For those unfortunate enough to be trapped in a caved-in mine or under the rubble of a collapsed building, the chance of being rescued largely depends upon trained humans and dogs. The equipment they may be outfitted with—thermal imaging sensors, carbon dioxide detectors and flexible video cameras—may also provide some limited help.
But those buried too deeply for searchers to detect them must put all hope of rescue upon the slim possibility that first responders uncover them by chance. For this reason, researchers are trying to develop search and rescue robots that could vastly improve the odds for victims trapped underground.
“The dream and goal in this field is to turn a robot into a multifunctional device capable of moving everywhere,” says Daniel Goldman, a physicist at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “We’re seeking inspiration for how teams of little robots could self-organize to create structures that allow them to efficiently and effectively move around in nasty environments.”
The harvest season seems to whiz by every year in northern latitudes. Just as the time comes to sink a fork into early spring’s peppery locally grown lettuce and asparagus, the market’s crates are already brimming with winter squash. And the juicy tomatoes that yesterday took a quick ride from a nearby farm start logging thousands of miles from farm to table.
Unfortunately, the only two options for most consumers looking to buy fresh produce during the cold months are either to get them shipped from warmer regions or from greenhouses closer by. Efficiencies in the agricultural and shipping systems being what they are, fruits and vegetables grown in warmer climes—by necessity picked before they ripen to prevent spoilage in transit—cost less than premium-priced food from the greenhouse.
Either way, each of those February cucumbers is the product of a significant energy investment—whether it’s producing the fertilizer, burning fuel in shipping, or lighting and heating commercial greenhouses.
More and more, nature is becoming the wellspring from which engineers working on efficient robotic locomotion drink. Those creating machine flight are mimicking the action of bats, birds and insects. To overcome terrestrial obstacles, they are developing mechanical horses and canines. For the sea, they’re working on robotic jellyfish, rays and others.
One inspiration for future generations of agile robots is coming from an unlikely source: the tails of seahorses.
The marine creature’s prehensile appendage—capable of curling more than 360 degrees in on itself and gripping vegetation—displays unique mechanical properties that engineers at the University of California, San Diego, think could be the key to flexible, agile robots.
“The seahorse is an intriguing creature,” says Michael Porter, a UC San Diego materials science doctoral student who is leading the research. “We’re looking at this animal for both biological study and the engineering of materials.”
Trees that grow and glow may one day replace street lamps, cutting down on electricity use and CO2 emissions, according to a group of synthetic biologists. The biohackers at Singularity University in Moffett Field, Calif., plan to crossbreed a plant and bioluminescent bacteria. If successful, their result will be a fully viable herb that can emit light.
“We are going to insert five different genes from a bacterium into a plant,” says cell and molecular biologist Kyle Taylor, a member of the team trying to bring the hybrid to life. The group plans to import bioluminescent genes from the marine bacterium Vibrio fischeri into the plant Arabidopsis thaliana, a member of the family that also includes cabbage and mustard.
They put their proposed project up on crowdfunding site Kickstarter, offering stickers, T-shirts, seeds of their glowing floral creations or the grown plants themselves to potential backers. With more than a month remaining for contributors to give, their Glowing Plants: Natural Lighting with no Electricity project had already attracted more than 1,000 donors and had surpassed its funding goal.