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Businessweek Archives

The Orbital Flight Of The Bumblebee?

Developments to Watch


SMALLER, FASTER, CHEAPER. That's the new motto at NASA. And scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory are working on concepts that could take the slogan to its logical conclusion: satellites the size of insects.

Designing satellites to survive the hazards of space once involved "anticipating all possible failure modes and designing around them," says Los Alamos physicist Kurt R. Moore. That led to sophisticated and redundant systems, adding bulk and cost. But today's advanced hardware and software can fail in so many ways that "you simply can't anticipate everything anymore," he says.

So his team is turning to nature for inspiration. Insects and other small creatures may have simple nervous systems, yet they perform very complicated tasks. Researcher Mark W. Tilden has developed an approach to neural-network technology, dubbed nervous nets, to simulate simple behaviors, not complex problem-solving. For example, just two nervous-net neurons are needed for a control system that can keep solar cells pointed at the sun.

Tilden also hopes to model the capabilities of bumblebees to avoid collisions, enabling fragile microsatellites to avoid space debris.

Could such satellites take pictures of the earth? Maybe, says Moore. He envisions clusters of microsats, each of which produces one pixel for a large image. The clusters' operation might be coordinated the same way fireflies "learn" to synchronize their flashing. That could also be the key to generating enough power to transmit the results to earth.EDITED BY OTIS PORTReturn to top


THE DIMPLES ON A GOLF ball aren't merely decorative. They help the ball fly farther and faster by reducing its air resistance, or drag. Similar patterns on the skin of an aircraft or a boat could do the same, says Lawrence Sirovich, emeritus professor of applied mathematics at Brown University.

Working with an engineering colleague at Brown, Sture K.F. Karlsson, Sirovich has shown that tiny V-shaped protrusions can reduce drag by as much as 12%. That's a lot--aircraft companies gladly spend millions to trim drag by a fraction of that. The radical improvement comes from disrupting a process called "bursting." When a solid object moves swiftly through water or air, the turbulent effects include some relatively slow-moving features that burst away from the object, described by Sirovich as looking like rows of sausages. Bursting is a major cause of drag.

Curiously, the Vs perform their magic in computer simulations and wind-tunnel tests only when scattered at random. Neatly aligned patterns actually increase drag. The research was sponsored by Orlev Scientific/Ormat Industries in Yavne, Israel, which is in licensing talks with several aircraft and auto companies.EDITED BY OTIS PORT Neil GrossReturn to top


SOON YOU'LL BE ABLE TO KISS passwords good-bye. Your fingertip is all you'll need, thanks to a cheap fingerprint-reading system from Who Vision Systems Inc., a startup in Irvine, Calif. Its TactileSense technology essentially guarantees that only authorized persons can gain access to computers and networks. Yet it will cost just $25 to embed the fingertip reader in monitors and keyboards. Stand-alone fingerprint pads are expected to retail for $99. And prices might drop 50% with volume production, says Alexander G. Dickinson, founder of Who Vision and a former research manager at AT&T Bell Laboratories.

The sensor pad is a stamp-size sheet of piezoelectric plastic--it turns pressure into light. Put your finger on it, and it generates a glowing image of your fingerprint on the underside. This image is digitized and encrypted before being sent to a host computer for validation, so the fingerprint itself doesn't float around a network, where it might be vulnerable to theft.

Taiwan's Mag Technology Co., a leading maker of monitors, has signed on to produce 35 million pads for its own products and other manufacturers'. Look for the first fingerprint-savvy gadgets late this year.EDITED BY OTIS PORTReturn to top

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