TWIE 84: Our Next Home Planet

This Week in Engineering - Confirmed exoplanet in the “habitable zone”; laundromats in space; urinal video game; billboards size you up; cyborg insect first responders; and flexible pneumatic robot.

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Confirmed exoplanet in the "habitable zone"
NASA¦s Kepler mission has confirmed the discovery of the first ever exoplanet in the (habitable zone÷, where liquid water could exist on the planet¦s surface. Kepler-22b has a radius roughly two point four times the Earth¦s, and orbits a star similar to our sun, although we do not yet know if it is predominantly rocky, liquid, or even gaseous like Neptune. I don¦t know if this planet could support life, but I am certain it is more suitable for life than the dystopian desertscape I call home in Central Texas this past summer.

Laundromats In Space
The International Space Station has no laundry machines, because liquid water in a zero-G environment is really hard to control. Astronauts currently wear undergarments for days at a time, until they become intolerable, and are then put into a Progress capsule to burn up on reentry. Now, NASA has commissioned UMPQUA Research to create a low-power, low-water zero-G washing machine that would clean with vapor, air and microwave rays. That¦s fine for the wash cycle, but what about the dryer sheets? If my underpants aren¦t snuggle-rific, then burn them like the space junk they are.

Urinal video game
Captive Media have come out with a hands-free video game urinal, that comes with a 12-inch LCD screen that displays ads when not in use. When the urinal is being used, it¦s Game On, and contestants control the game by aiming their stream. The games include a skiing game you can steer, and a trivia game where you pick either the left or right option. Thanks, but I¦ll wait for the home version. With the Shower Expansion Pack.

Billboards size you up
Researchers in Singapore have developed a digital billboard equipped with a camera that estimates the weight of a person, and uses the information to choose an advertisement. Available technology can already sense a person¦s age and gender, so this system adds a body weight estimation to the demographic targeting information. I don¦t like it! The billboard will look at me and say, (You might like the latest Coldplay album,÷ or (Your sedentary lifestyle suggests you¦ll like this videogame.÷ And I hate the fact that it is right.

Cyborg insect first responders
Researchers at the University of Michigan are looking at ways to equip insects with cameras and other sensors, including harvesting energy from the insect¦s movement or heat, so they can use the bugs to investigate situations too hazardous for humans. The harvested energy can prolong the life of the battery, allowing for a smaller battery which is easier for the insect first responder to carry. Still, I know that if my wife were trapped under rubble, and her survival depended on getting the attention of an approaching cyborg cockroach, she would gladly choose death.

Flexible pneumatic robot
The Softbot is a quadrupedal robot, inspired by boneless animals like squid and worms, that is made only of soft elastomeric polymers. It alters its shape and moves using pneumatic valves operating at low pressures: under ten PSI; and its soft body could allow it to navigate into some very tight spaces. And I am hereby calling this day, in December of two thousand eleven, the day when science has finally mated a terminator with a gummi bear. Glory, hallelujia, I always knew this day would come!