Gecko-inspired robotic gripper to clear up space junk

Researchers have developed a pioneering robotic gripper that uses gecko-inspired sticky pads to clear up space debris.

Developed at Stanford University and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and detailed today in the journal Science Robotics, the gripper has been tested both on the ground and on the International Space Station, demonstrating that it can successfully operate in zero-gravity environments.

With around 500,000 pieces of man-made debris littering orbit, there is a growing need to successfully clear much of it so that humanity can safely increase its operations in low-Earth orbit. Each piece of space junk is whizzing around at up to 17,500 miles per hour, meaning a collision with a satellite, spacecraft or even astronaut would be extremely expensive and potentially very dangerous.

However, many conventional junk removal methods don’t work particularly well. Suction cups rely on creating a difference in air pressure, meaning they don’t work in a vacuum; magnets only work on a limited number of materials and debris harpoons risk missing and knocking the objects off in unpredictable directions.

Sticky solutions, then are preferred, however most tape-like solutions fail because the chemicals they rely on to make them sticky can’t cope with the massive temperature changes objects in space are subjected to. Which is where the gecko-inspired gripper comes in.

The robotic gripper being tested on NASA’s low-gravity aircraft the Weightless Wonder. Image, video  and featured image courtesy of Jiang et al., Sci. Robot. 2, eaan4545 (2017)

“What we’ve developed is a gripper that uses gecko-inspired adhesives,” said study senior author Mark Cutkosky, professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford. “It’s an outgrowth of work we started about 10 years ago on climbing robots that used adhesives inspired by how geckos stick to walls.”

Geckos are able to scale vertical surfaces because they have microscopic flaps that create weak intermolecular forces between the feet and the wall’s surface, allowing them to grip on. The researchers have simply replicated these flaps, albeit on a larger scale; while each flap on a gecko’s foot is around 200 nanometers long, on the robotic gripper it is only 40 micrometers across.

However, it works in the same way, allowing an object to be gripped in a zero-g environment without needing to apply force.

“If I came in and tried to push a pressure-sensitive adhesive onto a floating object, it would drift away,” said study co-author Dr Elliot Hawkes, a visiting assistant professor from the University of California, Santa Barbara. “Instead, I can touch the adhesive pads very gently to a floating object, squeeze the pads toward each other so that they’re locked and then I’m able to move the object around.”

A close-up of the prototype gripper. Image courtesy of Kurt Hickman/Stanford News Service

The gripper has already undergone extensive testing, including in JPL’s Robodome, which has a floor like a giant air hockey table that is designed to simulate a 2D zero-G environment.

“We had one robot chase the other, catch it and then pull it back toward where we wanted it to go,” said Hawkes. “I think that was definitely an eye-opener, to see how a relatively small patch of our adhesive could pull around a 300kg robot.”

Now it has been tested on the International Space Station, the next step is to test a version outside the space station, in the radiation-filled reality of space. Cutkosky also plans to commercialise the gecko-inspired adhesive here on Earth.

Using CRISPR, UK scientists edit DNA of human embryos

For the first time in the UK, scientists have altered human embryos. Using the gene-editing tool CRISPR, the scientists turned off the protein OCT4, which is thought to be important in early embryo development. In doing so, cells that normally go on to form the placenta, yolk sac and foetus failed to develop.

Source: BBC

Tesla and AMD developing AI chip for self-driving cars

Tesla has partnered with AMD to develop a dedicated chip that will handle autonomous driving tasks in its cars. Tesla's Autopilot programme is currently headed by former AMD chip architect Jim Keller, and it is said that more than 50 people are working on the initiative under his leadership.

Source: CNBC

Synthetic muscle developed that can lift 1,000 times its own weight

Scientists have used a 3D printing technique to create an artificial muscle that can lift 1,000 times its own weight. "It can push, pull, bend, twist, and lift weight. It's the closest artificial material equivalent we have to a natural muscle," said Dr Aslan Miriyev, from the Creative Machines lab.

Source: Telegraph

Head of AI at Google criticises "AI apocalypse" scaremongering

John Giannandrea, the senior vice president of engineering at Google, has condemned AI scaremongering, promoted by people like Elon Musk ."I just object to the hype and the sort of sound bites that some people have been making," said Giannandrea."I am definitely not worried about the AI apocalypse."

Source: CNBC

Scientists engineer antibody that attacks 99% of HIV strains

Scientists have engineered an antibody that attacks 99% of HIV strains and is built to attack three critical parts of the virus, which makes it harder for the HIV virus to resist its effects. The International Aids Society said it was an "exciting breakthrough". Human trials will begin in 2018.

Source: BBC

Facebook has a plan to stop fake news from influencing elections

Mark Zuckerberg has outlined nine steps that Facebook will take to "protect election integrity". “I care deeply about the democratic process and protecting its integrity," he said during a live broadcast on his Facebook page. "I don’t want anyone to use our tools to undermine our democracy.”

Renault unveils unorthodox ‘car of the future’: a dockable, peanut-shaped driverless pod

Renault has unveiled its take on the car of the future: a peanut-shaped, mulit-directional driverless vehicle that is capable of docking into a train of vehicles.

Designed by Yuchen Cai, a student of Central St Martins’ MA in Industrial Design, the vehicle is the winning design in competition run between Renault and the prestigious design school, and was honed during a two-week stay at Renault’s Paris studio by Cai this summer.

Dubbed The Float, the vehicle was unveiled today at DesignJunction, a four-day design event that kicked off today in London.

“Everyone has accepted that cars will be part of the sharing economy in the future – that’s what’s going to happen,” said Will Sorrel, event director of DesignJunction, this morning.

“This takes it one step further and these pods are this peanut shape so they can join together, so the autonomous vehicles can link up and join together if they’re going in the same direction, conserving energy.”

The Float by Yuchen Cai, winner of the Renault and Central Saint Martins, UAL competition

The Float is rather unusually designed to run using magnetic levitation – known more commonly as maglev – and would be capable of moving in any direction, eliminating the need for tedious three-point turns.

Made entirely of glass, the vehicle is designed to have sliding doors. Two bucket-style seats enable up to two passengers to travel per pod, and swivel mechanism ensures easy departure from the pods.

When the vehicle is docked to another, however, the passengers aren’t just stuck grimacing at each other through glass. Instead passengers can rotate their seats using built-in controls and power up a sound system that allows them to talk to the pod next door.

Those who are feeling less sociable can change the opacity of the glass, ensuring privacy when their neighbours are not so appealing to communicate with.

The Float is also designed to be paired with a smartphone app, through which would-be passengers could hail a vehicle as required.

“Central Saint Martins’ Industrial Design students really took this on board when creating their vision of the future,” said Anthony Lo, Renault’s  vice-president of exterior design and one of the competition judges. “Yuchen’s winning design was particularly interesting thanks to its use of Maglev technology and its tessellated design. It was a pleasure to have her at the Renault design studios and see her vision come to life.”

“From a technological viewpoint, the prospect of vehicle autonomy is fascinating, but it’s also critical to hold in mind that such opportunities also present significant challenges to how people interact and their experience of future cities,” added Nick Rhodes, Central Saint Martins programme director of product ceramic & industrial design.

“Recognition of the success of the projects here lies in their ability to describe broader conceptions of what driverless vehicles might become and how we may come to live with them.”