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These high-speed ‘nano-cranes’ could form molecular assembly lines


Things aren’t going well down at the ol’ nano-factory. They’re having trouble getting all those tiny workers to synchronize and move quickly together. But leave it to the Germans to get things running smoothly! All it took was a careful application of that newfangled technology “electricity.”

Tiny nano-scale machines formed from DNA could be the future of manufacturing things at small scale but great volume: drugs, tiny chip components, and of course more nanomachines. But moving simple, reusable machines like a little arm half a micrometer long is more difficult than at human scale. Wires for signals aren’t possible at that scale, and if you want to move it with a second arm, how do you move that arm?

For a while chemical signals have been used; wash a certain solution over a nanobot and it changes its orientation, closes its grasping tip, or what have you. But that’s slow and inexact.

Researchers at the Technical University of Munich were looking at ways to improve this situation of controlling machines at the molecular scale. They were working with “nano-cranes,” which are essentially a custom 400-nanometer strand of DNA sticking up out of a substrate, with a flexible base (literally — it’s made of unpaired bases) that lets it rotate in any direction. It’s more like a tiny robotic finger, but let’s not split hairs (or base pairs).

What Friedrich Simmel and his team found, or rather realized the potential of, was that DNA molecules and therefore these nano-cranes have a negative charge. So theoretically, they should move in response to electric fields. And that’s just what they did.

They attached tiny fluorescent pigment molecules to the tips of the cranes so they could see what they were doing in real time, then observed the cranes as the electric field surrounding them was carefully changed.

To their great delight, the cranes moved exactly as planned, switching from side to side, spinning in a circle, and so on. These movements are accomplished, the researchers say, at a hundred thousand times the speed they would have been using chemicals.

A microscopic image of the nano-crane’s range of motion, with the blue and red indicating selected stop points.

“We came up with the idea of dropping biochemical nanomachine switching completely in favor of the interactions between DNA structures and electric fields,” said Simmel in a TUM news release. “The experiment demonstrated that molecular machines can be moved, and thus also driven electrically… We can now initiate movements on a millisecond time scale and are thus 100,000 times faster than with previously used biochemical approaches.”

And because the field provides the energy, this movement can be used to push other molecules around — though that hasn’t been demonstrated just yet.

But it’s not hard to imagine millions of these little machines working in vast (to them) fields, pushing component molecules towards or away from each other in complex processes or rolling products along, “not unlike an assembly line,” as Simmel put it.

The team’s work, which like most great research seems obvious in retrospect, earned them the coveted cover story in Science.
Featured Image: TUM Readmore

Gadgets

Humans sow seeds of destruction by abusing poor robot just trying to walk through a door


You may remember last week that Boston Dynamics’ latest robot, a trim and yellow Spot Mini, has learned to open doors. Seems like at this point you don’t want to anger them. They will find you. Or rather, they’ll find the company’s designated robot abuser and punish him for stopping poor robots from doing what they have been told to do. Soon Spot Mini will not be the one on a leash.

Of course this is necessary testing for when the robot actually has to navigate a busy environment and this kind of interference comes up, deliberate or accidental. A robot has to be able to bounce back, of course; if it freaks out when anything unexpected happens, it won’t be able to accomplish much.

All the same, it’s excruciating to watch, at least for me. It’s just trying so hard and it doesn’t get angry at the man, even when its piece falls off!

Perhaps robots will be superhuman in patience as well as door-opening ability. Let’s hope so. I kicked a Spot Mini once at its creator’s invitation and if any machines are reading this, I’m sorry.
Featured Image: Boston Dynamics Readmore

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Gadgets

Mozilla and NSF awards $380K to small projects connecting the unconnected


The FCC may be hard at work at “bridging the digital divide,” as Chairman Pai so frequently puts it, and the Connect America Fund II will help. But while the big players are setting up, people all over the U.S. are going without reliable internet. Mozilla and the National Science Foundation are awarding cash to projects that aim to connect those still waiting on the bandwidth we take for granted.

There were two Wireless Innovation for a Networks Society challenges: one to use wireless tech to keep people connected during disasters and other emergencies, and another to connect communities to existing wireless infrastructure for normal use.

First place took home $60,000, second $40,000, and third $30,000. These initial awards are the first round of a larger project, meant to convert design concepts into prototypes for live demonstration this summer; winners will be chosen in the fall.

For the first, “off-the-grid” challenge, first place went to Lantern, a pocket-sized device that uses off-the-shelf components to create a sort of offline Wi-Fi that others can connect to. Regional data loaded onto an SD card is made available wirelessly to nearby users via an app or web interface.

Updates and messages from other users or someone carrying new info from a working internet connection are downloaded, and the locations of resources are added to its offline map.

Second and Third went to portable network infrastructure devices that connect a wide area with basic calling and messaging to each other or, if available, connection to an LTE network.

The challenge to connect communities to existing networks had first place go to the Equitable Internet Initiative. This project was born in Detroit from frustration that some parts of the city were going to get gigabit fiber while others had yet to have any broadband at all. Diana Nucera of the Detroit Community Technology Project began setting it up in 2016, installing wireless repeaters and access points to spread its own gigabit connection and intranet resources to those in need.

The team plans to fortify the network with its $60,000 grant, adding solar-based backup power and establish both emergency and long-term plans for keeping the network up.

Second went to NoogaNet, which is looking to use utility poles to establish a mesh network, and the Southern Connected Communities Network, which hopes to blast broadband wirelessly over underserved swaths of Appalachia and the South.

There’s also a dozen honorable mentions receiving $10,000 each — check out the winners section of the WINS website and see if there’s one in your area you can help out with.
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Business

Sonos One is the speaker to beat for those that want great sound and smarts


The connected speaker wars are upon us, and one day they will be detailed in history books for all to remember. But here now, it can be hard to cut through the various narratives surrounding the options out there and pick a winner. Now that the cards are on the table in terms of offerings from the major players, however, it’s pretty clear that Sonos has the best option available for most people.

Sonos One, the connected speaker that the company released last year, is a terrific sounding Wi-Fi-enabled speaker that also has built-in support for Amazon’s Alexa, which is if not the best smart assistant out there, then at least tied for first with Google’s Assistant.

On the sound front, Sonos has the most experience of any of the top three companies making smart speakers worth your consideration, too. The Sonos One is, in many ways, just an updated version of the Sonos Play:1 that’s acoustically very similar – but that’s actually a really good thing. The Sonos One, like the Play:1, is a terrific sounding audio device, especially given its size and physical footprint.

I’ve been using a pair of Sonos Ones for the past couple of weeks, and it’s clear that they do a great job of filling a room with sound, thanks in part to Sonos’ sound shaping tech that uses a two-minute setup process involving waving your phone around to properly model the audio they put out for your space.

Individually, a Sonos One is already a strong contender even against the Google Home Max and HomePod for sound quality for most people (who don’t need the additional power or won’t notice the auditory improvements afforded by the larger speakers) but the Sonos One has a another neat trick up its sleeve, since it can form a stereo pair with a second Sonos One. This provides true sound separation, meaning left and right channels reproduced as they were actually meant to be, instead of via some simulated stereo separation effect (which can be pretty cool, as HomePod reviews show, but which ultimately can’t match true stereo separation).

Another huge benefit of Sonos vs. the competition: the Sonos One integrates out of the box with the rest of your Sonos setup, should you have one. You can control all speakers via voice, and group them together for whole home/room-by-room playback. Google’s Home Max can work together with Chromecast-enabled speakers for similar multi-room streaming setups, and HomePod is set to get an update that will add multi-room and stereo syncing, but Sonos One offers both of these now, and using a method that’s proven to work.

There’s also pricing to consider. Sonos One, in a bundle with two, is available for $349 right now, which is the same price as a single HomePod. It’s an unbeatable deal, given the other advantages listed above, especially since it means you can see if you like it alone, or equip multiple rooms with Alexa smarts and quality connected sound in one go.

There are reasons to consider other options, to be sure, especially if you’re 100 percent committed to the Apple ecosystem of device and services, but in general for most people, for most use cases, Sonos One is the far better choice.
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