A slippery robot

A snake-like machine inching its way across rough terrain could prove to be a big leap forward in the development of robotic motion.

Experts at the University of Michigan have developed a "snakebot" which they claim can go where other robots fear to tread.

Thanks to a unique tread design, the snake-shaped robot can climb pipes and stairs, roll over uneven ground and span wide gaps to reach the other side - movements that have up to now proved almost impossible for wheeled and tracked robots.

Called OmniTread, the device is propelled along by moving treads that cover 80 per cent of its body. This allows it to move by rolling like a log or by raising its head or tail and inching forward caterpillar-style.

OmniTread is divided into five box-shaped segments connected through the middle by a long drive shaft spine that drives the tracks. Bellows in the joints connecting the segments inflate or deflate to make the robot turn or lift its sections. The bellows provide enough torque for the OmniTread to lift the two front or rear segments to climb objects.

A human operator controls the snakebot with a joystick and umbilical cord. The latter which also supplies power, although scientists are now working on a tether-less prototype. Until now robots have tended to stall or become stuck in difficult terrain, but OmniTread's flexibility of movement opens up the use of robots for hazardous inspections or surveillance in industrial or military scenarios.

University of Michigan: http://www.umich.edu/noflash.html

The alarm clock that you won’t hate

Many of us wake up tired, grumpy and feeling that we must be allergic to mornings.

Like all bringers of bad news, on such mornings the alarm clock becomes an object of hate - prompting us to hammer snooze buttons violently and occasionally hurl the offending device across the bedroom.

But according to New Scientist, researchers are developing an alarm clock that they claim should ensure you wake up feeling refreshed every morning.

SleepSmart, invented by students at Brown University in Rhode Island and intended for market next year, measures a person's sleep cycle and waits for them to be in the lightest phase of sleep before rousing them.

Sleep consists of a sequence of states - light sleep, deep sleep and REM sleep - that repeats about every 90 minutes.

The point in the cycle at which someone wakes up can effect how they feel later and may even have a greater impact than how long they have slept. A person is more likely to wake up feeling refreshed if they awake during a period of light sleep.

SleepSmart works by recording the distinct pattern of brain waves produced during each stage of sleep using a headband equipped with electrodes and a microprocessor. Like a medical EEG machine, this wireless device measures electrical activity of the wearer's brain and communicates with a clock located near the bed.

For a good night's sleep, the clock is then programmed with the latest time at which you want to be woken up and it duly rings during the last light sleep phase before that.

Brown University: http://www.brown.edu/

It’s a microscope Jim, but not as we know it

Fans of the original Star Trek may recall how Dr 'Bones' McCoy was able to diagnose patients instantly with the flick of a switch on a tiny probe - although his diagnosis seldom strayed from a terse "he's dead, Jim".

While such a tool remain confined to science fiction for now, new research in the UK has raised the prospect of doctors using hand-held devices to diagnose in the field without the need for a laboratory test - by shrinking a microscope to the size of a human cell.

Moving away from the idea that a microscope is something you have to look through, a team of scientists led by the University of Wales College of Medicine have developed optical biochips no bigger than a single cell on to which scientists can place biological samples for examination.

Special fluorescent chemicals are then used together with tiny light emitting lasers to allow human cells and their contents to be analysed for certain diseases or to develop new treatments by studying the way cells react to a drug.

Initially, researchers see the technology leading to faster development of new drugs and quicker medical tests, but they say the biochips also raise the possibility of a micro-laboratory - the size of a credit card - which could be used for medical diagnosis, reducing the need for patients to go to hospital for tests.

Team leaders say the next step will be to develop simple, small diagnostic devices that in the future could form the basis of a hand-held system.

Let's hope they save more lives than Dr McCoy.

University of Wales College of Medicine: http://www.uwcm.ac.uk/

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