- 5 Ways Drones Could Help In A Disaster Like The Boston Marathon Bombing
Plus three robots that are already saving lives.
Yesterday, the President of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International Michael Toscano told U.S. News: “Whether it is in response to a natural disaster or a tragedy like we saw in Boston, [unmanned aerial systems] can be quickly deployed to provide first responders with critical situational awareness in areas too dangerous or difficult for manned aircraft to reach.”
Is he right? Well, he’s not entirely wrong. Drones, like manned helicopters used by police and emergency responders, can hover, provide a great overall picture of action on the ground, and direct aid to where it’s needed. The trick is that, right now, drones don’t do that uniquely, which is what a sales pitch on their special capacity demands. Boston did in fact have a police helicopter flying overhead, and the problem of low fuel reportedly overheard on the police scanner is a problem that another helicopter could have solved just as easily. Drones aren’t particularly special in disaster relief-yet.
As drone tech advances, we could soon see remotely piloted vehicles joining the ranks of police departments and emergency response organizations. Here are five drones that might save a life in a future disaster.
1. The MQ-8C Fire Scout: This full-size, unmanned helicopter could ultimately replace police or medical evacuation helicopters. The crew compartment can, among other things, be converted to hold an EMS team for medical airlift, or extra fuel to stay aloft longer.
2. Quadrotors: Drones like the Aeryon Scout provide a wealth of video coverage, spying on rooftops and moving in fearlessly to document a blast zone. (Of course, civilian smartphones did much of that work in Boston.)
3. Swarm of Swiss robots: By emulating the patterns ants use to hunt for food, these swarming drones can efficiently scan a large area and then converge where they are needed-a strategy that requires an awful lot of manpower when it’s used by human search-and-rescue workers.
4. Incredible HLQ: This quadrotor is designed to carry relief supplies to places people can’t access, or can’t access fast enough, during an emergency. It’s in development now after a successful Kickstarter campaign.
5. The Pars Aerial Rescue Bot: While not strictly applicable to Boston, this Iranian lifeguard quadrotor could aid in disasters along coastal areas, flying through severe weather to rescue people from drowning.
Flying machines aren’t the only rescue robots we can expect in the future. Unmanned ground machines also have a lot to offer. CHIMP, a monkey-tank-robot created by Carnegie Melon, is designed specifically to climb over rubble or up ladders to save people in collapsed buildings. DARPA’s Robotics Challenge, in which CHIMP is an entrant, has inspired several robots designed to take the place of humans in emergency situations.
Three types of ground robots are already saving lives around the world:
3. The Land Shark EODS: This remotely controlled robot is used to detonate explosives safely away from people. Massachusetts State Police have at least one on hand.
The future will certainly see more robots rushing to save lives, and undoubtedly some of those will be flying. The future promise of flying rescuers, however, should not distract us from the actual ground robots that are being used in Boston presently.
- FYI: Can Humans Get High On Catnip?
Samantha J. Kitty fiending for some catnip Evan Kafka via Suzanne LaBarreRelated: Can cats get high on marijuana?
While cats may feel effects from marijuana-no word on whether Sir Harry Paus actually likes the experience-”kitty pot” does not have a reciprocal effect on humans.
In the late 1960s, some researchers reported catnip gave people a marijuana-like high, but it turned out they had simply mixed up the two plants. As veterinarian Arnold Plotnick of Manhattan Cat Specialists in New York wrote to me in an email, “Think about it… catnip is cheap and legal. If it had a significant effect on people, everyone would be smoking it.”
Meanwhile, cats do feel effects from marijuana, but it may be scary for them. “Animals can’t understand they’re being intoxicated, therefore it can cause considerable anxiety,” says Bruce Kornreich, associate director of the Cornell Feline Health Center in upstate New York.
It’s not clear why the active chemical in catnip, nepetalactone, doesn’t affect humans, Kornreich says. Pot affects cats because like many mammals, including humans and dogs, cats have receptors in their brains for pot’s active chemicals, cannabinoids. Cannabinoid receptors make pets susceptible to feeling symptoms when they inhale secondhand smoke or, more commonly, accidentally eat their owners’ stashes. (It’s actually a bigger problem with dogs, he says, because dogs eat everything.)
Kornreich has seen pets come into veterinary emergency rooms after marijuana exposure. “The pets are presented for anxiety, active heart rate, acting a little unusual,” he says. “They may react differently to sound and to being touched” perhaps because, like humans, drugs alter their perception.
Kornreich urges pet owners to take their pets to a vet if this happens, adding that vets are not required by law to report marijuana they run into during their practice. Most veterinarians care more about making pets better, he says. “It’s more just focused on the well-being of the patient.”
He also strongly discourages purposefully exposing a pet to marijuana. Fido and Kitty can’t consent to getting high. “I don’t think it’s right or fair to make that decision for an animal,” he says.
If pot affects cats because they have cannabinoid receptors, does that mean people aren’t affected by catnip because they don’t have nepetalactone receptors? Scientists aren’t sure. “While it seems that this is a reasonable hypothesis to explain why humans don’t respond to catnip like cats do, I cannot find any studies that rigorously test it,” Kornreich says. While many brain receptors are common across different animals, many receptors also differ, so it wouldn’t be unprecedented for humans to lack a receptor present in cat brains.
In cats, inhaled nepetalactone stimulates the olfactory bulb, the part of the brain that processes odors. The olfactory bulb then interacts with the amygdala, the brain region associated with emotion and decision-making, and hypothalamus, which controls a variety of bodily functions. From the hypothalamus, nepetalactone stimulates a sexual response in cats that are genetically predisposed to sensitivity to catnip. (About 20 to 30 percent of cats don’t seem to react to the plant.)
Some insects seem to react to nepetalactone, too. Strangely enough, chemical companies are studying nepetalactone because it seems to repel mosquitoes, ticks and mites, like a kind of natural DEET. For the insects to change their behavior around nepetalactone, even if negatively, suggests that they have nepetalactone receptors.
As for smoking catnip: not only does it fail to get people high, it can make them feel pretty awful. Too much catnip, whether smoked or drunk as a tea, could cause headaches and vomiting.
Have a burning science question you’d like to see answered in our FYI section? Email it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Audi Wants Its Cars To Predict Where Traffic Will Be
Traffic Jam epSos.deSide-stepping traffic by mining data
At the GPU Technology Conference 2013 show in San Jose, Audi announced some of its plans for its Cars of the Future, The Register reports. One of the coolest ideas: cars that can predict where traffic will be, so drivers can avoid it.
The amply named Predictive Traffic function would mine traffic records and current reports, including social media, as well as scheduled events like sports games that could bring cars to a standstill. The system, under Audi’s plan, could also predict a driver’s most likely destination based on their traffic history.
Pretty neat! Along with that, Audi announced a concept for a reworked directions system that would operate in a “human-like” way, giving directions based on landmarks instead of streets. A Smart Parking feature would work similarly to the traffic-predicting system, but do it for parking spots: mapping out available spots and prices for those spots, rather than making you drive around in circles hunting one down.
We don’t have too many details yet on exactly how these systems would work, but since Audi did make a self-driving car, hopefully we’ll see these projects come to life soon, too.
- Magnetic Brain Stimulation Removes Craving For Cigarettes
Smoking Kills Challiyil Eswaramangalath Vipin via WikimediaDon’t worry, it doesn’t hurt!
Scientists at Medical University of South Carolina temporarily blunted cigarette cravings among smokers by magnetically stimulating nerve cells in their brains. The procedure, called transcranial magnetic stimulation, is already approved by the FDA to treat depression, though its efficacy is controversial (it’s also been prescribed to stop people from lying and treat adult ADHD.)
In the experiment, researchers randomly assigned 16 smokers to either a 15-minute session of high-frequency transcranial magnetic stimulation (in which coils placed over the forehead send magnetic pulses into the prefrontal cortex), or 15 minutes of sham treatment. The magnetic stimulation isn’t painful and doesn’t require sedation or anesthesia. The scientists told the volunteers not to smoke for two hours prior to the experiment.
Before the treatment, the researchers showed the smokers both neutral images (such as mountain scenes) and images intended to provoke nicotine cravings (such as a person lightning a cigarette.) Then they asked the volunteers to rate how they felt about statements like “I would do almost anything for a cigarette now” and “I am going to smoke as soon as possible.” After the magnetic stimulation, the participants saw similar images and again rated how much they craved a cigarette.
The researchers found that the participants who got the real magnet treatment expressed significantly less desire to smoke at the end of the experiment compared with those who got the fake treatment. In fact, the craving reduction was positively correlated with how nicotine-dependent the volunteer was, meaning that those who smoked the most saw the greatest decrease in cigarette craving after the magnetic stimulation.
The authors of the study note that people trying to quit smoking would need several sessions of transcranial magnetic stimulation per day in order to see longer-lasting reductions in cravings. The paper appears in Biological Psychiatry.
- Everything You Need To Know About Ricin, The Poison Mailed To President Obama
Ricin (on Breaking Bad) via Breaking Bad WikiRicin is one of the most poisonous substances on Earth, it’s scarily easy to make, and somebody is mailing it to the President and at least one U.S. senator. What it is, how it works, and more, inside.
Yesterday, an envelope addressed to Senator Roger Wicker, Republican of Mississippi, was found to contain a white granular substance that was identified as ricin. Today, a similar letter addressed to President Obama was found. These envelopes were intercepted off-site–they never got anywhere near their targets–but as a precaution, Capitol Police have shut down mail service until they can figure out what’s going on.
In the meantime, let’s talk about ricin!
How poisonous is it?
Oh, man. Very. It’s dangerous in just about any way it gets into your system, though ingesting (eating) it is about the least dangerous way. Injecting or inhaling requires about a thousand times less ricin to kill a human than ingesting, and that’s a very small amount indeed. An average adult needs only 1.78mg of ricin injected or inhaled to die; that’s about the size of a few grains of table salt–which ricin resembles visually.
How does it work?
Ricin, a toxic protein, infects cells, blocking their ability to synthesize their own protein. Without cells making protein, key functions in the body shut down; even in survivors, permanent organ damage is often the result of ricin poisoning. It’s a highly unpleasant way to be poisoned: within six hours, according to the Center for Disease Control, victims who have ingested ricin will feel gastrointestinal effects like severe vomiting and diarrhea, which can lead to serious dehydration. Then the ricin infects the cells of the vital gastrointestinal organs as they pass through the body, leading to the failure of the kidneys, liver, and pancreas.
Inhalation of ricin has a different effect, since the ricin proteins aren’t interacting with the same parts of the body. Instead of gastrointestinal problems, you’ll develop a vicious, bloody cough, your lungs will fill with fluid, and eventually you’ll lose your ability to breathe, causing death. Injection, too, is different, depending on where you’ve been injected, but will generally result in vomiting and flu-like symptoms, swelling around the place of injection, and eventually organ failure as your circulatory system passes the protein around the body. Death from inhalation or injection usually occurs about three to five miserable, agonizing days after contact.
Interestingly, there aren’t any immediate symptoms, and indeed there can be a significant delay before symptoms show themselves, up to a day or two.
Exposure on the skin is generally not fatal, though it may cause a reaction that can range from irritation to blistering.
That sounds…horrible. Is there an antidote, at least?
Haha. No. The US and UK governments have been working on an antidote for decades–here’s a nice article describing the progression of one such antidote–but there isn’t one available to the public. The CDC’s website states bluntly, “There is no antidote for ricin toxicity.” There are some steps you can take if you get to a hospital immediately; for ingestion, a stomach pump can sometimes prevent the ricin from reaching the rest of the gastrointestinal system at its full force. But…that’s about it, really.
How does it stack up against other poisons?
Well, that depends on what your aim is. Ricin is much easier to produce than other popular biological weapons like botulinum, sarin, and anthrax, but it is not as potent as any of those, which limits its effectiveness as a weapon. It also is not very long-lived; the protein can age and become inactive fairly quickly compared to, say, anthrax, which can remain dangerous for decades. There were experiments back around World War I attempting to make wide-scale ricin weapons, packaging it into bombs and coating bullets in it, but these proved not particularly effective and also violate the Hague Convention’s agreements on war crimes, so the US discarded ricin.
It’s much more effective, weapon-wise, as a close-contact, small-target weapon–by injecting, as with Georgi Markov, or by putting small particles into an aerosol spray and blasting a target. It’s also not contagious, which limits its effectiveness as a tool of biological warfare. But it’s considered highly dangerous partly because it’s still outrageously toxic and partly because it takes no great skill to produce.
So it’s not hard to make?
Well…no. Like, not at all. It’s made from the byproduct of the castor oil manufacturing process. You take the “mash” of the castor oil seeds, which contain around 5-10 percent ricin, and perform a process called chromatography. Chromatography is a blanket term for a set of techniques used to separate mixtures, usually by dissolving in liquid or gas. The US government has done its best to eradicate recipes for ricin from the internet, sort of; a patent was filed back in 1962 for ricin extraction, and the Patent Office took it off the publicly available server in 2004 for safety reasons. That said, the recipe is super easy to find; here at the PopSci offices, I’m blocked from listening to Rdio on my work computer, but I found a recipe to make an outrageously deadly poison in about a minute.
The techniques involved are undergraduate-level chemistry, creating a slurry with the castor bean mash and filtering with water and then a few easily-found substances like hydrochloric acid.
It comes from castor beans?
Ricin is a highly toxic protein that’s extracted from the seed of the castor plant, often called a “castor bean” or “castor oil bean,” despite not technically being a bean. The castor plant is extremely common; it’s used as an ornamental plant throughout the western world, prized for its ability to grow basically anywhere as well as its pretty, spiky leaves and weird spiny fruits. It’s also an important crop; the seeds are full of oil, and castor oil is used for lots of legitimate purposes. It’s a common laxative, for one thing, and since it’s more resistant to high temperatures than other kinds of vegetable oils, it’s a nice alternative to petroleum oil in engines.
Wait, but you can eat it? So how is this a poison?
Ah, yes. Castor oil is perfectly safe, according to the FDA and your grandma, but ricin is not castor oil. Castor seeds are still poisonous; this study says that a lethal dose of castor seeds for adults is about four to eight seeds. But the oil itself does not contain ricin; the ricin protein is left behind in the “castor bean mash” after the oil is extracted from the seed. Poisoning from eating the seed itself is rare.
Have there been cases of ricin poisoning in the past?
You mean, beyond the several times it’s been featured as a major plot point in Breaking Bad? Sure! The most famous is probably the assassination of Georgi Markov in 1978. Markov was a Bulgarian novelist, playwright, journalist, and dissident, and was murdered by the Bulgarian secret service, with assistance from the KGB, by ricin injection. He was crossing a bridge when he was jabbed in the leg with an umbrella, which delivered a ricin pellet into his bloodstream. He died three days later of ricin poisoning.
There are plenty of incidents of people arrested for attempting (or, more often, succeeding) to make ricin; it’s a pretty easy poison to make. In fact, there was even another ricin-in-the-envelope attempt made back in 2003–a person identifying as “Fallen Angel” sent letters filled with ricin to the White House, apparently as a result of some new trucking regulations (seriously). “Fallen Angel” was never found, but the letters were intercepted and did not cause any injury.
How dangerous are these envelopes filled with ricin?
The envelope strategy has more to do with potential ease of getting the poison close to targets than its strength as a delivery system. If you’re targeting the President of the United States, it’s easier and more anonymous to mail a letter than to try to get close to him with an umbrella modified for ricin-stabbing. But it’s not a great way to poison someone with ricin. Assuming the letter actually got into the target’s hands, of the three ways ricin can get into a person’s system (inhalation, injection, ingestion), only one–inhalation–is really possible, and it’s not that likely.
Inhalation as a weapon is best accomplished through a mist, ideally delivered through an aerosol. But that’s not possible in a letter full of powder. It’s possible that small granules of ricin could be released into the air and inhaled when handling the letter, but it is not an effective way to poison someone. And whoever’s sending these letters evidently doesn’t know that the government set up an elaborate mail-screening system after the 2001 Anthrax scare.
- Mystery Animal Contest: Who Is This Fuzzy Sniffler?
Guess the species (either common or Linnaean) by tweeting at us–we’re @PopSci–and get your name listed right here! Plus eternal glory, obviously. Update: We have a winner!
So, here are the rules: To answer, follow us on Twitter and tweet at us with the hashtag #mysteryanimal. For example:
Hey @PopSci, is the #mysteryanimal a baboon?
And then I might say “if you think that’s a baboon, perhaps you are the baboon!” But probably not, because this is a positive environment and all guesses are welcome and also this is not a very common animal so guess whatever you want!
The first person to get it right wins! We’ll retweet the answer from @PopSci, and also update this post so your amazing animal knowledge will be permanently etched onto the internet. Show your kids! Your dumb kids who thought that was a baboon!
Update: And the winner is…Logan Copeman, who correctly guessed that this is a viscacha (Lagidium viscacia, also spelled vizcacha)! Specifically, this is a southern or mountain viscacha, a rodent found in South America. Yep, rodent: the viscacha is not related to the rabbit family, though it looks similar; the rabbit belongs to an entirely different branch of the evolutionary tree, and the fact that the viscacha looks so much like a rabbit is an example of convergent evolution. Convergent evolution describes when two species not closely related end up adapting to their environments in the same way.
The viscacha lives in the southern Andes mountains, and is closely related to the chinchilla. It’s sometimes known as a long-tailed rabbit, thanks to its long ears and fluffy coat. It moves similarly to a rabbit, on very strong hind legs, hopping around its mountain home to eat a variety of grasses, mosses, and lichens. It lives in colonies, like all members of the chinchilla family, which can widely range in size. It’s not particularly rare; it is sometimes hunted for its meat and fur, but is believed to be holding steady, population-wise. Hi viscacha!
- EuropaCity Is The Ultra-Green Mall Of The Future
EuropaCity BIGImagine a mall. Now imagine a mall in the year 2150.
The design firm Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), along with a few added team members (Tess, Transsolar, Base, Transitec, and Michel Forgue) have won first place in a competition to design an experimental “urban center” in France called EuropaCity. Located in Île-de-France, the wealthiest and most populous region in France, EuropaCity is intended to be a center of culture and retail, combining all sorts of experimental sustainable technologies.
But as a design–and a pretty spectacular one at that–it’s best experienced through images. Click through to the gallery to see and read more about the proposal!
Click to launch the gallery.
- Nanosponges In Your Blood Could Soak Up Infections And Poison
Nanosponge Engineers at the University of California, San Diego have invented a “nanosponge” capable of safely removing a broad class of toxins from the bloodstream, including toxins produced by MRSA, E. Coli, poisonous snakes and bees. The nanosponges are made of a biocompatible polymer core wrapped in a natural red blood cell membrane. Zhang Research LabMice who got nanosponge injections survived lethal doses of toxins.
A newly invented “nanosponge,” sheathed in armor made of red blood cells, can safely remove a wide range of toxins from the bloodstream. Scientists at the University of California-San Diego inoculated some mice with their nanosponge, and then gave the animals otherwise lethal doses of a toxin–and the mice survived.
This is especially interesting because a nanosponge can work on entire classes of toxins. Most antidotes or treatments against venom, bioweapons or bacteria are targeted to counteract a specific molecular structure, so they can’t be a one-size-fits-all solution; this nanosponge can.
Scientists led by Liangfang Zhang, a nanoengineering professor at UCSD, worked with a class of proteins known as pore-forming toxins, which work just the way they sound: By ripping a hole in a cell membrane. These toxins are found in snake venom, sea anemones, and even bacteria like the dreaded drug-resistant Staph aureus. The proteins come in many different shapes and sizes, but they all work in a similar way.
They designed a nanosponge to soak up any type of pore-forming toxins. It consists of a tiny (85-nanometer) plastic ball wrapped in red blood cell membranes, which basically serve as a decoy and soak up the poison. The plastic ball holds everything together, and keeps the protein away from its real cellular targets. The entire nanosponge is 3,000 times smaller than a full red blood cell. The devices had a half-life of about 40 hours when the team tested them on lab mice, according to a release from UCSD.
They injected mice with 70 times as many toxic proteins as nanosponges, and the sponges still neutralized the poison and caused no visible damage to the animals, the team reports. Next up are clinical trials in animals, to verify that it works safely in a wide range of cases.
The paper is in this week’s issue of Nature Nanotechnology.
- Wearing A Kilt Could Make Your Sperm Stronger
Kilts Jamie McCaffreyTemperature regulation is the key to fertility.
Temperature affects how much sperm a man makes, so there’s been speculation that the freedom offered by a kilt can increase production. Turns out that that at least could be right: a new metastudy says wearing a kilt “likely produces an ideal physiological scrotal environment, which in turn helps maintain normal scrotal temperature, which is known to be beneficial for robust spermatogenesis and good sperm quality.”
The study (PDF), published in the Scottish Medical Journal, reviewed the literature on the link between scrotal temperature and reproduction. We know sperm fares better in lower temperatures, and some researchers have suggested that restrictive clothing could negatively affect sperm production. Enter: the kilt, which author Erwin J.O. Kompanje describes thusly: “The Scottish kilt is a male garment that resembles (but is not!) a knee-length, pleated skirt.”
The author hypothesizes that, based on past findings about temperature and sperm production, a kilt, specifically one worn in the undergarment-free “regimental” style, would be an ideal environment for sperm production. Kompanje searched through related research, focusing on statistics in Scotland and noting along the way that 70 percent of kilt-wearers choose to go regimental. Kilts (at least in Scotland or other countries where they’re more commonly worn) might also be psychologically valuable, increasing feelings of masculinity when worn. Kompanje goes so far as to write that a downturn in Scottish fertility is correlated with the frequency of kilts being worn, although he admits it’s still somewhat speculative until a randomized trial happens. Gentlemen, put on your kilts for science.
- We Could Eat Trees: Scientists Turn Inedible Plant Cellulose Into Starchy Snack
Turning plant byproducts into digestible carbs could feed more people.
Someday, it will be be summer again and it will be time for fresh sweet corn. In the future, you might be able to eat the whole thing, cob and all.
This weird possibility is courtesy of some scientists at Virginia Tech, who have transformed cellulose, a mostly indigestible polymer, into helpful, indispensable starch.
Plants produce cellulose and starch, which are chemically similar, for very different purposes. Cellulose forms the cell walls of most plants, algae and even some bacteria, and we use it for anything from clothing (cotton is almost all cellulose) to paper to ethanol. Starch is a plant’s energy source, and it’s ours, too, in the form of tasty things like potatoes, wheat and corn. The difference between the two is a simple change in the hydrogen bonds that form the molecules.
Animals like cows and pigs can digest cellulose thanks to symbiotic bacteria in their digestive tracts, but humans can’t. It’s important in our diets as source of fiber, in that it binds together waste in our digestive tracts. Y.H. Percival Zhang, an associate professor of biological systems engineering at Virginia Tech, set out to make it a food source.
Since cellulose and amylose are both glucose chains, you would just have to rearrange their hydrogen bonds. This is anything but simple, although essentially Zhang and colleagues used chemistry. They worked with a series of synthetic enzymes to break down the hydrogen bonds in some plant material that would not otherwise be used for food, like corn cobs and leaves. The “enzyme cascade” enabled the cellulose molecules to reconfigure into amylose, which is a form of starch. A key ingredient in this process, a special polypeptide cap, is found in potatoes.
The resulting product is not exactly the future of bread flour, but it can be used as a fiber source, or food-safe biodegradable packaging, perhaps. The remaining portion of the original material was treated with microbes to produce a form of glucose that can then be used for ethanol. The whole process didn’t require any unusual heat or chemical reagents, other than the enzymes themselves, so it would be easy to reproduce on larger scales, Zhang and his colleagues say.
Cellulose is the most common carbohydrate–indeed the most common organic material–on the planet, so using it for food could be a superb way to feed millions of people, they argue.
“There is an urgent need to use abundant and renewable nonfood agricultural and forest residues and dedicated bioenergy crops that can grow on marginal land and require low inputs,” they write. The paper appears this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
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