Engineers at Stanford found a way to see around corners, their peers in China came up with a 3D-printing drone and scientists in England found a way to hack bacteria and turn them into drug factories. Are you ready for your weekly dose of amazing science?
What is it? Scientists at Stanford University found a way to see around corners.
Why does it matter? Stanford reported that in the future, the technology could allow self-driving cars to respond to potential hazards before they come into view. It could also allow drones to see around leaves or help find people after an earthquake. “It sounds like magic but the idea of non-line-of-sight imaging is actually feasible,” said Gordon Wetzstein, assistant professor of electrical engineering at Stanford.
How does it work? Autonomous vehicles already use LIDAR — a laser-based detection system — to find their way. The new technology relies on capturing images of objects with “bouncing laser” beams and then using software to process the results. Specifically, the team combined a laser with a supersensitive photon detector that “can record even a single particle of light.” When they shot the laser at a wall, some of the photons traveled around a corner and then gamboled back into the detector. Next, the team used an algorithm to “untangle” the photons’ paths and assemble the image. The scan takes “from 2 minutes to an hour, depending on conditions such as lighting and the reflectivity of the hidden object.” Wetzstein, senior author of the paper, which was published this week in Nature, called the results “a big step forward.” He said that “in the future, we want to make it even more practical in the wild.”
What is it? The China-based additive technology outfit DediBot Intelligent Technology developed a concept for a dronelike flying 3D printer.
Why does it matter? The “open-ended additive manufacturing” device, called OAM Fly Elephant, flies freely through the air and could allow users to “achieve rapid prototyping of large-size 3D printing structures.” The company proposed that 3D-printing drones could be used one day to build buildings, create underwater structures and even operate in zero-gravity in space.
How does it work? New Atlas reported that the six-rotor drone’s “printing path will be precisely plotted by software, for a promised printing accuracy of 0.1 [millimeters].” The drone could be powered by laser or operate in a swarm.
What is it? At Warwick University and the University of Surrey in England, scientists specializing in synthetic biology found a way that could turn bacteria into tiny factories for making antibiotics and other drugs.
Why does it matter? Futurity reported that the results, published in the journal Nature Communications, pointed to “vast new possibilities for the future of health care and pharmaceuticals, including the potential for cells specially programmed to produce novel antibiotics and other useful compounds.”
How does it work? Synthetic biology is a fairly new scientific discipline that brings together biology, genetic engineering and others. Researchers working in the field have used it to hack bacteria and create new “synthetic” genomes not found in nature. “It’s been hugely exciting in this project to see an engineering idea, developed on a computer, being built in a lab and working inside a living cell,” said Warwick bioengineering professor Declan Bates. He and his colleagues found a way to “efficiently control the distribution of ribosomes — microscopic ‘factories’ inside cells that build proteins that keep the cell alive and functional — to both the synthetic circuit and the host cell,” according to Warwick University. The school reported that cells can be enhanced with “synthetic circuitry” to make them “perform bespoke functions.”
What is it? By tweaking just a single gene found in all plants, an international team of scientists led by researchers at the University of Illinois were able to “improve how a crop uses water by 25 percent.”
Why does it matter? The discovery could allow scientists to engineer crops that conserve water and resist drought. The project is part of the Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency (RIPE) initiative backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other bodies. “Crop yields have steadily improved over the past 60 years, but the amount of water required to produce one ton of grain remains unchanged — which led most to assume that this factor could not change,” said RIPE Director Stephen Long. “Proving that our theory works in practice should open the door to much more research and development to achieve this all-important goal for the future.”
How does it work? The university team increased the levels of a photosynthetic protein that allows that plant to send signals about the quality of light and control photosynthesis. The team wrote that boosting the levels of the protein allowed them to “conserve water by tricking plants into partially closing their stomata, the microscopic pores in the leaf that allow water to escape.” The team said that plants can function like that “without significantly sacrificing photosynthesis or yield in real-world field trials” because the atmospheric CO2 concentration grew by 25 percent in the past 70 years, “allowing the plant to amass enough carbon dioxide without fully opening its stomata.” Said Long: “Evolution has not kept pace with this rapid change, so scientists have given it a helping hand.”
What is it? MIT student Ben Katz and software engineer Jared Di Carlo wrote software for a robot that allowed the machine to solve the Rubik’s Cube in just 0.38 seconds, a world record. They beat their own world record of 0.637 seconds.
How does it work? The system obtains information about the distribution of the colors on the cube from a webcam and feeds it into the software. The software then feeds commands to an “insane nonlinear minimum-time sliding mode controller,” which operates the motor that turns the cube. You have to see it!
Why does it matter? We’re sure the technology could have many applications for machine vision and robotic controls. But solving a Rubik’s Cube in the blink of an eye — that’s just inherently awesome.