High-Tech Sci-Tech

01 November 2017 - By: Alex Evans

High-Tech Sci-Tech

3D model of a ribbon halfbeak
3D model of a ribbon halfbeak. Photo:Dr Yoshinobu Inada


By Alex Evans

Scientific conferences often function as showcases for the impressive new applications of technology from the frontiers of modern research. This year’s SEB Annual Meeting in Gothenburg was certainly no exception, and here are just a few of the innovative technologies and techniques that were on display.

Digital D-I-Y

3D printers are rapidly becoming research lab staples for a diverse range of research groups due to their feasibility and almost unlimited options for custom-designed products. 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, is the process of creating three-dimensional objects by ‘printing’ layer upon layer of mouldable plastic filaments, sometimes with impressively small resolutions at the micrometre scale. Many of this year’s delegates described in their talks and posters how they use 3D printers to create robust tools and experimental models to improve their research. One such delegate, Dr Yoshinobu Inada from Tokai University, described how his team uses a combination of 3D scanners and 3D printers to produce accurate models of his study organisms in an effort to better understand how they move around their environment. “We currently use 3D printing to make experimental models of animals such as fish and dolphins in order to investigate their fluid-dynamics in wind and water tunnels,” explains Dr Inada. By using an array of optical cameras, Dr Inada and his team can create digital 3D copies of scanned objects and animals, which are then processed using modelling software and sent to the 3D printer for physical fabrication. Affordable 3D printers and extensive online model repositories mean that almost anything is at the fingertips of today’s researchers, and even when working with large-scale and high-resolution designs, 3D printing is proving to be a rapid and cost effective method of producing custom objects. Dr Inada further expresses his interest in the potential of 3D printers from an engineering research standpoint, suggesting that a combination of this fabrication process and light-weight materials could be used to make flying models of airplanes and other vehicles: “there are many interesting possibilities for 3D printing in the future.”

The IT crowd

It seems that the millions of cat videos uploaded to online video sites are useful for more than just our lunch-break amusement. During this year’s open biomechanics session, Dr John Lees from Linköping University in Sweden discussed his work investigating the scaling of preferential locomotion speeds of animals with a focus on the surprising source of his data. Video recording of animal locomotion for kinematic analysis is a fundamental tool of the animal biomechanics arsenal, but since Dr Lees’ project requires data from a wide range of animal species occupying all corners of the globe, traditional video data collection seems highly unfeasible. “It occurred to me that YouTube would be a great place to obtain the videos that I needed as there are already people in Africa filming lions and people in the Arctic filming polar bears,” said Dr Lees. “In effect I could simply outsource my data collection to the public from the comfort of my office.” Data crowdsourcing and citizen science have become increasingly popular methods of mass data accumulation in recent years, but this project provides an interestingly novel take on the technique: “I’ve always been fascinated by the power that the internet has given to the ‘crowd’” says Dr Lees. “People with interests in a particular product can drive its production through crowdfunding, and similarly, people with interests in science can unite and actively participate in research.” By utilising these crowd sourced internet videos, Dr Lees can gather a great deal of video data quickly and efficiently. “Video sharing platforms like YouTube are easily searchable archives with an unimaginable amount of freely available content featuring a range of weird and wonderful species.” However, this new digital data source is not without issue, as a distinct lack of scaling references and wobbly footage mean that only relatively simple kinematics can be extracted from public videos. Despite this, John is optimistic for the future of this promising technique: “Mobile phones and cameras are getting more advanced every year so their future potential is great. All we have to do now is convince people to take scale bars on safari with them.”

Rise of the robots

Robotic automation is sometimes regarded as a threat to the labour industry, but there are some jobs that are best left to the machines. One such job is the dangerous and potentially lethal handling of deadly animals. Mouad Mkamel, a PhD student at Ben M’sik Hassan II University in Morocco presented a programmable robot prototype designed to extract venom from scorpions. Costing upwards of £6,000 per gram, scorpion venom is one of the most expensive liquids in the world and it is highly sought after for use in medical applications such as immunosuppressants, anti-malarial drugs and cancer research. Unfortunately, the manual extraction process is often dangerous for researchers and can be potentially lifethreatening. “The extraction of scorpion venom is a very difficult task and usually takes at least two experimenters,” says Mr Mkamel. “There are numerous risks, including potentially deadly scorpion stings and electric shocks from the stimulators used to extract the venom.” Mr Mkamel designed the robot in order to minimise the handling risks that accompany the traditional extraction methods. “This robot makes venom recovery fast and safe,” he explains, adding that he created the VES-4® device to be a lightweight and easily portable robot for researchers both in the lab or the field. Not only are traditional venom-extraction methods dangerous for the handler, they’re also harmful for the scorpion. “The VES-4® robot is designed to extract scorpion venom without injuring the animal, as well as providing safety for the experimenters,” says Mr Mkamel. One of the most impressive features of the robot is that it can be programmed by users to suitably tailor the extraction process for different scorpion species. As a biologist, Mr Mkamel acknowledges that the greatest challenges of the project were learning how to configure the electronics and programming necessary in order to complete the project. However, Mr Mkamel says that this prototype is just the start, and he is already planning future versions of the robot that will further increase safety for the user and potentially produce spin-off applications for other venomous creatures.

Sensing the future

Personal healthcare is frequently at the forefront of scientific innovation and acts as an important driving force behind many of the technological developments that change the way we live our lives. During Professor Anthony Turner’s Cell Biology Plenary Lecture, we heard about his role in the creation of the first portable amperometric blood-glucose sensors in the early 1980s and how they drastically altered the way that we monitor and handle diabetes. These revolutionary biosensors were the result of great technological innovations, including the impressive miniaturisation of electronic instruments and the use of the screen-printing process to effectively mass produce the products. Professor Turner, now working at Linköping University in Sweden, is still active in the field of biosensor technology, and continues to work with innovative interfaces between biology and electricity to produce effective and convenient healthcare technology. “Healthcare spending as a percentage of GDP is growing unsustainably worldwide and biosensors can contribute to providing better management of health more conveniently and at lower cost,” he explains. Alongside biosensors, there are alternative physical methods of collecting information about the body’s biochemistry, but they are often burdened with limited scope and accuracy. “Biosensors directly measure the chemistries of interest giving us vital information about our genomic, metabolomic and proteomic activity along with information about pathogens, our food intake and the environment that we are exposed to,” says Professor Turner. “This information will allow us to properly tailor lifestyles and treatments to maintain health.” Not only are bio-sensing devices useful for monitoring personal medical issues, they also have a range of applications outside of healthcare. “Biosensors have important roles in food safety and quality control, as well as environmental monitoring,” explains Professor Turner. “The scientific advances demanded by integrating biology and electronics also provide insights into areas such as biomimicry, smart materials and organic electronics.”

Category: Plant Biology
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Alex Evans

Alex Evans is a PhD student at the University of Leeds investigating the energetics of bird flight. In his spare time, Alex enjoys writing about the natural world, contributing to the Bird Brained Science blog and exploring other avenues of science communication.