TWIE 81: New Robot Stalks Partygoers

This Week in Engineering - Chinese spacecraft docs in orbit; robot inspired by geckos; whiskey tasting machine; Fake homecoming for a fake Mars mission; fracking caused minor earthquakes; and a robot photographer.

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Chinese spacecraft docs in orbit This week, China¦s unmanned Shenzou 8 spacecraft took off and docked with the orbiting Tiangong-1 module, marking a huge milestone in the Chinese space program. If the rest of the Shenzou 8 mission maneuvers are successful, then next year¦s space station missions, Shenzou 9 and 10, might be manned. China started their own space statino program after being rejected by the International Space Station. In a way, China¦s space program is like the ex-girlfriend that you dumped, who suddenly blossoms and becomes hot and gets her own sitcom. Oh, Zoey, you¦re the one that got away.

Robot inspired by geckos Researchers are looking to geckos for new methods to scale walls and windows without wet adhesion, which leaves a sticky trail, or suction, which requires a great deal of power. Gecko toes have tiny hair-like setae, each of which covered with even tinier spatulae, which are attracted to surfaces on a molecular level using Van der Waals forces. Now, a Canadian team has designed a robot that can climb up a wall using those same molecular forces for clinging. Of course, the research will not be complete until we have robots that can do everything geckos can do, like scurrying away from a light, or most importantly, selling lots and lots of insurance during my favorite shows.

Whiskey tasting machine Praveen Ashok and his team from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland have proposed a microfluidic chip which exposes the whiskey to a laser beam, and then carries the signal to a spectrometer, which they say allows them to analyze the liquor in about a minute. Thanks to this marvelous innovation, we may someday be able to analyze whiskey without having to taste that sweet, sweet nectar, not to mention all the side effects of consuming alcohol, like happiness or numbing of the pain...

Fake homecoming for a Fake Mars mission The (Mars 500÷ team has successfully completed a 520-day simulation of a manned mission to Mars, in which six volunteers were sealed up in a pretend space ship in the parking lot of the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems in Moscow. The mission even included a simulated space walk on a pretend Martian surface, half-way through the simulation. Now, the fake astronauts are in a quarantine for at least three days, because researchers are worried that after almost two years in isolation, they might be susceptible to winter bugs. Yeah, right. I think the quarantine is because they don¦t want anyone telling them how (Lost÷ ended. No spoilers!

Fracking caused minor earthquakes Energy company Cuadrilla Resources has announced that their drilling for natural gas in the northwestern English town of Blackpool using hydraulic fracturing of shale rock, most likely caused tremors in April and May. Unusual geology at the well site, when exposed to the pressure of water injection, probably caused of the tremors, which measured up to 2.8 on the Richter scale, and are unlikely to happen again. Fracking causes earthquakes? I think it was actually Dr. Evil¦s earthquake machine, that just happened to find natural gas. Weird: a terrorist¦s earthquake machine doesn¦t get people as angry as fracking.

Robot photographer Microsoft has publicised its new release of Robotics Developer Studio by building a fully-autonomous party photographer robot, which rolls around a party, avoiding obstacles with infrared sensors, looking for people. It will then center a person in the camera frame, take a picture, and upload the result to flickr. Apparently, the robots aren¦t just taking our factory jobs -- they¦re taking our wedding reception jobs as well. I¦ve already seen a DJ replaced by an iPod, but you know what, machines? You¦ll never duplicate these dance moves! (Dances like robot)