A centuries-old light experiment could lead to an Earth-sized telescope, a futuristic robot that’s built to run and a car that can fly. This week’s coolest things, which brings you recent highlights from our column, are a trip back to the future.
What is it? An R&D firm successfully took a flying car on a 35-minute flight between airports in Slovakia.
Why does it matter? It’s pretty cool, and it could be a new business. “There are about 40,000 orders of aircraft in the United States alone,” Anton Zajac, a co-founder and adviser at Klein Vision, which developed the AirCar told BBC News. “If we convert 5% of those, to change the aircraft for the flying car — we have a huge market.”
How does it work? The AirCar, which one avionics expert described as “the lovechild of a Bugatti Veyron and a Cessna 172,” uses a 160-horsepower BMW engine with regular gasoline to power a fixed propeller that sits behind the driver. The vehicle can carry two passengers and fly at a cruising speed of 118 miles per hour, at an altitude of 8,200 feet, with a range of 600 miles. It takes just over two minutes for the wings to unfold for a runway takeoff.
What is it? Australian scientists believe a 200-year-old light experiment and quantum hard drives could help pave the way to an Earth-size telescope.
Why does it matter? What humans can see of the universe has so far been limited by the size of the telescopes we can make — specifically, their mirrors. A new approach sidesteps those hurdles and could produce incredibly detailed images of the universe.
How does it work? The idea builds on Thomas Young’s double-slit experiment from 1801, which provided evidence that light moves in waves, and quantum physics, which tells us that light is also a particle with wave-like properties. Plugging in a quantum hard drive at each of multiple telescopes would allow astronomers to record and store starlight in its wave form. Later, scientists could transport the hard drives to a single location, combine the signals and behold a remarkably detailed new window on the universe. Researchers have thought this step forward would require a highly advanced quantum internet. But a team from the University of Sydney and the Australian National University propose it can be done with hard drives that are in development today and could be used in the field in five to 10 years.
What is it? Australian researchers came up with an inexpensive ultrathin film that could lead to a new generation of night vision devices for the masses.
Why does it matter? The film is “extremely lightweight, cheap and easy to mass produce,” according to The Australian National University (ANU), which participated in the research. That means it could one day be accessible to everyday users for common activities like driving at night. The technology would be especially welcome for soldiers and police officers, for whom heavy night vision goggles often cause serious neck strain.
How does it work? The team made the film from special nanoscale crystals hundreds of times thinner than a human hair. Researchers arranged many of these crystals into an array, forming a super-thin film. When it is hit with a simple laser, the film converts the photons, or light particles, from infrared light — normally invisible to the human eye — into higher-energy particles on the visible spectrum. The team, which published its findings in the journal Advanced Photonics, hopes the film could be applied to standard eyeglasses in the future, bringing night vision to everyone.
What is it? Oregon State University scientists used artificial intelligence to teach a two-legged robot named Cassie how to run — then saw her complete a 5K on campus.
Why does it matter? Jonathan Hurst, co-founder of Agility Robotics and the professor who led the research, said walking robots could one day be as common and impactful as automobiles. Scientists’ growing understanding of “legged locomotion” is key to these advances. “In the not very distant future, everyone will see and interact with robots in many places in their everyday lives, robots that work alongside us and improve our quality of life,” Hurst said.
How does it work? Cassie was designed and built to run, with legs that bend like those of an ostrich. The team used an AI technique called “deep reinforcement learning” to train Cassie in dynamic balancing, the ability to steady oneself by adjusting position while in motion. Then, technically, the robot taught itself to run. When put to the test, Cassie ran the 5K in 53 minutes and on a single battery charge. Hurst and his colleagues presented their paper on Cassie’s run at the Robotics: Science and Systems conference last month.
What is it? Scientists at MIT spinout Suono Bio are using ultrasound technology to more effectively deliver drugs in the gastrointestinal tract.
Why does it matter? The GI tract is so long and diverse, doctors can have a tough time getting drugs to the right places in the right doses. As a result, treatments can be invasive or take hours. Suono Bio’s first clinical program targets ulcerative colitis (UC), an inflammatory bowel disease that, together with Crohn’s, affects an estimated 3 million Americans. Suono Bio co-founder and CTO Carl Schoellhammer says the UC drug candidate “is the proof of concept where we could potentially solve a very pressing clinical problem and do a lot of good for a lot of patients.”
How does it work? The team combined ultrasound waves with raw biologic drugs in liquid form. The ultrasound passing through the liquid created tiny, imploding bubbles that pushed the drugs into the intestinal wall like tiny jets. “The breadth of molecules that can be delivered is extremely unusual for a drug delivery technology, so that’s really exciting,” said professor Giovanni Traverso, another Suono Bio co-founder. Because the delivery platform was designed to work all along the GI tract, researchers hope it will one day treat many diseases, including cancers, more precisely and effectively.