May 21, 2013 1:10 pm
NASA, those great engineers of tomorrow, just put $125,000 behind work intended to build a 3D food printer—a device that will be able to crank out “nutritionally-appropriate meals” from a mix of oils and powders, says Christopher Mims for Quartz. The money is going to a mechanical engineer, Anjan Contractor, who will build a prototype of the machine. “Contractor’s vision,” says Mims, “would mean the end of food waste, because the powder his system will use is shelf-stable for up to 30 years, so that each cartridge, whether it contains sugars, complex carbohydrates, protein or some other basic building block, would be fully exhausted before being returned to the store.”
Laid down layer by layer using a waterless mix of carbohydrates, protein and nutrient, according to Contractor, the device should be able to make meals out of pretty much any source of these essential foodstuffs—plants, bugs, seeds, whatever.
NASA wants the printer for long-distance space flights. Waterless powders don’t go bad, and living in space you’d probably get sick of slurping soup out of a baggie. Pizza sounds much better:
Pizza is an obvious candidate for 3D printing because it can be printed in distinct layers, so it only requires the print head to extrude one substance at a time. Contractor’s “pizza printer” is still at the conceptual stage, and he will begin building it within two weeks. It works by first “printing” a layer of dough, which is baked at the same time it’s printed, by a heated plate at the bottom of the printer. Then it lays down a tomato base, “which is also stored in a powdered form, and then mixed with water and oil,” says Contractor.
Finally, the pizza is topped with the delicious-sounding “protein layer,” which could come from any source, including animals, milk or plants.
While a 3D food printer would be able to make food-looking food, the idea isn’t so far off from the mainstay futuristic projections of the early 20th century that said we were all supposed to be eating our food in pill form by now. Against that, we’ll take the “protein” pizza.
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May 14, 2013 1:17 pm
The U.S. military has a non-lethal toy straight out of dystopian science fiction. It is, literally, a pain gun. Known as “Active Denial Technology,” the pain gun shoots extremely high frequency microwaves from a truck hundreds of meters away. When these waves hit your skin, you feel like you’re being cooked alive. Last year, Wired‘s Spencer Ackerman volunteered to get shot by the non-lethal weapon:
When the signal goes out over radio to shoot me, there’s no warning — no flash, no smell, no sound, no round. Suddenly my chest and neck feel like they’ve been exposed to a blast furnace, with a sting thrown in for good measure. I’m getting blasted with 12 joules of energy per square centimeter, in a fairly concentrated blast diameter. I last maybe two seconds of curiosity before my body takes the controls and yanks me out of the way of the beam.
Here’s what it looks like to get shot, as experienced by Ackerman:
The Active Denial pain ray is big and scary, sure. But it’s also mounted on a huge expensive truck, and thus, unlike tasers or rubber bullets, is not a thing you’ll likely see in real life right now. But that may soon change. According to New Scientist, Raytheon, the defense contractor behind the pain gun, is working on a portable version:
Raytheon is now building smaller versions for law enforcement or commercial maritime use – designed to be placed inside buildings, such as prisons, or mounted on ships for defence against, say, pirates. And soon there could be handheld versions of the pain ray. Raytheon has developed small experimental prototypes, one of which is about the size of a heavy rifle and is intended for police use.
As a non-lethal weapon, the pain ray is actually incredibly effective. The weapon causes a burning sensation so strong that it triggers “reflexive ‘repel’ reactions.” People just want to get out of the way. And, from the testing done so far, the pain gun has a low chance of doing any real damage. So far, 11,000 people have been shot, and only eight of them got burned. But these were all under proper testing conditions, not out in the field in the middle of a riot.
But as a non-lethal weapon, the pain gun has something rubber bullets and tasers and tear gas do not: it is invisible—people being shot by it will likely have absolutely zero idea what is going on, and in most cases the gun leaves no physical wounds.
This distinction, says New Scientist, got a plan to use the portable version of the device in a California prison shut down.
On the eve of going live, the trial was cancelled. It was not over health concerns, explains Chris Tillery of the NIJ’s Office of Science and Technology… The test was shut down, he says, because of an unexpected outcry in the media and elsewhere about the potential for abuse of the technology.
And this goes to the heart of the moral dilemma raised by a technology that can induce pain invisibly. It may be medically safe if used properly, but in the wrong hands, it could also be a tool of oppression and torture.
For now, says New Scientist, the potential to use the weapon in law enforcement is under review by the National Institute of Justice.
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May 13, 2013 10:17 am
Robots get smaller, smarter and faster every day. Now that we can 3-D print the little devices, they’re also easier to make. In fact, they’re so easy to make that there’s one robot that can actually assemble itself.
Here it is, assembling its way to world supremacy:
The materials used here are shape memory polymers. They remember certain shapes and, when the right conditions are met, fold into those forms. This robot can bend itself from a flat sheet into a little worm-like thing. Here’s an explanation of how shape memory works from IEEE Spectrum:
Self-folding happens thanks to shape memory polymers that contract when heated. By printing these polymers on one side of a hinged substrate and then heating them, the hinge can be made to bend. The amount of bend is controlled by etching flexible connectors that connect both sides of the hinge, and with enough hinges heated in the right order, it’s possible to create fairly complex folded shapes, including things like interlocking structural elements.
The tricky part of the process is the folding of the robot itself: installing the battery and motor is trivial enough for a human to do, which means that a relatively simple pick and place robot should have no problems doing the same thing. This means that these robots have the potential to scale massively: they can be printed out of cheap materials, they fold themselves together, and another robot can plonk some hardware on them and they’re good to go.
Now, we’ve seen self assembling robots before. Like this one:
And we’ve seen robots that have been 3-D printed before. Like this one:
But this is the first robot to be both 3-D printed and have the ability to self assemble. Next step: teach them to solder.
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May 10, 2013 4:16 pm
While blind people can’t enjoy photographs the same way sighted people do, that doesn’t mean they don’t want to take them. Or at least that’s the premise of this new app that helps blind people position their cameras better through sound cues.
Researchers recently asked blind and partially sighted people what the hardest part of getting a photo right was. Armed with the knowledge of exactly what their sampling of blind people wanted help with, the researchers made an app, which solves a few key problems that blind photographers have.
The first is locating the shutter button. In the app, there’s no button—an upward swiping motion on the screen takes a picture. The app also detects the number of faces it sees and speaks that number out loud. It also uses audio to help the photographer move the camera and get the subjects in focus.
To help photographers recognize the shots, the app records sound, too. New Scientist explains:
This is to help with photo organising and sharing – and is used as an aide-memoire as to who is in shot. The user can choose to save this sound file along with the time and date, and GPS data that is translated into audio giving the name of the neighbourhood, district or city the shot was taken in.
While sighted people might not understand why a blind person would want to take photographs, the results can be quite incredible. Take this gallery of photos taken by a blind woman. Sonia Sobertas, a blind woman who paints with light in her photographs, is part of the Seeing With Photography group of people who want to create images despite being blind. The New York Times explained Sobertas’s reason for taking photographs:
For seeing individuals, it may seem bizarre that Ms. Soberats dedicates so much time to an art she cannot fully appreciate. Why not a more tactile pursuit, like sculpting? But Ms. Soberats said she savored her work through the eyes of others.
“The more difficult the photo, the more interesting and the more rewarding when you complete it and it’s good,” she said. “To be able to realize and obtain something that at the end everybody praises, it’s very satisfactory.”
The researchers developing the app want to give their users that same experience and provide one more way for them to enjoy the same activities as everybody else.
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May 10, 2013 4:07 pm
The world’s first fully 3-D printed gun was fired this week, and Defense Distributed, the company behind the print-at-home weapon, wants to make the designs for this weapon available to all. But the State Department would rather they didn’t. In fact, the department asked Defense Distributed to pull down the blueprints, saying that the plans could incur arms trafficking violations. As a response, The Pirate Bay, a large bittorrent site, offered to host the plans on its site for anyone who wants them.
Here’s the gun being fired with a remote trigger:
The gun has had a short but steady history of being rejected. Thingiverse, a place for 3D printed blueprints, banned it in 2012. DEFCAD, a place where Thingverse-banned designs go, welcomed the gun. But the State Department Office of Defense Trade Controls Compliance wrote a letter to Defense Distributed that read: “Until the Department provides Defense Distributed with final [commodity jurisdiction] determinations, Defense Distributed should treat the above technical data as ITAR-controlled.”
Cody Wilson, inventor of the gun and head of Defense Distributed, said they would comply. “We have to comply,” he told Forbes. “All such data should be removed from public access, the letter says. That might be an impossible standard. But we’ll do our part to remove it from our servers.”
Of course, the internet being what it is, just pulling the designs from DEFCAD is not at all the same from removing it from the web entirely. The plans had already been downloaded 100,000 times in the first two days the file was online. And the Pirate Bay says it won’t bend to any department. “TPB has for close to 10 years been operating without taking down one single torrent due to pressure from the outside. And it will never start doing that,” a Pirate Bay insider told TorrentFreak. The insider says that he hopes hosting the plans will force America to reevaluate their stance on gun.
“We think that the good thing about the discussion about 3D printers and their gun laws might bring more focus on the double standards that the U.S. is having and hopefully – people will start printing signs to protest against the guns, the corruption and the threats against freedom of speech that the U.S. is pushing on us,” he told Torrent Freak.
The gun and TPB have something in common even—they’ve both been searching for a home recently. The torrent site recently had to move, after threats from local governments to shut them down. And Wilson isn’t totally content with the state departments demands, and hopes to get the plans up again. But at least the two can be nomads together.
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