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Football-size robot can skim discreetly along a ship’s hull to seek hollow compartments concealing contraband

September 29, 2014 Robots Comments Off

Last week, at the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems, MIT researchers unveiled an oval-shaped submersible robot, a little smaller than a football, with a flattened panel on one side that it can slide along an underwater surface to perform ultrasound scans.

Originally designed to look for cracks in nuclear reactors’ water tanks, the robot could also inspect ships for the false hulls and propeller shafts that smugglers frequently use to hide contraband. Because of its small size and unique propulsion mechanism — which leaves no visible wake — the robots could, in theory, be concealed in clumps of algae or other camouflage. Fleets of them could swarm over ships at port without alerting smugglers and giving them the chance to jettison their cargo.

“It’s very expensive for port security to use traditional robots for every small boat coming into the port,” says Sampriti Bhattacharyya, a graduate student in mechanical engineering, who designed the robot together with her advisor, Ford Professor of Engineering Harry Asada. “If this is cheap enough — if I can get this out for $ 600, say — why not just have 20 of them doing collaborative inspection? And if it breaks, it’s not a big deal. It’s very easy to make.”

Indeed, Bhattacharyya built the main structural components of the robot using a 3-D printer in Asada’s lab. Half of the robot — the half with the flattened panel — is waterproof and houses the electronics. The other half is permeable and houses the propulsion system, which consists of six pumps that expel water through rubber tubes.

Two of those tubes vent on the side of the robot opposite the flattened panel, so they can keep it pressed against whatever surface the robot is inspecting. The other four tubes vent in pairs at opposite ends of the robot’s long axis and control its locomotion.

Courting instability

As Bhattacharyya explains, the elliptical shape of the robot is inherently unstable — by design. “It’s very similar to fighter jets, which are made unstable so that you can maneuver them easily,” she says. “If I turn on the two jets [at one end], it won’t go straight. It will just turn.”

That tendency to turn is an asset when the robot is trying to execute tight maneuvers, but it’s a liability when it’s traveling in a straight line scanning the hull of a ship. So all the tubes exit the robot at different angles, which Bhattacharyya calculated to provide the greatest degree of control over the robot’s instabilities.

In the robot’s watertight chamber are its control circuitry, its battery, a communications antenna, and an inertial measurement unit, which consists of three accelerometers and three gyroscopes that can gauge the robot’s motion in any direction. The control algorithm constantly adjusts the velocity of the water pumped through each of the six jets to keep the robot on course.

In their initial experiments, the researchers were just testing the robot’s ability to navigate to an underwater surface and stay in contact with it while traveling in a straight line, so the prototype is not yet equipped with an ultrasound sensor.

The rechargeable lithium batteries used in the prototype, Bhattacharyya says, last about 40 minutes. Since the robot can travel between half a meter and a meter per second while pressed against a surface, that should give it ample time to inspect multiple small craft before being recharged. The researchers envision that teams of the robots could be kept in rotation, some returning to port to recharge just as others are going back on duty.

Their next prototype, Bhattacharyya says, will feature wirelessly rechargeable batteries. And modifications to the propulsion system, she says, should increase the robot’s operation time on a single charge to 100 minutes.

Keep your distance

Bhattacharyya notes that while she and Asada have demonstrated the robot’s ability to travel along a smooth surface, the hulls of many ships will have encrustations that might prevent continuous contact. Ultrasound, however, works only when the emitter is in direct contact with the object to be scanned — or when its distance is a specific multiple of the wavelength of sound.

Maintaining that precise distance is a tall order, but in ongoing work, Bhattacharyya and Asada are exploring mechanical systems that would create hydrodynamic buffers of just the right depth to enable the robot to perform ultrasound scans without surface contact.

Nathan Betcher, a special-tactics officer in the U.S. Air Force, has followed Bhattacharyya and Asada’s work closely. “I have a great deal of interest in seeing if this type of technology can have a substantive impact on a number of missions or roles which I might be charged with in the future,” he says. “I am particularly interested to see if this type of technology could find use in domestic maritime operations ranging from the detection of smuggled nuclear, biological, or chemical agents to drug interdiction, discovery of stress fractures in submerged structures and hulls, or even faster processing and routing of maritime traffic.”

The MIT research was funded by the National Science Foundation.


Robotics Research News — ScienceDaily

New tool assesses skill development in robotic microsurgery

September 28, 2014 Robots Comments Off

A new standardized assessment provides a useful tool for tracking surgeons’ progress as they develop the skills needed to perform robot-assisted microsurgery, reports a study in the October issue of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery®, the official medical journal of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS).

“The Structured Assessment of Robotic Microsurgical Skills (SARMS) is the first validated instrument for assessing robotic microsurgical skills,” according to the report by ASPS Member Surgeon Dr. Jesse C. Selber of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston. Initial assessments using the SARMS show that, after a steep initial learning curve, surgical trainees display steady improvement in their ability to perform robot-assisted microsurgery tasks.

SARMS Tracks Development of Robotic Microsurgery Skills

The researchers describe the development and testing of the SARMS as a standard technique for evaluating technical skills for robot-assisted microsurgery. The SARMS consisted of 11 items — six evaluating microsurgery skills and five evaluating robotic skills.

After the SARMS was validated, expert surgeons used it to grade videos of surgical trainees performing robot-assisted microvascular anastomoses — joining and suturing tiny artificial blood vessels, just three millimeters in diameter. Each of nine trainees was graded on five videos, made as they gained experience with the robotic surgical system. Changes in scores in each area were assessed, along with the time required to complete the procedure.

The SARMS scores documented general improvement in microsurgical skills with each practice session. On a five-point scale — from “novice” to “expert” — the trainees’ average ratings of overall skill and performance increased from around two to around four.

“The results showed an initial steep ascent in technical skill acquisition, followed by more gradual improvement,” Dr. Selber and coauthors write. Across the five sessions, average operative time decreased gradually, from about 30 to 19 minutes.

Previous experience performing conventional microsurgery — under the operating microscope, but without robotic assistance — was the main factor affecting the trainees’ skill level. The SARMS items showed good to excellent consistency among the different expert raters.

Tool Will Aid Training in Robot-Assisted Plastic Surgery

Surgical robots have emerged as a potentially valuable tool in many surgical disciplines, including plastic and reconstructive surgery. By eliminating tremor of the surgeon’s hand and scaling hand motion, surgical robots are capable of “superhuman precision” — expanding the ability to perform delicate microvascular manipulations that would be all but impossible with the unaided human hand.

The SARMS score developed and evaluated in this study provides a new, standardized tool for evaluating trainees’ skill and performance as they gain experience with robotic microvascular surgery. The results suggest that surgical trainees can expect a tough going at first, but show gradual improvement in skills and shorter procedure times over as little as five practice sessions.

“Standardized evaluation and systematic learning of both robotic and conventional surgical techniques is necessary, and is the foundation of competency-based training, which itself is the future of surgical education,” Dr. Selber and coauthors conclude. Dr. Selber will give a special “Tech Talk” on the topic of Robotics at “Plastic Surgery — The Meeting,” the annual scientific meeting of the ASPS, to be held October 10-14, 2015 in Chicago, Ill.

Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Wolters Kluwer Health: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Robotics Research News — ScienceDaily

Kevin Mitnick Offers a Peek Inside the Cryptic Zero-Day Marketplace

September 27, 2014 Tech Comments Off

Hacker hero/villain Kevin Mitnick’s post-crime exploits now include running a pawn shop for zero-day exploits, e.g. vulnerabilities that exist in computer systems but are so-far unknown to their developers. Provided you pass Mitnick’s screening process and have $ 100,000 to burn, you can be handed the sort of information that, in the wrong hands, could open open up a system for worms, Trojans, viruses, and really whatever else.

A zero-day exploit is basically an unlocked door to a computer system or network, one that the system’s creator hasn’t yet bothered to check. And finding these unlocked doors is big business.

A quick refresher on Kevin Mitnick. In the mid-’90s, Mitnick became a fugitive after hacking into Pacific Bell’s voicemail computer system, a crime all the more damning given that the he was already on a supervised release from prison for a prior offense. He was on the lam for two and a half years, a period in which he basically went wild, cloning cell phones to hide his location, stealing proprietary software from cellular phone and computer companies, swiping passwords, breaking into email accounts, etc.

His telling of the Pacific Bell hack, however, offers a slightly different, more benevolent story. “I became aware that the government was trying to put together another case against me, this one for conducting counter- intelligence to find out why wiretaps had been placed on the phone lines of a Los Angeles P.I. firm,” Mitnick wrote in his “lost bio.” “In my digging, I confirmed my suspicion: the Pacific Bell security people were indeed investigating the firm. So was a computer-crime deputy from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. About this time, the Feds set up a criminal informant and sent him out to entrap me.”

“What I did wasn’t even against the law when I began, but became a crime after new legislation was passed”

“What I did wasn’t even against the law when I began, but became a crime after new legislation was passed,” Mitnick noted. “I continued anyway, and was caught.”

This is the sort of dude that reminds us of what hacking even is, someone that helped usher the “hacker” term itself from a word meaning someone that uses clever engineering to its modern pejorative sense. While images now so often show hackers as script kiddies launching wan DDoS attacks or wielding downloaded prefab hacking tools, Mitnick was a swordfisher, at least relatively speaking.

For one thing, he was a master social engineer, able to access systems usually with help from a small bit of carefully calibrated dialog offered to an unsuspecting system administrator. For hackers, one of the best ways to get access to a system is by simply asking for it with the right words. Mitnick called it a form of performance art, “getting people to do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do for a stranger.”

Eventually, his art landed Mitnick in prison for five years. Like Aaron Swartz over a decade later, Mitick’s conviction and imprisonment was held up as an instance of overzealous prosecution. He was being made an example of.

Since being released in 2000, Mitnick has unsurprisingly found success as a computer security consultant. He teaches social engineering to government agencies and tests systems for vulnerabilities among the world’s most powerful corporations.

His newest venture is called Mitnick’s Absolute Zero Day Exploit Exchange, which sounds like it might be found stenciled on the awning of a check cashing joint. It’s here that Mitnick plans to sell his $ 100,000 a pop exploits, as well as buy them from developers. Sophos Naked Security notes that one might expect the NSA, a big fan of zero-day exploits—the agency had a budget of $ 25 million for buying zero-day flaws in 2013—to become a customer, along with various other deep-pocketed corporations and government agencies.

As for what his clients plan to do with their newfound exploits, Mitnick isn’t interested. He told Wired:

When we have a client that wants a zero-day vulnerability for whatever reason, we dont ask, and in fact they wouldnt tell us.

Researchers find them, they sell them to us for X, we sell them to clients for Y and make the margin in between.

He does note that his clients will be vetted, however, so ISIS need not apply. The activity is also perfectly legal and has become a bizarre high-dollar commodity. Mitnick certainly isn’t the first to offer zero-day vulnerabilities on the open-market.

A recent analysis found that boutique firms specializing in their sale are offering an average of 85 zero-day flaws on any given day. A single exploit retailer might sell 100 in a year, with individual flaws going for anywhere from $ 40,000 to $ 1,000,000 a pop. “Boutique vulnerability providers, such as VUPEN Security, ReVuln, NetraGard, Endgame Systems, and Exodus Intelligence, sell subscriptions that include 25 zero-day flaws per year for $ 2.5 million,” notes Information Week.

This booming market is of particular concern to proponents of so-called bug bounty programs, in which companies like Microsoft and Facebook offer monetary rewards to security researchers that expose vulnerabilities in open-source software. These programs exist in part to combat the black market, revealing bugs before they can be repackaged as zero-day exploits for huge amounts of money. Unfortunately, that money provides a strong incentive to keep quiet about holes that could potentially affect your most private data, not to mention closely-guarded trade secrets and proprietary code.

Mitnick isn’t selling his exploits for nefarious uses, ostensibly, but the bug market exists to keep bugs hidden, in a sense. It’s like if you’re the captain of the Titanic and someone offers exclusive information about a gash in the hull. The gash effects everyone on the ship, but the captain now has control of the information that could save their lives if exposed. The captain could say no deal, but ignoring the gash (which might be repaired in our alternate history) risks the ship sinking and everyone drowning.

It’s no wonder the zero-day flaw market is so flush.

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New poison dart frog species discovered in Donoso, Panama

September 27, 2014 Singularity Comments Off

A bright orange poison dart frog with a unique call was discovered in Donoso, Panama, and described by researchers from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and the Universidad Autónoma de Chiriquí in Panama, and the Universidad de los Andes in Colombia. In the species description published this week in Zootaxa, it was named Andinobates geminisae for Geminis Vargas, “the beloved wife of [coauthor] Marcos Ponce, for her unconditional support of his studies of Panamanian herpetology.”

Every new species name is based on a representative specimen. The specimen for this species was collected Feb. 21, 2011, in the headwaters of the Rio Caño, in the district of Donoso, Colón Province, Panama, by Samuel Valdés, who was then the MWH Global Inc. environment office director, and his field assistant, Carlos de la Cruz. Additional specimens were collected between the Rio Coclé del Norte and the Rio Belen by biologists Marcos Ponce and Abel Batista, then a student at the Universidad Autónoma de Chiriquí. The specimens were deposited in the Museo de Vertebrados at the University of Panama, the Museo Herpetólogico de Chiriquí at the Universidad Autónoma de Chiriquí and in the Círculo Herpetólogico de Panamá.

“Abel Batista and Marcos Ponce were the first to note the presence of this species,” said Cesar Jaramillo, Smithsonian herpetologist. “They’ve known it was there for several years. However, they were not sure if it was only a variety of another poison dart frog species, Oophaga pumilio, which exhibits tremendous color variation. Based on morphological characteristics of the adult and the tadpole, I thought it might be a new species of Andinobates.”

Andrew Crawford, professor at Universidad de Los Andes and former STRI postdoctoral fellow, sequenced the DNA, confirming that this was a new species of Andinobates. Genetic information about this species is available in the Barcode of Life Data System and in GenBank. A recording of the call is available at AmphibiaWeb.org.

Because this new frog species appears to be found in only a very small area, habitat loss and collecting for the pet trade are major threats to its existence. The authors recommend the formulation of special conservation plans to guarantee its survival. A. geminisae is included in the captive breeding program of the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation project, a consortium of six zoos and research institutions dedicated to saving amphibians from the chytrid fungal disease, which is decimating amphibians worldwide, and habitat loss.

Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Latest Science News — ScienceDaily

Astronomers Detect the Complex Molecules of Life in a Deep-Space Gas Cloud

September 27, 2014 Tech Comments Off

Life needs to be seeded. The universe just can’t take any old set of molecules, mix them up in a primordial stew, and wait. It needs the right chemicals in the right places, molecules that are predisposed to evolve chemically into more and more complex structures, thus following a general pathway toward biology. If any old compound could find its way toward organic life, whether a methane steam or hunk of iron, the universe would be a disgusting ooze. The pathway for life as we know it starts with carbon.

A team of astronomers probing distant galaxies using the ALMA Observatory reported in this week’s edition of Science the discovery of not just interstellar carbon, but carbon with a branched structure. Simple carbon chains aren’t particularly unusual in the cosmos, but complex carbon is a different matter, what the researchers, based at Cornell University and the Max Planck Institute, describe as finding a molecular needle in a cosmic haystack—more specifically, the haystack of the gaseous star-forming region Sagittarius B2.

The actual molecule in question is isopropyl cyanide. It’s possible to detect something like this with such precision mainly due to the wonders of radio astronomy. Within clouds of interstellar dust and gas, elements find themselves shielded from the harsh radiation of open space and are, thus, free to form into more complex arrangements (otherwise, it would be more likely that the molecule would be blasted apart before achieving complexity). These molecules don’t just sit there, instead moving around within their cloud-homes and bumping into each other. The result of this activity are radio signals.

Every molecule has a different radio signal (different frequency), so it’s possible to pick apart the contents of interstellar junk by examining a cloud’s frequency spectra. NASA, via the Ames Research Center, even maintains a radio-emission frequency database to aid in the tracking of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, a form of molecule thought to contain much of the universe’s carbon stockpiles.

This detection suggests that branched carbon-chain molecules may be generally abundant in the interstellar medium.

The branching carbon structure of isopropyle cyanide is of particular interest because it’s thought that this arrangement is a step on the way to the production of amino acids, the building blocks of proteins (among other things). The discovery gives weight to the increasingly popular notion that life, or at least many of the key steps leading toward life, actually occurs off-planet. Life on Earth may have been well on its way while the planet was still just space dust waiting to come together into our rock-home.

“[Isopropyle cyanide's] detection therefore bodes well for the presence in the [interstellar medium] (ISM) of amino acids, for which such side-chain structure is a key characteristic,” the authors, led by astronomer Arnaud Belloche, write

What’s more, the molecules discovered by the ALMA team probably aren’t alone. “This detection suggests that branched carbon-chain molecules may be generally abundant in the [interstellar medium],” the paper continues.

The discovery follows a general progression in recent years adding more and more life-ingredients to our picture of the ISM. A 2011 study revealed that complex organic matter should be created in large volumes from stars, while a 2012 report study found that conditions within the ISM are uniquely suited to the creation of increasingly complex molecules, “step[s] along the path toward amino acids and nucleotides, the raw materials of proteins and DNA, respectively,” Space.com reported.

Also in 2012, astronomers found basic sugar molecules hanging out in the gas cloud around a distant star. The particular form, glycoaldehyde, is thought to be a key component of the reaction behind the creation of DNA. Indeed, more and more, it’s less a universe of life finding a way, than life’s factory.

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New tool assesses skill development in robotic microsurgery

September 27, 2014 Robots Comments Off

A new standardized assessment provides a useful tool for tracking surgeons’ progress as they develop the skills needed to perform robot-assisted microsurgery, reports a study in the October issue of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery®, the official medical journal of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS).

“The Structured Assessment of Robotic Microsurgical Skills (SARMS) is the first validated instrument for assessing robotic microsurgical skills,” according to the report by ASPS Member Surgeon Dr Jesse C. Selber of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston. Initial assessments using the SARMS show that, after a steep initial learning curve, surgical trainees display steady improvement in their ability to perform robot-assisted microsurgery tasks.

SARMS Tracks Development of Robotic Microsurgery Skills

The researchers describe the development and testing of the SARMS as a standard technique for evaluating technical skills for robot-assisted microsurgery. The SARMS consisted of 11 items — six evaluating microsurgery skills and five evaluating robotic skills.

After the SARMS was validated, expert surgeons used it to grade videos of surgical trainees performing robot-assisted microvascular anastomoses — joining and suturing tiny artificial blood vessels, just three millimeters in diameter. Each of nine trainees was graded on five videos, made as they gained experience with the robotic surgical system. Changes in scores in each area were assessed, along with the time required to complete the procedure.

The SARMS scores documented general improvement in microsurgical skills with each practice session. On a five-point scale — from “novice” to “expert” — the trainees’ average ratings of overall skill and performance increased from around two to around four.

“The results showed an initial steep ascent in technical skill acquisition, followed by more gradual improvement,” Dr Selber and coauthors write. Across the five sessions, average operative time decreased gradually, from about 30 to 19 minutes.

Previous experience performing conventional microsurgery — under the operating microscope, but without robotic assistance — was the main factor affecting the trainees’ skill level. The SARMS items showed good to excellent consistency among the different expert raters.

Tool Will Aid Training in Robot-Assisted Plastic Surgery

Surgical robots have emerged as a potentially valuable tool in many surgical disciplines, including plastic and reconstructive surgery. By eliminating tremor of the surgeon’s hand and scaling hand motion, surgical robots are capable of “superhuman precision” — expanding the ability to perform delicate microvascular manipulations that would be all but impossible with the unaided human hand.

The SARMS score developed and evaluated in this study provides a new, standardized tool for evaluating trainees’ skill and performance as they gain experience with robotic microvascular surgery. The results suggest that surgical trainees can expect a tough going at first, but show gradual improvement in skills and shorter procedure times over as little as five practice sessions.

“Standardized evaluation and systematic learning of both robotic and conventional surgical techniques is necessary, and is the foundation of competency-based training, which itself is the future of surgical education,” Dr Selber and coauthors conclude. Dr Selber will give a special “Tech Talk” on the topic of Robotics at “Plastic Surgery — The Meeting,” the annual scientific meeting of the ASPS, to be held October 10-14, 2015 in Chicago, Ill.

Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Wolters Kluwer Health. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Robotics Research News — ScienceDaily

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