Autonomous robotic ship inspector to cut costs and boost safety

A robot that can inspect the ballast water tanks onboard ships will soon be used in the shipping industry.

Developed by a team of Dutch and German companies and universities, including the University of Twente in the Netherlands, RoboShip is an on-rails robot that intelligently inspects a ship’s tanks for potential damage.

The robot, which will be integrated into all future ships built in the Meyer Weft shipyard in Germany, will replace human inspectors, offering significant cost savings and improving safety.

Ballast water tanks are filled with seawater to help ships keep stable while at sea, however the seawater can corrode steel in the ship’s structure, meaning the tanks need to be inspected on a regular basis.


At present, inspections are performed by people, at great risk and great cost. A single inspection can total a whopping €700,000 ($870,000), making the process an expensive part of ship maintenance.

In a regular human inspection, six inspectors will need to enter the tank to inspect it, during which time they risk injuring themselves by falling, or breathing in noxious gases emitted by rotting seaweed trapped in the tanks.

Not only will the robot help reduce potential injury, but it removes the need to dock when inspections are carried out.

The robot can inspect the ship while it is out at sea, and any repairs it flags up as being needed can be booked for the next time the ship docks.

It is also much more efficient than human inspectors, as it can move round the tank faster than humans on specially installed rails than also supply it with power.

Inspection data is transmitted directly to a screen elsewhere on the ship for analysis and action, ensuring humans still have a role in the process.

University of Twente Robotics and Mechatronics department doctoral degree candidate Dian Boregerink, who developed the RoboShip’s robotic arm, explained how unpleasant the ballast tank environment was for humans.

“I have had the opportunity of seeing the inside of a freighter’s ballast water tank,” he said.

“After a voyage, it is slippery with seaweed and is full of noxious gases. Tanks like these are almost inaccessible due to ribs, pipes and cables.

“Realising that people actually need to go into them to carry out inspection work was what motivated me to develop the robotic arm.”

Inline image one courtesy of University of Twente.



Fighting the spread: Drones touted as safer way to stop forest fires

Forest fires are deadly, fast spreading and can have devastating effects as they rapidly sweep across land and destroy everything in their path.

On average, every year in the USA there are 100,000 forest fires that clear more than 4-5 million acres of land.

For those trying to fight the fires from the skies there are also unparalleled risks; the pilots flying water-filled planes to try and dampen the raging fires below put their lives at risk each time they take to the skies.

However, there is the potential for drones to take over these duties.

The ability to get water-carrying drones to fly to an area and deposit water on a fire would be possible, according to a British aerospace expert.

Speaking at a UK inquiry looking at the regulation of remotely piloted aircraft systems, Professor Keith Hayward, a fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society, explained how feasible drones would be for the task.

He said: “If you recognise and can identify where the fire may be, you can limit the area in which the aircraft will operate and dump its load of water. I know that that may not necessarily be the case when you have a fast-moving fire, but it is within the bounds of current technology to be able to provide safety margins sufficient for it to operate.”

Any drones that would be used would have to be large enough to vast amounts of water, but advantages would include not putting pilots at risk.

Other experts speaking at the inquiry have previously said that it would be possible to develop unpiloted cargo and passenger planes in the future, therefore it is not surprising that drone technology could be used to help fight fires and other emergencies.


Using drones to fight forest fires could also provide additional benefits beyond the safety argument, according to Gary Clayton, chairman of the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Systems Association, who responded to Hayward’s proposals at the inquiry.

“To take your forest fire example, if you can pick up the water, which is the technological argument, you can – irrespective of smoke – sense where the hottest points are, where you can put the water, because you are not using eyes to find the fire,” he said, suggesting drones could be more efficient at putting out forest fires than their human counterparts.

However, one of the biggest challenges for a fire-fighting drone would be how it is developed to collect water after every flight.

Hayward explained: “I personally think that that particular use is likely to prove quite difficult, because picking up the water is a very tricky exercise and requires a high degree of airmanship, and I do not think that an RPAS [Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems] of any description is capable of that.”


The development of drones for helping fire authorities is already underway in some areas of the world.

Students at Ajman University, UAE, have previously created an autonomous drone that is able to help firefighters provide support in rescue missions. It can feedback live footage of what is happening, track down people involved in fires and include gas and smoke sensors to assess the severity of situations.

Andy Brown from the British Airline Pilots Association told the  inquiry that drones could fly over forest fires and help to assess the situation. This could potentially include the speed and direction the fire is moving in.

He said: “We think that if RPAS can be used to replace pilots in dangerous missions, they should do so. As they say, it is a no-brainer. The military use RPAS for dull, dirty and dangerous missions where they do not want to lose a pilot, for instance over enemy territory.

“To go back to the example of fighting forest fires, that is a great use of RPAS. You could have an RPAS taking all the photos, and if it crashed it would not really matter.”

Brown even suggested that drones could be programed to avoid other aircrafts, addressing one of the primary concerns about the technology.

“GPS systems are so accurate now that it could be programmed not to go to certain places, although who else would want to fly over a forest fire anyway?” he said.



In Pictures: 3D printed art showcases incredible possibilities of additive manufacturing

Award-winning sculptor Nick Ervinck has produced a collection of 3D printed sculptures that are beyond anything we’ve seen before.

Combining a mixture of colours, materials and transparencies, the sculptures not only push the limits of the technology, but go beyond what is possible with traditional sculpting techniques.

“My work has always been a hybrid between the virtual and physical world and a 3D printer is one of the few tools, if not the only one, that can efficiently mediate between the two,” explained Ervinck.

“With the level of accuracy achievable with this technology, it is now possible to compose complex structures and designs that were unthinkable before in contemporary sculpture, pushing the limits of what is realistic to create.”


The sculptures are inspired by the elements light, wind, water and movement, but for some reason not fire.

The sculpture above, dubbed Bretomer, is inspired by wind, with billows of ‘smoke’ trapped inside the shape. Below, the distinctly Tron-like Gnilicer is inspired by light.


The sculptures are all printed on an Objet500 Connex3 3D printer from Stratasys, a high-end commercial printer offering multi-colour and material printing.

“There is currently no other technology in the world capable of achieving the unique, transparent 3D printed art pieces I’ve created with Stratasys,” said Ervinck.


Inspired by movement, Noitena, above, and Noituls, below, look more like they are made from blown glass than generated on a 3D printer, creating some interesting possibilities for products that could be made with the technology.

“The level of realism achievable using the Objet500 Connex3 is unsurpassed, as it is the only 3D Production System that enables me to combine colours, transparency and multiple materials at the same time to create organic, geometrical, fluid and large scale sculptures,” added Ervinck.


The technology also does an excellent job of capturing splashing water through Myrstaw, below.

Such a shape would be incredibly hard to achieve with traditional sculpting methods, particularly with the inclusion of the lines across the sculpture.


Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ervinck now considers the technology as just another artistic tool.

“I now see 3D printing as a tool to use in creating my work just as a painter considers his brush a tool; it is that integrated into my design process,” he explained.

The sculptures are part of Stratasys’ new art collection, ‘The Sixth Element’, which will be displayed in Frankfurt, Germany, at the end of this month.

Images courtesy of Nick Ervinck / Stratasys.



Marley Natural: First global cannabis brand shows future is bright for marijuana

After decades of being the unofficial face of cannabis, Bob Marley is set to become synonymous with it as a legal, globally branded product.

Several of his family members are launching Marley Natural, an international company selling heritage cannabis strains, weed-infused creams and smoking accessories.

Backed by legal cannabis private equity firm Privateer Holdings, the initiative looks set for major success. The family are combining a socially conscious approach with organic growing practices, and this combined with Marley’s image should make the brand a hit with newly legal cannabis consumers.

The brand also offers a far higher level of authenticity than most celebrity-fronted products. Aside from Bob Marley’s infamous love of “the herb”, the heritage strains are based on those he smoked and the accessories are based on those he used.

As well as being good for Marley Natural, this authentic, socially conscious approach is likely to help bring a positive image to the legal cannabis industry, associating the drug with an organic, family-run businesses rather than a faceless “big cannabis” brand.

With more and more regions making the drug legal, cannabis is seeing a significant rebrand, which Marley’s family members feel Bob would have appreciated.

“My husband believed ‘the herb’ was a natural and positive part of life and he felt it was important to the world. He looked forward to this day,” said his wife, Rita Marley.

“My dad would be so happy to see people understanding the healing power of the herb,” said Cedella Marley, Bob’s daughter.

“He viewed the herb as something spiritual that could awaken our well-being, deepen our reflection, connect us to nature and liberate our creativity.”

At the heart of the brand, and its equity backer Privateer Holdings, is the advocacy of further legalisation.

“Marley Natural is an authentic way to honour his legacy by adding his voice to the conversation about cannabis and helping end the social harms caused by prohibition,” added Cedella.

Whether the brand has a direct impact on prohibition is questionable, but Marley Natural should help further the image of cannabis as a mainstream product that can be enjoyed by regular, professional people – something that is essential if it is to become an accepted recreational drug.

The products, which will be sold from late next year, will be distributed in regions where cannabis has been legalised, and if all goes well should become an international face for the drug.

While the prospect of a global brand for cannabis may be somewhat disturbing to some, users are likely to be far happier that the Marley family are taking this on, than a nameless company with more in common with a FTSE 100 business than your average user.

In short, Marley Natural could help protect the industry from becoming an annexe of Big Pharma.

“The Marley family has been an admired voice in the cannabis movement for over 50 years and Privateer Holdings is the leader in building professional, mainstream cannabis brands,” said Brendan Kennedy, CEO of Privateer Holdings.

“We are honoured to work with the Marley family to bring his voice to a professional, authentic and modern brand that will be a defining first in the cannabis industry.”



Futurist Jack Uldrich: Abundance will make us redefine what leisure time is

Our workplaces have already been revolutionised by technology, but could it allow us to work closer to home? We speak to to futurist Jack Uldrich to find out how work technology will change our culture and lives

Q: How is technology going to change the way in that we work?

From my perspective, the really big change and the thing that is difficult to understand is how all of these technologies, from computer processing power, data storage, bandwidth, mobile devices, the internet of things, they’re not just individual technologies.

They are going to converge in some really unexpected ways and as a futurist – no-one can predict the future, I don’t claim to – but I really think we’re on the verge of the next work-related revolution.

The analogy I use is Gutenberg’s printing press. Gutenberg’s genius wasn’t that he created that out of thin air.

His genius was that he took four existing technologies, he took the line press, movable type, ink and paper and he converged those four into a technology that revolutionised the world. And when I think about computer and advances in computer processing power that is one technology.

We’re going to start trading the idea of ownership for access to certain products and technologies”

The next one is data storage and that is cloud computing, so that is the second one. The third one is mobility and the number of smart devices that are going to continue to come on the planet, and then the fourth one is high speed internet access.

You begin playing around with those four technologies, I am just convinced that there is going to be a new platform from which we conduct our work. We’re already seeing just with cloud.

As a result of the four trends I just talked about – computer processing, power, mobility, storage – it’s transferring the automobile industry in some unexpected ways.

Daimler, the German automobile company, has discovered more and more young people in urban areas don’t want to own a car and they don’t really need to own a car anymore because they have smartphones and there’s GPS technology that allows them to locate a car that allows them to rent it for a couple of minutes at a time, so they are trading ownership for access to a vehicle and it is all of these technologies that are facilitating that transformation.

And, I think that sort of points to one of the subtle ways that business is going to change and customer behaviour is going to change. We’re going to start trading the idea of ownership for access to certain products and technologies.


Q: Given they are very distinct at present, how do you think these technologies will converge?

I think just in the context of work that this idea that we’re going to do our work anywhere in the world.

Absolutely anywhere, but we’re going to be able to collaborate with our colleagues and our co-workers who are also anywhere on this planet.

It’s going to have a really deep and profound impact on how we think about work. The amount of physical retail space that is dedicated to work environments is astounding, and then the impact on energy and climate.

Because of all these extra buildings and driving to and from them, powering them and cooling them, it is an extraordinary cost on society. Is that really the way we need to do work in this new environment?

I really think we’re going to figure out how to make a lot more efficient use of the spaces that we need”

We’re already seeing the early shifts, but I really think we’re going to figure out how to make a lot more efficient use of the spaces that we need and what we’re going to come to discover is that we don’t need as many physical spaces as we do and that’s going to have an impact on real-estate, it’s going to have an impact on how we then travel to and from work because we then might not need to be doing as much of it.

Then the question comes about what do we do with all that excess space and here’s where as a futurist I just start on speculating on what some scenarios might be.

Because other technologies are getting better, LED lighting for example, sensor technology and advances in vertical farming or hydroponic farming, we might be able to convert a lot of buildings and grow produce in those buildings, so instead of growing things out on the countryside or on the other side of the world and then shipping those bananas or whatever to London, what happens if we can actually begin to repurpose those buildings to grow a fair amount of our produce in our local communities?

To me that is a sort of interesting possibility because that then further reduces the stress on the climate because we are not shipping bananas all the way across the ocean and were not putting them on trucks and delivering them to the grocery store and cooling them and storing them and packing them, we’re really growing them as close to the consumer as possible.


Q: What will this mean for the difference in our work and life balance?

To tell you the truth, as a futurist I always do this paradoxically. Most people plan for a future, because we’ve grown up in a world of relative scarcity, or we always think that things might be going away so we will just price them accordingly and the wealthy will be able to afford it an everyone else is out of luck, but I really think that in the future the biggest cultural challenge is going to be abundance.

We’re going to have an abundance of clean sustainable energy. I think we’re going to have an abundance of high-quality affordable education as a result in advances in online education and MOOCs (massive open online courses).

Healthcare in many cases is going to get significantly better to prevent disease from ever occurring in the first place, so I am really optimistic about these technologies.

Abundance is going to drive some really strange cultural shifts

But then I think the biggest cultural challenge is what then do we do in a world where our health is really good for a long period of time and I have access to the world’s best professors and I can get credit for those and I can teach myself new skills at virtually no cost and I am living in a house where I don’t have to really pay anything for energy as I am producing the energy myself.

Abundance is going to drive some really strange cultural shifts and I think a couple I see are how we have re-think what leisure is, today too many people view leisure as they’re done with work and they go and binge watch a Netflix series or go to a movie or a sporting event.

Those things are still going to exist, but I don’t think they are enough to provide people with deep meaning in their lives and so how do we create meaning with the excess time that we have, I don’t know the answer to that, but I think that culture, how we answer that question, will define what our culture is like.

shutterstock_218769841 [Converted]

Q: Will the work day change from a 9-5 concept, and how will more leisure time affect us?

One hundred years ago – at least in the US and I suspect in the UK – 50% of all Americans either lived or worked or were closely related to the agricultural industry, they lived or worked on farms, they didn’t think about work-life balance just because it was all together.

They worked and lived at the same time and in the same place, on the farm. It has really been the last hundred years that has been the historical anomaly.

That’s when we have suddenly lived in one place and then physically went to a different place to work, that’s what is odd.

We are going back in history where we are going to do a lot more of our work from our homes    

We are going back in history where we are going to do a lot more of our work from our homes and so I actually think that the whole question of work-life balance is going to fade away and we’re just going to acknowledge that work is part of life, and life is part of work and we will do work when we need to and we will have leisure when we don’t need to do work-related activates.

From the futurist perspective I think the question is going to fade away.


Q: Will there be any downsides this change in the way we work and resulting new technology?

The transition is going to be difficult and I don’t mean to downplay it. When I look at a lot of these technological advances in robotics, 3D printing, artificial intelligence, is there going to be job displacement? Absolutely. And is it going to adversely affect people? Yes it will.

But during the industrial revolution that was a difficult transition period as a lot of people moved from rural areas to urban environments, it wasn’t easy but for the most part society in most parts handled that transition relatively well.

There were riots, there were strikes and strife but for the most part, in the industrial developed world, it has been managed well and so it is going to be a difficult transition but I think at the end of the day humans really are creative and we’re going to figure out how to navigate in to this new future and to figure out how to mould life and work into something that is sustainable for ourselves, our communities and ultimately the planet.

Images courtesy of Tropinina Olga /



Colonisation roadblock? No guarantee humans can reproduce in space

It’s just 11 years until Mars One wants to have established a permanent human colony on Mars, but we don’t know enough about how our bodies will react to long-duration exploration missions, a new study has said.

This covers everything from how our behaviour will change to whether we will be able to successfully reproduce.

Sex and gender factors should be taken into account when designing future human spaceflight experiments and research programmes, the Journal of Women’s Health – published by Mary Ann Liebert, Inc. – has said.

The six papers featured in the journal’s latest issue reflected on current and unpublished research into how our bodies may adapt when subjected to prolonged space missions.

They looked at how our cardiovascular system, immune system, neurosensory systems, musculoskeletal health, reproductive health and behavioural health may adapt for longer periods spent in space.

One paper on human reproductive health said that from what we know at the moment there is insufficient evidence to show that we can sustain the human race in space.

Such an issue  could be damning to humanity’s long-term efforts in space: it would be crucial for a project such as the Mars One mission to be a success, and, in fact, for any form of colonisation.

“Despite the consideration that in the distant future, human reproduction is likely to occur in space, the current literature base is insufficient, limiting speculation about the possibility that intricate and complex phases of reproduction in mammals—including mating, fertilization, implantation, placentation, embryogenesis, organogenesis, prenatal and postnatal development, birth, lactation and suckling—can occur in space,” the paper on reproductive health said.


It highlighted that the effect of microgravity, weightlessness and very low g-force levels, combined with extra radiation, could cause sperm creation issues.

While there has been no post-spaceflight research involving humans, a study on rats that had been exposed to just six weeks of simulated microgravity found they suffered from “severe testicular and epididymal degeneration”.

The reproductive paper concluded that there is a lack of knowledge about what the reproductive effects spaceflight has on men and women.

The paper said: “Understanding of reproductive changes in men and women (pre, during and post-flight) that extend into the health and rearing of their offspring is limited. There is a critical lack of information about the effects of spaceflight on gonadal function and bone loss, as well as about effects of cosmic radiation on women’s health.”


The executive summary of all the papers recommended that there should be a focus on the responses of individual astronauts to spaceflight and their return to Earth.

For more to be found out about how space changes our bodies, and the different effects it has has on men and women, more data is needed.

The paper said more women need to be included in space missions as of all US astronauts just 15% of these have been female.

Although one positive note from the journal said that following missions to space, 13 female astronauts have given birth to 18 children,, with no increased complications.

Overall, the work said: “Informed decision-making regarding risks, countermeasures and medical treatments for long-duration exploration missions requires a more thorough understanding of sex and gender differences in adaptation. Many questions remain unanswered.”

Images courtesy of NASA



The multifunctional home robot that you can tailor to your needs

Tokyo-based Flower Robotics has unveiled an innovative concept for a home robot that can perform different functions depending on the peripheral attached to it.

The robot, which is intended to be ready for sale by 2016, is a similar size and shape to a Roomba robot vacuum cleaner, and moves around in a similar way, but features a docking space on its top that a variety of attachments can connect to.

By connecting peripherals such as a lamp or mini garden, users can change the function of the robot, which is known as Patin.

Other peripherals Flower has suggested include a robotic arm, a speaker and projector.

However, the company won’t be producing all of Patin’s attachments itself; instead, the company is providing an Android-based SDK with the intention that other companies will also produce peripherals.


The robot is equipped with an array of sensors, as well as a number of cameras, including a depth-sensitive camera developed by ASUS.

This will allow it not only to move around safely, but to provide greater function to its peripherals: it could, for example, detect its owner and move a lamp closer to them, or identify the best location to position itself to ensure maximum light for the plants in its care.

As with many of the robots we are seeing developed, Patin will be able to connect to the cloud, both to stream data such as music, and to receive updates to its AI.

It would also be able to monitor the behaviour of its owner and provide environmental conditions to suit.

While this all seems very conceptual, Flower Robotics – which has already produced a commercially available mannequin robot – has already produced a working prototype of the base unit, has patented parts of the technology and has a clear technical specification for how it plans to build the robots.

Running on Linux, the robot will be powered by a DC motor with a lithium-ion battery, will have a Jetson TK1 CPU board and will be controlled with an Arduino board.

Such details are clearly designed to give sceptics confidence in the technology, as technical data is rarely shared alongside concept videos of this type.

Patin is an exciting idea for a home robot, as it moves the technology away from a single function to being a multipurpose part of the home.

While encouraging other companies to provide modules is potentially risky, if successful the robot could prove far more versatile than any other consumer robot, making it an appealing prospect for a wide mix of people.

If third party companies embrace the technology, we could even see Patin becoming a familiar sight in many homes, with each one uniquely tailored to its owner’s needs.

Images courtesy of Flower Robotics.


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