12 mad science projects that could shake the world

From robots that eat and shrink to invincible soldiers and smart drones, advanced science project will alter our universe

lightning strikes
Some science projects once only conceivable by mad scientists are now becoming more mainstream as real money is being spent on everything from shape-shifting robots to artificial intelligence-based borgs. Here we take a look at 12 projects Dr. Frankenstein would have loved. 

Build your inner strength: The military's research arm has done much to help increase the health and well-being of our service members but, it wants to make them better, way better. A Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency program called "Inner Armor" is looking at ways to fortify the entire soldier against attack from bullets and bombs, but also against environmental threats, infectious diseases, chemical, biological and radioactive weapons. One example of Inner Armor work: In humans, core body temperature can be controlled by the temperature applied to superficial veins in the arms and legs. Thus, "heat dumping" materials comprised of designer proteins, could be worn as "venous radiator patches" over the 8 anatomic locations where major blood vessels lie close to the skin. Indeed.  

Layer 8 Extra:

Top 10 cool satellite projects

15 genius algorithms that aren't boring 

The shape-shifting bot: iRobot recently showed one of the first shape shifting robots or chembots as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency calls them.  The company last year got a $3.3 million DARPA contract to build to build soft, flexible, mobile objects that can identify and maneuver through openings smaller than their static structural dimensions; reconstitute size, shape, and features while delivering a meaningful payloads or performing significant tasks. 

Going up?: The Space Elevator is defined by its proponents as a "railroad to space."  Space elevators are in a stationary tethers rotating with the Earth, held up by a weight at one end, and serving as a track on which electric vehicles called "climbers" can travel up and down carrying about 10 tons of payload, according to The Spaceward Foundation which is working with NASA to develop such technology.  According to the Spaceward Foundation, the single most difficult task in building the Space Elevator is achieving the required tether strength-to-weight ratio -- in other words, developing a material that is both strong enough and light enough to support the 60,000 mile long tether. 

The hungry vegetarian robot: Here we have Cyclone Power building what it calls a beta biomass engine system that will be the heart of what's known as the Energetically Autonomous Tactical Robot (EATR) being developed by Robotic Technologies. The purpose of EATR is to develop an autonomous robotic platform able to perform long-range, long-endurance missions without the need for manual or conventional refueling - in other words it needs to "eat."  According to researchers, the EATR system gets its energy by foraging, or what the firms describe as "engaging in biologically-inspired, organism-like, energy-harvesting behavior which is the equivalent of eating. It can find, ingest, and extract energy from biomass in the environment as well as use conventional and alternative fuels when suitable." 

The robotic gardner: Home to lots of unconventional thinking, MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL)  is experimenting with robotic gardening or "precision agriculture" as the MIT folks call it. The idea is to take advantage of swarm robotics: and plant sensors that let plants request additional water from their robot overlords. Ripe tomatoes for example, are picked by other bots.  

The dark side: The National Science Foundation is developing mathematical and computational algorithms and techniques that will improve law enforcement and the intelligence communities' ability to transform large, often streaming data sets, e-mails, images, numbers and sounds into a form that better supports visualization and analytic reasoning.  The potentially controversial dark side if this research is that the NSF is working hand-in-hand with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to develop some of this technology. Obviously interpreting data from potential terrorist organizations and the like would be within its purview but when you see mention of healthcare and biological data interpretation interest in the same sentence as DHS, hackles go up. 

Buzzing: Harvard researchers recently got a $10 million grant to create a colony of flying robotic bees, or RoboBees to among other things, spur innovation in ultra-low-power computing and electronic "smart" sensors; and refine coordination algorithms to manage multiple, independent machines.  The 5-year, National Science Foundation-funded RoboBee project could lead to a better understanding of how to artificially mimic the unique collective behavior and intelligence of a bee colony among other cool stuff, according to the Harvard RoboBee Web site. 

Big brother: Researchers are looking to develop an intelligent image system that can monitor large areas, perhaps miles wide,  identify potential threats based on the correlation of events and anomalies it detects, and issue timely alerts with few false alarms.  Such a surveillance system is at the heart of what researchers at the  Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency calls a Persistent Stare Exploitation and Analysis System (PerSEAS) that can automatically and interactively discover intelligence from optical or infra-red devices in the air on drones, for example, or spread over urban, suburban, and rural environments. 

The Jetson pod: It looks a little like the Jetson's flying car but it travels on magnetically levitated highways.  That's one vision of a future commuter system that could be developed by a marriage of NASA robot-control software and car-like pods from Unimodal Systems.  Specifically, per an agreement announced today between Unimodal's SkyTran will use small vehicles running on elevated, magnetically levitated (maglev) guideways, which distinguishes it from other railed systems. The vehicles are lightweight, personal compartments that can transport up to three passengers, according to Unimodal.  Travelers board the pod-like vehicles and type their destinations into a small computer. Using intelligent control system software, SkyTran will run non-stop point-to-point service without interrupting the flow of traffic, the company said.

Fly by droning: By 2047 the Air Force says unmanned aircraft with blazing artificial intelligence systems could fly over a target and determine whether or not to unleash lethal weapons - without human intervention. Nothing could go wrong there!  Such intelligent unmanned aircraft were described in the Air Force's "Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Plan 2009-2047" report which outlines the service's future use of drones.   The Air Force said that assuming the decision is reached to allow some degree of aircraft autonomy, commanders must retain the ability to refine the level of autonomy the aircraft will be granted just as they set rules of engagement for the personnel under their command today.

The all-consuming AI system: DARPA is building avant-garde artificial intelligence (AI) software known as a Machine Reading Program (MRP) that can capture knowledge from naturally occurring text and transform it into the formal representations used by AI reasoning systems. The idea is that such an intelligent learning system would unleash a wide variety of new AI applications - military and civilian -- ranging from intelligent bots to personal tutors.  DARPA says all of the text in the World Wide Web will become available for automating the monitoring and will allow the AI program to analyze all sorts of activies from technological to political.  

NASA and the micro-bots: Some experts are proposing NASA or possible a commercia lspace entitiy develop semi-automous robots that could be sent to explore and build outposts on in space. What some are suggesting is that NASA restructure its space exploration strategy to adopt telepresence-based microbots as the way to achieve space exploration goals without developing manned spacecraft and all of the expense and risk that entails. Microbots could supply the information that, fed to computers, would let us explore alien planets in the same way that we navigate the virtual spaces of video games or wander through online environments like Second Life.

Layer 8 in a box

Check out these other cool stories: 

Ethernet everywhere! 

10 NASA space technologies that may never see the cosmos 

Inside the bad-ass world of military research projects 

DARPA's Top 10 wicked cool high-tech aviation systems

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

SD-WAN buyers guide: Key questions to ask vendors (and yourself)