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Australians Invent Architecture for a Full-Scale Silicon Quantum Computer

It’s looking more and more like future super powerful quantum computers will be made of the same stuff as today’s classical computers: silicon. A new study lays out the architecture for how silicon quantum computers could scale up in size and enable error correctioncrucial steps toward making practical quantum computing a reality.

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Flexible Sensors Measure Blood Flow Under the Skin

Today’s best medical devices for measuring blood flow require patients to first show up at a clinic or hospital, then stay very still during the imaging procedure. But an experimental sensor that clings to skin like a temporary tattoo could enable 24-hour monitoring of blood flow wherever a patient goes.

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Mind-Reading with Infrared Light

An optical sensor attached to the forehead could do the work of both an EEG monitor and an MRI, allowing portable monitoring of brain activity in patients and better control of hands-free devices for the physically disabled.

That’s the hope, anyway, of Ehsan Kamrani, a research fellow at Harvard Medical School who presented the idea at the recent 2015 IEEE Photonics Conference in Virginia.

“So far there is no single device for doing brain imaging in a portable device for continuous monitoring,” he says. Instead of a brief set of readings taken in a hospital, a stroke victim or epilepsy patient could get a set of readings over hours or days as she goes about her normal life. The readings could be transferred to her smartphone, then sent to her doctor, or even alert her if another problem was imminent.

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NASA Offering Patents to Startups, No Money Down

This month NASA launched a special patent deal for startups, offering licenses on any of its patents with no money down and no royalty payments for the first three years.

The program waives upfront fees and provides a streamlined process for applying for a license. It is an outgrowth of NASA’s compliance with a memorandum issued by President Obama in October 2011 to accelerate and increase the success of transfer of technology from government agencies to the commercial sector, according to Dan Lockney, NASA’s technology transfer program executive.

According to the license agreement, the offer is only for companies formed within the last year with the express intent of commercializing the licensed NASA technology. However, Lockney says there’s wiggle room. “This is a template, a starting point,” he says. “We are flexible.”

The program is attracting more interest than NASA expected, says Lockney, noting that in the first three days there were three million downloads of the application form. He declined to specify how many applications have been received so far. NASA will take its time evaluating each application, he says. “We want to know that [the startup] has the technical chops, and that it’s not just tying up the IP,” he says. “We also want to ensure [the startup] has the market savvy and business skills to bring the technology to market.”

By year three of the license, a startup will have to start paying royalties even if it has not yet brought the technology to market. The royalties will be “lower than industry standard, lower than government standards, and lower than NASA’s usual standard,” Lockney says.  If the company still has no product after five years, NASA will terminate the license.

The licenses are non-exclusive, and NASA may license similar rights to other companies, but that is also flexible. “We want to make sure we don’t saturate the market, so we won’t allow such a run on technology that it is a disservice to the current licensee,” explains Lockney. NASA will also consider exclusivity if the startup wants to negotiate.

In the four years since Obama’s memorandum, NASA has centralized its tech transfer program, creating a one-stop shop for all of its patents online, grouping them into 15 categories, including clear, concise descriptions of each, and adding meta-data to enable keyword searches. In the electrical and electronics category, for example, there is a patent for a “Graphene-Based Reversible Nano-Switch/Sensor Schottky Diode Device,” described as a microsensor that detects toxic gases or explosives

Last year, the agency created an online software catalog of over 1,000 design tools that are available for free. “Some of it is esoteric space-specific stuff but others are very practical, like scheduling tools for large projects and design tools that have been used on everything from automobiles to musical instruments,” says Lockney.

NASA is the only federal agency that has its entire IP portfolio, including software, easily accessible in one place, he adds.

The agency hopes that the startup program will produce at least a few “home runs,” says Lockney. After all, NASA has been the inventor of technologies that, once commercialized, became part of everyday American life, he notes.  Eric Sossum, a NASA scientist at the Jet Propulsion Lab, invented the CMOS sensor that is now in every smartphone. And it was a NASA researcher that found a way to produce Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids by growing algae, which is why our yogurt and milk now comes with “added Omega 3 and 6.”

Leap Second Heads Into Fierce Debate

When Earth’s rotation gets far enough out of sync with the drumbeat of atomic time, a leap second is added to Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) and the world’s clocks count off 59, then 60, then 00 seconds.

The fix is intended to pair two very different ways of keeping time, one grounded in the unchanging world of atomic physics and the other pinned to Earth’s spin, which is slowing due to tidal friction with the Moon.

Some say the leap second is a good compromise. It’s a way to link atomic clocks to the position of the sun in the sky. Others argue it’s an inconvenience and potential danger to modern systems. The leap second has been called “Y2K’s distant cousin” and “a crude hack paper over the fact that planets make lousy clocks compared with quantum mechanical phenomena.”

Whatever the leap second is, it will not be ignored. Next week, its fate will come up for debate before the International Telecommunication Union’s World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC), which will run nearly an entire month, from 2 to 27 November in Geneva.

Many countries are strongly split over what to do: some favor keeping the leap second while others want it dropped from the definition of UTC. “I’m expecting difficult discussion,” says Vincent Meens of France’s National Center for Space Studies, who chairs the study group in the telecommunications union that’s responsible for the topic.

In the first week of the conference, a group will be spun off to focus on the leap second, says Brian Patten of the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration. He anticipates the question won’t be resolved quickly: “I am predicting this will go all the way through the conference. There won’t be a conclusion until the last week.” 

Patten will represent a regional group of countries in the Americas that includes Canada, Mexico, and the United States. Together they’re advocating the elimination of the leap second, with a grace period to allow time for legacy hardware and software to be updated. “The most fundamental thing that we’re proposing is to stop using the leap second in UTC, as the most economically viable and simplest method to implement,” he says.

“The world has changed a lot since 1972,” when the leap second was first introduced, Patten says. At the time, the addition helped celestial navigation. Now, satellite navigation systems offer far better accuracy, Patten says. At the same time, new vulnerabilities have emerged: “There is a huge underlying infrastructure of computer networks and telecommunication systems and all these other machines all talking to each other all over the world all the time.”

Since the rotation rate of the Earth doesn’t slow at a steady, entirely predictable rate, leap seconds aren’t scheduled at regular intervals. Each time a leap second is announced, system administrators must plan ahead to ensure there is no problem. Sometimes there is: past leap seconds have caused hiccups in web services and an outage in 2012 of an airline reservation system used by Qantas. “There hasn’t been a huge disaster but there could be,” Patten says, “and we’re being proactive in trying to prevent a future problem.”

The Americas aren’t going it alone. Other regional groups have weighed in. The Asia-Pacific Telecommunity, which includes Australia, China, and Japan, advocates dropping the leap second. Two others regions, one that includes Russia and a number of other formerly Soviet countries and the Arab Spectrum Management Group advocate preserving the leap second.

Notably missing from the regional proposals is Europe, which could not get the needed support for a proposal to drop the leap second. “We had intense debate,” says Alexander Kühn, who chaired the conference preparatory group for the region. At the last meeting in Norway in September, 20 countries voted in favor of dropping the leap second, he says, but the U.K., Russia, and six other countries opposed the proposal, which was enough to quash it.

A key concern for Russia seems to be the impact to the country’s GLONASS satellites. Kühn says he’s consulted with an engineer who says there is logic to Russia’s argument, but that the problem could be overcome by a software fix.

The U.K., home of the place where the sun is overhead at noon UTC, strongly advocates keeping the leap second. “It is our view that the technical problems associated with the insertion of leap seconds have been overstated and do not justify this radical change to the world’s time-scale,” the U.K. and several other countries state in their break-out proposal to the WRC.

Decoupling civic time from the Earth’s rotation might eventually mean—absent other changes—that the sun will reach its noon-time peak at 8 p.m. But this isn’t something that will happen any time soon: over the next hundred years, the drift between UTC and Earth-tracking time UT1 expected to be on the order of a minute.

Still, the U.K. and its proposal co-signers advocate an approach that would keep UTC the same but make it clear that International Atomic Time, the leap-second-less time that UTC is based on, could be used when someone needs a continuous time scale.

That wouldn’t make implementing leap seconds in UTC any easier of course, and it could complicate matters. “UTC was formulated to be the real-time and distributable reference clock for the world,” Patten says, while TAI is synthesized from many atomic clocks around the world, and “is not readily available for distribution like UTC.” “It would be another information distribution problem which turns out to be very difficult in the timekeeping area,” says Ron Beard, who chairs Working Party 7A, a group that has studied the technical issues associated with eliminating the leap second. 

This isn’t the first time the question of the leap second has come before the WRC. In 2012, a decision on the leap second was postponed to allow for more study.

It’s an open question whether an agreement will be reached this time around. “Theoretically you need a majority,” Kühn, of the European group, says. “In practice it’s a common habit of the WRC that they try to reach a concensus where everyone is so-called ‘equally unhappy’.”

If those in favor of eliminating the leap second are successful, it could be the last time questions about UTC come before the diplomats of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

The ITU has been responsible for UTC because, early on, the time signals were primarily transmitted by radio. As metrologist Terry Quinn has noted, this is no longer the case: “These days, time is disseminated by many other means, notably by satellite navigation systems and the internet but also by optical fibres, coaxial cable as well as by many systems related to satellite communications.”

In the future, control over defining UTC could go to the International Bureau of Weights and Measures just outside Paris, which is already responsible for maintaining UTC and International Atomic Time. 

Stretchable Antenna Boosts Range for Wearable Devices

Imagine a flexible antenna attached to a sports shirt wirelessly sending health and fitness data from sensors on the body to a smartphone hundreds of meters away. Such a vision for wearable devices has proven impractical—that is, until now. But a new antenna design has proven its ability to withstand the bending and stretching that garments endure, while steadily communicating via Wi-Fi.

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Acoustic Holograms Form Ultrasonic Tractor Beams for Tiny Objects

You've seen holograms before: they're images that seem to jump out of a flat surface, full of depth that you can experience through perspective changes and parallax cues. The three-dimensional effect that a hologram creates comes from the three dimensional light field that's created when photons diffract through the interference pattern on a holographic plate. It's essentially a structure made of light that gets projected out into space when the seemingly random pattern of features on the plate interact with each other.

Light isn't the only wave that can be manipulated to create structures in space; the same thing goes for sound waves. The structures generated by constructively and destructively interfering with ultrasonic waves are tangible things that can exert force on objects. Researchers at the Public University of Navarre in Spain have used ultrasonic acoustic holograms to manipulate things just like the tractor beam used by the crew of the USS Enterprise on the TV show Star Trek.

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NASA Satellites Will Use GPS to Boost Hurricane Forecasts

Eight small NASA satellites and the existing GPS network could provide the first serious upgrade for hurricane intensity forecasting in decades. Once launched in a little less than a year, the mission’s boost to extreme weather prediction would go a long way toward giving authorities more time to plan coastal evacuations and prepare for the onslaught of 21st-century storms.

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Megapixel CCD Can See Terahertz

Terahertz waves, a frequency band squeezed in between the far infrared and the very short-wave radio frequency region of the electromagnetic spectrum, are not only difficult to create but also difficult to detect. So making a good imager for them is quite a difficult task.  Still, in 2012 researchers reported an experimental 1000-pixel CMOS terahertz camera.

The SwissFEL laser team led by Christoph Hauri at the Paul Scherrer Institute near Zurich has now shown that you can use a common megapixel  CCD device, as found in electronic cameras or in smartphones, to capture images produced by terahertz waves.

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Spider Silk Sensors Could Search for Life on Mars

Ziggy Stardust would love this: Spiders could help find life on Mars.

That is, optical sensors made with spider silk could be used to look for trace gases produced by biological processes, according to a researcher who showed how silk could be used in place of conventional optical fibers, under a grant from the European Space Agency. The scientists hunting for life on Mars would like to be able to test for small amounts of ammonia, which might be emitted by the metabolism of microbes, so they need a sensor that can detect that while remaining insensitive to the large amounts of carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere.

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