Developments to Watch
NOW, ROBOCOP IS MORE THAN JUST A MOVIE
GRAHAM HAWKES HAS BEEN designing undersea robots since 1972, when he was 24. But his latest robotic creation is land-based--a weapon for taking the heat off cops and military special-forces units. "My work involves extending human capabilities into hazardous environments," says the British-born engineer. "Airspace punctuated by bullets is about as hazardous as it gets."
In early February, Hawkes will unveil the Telepresent Rapid Aiming Platform, or TRAP (picture). It's a remotely operated rifle that practically never misses at distances less than a couple hundred yards. If a target can be seen by the rifle's telescopic video-camera sight, the system will automatically calculate range and, on command from a human operator, shoot with pinpoint accuracy. The view through the telescopic sight can be relayed to a control unit around a corner or in a nearby van, so police need not be exposed to return fire. For the public, that should mean reduced risk of injury from stray bullets because cops won't be firing hasty shots and ducking for cover.
Hawkes says agents from several law-enforcement agencies, as well as from U.S. and foreign military commands, have already asked to visit his new startup, Tactical Telepresent Technologies Inc. in Point Richmond, Calif. He plans to sell TRAP for about $45,000 per unit, then work the price down to $25,000.By Otis Port EDITED BY NEIL GROSSReturn to top
A WAY TO COOL PLANES FOR A LEAP INTO SPACE
IN THE EARLY 1980s, BRITISH aerospace engineers dreamed up Hotol, a "horizontal take-off and landing" plane that soars into space from an ordinary runway. The British government hoped the plane would slash the cost of putting satellites into orbit. Simulations, however, showed that as Hotol approached speeds of Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound, the air gushing into its special hybrid engines would be superheated to 1,000C. For the engines to keep accelerating to Mach 6, where they would switch from jet to rocket power, the air had to be cooled way below 0C. No known heat exchanger could do that. So Hotol was scrapped in 1987.
Now, James J. Murray, a postgraduate student in the University of Bristol's Aerospace Engineering Dept., has devised an exchanger that could rekindle interest in Hotol. It is barely the size of a box of safety matches. Yet air passing through it has been cooled from 700C to -100C. The secret is a forest of wispy, 0.38-millimeter tubes inside the box, through which liquid helium coolant is pumped. "This is the best heat exchanger mankind has ever built," says Mark Hempsell, a space-technology lecturer at Bristol.By Heidi Dawley EDITED BY NEIL GROSSReturn to top
LESS IRRITATING IMPLANTS? ADD SUGAR
CYBORGS MAY RUN RAMPANT IN HOLLYWOOD. BUT IN THE real world of biology, living cells don't much like rubbing membranes with machines. That presents a challenge for manufacturers of pacemakers, artificial organs, and other implantable medical devices.
Nature, it seems, has its own solution to the problem. Researchers at the Ernest Orlando Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif., recently showed that they can alter the surface of living cells by exploiting a natural biochemical process. All cell surfaces are festooned with complex sugar structures called oligosaccharides, explains Berkeley biologist Carolyn Bertozzi. In an experiment with human cancer cells, she succeeded in redecorating the cell surfaces by allowing the cells to absorb a synthetic sugar laced with ketones--organic compounds that bind easily to synthetic materials.
The resulting oligosaccharides on the surface made the cells "stickier" in relation to some metals, plastics, and ceramics. Bertozzi says medical devices coated with such cells might not irritate the body or cause infections, as today's implants often do. Medical-equipment company Medtronic Inc. of Minneapolis has expressed interest in the work.By Scott LaFee EDITED BY NEIL GROSSReturn to top