Google Puts Power Control in Your Hands
Wouldn't it be easier to conserve energy in your home, and save money, if you could get daily feedback about your energy usage from your home computer? That's the idea behind Google's new initiative. The search giant partnered with eight energy utilities to offer Google PowerMeter to their customers. PowerMeter is a Google gadget that relies on metering devices to give users accurate information about the amount of energy they're using. Users can access this information from their computers.
Google's diverse partners come from three different countries. They include both small and very large utilities, servicing rural and urban areas. Some are privately-held, while others are municipally run. While Google's new service is currently available only to a small group of customers, the company plans to expand it later this year. They also hope to sign up more utilities, and more companies that can help them implement their PowerMeter software.
Best of all, as with many services from Google, PowerMeter is free and requires that users opt in. While Google is not the first company to offer home energy monitoring in a relatively easy and convenient, it is well-positioned to encourage its spread. If they are successful, we could see a real impact, as one estimate suggests that simply getting information to consumers on energy usage trends can help them cut their consumption by five to 15 percent.
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Energy Out of Thin Air
One major challenge when it comes to using batteries to power anything is how much energy they store. This is especially true for batteries used to power electric cars. Now researchers in the chemistry department at the University of St. Andrews say that an air-fueled battery they've designed shows immense promise, and could provide up to ten times the energy storage of currently-available batteries.
The new battery's design takes its cue from rechargeable lithium ion batteries. Where those batteries use a lithium cobalt oxide electrode, however, researchers at the university substitute a porous carbon electrode. The lithium ions and electrons in the cell then react with oxygen in the ambient air. The researchers believe their battery, dubbed STAIR (St. Andrews Air), could deliver a constant electrical output from renewable resources.
Researchers hope to see their battery eventually powering portable electronic devices and even electric cars. They're funded by the U.K.'s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. The battery project is expected to continue for the next two years, but according to the lead researcher, the STAIR cell won't be commercially available for at least the next five years.
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Robots Fall Without Getting Hurt
Whether you're a human or a robot, if you play an active sport such as soccer, you need to learn how to fall without hurting yourself or your environment. This is one of the potential stumbling blocks (pun not intended) for robots competing in the annual world RoboCup tournament. RoboCup's ultimate goal is to field a robot team in 40 years that can beat the best human team...but that's not going to happen unless soccer-playing robots can learn how to take a fall safely. Now two robot teams from Chile may have achieved this elusive goal.
Javier Ruiz-del-Solar of the University of Chile in Santiago and his human team are training the two soccer-playing robot teams. The bots fall in a controlled way, recover quickly, and can even fall deliberately. Ask any soccer goalie how important this is! Rather than letting his robots fall as a dead weight, which is the more typical approach, Ruiz-del-Solar quantified potential damage from a fall as a set of equations, which take into account such factors as the forces transmitted to its joints and the position of its cameras and other important parts when it falls.
Ruiz-del-Solar's team took these equations and plugged them into a computer simulation based on a robot with 22 simple joints. The simulations turned up a number of ways that robots can fall to minimize damage to themselves, such as by folding its legs underneath it (thus making it less likely for its head to hit the ground). The team then took the next step of testing the simulations in the real world, with a real robot. They confirmed that when the robot fell in the ways the simulation suggested would cause less damage, the robot in fact took less damage. Ruiz-del-Solar thinks the equations can be generalized to other humanoid robots with standard joints, thus letting more robots learn how to fall. He and his team still face the ultimate test of their research: this year's RoboCup, which will be held in Graz, Autria, in June and July. The research offers applications outside of soccer-playing robots, too; it could help someone wearing a cybersuit or robotic legs for walking assistance to fall gracefully without taking excess damage.
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