could, in the near future, outfit drones with facial recognition or biometric software that could “recognize and track individuals based on attributes such as height, age, gender and skin color.”
- Talk to me when it makes honey: Harvard researchers have been working on a tiny–not much larger than a quarter–robotic bee for five years and now it can not only take off on its own power, but it can also pretty much fly where they want it to go.
- Two blinks to get rid of red eye: Chinese scientists have designed quadcopters that can be controlled by human thought and be told to take a photo by the blink of an eye.
Video bonus: This promo video by AeroVironment sure makes it feel like the Qube drone could have its own TV series.
More from Smithsonian.com
October 20, 2011
Used to be that when you heard “3D,” you thought of goofy gimmicks and glasses that would go well with a lampshade on your head. Not any more. In just the past week, news articles detailed important advances made with 3D laser scans: Scientists concluded that teenage T. rex were pretty hefty. Engineers identified which parts of Venice are most at risk of sinking. And police have recreated accident scenes.
But the coolest thing happening with the third dimension involves printers. Yes, printers. A 3D printer works much like your inkjet printer does, only instead of creating a two-dimensional image on a sheet of paper, it builds a physical object by stacking one very thin layer of material on top of another. That’s the idea, anyway. But to me it’s like electricity—let’s call it magic and leave it at that.
The printers are already having an impact in manufacturing. Companies are no longer using them just to create prototypes; they’re making actual parts. In fact, it has been estimated that by 2020, half of the parts used in machines will be designed on a computer and then built by printers. And why not? Printer-produced objects are lighter, cheaper, more energy efficient, result in less waste and can be made from a wider range of materials. They’re also much easier to customize, which has led some to foresee the day when we’ll download products as we now do music, then print them out at home. But first we’ll be able to tweak them into our own special versions.
That flexibility is likely one reason some artists have started using printers to express themselves. Laurie Anderson has included a 3D printer piece in an exhibit now showing in Philadelphia. Micah Ganske is has integrated small plastic printed sculptures into his artwork, which is featured in a show opening next month in New York.
The artist needs only to provide the original design on a computer. The machine does the rest. This raises the prospect of being able to download designs an artist has made available and printing out our own 3D sculptures. That’s happening already on the website Thingiverse, which is loaded with what’s described as “open-source art.”
3D printers are making waves in medicine (prosthetic limbs) food (customized candy) fashion (the first printed bikini) and even the military. (The U.S. Army has reportedly experimented with a mobile printer that could crank out tank or truck parts on the battlefield.) Still, this replication revolution won’t really take hold until we have 3D printers in our homes, just like the PC transformed the Internet into a daily obsession.
That’s where an outfit like MakerBot Industries comes in. Started in Brooklyn almost three years ago, the company hopes to make 3D printers so affordable and personal they’ll become part of our daily lives. It sells a basic model of its Thing-O-Matic, aka the MakerBot, for under $1,000. It fits on a desktop.
MakerBot, which helped launch Thingiverse, has been a big driver in getting artists to dabble in printer sculpting. And it’s the impetus behind a new crowdsourced science project called Project Shellter, where it’s asking people to come up with a design for a shell hermit crabs can use for homes.
But the real sweet spot of makerbotting, as the process has come to be known, may be in schools. Bre Pettis, one of MakerBot’s co-founders and a former teacher, sure thinks so. His take: Let kids design their own things and then actually watch them take shape, and you’ve opened a door to technology and engineering much more personal than any Lego could ever be.
I think he’s on to something.
Prepare to be amazed
Here’s are videos that will give you a taste of what’s possible with 3D printers:
- Little Lady Liberty: Watch a mini Statue of Liberty take shape on a MakerBot.
- You can print chocolate: British scientists fulfill a chocoholic’s dream.
- Back to nature: The MIT Media lab is looking at ways to create 3D products from recycled stuff.
- Such a tool: Check out this clip on making a wrench set on a printer.
- Anything goes: Here’s a sampling of things a 3D printer can produce.
Bonus video: You don’t want to miss this BBC report on two guys who set out to make a working bicycle from parts created by a 3D printer.