Posts Tagged ‘Tom Bawden’

‘I’: British Government Considering Solar Power Satellites

November 17, 2020

A bit more space technology news now. The weekend edition of the I, for Saturday 14th November 2020 carried a piece by Tom Bawden, ‘The final frontier for energy’ with the subtitle ‘Revealed: the UK is supporting a plan to create a giant solar power station in space’. The article ran

Millions of British homes could be powered by a giant solar power station 24,000 miles up in space within three decades, under proposals being considered by the government.

Under the plan, a system of five huge satellites – each more than a mile wide, covered in solar panels and weighing several thousand tons – would deliver laser beams of energy down to Earth.

These would provide up to 15 per cent of the country’s electricity supply by 2050, enough to power four million households – with the first space energy expected to be delivered by 2040. Each satellite would be made from tens of thousands of small modules, propelled into space through 200 separate rocket launches, and then assembled by robots.

The satellites would use thousands of mirrors to concentrate the sunlight on to the solar panels, which would be converted into high frequency radio waves. These would be beamed to a receiving antenna on the Earth, converted into electricity and delivered to our homes.

While the prospect of a solar space station beaming energy into our homes might seem outlandish, advocates are hopeful it can be done. The Government and the UK Space Agency are taking the technology extremely seriously, believing it could play a crucial role in helping the country to fulfil its promise of becoming carbon neutral – or net zero – by 2050, while keeping the lights on.

They have appointed the engineering consultancy Frazer-Nash to look into the technical and economic feasibility and it will report back next year.

“Solar space stations may sound like science fiction, but they could be a game-changing new source of energy for the UK and the rest of the world,” the science minister, Amanda Solloway, said.

“This pioneering study will help shine a light on the possibilities for a space-based solar power system which, if successful, could play an important role in reducing our emissions and meeting the UK’s ambitious climate-change targets,” she said.

Martin Soltau, of Frazer-Nash, who is leading the feasibility study, said: “This technology is really exciting and could be a real force for good. It has the potential to transform the energy market and make the net-zero target achievable – and from an engineering perspective it looks feasible.”

Previous analysis by other researchers on economic viability suggests space solar could be “competitive” with existing methods of electricity generation but that will need to be independently assessed, Mr Soltau said.

If the UK is to become net zero it needs to find a green source of energy that is totally dependable because the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun definitely doesn’t always shine.

This is where solar space comes in, with its panels sufficiently much closer to the sun that they are not blighted by clouds and darkness.

“This would provide a baseload of energy 24/7 and 365 days a year – and has a fuel supply for the next five billion years,” said Mr Soltau, referring to the predicted date of the sun’s eventual demise.

Until recently, this project really would have been a pipe dream – but two developments mean it is now a realistic prospect, Mr Soltau says.

The first is the new generation of reusable rockets, such as the Falcon 9 launcher from Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which mean satellites can be sent into space far more cheaply.

The cost of launching objects into low Earth orbit has gone from about $20,000 (£15,000) a kilogram in the early 2000s to less $3,000 now – and looks to fall below $1,000 in the coming years, he says.

At the same time, solar panels are much cheaper and more than three times as efficient as they were in the 1990s, meaning far fewer need to be sent into orbit to produce the same amount of energy.

Mr Soltau is hopeful, although by no means certain, that his study will find the technology to be feasible in economic and engineering terms – with the technology looking like it’s on track.

The five satellite solar power station system envisaged by the Government will probably cost more than £10bn – and potentially quite a lot more – more than the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, which would produce roughly similar amounts of electricity, is expected to cost about £30bn, including decommissioning, Mr Soltau points out.

When all is said and done, there’s no getting away from the fact that building a satellite of that size and complexity in orbit is a mindboggling task. But it could well be feasible.

The article was accompanied by this diagram.

The captions read

  1. Solar reflectors: Orientation of satellite with respect to the Sun controlled to constantly reflect sunlight onto the solar power array below.
  2. Solar panels and transmitters: Approximately 60,000 layers of solar panels that collect the sunlight from the reflectors, and convert this to transmit high frequency radio waves.
  3. Power transmission: High frequency radio wave transmission from satellite to receiver on ground.
  4. Ground station: approximately 5k in diameter rectenna (a special type of receiving antenna that is used for converting electromagnetic energy into direct current (DC) electricity), generating 2 gigawatts of power enough for 2 million people at peak demand.

The solar reflectors are the objects which look rather like DVDs/CDs. The box at the top of the diagram gives the heights of a few other objects for comparison.

The ISS – 110m

The London Shard – 310m

The Burj Khalifa – 830m

The Cassiopeia solar satellite 1,700m.

The use of solar power satellites as a source of cheap, green energy was proposed decades ago, way back when I was at school in the 1970s. I first read about it in the Usborne Book of the Future. I don’t doubt that everything in the article is correct, and that the construction of such satellites would be comparable in price, or even possibly cheaper, than conventional terrestrial engineering projects. I went to a symposium on the popular commercialisation space at the headquarters of the British Interplanetary Society way back at the beginning of this century. One of the speakers was an engineer, who stated that the construction of space stations, including space hotels, was actually comparable in cost to building a tower block here on Earth. There was just a difference in attitude. Although comparable in cost, such space stations were viewed as prohibitively expensive compared to similar terrestrial structures.

Apart from the expense involved, the other problem solar power satellites have is the method of transmission. All the previous systems I’ve seen beamed the power back to Earth as microwaves, which means that there is a possible danger from cancer. The use of laser beams might be a way round that, but I still wonder what the health and environmental impact would be, especially if the receiving station is around 5 km long.

I also wonder if the project would ever be able to overcome the opposition of vested interests, such as the nuclear and fossil fuel industries. One of the reasons the Trump government has been so keen to repeal environmental legislation and put in place measures to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from doing its job, is because the Republican party receives very generous funding from the oil industry, and particularly the Koch brothers. And there are plenty of Tory MPs who also possess links to big oil.

At the moment this looks like a piece of industry PR material. It’s an interesting idea, and I’ve no doubt that it’s factually correct, but given the resistance of the British establishment to new ideas, and especially those which might involve government expenditure, I have grave doubts about whether it will actually ever become a reality. Fossil fuels might be destroying the planet, but there are enough people on the right who don’t believe that’s happening and who get a very tidy profit from it, that I can see the oil industry being promoted against such projects for decades to come.

‘I’ Article about Micro Robots That Can Repair Body from Inside

August 28, 2020

Here’s a piece of optimistic science news. Yesterday’s I for 27th August 2020 carried this article by Tom Bawden, ‘Microbots can be injected to repair human body’, reporting that scientists have developed tiny robots that may injected into the body to carry drugs or repair tissue. The article runs

Scientists have created a new kind of microscopic walking robot that is shorter, thinner and narrower than the width of a human hair and can be injected into the body in a syringe.

Researchers hope that this new kind of robot – the first to carry and use onboard electronics – can be used to deliver drugs deep into human tissue or to sew up miniature blood vessel wounds deep in the body.

They hope that within five to 10 years the robot – currently a prototype that has been tested successfully in the lab – can be developed into smart, autonomous devices that can explore an area without the need of human guidance, according to a study in the journal Nature.

In their current form, these are the first microscopic robots that incorporate semiconductor components, allowing them to be controlled with electronic signals.

Each bot consists of a circuit made from silicon photovoltaics – which convert light into electricity and functions as the torso and brain – and four electrochemical “actuators”; components that function as legs.

The researchers control the robots by flashing laser pulses at different photovoltaics, each of which charges up a separate set of legs. By toggling the laser back and forth between the front and back photovoltaics, the robot walks.

“Machines like these are going to take us into all kinds of amazing worlds”, said Marc Miskin, of the University of Pennyslvania.

There’s also a snippet stating that they hope to use the robots for neurology:

The researchers are exploring ways to soup up the robots with more complicated electronics that could result in swarms of microscopic robots being dispatched to probe large areas of the human brain.

Scientists have been working on such robots for a long time. I think the ultimate goal is to develop nanorobots – robots so tiny that they could climb inside and repair cells. It’s been suggested that such machines could be so effective that they’d give people immortality. On the other hand, such nanobots have also raised the spectacle of the ‘grey goo’. In this scenario, scientists develop self-replicating nanomachines that simply turn everything into a grey goo. These escape, and destroy the world. I think we’re a long way from that just yet. The robots do, however, remind me of the old SF movie, Fantastic Voyage, in which a crew and their submarine are miniaturised and injected into a wounded scientist to save his life. But obviously without the miniaturisation technology and Raquel Welsh, who was one of the stars.

However, from reading the article it seems that they haven’t quite perfected remote control. I don’t see how using a laser to guide its legs would work if the robot was injected far away from a light source inside someone. But perhaps I’m missing something. I also have grave doubts about using them to explore the human brain. I’m very much aware that this would be immensely useful, considering how little we still know about it, but the technology seems to me also to have the potential for massive abuse. For example, if swarms can be injected into the brain to explore, it’s possible that they could also be used to alter the brain and control the person on whom they’re being used.

There’s clearly much potential here, but I wonder how long it will actually be before there are any practical machines developed from these devices.


New ‘Space Hopper’ Device Allows Astronauts to Spend Less Time Exercising in Space

November 21, 2019

This is another story from yesterday’s I, this time about a new development in space research. At the moment astronauts have to spend over an hour a day exercising in order to combat the harmful effects of zero gravity. Without the pull of the Earth’s gravity, their muscles waste, including the heart. They also have to take care to try to prevent the loss of calcium from their bodies, which weakens their bones. But now inventor John Kennett has invented an exercise machine that allows them to do many of the exercises at once, thus cutting down drastically the amount of time they need trying to maintain a level of fitness. The article by Tom Bawden, ‘Astronauts jump at chance to use ‘space hopper’ to get fitter quicker’ runs

Keeping healthy in space is so vital that astronauts typically spend up to 90 minutes a day doing vigorous exercises.

But that could be about to change thanks to a new “jumping machine” that will gie them the same physical benefit in three or four minutes, according to its inventor.

Without effective exercise, astronauts’ fitness would quickly decline and their muscles and bones would lose strength.

At the moment, they spend much of their space-day running, cycling and doing strength training – on equipment that takes up a lot of valuable room and can take up to an hour to set up and dismantle.

According to the inventor John Kennett, his machine replaces the existing regime with a smaller, all-in-one device that boosts muscle and bone strength and provides cardiovascular exercise at the same time. it is 1.3 metres long and 20 centimetres thick when folded to be stowed.

The bed has a board that presses up against the bottom of the astronaut’s feet. This exerts a force that replicates the motion of jumping and is a highly effective form of exercise that can be varied to work different parts of the body.

“This piece of equipment has the potential to change the way astronauts travel through the solar system,” Mr Kennett said.

“The equipment they use at the moment is based on being in the gym – things like dead lifting or bench pressing. This is good but, when you jump, you do something incredible effective to the muscle and the tendons because you’re absorbing the landing force and then pushing away,” he added.

The device, known as the High Frequency Impulse for Microgravity, has been specially designed to eliminate vibrations and forces that would normally apply to exercise equipment but have the potential to damage spacecraft.

There’s also an additional snippet reporting that the UK space agency has given St Mary’s University in Twickenham a grant to conduct further research on Kennett’s invention after initial tests proved promising.

This is really interesting, and could be a great step forward. But I’ve heard rumours of breakthroughs in tackling the effects of Zero G on the human body before. About twenty or so years ago I went to see the British expert on space medicine, Dr. Kevin Fong, talk about the some of the problems space causes on astronauts’ physical and mental health. He believed that these problems were near to being solved through a device, a vibrating plate, that astronauts would stand on. I haven’t heard anything about this since, so I presume it didn’t work. But the inclusion of a fixed plate for the bottom of the astronaut’s feet in this decision also suggests that the previous invention made have played a role in the development of this device. And if this does prove effective in combating zero G, it will be a great help in allowing humans to cope better with the long interplanetary voyages necessary to open up and hopefully colonise the solar system.

French Scientists Help Paralysed Man to Walk with Robot Exoskeleton

October 6, 2019

Friday’s I, for 4th October 2019, also carried the astonishing news that a paralysed man had been able to walk and move his arms using an exoskeleton developed by scientists at the university of Grenoble. The article, ‘Paralysed man walks with help of exoskeleton’ by Rhiannon Williams and Tom Bawden, on page 5 of the newspaper, ran

A paralysed man has been able to move his arms and walk with the assistance of a robotic exoskeleton suit controlled by his thoughts, in a breakthrough that could revolutionise the lives of patients around the world.

The 28-yeard-old man is paralysed from the shoulders down with only partial movement in his biceps and left wrist, meaning he is classified as a tetraplegic and operates a joystick-controlled wheelchair.

Over the course of a two-year trial conducted by French researchers including the University of Grenoble, he was able to move all four of his limbs through brain signals recorded and interpreted by the robotic suit.

The team implanted a recording device between the patient’s brain and skull either side of his head, containing electrodes to collect brain signals and transmit them to a decoding algorithm. Those signals were translated into his desired movements and communicated to the exoskeleton suit to move it, after activating a brain-operated “on” switch. The suit was suspended from the ceiling to allow it to balance correctly.

The patient trained the decoding algorithm to understand his thoughts by using it to move a digital avatar in a video game before raching out for 2D and 3D objects while wearing the suit. He spent 95 days training the algorithm at home playing the game and teaching an avatar to walk onscreen, and a further 45 days operating the suit in the lab. In the first two months, he was able to activate the switch 73 per cent of the time over six sessions, while over 39 sessions he was able to walk over a total of 145m.

The study, published in The Lancet Neurology, has the potential to enhance patient autonomy and quality of life. “Our finds could move us a step closer to helping tetraplegic patients to drive computers using braini signals alone, perhaps starting with driving wheelchairs using brain activity instead of joysticks and progressing to developing an exoskeleton for increased mobility,” said Professor Stephan Chabardes, a neurosurgeon  from the CHU Grenoble-Alpes teachinig hospital. The trial is continuing with three more patients as researchers seek to remove the ceiling-mounted harness.

While the study is a “welcome and exciting advance”, its findings are a long way from reality, said Professor Tom Shakespeare from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “Even if workable, cost contraints mean hi-tech options are never going to be available to most people with spinal cord injury,m” he said. “One analysis suggests only 15 per cent of the world’s disabled population have access to the wheelchairs or other assistive technologies they need.”

A related peace, ‘Success: Real-world results after months of training’ adds

Robotic exoskeletons have been touted for years as a way to increase the mobility of elderly people and those who have limited movement, with global companies such as LG, Honda, Panasonic, Audi and Hyundai among the investors.

The trial’s exoskeleton is operated by a semi-invasive brain-computer system, and is the first of its kind designed for long-term use to activate all four limbs, according to Professor Alim-Louis Benabid, from the University of Grenoble.

‘Previous brain-computer studies have used more invasive recording devices implanted beneath the outermost membrane of the brain, where they eventually stop working. They have been connected to wires, limited to creating movement in just one limb, or have focused on restoring movement to patients’ own muscles’, he said.

The exoskeleton in the trial has 14 degrees of movement, meaning it can move in 14 different ways. Over time the patient progressed from reaching towards targets on cubes using one hand to using both hands to touch targets including rotating both wrists after 16 months. On average, the patient was able to perform tasks between 10 per cent and 20 per cent more successfully with the exoskeleton than by controlling the digital avatar, suggesting he received richer feedback in the real world.

Here’s the picture that accompanied the article of the man wearing the suit.

As the article says, there have been designs for robotic exoskeletons for some time. IN the 50s – 60s American scientists had plans for one. However, only the claw was built because the motors that they were using were so powerful they would have shaken the whole suit apart. Then in the 1990s there were designs for robotic leggings very much like those in the Wallace and Gromit film, The Wrong Trousers. They were designed to help paralysed people to walk. Driven by electric motors and with a computer learning system, the trousers would have first been worn by an able-bodied person. They would have walked about to teach the machine how to do it. After the machine had taken in this information, they would have been passed on to the disabled people needing them. A similar machine appeared in the I a few weeks ago, when it reported the development of robotic shorts.

At the moment, I’m afraid Professor Shakespeare is right, and such exoskeletons are too expensive for general use by the disabled. But hopefully if this technology is improved and developed, the price will come down and something like this machine might become affordable. It would certainly improve disabled people’s quality of life. In the meantime, we could do much by giving far more disabled people throughout the world access to the devices and machines we have now, like wheelchairs, so that far more than 15 per cent of the global disabled population have them. 





































The ‘I’ Newspaper on the Invention of Star Trek-Style ‘Tractor Beam’

January 4, 2017

The I newspaper today reported that Asier Marzo, an American doctoral student, now a research assistant at Bristol uni, has invented a tractor beam using sound which can be built by anyone with a 3D printer.

The article by Tom Bawden runs

Fans of Star Wars and Star Trek were given a huge boost last year when a doctoral student in America developed the first sonic tractor beam capable of pulling an object towards it by using sound waves. But alas its use was confined to fancy labs with expensive equipment.

Now, thanks to that same individual – who has since become a research assistant at the University of Bristol – it has become far more accessible, at least to anyone with 3D printing technology.

The tractor beam has long been a staple of science fiction, used in a series of Star Trek episodes to capture and tow other space ships, while the Death Star’s tractor beam memorably catches the Millennium Falcon in Star Wars.

A do-it-yourself handheld acoustic tractor beam will now become widely available, according to a new paper published in the journal Applied Physics Letters.

“Previously we developed a tractor beam, but it was very complicated and pricey because it required a phase array, which is a complex electronic system,” said Asier Marzo, the researcher behind the developments.

“Now, we have made a simple, static tractor beam that only requires a static piece of matter,” he said.

“We can modulate a simple wave using what’s called a metamaterial, which is basically a piece of matter with lots of tubes of different lengths. The sound passes through these tubes and when it exits the metamaterial it has the correct phases to create a tractor beam.”

With an effect that is determined by the shape of the tubes, the research team focused on optimising the design to allow fabrication with common 3D printers, ensuring it could be constructed by home hobbyists. (The I, 4th January 2017, p. 23).

I think the pseudoscientific explanation for the tractor beams in Star Trek is that they use gravitons – the subatomic particles that carry the force of gravity – to pull other ships and objects towards them. In an early episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation Wesley Crusher is shown having invented a handheld tractor beam. I think it’s in the episode ‘The Naked Now’.

There are some very clever things now being done with sound. There was a piece on The One Show or perhaps the Beeb’s pop science programme, Bang Goes The Theory, where they showed how sound waves could be used to levitate a series of small objects. I have a feeling it was the discovery of acoustic levitation back in the 1990s or early 2000s that inspired one episode of Far Scape, ‘Taking the Stone’ where Chiana joins a group of alien thrill seekers. These young people get their kicks from leaping off a cliff above an alien echo chamber while humming. If they get the tone right, the sound waves resonate and break their fall. If they don’t, they plunge to their deaths. I can’t imagine that ever catching on as sport in real life, but you never know.