Bird’s eye view: Fighting rhino poaching with low-cost drones

Park rangers trying to tackle illegal poaching and wildlife trafficking could soon have a new tool, in the form of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that can cover large distances to detect and locate poachers.

At the start of November, UAVs designed by teams from around the world will be put to the test in South Africa in a bid to find the ultimate anti-poaching drone.

This will be the final step in the Wildlife Conservation UAV Challenge (wcUAVc), a competition that has been running since October 2013 to guide competing teams through the process of developing and constructing a cost-effective, robust drone to combat poaching.

The winning design will have a significant effect of the growing poaching problem in Kruger National Park, South Africa, where it will be used by park rangers to tackle the shocking levels of rhino poaching.


While equipment does exist to fulfil this function, there is a pressing need for affordable UAVs with adequate sensing and communication technology to keep rangers informed.

Writing in The Futurist, wcUAVc founder Princess Aliyah Pandolfi explained the challenges with using existing drones to track poachers: “Kruger’s rangers had experimented with aircraft developed for other purposes, but affordable aircraft lacked the sensing, processing, and communications essential to the mission.”

The winning UAV should, however, resolve this issue. It will be able to be launched easily within the national park, withstand rugged terrain with several hours of operation time and detect poachers.

It will then use existing communication channels to alert park rangers, who can intervene before animals are hurt, before safely returning to its launch site for reuse.

All of this will need to be achieved for less than $3,000, meaning the competing teams face a significant challenge. However, existing systems will help; all rangers and visitors already carry RFID tags, making detection of unauthorised intruders significantly easier.

Kruger is home to a significant rhino population, but has seen a dramatic rise in poaching in recent years.

In 2000 only 7 rhinos died in South Africa, but by 2013 this had risen to 1004, with a similar number expected for 2014. There are fears that rhinos could die out completely by 2020 if nothing is done.

Rhinos are being poached for their horns, which are highly prized for use in medicine in China and Vietnam. As China’s middle class has grown over the past decade, it is believed that demand for such medicine has increased, prompting a rise in poaching.

“Perhaps in a few generations, the demand for rhino horn will decrease, but unless the poaching ends, the rhinos will be gone in just a few years,” said Pandolfi.



Nanoparticle-detecting microlasers to be used to identify viruses

Microlasers that are able to detect minuscule individual nanoparticles may be able to be used to detect viruses.

Researchers from Washington University, St Louis, created the system, which is able to detect and individually count nanoparticles at sizes of 10 nanometers.

Nanoparticles can be between 1 and 100 nanometers in size – with a nanometer being the equivalent to one billionth of a meter.

They are now aiming to develop the technology to be able to detect particles that are smaller than nanoparticles, which includes viruses.

The technology will benefit a number of fields including electronics, acoustics and biomedical applications.


The team that worked on the microlasers created a Raman sensor in a silicon dioxide chip to find the individual particles.

Previously, to identify the nanoparticles they would have had have to include rare ions in the chip to provide optical gain for the laser.

Researcher Sahin Kaya Ozdemir, who worked on the project, said that when generating the Raman laser beam in the resonator it will split into two to and provide a reference for the other beam to sense the particle.

“Our new sensor differs from the earlier whispering gallery sensors in that it relies on Raman gain, which is inherent in silica, thereby eliminating the need for doping the microcavity with gain media, such as rare-earth ions or optical dyes, to boost detection capability.

“This new sensor retains the biocompatibility of silica and could find widespread use for sensing in biological media.”

“It doesn’t matter what kind of wavelength is used, once you have the Raman laser circulating inside and there is a molecule sitting on the circle, when the beam sees the particle it will scatter in all kinds of directions.”

“Initially you have a counterclockwise mode, then a clockwise mode, and by analyzing the characterization of the two split modes, we confirm the detection of nanoparticles.”


The work, which was led by Lan Yang from the university, works in a similar way to that of the whispering gallery in London’s St Paul’s Cathedral.

In this space, which is the inside of the building’s iconic dome, one person can hear a message that is spoken to the wall by another person on the other side.

Unidirectional microlasers were first demonstrated in 2010 by scientists at Harvard University.

Featured image courtesy of Jeff Keyzer. Inline image one courtesy of J. Zhu, B. Peng, S.K. Ozdemir and L. Yang, image two courtesy of Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.



China’s new sea-focused maps increase hopes for floating cities

China has unveiled a new official map that shows the South China Sea as a key part of the nation’s territory. The contentious move has not only riled surrounding nations, but has increased suspicions that the superpower plans to resolve overpopulation issues by building floating cities off its coast.

The move comes just months after designs for a floating city, which was commissioned by Chinese government-owned construction company CCCC, were released by architects AT Design Office.

Although only conceptual at this stage, a test version of the city may well be in development.  On release of the designs, project architect Slavomir Siska explained: “China Transport Investment Co. is reviewing the proposal and is likely to start to test this ambitious project from a smaller scale next year.”


Securing safe locations for floating cities will be vital to such a project’s long-term success, and this could be one of the reasons China has decided to reaffirm its claim of the South China Sea.

The new map (pictured above) identifies Chinese territory as extending right down to just above Malaysia, forming a tongue shape that includes almost all the sea between Vietnam and the Philippines.

Within the claimed area are a number of islands with hotly disputed ownership, igniting fears that China is also using the maps to flex its political muscles.

“Maps that show islands in the South China Sea and the Diaoyu Islands (the Chinese name for the Senkaku Islands) in one picture were a sign that the Xi leadership will take an aggressive policy in nearby waters,” said a Chinese Communist Party source in an interview with Nikkei Asian Review.


By building floating cities in the South China Sea, the country could further cement its claim to the region, making the structures a valuable political tool as well as a social one.

China’s floating city project is not the first to involve a political aspect, and politics is becoming a common feature among some organisations looking to establish floating structures on which to live.

The most notable example is the Seasteading Institute, a libertarian organisation that is looking to establish independent floating cities known as seasteads that are not only self-sufficient but which have political autonomy.

Floating cities are a hugely expensive undertaking, and many have questioned if they will ever happen.

However, they could serve as powerful political tools, and as populations grow further could become essential to provide enough housing, particularly in regions where rising sea levels are reducing the amount of available land.

Featured image and inline image two courtesy of AT Design Office. Inline image one courtesy of People’s Daily.



Space Pizza and Robotic Gardens: Producing food in orbit


When we think of space food in the future, perhaps we will imagine a freshly baked pizza topped with vegetables grown on a spaceship replacing the powders and tubes of paste that astronauts consumed in the past.

New advancements in food technology could make zero gravity grub as healthy and delicious as any Earth-cooked meal, thanks to initiatives such as NASA’s Advanced Food Technology Program, which explores how 3D printing could be used to prepare fresh meals for astronauts.

All food for long-term deep space explorations must be pre-packaged and have a shelf life of 15 years or more, as refrigeration and freezing are not available. In addition, meals must be quick and easy to prepare since astronauts will rarely have time to cook.

3D printed food could meet all these requirements. The method dehydrates nutrient-filled ingredients into long-lasting powders that are mixed by a 3D printer with water or oil to rehydrate, and then cooked by the machine for a wholesome meal.

NASA has partnered with Texas-based Systems and Materials Research Consultancy to make 3D printed space food a reality – and they are already seeing results.

The company has developed a 3D printer that assembles a pizza layer by layer, baking and heating it as it goes along, for a meal that is ready in minutes. While the machine prototype needs further development before it is tested in space, it has the potential to greatly improve astronauts’ meals, as well as to deliver 3D printed foods to us here on Earth.


The space veg patch

NASA’s other food technology project involves fresh ingredients – so fresh that they are harvested aboard the spacecraft.

The agency has asked university students to come up with solutions for growing edible plants in space, and a team from the University of Colorado Boulder has proposed a promising plan for robotic gardening.

Their project, titled Plants Anywhere: Plants Growing in Free Habitat Spaces, places plants in small hydroponic growth chambers, called SmartPots, which use computers and sensors to keep track of each plant’s development. These SmartPots communicate the conditions of their plants to a remotely operated gardening rover (ROGR), which moves around the cabin responding to the system’s commands for water or other needs.

The ROGR robots can also harvest the fruit and vegetables. If an astronaut wants to make a salad, for instance, the growing system determines the plant with the best, ripest vegetables and tells the robot to collect them.

Solutions for Earth and Mars

Beyond growing food for long space journeys, the robotic gardening project could offer insight into how we would grow food for a colony on other planets, such as Mars, since the hydroponic chambers would allow plants to flourish in treacherous environments.

Astronauts need to eat nutrient-filled meals to sustain their energy and brainpower on arduous missions. If such a meal also delivers the flavours and textures of home comforts such as cooked-to-order pizza or a perfectly fresh salad, it will no doubt also boost their morale and emotional well-being on long space missions.

It seems that NASA’s space food research is making that happen with methods that have exciting implications for everyone back on Earth, too – whether we are 3D printing our breakfast or planning a visit to a colony on Mars.

Images courtesy of NASA.



One in five people ready to adopt bugs into their diet: Men twice as likely

One in five meat eaters from the Western world are ready to eat bugs as a meat substitute a new study has found – with men more likely than women to accept them.

Bugs have been touted as a meat replacement for some time now but a study from Ghent University has revealed that young men who have “weak” attitudes towards meat are going to be the most likely to adopt insects into their diet.

The study found that young men who are interested in novel foods and concerned about the environmental impact of their food are the most likely to be found snacking on insects.

Out of those questioned, 16.3% claimed to be ready, and 3% definitely ready, to eat the protein-rich, sustainable insects.

They also found that males are 2.17 times more likely to adopt insects than women.

This, they concluded, is because it “may be that males have a more adventurous taste orientation or find the idea of consuming insects less disgusting than women.”


Wim Verbeke who worked on the research said that a 10 year increase in age led to a 27% decrease in the chance of people eating insects.

“Men and younger consumers seem to have a more adventurous taste orientation or they find the idea of consuming insects less disgusting than women and older consumers.”

Those behind the study said that people who were likely to turn their noses up at bugs were likely to do so because the insects are produced and farmed in unknown ways.

“This indicates that insects are not only perceived as a novel food but also as food that is produced by unknown and unfamiliar technologies, thus leading to uncertainty and adverse reactions among consumers,” Verbeke added.

This could be solved by teaching people how insects are grown and produced, which would lead to a positive influence over their likelihood to eat the bugs, Verbeke said.


However, they concluded that typical Western “meat-lovers” would be unlikely to consider including insects in their diets.

In reality, the adoption of insects into a Western diet will come down to how they are branded and marketed.

Those who do adopt them are likely to be trendsetters and have a large potential influence over the general public.

Researchers conducted the study in Belgium and used a population of typical Western meat consumers with a total of 368 people participating in the survey.

We previously tried cooking with bugs to see if they are the future of food.



Carbon black: Using old tires to make longer lasting batteries

Old disused tires can be utilised to help make batteries that last longer and also have long-term stability.

Researchers at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) believe that lithium-ion batteries, storing wind and solar energy and powering plug-in electric vehicles, could be developed at a lower cost, both financially and to the environment, by developing a better anode made from a substance found in recycled tires.

An anode is a negatively charged electrode used as a host for storing lithium during charging.

The substance, recovered from discarded tires, is carbon black.

Modifying its microstructural characteristics is the solution to developing a better anode, says the team led by Parans Paranthaman and Amit Naskar.


“This technology addresses the need to develop an inexpensive, environmentally benign carbon composite anode material with high-surface area, higher-rate capability and long-term stability,” Naskar said.

“Using waste tires for products such as energy storage is very attractive not only from the carbon materials recovery perspective but also for controlling environmental hazards caused by waste tire stock piles,” Paranthaman added.

Outlined in a paper published in the journal RSC Advances, the ORNL technique uses a proprietary pretreatment to recover pyrolytic carbon black material.


The material is similar to graphite but man-made.

The researchers produced a small, laboratory-scale battery with a reversible capacity that is higher than what is possible with commercial graphite materials.

After 100 cycles, the capacity measures nearly 390 milliamp hours per gram of carbon anode, exceeding the best properties of commercial graphite which researchers say is due to the unique microstructure of the carbon black material.

“This kind of performance is highly encouraging, especially in light of the fact that the global battery market for vehicles and military applications is approaching $78 billion and the materials market is expected to hit $11 billion in 2018,” Paranthaman commented.



Hacking genes: Creating plants that can grow in droughts

More than two billion people have been affected by drought over recent years but now new research may lead to drought resistant crops.

Scientists from Duke University hacked into a plant’s genetics and found a gene that tells the plant to conserve water when it senses there is not much available.

The discovery of the gene may help to enhance plants to react to drought conditions which could help to increase the amount of crops which could still grow despite a lack of water.

Figures from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation say that since 1900 more than 11m people have died from droughts.

These have been from either unsafe water sources or the negative impact they have upon crops.


Plants can adapt to a lack of water by increasing the amount of calcium in their cells.

The calcium levels then tell the plant that there is a lack of water, which can trigger further coping mechanisms.

The researchers identified the gene in the Arabidopsis thaliana plant – which is often used in lab research.

They said that the gene encodes a protein in the cell membranes of plant leaves and roots so it knows there is a lack of water.

Plants with defective versions of the calcium channel don’t send an alarm signal under water stress like normal plants do.

The team from the university grew normal plants and those with a defective version of the gene in the same pot.

When the plants were exposed to drought conditions, the plants wilted more than those with the gene intact.


Zhen-Ming Pei, an associate professor of biology at Duke who worked on the research, said that it is likely that plants will be able to be altered to adapt to the drought conditions.

“Plants that enter drought-fighting mode quickly and then switch back to normal growth mode quickly when drought stress is gone should be able to allocate energy more efficiently toward growth,” she said.

Now the researchers hope that they will be able to manipulate the gene and change it to a level where plants can be created to cope better without as much water as they would normally have.


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