5 Examples of Insect-Inspired Robotics

Everyone knows that robots are merely lifeless machines, no matter how amazing their abilities may be. However, you may be surprised at how often scientists replicate the features and capabilities of living creatures to increase robotic performance. In fact, there’s even a whole branch of robotics called “biomimetics” dedicated to that single premise. The term biomimetics means literally to “mimic life.” Insects are one form of life from which biomimetic scientists draw significant inspiration for new types of robotic technology.

Functions and behaviors that evolved over hundreds of millions of years in insects can be hard to top. So scientists increasingly looking to Mother Nature and biomimicry for innovative design ideas. The resulting technology is blurring the lines between living beings and machines more than ever.

Silently Communicating Crickets

African cave crickets communicate by using their wings to form airwaves that send a pocket of low-pressure air toward potential mates. The communication is silent, so that predators cannot be alerted to the insects’ presence. Andy Russell, from Monash University in Australia, explains the communication of the African cave cricket, saying, “Vortex rings are produced when a puff of air is ejected through a hole into still air…Vortices like these can travel for surprisingly long distances.”

This means of communication has been replicated by engineers in Australia, allowing robots to silently exchange information with one another. Robots that are able to silently communicate may prove useful for high security applications or in environments where noise is undesirable.

Lightning Fast Cockroaches

Researchers at UC Berkeley studied the way in which cockroaches can scurry up walls and across ceilings. The UC Berkeley project is entitled “DASH,” for Dynamic Autonomous Sprawled Hexapod. Not only do DASH robots have the ability to walk on vertical surfaces, they can traverse gaps and run upside down by using the same movement as the cockroach.

In an article published in 2012, DASH scientists explained that they only discovered the secret to the roach’s movement after reviewing videos of it in slow motion. Now, however, others can see how the cockroach is such a mobile pest – by watching the DASH robot in action.

Swarming Bees

Robobees or “bee-bots,” as they are sometimes called, are in varying stages of development around the world. Mimicking bee behavior, on the scale necessary to replicate an entire hive, means controlling thousands of mini-bots simultaneously. When scientists are able to provide the bee-bots with sophisticated-enough brains, of course, that may be possible. However, scientists have not been able to accomplish this yet.

robobees

Photo via harvard.edu

Even if the ability to create a bee-sized bee-bot is still years away, experimentation and development continue. Research teams around the world are working on problems such as colony communication and robot size. In 2013, New Scientist magazine reported:

Robots have replicated complex insect flight: the BionicOpter, built by German technology company Festo, mimics a dragonfly, albeit one of prehistoric size… The DelFly Micro, created by researchers at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, spans a mere 10 centimeters wing to wing. At the University of Pennsylvania, researchers have used swarms of quadcopters, each small enough to fit into the palm of your hand, to pick up and move heavy objects.

No, we won’t see robobees pollinating orchards anytime soon, but there are still discoveries being made that some day may lead to this possibility.

Intelligent Ants

Ants are known for their ability to work together in order to accomplish a common goal. By modeling ant behavior, scientists are searching for ways to allow robots to team up and repair themselves, travel underground, or share tasks. At the Georgia Institute of Technology, for example, researchers are particularly fascinated in how fire ants create bridges out of themselves. Not only do these creatures form bridges by linking appendages, they are also able to adjust the strength of their grip to keep the living bridge flexible and strong. This means that if the ants sense a weak spot in the bridge they can immediately compensate.

Simon Garnier, a Rutgers University scientist explains, “The construction rules followed by the ants represent a formidable source of inspiration for people working on self-assembling robots and self-repairing materials.”

Other ant-mimicking robots have already been developed. For example, scientists have been able to replicate the insects’ ability to find the most direct path to their goal by using light signals and relatively simple programming. The result is that the robots can now act autonomously to find the most efficient way to tackle a goal. Scientists believe this technology may be applied to road and space design in the future.

Rolling Caterpillars

Caterpillars have soft, flexible bodies along with five or six pairs of legs. They’re capable of generating momentum by rolling into a ball and propelling themselves along a variety of surfaces. This means of locomotion, sometimes called “ballistic rolling,” is currently being used by robots such as the GoQBot, which was developed at Tufts University several years ago. Until GoQBot was invented, soft-bodied robots were relatively slow-moving. The GoQBot, however, uses its silicon rubber body to propel itself nearly 20 inches (one-half meter) in one second. Amazingly, this robot is only ten centimeters, or about 4 inches, long.

Huai-Ti Lin, one of the senior researchers who worked on the GoQBot, commented a few years ago on the possible applications of this new design, suggesting that it could, “…enhance several robotic applications such as urban rescue, building inspection, and environmental monitoring.”

Summary

One might develop a bit more respect for the lowly insect after learning how important their physical structures, sensory features, and means of locomotion have become to scientists developing the next generation of robotics. The evolutionary forces that shaped their development are difficult to top. Now more than ever, insects are leading the way into the future of robotic technology.

References

Bar-Cohen, Yoseph. (2014) “Biologically-Inspired Intelligent Robots Using EAP as Biomimetic Actuation Materials.” NASA. Powerpoint.

Marks, Paul. (2011). “Cave Cricket’s Trick Keeps Robot Chatter Confidential.” New Scientist. 209(2802). March 5. p. 28.

Poeter, Damon. (2012). “Cockroach-like Robot Scurries Over Ledges in Creepy Fashion.” PC Magazine. June. p.1.

Williams, Caroline. (2013). “I, Bee Bot.” New Scientist. 220(2943). Nov. 11. p. 42-45.

“Fire Ants Lock Arms to Keep Bridges From Falling.” (2014). Science Now. Jan. 7. p2.

Lewis, Tanya. (2013). “Ants ‘Use Math’ to Find Fastest Route.” LiveScience. April 17.

“Caterpillars Inspire New Movements in Soft Robots.” (2011). Institute of Physics. Tufts University. April 27.

How Free Call Software is Changing the Phone Industry and How we Talk to Each Other

Technology is revolutionary and has a continuous affect on the world we live in. As a new technology is discovered, the existing technology is going to be dramatically altered, and even sacrificed. TV killed the radio star; the mobile phone made landlines obsolete, and now free calling software is changing how we communicate and altering the well-established phone industry. 

The Phone Industry

The phone industry has experienced faster and more dramatic changes in recent years then it has seen in the past 2 decades. Although it’s not great news for the phone industry, it is great news for customers who have been at the mercy of unfair bills, expensive plans, and restrictions.

The Internet and smart phones have had a dramatic impact on just about every sector in the world, and the lucrative phone industry isn’t exempt. The web, smart phones, and tablets have matured, improved, and become undeniably reliable at delivering information and connecting people. These free call software platforms have no networks, no hardware, spend very little on marketing and can be run by a minimal amount of people. This means that they can keep their prices extremely low, free in most cases, and force the phone industry to become more competitive. In Denmark, telecommunications have made threats to block free software communications because of the imbalance on network costs. Although most countries telecommunications are not making the same threat, they are feeling the pressure to create their own VoIP programs (of course, not for free.)

Today millions of people use free call software such as Skype, Viber, apple’s iMessage and FaceTime, Tango, or the new free call player KNCTR, and many more. Therefore, people are disconnecting from their 3G or 4G network, connecting to WiFi and sending free text messages and making free phone calls – without wasting the expensive data plans. Why would you spend 9¢ per minute to call your friend traveling to France, when you can use Skype for free – and with video?


Photo by Steve Garfield

The mobile phone corporations are trying to determine how long can they hold onto their current revenue models and IDC predict that free phone call software is rapidly on the rise. Although the majority of Phone Corporation’s revenue is still coming from SMS and voice rather than data, the model of charging by minutes or SMS is becoming increasingly distant from the reality. Although free software calling isn’t a replacement for a regular mobile phone plan or landline just yet, the phone industry is facing an upheaval in the face of free call software.

The Way We Communicate

If you’ve spent sometime around a smart phone or the internet lately then you know that there are seemingly new free calling software programs created every day to help you stay in touch domestically and internationally. Free Internet calling software has dramatically changed the way we communicate and how often. Skype revealed that its users spend more than 2-billion minutes per day using its VoIP services.

Free communication software has virtually done away with time zones, distance, boarders, and roaming cost. People no longer have to wait 10-days to hear about their family’s vacation, or look at photos to remember the face of their loved ones. We can now be in constant communication with our friends and families from all corners of the world – for free.


Photo by Ewan McIntosh

Free calling software hasn’t just changed the personal world, but the corporate world too. It has provided reliable and viable alternatives to expensive communication methods, made it possible for video conference calls, and has made connecting with partners all around the world easy and cost-effective. This has had a direct effect on how and where business done, making it more effective for both the business owner and the customer.

Technology is going to continue changing the world, as we know it. Rather you are using a desktop, mobile phone, or tablet, you can take advantage of the free calling software that continues to improve on both quality and reliability. Free calling software is changing established business models and how company’s conduct business, but one of the best changes is that free calling software has made distance irrelevant and brought the world closer together.

Coming to an Ocean Near You: Taking Wifi to New Depths

For thousands of years, nets have been actively used in all of the major bodies of water around the world. However, so far, the world’s largest net—the Internet—has been almost completely absent from the underwater world.

Internet users can log on from land and air, but water-logged logins are as rare as Loch Ness Monster sightings. While Wi-Fi radio wave signals have helped to make the Internet a ubiquitous presence on dry land, regular Wi-Fi doesn’t work underwater.

Lifesaving Potential

This situation may change if research being conducted by the University at Buffalo pays off and becomes more widely adopted. A team of researchers are working to develop a deep-sea Internet that might someday be used for a wide range of practical applications.

Tommaso Melodia, the UB associate professor of electrical engineering in charge of the project says, “A submerged wireless network will give us an unprecedented ability to collect and analyze data from our oceans in real time.”

UBPhoto by Douglas Levere (source)

As an example, Melodia explains that information gathered from beneath the sea and transmitted via an Internet connection could warn anyone with a smartphone about an approaching tsunami or other kind of natural disaster, possibly saving lives.

Overcoming the Obstacles

The team had to abandon the use of radio waves to develop a prototype underwater Wi-Fi network and instead turn to sound waves. In a historical perspective, it’s an interesting reversal of events. Using sound waves underwater has a long history; in fact, sonar—the underwater locating system that uses sound waves—was being developed in 1912. It wasn’t until the 1930s that radio waves were used for location in the first radar systems.

Organizations like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Navy already use sound waves to communicate underwater. NOAA, for example, uses sensors on the sea floor to detect tsunamis. These sensors use sound waves to send information to buoys floating on the surface of the ocean. The buoys then transmit the data to satellites that send the information to computers on land.

This system, and others like it, all have their proprietary means of communication. If communication could be standardized to the Internet protocol that the World Wide Web uses, it would be far easier for users around the world to “plug into” this information and make good use of it.

UB 2Photo by Douglas Levere (source)

Lake Erie Testing

To prove the new system’s viability, Melodia and his team tested it in Lake Erie, not far from the Buffalo campus. They dropped two 40-pound sensors into the lake. Using a laptop, they sent commands down to the sensors, and within seconds, they received the response they were hoping for. You can check out photos of the operation in the UB photo database.

Not only could the system help improve tsunami warnings around the world, but also, it could be used to study pollution, detect sophisticated smuggling operations that are now using submarines, monitor aquatic life, protect shipping and assist in underwater mining exploration. The potential applications are limitless.

While the system seems to hold a lot of promise, whether or not the world is ready for monster squid selfies may be questionable.

Mira Yarden, who works with http://Fax87.com, enjoys working abroad wherever there is wifi. From high mountaintops to sandy beaches, Mira has a laptop and is hard at work. Perhaps she’ll soon be chartering the ocean with her laptop in tow…with an internet connection! Follow Mira on Twitter.

Sources

Technology, Gadgets and Cool Features of the Best Luxury Cars

There’s something very disappointing about concept cars.

Sure, they look great. They promise advances in car driving technology that baffle the mind and dazzle the eye. Sure, they would be dreams to drive.

Unfortunately, in the end, that’s all the features and technology of a concept car is—a dream.

What about real innovations in technology and gadgets? What about the real luxury cars that drive like something out of a science fiction movie while offering all the comforts and conveniences of a command bridge from Star Trek?

Those are very real. Let’s take a look at some of the best luxury cars features that are more than just high-minded concepts. They’re actually available.

Night Vision and Infrared
Not long ago, the idea of a self-parking car or a camera to display your blind spot seemed impossible. In 2013, they’re very real concepts. In addition, luxury cars are leading the way on a new technology that may be more widely available soon: night vision.

Night vision displays in the dashboard of the car allow you to see the heat signatures of animals and people far beyond the reach of your headlights at night. You can drive more safely and feel a bit more like the creature from Predator at the same time. This feature, initially introduced by Cadillac, is becoming more common in offerings by manufacturers such as BMW, Lexus and Mercedes-Benz.

Manettino
Translated to mean jackknife, this feature introduced by Ferrari is something that appeals to those who really, really like driving sports cars. In short, this toggle allows you to adjust the steering settings for your car based on the type of driving you want to do. We don’t recommend that you switch to “race” mode unless you’re an experienced driver and are in a safe and legal driving area. Of course, if you’re the kind of person who’s driving a Ferrari for racing purposes, you don’t need us to tell you that.

Car MD
If you don’t know a lot about cars, you’re not very likely to diagnose your vehicle’s latest problem. Most likely, you have to take it to a mechanic, get an estimate, and even then, you’re not sure that you’re getting the service you deserve. Luckily, cars are getting better at self-diagnosis with Car MD, which is becoming more and more common in luxury cars.

Technology Leading the Way
Sure, concept cars are the most interesting, but they’re also the most disappointing because they rarely ever see the light of day.

If you want to look for the real future concepts in technology, look no further than the luxury cars of today. They are the ones spearheading the innovation, experimentation and implementation that will eventually leak into the broader automobile market and result in a better driving experience for us all.

There was a day when Bluetooth, push-button ignitions and voice-activation technology were features found only in luxury cars with the latest technology. Now, they’re in new cars across the market spectrum. It’s easy to predict the future of cars. All you have to do is discover the present.

This blog post is written by Chris Turberville-Tully from HROwen.co.uk, a luxury car dealership in England specializing in Rolls-Royce, Ferrari, Audi, Maserati and Lamborghini cars. When not working with HR Owen, Chris enjoys a holiday at the beach, traveling abroad or spending time with his family. Follow Chris’ travels and interests on Google Plus.

Image courtesy of Axion23, Flickr creative commons license

What Will the Classroom of the Future Look Like?

The traditional image of a classroom is one teacher with about 20 students lined up in neat little rows of desks. A chalkboard is prominent in the front of the room, while students attentively scan their over-sized textbooks for information. Recent technological innovations are rapidly changing the landscape of the classroom, already replacing many chalkboards with interactive whiteboards and giving more students access to computers. With all of these changes occurring rapidly, what does the future of the classroom look like?

Net Zero Campuses
Alternative energy is hot, and schools are looking to reap its cost-saving benefits. Susan Smith, vice-president of the architectural design firm Corgan Associates, reports that more schools are turning to alternative energy, like solar and wind, to power their schools. Individual classrooms will become more efficient and greener, having fewer outlets and using more charging stations. The classrooms will be equipped with sensors that modulate light, based on how much natural light is coming through the windows. Geothermal heaters will warm water in bathrooms and the cafeteria.

Flexible Spaces
The Journal envisions spaces that could quickly be adapted to meet the needs of individuals, small groups and even several classes of students. Classrooms will have move-able walls to accommodate several instructors and as many as 60 students. Traditional desks will be replaced with learning pods so that students can embrace a more project-based curriculum.

The Whiteboard
Interactive white boards (like Smart Board) have already found their place into many classrooms, and they will be even more prevalent in the future. Rather than single, stationary boards positioned at the front of the classroom, the longest wall or multiple walls will be interactive for teacher and student use.

Goodbye, Textbooks
The reality is that most textbooks are cumbersome, pricey and become outdated quickly. Some schools are already using iPads and netbooks, and these devices will become more popular in the future. Students will use tablets to access their textbooks, complete their homework and submit their assignments. Paper will be obsolete, as students will take their quizzes and tests on their mobile devices. This will also make it more difficult for students to “misplace” their homework.

Virtual Learning
More students will take online classes, if not receive the bulk of their education at home via their computer. Virtual learning (or Hybrid Learning) will also have a more prominent place in traditional school environments, offering students electives that they would not normally be able to access, like instruction in Chinese. Virtual field trips will transport students to faraway places in real time, like the Congo or Stonehenge. Who knows, maybe they will see it all in 3-D? Virtual learning does not mean that education will be less hands on. Technology will enable students to engage in more simulations — after all, why dissect a real animal?

A Global Education
Technology can connect us to almost any part of the world, bringing us closer together, which presents some remarkable opportunities for the classroom. Students can learn together in Afghanistan and Oregon, breaking down ethnic divides and encouraging students to become more open minded and worldly. There will be no more “us and them,” because the globe will become one giant classroom.

Why Augmented Reality Will be the Next Great Media Format

Over the last 500 years, a series of mass media formats have revolutionized human communication, from the Gutenberg printing press to the Internet. Now the stage is set for the emergence of the next great mass media format, which mobile media expert Tomi Ahonen predicts will be a technology called augmented reality.

Though anticipated by concepts like the Star Trek Holodeck, augmented reality is not science fiction. It is already being used through mobile devices like smartphones, while devices like Google’s Project Glass are being developed specifically for augmented reality applications.

The First 7 Great Media Formats

Tomi Ahonen, a leading writer on mobile media, says the seven greatest mass media formats in history have been print, audio recordings, cinema, radio, television, the Internet and mobile media. Each of these has spread quickly around the world, causing fundamental shifts in the way we communicate with each other and structure our societies. The first books and newspapers made information publicly available to people who had previously relied on word of mouth, and just last year, mobile media played a key role in the Arab Spring. Augmented reality’s potential remain to be seen, but this extraordinary technology is already spreading throughout the world.

What Is Augmented Reality?


Google Glass image, courtesy of Google.

Augmented reality is a mode of communication defined by augmenting ordinary human perception by delivering additional information and/or sensory stimulation in real time. For instance, while wearing Google’s prototype augmented reality glasses, a user can walk around a foreign city and see a translation of any foreign sign they look at into their native language. Augmented reality could also provide information about any landmark a person looks at, like having a guidebook built into your head, or dictate walking directions into a person’s ear based on their position in a city and what they’re looking at.

300,000 Hong Kong Butterflies

One fascinating application of augmented reality can be found in Hong Kong. Virtual butterflies are currently flying around Hong Kong, offering coupons to any augmented reality user who can capture one. Hunting for these butterflies with camera phones provides adventure for locals and tourists, while the coupons connect merchants to consumers. The butterfly app alone has already reached 300,000 users, and Ahonen says there are already more than 5 million augmented reality consumers. Ahonen projects that by the year 2020, 1 billion people will be using augmented reality. As computing power and the complexity of augmented reality increases, a growing number of users will discover together what this mass media format means for our society.

How Will Augmented Reality Affect Our Lives?

If Ahonen’s projections about the rapidly rising number of augmented reality users prove correct, the technology will cause a real shift in human behavior. The ease of accessing a constant rich stream of data related to one’s immediate environment will change our relationship to technology and to each other. A basic principle of augmented reality’s design is that it complements a person’s perception of his or her environment, rather than replacing it or interfering with it. But just what kind of social change this augmentation brings about remains to be seen.

Google Wallet: Fixing What's Sort of Broken

Google Wallet is supposed to be the Earth-shattering thing that completely changes forever how we deal with money. And to be fair, it might, but as Matt Buchanan reports, it’s not. Not because the product doesn’t work well, but because the thing that sucks about money isn’t the swiping of your credit card:

But then I still had to tell the dumb credit console whether I was paying debit or credit. And then I had to wait for my receipt to print out, all ten miles of it. Which made my attempt at being a mysterious stranger with mysterious magical technology quickly disappearing into the night fail miserably since it wouldve been mad awkward to stare directly into each others eyes for 45 seconds without saying a word.

Google Wallet is clearly a close-up glimpse at what the seamless, slippery future of money looks like—MasterCard is an appropriate enough vector for a technological Mark of the Beast, I suppose—but its still very much in 2011. Friction abounds.

The Kitchen Table of the Future

Not so many years from now, the New York Times is betting, your morning ritual might look similar to the way it does now: sit at the table, drink a cup of coffee and read the newspaper. The “read” the newspaper part, though, might work a little differently, as the Nieman Lab found out:

And news itself, in the same way, collapses into the broader universe of information. We’re used to thinking of “the news” as its own category, as something to be consumed primarily during commutes or during post-work relaxation in the evening. But news is becoming more pervasive (there’s evidencethat many people, at the moment, consume the bulk of their news during the day, integrated into their work), and the R&D platforms reflect its ubiquity. The prototypes on display at the R&D Lab consider how news can be used, in particular, in the home, woven into the intimate contexts of the morning coffee, the family dinner, the daily getting-ready routine. They explore what it means to brush your teeth with the Times.

After watching the video, I can’t wait for this to be part of my mornings. And it doesn’t seem that far off, really.

Sometimes You Need the Print Version

Jack Shafer writes about why he cancelled his New York Times subscription, and then forked over too much money to get it back. Mostly, he said, it’s because it’s not the news without the paper paper:

The researchers found that the print folks “remember significantly more news stories than online news readers”; that print readers “remembered significantly more topics than online newsreaders”; and that print readers remembered “more main points of news stories.” When it came to recalling headlines, print and online readers finished in a draw.

Although the number of readers tested in the study is small—just 45—the paper confirms my print-superiority bias, at least when it comes to reading the Times. The paper explores several theories for why print rules. Online newspapers tend to give few cues about a storys importance, and the “agenda-setting function” of newspapers gets lost in the process. “Online readers are apt to acquire less information about national, international and political events than print newsreaders because of the lack of salience cues; they generally are not being told what to read via story placement and prominence—an enduring feature of the print product,” the researchers write. The paper finds no evidence that the “dynamic online story forms” you know, multimedia stuff have made stories more memorable.

The key thing here, I think, is the importance of context clues. Big headlines mean “please read this, this is important!” There’s not a good way to do that online, especially not at any kind of scale; every story is the same online, and that’s just not right. We need the Times to tell us what’s important, and how important it is.

911 Gets a Digital Upgrade

The 911 emergency service, which has gone from an essential outlet to kind of useless, is making a huge move into the 21st century. Erica Swallow describes:

The plan will enable the transmission of text messages, voice calls, videos and photos, as well as automatic location information. The FCC hopes that such a plan will enable emergency responders to respond faster while also giving individuals more options for contacting 911, depending on the emergency situation.