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This robot crawls along wind turbine blades looking for invisible flaws – TechCrunch

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Wind turbines are a great source of clean power, but their apparent simplicity — just a big thing that spins — belie complex systems that wear down like any other, and can fail with disastrous consequences. Sandia National Labs researchers have created a robot that can inspect the enormous blades of turbines autonomously, helping keep our green power infrastructure in good kit.

The enormous towers that collect energy from wind currents are often only in our view for a few minutes as we drive past. But they must stand for years through inclement weather, temperature extremes, and naturally — being the tallest things around — lightning strikes. Combine that with normal wear and tear and it’s clear these things need to be inspected regularly.

But such inspections can be both difficult and superficial. The blades themselves are among the largest single objects manufactured on the planet, and they’re often installed in distant or inaccessible areas, like the many you see offshore.

“A blade is subject to lightning, hail, rain, humidity and other forces while running through a billion load cycles during its lifetime, but you can’t just land it in a hanger for maintenance,” explained Sandia’s Joshua Paquette in a news release. In other words, not only do crews have to go to the turbines to inspect them, but they often have to do those inspections in place — on structures hundreds of feet tall and potentially in dangerous locations.

Using a crane is one option, but the blade can also be orientated downwards so an inspector can rappel along its length. Even then the inspection may be no more than eyeballing the surface.

“In these visual inspections, you only see surface damage. Often though, by the time you can see a crack on the outside of a blade, the damage is already quite severe,” said Paquette.

Obviously better and deeper inspections are needed, and that’s what the team decided to work on, with partners International Climbing Machines and Dophitech. The result is this crawling robot, which can move along a blade slowly but surely, documenting it both visually and using ultrasonic imaging.

A visual inspection will see cracks or scuffs on the surface, but the ultrasonics penetrate deep into the blades, making them capable of detecting damage to interior layers well before it’s visible outside. And it can do it largely autonomously, moving a bit like a lawnmower: side to side, bottom to top.

Of course at this point it does it quite slowly and requires human oversight, but that’s because it’s fresh out of the lab. In the near future teams could carry around a few of these things, attach one to each blade, and come back a few hours or days later to find problem areas marked for closer inspection or scanning. Perhaps a crawler robot could even live onboard the turbine and scurry out to check each blade on a regular basis.

Another approach the researchers took was drones — a natural enough solution, since the versatile fliers have been pressed into service for inspection of many other structures that are dangerous for humans to get around: bridges, monuments, and so on.

These drones would be equipped with high-resolution cameras and infrared sensors that detect the heat signatures in the blade. The idea is that as warmth from sunlight diffuses through the material of the blade, it will do so irregularly in spots where damage below the surface has changed its thermal properties.

As automation of these systems improves, the opportunities open up: A quick pass by a drone could let crews know whether any particular tower needs closer inspection, then trigger the live-aboard crawler to take a closer look. Meanwhile the humans are on their way, arriving to a better picture of what needs to be done, and no need to risk life and limb just to take a look.

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Still can’t buy a Raspberry Pi board? Things aren’t getting better anytime soon

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Raspberry Pi Foundation

Shortages for lots of tech components, including things like DDR5 and GPUs, have eased quite a bit since the beginning of 2022, and prices have managed to go down as availability improves. But that reprieve hasn’t come for hobbyists hoping to get a Raspberry Pi, which remains as hard to buy today as it was a year ago.

The most recent update on the situation comes from Raspberry Pi founder Eben Upton via YouTuber Jeff Geerling—Upton told Geerling that Pi boards are subject to the same supply constraints since the last time he wrote a post about the situation in April. Around 400,000 Pi boards are still produced per month, and some of these are being earmarked to be sent out to consumer retail sites. But Upton says that most of these are still being reserved for and sold to commercial customers who rely on Pi boards to run their businesses.

In short, the update is that there is no update. Upton said in April (and nearly a year ago, when the company raised the price for a Pi board for the first time) that the Broadcom processors at the heart of older Pi boards have been particularly difficult to source, but that high demand had been just as big an issue. Demand for Pi boards increased during the pandemic, and there was no more manufacturing capacity available to meet this demand. Upton said a year ago that there were “early signs that the supply chain situation is starting to ease,” but backed-up demand could still explain the short supply even if the Pi’s components have gotten easier to buy.

If you’re trying to buy a Raspberry Pi in the US or other regions, the rpilocator spreadsheet can be a valuable resource, letting you know when various models are in stock for ordering at most common Pi retailers. According to the tracker, few Pi 4 boards of any stripe were available to buy through September, though, and if you’re looking for a specific RAM capacity, you will be stuck waiting even longer. Businesses that want to inquire about buying Pis are still encouraged to contact the business@raspberrypi.com email address to make their case.

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Google prototypes, open sources an extra-long keyboard with one row of keys

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Enlarge / Google Japan jokes that you can increase productivity by having two people type on the keyboard simultaneously.

Google Japan has a history of joke keyboard concepts that challenge common notions of computing input. The latest concept, the Gboard Stick Version, places every key in the same row, so hunting and pecking can take a more linear approach.

As shown in Google Japan’s YouTube video below, it appears Google Japan actually prototyped the lengthy keyboard. Google will not be mass-producing or selling it, but there are GitHub files available with open source firmware, circuit diagrams, and design drawings to build the keyboard yourself. The GitHub page is careful to note that “this is not an officially supported Google product.” Google Japan’s blog post from Saturday said you could make the Gboard Stick Version with a 3D printer.

Google Japan’s video for the Gboard Stick Version.

As designed, the keyboard is an extraordinary 5.25 feet (1,600 mm) longIf you think that’s lengthy, the company said the original prototype was 7.87 feet (2,400 mm) long. The keyboard uses 17 boards total, including 16 for mounting the keys and a control board.

Google Japan jestingly argues that this design is more convenient for cluttered desks, storage, and finding the right keys when typing. Google Japan’s video shows the keyboard with an alphabetical layout, as a user initiates touch typing by memorizing the distance of individual keys from the left border. Alternatively, it’s ‘easy’ to find P, for example, knowing that it’s the 17th key in from the left (the first key from the left is a search button, not A). Surely, this is all simpler than hunting and pecking up, down, left, and right on a traditional keyboard layout.

Google Japan’s page for the keyboard also suggests you can use it with a QWERTY or ASCII code layout.

Google Japan also pointed to the keyboard's single row simplifying cleaning.
Enlarge / Google Japan also pointed to the keyboard’s single row simplifying cleaning.

Many detailed use cases for this one-row keyboard are clearly jokes, from using it to measure your kid’s height and get items dropped behind the couch, to using it as a walking stick, or the “bug-fixing module,” aka net, that turns the keyboard into a bug catcher in case you encounter bugs when coding (get it?).

But one purported benefit we could actually get behind is how much personal space the keyboard naturally enforces in the office and beyond:

The keyboard looks to be a natural safe-distance buffer for those who have to return to the office.
Enlarge / The keyboard looks to be a natural safe-distance buffer for those who have to return to the office.

Google Japan’s outlandish keyboard concepts have been going on for years as a way to promote Google’s Gboard keyboard app. Past iterations have included the Gboard Teacup Version and Gboard Spoon Bending Version.

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The Pixel 6a for $350 ($100 off) makes for an incredible deal

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The Pixel 7 might be arriving this week, but if you’re not interested in any of that newfangled flagship stuff, have we got a deal for you! The Pixel 6a, Google’s cheaper, simpler smartphone, is on sale at Amazon and Best Buy for $100 off. That makes for a pretty incredible $349 price tag instead of the normal $449. If you don’t count bundling deals that require signing up for a new phone line, this is the lowest price we’ve seen the phone at.

The Pixel 6a is a dead simple 6.1-inch phone that covers all the basics. It has a 6.1-inch 1080p, 60 Hz display, 6GB of RAM, 128GB of storage, and a 4410 mAh battery. The phone has nearly every feature you could want, including an in-screen fingerprint reader, IP67 dust and water resistance, NFC, and Wi-Fi 6e compatibility. The biggest downside is that there’s no wireless charging. The headline feature is the flagship-class SoC, the same Google Tensor chip you get in the Pixel 6, but for a low (and now even lower) price. The Tensor won’t win any benchmark wars, but at this price, the only other comparable device is the iPhone SE.

As for why you might hold out a bit and get the Pixel 7 instead, you’d be getting a major screen upgrade if you buy the (probably $900) Pixel 7 Pro, which will pack a 6.7-inch 120 Hz display. You’d also be doubling the RAM (12GB) and upgrading the camera setup from the ancient IMX 363 sensor that powers the Pixel 6a. That would be more than double the price of this phone. though. Like we said in our review, if you’re not a phone snob (guilty), the Pixel 6a is the perfect phone for normal people.

Ars Technica may earn compensation for sales from links on this post through affiliate programs.

Listing image by Ron Amadeo

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