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Japanese technology giant Toshiba has unveiled a huge factory farm where it is growing various types of lettuce leaves without sunlight or soil for sale in its new healthcare business. Located in disused 21,000-square foot electronics factory in Yokosuka, Toshiba claims to have created a perfect ‘germ free’ environment where it will grow three million bags of lettuce a year. Completely cut off from conditions outside the temperature and humidity controlled isolation tank, lettuce inspectors wear full body suits while making notes on the quality and growth of the leaves on their tablet computers in order to prevent the air around the plants becoming contaminated. Each plant is blasted with artificial lighting to trick it into believing it is exposed to sunlight, while vitamins and nutrients are injected directly into its roots, meaning the lettuce does not need soil. The goal of Toshiba’s new high-tech farm is to produce the world’s highest quality lettuce. The final product will be free of any form of bacteria, fungi or insect life before being placed into sealed bags, which should ensure the product has a longer shelf life than other lettuces.


The gardening technique aims to have a bacteria ration of no more than 1/1000th – considerably lower than that found in normal gardening soil. Toshiba aims to harvest three million bags of leaf lettuce, baby leaf greens, spinach, mizuna and herbs every year – with each bag likely to cost consumers £1.  The ultimate in organic vegetables, the lettuces require no pesticides but are expected to have a similar shelf to plants that have been heavily treated with chemicals.  The lettuce factory is no marketing gimmick by Toshiba, however. Instead it represents the company’s latest attempt to diversify its technology-led business. There are already plans for the technology giant to build similar factories around the world over the coming years – and it will also be selling the high tech equipment that allows factories to produce similar products of exceptionally high quality.


Toshiba was founded in 1938 as Tokyo Shibaura Electric through the merger of Shibaura Seisaku-sho, founded in 1875, and Tokyo Denki, founded in 1890. The company name was officially changed to Toshiba Corporation in 1978.

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Captain America, the Hulk and Iron Man relied on the incredible ‘Helicarrier’ to launch their planes from the air in the 2012 The Avengers film. And now, the US military is taking a leaf out of Marvel’s comic after it invited people to submit ideas for future ‘aircraft carriers in the sky.’ The hope is that these flying fortresses will someday carry, launch and recover multiple swarms of drones anywhere in the world. According to Darpa - the Pentagon’s advanced military technology research agency - military air operations typically rely on large, manned, robust aircraft. But such missions put these expensive aircraft, and their pilots, at risk. And while small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) can reduce or eliminate such risks, they lack the speed, range and endurance of larger aircraft. Darpa believes the solution is to create a flying Avengers-style platform that can rapidly carry these drones wherever needed.

‘We want to find ways to make smaller aircraft more effective, and one promising idea is enabling existing large aircraft, with minimal modification, to become ‘aircraft carriers in the sky’,’ said Dan Patt, Darpa project manager. ‘We envision innovative launch and recovery concepts for new UAS designs that would couple with recent advances in small payload design and collaborative technologies.’ The new project, called Distributed Airborne Capabilities, is likely to use a plane similar to the B-52 Stratofortress bomber, B-1B Lancer bomber or C-130 Hercules cargo plane, according to a report by The Washington Post.

Darpa is also involved in another initiative, dubbed the Hydra Project, which is aiming to develop a network of undersea ‘motherships’, capable of deploying both underwater and aerial drones. Meanwhile, the US Air Force is developing tiny unmanned drones that will fly in swarms, hover like bees, crawl like spiders and even sneak up on unsuspecting. The Air Vehicles Directorate, a research arm of the Air Force, last year released a computer-animated video outlining the future capabilities of Micro Air Vehicles (MAVs). ‘MAVs will become a vital element in the ever-changing war-fighting environment and will help ensure success on the battlefield of the future,’ the video explained. ‘Unobtrusive, pervasive, lethal - Micro Air Vehicles, enhancing the capabilities of the future war fighter.’ Air Force officials have already produced tiny remote-control prototypes - but they consume so much power that can only operate for a few minutes. Researchers estimate that it will take several years of advances in battery technology to make the designs feasible.


Drones that can choose to deviate from a set mission and hunt in ‘swarms’ could be patrolling skies within the next 25 years, according to a recent roadmap. Unmanned aircraft carrying stronger chemical weapons could also be on the horizon, the US Department of Defence (DoD) revealed in its Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap. While the document sets out plans for unmanned maritime, land and air vehicles, there is a lot of focus on the future capability of controversial drones, which, if the plans come to fruition, could deviate from mission commands set by humans if they spot a better target. The DoD’s roadmap also features plans for deadly ‘swarms’ of drone-bombs that are launched from an unmanned ‘mothership’ to circle the skies while a human operator searches for targets for the drones to crash into, guided by the bots’ on-board cameras.

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Cockroaches are known to be able to survive a nuclear explosion – and once day they could be saving trapped victims in a variety of disasters. Researchers have fitted the hardy creatures with electrical backpacks complete with tiny microphones to detect the faintest of sounds. The idea is that cyborg cockroaches, or ‘biobots’, could enter crumpled buildings hit by earthquakes, for example, and help emergency workers find survivors.

‘In a collapsed building, sound is the best way to find survivors,’ said Alper Bozkurt, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at North Carolina State University. ‘The goal is to use the biobots with high-resolution microphones to differentiate between sounds that matter - like people calling for help - from sounds that don’t matter - like a leaking pipe. ‘Once we’ve identified sounds that matter, we can use the biobots equipped with microphone arrays to zero-in on where those sounds are coming from.’

The ‘backpacks’ control the robo-roach’s movements because they are wired to the insect’s cerci - sensory organs that cockroaches usually use to feel if their abdomens brush against something. By electrically stimulating the cerci, cockroaches can be prompted to move in a certain direction. In fact, they have been programmed to seek out sound. One type of ‘backpack’ is equipped with an array of three directional microphones to detect the direction of the sound and steer the biobot in the right direction towards it. Another type is fitted with a single microphone to capture sound from any direction, which can be wirelessly transmitted - perhaps in the future to emergency workers. They ‘worked well’ in lab tests and the experts have developed technology that can be used as an ‘invisible fence’ to keep the biobots in a certain area such as a disaster area, the researchers announced at the IEEE Sensors 2014 conference in Valencia, Spain. A previous study led by Dr Edgar Lobaton, who is also at the university, showed that biobots can be used to map a disaster area. Dr Lobaton and Professor Bozkurt plan on merging their research to both map disaster areas and pinpoint survivors.


Professor Bozkurt’s team has recently demonstrated technology that creates an invisible fence for keeping biobots in a defined area. This is significant because it could be used to keep them at a disaster site and to keep the biobots within range of each other so that they can be used as a reliable mobile wireless network. The technology could also be used to steer biobots to light sources, so that tiny solar panels on biobot backpacks can be recharged.


The idea of turning cockroaches into cyborg slaves is not new, Gizmodo reported. Kits are available for under $100 (£63) that enable people to control their own insect by stimulating its antennae with electrical signals. This lets people ‘drive’ an insect for a few minutes. While the creators of the ‘Roboroach kit’ claim the cockroach forgets the experience after 20 minutes, some people think it is cruel.

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In an effort to ensure global food security, 10,000 new varieties of crops from around the world are being added to the ‘doomsday’ seed vault in the Arctic. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, on an island off Norway’s northern coast, already stores 825,000 samples of seeds, which represent 13,000 years of agricultural history. The vault provides a back-up to the network of seed banks around the world, which store seeds but can be threatened by war, accidents and natural disasters. Protecting the diversity of the world’s crops is ‘fundamental’ for ensuring food security in the face of climate change, warned the Global Crop Diversity Trust (GCDT), which manages the vault.


A series of deliveries of seeds to Svalbard this month will help in that fight, the GCDT said. Four shipments from major genebanks based in Bulgaria, Colombia, India and Taiwan are delivering varieties from more than 100 countries. The shipments include types of wheat, barley, corn, sorghum, peal millet, chickpea, groundnut, Asian and African aubergine. Seeds of a number of indigenous African vegetables, including okra, amaranth, spider plant and jute mallow are also being deposited. Preserving different food plant varieties will help breed and develop crops that can withstand a changing climate, for example, by being more drought resistant or able to cope with higher temperatures, the trust said.


Marie Haga, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, said: ‘The Svalbard Global Seed Vault symbolises how we can create a long-term, sustainable and positive solution to feed the world forever. ‘The issue of hunger is global, and increasingly urgent. If we continue as we are, food production will be reduced and food prices will rise. Even more people will go hungry. ‘Crop diversity is essential if we are to provide more food, more nutritious food and affordable food for the poor. ‘Maintaining crop diversity, and the genetic wealth it provides to current and future generations, is beneficial not just to crop breeders, but to the farmers that feed all of us on this planet.’ The GCDT is calling on governments, businesses, foundations and wealthy individuals to contribute to a £500 million ($800 million) endowment fund which will pay to conserve crop varieties in perpetuity.