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.

Hybrid drives make devices smaller but pack bigger punch

Consumers and industry analysts alike anticipated Apple's press event Tuesday morning with bated breath. The iPad Mini was the highlight of the day for many, as it had been a source of constant rumors and speculation for months. But, there were several other new product iterations announced as well.

One of the more impressive revamps came in the form of a new iMac desktop computer. Practically as thin as a tablet, this elicited an audible reaction from the crowd attending the event. Among the new features of the updated iMac is what Apple calls a "Fusion Drive."

Each computer in the series will have a solid state drive (SSD) starting at 128GB and a standard mechanical hard disk in either a 1TB or 3TB configuration. Both drives will show up as one volume on the computer, however the SSD will hold the operating system and preloaded software, while the traditional hard drive will be home to documents and other large media files. This allows for greater operational efficiency, reduced boot times and a substantial amount of local storage space.

Now, while impressive, the idea here is not new. As a PC World article from earlier this week explains, other companies like Seagate and Samsung introduced various hybrid drives as much as two years ago. But, the technology is improving, thanks to a combination of techniques used in the thermal management of electronics and joining methods for metal.

These innovative manufacturing processes enable companies like Apple, Google and Samsung to build thinner, lightweight products that pack a bigger punch in a smaller physical space than their predecessors. For example, cutting-edge ways of bonding aluminum have become a priority over the last several years as aluminum becomes more popular in the design of various electronic devices.

Whenever a new electronic device hits store shelves and wows consumers, it's manufacturing ingenuity that made it possible.

Study says investing in technology best way to achieve energy security

During the election cycle, you're likely to hear about energy independence a great deal. With gas prices rising and home heating oil costs following suit, it makes sense that this would be a popular topic.

But, according to a new report released by Deloitte titled "Energy independence and security: A reality check," the best thing the United States and its elected officials can do right now is focus on technology.

"While rising global demand for oil will likely keep crude prices relatively high, it also will provide a continuing stimulus for increased domestic production,” says the report. "Moreover, the introduction of increasingly sophisticated enabling technologies worldwide may herald the introduction of new countries as oil suppliers, and increase potential supplies from existing friendly sources."

As the study points out, there are three significant areas where renewed focus could lead to better energy independence and security for the U.S. – more efficient automobiles, improved technology for domestic oil and gas production and emphasis on innovative alternative energy sources.

Let's start with automobiles. More efficient engines along with the development of new electric cars can reduce our consumption of petroleum products while simultaneously lowering harmful emissions. Technologies like those used in state-of-the-art bonding of battery terminals are exactly the kind of thing that makes this possible.

To improve domestic oil and gas production capabilities and ensure job site safety for all workers, high performance pressure and temperature sensors are needed.

Lastly, alternative energy technologies that allow us to harness wind, solar and ocean wave power will plant the seeds for industry growth, job creation and a cleaner environment.

By investing in these cutting-edge manufacturing processes, we can build more efficient equipment that will increase productivity while reducing dependence on foreign energy sources.

Solar-powered generators could save U.S. military lives

Electricity tends to be in short supply when one is in the middle of the Iraqi desert or the mountains of Afghanistan. It's not like there is an electrical outlet in the side of a big rock on the ground. But U.S. military personnel stationed on the frontlines must be able to operate everything from coffee pots to laptops and radar systems.

Small comforts for servicemen and women, as well as the equipment their lives depend on, all need power sources. Currently, they use generators running entirely on diesel fuel. But, hopefully that will soon change as Raytheon, one of the largest defense technology contractors in the country, has secured a contract from the Office of Naval Research to develop a better generator.

The Hybrid Dish/Engine Expeditionary Generator (HyDE-2G) will use a combination of diesel and solar power and is being designed with several goals in mind, the first of which is to save a minimum of 40 percent on current fuel costs. Doing so not only saves money, but it has the potential to safeguard lives around the world. Beyond the environmental benefits of burning less fuel, the HyDE-2G will actually reduce the threat of attack on U.S. personnel.

Fuel must be transported to forward-deployed warfighters via convoys. These convoys are high-value targets for enemy forces. But, with the HyDE-2G, the military can significantly reduce the amount of diesel fuel that they must transport through hostile territory.

"Delivering fuel to remote locations, whether transported over land or through the air, is expensive and puts warfighters at risk," said Joe Biondi, vice president of Advanced Technology for Raytheon's Integrated Defense Systems business. "Through the HyDE-2G program, Raytheon will help the Marines reduce operational costs and manning; minimize logistical vulnerabilities; and, most importantly, safeguard our warfighters."

In order to make this possible, manufacturers must use cutting-edge technologies, including methods of solar module soldering. Maximum efficiency and reduced weight are essential to make hybrid generators a viable alternative to the devices in use today. American innovation can literally save lives.

Robotic exoskeleton could help paraplegics and astronauts

The same technology may one day soon help paraplegics walk on Earth while simultaneously assist astronauts venturing into the vastness of space.

The X1 Robotic Exoskeleton is the product of a joint venture between NASA, the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (FIHMC) and Oceaneering Space Systems of Houston, Texas. The suit borrows design elements from NASA's Robonaut 2 project, a more than 300-pound humanoid robot sporting 350 sensors currently used on the International Space Station.

The idea behind the X1's space applications, according to NASA's website, is to augment an astronaut's movements by increasing an individual's strength in zero gravity. The suit, likened to the Marvel Comics superhero Iron Man, can both assist and inhibit movement, even allowing one to exercise during long missions in space. It doesn't, however, come with fancy repulsor rays … yet.

The X1 weighs 57 pounds and is worn over the legs with a harness that wraps around the shoulders. Through a total of 10 joints, four of which are motorized, anyone wearing the suit can move forward, backward, laterally, flex their feet and much more.

"What's extraordinary about space technology and our work with projects like Robonaut are the unexpected possibilities space tech spinoffs may have right here on Earth," said Michael Gazarik, director of NASA's Space Technology Program. "It's exciting to see a NASA-developed technology that might one day help people with serious ambulatory needs begin to walk again, or even walk for the first time. That's the sort of return on investment NASA is proud to give back to America and the world."

While still in the research and development phase, the X1 Robotic Exoskeleton is an example of the innovative spirit that may eventually allow paraplegics to walk and assist astronauts in their exploration of space.

As cutting-edge methods of joining dissimilar metals and manufacturing sensors continue to evolve, the weight of such suits could be drastically reduced while their performance only gets better. In this case, not even the sky is the limit.

DOD partners with Boston’s Allied Minds to fund technology breakthroughs

According to a recent VentureBeat article, the U.S. Department of Defense spends $100 billion annually to fund the research of more than 50,000 scientists across 100 facilities – and soon, fruits of that labor will find its way into consumer markets.

The DOD has partnered with alternative investment company Allied Minds. The Boston-based organization will license technologies developed for and used in military applications and create startup companies with the goal of integrating these innovations into consumer products. That includes projects related to cyber security, data analytics and other networking hardware.

But, the applications stretch far beyond that. Advanced materials, energy and power storage are also major focuses of the partnership and the subsequent startup companies that will emerge in the coming years. In fact, an estimated 20 businesses will be formed in the first year, with a goal to start 100 new ones each year after that – all based off technology licensed from the DOD.

As the VentureBeat article points out, these innovations have already been used in military applications. This eliminates a common problem facing new organizations: wondering whether or not a technology actually works. Now the challenge lies in developing ways to combine them with affordable products that will serve consumer and business needs.

A unique partnership like this presents a wealth of opportunities for energy, consumer electronics and other industries. Combined with the right thermal management technologies and methods of joining dissimilar metals, the results could be truly revolutionary.

"Federal research labs have long been a rich source of invention and innovation and we believe that their intellectual output represents an underutilized national asset," Allied Minds CEO Chris Silva said in a release. "Through our unique collaboration, [we] will facilitate the successful transfer of new technologies to the commercial marketplace, keeping the U.S. at the forefront of technological innovation and creating new opportunities to build businesses and jobs."

DOD research led to the internet, GPS and countless other groundbreaking innovations. Now, with this partnership, who knows what will be next.

Moore’s Law holds true, networking chip technology continues to improve

Throughout history, efforts to improve technology have all had similar goals – namely to enable tasks to be completed faster and with greater efficiency than ever before.

When the internet first came to be, one could begin the login process, go out to run a few errands, and come back only to hear that dial-up modem still working to make a connection. Once you were online, websites looked like what today would be equated to archaic paintings on a cave wall.

But, we've come a long way since then. Where we are today is in no small part due to the power of networking chips. They are essentially the fuel that powers the internet engine. In 1965, Intel's Gordon Moore made a prediction, which has since become known as Moore's Law, that the number of transistors in networking chips will double every two years. Nearly half a century later, that law remains unbroken.

A recent VentureBeat article discusses Moore's Law and Andy Bechtolsheim's assertion that it will continue to prove accurate in the coming decades. Bechtolsheim, founder, chairman and chief development officer at Arista Networks, predicted that networking chip performance will increase by 1,000 times in the next 20 years.

"Architecture matters. Having a faster internal engine makes a car run faster. That’s also true for a chip," writes Dean Takahashi, author of the article, about Bechtolsheim's reasoning. "With better design at the component level, the overall chip and system run better. This requires rethinking approaches that worked in the past for a more modern technology. Keeping the data flowing within the chip is critical."

At the same time networking and other computer chips are rapidly improving, there is an increased focus on making them smaller. As a result, the demand for innovative thermal management technologies is rising and must keep pace with the consumer electronics industry.

Creating better chips that will actually find their way into real-world products ultimately comes down to our ability to handle the increase in power and the thermal management of electronics.

Advances in robotics technology could save U.S. lives, help catch bomb-makers

Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are merciless weapons that threaten the lives of U.S. military personnel stationed in Afghanistan on a daily basis.

In 2011, camera crews from technology and entertainment TV network G4 followed a Navy Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) unit as they risked their lives to find and disarm hidden bombs meant to kill their fellow servicemen and women.

G4 aired a documentary series titled "Bomb Patrol Afghanistan" to reveal just how heroic the individuals in this unit are and what men and women serving in that area face day-in and day-out. Lieutenant Brad Penley perhaps summed up the situation best.

"We're going out there against something that doesn't have a personality, a soul, and it wants to kill you."

According to the show, enemy forces plant about 15,000 IEDs every year and they are the number one killer of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The members of the Navy's EOD unit use robots operated via modified video game controllers to either disarm or safely detonate explosive devices. Disarming and recovering IEDs is ideal because their components could provide valuable evidence that eventually leads to the bomb-makers.

Unfortunately, the robots they must use essentially have grip claws with a noticeable lack of dexterity for handling explosives. Research being done at Sandia National Laboratories, however, could change all that. Scientists have built what they call the "Sandia Hand" – a robotic device with the flexibility and control needed to safely disarm IEDs rather than detonate them.

The hand has four fingers that attach magnetically and can easily be replaced with tools like screwdrivers, flashlights and cameras. Sandia's design allows the robot to pick up and easily manipulate large objects as well as items as small as a door key – much the same way a human hand would.

Thanks to innovative methods of joining dissimilar metals and state-of-the-art sensors, the Sandia Hand and similar devices could drastically improve the efficiency of bomb disposal units in the U.S. and abroad. Not only will evidence recovery and crime prevention improve, but countless lives will be saved.

Scientists plan to drill nearly 4 miles below the Earth’s surface

When it comes to the Earth, we've only just scratched the surface – in more ways than one. But, a new project and a mere $1 billion could change all that.

According to a recent CNN article, scientists are planning to drill nearly four miles through the planet's crust and into its mantle – a roughly 2,000-mile-thick layer of rock that makes up most of the Earth's mass. Up until now, the only samples from this layer have come to the surface via volcanic eruptions.

If researchers are able to get their hands on rock from this "undiscovered country," mysteries about the formation and evolution of the planet we call home could be unraveled. So what's the holdup? Drilling technology isn't quite ready for such a massive undertaking. The news source reports that current drill bits only have a life of about 50 to 60 hours. After that, they must be replaced before drilling can continue.

With today's technology, it could take several years to reach the mantle once drilling were to begin. As this blog has discussed on more than one occasion, the key to unlocking mysteries of the universe – including our own planet – is often manufacturing ingenuity.

Not only do scientists need longer-lasting drill bits, but the equipment used to reach deeper into the earth must be able to handle increasingly hot temperatures. Innovative methods of joining dissimilar metals that allow equipment to handle the physical strain and heat associated with drilling four miles deep into the Earth are critical.

Techniques for ceramic to metal bonding are also aiding in the construction of sensor housings for gamma ray detectors. While those sound like something that helped turn Bruce Banner into the Incredible Hulk, they actually assist in steering drill heads through rock using the earth's natural radiation.

Geologist and co-leader of the project Damon Teagle told CNN this is "the most challenging endeavor in the history of Earth science."

Raising the funds for the project will be no small feat either, which gives Teagle a bit of a cushion, during which he hopes drilling technology will advance to the point needed for success. If all goes to plan, he expects humans to reach the Earth's mantle in the next decade.

Manufacturing innovations improve space exploration

Space travel can be exciting, inspirational and lead to untold discoveries about the universe and our own planet. It can also be extremely dangerous.

A routine medical issue on Earth could be a serious emergency aboard a shuttle or station orbiting the planet. In zero gravity, blood cannot be contained the way it can in a hospital operating room. So a moderate wound down here would pose a serious threat to one's life up there. The same thing could be said of a hull breach on a sailboat versus a space shuttle. Down here, you might get wet. In space, lives are constantly at risk.

According to an article in NewScientist, researchers may be making some progress toward mitigating medical risks in space. They are in the process of developing a surgical tool – the Aqueous Immersion Surgical System – that would make performing procedures in space far less dangerous. The device creates a seal around a wound or incision to contain blood and other bodily fluids, while airtight holes allow access to the area via orthoscopic instruments.

But, this is just the beginning. When we also look at the equipment used on the Mars rover Curiosity, like the Power Acquisition Drill System, or PADS, it is clear we are making significant strides. With PADS, Curiosity can drill two inches into the Martian surface and analyze rock samples. Technologies are advancing to the point where they can be deployed in environments so harsh that many thought it never possible.

The soldering solutions and techniques used in joining dissimilar metals that we develop here will allow the most advanced scientific equipment the world has ever seen to reveal mysteries about other planets and beyond. They will also make emergency repairs to shuttles easier and help safeguard the lives of all onboard.

One day, a human being will set foot on the Red Planet because these essential "building block" technologies made it possible.