GT Spectrum

Reports from the IT horizon.

by / June 12, 2001

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.


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.


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 is the solution: a technology known as free-space lasers. The companies use laser beams, instead of radio waves, to transmit data, video or sound. Various reports peg transmission speeds at anywhere from 5Mbps to 10Mbps, at prices that vary depending on what market a consumer lives in.

Terabeam, based in Seattle, is one of the companies offering Internet services via free-space lasers, and The Wall Street Journal reported in late February that the company had three customers signed up in the city. Another company, Dallas-based Tellaire, is delivering 10Mbps LAN services in several cities, including Houston and Austin, Texas; Washington, D.C.; and New York.

Laser companies contend they can offer data services much more quickly to customers than other telecommunications providers because they dont need to dig trenches, lay cable or even buy spectrum.


ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The states Department of Human Services (DHS) is taking technology to senior citizens, though not in the digital divide sense.

DHS received a $1 million grant from the Bush Foundation last year to fund organizations that devise and evaluate new methods of combining health services and housing for senior citizens, with the ultimate goal of duplicating successful methods in communities across the state.

Seven organizations will receive start-up funding from DHS this year to develop "virtual assisted living" programs to deliver services to seniors where they live, said Maria Gomez, assistant commissioner of continuing care.

"We will begin to create a system where innovation is valued and innovation can be disseminated," Gomez said. "The idea is that if you do this consistently, in a number of years you will have a very dynamic and efficient system out there, rather than these sort of encrusted systems that are inflexible and cant change with time. Thats the philosophy behind doing it this way."

She said the idea came from discussions about separating assisted-living services from dedicated physical locations that provide those services. "By putting together a package of supporting services, we can bring those services to any house, and then we have an assisted-living program without having to build a big building," she said.

The state has plenty of senior housing, Gomez said, so senior citizens have a place to live. What they need is more health services. "Our seniors have a place to stay, and they want to stay where they are," she said. "Its just that they need more services to stay where they are. It makes sense for us to go this route, rather than building more and more buildings."

One funding recipient, Good Samaritan Home Health Care in Windom, Minn., will use the money to provide assisted-living services via technology. The organization will use a TV monitor and camera connected to a telephone line to check on senior citizens in their homes. During the day, home health aides can use the system to make sure senior citizens are healthy or to pass along reminders of medication schedules.


SAN DIMAS, Calif. -- When people consider buying an electric car, their motivation probably is not racing. But the tZero, an electric car manufactured by AC Propulsion , will give a Porsche a run for its money.

In fact, the vehicle goes from zero to 60 in a remarkable 4.1 seconds and covers the quarter mile in 13.2 seconds, the company claims. The tZeros top speed is 90 mph -- which falls far short of what a Porsche can muster, but still should give speed junkies reason to take a look.

The tZero sports a 200-horsepower, premium copper-rotor
AC induction motor. It also has a 100-mile range at 60 mph, although the company notes that "making frequent use of the performance capability of the car can drop the range to 50 miles."

Key to broadening the appeal of electric vehicles is making it easy for drivers to charge their cars batteries, the company says. AC Propulsions "reductive charger" allows owners to use the existing electric power infrastructure to recharge the tZero. Motorists can plug into any existing outlet, from common 110V/15A household sockets, to existing electric-vehicle conductive wall boxes, to 240V/80A commercial welding plugs. At its maximum power rating, the reductive charger provides a full charge in just one hour.

While that zero-to-60 acceleration is impressive, the tZero really smokes when it accelerates from 30 mph to 50 mph -- which takes a mere 1.4 seconds. This sort of performance wont come cheap, though. Initial plans call for the car to be ready for delivery in 2002, and the sticker may indeed shock some people: The car will sell for $80,000, plus tax.


FRESNO, Calif. -- A diverse team of experts is designing an electronic village as part of a master-planned community being built in the heart of the Central Valley.

The premise of the e-village is to create a community for telecommuters and their families. Representatives from the California State University at Fresno, Chawanakee School District, Edison Utility Services, Sierra Foothills Public Utilities District, Caltrans, Nortel Networks and the Property Development Group are working together on the project.

CSU Fresno is applying for a grant from Caltrans to create a definition of a telecommuter village. The university also will study how a telecommuting community affects road congestion and traffic trips, said Tom Wielicki, a CSUF professor of information systems.

In addition, the university will use the e-village as a pilot to test online delivery of CSUF courses, he said. Planners want to build a community-learning center that will provide coursework from the preschool level to the university level.

While the learning center and the e-villages attention to telecommuters are both beneficial, Wielicki believes other considerations may be more important.

"If I were to describe how important the e-village is for the overall lifestyle and economy of the 21st century, I would say the concept of telecommuting -- making location irrelevant to what you do -- is going to revolutionize our lives, much more than the Internet and all the dot-coms put together," he said. "This will change the lifestyle of people in that work isnt going to be where you go. Its going to be what you do, regardless of where you are. E-village is a vehicle that will make it possible, more than all of the telecommuting programs weve had in this country."

The task of wiring the village will fall to Nortel, which will design, install and support a high-speed voice, video and data network for an initial 500 housing units.


LONDON -- The British government launched in mid-March a 10-million pound plan (US$15 million) to give away 12,000 computers and peripherals to low-income households.

The giveaway builds on an "alpha pilot" project launched last year in the Kensington area of Liverpool, in which several hundred families were offered a refurbished computer, printer and modem free of charge. The project, operated under the auspices of the governments Wired Up Communities program, aims to tackle the digital divide and will be paralleled by an initiative to give free PCs to needy schools.

Citing research showing that professionals are three times more likely to use the Internet than those from semi-skilled or unskilled family backgrounds, Michael Wills, the governments learning and technology minister, said the gap between these citizens must be narrowed if Britain is to create a fair and prosperous society.

The PC giveaway is not confined to inner-city areas; it also includes rural regions where low-income citizens need access to the Web.

Computer distribution under the program will include Newham in east London, 750 households and a primary school; Framlingham in Suffolk, 1,500 homes and a school; east Manchester, 4,500 homes and several schools; Blackburn, 2,500 homes and five schools; Alston in Cumbria, 1,200 homes, isolated farms and three schools; and Brampton-upon-Dearne in South Yorkshire, 1,500 households and laptops for 265 primary school children.

Wills said the government wants to avoid the development of a technology underclass. "That is why we are piloting innovative ways of getting technology to the most deprived sectors of society," he said. -- Newsbytes