Posts Tagged ‘research’

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Robots Hit the Beach for Lunar Exploration Training

March 27, 2012

The seaside Nakatajima Sand Dunes in Central Japan hosted several would-be lunar explorer robots and their support teams on March 13 for a public demonstration and training run in a simulated lunar environment.

Aichi University of Technology's LUBOT at Nakatajima

Seven teams from universities around Japan arrived here with their robots after being invited by JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) to come and show off their work. As a follow-up to their Kaguya probe, which took HD images of much of the moon’s surface from 2007 to 2009, JAXA has proposed sending a rover by 2025 to continue Kaguya’s work by exploring the moon’s surface directly, and has been collaborating with universities in creating new rover designs.

The Nakatajima Dunes, just a short bus ride from Hamamatsu City in Shizuoka Prefecture, were selected for their wide expanses of soft, fine sand dotted with large rocks and the treacherously steep inclines that come close to the kinds of terrain the rovers will encounter if they make it to the moon. The high winds and sea spray they experienced on the beach, however, are unlikely to be a factor.

Notable designs include the Track-Walker 2 from  Tohoku University in Sendai, which used multiple caterpillar treads to navigate the uneven terrain by lifting itself over obstacles too big to crawl over.

Tohoku University's Track-Walker 2

Aichi University of Technology brought LUBOT, an eight-wheeled design that features a movable arm for mounting video cameras and a working scoop for gathering samples.  The video below was taken by the students themselves during a test run at Nakatajima last July.

Another design that garnered a fair amount of interest was the Tri-Star IV 3-wheeled rover from Tokyo Institute of Technology. The wheels use a combination of flexible supports and metal claws to navigate uneven and unstable terrain, and appears capable of righting itself if it turns over. According to Professor Shigeo Hirose, it can navigate slopes as steep as 30 degrees, and has mobility at least equal to what the US and Russia have built so far.

 

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Japan Takes the 2011 Ig Nobel Chemistry Prize for Wasabi Fire Alarm

October 19, 2011

Earlier this month, an annual tradition continued at Harvard’s Sanders Theater, where the science/humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research handed out its Ig Nobel Awards, in recognition of achievements “that make people laugh, and then make them think.”

The Chemistry prize at the 21st First Annual (sic) awards ceremony went to a Japanese research team, led by Asst. Professor Makoto Imai of the Shiga University of Medical Science and Dr. Junichi Murakami of Biwako Hospital in Shiga Prefecture, for their work in developing a “wasabi-based fire alarm.” While the work may sound a bit silly at first blush (as does the work of many of the other prize recipients), I think it’s worth taking a closer look to see the motivation behind his research and the actual benefits it has led to.

Prof. Imai holds up his Ig Nobel Prize

Via the Boston Herald


Imai and the rest of the team receiving their prize at the 2011 Ig Nobel ceremony at Sanders Theater, Harvard. (set to skip ahead to the Chemistry Prize, but the whole ceremony is well worth watching)

This project first began in 2000, when Prof. Imai looked into the question of how to make a fire alarm that can be reliably detected by the hearing impaired. The elderly make up over 50% of deaths in house fires in Japan, and it has been hypothesized that inability to hear traditional smoke alarms may contribute to this figure. Standard alarms using loud sirens would of course go unnoticed, and flashing lights (often included with the alarms used in newer apartment buildings) were often found to be completely ineffective at waking up sleeping residents. This was when Imai and his team decided to start looking at less conventional directions.

Inside the wasabi smoke alarm

Vibrations had been tried, but this approach suffers from a number of practical problems, not least of which was the issue of how to rig an entire apartment to vibrate strongly enough that it could be reliably noticed. Even when restricted to just making the bed shake, anyone who’s used a vibrating cell phone knows how easy it is to simply not notice it. To effectively grab attention, Imai and his co-researchers decided to tap into our sense of smell.

With the backing of the Seems company, a research firm focusing on fragrance-based sensors and other medical tools, the team experimented with with a wide range of aromatic chemicals, ranging from the pleasant to the putrid. But according to Imai, even some of the most revolting of smells seemed to have little effect: “We tried a rotten egg smell, but subjects didn’t wake up.”

Imai (L) and Murakami with their award

Via Chuunichi News

The aroma with the most success turned out to be allyl isothiocyanate, an irritant responsible for the  pungent taste of wasabi, horseradish and varieties of mustard. In nature, the plants produce the chemical as a defense against herbivores, but for Imai’s team its nose- and throat-stinging properties made it ideal for rousing sleepers in the event of fire.

In 2006, clinical tests were started at Biwako Hosiptal, where 31 volunteers were repeatedly allowed to go to sleep, then had the allyl isothiocyanate aerosol sprayed into their rooms as researchers tested which concentrations produced the most reliable results (the chemical can also be an eye irritant much like tear gas or pepper spray, so presumably the team didn’t want to use such a high concentration that subjects were unable to find their way out once they’d woken up). A spray of 5-20ppm was found to wake up nearly every test subject within 2 minutes.

Diagram from Imai's patent for the alarm system

The system has already been installed in a number of facilities for the deaf in Japan, and it is scheduled for commercial release within the next two years.

As a side note, Japanese researchers and inventors have been regulars at the Ig Nobel ceremonies almost since they began, so I’m planning on writing a series of articles highlighting each of their accomplishments. If I don’t, leave a note in the comments telling me to move my butt.

Additional reference:

Annals of Improbable Research, Ig Nobel Winners List

Patent for the wasabi smoke detector

NTV News24 – “イグ・ノーベル賞の今井講師が喜びの会見” (with embedded video) 2011 Oct 4

Chuunichi News – “「いつかノーベル賞を」 イグ・ノーベル賞受賞の今井氏ら会見” 2011 Oct 5

Kyodo News – “Japanese team wins Ig Nobel award for ‘wasabi alarm’” 2011 Sep 30:

MSN/Sankei News – “イグ・ノーベル賞の滋賀医科大今井講師 帰国会見で感謝” 2011 Oct 5:

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