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NASA Autonomy Incubator Leads the Push for Intelligent Machines

Search-and-rescue operations, package delivery, and underwater exploration could all be performed soon by intelligent machines. The Autonomy Incubator group at NASA Langley is taking strides to, as group leader Danette Allen puts it, "imbue machines with the kind of intelligence that we expect from human beings."

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Researchers Create 'Cognitive' Underwater Robots

A new programming approach developed by MIT engineers gives underwater robots more “cognitive” capabilities.In March, the team tested the autonomous mission-planning system during a research cruise off the western coast of Australia. The researchers tested their system on an autonomous underwater glider, and demonstrated that the robot was able to operate safely among a number of other autonomous vehicles while receiving higher-level commands. The glider, using the system, was able to adapt its mission plan to avoid interfering with other vehicles.“We wanted to show that these vehicles could plan their own missions, and execute, adapt, and re-plan them alone, without human support,” said Brian Williams, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, and principal developer of the mission-planning system. “With this system, we were showing we could safely zigzag all the way around the reef, like an obstacle course.”By giving robots control of higher-level decision-making, Williams says such a system would free engineers to think about overall strategy, while AUVs determine for themselves a specific mission plan. Such a system could also reduce the size of the operational team needed on research cruises. Additionally, an autonomous planning system could enable robots to explore places that otherwise would not be traversable, such as remote recesses of the sea.SourceAlso: Read other Robotics, Automation & Control tech briefs.

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Implantable Device Lets Doctors Test Cancer Drugs in Patients

More than 100 drugs have been approved to treat cancer, but predicting which ones will help a particular patient is an inexact science. A new implantable device, about the size of a grain of rice, can carry small doses of up to 30 different drugs. After implanting it in a tumor and letting the drugs diffuse into the tissue, researchers can measure how effectively each one kills the patient’s cancer cells. Such a device could eliminate much of the guesswork now involved in choosing cancer treatments.

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NASA Tests Shape-Changing Wing for Next-Generation Aviation

NASA researchers, working with the Air Force Research Laboratory and FlexSys of Ann Arbor, MI, successfully completed initial flight tests of a new morphing wing technology that has the potential to save millions of dollars annually in fuel costs, reduce airframe weight, and decrease aircraft noise during takeoffs and landings. The experimental Adaptive Compliant Trailing Edge (ACTE) flight control surfaces offer significant improvements over conventional flaps used on existing aircraft.

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Trillion-Frame-Per-Second Camera Captures Ultrafast Phenomena

Researchers from Japan have developed a new high-speed camera that can record events at a rate of more than 1-trillion-frames-per-second. The STAMP (Sequentially Timed All-optical Mapping Photography) technology holds promise for the study of complex, ultrafast phenomena.Keiichi Nakagawa, a research fellow at the University of Tokyo, experienced the need for a camera while studying how acoustic shock waves changed living cells. Scientists believe mechanical stress, like that caused by acoustic waves, may increase bone and blood vessel growth, but they had no tools for capturing the dynamics of such a fast, transient event as a shock wave passing through a cell.STAMP relies on a property of light called dispersion. The technology splits an ultrashort pulse of light into a barrage of different colored flashes that hit the imaged object in rapid-fire succession. Each separate color flash can then be analyzed to string together a moving picture of what the object looked like over the time it took the dispersed light pulse to travel through the device. Currently, the team is constructing an improved STAMP system that acquires 25 sequential images. Nakagawa believes the number of frames could eventually be increased to 100 with current technology.The camera could be used to explore a wide range of ultrafast phenomena for the first time, including image electronic motion, the laser ignition of fusion, the phase transition of materials, and the dynamics of a Coulomb explosion, an event in which intense electromagnetic fields can force a small amount of solid material to explode into a hot plasma of ionized atomic particles. SourceAlso: Read other Imaging Tech Briefs.

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'Gate Sensor' Detects Individual Electrons

A team of European researchers at the University of Cambridge has created an electronic device that detects the charge of a single electron in less than one microsecond. The "gate sensor" could be applied to quantum computers of the future to read information stored in the charge or spin of a single electron.“We have called it a gate sensor because, as well as detecting the movement of individual electrons, the device is able to control its flow as if it were an electronic gate which opens and closes,” said González Zalba, lead researcher from the Hitachi Cambridge Laboratory and the Cavendish Laboratory.The gate sensor is coupled to a silicon nanotransistor where the electrons flow individually. The innovation represents a new technological sector which bases its electronic functionality on the charge of a single electron.SourceAlso: Read more Electrical/Electronics tech briefs.

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New Wearable Device Turns Thumbnail into Trackpad

MIT Media Laboratory researchers are developing a wearable device that turns the user’s thumbnail into a miniature wireless track pad. To build their prototype, the researchers packed capacitive sensors, a battery, and three separate chips — a microcontroller, a Bluetooth radio chip, and a capacitive-sensing chip — into the thumbnail-sized device. The engineers built their sensors by printing copper electrodes on sheets of flexible polyester, which allowed them to experiment with a range of different electrode layouts.The capacitive sensing registers touch. A thin, nonactive layer is placed between the user’s finger and the underlying sensors.The team envisions that the technology could allow users to control wireless devices when their hands are full. The device could also augment other interfaces, as well as enable subtle communication via text. The researchers have also been in discussion with battery manufacturers and have identified a technology that they think could yield a battery that fits in the space of a thumbnail. A special-purpose chip that combines the functions of the microcontroller, radio, and capacitive sensor would further save space.SourceAlso: Read more Sensors tech briefs.

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