Special Coverage

NASA Supercomputer Simulations Reveal 'Noisy' Aerodynamics
Robotic Gripper Cleans Up Space Debris
Soft Robot “Walks” on Any Terrain
Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency
Using Microwaves to Produce High-Quality Graphene
Transducer-Actuator Systems for On-Machine Measurements and Automatic Part Alignment
Wide-Area Surveillance Using HD LWIR Uncooled Sensors
Heavy Lift Wing in Ground (WIG) Cargo Flying Boat
Technique Provides Security for Multi-Robot Systems
Bringing New Vision to Laser Material Processing Systems
NASA Tests Lasers’ Ability to Transmit Data from Space

Is space mining viable?

NASA announced this month that its Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) will proceed to the next phase of design and development ahead of a planned launch in late 2021. ARM will demonstrate a solar electric propulsion system as a robotic spacecraft travels to a near-Earth asteroid (NEA). After collecting a multi-ton boulder from the asteroid, the spacecraft will redirect and place the rock in orbit around the Moon. NASA’s announcement raises the possibility of mining rare earths and precious metals in space. Miners will be challenged, however, with getting to space, identifying and mining the correct samples, and returning home safely.

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Will security concerns prevent widespread adoption of wearables and IoT devices?

This week's Question: In the paper "Friend or Foe?: Your Wearable Devices Reveal Your Personal PIN" scientists from Binghamton University and the Stevens Institute of Technology combined data from embedded sensors in wearable technologies, such as smartwatches and fitness trackers, along with a computer algorithm to crack private PINs and passwords. By using data from “accelerometers, gyroscopes, and magnetometers inside the wearable technologies regardless of a hand’s pose,” the researchers could record a hand’s fine-grained movements. The researchers then used a “Backward PIN-sequence Inference Algorithm” to crack the codes.

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Will VR be the new way to watch sports?

This week's Question: Fox Sports offered virtual-reality streams from last week's U.S. Open, a major golf championship in Oakmont, PA. Sports fans who owned the right devices could watch the golf event on the television while using VR for enhancements: game recaps, highlights of a particular play, features, and brief cut-ins to live play. Virtual reality still faces adoption challenges. Viewers need to buy special equipment to view the broadcast, and the users may find the devices too inconvenient and cumbersome to wear regularly. What do you think? Will VR be the new way to watch sports?

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Will AI improve vehicle safety by 2020?

This week's Question: As the competition to develop self-driving cars intensifies, Toyota Motor Corp. announced that over the next five years the company will spend $1 billion on the integration of artificial intelligence (AI). Gill Pratt, CEO of Toyota Research Institute, recently said Toyota aims to improve car safety by enabling vehicles to anticipate and avoid potential accident situations. While today's driver assistance systems largely use image sensors to avoid obstacles within the car’s lane, Pratt said TRI was looking at AI solutions to enable "the car to be evasive beyond the one lane."

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Will flying cars catch on (beyond the 1 percent)?

This week's Question: Google co-founder Larry Page reportedly has invested millions of dollars in two startups that are developing flying cars. Bloomberg reports that Page has spent more than $100 million on Silicon Valley's Zee.Aero, and is also funding a similar firm called Kitty Hawk. Zee.Aero's plans have included building a prototype flying car capable of taking off and landing vertically. Werner Goertz, a research director at market research firm Gartner, said that the flying car is unlikely to catch on with the general population but may become a reality for "the 1 percent of the wealthiest people." Aside from socio-economic barriers, he said companies would have to design a cost-effective battery that would carry a charge strong enough to lift a flying car for an extended period of time.

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Would you like to have a voice-based personal assistant?

This week's Question: Google, Amazon, and Apple have developed — or are in the process of developing — voice-based personal assistants that "listen" and respond to verbal commands. The Amazon Echo, a 9-inch tall, voice-operated cylindrical speaker powered by an artificial-intelligence agent, was released last year; Google launched its Home speaker at the company's I/O event last month; and Apple is opening its Siri voice assistant to outside app developers. With the technologies, a user's verbal commands could soon initiate a variety of actions: controlling the lights in your home, turning on your car, playing video on your TV, or accessing the Internet, for example. The assistants could also provide increasingly personalized information based on one's specific commands and actions.

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Would you ride in a Hyperloop?

This week's Question: MIT recently unveiled its prototype design for SpaceX founder Elon Musk's Hyperloop, a high-speed ground transport system that could theoretically send passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco in half an hour. The university researchers will test their small prototype pod at SpaceX’s Hyperloop Test Track this summer. SpaceX initially envisioned using a cushion of air to transport the Hyperloop pod. MIT’s team, however, employs a magnetic levitation system, which incorporates two arrays of 20 neodymium magnets to keep the pod levitating at 15 mm. While MIT’s design is not big enough to fit a human body, the team told BBC News that scaling up the size would be straightforward once testing of the prototype pod is completed. The team still needs to address the development of turning and further test the braking system. What do you think? Would you ride in a Hyperloop?

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Will solar power supplant fossil fuels as a primary energy source?

This week's Question: The US now has 1 million solar power installations, and some industry experts expect the number of solar-power systems to increase dramatically in the span of two years. “By the end of 2020, the amount of installed solar capacity will be 300 percent higher than today,” said Dan Whitten, vice president of communications at the Solar Energy Industries Association, noting that the nationwide number grew 10 times between 2008 and 2015. This month, the Swedish furniture giant Ikea also recently announced the opening of its “Solar Shop,” which will sell panels and setup services. Two major challenges for the solar panel industry have been cost and capacity; compared to fossil fuel costs, solar panel installations can be time-consuming and expensive. What do you think? Will solar power supplant fossil fuels as a primary energy source? 

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Would you use a “skin to screen” technology?

This week's Question: The SkinTrack technology featured in today’s lead story allows users to expand touchpad functionality to the back of the hand and lower arm. By wearing a ring, users can enable cursor movement, highlight numbers on a screen, or dial numbers on a keypad.

What do you think? Would you use a “skin to screen” technology?

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Could tear-off screens catch on?

This week's Question: While LG and Samsung have worked to develop screens that roll and bend, a new patent from Google describes a screen that can be torn like a piece of paper. Images in the filing show an advertisement with coupons that can be pulled off and used in-store, as well as a drawing of a robot that has been ripped in half. Additionally, the detached portions are shown being reattached. Disposable displays will likely not emerge as a viable technology until manufacturing costs drop significantly. Engineers, however, have also been working on ways to make digital pixels appear on regular paper. What do you think? Could tear-off screens catch on? 

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