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.

Scientists implant device to boost human memory

Scientists have enhanced human memory for the first time with a “memory prosthesis” brain implant. The team behind the device say it can boost performance on memory tests by up to 30%, and a similar approach may work for enhancing other brain skills, such as vision or movement.

Source: New Scientist

Astronomers discover Earth-sized world 11 light years away

A planet, Ross 128 b, has been discovered in orbit around a red dwarf star just 11 light years from the Sun. The planet is 35% more massive than Earth, and it likely exists at the edge of the small, relatively faint star's habitable zone even though it is 20 times closer to its star than the Earth is to the Sun.

Source: Ars Technica

An algorithm can see what you've learned before going to sleep

Researcher fed the brain activity from sleeping subjects to a machine learning algorithm, and it was able to determine what the subject had learned before falling asleep. In other words, an algorithm was able to effectively ‘read’ electrical activity from sleeping brains and determine what they were memorising as a result.

Source: Motherboard

Elon Musk unveils Tesla Truck and Tesla Roadster

Elon Musk has unveiled the long-anticipated 'Tesla Semi' – the company's first electric articulated lorry. The vehicle has a range of 500 miles on a single charge, and will go into production in 2019. Unexpectedly, Tesla also revealed a new Roadster, which will have a range of close to 1,000km (620 miles) on a single charge and will do 0-100mph in 4.2 seconds.

Source: BBC

Arrivo plans to build 200mph hyperloop-lite track

Arrivo, the company founded by former Hyperloop One engineer Brogan BamBrogan, has announced a partnership with Colorado’s Department of Transportation. Arrivo will now build a magnetised track to transport existing vehicles, cargo sleds and specially designed vehicles alongside preexisting freeways at 200mph in the city of Denver.

Source: The Verge

Boston Dynamics' Atlas robot can now do backflips

It's been a busy week for Boston Dynamics, first the company revealed it SpotMini robot dog was getting an upgrade, and now the company has shared a video of its Atlas humanoid robot leaping from platforms and doing a backflip. It seems like an obvious thing to say, but it's not easy to make a robot do a backflip, so how Boston Dynamics has managed it is anyone's guess.

Source: WIRED

The all new Factor Magazine is here – your guide to how today, tomorrow and beyond are being shaped

Guess who’s back, back again.

It’s been a few months, but Factor has returned with a bigger and better format, bringing the same future news and discussion, but on a platform that you can read on any device.

We’ve been working towards this for a long, long time: this is how we’ve always wanted the magazine to look, and we’re so happy to share this with you. It can be viewed on any web browser, on anything from a mobile to a monster PC, and if you’re on a desktop or laptop, click the button in the bottom right-hand corner for the ultimate shiny reading experience. A digital magazine has never looked this good. Probably.

Unfortunately that means no more iPad app, but as you can easily read the magazine from an iPad web browser, we hope you’ll agree that what we’ve gained is so much better than what’s been lost.

So anyway, here it is: the Winter 2017 issue of Factor, the first issue of the quarterly version of the magazine.

In case any of you are worrying about us publishing the magazine quarterly, trust us you don’t need to. We’ve produced the biggest issue of Factor ever, so packed with futuristic awesomeness, that we’ve had to divide it into three sections: Today, Tomorrow and Beyond.

Today deals with the futuristic present, as much of what we think of as ‘the future’ already exists today. We look at how humanoid robots are being employed as co-workers, hear from the legendary Richard Stallman about the vanishing state of privacy and discover how automation is already taking jobs. Plus, we take a light hearted look at the futuristic world of Mr Tesla, Elon Musk, and provide our festive present suggestions in a bumper futuristic gift guide.

Moving on to Tomorrow, and it’s all about the world of the next few decades, as technologies that are in development now reach fruition and seep into our everyday lives. We consider how flying cars are inching towards reality, with a look at both Lilium and the newly announced UberAir, and find out how driverless delivery may be the first true instance of the self-driving future.  Plus, we also look at the Christmas dinners of the future, because why the hell not.

Finally, in Beyond we look at the way-out future that many of us probably won’t live to see, but is supremely cool to think about. We ask leading futurists to predict what’s in store in the 22nd century – not the most positive of pictures, unfortunately – and consider what jobs will remain in a post-automation world. Plus, we look at the potential first homes of the human race beyond the solar system, and check out how asteroid mining is set to shape off-earth development.

Take a look, and if you like what you see and read, please share the magazine with your friends, or tell us what you think. This is a completely free magazine, with not an ad in sight, so it’s always good to know that it’s worth the effort.