The Future is Here: Fabric Circuit Boards

fabric_circuitboard1Chances are that almost every piece of electronics handled by someone today is some sort of printed circuit board (PCB). PCBs are an essential part of modern technology, but as technology improves and moves into the realm of the wearable and the flexible, their rigid and flat design is being reconsidered. In addition to looking for more flexible materials, there’s also a desire to break the 2-dimensional mold.

That’s precisely what researchers at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University were thinking of. Using a revolutionary, never-before-seen concept known as computerized knitting technology, they developed a new line of fabric circuit boards (FCBs).  To make them, lead scientists Qiao Li and Xiao Ming Tao at HKPU relied a combination of conductive fibrous metal materials and traditional fabric.

fabric_circuitboardWithin the FCB, the wires are the equivalent of the circuits on a regular board, and the fabric acts as the mounting material that keeps everything in the right orientation and insulates different circuits. The finished FCBs can contain 3D circuits that are resistant to bending, stretching, and washing. To test this, Li and Ming subjected the boards to repeated stretching and folding, and found they were functional to about 1 million cycles.

The washing test was a little less successful with six of 30 samples experiencing mild damage after 30 washes, but that’s not bad when you consider a single wash cycle would probably kill your average PCB. Oddly enough, Li and Ming also wanted to test how the fabric stood up to bullets, and placed one inside a bulletproof vest. After several shots, the fabric boards continued to work without difficulty.

wearable_computingGarments made of FCBs could also to connect devices that are mounted on different parts of the body, like small solar panels on your back or shoulders to charge your devices. The FBC garment could then route that power into a battery pack or directly to your pocket where your phone charges wirelessly. Another potential use case would be biometric sensors that are built into your clothing instead of a device like a smartwatch or fitness band.

According to the team, the basic FCB design is ready for use. The fabric samples made as part of the study are reportedly rather comfortable and the circuits should be sturdy enough to outlast the fabric component of the garment as well. However, the success of FCBs will likely come down to cost. Right now, the Samsung S Shirt costs $199 with purchase of a smartphone and requires a two-year AT&T contract. Not quite cost-effective just yet!

Augmented_Reality_Contact_lensStill, what this amounts to is the possibility a future where “wearable computing” is taken quite literally. Beyond smart watches, smart rings, smart glasses, and portable computers, there could also be the option for “smart clothes”. In short, people may very well be able to wear their computer on their person and carry it with them wherever they go. Smartphones, contacts or glasses could then be worn to sync up and act as displays.

I can’t help but feel that this is all starting to sound familiar. Yep, echoes of Vinge’s Rainbow’s End right there! And in the meantime, be sure to check out this video from New Scientist that gives a first-hand look at the fabric circuit board:


Sources:
extremetech.com, ecouterre.com
, newscientist.com

The Future of Solar: The Space-Based Solar Farm

space-solar-headThe nation of Japan has long been regarded as being at the forefront of emerging technology. And when it comes to solar energy, they are nothing if not far-sighted and innovative. Whereas most nations are looking at building ground-based solar farms in the next few years, the Japanese are looking at the construction of vast Lunar and space-based solar projects that would take place over the course of the next few decades.

The latest proposal comes from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), which recently unveiled a series of pilot projects which, if successful, should culminate in a 1-gigawatt space-based solar power generator within just 25 years. Relying on two massive orbital mirrors that are articulated to dynamically bounce sunlight onto a solar panel-studded satellite, the energy harvested would then be beamed wirelessly to Earth using microwaves, collected Earth-side by rectifying antennas at sea, and then passed on to land.

lunaringJAXA has long been the world’s biggest booster of space-based solar power technology, making significant investments in research and rallying international support for early test projects. And in this respect, they are joined by private industries such as the Shimizu Corporation, a Japanese construction firm that recently proposed building a massive array of solar cells on the moon – aka. the “Lunar Ring” – that could beam up to 13,000 terawatts (roughly two-thirds of global power consumption) to Earth around the clock.

Considering that Japan has over 120 million residents packed onto an island that is roughly the size of Montana, this far-sighted tendency should not come as a surprise.  And even before the Fukushima disaster took place, Japan knew it needed to look to alternative sources of electricity if it was going to meet future demands. And considering the possibilities offered by space-based solar power, it should also come as no surprise that Japan – which has very few natural resources – would look skyward for the answer.

solar_array1Beyond Japan, solar power is considered the of front runner of alternative energy, at least until s fusion power comes of age. But Until such time as a fusion reaction can be triggered that produces substantially more energy than is required to initiate it, solar will remain the only green technology that could even theoretically provide for our global power demands. And in this respect, going into space is seen as the only way of circumventing the problems associated with it.

Despite solar power being in incredible abundance – the Earth’s deserts absorb more energy in a day than the human race uses in an entire year – the issue of harnessing that power and getting it to where it is needed remain as stumbling blocks. Setting up vast arrays in the Earth’s deserts would certainly deal with the former, but transmitting it to the urban centers of the world (which are far removed from it’s deserts) would be both expensive and impractical.

space-based-solarpowerLuckily, putting arrays into orbit solves both of these issues. Above the Earth’s atmosphere, they would avoid most forms of wear, the ground-based day/night cycle, and all occluding weather formations. And assuming the mirrors themselves are able to reorient to be perpetually aimed at the sun (or have mirrors to reflect the light onto them), the more optimistic estimates say that a well-designed space array could bring in more than 40 times the energy of a conventional one.

The only remaining issue lies in beaming all that energy back to Earth. Though space-based arrays can easily collect more power above the atmosphere than below it, that fact becomes meaningless if the gain is immediately lost to inefficiency during transmission. For some time, lasers were assumed to be the best solution, but more recent studies point to microwaves as the most viable solution. While lasers can be effectively aimed, they quickly lose focus when traveling through atmosphere.

spaceX_solararrayHowever, this and other plans involving space-based solar arrays (and a Space Elevator, for that matter) assume that certain advances over the next 20 years or so – ranging from light-weight materials to increased solar efficiency. By far the biggest challenge though, or the one that looks to be giving the least ground to researchers, is power transmission. With an estimated final mass of 10,000 tonnes, a gigawatt space solar array will require significant work from other scientists to improve things like the cost-per-kilogram of launch to orbit.

It currently costs around $20,000 to place a kilogram (2.2lbs) into geostationary orbit (GSO), and about half that for low-Earth orbit (LEO). Luckily, a number of recent developments have been encouraging, such as SpaceX’s most recent tests of their Falcon 9R reusable rocket system or NASA’s proposed Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV). These and similar proposals are due to bring the costs of sending materials into orbit down significantly – Elon Musk hopes to bring it down to $1100 per kilogram.

So while much still needs to happen to make SBSP and other major undertakings a reality, the trends are encouraging, and few of their estimates for research timelines seem all that pie-eyed or optimistic anymore.

Sources: extremetech.com, (2)

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:


Source:
extremetech.com

The Future is Here: Pure LiFi Wireless Internet

lifi_internet1It’s known as “Light Fidelity”, a new form of wireless data transmission that does away with radio signals in favor of optics. And much like the concept of an optic computer – which uses photons to transfer and store information rather than electrons – it’s long been considered as the next possible leap in internet technology. Hence why it was being demonstrated at this year’s Mobile World Congress – the world’s largest exhibition for members of the mobile phone, internet and IT industry.

Despite its monumental growth in the last decade, Wi-Fi remains somewhat hindered by the fact that it relies on microwaves in the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands, a radio spectrum which is limited. LiFi, however, relies on the transmission of light and could be deployed in everyday LED bulbs, covering the entire interior of a home or office. These LED bulbs would send information out in what appears to be a constant stream of light, but which is actually made up of millions of micropulses a second.

Mobile-World-Congress-MWC-PreviewA system based on this would be capable of transferring far larger bundles of data than one based on microwaves. The system that was on display at MWC this year ran at 150 Mbps. But with a more powerful LED light, it could conceivably reach a rate of transfer equal to 3.5 gigabytes per second. That’s 210 gigabytes a minute, and 12.6 terabytes (that 12 and a half trillion bytes, people!) every hour, far in advance of what current WiFi offers (which maxes out at 450 mbps).

To put that in perspective, as of March 2014, the US Library of Congress estimated that their web had cataloged 525 terabytes of web archive data, with an addition 5 terabytes added every month. This means that a LiFi connection running at full capacity transfers in one hour what the Library of Congress processes in over two months! In short, the widespread use of LiFi would mean an explosion in information the likes of which has not been seen since the internet first went online.

Pure_LiFi_MWC2014Granted, there are still some limitations, like how any computer running off of LiFi needs a special adapted, and interrupting the light source will cause information transfers to cease. And I can’t help but wonder what micropulsing lights will do for people with epilepsy, not to mention the rest of us. However, such concerns are likely to be addressed long before LiFi sees any adoption on a grand scale, which is likely still a decade away at this point.

This year, the MWC conference took place in Barcelona, a place committed to the concept of the Internet of Everything (IoE) and the building of the world’s first truly “smart city”. In the coming months and years, I anticipate that this Spanish haven for technological innovation and integration will feature plenty of LiFi. So if you’re traveling there, you might want to look into getting an adapter for your laptop.

And in the meantime, enjoy this video – courtest of CNET First Look – that takes a look at this year’s LiFi demonstration at MWC 2014:


Sources:
news.cnet.com, loc.gov

The Future of Medicine: 3D Printing and Bionic Organs!

biomedicineThere’s just no shortage of breakthroughs in the field of biomedicine these days. Whether it’s 3D bioprinting, bionics, nanotechnology or mind-controlled prosthetics, every passing week seems to bring more in the way of amazing developments. And given the rate of progress, its likely going to be just a few years before mortality itself will be considered a treatable condition.

Consider the most recent breakthrough in 3D printing technology, which comes to us from the J.B Speed School of Engineering at the University of Louisville where researchers used a printed model of a child’s hear to help a team of doctors prepare for open heart surgery. Thanks to these printer-assisted measures, the doctors were able to save the life of a 14-year old child.

3d_printed_heartPhilip Dydysnki, Chief of Radiology at Kosair Children’s Hospital, decided to approach the school when he and his medical team were looking at ways of treating Roland Lian Cung Bawi, a boy born with four heart defects. Using images taken from a CT scan, researchers from the school’s Rapid Prototyping Center were able to create and print a 3D model of Roland’s heart that was 1.5 times its actual size.

Built in three pieces using a flexible filament, the printing reportedly took around 20 hours and cost US$600. Cardiothoracic surgeon Erle Austin III then used the model to devise a surgical plan, ultimately resulting in the repairing of the heart’s defects in just one operation. As Austin said, “I found the model to be a game changer in planning to do surgery on a complex congenital heart defect.”

Roland has since been released from hospital and is said to be in good health. In the future, this type of rapid prototyping could become a mainstay for medical training and practice surgery, giving surgeons the options of testing out their strategies beforehand. And be sure to check out this video of the procedure from the University of Louisville:


And in another story, improvements made in the field of bionics are making a big difference for people suffering from diabetes. For people living with type 1 diabetes, the constant need to extract blood and monitor it can be quite the hassle. Hence why medical researchers are looking for new and non-invasive ways to monitor and adjust sugar levels.

Solutions range from laser blood-monitors to glucose-sensitive nanodust, but the field of bionics also offer solutions. Consider the bionic pancreas that was recently trialled among 30 adults, and has also been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for three transitional outpatient studies over the next 18 months.

bionic-pancreasThe device comprises a sensor inserted under the skin that relays hormone level data to a monitoring device, which in turn sends the information wirelessly to an app on the user’s smartphone. Based on the data, which is provided every five minutes, the app calculates required dosages of insulin or glucagon and communicates the information to two hormone infusion pumps worn by the patient.

The bionic pancreas has been developed by associate professor of biomedical engineering at Boston University Dr. Edward Damiano, and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School Dr. Steven Russell. To date, it has been trialled with diabetic pigs and in three hospital-based feasibility studies amongst adults and adolescents over 24-48 hour periods.

bionic_pancreasThe upcoming studies will allow the device to be tested by participants in real-world scenarios with decreasing amounts of supervision. The first will test the device’s performance for five continuous days involving twenty adults with type 1 diabetes. The results will then be compared to a corresponding five-day period during which time the participants will be at home under their own care and without the device.

A second study will be carried out using 16 boys and 16 girls with type 1 diabetes, testing the device’s performance for six days against a further six days of the participants’ usual care routine. The third and final study will be carried out amongst 50 to 60 further participants with type 1 diabetes who are also medical professionals.

bionic_pancreas_technologyShould the transitional trials be successful, a more developed version of the bionic pancreas, based on results and feedback from the previous trials, will be put through trials in 2015. If all goes well, Prof. Damiano hopes that the bionic pancreas will gain FDA approval and be rolled out by 2017, when his son, who has type 1 diabetes, is expected to start higher education.

With this latest development, we are seeing how smart technology and non-invasive methods are merging to assist people living with chronic health issues. In addition to “smart tattoos” and embedded monitors, it is leading to an age where our health is increasingly in our own hands, and preventative medicine takes precedence over corrective.

Sources: gizmag.com, (2)

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.

Sources: fastcoexist.com, news.cnet.com, businesswire.com, googleblogspot.ca, who.int

How the Internet Works

undersea_internet1This video was passed onto me by my darling wife, who is a whiz at picking out videos and articles that I would find interesting! Entitled “There and Back Again: A Packet’s Tale, this educational video clip was produced by the World Science Festival – a New York City-based non-profit organization committed to scientific education and public awareness. And in it, they explain how this complex organism known as the internet actually works.

Using a single search item as an example, the clip lets the viewer see how a packet of data – one of trillions of internet interactions – goes from one side of the planet to the other and then back again, all in the space of a second. In addition to explaining how such volumes of data are handled, they also draw attention to the fact that the internet depends upon real physical connections.

This second aspect of the video is very important, in that it reminds us that despite what could computing and wireless teach us – that data is free-floating mass moving through the air – that the world-wide web is still grounded in solid objects, such as copper and optic cables, before it gets to your wireless router. And even though it is only three and a half minutes in length, the clip is quite informative. Enjoy!


Source:
worldsciencefestival.com