Blog Technology 24 October 2016

QUT media

Behold: the first autonomous robot that patrols coral reefs and exterminates marine pests with with a lethal injection.

COTSbot, developed by Queensland University of Technology researchers, spent many trials tethered to a Wi-Fi-enabled boat beaming data back to the researchers, allowing them to see through the robot’s cameras, verify every crown of thorns starfish (COTS) it identified and approve injections before they happened.

Once it proved it could work well under human supervision, the researchers monitored its autonomous efforts. It didn't fail to deliver.

Crown of thorns starfish are responsible for around 40% of the Great Barrier Reef's total decline in coral cover. Armies of autonomous robots, armed with lethal injections, could help stem the destruction.

“We’re very happy with COTSbot’s computer vision and machine learning system,” says Feras Dayoub, who worked on the machine.

“The robot’s detection rate is outstanding, particularly because COTS blend in very well with the hard corals they feed on, and because the robot must detect them in widely varying lighting conditions and shapes as they hide among the coral.

“When it comes to accurate detection, the goal is to avoid any false positives – that is, the robot mistaking another creature for a COTS. Our detection is extremely precise – it’s consistently reliable.”

Blog Space 21 October 2016

Up, up and away!
NASA / Joel Kowsky

Shane Kimbrough of NASA and cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Andrey Borisenko of the Russian space agency Roscosmos are on their way to the international space station and you can watch their arrival today live on NASA TV.

The trio is scheduled to stay on the space station until late February.

They will join Commander Anatoli Ivanishin of Roscosmos and flight engineers Kate Rubins of NASA and Takuya Onishi of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, who will be heading back to Earth on 30 October.

You can watch all the action on NASA TV or right here – see below.

Coverage of docking will begin at 9.15 am UTC (5.15 am EDT; 8.15 pm AEDT). Hatches are scheduled to open around 12.35 pm UTC (8.35 am EDT; 11.35pm AEDT).

Blog Space 20 October 2016

Artist's impression of the ExoMars entry, descent and landing demonstrator module, Schiaparelli, separating from the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO).
ESA / ATG medialab

The European Space Agency's ExoMars 2016 mission – a two-part test mission at the red planet – successfully slotted the Trace Gas Orbiter or TGO into orbit yesterday.

But the lander, Schiaparelli, could well have crashed upon landing. Confirming this, though, could take weeks.

Andrea Accomazzo, ESA spacecraft operations manager, said "the lander has definitely not behaved as well as we expected" at a press conference today.

But Schiaparelli's many sensors successfully sent a "huge amount of data" to the mothership – the TGO above – and that information will be analysed in the coming days, adds David Parker, ESA head of human spaceflight and robotic exploration.

Accomazzo said it's impossible to know right now if the lander crashed or if it landed as it should have.

But finding out what happened in the lander's last moments will take time. "There's a lot we're going to learn," Parker says. "The ExoMars campaign has started."

Blog Society 19 October 2016

Recipient of this year's Prime Minister's Prize for Science, the University of Sydney's Rick Shine (and a lizard friend).
The University of Sydney

Can the concept of backburning be applied to invasive species? Rick Shine, a herpetologist at the University of Sydney thinks so – and it's work such as this that earned him the 2016 Australian Prime Minister's Prize for Science.

“Some people love model trains, some people love Picasso; for me, it’s snakes,” he says.

The Australian Top End is being decimated by cane toads, which can fatally poison animals unlucky enough to gobble them up. So Shine has employed a variety of techniques, including behavioural conditioning, setting pheromone-laden traps and releasing smaller, less-lethal cane toads ahead of the main wave marching westwards in an effort to protect native species.

He found that quolls and lizards are discouraged from eating cane toads if the first one they eat is too small to poison and kill them. A single nausea-inducing meal discourages any further interest in the toxic toad.

By exposing these predators to small, non-lethal toads ahead of the main invasion front of larger, deadly counterparts – like backburning in front of a bushfire front – he and his team successfully buffered goannas against cane toads.

Read on for more prize winners.

Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation

Michael Aitken, at the Capital Markets CRC in Sydney, developed a software program which has made global stock markets fairer and more efficient. Now he’s applying the same technology framework and markets know-how to improve health, mortgage and other markets.

He says there are billions of dollars of potential savings in health expenditure in Australia alone, which can go hand in glove with significant improvements in consumers’ health.

Prize for New Innovators

The University of South Australia's Colin Hall has created a new manufacturing process that allows plastic to replace glass and metal, making aircraft, spacecraft and even whitegoods lighter and more efficient. His team’s first commercial success is a plastic car side-mirror – and it all started with spectacles.

Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year

Richard Payne, is re-engineering nature to fight for global health. He sees an interesting peptide or protein in nature, such as in a blood sucking tick, then recreates and re-engineers the molecule to create powerful new drugs, including anti-clotting agents to treat stroke.

His team at the University of Sydney is developing new drugs for the global health challenge including tuberculosis, malaria and antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections.

Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year

The University of Queensland's Kerrie Wilson can put a value on clean air, water, food, tourism and the other benefits that forests, rivers, oceans and other ecosystems provide. With that, she can calculate the most effective way to protect and restore those ecosystems.

For instance, in Borneo she and her colleagues have shown how the three nations that share the island could retain half the land as forest, provide adequate habitat for the orangutan and Bornean elephant, and achieve an opportunity cost saving of over $50 billion.

Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools

Suzy Urbaniak is a geoscientist who has turned classrooms into rooms full of young scientists at Perth's Kent Street Senior High School, giving them the freedom to develop their own investigations and find their own solutions.

Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools

Gary Tilley is mentoring the next generation of maths and science teachers to improve the way these subjects are taught in primary schools. He says once students are switched onto science, their literacy, numeracy and investigative skills all improve.

At Seaforth Public School in Sydney, he’s encouraged excitement and a love for science in his students who have painted almost every wall in their school with murals of dinosaurs and marine reptiles.

Blog Space 19 October 2016

For the European Space Agency this week,
it’s all systems go as its Mars lander Schiaparelli enters the Martian atmosphere to land on the red planet – and its Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) pops into the planet’s orbit.

The first mission of the ExoMars (exploration of Mars) programme is scheduled to run until 2020, and kicked off with a successful launch mid-March 2016 in Kazakhstan.

After seven months travelling together, the TGO and Schiaparelli separated on 16 October to prepare for their simultaneous manoeuvres.

After orbit insertion, the TGO will perform detailed observations of the Martian atmosphere, and specifically will search for gases which might indicate the presence of life.

Schiaparelli’s main purpose is to provide the European Space Agency with the technology to successfully land on Mars in preparation for the future ExoMars rover mission in 2020.

You can live stream the double act above, with curtains opening on Wednesday 19 October 3.40 pm UTC (11.40 am EST; 20 October at 2:40 am AEDT).

Blog Biology 14 October 2016

Chris Sharpley (centre) with members of the University of New England's Brain-Behaviour Research Group.
Simon Scott / UNE

When clinical psychologist and former dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences and Medicine at Bond University Chris Sharpley walked into a first-year chemistry class at the University of New England in 2007, he wasn’t there to teach – he was there to learn.

At 60 years old, Sharpley had four decades on most other students in the lecture theatre. But it marked just another twist in the neuroscientist’s tale.

Victorian born and bred, Sharpley was told in high school by a guidance counsellor that he’d make a good teacher. “You never know what you want to be at that age,” he laughs, but he took his counsellor’s advice and completed his teacher’s certificate, quickly backing it up with an arts degree with majors in psychology and philosophy.

He taught locally and overseas. But after a few years, he found himself drawn to how children learn. Why do some learn better than others?

So Sharpley’s life took a turn when he decided to become a school psychologist. Following a Masters by research, he completed a PhD at the University of New England on how rewards affect behaviour.

Shortly afterwards, he presented his work at a conference, catching the eye of people from Monash University. So from the early 1980s, he was back in Melbourne – close to his beloved AFL team, the Hawthorn Hawks – where he stayed 16 years, eventually to move to Bond University in Queensland to establish their Faculty of Health Sciences and Medicine.

But Sharpley slowly found himself questioning his field. He looked for a deeper understanding of behaviour than that given by psychology’s “cognitive” models, so briefly turned his research attention to the underlying biology of disorders such as depression and anxiety. But in 2004, he retired.

Simon Scott / UNE

“At 57, I needed a change of life,” he says, and sailed the Queensland coast with his wife, Vicki Bitsika, occasionally joining him when her job as director of Bond University’s Centre for Autism Spectrum Disorder allowed.

But Sharpley couldn’t stop thinking about neurobiology. And he knew he could contribute more to research, but simply didn’t have the neuroscience and physiology knowledge and training.

He managed two years of sailing before deciding – once again – to go back to university. He enrolled in one subject, but soon found himself in a full undergraduate physiology degree, sitting in lectures with legions of teenagers.

What did his wife think of his decision to go to back university? “I don’t think she was surprised,” Sharpley laughs. “She’s known me long enough to know I’ll try to do something challenging.”

After another Masters by research – this time in the neurobiology of depression – he was appointed a staff member at the University of New England and established the Brain-Behaviour Research Group.

The Brain-Behaviour Research Group explores how physiological processes affect mental health – not just limited to neuroscience and psychology but extending to fields such as genetics, oncology and immunology.

The group’s work has fed into undergraduate and postgraduate neuroscience degrees at University of New England. But, Sharpley says, his research must be translational into real life. He calls it his “basic principle”.

One of his group’s projects, PROFILE-D, has been running since 2012. It aims to create profiles for different depression subgroups, incorporating factors such as genetics, heart rate, brain waves, hormones and immune system responses to stress.

Another project looks at how hormone therapy, a common treatment for prostate cancer, affects the mental wellbeing of patients. The treatment blocks testosterone and shrinks the prostate. It’s highly effective but side effects include erectile and sexual dysfunction. And this can contribute to depression.

Sharpley’s team’s research suggests oncologists should inform patients about various counselling and medication options when they’re undergoing treatment, and – importantly – that things should return to normal soon after treatment is over.

In November, he and his group will start an IT Club on the Armidale campus for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. In a small group, the children will spend two hours per week for 10 weeks being taught IT skills by a computer scientist.

Not only does Sharpley hope the course will help children develop social communication skills, it could give some the idea that they may have a future in the field.

Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, Sharpley adds, once said a good educational system is a series of just-achievable hurdles – where children tackle problems or activities that take effort, but aren’t so hard that they fail.

“I think life is like that,” he says. “If you can have things to do that really demand a lot but you can achieve them with effort, for me that’s the way to be satisfied and happy with life.”

Blog Technology 11 October 2016

Alan Turing.
Fine Art Images / Heritage Images / Getty Images

A pair of New Zealand researchers restored the first recording of computer generated music – a 1951 BBC recording of a tune made by one of Alan Turing’s computers.

Alan Turing is best known for the role he played breaking the Nazi’s Enigma code in WWII, which was dramatised in the Oscar-winning film The Imitation Game. But Turing also dabbled in computer music, which laid the foundations for synthesisers as well as modern electronic music.

Although Turing was responsible for programming the first notes of the computer, he was not at all interested in programming the computer to play conventional music. Rather, he used the different notes he created to enable the user to ‘listen in’ to the computer functions.

For instance, Turing programmed one note to indicate ‘job finished’ and another for ‘error when transferring data from the magnetic drum’. He left it to a school teacher and pianist Christopher Strachey to create an actual song.

Strachey, using Turing’s computer and programming manual, worked overnight to get the computer to blare out a version of the British national anthem God Save the King.

The BBC recording was made several months after this event and included not only the national anthem but Baa Baa Black Sheep and the Glenn Miller track In the Mood. The tracks were recorded on a 12-inch acetate disc.

Jack Copeland from the University of Canterbury and composer Jason Long analysed the recording, adjusted its speed, chopped out some of the background sound, and the effects of a wobble in the recording (introduced probably during the disc cutting process).

You can listen to the recording here.

Blog Technology 10 October 2016

NYPL / Science Source / Getty Images

This Tuesday, celebrate a computer science visionary and join one of many events across the globe on Ada Lovelace Day – an international recognition of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).

Ada Lovelace was a pioneer of computer science. Brought up in a time that denied most women an education, she only received due recognition long after her death but has now become an icon of suppressed female genius.

She worked with inventor Charles Babbage on his general purpose computing machine, the Analytical Engine.

In 1843, she published a calculation that could be encoded on punch cards to generate Bernoulli Numbers – the first computer program.

Lovelace realised that with the right data and instructions, a computer could do anything – a century before the modern computer age.

Now, every second Tuesday in October becomes a celebration of her work, and that of other women in science, against the odds.

Last year, 82 cities around the world hosted over 150 independent events to celebrate women in STEM through events in all shapes and forms – everything from conferences, to Wikipedia “edit-a-thons” and pub quizzes.

This year’s highlight event, the “Ada Lovelace Day Live!” science cabaret, will be held at the Institution of Engineering and Technology in London and feature female engineers, physicists, biologists alongside science communicators, including UK science writer and broadcaster Kat Arney.

An entertaining mix of short talks, comedy and musical pieces about the presenters’ work and the women that have inspired them, this event is intended to attract and inspire women of all ages from girls, university students to women in established careers.

For events near you or to organise your own, check out the Ada Lovelace Day website.

Blog Space 07 October 2016

The Draco constellation and its namesake.
Dorling Kindersley / Getty Images

The Draconid meteor shower will peak this evening, treating the mid- to high-latitude northern hemisphere to the annual show.

As Earth crosses the path of Comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner, bits of the comet's debris left behind crash and burn in our upper atmosphere.

The meteor shower, which gets its name from the constellation Draco the Dragon, and is also known as the Giacobinids, are best seen in the evening sky, free from artificial light.

Blog Space 07 October 2016

Need closure following the end of the Rosetta mission?
The European Space Agency may help – in conjunction with Fish Ladder/Paltige Image, it released an ethereal epilogue to the 2014 film Ambition.

It’s an elegy for the end of the Rosetta mission, completed on 30 September as it crashed after a controlled descent into Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which it had been studying for two years.

The clip depicts an Apprentice, now a Master of Cosmic Origins, exploring a rich and fertile planet and, almost fondly and lovingly, remembering where it all started.