GLIMPSES OF THE FUTURE – SEPTEMBER 2019

Check-Outs Will Soon Be A Thing Of The Past

 U.S. retailers large and small are pressing ahead with testing the use of artificial intelligence to track what products shoppers pick up and to automatically bill their accounts when they walk out the door, eliminating the need for checkout lines.

The concept got a push from Amazon Go stores, which Amazon.com Inc. launched in early 2018; there are now 15 stores, with two opening last week, in New York and San Francisco. Amazon Go relies on hundreds of cameras and sensors in each store to identify products that customers take off the shelves. Shoppers typically scan a code to enter the stores.

Recent AI adopters include Sam’s Club Inc., the warehouse retailer owned by Walmart Inc., and Giant Eagle Inc., a regional chain of grocery and convenience stores. Giant Eagle said last month that it would test a technology similar to Amazon Go’s at a convenience store in Pittsburgh, where it is based. Several companies that sell cashierless technology—including Standard Cognition Inc. and Vcognition Technologies Inc., which does business as Zippin—said they are working with U.S. customers but declined to give details.

 New Tools Will Diagnose Autism Earlier

 Two new autism detection methods are promising to offer clinicians objective diagnostic tools that are not based on subjective behavioural assessments.

Both systems are in early stages of clinical verification, but they enter an increasingly busy field of research into objective autism biomarkers, suggesting it shouldn’t be too long before parents have a variety of new tests to catch the condition at its earliest stage.

“Autism is hard to screen for in children, when the first signs are present,” explains Caroline Robertson, director of the Dartmouth Autism Research Initiative. “A trained clinician may be able to detect autism at 18-months or even younger; yet, the average age of a diagnosis of autism in the U.S. is about four years old.”

The Dartmouth research is based on the previously studied observation that autistic brains process visual information differently from normal brains. The theory is called binocular rivalry, and it stems from the way a human brain toggles between right and left eye image processing when confronted with two separate pictures simultaneously.

Prior research has established slower rates of binocular rivalry in autistic individuals, so the new study set out to develop a simple test to measure this process. Using just one single EEG electrode and a computer screen presenting certain visual imagery, it was discovered the researchers could effectively track an individual’s rate of binocular rivalry.

Hydrogen-Powered Electric Bike Has 90 Mile Range

The newly launched Alter Bike is the result of a partnership between three French companies – Pragma, which manufactures fuel cells; Cycleurope, which designs bicycles; and Ventec, which designs battery management systems.

Combined within the bike are a lithium-ion battery and a fuel cell, the latter of which is fuelled by a hydrogen gas cylinder. In the not-too-distant future, it is envisioned that riders could carry multiple reusable hydrogen cartridges with them as they ride, refilling that cylinder as needed. For the time being, though, hydrogen refilling stations are relatively few and far between.

Originally, the Alter Bike utilized a 200-bar (2,901-psi)-capacity gas cylinder, which reportedly delivered an electrically-assisted pedalling range of about 100 km (62 miles) per fill. Now, Pragma has swapped in a 300-bar (4,351-psi) carbon composite cylinder, increasing the range to a claimed 150 km (93 miles).

By contrast, the average battery-electric e-bike has a range of around 50 km (31 miles). This does vary greatly with the amount of assistance used, though, and some models are claimed to go much farther on a single charge. That said, waiting around for such charges to be complete would be unnecessary with a fuel cell.

Fighter-Jet Fuel Can Now Be Made From Plants

A powerful military jet fuel normally made from coal tar can now be made more cheaply from plants.

Researchers at the Dalian Institute of Chemical Physics in China have come up with a way of producing the superfuel – known as JP-10 – from a chemical called furfuryl alcohol that is extracted from plant waste like sugar cane residue, cotton stalks, and forestry off-cuts.

The six-step process converts furfuryl alcohol to the superfuel using a series of catalysts and temperatures of up to 250 degrees Celsius.

JP-10 is a sought-after fuel because it has good thermal stability, a low freezing point, and a high density that means a small volume can propel aircraft a long way. But it costs $7000 per tonne, which is more than 10 times pricier than ordinary jet fuel used in commercial planes. This has limited its uses to missiles and speciality military aircraft like hypersonic jets.

The new way of making JP-10 from green waste brings the cost down to $5000 per tonne. The price could soon drop further to $2500 per tonne as new technologies make it easier to extract furfuryl alcohol from plant matter, the researchers claim.

This would still make it about four times more expensive than commercial jet fuel, but the reduced cost could expand its military uses, they say.

The Smartphone App Which Can Measure Your Blood Pressure

An exciting new technology, called transdermal optical imaging, can turn your smartphone into an accurate diagnostic device that can measure your blood pressure by analysing a short video taken of your face. The University of Toronto-led research has demonstrated the system is 95 percent accurate and a smartphone app is already in development.

Considering the awesome computational power that sits in our pockets it is not unexpected that many developers and engineers are working hard to turn our smartphones into super-charged health diagnostic devices.

While many of these compelling innovations require extra add-ons to do things like analyse your breath or test your blood, some of the more extraordinary inventions need nothing more than the smartphone itself. Some impressive recent examples include tracking red blood cells with the phone’s camera and flash, identifying sleep apnoea using sonar, and diagnosing ear infections using a simple piece of paper.

Checking blood pressure is one of the more common diagnostic procedures almost everyone will have experienced at some point. The general device we are all used to having our blood pressure measured through is called a sphygmomanometer, and while modern iterations of the device have digitised the measurement meters, they all still require some kind of bulky inflatable cuff to wrap around our arm.

Stem Cells Can Repair And Regrow Damaged Teeth

 The dentist’s drill is a sound that sends shudders down the spines of many people, so it sure would be nice if teeth could just repair themselves. Thankfully that’s not as far-fetched as it sounds – researchers from the University of Plymouth have found a new population of stem cells in mice that are in charge of repairing tooth tissue and could be recruited to help us patch up cavities.

Proper dental care is drilled (pun intended) into kids for a very good reason: our teeth are with us for life. Dentin, a tough tissue that covers the main body of a tooth, is one of the few parts of the human body that can’t regenerate naturally, which is what makes tooth decay and injuries such a frustrating problem.

But not all animals are this limited. Many rodents, for example, have incisors (front teeth) that continuously grow over their lifetimes, to the point where they have to constantly gnaw on things to wear them down. The researchers on the new study focused on how these teeth regrow dentin, which we humans can’t regenerate.

In the teeth of these mice, the team discovered a new population of mesenchymal stem cells, which are found in muscle and bone. The researchers showed that these cells are responsible for creating new dentin, controlling the number of new cells produced through a molecular gene called Dlk1.

New Electric Motor Claims Twice The Power

 A Texas-based start-up has raised US$4.5 million in seed funding to develop and commercialize a remarkable electric motor technology. The father/son team claims the design can massively reduce the size and complexity of electric powertrains while also significantly boosting efficiency and doubling the torque output.

Electric cars are stunning performers off the line. In sprint tests they routinely humble high-performance combustion-engined cars many times more expensive than them. But in order to achieve this massive start-up torque out of small-diameter, easily packaged motors, most of them use gearboxes. Not multi-speed gearboxes like you’d use with a combustion engine, but single-speed reduction boxes designed to let electric motors spin at high, efficient RPM while the wheels spin slower.

These gearboxes are heavy, complex and expensive – and potentially unnecessary, according to a Texan father-and-son team that claim they’ve invented a new type of electric motor that can radically simplify the electric powertrain while delivering big efficiency, torque, power and range bonuses.

Steam-Powered Satellites Manoeuvre In Space

 CubeSats are tiny spacecraft with huge potential, but their small stature doesn’t lend itself to typical propulsion methods. This has led scientists to get creative in working out ways of shifting them through space, including harnessing photons from the Sun and using regular old H20 as a propellant. NASA’s OCSD mission has now leaned on the latter to pull off a first-of-a-kind manoeuvre between two of its CubeSats in low-Earth orbits.

Steam-based propulsion has been around for thousands of years in various forms, but is a particularly appealing option when it comes to today’s tiny spacecraft. For one, water doesn’t contain any volatile chemicals, therefore avoiding explosion risks at launch. It also has a low molecular weight and can be turned to vapor relatively easily.

And a few research groups are working on technologies for CubeSats that would harness water for propulsion through space. One CubeSat from Purdue University back in 2017 was a particularly promising example, with its four onboard thrusters requiring just a few teaspoons of water for propulsion.

Since it entered low-Earth orbit in December of 2017, NASA’s OCSD (Operations and Data Transmission Optical Communications and Sensor Demonstration), has been testing this out in space, among other things. The project involves three tiny CubeSats and at one point, the water-based propulsion systems have been used to bring a pair of them to within 20 ft of one another.