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The Future of Short Commute Flying Cars is in Jeopardy

Turns out that you might be better off on the ground. Also, smart pajamas watch you sleep and Blue is a robot built for your home.

Smart Pajamas are Actually Comfortable

Researchers from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst have created "smart pajamas.” 

Led by Dr. Trisha Andrew, a multi-disciplinary research team at the Wearable Electronics Lab (WE Lab) recently sewed five different sensors into a loose-fitting silk pajama shirt to monitor heartbeat and breathing -- the shirt can even determine your position as you move in your sleep. 

The self-powered sensors provide improved access that could be used to help improve sleep patterns. For example, the pajamas can tell if you're breathing, if you have sleep apnea, or if the position you typically sleep in is limiting your sleep quality.

The sensors are powered by a small fiber-based supercapacitor made by the WE Lab that is sewn into the shirt. The sensors communicate via Bluetooth and can run for up to eight hours on a single charge. The garment is even machine washable and can withstand from 30-to-40 wash cycles.

The sensors can be sewn into pretty much any garment you choose and could drastically improve sleep studies, particularly when it comes to comfort. I’m not sure if you’ve seen the at home kits, but let’s just describe them as “busy.”

Dr. Andrew doesn’t have a timeline as to when the smart pajamas will be on the market, but she is looking for investors to help expedite the process.

Remember, if you have better sleep, you typically have a better quality of life (that's what they tell me, anyways).

Atta Boy Blue

Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley have created Blue, a robot designed to fold towels.

Luckily, there is a little more to the equation as Blue, which resembles the frame of a CrossFit bro, was designed to master basic but intricate human tasks -- like folding the laundry or making a cup of coffee. If you watch it in action, it kind of looks like a Gap worker the first day on the job (nervous, fidgety, but there’s promise).

Typically, when we think of robots, we think big industrial machines moving cars frames and tending machines. Blue was designed to use artificial intelligence (AI) and deep reinforcement learning to master human tasks using trial and error or demonstration, like when a human teaches it how to do something.

The researchers also developed Blue to be affordable and safe enough so that it could one day be found in every home. Right now, Blue's components total less than $5,000 to manufacture and assemble. 

The robot has a wide range of motion with joints that are designed to mimic human movement, and it’s also designed to expend energy much like a human. For example, it can also hold up to two kilograms with its arms fully extended, but it is "thermally-limited." Like a human, it can exert a force well beyond the two-kilogram limit in a quick burst, until its thermal limits are reached and it needs to take a breather.

Next, the team will work on improving Blue's durability, and the startup Berkeley Open Arms will try and figure out how to manufacture it on a larger scale.

The Future of Short Commute Flying Cars is in Jeopardy

The future of the flying car remains suspect. We have seen some interesting concepts and prototypes, and as some companies start taking pre-orders, it's about time for researchers to come out and trash the idea (or at least make expectations a little more realistic).

Researchers from the University of Michigan's Center for Sustainable Systems and from Ford Motor recently published an environmental impact study that determined that you are better off in a car for a short commute, but a flying car could be a better choice for longer commutes. For the sake of the study, researchers specifically looked at VTOLs, or electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft.

The report looks at primary energy and greenhouse gas emissions of VTOLs compared to ground-based cars. VTOLs, which take off and land like a helicopter and then fly like a plane are efficient when cruising but consume a lot of energy for takeoff and climb.

So, it all comes down to trip distance and whether or not you are carpooling. 

The researchers analyzed primary energy use and greenhouse gas emissions during the five phases of VTOL flight: takeoff hover, climb, cruise, descent and landing hover. These aircraft use a lot of energy during takeoff and climb but are relatively efficient during the cruise phase, traveling at 150 mph.

As a result, VTOLs are most energy efficient on long trips, when the cruise phase dominates the total flight miles.

The researchers found that for trips of 62 miles (100 km) a VTOL carrying a pilot and three passengers had lower greenhouse gas emissions than ground-based cars. Emissions were 52 percent lower than gas vehicles and even six percent lower than battery-electric vehicles.

For shorter trips--anything less than 22 miles--vehicles used less energy and produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions than VTOLs. That's important when you consider that the average ground-based vehicle commute is only about 11 miles.

Of course, the VTOL would be much faster, completing the 62-mile trip about 80 percent faster than a car, but who knows if that will be the case once the sky is just is congested and people still have yet to stop texting and driving.

This is Engineering By Design.

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