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The Vanguard

5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

Samantha Shaddock
May 19, 2017
Scientists at Georgia Tech have designed collision-proof drones and autonomous mini blimps that can detect “hesitant stares and eager smiles,” their peers at Princeton University have developed a technology that purifies water by injecting it with CO2 gas and researchers in Holland are using 3D-printed implants to correct eye defects in children. We see progress.

The Swarm Is Getting Smarter

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What is it? Georgia Tech researchers have found a way to keep a swarm of drones from colliding with each other. As a bonus, they also created autonomous mini blimps that can detect and respond to faces and hand gestures.

Why does it matter? “Our skies will become more congested with autonomous machines, whether they’re used for deliveries, agriculture or search and rescue,” said Magnus Egerstedt, a Georgia Tech engineering professor and the project’s leader. “It’s not possible for one person to control dozens or hundreds of robots at a time. That’s why we need machines to figure it out themselves.” As for the blimp, project leader Fumin Zhang envisions helper drones greeting customers in retail stores and offering assistance. “People are good at reading people’s faces and sensing if they need help or not,” Zhang said. “Robots could do the same. “

How does it work? Engineers coded a “virtual top hat” for several swarming quadcopters that allows the drones to maintain a 2-foot distance from their neighbor in flight. They then created an algorithm that lets the drones change formation midflight. For the second innovation, the team attached sensors and a minicamera to a 3D-printed gondola frame made buoyant by a small balloon. A prototype drone blimp could identify “hesitant stares and eager smiles” from operators while following hand signals that directed their movement. Both advances will be presented at the 2017 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation, held from May 29 to June 3 in Singapore.


Is That A Speaker In Your Wallet?

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What is it? Michigan State University researchers have discovered that an ultra-thin and flexible sheetlike transducer they created in 2016 can act as both a microphone and a speaker thanks to intrinsic properties that enable it to both convert mechanical energy to electrical energy and the other way around.

Why does it matter? This audio breakthrough could lead to foldable speakers, voice-controlled wearables or even a talking newspaper. “Many people are focusing on the sight and touch aspects of flexible electronics,” said Wei Li, lead author of the team’s paper. “But we’re also focusing on the speaking and listening aspects of the technology.”

How does it work? The team made a key component of the material by sandwiching together a silicon wafer and layers of materials containing charged particles. The team then embedded the material into an MSU Spartans flag. They then piped music from an iPad through an amplifier and into the flag, “which then reproduced the sound flawlessly.” The work was published this week in the journal Nature Communications.


Ending HIV In The U.S. Is Within Reach, Researchers Say

 width= HIV particles (yellow) infecting a T-cell, viewed under a scanning electron microscope. T-cells perform important functions in our immune system. Courtesy: NIH/NIAID.

What is it? Epidemiological researchers at Harvard University and Johns Hopkins University say that the HIV epidemic in the U.S. could reach a turning point if the number of new annual infections decreases to 12,000 by 2025. “While these targets are ambitious, they could be achieved with an intensified and sustained national commitment over the next decade,” said study co-author David Holtgrave.

How does it work? Nearly 40,000 new cases of HIV were diagnosed in the U.S. in 2015. Driving down new infections to just 12,000 in 2025, through continued advancements in diagnosing, preventing and treating the disease, would create an inflection point in the domestic prevalence of the disease, the researchers say. “If new infections decline faster than the number of deaths, the total number of people living with HIV in the United States would begin to decrease, meaning the United States would be on course to end the epidemic,” said Robert Bonacci, a study leader and physician at Brigham and Women's Hospital. Their analysis was published this week in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.


3D Printing Helps Treat Eye Defects

 width= The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that 780 babies are born with microphthalmia or anophthalmia every year in the U.S. Courtesy: CDC.

What is it? Dutch researchers announced last week that they had 3D-printed implants to help children born with small or missing eyes. The personalized biocompatible prosthetics, called conformers, can stimulate expansion of the eye socket and normal development of the eyelids.

Why does it matter? The rare birth defects of the eye called microphthalmia and anophthalmia — abnormally small or absent eyes, respectively — don’t just cause blindness. Without a normally sized eye, a child’s face can suffer further deformation during growth and development. There isn’t yet a way to give a child born with this congenital defect sight, but these custom-made conformers can help spur normal skull and tissue development and can be replaced eventually with an artificial cosmetic eye.

How does it work? Scientists at VU University Medical Center in Amsterdam used MRIs of four babies with severe cases of the defects to design conformers of increasing size. Unlike traditional devices that require invasive procedures, these were built to be fitted by the babies’ parents at home as the eye sockets expanded. Treatment saw the volume of the children’s eye cavities reach 35 percent of the reference used, whereas without the treatment they would have reached just 7.6 percent of the reference volume. The findings were reported during the 2017 Annual Meeting of the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology.


Filtered Water Without The Filter

 width= Researchers at Princeton University have found a way to clean particles from water by injecting carbon dioxide into a water channel. The gas changes the water’s chemistry, which causes particles to move to one side of the water depending on their chemical charge. By taking advantage of the motion, the researchers can split the stream of water and filter out suspended particles.  Graphics courtesy of the researchers, Princeton University.

What is it? Princeton University scientists have developed a technology that purifies water by injecting it with CO2 gas.

Why does it matter? Standard water purifiers remove contaminants using filters or membranes, which eventually develop clogs and stop working. The Princeton researchers say their design is simple and cheap enough to deploy in developing countries for purifying ponds and rivers or desalinating seawater. It may hold potential in labs and industrial settings too, they say.

How does it work? They placed a tube made from gas-permeable silicone rubber into water. Then they added pressurized CO2, which passed through the tube and mixed with the water, creating two charged particles, one of which moves quickly through water, the other slowly. As these molecules moved, they generated an electric charge. The charged particles in the undesirable contaminants moved to one side of the stream and into a separate channel, while clean, filtered water flowed through the other channel. For more information, see the team’s study in Nature Communications.