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Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Fancy new toys

A funny video of small robot with big goals and the article that explains it:



Grasshopper' robot sets high-jump record

  • 17:00 21 May 2008

Taking its inspiration from the grasshopper, a tiny two-legged robot that stores elastic energy in springs has leaped 27 times its own height, smashing the record of 17 times set by a previous robot.

Its creators hope that swarms of such hopping robots could spread out to explore disaster areas, or even the surfaces of other planets.

The robot is only 5 centimetres tall, and weighs just 7 grams. A motor designed to power the vibration unit of a pager drives a system of gears that gradually wind two metal springs (see image, right).

When they are fully wound and then released, they straighten two metal legs that propel the robot upwards. The jumping robot was developed by researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Hop on over

Hopping provides an effective way for tiny robots to get around on rough terrain, says Dario Floreano, who worked on the robot with colleague Mirko Kovac.

Just as for insects like crickets, or animals such as frogs, small robots whether legged or wheeled find even small obstacles insurmountable barriers. Hopping can be the only way to get over them.

The new robot's motor takes 3.5 seconds to fully recharge the springs, and its 10 mAh battery is enough to power 108 jumps.

Each of its legs has two segments that attach at an angle, making a knee-like bend in the legs. Adjusting the angle of the "knees" makes the robot hop either more vertically, or further forward.

The prototype doesn't have any way to direct itself, and as yet can't even land on its feet ready for the next hop. Floreano says they are working on a number of refinements.

Just add wings

First, they want to build a wire superstructure to make the robot automatically regain its feet when it lands and add wings to let it glide like a real grasshopper while airborne.

After that they hope to add solar panels, some simple sensors and a microprocessor. These would allow the robot to control its hopping and possibly communicate with other robots in the swarm, as well as recharge its battery.

Such robots might be simple, but they could also be cheap. A group could coordinate themselves to spread across an area to, for example, trace an environmental pollutant, Floreano says.

"They have done excellent work, making this very light robot that can cover very long distance," says Umberto Scarfogliero, at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Lucca, Italy. Scarfogliero and colleagues presented a similar jumping robot called Grillo last year at the IEEE robotics conference.

Floreano and Kovac's robot will be presented today at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Pasadena, California, US. source

My comment: Just imagine the look of 100 such robots(or more) hopping around on the surface of Mars. For example. Though I guess they'll jump pretty hight there. Too high to be usable. But what about over frozen mountain in search of survivors of some disaster. All of them, hopping around. Almost gaily. Honestly, I think that's pretty cool and usable!


Project Digitizes Works From the Golden Age of Timbuktu


Published: May 20, 2008

From Timbuktu to here, to reverse the expression, the written words of the legendary African oasis are being delivered by electronic caravan. A lode of books and manuscripts, some only recently rescued from decay, is being digitized for the Internet and distributed to scholars worldwide.

These are works of law and history, science and medicine, poetry and theology, relics of Timbuktu’s golden age as a crossroads in Mali for trade in gold, salt and slaves along the southern edge of the Sahara. If the name is now a synonym for mysterious remoteness, the literature attests to Timbuktu’s earlier role as a vibrant intellectual center.

In recent years, thousands of these leather-bound books and fragile manuscripts have been recovered from family archives, private libraries and storerooms. The South African government is financing construction of a library in Timbuktu to house more than 30,000 of the books. Other gifts support renovations of family libraries and projects for preserving, translating and interpreting the documents.

Now, the first five of the rare manuscripts from private libraries have been digitized and made available online (www.aluka.org) to scholars and students. At least 300 are expected to be available online by the end of the year.

Many documents in the graceful Arabic calligraphy are a visual delight. Although the writing is mostly in Arabic, quite a few manuscripts are in vernaculars adapted to the Arabic script, which is sure to pose a challenge for scholars.

“The manuscripts of Timbuktu add great depth to our understanding of Africa’s diverse history and civilizations,” said Rahim S. Rajan, the collection development manager at Aluka.

Researchers have been struck by the range of subjects that attracted Timbuktu’s scholars over several centuries and into the 19th century. Most of the first digitized ones are from the 17th through 19th centuries. The topics include the sciences of astronomy, mathematics and botany; literary arts; Islamic religious practices and thought; proverbs; legal opinions; and historical accounts.

In a recent seminar conducted online, members of the Aluka-Northwestern team described some of the problems in starting the digitizing facility in Timbuktu: frequent interruptions of electric power and dust storms fouling delicate electronic components.

“It wasn’t as bad as other places that I’ve seen,” said Harlan Wallach, director of the Advanced Media Production Studio at Northwestern, who has set up similar installations in Asia. “We blew out a lot more transformers and equipment working on a project in China than in Timbuktu.”

While there may be no substitute for seeing the actual manuscripts, Mr. Wallach said, it is better to read them in the digitized form. Many of the pages are so fragile they should not be handled.

Even if Timbuktu today is a dusty, mud-brick shadow of its past renown, living mainly on the few tourists attracted by its name and legend, the pages of its history are emerging from obscurity and, in some cases, are being disseminated by the speed of light. source

My comment: This is utterly great. Just imagine what it is to read a 400 years old manuscript on you monitor. Yeah, of course, there is nothing like the original, but if we want to read only the letters, the monitor is fine for me. I applaud the efforts of that group. This is a true preservation of our history as a planet.

Shuttle to Take Big Science Lab to Space Station

Published: May 27, 2008

The space shuttle Discovery is set to deliver the International Space Station’s biggest room, in what its commander calls “a complicated, busy mission” that is scheduled to begin on Saturday.

The new science laboratory is the second of three parts of a Japanese assembly called Kibo, which means hope. Only a few feet shorter than a big Winnebago, and much larger around, the new module fit inside the shuttle’s payload bay only after astronauts removed an extension for the shuttle’s robotic arm during the last mission and stored it at the station.

The cylindrical laboratory is nearly 37 feet long and 14.4 feet in diameter. The module is so heavy that much of its equipment was shipped up on that previous mission as well, in a small room known a logistics module.

During the current mission, astronauts will also install the module’s robotic arm, which will eventually be used in experiments placed on an external platform — Kibo’s back porch — that will be carried to the station in a mission scheduled to take place next year. Kibo, pronounced ki-BO, will be managed by a control center in Tsukuba, Japan, along with the main mission control center in Houston.

The new mission includes three spacewalks to help install Kibo, perform station maintenance and test techniques for cleaning a troubled rotary joint that is a critical part of the station’s power supply.

That joint, 10 feet in diameter, rotates one of the station’s sets of solar arrays so that they face the Sun during each orbit. But the joint has been idle since last year, when it was found to be damaged by metal shavings that peppered its inner workings and were being ground in by the operation of the joint.

Several spacewalks in the past year have been devoted to examining the damage, but the cause of the problem and the precise part that was being ground away by the rotating joint are still unclear. Although the station has the power it needs now even with a stationary joint, it cannot reach its full functional size without the energy boost from the joint’s rotation. During this mission, astronauts will test techniques that might be used to clean off the shavings.

The astronauts will use a putty knife to smooth the surface of the “race ring,” the part that has been most damaged by the errant particles, and grease and cloths to see what works best at the task.

Later crews will try to correct the problem that caused the shavings by either replacing the source of the grinding or, if it cannot be tracked down, to switch to the use of a second, backup race ring that is already part of the joint assembly.

The crew will also perform science experiments during the mission in fields that include space medicine, biology and Earth observation.

While no technical issues stand in the way of launching, there was some question as to whether the mission should begin before a mystery is resolved: a recurring malfunction in the Russian Soyuz return modules, whose propulsion module failed to separate from the crew module until well into the descent. The malfunction sent the capsule into a backup mode of return that is called a ballistic entry with G-forces that were much higher than usual and a steep trajectory that put it hundreds of miles off course.

The cause of the problem — the second in a row for the Soyuz, and the third in five years — is still under investigation by the Russian space agency.

William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for space operations at NASA, said managers decided to go forward because the chances of an emergency that would require the station to be evacuated are low and added that the landings, even with the discomfort of ballistic entry, have been safe.source

My comment: I love the International Space Station and thus I'm quite happy that it grows little by little and gets more functional. Because admit it, it's not so much fun (or scientific interest) to put a person or two in orbit for few months. Scientific modules are the key to the monastery and we get them every once in a while. So, Gos Speed Shuttle and Kibo. And Suyuz!

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