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The Vanguard

The 5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

Small swarming drones could assist in search-and-rescue operations, researchers find links between gut bacteria and brain disease, and rats can be trained to drive tiny cars — in fact, they prefer driving themselves rather than being passengers in tiny rat taxi cabs. In this week’s coolest scientific discoveries, it’s the little things that count.

  

Swarm Thoughts

What is it? A joint team of researchers from the Netherlands and the U.K. built a “swarm of tiny drones” that can collectively explore unknown environments like disaster sites.

Why does it matter? The more, the merrier — many drones working together can accomplish tasks that would be impossible for larger single drones, including in search-and-rescue operations. A release from Delft University of Technology, one partner in the research, gives the example of a building on the verge of collapse: “The swarm of drones will enter the building, explore it, and come back to the base station with relevant information. The rescue workers can then focus their efforts on the most relevant areas — for instance, where there are still people inside.” In addition to being able to cover more ground, a swarm offers redundancy. If the camera on one drone fails, another might be able to get the pics.

How does it work? Researchers working in the broader field of swarm robotics find inspiration in the way that insects — bees, for instance — work collectively in nature. In this case, the European team designed the tiny drones first to achieve basic flight capabilities, then installed each with a wireless communications chip to sense the locations of others. Using a type of algorithm called a bug algorithm, they programmed the drones to navigate an environment while avoiding obstacles. The team tested the system out in a simulated office environment, where a swarm of six drones was able to explore 80% of the area within six minutes, helping to locate two dummy victims. The project is described further in Science Robotics.

 

Trash To Treasure

Small pieces of plastic that have been fished from the ocean. Researchers have found a way to “upcycle” single-use plastics such as these into high-quality liquid hydrocarbons. Image credit: Getty Images. Top image credit: Getty Images.

What is it? A group of researchers from Northwestern University, Argonne National Laboratory and Ames Laboratory devised a way to “upcycle” low-quality plastic products — including plastic waste — into high-quality liquid products, including motor oil, detergents and cosmetics.

Why does it matter? We’ve got to do something with all that plastic floating around, which takes hundreds of years to biodegrade, and ends up more and more in the world’s oceans. Recycled plastics can be melted and turned into products that are lower in quality and structurally weaker than the original; these researchers wanted to see if they could make something a little nicer. “There are certainly things we can do as a society to reduce consumption of plastics in some cases,” said Ames chemist Aaron D. Sadow. “But there will always be instances where plastics are difficult to replace, so we really want to see what we can do to find value in the waste.”

How does it work? The reason plastic resists degradation is its strong carbon-carbon bonds — that’s where the team aimed their solution. They devised a catalyst of platinum nanoparticles and a perovskite nanocube that cleaved the carbon-carbon bond under moderate temperature and pressure conditions, creating high-quality liquid hydrocarbons. “These liquids could be used in motor oil, lubricants or waxes or further processed to make ingredients for detergents and cosmetics,” they reported; more details in ACS Central Science.

 

Giving Satellites Plenty Of Space

Be careful out there. Millions of pieces of space debris pose a threat to satellites and manned spacecraft alike. Top and above images credit: Getty Images.

What is it? Autonomous vehicles on the surface of the Earth are being trained to avoid crashing into objects in their path — and so are their orbital counterparts. The European Space Agency wants to use machine learning to teach satellites to avoid colliding with space debris.

Why does it matter? ESA calculates that some 5,450 launches have taken place since the beginning of the space age, leaving behind millions of pieces of debris — from paint chips to heavy parts — that speed around the globe at up to 17,500 miles per hour. That’s fast enough that even a small speck can damage a craft it collides with. On-the-ground operators receive hundreds of alerts every week regarding space debris in the vicinity of their vehicles, setting off a time-consuming and cumbersome process requiring follow-up, analysis and sometimes an eventual collision-avoidance manuever. As space traffic gets heavier and heavier, the problem will only get worse, reports ESA.

How does it work? The technology is under development, but the idea is a system that uses machine learning to assess the risk of collision and determine whether an avoidance maneuver is required. That information would be communicated automatically both to human operators on the ground and to satellites near the craft in question, and the system could even give the order to an at-risk satellite to change course.

 

Ratmobile

When you’re this rat, every day is a winding road. Image credit: University of Richmond.

What is it? At the University of Richmond, rats have been taught to drive tiny cars by researchers who rewarded them with pieces of Froot Loops cereal, and this — as one might imagine — could shed light into stress and depression.

Why does it matter? “I do believe that rats are smarter than most people perceive them to be, and that most animals are smarter in unique ways than we think,” said Kelly Lambert, a professor of behavioral neuroscience, who says the findings are a testament to the “neuroplasticity” of rats’ brains. If rats’ brains can be studied in situations more complex than a maze, researchers could use the opportunity to “probe the effects of Parkinson’s disease on motor skills and spatial awareness, or the effects of depression on motivation,” according to New Scientist. The work is described further in Behavioural Brain Research.

How does it work? The researchers built a tiny car — excuse me, “rodent-operated vehicle (ROV)” — from a clear plastic container, put wheels on it, and rigged up a steering wheel of three copper bars (left, right, forward) and an aluminum floor. A rat standing on the floor and touching the bars completes an electrical circuit, causing the little car to move forward — and the rat to receive its Froot Loops. Lambert and her colleagues also found that rats who drove themselves around had lower levels of a stress hormone than rats who were driven around in remote-controlled cars, perhaps related to a sense of satisfaction at gaining a new skill. “In humans, we call this self-efficacy or agency,” Lambert said. The rats just felt better when they were behind the wheel.

 

Gut Feeling

The countless bacteria that live on and in human bodies — particularly, in our guts — are thought to be complexly linked to both autoimmune disorders and mental health. Image credit: Getty Images.

What is it? A new study in Nature provides clues into how the gut microbiota — the complex universe of bacteria living in human intestines — can influence mental health, including anxiety, depression and mood disorders.

Why does it matter? For the last couple of decades researchers have been seeking to understand the connections between gut bacteria, autoimmune disorders and psychiatric conditions — which are complexly linked, according to Weill Cornell Medicine: People with autoimmune disorders like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) may have depleted gut microbiota and may also experience mental health problems. Cornell’s David Artis, co-author of the study, said, “No one yet has understood how IBD and other chronic gastrointestinal conditions influence behavior and mental health. Our study is the beginning of a new way to understand the whole picture.”

How does it work? The team treated mice with antibiotics to lower the levels of bacteria in their guts, or bred them that way, and discovered that they had reduced learning abilities. Then they looked at their brains, finding altered gene expression compared to healthy mice, as well as chemical changes associated in humans with conditions like schizophrenia and autism. Next the researchers tried to reverse the problems by restoring the gut microbiomes of mice at varying ages. As far as the learning problems were concerned, the injection of bacteria did the trick — but only in mice whose microbiomes were restored right after birth. Co-principal investigator Conor Liston called this “an interesting finding, given that many psychiatric conditions that are associated with autoimmune disease are associated with problems during early brain development.”

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