TWIE 136: Bionic Eye

This Week in Engineering - Exploring the lunar far side; robot jumps with explosions; bionic eye; repurposing nuke detectors; herding cattle electronically; and moths drive a truck.

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Exploring the lunar far side
The Apollo program, as expensive as it was, explored only the near side of the moon, but the far side holds some very important points of scientific interest, such as the largest, deepest basin and possibly the oldest impact site in the solar system. Now, a concept proposal has been submitted for a joint manned and robotic mission for exploring the lunar far side. The crew in the Orion capsule would fly into a halo orbit around LaGrange point 2, where it could operate telepresence robots on the lunar surface while maintaining line-of-sight communication with Earth. The mission would travel 15% further from Earth than the Apollo program did, and could demonstrate techniques for more complex missions like exploring Mars.

Robot jumps with explosions
Dr. Robert F. Shepard and colleagues from Harvard¦s Whitesides research group have created a soft, hollow, silicon robot that can jump by igniting a combustible mixture of gases in cavities in its body. The limbs are lined with tubes filled with a mixture of methane and oxygen, which is ignited with an electrical spark. If all three limbs are activated simultaneously, the robot can jump more than 30 times its height. Soft robots may one day be useful in search and rescue missions, as they can maneuver around obstacles. The robot uses... Wait, the robot jumps by lighting gas from it¦s cavities on fire? Seriously guys, I know what you are thinking, and it won¦t help you jump higher... it just singes hair.

Bionic eye
About 100,000 Americans have blindness resulting from Retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disease that causes light-sensing cells to stop working. Now, medical device company Second Sight has received FDA approval for the Argus II, a bionic eye that replaces light-sensing cells in the retina with a small array of 60 electrodes. A small video camera worn on a pair of glasses sends data to a visual processor worn about the waist, and then images are transmitted wirelessly to the retina¦s electrodes. At only 60 pixels, the images have just enough resolution to help a person move around without help. Sadly, the only thing you can see with the eye is your own impending death. Until the insurance check clears, of course.

Repurposing nuke detectors
In order to monitor compliance with the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, a network of radiation detectors, seismometers and acoustic sensors has been deployed since the 90¦s all over the world, both on land and in the oceans. That sensor network could now be used for other types of environmental monitoring. In fact, researchers have found that the network recorded the 2004 earthquake and tsunami in the Indian Ocean -- information that theoretically could have been used in a warning system. Other conceivable uses for the network could include tracking whales and monitoring air pollution.

Herding cattle electronically
Animal scientist Dean Anderson with the US Department of Agriculture wants to build a system of virtual fences for cattle that can quickly adapt to changing conditions. Each cow or bull would carry a wireless device that emits a small shock or makes a noise whenever the animal wanders away from the desired area, gently encouraging it back the other way. As conditions change, the cattle could be driven to better pastures, or away from land that needs time to recover. Computers taking jobs from cowboys? Lay off my childhood dreams! You¦ve already taken fighter pilot and space explorer. Once a robot plays NFL quarterback I¦ve got no reason left to live.

Moths drive a truck
In order to study animal odor-tracking mechanisms, scientists from the University of Tokyo have built a small motorized robot car controlled by a strapped-in male silkmoth. The moth uses its legs to essentially operate a track