Innovation & Technology
Weekly Roundup

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This week's headlines:

India's reusable space plane takes its first test flight
May 24, 2016

This week the India Space Research Organisation (ISRO) launched its first space plane - phase one of its plan to develop reusable vehicles for cheaper space travel.

The plane, called the Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV), has wings like a fighter jet and two tail fins. A compact 6.5 metres in length, it looks like a miniature version of a NASA space shuttle but carries no crew. It blasted off from the island of Sriharikota, India's equivalent of Cape Canaveral, and landed in the Bay of Bengal 20 minutes later.

A booster rocket carried the RLV 56 kilometres above Earth, past the upper limits for aircraft and weather balloons. After the booster detached, the RLV sailed on through the mesosphere before peaking at 65 km. Although it didn't technically go into space, it travelled high enough to try out its wings and self-steering system.

The RLV then tilted its nose up and began a controlled fall, re-entering the lower atmosphere at about five times the speed of sound. The ground crew tracked the descent, observing that the heat-resistant plating successfully protected the plane.

The RLV went through the motions of a safe landing and splashed down in the ocean, but lacked the gear to land intact and was not recovered. The agency plans to carry out safe terrestrial landings and retrieve the vehicles in later test flights.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

China's floating buses will ride above the roads
May 26, 2016

China knows that simply sending in more buses to its busier cities isn't going to help ease congestion. So why not putting those buses on stilts?

A Beijing company has shown off an interesting concept for a long, 'straddling bus' that's raised up on rails either side of the road. It can glide over the traffic jams of the city at speeds of up to 60km/h, with cars being able to freely drive underneath it when stationary.

The buses are capable of carrying up to 1,400 passengers and will cost 20% of an underground transport system. A prototype is reportedly being rolled out glided out in the coastal city of Qinhuangdao in the summer.

Full story: CNET / The Guardian Back to top

African beekeeping stops mites wiping out hives
May 19, 2016

Traditional African beekeeping methods offer better protection against hive-destroying varroa mites than pesticides which, according to a study, are losing their potency.

The mites, which attach to bees and suck their body fluids, are increasingly resistant to pyrethroids, according to a study. The research shows that genetic mutations are enabling the mites to survive persistent spraying efforts.

As a result, the mites are wreaking havoc among bee populations in Europe and the US. But bee farmers in most developing countries have little to fear from the mites. The main difference is that African bee farmers are relaxed about swarming, which happens when a bee colony splits, or absconding, when bees abandon a hive. When bees swarm or abscond, the majority of mites are left behind, because they mostly live in the bee brood.

Western bee farmers spend a lot of time preventing swarming, despite it being a natural process, as it temporarily halts honey production. But housing large bee populations in close proximity and preventing swarms encourages the spread of varroa mites.

Varroa mites originally affected only the Asian bee, which has developed resistance to the parasite. But in the early twentieth century, the mites jumped species to the European bee, the paper says. The mites have since spread around the world, killing untreated hives within about three years from the start of infestation.

Full story: SciDev / PLOS One Back to top

Researchers teach robots to 'feel pain'
May 26, 2016

Researchers from Germany are developing an artificial nervous system aimed at teaching robots how to feel pain.

The researchers, from Leibniz University in Hannover, are developing a system that would allow a robot to 'be able to detect and classify unforeseen physical states and disturbances, rate the potential damage they may cause to it and initiate appropriate countermeasures, ie reflexes', they explained.

Just as human neurons transmit pain, the artificial ones will pass on information that can be classified by the robot as either light, moderate or severe pain.

As well as allowing robots to quickly respond to potential damage to their systems, it could also protect humans who are increasingly working alongside them.

Full story: BBC News Back to top

Researchers illuminate the hidden properties of light
May 18, 2016

When it comes to understanding light, it turns out we're more in the dark than we thought. Researchers in Ireland have reported that they discovered a 'new form' of light, and say that their discovery will impact our understanding of the fundamental nature of light.

The recent discovery by physicists at Ireland's Trinity College Dublin could alter our established thinking of how a key aspect of light - its angular momentum - is understood. Angular momentum is a measurement of how something rotates around its own axis, which light is known to do. Essentially, as photons travel through space, they twist and turn around their axes.

Previously it was thought that light's angular momentum was a constant, but the team at Trinity discovered that under certain conditions, it only spins around its axis half as much as it should.

The researchers suggest that the discovery could have implications for telecommunications and privacy. The nature of these newly found photons are by nature harder to crack, meaning they could deliver data without such a high threat of a third party snooping. It could be used in fibber-optic cables to improve speed and security.

Full story: CNN / Science Advances Back to top

Light can 'heal' defects in some solar cells
May 24, 2016

A family of compounds known as perovskites, which can be made into thin films with many promising electronic and optical properties, has been a hot research topic in recent years. But although these materials could potentially be highly useful in applications such as solar cells, some limitations still hamper their efficiency and consistency.

Now, a team of researchers at MIT and other institutions in the US and the UK say they have made significant inroads toward understanding a process for improving perovskites' performance, by modifying the material using intense light.

Tiny defects in perovskite's crystalline structure can hamper the conversion of light into electricity in a solar cell, but the team found that there are some defects that can be healed under light. The tiny defects, called traps, can cause electrons to recombine with atoms before the electrons can reach a place in the crystal where their motion can be harnessed.

Under intense illumination, the researchers found that iodide ions - atoms stripped of an electron so they carry an electric charge - migrated away from the illuminated region, and in the process apparently swept away most of the defects in that region along with them.

Full story: MIT News / Nature Communications Back to top

Checklist of worst-case scenarios could help prepare for evil AI
May 23, 2016

Artificial intelligence - what's the worst that can happen? For Roman Yampolskiy, a computer scientist at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, the sky's the limit.

Working with hacktivist and entrepreneur Federico Pistono, he has come up with a set of worst-case scenarios for a potential malevolent AI, from 'enslaving mankind' to 'destroying the universe'.

Yampolskiy argues that anticipating as many negative outcomes as possible - just as cybersecurity researchers do when looking for vulnerabilities - will help us guard against disaster.

Some of the catastrophes that Yampolskiy and Pistono envisage involve turning us against ourselves. In one scenario, an AI system unleashes a global propaganda war that sets governments and populations in opposition, feeding 'a planetary chaos machine'.

The work was paid for by a fund set up by tech entrepreneur Elon Musk, who has described AI as humanity's 'biggest existential threat'. Stephen Hawking has voiced similar fears.

Yampolskiy cites the example of Microsoft's Twitter chatbot Tay, which recently went rogue when it was tricked into spewing racist comments. Although relatively inconsequential, Yampolskiy says the incident reveals the unpredictability of such systems.

Full story: New Scientist / Back to top

Slimy hagfish inspire 'super hydrogels'
May 23, 2016

The unusual secretions of the Atlantic hagfish are being studied by scientists who want to harness the viscous and elastic properties of the creature's slime for human use.

When attacked or threatened by a predator the marine creature defends itself by secreting a milky-white substance from its glands. This instantly reacts with the seawater around it to form a mass of slime that clogs the mouth and gills of the would-be attacker. But this slime has special properties that could benefit mankind, according to scientists from ETH Zurich.

Hagfish slime is an extremely diluted hydrogel, consisting of over 99.99 percent water. Hydrogels are used in a multitude of everyday products including diapers, moisturisers and contact lenses. But hagfish slime is more efficient and fast-forming than other types of hydrogel, such as conventional animal gelatine.

The glandular secretion the hagfish produces when attacked is made from mucin vesicles and tightly coiled skeins of protein measuring just 150 micrometres in diameter. When released by the hagfish they quickly interact with seawater; the mucin vesicles releasing a saliva-like substance and the skeins unwinding into long threads. Together they form a matrix of slime that can disable much bigger marine animals.

The researchers are now working to unlock the secret of the slime formation and its huge capacity to absorb water with the hope of recreating it artificially in the lab.

Full story: Reuters Back to top