By: Jeremy Straub, North Dakota State University

Driverless carIn the wake of car- and truck-based attacks around the world, most recently in New York City, cities are scrambling to protect busy pedestrian areas and popular events. It’s extremely difficult to prevent vehicles from being used as weapons, but technology can help.

Right now, cities are trying to determine where and how to place statues, spike strip nets and other barriers to protect crowds. Police departments are trying to gather better advance intelligence about potential threats, and training officers to respond – while regular people are seeking advice for surviving vehicle attacks.

These solutions aren’t enough: It’s impractical to put up physical barriers everywhere, and all but impossible to prevent would-be attackers from getting a vehicle. As a researcher of technologies for self-driving vehicles, I see that potential solutions already exist, and are built into many vehicles on the road today. There are, however, ethical questions to weigh about who should control the vehicle – the driver behind the wheel or the computer system that perceives potential danger in the human’s actions.

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Nuclear energyScientists have developed an extremely efficient “molecular trap” that can be recycled and reused to capture radioactive iodides in spent nuclear reactor fuel.

The trap is like a tiny, porous super-sponge. The internal surface area of just one gram could stretch out to cover five 94-by-50-foot basketball courts, or 23,500 square feet. And, once caught inside, radioactive iodides will remain trapped for eons.

“This type of material has tremendous potential because of its high porosity,” says Jing Li, professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. “It has far more space than a sponge and it can trap lots of stuff.”

Reprocessing means separating spent nuclear reactor fuel into materials that may be recycled for use in new nuclear fuel or discarded as waste, according to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The United States has no commercial reprocessing facilities at the moment, but they are operating in other countries.

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Engineers have developed a flexible sensor “skin” that can stretch over any part of a robot’s body or prosthetic to accurately convey information about shear forces and vibration—information critical to grasping and manipulating objects.

If a robot sets out to disable a roadside bomb—or delicately handle an egg while cooking you an omelet—it needs to be able to sense when objects are slipping out of its grasp. Yet, to date, it’s been difficult or impossible for most robotic and prosthetic hands to accurately sense the vibrations and shear forces that occur, for example, when a finger is sliding along a tabletop or when an object begins to fall.

To solve that issue, the bio-inspired robot sensor skin mimics the way a human finger experiences tension and compression as it slides along a surface or distinguishes among different textures. It measures this tactile information with similar precision and sensitivity as human skin, and could vastly improve the ability of robots to perform everything from surgical and industrial procedures to cleaning a kitchen.

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PaperA new flexible, paper-based supercapacitor could power wearable electronics.

The device uses metallic nanoparticles to coat cellulose fibers in the paper, creating supercapacitor electrodes with high energy and power densities—and the best performance so far in a textile-based supercapacitor.

By implanting conductive and charge storage materials in the paper, the researchers’ layer-by-layer technique creates large surface areas that function as current collectors and nanoparticle reservoirs for the electrodes. Testing shows that devices fabricated with the technique can be folded thousands of times without affecting conductivity.

“This type of flexible energy storage device could provide unique opportunities for connectivity among wearable and internet of things devices,” says Seung Woo Lee, an assistant professor in the Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “We could support an evolution of the most advanced portable electronics. We also have an opportunity to combine this supercapacitor with energy-harvesting devices that could power biomedical sensors, consumer and military electronics, and similar applications.”

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The development of prosthetics has changed many lives, providing mobility options and allowing for more active lives. But all artificial limbs aren’t perfect. Some can be painful, difficult to use, and lead to possible skin infections. The Office of Naval Research is looking to change that, providing new options for those in need of artificial limbs.

By teaming up with the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, the Office of Naval Research has developed a “smart” artificial leg, using sensor technology to monitor walking, alter the way the user wears the prosthetic to aid in comfortability and reduce wear and tear, and warn of potential infection risks. They’re referring to this development as Monitoring Ossolntegrated Prosthesis (MOIP).

“This new class of intelligent prostheses could potentially have a profound impact on warfighters with limb loss,” says Liming Salvino, a program officer in ONR’s Warfighter Performance Department. “MOIP not only can improve quality of life, but also usher in the next generation of prosthetic limbs.”

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Researchers have created a small, thin, biodegradable sensor that could monitor the temperature of food in transit.

Microsensors are already used in many different applications today, such as the detection of poisonous gases. They are also part of miniaturized transmitter/receiver systems, such as the ubiquitous RFID chips.

As the sensors often contain precious metals that are harmful to both the environment and human health, however, they are not suitable for medical applications involving direct contact with the human body or for inclusion in food products. There is therefore a high level of interest, both in research and industry, in developing microsensors made from non-toxic materials that are also biodegradable.

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SemiconductorScientists have figured out how to make tiny individual films—each just a few atoms high—and stack them for use in new kinds of electronics.

Over the past half-century, scientists have shaved silicon films down to just a wisp of atoms in pursuit of smaller, faster electronics. For the next set of breakthroughs, though, they’ll need new ways to build even tinier and more powerful devices.

In a study that appears in Nature, researchers describe an innovative method to make stacks of thin, uniform layers of semiconductors just a few atoms thick which could expand capabilities for devices like solar cells and cell phones.

Stacking thin layers of materials offers a range of possibilities for making electronic devices with unique properties. But manufacturing them is a delicate process, with little room for error, researchers say.

“The scale of the problem we’re looking at is, imagine trying to lay down a flat sheet of plastic wrap the size of Chicago without getting any air bubbles in it,” says Jiwoong Park, a professor of chemistry at the University of Chicago and at the Institute for Molecular Engineering and the James Franck Institute. “When the material itself is just atoms thick, every little stray atom is a problem.”

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RocketA team of engineers from Monash University have successfully test-fired the world’s first 3D printed rocket engine. By utilizing a unique aerospike design, the team, led by ECS fellow Nick Birbilis, was able to increase efficiency levels over that of traditional bell-shaped rockets.

This from The Standard:

Its design works by firing the gases along a spike and using atmospheric pressure to create a virtual bell.

The shape of the spike allows the engine to maintain high efficiency over a wider range of altitude and air pressures. It’s a much more complex design but is difficult to build using traditional technology.

Read the full article.

“We were able to focus on the features that boost the engine’s performance, including the nozzle geometry and the embedded cooling network,” Birbilis says. “These are normally balanced against the need to consider how on earth someone is going to manufacture such a complex piece of equipment. Not so with additive manufacturing. Going from concept to testing in just four months is an amazing achievement.”

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IdeaBig ideas are getting harder and harder to find, and innovations have become increasingly massive and costly endeavors, according to new research.

As a result, tremendous continual increases in research and development will be needed to sustain even today’s low rate of economic growth.

This means modern-day inventors—even those in the league of Steve Jobs—will have a tough time measuring up to the productivity of the Thomas Edisons of the past.

Nicholas Bloom, senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research and coauthor of a paper released this week by the National Bureau of Economic Research, contends that so many game-changing inventions have appeared since World War II that it’s become increasingly difficult to come up with the next big idea.

“The thought now of somebody inventing something as revolutionary as the locomotive on their own is inconceivable,” Bloom says.

“It’s certainly true if you go back one or two hundred years, like when Edison invented the light bulb,” he says. “It’s a massive piece of technology and one guy basically invented it. But while we think of Steve Jobs and the iPhone, it was a team of dozens of people who created the iPhone.”

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A new device that runs on almost zero power can transmit data across distances of up to 2.8 kilometers—breaking a long-held barrier—and could lead to a vast array of interconnected devices.

For example, flexible electronics—such as knee patches that capture range of motion in arthritic patients or patches that use sweat to detect fatigue in athletes and soldiers—hold great promise for collecting medically relevant data.

But today’s flexible electronics and other sensors that can’t employ bulky batteries and need to operate with very low power typically can’t communicate with other devices more than a few feet or meters away. This limits their practical use in applications for medical monitoring, home sensing to smart cities, and precision agriculture.

By contrast, the new long-range backscatter system, which uses reflected radio signals to transmit data at extremely low power and low cost, achieve reliable coverage throughout a 4,800-square-foot house, an office area covering 41 rooms, and a one-acre vegetable farm.

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