A Fuzzy Infiltrator – Improving Penguin Studies

America has a seemingly undying love of penguins, and for understandable reasons. Their babies are awkwardly waddling adorable fluffballs; their adults are graceful swimmers of freezing seas; their cartoons are endearingly spunky. Zoos and aquariums across the country offer penguin experiences, letting fans get up close and personal with the waterfowl. As penguin habitats become increasingly threatened by global climate change, these warm and fuzzy feelings help encourage conservation efforts and build support for scientists who study the animals.

Yet for wild penguins, a human encounter is often a source of discomfort rather than delight. The presence of people increases stress in penguins, raising their heart rates and changing hormone levels in ways that can harm reproduction. This puts conservation scientists in a bind: they need to work closely with penguins to obtain good data, but their very presence can harm the birds they want to study. Yvon Le Maho, a French Antarctic scientist, recently published a study in Nature Methods that offers a clever workaround for this conundrum: remote-controlled penguins.

Courtesy of Popular Science

Le Maho and his colleagues reasoned that penguins would be far less stressed by an intruder if it looked more like one of their own kind. To this end, the scientists designed a remote-controlled car topped by a stuffed animal version of a penguin chick. Getting the rover right was a matter of trial and error; the researchers tried five different versions of their device, including a fiberglass version that seemed to disturb the birds even more than undisguised humans did.

Once the team developed a suitable penguin “spy,” they compared the responses of penguins to approaches by humans and the car. By measuring penguin heart rates and observing their behavior, Le Maho and collaborators determined that the birds were four times less stressed when the car made its way into their territory. The disguised rover could join an emperor penguin creche, a tightly packed circle of penguin chicks, without arousing suspicion. Adult emperor penguins even began to sing at the contraption, leading Le Maho to comment, “they were very disappointed when there was no answer. Next time we will have a rover playing songs.”

Although the fuzzy little car seems frivolous, its built-in radio-frequency identification (RFID) reader allows it to identify tagged penguins without disturbing them, which is very important for studying the community structure and distribution of the birds. Similar devices could be designed to zip past other wary wild species; the scientists note that their penguin car also went unmolested by elephant seals, which in their words “generally react strongly when humans approach their tails.” If researchers add cameras and microphones, the car might someday get a bird’s-eye view of penguin life. Of course, in the case of these flightless waterfowl, that perspective will be stuck to the ground.

Up to 155 – The Large European Acoustic Facility

As succinctly phrased by the tagline for “Alien,” the classic sci-fi horror flick, “In space, no one can hear you scream.” The gasses found throughout space are present at densities that are simply far too low to propagate audible sound waves. However, getting out of Earth’s atmosphere and into the silence of the void can be an extremely noisy proposition. Even after the engineers at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center installed a sound suppression system on the launchpads of the space shuttle, the roar of the rockets at ignition reached 142 decibels (dB), roughly twice as powerful as the loudest rock music ever played (139 dB, during a sound check by the heavy metal ensemble Manowar).

Engineer Kees van Zijtveldt and the largest horn of the Large European Acoustic Facility. Courtesy of the European Space Agency.

Those metalheads would be unusually envious of the engineers of the Large European Acoustic Facility. Located at the European Space Agency’s European Space Research and Technology Centre in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, the LEAF is capable of producing sounds in excess of 154 dB — easily enough to rupture human eardrums. For safety purposes, the facility’s speaker horns can’t even be enabled until all of its doors are securely closed, and a set of half-meter-thick concrete walls and rubber pads keep the volume away from the rest of the research building in which it is housed.

Although these features keep the scientists in charge of LEAF from headbanging to Iron Maiden until the early hours of the morning, they have more important work to conduct: testing spacecraft and satellites against the sound stresses encountered in the violence of a rocket launch. Sound is carried through the air as waves of pressure, and higher dB values represent larger variations of pressure. When buffeted by these waves, the intricate components of the technology being launched into space can be disrupted, affecting the success of important scientific or economic missions. The LEAF technicians expose spacegoing vessels to extreme levels of noise and check for any mechanical or electronic failures, insuring launches against pricey (and embarrassing) mistakes.

The ESA claims that exposure to the LEAF system, when running at full blast, would be enough to kill a listener, but that boast may be slightly exaggerated. While permanent hearing loss might occur, the noise wouldn’t be quite loud enough to damage the internal systems of the body; the threshold for lung rupture and embolism is approximately 200 dB.

Blizzard Beach – Making Snow for Sochi

The 22nd Winter Olympics are set to begin tomorrow in the Russian vacation hotspot of Sochi, promising two solid weeks of the world’s finest skiing, snowboarding and skating. Yet Sochi’s reputation as a resort comes not from its slopes, but from its beach; the city is one of only a handful in Russia to boast a subtropical climate. As in Florida, low temperatures in Sochi rarely reach the freezing point, and highs in summer can exceed 39 degrees Celsius (102 degrees Fahrenheit). How, then, is this summer paradise being transformed into a winter wonderland?

Collage of the sights in Sochi; note the palm tree in the lower left. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

The answer lies in an army of snowmaking machines overseen by Mikko Martikainen, the Finnish businessman hired by Olympic organizers as the official snow expert of the games. Martikainen’s company, Snow Secure Ltd., will employ a combination of on-demand snow creation and giant piles of premade snow to ensure that the problems which plagued the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver do not occur in Sochi.

Although the first snowmaking devices, invented in the 1950s, were no more complicated than hoses that shot cold water into the air, current technologies use better physics to ensure that powder production is more effective. A modern snowmaking machine first breaks the water apart into miniscule droplets of 200 to 300 microns (roughly 1/100th of an inch) in diameter. These particles are then supercooled, a process that allows water temperatures to dip below freezing without the liquid turning into ice. By ensuring that the water contains no impurities and is stored in a perfectly smooth container, snowmakers provide no places for ice crystals to start forming (a process called nucleation).

The machine then introduces the necessary impurities by disturbing some of the droplets with small amounts of compressed air. The resulting mixture, when sprayed out of the snowmaker from a set of specialized nozzles, immediately turns into ice crystals that catalyze the freezing of the supercooled water being sprayed simultaneously from another ring of nozzles. In the five to ten seconds that the water is airborne, it turns into a snow of white frozen pellets that make a fine surface for winter sports.

Martikainen and his team have already made nearly 450,000 cubic meters (16 million cubic feet) of snow, which they have stored, perhaps counterintuitively, under a system of high-tech blankets. The first layer consists of a thermal foam covered in aluminum foil, much like duct insulation wrap, which keeps the cold in and the heat out. The second layer, a geotextile that encourages the evaporation of humidity, keeps the snow dry until needed. Martikainen hopes this backup plan won’t be necessary, but his company’s snow movers are ready to fill out the ski runs at a moment’s notice.

All this technology comes at a price, contributing to the record $50 billion cost of the Sochi Olympics; Vancouver’s games, for comparison, cost only $7 billion. Martikainen has managed to bring the blizzard to the beach, but future Olympic organizers may want to consider venues where Nature will do most of the work.

The Friendly Skies – Civilian Drones

Pop sensation Lady Gaga is known for living on the cutting edge of music and fashion — consumer avionics, not so much. But the diva has indeed reached new heights in this field as well with the debut of a flying dress, named “Volantis,” that relies on the same technology used in multiple-rotor unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly referred to as drones. Although Gaga’s contraption will likely be confined to arena shows and festivals, drones are garnering significant attention from less fanciful parties as practical tools for everyday life.

Volantis, Lady Gaga’s drone dress. Courtesy of Billboard.

The web retail giant Amazon recently made waves with its test of “Amazon Prime Air,” a proposed express delivery service that would deploy an “octocopter,” an unmanned, eight-rotor helicopter, to drop packages directly at the customer’s doorstep. Domino’s Pizza recently sponsored a successful drone delivery of another sort, using its prototype “DomiCopter” to send two pizzas to a hungry buyer. While Domino’s plans to start up a flight academy for pizza pilots should its plans take off, Amazon aims to automate its drones, using GPS coordinates to direct them from a distribution center to their destinations.

Importantly, both Amazon and Domino’s were forced to conduct their recent tests outside the United States due to the current regulations of the Federal Aviation Administration, which currently forbid the civillian operation of UAVs outside the operator’s line of sight. Although some exceptions are made for university research, the vast majority of drones in the US are operated by federal law enforcement: the FBI has spent at least $3 million on UAVs in support of its operations, while the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are testing drones for future deployment.

While the FAA has released a plan for the incorporation of civilian drones into US airspace by 2015, some commentators worry that the agency is moving too slowly for the pace of the technology. As the Washington Post’s Brian Fung writes, the regulatory lag “offers a concrete example of what the country stands to lose, as the market for civil drone use picks up globally.” And the global market is expected to explode: Phil Finnegan, an analyst with the aerospace think tank Teal Group, predicts that civilian drone sales will reach $8.2 billion by 2020.

However exciting the prospect, pizza delivery will make up only a small portion of this market. One of the largest predicted applications is precision agriculture: by equipping UAVs with cameras and sprayers, for examples, farmers can determine exactly where pesticides or herbicides are needed and quickly apply the chemicals without wasted effort. Drone fleets could also prove invaluable to mining operations, where constantly updating images could inform managers about important changes in open pit mines.

Although civilian drones may be some years away in the US, the Chinese delivery company SF Express is already using UAVs to deliver small packages, and Canada has a certification program in place for aspiring pilots. Perhaps a little healthy international competition will help America move forward on freeing its skies to drones… and maybe Lady Gaga.

Dr. Frankenstein’s Garage – Grinders and Biochip Impants

Researchers throughout history have often taken liberties with their personal well-being for the sake of science — think Benjamin Franklin and his kite experiment or the work of Justin Schmidt, who developed a scale for the pain of insect stings by suffering the wrath of over 150 different species. But even these brave souls may have hesitated at conducting personal implant surgeries without anesthesia, a trend that is gaining traction among a small community calling themselves “grinders.”

Biohacker Tim Cannon showing off his implant, courtesy of MotherboardTV.

Inspired by the philosophy of transhumanism, grinders believe that by intimately associating themselves with electronic hardware, they can begin to move beyond normal human capacities. The body modifications they develop aim to endow them with additional senses or interface with computers in ways that can’t be otherwise achieved. The practice is also known as “biohacking,” in a life sciences parallel to the practice of modifying computers for new purposes.

Tim Cannon, the biohacker depicted in the image above, put his philosophy into practice by implanting a sensor he and his colleagues at Grindhouse Wetware call “Circadia.” The device, approximately the area and thickness of a smartphone, is able to gather biological data and transmit that information via Bluetooth to an Android device (and from there, to the Internet). By monitoring pulse and temperature, for example, Cannon’s implant could catch a fever early and send a text message to his phone, warning him to seek treatment earlier than otherwise.

Another grinder, Lepht Anonym, has modified her fingertips with the goal of directly sensing the invisible magnetic fields around electronic devices. By implanting small discs of neodymium, a metal that emits an electric current in a magnetic field, next to her nerve endings, Anonym gained a new source of neural input that she could learn to interpret as the strength and shape of these fields.

While these new abilities are relatively inexpensive in terms of money — Anonym’s discs cost roughly $32, while Cannon’s chip cost around $500 — grinders pay dearly during the implant process. The only anesthetic available for Cannon’s home surgery was ice, and he prides himself on “raw dogging” the procedure. Without proper sterilization, Anonym has had several of her surgeries become infected, and she almost removed a finger on her first disc implant. The lack of medical approval for these implants leaves grinders little choice but to rely on their own determination and knowledge.

Yet to these self-experimenters, the pain is usually worth the reward of being on the (literal) cutting edge of the interaction between man and machine. In Anonym’s words, “Bodily health takes a big fuck-off second seat to curiosity. Though it hasn’t really changed my life, it’s just made me more curious.”

Cleaning House – Fighting Space Junk

You may get annoyed if a passing driver on the interstate litters your path with a soda can, but it’s unlikely to cause any serious danger to your automobile. Now, imagine that the can is flying toward you at over 3,000 meters per second (over 6,700 miles per hour) — and you’re flying a spacecraft instead of driving a car.

This is the danger posed to future astronauts by orbital “space junk,” the detritus left from earlier space missions that now circles the Earth without human control. NASA tracks over 500,000 pieces of debris, 20,000 of which are larger than a softball, including a number of full-sized satellites and rocket boosters. Currently, astronauts have few possible responses to encountering this junk: those in the International Space Station either perform a “debris avoidance maneuver” or, if they lack sufficient warning, hunker down in an attached Soyuz capsule that can serve as a lifeboat if a collision should occur. But aerospace engineers are investigating proactive methods that could eventually clean up the mess mankind has left in orbit.

Space junk in orbit above Earth, courtesy of NASA

Two of the most seriously considered technologies seem like they’ve leapt off the screen of “Star Wars.” The first, proposed by James Mason and his colleagues at the NASA Ames Research Center, involves turning the beam of a ground-based laser onto troublesome pieces of debris. A laser powerful enough to actually destroy an object would be prohibitively expensive (sorry, wannabe Vaders), so Mason instead plans to use the beam to push junk objects out of dangerous paths. Photons, the “particles” that make up light, carry momentum that is transferred to whatever they run into; this force is relatively tiny, but applied over the course of several hours, a stream of photons could nudge debris into harmlessly burning up on reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. It’s worth noting that the same principle could also be used to propel spacecraft, as has been explored by designers of “solar sails.

The second proposal, offered by Hanspeter Schaub of the University of Colorado Boulder, is eerily similar to the tractor beam seen in many works of science fiction. A satellite, which Schaub playfully acronymed GLiDer (Geosynchronous Large Debris Reorbiter), would emit a stream of electrons towards a piece of space junk, giving the debris a negative charge while the satellite gained a positive charge. This charge difference would cause the object to become attracted to the satellite and trail behind it; after the junk gained speed, the satellite would release the beam, launching it into deeper space. Although the process is relatively slow, an estimated two to three months per object, a collection of GLiDer satellites could make short work of the larger obstructions in geosynchronous orbit.

Space, in the words of science fiction author Douglas Adams, “is big — really big.” But in our neighborhood, useful orbits are limited, and carelessly cluttering them up may have severe consequences for future space exploration and development. These cleanup methods are a good place to start in solving the problem, but the message for space agencies should be clear — don’t litter.

No Hot Air – The Federal Helium Reserve

The government shutdown, as recently discussed on this blog, has vastly curtailed the activities of federal science agencies ranging from NASA to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (whose researchers are currently wringing their hands over being unable to track a new outbreak of salmonella from contaminated chicken). Yet one important scientific resource managed to escape the effects of the furloughs: on Sept. 27, Congress passed H.R. 527, the Helium Stewardship Act of 2013,  which ensures that the Federal Helium Reserve in Texas can continue to operate for the foreseeable future. While this is certainly good news for birthday parties everywhere, it’s also encouraging for the surprising amount of research and technology that depends on the noble gas.

A tethered helium balloon, courtesy of Aerophile SA

Helium is mined from underground deposits in association with natural gas, which makes Texas a natural location for the national supply. At up to 1.9 percent helium, Texan deposits are also richer in the gas than other deposits around the world. The federal government took control of all U.S. helium production in 1925, originally to ensure a sufficient supply of nonflammable gas for its military observation balloons and airships after the explosive crash of the hydrogen-lifted USS Roma in 1922 (15 years before the significantly more famous Hindenberg disaster). Since then, the reserve has evolved into a major provider of the gas for the U.S. and the world: 42% of the country’s helium comes from the facility, as does 30% of the world’s supply.

Less than one percent of the demand for helium comes from party balloons; much more important are uses that take advantage of helium’s properties as a coolant. Because the gas can be chilled to near absolute zero without solidifying, physicists use it to maintain the temperature of experiments that study the properties of matter under very cold conditions. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines depend on helium to maintain the frigid environment necessary for the operation of their superconducting wires. New designs for nuclear power plants call for helium coolant as a way to eliminate the need for steam, making the generation of power more efficient.

Other applications use helium because of its inert characteristics. High-temperature welders create a “shield” of helium over their work to prevent metals from oxidizing during the process. In industrial settings where leaking gas pipes can be dangerous, helium is a safe way to test for problems. Even some lasers use helium, in conjunction with neon, to provide a stable medium for the excitation of light.

The U.S. reserve contains over 10 billion cubic feet of helium, and remaining world supplies are estimated at 638 billion cubic feet. While these numbers sound impressive, current projections for helium use suggest that underground deposits of helium will be completely tapped out by 2052. Maintaining a stockpile of helium is a good start, but the government should also encourage the use of helium recapture systems that reduce losses. Until researchers figure out an inexpensive way to isolate helium from the atmosphere, the vital gas should be considered a nonrenewable resource.