Human-Powered Helicopter Wins Award (VIDEO)

Oh Canada! First you gave us William Shatner, now you give us a human-powered helicopter.

A team of engineers called AeroVelo has won a $250,000 award for creating a human-powered helicopter that could fly three meters off the ground for 60 seconds while keeping the cockpit within a ten-square-meter area. The American Helicopter Society sponsored this Igor I. Sikorsky Human Powered Helicopter Competition, and the prize money has been on offer for nearly 30 years.

Man-powering a helicopter is tough to do since humans don’t have strength to lift themselves off the ground without large rotors. Of course, large rotors are heavy, making it hard for a human to get the helicopter off the ground. This is the reason all those Renaissance-era experiments with birdlike flapping wings never worked. To cut down on weight, the team used super-light materials that are too delicate to be flown outdoors.

AeroVelo’s flight lasted 64.11 seconds, a world record, and reached up to 3.3 meters in altitude. As you can see from the video, drift was a problem with this and all other competitors, with the machine drifting up to 9.8 meters.

So will this be the new way to get to the hockey game? Probably not. The personal jetpack has been around for decades but never took off either. The Martin Jetpack company is trying to change that, although they haven’t yet made their jetpacks — which will probably cost in the six figures — commercially available yet. Popular Mechanics did an interesting article on why jet packs aren’t feasible.

New Technology May Lead To Light- And Heat-Sensitive Tent

tent, camping
The tent we’re all familiar with from camping trips may soon be old tech thanks to a new material designed by a team of Harvard scientists.

Researchers at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering have announced in a press release that they’ve developed a flexible material that can shed or retain moisture, and turn from opaque to transparent.

You can see how it works in the image below. The material is a liquid-repellent film that coats, and is infused in, an elastic porous backing. Normally the surface is flat and will shed water, but when the backing is stretched it changes the size of the pores, causing the surface to become rough and retain droplets.

In its normal state the material is transparent, but when stretched it becomes opaque. The material could be used to make a tent that blocks light on a dry and sunny day, and becomes transparent and water-repellent on a dim, rainy day.

The material may also be used in products as diverse as contact lenses and water pipes.

Researchers were inspired by the function of tears, which block materials from damaging the eye, and flush out these materials, yet remain transparent. Such inspiration is typical of work at the Wyss Institute, which looks to nature to find solutions to technological problems.

Top image courtesy Krish Dulal. Bottom image courtesy Harvard University.
tent, Harvard

Scientists Develop Tractor Beam (On A Microscopic Scale)

tractor beamA research team in Scotland and the Czech Republic has developed a tractor beam.

A press release from St. Andrews University reveals that scientists at that university and at the Institute of Scientific Instruments in the Czech Republic have for the first time been able to use light to draw objects closer, although only on a microscopic scale.

It has long been known that photons create a small amount of pressure. Johanes Kepler described the effect way back in the 17th century when he observed that the tails of comets point away from the sun. Experiments using light to push microscopic objects have been conducted for decades, but the current research is the first time light has been used to attract objects.

The team discovered that under a certain set of parameters with a special optical field, the pushing effect turns into a negative force and the object is drawn closer.

The negative force is specific to the object’s size and composition, allowing scientists to pick and choose what objects to attract. This would have applications to medicine and biological research, enabling researchers to sort cells or even parts of a cell. The team’s results have been published in Nature Photonics.

A real science-fiction-style tractor beam would have to be on a vastly greater scale than these experiments, however, so don’t expect it to be used for transportation anytime soon. We’ll see space tourism long before that. The tractor beam experiments are a bit like teleportation experiments that made headlines a year ago. We’re seeing what our grandkids might one day take for granted.

[Image courtesy St Andrews University]

Robot discovers secret writing in Great Pyramid

pyramid, Egypt
The Great Pyramid of Cheops at Giza has always sparked the imagination. Among its many mysteries are four tiny passages running through the interior. The smallest are only eight inches square, far too small for a person to crawl through, so what were they for?

As you can see from the cutaway above, two of the tunnels angle up from the King’s Chamber to exit the pyramid. Some researchers believe these have astronomical alignments. Like with all ancient agricultural societies, observing the heavens was important to the Egyptians. The other two tunnels seem not to go anywhere. Some claim they lead to hidden chambers, or allowed the pharaoh’s soul to pass out of the tomb, but nobody really knows. Now a robot has added new pieces to the puzzle by going down one of these tunnels and filming it.

Robots in the pyramids are nothing new. Robotic exploration started in the 1990s, when remote-controlled cameras on wheels rolled up the two lower tunnels, only to find them blocked by strange stone “doors” decorated with a pair of copper pins. One of the doors had a small hole drilled in it, and a new robot with a camera on the end of a flexible cable looked on the other side.

What it found raises more questions than it answers. The secret door doesn’t seem to have any way to open, and on the other side of it are hieroglyphs. Egyptologists are hoping the hidden message will explain one of the pyramid’s greatest mysteries.

Why is there writing where nobody can read it? And why is the back of the door highly polished? There’s also a mason’s mark on the stone that the researchers are puzzling over. Egyptologists are busy trying to decipher the hieroglyphs and are planning more journeys for the intrepid robot. For more on the technology behind the discovery, check out this post on Dr. Zahi Hawass’ website.

These are good times for pyramid studies. A satellite has detected what could be seventeen lost pyramids, and last summer the pyramids of Abusir and Dahshur opened to the public.

[Image courtesy Jeff Dahl]

Lost pyramids found in Egypt

pyramid, pyramids, Egypt, Giza
You’d think it would be pretty hard to lose a pyramid, yet in fact plenty have gone missing in Egypt over the years. Not all of them are giant edifices like the Great Pyramid at Giza. Most are only a dozen or so meters high and were meant to house the body of a Queen. In 2008 the pyramid of Sesheshet was discovered in the desert near Saqqara, and now a survey using infrared satellite imagery has found up to seventeen more.

The survey was conducted by Dr. Sarah Parcak of the University of Alabama at Birmingham. In addition to the 17 suspected pyramids, the survey yielded more than 4,000 other sites, including tombs and towns. Excavations on the ground have confirmed that two of the suspected pyramids are really there and not just natural anomalies. Hopefully there will be further excavations to uncover the rest.

Infrared imaging is commonly used in satellite surveys because it reveals differences in the ground. Stone or harder soil show up as a different shade than loose soil or sand. This has applications in many of fields, and is turning out to be pretty handy in archaeology too.

[Photo of Queen's pyramids at Giza courtesy Daniel Mayer. These are not the ones just discovered by the Dr. Parcak and her team.]