Snug as a bug: the hated cockroach inspires a helpful robot

2016-02-09 05:01:05

WASHINGTON People use a lot of words to describe the reviled cockroach: disgusting, ugly, sneaky and repulsive, to name a few. But it may be time to add a surprising new one: inspirational.Scientists said on Monday they have built a small search-and-rescue robot, inspired by the ability of cockroaches to squeeze through tiny crevices, designed to navigate through rubble to find survivors after natural disasters or bombings."We feel strongly that cockroaches are one of nature's most revolting animals, but they can teach us important design principles," University of California, Berkeley integrative biology professor Robert Full said.Using a specially built obstacle course, the researchers observed how cockroaches scurried in less than a second through crevices smaller than a quarter of their height by compressing their jointed exoskeletons in half.Once inside the crevice, the cockroaches managed to move rapidly, at nearly 20 body lengths per second, with their legs splayed completely out to their sides. "If you scale it up to the size of a human, it would be equivalent to about 70 miles per hour (113 kph), over twice the speed of the fastest sprinter," said Harvard University biologist Kaushik Jayaram, who worked on the research while at UC-Berkeley.The researchers said the cockroaches were about a half inch (13 mm) tall when they ran freely, but compressed their bodies to about a 10th of an inch (2.5 mm) to get through cracks. Experts have been studying animal locomotion in order to invent robots that can maneuver in tough environments. For example, sidewinder rattlesnakes inspired a serpentine robot."Nature has a library of design ideas. This diversity enables discovery. You never know where basic research will lead. The most important discoveries are often from the most unexpected creatures, some of which are disgusting," Full added.The observations involving the species Periplaneta americana, the American cockroach, inspired the design of a prototype soft-bodied, multi-legged robot called CRAM (Compressible Robot with Articulated Mechanisms) that in the future could be used in swarms to help locate survivors in collapsed structures. The simple and inexpensive robot, 7 inches (18 cm) long, 3 inches (7.6 cm) tall and weighing 1.6 ounces (46 grams), was constructed using an origami-like manufacturing technique, Jayaram said. It can reorient its legs and compress its body like a cockroach to get through "vertically confined spaces," Jayaram added.The research was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. (Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Sandra Maler)

New dinosaur species offers evolutionary clues

2016-02-08 22:01:06

Paleontologists say a 201-million-year-old dinosaur fossil found two years ago on a Welsh beach could offer vital clues to understanding the evolution from the late Triassic to the early Jurassic Period.    Dracoraptor hanigani has been classified as a new species. It's one of the oldest Jurassic dinosaurs ever found, and among the most complete specimens from the time period.    The early Jurassic period is crucial in the evolutionary history of dinosaurs. It followed an extinction event in the late Triassic era that wiped out more than half the species on Earth and may have created the subsequent global dominance of the dinosaurs, led by the likes of Tyrannosaurus rex and Velociraptor.    According to Cindy Howells, palaeontology curator at the National Museum of Wales where the fossil is on display, "it's an important find in the early Jurassic because at that time dinosaurs were just starting to diversify. They'd only just evolved, but the continents were in such a position it was favorable, the warm climate, and this is just when we were getting that evolution of different types of dinosaurs meat-eaters were just starting out on the journey they made toward the Velociraptor and Tyrannosaurus that we have in the Cretaceous period. So this little dinosaur is (one of) the very first along the line that led to the Velociraptor."         Species which successfully crossed over into the Jurassic age are believed by experts to hold clues to the diversification of dinosaurs into the many species that existed in the middle Jurassic period, some of which are the ancestors of birds.     Dracoraptor translates loosely as "dragon thief", while hanigani namechecks Rob and Nick Hanigan, the two fossil-hunting brothers who found the remains at Lavernock Point near the Welsh capital Cardiff.    Forty percent of the animal was preserved, including its skull, claws, teeth and foot bones. Due to the body's symmetry this has enabled the virtual recreation of 80 percent of the Dracoraptor.     "Because we've got so much of it we can fill in quite a lot of gaps in the evolution of this period and we can use it to compare with other dinosaurs that we've got in America and around the world and the comparison of its anatomy helps us understand how these dinosaurs moved, what they ate, how they lived."    The creature was relatively small, around two meters long from head to tail. A poster in the museum shows it to be many times smaller than the Tyrannosaurus rex, although paleontologists believe it to be a juvenile of indistinct age. Dracoraptor had short arms and large hands.     "This dinosaur was very small," said Howells. "It was an agile, meat eating creature with sharp teeth, sharp claws, able to move swiftly and grab its prey. We don't quite know what it would have eaten, but possibly small reptiles, small mammals, and possibly other dinosaurs as well. It was a bit like a medium sized dog, very slender, very long-tailed to help it balance as it moved."     Dating the creature was possible because the remains were found above the layers containing Triassic conodont fossils. Geochemical analysis of carbon isotopes can also be used to establish the Jurassic age of these rocks.     "We know this dinosaur is (was born) 200 million years ago, to within half a million years or so," said Howells. "The rocks down here we've been studying for quite a long time now and we can do direct comparisons with the ages of rocks in Austria, which is where the transition between the Triassic and the Jurassic boundaries is precisely located."      She added: "This dinosaur is really significant because we have very few meat-eating dinosaurs, (or) these Theropod dinosaurs from the very beginning of the Jurassic. This was a time just after a big extinction event had happened and the dinosaurs were just starting to diversify and expand in their range, so this is one of the first complete skeletons that we have from that age."    Paul Barrett, of the Natural History Museum in London, told New Scientist the dracoraptor is "one of the best preserved meat-eating dinosaurs from the early part of the Jurassic Period - not only in Europe, but globally." Barrett believes its discovery will be crucial in unlocking understanding how dinosaurs evolved in the wake of the major extinctions.

Italian consortium set to win giant Chile telescope contract

2016-02-07 13:01:06

SANTIAGO An Italian consortium, including construction company Astaldi Spa, is close to securing a contract to build the world's largest telescope in the Chilean desert, project owner the European Southern Observatory (ESO) said on Thursday.The ESO said its finance committee had agreed to enter into final discussions with the consortium, which was the winning bidder to design, manufacture, transport and build the main dome and structure for the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT).The consortium includes major Italian builder Cimolai and subcontractor the EIE Group, as well as Astaldi.The ESO said in a statement that it hoped to sign the contract by May but did not give further details. It has said previously that building the E-ELT would cost around $1.2 billion (1.1 billion euros) at 2012 prices. The E-ELT will have a primary mirror 43 yards (39 meters) in diameter, which under current plans would make it by far the biggest telescope in operation worldwide when it begins observations in the mid-2020s.Chile's clear desert skies have made it a prime location for stargazers and a new generation of giant telescopes at various stages of planning and construction. These include the Giant Magellan Telescope, which should briefly be the world's largest in the early 2020s before being overtaken by the E-ELT. The E-ELT's goals include observations of the atmosphere around rocky exoplanets, which may yield signs of extraterrestrial life. The massive telescope should also be able to look back at the earliest moments after the Big Bang and help answer questions related to the expansion of the universe. (Reporting by Rosalba O'Brien; Editing by Tom Brown)

U.S., Britain consider letting spy agencies, police seek email, chat data from companies

2016-02-06 01:01:05

WASHINGTON U.S. and UK spy agencies and police may soon be allowed to directly ask media companies in each others' countries for email and online chat data for people being investigated, under a tentative bilateral deal, officials said on Friday.As governments worldwide and online companies struggle to strike a balance between privacy rights and law enforcement imperatives, three U.S. officials confirmed a pact is in the works, although it would require congressional approval."The proposed agreement, which remains under discussion, would be reciprocal and would require legislation to take effect," said a U.S. Justice Department official.First reported by The Washington Post, the talks were focused on letting UK agencies, such as counter-intelligence unit MI5, serve "production orders" on U.S. firms demanding data for “live intercepts” in inquiries involving UK citizens. UK agencies might also be able to ask U.S. companies to turn over stored data, such as emails. The Post quoted a U.S. official saying that British nationals, including criminals, are using U.S. data providers such as Google, Facebook and Hotmail, making it hard for foreign agencies to get legal access to data for criminal and counter-terrorism inquiries.The agreement's main goal is to clear up legal conflicts faced by U.S. communications service providers when Britain issues an order seeking electronic data on users abroad, a request that may run afoul of U.S. law, the official said. A U.S. government source, who asked for anonymity on sensitive legal issues, said U.S. law generally bars companies from complying with foreign data requests, even though criminal inquiries often hinge on cross-border communications. As a result, U.S. firms can face a tough choice: cooperate with a request and break U.S. law or ignore it and comply with the law.A spokesperson for Britain's Foreign Office said Britain was "not going to comment on confidential discussions."But the official noted big international technology companies had called for a "robust, principled and transparent framework" on data requests "across jurisdictions." The official said British Prime Minister David Cameron and Home Secretary (internal security minister) Theresa May were in preliminary discussions with other governments on the matter.Representative Adam Schiff, top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said Congress should monitor any privacy and civil liberties issues, "including making sure these British orders do not cover U.S. persons or individuals within the U.S., do not permit bulk collection, and have due process protections." (Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and James Dalgleish)

IRS resumes processing tax returns Thursday after system outage

2016-02-05 01:01:06

WASHINGTON The U.S. Internal Revenue Service said on Thursday it had resumed processing individual and business tax returns at about 5 p.m. EST on Thursday after a system outage.The IRS said on Wednesday it was experiencing computer failure across several systems and temporarily could not accept many taxpayer returns."IRS teams worked throughout the night and around the clock on this system outage,” IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said. “Our processing systems are back in business. Taxpayers should see little, if any, impact on their tax returns or refunds," he added in a statement. The U.S. federal tax collection agency said it was continuing to examine the cause of the outage, but that it appeared to have been a hardware failure. (Reporting by Eric Walsh; Editing by Eric Beech)

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