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Archive for the ‘Inventions’ Category

As wildfires continue to devastate thousands of acres in California it’s become increasingly clear that we need better firefighting tools.  Something that we could use to put out dangerous fires or even prevent them from forming in the first place.  The latter is where the Firesound drone comes in.

As the BBC puts it, “The Firesound is a firefighting flying saucer. The bright yellow, meter wide, autonomous disc is designed to patrol parks and forests, constantly looking for danger using smoke sensors and thermal cameras. Unlike UFOs from 50s B-movies, however, it won’t shoot out the kind of laser beams that might spark a forest fire.  Instead the Firesound will blast low frequency sound waves to extinguish small fires before they can spread.”

Essentially what Firesound does is use sound waves to move oxygen away from the fire, thereby removing its fuel source, and effectively starving it.  It’s an effective, low-cost method, that could wind up saving lives, property, and the environment and it comes to us from Charles Bombardier, the same designer behind the Antipode, the high speed airliner capable of traveling at Mach 24 and traveling from New York to London in just 11 minutes.

The Firesound can do a lot more than just put out fires though as it can also be used as a surveillance tool to help locate people who are missing.  Or, as Bombardier suggests, it could also be configured to provide wi-fi connectivity to a stranded camper so that they can signal for help.

Unfortunately, the Firesound wouldn’t be much help in fighting a large scale fire that is already burning out of control.  It also, may not be much help in preventing them either, considering that it’s just a prototype for now.  Hopefully it does wind up becoming a real product because the people of California can use all the help they can get.

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Is Firesound the Greatest Idea Ever?

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Wearable devices haven’t really caught on yet, either due to social stigmas, fashion faux pas, or the simple fact that they don’t address an immediate need, but all that may be about to change thanks to a new keychain accessory capable of detecting allergens in your food.

As Digital Trends puts it, “Anyone who suffers from a serious food allergy — or has a friend, partner, or family member who does — knows just how fraught a simple restaurant outing can be. Even if a particular allergen isn’t readily apparent in a meal, there’s always the possibility that it is stealthily hiding below the surface, due to cross-contamination. That’s where the product of some research by investigators at Harvard Medical School comes into play. They’ve developed a portable allergen-detection system, including a keychain analyzer, that could be not just a game changer, but a life saver, too.”

So how does this amazing new technology work!?!

“The $40 system comprises three parts. One is a tiny single-use slide that’s used for collecting potential allergens. This is then plugged into the keychain analyzer which identifies said allergens, before an associated smartphone app wirelessly displays the necessary readings.”

Even though it only appeals to a niche user group, I’d still expect this device to catch on given how critically important it is.  Although researchers are inching closer to developing a cure for some allergies, including the infamous peanut one that afflicts so many children, that cure may still take years to develop and only applies to one potential allergen anyway.  This device on the other hand could prove to be invaluable in the interim.

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Is a food allergen detector the Greatest Idea Ever?

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To some people the future will always be out of our reach; impossible to predict despite the best efforts of today’s leading futurists and science fiction authors.  To others, we’re already living in it.  There are plenty of examples that could be used to help support either argument but one idea happens to work as an example for both: synthetic biology.  On the one hand, we’re starting to scratch the surface of what is possible so you could argue that the technology has already arrived.  On the other hand, the science is so new to use that we probably can’t even imagine how it will play out.

One person who may have a good idea of what is possible though is maverick pioneer Craig Venter.  Already one of the world’s leading synthetic biologists, Venter has now, for the first time, invented a machine capable of turning his own wild science fiction fantasies into a reality.

The machine is known as a DBC, a Digital to Biological Converter, and it sounds like something straight out of Star Trek.  The machine, once further refined, and shrunken down to a more manageable size so as to be commercially viable, would be capable of completing some pretty mind blowing tasks.  A homeowner could have one to print out the medications that they need to take or to create a sudden vaccine during a disease outbreak.  An astronaut could use one to print out life on another planet, thereby eliminating the need to transport already existing people across the vastness of space.  The machine could even be used to terraform a planet or to send unique alien lifeforms back to Earth from another world.  The possibilities are truly endless.

The Singularity Hub explains how it works:

“While automated DNA printers have already hit the market, the DBC takes it one step further. The machine is capable of building proteins from the genetic code (printing biological hardware, so to speak), bringing it one step closer to building living cells from scratch.

At the heart of the system is Archetype, proprietary software that optimally breaks down the input DNA sequence into more manageable short sequences to synthesize in parallel. This massively increases efficiency and reduces sequencing errors that increase with longer DNA strands.

Once assembled, the machine scans the strands for any errors before ‘pasting’ the bits back into complete DNA assembles. From there, a series of robotic arms transfer the DNA from module to module, automatically adding reagents that turn the synthetic genes into functional proteins.”

Obviously there is still a lot more work that needs to be done before we start seeing DBC’s on every street corner.  And if the struggles of the 3-D printing industry have taught us anything it’s that printing on demand isn’t as widely a sought after convenience as one might have imagined.  But then again, having the ability to print out your own medicine and vaccines could change that.  As could its ability to help us colonize space.

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Is the DBC the Greatest Idea Ever?

 

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Thanks to scientists we may soon have a “swiss army knife of energy production” available to homeowners for commercial use.  Known as the Redox System this incredible breakthrough would be able to meet all of your home energy needs in a myriad of ways.

As New Atlas puts it, “Imagine having a fridge-sized box in your home that not only generates and stores electricity on-site, but heats and cools the house, provides hot water and even churns out oxygen and hydrogen to use or sell. That’s the vision a team from the University of Newcastle and Australian company Infratech Industries is working towards…”

So, how does it work?!?

“In short, the CLES [Chemical Looping Energy-on-Demand System] acts like a combination of a generator and a battery: it can use natural gas to generate electricity to power a building, or take electrical energy from the grid or renewable sources and store it for later use. The system is based around a reduction-oxidation (redox) reaction, with a canister of a specially-blended particle mixture that cyclically gains and loses electrons. When those particles oxidize, they heat up, creating steam that drives a turbine to generate electricity. Then, when they reduce again, they release oxygen that can then be collected.”

To start out the system is likely to cost around $4,500, which is expensive but ultimately cheaper than the Tesla Powerwall which is priced at $6,000.  Plus since the excess oxygen can be sold off it’s believed that on average the cost of purchasing one of these systems will be paid off in about eighteen months.  Beyond that, homeowners may actually be able to start turning a profit.

A single home energy system that takes cares of all my energy needs and makes me money?!?!  Where do I sign up?!?!

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Is the home Redox System the Greatest Idea Ever?

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On last night’s episode of Silicon Valley, a paranoid Gilfoyle take action when he realizes that Dinesh’s hacker girlfriend has infiltrated the apartment’s Wi-Fi network and is using it to effectively spy on them.  In a panicked state the duo ripped wires out of the wall, covered up their webcams with duct tape, and took various other actions to try and safeguard their apartment from their virtual intruder.

The scenario that played out last night is the one that we often associate with our Wi-Fi routers.  That some hacker in Estonia is trying to enter our home networks to steal our social security numbers or bank account numbers.  Or less nefariously that our neighbors are trying to steal our signal.

But now we can add one more privacy fear to Wi-Fi routers: the fact that one day they may be used to spy on us by using holograms to recreate what the inside of an apartment looks like.

As Science Mag puts it, “Your wireless router may be giving you away in manner you never dreamed of. For the first time, physicists have used radio waves from a Wi-Fi transmitter to encode a 3D image of a real object in a hologram similar to the image of Princess Leia projected by R2D2 in the movie Star Wars. In principle, the technique could enable outsiders to ‘see’ the inside of a room using only the Wi-Fi signals leaking out of it…”

This technology comes to us from scientists at the Technical University of Munich and obviously won’t just be used for spying.  There are plenty of practical applications that could benefit society as well, such as using the technology during disaster recovery efforts to locate victims that may be trapped inside a burning building.

But for those of you who may still have spying concerns you can rest easy knowing that your humble abode will likely never get mapped.

According to CNET, “The development of this technology is still in an early state. But for those concerned about privacy, [paper co-author Friedemann] Reinhard said the movable antenna required to scan an entire room or a building would be very large and couldn’t be installed clandestinely.”

So for now all you really have to worry about are your neighbors.  Or if you’re anything like Dinesh, your crazy hacker girlfriend.

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Are Wi-Fi holograms the Greatest Idea Ever?

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The Echo speaker, powered by Alexa, helped Amazon jump out to the surprise early lead in the race against Apple and Google for control of our living rooms.  At CES earlier this year, Alexa’s influence was everywhere with the technology showing up in everything from internet connected refrigerators to smart home control hubs.  It was Amazon’s subtle way of announcing to the world: Like it or not, Alexa is here to stay.

Now, just five months later, Amazon has announced two new products, the Echo Look and Echo Show, that take that line of thinking a step further: Since Alexa is here to stay we’re going to double down and dress her up with fancy new features to make her even more appealing.

First up is the Echo Look.  For an additional $20 you can get an Echo with a camera on it that will enable you to say things like, “Alexa, take a picture” or “Alexa, shoot a video”.  The basic premise here is that you’ll be able to take a picture of yourself wearing various outfits in order to receive advice on your style and look.  Sure beats the always impossible to answer inquiry: “honey, do these jeans make me look fat?”

The Echo Look is likely to solicit eye rolling from people who were already weary of the Echo’s always-on ability to listen to and record our every word.  By adding a camera, the thinking goes, now Amazon can see everything we do too Big Brother style.  Thankfully, that’s not going to be the case as the Echo Look comes with an off switch so that you can switch off the camera when you’re not ready to use it.

The Echo Show on the other hand isn’t as gimmicky as the Echo Look.  Rather, it’s basically the Echo 2.0, a more advanced version of the original that lets you see, not just hear, the information that Alexa has curated for you.

As Wired puts it, “That’s what makes Amazon’s newest Echo, the $229 Echo Show, a smart move. It’s an Echo … with a screen. The Chumby lookalike exists mostly to talk and listen, but glance at the screen and you’ll notice that as it reads your calendar events, it displays them, too. When it announces that the Warriors won, it shows you the box score. It lets you interact with almost everything by touch or by voice, using whichever one you find most convenient.”

Having the ability to see the information that Alexa has selected for you is a real game changer.  Not just in an aesthetically pleasing way but rather in a practical sense.  For instance, now when you ask, “Alexa, what’s my flash briefing?” instead of a monotonous response about the latest world news you’ll instead be shown the latest video clips.  This is a much more efficient way of communicating the information in question.

Better yet, the screen can easily be used as a teleconference monitor in lieu of Skype.  So now if you want to have a video chat with your mom or children you won’t have to whip out your iPad, open up the Skype app, search your contacts, and then place the call.  All you’d have to do is say, “Alexa, call mom.”

Examples like that highlight just how convenient the Echo Show can be.  And that’s just scratching the surface.  Once developers get their hands on the Echo Show all bets are off.  So, if you’ve ever thought about getting an Echo the addition of a screen, and a touch screen at that, essentially makes it a no brainer.  Just be sure to leave room in your budget for whatever else Amazon has in store for Alexa.

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Is the Echo Show the Greatest Idea Ever?

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Information is everywhere.  It’s all around us.  Within our DNA.  Encoded within the approximate 30 million items worldwide that have barcodes on them.  In the 1s and 0s of every phone, tablet, and computer around the world.  And that’s just the beginning.  Soon information will be everywhere from our clothes to any object or surface that we can think of.  That’s because a team of researchers from Duke University have created spray-on memory that can be used to add information to pretty much anything from paper to plastic.  Even if we’re talking about curved or bendable materials.

According to Idea Connection:

“Duke University researchers have created the first spray-on memory, which could lead to programmable electronics printed on paper or fabric.  The spray-on digital memory relies on an aerosol jet printer able to print nanoparticle inks at low temperatures. The nanowires and polymer are dissolved in methanol and then ejected through the printer nozzle, resulting in a small, printable memory device with a ‘writespeed’ of three microseconds [that is] able to retain the information for up to ten years without degradation.”

The key, according to Wired, is to store the date using resistance instead of varying states of electrical charge:

“Published in the Journal of Electronic Materials, the researchers describe how the material, made of silica-coated copper nanowires encased in a polymer matrix, stores data in states of resistance.  Using resistance to store data, instead of states of electrical charge, means that a voltage can be applied to help store and access the data quickly and easily.  ‘By applying a small voltage, it can be switched between a state of high resistance, which stops electric current, and a state of low resistance, which allows current to flow,’ a statement from the University explains. The nanowires and polymer can then be dissolved into liquid form and sprayed using a printer.”

What excites me the most about this invention, aside from the obvious limitless commercial applications, is that this approach is really just scratching the surface of what data storage in the future is going to look like.

As Wired explains:

“The attempt to create a new way to store data is one of a number of different approaches being created by academics. In March, academics from Columbia University and the New York Genome Center demonstrated how they were able to store a movie, operating system, and an Amazon gift card in DNA. In the work, the data from – totaling 2,146,816 bytes – was converted to DNA using an algorithm before being retrieved ‘perfectly’ from its state of storage.

Elsewhere, a tiny engraved piece of glass has been able to store 360TB of five dimensional data. A team at the University of Southampton stored the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Magna Carta and the Bible on the glass by storing it on five dimensions: height, width, depth, and two other dimensions produced by nanostructures in the glass.”

What other ways will we invent to store and read data in the future?  That remains to be seen.  The only thing that’s certain at this point is that information is all around us and soon we’ll mean that literally.

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Is Spray On Memory (pictured at left) the Greatest Idea Ever?

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