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Plants are the planet’s lungs, but they’re struggling to keep up due to rising CO2 emissions and deforestation. Engineers are giving them a helping hand, though, by augmenting their capacity with new technology and creating artificial substitutes to help them clean up our atmosphere.
Imperial College London, one of the UK’s top engineering schools, recently announced that it was teaming up with startup Arborea to build the company’s first outdoor pilot of its BioSolar Leaf cultivation system at the university’s White City campus in West London.
Arborea is developing large solar panel-like structures that house microscopic plants and can be installed on buildings or open land. The plants absorb light and carbon dioxide as they photosynthesize, removing greenhouse gases from the air and producing organic material, which can be processed to extract valuable food additives like omega-3 fatty acids.
The idea of growing algae to produce useful materials isn’t new, but Arborea’s pitch seems to be flexibility and affordability. The more conventional approach is to grow algae in open ponds, which are less efficient and open to contamination, or in photo-bioreactors, which typically require CO2 to be piped in rather than getting it from the air and can be expensive to run.
There’s little detail on how the technology deals with issues like nutrient supply and harvesting or how efficient it is. The company claims it can remove carbon dioxide as fast as 100 trees using the surface area of just a single tree, but there’s no published research to back that up, and it’s hard to compare the surface area of flat panels to that of a complex object like a tree. If you flattened out every inch of a tree’s surface it would cover a surprisingly large area.
Nonetheless, the ability to install these panels directly on buildings could present a promising way to soak up the huge amount of CO2 produced in our cities by transport and industry. And Arborea isn’t the only one trying to give plants a helping hand.
For decades researchers have been working on ways to use light-activated catalysts to split water into oxygen and hydrogen fuel, and more recently there have been efforts to fuse this with additional processes to combine the hydrogen with carbon from CO2 to produce all kinds of useful products.
Most notably, in 2016 Harvard researchers showed that water-splitting catalysts could be augmented with bacteria that combines the resulting hydrogen with CO2 to create oxygen and biomass, fuel, or other useful products. The approach was more efficient than plants at turning CO2 to fuel and was built using cheap materials, but turning it into a commercially viable technology will take time.
Not everyone is looking to mimic or borrow from biology in their efforts to suck CO2 out of the atmosphere. There’s been a recent glut of investment in startups working on direct-air capture (DAC) technology, which had previously been written off for using too much power and space to be practical. The looming climate change crisis appears to be rewriting some of those assumptions, though.
Most approaches aim to use the concentrated CO2 to produce synthetic fuels or other useful products, creating a revenue stream that could help improve their commercial viability. But we look increasingly likely to surpass the safe greenhouse gas limits, so attention is instead turning to carbon-negative technologies.
That means capturing CO2 from the air and then putting it into long-term storage. One way could be to grow lots of biomass and then bury it, mimicking the process that created fossil fuels in the first place. Or DAC plants could pump the CO2 they produce into deep underground wells.
But the former would take up unreasonably large amounts of land to make a significant dent in emissions, while the latter would require huge amounts of already scant and expensive renewable power. According to a recent analysis, artificial photosynthesis could sidestep these issues because it’s up to five times more efficient than its natural counterpart and could be cheaper than DAC.
Whether the technology will develop quickly enough for it to be deployed at scale and in time to mitigate the worst effects of climate change remains to be seen. Emissions reductions certainly present a more sure-fire way to deal with the problem, but nonetheless, cyborg plants could soon be a common sight in our cities.
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Robots have been masters of manufacturing at speed and precision for decades, but give them a seemingly simple task like stacking shelves, and they quickly get stuck. That’s changing, though, as engineers build systems that can take on the deceptively tricky tasks most humans can do with their eyes closed.
Boston Dynamics is famous for dramatic reveals of robots performing mind-blowing feats that also leave you scratching your head as to what the market is—think the bipedal Atlas doing backflips or Spot the galloping robot dog.
Last week, the company released a video of a robot called Handle that looks like an ostrich on wheels carrying out the seemingly mundane task of stacking boxes in a warehouse.
It might seem like a step backward, but this is exactly the kind of practical task robots have long struggled with. While the speed and precision of industrial robots has seen them take over many functions in modern factories, they’re generally limited to highly prescribed tasks carried out in meticulously-controlled environments.
That’s because despite their mechanical sophistication, most are still surprisingly dumb. They can carry out precision welding on a car or rapidly assemble electronics, but only by rigidly following a prescribed set of motions. Moving cardboard boxes around a warehouse might seem simple to a human, but it actually involves a variety of tasks machines still find pretty difficult—perceiving your surroundings, navigating, and interacting with objects in a dynamic environment.
But the release of this video suggests Boston Dynamics thinks these kinds of applications are close to prime time. Last week the company doubled down by announcing the acquisition of start-up Kinema Systems, which builds computer vision systems for robots working in warehouses.
It’s not the only company making strides in this area. On the same day the video went live, Google unveiled a robot arm called TossingBot that can pick random objects from a box and quickly toss them into another container beyond its reach, which could prove very useful for sorting items in a warehouse. The machine can train on new objects in just an hour or two, and can pick and toss up to 500 items an hour with better accuracy than any of the humans who tried the task.
And an apple-picking robot built by Abundant Robotics is currently on New Zealand farms navigating between rows of apple trees using LIDAR and computer vision to single out ripe apples before using a vacuum tube to suck them off the tree.
In most cases, advances in machine learning and computer vision brought about by the recent AI boom are the keys to these rapidly improving capabilities. Robots have historically had to be painstakingly programmed by humans to solve each new task, but deep learning is making it possible for them to quickly train themselves on a variety of perception, navigation, and dexterity tasks.
It’s not been simple, though, and the application of deep learning in robotics has lagged behind other areas. A major limitation is that the process typically requires huge amounts of training data. That’s fine when you’re dealing with image classification, but when that data needs to be generated by real-world robots it can make the approach impractical. Simulations offer the possibility to run this training faster than real time, but it’s proved difficult to translate policies learned in virtual environments into the real world.
Recent years have seen significant progress on these fronts, though, and the increasing integration of modern machine learning with robotics. In October, OpenAI imbued a robotic hand with human-level dexterity by training an algorithm in a simulation using reinforcement learning before transferring it to the real-world device. The key to ensuring the translation went smoothly was injecting random noise into the simulation to mimic some of the unpredictability of the real world.
And just a couple of weeks ago, MIT researchers demonstrated a new technique that let a robot arm learn to manipulate new objects with far less training data than is usually required. By getting the algorithm to focus on a few key points on the object necessary for picking it up, the system could learn to pick up a previously unseen object after seeing only a few dozen examples (rather than the hundreds or thousands typically required).
How quickly these innovations will trickle down to practical applications remains to be seen, but a number of startups as well as logistics behemoth Amazon are developing robots designed to flexibly pick and place the wide variety of items found in your average warehouse.
Whether the economics of using robots to replace humans at these kinds of menial tasks makes sense yet is still unclear. The collapse of collaborative robotics pioneer Rethink Robotics last year suggests there are still plenty of challenges.
But at the same time, the number of robotic warehouses is expected to leap from 4,000 today to 50,000 by 2025. It may not be long until robots are muscling in on tasks we’ve long assumed only humans could do.
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