PUFFER: A Smartphone-Sized Planetary Explorer

Is there room on Mars and Europa for cute robots? [NASA] — collaborating with [UC Berkley] and [Distant Focus Corporation] — have the answer: PUFFER, a robot inspired by origami.

PUFFER — which stands for Pop-Up Flat-Folding Explorer Robot — is able to sense objects and adjust its profile accordingly by ‘folding’ itself into a smaller size to fit itself into nooks and crannies. It was designed so multiple PUFFERs could reside inside a larger craft and then be deployed to scout otherwise inaccessible terrain. Caves, lava tubes and shaded rock overhangs that could shelter organic material are prime candidates for exploration. The groups of PUFFERs will send the collected info back to the mother ship to be relayed to mother Earth.

We’ve embedded the video of the bot folding it’s wheels down to pass a low-bridge. You can get a view of the wider scope of functionality for the collection of demos on the project page.

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NASA’s 2017-2018 Software Catalog is Out

Need some help sizing your beyond-low-Earth-orbit vehicle? Request NASA’s BLAST software. Need to forecast the weather on Venus? That would be Venus-GRAM (global reference atmospheric model). Or maybe you just want to play around with the NASA Tensegrity Robotics Toolkit. (We do!) Then it’s a good thing that part of NASA’s public mandate is making their software available. And the 2017-2018 Software Catalog (PDF) has just been released.

Unfortunately, not everything that NASA does is open source, and a substantial fraction of the software suites are only available for code “to be used on behalf of the U.S. Government”. But still, it’s very cool that NASA is opening up as much of their libraries as they are. Where else are you going to get access to orbital debris engineering models or cutting-edge fluid dynamics modelers and solvers, for free?

We already mentioned this in the Links column, but we think it’s worth repeating because we could use your help. The catalog is 154 pages long, and we haven’t quite finished leaf through every page. If you see anything awesome inside, let us know in the comments. Do any of you already use NASA’s open-source software?

Microfluidics “Frogger” is a Game Changer for DIY Biology

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See those blue and green dots in the GIF? Those aren’t pixels on an LCD display. Those are actual drops of liquid moving across a special PCB. The fact that the droplets are being manipulated to play a microfluidics game of “Frogger” only makes OpenDrop v 2.0 even cooler.

Lab biology is mainly an exercise in liquid handling – transferring a little of solution X into some of solution Y with a pipette. Manual pipetting is tedious, error prone, and very low throughput, but automated liquid handling workstations run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. This makes [Urs Gaudenz]’s “OpenDrop” microfluidics project a potential game changer for the nascent biohacking movement by offering cheap and easy desktop liquid handling.

Details are scarce on the OpenDrop website as to exactly how this works, but diving into the literature cited reveals that the pads on the PCB are driven to high voltages to attract the droplets. The PCB itself is covered with a hydrophobic film – Saran wrap that has been treated with either peanut oil or Rain-X. Moving the droplets is a simple matter of controlling which pads are charged. Splitting drops is possible, as is combining them – witness the “frog” getting run over by the blue car.

There is a lot of cool work being done in microfluidics, and we’re looking forward to see what comes out of this open effort. We’ve covered other open source efforts in microfluidics before, but this one seems so approachable that it’s sure to capture someone’s imagination.

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Hacked Diamond Makes Two-Atom Radio

It used to be pretty keen to stuff a radio receiver into an Altoid’s tin, or to whip up a tiny crystal receiver from a razor blade and a pencil stub. But Harvard researchers have far surpassed those achievements in miniaturization with a nano-scale FM receiver built from a hacked diamond.

As with all such research, the experiments in [Marko Lončar]’s lab are nowhere near as simple as the press release makes things sound. While it’s true that a two-atom cell is the minimal BOM for a detector, the device heard belting out a seasonal favorite from [Andy Williams] in the video below uses billions of nitrogen-vacancy (N-V) centers. N-V centers replace carbon atoms in the diamond crystal with nitrogen atoms; this causes a “vacancy” in the crystal lattice and lends photoluminescent properties to the diamond that are sensitive to microwaves. When pumped by a green laser, incident FM radio waves in the 2.8 GHz range are transduced into AM fluorescent signals that can be detected with a photodiode and amplifier.

The full paper has all the details, shows that the radio can survive extreme pressure and temperature regimes, and describes potential applications for the system. It’s far from a home-gamer’s hack at this point, but it’s a neat trick and one to watch for future exploitation. In the meantime, here’s an accidental FM radio with a pretty small footprint.

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Mexican Highschoolers Launch 30 High Altitude Balloons

No matter whether you call them “picosatellites” or “high altitude balloons” or “spaceblimps”, launching your own electronics package into the air, collecting some high-altitude photos and data, and then picking the thing back up is a lot of fun. It’s also educational and inspirational. We’re guessing that 264 students from 30 high schools in Aguascalientes Mexico have new background screens on their laptops today thanks to the CatSat program (translated here by robots, and there’s also a video to check out below).

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Fripon is French for Meteorite Hunting

Just a few weeks ago, we reported on a US NASA project to track the path and estimate the size of meteoroids in the sky using a distributed network of a handful of cameras. It turns out that there’s a similar French effort, and it’s even cooler: the Fireball Recovery and InterPlanetary Observation Network (FRIPON). (The name is cute, if the acronym is contrived: a “fripon” is a trickster in French.)

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Drone Vs. Airplane? Who Will Win? Science Knows.

Ignore the article, watch the video at the top of the page. The article is about some idiot, likely not even a hacker, who bought a drone somewhere and nearly rammed it into a plane. He managed this with concentrated idiocy, intention was not involved. While these idiots are working hard to get our cool toys taken away, researchers elsewhere are answering the question of exactly how much threat a drone poses to an airplane.

droneexplode_thumbAirplanes are apparently armored to withstand a strike from an 8lb bird. However, even if in a similar weight class, a drone is not constructed of the same stuff. To understand if this mattered, step one was to exactly model a DJI Phantom and then digitally launch it at various sections of a very expensive airplane.

The next step, apparently, was to put a drone into an air cannon and launch it at an aluminum sheet. The drone explodes quite dramatically. Some people have the best jobs.

The study is still ongoing, but from the little clips seen; the drone loses. Along with the rest of us.

Perhaps the larger problem to think about right now is how to establish if a “drone” has actually been involved in an incident with a passenger aircraft. It seems there are a lot of instances where that claim is dubious.