Tag Archives: University of Pennsylvania

1.21 Gigawatts: Robots to the Rescue

-Sarah Keartes

Camera one pans out as the injured victim is lowered from a helicopter to the blue truck that waits on the ground below. The music builds. His body swings with the wind, narrowly missing the bed of the truck. Finally, he is lowered to safety–but he is not safe yet. The victim must reach the hospital across the body of water, but the bridge has fallen. Enter the robot fleet.

While this scene could open the next installment of Transformers, it actually describes the real-life creation of engineering professors Vijay Kumar and Mark Yim. Kumar and Yim, who in connection with the Defense Advanced Projects research Agency  (DARPA), are heading a University of Pennsylvania team to create a fleet of autonomous robots that could provide global disaster relief and assistance.

The researchers have built one hundred scale models of what would be flat-top robotic boats the size of standard shipping containers. Once deployed, the boats can travel to a set location, and interlock using a hook-and-tether mechanism to form an above-water platform of any shape and size.

In order to avoid a literal crash-and-burn of the platform, Kumar and Yim needed to find a way for the robots to “see” each other. Each boat has been equipped with a marking, similar to a QR code that can be scanned using any smart-phone. Using these markings, a camera system transmits information to on-board computers which enable the robots to perceive their location and the location of their ro-buddies.

“We give them a structure, and then each boat figures out where to go and in what sequence to go to make that structure,” Yim said.

The real boats would rely on GPS to find each other, and could form temporary bridges, provide assistance during oil spills, or be used as a landing surface for sea-rescue much like much like US NAVY Aircraft Carriers.

The project, a leg of DARPA’s Tactically Expandable Maritime Platform (TEMP), aims to provide relief without relying on local infrastructure, which would free military vessels to perform other tasks with greater efficiency.

Further research must be conducted to determine how the TEMP fleet will handle the stress of large waves and bad weather at sea, but budget constraints leave full-scale development of these human helping ‘bots up in the air.

Follow Sarah on Twitter!

1.21 Gigawatts: Sci-Tube – Five Videos That Will Blow Your Mind

-Sarah Keartes

#1 Crying in Orbit?


In his recent mid-orbit vlog entry, Canadian Space Agency Astronaut Chris Hadfield demonstrates the physics of crying in space.

“Your eyes will definitely cry . . . but the big difference is, tears don’t fall, so grab a hanky,” Hadfield said. It is earth’s gravitational force that causes our tears to fall. In a micro-gravitational environment, tears collected in the eye are unable to flow downward. Instead they pool together, forming a “ball” of water which will sit on the eye until it reaches a larch enough size and will break free and float around.

Even more interesting is that space tears can actually sting your eyes. The reason behind this is unknown, but NASA has long studied the effects of space travel on human vision, which include flattening of the back of the eyeball, changes in the retina and optic nerve, and problems with both near and distance vision.

#2 The Prince Rupert’s Drop: Unbreakable Exploding Glass


Do not be afraid of this video’s seven-minute playing time. Stop what you are doing and tune in to this incredible high-speed video. Correction: high-speed video of explosions. Correction: high-speed video of exploding glass—that you can’t break with a hammer. What?

Destin of “Smarter Every Day” (with a bit of help from Orbix Hot Glass in Fort Payne, Alabama) explores the physics behind the Prince Rupert’s Drop. The drop, also known as “Prince Rupert’s Balls” or “Dutch Tears,” is a tadpole-shaped glass object that is created when molten glass is dripped into water to cool.

The resulting structure possesses mind-boggling physical properties: the head of the drop can be bashed and beaten to the heart’s content without breaking, but even the slightest nick to the glass tail causes a large release of stored potential energy resulting in microscopic fractures from tail to head. In other words? Boom goes the dynamite.

#3 00-Robots? University of Pennsylvania Quatrotors Go “Bond”


The James Bond theme has been covered thousands of times on Youtube, but to my knowledge, it has only been covered once by a fleet of autonomous flying robots.

Birthed from U. Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences GRASP lab, the tiny robots, dubbed “Nano Quadrotors,” can be programed with a series of points that must be reached at a precise time. Amazingly, the direct path is chosen by the bots, which are able to pick up the locations of fleet members using infrared technology.

GRASPLAB members are working with scientists to improve their robots by mimicking the swarming behaviors of birds, fish and insects—the Quadrotors operate not as a swarm, but much like a flock.

#4 The World’s Cutest Frog


Forget cats. This tiny, slimy squeak-toy which looks more like a character from Pokémon than an earthly creature, is the Namaqua Rain Frog (Breviceps namaquensis), and it may be the cutest thing I have ever seen.

Unlike many of its amphibious relatives, the frog, filmed here by nature photographer Dean Boshoff, is a desert resident. Native to the Namaqualand coast of South Africa (and adjacent sandy inland areas), the Namaqua Rain Frog is a burrowing species which surfaces only when ample rainfall brings a plethora of insects to feed on.

Should that blood-curdling, utterly terrifying, well, “peep” not do the trick; the frog will inflate itself to its full girth when threatened.

#5 “4D” Printing: Transformers Anyone?


SJET, LLC is a research-based practice founded by architect, designer, and computer scientist Skylar Tibbits. Combining tools from architecture, design, fabrication, computer science, and robotics, SJET focuses on creating self-assembling structures using “4D”printing technology. In other words, they are working to build things that build themselves without external guidance.

“What we’re saying here is, you design something, you print it, it evolves…it’s like naturally embedding smartness into the materials,” Tibbits told Wired in an interview.

How does it work? Each piece of the structure is molecularly altered—embedded with patterns of elements that attract each other through negative and positive interactions when the correct amount of energy is added (here through shaking). Tibbits and SJET see the application of this technology in the creation of large scale smart structures in extreme environments such as space and the ocean.

“The self-assembled structures of the future won’t just be large; they will also be smart. Every brick, beam, and bolt may one day compute and store digital information about the building, environment, and construction to aid assembly,” Tibbits said.

Follow Sarah on Twitter!