September R&D Round Up

E-mail Melanie Martella

This month we're firmly in the realm of the small, with a tiny optical sensor capable of measuring pressures in the spine, a miniscule manipulator that can act as a movement sensor, teaching unmanned helicopters to fly, and an odor sensor that could help find bodies when other search techniques have failed.

Spinal Biomechanics Gets a Boost
The spine is a complicated system of bone, cartilage, muscle, and nerve—as anyone who's suffered from back pain can attest, especially if the reason for that back pain remains unknown. Canadian researchers Christopher Dennison and Peter Wild from the University of Victoria and David Wilson and Peter Cripton of the University of British Columbia have developed a miniature fiber Bragg grating sensor that can be used to directly measure the pressure experienced between vertebral discs. The sensor has a 400 µm diameter, a 0.03 mm2 sensing area, and a sensitivity seven times that of bare fiber. So far, the team has validated the device in pigs. Ultimately, the researchers hope that the new measurements possible with this sensor can lead to greater understanding of the biomechanics of this most important skeletal structure.

A Microscale Comb Drive
Jason Vaughn Clark, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and mechanical engineering at Purdue University has created a monolithic comb drive that's capable of moving left, right, forward, and backward. The entire device is less than 1 mm and possible applications include improved probe-based virus and biological sensors, future high-density computer hard drives, and micro- and nanoscale device fabrication. Clark has also pioneered a technique called micro electro metrology that uses measured changes in capacitance or voltage to determine how much displacement and force being applied to (or by) a comb drive.

Computer-Guided (Small) Helicopters
According to "Boffins produce aerobatic copycat-copter pilotware" (courtesy of The Register), researchers at Stanford University are using humans to teach complex maneuvers to computers charged with controlling remote-control (RC) helicopters. RC helicopters are tricky to fly anyway and complicated movements require a great deal of skill if you want to avoid crashing the 'copter. The approach the researchers took was to outfit a small RC helicopter with a slew of sensors and a data link. Then, they asked Garrett Oku (RC helicopter ace) to fly a maneuver. The sensors tracked the helicopter's movement and recorded exactly what the vehicle was doing. Software on the ground then used this data to replicate the human pilot's movements. If you have a chance make sure to watch the YouTube video of the helicopter's antics that's embedded in the article.

Sniffing Out Bodies
Cadaver dogs, dogs trained to locate dead bodies, are very good at what they do, but they aren't infallible. Researchers Arpad Vass and Marc Wise at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory have been working to develop an electronic nose capable of detecting the signature cocktail of chemicals released by a decomposing body to supplement traditional body-detection techniques. According to "Odor sensor could help find decomposing bodies", courtesy of The Tennessean, they're a few months away from building a prototype. The researchers want the final sensor to be sufficiently affordable that all police departments, regardless of size, can afford it.