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article imageOp-Ed: A real Star Trek Tricorder — Working and creating a new world

By Paul Wallis     Apr 15, 2012 in Technology
Sydney - Star Trek fans will be familiar with the do-anything portable sensor array called the tricorder. This is the instrument that’s used to analyze materials, find life forms and other rather useful things. It’s also becoming a reality.
A Canadian scientist has been working on it for years. Dr. Peter Jansen, a PhD graduate of the Cognitive Science Laboratory at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, has put together a tricorder with a lot of functions. He’s now up to a Mark IV version, and has published a schematic of how to build your own tricorder.
According to The Sydney Morning Herald, Jansen’s not exactly the only person interested in functional tricorders:
Telecommunications giant Qualcomm this year launched the "Tricorder X-Prize Contest" with the slogan "Healthcare in the palm of your hand." Qualcomm hopes to motivate developers with a $US10 million prize to make medical tricorders a reality.
The truth about tricorders
The big deal about Jansen's tricorder technology, however, isn’t their sci-fi legacy or their current “ultimate gadget” status. The tricorder is a potentially invaluable portable lab in a box. The applications are literally endless, and the potential for tricorders to become life-changing instruments are equally endless. Jansen’s existing tricorders are very good examples of the flexibility of tricorders operationally. They contain a range of functions which are both eminently useful and practical.
The technical issues in putting together a tricorder are similar, if definitely not the same, to putting together a phone. You require a sending capacity for your sensors, receivers, and software to interpret each function. The software has to be a lot more advanced than any app will ever need to be, but the principle of functions/apps relationships is similar.
For example, here are a few basic practical options for tricorders-
Wiring problems- Anomalies in wiring and lousy mapping of wiring schematics is a big problem. A tricorder could sweep and map wiring easily.
Plumbing- Why spend hours looking for a leaky pipe, when a tricorder can find it in seconds?
Contaminated areas- A basic sensor can distinguish an area containing materials from an area which doesn’t contain those materials. A moldy zone will read differently to a zone without mold.
Spills- Same principle. If you’ve got leaking containers, you need to find the site of the leak and map its spread. Because different materials naturally respond differently to sensor signals, it’s easy. Heat mapping, too, will expose differentiated areas automatically, because different substances have different heat profiles.
Machinery- Any mechanical problem or electronic issue will have telltale signs. Rusty areas, metal fatigue, component wear and other time consuming “where the hell is it?” problems can be located instantly.
OHS, hazardous chemicals and fire safety- An area where tricorders have literally endless possibiltiies. A single inspection could find problems before they happen, detect fumes, etc. and locate risks.
Building and architecture- A dedicated tricorder could check foundations, structural supports and practically everything else in a building construction and even tell you if there are jerrybuilding problems or off-specification issues.
CAD- A tricorder could read a product relative to its CAD specifications and find errors of a nanometer or less. It could also read structures according to a CAD template and chart issues.
X rays- X rays are big, expensive power guzzlers. They’re also cumbersome and can be an ordeal for traumatized patients. A tricorder could do correlative analyses with other sensors using ultrasound, IR or other tissue-penetrating options at a fraction of the cost.
3D- Tricorders could easily adapt their feeds and outputs to work with any 3D software platform. They’d be able to read 3D software and supply information for 3D mapping.
Biology- For “biology” read “variation on chemical analysis and other data”. Tricorders could easily be adapted to read information from basic biology to biohazards and poisons. It needs an encyclopedia or several worth of database, but with terabyte chips multicores and high RAM, no big deal in terms of basic technologies.
All of this is possible without even looking too hard at the medical and scientific applications of tricorders, just using basic sensors. The more complex sensors need to be able to accurately read and identify huge ranges of information from their readings, but even a tricorder with basic software doesn’t really have to have much more computing grunt than an iPad to do a good job of processing the information it gets.
The tricorder is also famous for its ability to perform multiple operations. This is where tricorders prove themselves superior to any static testing platform. They can correlate the information they get on the spot. These multiple tests are far more informative than any single step testing can ever be.
A typical range of sensors could include:
1. Chemical analysis
2. Motion detectors
3. Heat sensors/profiling/mapping
4. Atmospheric sensors
5. UV sensors
6. Infrared sensors
7. Ultrasound
8. Microwave sensors
9. EM frequency analyzers
10. Materials and particle analyzers (“read this” quick references for specific materials)
11. Optical sensors like super-zooms, to work with the other sensors and for visual observation.
12. Portable electron microscope?
That’s a mobile lab. The real issues with tricorders aren’t about their usefulness, but the amount of information required for them to read and analyze information they receive. This will require some truly beautiful software and a lot of testing and calibration of materials to ensure the tricorders can operate efficiently in any working environment, weather and other adverse conditions, but it’s all quite possible.
The tricorder of the future will have access to technologies that don’t even exist yet, and look for things that are currently unknown. What’s important now is to get the basic principles operational and field tested.
As for the domestic applications- Anything is possible, and probably will happen. Tricorders are just plain useful. You could analyze your dinner, check your tap water, read your carpet for mites and contaminants, and perhaps even get a degree in hypochondria. These things are going to be fun!
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about star trek tricorders, Dr Peter Jansen, Cognitive Science Laboratory McMaster University, tricorderprojectorg, Tricorder XPrize Contest
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