Technology At your Service


Robotic arm that can perform surgery
A robotic arm, inspired by an octopus’ tentacles, is set to make it easier for surgeons to access hard-to-reach parts of a body. The device uses a series of inflatable chambers to imitate how an octopus moves its limbs in any direction. The robot’s mechanical arm can also mimic the way the animal can change the stiffness of different sections of its tentacles, enabling better interaction with objects. A section of the robotic arm is built to handle soft organs without damaging these, while another section operates on the patient.

Octopus-inspired robotic arm (Credit: Tommaso Ranzani et al)

This technique could minimise the number of instruments needed for surgical procedures, which means that doctors would need to make fewer entry incisions on patients, lessening the chance of postoperative complications.

This robotic arm, which is made of soft material, is capable of carrying out multiple tasks during an operation, unlike other flexible surgical robotics.

Robots can now think like humans
Based on new algorithms developed by researchers from University of California, Berkeley, the USA, robots can now learn from their mistakes just like humans do. Researchers were able to level up artificial intelligence (AI) by making the robots learn motor tasks using trial and error.

The robot named BRETT stands for Berkeley Robot of the Elimination of Tedious Tasks. Using the technique developed by reaserchers, the robot learns to recognise patterns and categorise data that it receives using deep learning programs that can create neural nets in which overlapping raw sensory data (sound wave or image pixels) can be processed by layers of artificial neurons.

Since the robot does not have any pre-programmed knowledge on its environment, it can successfully assemble basic objects after several attempts.

BRETT’s first task that was to assemble a toy airplane wheel took 12 minutes before completion. Eventually, it applied the same algorithm that it learned from the toy airplane to its second task on Lego bricks and finished the task almost right away.

Technology to put electronics into the brain
Latest technologies have allowed a paralysed man to drink from a cup unaided using a robotic arm, the deaf to hear and the blind to see, using brain implants that are electrical devices inserted into or attached to the brain.

At present, implants require invasive surgery and are often made of metals that may cause scarring. Brain implant technology is hampered by how long implants can stay in the brain without losing functionality.

Now, a tiny new brain implant makes a breakthrough in this area. It can be injected directly into the brain using a syringe, minimising damage to brain tissue. The flexible mesh mimics the interconnecting structure of the neural network and the softness of brain tissue. It is made of materials that the immune system is less likely to reject, resulting in less scarring in the brain.

The implant contains very fine metal lines of circuitry embedded on it, with electrodes and sensors mounted at intersections of wires. After being injected into the brain, it unfolds to about 80 per cent of its original shape without losing function. External wires of the mesh can then be plugged to a computer to monitor and stimulate individual neurons.

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4D-printed implant saves lives
Recently, a 4D biomaterial, a medical implant designed to change shape over time allowed three children to keep breathing, in effect, saving their lives. The implants were made using a 3D printer, which can create items from a wide variety of materials such as plastic, ceramic, glass, metal and even living cells.

Scientists have now begun developing techniques to try out 4D printing, which involves 3D printing items that are designed to shape-shift after being printed.

3D-printed tracheobronchial splint used in one of the baby boys [Image courtesy: Morrison et al., Science Translational Medicine (2015)]

The three infant boys who were implanted with the new device were suffering from tracheobronchomalacia, a disease that causes the windpipe to regularly collapse, preventing normal breathing. Researchers used CT scans of the boys to develop 3D-printed airway splints whose length, diameter, thickness and other factors were customised for each baby.

The splints, made of polycaprolactone that dissolves in the body over time, were implanted into the babies and sewn around their windpipes; devices kept surrounding tissue from pushing in and sealing the airways shut. These hollow and porous splints were designed to spread open as the children grew.

Hyperlens that helps view tiny objects
According to scientists, a slinky hyperlens can help us see tiny objects that elude even the most powerful optical systems. The metamaterial hyperlens may someday even help detect some of the most lethal forms of cancer. It is also expected to lead to advancements in nano-electronic manufacturing and boost a scientist’s ability to examine single molecules.

Conventional optical systems, such as microscopes and cameras, are limited by diffraction, a phenomena in which light bends as it passes around an edge or through a slit.

Metamaterial hyperlenses overcome the diffraction limit by transforming decaying evanescent waves into propagating waves. Once converted, the former decaying waves, which were commonly lost in conventional imaging, can be collected and transmitted using standard optical components.

Lift your house in case of an earthquake
The future vision for Greg Henderson of Arx Pax, makers of Hendo Hoverboard, is deploying the technology Hendo Hoverboard uses on a large-scale to protect houses during a massive earthquake.

Arx Pax has in place systems that employ water or gas to lift homes. It, however, aims to eliminate the structural movement entirely and use magnets instead. Their goal is to have the building’s landing gear react and activate the hover engines as soon as an earthquake strikes.

In order to lift a three-story home for about 90 seconds, which is the length of an average earthquake, the power required can be supplied using five car batteries.

Arx Pax would require installation of the hover engines and an earthquake-proof base. Computers would automatically turn on the engines as soon as these sense an earthquake. These will also have ShakingAlert software system that senses earthquakes, integrated in the system, which has successfully detected earthquakes in the past.

Bionic legs that are thought-controlled

Bionic leg that can be controlled by thoughts (Image courtesy: Ossur)

Researchers in Iceland have developed bionic legs that can be controlled by a person’s thoughts alone. It involves surgically implanting myoelectric sensors (IMES) into a person’s residual muscle tissue to measure and interpret signals travelling between the brain and its nerve-endings. The implanted sensors send wireless signals to the artificial limb’s built-in computer, enabling subconscious, real-time control and faster, more natural responses and movements.

This new mind-controlled technology developed by Ossur for lower-limb prosthetics is designed to be compatible with its line of bionic feet, knees and legs. A coiled-wire receiver inside the prosthesis’ cup picks up impulses and transmits these wirelessly to the robotic limb.

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A computer made out of water droplets
An assistant professor of bioengineering at Stanford University, the USA, Prof. Manu Prakash has created a water based computer. He, along with his two students, has devised a system with the help of tiny water droplets that could work as a computer clock.

For this, water droplets are trapped in a magnetic field. When applied to a flipped magnetic field, these form a precise motion in a fixed direction.

According to the team, the system can be made smaller by controlling millions of droplets with the help of the magnetic field, so that it can perform a higher number of operations on a single chip.

According to Prakash, this computer founds its application in biology and chemistry by converting the computer into a high-throughput laboratory.

Power gadgets from six metres away
A team of engineers from University of Washington, Seattle, the USA, has presented a research paper titled ‘Powering the Next Billion Devices with Wi-Fi’ that discusses how a Wi-Fi router can be used to provide far-field wireless power for gadgets. In their first prototype, for the first time in the world, they have demonstrated how Wi-Fi chipsets can power camera sensors or li-ion coin-cell batteries from more than 6m (20-feet) away. Wi-Fi receivers had so far been used to capture information from Wi-Fi radio broadcasts. The research team has sought a way to harvest energy from these broadcasts.

The engineers connected an antenna to a temperature sensor and put it near a Wi-Fi router so that voltages in the device could be measured to determine the time for which the device could operate on a remote power source. To make things work, they programmed these devices for broadcasting continuous power to an energy-harvesting sensor. The results showed that a temperature sensor could operate at a distance of up to six metres.

Pocket-size drone that can fold up
Researchers have designed a small, foldable drone, inspired by origami, which can unfold itself automatically and take flight within a fraction of a second. A large number of these quadcopters, the size of an outstretched palm, could be released over a disaster zone to take photographs and make contact with survivors.

When the device is not in use, the arms, which are made of fibre glass and light, yet rigid polyester, fold up into a trapezoid. When switched on, force of the propellers causes the arms to unfold horizontally. Then, magnets keep the arms locked into position.

For the drone to remain stable during flight, two propellers (diagonally across from each other) spin in opposite directions from the other two. Propellers all spin in the same direction at first while the drone unfolds, but a sensor detects when the arms have locked into position, and within 50 milliseconds, direction of two of the rotors is reversed, and the drone is ready to take flight.

World’s first electronic multi-state memory cell
Researchers at RMIT University’s MicroNano Research Facility (MNRF), Australia, have built the world’s first electronic multi-state memory cell that can mirror a brain’s ability to simultaneously process and store multiple strands of information.

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This brings them closer to imitating key electronic aspects of the human brain, which is an important step towards creating a bionic brain. This could help unlock successful treatments for common neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Project leader Dr Sharath Sriram, co-leader of RMIT Functional Materials and Microsystems Research Group, has said that the ground-breaking development imitates the way the brain uses long-term memory.

The research builds on RMIT’s previous discovery where ultra-fast nano-scale memories were developed using a functional oxide material in the form of an ultra-thin film, which is 10,000 times thinner than a human hair.

Google, Levi Strauss to launch smartclothes
Google is all set to tieup with popular jean maker Levi Strauss to launch smartclothes using particular woven fabric with touchscreen-control capabilities. Named Project Jacquard, the plan would be implemented by a small team at Google called Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP).

The project is named Jacquard after a Frenchman who invented a type of loom. While the clothes are expected to be stretchable and washable like normal fabric, these would also be able to connect with devices. Special threads would be woven into a wide array of fabrics. However, conductivity will be limited to desired parts of the fabric or spread across entire cloth.

Google has said that, with the use of standard, industrial looms, touch and gesture interactivity could be woven to any textile. Hence, anything involving fabric is likely to have computer touchpad-style control capabilities woven into it.

ATAP also said that the conductive yarn would be connected to minute circuits, no bigger than jacket buttons and small electronics that can use algorithms to recognise touch or swipes.

Daimler, Qualcomm to develop in-car tech
Car maker Daimler and Qualcomm Inc. have partnered to develop wireless recharging of mobile phones in cars as well as recharging of electric cars without cables.

The two companies are assessing the application of wireless technology to charge their electric vehicles (EVs) and plug-in hybrid EVs without having to plug these in. They are also exploring technologies that will enable customers to wirelessly charge devices such as mobile phones while driving their cars, as well as ways to enhance in-car experience through high-speed 3G/4G connectivity.

Dyson CSYS LEDs to stay bright for 37 years
LEDs are meant to last for a long time, but if not properly heat shielded, these tend to lose their brightness and colour. Jake Dyson of Jake Dyson Light has designed CSYS LEDs that will stay bright for 37 years.

Conventional applications fail to protect LEDs from heat and are often subjected to temperatures up to 130°C. The heat has a damaging effect on the phosphorous coating of the bulb, which results in degradation in brightness and colour over time.

CSYS task lights have been engineered to use heat pipe technology that takes away the heat from the LEDs and keeps them cool at around 55°C. The lower temperature allows the lights to stay bright for 37 years.


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