Researchers developing ways to make hurricane predictions earlier, more accurate

As Hurricane Sandy bears down on the eastern coast of the United States, many people are hunkering down in their homes with supplies they bought over the last few days, including bottled water, canned foods and batteries for flashlights and lanterns. In some areas residents have been evacuated as a safety precaution.

For countless Americans, the devastation of Hurricane Katrina is still fresh in their memories. So when individuals find that their homes are in the path of the next big storm, tensions run high. Powerful winds can uproot trees and send them crashing into buildings while levees, rivers and other bodies of water overflow and cause serious flooding.

But, hopefully the damage done by hurricanes can soon be mitigated, thanks to innovative technological breakthroughs at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). Terry Hock, an electrical engineer at NCAR, and a team of other scientists have been using something called a "dropsonde" for years now.

These devices look similar to a tube that one might store a poster or blueprints in. However, you won't find paper inside when you open them up. Instead, there is a series of state-of-the-art sensors that measure everything from temperature and humidity to wind speed and direction.

Dropsondes are launched from aircraft and then gather atmospheric data via these sensors as they descend. Currently, researchers are able to use this technology to classify hurricanes and learn more about their inner workings. They also hope to be able to gather information that will help them identify conditions that lead to the formation of hurricanes, allowing forecasters to make earlier and more accurate predictions.

Dropsondes have a huge impact on understanding hurricanes and predicting hurricanes," Hock said in a Science Nation video for NASA Tech Briefs TV. "As the sonde is falling we're seeing every single little measurement show up immediately on the computer screen."

As researchers continue to improve dropsonde technology, the benefits could be enormous. The goal is to provide crucial time for adequate preparations to be made and, if necessary, evacuations to be conducted.

DARPA builds robotic mule to help military in the field

U.S. military personnel can be expected to carry up to 100 pounds of equipment when in the field. This places a considerable amount of physical strain on individuals already in stressful situations, compounded by extreme weather conditions and other threats to their safety.

Researchers hope to change all that by using a "robotic mule" to lighten the load carried by servicemen and women. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is working closely with Boston Dynamics to build an autonomous machine that can quite literally take that weight off their shoulders.

The mule is part of the Legged Squad Support System, or L3, that shares its origins with Boston Dynamics' Big Dog program. The current prototype, according to an article on the U.S. Army website, can support up to 400 pounds of gear, travel up to 20 miles an hour and has a series of sensors that allow it to track its human leaders.

"So not only can it perceive the world around it better, it can interact with the Marines better," said Brigadier General Mark Wise of the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab during a demonstration last month. "Right now it sees a bush and thinks it's an object it can't go through. In the next 24 months, the initiatives will look at other ways for the sensors already on board to see these obstacles and go through [them]."

The four hydraulic-powered legs also enable the mule to traverse rocky terrain and even move through water and snow where wheeled devices encounter a great amount of difficulty. A fast-reacting balance system also helps to prevent it from being pushed over. If, however, the mule is knocked onto its side, it is capable of standing back up on its own.

Throughout the next two years DARPA's L3 program, innovative sensor technologies will allow the mule to move through increasingly difficult paths, aided by the flexibility achieved with new ways of seamlessly joining dissimilar metals. Advances in American manufacturing will literally help save lives around the world.

Robotic snakes could soon be performing repairs on jet engines

When a car has engine trouble, it's inconvenient. When a commercial airplane has a similar problem, it could have million-dollar implications. Most troubleshooting jobs require the plane to be taken out of commission and the engine to be disassembled in order to gain access to the necessary sections and perform repairs.

According to a recent NewScientist article, engineers at Rolls-Royce, a leading jet engine manufacturer, may have found a solution to that problem. They are working on developing "snake robots" that will hopefully be able to repair damage and keep planes safely in the air.

As the article points out, roughly 100 sensors measuring things like temperature, vibration and air pressure are onboard these aircraft and are monitored from the ground. When a sensor signals a potential problem, a check must be performed using a specialized fiber optic device. But, with the number of planes in operation today, there aren't enough individuals skilled in the device's use to manage entire fleets.

An engineer would be able to bolt the snake onto the engine, at which point it would slither its way inside and handle the bulk of the work with a bevy of attached devices, including a grinding tool used to sand down blades damaged by errant birds and other debris. What's more, it will be able to withstand the approximately 3,000 degree temperatures inside an engine's core, reports the news source.

Today, state-of-the-art sensors detect the slightest of problems and protect the safety of everyone flying the blue skies. Tomorrow, innovative methods of joining dissimilar metals may enable agile, flexible robotic snakes and similar tools to conduct repairs that airlines simply don't have the manpower to deal with otherwise. The combination of the two has the potential to save literally millions of dollars that are lost whenever an aircraft is sidelined because of lengthy diagnostics and troubleshooting.

‘Star Trek’ tech closer to becoming reality

"I'm a doctor, not an engineer!"

This was a line spoken by Dr. Leonard McCoy in the original 1960s "Star Trek" series. During the show's run on the air, there would be many variations of that line. It became a staple of the sci-fi series and loved by its fans.

McCoy was also known for using a nifty little device called a tricorder. This handheld system could be waved over a patient's body to quickly and painlessly diagnose a range of medical conditions – a device that would surely revolutionize today's medical industry.

The Qualcomm Foundation – a non-profit offshoot of the chip manufacturer of the same name – is sponsoring a contest that brings the engineer and the physician one step closer to each other, and brings the healthcare industry closer to having an actual tricorder.

The contest runs through the summer of 2015 and will challenge teams to build a handheld machine with highly advanced sensors that can diagnose 15 medical conditions and monitor 5 human vital signs. A partner program, co-sponsored by mobile phone manufacturer Nokia, asks participants to build similar sensors that could perhaps one day be used in tricorder devices, or even smartphones.

Mark Winters, the senior director of the Qualcomm Tricorder X PRIZE and Nokia Sensing X Challenge, spoke with GigaOM at their Mobilize 2012 show in San Francisco last week.

Winters told GigaOM that "we have more and more powerful handheld platforms and embedded systems that can handle complex analytical tasks like never before. And finally, there has been a remarkable revolution in powerful sensor technologies that have come to market or that are being developed by universities all around the world that can capture levels of information about human physiology that we've never seen before."

The pairing of such advanced sensors with state-of-the-art thermal management technologies could one day very soon take the tricorder out of "Star Trek" lore and put it in the hands of physicians – and even consumers with medical sensor-equipped smartphones.

New scanners could improve airport security without hurting efficiency, privacy

In the 12 years since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 toppled the Twin Towers in New York City, airport security has become a top priority in the United States. While the need to prevent another catastrophic incident is understood by all, there has been much debate and disagreement over how that security should be realized.

The Transportation Security Administration has been publicly decried by countless American citizens for invading their privacy and making air travel an arduous and unpleasant task without dramatically improving overall security. New manufacturing technologies, however, may have led to a way that will allow TSA officials to safeguard passengers while proving less invasive.

According to tech and business blog Mashable, the TSA has invested $490 million in new compact body scanners. These devices are meant to increase efficiency and reduce the amount of time individuals spend waiting in security check lines.

These next-generation body scanners can detect both metal and non-metal materials, and "hide a passenger’s nude body from TSA officers by displaying generic representations of appendages with suspect items flagged," the article says.

While there is likely to remain some level of friction between individuals clamoring for heightened safety and security and those unhappy with perceived invasions of privacy, perhaps innovative manufacturing techniques will help to bridge that gap.

Through methods of bonding dissimilar metals and constructing state-of-the-art sensors, companies can now create more compact and efficient machines to detect combustible materials without adding frustrating hours to one's travel plans.

Security, convenience and privacy are three sides of a triangle that have historically had much difficulty coming together. Manufacturing ingenuity, however, is finding effective ways to bond these dissimilar notions.

Computer diagnostics and more efficient automobiles

Computers seem to run just about everything in modern society, don't they? When the first gasoline-powered cars were built in the waning years of the 19th century, computers didn't even exist yet. Now, more than one hundred years later, they govern critical automobile functions. The evolution of technology truly never ceases to amaze.

Today, when car owners take newer vehicles into dealerships or repair shops, computers are used to run diagnostics and identify problems in cars that are controlled by microprocessors. This sounds like some futuristic movie where cars don't have tires, but rather hover above the ground. But, the truth is that virtually every car manufactured today includes a computer system that controls several key operations.

According to a AAA press release, onboard car computers record Diagnostic Trouble Codes (DTCs) that indicate specific issues requiring further attention. Technicians can then use a combination of computer tests and traditional inspection methods to determine if the DTC was generated by a mechanical or electrical system problem.

"The ability of technicians to determine what additional tests are needed, and to accurately interpret both test results and computer network data, comes from extensive training and experience," the statement reads. "Today's technicians use vehicle computer diagnosis in much the same way surgeons employ medical testing. In both cases, combining test results with expert knowledge and skilled hands can lead to an accurate diagnosis and an ultimate cure."

Cars that come off the factory lines today and find their way into showrooms and the driveways of consumers tomorrow are more advanced than many people realize. Sophisticated sensors and thermal management technologies are used not only in these onboard computer systems, but countless other components they interact with, including batteries.

These are the technologies that lead to improved efficiency and driver experiences. Without them, GPS, Powertrain Control Modules and other modern bells and whistles would not be possible.

State-of-the-art sensors and SSDs are what make lightweight electronic devices possible

As consumer priorities in recent years began to shift toward lightweight, portable electronic devices, manufacturers were tasked with ways to accommodate such desires. The popularity of tablet computers and ultra-thin laptops gave birth to growing demand for solid state drives (SSDs).

SSDs replace their often noisy and slower counterparts that come with a series of spinning parts. The result: faster boot-up times, quicker and easier access to stored information and fewer moving parts to generate unwanted sound. They also take up less physical real estate within a device, reducing overall product size and weight.

According to a report from iSuppli earlier this year, the number of SSD units shipping in North America in 2012 is expected to reach 45.9 million, up from just 17.3 million units in 2011. That number is expected to double again next year and see continued double-digit growth for several years to come.

In a video for NASA Tech Briefs, John Hull, technical marketing manager for NXP Semiconductors, discusses the importance of sensors and thermal management technologies in today's most popular electronic devices.

As Hull explains, an essential part of the design and manufacturing process for these products is "aggressive thermal management to increase the reliability of the overall system."

Advanced soldering solutions allow the internal architecture of computers, tablets and smartphones to be housed in tight spaces while controlling the generation of heat. Combined with the latest manufacturing methods used to build sensors and bond them to sensor housing, devices that use SSDs will continue to make life more productive for consumers and businesses alike in the coming years.

The products that we see available through companies like Apple, Sony and Microsoft are only possible because of innovative manufacturing technologies that continue to move forward.

Unraveling the Mystery of Amelia Earhart

Amelia Earhart was the first woman and only the second person in history to fly solo across the Atlantic. Inspiring generations of women to break through gender barriers, her final attempt at the annals of history was by being the first woman to successfully fly around the world.

On July 2, 1937, however, Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared over the Pacific Ocean. They were just 7,000 miles from completing their circuit of the globe, but were never seen or heard from again. Their fates remain a mystery to this day.

Researchers from The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) announced last month that they may have found evidence of wreckage from the ill-fated flight not far from Howland Island in the mid-Pacific, where Earhart and Noonan were trying to land.

According to a report from technology blog Mashable, the researchers used an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) designed by Bluefin Robotics and a Submersible Systems, Inc. remote-controlled TRV 005 to capture images of what appear to be consistent with landing gear from Earhart's twin engine Lockheed Electra.

Technology used in bonding dissimilar metals as well as the assembly of sensor housing makes submersible robotic devices like these possible. Such innovations may one day soon lead to the uncovering of one of the greatest mysteries of the last century.

Ric Gillespie, TIGHAR's executive director, told The Los Angeles Times that he dreams of one day being able to recover the remnants of Earhart's plane and corroborate the belief that man-made objects found on Howland Island in fact belonged to her and Noonan. The items found on the island, according to Gillespie, show "their attempts to boil water … to make a spear, the evidence of a castaway trying to survive."

Whether or not Gillespie has found the actual wreckage, fans of the famous JJ Abrams TV series "Lost" are likely to draw some comparisons between the eerie fictional island and the mystery that shrouds Earhart's disappearance. But, perhaps modern science is poised to finally offer some answers.