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Factor Reviews: Libratone Loop speaker

The Libratone Loop is an impressive home speaker system, managing to comfortably tick the boxes of audio quality, aesthetics and ease of use.

Despite the best efforts of audio manufacturers, speakers are rarely the most attractive of objects, which is why we were so impressed when we initially saw the Libratone Loop.

With a spherical design and colourful interchangeable wool covers, the speaker would look pretty stunning in your average home, and is likely to be something you’d actually want to put on show rather than hide away.

It comes with a stand and a wall mount, and could easily be moved between rooms if required.

Details on the finish – such as contrasting stitching and a careful arrangement of buttons – give the speaker a very premium feel, and make it an object that wouldn’t look out of place the pages of a luxury interior magazine.

This is a rarity: the only other speakers we’ve encountered that could achieve this retail for thousands.

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Audio-wise, the speaker has an excellent sound, with a sense of depth about it that makes it seem as if it is coming from a larger device.

It compares very favourably with the audio of other speakers in a similar price range, such as the Arcam rCube, and would project sound well across a fairly large room.

We tested the speaker in an office space that is at least 20m long, and did not struggle to annoy people from other teams with our questionable choice of music.

Unless you live in an underground cavern, it’s is safe to say this speaker will do a good job of bathing your room in sound.

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The system is also pretty easy to connect to. As well as the traditional audio jack option, it supports AirPlay, meaning wirelessly connecting with an iPad, iPhone or computer is very straightforward, as well as Bluetooth.

This would be particularly handy if the speaker was wall-mounted, as it would enable it to be operated from the sofa, without the hassle of connecting cables or changing settings.

It’s clear that the Loop’s makers thought carefully about how owners would use their speakers, and the results are very positive.

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Although it is certainly not the cheapest speaker around, the Libratone Loop represents good value for money, at £349, and would be a fab addition to any design-conscious home.

While you could get a cheaper, less remarkable speaker, the Loop is well worth the extra cash. If you’re in the market for a home speaker, this is definitely worth considering.

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Images courtesy of Libratone.


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Orproject-Bubbles-Section

Tackling pollution: Fashion, wearables, and supercomupting part of the solution

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With the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions getting greater by the day, we investigate how experts in computing, architecture, fashion and skincare are using technology to combat the effects of pollution.


Air pollution kills 3.5 million people a year, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). In its recent report, titled Cost of Air Pollution: Health Impacts of Road Transport, the organisation laid the blame squarely at the door of drivers, with diesel users singled out as producing the highest emissions.

“The price we pay to drive doesn’t reflect the impact of driving on the environment and on people’s health,” says OECD secretary-general Angel Gurría. “Tackling air pollution requires collective action. Air pollution is destroying our health and the planet. Phasing out tax incentives on diesel would be a step towards reducing the costs and in fighting climate change.”

Whilst the automotive industry is making some progress with low-emission cars, it will take a much wider effort if the world is to succeed in hitting its ambitious C02 targets. The EU wants to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40% from 1990 levels by 2030 whilst the UK Government is targeting an 80% reduction by 2050. So what else can be done?

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Supercomputing

Another place setting itself an ambitious emission reduction target is Beijing. Officials in the city have partnered with IBM to help them reduce harmful air pollutant particulate matter (PM) 2.5 by 25% by 2017.

As part of a wider initiative dubbed Green Horizon, IBM’s cognitive computing systems will analyse and learn from streams of real-time data generated by air quality monitoring stations, meteorological satellites and IBM’s new-generation optical sensors – all connected by the Internet of Things.

By applying supercomputing processing power, scientists from IBM and the Beijing government aim to create visual maps showing the source and dispersion of pollutants across Beijing 72 hours in advance, which will allow them to temporarily shut factories and restrict vehicles in areas of high pollution.

“As a leader in climate modelling, cognitive computing and predictive analytics, IBM Research can provide a lot of value to Beijing and other Chinese cities which are facing significant pressure to better monitor, respond to and address air pollution issues,” says Tao Wang, resident scholar on the Energy and Climate Program at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre for Global Policy.

“Science based decision support systems, combined with sophisticated data analysis is exactly what the Chinese Government needs to address the country’s energy and environmental issues.”

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Architecture

In the US and the UK, buildings are responsible for 38% of greenhouse gas emissions. With that in mind, lots of companies and individuals are busy fitting photovoltaic panels, insulation and recycling products in a bid to make their buildings carbon neutral or at least reduce the amount of harmful gasses they emit. But could they be doing more?

The next wave of designers certainly thinks so. Evolo Architecture Magazine’s 2014 skyscraper competition was full of designs for buildings that didn’t just fail to pollute, they actively sought to enhance the environment through scientific processes that would clean harmful CO2 and prevent it being released back into the atmosphere.

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One of these concepts is Project Blue, which was given an honourable mention in this year’s Evolo competition. “China’s explosive economy has left the world in awe but the country is paying a big price as the ‘factory of the world’ is getting polluted at an alarming speed,” Yang Siqi, Zhan Beidi, Zhao Renbo, Zhang Tianshuo said of their entry. “Chinese cities are now characterised by an unhealthy hazy weather as the result of large amounts of suspended particles in the air.

The purpose of Project Blue is to transform these suspended particles into green energy, the designers explain. It does that by creating an enormous upside-down cooling tower with a multi-tubular cyclic desulfurisation system that produces nitrogen and sulfur. When both elements are combined with the atmosphere’s surplus of carbon monoxide, the result is water coal that would later be transformed into methane and used as green energy through a low-pressure reaction called low pressure efficient mathanation – a physical-chemical process to generate methane from a mixture of various gases out of biomass fermentation or thermo-chemical gasification.

Meanwhile, architects in London are pioneering another solution to the problem. Orproject’s Bubbles concept, which is already attracting interest from China and Dubai, would see the creation of a protective dome or bubble around an area to safeguard the air quality in that space.

“As a response to the bad air quality which is affecting many cities in developing countries like India and China, Orproject proposes the construction of an enclosed park within the city,” explains Rajat Sodhi, an architect at the firm.

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The park houses a botanical garden; the air inside is filtered and temperature and humidity are controlled throughout the year. The buildings surrounding the park, which are connected to the controlled air system, can house apartments, offices and retail space as well as sports or medical facilities that make specific use of the healthy air.

“The idea of covering larger areas of a city by a transparent surface has most famously been proposed by Buckminster Fuller with his dome over New York, although his proposal was conceptual and would not be feasible to construct,” Sodhi explains. “However, together with a specialist contractor Orproject has developed a new type of construction system that is lightweight and affordable. The costs of the canopy can then be covered by the development of the surrounding buildings.

“The geometry of the structural system has been generated using an algorithm which simulates the development of veins in leaves or butterfly wings. The heating and cooling of the air is done through a ground source heat exchange system and the electricity for the project can be generated by solar cells integrated into the canopy surface.”

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Wearable tech

Whilst architects try to solve the pollution issue on a large scale, some technologists are designing solutions that enable you to look after number one.

Showcased at the Beijing Design Week in September, the wearable BB Suit 0.2 features a tracking sensor to record how many particles of carbon monoxide, methane and LPG are in the atmosphere and uses cold plasma technology to create a bubble of clean air around the user.

The designers of the suit say it won’t be available commercially any time soon because of safety issues around the cleaning. However, the team behind the cold plasma technology used in the suit, SQUAIR, has been working on a similar concept of its own that it hope to bring to market as soon as possible.

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“The BB Suit was only an art concept we supported for the Beijing Design week,” explains SQUAIR CEO Florian Windeler. “It was very conceptual and far from reality. At SQUAIR we wanted to see how the people reacted to a concept like that. Since the reactions were very positive, we further developed the project in-house and will present it next week during our Kickstarter campaign.

While the BB Suit was mainly showcasing the different knitting techniques and less technology focused, the designers say they want to put the technology in the centre of attention. The product will have three rechargeable battery packs that will power the suit for at least twelve hours non-stop.

The cold plasma technology is integrated in a breast pocket to create the clean air bubble around the wearer’s head. “We chose leather as the leading material as it gives sturdiness to the suit,” says Windeler. “Especially in China, the smog is most prominent in the winter time, hence the thicker jacket. As this is the first true wearable item for SQUAIR, we call it sqWEARable.”

Skincare solutions

Working on the premise that if you can’t reduce or clean pollution you can at least mitigate its effects on your body, the next frontier for anti-pollution innovation is skincare. Between 2011 and 2013 the number of beauty and personal care products carrying an anti-pollution claim rose by 40% in the Asia Pacific region, according to research published in November 2014 by Mintel.

“As awareness of the effects of pollution grows, we are seeing the expansion of beauty products that shield from its effect across regions, categories, occasions, ages and gender,” says Emmanuelle Moeglin, global fragrance and colour cosmetics analyst at Mintel.

Experts warn that pollution can be nearly as harmful to the skin as UV rays. Products launched to tackle this issue range from simple sprays and creams to more sophisticated solutions like the Clarisonic Plus Cleaning System, a sort-of toothbrush for the face, which the manufacturers claim removes 30 times more pollution damage from make-up free skin than using your hands alone.

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“PM is a complex form of pollution consisting of extremely small particles and liquid droplets that are up to 20 times smaller than our pores,” explains Dr. Lauri M. Tadlock MD, a dermatologist in Washington.

“The PM size is directly linked to the speed and depth at which pollutants penetrate the layers of skin. PM 10 and lower can be more damaging to skin and the vast majority of the globe is facing dangerous levels of pollutants as low as PM 2.5. In most cases, our hands alone cannot effectively remove pollution matter of this size and form.”

Although many governments are committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions over the coming years, the number of skincare products aimed at combatting the harmful effects of pollution is expected to keep rising.
“With an increasing number of consumers living more urbanised lifestyles, looking forward we expect to see a rising number of beauty and personal care products launched carrying more specific anti-pollution terminology, that specify the sources and composition of the pollutants,” says Moeglin.

“As the Asia Pacific region has showcased such a high increase in beauty product launches containing anti-pollution claims, it shows that companies located in this area are listening to and answering consumer demands for this benefit.”


Featured image courtesy of Orproject. Image one courtesy of IBM. Image two courtesy of Project Blue. Image five courtesy of SQUAIR.


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2014 in science: The top ten breakthroughs of this year

2014 is nearly at an end, and with all of our excitement at what is on the horizon, it’s easy to forget what an incredible year this has been for science.

Thankfully for us, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and its academic journal Science has put together a list of what they believe are the biggest breakthroughs of the year, including one stand-out breakthrough and nine runners up.

Here we look at their ten breakthroughs of the year, and consider what they mean for future scientific and technological progress.

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Breakthrough of the year: Rosetta module Philae’s rocky comet landing

2014 was a great year for space, and the landing of Rosetta’s landing module Philae on a comet was undoubtedly the pinnacle. By landing on the comet – albeit in less-than-perfect circumstances that involved the module bouncing several times – the European Space Agency made history.

No one had ever landed on a comet before, or even made the incredible journey as Rosetta had, but more importantly the whole mission will provide never-before-achievable data than will inform and shape space research and exploration for many years to come.

“Philae’s landing was an amazing feat and got the world’s attention,” said Tim Appenzeller, news editor of Science.

“But the whole Rosetta mission is the breakthrough. It’s giving scientists a ringside seat as a comet warms up, breathes and evolves.”

Philae’s landing was less than perfect, leaving it partially in shadow, which meant it had to power down early as it could not effectively use its solar panels to recharge. But this is in no way the end for the mission: Rosetta was always going to be the primary collector of data and remains unaffected, and Philae could well power on again as it nears the sun.

By August 2015 Rosetta will be collecting the most data on its mission, and it could provide a variety of insights into how comets form and evolve, and even whether comets aid the development of life.

The data collected by the Rosetta mission will undoubtedly be far-reaching, and may aid human exploration of space as we learn more about life beyond our planet.

“Breakthroughs should do one of two things: either solve a problem that people have been wrestling with for a long time or open the door to a lot of new research,” said Robert Coontz, deputy news editor of Science.

“In this case, most of the really good science lies ahead.”

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Repairing ageing in mice

Longevity research is really gaining steam, with some suggesting that living well beyond our current lifespans could be a viable future for some of us alive today.

It is not surprising, then, that research demonstrating that young mouse blood can rejuvenate the brains and muscles of elderly mice was picked as one of the breakthroughs of the year.

If it can be replicated in humans, the consequences could be remarkable, and, with additional research, age-related diseases could one day be a thing of the past.

Some work is already going into replicating the research in humans, with a clinical trial underway to see if plasma from young donors can help patients with Alzheimer’s, and we are likely to see more research projects being initiated in the near future.

Taking a long view, this research could be laying the foundations for remarkable breakthroughs in medical science.

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CubeSats in space

It is interesting that this was chosen as a breakthrough, because CubeSats – 10cm squared mini satellites – have been sent into space for over a decade.

However, 2014 was the year where CubeSats’ potential really started to be realised, and are now being incorporated into significant research projects rather than just being a school research project.

For us, one of the biggest uses of CubeSats in 2014 was Outernet, which is bringing a free broadcast-only version of the internet to the world. Although not as wide-ranging as the full internet in content, it will allow highly remote areas to access information that was previously inaccessible.

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Cooperative robots

Our automated pals have come a long way in 2014, and for the AAAS the key breakthrough was software and new robots that are able to work together to achieve a project.

Among these were an array of swarming robots, which can work together to build a simple structure or form shapes. The significance here is the ability to give a group of robots a command or set of commands, and then let them get on with fulfilling it by cooperating.

At present the technology isn’t of major practical benefit, but its potential is huge. One day swarms of robots could build whole buildings in just a few hours, or form escape structures in an emergency.

Combined with other technologies, cooperative robots could revolutionise the way we shape the world, and enable whole cities to be developed and changed in just days.

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Memory manipulation

The breakthrough that earns the creepy prize this year is definitely the work done in memory manipulation in mice. Researchers used light to manipulate neuronal activity – a practice known as optogenetics – in our furry friends, and were able to manipulate specific memories of theirs.

Incredibly the researchers were able to do everything from deleting existing memories and implanting false ones to changing a mouse’s emotional state.

If the research was replicated in humans, it would clearly have huge potential, not all of it good. While there is clear potential in therapy, such manipulation could be used for shadier practices, such as torture or criminal activities. Either way, it will be a very interesting field to follow.

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Growing mock beta cells

Growing artificial versions of human cells is a fast developing area in science, and this year two groups successfully developed methods to grow mock beta cells in a lab.

Beta cells live in the pancreas and produce insulin, so having a lab version of them to study is highly significant for research into diabetes.

The growth technology has the potential to be impactful in the wider research into growing artificial organs. Work is in the early stages to create lab-grown organs, with the hope that they will one day eliminate the need for donor organs, and any successful growth of mock human cells will no doubt aid the work towards this.

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Chips modelled on the human brain

You’ve probably heard the brain described as an incredibly advanced computer, but we are nowhere near mimicking its complexity. However, in 2014 we got a little closer, with the development of the first “neuromorphic” chips by a number of companies, including IBM.

Designed to process information in the way the brain does, these chips could prove to be the start of incredible computing advancements.

There have been suggestions that such chips could eventually be used to make copies of the human brain – a mind-boggling prospect – or to create computers with complexities to match our own brains. This is a technology we’ll be watching closely in the coming year.

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Dinosaurs becoming birds

While this breakthrough was less of our usual fare, it was a remarkable scientific achievement nonetheless.

This year scientists completed extensive research that compared the dinosaur fossil record with modern birds, and identified how certain dinosaur types evolved over time to become smaller and more lightweight, eventually becoming the birds of today.

The research was significant because it reaffirmed the theory that birds had evolved from dinosaurs, and identified how they survived through the period where most dinosaurs died out.

Next time you look at a chicken, try thinking of it as a tiny t-rex.

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Insanely old cave art

Also not our usual fare, but utterly cool anyway, was the discovery that a collection of hand stencils and animal paintings in an Indonesian cave were not in fact 10,000 years old, but an incredible 35,000 – 40,000 years old.

This caused a major reshuffling of timelines, and led to the conclusion that Asian humans were making symbolic art at the same time as the earliest Europeans.

The discovery may have major implications for the regions ancient history, and helps us build up a far more accurate map of the evolution of human culture.

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Designer protein building blocks

Genetic research saw a key breakthrough this year with the lab-based engineering of an artificial version of E. Coli with two additional nucleotides – the building blocks of nucleic acids such as DNA.

This synthetic version of the bacteria cannot reproduce in the wild, but could be used to make designer proteins that have artificial elements properties that are not found in their natural counterparts.

The research could have potential in a variety of fields, including medicine, chemistry and materials science, and we could well see further developments of this nature as time progresses.


Image 1 courtesy of ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA. Image 4 courtesy of AsusCreative. Image 5 courtesy of Rama.  Image 8 courtesy of woodley wonderworks. Image 9 courtesy of Adam Brumm.


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ISS-earth

Multi agency one-year ISS mission will allow humanity to “push deeper into space”

The planned one year mission to the International Space Station (ISS) that is the result of a partnership between five space agencies will aid unprecedented space travel, according to astronauts involved in the project.

Astronauts involved in the mission, which will see NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Roscosmos cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko spend a continuous year aboard the ISS, were speaking at a multi-agency press conference today to discuss its potential.

Several astronauts, who included representatives from the European Space Agency (ESA), Canadian Space Agency and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, said they felt the mission would aid longer term space exploration and expressed optimism at the possibility of further exploration beyond low earth orbit.

“If we’re ever going to go to Mars some day, the ISS is a great platform to learn about having people in space for longer durations,” said NASA astronaut and crew member Scott Kelly. “It’s closer to earth and it’s a great facility.”

Roscosmos cosmonaut and crew member Mikhail Kornienko agreed, saying: “This is a platform for further exploration to Mars, to the Moon. It’s an opportunity to push deeper into space and it can serve as a stepping stone for that.”

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While Kelly and Kornienko will spend a year on the ISS, other partners in the mission will visit for shorter periods, and all agencies have contributed to aspects of the mission.

With astronauts from all five agencies sitting side-by-side at the press conference, its international significance was clear: cooperation is important for future space travel.

“This One Year crew, although Scott and Mikhail are the highlights, it’s not just for the US and Russia, it’s for all the international partners,” said Soichi Noguchi, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency chief astronaut.

“The One Year mission is a great achievement of all five partners. This is a magnificent achievement of biomedical and science experiments we are very happy to be part of this big group.”

Andreas Mogensen, ESA astronaut and visiting crew flight engineer, who will visit the ISS for some of the research period, explained how important the coming year was to the relatively young ESA.

“This is really a great year not just for the ISS programme, the One Year mission, but for the ESA with three astronauts on the ISS,” he said.

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During the mission, which will commence in March 2015, the astronauts will be subject to a gruelling schedule of experiments – a total of 58, according to Kornienko – to research everything from chemical queries to human physiology.

By having a mission that lasts a year instead of the usual six months, the agencies will not only be able to determine more about the human body’s potential reaction to long-term space flights, but perform an array of long-term  research projects.

This is not the first time that astronauts have spent so long in space – that record was made aboard Mir, the Russian-owned predecessor to the ISS, however there is much to be learnt from the environment.

Ultimately, the information learnt in the coming year could be vital to the future of space travel, and astronauts involved in the project are highly optimistic about the future of the field.

“I see this mission as signifying future exploration; leveraging the ISS to challenge the human spirit of exploration,” said Jeremy Hansen, Canadian Space Agency astronaut.

“I hope someday to be part of missions that take me beyond low earth orbit. During my life I fully expect to see humans walk on Mars and return to earth. I do believe this will happen beyond my career as an astronaut, unfortunately, but I expect to see it in my lifetime.”


Images courtesy of NASA.


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Transforming a toxic abandoned mine into a futuristic sustainable city

Mines are a vital part of many regional economies, bringing jobs and wealth into the area for as long as they are minerals to extract. But once they are gone, the large area they took up becomes a toxic wasteland, and the surrounding population often leaves for greener pastures.

This is a particular problem in Armenia, which is a key producer of molybdenum, an ore found in many alloys and chemical compounds. Many currently active mines will eventually become unsustainable to continue extracting, and companies engaged in the process will leave, rendering the area a dirty and unpleasant place to live.

It is this very issue that Armenian designer Anahit Hovhannisyan wanted to tackle, so she focused on finding a sustainable way to rehabilitate the Zangezur copper-molybdenum complex, an active quarry located near the residential area of Karjaran city, which will one day cease production and prompt heavy migration from the region.

“My idea is to give a second life to the damaged nature and to design a future city with principles of sustainable development,” she said.

“The main aim is to create a natural oasis in an exploited and abandoned mine, to re-use the lands which are not used by humans anymore and to create an autonomous city.”

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The resulting city design cleverly uses a mix of different levels and zones to safely provide everything needed to sustain its population, offering a completely self-sufficient urban space.

“It will provide electricity, water and agricultural goods, and it will contain residential, commercial and administrative areas, sport, education and offices,” explained Hovhannisyan.

Round the edges of the city is a large agricultural area that will provide adequate food for its inhabitants, and a transport infrastructure runs throughout, with a network for environmentally friendly cars and trains, as well as support for air transport.

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Because of the health risks associated with the soil in the area, much of the city is raised above the ground. In particular, food is grown in raised strips that act as borders to the city, with a mix of indoor and outdoor growing to ensure an adequate and sustainable supply for its citizens.

Hovhannisyan said that the zone will be made up of a mix of greenhouses, laboratories and storage spaces, allowing a wide mixture of produce to be generated.

However, there’s more: these buildings will be arranged so that their roofs form a huge strip of fields around the city, on which crops can be grown the further increase the region’s food supply.

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Keeping much of the city up in the air and away from the toxic soil is a common element in Hovhannisyan’s design, and is a key aspect of the city’s residential areas.

Instead of living in traditional, ground-based settlements, citizens would live in the striking tetrahedral structures that sit in the city’s centre.

These massive structures each have enough space for 140 apartments, a kindergarten and a range of public and technical facilities, functioning as neighborhoods for the citizens of the city.

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Not only would these structures function as residential spaces, but would also help to power the city, with an array of solar panels embedded into their façade.

“There are special storage zones and constructions for solar energy systems,” said Hovhannisyan.

“Solar panels and elements will be located on the different parts of constructions, at the same time being a part of design elements on buildings.“

This, combined with geothermal energy, would provide enough power to run the city and help it to self-sustain.

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While most of the city’s design is focused on keeping its citizens away from the toxic remains of the mining operations, Hovhannisyan has also given considerable thought to how the affected ground can be rehabilitated and repurposed.

Once abandoned, the quarry will be re-cultivated and then replanted as a green area that sits beneath the city.

Made up of a mixture of forests, gardens and parks, the area will provide a recreational space for citizens of the city, and also make for a pleasant area to view from above as they are going about their daily lives.

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While it may initially seem unorthodox, Hovhannisyan’s raised city plan is a highly logical and practical solution to the issue of abandoned mines.

With thousands of mining operations underway around the world, many areas are going to face the issue of what to do with the space once a quarry is no longer in use, and with population rises putting increased pressure on residential areas, this concept may be an excellent solution.


 Images courtesy of Anahit Hovhannisyan.


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Video: Watch Hector the robotic stick insect take its first steps

Watching Hector the six-legged robot learning to walk feels reminiscent of watching Bambi tentatively taking his first steps on ice.

The robotic creature, developed by Bielefeld University, Germany, has passive elastic joints and an ultra-light exoskeleton, and was modeled on a stick insect. It rather awkwardly walks across a room, up a step and over a pile of small rocks.

The researchers behind the project said that the sensors packed into the robot and its 18 joints will collect data and allow it to walk more autonomously than before.

“The way that the elasticity in Hector”s drives acts is comparable to the way that muscles act in biological systems,” said Dr Axel Schneider, who is behind the work.

“However, elasticity alone is not enough for Hector to be able to walk through a natural environment containing obstacles.”

“The challenge was to develop a control system that would coordinate the movements of its legs in difficult surroundings as well.”

In the future the researchers hope that the robot will be able to serve as a platform for others to test hypotheses about animal locomotion.

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When navigating its way over a small step the first of the robot’s legs hits the step and then readjusts itself so that it is able to climb onto the platform.

Its following legs are then able to adjust themselves to the height of the obstacle.

To achieve this, Jan Paskarbeit, who designed and built Hector, said that all the elements of the robot need to be able to communicate with each other.

“All sub-systems have to communicate with each other for the robot to walk without any difficulties,” said Paskarbeit.

“Otherwise, for example, Hector might have too many legs in the air at one time, become unstable, and fall over.

“Moreover, the legs have to be able to react to collisions with obstacles. We have dealt with this by implementing a reflex behaviour for climbing over objects.”

To help achieve this virtual version of the robot was also created so that the researchers could run tests without the risk of damaging Hector.

The next step for those working on Hector is to attach more sensors onto the robot. They are attempting to attach ‘far-range’ sensors onto the front of the robot.

This would allow it to be able to see into the distance and at what obstacles are in its path.

“A major challenge will now be to find an efficient way to integrate these far-range sensors with the posture sensors and joint control sensors,” said Volker Dürr. “Hector is the ideal research platform on which to do this.”


Images courtesy of Bielefeld University


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featured

Future of construction: Working towards bricklaying drones that can 3D print in flight

Homes of the future may be built by swarms of cement-depositing and bricklaying drones.

Researchers from Imperial College London have taken the first step towards making this a reality with their work on a drone that is able to ‘3D print’ while it is in flight.

Talib Alhinai, who is behind the work, has developed a drone that is able to apply and build up layers of expanding foam during its flight. The foam is mixed onboard the quadcopter while it is in the air.

“Right now there are robotic arms that can do bricklaying,” said Alhiana, while speaking to Factor.

“So what if a flying robot comes in and lays a brick, and then one of these robots comes in and lays the mortar – whether it is cement or the foam material.

“You would increase the number of robots and you would have them work together in a swarm to speed up that process.”

Alhinai said their work is at an early stage, but could ultimately lead to drones that are able to play a large part in the construction process.

Current limitations exist around the flight time and load weight that a drone is able to carry.

There are also issues surrounding the accuracy of the drone’s printing ability when it is placed into real-life situations.

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Setting aside technical issues such the payload that a drone can carry, which will improve as the technology does, the researchers have already tested drones that are able to build walls.

“We did a brick and mortar approach where we had foam bricks and we used the adhesive as mortar to build up a prototype brick wall to show the properties of this foam,” Alhinai said.

“Ultimately we envisage these robots being used in a construction aspect, so you could send them to pick up objects or to place objects.

“Obviously, that is still 15 or 20 years down the line.”

The biggest hurdles that need to be flown over in that time involve the accuracy that a drone can print at and re-filling the drones, as they are only able to carry 50ml of material at present.

Alhiana said that at present they are able to print to an accuracy of around 2-3cms, although when subjected to non-laboratory conditions these changes to 10-15cms. Factors can include the wind and natural conditions.

A research paper on their work said: “The major limitation of this construction technique is the limited payload of flying robots. Improved flight stability will allow more accurate deposition to facilitate printing of structures at tighter tolerances.

“Future work could therefore focus on multi-vehicle coordination to enable the construction of larger structures and automating the raw component refilling process to shorten intervals between successive prints.”

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But traditional building isn’t the only potential use for drones that are able to lay materials down.

At the moment the Imperial researchers have been using builders’ foam for their tests as it is lightweight, fitting in with the drone’s carrying ability, and can expand up to 25 times its size.

They have been able to build small structures to bridge gaps and see there being other uses as their research matures – including the use of different materials.

“Future repair of structures – for oil pipelines you could use this robot to deposit anti-corrosion material on the pipelines and just go and do the rounds,” Alhiana explained.

“Ultimately we envisage having a swarm of robots just living on a wind farm or an oil pipeline and carry out all the necessary repair or maintenance work by themselves.”

He also said the quadcopters may one day be able to be used in areas that have seen humanitarian or natural disasters, to help create emergency shelters.

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Using drones for construction isn’t the only way that Imperial College is trying to further the uses of flying robots.

The research centre at the university recently was given an extra £1.25m funding to boost its work, which is also, among other applications, looking at using drones for delivery.

Their research and inspiration largely comes from looking at nature and translating the way that animals move into a way that can be mimicked by technology, a practice known as biomimicry.

The director of the laboratory, Dr Mirko Kovac, said: “Ultimately, we are aiming to develop flying robots that could improve the way companies do business, save lives and help to protect our environment.

Kovac also spoke about his lab’s work at the Re.Work Future of Robotics Forum, a full video of his talk is below.


Images courtesy of Imperial College London


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