Breakthroughs and trends in the world of technology
Considered a delicacy by locals and rumored to boost sexual performance, the eggs of Central America’s seven species of sea turtles are increasingly falling prey to poachers. Five years ago, Kim Williams-Guillén, a conservation scientist at the nonprofit environmental group Paso Pacífico, came up with a possible way to thwart the human marauders: fake eggs embedded with GPS trackers. Her idea won a $10,000 prize in the 2015 Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge, a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) initiative to address wildlife trafficking. Now she and her colleagues are field-testing the devices, according to Science. The 3-D-printed decoys, each about the size, weight, and texture of a green sea turtle egg, are made of a squishy plastic called NinjaFlex that mimics the rubbery shell of the real thing. Recently, Williams-Guillén’s team placed 101 mock eggs—dubbed InvestEGGators—in clutches of newly laid turtle eggs at four Costa Rican beaches. Poachers took 25 of them, and five transmitted tracking data. One decoy the investigators followed made a pit stop in an alley behind a supermarket before winding up the next day at a residential property 80 miles away. Williams-Guillén’s team has no desire to catch and prosecute local poachers, who typically are impoverished. Instead, the goal is to help conservationists and police better understand their routes and, ultimately, nab the big players in the trafficking chains—cracking the case of the stolen eggs. – Thomas K. Grose
Search and Rescue
When Carlyn Loncaric worked as a lifeguard to help pay her way through engineering school at Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University, saving swimmers’ lives was often on her mind. Lakes posed extra challenges: A head that failed to resurface quickly meant clearing the area and trying to locate the person using only a pair of goggles, Loncaric explains. “With some places in British Columbia, even though the water is clean, you can barely see your fingertips in front of you underwater. It gave me nightmares.” That inspired her to form her own company, VodaSafe, and develop a handheld, artificial intelligence-enabled sonar device that can scan 85,000 square feet underwater in just a few minutes. AquaEye looks like a radar gun that displays different forms of life using icons on a screen. The tricky part was developing the algorithm by “training it in all sorts of environments, collecting data, and slowly teaching our system to identify what is human and what isn’t,” says Loncaric. “The more we work with it, the smarter it’s becoming.” Rescuers credit the $4,700 device with finding a missing swimmer in North Carolina’s Outer Banks this past summer. Before designing AquaEye, Loncaric interviewed firefighters, police officers, and search-and-rescue teams. They explained that sidescan sonar is very effective but requires considerable time and effort to deploy. As Loncaric puts it, “I wanted to develop something extremely simple to operate and keep the features at a minimum”—a critical factor when mere minutes can determine life or death. – Pierre Home-Douglas
Emperor penguins may be 10 percent more plentiful than previously thought, with estimates increasing by up to 55,000 birds. That small finding is a big deal because the creatures spend their lives entirely at sea, foraging, breeding, and raising their young on sea ice, so their colonies are hard to find. For years, Peter Fretwell, a geographer at British Antarctic Survey, and biologist Phil Trathan have scoured high-resolution satellite imaging for evidence of the rookeries—specifically, for traces of penguin guano, which appears as a reddish-brown stain on the snow and ice. Initially, the pair relied on satellite images with a resolution of 30 meters by 30 meters. But since 2016, images taken by the European Space Agency’s Sentinel satellites with a superfine resolution of 10 meters by 10 meters have made their scatological search easier. As a result, the duo recently discovered eight new colonies and confirmed three that had been reported decades earlier, upping the total to 61, or 20 percent more than past tallies. Trouble is, the newly pinpointed colonies are in areas highly vulnerable to climate change, including one around 112 miles from shore on sea ice near a submerged iceberg. Researchers warn that melting ice could decimate the emperor penguin population by 31 percent within 60 years. – T. G.
©P.T. Fretwell and P.N. Trathan
Perovskite, a common toothpaste ingredient, is a cheap mineral first discovered in the Ural Mountains 181 years ago. For at least the past decade, however, researchers around the world—including engineers at the University of California–Los Angeles, the University of Cambridge, and the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory—have been examining it as a replacement for silicon to make solar cells more effective. Perovskite degrades rapidly, but the mineral may finally be having its breakout moment. British company Oxford PV, a spin-off from the University of Oxford cofounded by physics professor Henry Snaith, says it expects to begin selling perovskite solar cells by early 2021, the Guardian reports. Today’s most efficient photovoltaics typically convert around 22 percent of sunlight into electricity. Oxford PV’s version, which is made by spraying a thin layer of the crystal atop traditional silicon cells, has hit a conversion rate of 27.3 percent—a world record. Meanwhile, earlier this year, researchers at several Australian universities announced they had found a way to make pure perovskite cells that don’t degrade as quickly by placing a glass and synthetic rubber coating around each cell. Cells made entirely from perovskite are 500 times thinner than silicon cells and also flexible, so they could be used in a wider range of applications. Looks like perovskite has a sunny future. – T. G.
Imagine investigating a cell by walking inside of it. That’s what Anoushka Handa, a Ph.D. student in chemistry at the University of Cambridge, recently did by applying newly developed virtual-reality software to an immune cell from her blood. Handa’s mind-blowing walk on the wild side is the result of a technology developed by her advisor, Steven F. Lee, a reader in chemistry, and Lume VR, an image-analysis software company. The vLUME technology they invented uses data generated by super-resolution microscopy to virtually place researchers inside cells for a better understanding of how they work. Super-resolution microscopy is a Nobel Prize-winning technology that allows scientists to obtain nanoscale images and observe molecular processes in real time by cleverly using a trick of physics to get around the limits of light diffraction. Researchers remained frustrated, however, by the lack of ways to visualize and analyze the data in three dimensions. “It wasn’t until we started seeing our data in virtual reality that everything clicked into place,” says Lee. His team is mainly using vLUME with biological data sets, including neurons, immune cells, and cancer cells. For instance, researchers are using the technology to study how antigen cells trigger immune responses. VR has changed the reality of cell investigations, Lee says. “We’ve quickly been able to rule out certain hypotheses and propose new ones.” – T. G.
Some areas of the world are too dangerous or difficult for researchers to reach. But computer science and engineering researchers at the University of Washington have come up with a tiny sensor that can hitch a ride on a small drone or a large insect, such as a moth, and be safely delivered to those regions. The tiny device weighs just 98 milligrams, about one tenth the weight of a jellybean. Upon reaching its destination, the sensor is released by a ground-based researcher using a Bluetooth command. The wireless command creates an electric current through a coil to produce a magnetic field, causing a magnetic pin to pop out of place and let go of the sensor. The device’s heaviest part, the battery, is in one corner, which causes it to rotate when it falls, generating drag to slow its descent to around 11 mph. It can fall from a height of up to 72 feet and land without being damaged. Once on the ground, the sensor can work for nearly three years to collect a variety of data, including temperature and humidity levels. – T. G.
©Mark Stone/University of Washington
Wind turbines typically work best in areas with lots of wind. Obvious, right? But what about the many regions where strong, steady breezes don’t blow? Ya Yang, a materials engineer at China’s Beijing Institute of Nanoenergy and Nanosystems, may have an answer. His team has devised a miniature wind turbine that can produce power from winds as light as 3.5 mph. That’s roughly the same amount of air that moves by your swinging arms when you walk, according to the website Engineering and Technology. Yang’s triboelectric nanogenerator performs best when velocities range from 9 to 18 mph. His device features two plastic strips that flutter and clap together when subjected to an airflow, producing electricity that can be captured and stored. It’s the same triboelectric phenomenon that occurs when you rub a balloon on your hair to create static electricity. The device can now power up to 100 LED lights and temperature sensors. But Yang has bigger plans. He wants to make wind power more widely available by using low-cost materials and eschewing the costly coils and magnets of traditional turbines. Ultimately, Yang wants to scale up the device so it can generate 1,000 watts, making it competitive with traditional turbines but capable of being placed in areas off-limits to them, including mountaintops and building roofs. – T. G.
Digital House Calls
Smartphones, wearable devices, and apps are becoming front-line health care tools. Moeness Amin, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Villanova University, is working with RTM Vital Signs, a Philadelphia medical-device company, to develop a quarter-size acoustic sensor to adhere to the skin over the tracheal notch of COVID-19 patients and provide an early warning if their infection progresses to dangerous levels. The device measures the sound of air going in and out of the trachea as a patient breathes. The data is sent to an app via Bluetooth, and signal-processing algorithms and machine-learning technologies in the app then produce an at-risk score of the patient’s pulmonary function. If the risk starts to rise, a series of alerts and alarms sounds. Meanwhile, engineers at Purdue University are developing an inexpensive blood-pressure cuff and app that can determine early in a woman’s pregnancy if she’s susceptible to preeclampsia, a dangerous form of gestational hypertension that may develop without any symptoms. The device diagnoses poor blood flow through the kidneys and can help doctors monitor patients remotely. Purdue engineers are partnering with global health groups that work with pregnant women in developing countries, where access to health care is limited but use of smartphones is widespread. Preeclampsia kills 50,000 women a year worldwide. – T. G.
Electric scooters are popular in urban areas, offering a cheap, quick way to navigate traffic. But all too often riders opt to zip along sidewalks, endangering pedestrians. One recent study of 249 patients with e-scooter injuries treated in hospital emergency rooms found that 8 percent were pedestrians hit by moving scooters. To keep e-scooters off sidewalks, Santa Monica, Calif., introduced a public-safety program, and its police officers stepped up their ticket writing. Those efforts failed to halt the problem, however, so the city sought help from researchers at California Polytechnic State University. The Cal Poly team, using off-the-shelf parts that cost less than a dollar, came up with a gadget that can easily be attached to an e-scooter. The proof-of-concept working model can detect whether a scooter is on asphalt (a street) or concrete (a sidewalk). If it senses the latter, the scooter’s power is shut off. The city next hopes to offer incentives to vendors to incorporate the technology into the e-scooters they sell. Now if only there were a technology to rid sidewalks of skateboarders! – T. G.
©Cal Poly Digital Transformation Hub
Dressed for Excess
The latissimus dorsi muscle—the “lats”—is the large, V-shaped muscle in the upper back that we use for swimming, extending our shoulders, and other movements. It was thought the lats did little to support the lower back. But a research team led by Karl Zelik, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Vanderbilt University, discovered that when our lower-back muscles are overused and get tired, the lats are recruited to offload some of the strain. That insight led Zelik to invent an exosuit that mimics the lats by using elastic bands to give lower-back muscles relief from the forces that cause wear and tear. In a recent study, his team showed that someone lifting a 35-pound weight while wearing the suit found it less tiring than lifting a 24-pound weight without it. The suit can reduce fatigue in lower-back muscles by an average of 29 percent to 47 percent, the study determined. Zelik stresses that the exosuit is preventive technology, not a cure for an aching back. Unlike many exoskeletons, which use motors or batteries, Zelik’s suit is soft, lightweight, and made entirely of textiles and elastic. It’s essentially “smart underwear” that’s worn beneath clothes. Zelik cofounded a start-up, HeroWear, to commercialize the exosuit. The company is targeting people who “bend, lean, or lift for a living” and are at greater risk of suffering lower-back pain. – T. G.
Pulmonary fibrosis is an irreversible, often fatal lung condition that reduces the amount of oxygen entering the bloodstream and makes breathing difficult. Its cause remains a mystery, but the disease creates scar tissue within the lungs that stiffens the walls of the alveoli, or air sacs. Researchers seek to discover symptom-relieving drugs by using pharmaceutical compounds on cells cultured in petri dishes. But that process doesn’t truly replicate what happens inside human lungs. Nor can 2-D computer screens replicate the results from testing with currently existing drugs that mitigate symptoms or slow the disease’s progress. To improve drug discovery, engineers at the University of Michigan have built a 3-D model of the connective tissue, or fibroblasts, inside lungs, which is where fibrosis first takes hold. When they used the model to screen drugs known to be effective, the engineered model—unlike flat monitors—did, indeed, indicate that those drugs should work. Many researchers have looked for drugs that target lung stiffness in patients, but the 3-D model indicates that easing stiffness alone often doesn’t slow progression, even if a petri dish test shows that it does. The 3-D model should give researchers a more effective and accurate way to test compounds to treat this scourge. – T. G.
Colonoscopies help doctors investigate causes of abdominal pain, chronic constipation, diarrhea, or rectal bleeding as well as screen for colon cancer. But the procedure, which requires inserting an endoscope—a long, flexible tube with a camera lens at the tip—into the rectum, can be quite uncomfortable and most patients need a sedative. It’s also difficult for doctors to keep track of the probe’s up and down, left and right direction. Researchers at the University of Leeds have developed a robotic arm that uses machine learning and magnets to guide an endoscope through the colon. It employs artificial intelligence that was trained to navigate a colon from images taken by standard endoscopes, Pietro Valdastri, the professor of robotics and autonomous systems who led the team, tells New Scientist. Magnets on the robotic arm interact with other tiny magnets inside the probe to steer it. The robotic endoscope can work autonomously or be operated by a specialist using a joystick. A human can also operate the probe in tandem with the robotic system. So far, the system has been tested on an artificial colon and two pigs; a trial involving five healthy volunteers is planned for next year. Valdastri says the robotic colonoscopy should be less painful and patients should not need sedation. – T. G.
©Mark Webster Photography
Everything on Earth, from people and pets to plants and buildings, emits heat in the form of invisible light waves. On clear nights, that radiated heat rises and dissipates into space. Ancient humans didn’t understand the science, but they still figured out how to use this radiated cooling effect to make ice in the desert by burying water overnight in shallow ditches or trays and insulating it with reeds. As the Washington Post reports, Aaswath Raman, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering at the University of California–Los Angeles, became intrigued by radiated cooling as a source of green energy. The problem was that the phenomenon only occurs at night, when there’s little demand for cooling. While still a graduate student at Stanford University, Raman began working on a film so reflective that it absorbs only a minute amount of energy and can be used for radiated cooling in daylight. The final version consists of multiple microscopic layers of varying thicknesses—each manipulated by nanotechnology to produce specific effects—so that incoming solar radiation ricochets back into space, but outgoing thermal radiation bounces between the layers. Only the desired infrared wavelengths escape, the Post explains. Raman and his team have created a company, SkyCool Systems, that manufactures rooftop panels covered by the film. It chills water pumped through the panels, which is then fed into an air conditioning system to lower the temperature of the refrigerant. That means less electricity is needed to cool rooms. The technology could one day replace air conditioning altogether. – T. G.
©Eli Goldstein, SkyCool Systems