In today's factories and warehouses, it's not uncommon to see robots whizzing about, shuttling items or tools from one station to another. For the most part, robots navigate pretty easily across open layouts. But they have a much harder time winding through narrow spaces to carry out tasks such as reaching for a product at the back of a cluttered shelf, or snaking around a car's engine parts to unscrew an oil cap. Now MIT engineers have developed a robot designed to extend a chain-like appendage flexible enough to twist and turn in any necessary configuration, yet rigid enough to support heavy loads or apply torque to assemble parts in tight spaces. When the task is complete, the robot can retract the appendage and extend it again, at a different length and shape, to suit the next task.
The first PopSockets gripper I plastered to my phone's rear-end was a freebie gift thing I received from some company's swag bag. Amidst the magnets, notebooks, business cards, and other marketing ephemera, there it was: the circular doodad that has leapfrogged selfie-sticks as the must-have mobile accessory for our smartphone-saturated society. When I fished it out of the tote, I felt secretly delighted. Then I felt sort of dopey. I had long coveted the PopSockets gripper I saw on other people's phones, but I had refused to buy one of my own.
When it comes to prosthetic hands, you can't beat the one Luke Skywalker receives in The Empire Strikes Back. Not only did that robotic limb allow him to wield a lightsaber with great dexterity, each of his fingers twitched when a robot poked them. Although real-life brain-controlled prosthetics that enable a person to, say, pick up a pencil continue to improve for amputees, limbs that can actually feel touch sensations have remained a challenge. Now, by implanting electrodes into both the motor and the sensory areas of the brain, researchers have created a virtual prosthetic hand that monkeys control using only their minds, and that enables them to feel virtual textures. Neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis of Duke University in Durham, N.C., whose group has been developing so-called brain-machine interfaces, says that one of the pitfalls in these systems is that "no one's been able to close the loop" between controlling a limb and feeling a physical touch.
A bird's feathers, a reptile's scales, and a mammal's hairs may seem like very distinct features, but these skin appendages may come from common origins, say scientists. The mechanism behind the embryonic development of feathers, reptilian scales, and hair is remarkably similar, according to a paper published Friday in the journal Science Advances. This finding suggests that these distinct appendages have their roots in a common ancestor of these three diverse lineages. "This doesn't imply at all that feathers evolved from hair or that scales evolved from hair or that hair evolved from scales, et cetera," cautions Richard Prum, an ornithologist at Yale University who was not part of this study but who has studied these same developmental structures. "They are homologous as appendages," he explains in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor, in that these features share a developmental origin.
And more than anyone ever knew existed. Researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego and the Western Australian Museum have confirmed the existence of a previously unknown third species of seadragon -- the ruby seadragon, aka Phyllopteryx dewysea. It's a relative of the well-known leafy seadragon (Phycodurus eques) and common seadragon (Phyllopteryx taeniolatus), both of which are found off the southern and western coasts of Australia. But before 2015, their ruby cousin wasn't known to exist, thanks to its habitat -- deeper than recreational SCUBA diving limits -- and its close resemblance to the common seadragon. Researchers began to suspect a third species existed when they examined preserved specimens of what were believed to be common seadragons.