TWIE 122: Voice-Controlled Home Automation

This Week in Engineering - Quadcopters play catch; wiki weapon 3D printer confiscated; sweating buildings; cooling the earth with asteroid dust; voice-controlled home automation; and cheese-powered race car.

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Quadcopters play catch
Researchers from ETH Zurich in Switzerland have taught three quadcopter drones to work together to catch and throw a small ball. The three drones have to work together to accurately control the net, and, when throwing the ball at a target, the robots can learn from their mistakes, getting closer in future tries. Alright, robotics people, I need to see quadcopters play a game of fetch with Big Dog from Boston Dynamics. Now, there¦s a good boy!

Wiki weapon 3D printer confiscated
University of Texas law school student Cody Wilson has started the Wiki Weapon Project, to design an open-source design for a working handgun that can be made with a 3D printer. The controversial project has posed several legal dilemmas, such as: Does a person need a federal firearms manufacturing license, not to sell, but to give designs away for free? Now, Stratysis has taken back the 3D printer they had sent to the program, citing their right to rescind a lease if they believe the printer will be used for unlawful activity. So, while the legal issues play out, the Wiki Weapon project is stalled without a printer, for now.

Sweating buildings
Other researchers from ETH Zurich have developed a synthetic mat for rooftops designed to keep buildings cool by soaking up rain water and releasing it later when the weather is hot. The released moisture evaporates, extracting heat from the building -- essentially cooling the building by sweating. The mat is made of a special polymer abbreviated PNIPAM under a water-permeable membrane. With sunlight and heat, the polymer shrinks and becomes hydrophobic, forcing out the water. The mats have so far been tested only on small models of houses, but could one day lower air conditioning bills. Come on, house! I know it¦s been a hot summer -- sweat it out! No pain, no gain! Hu-ah!

Cooling the Earth with asteroid dust
Scientists in Scotland have suggested a geoengineering project to help combat climate change: putting a cloud of asteroid dust between the Earth and the sun to help shade our planet. The dust cloud would come from an asteroid moved into the LaGrange point L1, which lies between the Earth and the sun and has an orbital period equal to the Earth¦s. The asteroid would be scattered into dust with an electromagnetic device called a mass driver. The scientists suggest the reduction in solar radiation would be barely noticeable, yet have a sizeable impact on global temperature. Who would want to block sunlight with satellites?... I think I just hit on the plot for my futuristic aerospace vampire thriller. I smell a Pulitzer. And a movie deal!

Voice-controlled home automation
Unified Computer Intelligence Corporation, including inventor Amin Abdossalami, have officially launched a Kickstarter-funded voice-controlled home computer, the Ubi -- short for Ubiquitous Computer. The device runs Android Jelly Bean, understands vocal commands, is connected to the internet through wifi, and will integrate with other home automation devices. It is equipped with sensors for light, sound, humidity and pressure, and controls speakers, and a color indicator light. The platform is meant to host many inventive applications, but will ship with voice-enabled internet search, speakerphone, speaker system, memo-taker, baby monitor and several more. The Ubi is scheduled to ship in early 2013.

Cheese-powered race car
Researchers from Utah State University have designed a race car that runs on cheese, and the car set a new speed record for a vehicle of its kind, when it exceeded sixty-five miles per hour at the Utah Salt Flats Racing Association¦s World of Speed event. The Aggie A-Salt Streamliner dragster has a one-liter two-cylinder engine that runs on a yeast biodiesel fuel derived from the waste of industri