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This Watch Watches Your Zs

Developments to Watch


SLEEP RESEARCHERS AT Washington's Walter Reed Army Medical Center think that they've found a way to save lives outside the hospital: a fat wristwatch to help truckers and railroad engineers manage fatigue, a leading cause of accidents. The Federal Aviation Administration may require commercial pilots to wear the gadget full-time.

The so-called actigraph, or Sleep Watch, was developed by Precision Control Design Inc. (PCD) in Fort Walton Beach, Fla. Inside, a motion detector and a microprocessor continuously monitor wrist movements--which are distinctly different when a person is asleep. This way, the system can tabulate sleep patterns and tell wearers whether they are alert enough to fly a plane or drive a truck.

Only eight Sleep Watches currently exist. They cost $1,800, so they are used primarily by sleep researchers. "But put this on a chip, mass-produce it, and everyone can afford it," says Dr. Gregory Belenky, head of sleep research at Walter Reed. PCD plans to do just that, perhaps by yearend.By Christina Del Valle EDITED BY OTIS PORTReturn to top

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DRIVERS RARELY WORRY about it, but bridges--like all steel structures under stress--weaken as they age. Bridges must be inspected every two years. But in most cases, this is nothing more than a visual check.

For a more accurate reading on structural strength, engineers must blast away surface paint on a girder, solder wires in place, and run an electric current through the wire. Changes in the current are then measured as trucks or cars cross the bridge, and the results are crunched in a computer. It's a time-consuming process, rarely used for routine inspections.

SonicForce LLC in Burlingame, Calif., says it has a much simpler method: acoustic strain gauging. It uses audio transmitters and sensors packed in a box the size of a small briefcase. The box is attached magnetically to a girder. Linked to a laptop, the system measures the time it takes an ultrasonic signal to travel a specific distance, then compares that with the speed of sound in healthy steel. Differences indicate the accumulated metal strain.

"It's a big advantage in time, money, and convenience," says Abba G. Lichtenstein, an independent engineer and consultant who has monitored tests by SonicForce. The system costs $6,000 for the first unit, not including the laptop, and $5,000 for each subsequent

purchase.By Neil Gross EDITED BY OTIS PORTReturn to top


FINDING CLOGS OR LEAKS IN a narrow pipe often involves a slow and expensive process of disassembly. It can also be dangerous when the piping is part of a chemical or nuclear power plant. Now, Toshiba Corp. has developed a miniature robot that can crawl into, inspect, and extract items from pipes as narrow as one inch in diameter.

The 4.3-inch-long robot resembles a centipede, but its head has a tiny charge-coupled device, or CCD, camera, not antennas. Below the camera is a remotely controlled gripper for snatching foreign objects.

There's just one hitch: As the robot crawls along on tiny wheels, at about two inches per second, its trailing power and communications cable creates friction that quickly overpowers the robot's minimotors. So eliminating this long tail is the next target.

The improved robot will be battery-powered and will have wireless communications equipment. Toshiba expects it to be ready in two or three years.By Steve Brull EDITED BY OTIS PORTReturn to top

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