Navy Deploys Robot Sharks. Yes, Really

Automatonophobia is the technical term for fear of robots. Fear of sharks is selachophobia. Psychiatrists will have to come up with a new term now that the U.S. Navy has deployed, yes, robot sharks.

The Navy’s GhostSwimmer unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) — a five-foot-long, 100-pound robotic shark — has completed testing and will now join the fleet, according to naval researchers.

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The GhostSwimmer is based on biomimetic design principles, in which engineers leverage millions of years of biological evolution to create machines and systems that emulate animals or natural processes.

“It swims just like a fish does by oscillating its tail fin back and forth,” said Michael Rufo, director of Boston Engineering’s Advanced Systems Group, on the GhostSwimmer project page. “The unit is a combination of unmanned systems engineering and unique propulsion and control capabilities.”

The Navy plans to use the GhostSwimmer for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions as well as hull inspections of friendly ships. The robot can operate autonomously for extended periods of time on battery power, or it can be controlled with a 500-foot tether.

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The Navy isn’t disclosing exactly how the GhostSwimmer transmits and receives data, but the press materials state that the robot has to periodically surface to download information it collects.

And here’s some good news for the marine mammal community: Designers are also hoping that the GhostSwimmer could be used to sniff out underwater mines, replacing the bottlenose dolphins and sea lions the Navy currently trains for the task.

Underwater Houses for a Flooded Future

It’s a fact. Sea levels are rising and today’s shores are going to be tomorrow’s ocean floors. If you can’t beat it, why not embrace it?

That’s what the folks at U.S. Submarine Structures seem to be saying with their undersea and semi-submersible residential and commercial buildings. The company is already working on the underwater resort, Poseidon, to be located in Fiji.

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Although the project isn’t finished yet — it was was scheduled to be completed in 2008 — 150,000 people have expressed serious interest in the paying the $14,000 weekly price tag to become guests.

That kind of interest could be what’s underlying plans to build additional structures below sea level.

According to the website, at least one person has committed to owning the residential version know as H2OME. It’s a 3,600-square-foot round house designed to sit in water as deep as 60 feet. Residents access the house via an elevator or circular stairway. Conduits for water, sewage, communications and electricity are connected to the shore.

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One of the big advantages to living underwater is the view. The company says it can create a coral garden that houses numerous fish and a wide assortment of invertebrates. Push a button to feed the fish and at night, flick on the underwater lights to illuminate the dark waters.

If you love the water and always long for your own Atlantis, this house might be for you.

Credit: U.S. Submarine Structures

Compact Fusion Reactor Could Be Online in 10 Years

Lockheed Martin Corp says it has made a technological breakthrough in developing a power source based on nuclear fusion, with reactors small enough to fit on the back of a truck.

The aerospace and security firm says it expects its first operational reactor to be ready in as little as 10 years.

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And thanks to the reactor’s smaller size, the company based just outside Washington in Bethesda, Maryland, said it can design, build and test the new compact fusion reactor in less than a year. After completing several of these cycles, Lockheed’s team said it plans on being able to produce a prototype in five years.

“Our compact fusion concept combines several alternative magnetic confinement approaches, taking the best parts of each, and offers a 90 percent size reduction over previous concepts,” said Tom McGuire, compact fusion lead for the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works’ Revolutionary Technology Programs.

The Skunk Works team also plans to search for partners to help further the technology.

Roger Dargaville, a research fellow and leader of the MEI Energy Futures Group at the University of Melbourne, Australia, stressed that nuclear energy will be an important part of power generation in countries where other low carbon alternatives are not viable.

“The potential for the use of fusion reactors over fission is exciting news as the dangerous by-products of fission reactors are a major disadvantage of the technology,” said Dargaville.

But, he added, “The lack of political will to address the general resistance to nuclear power within the population means the option for using nuclear will come too late.”

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Lockheed’s announcement is still a “long way” from a working prototype or commercially viable power generator, said Joel Gilmore of Australia-based ROAM Consulting.

“Fusion requires incredibly high temperatures and pressures, which is challenging, and a lot of people have been working on fusion for a long time. So I won’t get too excited yet,” he said.

“Even if successful, the big question is what will fusion power cost? It will be challenging to compete with the falling costs of conventional renewable energy sources, especially in Australia with our world class wind and solar resources.”

Africa’s Largest Solar Farm Comes Online

Compared with other places around the globe, South Africa ranks among the sunniest. It gets some the highest average number of hours of sunshine per day: 8.5 hours compared with 3.8 in London, 6.4 in Rome and 6.9 in New York. So it makes sense that someone would want to build a giant solar farm there.

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Renewable energy company SolarReserve, headquartered in Santa Monica, Calif., is one such place. This month they announced they had the Jasper solar farm, located near Kimberley in South Africa, running at full capacity. The 96 MW installation is Africa’s largest solar power project.

About 325,000 photovoltaic modules will deliver 180,000 megawatt-hours of renewable electricity annually to region. That’s enough to power 80,000 homes.

Like other countries around the world, South Africa is trying to reduce carbon emissions as well as increase renewable energy sources. They’ve set a goal of having 18 gigawatts of clean energy online by 2030. The Jasper project is one such installation getting the country closer to its goal.

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The Jasper project is one of a few big solar power plants coming online in Africa. In 2015, the 155-megawatt Nzema project in Ghana will provide that country with electricity. And Morocco aims to build several solar energy plants that will generate 2,000 megawatts of electricity by the year 2020.

Let it shine.

Solar Jackets from Tommy Hilfiger Power Phones

It always seems that when your smartphone is about to die, you’re nowhere near an outlet.

Fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger is coming out with a limited-edition, solar-powered jacket that can power up your electronic devices no matter where you are.

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Hilfiger partnered with solar manufacturer Pvilion to create a jacket for both men and women. On both, the water resistant, flexible solar panels located on the upper back snap on and off according to the look you’re going for.

Energy harvested from the solar panels is directed via a cable to two USB ports in the pockets. This allows the wearer to charge two devices at once.

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Each jacket costs a hefty $599, but 50 percent of the proceeds go toward the Fresh Air Fund, a chartible organization sponsored by Tommy Hilfiger that gives 1.7 million New York City children a shot at summer camp.

Drones Practice Monitoring Volcanoes for Eruptions

A drone that deploys a ground robot could regularly explore remote, dangerous areas.

When Mount Ontake erupted in Japan a few weeks ago, it was completely unexpected. No significant earthquakes, no steam or gas releases, nothing.

Usually, some warning does exist, and the best that we can to is to monitor active volcanoes as carefully as we can to try and spot whatever warning signs that are there.

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This is especially problematic with volcanoes that are undergoing frequent periods of activity, where it’s not safe to get close to them to determine when a minor eruption might turn into a major one. Not safe, you say? There’s a solution for that: send in the robots.

Keiji Nagatani, a professor at Tohoku University in Japan, has spent the last half decade developing robotic systems for volcano exploration.

For the last few years, he’s been working on ways of exploring remote, potentially dangerous volcanic areas using UAVs in collaboration with ground robots. A video below shows a test last month on Japan’s Mount Asama.

Clover robots could be equipped with small sensor packages, like a gas sensor, but it’s also important to be able to analyze rock samples directly.

Strawberry is a robotic claw that hangs from the bottom of Zion and can be used to collect rocks or soil or stuffed alien toys or whatever else a claw dangling from the sky is good for picking up.

If you watch closely, in addition to a claw device, there’s also an actuated roller that helps to scoop up smaller rocks and dust.

As far as I’ve been able to tell, none of these robots have yet been tested on an active volcano, but hopefully the Japanese researchers are getting close to doing that.

Because one thing we’ve learned from previous disasters is that robots can be a huge help, so the more we test and improve them under real-world conditions, the better they’ll be when we really need them.

Glowing Bike Path is Inspired by Van Gogh

In The Netherlands, solar-powered paths seems to be all the rage. There’s SolaRoad, which we blogged about yesterday. And now today, we bring you the Van Gogh-Roosegaarde bicycle path, which opened to the public this week in the Dutch town of Nuenen, where Van Gogh lived in 1883.

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The path, created by local artist and designer Daan Roosegaarde in collaboration with Heijmans Infrastructure, was inspired by Van Gogh’s iconic Starry Night painting.

The path is made of thousands of stones that absorb sunlight during the day and then glow at night. Embedded in concrete, the bikeway should last the lifetime of any cement path.

Daan Roosegaarde and Heijmans Infrastructure have also collaborated on similar projects, including Glowing Lines, where highway lines glow in the dark, and Smart Highway, which incorporates Glowing Lines as well as Dynamic Paint and Electric Priority Lanes. The Smart Highway project uses light, energy and road signs that are designed to automatically adapt to the traffic environment and people.

Foldable Phones and Tablets Are Around the Corner

A flexible display could conform to any shape or curvy surface.

Tablets that collapse into phones. Smartphones that fold up like wallets. Those are coming and a Japanese company has the goods to prove it.

At a recent event in Japan, Semiconductor Energy Laboratory (SEL), demonstrated a display that can be folded in three.

It’s not hard to see how this kind of technology could cause a sea change in device development. Products will expand and collapse at will. Open a device as a tablet at a coffee shop then fold it into a smartphone on your way out the door.

This is a big step up from the curved displays available today from Samsung on its Galaxy Note Edge or LG on its G Flex.

“We are starting to see flexible [or curved displays] show up in phones and watches,” said Paul Semenza, an analyst at NPD DisplaySearch. “However, all of these so far have been ‘fixed,’ meaning that they are bent or curved once, and then fixed in place behind strengthened glass.”

On the other hand, the display shown off by SEL can be used in consumer devices whose shape is not fixed. Bendable smartphones and tablets are two examples, Norihiko Seo, General Manager at the Intellectual Property Division of SEL, told Foxnews.com.

In a video, SEL shows the display — based on OLED or Organic Light-Emitting Diode technology, widely used in smartphones today — laying flat in tablet mode. Then it is folded in three (what SEL calls “tri-fold”) into a smaller size that would be suitable for a smartphone.

So, who’s going to use these displays? Microsoft is one possibility, said Seo. SEL and the former Nokia team (now part of Microsoft) have been working together on this technology, according to Seo.

Microsoft declined to comment when contacted by FoxNews.com.

And Samsung has been vocal about this technology for a couple of years. It demonstrated a bendable display back in 2013 that was made of “extremely thin” plastic, instead of glass, that won’t break when it’s dropped. Like the SEL display, it can be flexed at will.

When we will we see real devices? Samsung has been talking about 2015 to introduce products with foldable displays.

Seo of SEL — which is strictly an R&D company — is mum on the subject of products but he adds that his company’s displays have attracted a lot of interest from manufacturers.

DisplaySearch’s Semenza thinks it’s a few years further out for use in a mass-market, high-volume consumer device.

Taste Maker: Better Eating Through Technology

The problem with eating healthy is that you have to eat healthy food. It’s a real dilemma, in my experience, and one of many troubling indications that the universe is essentially unfair.

A designer in Romania may have found a way around this problem, though, with a concept-stage technology that makes any kind of food taste like any other kind of food.

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Oh, it’s trippy, all right. The Set To Mimic system, a finalist in the 2014 Electrolux Design Lab Competition, proposes using a microchip patch on the forehead to essentially hack into your brain and trigger your favorite tastes and smells.

It works like this: Prepare an unhealthy dish that you really like — Scottish lorne sausage, say — and place it on the Set To Mimic plate. Affix the microchip patches to your forehead and dig in. The chip monitors the synaptic activity associated with the taste and smell of the food, then records this data in the hardware of the plate itself.

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Next time around, put some healthy food on the plate — one of those terrifying kale salads, for instance — and turn the dial. The plate broadcasts the synaptic data back to the dermal patches, which manipulates brain activity to replace the taste of kale with the taste of obscure but delicious Scottish breakfast foods.

Or something like that. This is all blue-sky product design thinking, mind you. Creator Sorina Rasteanu is a 22-year-old graduate student in Romania, and the concept development page is rather light on specifics. But there are no bad ideas in brainstorming, and it’s nice to see the young people thinking in the proper direction.

Robot Rides Hoverbike, Nuff Said

we know that life is increasingly busy in the digital age, and there are a million things you could be doing at any given moment. However, may we modestly propose you take a moment to watch this frickin’ robot ride a hoverbike.

Developed by a small operation out of the U.K. called Malloy Aeronautics, the Drone 3 hoverbike is exactly that — a flying motorcycle powered by four turbine fans. But the current vehicle is a 1/3 size scale model — a drone, essentially — with a robot rider to approximate the proportional size and weight of a human rider. The drone is controlled via remote, similar to other UAV designs.

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The Drone 3 is a proof-of-concept demonstration of a more ambitious plan. In an interesting strategy, the 1/3-size drone is being sold via Kickstarter in hopes of funding development of a full-size quadcopter hoverbike, designed for human riders. Think Return of the Jedi, forest moon of Endor, this sort of thing.

Designers say the quadcopter approach, which uses four different overlapping fans, offers improved stability, maneuverability and payload capacity than competing two-fan hoverbike designs. In fact, the Malloy hoverbike is intended to share the skies with helicopters, planes and other aircraft.

“This hoverbike is a helicopter — it takes off like a helicopter, flies and lands like a helicopter,” says Malloy Aeronautics’ Grant Stapleton in the demonstration video. “It’s designed to fly to an altitude of over 9,000 feet and do so at over 100 knots [115 mph].”

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The company is currently finishing up the full-size prototype, with flight tests expected in a few months.

Meanwhile, you can still get on board at the Kickstarter campaign, running through Aug. 31. For a pledge of just under $1,000 USD, you can get a bare-bones Drone 3 kit. For larger pledges, the team will throw in the robotic pilot (named Buster, in case you’re curious), plus a mounted Go Pro camera and dedicated control unit.