Welcome to the June 1, 2015 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Lidar-on-a-Chip: Scan Quickly, Scan Cheap
IEEE Spectrum (05/27/15) Philip E. Ross
The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has demonstrated a LIDAR-on-a-chip system. The new system, called Short-range Wide-field-of-view Extremely agile Electronically steered Photonic EmitteR (Sweeper), steers its electronic beam using arrays of many small emitters that each put out a signal at a slightly different phase, similar to the way conventional radar systems use radio frequencies. Sweeper forms a synthetic beam that it can sweep from one extreme to another and back again 100,000 times a second. Although the experimental system covers only a 51-degree field, that represents the best any one-chip system has ever accomplished. The researchers suggest placing a few of these new sensors around a car will allow the central controller to piece together a perfect panorama of the surroundings. The main challenge the researchers faced was how to develop beam-forming at optical frequencies instead of radio frequencies. They solved this problem using photolithographic strategies developed at the University of California, Berkeley, the University of California, Santa Barbara, HRL Laboratories, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
An Algorithm That Can Help Robots Walk Off Injuries
Technology Review (05/27/15) Caleb Garling
University of Wyoming and Pierre and Marie Curie University researchers are developing robots that can become more self-sufficient by finding ways to adapt to their environment and keep moving after an injury. For example, a robot sent on a search and rescue mission after an earthquake would be able to handle unexpected damage to its body. The robot learns with an evolutionary algorithm, which means that it will run repeated trial and error steps to find a new way to get around. As part of the study, the robots did not understand what was wrong with them, and the researchers did not try to anticipate anything about the damage they would sustain. Although many robotic systems have sensors that could identify problems, they cannot correct the problems, so the researchers hypothesize that a robot is better served finding a new way to move around through experimentation rather than sensor data. "Almost all animals are built to adapt to a small injury," says former Pierre and Marie Curie University researcher Jean-Baptiste Mouret. The researchers detail a six-legged robot that, after sustaining an injury to one limb, starts trying new ways of moving, and in about 40 seconds regains 96 percent of its speed.
A Chip Placed Under the Skin for More Precise Medicine
Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (05/27/15)
Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) researchers have developed a new biosensor chip that can simultaneously monitor the concentration of a number of molecules and certain drugs. The new chip is placed under the skin and is powered by a patch worn on the skin's surface, and it communicates with the user's smartphone to measure pH, temperature, metabolism-related molecules, and drugs. The chip has a group of electrochemical sensors that work with or without enzymes, which means it can react to a wide range of compounds for up to weeks at a time. The device contains a circuit with six sensors, a control unit that analyzes incoming signals, and a radio transmission module. In addition, it has an induction coil that draws power from an external battery attached to the skin by a patch. The researchers tested the chip on mice and were able to constantly monitor glucose and paracetamol levels without a wire tracker inhibiting the animals' daily activities. "Knowing the precise and real-time effect of drugs on the metabolism is one of the keys to the type of personalized, precision medicine that we are striving for," says EPFL researcher Sandro Carrara.
Solid-State Photonics Goes Extreme Ultraviolet
Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics (05/28/2015)
Researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics (MPQ) have demonstrated the emission of extreme ultraviolet radiation (UV) from thin dielectric films using ultrashort laser pulses. Scientists have been able to generate extreme UV and even x-ray radiation by shining powerful lasers through gases, but doing so with solids has proven much more difficult because solids tend to be damaged by exposure to such powerful lasers. The MPQ researchers succeeded by using ultrafast laser pulses that are so quick they comprise only a single oscillation of a light wave; these pulses are fast enough that they do not damage the solids. This method also enabled the researchers to gain insight into the properties of the solid at which they pulsed their laser. "As the electrons move, they 'feel' the surrounding structure of the solid, and this information is embodied in the emitted radiation," says MPQ researcher Manish Garg. Lead investigator Eleftherios Goulielmakis notes, "We exploited the emitted EUV radiation to unveil information about the structure--more specifically the conduction band dispersion--of the solid, which was earlier inaccessible to solid state-spectroscopies." In addition to solid-state spectroscopic applications, the new technique could open up new possibilities for light-based electronics that operate at high frequencies.
Engineering Phase Changes in Nanoparticle Arrays
Brookhaven National Laboratory (05/25/15)
Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory are developing dynamic nanomaterials whose structure and associated properties can be switched on demand. They describe a way to selectively rearrange the nanoparticles in three-dimensional arrays to produce different configurations, or phases, from the same nano-components. The goal is to make "materials that can transform so we can take advantage of properties that emerge with the particles' rearrangements," explains researcher Oleg Gang. The ability to direct particle rearrangements, or phase changes, will enable the scientists to choose the desired properties, such as the material's response to light or a magnetic field, and switch them as needed. Such phase-changing materials could lead to new applications, including dynamic energy-harvesting or responsive optical materials. Researchers started with an assembly of nanoparticles already linked in a regular array by the complementary binding of the A, T, G, and C bases on single-stranded DNA tethers, and then added reprogramming DNA strands to alter the interparticle interactions. The reprogramming DNA strands adhere to open binding sites to exert additional forces on the linked-up nanoparticles. The team used computational modeling to calculate how different kinds of reprogramming strands would alter the interparticle interactions, and found their calculations agreed with their experimental observations.
DALI: Robot Walker for Elderly People in Public Spaces
CORDIS News (05/21/15)
To help elderly people navigate busy public places, an European Union research project developed a robotic cognitive walker (c-Walker). Although the c-Walker is equipped with various hi-tech solutions, the user is not necessarily aware of them, says Trento University professor Luigi Palopoli. When going to a shopping mall, for example, an elderly person could pick up the c-Walker at the entrance and select the user profile most suited to them via its simple touchscreen. The user would then select which shops to visit, and the c-Walker would guide them on the best course by using visual, acoustic, and haptic interfaces. The c-Walker uses radio-frequency identification tags, invisible quick response codes, and cameras to localize itself in the environment, and also can connect with remote sensors, such as surveillance cameras, and with other c-Walkers to identify crowds or other hazards. The device is equipped with brakes and motorized wheels, and haptic armbands tell users when and how to turn. The ACANTO consortium, which is further developing the walkers, believes it could help c-Walkers come into common use by 2020 by spinning off a company to market the device or attracting investment from a major technological manufacturer.
Machine Learning Breakthrough Could Revolutionize Medicine
University of Alberta (05/27/15) Scott Lingley
Researchers at the University of Alberta have used machine learning to develop a new computer application for the science of metabolomics. The new application, Bayesil, allows for the rapid automation of NMR spectrometry, a technology that operates on the same principles as magnetic resonance imagery and is used to determine the concentrations of certain compounds in bodily fluids. NMR spectrometry currently requires a skilled user to manually correct and interpret the resulting spectrum, which shows how much of each compound, or metabolite, is present in a sample. The manual process is time-consuming and can produce inconsistent results. Bayesil's high-throughput method will enable quick and highly accurate NMR spectral profiling, as well as accelerate the creation of a library of metabolic profiles for different biofluids that can be used for diagnostic purposes. Possible applications include tests for cancer, Alzheimer's disease, and diabetes. Bayesil is currently available online and people can use it to analyze the results from an NMR spectrometer for free. At the moment it only works for spectra from blood serum and cerebrospinal fluid, but proponents expect to develop versions that will be able to analyze spectra from saliva and urine as well.
Disney Researchers Develop 2-Legged Robot that Walks Like an Animated Character
Disney Research (05/26/15) Jennifer Liu
Disney researchers have developed a method to make a robot mimic an animated character's walk. The researchers started with an animation of a small, peanut-shaped character that walks with a rolling, bow-legged gait. The researchers analyzed the character's motion and developed a robotic frame that could duplicate the walking motion using three-dimensional-printed links and servo motors, then developed software that help the robot maintain its balance while mirroring the character's gait as closely as possible. The researchers first developed the lower half of the robot because they knew that if they could find a way to make the lower half walk, they could use the same procedure for the upper body. During the analysis of the animated character, the researchers found the character's ankle and foot had three joints, each of which had three degrees of freedom. However, integrating nine actuators in a foot is impractical, so the researchers identified the trajectories of the character's pelvis, hips, knees, ankle, and toes that the robot would have to duplicate. They then altered the character's motion to keep it from falling. Finally, the researchers optimized the trajectories to minimize any deviation from the target motions, while making sure the robot was stable.
New Tech Keeps Your Smart Phone Charged for 30 Percent Longer
Ohio State University (05/26/15) Pam Frost Gorder
Ohio State University (OSU) researchers have developed new circuitry that converts some of the radio signals emitted by a phone into DC power, which then charges the phone's battery. The new technology can be built directly into a cell-phone case, without adding more than a trivial amount of bulk and weight. "When we communicate with a cell tower or Wi-Fi router, so much energy goes to waste," and this new system recycles some of that energy back into the battery, according to OSU professor Chi-Chih Chen. The new technology is based on harvesting energy directly from the source, and relies on the fact that radio waves are actually just a very high-frequency form of alternating current, notes fellow OSU professor Robert Lee. "They can capture microwatts or even nanowatts [millionths or billionths of a watt], but cell-phones need milliwatts [thousandths of a watt] or higher," he notes. The key to the new technology is that it siphons off just enough of the radio signal to noticeably slow battery drain, but not enough to degrade voice quality or data transmission. In addition, the new system identifies which radio signals are being wasted and efficiently collects the maximum amount of them that will not compromise phone function.
Designing Microwave Devices From Scratch Using Computer Simulations
Umea University (Sweden) (05/21/15)
Microwave devices have traditionally relied on professional designers, with computer simulations usually used only in final design stages to fine-tune details in the design. The Ph.D. thesis of Umea University student Emadeldeen Hassan asks whether computer algorithms can automatically recreate designs similar to the ones that humans have come up with before. Hassan's thesis explores the use of a diverse set of tools, including accurate numerical algorithms for simulation and optimization implemented on powerful computing systems, and integrating these to enable the efficient, from-scratch design of microwave devices. The method was used to design an antenna sufficiently sensitive to detect nearby objects. Hassan says a new family of hyper-sensitive antennas emerged from the algorithm. Another application of the method was to design a key component of radar systems--a matching transition between components in the microwave circuit. As a result, a well-designed matching transition improved the energy efficiency of the system and reduced the risk of overheating. Novel matching transitions were found by the methodology, and measurements on a manufactured prototype confirmed the high performance of the transitions.
From Babies to Robots--New Book Reveals the Link Between Robot and Child Development
Plymouth University (05/19/15)
Plymouth University professor Angelo Cangelosi is the co-author of a new book on the field of developmental robotics. He says the field is directly inspired by the principles and mechanisms observed in children's cognitive development. Robots can now learn and acquire motor and cognitive skills in the same way that human babies do, according to the book. Co-written with Southern Illinois University professor Matthew Schlesinger, the book addresses topics including manipulation and locomotion, face recognition and perception of space, and language and abstract knowledge. The book, is based on robotics research Cangelosi has been involved with at Plymouth's Center for Robotics and Neural Systems, including the Integration and Transfer of Action and Language Knowledge in Robots (ITALK) project, which used a robot called iCub. The robot has developed the linguistic capabilities of a two- to three-year old, and can understand the meaning of numbers and use finger-counting strategies to add numbers together.
A New Kind of Wood Chip: Collaboration Could Lead to Biodegradable Computer Chips
University of Wisconsin-Madison (05/26/15) John Steeno
University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison) and U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) researchers have developed a semiconductor chip made almost entirely of wood. The researchers demonstrated the feasibility of replacing the substrate of a computer chip with cellulose nanofibril (CNF), a flexible, biodegradable material made from wood. "Compared to other polymers, CNF actually has a relatively low thermal expansion coefficient," notes UW-Madison professor Shaoqin Gong. The researchers had to overcome two key barriers to using wood-based materials in electronics--surface smoothness and thermal expansion. The researchers used an epoxy coating on the surface of the CNF to solve both the surface smoothness and the moisture barrier, according to FPL researcher Zhiyong Cai. The new process greatly reduces the use of expensive and potentially toxic materials such as gallium arsenide. "We take our design and put it on CNF using deterministic assembly technique, then we can put it wherever we want and make a completely functional circuit with performance comparable to existing chips," says UW-Madison researcher Yei Hwan Jung.
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