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.


App Does Math Homework with Phone Camera

There comes a sobering moment in every dad’s life when he realizes he can no longer help much with his kids’ math homework. Well, maybe not every dad. I suppose theoretical physicists do all right.

However, as an unrehabilitated English major, it’s a constant problem for me, so I was excited to read about PhotoMath, a new app that lets you do math homework by simply pointing your phone camera at a textbook. Hoo, boy — the temptation to abuse this thing is awful.

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Launched earlier this week at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in London, PhotoMath is already shooting to the top of the app charts. The software uses optical character recognition technology to read printed equations on a page, then pops up an augmented-reality display that works through captured equations in real time.

So, yeah, you can point your phone at a problem and PhotoMath can solve it for you, most of the time. (The character recognition only works with printed materials — no handwriting.)

But that’s just the baseline tech. Where PhotoMath gets genuinely awesome is in the image capture options. Once you’ve captured a particular equation, PhotoMath can save the image, then generate detailed instructions on how you actually solve the math problem. In other words, with PhotoMath, you can show your work.

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PhotoMath can handle arithmetic expressions, fractions and decimals, powers and roots, and simple linear equations. The creators say the app’s sweet spot is in the general area of middle school math — my problem exactly! — but they hope to ramp up the technology in future iterations.

The app is free for iOS and Windows Phone (Android is en route) and parent company Microblink isn’t looking to make money off PhotoMath directly. Instead, the company hopes to generate interest in its other products and its core real-time optical character recognition technology.

Gotta run, it’s homework time and I have a sixth-grader whose mind is about to blown.

Philae’s Batteries Have Drained, Comet Lander Sleeps


Philae, first comet lander, Nov. 12, 2014 – Nov. 15, 2014 (CET).

In the final hours, Philae’s science team hurried to squeeze as much science out of the small lander as possible. But the deep sleep was inevitable, Rosetta’s lander has slipped into hibernation after running its batteries dry.

In its final hour, the official Philae Twitter feed conversed with the official Rosetta account, saying, “I’m feeling a bit tired, did you get all my data? I might take a nap.”

“My #lifeonacomet has just begun @ESA_Rosetta. I’ll tell you more about my new home, comet #67P soon… zzzzz,” it tweeted before falling silent just as the European Space Agency confirmed that Philae had run so low on battery power that it had to drop into hibernation, ceasing all science operations.

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“Prior to falling silent, the lander was able to transmit all science data gathered during the First Science Sequence,” said Stephan Ulamec, Philae Lander Manager. “This machine performed magnificently under tough conditions, and we can be fully proud of the incredible scientific success Philae has delivered.”

Contact with the lander was lost at 01:36 CET (7:36 p.m. EST), which is around the time the Rosetta spacecraft orbited beyond the comet’s horizon, severing the communications link with its lander.

According to the ESA Rosetta mission blog, reestablishing communications will not be possible unless enough sunlight falls on the lander’s solar array to charge up its batteries.

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Earlier Friday evening, mission scientists sent commands to the lander to turn its body so that the small amount of sunlight Philae does receive (only 1.5 hours of light per 20 hour comet rotation) will hit more of the solar panels, boosting the possibility of a recharge. But there is only a very slim chance that this operation will bring Philae out of hibernation.

Although this likely spells the end of Rosetta’s surface mission with Philae, as the comet continues its journey around the sun with spacecraft in tow, the solar angle may change, casting more light on the rover in coming weeks — but this is a long-shot.

Regardless, Rosetta will listen out for Philae when the next communication window opens, on Saturday (Nov. 15) at 11:00 CET (5:00 a.m. EST).

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This may be the end of Philae’s short and trailblazing mission on the surface of Comet 67P, but a huge amount of data — including data from a drilling operation that, apparently, was carried out despite concerns that Philae wasn’t positioned correctly — was streamed to Rosetta mission control, potentially revolutionizing our understanding about the nature of comets.

And Rosetta will continue orbiting its comet as 67P drops closer to the sun, providing us with a unique and historic perspective on an icy body that could hold the secrets to the formation of our solar system.

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.

A Supersonic, Stealth Sub Could Sneak Up from China

According to a report this week in the South China Morning Post — an independent English-language newspaper published out of Hong Kong — the Chinese military is working on an even more ambitious kind of submarine.

Researchers at the Harbin Institute of Technology told the Post that they’re currently working on a submarine that would travel inside a virtually frictionless air bubble, enabling the sub to travel at supersonic speeds underwater.

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In fact, according to the report, the sub could travel from Shanghai to San Francisco in less than two hours. Analysts are skeptical of those numbers, according to a follow-up report in the Washington Post, but the science behind the concept is valid.

In fact, research into the basic technology has been happening since the height of the Cold War. The submarine design employs a process called “supercativation,” in which gases expelled from the nose of the vessel create an air bubble that surrounds the entire vehicle. Certain types of torpedoes already use the technology.

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The main problem with the system, as it exists today, is that there’s no reliable way to steer a vessel when it’s in supercativation state. The Harbin Institute researchers claim to have solved this problem by way of a liquid membrane that would coat the vessel when traveling at high speeds. The membrane could be adjusted on the fly, as it were, to create different levels of friction on particular parts of the vessel.

The researchers also said that the technology isn’t limited to submarines. “If a swimsuit can create and hold many tiny bubbles in water, it can significantly reduce the water drag,” researcher Li Fengchen told the Post. “Swimming in water could be as effortless as flying in the sky.”

Curiosity Does Drilling U-Turn on Wobbly Mars Rock

Despite its name, one Mars rock isn’t about to enrich NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity with a cascade of science.

After a drilling test last week on a Mars rock dubbed “Bonanza King,” Mars Science Laboratory mission managers noticed that the rock was unstable. So to avoid any unnecessary risk to the rover’s robotic arm-mounted drilling tools, further drilling work in the area was canceled.

ANALYSIS: Curiosity Scrubs Mars Rock, Possible Drilling Target

Previous to the wobbly discovery, Bonanza King was cleaned by Curiosity’s surface abrasion tool, which cleared off a layer of oxidized dust. In the rock is an interesting vein of white material — possibly sulfate salts — but, alas, Curiosity won’t be sampling any of the rock’s hidden secrets.

“We have decided that the rocks under consideration for drilling, based on the tests we did, are not good candidates for drilling,” said Curiosity Project Manager Jim Erickson of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. “Instead of drilling here, we will resume driving toward Mount Sharp.”

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The drilling test was carried out by Curiosity’s percussion tool, which acts like a small chisel by making an indentation in the rock’s surface. But during the impacts, the rock moved slightly. With the previous three successful drilling targets, the rocks were part of more extensive outcrops that provided stability. Bonanza King and the other potential targets in Curiosity’s current location are simply too wobbly for a safe drill.

This is only the latest challenge Curiosity has faced during its epic journey to the 3.4 mile (5.5 kilometer) high Aeolis Mons (known as “Mount Sharp”). Earlier this month, the six-wheeled rover began driving through “Hidden Valley” on its way to Bonanza King, but it experienced some wobbliness itself as it tried to trundle over loose sand.

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“After further analysis of the sand, Hidden Valley does not appear to be navigable with the desired degree of confidence,” Erickson said. “We will use a route avoiding the worst of the sharp rocks as we drive slightly to the north of Hidden Valley.”

Since landing on Mars in 2012, Curiosity has notched up an impressive 5.5 miles (8.8 kilometers) of hard Mars driving that has taken its toll on the rover’s wheels. However, there’s only another 2 to 3 miles until Curiosity reaches Mount Sharp’s lower slopes, a goal that is just within reach.