The story of a PhD student weaving his way through a busy university corridor doesn’t usually make for breaking news. But then the average PhD student isn’t wheelchair-bound, visually impaired, and testing a new laser-based wheelchair navigation system. In front of a crowd of onlookers earlier this month, a student performed the first public demonstration of a wheelchair that lets blind people “see” and avoid obstacles, afterward remarking that it was just “like using a white cane” (presumably underselling the technology to blunt the jealousy blooming in the onlookers).
From the user’s perspective, the new high-tech wheelchair is quite simple: You hold a joystick in one hand to drive the motorized chair, while the other hand engages a “haptic interface” that gives tactile feedback warning you about objects in your path, be they walls, fire hydrants, or those mobile collision-makers called people.
A shaft of green laser light spears out from a cargo ship, targeting a small skiff bobbing in the ocean almost a mile away. The armed miscreants aboard the skiff take one look at the dazzling light and shield their eyes with cries of distress. How can these pirates attack if they can’t see?
That’s the idea behind an anti-pirate laser cannon being developed by a UK defense company in response to the increase in hijackings off the coast of Somalia. The laser would be used in conjunction with ships’ high-frequency surface radars that detect the small vessels used by Somali pirates, and it would function as a kind of warning shot across their bow. New Scientist reports that the laser isn’t intended to fry pirates to a crisp, nor even to blind them forever:
This little laser-powered quadracopter broke a world record on October 28th by flying for over 12 hours with the help of lasers from the ground. The previous record for laser-powered flight was 6 hours.
The laser beam that powered the ‘copter’s batteries has the strength of 250,000 laser pointers. The technology was developed by LaserMotive, a company developing beaming technologies to make power wireless (and obviously awesome).
The system of mirrors and lenses on the ground beamed the laser up to the craft 30 feet overhead, where the laser beam charged photovoltaic cells on the underside of the craft. The laser supplied the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) with 2.5 kilowatts of power, which the team explained to MSNBC’s Cosmic Log isn’t all that much:
Jordin Kare, another one of LaserMotive’s co-founders and a pioneer in the field of laser propulsion, said the laser generated enough radiation to heat up your hand if you stuck it in the beam, but nowhere near enough to blast a hole in it. “We’ve actually cooked hot dogs with that laser, and it takes about four or five minutes,” Kare told me. “Not exactly a death ray.”
Hit the jump for video of the laser ‘copter in action.
Lightsabers have come a long way since the telescoping plastic toys of yesteryear. We’re not talking about realistic sound effects or iPhone apps. We’re talking flesh-burning, eye-blinding lasers.
Although this gadget is dangerous enough to require customers to fill out a “Class 4 Laser Hazard Acknowledgment Form,” the Spyder III Pro Arctic Laser looks like it might be found in a Toys-R-Us, next to rows of action figures and Yoda dolls.
At least George Lucas thinks so; Lucasfilm is now threatening to sue the manufacturer. As reported in DailyTech, where we first saw this story, Lucasfilm feels a great disturbance with the similarities.
“It is apparent from the design of the Pro Arctic Laser that it was intended to resemble the hilts of our lightsaber swords, which are protected by copyright…”
These are no toys, counters the seriously-named manufacturer, WickedLasers. They have added several security measures, including “training lenses,” but don’t appear to be willing to change their Jedi-like hilts anytime soon. Cue Duel of the Fates.
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Discoblog: National Pork Board to Unicorn Meat Purveyor: Lay Off Our Slogan
Discoblog: Scientists to Hollywood: Please Break Only 1 Law of Physics Per Movie
DISCOVER: The Science and the Fiction, in which Phil Plait critiques sci-fi science
Image: flickr / renfield
When it comes to peculiar penises, there’s no shortage in the animal kingdom. Just last month DISCOVER blogger Carl Zimmer documented new research into why many male ducks have such an extravagant spiral-shaped phallus. This week, in a paper (in press) in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the study of goofy genitalia follows fruit flies.
The male fruit fly has a penis that resembles a medieval weapon, dotted with hooks and spines. Are those barbs there to remove rival sperm, or pierce the female’s genital tract to allow sperm a shortcut, or something else? There was one way to find out: lasers.
Ever wondered if your Florida grapefruit is really from Florida? After all, how can you trust those flimsy little stickers. Well, researchers have a solution to this important problem: lasers!
Laser labeling of fruit and vegetables is a new, patented technology in which a low-energy carbon dioxide laser beam is used to label, or “etch” information on produce, thereby eliminating the need for common sticker-type labels.
In the United States, the FDA is in the final stages of approving this “tamper-free labeling technology.” Laser-etching of fruits and veggies is already underway in New Zealand, Australia, and Pacific Rim countries, and it has been been approved in many other regions.
There’s actually some science behind laser-etching. A recent study in the journal HortTechnology concluded “the fruit quality remains high as the invasion of the epidermis does not incite decay [or] provide an avenue for food pathogens,” as the laser essentially cauterizes the peel of the fruit. “The technology will offer the grapefruit industry a safe alternative to adhesive sticker labeling without enhancing decay susceptibility.” Thank goodness for that.
Discoblog: Pilots Attacked By Frickin’ Laser Beams
Discoblog: When Fruit Gets Deadly: Woman Eats Grapefruit, Nearly Loses Leg
Discoblog: EU Embraces Ugly Fruits and Vegetables
Image: Agricultural Research Service and University of Florida
·For a cool $10,000, you too could have a glorious piece of geek decor: the Periodic Coffee Table.
·“Einstein was wrong, and I can prove it!”—rating the minds of fringe scientists.
If you were a particularly mischievous youngster, you might have gotten a lecture about the dangers of aiming a laser pointer at someone’s eye. But those low-power classroom aids are practically nothing compared the damage one could cause with an industrial-sized laser.
About 30 Russians went to the hospital after suffering partial vision loss from a laser show gone wrong. Heavy rains forced organizers to hold the July 5 Aquamarine Open Air Festival, an all-night dance party, under huge tents. The lasers that normally shine harmlessly into the sky were instead refracted into the crowd. Russians officials are sure how it happened, whether the light bounced off the rain or the tent, but the beams gave some of the party-goers’ instant and irreversible retinal burns.
I think it’s reasonable to assume that ever since the dawn of humankind, people have yearned to control lightning. (No, Halle Berry did not create this idea for her role in X-Men.) The first approach—rain dances, spells, and the like—proved marginally effective, at best, but there wasn’t much of an alternative. In the ’70s, scientists found out that if they launched rockets carrying long metal wires into thunderstorms, the wires would sometimes provide enough conductance to coax a lightning strike, much like Ben Franklin’s (probably apocryphal) kite string. But around the same time, they also thought it would be much, much cooler to use a laser to bring about lightning. Most things are cooler when accomplished by lasers, as any scientist can tell you.
A group of European researchers working at South Baldy Peak have finally realized this longstanding goal by successfully bringing about lightning by zapping lasers into thunderclouds in a recent experiment. The ultrashort laser bursts (only around a hundred femtoseconds) ionize some of the molecules in the air, forming a plasma, and these channels of plasma act can guide lightning strikes like the wires on a rocket. Read More
Last Friday night between 10:15 and 10:30 pm, six airplanes flying into Sydney Airport were victims of the city’s first coordinated laser attack, in which some miscreants shined lasers at the folks operating the flying tin cans carrying lots of people. The potentially dangerous maneuver provoked the government to consider banning laser pointers or classifying them as illegal weapons. (Shining laser beams at aircraft is already punishable by two years’ jail time and fines of up to $30,000.)