science tech buildings architecture heating winter energy_efficient_design innovators engineering
Why Heat The Building When You Can Heat The Person?

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by Michael Keller

Fall is rapidly approaching and temperatures have already started to drop in some areas of the country. It’s time to figure out where the jackets got hidden at the end of last winter and whether the heater is up for the task this year. 

Residential and commercial buildings were responsible for 40 percent of all the energy consumed in the U.S. in 2013. That total makes the lighting, heating and cooling of indoor residential and commercial spaces the most power hungry of all users, beating industrial and transportation consumption by more than 10 percent each. Buildings also contribute almost 40 percent of all U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. 

Focusing in, it turns out that space heating is the biggest energy hog and accounts for 37 percent of the total power consumed by U.S. buildings in 2010, according to the Buildings Energy Data Book

Why isn’t there a smarter way than heating rooms regardless of whether people are in them or that the living things that occupy a space take up only a fraction of the conditioned area?

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Internet-Connected Machines Might Find Their Voices With This Chip

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by Michael Keller

A future covered with data-beaming sensors just got a little closer. Stanford engineers say they have produced miniscule chips that cost just pennies to make. These silicon-based components can process and relay commands, making them ant-sized controllers that can send and receive information wirelessly.  Developers say the chips bridge the communication gap between sensors, machines and computers and will let them communicate back and forth.  

Electrical engineer Amin Arbabian says the devices he has created are powered by the radio signals they are tuned to receive, so they don’t need any external power sources.

"The next exponential growth in connectivity will be connecting objects together and giving us remote control through the web," said Arbabian. "How do you put a bi-directional wireless control system on every lightbulb? By putting all the essential elements of a radio on a single chip that costs pennies to make."

"We’re ultimately talking about connecting trillions of devices."

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Is this weird-looking soft-bodied robot an early version of the one that might one day help find people trapped in collapsed buildings?

Harvard roboticists are working on a soft, untethered robot that keeps operating through fire, water, crushing force and freezing conditions. So far, they have gotten the two-foot-long machine to operate without external power connections for two hours. 

To endure through the elements, the pliable body was made of a composite of silicone, fabric and hollow glass microspheres and contains no rigid structural elements. Along with surviving tough conditions, it successfully demonstrated an important ability—lifting the mini air compressors, compressed gas, valves, batteries and controller off the ground and moving with all the components it needs to be autonomous. 

"Robots intended for use outside of laboratory environments should be able to operate without the constraints of a tether," the engineers write in a report on their machine in the journal Soft Robotics. “This is especially true for robots intended to perform demanding tasks in challenging environments (for example, for search and rescue applications in unstable rubble).”

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Camera Robot Made For Disney Now Inspects Bridges

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by Michael Keller

Bridges are made to transport vehicles, not to make it easy for inspectors to do their job. That’s why inspecting the undersides and support pillars of tall ones is no easy task, either requiring people looking for problems to perform feats of contortion or the structure to go without review.

But infrastructure left without scrutiny is infrastructure bound to fail. In the case of the reinforced concrete that makes bridges, the test is a fairly straightforward one.

Inspectors use a device that checks for unseen corrosion within the concrete. The tool is an electrode attached to a wheel that detects big differences in electric potential within the material. This is a sign that corrosion—either from deicing salt that eats away the steel inside or atmospheric carbon dioxide that seeps in and changes the concrete’s chemistry—has set in and needs to be monitored. 

The question is just how to get to those hard-to-reach spots. Now engineers and roboticists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH) have developed a solution. 

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