Science Officer…Scan For Elephants!

If you watch many espionage or terrorism movies set in the present day, there’s usually a scene where some government employee enhances a satellite image to show a clear picture of the main villain’s face. Do modern spy satellites have that kind of resolution? We don’t know, and if we did we couldn’t tell you anyway. But we do know that even with unclassified resolution, scientists are using satellite imagery and machine learning to count things like elephant populations.

When you think about it, it is a hard problem to count wildlife populations in their habitat. First, if you go in person you disturb the target animals. Even a drone is probably going to upset timid wildlife. Then there is the problem with trying to cover a large area and figuring out if the elephant you see today is the same one as one you saw yesterday. If you guess wrong you will either undercount or overcount.

The Oxford scientists counting elephants used the Worldview-3 satellite. It collects up to 680,000 square kilometers every day. You aren’t disturbing any of the observed creatures, and since each shot covers a huge swath of territory, your problem of double counting all but vanishes.

MIT Extracts Power From Temperature Fluctuations

As a civilization, we are proficient with the “boil water, make steam” method of turning various heat sources into power we feed our infrastructure. Away from that, we can use solar panels. But what if direct sunlight is not available either? A team at MIT demonstrated how to extract power from daily temperature swings.

Running on temperature difference between day and night is arguably a very indirect form of solar energy. It could work in shaded areas where solar panels would not. But lacking a time machine, or an equally improbable portal to the other side of the planet, how did they bring thermal gradient between day and night together?

This team called their invention a “thermal resonator”: an assembly of materials tuned to work over a specific range of time and temperature. When successful, the device output temperature is out-of-phase with its input: cold in one section while the other is hot, and vice versa. Energy can then be harvested from the temperature differential via “conventional thermoelectrics”.

Power output of the initial prototype is modest. Given a 10 degree Celsius daily swing in temperature, it could produce 1.3 milliwatt at maximum potential of 350 millivolt. While the Hackaday coin-cell challenge participants and other pioneers of low-power electronics could probably do something interesting, the rest of us will have to wait for thermal resonator designs to evolve and improve on its way out of the lab.