Cattle may be at home on the range, but modern ranchers need to be able to find their wayward cattle, and inefficiencies in tracking cost the cattle industry around US $4.8 billion a year. At a recent conference about connected devices in Amsterdam, Jan Willem Smeenk of the Dutch company Sodaq and Thomas Telkamp of the startup Lacuna Space talked about connecting cattle into a future Internet of bovines.
Whisky auctioneer Isabel Graham-Yooll was examining a seller’s collection in London last year when she noticed some of
the liquors were slightly off-color—and several bottles seemed a little too full. She called the police, who arrested the seller for fraud. If the case goes to court, prosecutors may be able to count on more than just Graham-Yooll’s knowledge of fine whiskies; emerging laboratory techniques could help identify the liquors in question.
Whisk researchers are finding themselves at the forefront of the burgeoning science of food fraud detection. The spirit is a handy test substance because of its complexity: its main components–water and barley or other cereals–and its production method create unique chemical and biological signatures. And the time whisky spends in a wood cask helps to impart its golden color and unique aromas. “If [a new testing] technique works for whisky, then we can be sure it works for other spirit categories,” says Shona Harrison, the analytical services manager of the Scotch Whisky Research Institute (SWRI) in Edinburgh, whose work is funded by several liquor companies. Harrison and other researchers are fighting food and beverage fraud on multiple fronts—from monitoring global trade data to adapting laboratory-detection tools for use in the field.
A decade ago, a group of crop scientists set out to grow the same plants in the same way. They started with the same breeds and adhered to strict growing protocols, but nonetheless harvested a motley crop of plants that varied in leaf size, skin-cell density, and metabolic ability. Small differences in light levels and plant handling had produced outsize changes to the plants’ physical traits, or phenome.
The plunging price of genomic sequencing has made it easier to examine a plant’s biological instructions, but researchers’ understanding of how a plant follows those instructions in a given environment lags. “There is a major bottleneck for a lot of breeders to be able to get their phenotypic evaluation in line with their genetic capabilities,” says Bas van Eerdt, business development director at PhenoKey, in ’s-Gravenzande, Netherlands.
When you’ve got a hammer, everything looks like a nail, but the world starts to look more interesting if your hammer can change shape.
For the builders of a class of robots called modular self-reconfigurable robots (MSRR), shape-shifting is the first step toward endowing robots with an animal-like adaptability to unknown situations. “The question of autonomy becomes more complicated, more interesting,” when robots can change themselves to meet changing circumstances, said roboticist Hadas Kress-Gazit of Cornell University.