Category Archives: propulsion

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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Filed under biotechnology, Communications, electronics, Energy, genetics, Materials, medical technology, Networks, optics, propulsion, Robotics, Sensing, software, Wireless

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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Filed under biomimetic, biotechnology, Communications, Energy, fuel, genetics, Materials, medical technology, Networks, optics, propulsion, Robotics, Sensing, software, Wireless

New article in April Valley Business Front

There is an article in the current issue of the Valley Business Front that relates to a blog I posted a while back about a new roof vent technology that is designed to hold the roof down when the wind blows.  In fact, the higher the wind speed, the more holding force is generated.

No, wait, I didn’t post this before…but I meant to, so that counts, right?  Anyway, check it out.  There’s a cool photo of the inside of a wind tunnel, even if you don’t want to read the exceptionally well written article.  Actually, the photo is not that cool, since the inside of a wind tunnel is not really a spectacular place to take a photo.  In fact it’s a pretty boring place, at least until you turn the wind on, which obviously you can’t do while you are inside it installing equipment.  But still.

Read the article.  It will blow you away.  Hehehe…I crack myself up sometimes.

The article appears on pages 38-39 of the issue.   And don’t forget to visit all the sponsors of the Valley Business Front, so the sponsors will continue to purchase advertising and I can cash my tiny check for writing the article and buy my $2.99 value meal lunch at Wendy’s.

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Filed under Energy, propulsion, Sensing, software

When is technology a bad idea?

OK, I’m fully expecting to receive some flak about this post, but I’m going to write it anyway.

I remember a scene in the movie Jurassic Park where, after hearing the scientific explanation about how the dinosaurs were cloned and brought to life, Dr. Ian Malcolm (played by rakishly nerdy Jeff Goldblum) says something like, “Just because you can do a thing, doesn’t mean you should do it.”

You know, technology is a lot like that.  Just look at nuclear fission.  The same technology that could give us almost unlimited, inexpensive electrical power, can also be turned on us in the form of nuclear weapons.  Perhaps more to the point, it can also give us Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.

I apply that same sort of caution to an otherwise laudable effort by Dr. Dennis Hong and his team to develop technology that would allow blind people to drive a car. You can read more about it here and here.  Dennis’ team is stepping up to the National Federation for the Blind‘s “Blind Driver Challenge“, sponsored by the Jernigan Institute.

I know.   That was my reaction at first, also.  Why in the world would we want blind people driving automobiles?  Sighted people have enough trouble.

So, now that I have that out  of my system, let’s talk about reality.  There is no doubt that Hong’s engineering team will come up with some amazing ways to augment automobile navigation and control.  But let’s face it, who will insure a blind driver?  See, (no pun intended), driving is one of those personal responsibility things.  If you hit somebody, it’s your fault.  Period.  The statistical tables are well understood for the insurance industry, which allows them to set rates based on likelihood of an accident for various population classes who drive.

Oh, and in case you didn’t know, the highest incidence of accidents is not reckless teenage boys with fast cars, as popular 1960s songs might lead you to believe.  Nope, it’s teenage GIRLS.  Not really a surprise, I suppose, is it?

Anyway, just imagine that Hong, or somebody, develops the technology to allow blind people to drive a car on the highway with everybody else.  And suppose some critical part of that technology fails, as technology is wont to do at the most inopportune moments.  And suppose this failure leads to an accident where, unfortunately, one or more people are killed.  Maybe even the blind person.

The lawyers will have a field day.  The blind driver’s family will sue the automaker and the people who developed the blind driving technology for misleading the blind driver into thinking it was safe to drive.  The families of anybody else involved in the accident will sue the blind driver, and probably all the people the blind driver sues as well.  Somebody will sue the regulatory agency that approved this fiasco.  Who knows where it might end?

Which is why I don’t think this technology will ever be used to enable blind people to driver cars on the highway.

BUT, it could have other purposes.  What would a foolproof blind driver system look like?  Well, it would navigate for you, locate obstacles for you, predict paths for you to avoid objects, and pretty much just take over the driving for you.

In fact, if such as system could work, we would all end up in a world where none of us would actually be driving our cars at all.  I mean, if it is that safe, then there would be a massive computer controlled road network with smart cars, no traffic jams, and pretty much no autonomy.

Might as well take a bus or a train….

So, what’s the end of this story?  Well, I think Hong’s work will actually lead to systems that make cars safer and more convenient for sighted drivers, not blind ones.  And while I completely sympathize with blind people and their limited autonomy in life, the usefulness of this technology to them will be limited to in-community, limited use roads such as within a retirement area.  And maybe that is enough.

Be sure to spend a few minutes browsing Hong’s research lab website, the ROMELA lab.  It’s full of very interesting and very, very creepy robotic things, including graduate students.

Hehe, just kidding.  The graduate students, while creepy like all graduate students, are not, in fact, robotic as far as I know.

But with Dennis, you can never be sure….

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Filed under Communications, optics, propulsion, Robotics, Sensing, software

Gone Fishin’

You have to see this.  It’s probably one of the coolest and simultaneously creepy pieces of technology I have run across lately.  It’s an artificial fish.

“But Mike, why do we need an artificial fish, when there are so many real ones around?” you might ask.

Well, there is a reason, aside from the sheer coolness factor.

It turns out that good ol’ Mother Nature has had a long time to work on stuff, and at this point has pretty much got it all figured out.  For example, how birds fly and fish swim using the minimal amount of energy.  See, in nature, if you can swim faster or father than other fish on the same amount of energy, or conversely, if you can swim as fast or as far as other fish on less energy, it means you have an advantage in the great circle of life, and you might get a chance to stick around longer.

For all our intelligence, we often have trouble coming up with stuff that is better than, or even close to, working as well as natural systems.  But over the past couple of decades, many researchers and engineers have realized that sometimes we need to just take advantage of all that work that Mother Nature has done for us and see if we can duplicate it.  You know, like copying the answers off the test of the person in front of you (not that I would know anything about that).

Anyway, take a look at this site, where some smart folks have created an artificial carp.  Well, it looks like one to me, anyway.  But the cool part is that it isn’t just a bunch of motors and gears attached to a frame and a skin, like a Walt Disney animatronic fish…this one actually works like a fish.

It uses a combination of composites and electroactive materials, along with very clever mechanical design and probably loads of math to make a fish that wiggles like a fish.  Just look at it.  It’s so cool and creepy!

The secret is that by passing electric current through certain types of materials, you can cause them to expand or contract just a little, sort of the way a real muscle works.  Some of these electroactive materials are made of polymers, which as you know are relatively soft.  Electroactive polymer “muscles” can move fairly large amounts when activated, but they are so soft that they can’t really exert much force.  On the other hand, there are much harder materials, like the little crystal inside your quartz-controlled watch, that can actually exert a lot of force, but they can’t change shape very much.  So, it would seem that both of these types of actuated materials have limitations.

True, but when you give them just the right shape and attach them to other structures just so, such as the artificial fish body, they can produce large, amplified movements that can be used to do significant work for you.

Now, back to the question of “Who cares?”  Well, the same design that creates the wiggly artificial fish body can also be use to slightly change the shape of a wing on an airplane, for example.  Airplane wings need to alter their shapes for different flying conditions, and being able to command the wing to take a slightly more efficient shape for cruising while morphing to a higher lift configuration for landing would save significant fuel (or extend range).  The artificial fish could be released in small schools or swarms to swim about and collect data on temperature or chemical content of a stream for environmental monitoring purposes, or as an early warning system for protecting ports from attack in a homeland security scenario.

The technology behind the creepy wiggly artificial fish is being developed by Dr. Wayne Neu of Virginia Tech’s Aerospace and Ocean Engineering group, along with private research company AVID.  Interestingly, AVID is also working on related technology that can be used to create actual flapping wing structures.  So, maybe soon we will have not just creepy artificial fish, but creepy artificial birds and insects.


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Filed under biomimetic, Energy, Materials, propulsion