August 13th, 2013
10:22 AM ET

Helping the humpback's comeback

By Rebecca Bluitt, Special to CNN

Off the Hawaiian coast, the humpback whale is thrilling spectators and scientists alike with its acrobatic jumps, complex songs – and its spectacular recovery.

“When we started there was talk of whales in the hundreds out here,” says Jim Darling, renowned whale researcher and co-founder of Whale Trust Maui, a nonprofit devoted to studying whales in the waters of the Hawaiian island. “Now in the North Pacific the best estimates are about 20,000 whales.”

“They become part of the local culture a little bit. And that’s sort of seeping into the national culture,” says Darling, referring to the booming whale-watching industry. Whale tourism added an estimated $2 billion to the global economy last year, a number that is expected to increase by 10% each year.

About the size of a school bus and weighing an average of 45 tons, the humpback whale is an impressive creature. But they weren't always such a visible part of the Hawaiian seascape.  Their recent comeback from near extinction at the hand of whale hunters is as remarkable as the animals themselves, and has wildlife experts in awe of their recovery capabilities.

“The fact that they’ve been able to come back like this proves that it is possible, if we give them half a chance,” Darling says.

Strict international restrictions on whaling, implemented in 1966, gave the humpback population its chance to rebound. But is 20,000 humpbacks in the entire North Pacific really that many?

“When you think about it, it’s not,” Darling says. “I mean, think about how many people attend a football game, you know? It’s a little chunk of a stadium. But ... it’s so many more than were here."

It’s enough of a recovery, some argue, that the North Pacific humpback whale should be taken off of the federal list of endangered species altogether. The Hawaii Fishermen’s Alliance for Conservation and Tradition recently petitioned for removing the North Pacific humpback from the list, claiming that the whales' population increase warrants a reexamination of the current restrictions on fishing practices.

And Japan, the largest whaling country in the world, is already utilizing a loophole in anti-whaling laws to kill some species of whales. Hunters claim the carcasses are used for scientific research – gathering information on the animals’ age, diet, and birthing rate – before the meat is packaged and sold.

In 2007, Japanese whalers insisted that the humpback’s comeback justified adding the whales to their list of prospective prey. But outcry from the international community has forced them to back down, at least for now.

Darling believes this long-term conflict between humans and humpbacks is the greatest threat to the whales' future.

“As far as entanglements and vessel collisions, we can slow boats down, or we can warn vessels when there are whales in the area, or we can come up with different kinds of fishing gear which maybe reduces the entanglements. There are ways to sort of tackle those issues," he says.

"The bigger ones of how we’re all going to survive in the long run are going to be a little more challenging.”

It's a challenge, Darling says, that Whale Trust Maui is ready to tackle.


Filed under: Environment • Science • The Next List • Thinkers
Open-source airplane could cost just $15,000
July 29th, 2013
02:31 PM ET

Open-source airplane could cost just $15,000

By Jason Paur, Wired

There’s an open-source airplane being developed in Canada, and now its designers are looking to double down on the digital trends, turning to crowdsourced funding to finish the project.

The goal of Maker Plane is to develop a small, two-seat airplane that qualifies as a light sport aircraft and is affordable, safe, and easy to fly. But unlike other home-built aircraft, where companies or individuals charge for their plans or kits, Maker Plane will give its design away for free.

The group behind the project consists of pilots and engineers who are designing the airplane, allowing it to be built using the kind of personal manufacturing equipment somebody in the maker community might already have at home or can easily purchase. The idea of a home-built airplane is nothing new. It dates back to the earliest days of flight, after Orville and Wilbur made and flew their own airplanes (and engine), the homemade plane movement — literally — took off.

Today, the home-built movement continues, and this week tens of thousands of pilots and fans of home-built airplanes are descending on the annual Airventure in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

This cross-section shows the wing's design.

In the spirit of the open source and maker movements, the Maker Plane group is including components from many designers and builders outside their circle. As they focus on the design of the airplane (fuselage, wings, etc.), the Maker Plane team helps connect those interested in building their own with other open source components such as an air data computer and radios. They even show you where you can get plans to build your own traffic and collision avoidance system.

The structural parts of the airplane, including the fuselage, will be built from composites. There are many home-built composite airplanes already taking to the skies, so the techniques are well proven. Smaller pieces such as knobs and handles will be made using 3-D printing. And after a year and a half of design, the Maker Plane team has started to build the first prototype. That’s why they’re turning tocrowdsourced funding to help the project along.

The basic specifications of the airplane follow the guidelines of the light sport aircraft regulations. The aviation industry and the Federal Aviation Administration created the LSA category to encourage more people to fly. The airplanes are limited to two seats, a maximum weight of 1,320 pounds, and a top speed of 120 knots (138 mph).

Maker Plane says they expect their design will fall within these requirements and have a range of 400 miles. More ambitious: They hope the cost to build the airplane will be under $15,000, including the engine.

The aviation world is filled with optimistic ideas that don’t always get off the ground, but the Maker Plane is the first attempt at sourcing the entire airplane from the open-source community, which should help keep costs down, assuming you have the skills to build the various components. And if they succeed, Maker Plane hopes to fly the first prototype in 2015.

See the original article at Wired.com.


Filed under: Innovation • Science • Tech
Robots: The future of elder care?
July 19th, 2013
03:42 PM ET

Robots: The future of elder care?

By Heather Kelly, CNN

Would you let a robot take over as a live-in nurse for your aging parent or grandparent?

In 2050, the elderly will account for 16 percent of the global population. That's 1.5 billion people over the age of 65, according to the Population Reference Bureau. Caring for those seniors - physically, emotionally and mentally - will be an enormous undertaking, and experts say there will be a shortage of professionals trained and willing to take on the job.

"We have to find more resources and have to get new ways of delivering those resources and delivering the quality of care," says Antonio Espingardeiro, an expert in robotics and automation at the University of Salford in Manchester, England, and a member of the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society.

Enter the elder-care robot.

Robots have the potential to meet many of the needs of an aging population, according to Espingardeiro. A software engineer, Espingardeiro is finishing his PhD on new types of human and robotic interaction. He has developed a model of elder-care robot, P37 S65, which can monitor senior patients and communicate with doctors while providing basic care and companionship. FULL POST

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Meet DARPA's 6'2" disaster-response robot
July 16th, 2013
10:18 AM ET

Meet DARPA's 6'2" disaster-response robot

By Heather Kelly, CNN

At six-foot-two and 330 pounds, this hulking first responder has all the qualities you'd want in the field after a disaster:  strength, endurance and calm under pressure. Better yet, it has two sets of hands, 28 hydraulic joints, stereo cameras in its head and an onboard computer.

The ATLAS humanoid robot, which looks vaguely like something from the "Terminator" movies, was created by Boston Dynamics for DARPA, a research arm of the U.S. Department of Defense. It will compete in the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC), a competition that invites engineers to create a remotely controlled robot that can respond to natural or man-made disasters.

The winning robot could be used in situations deemed too dangerous for humans, like the 2011 nuclear disaster at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.

The DRC is broken up into three challenges. The first was the Virtual Robotics Challenge, in which 26 teams controlled simulated, 3-D robots. Only seven of those teams - including participants from MIT, Carnegie Mellon, and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory – were chosen to go on to the next stage. They will each get their very own ATLAS for the Robotics Challenge Trials, a real-life obstacle course competition between robots that will take place this December in Florida.

As part of the challenge, the teams will program their humanoid robot to accomplish a range of tasks. ATLAS will need to drive a car, navigate complicated terrain on foot and move rubble in order to enter a building. It will also have to climb stairs and use various tools to do things like turn off valves or break through concrete walls.

ATLAS has modular wrists so that it can swap out hands and attach third-party mitts to better handle specific tasks. The robot's head also has LIDAR to better gather information about the surrounding area.

The robots will need to be able to complete tasks on their own without constant human control, which will be a key feature if they are in situations where communications are spotty. DARPA also wants the final robots to be easily controlled by people who have had minimal amounts of training, so that the technology is accessible to more people on short notice.

The teams whose robots perform the best at the trials later this year will continue to receive funding and compete in the competition's final stage in December 2014. The Robotics Challenge Finals will put the robots through a full disaster scenario that will include eight tasks each robot must complete.

In addition to improving future disaster response, winners of the 27-month competition will receive a $2 million prize.

The ATLAS robots are the result of a $10 million contract with Boston Dynamics, the Massachusetts engineering and robotics-design company.  That amount covers eight robots, in-field support and any necessary maintenance.

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Filed under: Innovation • Military • Robots • Science • Tech
Tech to detect when a driver is dozing off
July 9th, 2013
08:58 AM ET

Tech to detect when a driver is dozing off

By Heather Kelly, CNN

While Google, universities and car companies work on perfecting self-driving vehicles, flawed and sometimes sleepy human drivers still fill our roads.

But new technology could help detect when those drivers start to feel tired and possibly prevent dangerous accidents. A research project at the University of Leicester has combined eye-tracking and brain monitoring to calculate when a driver's alertness starts to wane.

Researchers have used the two tracking technologies on their own before, but Dr. Matias Ison, who led this project, said they've found a new way to combine them for more accurate information about a person's state of mind.

"There are a variety of behaviors that are related to sleepiness and distractions," said Dr. Ison. "Some of them, such as blinking more frequently, changing our eye movements’ pattern, or not fixating on the road ahead are well suited to be detected with an eye tracker. However, brain activity changes during sleepiness and low cognitive alertness state can only be detected with an EEG."

FULL POST


Filed under: Innovation • Science • Tech • The Next List
June 28th, 2013
04:31 PM ET

The 3-D technology that is helping ice skaters

Editor’s note: Jim Richards is a professor of biomechanics and vice provost for graduate and professional education at the University of Delaware, where 3D simulations are created to enhance performance in both sports and medical rehabilitation. For more on Richards, watch "The Next List," Saturday June 29th at 2:30 p.m. ET on CNN.

By Jim Richards, Special to CNN

One of the most interesting aspects of biomechanics is its widespread applicability to everything ranging from the study of insect flight to complex medical issues. I am fortunate enough to work on a campus that has made a significant investment in resources and expertise that facilitate research across the entire spectrum of biomechanics, including significant efforts in orthopedic research, rehabilitation of wounded soldiers, osteoarthritis, and of course, sport injuries and performance.

Researchers in sport biomechanics have been studying athletic performance for decades and have made significant improvements in equipment, athlete safety, and less frequently, performance. In fact, the ability to use biomechanics to directly improve athletic performance has been minimal. Performance improvement has been realized through advancements in equipment design (ie. golf clubs, skis), but improvements to actual skills have been sporadic.

Traditionally, biomechanical analyses of skills conclude with professional interpretation of the measurements and recommendations for potential improvements to performance. The “contribution” of biomechanics typically ends once the recommendations have been made, leaving the coach and athlete to figure out what the final result should look like. As expected, this approach rarely leads to meaningful improvements in performance, and this has been a source of frustration for both scientists and athletes.

When we started the skating project, the goal was to utilize technology to conduct rapid assessment of the athlete’s performance and to provide objective and mechanically sound recommendations for improvement in a form that both the skater and coach could immediately use. Prior work with the skaters taught us that most were failing to complete their jumps because of ineffective posture during the flight phase of the jump. The fact that the skater isn’t in contact with the ground during this part of the jump simplified the analysis and allowed us to adopt a modeling approach to improving performance. There were several advantages to this approach. First, different strategies to improving performance could be examined without putting the skater at risk by asking them to implement the strategies on-ice. Second, unproductive strategies could be ruled out while successful strategies could be identified, minimizing the amount of trial and error that would normally be part of the process. Finally, the skater and coach would be able to view a 3D rendering of the model to see how changes would look during the performance, providing them with a visual example of how the performance would appear for each individual athlete.

To date, the outcomes of the on-ice analyses have met our expectations. Within approximately 10 minutes of the performance, the skater and coach can begin working with the model. The coaches can experiment with both traditional and non-traditional arm, leg, and trunk positions and immediately determine whether they benefit the skater’s performance. Most skaters report being able to implement the recommended changes in a period of 2-3 weeks, and we frequently receive email and/or video evidence of a skater’s success. Additionally, trends associated with successful jumping styles have begun to emerge, and coaches are able to apply this knowledge to the training efforts of other skaters.

The research on the shoulder presented a different set of challenges. Early on in my career, I analyzed shoulder mechanics of pitchers ranging in skill from little league to major league. The obvious flaw in the analysis was the fact that it ignored the contribution of the scapula (shoulder blade), a structure critical to shoulder function. Current research on shoulder function still suffers from the same flaw, and when we were invited to participate in a shoulder workshop at the Philadelphia Shriners Hospital focusing on patients with brachial plexus birth palsy, it became obvious that we couldn’t ignore the scapula any longer. It plays a critical role in the ability of BPBP patients to realize any degree of functionality.

Drs. Kozin and Zlotolow at Shriners provided the medical direction for the work, which focused on measuring scapular contribution to specific clinical positions used to estimate the patient’s degree of shoulder function. Our approaches began with surface mapping strategies using hundreds of markers and evolved to more landmark specific strategies using a few as 10 markers. To date, we have been able to differentiate between scapular contribution and glenohumeral contribution (the ball and socket joint in the shoulder) to specific arm positions, and are working toward measuring the scapula during dynamic motions. We have a long way to go, but we’re pleased with the progress we’ve made to date.

In the future, we’re optimistic that improvements in technology and new approaches to the mathematical analysis of human motion will continue to advance our ability to analyze and improve performance. Looming on the horizon are optical systems that can capture motion data outdoors, optical systems that can capture motion data without markers, and wireless sensors that can measure body orientation without the use of cameras. It would not be surprising if in the near future, much of the process that we now perform with expensive, high-end technology becomes available in the form of affordable lightweight portable sensors coupled to a smartphone app.

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Controlling flying robots with your mind
June 6th, 2013
03:43 PM ET

Controlling flying robots with your mind

By Heather Kelly, CNN

A graduate student wearing a skull cap covered in wires sits perfectly still and thinks about making a fist with his right hand.

Nearby, a small quadcopter - a flying drone with four rotors - turns right. He imagines making a fist with his left hand and the robotic flying copter goes left. After a thought about clenching both hands, it lifts higher into the air.

He is controlling the device with his mind.

The system is part of a new research project that reads the brain's electrical activity and translates certain thoughts into commands for the unmanned aerial vehicle. It's called a brain-computer interface, and someday it could have important uses for people who are paralyzed.

"We envision that they’ll use this technology to control wheelchairs, artificial limbs or other devices," said University of Minnesota engineering professor Bin He in a post announcing the project.

This graduate student wears a special skull cap that allows him to manipulate the flying robot with his mind.

Here's how it works: Imagining specific movements without actually doing them produces electric currents in the motor cortex. The interface itself isn't new, but the researchers used brain imaging scans to find out exactly which imagined movements activated which neurons.

Once they mapped out the various thoughts and associated signals, they used them to control a helicopter simulation on a computer. Next, they moved on to real flying devices.

There are no implants or invasive brain tweaks needed for subject to control the copter with their brain. The technology is called electroencephalography (EEG). The skull cap uses 64 electrodes to detect these currents from a subject's brain as they think about associated actions, then translates that data into instructions and transmits them to the quadcopter over Wi-Fi.

In the test, pilots weren't allowed to look at the quadcopter while they controlled it, only a screen showing the view from a small camera mounted on the front of the flying vehicle. After a few hours of training, the subjects could move the quadcopters with precision, even  guiding them through hoops suspended from the ceiling.

Flying is just the start for this technology, He said.

"It may even help patients with conditions like autism or Alzheimer’s disease or help stroke victims recover," he said. "We’re now studying some stroke patients to see if it’ll help rewire brain circuits to bypass damaged areas."

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Filed under: Future • Innovation • Robots • Science • Tech
Lasers turn cement into liquid metal
May 28th, 2013
04:52 PM ET

Lasers turn cement into liquid metal

By Doug Gross, CNN

Not all scientists compare themselves favorably to the lead-to-gold alchemists of King Arthur's day.

Then again, not all scientists say they've figured out a way to zap cement with a laser and turn it into metal.

Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory announced this week that they have unraveled a formula to do just that. The discovery, they say, opens up cheap, common cement as a material that could be used in the electronics world to make things like computer chips or thin films and other protective coatings.

“This new material has lots of applications, including as thin-film resistors used in liquid-crystal displays - basically the flat panel computer monitor that you are probably reading this from at the moment,” said Chris Benmore, a physicist from Argonne who worked with a team of scientists from Japan, Finland and Germany on the project.

The metallic glass material that results from the process has both better resistance to corrosion than regular metal and is less breakable than regular glass, the researchers say.

This change demonstrates a unique way to make metallic-glass material, which has positive attributes including better resistance to corrosion than traditional metal, less brittleness than traditional glass, conductivity, low energy loss in magnetic fields, and fluidity for ease of processing and molding. Previously, only metals have been able to transition to a metallic-glass form.

In the process, researchers melted mayenite - a component of cement made of calcium and aluminum oxides - at temperatures of 2,000 degrees Celsius using a carbon dioxide laser beam. By keeping the piping hot material in an aerodynamic levitator, they were able to keep it from touching the sides of its container until it cooled into a glassy state.

Until now, only metals were able to be melted into a metallic-glass form. They say their discovery could lead to finding other materials that can be turned into semi-conductors.


Filed under: Innovation • Science • Tech
May 28th, 2013
04:29 PM ET

How Francesco Clark made beauty from tragedy

Editor's Note: Tune in to CNN Saturday, June 1, at 2:30 pm ET to see "The Next List's" 15-minute profile of Francesco Clark.

Madonna and Michelle Obama are self-proclaimed fans. Jane Larkworthy at W Magazine calls it simply “divine.” And Harper’s Bazaar’s Alexandra Parnass says it’s the most innovative skin-care line she’s ever seen.

It's Clark’s Botanicals, which has quickly developed a cult following, particularly among the fashion elite, since its launch in 2005. The secret, according to founder Francesco Clark, is Jasmine Absolute, a blend of essential oils found in all his products. But for some, Clark's unique entry into the world of beauty is at least part of the draw.

This Saturday, June 1, marks the 11th anniversary of the accident that would forever change Clark’s life. He was just 24, enjoying the first night of a summer rental on Long Island, when he decided to take a late-night dip.

“The second I dove in,” he says, “I realized I dove into the shallow end of the pool.”

Francesco was paralyzed from the shoulders down. “You’ll never move your arms,” doctors told him. “Don’t even think about your legs. Don’t even bother.”

Clark never accepted his diagnosis. Not truly. But it wasn’t until his hero, actor-turned-disabled activist Christopher Reeve, passed away that he decided to take full responsibility for his recovery. And for the first time since his accident, Clark looked in a mirror. “I didn’t look like myself.”

One of the side effects of his spinal-cord injury was he could no longer sweat. “I had acne everywhere, but it was unreactive to any $500 cream, $3 cream, prescriptions, over-the-counter," he said. "Nothing worked.”

Eager to reclaim the friends and colleagues he’d neglected since his injury, he turned to his father, a doctor trained in both homeopathy and Western medicine.

After setting up a lab in the kitchen, Clark and his father investigated 78 botanical ingredients before landing on Jasmine Absolute, the unique blend of essential oils that solved Francesco’s skin problems. Today it’s used throughout the Clark’s Botanicals skincare line, sold in stores from New York to Hong Kong.

But far more important than the line’s success is the role it’s played in Clark’s recovery.

"It was the first time I saw the power of the beauty industry," he said. "A lot of people think it's just about the way you look. For me, it's about the way I felt."

Bolstered by the renewed sense of purpose his company has given him - and his aggressive pursuit of spinal-cord injury treatments - Clark has defied his doctors’ diagnosis. He now has partial use of his arms, wrists and hands. And as his company continues to grow, so do his dreams.

“You know, I’m very impatient and I want to do more," he said. "I want to be more independent, using my hands. And I plan to walk again in the next three to five years.”

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Filed under: Culture • Fashion • Innovation • Science • The Next List • Video
Drones: The future of disaster response
Fireflight's Scout is a light, portable unmanned aerial vehicle that its maker says is easy to launch and recover.
May 23rd, 2013
01:29 PM ET

Drones: The future of disaster response

By Heather Kelly, CNN

First responders to Monday's massive tornado in Moore, Oklahoma, were greeted with a blighted expanse of destroyed homes, blocked roads, downed power lines and a limited window of time to unearth survivors before the sun set.

Navigating the area on foot or by car was a challenge because of the debris. News and law-enforcement helicopters filled the air above, but while they gathered useful information for rescue crews, the noise they created was drowning out cries for help from trapped survivors.

The entire area was declared a no-fly zone.

But one airborne technology will soon make responding to these kinds disasters easier: unmanned automated vehicles (UAVs), more commonly called drones. These portable, affordable aircraft can launch quickly in dangerous situations, locate survivors and send data about their whereabouts to responders on the ground. FULL POST

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