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Gizmorama - July 10, 2017

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Scientists have created a new robotic aid that will help schoolchildren that live with visual impairments.

Learn about this and more interesting stories from the scientific community in today's issue.

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*- Scientists design robot to aid visually impaired schoolchildren -*

A pair of researchers from France and Switzerland have designed a robot to help visually impaired children navigate classroom environments.

Lead researcher Alexandre Foucqueteau, a student at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, named the robot Cellulo.

The miniature robot scoots around the floor as directed by a visually impaired student. As the robot bumps into obstacles, it identifies the object -- whether a table, chair or bookcase. The robot can help visually impaired school children gain their bearings and develop an understanding of the classroom layout.

The technology sounds simple, but training the robot to interact with a variety of inanimate objects wasn't easy. Researchers wanted the robot to successfully identify objects, but they also wanted it to be helpful.

To ensure the work would prove beneficial, Foucqueteau sought the help of research partner Agnieszka Kolodziej, a doctoral student in cognition and language at the University of Toulouse who is studying how blind people learn language and gain spatial awareness.

"I spent five months observing classes of visually impaired children aged between three and nine years old," Kolodziej said in a news release. "The classes were very mixed, and the learning tools available did not really meet their needs. Thanks to our partnership with EPFL, we've been able to come up with a really fun and interactive project."

The robot isn't so much a guide dog as it is a memory and learning tool.

"This is how it works: the robot stops, moves back and vibrates when it touches something," Foucqueteau said. "The child then has to say what the robot has hit. If the child is spatially lost and doesn't know, the tablet can say what it is -- the crayon cupboard or the teacher's desk, for instance."

Foucqueteau made sure to design a hardy, durable robot that can constantly bump into large, solid objects without suffering structural damage.

Foucqueteau is now working to perfect the robot's software so as to diversify its abilities and make the robot even more interactive. He hopes to develop gameplay features, such as a virtual treasure hunt, to further enhance learning.

*-- New temperature sensor could power more energy-efficient wearable devices --*

A new "near-zero-power" temperature sensor developed by scientists at the University of California, San Diego requires just 113 picowatts -- an infinitesimal amount energy -- to operate.

Engineers believe the sensor could make wearable and implantable devices, as well as other environmental monitoring technologies, much more energy efficient. The sensor could also allow such devices to derive power exclusively from energy created by the body or the surrounding environment.

Researchers detailed their breakthrough in a new paper published this week in the journal Scientific Reports.

"Our vision is to make wearable devices that are so unobtrusive, so invisible that users are virtually unaware that they're wearing their wearables, making them 'unawearables,'" senior study author Patrick Mercier, an electrical engineering professor at UCSD's Jacobs School of Engineering, said in a news release. "Our new near-zero-power technology could one day eliminate the need to ever change or recharge a battery."

The new sensor requires 628 times less power than the most energy efficient sensor currently used temperature-monitoring technologies, including implantable medical devices and smart thermostats.

The sensor is powered by what are known as "gate leakage" transistors -- transistors so thin that they're unable to totally block the flow of electrons. For tiny transistors inside microprocessors, gate leakage is a problem. In the newest sensor, gate leakage is the main source of power.

"Many researchers are trying to get rid of leakage current, but we are exploiting it to build an ultra-low power current source," said Hui Wang, an electrical engineering Ph.D. student at UCSD.

Researchers compounded the low-power current's energy savings by making the temperature digitization process more efficient.

Most sensors pass electricity though a temperature sensitive resistor. As the resistor reacts to the temperature, the passing voltage is affected. An analog to digital converter translates the voltage change to a temperature reading.

The new sensor uses two low-power current sources, one synced with temperature and another with time. A digital feedback loop ensures both flow at the same rate by altering the size of the capacitor used by the temperature-sensitive current. As the temperature drops, the current slows. As a result, the feedback loop switches to a smaller capacitor to keep the currents at the same pace. This capacitor change digitizes the temperature, which is recorded on a small chip.

The trade-off for energy efficiency is that the sensor registers only a single temperature reading per second. But such a rate is plenty fast for devices deployed in the human body and the home.


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