Date:31 October 2009
Reports from the edge of science
Hot wheels set for assault on land speed record
A series of successful rocket tests in the Mojave Desert (below) marked another step in the development of a car built to accelerate to more than 1 600 km/h. The Bloodhound Supersonic Car project is led by the same British-based team that built Thrust SSC, the car that set the current land speed record of 763 mph (about 1 228 km/h) in 1997. The design calls for three completely different engines: a custom-designed hybrid rocket for initial thrust, the jet engine from a Eurofighter Typhoon warplane for additional power, and a typical gas engine used to start the car and pump high-test peroxide into the rocket engine.
Hammer strike science
Biologists from the University of Massachusetts and Tulane University are studying the way people swing hammers to understand how they compromise between force and accuracy while performing manual tasks. Researchers videotape subjects pounding a sensor-studded platform with a hammer, then analyse the images to compare factors such as target size, lighting conditions and age.
Chewbots mimic chompers for better dentistry
The human jaw is a sophisticated machine, with six degrees of freedom in the movement and rotation of the lower jaw – the same range of movement offered by aircraft simulators. Engineers at Britain’s University of Bristol adapted the six-actuator design of the mechanism that controls aircraft simulators to build a “chewing robot” that creates a realistically moving mouth. The goal is to test how the metals, polymers and ceramics used to make crowns and bridges wear out over time, a difficult and expensive topic to explore in humans
17 Nuclear power plant
Operators have applications for new reactors under review with the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The number of US reactors reached its apex of 112 in 1990; that number has flat-lined at 104 since 1998.
US air force: drones could fire at will by 2047
A recent Air Force report includes a rare reference to robots making the choice to fire weapons without explicit human direction. The “Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Plan, 2009-2047” states that artificial intelligence will be powerful enough in 30 years to allow drones to make snap decisions on their own.
One notable passage says that autonomous unmanned aerial vehicles could launch nuclear strikes. However, the Pentagon is not obliged to follow the plan of the report, which acknowledges that the decision to field machines able to make lethal combat decisions is “contingent upon political and military leaders resolving legal and ethical questions”. That could take much longer than the technical development.