Robots to the Rescue? Depends on the Humans

Imagine being trapped in a collapsed building. Lying there, conscious, you hear the rubble moving around you. When you finally get a look at your approaching rescuer, you’re a little surprised: it’s about two feet tall and made of metal. You’ve just met a search and rescue robot. Are you relieved? Worried? Both?

Search and rescue robots have been used since 9/11 in the aftermath of natural disasters and building collapses, led by the efforts of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search And Rescue (CRASAR) at Texas A&M University. While they have definite benefits, such as being able to get into spaces that human or canine rescuers might find too difficult or dangerous to reach, they’re currently expensive and complicated to use. Dr. Julie Adams, a professor at Vanderbilt who studies human-robot interactions, says that using robots in search and rescue usually requires the presence of maybe four human experts to one robot, making the cost of using robots relatively major compared to the benefit they provide.

Currently, only one robot is used at a time in these sorts of missions, but some researchers have thought about using multiple robots that could collaborate to accomplish a task. For example, smaller robots can’t rescue a person by themselves, but what if they work together? Here’s a video of robots doing just that to pull a child across the floor.

However, the more robots you have, the more difficult they are to control and to monitor their feedback, Adams says. So this kind of robot rescue could be difficult to orchestrate in practice. Moreover, despite the nonchalant and even bored expression of the girl in the above video, it could be pretty terrifying for someone in a stressful situation to be approached by that many robots. Adams characterizes a typical response: “Not only have I been blown up, but now I’m getting attacked by robots!”

But robots may yet save human lives in a slightly different arena. Adams and her research group have been studying robots as partners for human first responders in situations like inspecting bomb threats. In the test scenario, the researchers assigned some tasks to the two-foot-tall robot and some to the human. The robot was good at identifying objects in its field of view, like a suspicious backpack, while the human could work with the robot by, for example, looking inside a trash can that was too tall for the robot. These kinds of studies could use current technologies to find a useful and cost-effective way to deploy robots and help humans in dangerous situations by optimizing the robots for human interaction.

Category: Science Writing, Technology | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Danish Solution

wind turbines

Denmark exports its surplus of wind produced energy. But is it right for Hawaii?

In interviewing Yet-Ming Chiang for a story I’m doing about wind energy in Hawaii, I got a glimpse into the complexities of the issues. Most people would think once a wind turbine goes up there’s a large source of energy to tap into, electricity prices eventually go down (factoring in initial installation costs) and the environment is saved by “green” energy. The fact of the matter is, there are a lot of variables that must be factored in to the efficiency of a wind turbine system.

The reason Chiang was interested in Hawaiian wind turbines in the first place was his mother in laws electricity bill. When he saw how high it was he asked why the locals were still paying so much money when a wind turbine had been built just a few miles away. The problem was, wind was being generated during the day but not so much at night. This was problematic because at night most people want to turn on their televisions, their air conditioners, their dishwashers–it’s a time of high energy consumption but no energy production. But what about all the electricity being made during the day? Well, there was no way to store it. Chiang, being a professor of batteries and ceramics, started dreaming up ways to store the energy being generated.

He explained to me that this was not the only option. Energy, like a lot of things, was very dependant on the location you were in. Each power source must be tailored to the locations capabilities and needs. He gave me the example of Denmark, the world’s leading producer of wind energy. “Now Denmark, they’re doing it completely differently,” he said.

Starting in the 1980s Denmark became concerned with the high levels of CO2 emissions produced by their country. In 1988 they adopted a target to cut their emissions by adopting alternate sources of energy. Now nearly 25% of the country’s power comes from wind energy. Recently, in September of this year, the largest offshore wind farm to date was inaugurated, adding another 111 wind turbines to Denmark’s production.

Denmark has the same issue Hawaii does but at an even larger scale. What do you do when you have a surplus of energy and no way to store it? Chiang is looking to batteries for the answer but Denmark opted to export its excess power. Now Sweden, Norway, and Germany all receive greener energy because of Denmark. There have been criticisms of these export practices, however, the only formal study to date was found to be funded by oil and coal lobbyists in the United States. It was later rejected as a critically flawed study. Because of this, it is difficult to evaluate criticisms of the system since so many may harken back to this study.

Of course, as Chiang had told me in our conversation, exportation isn’t the practical option everywhere. England likely couldn’t use this model because of it is an island and wouldn’t be able to properly interconnect with surrounding countries. The same would go for Hawaii. There are many other factors to take into consideration– if wind is too high the turbines would need to be shut down to prevent damage? If wind is too low there might be be enough energy to source, Is there an infrastructure for repair and upkeep? Basically, what I’m trying to highlight is that wind energy is not a fix-all band aid. It is a complicated system that does not yet have all the technologies in place to have it function at a highly efficient capacity. There is also no “one solution fix all” to the problems, namely storage. Just something to take into account if you ever hear enthusiastic praise of wind energy. It has it’s kinks that need to be worked out, just like any other developing technology.

Category: Energy policy | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

A Quick Consideration: Green Energy vs. Wildlife

Wind Turbine

Wind Turbine on the Kama’oa Wind Farm on the Big Island, Hawaii
By Harvey McDaniel, 2004

Life is serendipitous, isn’t it? Recently, I was heading up to Boston from Rhode Island when I ran into my friend Hilary and her sister Shannon. A few minutes into the conversation, I learned that my friend’s sister works for a company that oversees the installation of “green” energy technologies like solar panels and wind turbines — a happy discovery, as I was on my way to interview Yet-Ming Chiang, a leading researcher on batteries and a Materials Science professor at MIT, for a story I’m doing about improving wind energy in Hawaii.

My story focuses on the problem with storing the energy generated by the wind turbines and the current lack of usable technologies for US wind farms. Shannon and I didn’t discuss batteries but she did have a few things to say about installing green technologies like solar panels and wind turbines.
Continue reading »

Category: Ecology, Energy policy | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Boston Gets its Pipes in Order: MWRA Approaches Sewer Modernization Milestone

In 1984 a superior court judge gave the state of Massachusetts a choice: commit to cleaning up Boston Harbor by modernizing an outdated sewer system or the Metropolitan District Commission (now known as the Department of Conservation and Recreation), which oversaw the Metropolitan Sewerage System (MSS), would be placed in receivership, under control of the federal government. Really, it wasn’t a choice so much as a threat. Regardless, it worked.

State lawmakers grudgingly created the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) that same year and gave the new agency a mandate of fixing the nation’s oldest sewer system to help bring the famously polluted Boston Harbor into compliance with federal water quality standards. Under court supervision, the MWRA developed a long-term plan to get Boston’s pipes in order. One of the primary targets was combined sewer overflows or CSOs.

When they were built during the late 1800s, Boston’s sewers were state-of-the-art. A unified maze of underground pipes collected wastewater from homes and businesses, and stormwater from street drains and directed it to Moon Island where it was released into the harbor during outgoing tides. As Boston’s population boomed in the early 1990s, this system quickly became a liability. Dumping untreated sewage into the harbor proved disastrous for local fisheries and shellfish beds, and the much of the waste came back up the Charles River (which had not yet been dammed) when tides came back in, causing significant public health problems.

As a remedy, several sewage treatment plants were built in the 1950s. But Boston’s extensive single-stream sewer system, once the envy of other major cities, proved to be a major hinderance. With wastewater and stormwater coming through the same set of pipes, treatment plants were frequently overwhelmed by unmanageable amounts of water, especially during storms and snowmelt.

CSOs were created to relieve the pressure on Boston’s sewers. CSOs are pipes that direct excess sewage to nearby waterways to prevent raw sewage from flowing backwards into residences and up storm drains. By 1987 there were 84 CSOs in the metropolitan Boston area, most of them along the Charles and Mystic Rivers. With an ever-growing population, the CSOs were in constant use, dumping over 7 billion gallons of untreated waste into local rivers in some years.

Getting CSOs under control in improving the capacity of treatment plants, officials hoped, would benefit the entire water system from the rivers all the way out to the harbor. The long-term control plan developed during the formation of the MWRA included 35 CSO improvement projects ranging from minor repairs to the development of new treatment facilities and storage tanks. A deadline of 2015 was set for completing them. 31 of those projects are now finished. According to David Kubiak, who manages the MWRA’s CSO program, three more are currently under construction and the final project is in development.

By nearly any measure, the program has been a major success. The amount of CSO discharges has been reduced nearly 84% and water quality has improved dramatically in the harbor and in other local waters. Yet even when the CSO plan is complete, Boston’s single-stream sewers mean that CSOs will likely remain part of the equation for the foreseeable future.

Category: oceanography, Public health, Science Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Squeezing the Universe into a Ball: Poetry and Meaning

“How are you feeling?” asked the doctor. His patient was suffering from semantic dementia, a condition in which damage to part of the brain’s temporal lobe disrupts the connection between words and their meanings. Her vocabulary had been reduced to just 3,000-4,000 words, fewer than what a four-year-old can use (the average adult English speaker knows 20,000–35,000).

She was a widow, her husband having passed away not long before, and lived by herself.  Answering the doctor’s simple question was a difficult task; she had no words to express abstract concepts like being alone. After a few moments she was able to respond, “Well, when I am at my place, it’s only me and the place.”

The doctor, Thomas Bak, a neuroscientist at the University of Edinburgh and founder of the Cambridge International Poetry Club, called it “one of the most beautiful descriptions of loneliness I have ever heard.”
Continue reading »

Category: Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Neuroscience | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Headstarter’s Habitat in Estabrook Woods

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

When Henry David Thoreau looked across Easterbrooks Country in Concord, Massachusetts, known today as Estabrook Woods, he saw only fields and rolling hills separating him from the surrounding villages.

In the same place where Thoreau might have stood, 160 years ago, seeking inspiration for his writings on the natural world, biologist Bryan Windmiller stood before a group of fourth graders from Concord School to teach them about the endangered Blanding’s turtles living in the wetlands.

In Thoreau’s time, Windmiller said, ponds and swamps didn’t exist the way they do today.

“What animal can change a landscape and create bodies of water?”IMG_2117


Continue reading »

Category: Ecology, Fieldwork, Science Writing | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

This Is Your Brain On Poetry

I know it’s coming, and it still gets me every time. I turn the page of my well-worn Norton Anthology of American Literature and take a deep breath, steeling myself before reading the next stanza.

And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say: “That is not what I meant at all;
That is not it, at all.”

I don’t even make it to the second line before it starts. As I read the words on the page, it feels like someone has touched a nerve somewhere on my scalp, causing a wave of prickles to run through my skin, down my arms and legs into my toes and back up again. Images flash through my my mind of a man dropping a sphere of galaxy-speckled space to bounce along the floor, a woman whose immaculately curled hair makes a gentle dent in a satin pillow: unrequited love in a cream-colored sitting room. And then, when I get to the end of the last line, my breath catches in my throat like I’m going over the first, big drop on a rollercoaster, and the words reverberate in my head for a few seconds before finally letting me go.
Continue reading »

Category: Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Musicology, Neuroscience | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

New generation of robots will blur line between machine and nature

Our robots are going soft. Or at least they will be if Barry Trimmer has anything to say about it.

Trimmer is the editor-in-chief of a new scientific journal called Soft Robotics. The journal, also known as SoRo, will chronicle the rise of squishy robots designed to mimic living things.

In an editorial introducing the new publication, Trimmer, director of the Neuromechanics and Biomimetic Devices Lab at Tufts University, explained why scientists should look to nature for engineering tips.

Because I am a trained biologist, my tendency is to look at the gap between animal and robot performance from an evolutionary perspective. Animals are astoundingly adept at a wide range of things. Because of this versatility, they are rarely as fast or efficient as machines doing specific tasks,” he wrote. “In contrast, robots are excellent at well-defined tasks in controlled environments, but they are not very versatile.

In order to get the best of both worlds, scientists from various fields, including mechanical engineering, synthetic biology and physics, are pooling their knowledge to figure out how best to create new materials that feel and act like living tissue.

After all, Trimmer pointed out, animals and machines run on the same basic principles. We have a central control system (brain) that runs our sensors (nerves), motors (muscles) and fuel systems (guts and liver). The difference is, we’re wet and squishy, and machines are dry and rigid.

In another paper in SoRo’s pilot issue, Dr. Carmel Madiji of Carnegie Mellon University discussed the possible applications for such lifelike machines.  Because these soft devices will feel like biological tissue, he wrote, they’ll be very useful in medicine and assisted living. People who have suffered strokes or brain injuries, for example, could use wearable robots to help them with fine motor tasks like picking up objects, he wrote.

The flexibility and maneuverability of soft robots will also make them much better than traditional robots at traversing rough terrain and fitting through tight spaces, so they’ll be ideal for tasks like search and rescue missions that require wading through rubble, he added.

Trimmer estimates that we’ll start seeing soft robots within the decade, but there are still major barriers to overcome before that happens. Dr. Mirko Kovac of Imperial College, London said in an interview with Trimmer that the primary obstacles are improving the efficiency of these machines and creating better artificial muscles and flexible batteries.

Despite these challenges, the overall theme that flowed through this first issue of SoRo was potential.

“By building soft materials into the fundamental design of machines, or by building them completely from soft materials,” Timmer wrote, “we add a new dimension for design and create and untapped resource for entirely new types of machinery.”

Category: Technology | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Giving Turtles a Head Start

Why did the turtle cross the road? The original theory for the declining Blanding’s turtle populations in urban areas was that adult turtles were run over by cars. When biologist Dr. Bryan Windmiller and his colleagues began tracking turtle populations in Massachusetts, they found this was not the case. Survivorship of adult turtles was actually quite high. Instead, they encountered a different problem – there were very few young turtles, and almost no hatchlings.

A one-year-old Blanding tutlle (Photo by Alix Morris)

A one-year-old Blanding tutlle (Photo by Alix Morris)

In the wild, under any conditions, turtle eggs and hatchlings are susceptible to a variety of predators, including chipmunks, herons, frogs, and raccoons. When Blanding’s turtles hatch, they have soft and flexible shells for the first year of their life, which offer little protection.

Moreover, hatchlings who are able to survive don’t eat from the time they hatch in the late summer or early fall until the following spring. As a result, they can lose weight during their first six months, further jeopardizing their potential to survive.

“If it’s possible to do something for these guys before they grow, we might be able to help them,” said Windmiller.

Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Concord, Massachusetts has the state’s third largest population of Blanding’s turtles. Yet over the past 40 years, the population of turtles has declined by more than 50%.

In 2003, Windmiller launched a trial method to protect the endangered turtles through the Great Meadows Blanding’s Turtle Conservation Program. Windmiller and his team of volunteers would collect the hatchlings and transfer them to schools, zoos, and aquariums across the state to monitor their feeding and care for nine months – a process Windmiller calls “headstarting.”

Through the headstarting program, the turtles are kept in warm water, which increases their appetite and helps them to grow. The students and researchers who monitor them feed them twice daily.

In captivity, the turtles grow at a rate four times what they would do in the wild. By the end of nine months, they are as large as four-year-old turtles with hard shells. They are then released back into their original habitat. Headstarting increases the survival rate of turtles by 20 times that of wild turtles.

Not all researchers agree with the headstarting program, however.

“Among biologists there’s a divide between people who more readily accept the idea that in the 21st century, if you’re interested in helping to maintain populations of rare and vulnerable species in parts of world where human impact is high, you need to intervene,” said Windmiller. “There are some biologists who are comfortable with that and some who are less comfortable.”

Windmiller hopes that as new and better data comes in from the headstarting project, they will be able to show that not only are they stopping the decline of turtle populations, they are actually reversing it.

Category: Ecology | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Sea Sounds, Ship Strikes, and Cetacean Small Talk

A shuddering start, followed by a calculated growl. A rattling hiss that speeds away. A wayward clicking, the uncanny insect. A 1950s sci-fi siren of something strange and otherworldly.

A deep, booming thud.

Again.

The dull drone of a tanker passing through the Massachusetts Bay, lasting hours.

These are sounds of the sea, and they are human-made sounds. A motorboat, a Navy sonar’s shriek, the knock of oil exploration. After digging through this “acoustic smog,” one might occasionally hear the low whoop of a right whale’s up-call.

Southern Right Whale


Continue reading »

Category: bioacoustics, oceanography | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment