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Gliders in the Gulf

The BP spill is a big real-world test for a new robot sub technology

2 min read

In early May, after oil in the Gulf of Mexico began lapping at the Louisiana coast, James Bellingham of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, in California, sent a flurry of e-mails to colleagues, asking if they could deploy "gliders" to track the spread of the slick. By the fifth week of the disaster, the autonomous, torpedo-shaped submersibles started showing up, sent by Rutgers University, iRobot, and others. The robotic technology, just a decade old, was ready to take on a new challenge.

The gliders move by repeatedly changing their buoyancies, collecting data from the ocean while undulating through it [see "Yellow Submarine," IEEE Spectrum, March 2010]. Little by little, they're building a picture of what's happening to the oil—where the currents are carrying it, and how the chemical dispersants applied at the spill site are transforming it. And they're doing it at a much higher resolution than is possible with traditional ocean-observing tools.

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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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