You never know where cockroaches are lurking – maybe clinging to a pantry door or skulking on the underside of a commode. That creepy ability to cleave to almost anything was the inspiration for SpinyBotII, a six-legged, half-meter-long prototype spy robot capable of scaling vertical surfaces ranging from stucco to smooth concrete. Developed by mechanical engineer Mark Cutkosky and his team at Stanford University, the robot skitters around on feet that, like roach feet, grip climbing surfaces with tiny spines that can find pits and protrusions even in seemingly smooth terrain. Each of SpinyBotII’s feet has 20 hardened steel spines whose tips are just 25 micrometers across. There are other climbing robots, which use everything from suction to adhesive pads to ascend. But they have trouble finding firm footing on dusty or irregular surfaces, and none of them is capable of hanging around securely for weeks on end. The Stanford prototype can do both, so it could augur not only new spy robots but also robots that inspect the outsides of buildings and, maybe someday, the surfaces of other planets.
Tiny polymer patches on the surfaces of living cells might soon help drug developers and medical researchers see if drugs are reaching their targets or if viruses are mounting attacks. Such events cause changes to the membranes that enclose cells, but the changes are usually imperceptible with standard monitoring techniques. Raz Jelinek of the chemistry department at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba, Israel, has found a way to attach 30- to 150-nanometer-wide patches of a color-changing polymer to human cells. If something perturbs the cells’ membranes, the patches turn red and fluoresce. When, for example, Jelinek adds the anesthetic lidocaine to a sample of cells, the nanopatches affixed to them spark on like minuscule red Christmas lights. Jelinek hopes to soon develop a kit that would marshal the technology for use in both drug development and basic research.
Anyone who’s ever been stuck in an elevator knows how hard it can be to get help. But soon elevators should be able to lend a sympathetic ear, automatically detecting calls of distress. Ajay Divakaran and his colleagues at the Mitsubishi Electric Research Laboratories in Cambridge, MA, have developed a system that analyzes sounds’ characteristic frequencies. The system is trained with typical elevator sounds – people talking, bags rustling, and so forth. Once in operation, it will compare noises in the elevator against the acoustical signatures stored in its comprehensive list of known sounds, raising an alarm if it fails to find a match. One of the system’s functions is to detect attacks, says Divakaran, since even when elevators are equipped with video cameras, buildings often lack the personnel to monitor their video feeds. One remaining problem, says Divakaran: the system doesn’t yet distinguish between a scream for help and a child throwing a tantrum.