New sensors might stop photographers from being afraid of the dark

One of the biggest issues for any camera is the device's abilities to take pictures or record video in the dark, especially when a flash isn't practical or can't generate enough light. However, with new sensors that have been developed by Canon, all of that may change. On Friday, the company announced a new high-sensitivity 35 mm full-frame CMOS sensor, which is specially designed to work in low-light environments.

By utilizing the increasing sensitivity to light along with low-noise imaging, the sensor allows a camera to pick up images that would have been blurry or obscured entirely by darkness, albeit at lower resolutions. According to a press release from Canon, the sensor will be initially tailored for video use only due to the low quality images produced by the lens. In addition, it's unlikely that the new development will be incorporated into any personal-use devices any time soon. Instead, the technology will be incorporated into gathering images of space for research.

"The company is looking to such future applications for the new sensor as astronomical and natural observation, support for medical research and use in surveillance and security equipment," the company said in the release. "Through the further development of innovative CMOS sensors, Canon aims to expand the world of new imaging expression."

In terms of practical use, Canon claims the lens will operate with just 0.03 lux of illumination, comparable to how bright it is with a partial moon in the sky.

The camera will be seen for the first time at SECURITY SHOW 2013 in Tokyo, Japan from March 5-8. At the exhibition, the public will get the first glimpse of what type of sensor housing Canon will use to incorporate the lens into different devices and what future uses the company has planned. Companies such as S-Bond will be integral in developing bond assembly for sensor housing and different methods for which Canon's lenses can be used in the future.

Volvo unveils new sensors to avoid collisions with cyclists

A couple of years ago, Volvo announced that it would install sensors in some of its vehicles that enabled it to detect pedestrians that entered the path of the driver, which would signal the vehicle to automatically break to avoid impact. Now, the Swedish car manufacturer has announced that is has taken this technology to the next level, unveiling new technologies that will allow the sensors to stop the vehicle when cyclists present a danger.

The update to the car sensors – known as Pedestrian and Cyclist Detection with full auto brake – was revealed to the public earlier this week at the Geneva Motor Show, and will first appear in select Volvo models starting this May.

In a release, Volvo claims that 50 percent of all European cyclist deaths occur due to collisions with vehicles, an enormous problem for urban areas where individuals attempt alternative methods of transportation. The sensor will be best served in preventing cars from striking cyclists that unexpectedly cut in front of vehicles in cases where the driver would not have seen the rider in time. Bike riders will be detected by using a radar to sense the speed and location of the cyclist while the car's camera determines what kind of object it is.

"Our solutions for avoiding collisions with unprotected road users are unique in the industry. By covering more and more objects and situations, we reinforce our world-leading position within automotive safety. We keep moving towards our long-term vision to design cars that do not crash," said Doug Speck, Volvo senior vice president of marketing, sales and customer service in a press release.

Developing proper sensor housing for devices that can detect unforeseen threats on the road are just one of many ways that companies like S-Bond are making roads safer for drivers, cyclists and pedestrians alike.

Naval researchers use new sensors to detect explosives, dangerous chemicals

In the modern combat arena, United States military personnel are under constant threat from an enemy lying in wait. IEDs, or improvised explosive devices, are strategically placed along roadsides and in buildings where they can cause the most destruction and take as many lives as possible. But, thanks to the development of new state-of-the-art sensors, scientists at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory are hoping to help the armed forces defeat this menacing foe.

As Dr. Chris Field explains in a video for Tech Briefs TV, the SiN-VAPOR sensor is about the size of a quarter and could be attached to mobile devices, like smartphones, and carried onto the battlefield. SiN-VAPOR stands for silicon nanowire vertical array with a porous electrode. While sensors of a decade ago struggled to detect certain chemical vapors in the parts per million range, the SiN-VAPOR routinely picks up chemicals in the parts per billion range.

“If every soldier has one of these sensors, and they are on some sort of communication network such as a cell phone, they can all talk to each other,” Field says. “All the sensors can communicate with each other and you can begin to map the area from a chemical [perspective]. We do a lot of work in doing topography and mapping of landscapes and such. We’d like to do the same thing with chemical vapors.”

Silicon bonding techniques make such sensors possible in the size and form factor that allow them to be affixed to mobile devices. Then, an individual can walk into a room and immediately detect explosives present, potentially saving the lives of everyone in the area.

As sensor technology continues to improve and is coupled with advancements in thermal management of electronics, U.S. military personnel around the world – and even law enforcement officials at home – will be able to use mobile devices as critical field operational tools.

DARPA underwater capsule would store sensors on ocean’s floor

In the middle of the vast ocean, an unmanned craft lays on the surface of the seabed, prepared to deploy non-lethal weapons against enemy watercraft and sensors with the ability to communicate certain conditions to recipients in faraway locations. These don’t exist, but they could, if the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) proceeds on its Upward Falling Payloads (UFP) program.

This project, details of which DARPA will announce in a January 25 briefing, would allow the U.S. Navy to send capsules to strategic positions across the ocean’s floor. These craft would rest at the bottom of the sea for months or even years, ready to burst from the depths whenever called upon. Ultimately, the objective would be to surprise enemy naval forces with non-lethal attacks – such as lasers or strobe lights – while communicating key information to friendly combatants via sensors.

It’s not an easy project to consider. Constructing a cache that would be able to withstand years of steady ocean pressure and resist corrosive deterioration is a significant challenge. It could be an expensive endeavor, though the benefits are important. With unmanned craft providing reconnaissance and critical resources, the U.S. Navy might be better prepared for the unexpected.

A report from Gizmag notes that DARPA has the benefit of years of deep sea work conducted by the telecommunications and the oil and gas exploration industries, which for years have had to engineer underwater infrastructure. However, the undersea capsules – and the sensors stored within – would need to find a way to communicate across significant expanses of ocean, with the high risk of interference, in unusual conditions. Those challenges are a steep mountain to climb for DARPA’s researchers, and it will be interesting to see if they deliver on these efforts.

NASA planning rover missions to Martian moon

Over the course of the last few months, we have discussed the various technologies aboard the Mars rover Curiosity and the progress made in exploring the Red Planet’s surface. An array of sensors and robotic tools have allowed NASA to gather data that we have never been able to access before. Now, in a similar effort, researchers have developed a robotic platform that could push the boundaries of space exploration even further.

According to NASA Tech Briefs, scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, along with colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, hope to use a specially designed spacecraft as a launching point for multiple rovers. Their goal would be to traverse the surface of the Martian moon known as Phobos and relay information back to Earth.

The state-of-the-art sensors will be used to map the surface and successfully deploy the rovers in strategic locations to analyze atmospheric and geologic conditions. The data would then be transmitted back to the “mothership” and then on to Earth. Once measurements have been taken in an area, the next rover, also known as a hedgehog, would be launched to a new section of the moon.

“Measuring about half a meter wide, each rover would hop, tumble and bound across the cratered, lopsided moon, relaying information about its origins, as well as its soil and other surface materials,” the news source said.

As with Curiosity, which cost an estimated $2.5 billion, these systems will rely heavily on material bonding technologies that enable them to operate efficiently under the harsh conditions found on the Red Planet’s surface. As we move forward with our exploration of space, innovative ways of bonding dissimilar metals that reduce overall equipment weight but do not sacrifice strength or structural integrity will be critical.

Reducing weight will subsequently cut back on the amount of fuel needed to launch shuttles and make long journeys deep into space. And simultaneously improving durability and mobility will allow robotic arms to support the sensors needed to gather the information scientists seek.

DARPA’s ‘robotic mule’ continues to make strides

In October, we took a look at an innovative endeavor from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). In conjunction with the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab (MCWL) and Boston Dynamics, DARPA is developing a "robotic mule" to assist military personnel in the field.

Known as the Legged Squad Support System, or LS3, it can carry up to 400 pounds of equipment across treacherous terrain at roughly 20 miles per hour. A series of state-of-the-art sensors allow the mule to map out the surrounding area and navigate various obstacles.

For the last two weeks, DARPA and MCWL researchers has been putting it through the paces in the woods of central Virginia to show the progress being made on the project. A video posted online highlights some impressive feats on the part of the mule, including its ability to recognize and respond to voice commands, step over felled trees and follow a human leader throughout a simulated urban environment with narrow passageways.

At one point in the woods, the mule fell down a hill into a muddy ditch and righted itself with no assistance from a human being, then continued on its journey.

"This was the first time DARPA and MCWL were able to get LS3 out on the testing grounds together to simulate military-relevant training conditions," said Lt. Col. Joseph Hitt, DARPA program manager, in a press statement. "The robot's performance in the field expanded on our expectations, demonstrating, for example, how voice commands and 'follow the leader' capability would enhance the robot's ability to interact with warfighters. We were able to put the robot through difficult natural terrain and test its ability to right itself with minimal interaction from humans."

DARPA officials said they even expect U.S. warfighters to be able to use the mule for charging batteries in radios and other handheld devices in the field.

Advanced methods of bonding dissimilar metals will help researchers continue to make improvements in the LS3 program, building future mules that can handle increasingly difficult situations.

West Virginia pipeline explosion raises controversy over automatic shut-off valves

A pipeline explosion destroyed four homes and transformed an 800-foot stretch of Interstate 77 in West Virginia into a blazing inferno last week. It took Columbia Gas Transmission workers roughly an hour to turn off the gas by manual shut-off valves, prompting federal investigators to launch an investigation.

According to the Ithaca Journal, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has recommended the use of automatic or remote valves that can turn off the gas promptly in the event of an explosion, allowing emergency responders quicker access to the scene.

The automatic valves use a series of sensors that gauge changes in pressure, temperature and more, and then the line can be remotely shut down if needed. The pushback regarding this technology has been the cost, though advocates say the cost of not doing so is far greater.

"Safety costs money, and it can either cost money up front, or it can cost innocent lives and untold tragedy to others who are in the proximity of these pipelines when they explode," Jim Hall, chairman of the NTSB from 1994 to January 2001, told the news source. “The price is set. It's just do we pay it [upfront] now or pay it later?"

Thanks to innovative methods of joining dissimilar metals and sensor housing assembly, these valves can be built and installed for far less than they used to cost. And, as many regulators have pointed out, the property and equipment damages alone that results from an explosion can total millions of dollars, not to mention the threat of injury or death and subsequent lawsuits.

Whatever the NTSB investigation uncovers, all can agree that better preparing ourselves for dealing with such incidents is in everyone's best interests.

Mars rover offers several reasons to be excited

The atmosphere of the 1960s and our goal to put a man on the moon inspired a generation of future scientists to tackle the great mysteries of the universe. Now, the Mars rover Curiosity has reinvigorated the country's passion for science and space exploration.

With Curiosity's launch in August, millions of people have been waiting to see what it uncovers and if the Red Planet may have once been home to organic matter. A few weeks ago, rumors of a "game-changing" discovery hit the Web. NASA put out a press release last week assuring the public that it had not found proof of life on Mars.

However, NASA did announce yesterday that, while analyzing Martian soil samples, Curiosity detected "water and sulfur and chlorine-containing substances." The agency cautioned the public that it still has to determine if these chemicals are indigenous to Mars or if they found their way there from Earth via the rover or materials that fell from space to the planet's surface.

There is still room for excitement, though. The first and most obvious reason is the fact that we may have found complex chemical compounds that could be indigenous to both Mars and Earth. The implications of such a definitive discovery would be huge. The second reason to be happy about this news is that it serves as a testament to the quality of scientific work being done here on Earth.

In previous blog posts, we have discussed the various technologies aboard Curiosity and their functions on the current mission. The Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) suite and the Chemical and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument have proven that they can successfully collect samples and conduct highly detailed analysis in an environment that humans have never been able to experience firsthand.

The worlds greatest minds have combined these technologies with the most advanced sensors and methods for joining metals and put Curiosity on the Martian surface in order to usher in a new era of scientific discovery. If that's not a reason to get excited, what is?

Scientists developing cutting-edge underwater vehicle technologies

Autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) have been around for years. Operated by remote control, an individual sitting safely in an office on dry land can navigate an AUV through the myriad of obstacles that the ocean floor boasts.

But, never have these vessels been able to operate themselves without a human being remotely controlling at least some of their movements, though that may soon change. According to a recent article at NewScientist, researchers at the Aerospace Robotics Laboratory at Stanford University and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in Moss Landing, California are close to developing a new guidance system – one that would allow submersibles to navigate the twisting maze of underwater structures independently.

"The software tweak will allow underwater robots to autonomously take pictures of hazardous locations where only remote-controlled robots have gone before," wrote Will Ferguson, the article's author. "The team ran a successful field test in Monterey Bay earlier this month and expects the system will be ready to be tried for real sometime next year."

Meanwhile, Ferguson also noted that scientists in Australia are developing a system that will allow AUVs to detect and differentiate between various species of plant and animal life found in the sea.

The ocean is perhaps our planet's last "undiscovered country," with so many undocumented species residing at depths humans have never explored. By combining different technologies and state-of-the-art sensors, along with innovative methods of joining dissimilar metals, researchers are developing AUVs that will venture into these places and gather data never before seen by humans.

These vessels will perhaps be the key to unlocking what remains of the ocean's mysteries.

NASA plans rover mission to moon, lunar space station may be next

Resolve. It's what helps us achieve greatness in the face of adversity. We resolved to put a man on the moon in the 1960s. By the end of that decade, man planted the American flag firmly in the lunar body's surface.

RESOLVE is also the name of a payload that, when placed on a rover similar to the one exploring Mars at this very moment, may one day discover resources on the moon that will allow us to send manned exploration missions deeper into space than previously possible.

According to an article on the official NASA website, RESOLVE stands for Regolith and Environmental Science and Oxygen and Lunar Volatiles Extraction. It is designed to map the distribution of water and other resources detected during previous unmanned missions to the celestial body.

As the article explains, this would be a nine-day excursion during which RESOLVE can drill into the surface and heat collected materials in order to measure the amount of water vapor and other useful compounds present. The goal is to find resources that will help astronauts make air, drinking water, rocket fuel and a host of other necessities for deep-space missions.

"Mars is a great example of why we need to use the resources at the destination," said Bill Larson, who oversees the program to use materials found on other planetary bodies for space travel. "Each human mission to Mars will last about 2 and 1/2 years. To reduce the amount of water and breathing air we have to send with astronauts, we will need to use the resources of the red planet to generate these life-essential commodities."

By using resources found on the moon, man's reach into the depths of space would be extended – and it all starts here on Earth.

NASA officials have said they will be taking RESOLVE to Mauna Kea, Hawaii next month for a nine-day simulation because the lava-covered mountain's soil closely resembles the moon's surface.

As we rededicate our efforts to space exploration and discovery, these robotic missions are critical to success. State-of-the-art sensors combined with manufacturing ingenuity will allow payloads like RESOLVE to drill into the surfaces of other planets, moons and asteroids and gather data that will chart the course of the future.

Is RESOLVE merely the first step?

While RESOLVE is tentatively scheduled to venture to the moon sometime in 2017, a deep-space outpost could follow within a few years. According to a recent article in The Verge, sources indicate the White House may back a plan to construct a lunar waypoint. If this turns out to be true, manned missions to Mars and other points in space could leave Earth, collect necessary resources at the waypoint and then proceed on to their destinations.

The Verge cites a leaked NASA memo from earlier this year that outlined such an idea and mentioned a possible location: Earth-Moon Lagrange Point 2.

This is "a point in space where balanced gravitational forces allow an object to remain in stationary orbit relative to both the Earth and the Moon," writes Sean Hollister, author of the article. "From there, NASA could launch missions deeper into space – say, to Mars, or a near-Earth asteroid – using the base as a stepping stone."

The construction of a "moon base" may sound like something out of a futuristic science fiction novel, but we live in a world where technology is advancing more rapidly than ever before. Through innovative methods of joining dissimilar metals and research into alternative energy technologies, the possibility of such achievements is very real.