Saturday, April 13, 2013

Of Robots, Wasps, Jellyfish and Dragonflies ... Oh, and Asteroids Too

We're excited here at the Digital Notebook Complex dear readers, and we hope you are too.

That's because it's time for another exciting installment of....


When you're too busy to keep up with the world of science, we do it for you. Just another of the many, many services provided by the energetic staff at The Digital Notebook. 

Since head Digital Notebooker Evan Brand intends to finish the latest in the "Game of Thrones" books this weekend, titled, appropriately, "Dances With Dragons," let's begin with news of the high-flying dragonfly.

Move over Miramar, according to this very interesting article in the April 1 edition of The New York Times, the best pilots in the world, drone and otherwise, is the dainty but deadly dragon fly.
Cool graphic stolen shamelessly from The New York Times.

The blue line shows the dragonfly's flight path, the red line the prey.
The Times explains:
Dragonflies are magnificent aerialists, able to hover, dive, fly backward and upside
down, pivot 360 degrees with three tiny wing beats, and reach speeds of 30 miles per hour, lightning for an arthropod. In many insects, the wings are simple extensions of the thoracic box and are moved largely as a unit, by flexing the entire thorax. In the dragonfly, the four transparent, ultraflexible wings are attached to the thorax by separate muscles and can each be maneuvered independently, lending the insect an extraordinary range of flight options.
According to the article, which you should check out because it has some awesome video of dragonflies hunting and avoiding being a fat frog's meal but which we are too technically inept to embed here, dragonflies are 95 percent effective when they hunt.

It seems they do so by paying attention, and with the help of a set of nerves they have have evolved that connect eyes, brain and wings, specifically designed to improve their flight abilities.

The Times explains again:
In a string of recent papers, scientists have pinpointed key features of the dragonfly’s brain, eyes and wings that allow it to hunt so unerringly. One research team has determined that the
A dragonfly's eyes and brain work together. 
nervous system of a dragonfly displays an almost human capacity for selective attention, able to focus on a single prey as it flies amid a cloud of similarly fluttering insects, just as a guest at a party can attend to a friend’s words while ignoring the background chatter.
Other researchers have identified a kind of master circuit of 16 neurons that connect the dragonfly’s brain to its flight motor center in the thorax. With the aid of that neuronal package, a dragonfly can track a moving target, calculate a trajectory to intercept that target and subtly adjust its path as needed.
Of course not everything in the insect world is so super cool.

Take, for example, the discovery of a giant wasp nest in an abandoned home on the Canary Islands.

Very, very uncool dude.
It kind of looks like The Blob doesn't it?

The nest was found in the town of San Sebastián de la Gomera, which from this point forward, I will translate as meaning "town with giant freakin' wasp's nest."

This thing was so huge, 22 feet, that it is said to have housed literally millions of wasps. Scientists think it may be an invasive species from Africa, Morocco to be specific.

(Why is it that all the insects that come over from Africa beat the crap out of all the native inspects. Remember Africanized bees?)

Now on to our planet's oceans which are, quite frankly, a frackin' mess; mostly thanks to us.

But what man messes up, teenagers can clean up (at least that's the motto in my house.)

19-year-old Boyan Slat (OK, barely a teenager) has come up with a way to collect and recycle much of the plastic that is now floating around the ocean, thanks to our everything-is-disposable culture.

"The device consists of an anchored network of floating booms and processing platforms that could be dispatched to garbage patches around the world. Instead of moving through the ocean, the array would span the radius of a garbage patch, acting as a giant funnel. The angle of the booms would force plastic in the direction of the platforms, where it would be separated from plankton, filtered and stored for recycling."

It could remove 7,250,000 tons of plastic waste from the world’s oceans. When can we start?

Probably not until someone figures out how to make money doing this.

Sorry sea life.

If you would like to watch an 11-minute video of this super-teen talking about this idea and demonstrating it, we have embedded it below for your viewing pleasure:

In keeping with our ocean theme, we now move on to the U.S. Navy.

While apparently the Air Force could learn a thing or two about effective drones by studying dragonflies, it seems the Navy wants to learn more about underwater robots by studying jellyfish.

Giant jellyfish.

(We pause here to ask you loyal reader, where else do you get cool stories like these that combine giant
The Cyanea capillata on which the robot is based.
jellyfish and robots? Just at The Digital Notebook, that's where!)

Anyway, according to this report by National Public Radio, the U.S. Navy is funding "development of a giant jellyfish robot."

Cyro, which measures 5 feet 7 inches in diameter and weighs 170 pounds, is based on Cyanea capillata, the giant lion's mane jellyfish indigenous to the cold waters of Arctic, the northern Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

It is being developed at a lab at Virginia Tech, funded by a grant from the U.S. Naval Undersea Warfare Center and the Office of Naval Research.

Here's a video of it being tested at Virginia Tech:

Virginia Tech: Autonomous Robotic Jellyfish from virginiatech on Vimeo.

Discovery News says it will be used for "ocean monitoring, exploration, and even clean-up in the case of an oil spill."


I'm sure that's ALL the Navy wants to use it for...

And if THAT wasn't enough science-fiction-turned-science for you, finding the above on Discovery News led to the discovery of this other super-cool thing below -- giant robot turtles.
The latest in robot turtle technology.

Mechanical engineers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology have been hard at work on a robotic sea turtle project called "Naro-Tartaruga" since 2008. Led by masters student Cedric P. Siegenthaler, the project has support from Disney Research Zurich and the Center of Structure Technologies.

It was set for an open water test last fall. No word yet on how the tests went.

"The most recent robot prototype features a large waterproof torso that can pack in a bunch of sensors and batteries needed to keep it working. The robot is several feet long, primarily made of aluminum, and can move a meter per second, which translates into 6.6 feet. Each fin contains three actuators for 3-D movement and the robot has a diving depth of more than 300 feet," Discovery News reports.

And what's a science post without news of space?

Not terribly complete, that's what kind.

So we bring you our grand finale, NASA's plans to capture an asteroid and tow it into orbit around the moon, a satellite's satellite if you will, and put it in a holding pattern for later mining.

President Obama's just-released federal budget proposal for 2014 requests $17.7 billion for the space agency, up from the $16.6 billion that Congress eventually approved for last year's budget.
The asteroid project would send astronauts to a 500-ton nearby asteroid by 2021. They would later move the roughly 30-foot-wide space rock into orbit around the moon for later prospecting. The mission would use the space agency's now-under-development Space Launch System rocket and Orion crew capsule, modified to allow space walks by astronauts, to make the capture happen. The proposed budget next year would add $78 million to develop asteroid lassoing technology to NASA's budget.
If you don't mind repetitive space music that is almost as boring as the soundtrack from the first Star Trek movie, check out this NASA video showing (but not telling) how the mission would work.

That's it for this edition of This Saturday in Science folks.

Come back again.

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