Surgery in surgeons

Minimally invasive surgery often sees robots acting as a surgeon’s hands inside the patient’s body. Such robots are large and cost several million dollars, and although smaller handheld instruments are out there, their straight-stick design means they’re not as dexterous as a skilled surgeon’s own hands. A new “needle driver” from a University of Michigan startup, FlexDex Surgical, is designed to precisely mimic the motions of a surgeon’s wrist and translate it to a tiny flexible claw, with no electronic or computerized components.

Anchored just above the surgeon’s wrist, the FlexDex has a gyroscopic handle that can be rotated, twisted, and angled in three dimensions, while the rest of the device stays still. Those motions are translated through a cable down the length of a metal shaft to the tip, where a two-pronged clamp closely follows those instructions like a tiny robotic replica of the surgeon’s own hand.

The pinchable claw and precise rotation lets the FlexDex specialize in internal suturing. For existing devices, a task that fiddly usually requires big, awkward movements on the surgeon’s side, but the FlexDex’s center of rotation is in the same spot as the human wrist. According to the team, that means its movements aren’t inverted like other instruments.

“If I move my hand up, the device tip goes up,” says Jim Geiger, co-inventor of the Flexdex. “Wherever I move my hand, the tip of this instrument follows.”

The long-used Da Vinci line of surgical robots may be more versatile and provide finer control, but they also come with multi-million-dollar price tags that can keep them out of reach of small or remote hospitals. For a much more reasonable US$500, the FlexDex can help these facilities provide minimally invasive surgery, which is less traumatic and painful than being cut right open, and takes far less recovery time.

“I was amazed by the sophistication of the (Da Vinci) technology,” says Shorya Awtar, co-inventor of the FlexDex device. “At the same time, I had a strong instinct that this functionality can be achieved much more simply and cost-effectively. At its price point, this technology would not reach patients across the globe.”

So far, the device has been tested in a few different procedures for examining abdominal organs and inside the lungs, but in future FlexDex plans to put it to work treating hernias, and in hysterectomies and prostate cancer removal.

Fancier and more frugal

Passengers who travel on Amtrak’s high-speed Acela Express service in the US will soon be able to do so more comfortably and more regularly. The rail operator has unveiled designs for next-generation, high-speed trainsets that will replace its existing rolling stock and offer greater capacity.

The new trains are being introduced as part of a wider scheme to upgrade infrastructure for the Acela Express, which runs between Washington DC and Boston via 14 other stops. Produced by transport company Alstom, they will boast a number of modern passenger conveniences like improved Wi-Fi access, personal power outlets and USB ports, the likes of which are being added to services elsewhere, too.

Amtrak says that, in addition to improved comfort for passengers, there will also be an improved boarding experience and food service, along with a third more seats than the trains being replaced. Passengers will apparently benefit from a smoother ride, in part as a result of an “anticipative tilting system.”

This tilting system is completely train-borne, so it doesn’t require special track installations. It pairs data on the line’s parameters with information gathered by onboard sensors, allowing the system to locate the train’s position on the line and prepare to tilt for upcoming bends. This allows the trains to take curves at higher speeds and with greater comfort for the passengers onboard.

When they first enter operation, the new trains are expected to have a top speed of 160 mph (257 km/h), a decent increase on the 150 mph (241 km/h) that the current models are capable of. Subsequent infrastructure improvements along the Northeast Corridor (NEC) rail line, however, should enable them to eventually travel at speeds of up to 186 mph (299 km/h).

Coming soon to a battery near you

When individual silicon wafers are cut from larger sheets of silicon for use in electronics, a lot of sawdust is produced. Ordinarily, that material is simply discarded. Thanks to research currently being conducted by Japan’s Tohoku University and Osaka University, however, it may soon find its way into high-performing lithium-ion batteries.

The scientists started with regular silicon sawdust, washed it to remove impurities (such as coolant) that were introduced in the sawing process, then pulverized it into porous and wrinkly “nanoflakes” measuring about 15 nanometers thick. Those flakes were subsequently coated in carbon, then incorporated into battery anodes.

When tested, a lithium-ion half-cell using one of those anodes achieved a constant capacity of 1,200 mAh/g (milliamp hours per gram) over 800 cycles. While that might not mean much to the layperson, that capacity is reportedly 3.3 times larger than that of a comparable conventional graphite anode.

According to the researchers, the recycling process should be easy to scale up for mass production, plus costs of the anodes ought to be reasonably low. Additionally, they estimate that the amount of silicon sawdust generated worldwide every year should be enough to meet global demand for anode materials.

Asteroid gives Earth a near miss

As its name implies, space has plenty of room, but that doesn’t mean it’s empty. Quite the contrary, with a fair amount of traffic even in the vicinity of Earth. This year the tally of known near-Earth asteroids and comets passed 15,000 and more are being discovered, like asteroid 2016 VA, which buzzed our planet Wednesday just a day after it was first spotted.

Asteroid 2016 VA was discovered by the Mt. Lemmon Sky Survey in Arizona and determined to be on track to pass by Earth at a distance of just 75,000 km (46,603 miles), or about a quarter of the way to the Moon.

The International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center tracks thousands of objects with at least one close approach happening just about every day, but most of them pass by at distances anywhere from several to a few dozen times the distance to the Moon, which means 2016 VA is making a very close approach compared to most fly-bys.

“Asteroids coming this close (or even closer) are found from time to time by the automated surveys looking for near-Earth objects,” Gianluca Masi, Director of the Virtual Telescope Project, told New Atlas. “So far this year, we had about 50 asteroids come closer than the Moon.”

Close fly-bys of asteroids have snuck up on us before. Just over a year ago one was spotted for the first time as it passed at 1.3 lunar distances and the meteor that blew out windows in Russia in 2013 led to a call for more asteroid surveillance.

Asteroid 2016 VA sailed safely by us, however, just after midnight UTC. Even if it were on a collision course with Earth, it measures only about 12 m (39 ft) and much or all of it would likely burn up in our atmosphere.

The best standalone smartwatch

When Google announced Android Wear 2.0 last May, we knew standalone/cellular-connected watches were going to be a major focus. For the last couple weeks, we’ve been testing the first of the bunch: the 4G LTE-ready LG Watch Sport. Is this hulk of a smartwatch worth buying? Read on for New Atlas’ review.

The first thing you’ll notice about the LG Watch Sport is its size: This is an enormous smartwatch. But what seemed like a divisive quality during my first few hours with it, later turned into part of its charm. The Sport would look like a monstrous sun dial on most women’s wrists, but for those searching for a substantial and masculine-looking piece of wrist tech that does everything you’d want a 2017 smartwatch to do, it’s a worthy contender for your dollars.

The addition of 4G LTE only makes practical sense to joggers, gym rats or anyone else prone to phoneless treks outdoors or to a favorite workout spot. (Where else would you not have your phone with you?) But if you fall into one of those niches, I prefer the Watch Sport over Samsung’s similarly-connected Gear S3 – simply because Android Wear 2.0 feels more mature and streamlined than Samsung’s oft-chintzy Tizen OS.

While Android Wear 1.X was something of a dumbed-down smartwatch OS, with notification cards and voice control making up the entire experience, Wear 2 makes Google’s wearable software feel closer to Apple’s watchOS. You still swipe up to see cards for notifications, but you now have a hardware shortcut to your apps list, NFC for Android Pay and a button-press to go directly back to home. There’s even an onboard version of the Play Store so you don’t need to install apps on your phone first (great for iPhone owners, as compatibility could be an issue if you needed companion phone apps).

New campus nears completion

Apple’s Foster + Partners-designed “spaceship campus” was originally revealed all the way back in 2011, and it’s finally nearing completion. The firm announced today that Apple Park, as it is now officially called, will open to employees in April this year.

Moving 12,000 Apple employees from the firm’s current campus into the new digs is obviously no small task, and the process will be phased over six months from Apple Park’s April opening.

Construction work and landscaping will continue for some time yet on the 175-acre (70.81-hectare) Cupertino plot, however. An on-site theater is expected to be finished sometime later this year. Named the Steve Jobs Theater in honor of the late co-founder, the 1,000-seat auditorium will be situated atop a hill and entered via a 20 ft (6 m)-tall glass cylinder. It will be topped by a metallic carbon fiber roof.

In addition, Apple Park will also include a visitor’s center with an Apple Store and cafe open to the public. A fitness center for employees and R&D facilities are also planned.

Apple Park’s sustainability is much-lauded by the firm and indeed seems significant. The project involved 5 million sq ft (464,515 sq m) of asphalt on the site being replaced with more sympathetic landscaping, including 9,000 native drought-resistant trees and grass, and walking and running paths for staff.

A 17-megawatt solar panel array will enable Apple Park to run entirely from renewable energy. Hailed as the world’s largest naturally-ventilated building by the firm, it’s also expected to require no heating or air conditioning whatsoever for nine months of the year.

According to Apple, the main building is clad in the world’s largest panels of curved glass. Featuring a total floorspace of 2.8 million sq ft (260,128 sq m) inside, it’s certainly an impressive piece of engineering and we’ll no doubt have more to say on its design once it’s complete.

All seasons to hedge against climate change

The last time food was rationed in England, Winston Churchill was still prime minister of the country. Earlier this month, however, Britons experienced a blast from the past as bad weather in Spain caused a severe vegetable shortage in the UK, leading some supermarkets to ration the number of greens that customers could buy. But could creating a new line of broccoli for all seasons help avert another veggie crisis, the next time the rain in Spain becomes a pain?

Though it might not look like it, the part of the broccoli plant we eat is actually a flower structure. In order for the plant to reach this flowering stage, the temperature has to be just right, and key to this part of its growth cycle is a process known as vernalization. Put simply, some plants need to undergo a period of cold weather before they can flower, and broccoli is one of them. If it doesn’t get cold enough, it flowers late, or worse, not at all, making it a high-risk crop for farmers.

It therefore goes without saying that erratic weather patterns are bad news for broccoli growers who can’t predict how much cold weather they are going to get each year. And because farmers have no idea when the plants will flower, this in turn creates a problem for crop scheduling.

To address this problem, crop geneticist and lead researcher Judith Irwin developed a new line of broccoli that is not only fast-growing – it goes from seed to harvest in just around two months – but is also resistant to the climatic whims of the season, since it can be grown all year round in protected conditions.

Based on past research conducted by John Innes plant biologist Caroline Dean, the road leading to this development involved crossing different lines together to find the gene responsible for flowering time (or “heading date” as it is known in the horticultural industry). In the course of their studies, Dean and her team found that small changes in a gene known as FCL result in a range of heading dates found in different broccoli varieties.

“We harnessed our knowledge of how plants regulate the flowering process to remove the requirement for a period of cold temperature and bring this new broccoli line to harvest faster,” explains Irwin. “This means growers could turn around two field-based crops in one season, or if the broccoli is grown in protected conditions, four to five crops in a year.”

Given that the UK grows only 23 percent of its own food, this new development could help address the problem of seasonality and the country’s dependence on imported crops by allowing broccoli to be grown year round in contained horticultural production systems such as greenhouses or vertical farms.

The healing secrets of Komodo dragon blood

Downing a vial of Komodo dragon blood to fight a bacterial infection might sound like something prescribed by a meister on Game of Thrones, but new research shows that the substance might have very real applications in our world. By analyzing the creature’s blood, scientists reporting in the Journal of Proteome Research say they’ve isolated 48 compounds that could help fight bacteria, including those resistant to traditional antibiotics.

Found on certain islands in Indonesia, Komodo dragons are the heaviest lizards on Earth, reaching lengths of up to 10 ft (3 m) and weights over 300 lb (136 kg). They are also fierce predators. Not only does the beast have sharp claws and shark-like teeth, its saliva is a toxic brew of over 50 strains of bacteria which infects wounds on its prey, causing the hapless creatures to eventually die of blood poisoning if the dragon doesn’t finish the job during the first attack.

Because Komodo dragons can harbor all of this bacteria without succumbing to it themselves, it caught the attention of researchers from the College of Science at George Mason University (GMU) in Virginia. Building on previous work they’d done with alligators, the team identified 48 substances known as cationic antimicrobial peptides (CAMPs) in the lizards’ blood, which are small chains of amino acids found in the immune systems of nearly all living creatures that can fight bacteria.

To spot the CAMPs specific to the dragons, a feat they say would have been impossible using normal CAMP identification processes, they employed a process called bioprospecting. First, they incubated the Komodo dragon blood with negatively charged hydrogel particles. Then, because the CAMPs are positively charged, the hydrogel particles attached to them, making them identifiable with mass spectrometry.

Of the substances identified, eight were synthesized by the team. Seven were found to be potent combatants of the Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Staphylococcus aureus bacterial strains, while one fought off only P. aeruginosa.

“We have identified a host of novel peptides from Komodo dragon plasma that exhibit broad-spectrum antimicrobial properties, including anthrax and multidrug-resistant bacteria,” the team adds on GMU’s College of Science website. “These peptides would be virtually undetectable using conventional CAMP discovery methods.”

The researchers also mention that they’ve created a peptide known as DRGN-1 that showed wound-healing ability and the power to bust biofilms – super strong colonies of bacteria that are notoriously difficult to eliminate. They are hopefully that the newly discovered and synthesized compounds will eventually lead to potent therapeutic drugs.

The incredible SR

Even though it was built at the height of the Cold War and hasn’t flown in over 17 years, the SR-71 Blackbird still looks like it fell out of the future. The war plane with no weapons not only had the lines of a spaceship, it set the record for the fastest air-breathing manned aircraft in 1976 – a record that remains unchallenged to this day. So how was it built, and what was it like to fly this supersonic denizen of the edge of space?

Developed by Lockheed at its famously secretive Skunk Works in Burbank, California, the SR-71 was a derivative of the A-12 reconnaissance plane built for the CIA as a replacement for the U2 spy plane of the 1950s. It was the brainchild of American aerospace engineer Clarence “Kelly” Johnson who, like a real-life Tony Stark, came up with all sorts of remarkable design innovations that pushed forward aerospace engineering.

The SR-71 was built for the US Air Force and operated from 1964 to 1998. The Blackbird, or Habu, as it was also nicknamed after a venomous Japanese snake, could outrun any plane or missile that was sent against it. It set multiple speed and altitude records that have yet to be matched and was one of the first stealth aircraft. It also became stronger as it grew older, despite the fact that it was built by engineers using slide rules. That’s a bit like prying open your smartphone and finding a little man inside with an abacus.

So what motivated the development of this formidable flying dagger? The answer lies in the frostiest years of the Cold War. In the 1950s when NATO became aware of the vital necessity of keeping tabs on the Soviet Union, which since the end of the Second World War had been growing increasingly aggressive while deliberately cultivating the image of possessing an unstoppable war machine with a growing nuclear arsenal.

Fearing both a Soviet sneak attack and the equal nightmare of either side sparking off a nuclear holocaust by accident, President Eisenhower put forward his Open Skies initiative. This was designed to allow US and Soviet recon aircraft to fly over one another’s territory, but the Kremlin turned it down like a bed sheet, so the Americans started work on the U2 spy plane that first flew in 1955.

A jet-powered sailplane that’s still in service today, the U2 was designed and built for the CIA and its job was to soar over the USSR and Warsaw Pact countries to gather strategic information. Unfortunately, the CIA underestimated the state of Soviet anti-aircraft technology and on May 1, 1960, a U2 piloted by Francis Gary Powers was shot down by a salvo of SA-2 missiles. Powers miraculously survived and was captured by the Soviets, who convicted him of espionage in a show trial before exchanging him for the KGB spy Rudolf Abel in 1962.

Air travel for the masses

Can’t face the drive to the airport? Why not bypass the whole circus and jump in your two-seat, vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) all-electric engine jet aircraft? That’s the vision for the Lilium Jet, an aircraft currently being developed in Germany under the auspices of the European Space Agency’s business incubation center that boasts fly-by-wire joystick controls, retractable landing gear, gull-wing doors, and a claimed top speed of 400 km/h (250 mph). The creators claim that this personal e-jet could be made available to the public as early as 2018.

Combining the vertical take-off capabilities of helicopters and the cruising abilities of fixed-wing aircraft, the Lilium Jet aims to be significantly quieter than other VTOL vehicles such as helicopters, thanks to its 320 kW (435 hp) rechargeable-battery-powered ducted fan engines (arranged in a not-too-dissimilar form to that adorning Darpa’s X-plane prototype).

Designed for recreational flying use during daylight hours, the Lilium Jet should be classed as a Light Sport Aircraft in Europe, with a pilot’s license requiring just a minimum of 20 hours training.

“Our goal is to develop an aircraft for use in everyday life,” says Daniel Wiegand, CEO and one of the company’s four founders. “We are going for a plane that can take off and land vertically and does not need the complex and expensive infrastructure of an airport.”

Whilst flying an aircraft with so little training may seem fraught, with redundant systems for batteries, engines, and electronics (much like other proposed VTOL electric craft, such as the Joby S2), the new craft is designed to be a good deal safer than a helicopter, and with intelligent computer-control for automatic take-off and landing, any chance for pilot error should be significantly reduced.

Initially the Lilium would be only allowed to fly from designated airfields. However the ultimate goal is for it to be able take off vertically from just about any open flat space larger than just 15×15 m (49×49 ft), such as a large garden.

Once airborne the Lilium Jet will swivel its engines into a rear-facing position to propel it along like a fixed-wing aircraft to cruise at speeds of around 300 km/h (180 mph), and to travel up to a claimed distance of 500 km (300 miles) on a single charge. Top speed is aimed at around 400 km/h (250 mph), but this will have an effect on the maximum distance traveled.