The Light Side: Medieval Feline and Avian WMDs

Headband Clamps Down on Throbbing Migraines
Wear This Phone Charger on Your Wrist
Is Facebook Buying UAVs? Maybe. Here’s Why.


Historical documents that recently came to light advised 16th century German military forces to turn back enemies from the Ottoman Empire by using cats and birds as weapons of mass destruction.

Illustrations from a circa-1530 instructional manuscript about siege warfare, artillery, and explosive weapons depict jet packs and incendiary devices strapped to the backs of cats and doves. The “rocket cats” images went viral on the web after they were digitized by Mitch Fraas, a historian and humanities expert at the University of Pennsylvania. In fact, Fraas found that the university’s library housed other manuals that featured images of weaponized cats and birds, such as a circa-1590 treatise whose German title in English means “Book of instruction for a cannon master.”

The c. 1530 text tells military leaders how to “use doves and cats loaded with flammable devices to set fire to enemy positions,” according to Fraas’ blog. He noted there was an entire section devoted to angry birds and thunder cats, translated loosely as, “To set fire to a castle or city which you can’t get at otherwise.” Fraas highlighted a particularly sinister passage:

Create a small sack like a fire-arrow … if you would like to get at a town or castle, seek to obtain a cat from that place. And bind the sack to the back of the cat, ignite it, let it glow well and thereafter let the cat go, so it runs to the nearest castle or town, and out of fear it thinks to hide itself where it ends up in barn hay or straw it will be ignited.

Fraas was not the first person to come upon the “rocket cats.” He was alerted by a friend/informant who discovered an Australian book blog had written about one of the images. This sent Fraas on a crowdsourced journey that led him to the Buch von den probierten Künsten treatise written by Franz Helm of Cologne, Germany. “I really didn’t know what to make of it,” said Fraas, according to an AP story.

upenn destructo cat

Credit: University of Pennsylvania

He found that Helm was an artillery master in the service of various German princes during the mid-16th century. Helm might have been believed to have taken part in battles against Turkish forces, but he was undoubtedly unencumbered by a PETA-like organization.

Fraas was unable to find evidence that Helm’s war chiefs actually took up his idea but nevertheless didn’t think it would have worked anyway, calling the strategy “harebrained.”

“It seems like a really terrible idea, and very unlikely the animals would run back to where they came from,” he told AP. “More likely they’d set your own camp on fire.”

However, he did note on his blog that disparate regions around the world during that period had similar ideas for pyrotechnic warfare. Incendiary-bearing carrier pigeons could have been the game-changer Helm and the Germans were looking for.

Headband Clamps Down on Throbbing Migraines

What do you do when you have a screaming headache? You pop a couple of pain-relief pills, find a dark and quiet place, and lay yourself down for a while. But now, relief can come more quickly and as easily as putting on a headband that allows you to keep on working — or doing whatever it was that you were doing.

The Food and Drug Administration has approved Cefaly, a neurostimulation device for migraine sufferers. Manufactured and already commercial in Belgium, the portable, battery-powered aid sends electric current through the skin to underlying body tissues in order to stimulate the branches of the trigeminal nerve.

cefaly-movie-poster

Credit: STX-Med

This type of therapy, called transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, or TENS (as opposed to TENSE), is thought to either block the trigeminal nerve from sending pain signals to the brain or cause increased production of endorphins, which are the body’s own painkillers, according to LiveScience. TENS is not a cure for migraines, but rather a symptom-reducer.

The FDA said Cefaly is an alternative medication for those who cannot tolerate strong pain-relief pills due to their side effects. Before giving the device the green light, the agency looked at a clinical study conducted in Belgium of 67 individuals who had at least two migraines a month as well as a Cefaly patient-satisfaction study of users in Belgium and France. Those who used Cefaly suffered fewer migraines than those given placebo devices, and in the latter study, a little more than half of patients (53 percent) were satisfied and willing to buy it.

Cefaly’s manufacturer, STX-Med, claims that there are more than 50,000 devices in use outside the United States. A how-to-use diagram featuring a woman who disarmingly looks like Angelina Jolie is available here.

A Cefaly user puts the contraption across the forehead and above the ears using a self-adhesive electrode and then presses a button that cycles through three modes: “crisis” (no kidding), “prevention,” and “antistress.” A fourth push lowers the intensity of the electric impulses. No matter the mode, each session is 20 minutes, and the user is free to move about and do normal activities.

Now here is where it starts sounding like a pharmaceutical ad. The FDA noted that Cefaly should be limited to one session per day. Only those aged 18 years or older should use the device. Tolerance of the electric impulses increases with use, though STX-Med noted, “[C]onstantly increase the intensity and the sessions will become more and more effective.”

Fortunately, there wasn’t voluminous fine print about Cefaly’s side effects, so if this were a TV commercial, there’d be no speed-talk at the end. The most common side effect was intolerance to the feeling of Cefaly on the forehead — perhaps a lightweighting plastic is in order. The most severe side effect is allergic skin reaction to the electrode, followed by irritation of the skin on the forehead. Some users experienced a sensation of fatigue during and after a session.

Wear This Phone Charger on Your Wrist

You’re on a camping trip and you need your daily dose of news, so every morning you read it using your smartphone. The articles are so interesting that you keep reading, lose track of time, and drain your phone’s battery. There’s not an outlet for miles. What to do? If the EnergyBionics Kickstarter campaign is successful, you might just reach for the solar-powered battery charger on your wrist!

Credit: EnergyBionics

The Carbon wearable charger contains a 650 mAh lithium polymer battery that can provide several hours of charge to your smartphone, camera, or other personal electronic device. Its output can deliver up to 5 W at 1 A — enough to recharge a phone in about 30 minutes.

Unlike many other “spare battery” gadgets, the Carbon recharges its own battery using a monocrystalline photovoltaic (PV) cell. EnergyBionics claims that in full sunlight, the on-board battery can be recharged in two to three hours. (I calculate closer to 10 hours*.) The PV cell also responds well to artificial light, so the Carbon can recharge indoors too. In order to maximize the solar energy conversion, the circuitry includes a low-power microcontroller that runs a maximum power point tracking (MPPT) algorithm. And if you’re not too far from civilization, the Carbon can also be charged in about 30 minutes through a USB interface.

The Carbon has been under design for several years, and after thorough proof of concept and prototype testing, EnergyBionics is ready to move into the final design and production stages. The company hopes to raise $48,000 over the next month in order to refine the design, conduct FCC, ETL, and CE certification tests, and secure manufacturing partners.

For the next generation of Carbon, they might want to add a small pendulum and generator to convert kinetic movement into electricity, like self-powered quartz watches do. This would supplement the solar power and allow you to wear the charger under long sleeves or in low light and still generate electricity. They don’t indicate whether the battery is replaceable, but a lithium polymer battery typically gives about 500 deep discharge cycles — over 1,000 if you only discharge it halfway — so the battery could need replacement after one to five years, depending on how often it’s used. As supercapacitors improve their energy densities, I can see them eventually replacing the battery in this type of application, allowing near limitless charge-discharge cycles.

Credit: EnergyBionics

As we rely more and more on our handheld electronic devices, we’ll need ways to recharge them when outlets aren’t nearby. Energy harvesting devices like the Carbon offer a functional piece of “high-tech jewelry” to keep our gadgets running.

*My solar charging calculation:

The PV cell is about 15 sq cm.
Full sunlight delivers about 1000 W/sq m, so there’s roughly 1.5 W of solar power shining on the cell.
At 22 percent efficiency, which is what the manufacturer lists for the cell, 0.33 W is converted to electricity.
The battery has 650 mAh of capacity. At 5 V, that’s 3.25 W h of energy.
With 0.33W, it takes about 10 hours of full sun to fully charge the battery to 3.25Wh.

I guess that’s even more reason to add a kinetic energy converter to the design!

This article by Tom Lombardo was originally published on Engineering.com and is adapted in its entirety with permission. For more stories like this please visit Engineering.com.

Is Facebook Buying UAVs? Maybe. Here’s Why.

drone, UAV, facebook, communication, internet, africa, technology, private Last week a rumor began circulating that Facebook was looking into buying Titan Aerospace, a drone manufacturer. With a reach of over 1 billion users, what could motivate “The Social Network” to jump into the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) game?

This past summer Titan Aerospace announced Solera, a high-altitude, solar-powered UAV capable of broadcasting communication signals. With a 50 m (164 ft) wingspan and the ability to stay aloft for up to 5 years, the lightweight flyer has the potential to make communications satellites moot.

With near-total domination of the social media landscape in both North America and Europe, a Facebook acquisition of Titan Aerospace could be a big step toward bringing reliable Internet access to underserved parts of the globe.

According to speculative reports, Facebook is looking to deploy a fleet of 11,000 UAVs over Africa. Operating from an altitude of 19,800 m (65,000 ft), each Solera could broadcast a cellular Internet signal over a 45,000 sq km (17,375 sq mi) range.

With much of Africa still devoid of reliable hardline Internet connections, providing widespread access to cellular Internet could bring Facebook to millions — if not billions — of people who are currently offline. While providing free Internet to developing nations is inherently humanitarian, Facebook could also use the service to bring Africa into focus for its advertisers.

Although there’s an enormous amount of money to be made in bringing Internet access to the developing world, this new rumor highlights a dramatic change in the world of technology and innovation. More and more these days, private companies are taking the initiative to develop infrastructures and technologies that, in previous decades, would have been developed by large state-run efforts.

Whether this new model is sustainable or preferable over the old is still up for debate. However, what is known is that private investments in moonshot technologies are certainly increasing the speed of innovation. Whether that’s a product of greater access to information, communication, and product development tools or just an echo of greater investment is something that’s definitely worth some study.

This article by Kyle Maxey was originally published on Engineering.com and is adapted in its entirety with permission. For more stories like this please visit Engineering.com.

Top photo credit: University of Pennsylvania

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