Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 22, 2010

This is the online version of UNU-MERIT’s I&T Weekly which is sent out by email every Friday. If you wish to subscribe to this free service, please submit your email address in the box to the right.

Issue 22, 2010

This week's headlines:

Fusion reactor set to raid Europe's research funds
July 01, 2010

European nations hope to divert more than a billion euros that were earmarked for research grants to make up a budget shortfall at the experimental ITER fusion reactor. The proposal has alarmed scientists, who say that it will rob researchers of vital funds at a time when governments are planning to scale back domestic research budgets in response to the global economic downturn.

Based in the south of France, the ITER reactor will one day fuse hydrogen isotopes to produce energy. When the project was agreed in 2006, it was expected to cost EUR 5bn to construct, but unofficial estimates now put ITER's price at around EUR 15bn. As the largest contributor to the project, the EU will have to pay EUR 7.2bn, far more than the original EUR 2.7bn it had initially expected. The most pressing problem is a EUR 1.4bn gap in the construction budget for 2012-13.

A tentative agreement reached on 25 June by Europe's 27 member states would fill most of that shortfall using cash from the EU's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) for research, which is the main science-funding mechanism in Europe for 2007-13. FP7 has an overall budget of EUR 50.5bn and still has about EUR 20bn unspent.

The European Commission still needs to work out the precise budgetary details with the member states, according to several independent sources. The commission is expected to fight the proposal, arguing that drawing so heavily on FP7 funds would damage other research goals.

Full story: Nature News Back to top

Herschel telescope spies galaxy with cosmic 'zoom lens'
July 01, 2010

Europe's Herschel space telescope has spied a far-distant galaxy with the aid of a cosmic 'zoom lens'. By viewing a huge cluster of galaxies, Herschel has been able to study in detail an even more distant object. This is possible because the gravity of the foreground cluster magnifies the light of the background galaxy. The gravitational lensing technique has famously been used in the past by the Hubble Space Telescope, and it was to an old Hubble lens that Herschel turned on this occasion.

Abell 2218 is a colossal aggregation in space some 2bn light-years from Earth. Its compact mass is equivalent to many thousands of galaxies, and this huge concentration of matter distorts and maximises the light from the objects that sit behind it.

The way this natural zoom lens in the sky works is a consequence of Einstein's General Theory of Relativity. In Hubble's images of Abell 2218, far-distant galaxies appear as multiple arcs and arclets smeared across the field of view. In Herschel's observation of the same scene using its Spire instrument, the distant galaxies appear as slightly fuzzy blobs. The bright yellow blob in the centre of a new Herschel image released by ESA is a galaxy seen as it was 11bn years ago. The differences in the Hubble and Herschel pictures are a direct consequence of the varied wavelengths at which the two telescopes operate.

Hubble sees the Universe in the optical and near-infrared, and these wavelengths produce very sharp forms in the telescope's images. Herschel, on the other hand, is sensitive to much longer wavelengths, in the far-infrared and sub-millimetre range, and its pictures are much softer. But it is this ultra-long-wavelength sensitivity that allows Herschel to see the processes that initiate star formation in clouds of very cold gas and dust - a perspective completely hidden from Hubble.

Full story: BBC News Back to top

'Programmable matter' may shape future tools
June 28, 2010

Scientists have invented self-folding sheets of fibreglass that can flex themselves into origami airplanes and boats. The achievement could help pave the way for 'programmable matter' that could one day serve much like a Swiss Army knife, bending and creasing into any number of tools.

The sheets are each less than a half-millimetre thick and made of triangular fibreglass tiles each roughly less than 1 cm wide, connected together by elastic silicone rubber creases. To make them self-folding, scientists at MIT embedded strips just 100 microns thick made of a 'shape-memory' nickel-titanium alloy that changes shape when heated or cooled. They also included flexible, stretchable copper-laminated plastic mesh ribbons on the sheets that served as wires.

When electricity running through the coppery ribbons was applied to heat the shape memory alloy strips to 70 degrees C or more, they went from flat to bent, causing the entire sheet to fold with them. In the end, the 32-tile sheets the researchers devised could fold into origami boats and airplanes.

To program each crease to fold in the right direction and order, the researchers are developing stickers that contain all the circuits needed to connect and trigger the correct actuators for making specific complex three-dimensional shapes.

Full story: MSNBC / Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Back to top

Flying car one step closer to reality
June 29, 2010

The Terrafugia, a small airplane that can drive on roads and has been billed as the first 'flying car', is now one step closer to becoming street- and sky-legal in the US. The vehicle has cleared a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulatory hurdle for craft classification by weight. A full-fledged production prototype might be just around the corner, according to multiple reports.

At issue was Terrafugia wanting its Transition vehicle to be classified as a 'Light Sport Aircraft' by the FAA so people eager to fly it would need only 20 hours of flying time. Yet the two-seater vehicle came in 50 kilograms overweight in accommodating roadworthy-assuring safety items such as crumple zones. The FAA said that so long as customers are advised about this extra weight, the car-plane hybrid can be sold.

The Terrafugia completed its maiden voyage last March. According to its maker, the Terrafugia can transform from a roadable vehicle that can hit a highway speed of 105 km/h to a winged aircraft in 30 seconds. The plane version can cruise at around 185 km/h and cover around 644 kilometres worth of turf before needing a refill of regular unleaded gas. The price of a Terrafugia is expected to be around USD 200,000 and deliveries could start next year, assuming the vehicle passes crash tests.

Full story: MSNBC / TechNewsDaily Back to top

Car for blind drivers under development
July 02, 2010

The National Federation of the Blind and Virginia Tech in the US say they hope to demonstrate a prototype equipped with technology that helps a sightless person to get behind the wheel in 2011. The technology, called nonvisual interfaces, will guide its driver through traffic by transmitting information about nearby vehicles or objects. Vibrating gloves or streams of compressed air directed behind the wheel are among the options for communicating the information needed to avoid collisions and reach a destination.

The vehicle is based in Virginia Tech's 2007 entry into the DARPA Grand Challenge, a competition for driverless vehicles financed by the Defense Department's research arm. The university's team won third place for a self-driving vehicle that used sensors to perceive traffic, avoid crashing into other cars and objects and run like any other vehicle.

Following their success, Virginia Tech's team responded to a challenge from the National Federation of the Blind to help them build a car that could be driven by a blind person. Virginia Tech created a dune buggy as part of a feasibility study that used sensor lasers and cameras to act as the eyes of the vehicle. A vibrating vest was used to direct the driver to speed up, slow down or make turns.

The blind organisation was impressed by the results and urged the researchers to keep pushing. The results will be demonstrated in January on a modified Ford Escape sport utility vehicle at the Daytona International Speedway prior the Rolex 24 race.

Full story: Daily Telegraph Back to top

USB coffee-cup warmer could be stealing your data
July 02, 2010

Are you sure that the keyboard or mouse you are using today is the one that was attached to your computer yesterday? It might have been swapped for a compromised device that could transmit data to a snooper. The problem stems from a shortcoming in the way USB works. This allows almost all USB-connected devices to be turned into tools for data theft, says a team that has exploited the flaw.

Until now, hardware trojans were considered to be modified circuits. For example, if hackers manage to get hold of a microchip when it is still in the factory, they could introduce subtle changes allowing them to crash the device that the chip gets built into. However, computer engineers at the Royal Military College of Canada found they could exploit a weakness in USB's plug-and-play functionality.

The USB protocol trusts any device being plugged in to report its identity correctly. But find out the make and model of a target user's keyboard, say, swap it with a compromised device that reports the same information and the computer will not realise.

The team designed a USB keyboard containing a circuit that successfully stole data from the hard drive and transmitted it in two ways: by flashing an LED, Morse-code style, and by encoding data as a subtle warbling output from the sound card.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top