Most of us agree that technology is great. It feeds us information, speeds things along, connects people scattered around the globe and means we don’t have go get up off the couch to change TV channel. In this era of entertainment-on-demand, it’s easy to forget that technological innovation underpins far more than our frivolous distractions. While most new technologies claim to change your life, here are seven that could one day save it.
Sydney-based engineer Dominic Dowling doesn’t want to own the intellectual property rights to his invention, despite having a target market of millions in Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. Actually, he would prefer his QuakeSafe Adobe system fade into the background, becoming an integral part of building adobe-mudbrick homes in earthquake-prone regions.
“The objective is that in El Salvador or Northern India or Peru in future, everyone just builds their houses this way and there’s no thought where it came from,” says Dowling.
Dowling dedicated his PhD research to developing the QuakeSafe Adobe – a simple, low-cost method of improving the resistance of mudbrick homes in the event of an earthquake. The system can be easily incorporated into the construction of a new home or, for as little as US$50 and a week’s work, can be retro-fitted to an existing home, using vertical timber or bamboo poles, horizontal wire or string and a continuous timber ring/bond beam. In an earthquake, the system forms a matrix to help prevent the collapse of often poorly-built, brittle mudbrick structures.
Having developed and tested his system with the University of Technology, Sydney, Dowling is exploring how to effectively implement the system. With a sample project in El Salvador and further research in California and Pakistan, Dowling’s main implementation focus is India, where he recently spent two months on a scoping and feasibility study sponsored by Wizard Home Loans.
“The crux of it is training. We want to train local masons and builders in this technique so they have the confidence and the capacity to undertake the retro-fitting themselves. So, as the program expands, we’re not giving a little bit of assistance and then leaving them to fend for themselves. We’re giving them a skill and hopefully that skill becomes part of the local way of building,” he says.
Dowling’s interest in mudbrick homes came when a stint as a community development volunteer in Central America saw him assigned to reconstruction efforts after the 2001 El Salvador earthquake. The quake measured 7.6 on the Richter scale and flattened over 100,000 adobe-mudbrick homes, killing many residents. Housing reconstruction involved building concrete block houses – standard model homes – without regard for the family’s needs.
“It didn’t seem sustainable and took a lot of the power and decision away from the residents. They were grateful, but for me it raised questions of what happens in five or ten years time when they have to build their son’s house, or another house.”
As well as offering protection from the ravages of earthquake, Dowling hopes to stimulate renewed interest in traditional forms of construction, encouraging a sustainable method of building using local resources and empowering local tradespeople.
Although he’s cautious of taking on too much too soon, Dowling is excited about the prospect of his QuakeSafe Adobe system becoming an integral part of traditional building practices around the world.
“It won’t matter whether a crazy Australian thought of it. It will just be ‘Oh, that’s what my grandfather did, and what my father did. We do it because it makes our house safe.’”
When was the last time you participated in a fire drill? If you work in any kind of large building, it probably wasn’t that long ago. But when was the last time you thought about fire safety in your own home?
As a firefighter, David O’Brien sees the devastation of house fires first-hand. While he takes his job seriously, he has also given serious thought to preventing and minimising the damage. The result: the Firecat Sprinkler System.
Designed and developed by O’Brien and his partners and modelled on commercial systems, the Firecat Sprinkler System is a residential sprinkler system designed to contain a fire at the source, giving occupants more time to escape and limiting property damage.
“We’ve designed a system that’s very similar to a commercial fire system. We’ve taken the best parts from that, re-engineered it and made it affordable for the home,” says O’Brien.
The Firecat system activates in the first 90 seconds of an outbreak to extinguish and suppress the fire immediately, using only the sprinkler located closest to the fire.
“This limits damage to the point of origin. The fire will not spread and it maintains a tenable atmosphere. If anyone is in the home, with the alarm and devices, everyone is out,” says O’Brien.
The system is designed and manufactured in West Australia, with franchise opportunities offered around the country. O’Brien’s aim is to fit more sprinkler systems to more homes and, in his role as firefighter, to attend fewer fires.
“This is an affordable, cost-effective option. There is no reason for people to die in houses anymore.”
Another Australian business containing fires and saving lives is Melbourne-based Ceram Polymerik, whose flexible polymers solidify into a ceramic fire-protection barrier at extreme temperatures.
Profiled in Two for the Road in Issue 18, Ceram Polymerik spent the past 12 months refining a PVC glazing seal for fire doors and developing a flexible polyurethane foam for gap filling, all in the name of passive fire protection.
“Our PVC glazing seal for fire doors is certified to Australian Standard AS1530.4 for 60 minutes. That means you can have a fire up to 1000˚C on one side of a glass screen and you won’t see any flame on the other side of the door for 60 minutes,” says Ceram Polymerik CEO Ray Purcell.
The door seals counteract the movement of fire, heat and smoke between rooms, while the polyurethane foam can fill building cavities such as pipe and cable conduits.
“With our flexible polyurethane foam, we’re getting up to three hours of integrity. It’s suitable for thermal, wind or seismic expansion joints as well as gap filling for penetrations in buildings,” says Purcell.
The flexible polymers begin to solidify into ceramic within a temperature range of 350-800˚C, depending on the application. The technology suits a wide range of uses, but the focus is on the glazing seals and gap-filling foams for now.
“They’re our two lead products, but we’ve just completed a successful manufacturing trial targeting a drain, waste and vent pipe and we’re also working on some polyester grades to make lightweight composite panels for the transport industry. We’re interested in taking on development or funding partners,” says Purcell.
There’s a certain satisfaction in a technology that uses the intense heat generated by a fire to stop it in its tracks – a new take on the old adage, to fight fire with fire.
SCANNER OFFERS SKY-HIGH SAFETY
Ah, this is what we like to read about – a device that’s life-saving as well as time-saving. Researchers at CSIRO Minerals have developed a method of scanning air cargo to identify suspicious materials, such as explosives and narcotics, taking less than two minutes to screen the contents of a standard air cargo load unit.
The CSIRO Air Cargo Scanner uses neutron and gamma-ray scanning techniques to provide essential information on material composition, shape and density. According to CSIRO Research Scientist Dr James Tickner, the new device offers several benefits compared with existing technology.
“There is no technology currently in use for large-scale screening of bulk air-freight. A range of different approaches are used at the moment, including unpacking and examining or X-raying of individual packages, which can be a lengthy process,” he says.
Tickner and his colleagues started work on the concept in 2002, culminating in the recent testing of a full-scale prototype system at Brisbane Airport.
“We were very happy with the results of the trial, which showed the scanner to be a very competitive technology,” says Tickner.
The team expects to start work on Mark II with a commercial partner in the near future, with plans for a passenger luggage screening device to follow.
“The overall concept could be used for a range of applications, including baggage and parcels. The practical implementation details would be quite different, however. We’re about to test a laboratory prototype of a luggage scanner that specifically targets explosives detection.
”Making sure there are no explosives on your flight? Now that’s some life-saving technology every air passenger is likely to embrace.
INSTANT RESULTS MEAN EARLY INTERVENTION
Cervical cancer is not fussy; it strikes women in their prime the world over. Most developed societies have government-supported cervical cancer screening programs in place for crucial early detection and intervention. These programs rely on established medical infrastructure and expertise, something developing nations don’t often have.
For the past decade, Sydney-based biotech Polartechnics has been developing and refining a real-time cervical cancer screening product for the almost one billion women aged 18-65 without access to established screening methods. Now the finished product, TruScreen, is providing cost-effective, potentially life-saving screening services in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and parts of Europe.
“TruScreen is a portable screening system used to directly identify cancerous or pre-cancerous cells in cervical tissue. It is simple to operate and gives an instant answer.
It can be used by registered nurses and healthcare workers in villages,” says Catherine Stringer, Clinical Trial Manager for TruScreen.
Making a real-time screening service accessible to women in remote villages means they can protect their health without too much disruption to daily life.
“Imagine for women who work in the fields somewhere like Rajasthan, India – taking a day off work means the family loses a day’s income. Standard cytology practice means she has to come back for the results and lose another day’s work. The problem is getting women to come back for follow-up,” says Stringer.The TruScreen device uses optical and electrical readings which are taken from the cervix using a disposable single-use sensor. The information is passed through a handset into the console or microprocessor, giving the operator the probability of normal or abnormal tissue.Stringer says early detection and intervention are critical.“Cervical cancer is one of the biggest killers because it is not detected early enough. It can be prevented with early intervention. Cervical cancer usually affects women in the prime of their life. These women would have had changes in their late 30s or early 40s that could have been detected if adequate screening was available.”
TWO-WAY TECHNOLOGY FOR ROCK SOLID SAFETY
Solid rock has always been a stumbling block for wireless communications technologies. Sitting on an underground train, driving through a tunnel or even entering a lower-ground car park renders us momentarily disconnected from the outside world.
For most, this is a temporary annoyance, but for miners trapped underground in an emergency, the inability of radio frequency waves to penetrate solid rock can mean the difference between life and death.
Sydney-based Mine Site Technologies (MST), in conjunction with the CSIRO, has been working on this conundrum for some time and recently developed the world’s first two-way personal emergency device (PED), allowing
text messages to be sent through the earth from a depth of 480 metres.
Most Australian coal mines use the MST-developed one-way messaging device as their primary emergency evacuation system, where a text message can be sent from the mine surface to a miner’s Integrated Communications Cap Lamp (ICCL), using very low frequencies to transmit data through rock strata. However, MST Business Development Manager Denis Kent says the ability to send a two-way text message represents a major leap in mine safety.
“Until now, we could send a text message to miners down below, saying there’s a fire and indicating which evacuation route to use, but the miners couldn’t send a message back. Now, the CSIRO has come up with encoding techniques that allow us to send messages from deep underground,” he says.
The two-way concept has been proven and Kent says MST is busy refining the new technology into a commercial product. With a market of 20,000 underground miners in Australia, 45,000 in the US and the booming Chinese industry keen to raise safety standards, MST plans to have the required infrastructure in mines from mid-2008. Mines already using the one-way system will be able to upgrade to the two-way option, retaining the safety, style and function of the advanced ICCL, designed in conjunction with industrial design team Tiller + Tiller.
According to the Heart Foundation, cardiovascular disease kills one Australian every ten minutes. For those living with the disease or undergoing rehabilitation, cardiac monitoring provides patients and carers a critical insight into the state of heart health.
Usually undertaken at a hospital or other medical centre, cardiac monitoring can now happen anywhere, anytime with the use of an Alive Heart Monitor developed by Gold Coast-based Alive Technologies.
Combining the monitor with a global positioning system and mobile phone, a patient’s exact position, speed, ECG and heart rate can be recorded and transmitted to the health supervisor in real time.
Alive Technologies CEO Bruce Satchwell says the monitor has a variety of applications, including the management of atrial fibrillation and heart failure, remote cardiac rehabilitation and even fitness training programs for elite athletes.
“For remote cardiac rehabilitation, for example where a patient has had a heart attack, exercise is critical to recovery. Patients come to hospital to do that safely and, if they don’t live nearby, they tend not to come,” he says.
Remote monitoring allows the patient to exercise in their own home or gym, with medical staff able to keep track of progress in real-time over the internet. Likewise, if a patient notices the onset of symptoms, they can attach the monitor and transmit data immediately to the relevant carer.
“Research shows that prior to the patient getting sick and needing hospitalisation, there are warning signs.
So for people who have chronic diseases – cardiac disease, diabetes, obesity – you can get early warning that their condition isn’t stable, that they’re deteriorating, and intervention can be taken,” says Satchwell.
Roughly half the size of a deck of cards, the monitor can be worn directly on the chest or on a belt with electrodes on the chest. A memory card inside the monitor can record several weeks’ data. To date, Alive Technologies’ largest customers are medical and sporting research groups, but the company is now targeting mainstream health professionals.