May 21, 2013 10:42 am
Bottlenose dolphins working for the U.S. Navy discovered a rare 19th century torpedo off the coast of Coronado, Calif., while searching for underwater mines and other objects that evade technological detection. The brass torpedo is 11 feet long and weighs 132 pounds, and it could range 400 yards when launched. Called a Howell torpedo, the old military relic was a marvel in its day, the Los Angeles Times reports, and will likely find a home in a military museum.
While not as well known as the Gatling gun and the Sherman tank, the Howell torpedo was hailed as a breakthrough when the U.S. was in heavy competition for dominance on the high seas. It was the first torpedo that could truly follow a track without leaving a wake and then smash a target, according to Navy officials.
Only 50 were made between 1870 and 1889 by a Rhode Island company before a rival copied and surpassed the Howell’s capability.
Until recently only one Howell torpedo was known to exist, on display at the Naval Undersea Museum in Keyport, Wash. Now a second has been discovered, not far from the Hotel del Coronado.
The dolphins that uncovered the long-lost treasure use a biosonar system more sophisticated than any modern technology can provide. When dolphins find an object of interest, they resurface and tap the front of their handlers’ boat with their snouts. Last month, a dolphin named Ten indicated something was submerged in the area where the torpedo was later discovered, though at the time its human handlers dismissed the signal since they didn’t expect to find any objects there. Last week, another dolphin named Spetz alerted its handlers to the same spot, and this time the humans paid attention.
Navy divers and then explosive-ordnance technicians examined the object, which was in two pieces, and determined that the years had rendered it inert. On one piece was the stamp “USN No. 24.”
The torpedo pieces were lifted to the surface and taken to a Navy base for cleaning and to await shipment to the Naval History and Heritage Command, located at the Washington Navy Yard.
According the the LA Times, the divers had to consult both Google and military experts to reveal the identity of the ancient torpedo.
More from Smithsonian.com:
May 20, 2013 12:02 pm
In Croatia, scientists are working on a new way to detect land mines without risking lives, reports the Associated Press. Honeybees, the scientists say, have an incredible sense of smell, and with the right amount of prodding can be trained to sniff out TNT, the most common explosive used in land mines. In preliminary testing:
Several feeding points were set up on the ground around the tent, but only a few have TNT particles in them. The method of training the bees by authenticating the scent of explosives with the food they eat appears to work: bees gather mainly at the pots containing a sugar solution mixed with TNT, and not the ones that have a different smell.
A common technique in animal behavior training, the bees are taught to associate the smell of TNT with food. Once that association is firm, the bees can be turned loose in search of mines.
”It is not a problem for a bee to learn the smell of an explosive, which it can then search,” Kezic said. “You can train a bee, but training their colony of thousands becomes a problem.”
Bees, with their incredible sense of smell, light weight and ability to fly should be better candidates for mine hunting than other approaches. Mine decommissioning teams already use dogs and rats to hunt down mines. But, some anti-personnel mines are so sensitive that the weight of a pup can set them off. The bees’ training is still underway, says the AP, but if and when they’re ready the Croatian-trained bees will be able to flit from mine to mine without setting them off.
From 1999 to 2008, says the Guardian, 73,576 people reportedly died to hidden land mines or unexploded munitions. “Of these, around 18,000 were confirmed deaths – 71% of victims were civilians and 32% were children.” Aside from their destructive potential, land mines are also a psychological and social plight.
Landmines and cluster munitions have been described as “weapons of social cataclysm”, which perpetuate poverty and prevent development. They leave a legacy of indiscriminate civilian injuries and deaths, burden struggling healthcare systems and render vast tracts of land uninhabitable and unproductive. As Kate Wiggans, from the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and Cluster Munition Coalition (ICBL-CMC) says: “They keep poor people poor, decades after conflict.”
More from Smithsonian.com:
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.
More from Smithsonian.com:
May 14, 2013 11:34 am
It helps to have hard evidence when making a case against criminals. For those who committed crimes against humanity, that evidence often takes the form of mass graves. But locating hundreds or even thousands of buried bodies can be more difficult than it sounds. A team of researchers from the UK and Colombia hope to ease that search process by developing new means of sniffing out sites of atrocities.
In a poster abstract presented at the Meeting of the Americas in Mexico, the authors write:
Nowadays, there are thousands of missing people around the world that could have been tortured and killed and buried in clandestine graves. This is a huge problem for their families and governments that are responsible to warranty the human rights for everybody. These people need to be found and the related crime cases need to be resolved.
Currently, the science of detecting mass graves is hit or miss. Local governments and organizations try different methods of detecting clandestine burial sites, and some work better than others depending upon the circumstances. Developing a standard, refined technique for both locating the graves and determining factor such as the time of death, the researchers think, will expedite the process of convicting murderers for their crimes.
In the UK, researchers pursued this goal by burying pigs and then monitoring soil gases, fluids and other changes over time as the carcasses decomposed underground. Those results are already being applied throughout Europe. But bodies break down differently in different climates, and for this new project, researchers will bury pigs in eight different mass grave simulation sites throughout Colombia. Each of the site will represent a different climate, soil type and rainfall pattern. They plan to use grond penetrating radar, electrical resistivity, conductivity, magnetometry and other measures to characterize the grave sites over 18 months.
More from Smithsonian.com:
May 6, 2013 2:03 pm
If you had to pick the toughest animal in the sea, you’d probably go for the great white shark. Or maybe the giant squid. You probably wouldn’t pick the seahorse—a delicate, awkward little creature that clings to the seafloor. But the seahorse is exactly where armor designers are looking for new insights into building robots.
This video, from UCSD’s Jacobs School of Engineering, explains:
Specifically, the engineers are looking at the tail plates on the little sea creature. Seahorses use their tails to hold on to objects like stalks and stems on the ocean floor. The plates that line their tails have to be both flexible enough to grasp and rigid enough to defend themselves from predators. Here’s the UCSD press release:
Most of the seahorse’s predators, including sea turtles, crabs and birds, capture the animals by crushing them. Engineers wanted to see if the plates in the tail act as an armor. Researchers took segments from seahorses’ tails and compressed them from different angles. They found that the tail could be compressed by nearly 50 percent of its original width before permanent damage occurred. That’s because the connective tissue between the tail’s bony plates and the tail muscles bore most of the load from the displacement. Even when the tail was compressed by as much as 60 percent, the seahorse’s spinal column was protected from permanent damage.
The researchers didn’t start with seahorses when they tried to think of armor to study. First, they looked at armadillos, alligators and other fish. But the flexibility of the seahorse tail is what was interesting to them. Here’s how that tail comes together:
Of course, this isn’t the first unlikely animal that robot and armor designers have looked at for insight. Abalone shells are in the running, too. In fact, the same lab is looking at abalone shells to figure out how they get so hard. LiveScience reports:
Abalones create a highly ordered brick-like tiled structure for their shells that is the toughest arrangement of tiles theoretically possible, says Marc A. Meyers of the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). The tiles are comprised of calcium carbonate, or chalk, sandwiches coated top and bottom with a thin protein.
They’re not limiting themselves to sea creatures, either. The lab also wants to see if toucan beaks—extremely strong but also very light—could be useful. The lab explains:
The beak’s interior is a highly organized matrix of stiff cancellous bone fibers that looks as if it was dipped into a soapy solution and dried, generating drum-like membranes that interconnect the fibers. The result is a solid “foam” of air-tight cells that gives the beak additional rigidity.
More from Smithsonian.com: