Imagineering In a Box: free instructional video series from Disney and Khan Academy

Imagineering In a Box is a free lecture series on Khan Academy that covers a broad swathe of elements involved in storytelling in built environments, from theming a land to landscaping, architecture, sound design, robotics, smell design (!), color, material science, food-based theming, ride design from pitch to execution, animatronic programming, queue management (MY FAVORITE!), costuming, etc. Read the rest

This tiny robot bug can survive getting stepped on

This tiny "soft" robot, just 3cm long, zips along at 20 of its body lengths per second. It can also carry heavy things, like peanuts in the shell, but that slows it down a bit. And amazingly, you can step on it and it won't die. Over at IEEE Spectrum, Ivan Ackerman writes about the little robot developed by researchers from Tsinghua University and UC Berkeley:

It takes a scanning electron microscope to actually see what the robot is made of—a thermoplastic layer is sandwiched by palladium-gold electrodes, bonded with adhesive silicone to a structural plastic at the bottom. When an AC voltage (as low as 8 volts but typically about 60 volts) is run through the electrodes, the thermoplastic extends and contracts, causing the robot’s back to flex and the little “foot” to shuffle...

The researchers also put together a prototype with two legs instead of one, which was able to demonstrate a potentially faster galloping gait by spending more time in the air. They suggest that robots like these could be used for “environmental exploration, structural inspection, information reconnaissance, and disaster relief,” which are the sorts of things that you suggest that your robot could be used for when you really have no idea what it could be used for. But this work is certainly impressive, with speed and robustness that are largely unmatched by other soft robots. An untethered version seems possible due to the relatively low voltages required to drive the robot, and if they can put some peanut-sized sensors on there as well, practical applications might actually be forthcoming sometime soon.

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FAA approves tests of new design for middle seats that are more comfortable and speed boarding

The S1 (AKA the "Slip-Slide Seat") is a radical rethink of airline middle seats from Colorado's Molon Labe Designs; it sits a little back of the seats to either side of it, is slightly wider, and has slightly lower arm-rests -- and in some configurations, it allows the aisle seat to be slid over it, temporarily widening the aisles and speeding boarding and unloading. Read the rest

USB inventor admits that the plugs are annoying

In 1996, Intel released USB (Universal Serial Bus) 1.0 and we have been annoyed ever since. National Public Radio spoke with engineer Ajay Bhatt who led the team that unleashed the perpetually frustrating non-reversible plug on the world. From NPR:

"The biggest annoyance is reversibility," Bhatt told NPR. Nonetheless, he stands by his design.

Turns out there's a very specific reason for the USB's lack of reversibility.

A USB that could plug in correctly both ways would have required double the wires and circuits, which would have then doubled the cost.

The Intel team led by Bhatt anticipated the user frustration and opted for a rectangular design and a 50-50 chance to plug it in correctly, versus a round connector with less room for error...

"In hindsight, based on all the experiences that we all had, of course it was not as easy as it should be," Bhatt said.

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A treadmill that trips you... for science

As part of research on how to make better prosthetic legs, Vanderbilt University engineers put people on a treadmill and made them stumble. Over and over. By better understanding peoples' stumble reflex, they hope to improve the computer-controlled stumble response in prosthetics. But to learn how people catch themselves, they had to trip them first. And that required building a stumble device into a treadmill. From Vanderbilt University:

Andrés Martínez strode briskly on the treadmill, staring straight ahead and counting backwards by seven from 898, a trick to keep his brain from anticipating the literal stumbling block heading his way: a compact 35 pounds of steel specifically designed to make him fall.

Special goggles kept him from looking down. Arrows on an eye-level screen kept him from walking off the sides. A harness attached to a ceiling beam kept him safe. Sure enough, when a computer program released the steel block, it glided onto the treadmill, and the Vanderbilt University PhD student struggled to stay on his feet...

“Not only did our treadmill device have to trip them, it had to trip them at specific points in their gait,” said Shane King, a PhD student and lead author on the paper. “People stumble differently depending on when their foot hits a barrier. The device also had to overcome their fear of falling, so they couldn’t see or feel when the block was coming.”

"A novel system for introducing precisely-controlled, unanticipated gait perturbations for the study of stumble recovery" (Journal of NeuroEngineering and Rehabilitation) Read the rest

Microscopic robots carry stem cells through a mouse's body

The 1990s nanotechnology dream of tiny robots swimming through our blood stream to treat disease is moving (verrrry) slowly but surely toward reality. In a new milestone, researchers used an external magnetic field to steer microbots through a live mouse's body carrying therapeutic stem cells. From IEEE Spectrum:

..Delivering stem cells typically requires an injection with a needle, which lowers the survival rate of the stem cells, and limits their reach in the body. Microrobots, however, have the potential to deliver stem cells to precise, hard-to-reach areas, with less damage to surrounding tissue, and better survival rates, says Jin-young Kim, a principle investigator at DGIST-ETH Microrobotics Research Center, and an author on the paper.... The team fabricated the robots with 3D laser lithography, and designed them in two shapes: spherical and helical. Using a rotating magnetic field, the scientists navigated the spherical-shaped bots with a rolling motion, and the helical bots with a corkscrew motion. These styles of locomotion proved more efficient than that from a simple pulling force, and were more suitable for use in biological fluids, the scientists reported....

Kim says he and his colleagues are developing imaging systems that will enable them to view in real time the locomotion of their microrobots in live animals.

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Pogoing robot looks like it's having fun bouncing through an obstacle course

Salto is a single-legged, hopping robot that its UC Berkeley inventors compare to a "hyper-aggressive pogo-stick." Previously, Salto was constrained to a highly-structured indoor environment with a motion caption system. Now though, roboticists Justin Yim and Eric Wang have imbued Salto with the onboard smarts to bounce freely through the world albeit still under human control. From UC Berkeley:

Salto’s single, powerful leg is modeled after those of the galago, or Senegalese bush baby. The small, tree-dwelling primate’s muscles and tendons store energy in a way that gives the spry creature the ability to string together multiple jumps in a matter of seconds. By linking a series of quick jumps, Salto also can navigate complex terrain — like a pile of debris — that might be impossible to cross without jumping or flying.

“Unlike a grasshopper or cricket that winds up and gives one jump, we’re looking at a mechanism where it can jump, jump, jump, jump,” (UC Berkeley robotics professor Ronald) Fearing said. “This allows our robot to jump from location to location, which then gives it the ability to temporarily land on surfaces that we might not be able to perch on.”

From IEEE Spectrum:

...The researchers expect that “higher precision estimation and control can enable jumping on more finely varied surfaces like stairs, furniture, or other outcroppings” as well as “soft substrates like upholstery or natural foliage.”

The researchers tell us that Salto’s hardware is capable enough at this point that aside from potentially upgrading the motor or battery for more jumping power or run time, the focus now will be on new behaviors, although they’re toying with the idea of adding some kind of gripping foot so that Salto can launch from, and land on, tree branches (!).

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So this is why train wheels are conical

Watch this short video to understand why train wheels are conical instead of cylindrical and why they have rigid axels. Read the rest

New US dollar coin honors Native Americans' contributions to the space program

The latest addition to the US Mint's Native American $1 Coin series celebrates "American Indians in the Space Program." The heads-side of the coin still features Sacagawea. From

The reverse features Mary Golda Ross, the first known Native American woman to become an engineer. Ross' work for Lockheed Martin helped advance the Agena rocket stage used by NASA for rendezvous and docking trials during the Gemini program in the 1960s.

The tails-side also depicts an Atlas-Agena rocket lifting off and, peering down from the top of the coin, a spacesuited astronaut. The Mint describes the latter as being "symbolic of Native American astronauts, including John Herrington (mission specialist on the 2002 space shuttle Endeavour visit to the International Space Station)..."

"The nice thing is when something like this comes out, it opens up people to something they did not know about before and people who are really curious will go and learn more about it," explained Herrington. "They might learn about Jerry Elliott [of Osage and Cherokee heritage], who worked in Mission Control during the Apollo program and was part of the team that won the Presidential Medal of Freedom for the return of Apollo 13."

"Or Mary Ross, who was honored with the Ely S. Parker Award, the highest award that AISES, the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, gives out for contributions to math, science and engineering in the native community," he said. "She was one of the original people at Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works."

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Can there be a mile-high skyscraper?

In 1956, Frank Lloyd Wright proposed the Illinois Sky-City, a skyscraper taller than one mile (~1,600 meters). That's more than twice the height of Dubai's Burj Khalifa, currently the tallest structure in the world. In the video above, Dutch architest Stefan Al asks "Will there ever be a mile-high skyscraper?"

If it happens, there should be a rooftop bar named... the Mile-High Club.

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Noise-cancelling pillow for bedmates of people who snore

Northern Illinois University researchers have designed a noise-cancelling pillow for people who sleep near loud snorers. It works using the same principle as noise-cancelling headphones but with an adaptive algorithm that changes with the snore. Noise-cancelling headboards have been available for some time, but according to electrical engineering professor Lichuan Liu who led this new research, they're bulky and limited in their efficacy because the "quiet zone" isn't right near the sleeper's ears. From IEEE Spectrum:

(The new approach) involves an adaptive filter that receives two input signals—snoring signals, which are detected by a reference microphone, and residual noise (errors), which are detected by two error microphones. Based on these inputs, the adaptive filter then generates the appropriate antinoise signal, which is emitted by two speakers within the partner’s pillow.

What’s more, conventional noise-canceling systems for snoring have relied on least mean square (LMS) algorithms to generate antinoise. Here, Liu and her colleagues used an adaptive LMS algorithm.

“Since each snorer’s snore signals have their unique time-frequency characteristics, it is essential to design an adaptive LMS algorithm for the best cancellation performance for different snore signals,” says Liu. Thanks to the adaptive LMS, the filter in this system can adjust to the length of an individual’s unique snore, and respond to subtle changes in its acoustic characteristics...

Moving forward, Liu and her colleagues plan to use machine learning techniques to recognize the snore signals that are indicative of sleep disorders, for better screening and monitoring purposes.

"Ear field adaptive noise control for snoring: a real-time experimental approach" (IEEE/CAA Journal of Automatica Sinica) Read the rest

Embodied logic: Using stimuli-responsive materials and geometric principles to create smart objects

A new paper in Nature describes the US-Army-funded research of U Penn materials scientists to create a new generation of 3D printed "smart objects" whose geometry and materials enable them to interact with their environments without having to use embedded computers, sensors or actuators. Read the rest

The Furby was "coded for cuteness"

Released in 1998 by Tiger Electronics, more than 40 million Furbies were sold in its first three years of life. What made this bizarre animatronic toy so damn popular? Read the rest

Explainer video on how to build a Dyson Sphere

The latest explainer video from Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell examines what it would take to actually build a crazy cool idea conceived by Princeton physicist Freeman Dyson - a photovoltaic shell (or, less ambitiously, a satellite swarm of mirrors that focus the star's energy to a collector) that envelops a star in order to capture its energy. Read the rest

How to use science fiction to teach tech ethics

Science fiction writer/lawyer Casey Fiesler is a maven in the field of tech ethics education (she maintains the amazing spreadsheet of tech-ethics syllabi); she uses science fiction stories as a jumping-off point for her own classroom discussions of ethics in technology. Read the rest

Bricks made from human urine

University of Cape Town researchers created the world's first "bio-bricks" made from sand, bacteria, and human urine collected from special toilets in the engineering school's bathrooms. From The Guardian:

Bio-bricks are created through a natural process called microbial carbonate precipitation, said (project supervisor and water quality engineering lecturer Dyllon) Randall, similar to the way seashells are formed. Loose sand, which has been colonised with bacteria that produces urease, is mixed with the urine. Urease breaks down the urea in the urine, producing calcium carbonate, which cements the sand into shape.

While regular bricks are kiln-fired at temperatures of 1,400C and produce large amounts of carbon dioxide, the bio-bricks do not require heat.

“If a client wanted a brick stronger than a 40% limestone brick, you would allow the bacteria to make the solid stronger by ‘growing’ it for longer,” said Randall...

Randall described urine as liquid gold. By volume, urine accounts for less than 1% of domestic waste water, but it contains 80% of the nitrogen, 56% of the phosphorus and 63% of the potassium found in waste water.

(via NextDraft) Read the rest

Robots! A fantastic catalog of new species

IEEE Spectrum editor Erico Guizzo and colleagues have blown out their original Robots app into a fantastic catalog of 200 of today's fantastic species of robots. They're cleverly organized into fun categories like "Robots You Can Hug," "Robots That Can Dance," "Space Robots," and "Factory Workers." If they keep it updated, it'll be very helpful for the robot uprising. After all, you can't tell the players without a program!

Robots: Your Guide to the World of Robotics (IEEE Spectrum)

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