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Posts about cool products including high tech gadgets, appropriate technology solutions and possible products in the future. Recommended posts: Lego Learning (mindstorms) - Lifestraw - Video Goggles - Wakamaru Robot - Re-engineered Wheelchair

iPhone Addition as Alternative to Expensive Ophthalmology Equipment

Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine have developed two inexpensive adapters that enable a smartphone to capture high-quality images of the front and back of the eye. The adapters make it easy for anyone with minimal training to take a picture of the eye and share it securely with other health practitioners or store it in the patient’s electronic record.

The researchers see this technology as an opportunity to increase access to eye-care services as well as to improve the ability to advise on patient care remotely.

The standard equipment used to photograph the eye is expensive — costing up to tens of thousands of dollars — and requires extensive training to use properly. Primary care physicians and emergency department staff often lack this equipment, and although it is readily available in ophthalmologists’ offices, it is sparse in rural areas throughout the world.

“Adapting smartphones for the eye has the potential to enhance the delivery of eye care — in particular, to provide it in places where it’s less accessible,” said Myung. “Whether it’s in the emergency department, where patients often have to wait a long time for a specialist, or during a primary-care physician visit, we hope that we can improve the quality of care for our patients, especially in the developing world where ophthalmologists are few and far between.”

“A picture is truly worth a thousand words,” he added. “Imagine a car accident victim arriving in the emergency department with an eye injury resulting in a hyphema — blood inside the front of her eye. Normally the physician would have to describe this finding in her electronic record with words alone. Smartphones today not only have the camera resolution to supplement those words with a high-resolution photo, but also the data-transfer capability to upload that photo securely to the medical record in a matter of seconds.

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Water Wheel

As I have posted before I really love appropriate technology solutions that make a difference in people’s lives. And those that help those that have the largest challenges (the very poor where even water and electricity are challenges).

hello wello from wello on Vimeo.

Wello is a venture to improve people’s lives, they found women spend over 25% of their time each day collecting water. With the WaterWheel, they can now transport 50 liters at once – between 3 and 5 times the amount of water possible as compared to traditional methods: this means more water in less time.

Research shows that when women have extra time, they choose to spend it on activities that boost family income, education, health, and wellbeing.

Related: Clay Water Filters for GhanaEngineering a Better World: Bike Corn-ShellerPedal Powered Washing Machine

Using Drones to Deliver Medical Supplies in Roadless Areas

This is an awesome use of technology to tackle important problems. Engineers are great.

Humanitarian drones to deliver medical supplies to roadless areas

That idea soon became a start-up called Matternet – a network for transporting matter – which aims to help the one billion people who do not have year-round access to roads.

[Andreas] Raptopoulos said the new system would be used to leapfrog the building of infrastructure, in the same way mobile networks have overtaken fixed lines in poorly connected countries.

In sub-Saharan Africa, 85% of roads are inaccessible during the wet season, cutting off huge swaths of the population and hindering the transport of medical supplies, he said.

There are three parts to the system delivering medical goods: the UAVs themselves, landing stations where packages can be dropped off and transferred, and the software that ensures vehicles get securely from point to point. Because of their short battery life, networks of drones are needed to work together, shuttling between ground stations

Approximate costings from Matternet put the price of unmanned aerial vehicles at £6,000 each and ground stations at £3,000 each. A network of five ground stations and 10 UAVs, as well as setup and training, would cost a charity in the region of £90,000, according to Raptopoulos. An eight-propeller drone can carry 2kg and travel 10km in good weather. Batteries need to be replaced every 600 cycles.

They are hiring: software engineer and avionic engineering right now. They are Palo Alto, California.

Related: Appropriate Technology Health Care Solution Could Save 72,000 Lives a YearCellphone MicroscopePay as You Go Solar in IndiaWater and Electricity for All

Pedal Powered Washing Machine

It is very easy to forget billions of people alive today do not have access to electricity, clean water and things like washing machines at home. As I have said before I love appropriate technology. Even more than that I love to see successful deployments of appropriate technology that make people’s lives better.

It is also great to see kids with the perseverance to make these products to meet needs they see around them. We need to do what we can to encourage these types of kids. They are the future engineers and entrepreneurs that will make lives better for the rest of society.

Remya Jose, a 14 year school girl from Kerala, India created this wonderful machine. Another version of it, has the normal bike pedals (closer together, instead of spread out, on opposite sides of the machine, like in the video).

As far as I can tell the original video was from 2008 (and Remya created the machine in 2005). I haven’t been able to find the current status of the product, this is the best I could find (from 2008). Turning these innovations into products that succeed commercially is very hard.

If I had control of a national development program (or if I just become super rich and have millions to devote to making the world better, I think an effort like this would be something I would try) I would put working with these kids to make the products work very high on my list of priorities. The learning process and creation of engineers and entrepreneurs would be extremely valuable on top of any success the products had.

Related: Appropriate Technology: Washing Clothes by Machine Instead by HandWashing Machine Uses 90% Less WaterEngineering a Better World: Bike Corn-Shelleranother bicycle washing machineAutomatic Dog Washing Machine

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Battery Breakthrough Using Organic Storage

Battery offers renewable energy breakthrough

a metal-free flow battery that relies on the electrochemistry of naturally abundant, inexpensive, small organic (carbon-based) molecules called quinones, which are similar to molecules that store energy in plants and animals.

The mismatch between the availability of intermittent wind or sunshine and the variable demand is the biggest obstacle to using renewable sources for a large fraction of our electricity. A cost-effective means of storing large amounts of electrical energy could solve this problem.

Flow batteries store energy in chemical fluids contained in external tanks, as with fuel cells, instead of within the battery container itself. The two main components — the electrochemical conversion hardware through which the fluids are flowed (which sets the peak power capacity) and the chemical storage tanks (which set the energy capacity) — may be independently sized. Thus the amount of energy that can be stored is limited only by the size of the tanks. The design permits larger amounts of energy to be stored at lower cost than with traditional batteries.

This looks like a very interesting field of research. Storing power remains one of the challenges for renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. This is especially true if the use is disconnected from the grid, but is even true for grid-connected uses. Especially as increasing the amount of wind and solar energy make it increasingly likely that surplus energy is created at certain times.

The research seems to allow for sensible size home storage setups. At the commercial level the volume needed is very large. Another concern to be addressed is how many cycles the “battery” is good for before it degrades; current experimentation show no degradation after 100 cycles but consumer/commercial usage will need thousands of cycles.

Related: Battery Breakthrough (solid sodium metal mated to a sulphur compound by an extraordinary, paper-thin ceramic membrane)Energy Storage Using Carbon Nanotubes (2006)Chart of Wind Power Generation Capacity Globally 2005-2012Recharge Batteries in Seconds

Hacking the Standard Bike Wheel

The Copenhagen Wheel stores energy (from braking…) and provides it when you need it (going up hill…). It is good to see innovation that helps transportation and can encourage people to be more active. Order now for $799.

Related: Engineering a Better World: Bike Corn-ShellerSeparated Bike Lanes Reduced Injuries by 45% and Increased Retail Sales 49% (for nearby stores)Bike Folds To Footprint of 1 WheelSports Engineering at MIT

Search for Antibiotic Solutions Continues: Killing Sleeper Bacteria Cells

Killing Sleeper Cells and Superbugs with Assassin Janitors

Discovered in 2005 by scientists from Bayer Healthcare in Germany, ADEP4 killed a variety of different bacteria and cured lethal infections in mice and rats.

Here’s how it works. Proteins need to fold into very precise shapes to do their jobs, and misfolded proteins are wastes of space. Bacteria dispose of these useless molecules with ClpP—a janitorial protein that digests other proteins. It works with a partner, which recognises misfolded proteins, unfolds them, and threads them through a hole in the middle of ClpP so they can be broken down. But ADEP4 opens ClpP up so it no longer needs its partner. The janitor now becomes an assassin, running amok and chopping up any protein it comes across, misfolded or not.

The Bayer scientists showed that ADEP4 can force fast-growing cells to self-destruct, but Lewis suspected that it would do the same to persisters. Afterall, ClpP’s partner requires energy to do its job, but ClpP itself doesn’t. Once ADEP4 opens it up, it should go about its fatal business even in a dormant cell.

Lewis’ team found that ADEP4 did effectively kills persister populations of Staphylococcus aureus, but the bacteria bounce back. ClpP isn’t essential, so the bacteria just inactivated it to evolve their way around ADEP4. This, says Lewis, is why Bayer stopped working on the drug.

His solution was to pair ADEP4 with another antibiotic called rifampycin. ADEP4 would kill off the majority of the persisters, and if any of the rest started growing again, rifampycin would finish them off. He predicted that the double-whammy would leave very few survivors, maybe just a thousand cells or so.

“That’s not what we saw,” he says. “What we saw was complete sterilisation.”

This is a very nice effort. As our efforts fail to find “magic bullet” antibiotics fail and antibiotic resistance increases combo drug solutions offer some hope. While this is good news, the overall state of our ability to treat bacterial infections continues to decline as our misuse of antibiotics has greatly increased the speed at which antibiotic resistance has developed in bacteria.

This solution only works on gram positive antibiotics. ADEP4 is too big to pass through the extra outer layers of the gram-negative bacteria like ecoli and salmonella.

Related: Entirely New Antibiotic Developed, Platensimycin (2006) (2013 update: Platensimycin is a very effective antibiotic in vivo when continuously administered to cells, however this efficacy is reduced when administered by more conventional means. Efforts continue to find a way to create delivery options that are successful in treating people.) – New Family of Antibacterial Agents Discovered (2009)Potential Antibiotic Alternative to Treat Infection (2012)

Appropriate Technology Brings a $1.30/month Cell Phone Plan to Remote Village

I love this kind of stuff: smart use of engineering provides cell phone service to remote Mexican village, with 9,000 residents, for $1.30/month (1/13 of the price charge by traditional cell phone service in Mexico City).

The town that Carlos Slim forgot

It’s so remote that there was no cell service. In stepped Rhizomatica, a nonprofit with the goal of increasing “access to mobile telecommunications to the over two billion people without affordable coverage and the 700 million with none at all.”

The U.S. and European experts working with Mexican engineers got the network set up by March of this year. At first, they ruled that phone calls were not to be longer than five minutes each to keep the small network from getting saturated.

By May, local numbers in Mexico City, Los Angeles and Seattle were set up, meaning that Oaxacans in Villa Talea could call relatives in the capital or in California as if it were practically a local call, a few cents a minute.

Given the success they are buying equipment that can handle the volume and will donate the existing equipment to setup a new village (a smaller one, I imagine). This was the first village they setup.

Long-distance is go

After almost two months of fine-tuning, long-distance service is finally ready to launch. This means folks in the town will be able to call out of the coverage area (only around 5-10km) to any phone, anywhere. Likewise we purchased a few DID numbers which allow people to call a Mexico City, Los Angeles or Seattle number and connect right to the village.

This is one of so many great efforts to use appropriate technology to improve people’s lives. It is easy for me to get frustrated at the cash for votes mentality of the USA politicians which creates policies against improvement for society and for protection of obsolete business models (until the bought-and-paid-for politicians make the business models sustainable by legislating against better options). It is great to see these kind of examples for the good work being done outside of the political sphere.

Related: Pay as You Go Solar in IndiaProviding Computer to Remote Students in NepalReducing Poverty Using EntrepreneurshipMonopolies and Oligopolies do not a Free Market Make

White Board Tip

If you can’t erase the ink on your white board (if you leave ink there for a long time this often happens) if you write over the ink with you white board pen again you can erase it easily. If a bit remains just write over it again and erase. I imagine the wet ink has an active chemical makeup that interacts with the dried ink on the board (but I am only guessing).

photo of me with a blackboard in my father's office

My drawing on the blackboard in my father’s office, photo by Bill Hunter

Related: Whiteboard Mechanical Simulation SystemMake Your Own Chalkboard PaintLow-Cost Multi-touch Whiteboard Using Wii Remote (2009)

Hyperloop – Fast Transportation Using a Better Engineering Solution Than We Do Now

Elon Musk (the engineer and entrepreneur behind Tesla electric cars and before that he helped create PayPal) has a very cool idea of how to provide fast long distance transportation (faster than a plane). Essentially it is a big version of pneumatic tubes that used to be used to send small packages around a building, as seen in the movie – Brazil :-) Details are scheduled to be released August 12th.

This Is How Elon Musk Can Build the Hyperloop for a Tenth the Cost of High-Speed Rail

Having a elevated Hyperloop main line also completely avoids or reduces many of the pitfalls of ground-level right-of-ways, and opens up some new opportunities as well:

  • The crossing of other right-of-ways, like roads and railways, will be a breeze.
  • Rivers and other terrain obstacles will only be a 10th the problem of rail construction.
  • Hyperloop can avoid tunnels completely by having more flexible choices of right-of-way.
  • An elevated right-of-way opens up new route options, like leasing farmer’s fields using contracts similar to what wind-power companies sign.
  • That could be paid for by leasing Hyperloop’s right-of-way to communications companies for fiber optic cables, cell phone towers, etc.
  • …and let’s not forget the solar power that a couple of square miles of surface area can generate!

Hype Builds Before Elon Musk’s August Alpha Plan for Hyperloop

The Hyperloop would transport passengers from San Francisco to Los Angeles in about 30 minutes and at about twice the average speed of a commercial jet. The system would be on-demand, cheaper than current alternatives, impossible to crash, and potentially, run entirely on solar power.

Travelers ride in pods magnetically accelerated and decelerated into the main tube (like a rail gun) where the air circulates at speed. The air between pods acts as a cushion, preventing crashes, while more air injected through perforations in the tube levitates the pods and reduces friction, much as it might on an air hockey table.

Elon Musk has some very good ideas but what really sets him apart is turning them into functioning enterprises. Great ideas are wonderful but a huge number never go anywhere. Those people that can actually get ideas into the marketplace are the people that provide a much greater standard of living for all of us. And many of them are engineers.

Update: link to his blog post announcement.

More examples of cool extreme engineering: Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-TunnelTransferring Train Passengers Without Stoppingtransatlantic tunnelWebcast on Machine That Bores Subway Tunnels

3d Printers Can Already Save Consumers Money

I first wrote about 3d printing at home here, on the Curious Cat Engineering blog, in 2007. Revolutionary technology normally takes quite a while to actually gain mainstream viability. I am impressed how quickly 3d printing has moved and am getting more convinced we are underestimating the impact. The quality of the printing is improving amazingly quickly.

3d printed objects

As is so often the case these day, our broken patent system is delaying innovation in our society. For 3d printing there is a good argument the delays due to the innovation crippling way that system is operating today will be avoided as critical 3d patents expire in 2014. Patents can aid society but the current system is not, instead it is causing society great harm and delaying us being able to use new innovations.

“For the average American consumer, 3D printing is ready for showtime,” said Associate Professor Joshua Pearce, Michigan Technological University.

3D printers deposit multiple layers of plastic or other materials to make almost anything, from toys to tools to kitchen gadgets. Free designs that direct the printers are available by the tens of thousands on websites like Thingiverse (a wonderful site). Visitors can download designs to make their own products using open-source 3D printers, like the RepRap, which you build yourself from printed parts, or those that come in a box ready to print, from companies like Type-A Machines.

3D printers have been the purview of a relative few aficionados, but that is changing fast, Pearce said. The reason is financial: the typical family can already save a great deal of money by making things with a 3D printer instead of buying them off the shelf.

In the study, Pearce and his team chose 20 common household items listed on Thingiverse. Then they used Google Shopping to determine the maximum and minimum cost of buying those 20 items online, shipping charges not included.

Next, they calculated the cost of making them with 3D printers. The conclusion: it would cost the typical consumer from $312 to $1,944 to buy those 20 things compared to $18 to make them in a weekend.

Open-source 3D printers for home use have price tags ranging from about $350 to $2,000. Making the very conservative assumption a family would only make 20 items a year, Pearce’s group calculated that the printers would pay for themselves quickly, in a few months to a few years.

The group chose relatively inexpensive items for their study: cellphone accessories, a garlic press, a showerhead, a spoon holder, and the like. 3D printers can save consumers even more money on high-end items like customized orthotics and photographic equipment.

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