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5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

Engineers in the U.S. built a tiny cyber-backpack that allows them to control a dragonfly in flight, their colleagues at MIT equipped a robot with sensors that gave it a sense of touch and their colleagues in Rhode Island and China designed a heat-resistant ceramic that can be squished like a marshmallow but survive temperatures up to 800 degrees Celsius. That’s hot!

 

 

Cyborg Dragonfly Takes Flight

What is it? Engineers at the engineering services firm Draper and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute have built and flown “a system [that] looks like a backpack for a dragonfly” and turns live insects into drones. Draper said the “hybrid drone,” called DragonflEye, combines “miniaturized navigation, synthetic biology and neurotechnology to guide dragonfly insects.”

Why does it matter? The company said potential applications include “guided pollination, payload delivery, reconnaissance and even precision medicine and diagnostics.” Draper’s Jesse J. Wheeler, a biomedical engineer and principal investigator on the program, said that DragonflEye was “a totally new kind of micro-aerial vehicle that’s smaller, lighter and stealthier than anything else that’s manmade. This system pushes the boundaries of energy harvesting, motion sensing, algorithms, miniaturization and optogenetics, all in a system small enough for an insect to wear.”

How does it work? The team created “new optogenetic tools that send guidance commands from the backpack to special ‘steering’ neurons inside the dragonfly nerve cord.” Draper also said it “developed innovative flexible optrodes that can bend light around sub-millimeter turns. These optrodes will enable precise and targeted neural activation without disrupting the thousands of nearby neurons.”

Top image: The DragonflEye combines “miniaturized navigation, synthetic biology and neurotechnology to guide dragonfly insects.” Image credit: Draper

 

Fluffy Ceramics

What is it? Researchers at Brown University in Rhode Island and Tsinghua University in China have developed a new type of ultralight, heat-resistant ceramic that can be squeezed like a sponge. The material can rebound up to 50 percent after being squeezed and “maintain that resilience at temperatures up to 800 degrees Celsius.”

Why does it matter? Ceramics are great insulators, but they’re also brittle and tend to crack. “The basic science question we tried to answer is how can we make a material that’s highly deformable but resistant to high temperature,” according to Huajian Gao, a professor in Brown University’s School of Engineering and a corresponding author of the research. The material could be used for water purification and as a flexible insulators.

How does it work? The team made the ceramic “sponge” from nanoscale ceramic fibers. “At the nanoscale, cracks and flaws become so small that it takes much more energy to activate them and cause them to propagate,” Gao said. “Nanoscale fibers also promote deformation mechanisms such as what is known as creep, where atoms can diffuse along grain boundaries, enabling the material to deform without breaking.”

 

Inhuman Touch

What is it? A team at MIT used a special sensor to give robotic arms a “sense of touch.”

Why does it matter? Data generated by the sensor, called GelSight, allows the robot’s gripper to “judge the hardness of surfaces it touches — a crucial ability if household robots are to handle everyday objects,” according to MIT News. The team, working at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, also used “GelSight sensors to enable a robot to manipulate smaller objects than was previously possible.”

How does it work? MIT News reported the GelSight sensor is made from a transparent piece of gel-like rubber coated with metallic paint: “When the paint-coated face is pressed against an object, it conforms to the object’s shape. The metallic paint makes the object’s surface reflective, so its geometry becomes much easier for computer vision algorithms to infer.” One of the researchers, graduate student Wenzhen Yuan, used a neural network to automatically monitor “correlations between changes in contact patterns and hardness measurements. The resulting system takes frames of video as inputs and produces hardness scores with very high accuracy,” MIT News wrote.

 

Machine Vision Meets 3D Printing

What is it? A team at Carnegie Mellon University’s College of Engineering has developed “machine vision technology that can autonomously identify and sort metal 3-D printing powder types with an accuracy of more than 95 percent.”

Why does it matter? As additive manufacturing, which includes methods like 3D printing, expands, it will use a wide range of materials for applications including machine parts, medical components and jewelry. The new system “will enable 3-D printing machine users to accurately test and qualify printed metal parts for any number of applications, including aerospace and medical devices,” according to the university. “In traditional manufacturing, parts are often qualified through destructive testing,” said Elizabeth Holm, a materials science professor at the school. “However, that costs a lot of time and money, so it should be avoided in additive manufacturing in order to preserve the on-demand nature of 3-D printing.”

How does it work? The team found the solution by combining computer vision with machine learning. The system can “measure important information such as how big particles are, how particles group together, the surface roughness of particles, and the shape of particles,” according the university. “The team also found that technology can tell metal powder types apart even when humans cannot.” The results were published in the Journal of the Minerals, Metals & Materials Society.

 

We Just Got 100,000 Years Older

The first of our kind. Two views of a composite reconstruction of the earliest known Homo sapiens fossils from Jebel Irhoud (Morocco) based on micro computed tomographic scans of multiple original fossils. Dated to 300 thousand years ago these early Homo sapiens already have a modern-looking face that falls within the variation of humans living today. However, the archaic-looking virtual imprint of the braincase (blue) indicates that brain shape, and possibly brain function, evolved within the Homo sapiens lineage. Caption credit: MPI. Image credit: Philipp Gunz, MPI EVA Leipzig.

What is it? An international team of anthropologists just pushed the presence of our species, Homo sapiens, on planet earth 100,000 years back. An analysis of bones found in Morocco in 2004 revealed they belonged to an ancestor who lived 300,000 years ago.

Why does it matter? The Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, whose team helped lead the project, reported that the date of the first evidence of modern human life was 100,000 years earlier than the previous record holder, found at a site in Ethiopia, on the other side of Africa. “We used to think that there was a cradle of mankind 200 thousand years ago in east Africa, but our new data reveal that Homo sapiens spread across the entire African continent around 300 thousand years ago,” said Max Planck paleoanthropologist Jean-Jacques Hublin, one of the leaders of the research team. “Long before the out-of-Africa dispersal of Homo sapiens, there was dispersal within Africa.”

How did they do it? The fossils include bones “of at least five individuals” as well as stone tools. These tools provide clues to the age of the grave. The “researchers used the thermoluminescence dating method on heated flints found in the same deposits,” according to the institute. “These flints yielded an age of approximately 300 thousand years ago and, therefore, push back the origins of our species by one hundred thousand years.”

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