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The Vanguard

The 5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

Elizabeth Hamilton
Tomas Kellner
June 29, 2018

Scientists in Japan developed a flying DRAGON robot, their peers in California built artificial human immune cells that could one day fight cancers, and a team at NASA found a way to make jets quieter. Science is powering ahead. You’ve heard it here loud and clear.


Flying Dragon Robot

What is it? Researchers at the University of Tokyo’s JSK lab have developed an aerial robot, dubbed DRAGON, that can autonomously figure out what shape to take as it flies through constrained spaces.

Why does it matter?  According to IEEE Spectrum, one of the biggest barriers to creating aerial robots is making them small enough to move freely, yet durable enough to interact with their surroundings. Because of DRAGON’s flexibility, it can change shape to move freely while still retaining its strength. With further research, DRAGON will be able to slither through the air, transform its shape to fit through small spaces and interact with objects in its environment.

How does it work? The robot is made of a series of 12 modules connected by powered hinged joints. The team attached dual fan thrusters to each module, allowing it to move freely in many directions. The entire robot is driven by an Intel Euclid kit, which includes a chip, a camera, environmental sensors and other technology, and powered by a battery pack. Fan Shi, who contributed to the research behind DRAGON, told IEEE Spectrum the innovation was a “breakthrough in hardware design which, in a beautiful way, connects a manipulation arm with a ducted fan-driven aerial robot.”

Top image: DRAGON can autonomously figure out what shape to take as it flies through constrained spaces. Image credit: JSK Lab/University of Tokyo.


A Killer Solution

T-cells attacking a cancer cell. Illustration credit: Getty Images.

What is it? Researchers at UCLA developed synthetic immune cells that are “near-perfect” copies of human T cells. The T-cell lymphocyte is a white blood cell the body develops in response to disease and to fight infection.

Why does it matter? Doctors recently started reprogramming patients’ own T-cells in what is known as CAR-T therapy, two methods of which the FDA has approved to fight blood cancer. But natural T-cells are fragile and survive only for a few days outside of the body, UCLA said. The university reported that “the ability to create the artificial cells could be a key step toward more effective drugs to treat cancer and autoimmune diseases and could lead to a better understanding of human immune cells’ behavior. Such cells also could eventually be used to boost the immune system of people with cancer or immune deficiencies.”

How does it work? The team used a microfluidic system to make the cells by combining “mineral oil and an alginate biopolymer, a gum-like substance made from polysaccharides and water. When the two fluids combine, they create microparticles of alginate, which replicate the form and structure of natural T cells,” UCLA reported. Next, the scientists had to make sure that the cells would sniff out disease, like their natural counterparts. They coated their surfaces to closely mimic human cellular membranes. “Then, using a chemical process called bioconjugation, the scientists linked the T cells with CD4 signalers, the particles that activate natural T cells to attack infection or cancer cells,” UCLA said.


The Art Of No Noise

NASA based its design for quieter landing gear ""on extensive computer simulations to produce the maximum amount of noise reduction without the penalty of increasing aerodynamic drag. The landing gear cavity was treated with a series of chevrons near its leading edge, and a net stretched across the opening to alter airflow, aligning it more with the wing."" Caption and image credits: NASA/Ken Ulbrich.

What is it? Researchers at NASA developed landing gear that reduces noise generated by aircraft by over 70 percent.

Why does it matter? “The number one public complaint the Federal Aviation Administration receives is about aircraft noise,” said Mehdi Khorrami, an aerospace scientist at NASA’s Langley Research Center. “NASA’s goal here was to reduce aircraft noise substantially in order to improve the quality of life for communities near airports. We are very confident that with the tested technologies we can substantially reduce total aircraft noise, and that could really make a lot of flights much quieter.”

How does it work? To help reduce noise, NASA scientists reconfigured three key aircraft components: landing gear, gear cavities and wing flaps. Their landing gear cover, for example, is porous at the front and looks a little like a sieve. The design deflects some airflow around the landing gear and allows the rest to stream through the fairing itself. The team also reinvented the gear cavity — the space underneath the nose and the wings that’s left open when landing gear deploys. The team deployed “a series of chevrons near the front of the cavity with a sound-absorbing foam at the trailing wall, along with a net stretching across the opening of the main landing gear cavity, absorbing the sound,” according to a NASA release.


Getting The Show Off The Road

What is it? In 2014, the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) launched a program, called GXV-T, seeking to “investigate revolutionary ground-vehicle technologies that would simultaneously improve the mobility and survivability of vehicles through means other than adding more armor, including avoiding detection, engagement and hits by adversaries.” The companies that advanced to Phase 2 of the project just unveiled their designs. Some of the modifications can make an engineer’s heart skip a beat. They include wheels that can transition to tracks when the terrain changes, groundbreaking hydraulic suspension and 360-degree virtual windows in the cockpit.

Why does it matter? With more research, these advancements pave the way for future combat vehicles to nimbly cover up to 95 percent of off-road terrain. Since DARPA and its predecessor were also involved in designing everyday tech like the internet and GPS, everyone could benefit. “For mobility, we’ve taken a radically different approach by avoiding armor and developing options to move quickly and be agile over all terrain,” said Major Amber Walker, the program manager for GXV-T in DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office.

How does it work? Some of teams focused on wheels. One innovative design can turn wheels into triangular tracks — which are ideal for soft surfaces, like sand. Engineers have also installed cameras outside the vehicle that feed live footage to 360-degree virtual windows inside the cockpit.


The Heat Is Off

A new type of camouflage makes a human hand invisible to a thermal camera. Caption and image credit: American Chemical Society.

What is it? Scientists from the American Chemical Society have created thermal camouflage that can hide heat emitted by the body and other objects by reconfiguring their thermal appearance and blending it with different temperatures in mere seconds.

Why does it matter? Scientists in the past have tried to develop thermal camouflage, but this is the first time they’ve been able to create a flexible, quickly adaptable material. Along with being a wearable material for the likes of the Navy SEALs, for example, researchers said the new tech could also lead to adaptive heat shields for satellites.

How does it work? The camouflage system is made up of a “top electrode with layers of graphene and a bottom electrode made of a gold coating on heat-resistant nylon,” according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Scientists placed a membrane drenched with an ionic liquid, which contains positively and negatively charged ions, between the electrodes. “When a small voltage is applied, the ions travel into the graphene, reducing the emission of infrared radiation from the camo's surface,” the AAAS explained.