Tech Briefs

Vacuum System Powers Modular Soft Robot

Researchers at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) have created the first functional robot powered entirely by vacuum. It is made of soft building blocks that move by having air sucked out of them. The robot can be reconfigured to perform different tasks, like climbing vertical walls and grabbing objects.

Posted in: Briefs, Motion Control
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Soft Robotic Gripper Manipulates Objects Without Training

An engineering team at the University of California San Diego has designed and built a gripper that can pick up and manipulate objects without needing to see them and without being trained. The gripper is unique because it brings together three different capabilities; it can twist objects, it can sense objects, and it can build models of the objects it’s manipulating. This allows the gripper to operate in low light and low-visibility conditions, for example.

Posted in: Briefs, Motion Control
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Multi-Legged Robot Reconfigures in Real Time

Scientists at Disney Research have developed a modular, reconfigurable legged robot named Snapbot that can move forward, interact with its environment, and perform other tasks based on a number of possible configurations. This system identifies its current configuration using only internal sensors, and utilizes a corresponding motion strategy to complete its task. The motion strategy changes as it is physically reconfigured in real time.

Posted in: Briefs, Motion Control
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Paper-Folding Techniques Expand Compacted Spacecraft

Origami has once again inspired engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Besides aesthetic beauty, the Japanese tradition of paper-folding addresses a persistent problem faced by JPL engineers: how do you pack the greatest amount of spacecraft into the smallest volume possible?

Posted in: Briefs, Motion Control
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Webb Telescope Actuators Move with Microscopic Accuracy

The James Webb Space Telescope will be the most powerful space telescope ever built. With a 21-foot diameter, the telescope’s primary mirror is six times larger than the one used by the Hubble Space Telescope. In order for such a large mirror to travel into space, it has to be broken up into multiple segments; in this case, 18 of them. But for the 18 to act as one primary mirror, they have to be adjusted while in orbit.

Posted in: Briefs, Motion Control
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Device-Free Motion Tracing Using WiFi Signals

Fine-grained human motion tracing — the ability to trace the trajectory of a moving human hand or leg, or even the whole body — is a general capability that is useful in a wide variety of applications. It can be used for gesture recognition and virtual touch-screens (e.g. Kinect-style natural user interfaces), activity recognition, monitoring of young infants and the elderly, or security applications such as intruder detection. Motivated by these applications, depth-sensing-based systems have been developed to implement motion tracing capabilities in cameras; however, these devices are limited because they have a constrained field of view (around 2 to 4 m range with a 60-degree aperture), and do not work in non-line-of-sight scenarios, preventing their use in many applications such as whole-home activity recognition, security, and elderly care.

Posted in: Briefs, Imaging
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Rubber Material Enables Scratch-Proof Surfaces

The slippery state caused by water or oil is called superlubricity — where there is basically no friction on a surface. In graphene, this superlubricity state comes from atomic orbitals that compose carbon atoms. To generate friction, some orbitals must overlap and heat, or some energy must be released. Graphene does not require this process; rather, it spontaneously slides on top of other layers, but does not release heat. Graphene, which is 300 times stronger than steel, becomes mechanically weaker and can easily break.

Posted in: Briefs, Materials
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Zero-Power Radio Receiver

There are several different types of wireless radio frequency identification (RFID) tags that are truly zero-power radios. Currently, most unpowered wireless RFID tags only have a range of a few meters. There are longrange, low-powered tags that draw energy either from a battery or some other form of localized power. A passive, or zero-power, radio receiver uses no direct electrical power, but makes sole use of the power available from a transmitter via the radio spectrum.

Posted in: Briefs, Communications
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Ultrathin Semiconductor Materials “Rust” to Insulate Circuitry

Silicon has several qualities that have led it to become the bedrock of electronics. One is that it features a very good “native” insulator — silicon dioxide, or silicon rust. Exposing silicon to oxygen during manufacturing gives chip makers a way to isolate their circuitry. Other semiconductors do not “rust” into good insulators when exposed to oxygen, so they must be layered with additional insulators — a step that introduces engineering challenges. Two new ultrathin materials share that trait, making them promising materials for electronics of the future.

Posted in: Briefs, Materials
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System Integrates High-Speed Data and Wireless Power Transfer

Sources of wireless power — such as wireless cellphone charging pads — require near-physical contact with the pad, limiting the usefulness of a truly wireless power source. Recent work has extended wireless power to mid-range, which can supply power at inches to feet of separation. Most of these wireless power systems have only focused on the power problem, not the data that needs to accompany smart devices.

Posted in: Briefs, Communications
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