Writing for HeroX and Universe Today!

good_news_farnsworthGood news, everyone! My services as a freelance writer were recently enlisted by the good folks who run HeroX and Universe Today. Thanks to my old friend and mentor, Fraser Cain (who consequently got me started in the indie publishing bizz), I’m going to be bringing the experience I’ve garnered writing my own blog to a more professional format – writing about space exploration, innovation and technological development.

As you can imagine, this means I’ll be doing less in the way of writing for this here website. But I promise I’ll still be around! After all, I’ve got lost more work to do on my stories, and there are always articles and headlines that need to be written about that I won’t get a chance to cover at those other sites. So rest assured, storiesbywilliams will be in operation for a long time to come.

XPRIZE_GooglePlus_Cover_2120x1192For those unfamiliar, HeroX is a spinoff of the XPRIZE Foundation, the non-profit organization that runs public competitions intended to encourage technological development and innovation. It’s directors includes such luminaries as Google’s Elon Musk and Larry Page, director James Cameron, author and columnist Arianna Huffington, and businessman/ philanthropist Ratan Tata, and more. In short, they are kind of a big deal!

Fraser Cain, founder of Universe Today, began HeroX as a way of combining the best of the XPRIZE with a crowdfunding platform similar to Kickstarter. Basically, the site brings together people with ideas for new inventions, finds the people with the talent and resources to make them happen, and funnels contributions and donations to them to bankroll their research and development.

big_bangUniverse Today, on the other hand, is kind of an old stomping ground for me. Years back, I did articles for them that dealt with a range of topics, including geology, natural science, physics, environmentalism, and astronomy. In both cases, I’ll be doing write ups on news items that involve technological development and innovation, and doing interviews with some of the people in the business.

If possible, I’ll try to link articles done for these sources to this page so people can check them out. And stay tuned for more updates on the upcoming release of Flash Forward, Oscar Mike, and my various other projects. Peace out!

The Future is Here: Cleaning Micro-Robots

mab1No one likes the idea of having to clean their homes or living spaces. Its time consuming, repetitive, and never seems to end. But thanks to some new concepts, which were featured this year at the Electrolux Design Labs competition, a day may be coming when all such maintenance can be handled by machines, and not the large, bulky kinds that are often featured in sci-fi shows and novels.

Instead, the new concept for household cleaning robots focuses on the growing field of swarm robotics. That was the concept behind Mab, a series to tiny robots that fly around the house and determine what needs cleaning. Designed by Adrian Perez Zapata, a 23-year old student from Bolivia, the Mab concept utilizes swarm programming to allow all 908 of its insect-like robots to carry out group functions.

mabEach of the tiny robots lives within a spherical core (picture above), and once they are released, they venture out and depositing tiny amounts of water and cleaning solution onto surfaces that have been identified as dirty. Then, having sucked up the dirty liquid, the swarm returns to their core where they unload and await further instructions or the next schedules cleaning cycle.

The robots fly around by means of several tiny, spinning propellers, and their energy comes from built-in solar panels and a battery unit that is recharged whenever they are in the core unit. Zapata claimed that he derived much of his inspiration for the design from the “robo-bee” research being conducted at Harvard, but initially got the idea from watching actual insects at work one day:

I was in my university gardens when I observed the controlled flight of bees pollinating a flower, and how magical it is to see swarms of bees working together. My concept Mab only requires a short initial configuration to function autonomously, so you could arrive home and see a swarm of mini-robots roaming around cleaning independently. This means you could sit back and relax, as you observe with great astonishment the little Mab fairies working their magic.

Mab2Zapata’s design won first place in the 2013 Electrolux Design Labs competition, an annual contest created to encourage designer students from all over the world to come up with ideas and solutions for future living. This year’s theme was Inspired Urban Living, featuring three focus areas to choose from: Social Cooking, Natural Air and Effortless Cleaning, and drew some rather impressive ideas!

For example, second place went to Luiza Silva of Brazil for her design concept known as Atomium, a home 3-D printer for food that uses molecular ingredients to construct food layer by layer. You simply draw the shape of the food you would like to eat and show it to the Atomium, which then scans the image and prints the specified food in the desired shape.

atomiumThird place went to Jeabyun Yeon from South Korea for the Breathing Wall, an “air cleaning concept which pulsates and changes shape as it cleans the air.” Inspired by fish gills, It can also be customized to suit individual needs as it scents the air you breathe and changes color according to your choice.

After that, the finalists included: Nutrima, a device for instantly assessing food’s nutritional value and possible toxicity; Kitchen Hub, an app to keep track of food in the fridge, encourage healthy eating, and reduce waste; OZ-1, an air purifier worn as a necklace; 3F, a shape-shifting autonomous vacuum cleaner; and Global Chef, a hologramatic device for bringing virtual guests to the dinner-table.

breathing_wallTaken together, these small bits of innovation are indicative of a much larger trend, where touchscreens, 3-D printing, scanners, swarm robots, and smart environments address our needs in ways that are intuitive, automated, efficient, and very user friendly. The only downside… they are likely to make us ever lazier than we already are!

In the meantime, check out these videos of the Mab, Atomium, Breathing Wall, and other cool inventions that were featured at the 2013 Electrolux Design Labs competition:



Breathing Wall:


Kitchen Hub:



Global Chef:

Sources: fastcoexist.com, (2), electroluxdesignlabs.com

Five Technologies for the Developing World

Developed-and-developing-countriesWhen it comes to providing energy in the “developed world”, the challenge is in finding ways to generate electricity, heat, and cooling in a way that will not burden our environment. Whereas providing these things in the past has never been much of a challenge, finding ways to meet future demand in a way that is sustainable and renewable often is. Lucky for us, we have the means to meet this challenge head on.

But in the “developing world”, where the infrastructure does not readily exist, populations continue to grow exponentially, and the concerns about the natural environment are quite grave already, the challenge of providing for people’s basic needs presents a significant challenge. At the same time however, it presents an opportunity for creative solutions.

What follows is just a few examples of what engineers and designers have come up with in recent years. These devices are especially innovative because they are capable of increasing the supply of safe, cheap energy on a user-by-user basis, bypassing the years it takes to extend a power grid to remote places, the resources needed to increase a country’s energy production capacity, or the environmental damage involved.

Voto-Stove1. The Voto: Millions of people around the world use coal or wood-fired stoves to provide for their cooking and heating needs. Developed by the company Point Source Power, the VOTO converts the energy these fires release as heat into electricity, which can power a handheld light, charge a phone or even charge a spare battery. Initially designed for backpackers and campers, the company is also trying to find a way to make it accessible to residents of the developing world, where it will be much more useful.

2. Window Socket: Here we have what is perhaps the simplest solar charger in existence. Simply attach the suction cup to a window or any sun-exposed surface, let sit for 5 to 8 hours, and the solar panels will store enough electricity to power a device for up to ten hours. Created by Kyuho Song and Boa Oh of Yanko Design to resemble a normal wall outlet as closely as possible, the charger can be taken and used anywhere, making it truly versatile.

window_socket33. The Berkeley-Darfur Stove: In recent years, health researchers have come to the conclusion that open-fire stoves lead to millions of deaths in the developing world. Hence this design by Potential Energy, a nonprofit dedicated to adapting and scaling technologies to help improve lives in the developing world. Featuring a tapered wind collar, a small fire box opening, nonaligned air vents that reduce the amount of wind allowed to stoke or snuff the fire, and ridges that ensure the optimal distance between the fire and pot, this stove is safe, fuel-efficient, and requires less wood to power. Over 25,000 units have been distributed to the Darfur region and Ethiopia so far.

gravitylight4. Gravity Light: Along with wood-burning stoves, kerosene-burning lamps are also a major health concern because of the fumes they create. Hence the simple and elegant solution known as the Gravity Light. Developed by the research initiative deciwatt.org, the device is powered by attaching a 20 lbs bag or rocks or dirt to a cord and then lifting it into place. The potential energy stored in that lifting motion is then gradually converted to electricity as the the bag descends over the course of about 30 minutes, powering a light or other electrical device in that time.

5. SOCCKET: Soccer is easily the most popular sport in the world, with millions of people playing daily. And in an attempt to turn this daily activity into an efficient form of energy that would replace kerosene lamps, Uncharted Play, a for-profit social enterprise, has created a ball that uses a kinetically-powered pendulum to generate and store electricity. After about 30 minutes of play, the ball stores enough energy to power an attachable LED lamp for 3 hours. Development of the product was funded via Kickstarter, and the first ones will ship in the next few weeks. A percentage of all retail sales will go to providing SOCCKETs to schools in the developing world.

two_SOCCKETsWhen it comes right down to it, these devices are especially innovative because of the way they marry  new technology to basic utility. In the end, what people get are things that are simple to use, effective, clean, and safe. And if history and sociological research have taught us anything, it’s that little things that make life healthier and easier have a profound impact on the lives of people.

Combined with large-scale concept (like 3D-printed structures) simple solutions like these are likely to make a big difference in the lives of millions of people. By ensuring that people have access to lighting and heating that does not compromise their health, is better for their environment, and less-labor intensive and expensive, the daily grind that characterizes far too many people’s existence is sure to get easier and allow for new opportunities.

Though they might seem like minor improvements, incremental changes have a way of adding up and can lead to serious and positive social change. And I for one am eager to see it happen!

Source: blogs.smithsonianmag.com

Climate Crisis: Population Growth in Coming Years

trafficWhen it comes to populations and environmental problems, cities are at the very heart of the issue. Not only are they where the majority of humanity lives, a reality which will only get worse as time goes on, they are also the source of most of our pollution, waste, and land use. People require space to live and work, as well as food, water and

Last year, the world’s population increased to 7 billion, which represents a seven-fold increase in the space of the last two centuries. What’s more, the proportion of people living in urban centers (as opposed to rural) shot up from 3% to almost half of the world’s people. This rate of population growth and redistribution is unprecedented, and is not likely to slow down anytime soon.

urbanworld_50Consider the following series of infographics which were released by Unicef with the help of the design studio Periscopic. Titled “An Urban World”, they illustrate the issues of population growth and distribution. This interactive, HTML5 visualization of the world covers the years of 1950-2050. But rather than showing our geographic boundaries, every country* is depicted only by their population living in urban environments.

As you can see, each country is represented by a circle that depicts the number of people living in urban environments. As these populations grow, the circles get bigger. And as urban populations get more dense, the circles shift from green to blue to yellow to fuchsia. Immediately, a glaring fact is made clear: the problem is getting worse and at an alarming rate.

urbanworld_2000In addition, there are several nuggets of info which are staggering and particularly worrisome. For example, by 2050, both China and India will have about a billion people living in cities alone. In addition, since the 1990s, more than 75% of the U.S. population has lived in cities. At one time, the US was an outlier in this regard, but found ourselves joined over the next two decades by France, Spain, the U.K., Mexico, Korea, Australia, and Brazil.

But of course, this growth need not be a bad thing. When all is said and done, humanity has a choice. One the one hand, these megacities can take the form of smartly scaled communities of loosely populated expanses and efficient agriculture. On the other, they could easily take the form of urban slums and underdeveloped countrysides that are stricken by poverty and filthy.

urbanworld_2050It’s a complex issue, no doubt about it, especially when you consider the flip side to the whole equation. As the saying goes, every new life means a new mouth to feed, but also a pair of working hands. What’s more, studies have shown that people living in cities tend to be far more energy efficient, and that energy surplus is usually directed toward more and more technological growth and innovation.

Seen in this light, the massive cities of the future could be hubs for the ongoing development of new energies and creative living solutions. And with more people living in large, connected, interdependent environments, the more business startups, ideas, and contributions were likely to get. Part of the reason we have seen so much progress in solar, piezoelectric motors, and bio-electricity is because of this trend. More growth will conversely mean more clean energy.

overpopulation Quite the paradox, really. Who knew people could be both the cause and solution to the world’s worst problem! In the meantime, feel free to head on over to the Unicef site and watch this interactive infographic. Just press play, and watch the cities of the world swell at the edges, competing for room on the page as they compete for room on this planet.

Also, be sure to take a gander at this infographic from BBC Future that demonstrates the current population of the world’s major cities per square meter, the projected population per square meter by 2050, and the livability rating of the city in question. They even provide some context at the bottom by showing the size of relative spaces – from prison cells to Olympic swimming pools, and comparing that to the average space an urban dweller enjoys.

bbc.com, fastcodesign.com
, unicef.org