Archive for August, 2012

Driverless Vehicle

Imagine a vehicle that can drive itself by using cameras to take images of the road ahead and processing the road to be driven using a computer chip. Actually there’s no need to imagine this little modern miracle as it has already crossed the realm of science fiction into reality. The only trouble is if you want to drive this beauty, correction, get a ride on her, you will have to land on Mars first.

The space rover Curiosity can drive using its wheel system and, based on images taken by its cameras, the rover can avoid obstacles. That’s not the only cool thing that the rover can do either as you would know if you have been following its progress.

The Curiosity has a mighty powerful drill arm as well. This robotic arm can powder a rock and create mud samples that can then be then segregated for testing by different scientific instruments that are housed in the rover’s on board laboratory.

Each step in the construction of this latest rover has taken into consideration past failures and used measures to overcome them. The science project that is currently the cynosure of all eyes began on paper even before the mission was anywhere near conceptualized or approved.

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Rovers and Robotics

At $2.5 billion, Curiosity is the most expensive rover that NASA has ever developed.It has as many as 10 scientific instrument and a 7 foot long robotic arm to assist it in the two year long mission it plans to complete on the surface of the Red Planet, Mars.

It has the most advanced state of the art technology, but it also has a drawback. It depends on its robotics to be driven. When it comes down to it the Curiosity is essentially the largest robotic laboratory that any space agency has ever constructed and launched into space on a mission.

Curiosity takes over the job of exploration on Mars from the older NASA rovers Spirit and Opportunity. These two old work horses have worked the surface of Mars for nearly 6 years. Spirit shut down last year, but opportunity is still going strong.

The two rovers lasted well beyond their expected three months survival rate. They were tiny at two and a half feet when compared to the seven feet that Curiosity is. And they had barely rudimentary robotics to help them function. Nothing near the scale of the latest science project from NASA. Still they did set the trend going.

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Robots – Assistants or Replacements?

The current exploration of Mars by Curiosity has dredged up the debate. Are robots assistants to humans or their replacements? There seem to be two lines of thought on this.

For Louise Jandura, sampling system lead engineer with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory the involvement of robots on the mission is critical for success. They are much required assistants without whom the progress that we have made in such a short while would not be possible.

Julie Shah, assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics at M.I.T., on the other hand feels that the robots that are being designed are likely to replace human beings in industrial and manufacturing processes. This is likely to result in a loss of a number of jobs.

So what’s the verdict? Is the advancing field of robotics good for mankind as a whole. Since most robots are not as good at doing what all a human being can do at this stage, one can safely assume that it will be a while before they begin to replace the human element altogether in the work place.

At the same time, when you have the option of getting a repetitive job done well and with precision by a robot why would you turn down the offer? Till the next science project convinces us otherwise, cheers to robots!

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Doping to improve human performance

With the Olympic Games every four years come a host of expectations from athletes all over the world. Some expectations are from the public, others from the family and near ones of the sportsperson participating and yet more come from the coaches and sponsors. Is it any wonder then that the pressure leads to experimenting with performance enhancing drugs?

Doping is forbidden in sports meets and can result in expulsion from the games. However the allure of the big medal is difficult to explain. The sports person will risk everything that he or she has worked for by taking a banned drug to help improve the performance to an elevated level. The 16 year old Chinese swimmer who was the eye of the storm in the recent doping controversy will be able to attest to the pressures that the sportsperson faces.

As there are regular scientific studies involving the testing of drugs that enhance human performance, it is not too difficult to imagine the temptation that a sportsperson feels when he knows he can shave of many seconds from the performance with the help of these drugs. It is human nature to strive to be better after all. So what if that involves getting unexpected help from a couple of pills.

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Wonder of Transportation

The human race has revolutionized the means of transport available to it. They were not satisfied with walking as a means of exploring the world, and so worked on faster means of transport. The wheel is considered mankind’s greatest invention for the simple reason that it killed distances much faster than before.

A couple of centuries ago it would take months to cross a continent over land and sea if you planned to go from London to New York. Today you can cover that distance, doorstep to doorstep in a matter of hours using a combination of cars and aircraft.The better the means of transportation became the smaller the world got.

As the world began to shrink it was not uncommon for people of different continents to come together for a shared purpose. One such event is the ongoing sports meet in London, the summer Olympics.Can you imagine the number of cars, buses, rail and aircraft that have been put to use to bring each and every contingent from countries around the world to participate in the games?

Of all the science projects that have been undertaken perhaps we owe the most to the means of transportation that have been developed for the drastic change in our lifestyles. Faster, higher and better, rather akin to the motto of the Olympics.

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