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Day: May 15, 2018

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Watch a laser-powered RoboFly flap its tiny wings

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Making something fly involves a lot of trade-offs. Bigger stuff can hold more fuel or batteries, but too big and the lift required is too much. Small stuff takes less lift to fly but might not hold a battery with enough energy to do so. Insect-sized drones have had that problem in the past — but now this RoboFly is taking its first flaps into the air… all thanks to the power of lasers.

We’ve seen bug-sized flying bots before, like the RoboBee, but as you can see it has wires attached to it that provide power. Batteries on board would weigh it down too much, so researchers have focused in the past on demonstrating that flight is possible in the first place at that scale.

But what if you could provide power externally without wires? That’s the idea behind the University of Washington’s RoboFly, a sort of spiritual successor to the RoboBee that gets its power from a laser trained on an attached photovoltaic cell.

“It was the most efficient way to quickly transmit a lot of power to RoboFly without adding much weight,” said co-author of the paper describing the bot, Shyam Gollakota. He’s obviously very concerned with power efficiency — last month he and his colleagues published a way of transmitting video with 99 percent less power than usual.

There’s more than enough power in the laser to drive the robot’s wings; it gets adjusted to the correct voltage by an integrated circuit, and a microcontroller sends that power to the wings depending on what they need to do. Here it goes:

“To make the wings flap forward swiftly, it sends a series of pulses in rapid succession and then slows the pulsing down as you get near the top of the wave. And then it does this in reverse to make the wings flap smoothly in the other direction,” explained lead author Johannes James.

At present the bot just takes off, travels almost no distance and lands — but that’s just to prove the concept of a wirelessly powered robot insect (it isn’t obvious). The next steps are to improve onboard telemetry so it can control itself, and make a steered laser that can follow the little bug’s movements and continuously beam power in its direction.

The team is headed to Australia next week to present the RoboFly at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Brisbane.

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First CubeSats to travel the solar system snap ‘Pale Blue Dot’ homage

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The Insight launch earlier this month had a couple stowaways: a pair of tiny CubeSats that are already the farthest such tiny satellites have ever been from Earth by a long shot. And one of them got a chance to snap a picture of their home planet as an homage to the Voyager mission’s famous “Pale Blue Dot.” It’s hardly as amazing a shot as the original but it’s still cool.

The CubeSats, named MarCO-A and B, are an experiment to test the suitability of pint-size craft for exploration of the solar system; previously they have only ever been deployed into orbit.

That changed on May 5, when the Insight mission took off, with the MarCO twins detaching on a similar trajectory to the geology-focused Mars lander. It wasn’t long before they went farther than any CubeSat has gone before.

A few days after launch MarCO-A and B were about a million kilometers (621,371 miles) from Earth, and it was time to unfold its high-gain antenna. A fisheye camera attached to the chassis had an eye on the process and took a picture to send back home and inform mission control that all was well.

But as a bonus (though not by accident — very few accidents happen on missions like this), Earth and the moon were in full view as MarCO-B took its antenna selfie. Here’s an annotated version of the one above:

“Consider it our homage to Voyager,” said JPL’s Andy Klesh in a news release. “CubeSats have never gone this far into space before, so it’s a big milestone. Both our CubeSats are healthy and functioning properly. We’re looking forward to seeing them travel even farther.”

So far it’s only good news and validation of the idea that cheap CubeSats could potentially be launched by the dozen to undertake minor science missions at a fraction of the cost of something like Insight.

Don’t expect any more snapshots from these guys, though. A JPL representative told me that the cameras were really only included to make sure the antenna deployed properly. Really any pictures of Mars or other planets probably wouldn’t be worth looking at twice — these are utility cameras with fisheye lenses, not the special instruments that orbiters use to get those great planetary shots.

The MarCOs will pass by Mars at the same time that Insight is making its landing, and depending on how things go, they may even be able to pass on a little useful info to mission control while it happens. Tune in on November 26 for that!

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Tushy is the simple bidet for every toilet

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If there’s one thing I envy in the global spirit and character its the appreciation of a fine bidet. Hygiene being close to godliness, one can imagine the huddled scientists at CERN and KAUST and Tokyo University creating scientific marvels, secure in the knowledge that their posteriors were as clean and crisp as their lines of thought. The same can be said of peoples of all continents who celebrate the occasional fountainal intrusion, from those who use bidets complete with birdsong to hide their doings to those with a simple hose next to the can.

But America, that land of the free and the home of the brave, can’t join in the fun? Is there no bidet culture in Dear Columbia? Pshaw. After all, there’s something called Tushy.

This simple bidet system is the gateway drug to posterior enjoyment. I’ve been trying to install a proper bidet in my home since 2007. The problem I discovered was that the design of my toilet did not allow for something large and heavy up against the toilet tank. Because the system was so large I couldn’t fit it in place of the seat, resulting in endless heartbreak. I was almost going to swap out my toilet for one of a simpler designed but luckily the Tushy is the low-cost, low tech solution I was looking for.

It works by sitting in line with the tank refill line. You simply connect the line to the Tushy and then connect a line from the Tushy to the tank. The water that would normally go into your bowl is routed through a little movable nozzle and up into your backside. The water, obviously, is cold. You can also turn it so the water cleans the nozzle, and important health and safety addition.

Bear in mind that the Tushy is as simple as it gets. It doesn’t blow out fine perfumes, it doesn’t steam or mist you, and it doesn’t play birdsong. But it costs $69 and seems to work just fine in my testing. In fact, I’m thinking of Tushying up the whole house since it doesn’t actually need electricity or any plumbing changes.

Tushy also sells an $84 Spa model that connects to your hot water line for a bit of warmth. But that’s for the coddled few who can’t manage a little cold water.

Why is this important? Because all innovation is important, for one. The changes in lifestyle associated with tech are moving out of the esoteric into the basic, a fact that should give us all a bit of a giggle. If electrified scooters in SF are a sign of the apocalypse, things like the Tushy are a sign of a renaissance. After all, the clean innovator is the happy innovator.

Ultimately ideas like Tushy will lead us to a new world of butt hygiene. Perhaps, one day, all of us will have a bidet in our homes and offices. Perhaps one day we will be able to break the shackles of toilet paper. And perhaps, one day, we will join the ranks of men and women who enjoy a good squirt in the morning. Until then, Tushy does its business.

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