The latest in DARPA’s ever-evolving line of headless robots is this cheetah right here. Clocking in at 18 miles per hour, it’s the fastest land robot ever. Watch it go to work on that treadmill!
Cheetah comes from the same collaboration, Boston Dynamics and DARPA, that brought you BigDog and AlphaDog. They aren’t as fast, but what they lack in speed, they make up for in resilience. If you need someone—erh, some robot—to carry heavy loads across rough terrains, these robot “dogs” are the way to go.
For the better part of a century, antibiotics have given doctors great powers to cure all sorts of bacterial infections. But due to bacteria’s nasty habit of evolving, along with widespread overuse of these drugs, disease-causing bacteria are evolving antibiotic resistance at an alarming rate, making it much harder, and at times impossible, to wipe them out. DARPA, the military’s research agency, is eyeing an innovative solution to the problem: Rather than struggling to make better antibiotics, ditch them altogether. It may be time to start killing bacteria a whole new way.
What’s the News: Nature invented the wheel a good long time before we did: just look at the crazy antics of the mother-of-pearl moth caterpillar, which, when attacked, springs into an airborne coil in less than 60 milliseconds, spinning and twisting in the air like a snake from a can. Now robotics researchers have build a caterpillar robot that mimics that behavior, providing insight into how caterpillars manage it and suggesting new uses for some types of robots.
What’s the News: DARPA wants to fund research into technologies that could be built into the genome of microorganisms and keep track of any changes made to the organism’s genes, according a call for proposals the agency made earlier this month. In other words, DARPA wants to “turn on Track Changes” in certain viruses and bacteria.
What’s the Context:
How the Heck: No idea. And, judging by its description, DARPA isn’t too sure either. The agency is asking for “multidisciplinary research proposals” and gives a nod to “possibly utilizing a cryptographical or complex mathematical approach.”
Image: Wellcome Images / Peter Artymiuk
The next time you enjoy the sight of a hummingbird in a garden, you might want to look twice–because it could be the government’s new avian-inspired drone. Dubbed “Nano Hummingbird,” this camera-toting, remote-controlled surveillance tool is the latest gadget to fly out the doors of DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Project Agency).
Commissioned by the Pentagon in 2006 and designed by AeroVironment, this bird-drone’s abilities match its $4 million price tag: It flies forward, backward, and sideways, and it can even hover in mid-air. That’s not bad for a battery-powered, 6.5-inch long bundle of communication systems and motors that weighs in at two-thirds of an ounce. “We’ve achieved what our customer asked us to,” AeroVironment Vice President Steve Gitlin told TIME Magazine. But with the robot’s maximum speed clocking in at 11 miles per hour, natural hummingbirds can fly circles around this bot.
DARPA hopes Nano Hummingbird could eventually be used as an extra eye on the battlefield.
New sea creatures, humongous stars, and cockroach antibiotics: Those are just a few reader favorites from this year in science. As 2010 comes to a close, we bring you a dozen of the most popular 80beats posts of the year.
For more great stories from the year in science, check out DISCOVER’s Top 100 Stories of the Year.
They may not be as adorable as sugar gliders, but they’re just as accomplished: Five species of Asian snake have also developed the ability to “fly” or glide from tree to tree, flattening out their bodies to travel up to 80 feet.
Researcher Jake Socha and his team studied the glide of Chrysopelea paradisi snake and took videos of the snakes in flight, which Socha presented at an ongoing meeting of the American Physical Society. He found that before a snake takes the leap it curls its body into a J-shape, and then launches itself from the tree branch. In the air, it flattens its body and undulates, as if slithering through the air.
“The whole snake itself is just one long wing,” Socha said. “That wing is constantly reconfiguring, it’s constantly reforming and contorting.” [LiveScience]
Hit the jump for a video of the snake in action.
For DARPA, the secretive military research agency, it’s not enough for a prosthetic limb to simply resemble a normal one, or for a patient to be able to move it through some remote control. DARPA-backed engineers are attempting to build a system in which peripheral nerves would be reattached to artificial limbs, which could send signals to a brain sensor that could reply. This would be a vast improvement over prosthetics that require conscious directives, and could turn a prosthetic into something that responds the way an ordinary limb would.
Darpa’s after a prosthetic that can record motor-sensory signals right from peripheral nerves (those that are severed when a limb is lost) and then transmit responding feedback signals from the brain. That means an incredibly sensitive platform, “capable of detecting sufficiently strong motor-control signals and distinguishing them from sensory signals and other confounding signals,” in a region packed tightly with nerves. Once signals are detected, they’ll be decoded by algorithms and transmitted to the brain, where a user’s intended movements would be recoded and transmitted back to the prosthetic. [Wired.com]
According to the team behind the system at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, tests on monkeys have shown that the primates have remarkable success controlling a prosthesis through a cortical chip implanted in their brains, and researchers have undertaken some human tests. What remains to be seen, though, is how much dexterity people can get through this process.
“Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes,” American revolutionaries supposedly yelled at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Legend has it that the rebels were trying to conserve ammunition, given the inaccuracy of their 18th century guns.
But things have come a long way since 1775. With DARPA‘s new “One Shot” sniper system [PDF], scheduled to be in soldier’s hands by the fall of 2011, the U.S. military will give snipers the ability to take out an enemy at a distance of .7 miles in winds around 10 to 20 miles per hour. Military brass hopes the system will give snipers a perfect shot at least six times out of ten.
The One Shot system still wouldn’t come close to matching the record for shooting accuracy: In November of last year, British Army sniper Corporal Craig Harrison made two shots at a distance of 1.53 miles in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. But Harrison modestly thanked perfect shooting conditions: no wind, great visibility, and mild weather. The DARPA program aims to give soldiers the technology to hit a target despite adverse conditions.
Lately we’ve been covering the doings of DARPA, the Defense Department’s mad scientist wing that conducts kooky scavenger hunts and loses hypersonic gliders. But today the focus is on the Advanced Research Project Agency-Energy (ARPA-E)—an agency President Obama created last year to foster research on creative alternative energy projects rather than futuristic weaponry. ARPA-E, which is part of the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, announced this week grants totaling $106 million.
The first of the three groups of projects funded by the ARPA-E uses microorganisms to create liquid fuels.
Most of the leading fourth-generation biofuel companies that utilize bio-chemical approaches are modifying the genetic structure of the organism to transform a sugar substrate and secrete either pure “drop in” fuels like diesel, gasoline, or jet fuel, or gasoline substitutes like ethanol or biobutanol [Greentech Media].
The microorganisms in the liquid-fuel experiments need electricity to produce fuel, but many of the researchers are devising ways to use solar energy as the power source so the projects can use renewable fuels to create renewable fuels.