Bots on patrol: Mobile security robot to be mass produced

In a move that will rock the job security of night watchmen everywhere, the world’s first commercially available security robot is set for mass production in the US.

Designed by Denver-based Gamma 2 Robotics, the robot will now be manufactured entirely in the States, with a process that can be scaled up to full mass production as demand grows.

The robot, which is known as the Vigilant MCP (mobile camera platform), features a digital camera and an array of sensors to detect the presence of unauthorised intruders, and will activate the alarm and send out an alert should it find someone where they shouldn’t be.

It is being pushed as a solution to night security in particular, with proposed industries including retail, warehouses, data centres and convention centres.

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For professional security workers, the robot could pose a major threat to employment, as it offers key improvements for employers over flesh and blood workers.

“Robots never quit, and they don’t call in sick. They are cost-effective at an average of $4 an hour fixed cost,” explained Gamma 2 Robotics in a company video.

The cost savings can go further – unlike human workers, with the Vigilant MCP employers won’t have to shell out for background checks or drug screening, and won’t even need to leave the lights on as the robot will work happily in the dark.

It can also be equipped with additional sensors to provide other industry-specific benefits. For data centres, for example, the robot can create a heat map to indicate the effectiveness of cooling systems – a valuable service that could be used to make significant savings on energy bills.

The robot, which bears a striking resemblance to an ordering machine outside a drive-thru restaurant, can also be dressed up in the relevant company colours, enabling the automated worker to adhere to company clothing regulations.

Vigilant MCP has already been used for night security at a number of events, including the Denver Maker Faire, and with the interest of the security industry already captured, this number is only going to grow.

However, what will happen to the night security workers who inevitably lose work to the robot is unclear. The robot will never have problems with tiredness or lack of focus, making it near impossible to compete with as a regular human worker.

This is just one example of how developments in robotics are jeopardising human jobs, particularly in fields which are either low-skilled or attention-sapping. The numbers affected at present appear small, although no comprehensive data is available on this at present, but over time job loss to robots could become a major economic concern.


Images courtesy of Gamma 2 Robotics.


Study finds biofuels are contributing to climate change, not mitigating it

Biofuels such as ethanol and biodiesel are not anywhere near as environmentally friendly as previously thought.

A study by researchers at the University of Michigan, published today in the open-access journal Climactic Change, has found that biofuels actually increase the heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions responsible for global warming, despite their reputation for being a ‘clean’ fuel source.

It was previously thought that such fuels were carbon-neutral, based on the premise that the CO₂ they produce when burnt was balanced by the CO₂ the plants absorbed as they grew. However, this study has found that the crops’ CO₂ absorption only mitigated a fraction of its emissions.

Using extensive crop production data from the US Department of Agriculture, alongside data on fossil fuel production and vehicle emissions, the researchers found that during a time when biofuel use rapidly increased in the US, the biofuel crops’ CO₂ absorption only offset 37% of their emissions when burnt.

“This is the first study to carefully examine the carbon on farmland when biofuels are grown, instead of just making assumptions about it,” explained research professor and study lead author John DeCicco, from the University of Michigan Energy Institute.

“When you look at what’s actually happening on the land, you find that not enough carbon is being removed from the atmosphere to balance what’s coming out of the tailpipe.”

A vehicle owner tops up his car using the biofuel ethanol in Washington State, the US. The country has promoted biofuels as a green alternative for transport. Image courtesy of Carolina K. Smith MD / Shutterstock.com

A vehicle owner tops up his car using the biofuel ethanol in Washington State, the US. The country has promoted biofuels as a green alternative for transport. Image courtesy of Carolina K. Smith MD / Shutterstock.com

The findings have significant ramifications for climate change mitigation approaches, as biofuels have increasingly been used as a cleaner alternative to petroleum. In many parts of the world they form a vital part of government-backed plans to reduce carbon emissions; a role that may well need to be reconsidered now that such strong doubt has been cast on their effectiveness.

In the US, for example, they are recommended for transportation purposes by the US Renewable Fuel Standard, which has helped to spur growth in production in the country from 4.2 billion gallons in 2005 to 14.6 billion gallons in 2013.

The researchers have even gone so far as to argue biofuels are worse than other traditional fuel sources, due to the false sense of security they provide to policymakers.

“When it comes to the emissions that cause global warming, it turns out that biofuels are worse than gasoline,” said DeCicco.

“So the underpinnings of policies used to promote biofuels for reasons of climate have now been proven to be scientifically incorrect.”

Biofuels are often presented as environmentally friendly, such as in this concept image. This will now have to change as a result of the study's findings

Biofuels are often presented as environmentally friendly, such as in this concept image. This will now have to change as a result of the study’s findings

As a result of the shocking findings, the researchers are now recommending that policymakers reconsider their use of biofuels to mitigate climate change.

“Policymakers should reconsider their support for biofuels,” said DeCicco.

“This issue has been debated for many years. What’s new here is that hard data, straight from America’s croplands, now confirm the worst fears about the harm that biofuels do to the planet.”

Record-breaking device promises low cost, efficient solar energy storage

Researchers at  École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and the Swiss Center for Electronics and Microtechnology (CSEM) have designed a new device using commercially available solar cells, and none of the usual rare metals, that stores solar energy as hydrogen more stably, efficiently and at lower cost than all previous methods.

Solar energy is stored for periods without sun by converting the energy into hydrogen via electrolysis, using the electrical current produced by the solar panel to split water molecules into their hydrogen and oxygen components.

The hydrogen can then be stored for future use as fuel or to produce electricity. The issue encountered so far is that although there are hydrogen-production technologies with potential, they have been too unstable or expensive to be used on a commercial scale.

Image courtesy of Infini Lab / EPFL 2016

Image courtesy of Infini Lab / EPFL 2016

The method used by the EPFL and CSEM team involved a combination of components that have already been proven to be effective in the industry.

The researchers’ prototype consists of three interconnected, new-generation, crystalline silicon solar cells attached to an electrolysis system that does not rely on rare metals.

The device can convert solar energy into hydrogen at a rate of 14.2% and has so far been run for more than 100 straight hours in test conditions. This represents a world record for silicon solar cells, as well as for the production of hydrogen without the use of rare metals.

The team’s effort outdoes all prior attempts in regards to stability, performance, lifespan and cost efficiency.

“A 12-14m² system installed in Switzerland would allow the generation and storage of enough hydrogen to power a fuel cell car over 10,000km every year,” said EPFL researcher Christophe Ballif, who co-authored the paper and who also heads the CSEM PV-center.

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Traditional solar panels, which have seen growing worldwide use over the last decade

The key to the team’s success is two-fold, resting on both the efficient use of existing components and the employment of a ‘hybrid’ crystalline-silicon solar cell based on heterojunction technology.

The device is structured using layers of crystalline silicon and amorphous silicon that allow for higher voltages, meaning that with only three of these interconnected cells, it is possible to generate a near perfect voltage for electrolysis.

Additionally keeping the cost down is the usage of a nickel catalyst for the electrochemical part of the process. The concept was proven using standard heterojunction cells, but it is expected that by using the best available cells, they could achieve performance rates as high as 16%.

“We wanted to develop a high performance system that can work under current conditions,” said Jan-Willem Schüttauf, a researcher at CSEM and co-author of the paper.

“The heterojunction cells that we use belong to the family of crystalline silicon cells, which alone account for about 90% of the solar panel market. It is a well-known and robust technology whose lifespan exceeds 25 years. And it also happens to cover the south side of the CSEM building in Neuchâtel.”

Breakthrough Starshot to develop first spacecraft destined for newly discovered Proxima b planet

Pete Worden, chairman of the Breakthrough Prize Foundation and former director of NASA’s Ames Research Centre, earlier today expanded on the plans of the Breakthrough Starshot initiative to explore the Centauri star system.

As part of the European South Observatory’s (ESO) announcement of their discovery of Proxima b, a planet in the Alpha Centauri system that may be capable of supporting life, Worden explained how the Breakthrough Initiative would be a part of the future exploration of the system and Proxima b specifically, suggesting that the organisation would be the first to send a probe to the planet.

Breakthrough Starshot was announced on April 12 of this year by tech entrepreneur Yuri Milner and scientist Stephen Hawking at the One World Observatory in New York.

Starshot is a privately funded initiative aimed at developing humanity’s first probe to reach another star system. Specifically, the Starshot Initiative involves the development of a nanocraft, weighing just 1g, which will then be attached to a lightsail and pushed, alongside hundreds of other such craft, into space using an extremely powerful laser.

The laser will push these nanocraft in the direction of the Centauri system at approximately 20% of the speed of light, a speed which will see the craft reach their destination in 20 years. Upon arrival, the craft will then begin to beam data collected on Proxima b back to Earth via laser.

As Worden said: “The technology is today is sufficient enough to think about these things. The key question of our initiative was whether there are potentially life-bearing planets orbiting these stars.

“We have assembled a team of the world’s most knowledgeable experts to assess this question. With today’s announcement we now know that there is at least one planet, the one orbiting Proxima Centauri that has some characteristics similar to the Earth.”

The importance of the project is obviously centred around the possibility of life on the newly discovered planet. Starshot’s craft will not only be mankind’s first probe launched towards the Proxima Centauri star, but may well be the first to discover life outside of our planet.

Yuri Milner holds a 1g nanocraft, which could be the first spacecraft to be sent to Proxima b. Image courtesy of Bryan Bedder / Getty Images

Yuri Milner holds a 1g nanocraft, which could be the first spacecraft to be sent to Proxima b. Image courtesy of Bryan Bedder / Getty Images. Featured image courtesy of Breakthrough Starshot

The organisation is working with the ESO to achieve this goal, but is privately funded with an initial research budget of $100m over the next few years. The Starshot project is overseen by Yuri Miller, Stephen Hawking and Mark Zuckerberg and aims to build a prototype system costing between $500m and $1bn.

Once their concepts have been successfully developed, the aim is to build a full system that will send the nanocraft to Proxima and Alpha Centauri within a generation. This full system is believed to cost in a range approximate to that of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider and is intended to draw funding from global public-private partnerships.

The final question, however, is just how long it will be before we actually achieve travel to the star?

“I believe that later this century and with our own plans that we think maybe by 2060 we can arrive at Proxima Centurai and we can get these images,” said Worden. “We hope to see: is there life there? There could be advanced life there. Those are some of those great questions that are going to be answered this century.”