Developing World Tech: BRCK Mobile Internet Device

BRCK1Far from Silicon Valley in California, there is a place that some are now calling “Silicon Savannah.” Located around Nairobi, and centered on the nonprofit collective Ushahidi, an explosion in African tech is taking shape. And this month, backers of the collective’s 2013 Kickstarter campaign are finally getting their hands on BRCK – a long-awaited device that is the antithesis of shiny, expensive internet hardware.

A mobile Internet router, BRCK is essentially a self-powered, mobile Wi-Fi device that promises to bring internet access to remote communities and underdeveloped neighborhoods all around the world. And as an added bonus, it reverses the usual order of globalization – having been invented in a developing country, built in the US, and intended for customers in any country anywhere.

BRCKIt can connect to the web in one of three ways: by plugging in a standard ethernet cable, by bridging with other Wi-Fi networks, or by accessing 3G or 4G data via a basic SIM card. Originally, Ushahidi invented it in order to overcome infrastructure challenges – specifically, inconsistent electricity and Internet connectivity – plaguing young upstarts in Nairobi. But it turns out, plenty of other people and places face the same challenges all over the world.

Contrary to public opinion, it is not just developing or underdeveloped countries that experience infrastructure challenges. Recently in the UK, Virgin Media customers across London lost service; while in the US, in what appeared to be an unrelated event, millions of Time Warner customers across the U.S. – largely in Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, and Tampa – were knocked offline.

Developed-and-developing-countriesBut even just focusing on the developing world, BRCK’s potential market is enormous. While only a quarter of people from the developing world are currently connected, they already account for a staggering two-thirds of all people online today. While the technology is not exactly cutting-edge by most standards, it offers numerous advantages that take the needs of its potential market into account.

Beyond its three connection methods, BRCK can keep up to 20 users up and running for as long as eight hours during an electrical outage. And should the internet be unavailable in a given locale, the device continues operating offline, syncing up when its connection is restored. In addition, the stock hard drive is 4 gigabytes big, and it has a storage capacity of up to 32 gigabytes. CEO Erik Hersman, who cut his teeth in the industry as a blogger, sees the company’s base in Nairobi as one of its greatest assets, particularly given its target market. Having been born in Sudan and having settled in Kenya with his young family,  ( is well-suited to addressing local needs with local solutions:

I describe it as a new remix of old technology. That’s the key to understanding Africa’s technology… If it works in Africa, it’ll work anywhere… We’re playing with dirty power and crappy Internet, so the device has to be resilient.

While designed in Kenya, BRCK is manufactured and assembled in Texas by a company called Silicon Hills, which is located outside of Austin. With its matte black, rubberized case, BRCK is elegant, but mostly unassuming, and has the relative dimensions of an actual brick. It’s too large to fit in a pocket, but small enough to carry in a backpack, place on a desk, or even on the hood of your Land Rover in the African countryside.

BRCK2By weight, BRCK is substantially heavier than a plastic router, but it’s also much more than one. In addition to its battery, BRCK has multiple ports, including a general-purpose input/output, enabling users to program and connect other hardware – such as sensors or a solar charger – to the device. But what is perhaps most compelling about BRCK, are its potential applications.

In truth, the greatest possibilities lies in the ability to break away from the model of centralized internet providers. This could lead to nothing short of a revolution in how people get online, and in way that would ensure a far greater measure of “equality of access”. As Hersman explained it:

We see enormous resonance with the work of other organizations. Take the proliferation of web-enabled laptops and tablets in schools; why is it that each of these devices connect to a mobile tower? Why not to a single, centralized point? …We’re at a place in history where the barriers to entry are no longer in the software space, but in the hardware space. Because we don’t yet have fully functioning maker spaces and rapid prototyping abilities here in Nairobi, the design process is still relatively slow and expensive, but the barriers are coming down.

Achuar community monitors learning to use GPSEducation, health, environmental, and even military and governmental organizations are already in conversation with BRCK and multiple entities are testing it out. For consumers in emerging markets, BRCK’s $200 price tag may be a stretch, but the company is looking at purchasing plans, which have worked well in developing nations for both the cell phone and energy sectors.

But BRCK’s business model is ultimately based more on companies than individual consumers. Digital Democracy, a nonprofit organization that has worked in two dozen countries around the world, is one such company. According to its founder and executive director, Emily Jacobi:

The reason that we backed BRCK and that I’m excited to see it come about is because it fills an important gap in hardware and tools. We’re going to remote areas and training groups – indigenous groups, refugees, and other at-risk populations – to map the land and communities using GPS devices and cameras. We’re particularly excited about BRCK’s ability to facilitate collaborative work, as well as function offline.

internetIf there was one thing that the Digital Revolution promised, it was to bring the world together. Naturally, there were those who thought this to be naive and idealistic, citing the fact that technology has a way of being unevenly distributed. And while today, people live in a world that is far more connected than in any previous age, access remains an illustrative example of the gap between rich and poor nations.

Hence why an invention like the BRCK holds so much promise. Not only does it neatly reverse the all-too-common direction of technological development – i.e. technology conceived by a wealthy country, built in a poor one, only sold in wealthy ones – it also helps to shorten the gap between rich and poor nations when it comes to accessing and enjoying the fruits of that development.

This month, orders began shipping to buyers in 45 countries around the world this month. To get your hands on one, check out Ushahidi’s website and learn more about their efforts to develop open-source, equal-access technology.


Tech for the Developing World: Inflatable Incubators

inflatable_incubator_0One of the greatest challenges to combating problems in the developing world – like disease and infant mortality – is the fact that the necessary infrastructure and equipment isn’t always available. This is especially the case in war-torn Syria, where premature babies are dying due to a lack of incubating equipment. Hence why James Roberts came up with his Inflatable Incubator, a cheap and easy-to-transport neonatal device.

Designed to look like an accordion-like instrument known as a concertina, each end of the inflatable shell case contains electronics, including a ceramic heater, some fans, a humidifier, and an Arduino computer. The collapsible middle section extends out and can be inflated into a bed. As Roberts explained:

This allows the incubator to fit into a very compact space for storage or transportation, but still offer the same volume of a first world incubator when inflated for the child’s comfort.

inflatable_incubatorThe idea came to him after Roberts saw a video about child death in Syrian refugee camps and he decided to develop the idea as part of a final year project at a British university. So far, there are two prototypes: a purely functional clear plastic box that demonstrates the technology, and an “aesthetic” version that shows off what the product will eventually look like. Roberts is now trying to interest charities in adopting the project.

There are already cheap baby-warming products aimed at the developing world, such as the Embrace – a clever sleeping bag that can maintain a 37° C (98° F)temperature for up to four hours. Roberts’s idea has a few extra features, like a humidity sensor, a temperature probe, and LED lights for nighttime use. The design was also entered in this year’s Dyson Awards, an international student design award program that rewards problem-solving ideas.

inflatable_incubator_1To Roberts, his invention is not just about offering a solution to a problem that all-too-common in certain regions of the world. It’s also about addressing a technology gap that has existed for far too long. As he explained it:

Neonatal intensive care units have been around since 1922. So why, almost 100 years later is this still a huge problem in some parts of the world? I believe my design helps solve this problem and could allow for certain children to gain a positive start in life, greatly decreasing the numbers of premature child deaths throughout refugee camps.

As always, its a question of access. And making technologies more accessible in the developing world is one of the greatest challenges facing modern researchers and developers.


The Future of Housing: Casa Futebol Concept

casa_futebol_brazilIt’s no secret that Brazil’s decision to host the 2014 World Cup was the source of controversy. With roughly $4 billion spent on renovating and constructing the stadiums needed to host the international event, many wondered why that money could not have been spent addressing other infrastructure concerns – such as providing housing and utilities for its many impoverished citizens.

However, drawing inspiration from the social issues plaguing much of the publicity around the event, a pair of French architects have developed a proposal to re-invent the structures as complexes for low-cost housing. While most of the stadiums constructed for the World Cup will continue to host football matches, Brazil’s local teams stand to draw a fraction of the crowds that attended the event, doing little to assuage concerns of wasted resources.

casa_futebol_brazil-1Other buildings, such as the Arena da Amazonia, face a less certain future. Located in the jungle city of Manaus, the 44,500 seat stadium is perhaps the most contentious of Brazil’s World Cup creations. A local judge proposed converting it into a center for temporary detainees to tackle the city’s overflowing prisons, though this was met with fervent opposition from government officials.

The proposal by Axel de Stampa and Sylvain Macaux is perhaps the most ambitious. Dubbed Casa Futebol, it involves transforming each of the 12 World Cup Stadiums into affordable housing for Brazil’s poor and displaced. As Stampa explained in an interview with Gizmag:

The project covers 12 Brazilian stadiums. There are actually six stadiums where we can colonize the exterior facade. Five of these have an exterior structure composed of concrete and metal columns separated by seven or eight meters (23 to 26 ft). We just have to insert pre-fabricated housing using the existing structures.

casa_futebol_brazil-2The remaining stadiums would see housing modules that are 105 m2 (1,130 ft2) fitted to the interior at the expense of rows of seating, the only difference between these and those receiving exterior additions being the installation process. Conscious of Brazil’s adoration for the world game, the proposal would see the stadiums altered slightly, but continue to host matches with profits going towards ongoing maintenance and construction of the housing.

The project is based on modular pre-fabricated houses. So the only thing that changes is the implantation of the houses… We think that the concept is achievable in all 12 stadiums. You just have to take up some seating and reduce their capacity a little bit.

The team guesses that if converted, the stadiums could each house between 1,500 and 2,000 people per building, and a total of approximately 20,000 across the entire project. This bold proposal for Brazil’s stadiums forms part of a year-long architecture project called 1 week 1 project, where the pair endeavor to produce spontaneous architecture projects every week for one year.

casa_futebol_brazil-4While they don’t have current plans to take the Casa Futebol beyond the concept stage, it is hoped that the project can inspire more socially-conscious approaches to problems of this kind. Combined with 3-D printed housing and other prefab housing projects, this kind of re-purposing of existing infrastructure is a way of addressing the problem of slums, something which goes far beyond the developing world.



The Future of Disaster Relief: The Ecos PowerCube

EcosPowerCube-640x353One of the greatest challenges to humanitarian aid and disaster relief is the task of getting services to where they needed the most. Whether it’s hurricanes, earthquakes, mudslides, or wildfires; getting electricity, water, and other utilities up and running again is a tough task. And with every moment that these services are not available, people are likely to die and humanitarian crises ensue.

However, Ecosphere Technologies – a diversified water engineering and environmental services company – believes it’s designed a solution in the form of their new PowerCube. This self-contained, mobile apparatus is designed to deliver solar power to off-grid areas along with water purification facilities and WiFi base stations — all in a single package that is the size of a shipping container. Ecos PowerCube will be available in three sizes that are designed to fit into 10-foot, 20-foot, and 40-foot shipping containers. The largest models will be capable of generating up to 15kW of power, which will be parceled between providing electrical hook-ups, water treatment and internet access. And they will also serve as temporary shelters, providing temporary sleeping quarters or medical stations.

What is especially innovative about the design is the use of fold-out solar panels, which allow for significant power generation without compromising on the handy space-saving form. Deployed, the Cube is able to maximize its solar-absorbing surface area; but packed up, its small enough to fit into a shipping container and be deployed around the world. However, the design also comes with its share of drawbacks.

powercube-howFirst, there’s the apparent lack of batteries, which means the Cubes will only be able to provide power while the sun is shining. This is crucial since time is often of the essence in disaster areas, with windows for treating wounds and rescuing the buried and trapped lasting typically less than three days. Second, the 15kW generator is rather meager compared to what a diesel generator can produce – between 600kW and 1.7MW.

This means, in essence, that some twenty or so PowerCubes would have to be shipping to a disaster area to equal the electrical capacity of a single large diesel generator. And the intermittency problem is certainly an issue for the time being, unless they are prepared to equip them with high-capacity batteries that can quickly absorb and hold a charge (some graphene or integrated Li-ion batteries should do it). the meantime, it is still a crafty idea, and one which has serious potential. Not only do disaster areas need on-site water distribution – shipping it in can be difficult and time consuming – but internet access is also very useful to rescue crews that need up-to-date information, updates, and the ability to coordinate their rescue efforts. And military installations could certainly use the inventions, as they would cut down on fuel consumption.

Still, refinements will need to be made before this is a one-fit solution problem of what to do about disaster relief and fostering development in densely populated areas of the world where things like water-treatment, electricity, and internet access is not readily available.


The Future of WiFi: Solar-Powered Internet Drones

titan-aerospace-solara-50-640x353Facebook, that massive social utility company that is complicit in just about everything internet-related, recently announced that it is seeking to acquire Titan Aerospace. This company is famous for the development of UAVs, the most recent of which is their solar powered Solara 50. In what they describe as “bringing internet access to the underconnected,” their aim is to use an army of Solara’s to bring wireless internet access to the roughly 5 billion people who live without it worldwide.

Titan Aerospace has two products – the Solara 50 and Solara 60 – which the company refers to as “atmospheric satellites.” Both aircraft are powered by a large number of solar cells, have a service ceiling of up to 20,000 meters (65,000 feet) and then circle over a specific region for up to five years. This of length of service is based on the estimated lifespan of the on-board lithium-ion batteries that are required for night-time operation.

solara-50-titan-640x320The high altitude is important, as the FAA only regulates airspace up to 18,000 meters (60,000 feet). Above that, pretty much anything goes, which is intrinsic if you’re a company that is looking to do something incredibly audacious and soaked in self-interest. As an internet company and social utility, Facebook’s entire business model is based on continued expansion. Aiming to blanket the world in wireless access would certainly ensure that much, so philanthropy isn’t exactly the real aim here!

Nevertheless, once these atmospheric satellites are deployed, there is a wide range of possible applications to be had. Facebook is obviously interested in internet connectivity, but mapping, meteorology, global positioning, rapid response to disasters and wildfires, and a whole slew of other scientific and military applications would also be possible. As for what level of connectivity Facebook hopes to provide with these drones, it’s too early to say.

internetHowever, TechCrunch reports that Facebook would launch 11,000 Solara 60 drones. Their coverage would begin with Africa, and then spread out from there. There’s no word on how fast these connections might be, nor how much such a connection would cost per user. Perhaps more importantly, there’s also no word on how Facebook intends to connect these 11,000 satellites to the internet, though it is obvious that Facebook would need to build a series of ground stations.

Many of these might have to be built in very remote and very hard to administer areas, which would also require fiber optic cables running from them to hook them up to the internet. In addition, Titan hasn’t produced a commercial UAV yet and have confined themselves to technology demonstrations. What they refer to as “initial commercial operations” will start sometime in 2015, which is perhaps this is why Facebook is only paying $60 million for Titan, rather than the $19 billion it paid for WhatsApp.

Google_Loon_-_Launch_EventAs already noted, this move is hardly purely altruistic. In many ways, Facebook is a victim of its own success, as its rapid, early growth quickly became impossible to maintain. Acquiring Instagram and WhatsApp were a savvy moves to bring in a few hundred million more users, but ultimately they were nothing more than stopgap measures. Bringing the next billion users online and into Facebook’s monopolistic grasp will be a very hard task, but one which it must figure out if it wants its stock not to plummet.

To be fair, this idea is very similar to Google’s Project Loon, a plan that involves a series of high-altitude, solar-powered hot air balloons that would provide wireless to roughly two-thirds of the worlds population. The idea was unveiled back in June of 2013 and has since begun testing in New Zealand. And given their hold on the market in the developed world, bringing broadband access to the developing world is seen like the next logical step for companies like Verizon, Time Warner, Comcast, and every other internet and telecom provider.

Wireless-Internet-1One can only imagine the kind of world our children and grandchildren will be living in, when virtually everyone on the planet (and keeping in mind that there will be between 9 and 11 billion of them by that time) will be able to communicate instantaneously with each other. The sheer amount of opinions exchanged, information shared, and background noise produced is likely to make today’s world seem quiet, slow and civilized by comparison!

Incidentally, I may need to call a  lawyer as it seems that someone has been ripping off my ideas… again! Before reading up on this story, the only time I ever heard the name Titan Aerospace was in a story… MY STORY! Yes, in the Legacies universe, the principal developer of space ships and aerospace fighters carried this very name. They say its a guilty pleasure when stuff you predict comes true when you are writing about it. But really, if you can’t cash in on it, what’s the point?

Consider yourself warned, Titan! J.J. Abrams may have gotten off the hook with that whole Revolution show of his, but you are not nearly as rich and powerful… yet! 😉 And the meantime, be sure to check out these videos of Titan’s Solar 50 and Google’s Project Loon below:

Titan Aerospace Solara 50:

Project Loon:


Ann Makosinki and I Have a Chat!

Ann-Makosinski-Google-Science-Fair-2It’s a rare thing when a humble blogger like yours truly gets the chance to speak to someone who has truly made a difference in the world. And this time around, that person is Ann Makosinki, inventor of the body heat-powered flashlight and winner of last year’s Google Science Fair. In addition to being a young inventor, she also happens to hail from my neck of the woods here in Victoria, British Columbia. So you can imagine the enthusiasm I felt when she agreed to this interview!

As many of you may already know  – since you all faithfully read this blog 😉 – Ann Makosinki is winner of the 2013 Google Science Fair Award for her invention that uses the warmth of a person’s own hand to power an LED flashlight. Using Peltier tiles, which produce electricity when heated on one side and cooled on the other, she developed a flashlight which she believes will be of use in the developing world where electrical outlets and batteries are not always available.

body_heat_flashlightAnn’s inspiration comes from her commitment to science, renewable energy, the environment, and her roots in the Philippines. Ultimately, her goal is to bring light and energy to those who live without it all over the world. After winning the gold medal at the 2013 Canada-Wide Science Fair Gold Medal, her flashlight won at the Google Science Fair’s top prize of a $25,000 scholarship and the choice of a “once-in-a-lifetime experience” from CERN, LEGO or Google.

In addition, she has been a keynote speaker at TEDx in three different cities (Vancouver, Redmond and Edmonton), at Techtoria here in Victoria, earned a spot on Jimmy Fallon Live, and will be representing Canada at the 2014 International Science and Engineering Fair this coming May. The following is a transcript of our interview, which occurred via email in spite of her (very) busy schedule:

1. When did you first discover your love for science? What are some of your earliest memories of doing something science-related?

My love for science started when I was very young. My first toy was actually a box of transistors! I was always also interested in insects, and used to collect them and keep them in jars. I would feed them and spray them each morning before I would head out to school. My parents were very supportive of my interests, even if I was looking through the garbage, hot gluing disposed objects together and creating “inventions” (of course nothing ever worked). My dad also always took me to the local island science fair, and I was very shy to ask the other kids questions, but I always thought it was so cool that they had chosen their own topic in science and now were presenting on it.

2. When did you take part in your first science fair? What was your project?

I started participating in the local science fair, the Vancouver Island Regional Science Fair, when I was in grade 6. My science project was one from that I had done in class, comparing two laundry detergents.

3. How did you come to be interested in renewable energy?

I realized early on that energy is a key issue in today’s world, because of our increased reliance on energy and its effect on global warming. It is a challenging problem, and I wished to explore alternative energy sources and find solutions. I focused on the problem of battery elimination, because that’s something I understand and can think around.

4. You’re invention of the body-heat powered flashlight was a big hit at the 2013 Google Science Fair. What was it like competing with people your age who have such a passion for science?

For me, it wasn’t about competing with the other people, but more of getting know them and seeing how we were all alike in some ways. It inspired me to see how passionate they were about science, and while we could have conversations about technical aspects that I usually wouldn’t get to talk about with my friends, they were all still like normal teenagers.

5. This past December you were named one of Time Magazines Top 30 under 30. What other accolades have you earned since winning at the Google Fair?

Hmm, well I have given three TEDx talks since then and many other speeches locally. I have had numerous interviews/film crew from US and Europe making short documentaries. I also appeared on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon’s during the show’s premiere week, and I have a few more things lined up. However, I think what matters most to me is the fact that my project has brought so much awareness to the problem of people without electricity, and to the potential that thermoelectricity has.

6. Since winning at Google Fair, you’ve presented at TEDx RenfrewCollingwood, the Techtoria conference in Victoria, and got a spot on Jimmy Fallon Live. Is it fair to say your life has changed since debuting your invention? Do you feel like a celebrity?

I definitely do not feel like a celebrity. Sure, I get recognized once in a blue moon, or people want to have their picture with me, but I know that will soon end. I think something that has changed is the fact that I really value the time when I can wind down and relax, because with so much going on I’m always on the go and worrying about my next due date.

7. What is the future hold for renewable energy, in your opinion?

I think we are already seeing a huge increase in the interest in renewable energy and alternative energy sources. As global warming and the greenhouse effect closes in on us, we will be obliged to look around to harvest natural energy, whether it be from heat, sun, water, wind etc. It holds a lot of potential, but our technologies for harvesting the energy efficiently are still developing. If my flashlight can eliminate even a fraction of batteries from the city dumps, I will have achieved my aim.

8. What does the future hold for Ann Makosinki?

I hope to commercialize the flashlight and make it available to children in the world who need light the most. Beyond that, I hope to get into college and make my little contribution towards a cleaner and better world to come.

She hopes to commercialize the flashlight? I for one can’t believe that she hasn’t been approached by every company from GE to Applied Solar. But it is great to know that young minds are coming up with breakthroughs that could be making a very real difference in the world of tomorrow. I, for one, consider to be right up there with the Darfur Stove and Quetsol solar-powered lights.

And be sure to check out the video of Ann’s speech at TEDx RenfewCollingwood which took place in October 2013, entitled “Be the Source”:

And here is her guest spot on Jimmy Fallon Live, as part of GE’s “Fallonventions”, from this past February:

The Future of Medicine: New Blood-Monitoring Devices

medtechNon-invasive medicine is currently one of the fastest growing industries in the world. Thanks to ongoing developments in the fields of nanofabrication, wireless communications, embedded electronics and microsensors, new means are being created all the time that can monitor our health that are both painless and hassle-free.

Consider diabetes, an epidemic that currently affects 8% of the population in the US and is growing worldwide. In October of 2013, some 347 million cases were identified by the World Health Organization, which also claims that diabetes will become the 7th leading cause of death by 2030. To make matters worse, the conditions requires constant blood-monitoring, which is difficult in developing nations and a pain where the means exist.

google_lensesHence why medical researchers and companies are looking to create simpler, non-invasive means. Google is one such company, which back in January announced that they are working on a “smart” contact lens that can measure the amount of glucose in tears. By merging a mini glucose sensor and a small wireless chip into a set of regular soft contact lenses, they are looking to take all the pin-pricks out of blood monitoring.

In a recent post on Google’s official blog, project collaborators Brian Otis and Babak Parviz described the technology:

We’re testing prototypes that can generate a reading once per second. We’re also investigating the potential for this to serve as an early warning for the wearer, so we’re exploring integrating tiny LED lights that could light up to indicate that glucose levels have crossed above or below certain thresholds.

And Google is hardly alone in this respect. Due to growing concern and the advancements being made, others are also looking at alternatives to the finger prick, including glucose measures from breath and saliva. A company called Freedom Meditech, for example, is working on a small device  that can measure glucose levels with an eye scan.

I_Sugar_X_prototype1Their invention is known as the I-SugarX, a handheld device that scans the aqueous humor of eye, yielded accurate results in clinical studies in less than four minutes. John F. Burd, Ph.D., Chief Science Officer of Freedom Meditech, described the process and its benefits in the following way:

The eye can be thought of as an optical window into to body for the painless measurement of glucose in the ocular fluid as opposed to the blood, and is well suited for our proprietary optical polarimetric based measurements. Based on the results of this, and other studies, we plan to begin human clinical studies as we continue our product development.

Between these and other developments, a major trend towards “smart monitoring” is developing and likely to make life easier and cut down on the associated costs of medicine. A smart contact lens or saliva monitor would make it significantly easier to watch out for uncontrolled blood sugar levels, which ultimately lead to serious health complications.

I_Sugar_X_prototype2But of course, new techniques for blood-monitoring goes far beyond addressing chronic conditions like diabetes. Diagnosing and controlling the spread of debilitating, potentially fatal diseases is another major area of focus. Much like diabetes, doing regular bloodwork can be a bit difficult, especially when working in developing areas of the world where proper facilities can be hard to find.

But thanks to researchers at Rice University in Houston, Texas, a new test that requires no blood draws is in the works. Relying on laser pulse technology to create a vapor nanobubble in a malaria-infected cell, this test is able to quickly and non-invasively diagnose the disease. While it does not bring medical science closer to curing this increasingly drug-resistant disease, it could dramatically improve early diagnosis and outcomes.

malaria-blood-free-detectorThe scanner was invented by Dmitro Lapotko, a physicist, astronomer, biochemist, and cellular biologist who studied laser weapons in Belarus before moving to Houston. Here, he and his colleagues began work on a device that used the same kind of laser and acoustic sensing technology employed on sub-hunting destroyers, only on a far smaller scale and for medical purposes.

Dubbed “vapor nanobubble technology,” the device combines a laser scanner and a fiber-optic probe that detect malaria by heating up hemozoin – the iron crystal byproduct of hemoglobin that is found in malaria cells, but not normal blood cells. Because the hemozoin crystals absorb the energy from the laser pulse, they heat up enough to create transient vapor nanobubbles that pop.

malariaThis, in turn, produces a ten-millionth-of-a-second acoustic signature that is then picked up by the device’s fiber-optic acoustic sensor and indicates the presence of the malaria parasite in the blood cells scanned. And because the vapor bubbles are only generated by hemozoin, which is only present in infected cells, the approach is virtually fool-proof.

In an recent issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Lapotko and his research team claimed that the device detected malaria in a preclinical trial on mice where only one red blood cell in a million was infected with zero false positives. In a related school news release, the study’s co-author David Sullivan – a malaria clinician a Johns Hopkins University – had this to say about the new method:

The vapor nanobubble technology for malaria detection is distinct from all previous diagnostic approaches. The vapor nanobubble transdermal detection method adds a new dimension to malaria diagnostics, and it has the potential to support rapid, high-throughput and highly sensitive diagnosis and screening by nonmedical personnel under field conditions.

At present, malaria is one of the world’s deadliest diseases, infecting hundreds of millions of people a year and claiming the lives of more than 600,000. To make matters worse, most the victims are children. All of this combines to make malaria one of the most devastating illness effecting the developing world, comparable only to HIV/AIDS.

malaria_worldwideBy ensuring that blood tests that could detect the virus, and require nothing more than a mobile device that could make the determination quickly, and need only a portable car battery to power it, medical services could penetrate the once-thought impenetrable barriers imposed by geography and development. And this in turn would be a major step towards bringing some of the world’s most infectious diseases to heel.

Ultimately, the aim of non-invasive technology is to remove the testing and diagnostic procedures from the laboratory and make them portable, cheaper, and more user-friendly. In so doing, they also ensure that early detection, which is often the difference between life and death, is far easier to achieve. It also helps to narrow the gap between access between rich people and poor, not to mention developing and developing nations.


The Future is Bright: Positive Trends to Look For in 2014

Colourful 2014 in fiery sparklersWith all of the world’s current problems, poverty, underdevelopment, terrorism, civil war, and environmental degradation, it’s easy to overlook how things are getting better around the world. Not only do we no longer live in a world where superpowers are no longer aiming nuclear missiles at each other and two-thirds of the human race live beneath totalitarian regimes; in terms of health, mortality, and income, life is getting better too.

So, in honor of the New Year and all our hopes for a better world, here’s a gander at how life is improving and is likely to continue…

1. Poverty is decreasing:
The population currently whose income or consumption is below the poverty line – subsisting on less than $1.25 a day –  is steadily dropping. In fact, the overall economic growth of the past 50 years has been proportionately greater than that experienced in the previous 500. Much of this is due not only to the growth taking place in China and India, but also Brazil, Russia, and Sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, while developing nations complain about debt crises and ongoing recession, the world’s poorest areas continue to grow.

gdp-growth-20132. Health is improving:
The overall caloric consumption of people around the world is increasing, meaning that world hunger is on the wane. Infant mortality, a major issue arising from poverty, and underdevelopment, and closely related to overpopulation, is also dropping. And while rates of cancer continue to rise, the rate of cancer mortality continue to decrease. And perhaps biggest of all, the world will be entering into 2014 with several working vaccines and even cures for HIV (of which I’ve made many posts).

3. Education is on the rise:
More children worldwide (especially girls) have educational opportunities, with enrollment increasing in both primary and secondary schools. Literacy is also on the rise, with the global rate reaching as high as 84% by 2012. At its current rate of growth, global rates of literacy have more than doubled since 1970, and the connections between literacy, economic development, and life expectancy are all well established.

literacy_worldwide4. The Internet and computing are getting faster:
Ever since the internet revolution began, connection speeds and bandwidth have been increasing significantly year after year. In fact, the global average connection speed for the first quarter of 2012 hit 2.6 Mbps, which is a 25 percent year-over-year gain, and a 14 percent gain over the fourth quarter of 2011. And by the second quarter of 2013, the overall global average peak connection speed reached 18.9 Mbps, which represented a 17 percent gan over 2012.

And while computing appears to be reaching a bottleneck, the overall increase in speed has increased by a factor of 260,000 in the past forty years, and storage capacity by a factor of 10,000 in the last twenty. And in terms of breaking the current limitations imposed by chip size and materials, developments in graphene, carbon nanotubes, and biochips are promising solutions.

^5. Unintended pregnancies are down:
While it still remains high in the developing regions of the world, the global rate of unintended pregnancies has fallen dramatically in recent years. In fact, between 1995 and 2008, of 208 billion pregnancies surveyed in a total of 80 nations, 41 percent of the pregnancies were unintended. However, this represents a drop of 29 percent in the developed regions surveyed and a 20 percent drop in developing regions.

The consequences of unintended pregnancies for women and their families is well established, and any drop presents opportunities for greater health, safety, and freedom for women. What’s more, a drop in the rate of unwanted pregnancies is surefire sign of socioeconomic development and increasing opportunities for women and girls worldwide.

gfcdimage_06. Population growth is slowing:
On this blog of mine, I’m always ranting about how overpopulation is bad and going to get to get worse in the near future. But in truth, that is only part of the story. The upside is while the numbers keep going up, the rate of increase is going down. While global population is expected to rise to 9.3 billion by 2050 and 10.1 billion by 2100, this represents a serious slowing of growth.

If one were to compare these growth projections to what happened in the 20th century, where population rose from 1 billion to just over 6, they would see that the rate of growth has halved. What’s more, rates of population growth are expecting to begin falling in Asia by 2060 (one of the biggest contributors to world population in the 20th century), in Europe by 2055, and the Caribbean by 2065.

Population_curve.svgIn fact, the only region where exponential population growth is expected to happen is Africa, where the population of over 1 billion is expected to reach 4 billion by the end of the 21st century. And given the current rate of economic growth, this could represent a positive development for the continent, which could see itself becoming the next powerhouse economy by the 2050s.

7. Clean energy is getting cheaper:
While the price of fossil fuels are going up around the world, forcing companies to turn to dirty means of oil and natural gas extraction, the price of solar energy has been dropping exponentially. In fact, the per capita cost of this renewable source of energy ($ per watt) has dropped from a high of $80 in 1977 to 0.74 this past year. This represents a 108 fold decrease in the space of 36 years.

solar_array1And while solar currently comprises only a quarter of a percent of the planet’s electricity supply, its total share grew by 86% last year. In addition, wind farms already provide 2% of the world’s electricity, and their capacity is doubling every three years. At this rate of increase, solar, wind and other renewables are likely to completely offset coal, oil and gas in the near future.

In short, things are looking up, even if they do have a long way to go. And a lot of what is expected to make the world a better place is likely to happen this year. Who knows which diseases we will find cures for? Who knows what inspirational leaders will come forward? And who knows what new and exciting inventions will be created, ones which offer creative and innovative solutions to our current problems?

Who knows? All I can say is that I am eager to find out!

Additional Reading:,,

3-D Printing Martian and Lunar Housing

3dprinted_moon_base1For enthusiasts of 3-D printing and its many possibilities, a man like Berokh Khoshnevis needs no introduction. As for the rest of us, he is the USC’s Director of Manufacturing Engineering, and has spent the last decade working on a new direction for this emerging technology. Back in 2012, he gave a lecture at TEDxTalks where he proposed that automated printing and custom software could revolutionize construction as we know it.

Intrinsic to this vision are a number of technologies that have emerged in recent years. These include Computer-Assisted Design/Computer-Assisted Manufacturing (CAD/CAM), robotics, and “contour crafting” (i.e. automated construction). By combining design software with a large, crane-sized 3-D printing machine, Khoshnevis proposes a process where homes can be built in just 20 hours.

contour-craftingKhoshnevis started working on the idea when he realized the gigantic opportunity in introducing more speed and affordability into construction. All of the technology was already in place, all that was required was to custom make the hardware and software to carry it all out. Since that time, he and his staff have worked tirelessly to perfect the process and vary up the materials used.

Working through USC’s Center for Rapid Automated Fabrication Technologies, Khoshnevis and his students have made major progress with their designs and prototypes. His robotic construction system has now printed entire six-foot tall sections of homes in his lab, using concrete, gypsum, wood chips, and epoxy, to create layered walls sections of floor.

3dprinted_moon_base3The system uses robotic arms and extrusion nozzles that are controlled by a computerized gantry system which moves a nozzle back and forth. Cement, or other desired materials, are placed down layer by layer to form different sections of the structure. Though the range of applications are currently limited to things like emergency and temporary shelters, Khoshnevis thinks it will someday be able to build a 2,500-square-foot home in 20 hours.

As he describes the process:

It’s the last frontier of automation. Everything else is made by machines except buildings. Your shoes, your car, your appliances. You don’t have to buy anything that is made by hand.

contour-crafting2As Khoshnevis explained during his 2012 lecture at TEDx, the greatest intended market for this technology is housing construction in the developing world. In such places of the world, this low-cost method of creating housing could lead to the elimination of slums as well as all the unhealthy conditions and socioeconomic baggage that comes with them.

But in the developed world, he also envisions how contour crafting machines could allow homes to be built more cheaply by reducing labor and material costs. As he pointed out in his lecture, construction is one of the most inefficient, dirty and dangerous industries there is, more so than even mining and oil drilling. Given a method that wastes far less material and uses less energy, this would reduce our impact on the natural environment.

3dprinted_moon_base2But of course, what would this all be without some serious, science fiction-like applications? For some time now, NASA and the ESA has been looking at additive manufacturing and robotics to create extra-terrestrial settlement. Looking farther afield, NASA has given Khoshnevis a grant to work on building lunar structures on the moon or other planets that humans could one day colonize.

According to NASA’s website, the construction project would involve:

Elements suggested to be built and tested include landing pads and aprons, roads, blast walls and shade walls, thermal and micrometeorite protection shields and dust-free platforms as well as other structures and objects utilizing the well known in-situ-resource utilization (ISRU) strategy.

3dprinted_moon_baseMany existing technologies would also be employed, such as the Lunar Electric Rover, the unpressurized Chariot rover, the versatile light-weight crane and Tri-Athlete cargo transporter as well some new concepts that are currently in testing. These include some habitat mockups and new generations of spacesuits that are currently undergoing tests at NASA’s Desert Research And Technological Studies (D-RATS).

Many of the details of this arrangement are shrouded in secrecy, but I think I can imagine what would be involved. Basically, the current research and development paradigm is focusing on combining additive manufacturing and sintering technology, using microwaves to turn powder into molten material, which then hardens as it is printed out.

sinterhab3To give you an idea of what they would look like, picture a crane-like robot taking in Moon regolith or Martian dust, bombarding it with microwaves to create a hot glue-like material, and then printing it out, layer by layer, to create contoured modules as hard as ceramic. These modules, once complete, would be pressurized and have multiple sections – for research, storage, recreation, and whatever else the colonists plan on getting up to.

Pretty cool huh? Extra-terrestrial colonies, and a cheaper, safer, and more environmentally friendly construction industry here on Earth. Not a bad way to step into the future! And in the meantime, be sure to enjoy this video of contour crafting at work, courtesy of USC’s Center for Rapid Automated Fabrication Technologies:


Powered by the Sun: Bringing Solar to the Developing World

Magnificent CME Erupts on the Sun - August 31All over the world, the goal of bringing development to impoverished communities and nations – but in ways that won’t cause additional harm to the natural environment – remains problematic. As the cases of China and India demonstrate, the world’s fastest growing economies in the 21st century, rapid industrialization may bring economic development, but it comes with a slew of consequences.

These include urban sprawl, more emissions from cars and public transit, and the poisoning of waterways through toxic runoff, chemicals and fertilizers. With seven billion people living in the world today, the majority of which live in major cities and are dependent on fossil fuels, it is important to find ways to encourage growth that won’t make a bad situation worse.

solar_quetsolBut to paraphrase an old saying, crisis is the mother of creative solutions. And amongst forward-looking economist and developers, a possible solution is take the latest advancements in solar, wind, tidal power and biofuels, and tailor them to meet the needs of local communities. In so doing, it is hoped that the developing world could skip over the industrial phase, reaping the benefits of modernization without all the dirty, unhealthy consequences.

Two such men are Juan Rodriguez – a young man who was studying for his business administration at the Universidad Francisco Marroquin in and cut his teeth working for major multinationals like Pampers, Pepto Bismol and Pantene – and his childhood friend Manuel Aguilar, a Harvard graduate with a degree in astrophysics who had gone on to manage a global hedge fund.

solar_quetsol1Three years ago, the two agreed that they were looking for something else and began investigating renewable energy. The result was Quetsol, a company that uses solar energy to improve the quality of life of poor communities living off the electrical grid. In Rodriguez’s and Aguilar’s native Guatemala, such poverty is widespread, with close to 20% of the population living without electricity and relying primarily on candles for light.

This picture of poverty is not exactly news. But after spending a year visiting close to 100 such communities, Rodriguez and Aguilar began to get a clear picture of why solar hadn’t yet succeeded. As Rodriguez put it:

Going to a community and talking about solar power isn’t like going into a community and talking about space travel. It is something that people have already seen, because NGOs have donated solar systems to these communities for decades. In many cases, the systems worked perfectly, but eventually the batteries died, and nobody was there to service them.

solar_quetsol2There solution was to start from the bottom up, using the free-market principle of adapting their approach to meet local needs. This would involve identifying communities before visiting them, taking into account how many people were living without electricity, and what the housing situation was like. When they then visited these communities, they sought out community leaders and held public meetings to learn about them and present their ideas.

Buildings relationships with local communities was a challenge, but so was creating a product for a market whose needs ranged from basic lighting and cell phone charging to powering a refrigerator all day. What they found was that unelectrified communities were relying on terribly inefficient means, ranging from diesel generators to walking to the nearest electrified community to plug in a phone.

solar_quetsol3What was resulted was a Solar Kit, consisting of a 10W Solar Panel, a control box with 7 Amp Battery, 2  LED Bulbs  (and a third optional bulb), and a universal cell phone charger. This kit has the ability to provide five hours of electricity to a house made up of two rooms that measure roughly 25 square meters (225 square feet) each. This is the typical design of homes in rural Guatemala, with one room serving as the bedroom and the other as the kitchen.

With that done, they began working on their sales strategy. Initially, this consisted of working with microfinance credit institutions to help families and communities purchase their solar kits. But after watching too many credit applications get rejected, they took a page from the telecom companies that have made cell phones ubiquitous in Guatemala, Basically, they switched to a pay-as-you-go plan.

solar_quetsol4Today, Quetsol employs a staff of 20 people and boasts board members like Google’s Tom Chi. There product line has also expanded, with the Q1 Solar Kit being supplemented by the Q3, a heavier model that boasts a 75W solar panel, an 85 Amp Battery, and five LED bulbs. The Q2 Kit – a middle of the road model with a 30W panel, 34 amp battery and 3 bulbs – is soon to be released.

But most importantly of all, they have electrified more than 3,500 homes in Guatemala thus far. But that is just a drop in the bucket compared to their long-term goal. Basically, the organization is viewing Guatemala as a stepping stone to all of Latin America as well as Africa by 2015. By 2016, they’d like to tackle the nearly 700 million off-the-grid homes in Asia.

Might sound ambitious, but Rodriguez and Marroquin feel they have the business acumen and social entrepreneurial savvy to pull it off. And given their background and business model, I’d say they are about right. Combined with other technologies that merge local needs with clean, efficient, and renewable means, development in the developing world might actually be an eco-friendly possibility.