Category Archives: Gadgets

This box sucks pure water out of dry desert air

For many of us, clean, drinkable water comes right out the tap. But for billions it’s not that simple, and all over the world researchers are looking into ways to fix that. Today brings work from Berkeley, where a team is working on a water-harvesting apparatus that requires no power and can produce water even in the dry air of the desert. Hey, if a cactus can do it, why can’t we?

While there are numerous methods for collecting water from the air, many require power or parts that need to be replaced, what professor Omar Yaghi has developed needs neither.

The secret isn’t some clever solar concentrator or low-friction fan — it’s all about the materials. Yaghi is a chemist, and has created what’s called a metal-organic framework, or MOF, that’s eager both to absorb and release water.

It’s essentially a powder made of tiny crystals in which water molecules get caught as the temperature decreases. Then, when the temperature increases again, the water is released into the air again.

Yaghi demonstrated the process on a small scale last year, but now he and his team have published the results of a larger field test producing real-world amounts of water.

They put together a box about two feet per side with a layer of MOF on top that sits exposed to the air. Every night the temperature drops and the humidity rises, and water is trapped inside the MOF; in the morning, the sun’s heat drives the water from the powder, and it condenses on the box’s sides, kept cool by a sort of hat. The result of a night’s work: 3 ounces of water per pound of MOF used.

That’s not much more than a few sips, but improvements are already on the way. Currently the MOF uses zicronium, but an aluminum-based MOF, already being tested in the lab, will cost 99 percent less and produce twice as much water.

With the new powder and a handful of boxes, a person’s drinking needs are met without using any power or consumable material. Add a mechanism that harvests and stores the water and you’ve got yourself an off-grid potable water solution going.

“There is nothing like this,” Yaghi explained in a Berkeley news release. “It operates at ambient temperature with ambient sunlight, and with no additional energy input you can collect water in the desert. The aluminum MOF is making this practical for water production, because it is cheap.”

He says that there are already commercial products in development. More tests, with mechanical improvements and including the new MOF, are planned for the hottest months of the summer.

This box sucks pure water out of dry desert air

For many of us, clean, drinkable water comes right out the tap. But for billions it’s not that simple, and all over the world researchers are looking into ways to fix that. Today brings work from Berkeley, where a team is working on a water-harvesting apparatus that requires no power and can produce water even in the dry air of the desert. Hey, if a cactus can do it, why can’t we?

While there are numerous methods for collecting water from the air, many require power or parts that need to be replaced, what professor Omar Yaghi has developed needs neither.

The secret isn’t some clever solar concentrator or low-friction fan — it’s all about the materials. Yaghi is a chemist, and has created what’s called a metal-organic framework, or MOF, that’s eager both to absorb and release water.

It’s essentially a powder made of tiny crystals in which water molecules get caught as the temperature decreases. Then, when the temperature increases again, the water is released into the air again.

Yaghi demonstrated the process on a small scale last year, but now he and his team have published the results of a larger field test producing real-world amounts of water.

They put together a box about two feet per side with a layer of MOF on top that sits exposed to the air. Every night the temperature drops and the humidity rises, and water is trapped inside the MOF; in the morning, the sun’s heat drives the water from the powder, and it condenses on the box’s sides, kept cool by a sort of hat. The result of a night’s work: 3 ounces of water per pound of MOF used.

That’s not much more than a few sips, but improvements are already on the way. Currently the MOF uses zicronium, but an aluminum-based MOF, already being tested in the lab, will cost 99 percent less and produce twice as much water.

With the new powder and a handful of boxes, a person’s drinking needs are met without using any power or consumable material. Add a mechanism that harvests and stores the water and you’ve got yourself an off-grid potable water solution going.

“There is nothing like this,” Yaghi explained in a Berkeley news release. “It operates at ambient temperature with ambient sunlight, and with no additional energy input you can collect water in the desert. The aluminum MOF is making this practical for water production, because it is cheap.”

He says that there are already commercial products in development. More tests, with mechanical improvements and including the new MOF, are planned for the hottest months of the summer.

Indiegogo expands its efforts to help Chinese startups reach global consumers

While crowdfunding company Indiegogo has been running a pilot program in China for the past couple of years, it’s now building on those efforts with the launch of the Indiegogo China Global Fast-Track Program.

CEO David Mandelbrot is in Shenzhen, China this week to announce the program, which is designed to help Chinese entrepreneurs reach a global audience. In an email, he told me:

The China Pilot Program is officially out of pilot phase — today, we are officially launching the Indiegogo Global Fast Track. During the pilot phase, the team experimented with different ways to help service Chinese brands and manufacturers who were looking to launch products overseas. After helping companies raise over $100 million and launch over 3,000 China-based projects over two years time, the team has finalized its new suite of services.

Those services include guidance around crowdfunding and marketing in the United States and other countries, access to a network of more than 65 service providers (including retailers and marketing firms, as well as Indiegogo’s manufacturing partner Arrow Electronics and shipping partner Ingram Micro) and Chinese-to-English consultation with bilingual staff.

Even while in the pilot phase, Indiegogo has had some success stories in helping Chinese companies launch globally. For example, Bluetooth headphone company crazybaby raised more than $4 million across three campaigns.

Mandelbrot said Indiegogo also has opened a satellite office in the Tencent incubator in Shenzhen — a manufacturing hub that’s become a hub for hardware startups, too.

This robotic hose-dragon could jet its way into burning buildings

While hose-toting drones may be a fantasy, hose-powered robo-dragons (or robotic hose-dragons — however you like it) are very much a reality. This strange but potentially useful robot from Japanese researchers could snake into the windows of burning buildings, blasting everything around it with the powerful jets of water it uses to maneuver itself.

Yes, it’s a real thing: created by Tohoku University and Hachinohe College, the DragonFireFighter was presented last month at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation.

It works on the same principle your hose does when you turn it on and it starts flapping around everywhere. Essentially your hose is acting as a simple jet: the force of the water being blasted out pushes the hose itself in the opposite direction. So what if the hose had several nozzles, pointing in several directions, that could be opened and closed independently?

Well, you’d have a robotic hose-dragon. And we do.

The DragonFireFighter has a nozzle-covered sort of “head” and what can only be called a “neck.” The water pressure from the hose is diverted into numerous outlets on both in order to create a stable position that can be adjusted more or less at will.

It requires a bit of human intervention to go forwards, but as you can see several jets are pushing it that direction already, presumably at this point for stability and rigidity purposes. If the operators had a little more line to give it, it seems to me it could zoom out quite a bit further than where it was permitted to in the video.

For now it may be more effective to just direct all that water pressure into the window, but one can certainly imagine situations where something like this would be useful.

DragonFireFighter was also displayed at the International Fire and Disaster Prevention Exhibition in Tokyo.

One last thing. I really have to give credit where credit’s due: I couldn’t possibly outdo IEEE Spectrum’s headline, “Firefighting Robot Snake Flies on Jets of Water.”

Apple TV gets Dolby Atmos and streamlined sign-ons for channels and services

Apple TV, still definitely not a hobby, has some new features to add as it grows. Tim Cook mentioned that there are 50 percent more users now than there were last year, and no doubt they’ll be happy with the addition of Dolby Atmos audio and some nice sign-on streamlining.

Apple TV is now the only streaming player to be both Dolby Atmos and Vision certified. Assuming you’ve got a 4K HDR-capable TV, it could be nice to have, since iTunes boasts the biggest selection of content for those — but since hardly anyone does, it’s more of an aspirational feature at present.

There are over 100 video channels now after the addition of several live news and sports ones. In France Apple TV will be the exclusive provider of Canal+, and in Switzerland Apple has partnered with Salt for a similar exclusive. And Charter Spectrum will also be coming to Apple TV later this year, so around 50 million people will be able to watch their normal cable content through the device. Finally!

Helpfully, many of these apps won’t require a separate log-in, including Charter Spectrum — as any smart TV user or cable cutter knows, managing these logons can be incredibly annoying. So a single sign on (or zero sign on in some cases) will be a boon.

Unclear what this means for those of us who share passwords between friends and family. Possibly not good.

If you’re a TV background video aficionado, you’ll also be interested in the new orbital video of Earth that can be displayed while nothing else is going on. It’s exclusive to Apple.

This DIY smart mirror is small, stunning and full of features

Several years ago Google X engineer Max Braun published a medium post on a smart mirror he made and now he’s back with a new version that’s smaller and smarter. This is a smart mirror I can get behind though I still find smart mirrors completely frivolous.

He published his project on Medium where he explains the process and the parts a person would need to build their own. This isn’t a project for everyone, but Max gives enough instructions that most enterprising builders should be able to hack something similar together.

I recently reviewed a smart mirror and found it a bit silly but still useful. Ideally, like in Max’s smart mirrors, the software is passive and always available. Users shouldn’t have to think about interacting with the devices; the right information should be displayed automatically. It’s a balancing act.

At this point, smart mirrors are little more than Android tablets placed behind a two-way mirror. Retail models are expensive to be buy and hardly worth it since a person’s phone or voice assistant can probably provide the same information. After all, how many devices does a person really need to tell them the weather forecast?

Count your bees with this Raspberry Pi project

Bees need all the help they can get. Thus programmer Mat Kelsey created a bee counter to see just how many of his winged honeymakers are hanging out in his hives. His system, which uses a Raspberry Pi and a machine learning algorithm that recognizes the number of individual bees entering a hive, is used to see bee trends over time and see just how the bees are faring.

“The first thing I thought when we setup our beehive was ‘I wonder how you could count the number of bees coming and going?’” wrote Kelsey. “After a little research I discovered it seems no one has a good, non-intrusive system for doing it yet. It can apparently be useful for all sorts of hive health checking.”

The system looks at sets of pictures of the hive door taken every 10 seconds. It then extrapolates out the background, assesses the objects that have moved in the frame, and then counts the things that are likely to be bees. It’s a fascinating problem to solve since the bees are constantly moving and because it can also ignore bees that are coming out of the hive.

You can download the source on Github and check out his detailed blog post here. Given the need for bee protection as we enter an era of colony collapses, tools like this one are wildly important. Plus it’s cool to see a Raspberry Pi do something so complex.

Watch a hard-working robot improvise to climb drawers and cross gaps

A robot’s got to know its limitations. But that doesn’t mean it has to accept them. This one in particular uses tools to expand its capabilities, commandeering nearby items to construct ramps and bridges. It’s satisfying to watch but, of course, also a little worrying.

This research, from Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania, is essentially about making a robot take stock of its surroundings and recognize something it can use to accomplish a task that it knows it can’t do on its own. It’s actually more like a team of robots, since the parts can detach from one another and accomplish things on their own. But you didn’t come here to debate the multiplicity or unity of modular robotic systems! That’s for the folks at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation, where this paper was presented (and Spectrum got the first look).

SMORES-EP is the robot in play here, and the researchers have given it a specific breadth of knowledge. It knows how to navigate its environment, but also how to inspect it with its little mast-cam and from that inspection derive meaningful data like whether an object can be rolled over, or a gap can be crossed.

It also knows how to interact with certain objects, and what they do; for instance, it can use its built-in magnets to pull open a drawer, and it knows that a ramp can be used to roll up to an object of a given height or lower.

A high-level planning system directs the robots/robot-parts based on knowledge that isn’t critical for any single part to know. For example, given the instruction to find out what’s in a drawer, the planner understands that to accomplish that, the drawer needs to be open; for it to be open, a magnet-bot will have to attach to it from this or that angle, and so on. And if something else is necessary, for example a ramp, it will direct that to be placed as well.

The experiment shown in this video has the robot system demonstrating how this could work in a situation where the robot must accomplish a high-level task using this limited but surprisingly complex body of knowledge.

In the video, the robot is told to check the drawers for certain objects. In the first drawer, the target objects aren’t present, so it must inspect the next one up. But it’s too high — so it needs to get on top of the first drawer, which luckily for the robot is full of books and constitutes a ledge. The planner sees that a ramp block is nearby and orders it to be put in place, and then part of the robot detaches to climb up and open the drawer, while the other part maneuvers into place to check the contents. Target found!

In the next task, it must cross a gap between two desks. Fortunately, someone left the parts of a bridge just lying around. The robot puts the bridge together, places it in position after checking the scene, and sends its forward half rolling towards the goal.

These cases may seem rather staged, but this isn’t about the robot itself and its ability to tell what would make a good bridge. That comes later. The idea is to create systems that logically approach real-world situations based on real-world data and solve them using real-world objects. Being able to construct a bridge from scratch is nice, but unless you know what a bridge is for, when and how it should be applied, where it should be carried and how to get over it, and so on, it’s just a part in search of a whole.

Likewise, many a robot with a perfectly good drawer-pulling hand will have no idea that you need to open a drawer before you can tell what’s in it, or that maybe you should check other drawers if the first doesn’t have what you’re looking for!

Such basic problem-solving is something we take for granted, but nothing can be taken for granted when it comes to robot brains. Even in the experiment described above, the robot failed multiple times for multiple reasons while attempting to accomplish its goals. That’s okay — we all have a little room to improve.

ASUS announces a motherboard just for crypto-mining

Mining hardware is weird stuff. Either it’s commodity hardware used – inefficiently – for complex computation or specifically-designed, expensive boards that can be used to bring in Bitcoin and little else. Asus, a motherboard maker of some renown, is now helping bridge the gap.

The H370 Mining Master is a basic motherboard that supports 20 graphics cards, the boards used for Ethereum and other less resource-intensive scripts. The cards connect via PCIe-over-USB and each port has is individually controlled and managed by on-board diagnostics. This lets you ensure that each graphics card is running properly and fully connected.

From the release:

Less time maintaining your machine means more time mining with it, which is why the H370 Mining Master includes a suite of diagnostic features designed to make your platform easier to manage. Chief among them is GPU State Detection, which scans the system at boot and indicates whether each riser port is empty, connected to a functional graphics card, or experiencing problems. The updated State Detection GUI clearly identifies the location and status of each port along with the alphanumeric code that identifies it. Onboard diagnostics are augmented by individual debug LEDs that light up when there are problems with specific system components, like the CPU or memory.

The boards also has a number of cryptocurrency features that are activated “out of the box.”

The board ships in Q3 2018 for a few hundred dollars – a far cry from the massive costs associated with custom hardware. Now you just need to power all those massive graphics cards to keep the mining gear going.

Where Are the Women in Tech?

According to the National Center for Women Information Technology (NCWIT), the U.S. Department of Labor estimated that 1.4 million computer related jobs would be available in the U.S. between 2010-2020. At current graduation rates for Information Technology, we can expect to fill only 32% of those jobs with U.S. Information Technology graduates. The NCWIT further states that although women hold about 57% of professional occupations in the U.S., only 26% of computing occupations are held by women. Even worse, only 3% of those jobs are held by African-American women, 5% by Asian women, and only 2% by Hispanic/Latino women.

The computing industry is failing to attract women to the field and sadly retention is poor. Women are leaving the industry at staggering rates, according to the NCWIT. Overall, the number of people graduating with computer or information science degrees has been steadily decreasing since 2004. There is a severe shortage of talent in IT. Salaries for.net programming and other popular technologies are the highest ever and the need for developers is rising. Companies are in near crisis mode as they fight to retain and attract IT talent. American women with computer science degrees can help fill some of these gaps.

Personally, I have been a woman in IT since the late 70’s when I graduated with a business degree and the MIS Manager at the company I worked for noticed I had programming on my resume. At the time, I was only making a summer pit-stop before pursuing further education in interior design. Struggling with a shortage of programmers even at that time, I was made a very lucrative offer as a full-time programmer, which I accepted. I never thought I would stay in the field, but as the years wore on I realized I was destined for a career in IT. Oddly, it wasn’t my passion but the money was good and the opportunities were like none other for a woman in the 80’s.

The software development career path led me to work with managers and co-workers in a highly male dominated field. Even from a client perspective, all upper management and power lunches that I was included in featured a roundtable of suited men with one petite suited woman – me. I never actually thought much about it. My opinions and work were always highly respected. The knowledge of software and the creation of highly necessary business programming provided a “20 something” woman with opportunities that I could have never had in most other fields. Besides being highly compensated, the work was challenging and I worked with business executives at the highest level.

One of the best things about software development is that you are filling a business need. To sit across major players at top companies and work with them to develop software that will make their business better is an amazing experience. Further, technology is exciting to work in because there is always something new to learn and some new development perspective to take.

I encourage developers to take a field trip to visit users that are performing their daily tasks utilizing the software that the developer wrote. There is no better feeling than watching people doing their jobs or playing a game using something that you made. Further, if you work for a national software manufacturer, there are people all across the nation in many companies and offices or homes using something that you produced. It’s like a song that people listen to everyday and enjoy. As a software developer, you can create a program that is utilized daily and enjoyed.

Software developers create tools that make the world more efficient. Companies rely on software to cut costs and increase revenue and profitability. The career path for software developers is wide in range and offers a host of benefits, including some of the highest salaries. The field of IT is broad and there is a need for IT Managers, Designers, Team Leads, Programmers, Testers, and more.

Although I am a woman in IT, before analyzing some of the statistics, I never realized that there was such a lack of diversity in the industry. Even in my own company, we have a 4 to 1 ratio of men to women in the development role. That statistic is even worse when assessing incoming job applications.

There are solid reasons for women to consider roles in development. First, unemployment statistics are favorable for jobs in IT. Also, tech companies are generally profitable which means some extra job security. The work is very interesting, challenging and always changing. You can get creative. Job growth is steadily increasing. Highly competitive salaries are standard issue. There is no variance in pay between men and women in IT (for comparable experience, education, and skills). This was confirmed by a salary survey performed by Dice.com®.

Why aren’t there more women in tech? Good question. Working in IT can be life changing, and the first step for a woman conquering a development role is making the need for women developers known. Let’s get that pipeline flowing. College students should explore the field, talk to tech companies, and find out more about how coding is cool. The future of IT depends on it.

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