For over 30 years, Barry Fox has trawled the world's weird and wonderful patent applications each week, digging out the most exciting, intriguing and even terrifying new ideas. His column, Invention, is exclusively online. Scroll down for a roundup of previous Invention articles.
No in-flight interference
Drastic action is needed to help airlines cope with huge increases in passengers now using portable electronics that can interfere with aircraft systems. So says Research in Motion, the Canadian company that made the Blackberry pocket e-mailer which became a must-have for business travellers. RIM thinks the only practical solution is to put the aircrew in charge of passengers’ “personal electronic devices”.
It’s not just cellphone transmissions that cause interference, says RIM, it’s the very high frequency clock speeds of modern microprocessors, and Wi-Fi and Bluetooth transceivers that continually send out “hello” signals. Most people have no idea how to configure their PED to make it flight-safe.
RIM wants to lead the way with a standard that lets PEDs respond to coded wireless signals that the pilot switches on during take-off and landing. The signals are at a low frequency that does not interfere with the aircraft’s electronics, and encrypted to confirm authenticity. The PED flashes a green light once it has switched into flight-safe mode, to assist cabin crew checks.
Once some airlines are transmitting “flight safe” instructions, and some PEDs are equipped to respond to them, more manufacturers and airlines should follow. The technology could also be used to automatically set cellphones to silent mode when in cinemas and theatres, RIM suggests.
Read more about RIM’s idea, here.
Anti-explosion washing powder
Who would have thought that a box of sweet-selling soap suds could blow up? According to Proctor and Gamble it’s true, which is why the company has been working out why and looking for a safety fix.
The root of the problem is that consumers want detergent powder to make washed clothes smell nice. However, we do not want to be hit with an overwhelming odour when opening the box. So manufacturers have been encapsulating perfume oil in starch powder. But some of the oil leaks through the starch and spreads thinly over the large surface area of the fine particles. That can create an explosive fuel mix.
P&G’s researchers found a simple solution, which they say surprised them so much that they thought it worth filing patents in over 100 countries.
The trick is to mix starch, orange oil and water, and then drive down the pH with citric acid while vigorously vibrating the mix. The result is an emulsion like oil-and-vinegar salad dressing. When this emulsion is sprayed into a hot oven it dries into fine particles with the oil safely trapped inside, eliminating the risk of explosion.
And using citric acid has the bonus of a lemony smell that escapes with the orange aroma only when the powder gets wet in a washing machine, not when the box is opened.
Read about Proctor and Gamble’s fragrant but safer detergent, here (pdf format).
Even the most accurate and intelligent speech recognition falls down when there is a lot of background noise, such as in a car, office or factory. But radar could help distinguish noise from speech, according to a patent from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, US.
A microphone picks up sound from the speaker’s mouth in the usual way, while a wireless transmitter fixed alongside the microphone emits a low-power signal at 2 gigahertz and analyses the reflections that bounce off the speaker's neck. The lab found it can reliably detect movements of one-tenth of a millimetre or less, and these reveal the motion of the throat as sounds are formed.
When there is no windpipe motion there is no speech, so the only sound picked up by the microphone is unwanted noise. This noise-only reading is used to construct a self-adjusting electronic filter that continually removes the noise, while letting the speech through.
Read Lawrence Livermore’s description of their system, here.