Drone maps underground caves by deliberately bumping into walls

CC BY-SA 3.0 ESA, Natalino Russo

In a couple of decades when astronauts finally make to Mars, there will be an unlimited amount of jobs to do. From setting up some type of livable space to doing some broad and very detailed explorations, the astronauts will need an array of technologies to help them with their tasks.

We know that 3D printers will definitely be onboard and now it’s very likely that some lightweight but tough drones will be too. The European Space Agency (ESA) has been using Flyability drones to map underground caverns with the ultimate goal being to prove how these flying robots can navigate and map spaces that are too dangerous for humans, like inhospitable environments on other planets.

Caves, because of the lack of sunlight, the cramped spaces and reliance on equipment for safety, mimic the environments astronauts may encounter on other planets. The ESA has been using the drone to explore the La Cucchiara caves near Sciacca, Sicily and hopes to get astronauts involved in more caving expeditions.

“We now want astronauts to take part in existing scientific caving and geological expeditions – scientific exploration does not get more real than this,” said ESA training course designer Loredana Bessone.

The drone for its part in the training was deliberately bumped into walls to map the tight spaces. The drone’s thermal camera led it around the cave, as it created a map of all of the cave’s features including an area with water was that was unreachable by humans.

The team involved sees how these cave explorations can not only help scientists with the understanding of these underground environments but how they will one day be used to explore lava tubes or other tight spaces on Mars.

Why should self-driving cars look like cars?

© Volvo via 1843

Writing in this month’s Economist 1843 Magazine, Simon Willis looks at the design of self-driving cars. Volvo’s chief designer Robin Page tells him: “It’s the most exciting period in the history of car design, a new world is being opened up.” It is a flexible space: “You can have six people sitting round a table which then turns into a bed.”

But Volvo’s illustration of the car interior looks so much like a car, with two seats facing forward. But the car is no longer just a car, it is now a kind of “third space” says Hartmut Sinkwitz of Mercedes, “a hinge between home and office.” Alas, the “third space” is a term that Ray Oldenberg described as the anchor of a community, the local bar, restaurant or coffee shop. But of course it is now going be appropriated by the car.

© Steven M. Johnson

This is ground that has been covered before, in 2013 with Allison Arieff’s article in the New York Times. She illustrated it with Steven M. Johnson’s image of a car tuned into a living room and suggested we might be spending a lot of time in it:

If you can read your iPad, enjoy a cocktail or play a video game while commuting, time spent in the car becomes leisure time, something desirable. Long commutes are no longer a disincentive.

America’s Independent Electric Light and Power Companies/Promo image

Playing games around the table in the car has also been on the table since the 50s. It was going to be electric, too.

Institute without Boundaries/Screen capture

The Institute Without Boundaries ran a charette that I was part of years ago where they concluded that there was no need for it to look like a car at all; it could be a box covered in interactive screens. All these years later, The Economist’s Simon Willis talks to Dale Harrow, a professor of vehicle design who notes that since these cars will rarely crash, they don’t need air bags or crush zones. “We’ll see more glass in the bodywork, as in modernist houses, and the lightweight materials you get in contemporary furniture: seats made of pale plywood or moulded carbon fibre. You could ride along in an Eames!”

Or, for that matter, a lazy-boy recliner; Ford Motors has found that even their engineers who are supposed to be able to control their self-driving cars are falling asleep at the wheel. According to Bloomberg,

Company researchers have tried to roust the engineers with bells, buzzers, warning lights, vibrating seats and shaking steering wheels. They’ve even put a second engineer in the vehicle to keep tabs on his human counterpart. No matter — the smooth ride was just too lulling and engineers struggled to maintain “situational awareness,” said Raj Nair, Ford’s product development chief. “These are trained engineers who are there to observe what’s happening,” Nair said in an interview. “But it’s human nature that you start trusting the vehicle more and more and that you feel you don’t need to be paying attention.”

© Ross Lovegrove

Ford, like Google before it, no longer believes that you can actually have a human safely behind the wheel of a self-driving car, and you have to go straight to full automation. So it really isn’t a car at all, it is a moving living room, bedroom, or even a gym. It can look like anything, even like Ross Lovegrove’s car on a stick. But as a tweeter noted, getting into a car to get exercise is pretty silly:

In the future, homebuyers may Hyperloop ’til they qualify

via Xray Delta One on Flickr

Because it’s not about how fast you can get somewhere, it is about how far you can go in a given time.

Some of the promoters of the Hyperloop like to say “We’re selling time”. But Emily Badger, writing in the New York Times, reminds us of the very important point that in fact, they are selling space. That’s because every time technology evolves and provides faster transportation, people naturally spread out.

When you give people greater speed, they don’t use it to save time; they use it to consume more space. As a result, cities have spread outward as transportation technology has evolved. Horse-drawn carriages enlarged pedestrian towns. Streetcars enabled streetcar suburbs. Highways made exurbia possible.

Wisconsin Historical society/Public Domain

It all comes down to how far you can get in 30 minutes. There is even a general law about it, knowns as Marchetti’s constant.

Mr. Marchetti noted supporting historical clues: Ancient Rome, Persepolis and Marrakesh were about five kilometers across, or the maximum distance most people can travel in an hour on foot. He diagramed the growth of Berlin, which appeared to expand concentrically as transportation advances enlarged the land people could cover.

So what happens when the Hyperloop or other technology can take you hundreds of miles in 30 minutes?

Ely Beach/ Columbia University/Public Domain

Philadelphia and Washington could become linked the way Manhattan and Brooklyn are today, if the travel costs are comparable (recall, before approval of the New York subway, that the two boroughs were separate cities).

You don’t need a Hyperloop either, just high quality fast trains like the Shanghai mag-lev. Then you get from New York to Washington in about the same time it takes to subway from Times Square to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

© Steven M. Johnson

Badger then looks at what self-driving cars or autonomous vehicles do the the picture. She wonders, “If a car becomes a traveling office, will people even mentally measure their commutes as ‘travel time’?” I suspect that the AV will be less like an office and more like a living room, and it will render the concept of commute time meaningless.

In either scenario, the result is probably the same: endless sprawl. When it comes to housing, the next generation will probably Hyperloop ‘till they qualify.

Are drone or truck deliveries better for the environment? It depends

As drone deliveries have gone from wild idea to reality in the past couple of years, the question has remained as to whether there will be any environmental benefit from having these flying robots drop off our packages at our front doors.

On the surface, the battery-powered craft would seem to be the greener alternative to energy-hungry, exhaust-producing delivery trucks, but delivery trucks have the benefit of density — they can carry several packages and heavy loads across the same distance. The University of Washington decided to figure out which one, drones or delivery trucks, were responsible for less carbon pollution and the answer is: it depends.

The researchers found that drones do carry an advantage over trucks when the distances are short and when there are fewer delivery stops along the way. Trucks on the other hand, win out when the distance to be traveled is long and there are more stops on the route.

“Flight is so much more energy-intensive — getting yourself airborne takes a huge amount of effort. So I initially thought there was no way drones could compete with trucks on carbon dioxide emissions,” said senior author Anne Goodchild, a UW associate professor of civil and environmental engineering. “In the end, I was amazed at how energy-efficient drones are in some contexts. Trucks compete better on heavier loads, but for really light packages, drones are awesome.”

The study was carried out by comparing carbon dioxide emissions and vehicle miles between drone and truck deliveries in Los Angeles. A model was created using real-world scenarios that involved 330 service zones and recipients numbering from 50 to 500. The model used real data from a previous study on grocery delivery services. The study also assumed that each drone delivery consisted of a single package and that the drone would have to return to a base to before completing another delivery.

The drone energy demand was estimated by using the energy consumption of 10 different hypothetical drones in the model and carbon emissions were calculated using an average fuel mix for the state of California.

After running the models, the researchers concluded that drones could be a greener alternative in certain scenarios like short trips in communities, on campuses or military bases. Another arrangement would be having trucks carry large packages and covering the long distances to a central hub where drones then took care of the last-mile deliveries to homes and businesses.

In the meantime, the researchers suggest that the same zeal that saw people inventing lightweight drones that were robust enough to perform these types of tasks should be applied to making trucks lighter and more fuel efficient too.

Plant Dye is the Secret Behind Environmentally-Friendly Lithium-Ion Battery

© Ajayan Lab/Rice University

Rechargeable batteries are an essential part of our green energy future, from electric vehicles to large-scale energy storage for the grid. Creating bigger, better, faster-charging, more efficient batteries is key, but with our growing dependency on batteries, so is making them more environmentally-friendly.

Currently, the most popular form of batteries, lithium-ion batteries, use lithium cobalt oxide as a cathode. The cobalt must be mined and the cathodes are made in a high-temperature and energy-intensive process. Both the making and recycling of the materials is expensive.

Researchers at Rice University and City College of New York think they’ve found the perfect solution: a cathode that is made from an extract from the madder plant. Using plant material instead of metals makes for a battery that is cheaper to produce and less harmful to the environment.

“Green batteries are the need of the hour, yet this topic hasn’t really been addressed properly,” lead researcher Arava Leela Mohana Reddy said. “This is an area that needs immediate attention and sustained thrust, but you cannot discover sustainable technology overnight. The current focus of the research community is still on conventional batteries, meeting challenges like improving capacity. While those issues are important, so are issues like sustainability and recyclability.”

The madder plant is a climbing vine that is a good source of purpurin, an organic dye that has been used since ancient times in fabrics. Now it is getting a new use as a green cathode.

Rice University explains, “Reddy and his colleagues came across purpurin while testing a number of organic molecules for their ability to electrochemically interact with lithium and found purpurin most amenable to binding lithium ions. With the addition of 20 percent carbon to add conductivity, the team built a half-battery cell with a capacity of 90 milliamp hours per gram after 50 charge/discharge cycles. The cathodes can be made at room temperature, he said.”

Agricultural waste could be a good source of purpurin as well as other suitable molecules, which could drive costs down even further and make good use of a waste stream.

“We’re interested in developing value-added chemicals, products and materials from renewable feedstocks as a sustainable technology platform,” said George John, one of the researchers and a professor of chemistry at the City College of New York. “The point has been to understand the chemistry between lithium ions and the organic molecules. Now that we have that proper understanding, we can tap other molecules and improve capacity.”

The researchers hope to eventually create a totally green battery that uses not just the plant dye cathode, but also organic molecules for the anode and an electrolyte that doesn’t break those molecules down. Reddy says that a prototype of a completely organic battery could be ready in just a few years.

Wooden Touch Pad Computer is 98% Recyclable

iameco© MicroPro

A collaboration between the MicroPro Company in Ireland and the Fraunhofer Institute for Reliability and Microintegration IZM in Berlin to develop a computer that’s lighter on the environment has produced the iameco (pronounced “I – am – eco”), a wooden touch pad computer that uses very little energy over its entire lifecycle and is 98 percent recyclable.

According to Phys.org, “the carbon footprint is less than 360 kilograms CO2eq over the full product life cycle, which is 70 percent less than a typical desktop PC with monitor. In addition, it can be easily recycled. Of the materials used, 98 percent can be recycled. Indeed, 20 percent of the computer can be recycled immediately – in other words, many parts and components can be reused for repairing other computers – such as parts of the wooden frame.”

The computer is able to use less energy through a few design upgrades. For cooling, the designers ditched an energy intensive fan for heat sinks — copper tubes that pull heat away from the processor. The computer also uses LEDs to illuminate the screen which increases energy efficiency by 30 to 40 percent.

If you’ve been reading the technology section lately, you know how important of an issue repairability is for electronics and this computer definitely enables the user to repair and replace parts. The iameco was designed with standard components so that it can be upgraded at any time — more memory, new battery, etc. The computer has a modular design to aid in disassembly for major repairs and replacements. When a computer can be easily disassembled and repaired, it means a longer product life and a lower environmental footprint, two things that were important to the two organizations behind the iameco.

The developers say that for the next generation they want to focus on even more modularity so that “old” models can be equipped with parts that update it to perform like a new model, but without the waste of buying a whole new computer and at half the cost. They are also collaborating on developing a wooden frame laptop with the same energy-saving principles.

Printed Circuit Board Disassembles When Submerged in Hot Water

YouTube/Video screen capture

After plenty of stories about electronics that are moving away from ease of disassembly (ahem, Apple), it’s refreshing to hear one where the outcome could dramatically improve the ability the disassemble and recycle electronic hardware at the end of a device’s life.

Researchers at the UK’s National Physical Laboratory (NPL) have developed a printed circuit board that falls apart when submerged in hot water. The circuit board’s electronic components like resistors, capacitors and integrated circuits can merely be scraped off intact, which means there is no necessary delay between the recovery and the reuse of the parts.

YouTube/Video screen capture

As part of Britain’s ReUSE (Reuseable, Unzippable, Sustainable Electronics) project, the circuit board is made of “unzippable polymeric layers” that can stand up to the daily damp heat stress and thermal cycling of a working device, but won’t come apart until submerged in hot water at the end of its usable life. One of the best parts about this invention is that the material can be used in flat circuit boards as well as flexible and 3D configurations.

Gizmag reports how remarkable this improvement really is, “In lab tests, it was found that 90 percent of the original circuit board components could be salvaged. By contrast, according to NPL, just two percent of the material in existing circuit boards can be re-used.”

To see this unzippable circuit board in action, watch the video below.

Machine Sorts Used Batteries for Recycling

© Optisort

It seems like everything uses batteries these days which means we’re producing a large amount of used batteries on a regular basis. Because they contain metals and toxic materials, it’s vitally important that batteries are recycled, but with all of the different types and sizes of batteries these days, how can a recycling facility handle the volume and sorting efficiently?

Researchers at the University of Gothenburg and Chalmers University of Technology have developed a machine that uses artificial intelligence to identify and sort batteries at recycling facilities. Called the Optisort, the machine uses optical recognition technology to sort up to 10 batteries per second by comparing them to batteries in its database. Like the human brain can be trained to recognize new things, the Optisort was trained to identify 2,000 different types of batteries by taking pictures of them from different angles and creating a database of those shots.

Gizmag reports, “Batteries are fed into the Optisort on a conveyor belt, where each one is photographed by the machine’s camera. Each image is then compared to a database of existing shots of different types of batteries, until a match is made. Based on the battery’s chemical content, a jet of compressed air is then used to direct it into a designated bin.”

This automated system also allows recyclers to store information about how much of each type of material it has collected based on the batteries it has sorted.

“For each single battery, the system stores and spits out information about for example brand, model and type. This allows the recycler to tell a larger market exactly what types of material it can offer, which we believe may increase the value through increased competition,” said Hans-Eric Melin, CEO of Optisort.

YouTube/Video screen capture

Right now many collection and sorting companies are paying to get rid of batteries, but armed with this information, the companies could create a market for the materials contained in the batteries and make money instead, while also helping to keep these things out of landfills.

The company has installed the machine at two recycling facilities already: one at Renova in Sweden which recycles half of all batteries collected in Sweden and one at G&P Batteries where one-third of the UK’s collected batteries are recycled.

You can watch the machine in action below.