Monday, 24 October 2011

Yamaha's R1 will gain a six-mode MotoGP-developed Traction Control System (TCS) for the 2012 model year, along with a new ECU (Engine Control Unit) with new mapping. It's the only real change to the R1 for next year though, and Yamaha's premier sports bike will again be the heaviest of the liter bikes.
Other changes to the uprated YZF-R1 amount to cosmetic changes, (including the option of a 50th anniversary paint job), a slightly reshaped front cowl, a new YZR-M1 style handlebar crown, and reshaped footpegs.
The Traction Control System has been developed "using feedback gained from the winning Yamaha YZR-M1 MotoGP racer" according to the press statement.
When the TCS sensors detect wheelspin, the ECU adjusts the degree of throttle opening, fuel injection volume and ignition timing to reduce power to the rear wheel. There are six levels of traction control plus it can be switched off completely.
As the engine also has three mapping settings available to the rider via the Variable Map Function, the 2012 YZF-R1 effectively has twenty-one set-up options, but that may not be enough to persuade buyers to part with their cash given the many options available in the marketplace these days. 
BMW's S1000RR has all that adjustability and more, and in stock form will blow the R1 away in a straight line, and Yamaha's addition of traction control is playing catch-up to most of its competitors - quite disappointing in a year in which it is celebrating celebrating 50 years of racing.
Honda has confirmed that the Crosstourer concept shown at the 2010 EICMA show in Milan will go into mass production. The Crosstourer uses the V4 engine from the VFR1200F, plus long travel suspension, a more upright riding position plus the option of a Dual Clutch Transmission. 
Clearly Honda is aiming the Crosstourer at the adventure marketplace currently dominated by BMW's R1200GS and populated by the likes of Yamaha's XT1200Z Super Tenere, Ducati's Multistrada, Triumph's Tiger and Suzuki's V-Strom. Just where the bike is positioned in the road-dirt mix with its 1200cc V4 engine is hard to determine just yet.
Though images of the Crosstourer concept from last year area available, Honda is giving away very little information at this point about what differences the production model will have to the concept.
The only statement released by Honda on the bike so far comes from the leader of the development team, Yosuke Hasegawa:"The Crosstourer offers a high-level fusion of vibrant off-road styling, upright riding position, V4 engine power and Dual Clutch Transmission that offers more direct power transmission and easy operation. We are convinced that we have successfully brought out new value in what can be termed the true Crossover Concept."

Sunday, 23 October 2011

The Garmin Edge has now been around for more than a year, but as the first GPS-based cycling computer and personal trainer and it’s a rich source of accurate and instant numbers on all the key variables in a way that hasn’t been provided before – time, speed, distance, heart rate, cadence, altitude and grade. One very interesting new capability for a cycle computer, and one that begins to bring game technology into the convergence mix in a very useful way, is the Edge's Virtual Partner feature allows the cyclist to keep pace with a digital person that performs at a programmed pace, duration or distance. Users can customize the display to show up to eight different data fields, as well as altitude and a map view. It attaches to either the stem or handlebars of the bicycle, and is designed for easy removal at the end of a ride. Californian athletes wishing to get a good look at the Edge might find a convenient location over the next week as Garmin is the sponsor of the internationally sanctioned professional cycling road race, the 2007 Amgen Tour of California, running February 18-25, 2007.
As a sponsor, Garmin has supplied all race participants with an Edge 305 GPS-enabled cycle computer that will help them monitor their performance throughout every phase of the Amgen Tour of California, as well as future rides. Garmin will also have a booth in the daily Lifestyle Festival presented by Health Net, a free race-day festival in finish cities where the public can experience the excitement of the race and learn more about sponsors.
“The Amgen Tour of California has quickly become one of the top cycling races in the U.S. and attracts a worldwide audience,” said Dan Bartel, Garmin’s vice president of worldwide sales. “It is a great fit for Garmin because it allows us to showcase the Edge to everyone involved with the 650-mile course – from the participating athletes, to the countless spectators that will line the course, to the millions who will watch on TV.” 
The Garmin Edge is the first GPS-based cycling computer and personal trainer. It has revolutionized the cycling industry by providing athletes accurate and instant feedback such as time, speed, distance, heart rate, cadence, altitude, grade, and much more. In addition, the Edge’s Virtual Partner feature allows the cyclist to keep pace with a digital person that performs at a programmed pace, duration or distance. The Edge is light-weight, waterproof and cyclist-friendly. Users may customize the display to show up to eight different data fields, as well as altitude and a map view. It attaches to either the stem or handlebars of the bicycle, and is designed for easy removal at the end of a ride.
The Edge is the first Garmin device to incorporate the new-generation SiRFstarIIITM architecture, a platform offering extremely high performance and sensitivity from SiRF Technology Holdings, Inc, a leading provider of GPS-enabled location technology. The SiRFstarIII architecture provides a rapid time to first fix, enabling cyclists to determine and track their location – even under challenging conditions such as heavy foliage or “urban canyons” created by city skyscrapers.
Cyclists wanting to take their training to the next level can choose between the Edge 305HR (with a heart rate monitor) or the Edge 305CAD (with speed/pedaling cadence sensors). Heart rate and speed/cadence sensors are also sold separately as accessories to allow Edge 305 users to incorporate both features into their training.
The Edge 305HR heart rate monitor uses a robust wireless technology that eliminates cross-talk and interference and delivers real-time heart rate data exclusively to the user’s device. This data is stored with each track point for post-workout analysis. Compared to the Forerunner 301, the Edge 305HR heart rate monitor uses a new softer, more comfortable strap design.
The Edge 305CAD incorporates a self-calibrating, wireless speed/cadence sensor that mounts to the rear chain stay of the bicycle, in addition to the primary unit that mounts on the stem or handlebars of the bicycle. Like the heart rate monitor, the speed/cadence sensor uses the same robust wireless technology that eliminates cross-talk and interference. The 305CAD is self-calibrating and easy to install.
Designed to be flexible for cyclists taking long or short rides, the Edge may store up to 13,000 track points per track, including altitude, at every point of the ride. Altitude is recorded using GPS position for the Edge 205 and a barometric altimeter for the Edge 305HR and Edge 305CAD. This accurate altitude data makes it much easier for cyclists to match their altitude profile with their speed, cadence, and heart rate during post-ride analysis.
Customizing the Edge is achieved using several innovative features:
* Workouts: Design workouts with multiple steps based on time, distance, calories or heart rate. Establishes workout targets based on speed, calories, cadence and heart rate (only Edge 305CAD and 305HR, respectively).
* Virtual Partner: Team up with a virtual training partner that provides continuous feedback. Depicts a digital cyclist (desired pace) in relation to the user’s real-time pace and notifies if ahead or behind desired pace. 
* Courses: This innovative new feature allows you to race against a recorded course and match previously set speeds at every point of the way, or navigate a brand new route. Combine the Courses and Virtual Partner features and race an opponent that varies speed while climbing hills and navigating tricky turns.
* Bike Computer: Customizable Bike Computer screen shows up to eight different data fields. The user may customize the display for the size and placement of the data.
* Auto Pause: Pauses the timer when the user’s speed drops below a pre-set threshold.
* Alerts: Program alerts to sound if the user strays outside the range of speed, heart rate, or cadence values. Alerts can also indicate when a set amount of time or distance has passed.
It seems like almost everything that once existed solely as an electronic device is now also available as a smartphone app, and cycling computers are certainly no exception. Applications such as Cyclemeter, B.iCycle and PedalBrain – just to name a few – all allow riders to use their iPhones to keep track of things such as speed, location, and distance travelled. Now, Florida-based Velocomp has thrown its hat into the ring with the iBike Dash CC (Cycling Computer) app and hardware package.
The basic version of iBike Dash CC requires an iPhone or iPod touch, and includes a waterproof/shock-absorbing holder, steer tube mount, ANT+ wireless speed sensor, and the iBike app and computer software. It's also compatible with all ANT+ cadence and heart rate sensors.
The app allows the iPhone or iPod to act as a speedometer, odometer, chronograph, altimeter, GPS navigator, and all the smartphoney things one would expect, while also allowing users to place and receive phone calls without interrupting its iBike functions. It also includes 50 training programs, that are designed to keep riders within an optimum-but-safe heart rate zone and pedaling cadence.
The programs vary between training for weight loss, fitness, and performance. Buyers should beware, however, that most if not all of those programs will require a heart rate and/or cadence sensor, which are not included in the basic package (the deluxe package includes a combined speed/cadence sensor and a heart rate strap, but not the sensor itself). 
iBike Dash CC is available online. The basic version costs US$199, while the deluxe version goes for $329. A third version with a power meter function is also available, for $749. Depending on what features they want, potential buyers might also want to check out the Liver Rider, another bike computer app/iPhone holder combo, that sells for $100 and includes a speed/cadence sensor. They could also spend $59.99 on a BioLogic iPhone bike mount, then just blow a few bucks more on an app.
Golfers, are you still trying to perfect your putt? Well, you could try a five-minute lesson from the RobotPutt machine, have your technique analyzed by the iClub system, or download the iSwing app. Someday soon, you might also be able to use a new system developed by Katherine Kuchenbecker, an assistant professor of Innovation Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics at the University of Pennsylvania. Her system guides the user's club into delivering the ball straight to the hole, with the intention that golfers will develop a muscle memory for what it feels like to execute that "perfect putt."
The base of Kuchenbecker's system is a 1.5-meter (4.92-foot) long by 70-centimeter (2.3-foot) wide steel frame, containing a grass-green flat cloth-covered deck that features a practice putting green hole. Standing at the middle of that deck, the player starts by holding a putter with its head at a marked starting position, behind a golf ball. There are four steel cables attached to that head, however, each one running to a separate electric motor in each corner of the frame.
When the player attempts their putt, custom software analyzes their swing through the tension on the cables. As soon as any deviation from a straight swing is detected, the system automatically adjusts the tension to pull the club back into the proper position. The forces that the golfer feels on the club are apparently fairly subtle, yet firm enough to let them know what they should be doing differently.
At the World Haptics Conference that took place in Istanbul in June, Kuchenbecker and her U Pennsylvania colleagues reported that in early tests of the system, a group of five volunteers showed less variation in shot accuracy after training with the system. They now plan on testing with a larger group, adding more degrees of freedom, and on decreasing the cable tension so that users can move the club more freely.
For many of us, the list of dream mountain bikes that we'll never be able to afford just keeps growing. That said, quite a few of those bikes have a way of looking alike - after all, there are only so many variations on the basic upright bike frame that will stand up to off-road use. At this weekend's Eurobike trade show in Germany, however, a pretty unique-looking full-suspension rig is making an appearance. It's the Look 920, and as is the case with some high-end road bikes, its handlebar stem is integrated into the top tube. 
The 920 is the result of a collaboration between France's Look Cycle, and designer Patrick Jouffret, from design house Agency 360.
Its integrated aluminum stem definitely gives it a look of its own, with one smooth line extending from the seat tube right up to the handlebar. Not only does this contribute to its aesthetics (although that was doubtless part of the motivation behind the design), but it should also help to strengthen and stiffen the front end.
As many riders will know, some accidents can cause the front wheel of a traditional mountain bike to get turned around completely backward, so that the stem is sitting above the top tube. The 920's stem features elastomer stops, so that in the event of such an accident, it won't hit the side of the top tube. Given that the front wheel still won't be able to turn all the way backwards in a crash, however, one does have to wonder if all that sudden redirected kinetic energy might cause something else to give. 

One thing that the quirky design doesn't lend itself to is the adjusting of bar height through the use of stem spacers. Instead, several lengths and rises of stem are available to buyers, in order to get the bar where they need it.
Alloy and carbon fiber versions of the bike should reportedly be available in Europe early this month. The alloy model, featuring a riser bar, is said to be priced at EUR3990 (US$5,668). Weighing in at 10 kilograms (22 lbs), the flat-barred carbon model should sell for EUR7370 ($10,469). The frames of both models can also be purchased on their own, for EUR3000 ($4,262) and EUR3500 ($4,972).

Friday, 21 October 2011

For a long time, the technological advances in footwear were limited to lighter and more durable materials, and improved support and comfort. But the miniaturization of electronics and wireless technology is opening up the possibilities for extending the capabilities of the humble shoe. With sports men and women striving to find even the tiniest advantage over their opponents, sports footwear is generally the place to look for the latest advances in footwear as evidenced by the latest offering from adidas. The company describes its new adizero f50 football boot, (or soccer boot depending on your location), as a "football boot with a brain."
The "brain" of the adizero f50 is a miCoach SPEED_CELL that is located in a cavity in the sole of the boot that captures 360-degree movement and metrics such as speed, average speed (recorded every second), maximum speed (recorded every five seconds), the number of sprints, distance, distance at high intensity levels, steps and step length. However, unlike the miCoach armband we've seen previously, the adizero f50 doesn't monitor the wearer's heart rate. All the captured data is stored in the boot's on-board memory, which has the capacity to store up to seven hours worth of data, which is then transmitted wirelessly to a tablet, PC or Mac when it's time to hit the showers. 
Statistics can be shared on Facebook and amateur footballers can compare their performance to professionals such as the current captain of the Argentina national team, Leo Messi, via the miCoach Website. The company even has plans to release an online miCoach videogame in 2012 that will let players use their own real-life abilities in the game.
Despite the inclusion of the miCoach SPEED_CELL, adidas claims the f50, at 165 g (5.8 oz), is world's lightest football boot. This is thanks to the use of Sprint Skin, a single layer synthetic material that it claims is thinner and lighter than the synthetics usually used, and a lightweight Sprint Frame on the outsole of the boot. The boot also features Agion anti-microbial technology and a new stud shape that adidas claims provides maximum acceleration on the pitch.
"Data has been monitored and evaluated to increase performance in elite athletes for many years. adidas will now bring this service to the consumer, firstly with the launch of the adizero f50, and then through a further range of intelligent products capable of storing, monitoring and evaluating performance on the field of play" commented Simon Drabble, Director of Interactive Technology at adidas. 
The adizero f50 will be available worldwide from adidas in November for EUR210 (approx. US$277), while a bundle including the boots, a Speed Cell, a dongle to connect to an iPod or iPhone and the miCoach CONNECT for PC and Mac will sell for EUR245 (approx. US$324).
Whether you have the wind whistling in your ears on the highway, or the sound of scrunching tires coming from beneath you on a singletrack trail, it can often be difficult to hear what other cyclists are saying. While most of us are just content to yell "WHAT?", Swedish wireless tech company Free2Move has what it thinks is a better idea - it's HIOD One, a Bluetooth communications system designed specifically for cyclists.
Each HIOD One unit consists of two parts: an arm-mounted voice module with hard-wired earphones and microphone, and a wrist- or handlebar-mounted control module. Speaking into the helmet-strap-mounted microphone, cyclists can talk to other members of their pack through their earphones, as long as they are no farther than 400 meters (1,312 feet) away.
Power comes from a rechargeable lithium-polymer battery, which is said to be good for ten hours of talk time per charge.
Any one rider can stay in contact with up to five other HIOD-wearing riders, although only one at a time. This is a little disappointing, as presumably one of the best uses for this product would be to make general announcements like "OK everybody, get ready for the big hill around the next bend."
The system also requires users to be in a clear line of sight, which might not always be the case with mountain bikers. 
While rider-to-rider communication is HIOD One's main purpose, it can also be used to make and receive phone calls from a wirelessly linked mobile phone, or to stream music from a linked music player to other riders - probably not the best idea when riding on city streets or highways, though.
HIOD One is not yet generally available for purchase, but Free2Move is taking inquiries from people who are interested in buying or selling it.
Sports Tracker is now shipping its Bluetooth Heart Rate Monitor, a chest-worn unit that pairs with a smartphone app for viewing stats in real-time as well as storing your data on the company website or sharing it with others through social media.
The heart rate monitor works via a Bluetooth belt that you must first wet before wrapping around your chest (under your shirt). Wetting the back of the monitor ensures that the electrodes read your heart rate properly. Once connected, grab your smartphone and choose "settings" and then "heart rate belt" on the Sports Tracker app. Once it finds the heart rate belt, click "connect" and then enter the pin code "0000" to begin tracking data. Once you see your heart rate on your phone, you are ready to go.
The system has an extended range of up to 20 meters (65.6-feet), so can store the phone in a back pocket, back-pack, or on an armband. Charges is via USB and the unit is claimed to be good for 40 hours of use on one charge.
As you run, your heart rate is tracked along with additional data such as speed, distance, time, number of steps, elevation, and even the musical playlist you were listening to while exercising. If you take photos along the route with your phone, they are automatically geo-tagged and show up on your map once you sync the device to the Sports Tracker website.
After you're finished exercising, you can view all of the data from your smartphone. When you return home, you can sync it to the Sports Tracker website, and view the data on the big screen, as well as share it with others on Facebook or Twitter
.The Sports Tracker app doesn't do anything mind-blowingly different to similar apps on the market like Nike+ and Run Keeper, but after testing the app and exploring the beautiful interface Sports Tracker uses, I'd say the difference is just how well it does them,

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Three new electric scooters have just been launched by New York's evolve motorcycles. All models use lithium-ion batteries which are said to offer the highest ranges in the industry, feature the latest electrical and charging technologies, and come with one year's roadside assistance. The top-of-the-range titanium model has a range of 60 miles (96.5 km) and a top speed of 70 mph (112.6 km/h), but even the featherweight of the bunch can manage a respectable 40 mph (64.3 km/h). There's also a smartphone app in development, that will allow riders to connect and share on the road. 
Founded by Benjamin Plum, Mazdack Rassi and Lex Kendall, evolve motorcyclesaims to offer riders more than just zero emission transport - they will also be able to share riding experiences via the evolve app, which will initially be aimed at iOS device compatibility, followed shortly thereafter by smartphones running on Android and other mobile operating systems. The app allows riders to record the journey, upload photos and videos, locate other evolve riders, as well as locating the closest charging stations and offering information on the bike's performance. Riders also benefit from optional Garmin GPS integration. 
The leader of the current pack is the titanium model, which starts at US$5,400. It features a tubular steel frame, 5,000 watt brushless electric motor with Kelly Systems controller, a LiFePO4 battery rated at 60Ah (it can take just 2.5 hours to reach full charge using the supplied power cord), and a weatherproof universal charging plug. There's 3,600 cubic inches of under-seat storage and a steel luggage rack, anodized aluminum kick plates, aluminum alloy wheels and hydraulic shocks and disc brakes.
The neon model is priced at US$3,900 and features a 3,000 watt electric motor that offers a top speed of 50 mph (80.4 km/h) and a 60Ah LiFePO4 battery with a 50 mile (80.4 km) range. The helium is available from US$2,900, its 40Ah LiFePO4 battery offers a 40 mile (64.3 km) range and the 1,500 watt electric motor gives a top speed of 40 mph. Both feature an included smartphone charging point. 
All models are manufactured at the company's New York facility and are currently showing as available for pre-order, with shipping expected to commence in early December. Upgrade options are available on all models, which substantially increase the range of the vehicles.
The Igloo Village, which is part of Hotel Kakslauttanen, is guaranteed to give guests a prime position for viewing the northern lights display during the winter months. Located in the Arctic Circle near Finland's Urho Kekkonen National Park, guests can stay in a glass-roofed igloo or brave the cold in a traditional snow igloo.
The Igloo Village offers a serene atmosphere, surrounded by snow and woodlands, creating an idyllic setting for viewing one of the seven natural wonders of the world. The night-time light display of the Aurora Borealis is caused by the collision of gaseous particles from the earth's atmosphere, with charged particles released from the sun's atmosphere. It usually occurs during a geomagnetic storm, and is commonly viewed during the colder months of the year.
The 20 glass igloos are built from a special thermal glass that allows the temperature inside the igloo to remain constant and warm. This thermal glass also prevents frosting, and maintains a clear view even when outside temperatures drop below -30°C (-22°F). However, temperatures inside the traditional snow igloos aren't so cozy. Kept between -3°C and -6°C (27°F and 21°F), guests will need to snuggle into a warm down sleeping bag, wearing woolen socks and a hood to keep the cold out. 
Each igloo features a private toilet (shower facilities are shared) and guests can also enjoy an array of hotel facilities including: the world's largest smoke sauna, equipped with its own restaurant; a "refreshing" ice hole; snow restaurant; ice sculpture gallery; Santa's resort; snow chapel and an ice bar. Village activities include cross-country skiing, husky safaris, reindeer sledge, snowmobile hire, ice fishing and day excursions on board the world's only tourist icebreaker ship.
A night in a Glass Igloo under the starry sky and northern lights display will set you back €340 (US$458) per couple. The Igloo Village is open all year round and 33 new glass igloos will be completed by autumn 2012.

Android currently accounts for 50-percent of the smartphone market. So does the release of the iPhone 4S mean that Apple could overtake Android in the market share battle? 
In a recent Nielsen survey, 31 per cent of consumers who indicated they were in the market for a new smart phone said they plan to purchase an Android phone. While this isn't a huge increase over the 30 per cent who planned to purchase an iPhone, it is a telling statistic when you look at the same study done last year. In 2010, when asked the same question, 33-percent desired an iPhone while only 26% chose to go the Android route. 
According to the same survey, Android now owns 50-percent of the smart phone market while Apple has staked claim to 25-percent. Much like the Windows vs. Mac debate, I'm not sure that Apple is going to win out if you look at market share numbers. I also don't think this is a war it's trying to win. 
The goal for Apple is to release a high-quality product and charge a premium for it. With a model like that, you don't have to compete in price or market share with your competitors, although taking market share is always nice. 
So could the iPhone 4S overtake Android in the market share battle? Almost certainly not. But we are beginning to see record sales numbers for the release of the 4S which, when combined with opening up the market a bit more by adding another carrier (Sprint), could see Apple take a bigger bite out of the pie. When you only release one phone running the operating system each year (or every couple of years), it'll never be a fair comparison. Remember, Android has phones on every major carrier.

The iPhone 4s, or the future release of the iPhone 5 isn't going to be enough to own the market until they use the OS on multiple phones or at least spread it across multiple carriers. Having followed Apple for years, I just don't see that happening. I think Apple is happy taking marketshare without actually owning the market. This allows them to place a premium on the OS and the devices rather than keep up with a hectic release schedule. In a business sense this creates a sense of exclusivity that their competitors just don't have. 
The iPhone is never going to own the market, but we suspect that with profits of 6-billion USD per quarter Apple won't be complaining much.
Imagine if the only way of propelling yourself on a bicycle was to reach down and turn one of the wheels with your hand. It would be pretty inefficient, yet that's essentially how a wheelchair works. Of course, wheelchairs are set up so that the push-rims can be reached very easily, but the propulsion process still comes down to the wheels being directly pushed forward by hand. ROTA Mobility, however, has an alternative. It's called the RoChair, and it's a wheelchair that is rowed by pushing and pulling on a front-and-center-mounted lever.

The ROTA powertrain takes the linear back-and-forth motion of the lever, and converts it into unidirectional rotary output. Depending on the selected gearing, one push-pull of the lever can translate into as much as two wheel revolutions. 
Steering is accomplished by turning the adjustable-length lever to the left or right, while handlebar-mounted brake levers activate the wheelchair's dual disc brakes. A choice of eight gears is available, depending on whether users are going for maximum speed and efficiency on the flats, or making their way uphill. 

As compared to traditional wheelchairs, the RoChair's push/pull propulsion system is said to not only offer a better mechanical advantage, but it is reportedly also less likely to cause repetitive strain injuries of the shoulders, wrists and hands. The chair still has traditional push-rims, however, for maneuvering at very slow speeds or in tight quarters. 
It's also fairly narrow, with a width of 24 inches (61 cm). According to its designers, previous attempts at lever propulsion wheelchairs haven't used a front-and-center-mounted lever, and have thus ended up being wider. The RoChair additionally utilizes smaller-than-normal 20-inch wheels. These low wheels allow users to slide directly across from a chair onto its seat (its arm rests raise), without having to heave themselves up over one wheel. It's also designed to disassemble in seconds for car stowage. 
ROTA Mobility also makes the three-wheeled RoTrike, for users who prefer the idea of a human-powered scooter over that of a wheelchair. Both devices are priced at US$4,980 each.

Having completed its first flight earlier this year, the Northrop Grumman-built U.S. Navy X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration (UCAS-D) aircraft achieved another milestone on September 30 with its first flight in cruise mode. Part of the on-going "envelope expansion" program to demonstrate the aircraft's performance under a variety of altitude, speed and fuel load conditions, the flight took place at Edwards Air Force Base and saw the aircraft retracting its landing gear and flying in cruise configuration for the first time. 
The X-47B is being developed as a carrier-based unmanned aircraft offering a maximum refueled range of over 2,000 miles (3,219 km) and an endurance of more than six hours. The demonstrator carries no weapons, but has a full-sized weapons bay and is the same size and weight as the projected operational aircraft in order to provide realistic testing. The latest flight also tested precision navigation hardware and software that will allow the aircraft to land with precision on the moving deck of an aircraft carrier. 
"Last week's flight gave us our first clean look at the aerodynamic cruise performance of the X-47B air system...and it is proving out all of our predictions," said Janis Pamiljans, vice president and Navy UCAS program manager for Northrop Grumman's Aerospace Systems sector. "Reaching this critical test point demonstrates the growing maturity of the air system, and its readiness to move to the next phase of flight testing." 

Shore-based carrier suitability testing is due to begin in 2012, after the UCAS-D program begins transitioning aircraft to Naval Air Station, Patuxent River, Maryland, later this year. The three-year test program is set to culminate in sea trials in 2013.

When you think about it, smartphones are more than just fancy phones - they're actually tiny portable computers. Given that so many people now own these tiny computers, why should they have to pay to buy another computer that's built into an electronic device, when they could instead just use their existing smartphone as the "brain" of that device? That's the approach that has been taken by products such as the Bubo camcorder rig, and now also by Romo-The Smartphone Robot. 
Romo is the creation of Seattle robotics designers Peter Seid and Phu Nguyen.
The hardware consists of a tracked, motorized acrylic base incorporating an analog circuit board, two motors, and an accessory port/stand that can accommodate a mounted smartphone or iPod touch. The base is powered by a rechargeable lithium-ion battery that can be juiced up via an included USB cable. 

Users load one of the Romo apps onto an iOS or Android phone, place it in the mount on the robot, then use a computer, tablet, or a second smartphone to remotely control the robot through the first phone. In cases where the robot has been preprogrammed to carry out a set of commands, which can be done drag-and-drop style right on the smartphone, only the one Romo-mounted phone would be required. 
One of the apps that has already been created lets users spy on other people, using a real-time feed from the robot phone's camera. Onscreen directional arrows on the controlling device's screen allow users to steer. There's also an augmented reality game in which Romo users race against each other, and a color-tracking app that causes the robot to follow objects of a given color. 
Seid and Nguyen invite suggestions for other apps.
Romo is currently in the developmental phase, with funds for commercial production currently being raised on Kickstarter. A pledge of US$78 will get you a Romo of your own, once they're ready to roll.

Budget tablets seem to be the order of the week. While not as easy on the pocket as the Aakash table unveiled earlier this week, Australian consumer electronics manufacturer and retailer, Kogan, has announced its own budget tablet offerings. The company's new Android-powered Agora 8-inch and Agora 10-inch tablets join Kogan's Agora line, which also includes laptops and a 7-inch Agora tablet that launched earlier this year. Aside from the screen size and resolution - 800 x 600 for the 8-inch and 1024 x 768 for the 10-inch - the specs of the two models are largely identical. Both feature a 4:3 ratio capacitive touchscreen, are powered by a 1 Ghz Cortex A8 CPU and 512 MB of RAM, and come running Android 2.3 with access to the Android Market. There's also an internal G-Sensor, 2-megapixel front-facing camera and 4 GB of onboard storage, expandable up to 36 GB via microSD card. 
Wireless connectivity is limited to 802.11 b/g, while a HDMI output port allows the devices to output 720p video to a HDTV. The battery is the only other point of difference with the 8-inch model packing a 3,600 mAh battery and the 10-incher sporting a 5,500 mAh battery. Surprisingly, the devices won't charge via their miniUSB ports, but require an AC adapter. 
Kogan founder Ruslan Kogan says the new tablets take on board constructive feedback received in the past few months relating to the company's 7-inch tablet, although the specs for that unit seem to be pretty much identical to the new 8-inch model. Maybe all the constructive feedback was related to larger screen sizes.

There's no specific details of battery life for either of the new offerings on the Kogan website, but given the 8-inch model has the same 3,600 mAh battery as the 7-inch model, it's probably safe to expect it to get roughly the same 24 hour standby time and three hours of general use as that unit. 
Kogan couldn't resist having a dig at Apple in announcing the new tablets saying, "It is true. The Kogan Agora range of tablets does have a screen and a battery. Our tablets also happen to look like a tablet. I hope this does not aggravate Apple and cause further legal proceedings." 
The Agora 8-inch and 10-inch Tablets are available for order from the Kogan website now starting at a Liveprice of AUD149 (approx. US$152) and AUD189 (approx. US$193) respectively, with the final prices listed as AUD229 (approx. US$234) and AUD269 (approx. US$275). Both models are expected to begin delivery on November 4.

Carbon is the fourth-most-abundant element in the universe and comes in a wide variety of forms, called allotropes, including graphite, graphene, and the hardest natural material known to man, diamonds. Now scientists have discovered a new form of carbon that is capable of withstanding extreme pressure stresses previously only observed in diamond. Unlike crystalline forms of carbon such as diamonds, whose hardness is highly dependent upon the direction in which the crystal is formed, the new form of carbon is amorphous meaning it could be equally strong in all directions. 
A team including scientists from Stanford University and the Carnegie Institution for Science started with a form of carbon called glassy carbon. Glassy carbon was first synthesized in the 1950s and was found to combine glassy and ceramic properties with those of graphite, including high temperature resistance, hardness, low density, low electrical resistance, low friction and low thermal resistance. To create the new carbon allotrope, the team compressed glassy carbon to above 400,000 times normal atmospheric pressure. 
The resultant new form of carbon was capable of withstanding the types of pressure stress that no other substance other than diamond had been able to withstand. It was able to withstand 1.3 million times normal atmospheric pressure in one direction while confined under a pressure of 600,000 times atmospheric levels in another direction. 

Because, unlike diamonds, the structure of the new allotrope is not organized in repeating atomic units, it may hold potential advantages over diamonds. Whereas a diamond's hardness is highly dependent on the orientation of its crystalline structure, the new material is amorphous, meaning its structure lacks the long-range order of crystals offering the prospect that the new material could be isotropic - that is, having equally strong hardness in all directions. If this turns out to be the case, it could be better suited to certain applications than diamonds. 
"These findings open up possibilities for potential applications, including super hard anvils for high-pressure research and could lead to new classes of ultradense and strong materials," said Russell Hemley, director of Carnegie's Geophysical Laboratory.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

The Dream Chaser, a reusable space plane currently under development by Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC), is to undergo high altitude drop tests in 2012 following a 25.6 million US dollar boost from NASA to top-off the 80 million US dollar contractawarded earlier this year. But it won't be chasing just any dream. With the retirement of the Space Shuttle Program this year, the very tangible goal is to deliver a low-cost, safe alternative for transporting astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station and other low Earth orbit destinations. 
The vertical-takeoff, horizontal landing (VTHL) space plane is designed to carry up to seven humans, but can fly autonomously if necessary. While the ability to carry people will reduce the United States' dependency on US$50 million per person flights to the International Space Station aboard Russia's Soyuz craft, it may be the space craft's ability to carry cargo that is of particular interest to NASA. As Mark Sirangelo, head of SNC Space Systems, pointed out in this BBC interview "At the moment, there is no logical way to take things home from the space station. We can take three people home on a Soyuz but all the science work that's being done up there doesn't have a way to come back. Our vehicle has a particular use for that." 

While a capsule landing subjects the cargo to severe G-forces, the Dream Chaser returns from space by gliding, experiences less than 1.5 g on re-entry and is capable of landing on almost any runway. Sirangelo also highlighted the fact that, unlike the Space Shuttle, the vehicle carries no hazardous materials and so can be approached immediately after landing. 
The design is based on NASA's HL-20 Space Taxi concept developed by the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, in the 1980s and 1990s. The inspiration for HL-20 had in turn been drawn from photos of a mysterious spacecraft being recovered by a Soviet ship from the Indian Ocean in 1982 (the spacecraft was later identified as the Soviet BOR-4 and reverse-engineered up to a wind tunnel test stage). The most conspicuous aspect of this heritage is the lifting-body design, which can be thought of as the opposite of a flying wing design. While the latter does away with the fuselage in order to eliminate non-lifting surfaces, the former depreciates the importance of wings and uses the fuselage for lift generation in order to reduce drag on atmospheric re-entry. 
The Dream Chaser is designed to be launched into space on the nose of a rocket. However, for the unmanned atmospheric drop-tests it is going to be carried into the skies by Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft, originally built to launch SpaceShipTwo spacecraft. 

So far the Dream Chaser project has been on schedule and all milestones have been completed. This includes testing the frame by mounting it on an earthquake simulator, as well as testing the hybrid rocket motors running on a peculiar combination of nitrous oxide and recycled rubber. If everything keeps going according to plan, the Dream Chaser will be sent to orbit in 2014, sitting on top of a powerful Atlas V rocket made by United Launch Alliance (see main image). After detachment from the rocket, the space plane will use the hybrid motors to adjust its orbit or dock to the ISS. 
That said, the International Space Station is not the only destination SNC has in mind. The company has already invested tens of millions of US dollars on top of what it received from NASA, so it is only natural that it is also eyeing other potential income sources like space tourism. This is where a partnership with Virgin Galactic kicks in. Richard Branson's company is going to be responsible for marketing SNC's space tourism efforts, while SNC concentrates on designing hybrid motors for Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo. 
Is space tourism going to guarantee a return on investment? Although the Dream Chaser is almost fully reusable, Mark Sirangelo estimates that in order to make a profit the company would have to be operating multiple Dream Chasers 50-100 times each. This is uncharted business territory.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Within just the past few years, scientists have developed an impressive number of experimental systems designed to help the blind navigate city streets. These have included devices that mount on the wrist, are incorporated into glasses, are worn as a vest, and that augment a traditional white cane. A young researcher at Hewlett-Packard Labs in Bangalore, India, however, has come up with something else - a navigational device for the blind that's built into a shoe. 
Anirudh Sharma's system is called Le Chal, which is Hindi for "Take Me There." It is intended primarily to assist users in finding their way to specific geographical locations, although it also helps them avoid walking into things on their way there. Sharma designed the first prototype in January, while attending MIT's Design and Innovation workshop in the Indian city of Pune. 
The basic idea behind Le Chal is that one of the user's shoes will provide haptic feedback, guiding the user toward their destination by vibrating in the front, back, or on either side - a vibration on the front indicates that they should keep going straight, a vibration on the left side means that they should turn left, and so on. 

The user begins by entering their destination on Google Maps, using their Le Chal-app-running Android smartphone. That phone then communicates by Bluetooth with a LilyPad Arduino circuit board, located in the heel of the shoe. Following the Google-supplied turn-by-turn directions, along with locational data from its own GPS unit, the phone gets the Arduino to activate each of the shoe's four vibrators as needed. The vibrations start out low, but build in intensity as the user nears points where they have to turn. 
A proximity sensor in the front of the shoe also alerts the user to obstacles, which it can detect from up to ten feet (three meters) away. 
While there is no word of Le Chal being marketed any time soon, Sharma is planning to release the code for the app and the schematics for the shoe, via the Arduino community. He also plans on creating a Do-It-Yourself guide on Wikipedia, which users can update with their own improvements to the system.

There's a reason that the oranges you see in the store usually aren't rotten - someone at a sorting facility has already looked over all the oranges coming in from the fields, and taken out the spoiled ones. This is typically done with the help of ultraviolet light, which illuminates the essential oils in the rinds of rotten oranges. Such an approach is subject to human error, however, plus workers can only remain in the vicinity of the harmful UV light for limited periods of time. Now, scientists from Spain's Valencian Institute of Agrarian Research (IVIA) have created a machine that does the same job automatically. While they were at it, they also came up with one that sorts oranges according to aesthetic appeal, and one that sorts mandarin segments. 
All of the machines incorporate artificial vision technology, which allows computers to interpret data gathered by linked video cameras. 
The rotten-orange-detecting machine uses the traditional UV light to detect the offending fruits, then mechanically removes them from the production line. Another machine, at the rate of 15-20 fruits per second, uses visible light to sort citrus fruits according to the quality of their appearance. Based on factors such as color and skin damage, fruits that are still perfectly edible are routed either to high-end retailers, or to markets where looks aren't so important. It's reminiscent of a machine recently built at Montreal's McGill University, that uses visible and near-infrared light to visually inspect and classify cuts of meat. 
The mandarin-sorting machine separates mandarin segments from one another by placing them on a vibrating platform, then carries them on a conveyor belt to an inspection area. There, at the rate of 28 segments per second, they are inspected and sorted according to whether or not they are complete segments, or if they contain pips. Foreign bodies such as skin are also identified and removed. 
Yet another machine, which is about the size of a large tractor, can be used to sort oranges by quality while still in the field. Workers place picked oranges on its conveyor belt, which brings the fruits into the machine for inspection. In this way, the fruit will come in from the fields already sorted and ready to go. 

The scientists are also looking into the use of MRI, CAT scans and X-rays, along with hyperspectral imaging. This last technology "collects and processes information from a large part of the electromagnetic spectrum and provides individual spectral measurements for each pixel," according to IVIA It could be used to identify the concentrations of chemical compounds that change as fruit ripens or rots.
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