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Column: The wondrous world of science

February 20, 2011

Robotic fighter aircraft—a new era begins

The tremendous advances in machine intelligence are heralding a new era in which machines will be able to assess the situation on ground in a battle environment and work out the best strategy to destroy the enemy. Such robotic soldiers are under intensive development at a number of defence-related establishments, particularly in USA. On February 4, a historic step was taken when an unmanned aircraft, which is capable of taking off from an aircraft carrier, engaging enemy aircraft or neutralising other threats and then returning back to base, made its first successful flight test from Edwards Air Base in California.

The aircraft has a high level of machine intelligence incorporated in it and makes its own decisions in various situations. The US Navy X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration (UCAS-D) aircraft has been developed by Northrop Grumman and can operate as a completely autonomous system without human intervention.

Robots—that see through walls

The US army has funded a programme under which a robot has been developed that is so sensitive that it can actually see through walls by detecting reflected radio-waves. The robot contains an extremely sensitive RF scanner that can send wide band signals that can penetrate through concrete walls and reveal the sights and sounds that occur behind.

The robot can be controlled remotely and can be used for spying what is going on in hotel rooms or in the office or home of the president or prime minister of a country. Even the sound of breathing of a person can be detected by this robot remotely, as it is fitted with a fine beam ultra-wide band multi-Gigahertz radio-frequency sensor arrays. This ‘sense-though-the-wall’ (STTW) technology will expose many politicians and leaders to intruding electronic ears and eyes. Named Cougar 20H, the robot has been developed by TiaLinx.

Meanwhile the space shuttle Discovery blasted off to space recently with the first humanoid robot (Robonaut 2) on board. It will learn to perform various tasks that are normally performed by astronauts and will eventually replace astronauts for certain chores once it is properly trained. It will also be useful in emergencies to perform repairs and other tasks in space.

Facilitating learning—by brain stimulation

Scientists at Germany’s Ruhr University Bochum have shown that it is possible to make rats smarter by stimulating their brains magnetically. The technique can selectively activate suitable neurons in the brain. The rats that were exposed to such stimulation were found to learn more easily. The technique known as ‘transcranial magnetic stimulation’ (TMS) allows different regions of the brain to be turned on or off as desired. This has facilitated the study of the different interconnections of the brain non-intrusively and painlessly. The use of repetitive TMS is being used to study brain disorders such as depression and schizophrenia.

Brain stimulation in this manner not only results in smarter rats but may one day lead to smarter kids. A refrigerator that keeps cool for 10 days without power

A problem often encountered in developing countries such as Pakistan is regular power break downs. This causes serious problems in storage of foods, and it can be catastrophic if vaccines and other sensitive medical supplies are stored. A refrigerator has now been developed by a company True Energy that can keep the temperature at below 10 degrees Centigrade for up to 10 days without external power! It uses an innovative ‘phase change material’ that stores the energy and releases it when required.

Phase change materials can store a large amount of energy because of their high heat of fusion. They can store or release energy when they solidify. Such latent heat storage is achieved through phase changes (solid-solid, solid-liquid, liquid gas etc).

Hydrogen fuel—from spinach

While spinach is a healthy food to eat, being rich in iron and vitamins, amazing developments in science have made it possible to convert into hydrogen which can be used as a fuel for running a car! Researches carried out at US Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee, USA have shown that the process of photosynthesis can be copied to produce hydrogen by the action of sun light on a membrane prepared from a spinach protein. Efforts are also being made, with some success, to split water into hydrogen and oxygen using sun light and metal catalysts. Oil may be used in the future not for powering cars or running electricity generators but as a source of valuable raw material for the pharmaceutical and other industries.

This is the wondrous world of science!