TURNING GRASS INTO CAR PARTS

COVENTRY, England -- Researchers at the University of Warwick are working with elephant-grass farmers to study methods for using the hardy plant to make biodegradable car parts.

The farmers and researchers already use elephant grass -- which produces bamboo-like canes up to three feet tall -- as structural filler in plastic car parts such as wheel rims. Short pieces of the cane are used to strengthen biodegradable plastics that would otherwise be too weak for automotive applications.

The group of farmers has formed a company, Biomass Industrial Crops Limited, to market the plants potential and sell products. The organization believes that auto manufacturers will be interested in elephant grass as part of an environmentally friendly solution for disposing of vehicles when they go kaput. The car parts can simply be composted at the end of their life rather than taking up space in landfills.

A ROBOT FOR ANY OCCASION

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Researchers at Xeroxs Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) have finished work on a modular robot that changes shape -- transforming itself to crawl like a spider or slither like a snake -- to match its environment.

PARCs work on modular robotics is based on building robots out of identical, single modules. Twenty modules make up the first version of the robot, known as a "Polybot," and PARC researchers foresee modular robots one day being built with hundreds or thousands of such modules. The cube-shaped modules are five centimeters on a side, said Mark Yim, Polybot project leader, noting that the seven-member research team anticipates modules getting as small as a grain of rice in the future.

According to PARC, if the robot has to move across a level surface, it configures itself to move like a tractor tread; for going down stairs or climbing over an obstacle, it configures itself like a snake; and for moving across rough terrain, it changes into a shape that resembles a four-legged spider.

"The whole idea with these systems is that they can do a lot of different things," said Yim. "Search and rescue is one potential application, and in this instance, you dont know what the rubble pile might look like so you dont necessarily know what type of robot will be the best. Other applications are planetary exploration and undersea mining exploration."

For now, a human operator controls the Polybots configuration, Yim said, although the research team is working on programming the Polybot with a degree of autonomy so the robot can reconfigure itself. Yim anticipates achieving that capability in about one year, noting that his team is exploring the autonomous reconfiguration as much as possible because its impractical to have a human operator telling every single module of a 200-module Polybot what to do.

"Were pushing toward the autonomous side, where you could give the Polybot higher-level commands," he explained. "In the search-and-rescue aspect, you might say, Go look through this rubble pile and see if you can find someone. The robot would go by itself, figure out where to go and when to reconfigure."

At left: Palo Alto Research Centers module robot reconfigures itself to different forms for navigating different kinds of terrain.

BROADBAND LASERS MAY COVER "LAST MILE"

SEATTLE, Wash. -- Although many people covet broadband Internet access for their homes, hassling with telecommunications companies for DSL or cable-modem service is proving to be a battle neither for the faint-hearted, nor the impatient.

A smattering of companies in the United States and Europe have hit on what they think