8 Weird and Wonderful Machines

June 21, 2011

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Airbus recently unveiled its future "transparent plane" concept for 2050. Explore it and seven other odd machines that may have gone under your radar so far this year.

A thespian robot, an amphibious ice cream truck, the world's tiniest 3-D printer — while amazing, not all of the breakthroughs in machinery during the first half of 2011 have the potential to transform humankind. Here we look at some of the more offbeat developments involving machines reported so far this year.

World's Tiniest 3-D Printer Mechanical engineers and a chemical research team at Vienna University of Technology have combined their expertise to design a one-of-a-kind 3-D micro-printer, the smallest in the world, weighing only 1.5 kilograms. "With this kind of printer, everyone could produce small, [tailor]-made 3-D objects at home, using building plans from the internet- and this could save money for expensive custom-built spare parts," the university explained last month. Items are printed using additive manufacturing technology. Once a desired object is placed in the milk carton-sized device, it is printed in a tiny tub filled with synthetic resin, which hardens after it's illuminated with LED beams, the university explains. The printer's effective high resolution, affordability and sophisticated technology can produce elaborate objects ranging from hearing aids to jewelry. (Additional sources: TG Daily and Forbes.com)

Robot Thespian Robots may soon be in demand for stage roles if more playwrights start thinking like David Lodge, who specifically created a role for one in his U.K. play titled Secret Thoughts. Lodge's script required a robot that "enters the stage, scans the room and collides with furniture," according to the University of Bolton, where a student team created the bot. The Octagon Theatre Bolton, located in Northern England, approached the university with the robotic cast-mate concept, sparking a competition to design and build the best device for the role. Ultimately, special effects student Laura Durham created the winning device, along with the help of her tutor, a technician and a fellow student, the university reports. The device, dubbed Arthur, is constructed "mostly of fiberglass," CNET reports, and can move forward, backward and sideways. Robots may not be strangers to the theater stage, but it's probably still too soon for actors to start worrying about losing roles to machinery.

Arthur, Thespian Robot 360x239.JPG Arthur on stage at Octagon Credit: University of Bolton

Brainy Spacecraft Earlier this year, a team of engineers at the University of Southampton devised an artificially intelligent control system that has advanced spacecraft engineering in a bizarre way. Sandor Veres, the lead developer, has created a system called "sysbrain," a breed of software agent that essentially allows engineers "to program satellites and spacecraft to think for themselves," Robotics Trends reports. The system uses Natural Language Programming to read special technical documents, which provides the spacecraft with "advanced guidance, navigation and feedback capabilities," as well as "the ability to adapt during missions, identify problems, carry out repairs and make their own decisions about how best to carry out a task," TG Daily explains.

"Invisible" Airplanes Future airplane passengers could have a transparent experience during their flights. Aircraft manufacturer Airbus is offering a glimpse into aviation's future — 2050, specifically — when passengers might benefit from holographic pods, cabins with bionic structures coated with a biopolymer membrane, "which controls the amount of natural light, humidity and temperature, providing opacity or transparency on command and eliminating the need for windows" while giving passengers "360-degree views of the skies." Additionally, walls will transform by light. As the Future By Airbus website boasts, materials that range from morphing to self-reliant will be incorporated. While these concepts may seem remarkable to us now, as technology shifts, this could one day be the norm of aviation experience. (Additional source: AOL Travel News)

Lie-Detecting ATM Opening a credit card is much more difficult for customers at one Russian bank. Prospective cardholders must get past a lie-detecting ATM machine first. The device, which operates with a voice-analysis system, is able to discern truthful customers from dishonest ones by contrasting a sampling of recordings of law enforcement databases that include voices of people who were lying, tech site Gizmodo explains. "The software detects nervousness or emotional distress, possible indications that a credit applicant is dissembling," the New York Times reports. In addition to voice analysis, the machine can also scan faces in 3-D, and store fingerprints. Speech Technology Center developed the system, which is currently employed at Sberbank, Russia's largest retail bank (partially owned by the Russian government). The birth of the interrogation device was largely due to the global financial crisis and because customers could not pay back loans, the senior VP for technology of the bank told the Times. (Additional source: PC World)

World's First Amphibious Ice Cream Truck Just in time for summer, U.K. manufacturer Fredericks, producer of Cadbury ice cream, recently launched a campaign that introduced boaters to a crafty new concept: a van that delivers the cold summer snacks on a water channel. Considered the world's first amphibious ice cream truck, HMS Flake 99 (named after a Cadbury cone) made its debut on the River Thames in celebration of Britain's National Ice Cream Week. Stand-up comedian David Mounfield "dreamed up the van after seeing the number of ice cream trucks in Britain dwindle after 'exclusion zones' banned their bells from many residential areas on the grounds of preventing noise pollution," Wired.com's Autopia blog says. The strange vessel has a top speed of five knots. (Additional sources: Inhabitat, Eater.com and Newslite.tv)

Crime Scene Machine Machines have yet another line of detective work: they are commanding larger roles when it comes to crime scene investigation. One forensic "decomposition" technique that incorporates a gas chromatography/mass spectrometric device made headlines this month after it was used for the first time as part of prosecution testimony in a criminal case, the Associated Press reports. Researcher Arpad Vass took an air sample from a possible crime scene associated with a murder trial case. The sample was injected into the intricate instrument to identify present substances. "The substances were then compared against a database of more than 400 chemical compounds Vass has identified from the decomposition of bodies at the University of Tennessee Anthropological Research Facility," AP explains. Essentially, the device can be used to detect whether decomposition has taken place at a scene. The technique, while gruesome, may become more widespread for future investigations, although it is currently criticized for being too experimental.

Brewsky Bot Those who initially observe one hobbyist in Japan's CanBot in action might think they're experiencing impaired vision, which is just the type of response beer can induce. The first handmade beer "robot" prototype, created by robot enthusiast Ron Tajima, does far more than a standard beverage can: When operated by a Wii remote, the beer can transforms into a robot that rolls sideways and shuffles upright along a table. "CanBot has three legs, each with two servos, and can shimmy around on a tabletop or roll on its side," CNET explains. "The prototype runs on an mbed microcontroller and four AA batteries." It hobbles on three legs that extend with the help of parallel linkage. Alas, looks can be deceiving, as there is no actual brewsky in the can. (Additional sources: Popular Science, Engadget and Geek.com)

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