Health Scan: Picking ’em ripe

Earlier tsunami warnings; microorganisms keep in touch.

By
April 17, 2011 02:46
Robots dressed in garments inspired by deconstruct

ROBOTS DESIGNED by Dai Fujiwara 311. (photo credit: Shai Ben-Efraim)

 
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Robotics researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba have received a $1.3 million grant to develop intelligent and manipulation algorithms so that robots can sense and pick high-value crops. The project, part of the European Union Seventh Framework Program (FP7), is called Clever Robots for Crops (cRops). It will develop the scientific knowhow and several prototype systems to harvest high-value crops, including greenhouse peppers, orchard fruits and premium wine grapes.

Prof. Yael Edan of the department of industrial engineering and management, who is leading the project, said the cRops robotic platform will be capable of sitespecific spraying (spraying only on foliage and selected targets) and selective harvesting. The robots will be able to sense the fruit’s ripeness and gently detach only the ripe fruit.

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BGU’s role in the project will be to lead the development of intelligent sensing and manipulation algorithms. “An agricultural robot must be equipped with intelligence so as to be able to robustly operate in the unstructured, dynamic and hostile agricultural environment,” explains Edan.

“We are developing an autonomous robotic platform that will reliably and accurately judge which produce is ready for harvest, and skip the ones that aren’t.”

The concept requires a strong multidisciplinary approach.

The cRops Consortium budget is for the development of a highly configurable, modular and clever platform comprising a carrier plus modular parallel manipulators and “intelligent tools” (sensors, algorithms, sprayers, grippers) that can be easily installed onto the carrier and are capable of adapting to new tasks and conditions.

EARLIER TSUNAMI WARNING

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Japan’s powerful coastal tsunamis, like the one that hit Thailand several years ago, elicits great anxiety in locations adjacent to the ocean. But good news comes from seismologists at the Georgia Institute of Technology, who recently disclosed a new development in Geophysical Research Letters.

Prof. Andrew Newman of the school of earth and atmospheric sciences has announced a system called RTerg that could be used to warn future populations of an impending tsunami only minutes after the initial earthquake. The system, known as RTerg, could help reduce the death toll by giving local residents time to escape.

“We developed a system that, in real time, successfully identified the 7.8 [Richter scale] magnitude of the Sumatran earthquake last year as a rare and destructive tsunami earthquake. Using this system, we could in the future warn local populations,” said Newman. Typically, a large subduction-zone earthquake (an area where two tectonic plates move toward one another and one slides under the other) ruptures at nearly three kilometers per second from 20-50 kilometers below the earth’s surface. Because of the depth, vertical deformation of the crust is horizontally smoothed, causing the size of uplift to remain rather small. When these earthquakes occur in the ocean, the resulting waves may only measure about 20 centimeters high for a magnitude 7.8 event.

Tsunami earthquakes, however, are a rare class that rupture more slowly, at 1-1.5 kilometer/second, and propagate up to the sea floor, near the trench. This makes the vertical uplift much larger, resulting in wave heights of up to 20 meters in nearby coastal environments. Such was the case with the Sumatran earthquake, with reported wave heights of up to 17 meters, causing a death toll of approximately 430 people. “For most tsunami earthquakes, inundation of the coastal environment doesn’t occur until about 30-40 minutes after. So we’ll have about 20 to 30 minutes to get our information to an automatic warning system, or to the authorities,” said Newman. “This gives us time to get people out of the way.”

“Because tsunami earthquakes rupture in a shallow environment, we can't simply use a measurement of magnitude to determine which ones will create large waves,” said Newman. “When they occur, people often don’t feel that they’re significant, if they even feel them in the first place, because they seem like they’re an order of magnitude smaller than they actually are.” Tsunami earthquakes typically rupture more slowly, last longer, and are less efficient at radiating energy, so when RTerg uses its algorithmic tools to find a quake matching these attributes, it sends an alert to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Pacific Tsunami Warning Center.

Usually within four minutes, RTerg gets a notification from one of the tsunami warning centers that an earthquake has occurred. This notice gives the quake’s location, depth and approximate magnitude. If the earthquake is determined to be at 6.5 on the scale or higher, it takes about a minute to request and receive data from 150 seismic stations around the world. Once it collects this data, it uses its algorithm to run through every second of the rupture and determine the incremental growth of energy and ascertain whether the quake was a tsunami earthquake. Newman believes that RTerg could shave another minute or more from the warning time.

MICROORGANISMS KEEP IN TOUCH

A pathway whereby bacteria communicate with each other and enables the microorganisms to execute sophisticated tasks such as dealing with antibiotic production and secretion of virulence factors has been discovered by researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The discovery has important implications for efforts to cope with the spread of harmful bacteria in the body. Bacteria are known to communicate in nature primarily via the secretion and receipt of extracellular signaling molecules, according to Prof. Sigal Ben-Yehuda of HU’s Institute for Medical Research Israel-Canada (IMRIC). As head of the research team on the phenomenon, she reported the study in a recent issue of Cell.

Ben-Yehuda’s group identified a previously uncharacterized type of bacterial communication mediated by nanotubes that bridge neighboring cells. The team showed that these nanotubes connect bacteria of the same and different species. Via these tubes, bacteria are able to exchange small molecules, proteins and even small genetic elements (known as plasmids).

This mechanism can facilitate the acquisition of new features in nature, such as antibiotic resistance. In this view, gaining a better molecular understanding of nanotube formation could lead to the development of novel strategies to fight pathogenic bacteria, said Ben-Yehuda.

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