Innovation & Technology
Weekly Roundup

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This week's headlines:

Scientists fix fractures with 3D-printed synthetic bone
September 29, 2016

Scientists in the United States have successfully treated broken spines and skulls in animals using 3D-printed synthetic bone, opening the possibility of future personalised bone implants for humans to fix dental, spinal other bone injuries.

Unlike real bone grafts, the synthetic material - called hyper-elastic bone - is able to regenerate bone without the need for added growth factors, is flexible and strong, and can be easily and rapidly deployed in the operating room.

The team found that when used in spinal injuries in rodents and to mend the skull of a monkey, the hyper-elastic bone, made mostly of a ceramic and polymer, quickly integrated with surrounding tissue and began regenerating bone. It swiftly mended bones in the spines of the rats and healed the monkey's skull in just four weeks, with no signs of infection or other side effects, the scientists said.

Full story: Reuters / Science Translational Medicine Back to top

Facebook banned from gathering WhatsApp users' data in Germany
September 28, 2016

Facebook has been told that it cannot collect WhatsApp users' data in Germany after the messaging app updated its terms last month to allow information sharing with its parent company.

Regulators expressed fears that the policy changes could infringe on WhatsApp users' privacy by giving Facebook access to their phone numbers, as well as information about their phones and operating systems. Responding to such concerns, a German regulator has ordered Facebook to stop collecting WhatsApp data and delete all of the information that has already been transferred from the messaging app to the social media giant.

When Facebook bought WhatsApp in 2014, the deal came with an assurance from both companies that they wouldn't share their users' data. To some regulators, the recent amendment that lets WhatsApp share user information and analytics with Facebook breaks that promise.

The data protection commissioner's office for Hamburg, which acts for the country, said the companies had been 'misleading' and, in doing so, infringed on Germany's data protection law. It also said Facebook didn't acquire legal permission to collect the information.

Full story: Daily Telegraph Back to top

Budgies reveal the rule that means birds never collide in flight
September 28, 2016

How do birds avoid crashing into each other when approaching head-on? They have an in-built preference for veering right. The finding may contribute to the design of better anti-crash systems in autonomous drones.

Researchers from the University of Queensland, Australia uncovered the simple trick when filming pairs of budgerigars flying towards each other in a narrow tunnel. During more than 100 tests, the birds moved to each other’s left hand side in 84% of cases, and zero crashes were observed. The budgerigars also tended to fly past each other at different heights, which prevented mid-air collisions on the rare occasions that one of the birds veered left.

Group hierarchy may dictate which bird moves up and which moves down, according to the researchers. These crash-avoidance strategies have evolved over 150 million years in birds and can provide inspiration for anti-collision systems in drones, they say.

Drones currently use simple proximity sensors to avoid hitting other objects, but they are not sophisticated enough to communicate with each other. Once better sensing technology becomes available, pre-programming all drones to veer right when they encounter one another may be a straightforward strategy to reduce collisions. Height coordination is trickier, but could potentially be achieved by assigning numbers to each drone, the researchers think. Upon approach, the rule may be that the drone with the higher number moves up and the one with the lower number moves down.

Full story: New Scientist / PLOS ONE Back to top

Single typhoon could power Japan for 50 years
September 30, 2016

A Japanese engineer has invented the world's first typhoon-powered wind turbine - an electricity generator designed to harness the energy packed inside tropical cyclones. Engineer Atsushi Shimizu says an array of his generators could power Japan for up to 50 years from a single typhoon - and considering six such storms have hit the country this year, we're talking about a lot of potential energy.

According to Shimizu the wind turbines Japan imports from Europe are not suitable for the country's specific climate. In particular, they have an unfortunate tendency to get damaged by typhoons. That's where these custom-made turbines come in. The technology is designed to cope with unpredictable and violent wind patterns, thanks to its omnidirectional axis, and its adjustable blade speeds ensure that it don't spin out of control.

Key to the invention is the principle of the Magnus effect - the way air curves around anything that rotates, and applies pressure on it at the same time. In this case, it allows the blades around the turbine to generate movement. At the same time, the central rod can be tightened to slow down or stop the blades, regardless of the external forces generated by the typhoon.

The researchers installed their first prototype in Okinawa in July, and are now waiting for a chance to test it with a real typhoon. Japanese authorities are particularly keen to find new energy sources, after the disaster at Fukushima derailed its nuclear energy program. Roughly 84% of the country's energy is currently imported.

Full story: Science Alert Back to top

Internet speeds 1,000 times faster than Google Fibre demonstrated
September 23, 2016

Scientists in Germany have achieved internet speeds averaging a sustained 1 terabit per second (1 Tbps) on an optical fibre network. That is 1,000 times faster than services like Google Fibre, which delivers 1 gigabit per second (1 Gbps). At that speed 125 gigabytes every single second can be downloaded.

A new modulation technique called Probabilistic Constellation Shaping (PCS), lets researchers from the Technical University of Munich, Nokia Bell Labs, and Deutsche Telekom T-Labs hit a net transmission rate of 1 Tbps on Deutsche Telekom's existing optical fibre network.

PCS works by increasing the efficiency with which data is relayed through a fibre channel. The software ensures that a greater number of low-amplitude signals – called constellations – are used than higher-amplitude signals. This enables the transmission rate to be tailored to more ideally fit the channel, and means the signal is less susceptible to noise on the line and other defects.

While PCS itself appears to work on existing fibre networks, it's likely ISP infrastructure would need to be tweaked to accommodate the system that makes all this possible.

Full story: Science Alert Back to top

BMW builds a power plant from old electric-car batteries
September 26, 2016

With the electric-car revolution perhaps just a few years off, automakers face a looming question: what do you do with all the spent batteries?

Like any batteries, lithium-ion batteries wear out. The rate at which they currently decline puts their lifetime for powering electric vehicles in the neighbourhood of eight to 10 years. After that their capacity declines to a point where a car's range would be depleted.

BMW has been thinking about how to give spent batteries a second life. It has experimented, for example, with selling them to consumers in a product similar to Tesla’s Powerwall, to function as a way to store energy at home.

Now it has gone one bigger. By strapping together batteries from 100 cars, BMW has just completed a grid-scale storage facility in Hamburg, Germany. Capable of storing 2.8 megawatt-hours of energy and delivering up to two megawatts of power at the flip of a switch, the plant is perfect for providing an extra dose of power to the grid during times of peak demand, its operators say.

Full story: Technology Review Back to top

Uber plans self-flying drone taxis to beat city traffic
September 26, 2016

If you summon an Uber in 10 years’ time, you will probably get a car that drives itself. But then again, you may not be travelling in a car at all. The taxi-hailing app is working on technology that would allow airborne passenger drones to fly its users short distances around cities, it has emerged, raising the prospect of a future in which skylines are dotted with Uber aircraft shuttling commuters back and forth.

Jeff Holden, Uber’s head of product, said that the company is researching 'vertical take off and landing' (VTOL) technology. Instead of the helicopter-style rotor blade drones, VTOL aircraft have fixed wings like planes, enabling them to fly silently, while taking off and landing vertically. Amazon’s delivery drones, currently being tested in Cambridgeshire, use a similar technology to cut down on noise and extend their range. Holden said Uber wanted to 'offer our customers as many options as possible to move around' and that the technology could be available within a decade.

While the idea may seem far-fetched, Uber is not the only one researching passenger drones. Earlier this year Ehang, a Chinese company, unveiled the 184, an autonomous quadcopter drone designed to carry a single passenger, with a battery life of 23 minutes. The 184, which has been slated for release as early as this year, is expected to cost up to $300,000. Google founder Larry Page is one of the major believers in flying cars, putting USD 100m of his own money into startups developing the technology.

Full story: Daily Telegraph / Recode Back to top