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XPrize Announces Finalists Building Next-Gen Medical Sensors

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Today’s home medicine kit is fairly limited when it comes to diagnostics: You can take your temperature, check your blood pressure, and give yourself a home pregnancy test, but that’s about it. The Nokia Sensing XChallenge (from the XPrize folks) aims to improve that situation by spurring inventors to create portable gadgets that consumers can use to collect accurate, real-time health information. The 11 finalist teams, announced today, are building gadgets that do lab tests, monitor heart disease, check vital signs, and more. 

The Sensing XChallenge is distinct from a very similar competition, the Qualcomm Tricorder XPrize, in which teams are vying to create a universal diagnostic tool along the lines of the handheld tool wielded by Star Trek’s Dr. McCoy. In the Tricorder contest, the devices are required to diagnose a specific list of 15 ailments, whereas in the sensing challenge the tools can be designed to do just about anything.   

However, the XPrize doesn’t see redundancy here, but rather a symbiotic relationship, says Grant Campany, senior director of the sensing challenge. The Nokia contest is intended to reward teams for developing technologies that could be incorporated into a Tricorder device, he told IEEE Spectrum in an email. Several sensing teams are validating technologies for collaborating Tricorder teams, Campany says, which are racing to build at least 30 working Tricorder devices for consumer testing next year.

The Nokia contest’s judges will have some apples vs. oranges decisions to make, because the 11 finalists’ gadgets are designed for a wide variety of applications. How do you compare a handheld spectrometer, which can detect biomarkers of liver function in a drop of blood, to a pressure sensor implanted in the pulmonary artery of a heart disease patient? Other devices include a wearable sensor to detect sleep apnea, a mobile phone-based imaging app to find symptoms of eye disease, and a variety of mobile lab gadgets. Which among these is the most meritorious, and therefore worthy of the $525,000 grand prize? 

Campany says the judges have a list of criteria that include technical innovation, reliability, ease of use, and relevance to a public health need. He also notes that crowd voting accounts for 10 percent of the teams’ scores; you can cast your vote for the winner through the end of the month. The winning team will be announced in November at the Exponential Medicine conference. 

4-D Printing Turns Carbon Fiber, Wood Into Shapeshifting Programmable Materials

Just as 3-D printers create objects that have three-dimensional characteristics, 4-D printers create objects that have four-dimensional characteristics, in that they include a dynamic component that causes their structure to change over time—relying on water, heat, or light to activate them.

Using a multi-material printer, it’s possible to generate objects with these properties all in one go. Such “programmable materials” may one day mean that you can buy flat-pack furniture at Ikea, take it home, and hit it with a garden hose while you watch it slowly assemble itself. We don’t even have to speculate: MIT is working on this exact thing.

 

To understand how a programmable material works, think about what often happens to a thin strip of wood if you get it wet: It warps, as different parts of the wood swell in slightly different ways. Usually, this is bad, because the warping is unpredictable and related to the type of wood, the patterns in the grain of that wood, how and where it gets wet, and so forth. If you could somehow predict the warping, though, you might be able to find a piece of wood that you could deliberately warp into a shape that you wanted, just by adding water.

This is not a thing that we can do with natural wood, but that’s fine, because we don’t need natural wood anymore. With 3-D printing, it’s possible to manufacture pieces of wood with whatever composition, thickness, and grain characteristics that you want, meaning that with a comprehensive understanding of how the material behaves, along with computer models, you can 3-D print a piece of artificial wood that’s been “preprogrammed”— using carefully constructed layers of various thicknesses and grain directions—to warp itself from flat into exactly the shape you want. Just add water:

The MIT Self-Assembly Lab (under the direction of Skylar Tibbits) has been developing a variety of programmable materials, not just wood. The Lab’s also working on textiles (imagine a flat piece of cloth that turns into a cowboy hat whenever it starts to rain), along with slightly more exotic materials like flexible carbon fiber:

Working closely with Carbitex, an advanced materials company with a radical new flexible carbon fiber technology, CX6™, we have developed a system to produce programmable carbon fiber material that can fold, curl, twist and respond to a variety of activation energies. By printing various materials within the flexible carbon fiber grain, we are able to promote local curvature when subject to heat, light or moisture. Programmable carbon fiber enables a wide range of applications from morphable airplane flaps to self-regulating air intake valves, adaptive aerodynamics, tunable stiffness structures and a variety of other dynamic applications. These capabilities were previously impossible or required expansive and complex robotics but are now feasible through programmable material transformations.

The big advantage of these programmable materials (besides the potential for easy furniture assembly) is that you can make things that move and react to their environment without having to introduce complex, expensive, heavy actuation systems and the electronics required to drive them. The aerospace industry is already interested in this sort of thing (Airbus is working with MIT on a jet engine air intake regulator), but Tibbits was willing to speculate to Fast Company about such things as self-lacing McFly sneakers from Back to the Future II. And that self-assembling flat-pack furniture? MIT is already talking with an unnamed furniture company (that may or may not be based in Sweden) about making it a reality.

[ MIT Self Assembly Lab ] via [ Fast Company ]

Mars Comet Shames Earth Dithering

Comet siding Spring will make a spectacular fly-past of the planet Mars on 20 October. Among the observers will be seven robotic space probes sent from Earth.

Only discovered less than two years ago, the newborn comet, fresh from the Oort Cloud nursery far beyond Pluto, probably carries secrets of the origins of the solar system. Its arrival was so sudden and unexpected that no Earthborn probe could have been built and launched in time to intercept it. Instead, by the most freakish of improbabilities, it fell directly into range of a space fleet that had assembled for an entirely different reason.

On Sunday the comet is to flash through the Mars-and-moonlets system, travelling south-to-north nearly perpendicular to their orbital plane. It’ll miss Phobos and Deimos by 112,000 kilometers, and skate by Mars by about the same. When its potentially dangerous dust trail follows, four of the five orbiting probes will be snuggling safely behind the planet's bulk. The two surface rovers will be protected by the Martian atmosphere. The aged Opportunity will look for the comet in pre-dawn twilight, and the more-recently-arrived Curiosity, on the opposite side of the planet, will be in evening twilight.

Besides carrying cosmic secrets, the comet is also carrying a question. Why aren’t there people out there front-row-center for what might have been the greatest solar system spectacle of all human history? Where are the human eyeballs and human souls that should have been rising from the Martian surface at this marvel. The sight would likely have been a literally astronomical reward for the boldness and ingenuity that had placed humans there?

Fifty years ago, during the hey-day of the Apollo Program development, the issue of human flight to Mars wasn’t even open to doubt or debate – the only issue was the time frame. Could it be done within 20 years of a moon landing, as optimists hoped? Or would it take 30, or 40, as the realists expected?

True, these visions rested on the wispy foundations of imaginary engineering breakthroughs and in blissful ignorance of the real challenges of long-term space operations and human physiology. The maturity of the independently-developed technologies that when harnessed together in the 1960s enabled— barely enabled—brief lunar surface sorties by astronauts also misled futurists into thinking a new crop of advanced engineering capabilities could easily be mustered.

In hindsight, sophisticated reliability assessments, which properly assessed Apollo mission success at 80 percent and crew survival at 95 percent, when applied to even the best humans-to-Mars strategies, gave the likelihood of success at  less than5 percent and of crew survival as less than 50 percent. We didn’t even know how much we didn’t know.

But was that really an excuse for not even seriously trying? It’s not as if we couldn’t have afforded it. Did not trying to get humans to Mars really saved the world’s governments any serious money?

So instead of on-site living eyewitnesses to this spectacle, we’ve sent R2D2, and been lucky at that. The robots will perform just fine, and it will still be an amazing event. Yet it can also serve as a slap-in-the-face reminder that just as on Earth, “fortune favors the bold”. It would have vastly increased human culture if bold humans now on Mars— and the bold societies that might have existed to send them— would be justifiably exulting in this unexpected reward from the inanimate Universe, seen first-hand instead of through robot eyes.

There are more glorious surprises in the infinite “Out There”, waiting to be stumbled across and recognized. Let’s not be caught flat-footed like this again.

The opinions expressed are those of the author, not IEEE Spectrum, the IEEE, or its organizational units.

Google Funds New Brazil – U.S. Undersea Fiber Optic Cable

This week, Google announced its investment in a new undersea fiber optic cable connecting the United States and Brazil that will help ensure that its services continue to run smoothly in South America.

 The $60 million project, which will be capable of carrying up to 64 terabits of data per second, is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2016. It also marks Google’s second investment in continent-connecting cables this year.

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Will Humans Start Colonizing Mars in Ten Years?

Colonizing Mars has long represented one of the more ambitious dreams for space travel proponents ranging from NASA scientists to Silicon Valley entrepreneur and SpaceX founder Elon Musk. The latter also envisions sending humans to Mars sometimes in the next several decades, and has mused about how to build a Mars colony population of 1 million people in an Aeon interview.

Mars One — a nonprofit organization based in the Netherlands — shares some of the Musk’s goals and indeed, the Mars One vision relies on Musk’s SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket. But Mars One’s concept of seeding Mars with human colonies by launching one-way missions recently received some close scrutiny from a team of MIT researchers.

The MIT team’s critique identified potential challenges and estimated that settling the first batch of Mars colonists would require about 15 launches of the Falcon Heavy rocket being developed by Musk’s firm SpaceX at a cost of $4.5 billion. MIT also suggested that Mars One may want to dial back its aggressive schedule of sending four-person crews every 26 months starting in 2024.

The MIT paper took a particularly close look at the Mars One idea that it could establish a sustainable colony on Mars using existing technology starting in the 2020s, according to Space Policy Online. MIT’s researchers concluded that Mars One was overreaching with its statement that “no new major developments or inventions are needed” to make such an effort possible. In a Reddit AMA, they also urged Mars One to take a slower-paced approach that field-tested all the necessary habitat equipment on the red planet before sending humans.

“We believe this is a time for boldness in space exploration, but there is also a necessary amount of caution,” said MIT’s team, a group overseen by Olivier de Weck, an aeronautics and astronautics engineer at MIT. “A catastrophe in the early days of Martian colonization may cripple the endeavor in today’s risk-averse society.”

In 2012, Mars One first proposed sending Mars settlers on a one-way trip to the red planet starting in 2024 — a project based on the idea of making such a Mars endeavor into a multimedia reality show. Mars One also envisions first sending robotic missions to set up the crew habitat between 2018 and 2023, before the first humans ever set foot on the red planet.

MIT’s simulation of the Mars One mission plan highlighted a few areas in particular.

First, the study found that the cost of the permanent colony would grow steadily over time because of the increasing requirement for spare partsspares would account for an estimated 62 percent of mass transported to Mars after almost 11 years of settlement.

Second, the study identified a potential problem of managing excessive oxygen levels if the Mars One effort grew all its food as crops on the red planet.

Third, it pointed out that carrying all food from Earth could be more efficient than growing Mars crops because of Martian agriculture’s equipment requirement.

The MIT paper presented at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC2014) in Toronto has sparked a firestorm of online debate between supports of the Mars One vision and the more skeptical side of the space enthusiast community. But the MIT team clarified during the Reddit AMA that it did not set out to “discredit” Mars One and simply wanted to clarify the technology road map required for such an effort. (MIT team leader Olivier de Weck talked Mars mission logistics in IEEE Spectrum’s 2009 special report on going to Mars.)

Suggestions from the MIT team during the Reddit AMA session included testing all life support and in situ resource utilization (ISRU) technologies on Mars for at least 26 months before sending humans. The researchers also pointed out that slowing down the rate of sending settlers could reduce the impact of the increasing spares requirement on mission mass. They also raised the future possibility of 3-D printing and other ISRU technologies reducing the need for spares.

Anonabox Promises Total Online Anonymity That's Easy, Open Source, and Cheap

Nobody likes giving up their privacy. But as much as we complain about it, relatively few of us are willing to put time, money, or effort into consistently protecting our privacy online. And it’s not like it’s that hard, relatively speaking: the Tor Project offers excellent, free software that lets you browse the Internet in complete anonymity, if you use it properly. With Tor, data you send over the Internet are encrypted and stripped of any identifying information (namely, your IP address) before reaching their destination. It’s one of the most reliable methods that you can use to protect your identity online. However, it does take some amount of experience to use, along with a conscious decision to choose security over convenience. If that sounds like too much work (and it sure sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it?), the Anonabox could be exactly what you need.

 

The Anonabox, now on Kickstarter, is a tiny little networking tool that will sit there and invisibly do all of the Tor-related stuff that you’d want it to do, without you ever having to think about it.

The appeal of Anonabox (relative to other, similar products) is threefold. First, it’s about as easy to use as you could possibly hope for: plug one end into a free port on your modem or router, add power (USB), and that’s it. The Anonabox will set up its own wireless access point (in tandem with any existing network) that you can connect to when you want to, and all the data that are sent through it will be anonymized through Tor. No wireless? No problem, it’s got an ethernet port, too.

Second, it’s completely open source, which means that people way smarter than you can make sure that there aren’t any security holes in the software.

And third, it’s cheap: the people behind this thing have spent years refining it for their own use, which has driven the price down to something equivalent to a cheap router. Add all of these things together, and your total investment (time, money, space, effort, frustration, embarrassment, emotional anguish, etc.) drops to the point where even those with a vague interest in the option for online privacy would have a hard time justifying not getting an Anonabox.

So, since Anonabox is entirely based on Tor, why not just use the Tor browser, which is free? The simple answer is that Anonabox anonymizes everything that your computer is sending out over the Internet, not just the websites that you visit through your browser. Email, instant messaging, filesharing, all of it. In that respect, using a piece of hardware that runs everything through Tor like this certainly makes things safer, but it can’t keep you perfectly safe.

Most of the time, when a Tor user is compromised, it’s because that user (or the user’s computer) did something that shouldn’t have been done: security and privacy are as much about you using good browsing practices and exercising caution as they are about anonymizing hardware and software. For example, if you browse the Internet through Anonabox with the same Web browser that you’ve been using, it’s possible to identify you through the unique characteristics of the cookies that your browser has probably picked up. Instead, you should be using a different browser, or ideally the Tor browser itself, which is specifically designed to prevent things like that from happening. The point is this: no combination of hardware or software is capable enough to protect your privacy if you use it wrong.

Anonabox was looking for $7,500 for an initial production run on Kickstarter, and they’ve surpassed that by just a bit, clocking in at well over $150,000 in funding with 28 days to go. You’ve missed the early bird version of the Anonabox ($45), so instead you’ll have to pay $51, with delivery expected early next year.

[ Anonabox ] and [ Kickstarter ] via [ Wired ]

A Simple Plumbing Problem Sent Galileo Satellites Into Wrong Orbits

On 22 August, about 35 minutes after liftoff of a Soyuz rocket carrying the fifth and sixth satellites of Europe's ambitious 30-satellite navigation system Galileo, things went wrong. The upper stage, the Russian-built Fregat that carried the two spacecraft, injected them into the wrong orbits, making them unusable for their intended function as part of the navigation system.

At first blame fell on an error in the software controlling the Fregat's trajectory. But an inspection of the flight parameters clarified the situation: the two attitude control thrusters — small thrusters that keep the spacecraft and its propulsion engine pointed in the correct direction — failed to fire when they had to. "When a motor functions, and then stops functioning, it means that the fuel is no longer getting there," says Mario de Lépine, a spokesperson of Arianespace, who controlled the launch.

The fuel — hydrazine — didn’t reach the thrusters because it froze in its feed line, which was too close to another feed line carrying liquid helium. Both lines were mounted on a same support structure that, unfortunately, functioned as a thermal bridge cooling the hydrazine. The fault has also been discovered in other Fregat stages that are now under construction in Russia, and was apparently caused by ambiguities in the design documents of Fregat.

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The Blue LED Has Many Parents

The story of science and technology today is the story of many hands. But try as we might, it’s hard to get away from the hero narrative. It’s still easy for us to get swept up by the tales of lone inventors, who battle the powers-that-be and fight against all odds to prove themselves right.

The stories that we tell about the development of the blue LED are no exception. The hero has long been Shuji Nakamura, one of this year’s winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics. Nakamura, working “virtually alone” for a small, geographically remote company called Nichia Chemical Industries, was responsible for developing manufacturing processes that brought the first truly bright blue LEDs to market. He’s since become the face of the device.

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Private Space Habitat to Blow Up on ISS Next Year

Until someone manages to figure out how to get a space elevator up and running, sending stuff into space is going to remain enormously expensive. Payloads are also limited by size: if it doesn’t fit inside a rocket, it’s not going to make it into orbit. This places significant restrictions on large space structures like the International Space Station, which have to be made up of lots of tiny little modules stuck together, meaning that you don’t have access to a lot of open space.

Fifty years ago, NASA experimented with launching inflatable spacecraft that could be carried into space wadded up inside small rockets, and then pumped up to enormous sizes once they reached orbit. It was a fantastic idea that was in the running for a habitat on the ISS until funding for it was axed by the U.S. Congress. But Bigelow Aerospace has taken up the idea, and at the 2014 International Astronautical Congress last week, the private company reconfirmed its plan to test an inflatable module on the ISS in 2015.

 

The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) will fly up to the ISS inside the unpressurized butt trunk of a SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule sometime next year. The station’s Canadarm2 will attach the BEAM to an airlock on the Tranquility module, where it will be slowly inflated:

The BEAM has an internal volume of about 16 cubic meters, which is just enough room for one astronaut to comfortably do a mostly stationary acrobatic routine, and it’s scheduled to remain attached to the ISS for two full years. However, since this is a new thing for both Bigelow and NASA, it’s not likely that astronauts will be able to take full advantage of the space. At the moment, the plan is to keep the BEAM mostly sealed off. Its role will be to house instruments, but astronauts will venture in once or twice a year to make sure that it’s not leaking, irradiated, full of aliens, or otherwise malfunctioning.

If everything goes well with BEAM, Bigelow has plans to launch an inflatable space station of its own sometime after 2016, built around a much larger inflatable module called the BA 330. With 330 cubic meters of usable space, the BA 330 is slightly larger than Skylab was. That makes it more than three times as spacious as the Destiny module, although it’s just 30 percent heavier. The BA 330 will be completely self-contained, flying with all of the infrastructure required to keep humans alive and happy. It should be at least as safe, if not safer, than the ISS modules, with respect to both radiation and impact protection.

Earlier this year, Bigelow announced how much it’ll cost you to spend some time inside the BA 330 when it launches. Expect to pay $25 million for a sixty day lease of one-third of the station—if you can get yourself there and back. Should you need a ride, round-trip taxi service between SpaceX and your local launching pad will run you an additional $26.5 million. 

As with most projects of this magnitude, Bigelow has had some ambitious goals that have been tempered by reality over the years. But actually launching and testing hardware in space is a major hurdle that they’re about to clear (again). SpaceX and Boeing (and perhaps even Sierra Nevada) are in the process of proving that private industry is the future of getting humans into space, and Bigelow is out to show that private industry can also be the future of humans staying there.

[ Bigelow Aerospace ] via [ Space.com ]

Make It So: Open Source, Arduino-Based Tricorder Nears Completion

A tricorder is a piece of fictional equipment* in Star Trek that’s only slightly less realistic than Doctor Who’s sonic screwdriver. A handheld device with a screen, lots of blinking LEDs, and some unspecified set of sensors, a tricorder allows you and your away team to detect alien lifesigns and subspace anomalies and whatever else is necessary to move the plot forward.

Considering how often tricorders are relied on in Star Trek, we can infer that they’re immensely useful. Peter Jansen has been developing tricorders for the last seven years, and his latest model is tiny, open source, and absolutely packed with useful (and entirely functional) sensors.

 

Here’s the full accounting of the suite of sensors in the current prototype:

Atmospheric Sensors

  • Ambient Temperature and Humidity: Measurement Specialties HTU21D
  • Ambient Pressure: Bosch Sensortec BMP180
  • Multi-gas sensor: SGX-Sensortech MICS-6814

Electromagnetic Sensors

  • 3-Axis Magnetometer: Honeywell HMC5883L
  • Lightning sensor: AMS AS3935
  • X-ray and Gamma Ray Detector: Radiation Watch Type 5
  • Low-resolution thermal camera: Melexis MLX90620 16×4
  • Home-built linear polarimeter: 2x TAOS TSL2561
  • Colorimeter: TAOS TCS3472
  • UV: Silicon Labs Si1145
  • Spectrometer: Hamamatsu C12666MA micro-spectrometer, with NeoPixel light source

Spatial Sensors

  • Inertial Measurement Unit: Invensense MPU-9150 9-axis (3-axis accelerometer, gyro, and magnetometer)

Other Sensors

  • Microphone: Analog Devices ADMP401

The difference between the Arducorder Mini and the tricorders competing for Qualcomm’s Tricorder XPrize is sort of like the difference (in Star Trek) between a regular tricorder, and a medical tricorder. The Arducorder Mini is a pure sensing tool, and isn’t intended to perform any diagnostics. The winner of the Tricorder XPrize, on the other hand, will need to be able to diagnose diseases by itself.

Jansen is competing for a different sort of reward: a trip to space for himself, if he wins the Hackaday Prize. But really, we all win, because of the open-source nature of the Arducorder. All of the build details are available here.

[ Tricorder Project ]

*Gene Roddenberry, the creater of Star Trek, added a clause to his contract with Paramount specifying that if anyone actually made a functioning tricorder, they’d have automatically earned the right call it a tricorder if they wanted to.

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Ode to the Pulsar P2 LED Watch

Watch%20front.jpg My refurbished Pulsar P2 "Astronaut" LED watch came in the mail today, an early Xmas gift to myself that I've been anticipating for more than ten years. That's about how long it's been since my dad gave me his old watch and I've been looking for someone to fix it ever since. A recent fascination with the new crop of LED watches coming out of Japan led me to pull the old P2 out of the bottom drawer of my dresser a couple of weeks ago and renew my search for a repair person …

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