How will new patent law affect tech sector?

The America Invents Act was signed on Sept 16, and it makes sweeping changes to the way patents work in the US.  Widely seen as pro-business and possibly detrimental to small time inventors, the new law will phase in over the next 18 months and change the way the technology field is implemented.

VTIP, the technology transfer office of Virginia Tech, is sponsoring an event to help sort out the facts from the myth.  Guest speakers will describe the effects on inventors and tech startups and answer questions.  The event is called “Making Connections” and will be held in 310 in the ICTAS building on Stanger Street on October 18 from 2-5 pm.  Anyone is welcome to attend, but seating is limited so register with Michael Miller using the information provided in the link.

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Virginia Tech Researchers sort cancer cells using micromachined silicon

Virginia Tech reports today on new research to identify early stage cancer cells.

Using ovarian surface epithelial cells from mice, researchers from Virginia Tech have released findings from a study that they believe will help in cancer risk assessment, cancer diagnosis, and treatment efficiency in a technical journal: Nanomedicine.


Read more here.

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Smart phones, the return….

As promised in an earlier edition (see Smart phones to be even smarter), we will look at the use of cognitive engines in mobile communications.

Charles Bostian

Dr. Bostian

Several years ago, Dr. Charles Bostian of the Mobile and Portable Radio Group at Virgnina Tech came up with a way to make radios smart enough to adapt to a changing frequency environment.  That means tune themselves to different frequency bands depending on who is talking to them.  His concept resulted in a patent for the utilization of a cognitive engine in mobile radio communications.

And who uses mobile radio communication devices?  Well, you do, if you have a cell phone.  Cell phones are just two-way radios with some fancy shmancy software.  Even though Bostian initially envisioned communications such as for emergency services like police and fire being able to talk to each other in an emergency, the principles apply equally well to cell phones.

In fact, they may apply even better to cell phones.  Because cell phones not only have to adapt to a multitude of scheduling issues, such as handover from cell to cell, signal strength variations, and data types, but they also will have to be frequency agile in the future.  That’s because most of the contiguous band assigned to cell phone use has been, well, used.  Now they are scavenging bandwith wherever they can find it, and that may actually be in different bands as you travel around the country based on who is using what in each region.  Ay! Carumba!

So, how does this work?  Well, to borrow some info from the VT website, “Cognitive radios are aware of their environment and intelligently adapt their performance to the user’s needs. A CR is a software defined radio with a “cognitive engine” brain. Conceptually, the cognitive engine responds to the operator’s commands by configuring the radio for whatever combinations of waveform, protocol, operating frequency, and networking are required. It monitors its own performance continuously, reading the radio’s outputs to determine the RF environment, channel conditions, link performance, etc., and adjusting the radio’s settings to deliver the needed quality of service subject to an appropriate combination of user requirements, operational limitations, and regulatory constraints. We call these processes “reading the radio’s meters” and “turning the radio’s knobs” for short.”

So, yeah.  There you have it.  Most importantly, that patent that Bostian got a couple of years ago is looking to be very important in enabling this technology for the future.

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Holding it all together


When I was a kid, I loved tearing up stuff to see what was inside it.  I guess that’s just a normal guy thing, sort of like spitting off bridges or something.

Electronic devices had especially cool guts back in the day.  First there were tube radios that came with that eerie, 1950s sci-fi glow.  The tubes themselves were pretty cool, filled with all sorts of little metal screens and such.  Those were replaced by transistor radios which were less sci-fi but much more futuristic.

Today, I don’t get much pleasure out of tearing up stuff because all the innards are so integrated into modules that there is no longer anything interesting to look at.

Anyway, the point of this meandering reminesce is really to talk about what holds all those parts together.  In the old days, it was wires.  You could see them.  They were eventually replaced by printed circuit boards with flat metal traces instead of wires.  Now, even the connecting traces are often buried deep down in the circuit boards, or, even worse, designed into the silicon chips themselves.

But whether wires or traces or silicon pathways, something has to hold it all together, and that something has always been solder.  However, if VT Corporate Research Center company NBE Tech has it’s way, solder might be replaced by a new material made from silver nanoparticles.

Elimination of lead based solders has been a goal for many years.  Other types of solders can be used but the perfect combination of processing temperature and performance has not always been possible.  Investigation continues into other bonding methods, such as low temperature and pressure sintering of precious metals.  The new NBTech nanomaterial provides a way to bond semiconductor dice to substrates without solder, simply by applying a small pressure while simultaneously applying a relatively low temperature just over 200 degrees C.

NBE founder GQ Lu invented the material and then set up a company to commercialize it based on a license from Virginia Tech Intellectual Properties.  Since then he has worked to improve the performance and develop a manufacturing process suitable for commercial application.  He recently received an independent verification of the value of his invention by the Fraunhofer Institute.  Researchers there published a paper last fall that indicates sintered bonding using the nanomaterial paste produced stunningly better performance that solder-based attachments.  In one test, nanomaterial and solder bonded parts were subjected to heating/cooling cycles of 45-175 degrees C.  Using the data obtained, it was projected that the sintered parts would withstand up to 160 million cycles, where the soldered components failed after 40,000 cycles.

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Local Tech Companies Nominated for Awards

It’s almost May, and you know what that means:  The NewVa Corridor Technology Council has announced a list of companies nominated for the various awards handed out at the annual awards banquet.  You can find a link to the NCTC website to register for the awards ceremony here.

Awards are handed out in the categories of Rising Star, Educator, Entrepreneur, Leadership, and Innovation.  Sometimes they hand out another special award for a local technology leader whose contributions don’t fit exactly into any of the single categories.  It’s a fun networking opportunity and a chance to reward the technology leaders who help drive the local economy.  This year it will be at the Hotel Roanoke, in beautiful downtown…er, …..Roanoke.

The list of nominees is provided by the local newspaper here.

Now, a comment about the NCTC name.  I liked it better before, when it was the New Century Technology Council.  Apparently they decided that once the New Century had cut it’s first teeth, it would seem passe’ to keep that reference.  So instead, they decided to use the terribly expensive “NewVA” brand (I don’t know who paid for it, or who came up with it – it wasn’t the NCTC as far as I know, but a regional re-branding.).  NewVA is sort of short for New Virginia, as if Old Virginia would be something distasteful, or old fashioned, maybe.  I’m not going to gripe about it too much, except to note that “NewVA Corridor Technology Council” does not roll off the tongue as smoothly as “New Century Technology Council”.

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Smart phones will be even smarter

From this…
It was only about thirty years ago that we saw the first mobile phones.  They were the size of small suitcases and usually came attached to a car.  I still recall purchasing a new vehicle in the early 1980s when there was a mobile phone promotion:  Free car phone with purchase of a new car.  Of course, you had to sign up for a 2-year service plan @ $1200 per year, which in 1983 was a lot of money for a guy straight out of school with a family to support.  In fact, very few people used them outside of business or Hollywood.  They weren’t very practical, and at the time, we didn’t yet consider ourselves so important that we needed to be accessible to every telemarketer 24 hours a day.
…to this?

Cell phones eventually became ubiquitous, and once the texting feature was discovered by teenage girls, the world would never be the same. If you doubt the power of teenage girls with cell phones, just look at who wins American Idol every year. Now, we carry computers around in our pockets that rival the power of mainframes of the 1970s and have all the features of Dick Tracy’s fabled wrist TV. Each year brings out newer models that are smaller, lighter and more powerful, like the iPhone 5 seen at right.

OK, so that’s just a mock up based on the current rumors of what it will look like when it actually hits the streets, later this month.  HA!  Anyway, the ever-increasing demand for data delivery on smartphones has created a number of obstacles and challenges for the folks who bring you cell service and hardware.  They have to continually search for more available bandwith while at the same time finding new ways to cram more data into the existing bandwith.

The next generation service, built around theLong Term Evolution (LTE) standards, will be a much smarter system than any in the past, perhaps rivalling the SkyNET of movie fame.  As the handset moves from cell to cell, it is essentially functioning as a tiny internet connection with all the bells and whistles of your desktop computer and the problems of radio communication on top.  The handsets will be increasingly smart to effect smooth handover from cell to cell without sacrificing quality of service.

Expect to see a heavy reliance on new techniques, variously called software defined radio (SDR) and Cognitive Engines which will be the framework for implementing the adaptability needed for the mobile computing and communication future.

More details on these new technologies will follow shortly.

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Robot Skeleton Army….for real

If I mention Craig Ferguson, everybody knows who I am talking about, right?  He’s the hilarious host of the Late Late Show on CBS that airs from 12:30 – 1:30 am each night.  He’s a wonderful comedian, actor, writer, and musician with an irreverent wit that is one part Scot (single malt) and one part American.

OK, so one of Craig’s running gags is an obsession with robots and skeletons.  In fact, he calls his Twitter followers his “Robot Skeleton Army”.  Craig is also a huge fan of the show Mythbusters, and he convinced their resident mechanical genius, Grant Imahara, to design and build a Robot Skeleton sidekick for his talk show.  You can see some videos of the robot on YouTube, here.

“But Mike, what does this have to do with technology?” you ask.  That’s a good question, and one I am about to answer.  So just hold on a minute, ok?  Sheesh.

The point is, Craig’s Robot Skeleton (named Geoff Petersen) is pretty lame.  Now the Mythbusters are totally cool, in a nerdy sort of way, and Grant Imahara is a practical genius, but you have to admit that Geoff is just not really what you would expect for a real robot skeleton sort of guy, even as shtick for a late night talk show comedian.

Enter Dennis Hong and his RoMeLa group at Virginia Tech.  Dennis and a team of undergrad ME students have designed and built a real walking robot that makes Geoff look like a Neanderthal by comparison, robotically speaking.  The robot’s name is CHARLI (Cognitive Humanoid Autonomous Robot with Learning Intelligence).

OK, so Dennis and the ME nerds are not really good at coming up with names for their gadgets (anything with “-a-tron” at the end would have been good…), but this is just so cool you can forgive them.  Watch this movie of CHARLI walking and you’ll see what I mean.

And that’s not all.  Browse around on the RoMeLa site and you’ll see a load of mechanical, robotic creepy crawlies that will set your nerd nerves all a tingle.  How cool would it be to work in Dennis’ lab?

So, Craig, anytime you want to trade that pile of lame scrap, Geoff Petersen, in for a real robot skeleton, just give Dennis Hong a call.  He can fix you up with any sort of robotic sidekick you want.

CHARLI Walking

CHARLI walking in the RoMeLa labs

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