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Medtronic Wants to Implant Sensors in Everyone

Today, when doctors suspect that a patient has a cardiac arrhythmia that could lead to a heart attack, they can implant a tiny cardiac monitor smaller than a AAA battery in the patient's chest, directly over the heart. The company that makes that monitor, Medtronic, thinks the day will come when perfectly healthy people will be clamoring to have that gear inside them as well. 

At a Medical Design & Manufacturing conference today, Medtronic program director Mark Phelps described his company's successful efforts to miniaturize its cardiac technologies. In February, the company began a clinical trial of its pill-sized pacemaker, which is implanted inside the heart. While Phelps presented that tiny pacemaker as a remarkable feat of engineering, he saved his real excitement for the tiny Linq cardiac monitor, which went on sale this year. Phelps declared that the device heralded "the beginning of a new industry" in diagnostic and monitoring implants.  

Phelps argued that such an implant could be enhanced with more sensors to give people reams of biometric information, which would improve their healthcare throughout their lives. Young healthy people could use the sensors to track heart rate and calories burned, the kind of information that quantified selfers get today from wearable gadgets like the Fitbit. Later, the sensors would help with disease management, as they could be programmed to monitor particular organs or systems. Finally, they could enable independent living for the elderly by allowing doctors to keep watch over their patients remotely. "I would argue that it will eventually be seen as negligent not to have these sensors," Phelps said. "It's like driving without any gauges of your feedback systems." 

The data generated by these implants would be provided to both the patient and the physician, Phelps said, and would allow both to see how lifestyle changes affect the patient's health over time, or how his or her body reacts to certain pharmaceuticals. This Big Data approach could enable a shift from reactive, symptom-based medicine to a preventative care model. 

Such a medical system would be intrusive in two senses, Phelps admitted: Not only would doctors be physically cutting into a patient's body, they would also be exposing a great deal of the patient's biometric data. Yet Phelps believes that people will embrace the sensor-enabled lifestyle. "You'll get so used to having that feedback and information, you won't be able to imagine life without it," he said. 

Report: NASA Needs Vision, “Horizon” to Get to Mars

Since the last Apollo moon mission in 1972, NASA has enjoyed many bold interplanetary success stories with unmanned programs like Voyager, Cassini, and the Mars rovers. However, the agency’s human spaceflight program during the same period—from Skylab, to the Space Shuttle, to the International Space Station—for all its successes, has remained firmly in low-earth orbit.

And if NASA and its partner agencies want to return astronauts to the surface of the Moon and perhaps ultimately to Mars, it needs both international cooperation and bold leadership, not just the careful, incremental vision its manned program has become known for in the post-Apollo era.

So says a new report commissioned by Congress and authored by the National Research Council (NRC).

After all, the study says, “no single rationale alone seems to justify the value of pursuing human spaceflight.” NASA needs to make a case that the report calls “inspirational and aspirational” that can bolster public support and enable the agency to weather any budgetary battles, economic downturns, technological setbacks or unfortunate accidents along the way.

When the report’s authors requested the public’s input on the future of human spaceflight, they received more than 200 white papers and 1600 original Tweets (#HumansInSpace).

The overriding theme of these comments, the report says, was emphasis of commercial partnerships — such as its existing ones with Orbital Services Corp and Space X, partnerships that are themselves the subject of a separate new agency report. The comments also pointed out the economic and technological benefits of international arrangements (especially with China) that could enable the entire world to participate in getting humans to Mars.

The report arrives at many similar conclusions. For instance, its authors argue, it is in the United States' best interests to seek international cooperation, in part because any actual manned mission to Mars would be so expensive that NASA would likely need to defray those costs with extensive international partnerships. And the report delicately but deliberately trains attention on the 2011 Congressional ban on any NASA collaborations with the Chinese space program. The ban, it says, “reduces substantially the potential international capability that might be pooled to reach Mars.”

And Mars, it says, is what the report calls a “horizon goal,” an overarching vision that is needed to jumpstart NASA’s human spaceflight program. Not since President Kennedy’s 1961 speech announcing what became the Apollo program has the agency had such a “horizon” goal. Mars, says the report, could be that next horizon. However, says the NRC report, human spaceflight “conducted by the U.S. government today has no strong direction and no firm timetable for accomplishments.”

Prickless Glucose Monitor That Uses Spit Takes Giant Step Forward

Researchers have developed a new biochip sensor that could enable diabetic patients to monitor their blood sugar levels without drawing any blood. The findings are based on a two-step process, the first part of which Spectrum blogged about in 2012.

The basic idea is to use the hypersensitive technique of interferometry to tease out and then quantify the presence of glucose molecules in a person’s saliva.

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Wrist Sensor Tells You When to Chug a Gatorade

Anyone who works up a strong sweat (and a "mean mean thirst") has to eventually replace the lost body salts and fluids by chugging sports drinks or taking electrolyte replacement tablets. A new prototype of a wrist-worn sensor could help eliminate the guessing games by monitoring the electrolyte levels of runners, professional athletes and U.S. soldiers at all times.

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Google Lunar Race Teams Discuss Next Steps, House on the Moon

The 18 teams still running for the Google Lunar X Prize are gathered today and tomorrow in Budapest, Hungary, for the competition's annual summit, where they'll describe their progress, trade notes, and get updates on the next stages of the race. Some also served hors d'oeuvres via rover (photos 14 and 15 in the slideshow)

Time is getting short for the main course, though. Google and X Prize Foundation announced the Lunar X Prize in 2007, and the competition is set to expire at the end of 2015, though the organizers have already extended the original 2012 deadline once.

No teams have announced firm launch dates, but of the 18 participants, a group of five teams has demonstrated good progress. These teams have been named finalists for $6 million in additional milestone prizes if they are able to perform a series of imaging, mobility, and landing tasks. While the results won't be announced until September, the teams are already showing off rover technology.

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Google Aims for Billion Dollar Satellite Fleet to Spread Internet Access

Google has considered both balloons and drones in its quest to spread high-speed Internet access across the globe. Now the Internet giant aims to go even higher by investing billions in a fleet of satellites that could help reach "the other 3 billion" people who live in regions of the world lacking broadband Internet access.

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Conflict Minerals Reporting Deadline Makes Tech Companies Scramble

Yesterday marked a tough deadline for technology companies: It was the date by which U.S. companies had to report on their use of conflict minerals. According to early reports, tech giants such as Apple, Intel, and HP met the deadline, but many other companies have yet to file or they've filed incomplete reports. 

Conflict minerals are mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and their sale can profit warlords in the country's violent eastern provinces. In an attempt to deprive these militias of funds, new U.S. regulations require companies to declare whether they use tin, tantalum, tungsten, or gold in their products. If they do, the companies were required, by June 2, 2014, to audit their supply chains to determine the source of these minerals. 

While the rules affect many industries, they're having a particular impact in the tech world. Electronics companies use all four of the metals in various products, and the electronics industry is the biggest consumer of tantalum, which is used in capacitors. 

The Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC), a trade group, has been helping companies prepare for the filing deadline for years, says Julie Schindall, the EICC's director of communications. "Because of the breadth of who’s affected, we do still have a lot of companies who don’t know what’s going on," Schindall told IEEE Spectrum. "We’re working on getting those companies to the table, and giving them the resources they need to go conflict-free."

The biggest resource may be the conflict-free smelter program that the EICC helped set up. That program audits smelters that deal in the four metals in question, and determines whether their ores are sourced from the Congo's conflict mines. 

Apple and Intel have been notably proactive in addressing conflict minerals concerns, with Apple pledging in February to remove all conflict minerals from its supply chain. Apple's report says it has already ensured that its entire supply of tantalum comes from conflict-free smelters. Intel has been heavily involved in the conflict-free smelter program, and its report states that all of its microprocessors are now conflict-free. Campaigners hope those companies that haven't yet scrutinized their supply chains will follow the tech giants' lead, if only to avoid the bad publicity of being linked to the war in the Congo. 

The campaign against conflict minerals is gaining some ground elsewhere. In March, the European Commission proposed a voluntary self-certification program for European companies that sell the raw minerals. 

Solar Plane With Global Aims Makes First Flight

Solar Impulse 2, a solar-powered airplane built to fly around the world next year, took its first test flight yesterday morning. Test pilot Markus Scherdel took off in the plane at 5:38 Central European Time from Payerne airport, Switzerland, and landed at 7:52, according to the Solar Impulse website. Scherdel reported some unintended vibration but the team attributes it to the landing gear.

Solar Impulse is a project spearheaded by Bertrand Piccard, an adventurer who circumnavigated the Earth in a hot air balloon in 1999, and is funded by a large private consortium. The consortium built a prototype, dubbed Solar Impulse 1, in 2009. That plane achieved solar-powered flights across the Mediterranean and across the United States with four stops. It also flew for an entire night, using energy it had captured during the previous day's flight (see also IEEE Spectrum's Q&A with a Solar Impulse rep during the first 24-hour solar-powered flight).

Solar Impulse 1's bigger, more advanced sibling weighs 2300 kg, of which 633 kg are lithium batteries for storing the energy generated by the plane's 17 000 solar cells. The batteries have new electrolytes intended to achieve an energy density of 260 watt-hours per kilogram, and the plane uses a new kind of carbon fiber that keeps its weight down. The plane takes off at bicycle speeds, which is handy since its wings, which span 72 meters, need spotters on bicycles to ensure that they do not strike the runway.

The team will spend this summer testing and certifying the new model ahead of next year's attempt.

GE Brings ByteLight-enabled Smart LED Lights to Stores

Controlling LED light bulbs in your home with a smart phone certainly makes for a cool demo. But lighting companies think they have a more compelling commercial application for smart lighting: retail. 

Next week, General Electric and startup company ByteLight will demonstrate a network-connected lighting system for stores at the LightFair industry conference in Las Vegas. The idea is to offer repeat customers personalized offers, perhaps based on their shopping history, as well as maps to find items in stores.

GE will embed chips made by ByteLight in its LED-based overhead lights, the type normally used in offices and big-box stores. The chips will communicate with consumers' smart phones and use sensors to track the direction a person is moving inside a store.

Until now, ByteLight only made a chip that communicated via Visual Light Communications (VLC), which uses light pulses to transmit data. The flickers are too fast to be detected by the human eye, but a smart phone's image sensor can read the signals.

VLC can accurately locate a person to within less than a meter, but it can't "talk" to a phone that's inside a pocket or purse because the link requires line of sight.

The technology demonstrated with GE will include a chip that can communicate via both VLC and Bluetooth Low Energy, or BLE. The Bluetooth radio signal can alert a customer to a special offer, inducing him or her to pull out the handset to read the come-on. Once the phone is out, it can can communicate using VLC, a company representative explained.

At this point, the companies do not have any commercial customers, but will be targeting big-box retailers, such as Walmart, which last month said it will upgrade to GE's LED lights. 

Upgrading to efficient LED lighting can save companies on energy bills. But increasingly, LED companies are pitching the benefits of electronic controls. For example, by adding sensors for daylighting to overhead office lights, LED lights can dim automatically and save more energy.

Connected LED lighting allows store owners or, say, museums to go further by using lights as network access points that consumers connect to. "The value proposition for LED lighting is becoming less about elimination and more about innovative applications and services that digital light enables," said ByteLight CEO Dan Ryan in a statement.

Apple has already started using its iBeacon technology, which uses iPads and other devices to communicate with consumer smart phones using Bluetooth. New York City drugstore chain Duane Reade said earlier this month that it will use iBeacon to offer coupons and other services to shoppers with iPhones.

And earlier this year, Phillips introduced its own VLC-based smart LED lighting system and said it is testing it with retailers.

As light fixtures become more intelligent and potentially track people's movements, they raise privacy concerns. But for consumers who love a special offer, smart lighting could make shopping a new interactive experience. 

Requests to be Forgotten: Now on Google

Time to do some spring cleaning on your Google vanity search. Tired of looking up your name only to find reminders of past bankruptcies or acrimonious court cases? If you can persuade Google or a European data protection agency that search results about you are “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purposes for which they were processed," then the search provider will have to remove the links. The form for making such requests went up today but the company says it has not yet begun processing them.

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