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Five cool ways we're discovering new things

Daniel Martins
Digital Reporter

Sunday, July 13, 2014, 7:10 PM -

With each new age comes new discoveries. And in today's age, with the incredible technology we have that didn't even exist until this century, we're not only making new discoveries, we're making them in amazing new ways.

Here are just five examples, taken from the last couple of years.

Ice cave drones

It’s odd to think back to the days when drones were first introduced into the public mind. They were exclusively thought of as military creations.

But as their use has become more widespread, they’re increasingly used for peaceful purposes – everything from wildlife tracking, to home delivery and now, apparently ice-cave exploration.

You’ll want to watch the video below.

Bigger Than Life - Ice Caves from Firefight Films on Vimeo.

Put together by film company Firefight Films for drone-makers DSLRpros.com, it’s an incredible journey through the unknown and previously unknowable crevasses of the Mendenhall Glacier in Alaska.

The team made it happen by strapping a GoPro camera onto a four-propeller drone, and flying it through the caves, and also above the glacier to give you some perspective.

It wasn’t all smooth flying, though. The film makers told the Daily Mail they ran into some signal problems that almost scuppered the flights, as did turbulence caused by operating the drone’s four blades in tight spaces.

They put together a behind-the-scenes video that’s just as worth watching:

Bigger Than Life Behind-the-Scenes from Firefight Films on Vimeo.

It’s not just a frivolous exercise: It’s safe to say many of those little nooks and crannies had never been seen by human eyes. Methods like this will eventually be invaluable for scientists seeking to peer into the last undiscovered corners of the world.

Polar bear collar cams

Tracking polar bears isn’t a new thing, but strapping cameras onto them certainly is.

This video caused a bit of a stir in the animal-watching world when it was released by the United States Geological Survey last month:

Shot in April, it shows a female polar bear doing polar-beary things, like swimming in the ocean, hunting, playing with a bit of frozen food and even affectionately greeting a potential mate. She’s one of four selected for the program, in Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay.

This experiment was huge when it came to understanding how polar bears behave, and the close-and-personal perspective was a boon for scientists trying to figure out how they’re adapting to climate change.

The collars themselves were apparently designed to fall off after about 10 days, so no worries about long-term harm to the animals. According to LiveScience, they can store up to 38 hours of video, and were designed to turn on when temperatures were above freezing (a previous attempt in 2013 failed when the camera batteries gave out and the lense iced over).

Each is equipped with an accelerometer, which allowed scientists to match the distance travelled with what they were seeing on the video, and extrapolate the amount of energy the bears were spending doing various activities.

Put simply: The researchers found they’re swimming further distances, going longer between feedings and spending more time on land than before as the Arctic ice cap gradually thins, according to LiveScience.

USGS plans to repeat the experiment next year.

Tracking sharks? There's an app for that

The cool part of this experiment is not the fact it involves a solar-powered self-propelled floating robot (although that part is pretty neat).

It’s the use the robot is being put to: Not just tracking sharks – Great whites, to be exact – but also keeping an ever-changing database of them viewable by anyone who can make a trip to the app store.

Put together by researchers at Stanford University in 2012, the Shark Net app is linked to data the Wave Rider robot beams back to floating buoys.

If the idea is to demystify the sharks as individual creatures rather than unknowable terrors, the app goes a long way. Each one has a nickname, pictures, and a brief bio, detailing some of its habits.

It even comes with true-life 3D models of each of the named sharks (only a handful out of the numerous animals tracked by the team), and you can set alerts for each time your favourite comes near a buoy.

It only does that for tagged sharks, so it’s no good if you’re looking for something that’ll tell you about ALL shark sightings, and for now the network is mostly limited to the San Francisco coast.

Its creators are ambitious, though: Stanford wants to one day extend the wireless tracking network to cover the entire North American west coast, and cover not just sharks, but all kinds of tagged marine life.

NEXT PAGE: Space robots and 3-D printed dinosaurs

3D Printing dinosaurs

3D printing. It’s one of those futuristic technologies that seems like it’ll revolutionize absolutely everything, but most people couldn’t tell you how it works.

From medicine, to construction, to space travel, it seems like it can do everything, and you can add paleontology to its impressive to-do list.

Dinosaur bones are hard to get ahold of, and even harder to get out of the ground intact, but thanks to 3-D printer, you can at least hold a scale model of one in your hand.

The video above is from the American Museum of Natural History, which gave students a hands-on chance to look the prehistoric artifacts over, and the Smithsonian has done the same.

So it’s got amazing educational potential, but what about new discoveries?

Being able to scan and print scale models of dinosaur bones would improve accessibility, for one. It’s easier to send such a model to a colleague elsewhere in the world, rather than risk shipping an actual specimen, and risking damage when its protective casing is removed. It would also help fill in broken or missing pieces, which is how the technology was used to identify one fossil in a German museum that was damaged during the Second World War.

But some scientists, like this one at Drexel University in the United States, have other, more ambitious plans: Eventually print out whole limbs, including musculature, and eventually a full dinosaur model.

It’s not an idle exercise. With smaller scale models, scientists can fit bones together in ways that just aren’t possible with real fossils, and get a much better sense of how these creatures moved and lived in the real world.

Kirobo the space robot

From the prehistoric past to the not-so-distant future, we have Kirobo. Simply, it’s an actual functioning robot, designed to actually hold a conversation with a human being, rather than parrot back pre-recorded responses.

Supposedly Japan’s first “robot astronaut” (come on, you knew it was going to be from Japan), Kirobo isn’t just a toy. Jointly developed by Toyota and Tokyo University, the little guy is designed to pick up on human facial expressions, and interact with the International Space Station’s human crew.

We wouldn’t say it’s self aware. It can comprehend a question, then put together a logical response based on a pre-programmed vocabulary, but it’s not a true AI.

Still, its purpose on the ISS – it was blasted up in August – was to serve as a companion to Koichi Wakata, the station’s Japanese commander. In larger terms, Kirobo’s interactions with Wakata were a test of how well humans and robots interact, and the results could pave the way toward new advances in robot-human communication.

Also, watching it learn how to function in a low-gravity environment was fun:

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