Category Archives: Sensing

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

Robot Skeleton Army….for real

If I mention Craig Ferguson, everybody knows who I am talking about, right?  He’s the hilarious host of the Late Late Show on CBS that airs from 12:30 – 1:30 am each night.  He’s a wonderful comedian, actor, writer, and musician with an irreverent wit that is one part Scot (single malt) and one part American.

OK, so one of Craig’s running gags is an obsession with robots and skeletons.  In fact, he calls his Twitter followers his “Robot Skeleton Army”.  Craig is also a huge fan of the show Mythbusters, and he convinced their resident mechanical genius, Grant Imahara, to design and build a Robot Skeleton sidekick for his talk show.  You can see some videos of the robot on YouTube, here.

“But Mike, what does this have to do with technology?” you ask.  That’s a good question, and one I am about to answer.  So just hold on a minute, ok?  Sheesh.

The point is, Craig’s Robot Skeleton (named Geoff Petersen) is pretty lame.  Now the Mythbusters are totally cool, in a nerdy sort of way, and Grant Imahara is a practical genius, but you have to admit that Geoff is just not really what you would expect for a real robot skeleton sort of guy, even as shtick for a late night talk show comedian.

Enter Dennis Hong and his RoMeLa group at Virginia Tech.  Dennis and a team of undergrad ME students have designed and built a real walking robot that makes Geoff look like a Neanderthal by comparison, robotically speaking.  The robot’s name is CHARLI (Cognitive Humanoid Autonomous Robot with Learning Intelligence).

OK, so Dennis and the ME nerds are not really good at coming up with names for their gadgets (anything with “-a-tron” at the end would have been good…), but this is just so cool you can forgive them.  Watch this movie of CHARLI walking and you’ll see what I mean.

And that’s not all.  Browse around on the RoMeLa site and you’ll see a load of mechanical, robotic creepy crawlies that will set your nerd nerves all a tingle.  How cool would it be to work in Dennis’ lab?

So, Craig, anytime you want to trade that pile of lame scrap, Geoff Petersen, in for a real robot skeleton, just give Dennis Hong a call.  He can fix you up with any sort of robotic sidekick you want.

CHARLI Walking

CHARLI walking in the RoMeLa labs

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Filed under Communications, Robotics, Sensing, software, Uncategorized, 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

Futurama!

When I was a kid, one of my least favorite things was to sit in the barber shop on a Saturday morning for what seemed like hours waiting my turn for a two-minute haircut.  My father didn’t allow any of those new-fangled haircuts where it actually looked like you had some hair.  No, sir, we got the standard, GI type of haircut where all your personality was left on the floor to be swept up later.

But, one good thing that came of this experience, aside from the presumed character-building aspect, was that I got to read issues of Popular Science and Popular Mechanics.  Even though these issues were worn and tattered from handling by the army of ten-year-old boys who frequented the establishment, and were in fact possibly older than any of us, it was fascinating to imagine the world we would live in as adults where lasers and robots and other mechanical and electrical marvels would make life much more interesting than it was at that time.  Of course, we had not discovered girls yet.

But all of us in that age bracket agreed, flying cars were going to be so cool, and what’s more, they should have been ready for market by the time we got our driver’s licenses.  Ohhhh, yeaaaah.

Unfortunately, the flying cars never came, even though one was featured later in a James Bond movie.  It was my first great life disappointment.  I mean the lack of flying cars, not the movie, although that, too, was a disappointment.

So, all these many years later, I have come to accept that visions of the future rarely match the actual future.  Sometimes the actual future turns out to be pretty cool anyway, but reality has a way of spoiling the dreams of preteen boys who possess, at last accounting, approximately 99% of the world’s total creativity.

But hold on, I may have found an actual example of how prophetic Popular Science truly was.  Take a look at this website that describes a concept for next-generation living.  It’s called the Lumenhaus and it’s Virginia Tech‘s entry into the Solar Decathlon competition.  It’s chock full of cool materials like aerogel panels, solar panels and anti-hurricane roof vents, and it thinks for itself!  It opens and closes panels to heat or cool as necessary, and it can be operated from an iPhone application.  Dude.

OK, so it looks pretty small, and it is.  But it’s just a concept house.  However, built into the concept is the idea of living more efficiently in less space by using technology and futuristic Star Trek social ideas.  Imagine a house that reconfigured the space for the temporary use to which it was being put.  You really have to take a look at the flash animations on the site, which was apparently designed by up-and-coming web advertising company Modea.  Not only is the house itself cool, I really love the website.  Like the house, the site is just what it needs to be.

So, even though I have still not totally given up on the flying cars, until they come along I can dream about the next generation house.

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Filed under Communications, Energy, Materials, Networks, Robotics, Sensing, software, Wireless

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

How do you scratch an electronic nose?

I don’t know, but I thought that was a pretty catchy lead in for introducing some new technology that could help “sniff out” dangerous chemicals in the environment and possibly even detect explosives from their trace chemical signatures.

Imagine, if you will, a machine the size of a small automobile and costing significantly more, shrunk down to the size of a postage stamp, costing a few hundred dollars.  Oh, and did I mention that they do the same thing?  Well, they do.

That’s what Dr. Masoud Agah and his team have been working to accomplish.  Using an NSF Career grant, Agah is trying to develop materials, structures and processes that will result in a gas chromatograph that could fit easily inside your cell phone.

Chromatography is a technique used to separate out individual chemical components from a mixture.  The mixture, which can be a liquid but in this case is a gas, is basically forced through a tube (called a column) that has been filled with a special material called a stationary phase.  The stationary phase is chemically treated to react with the sample as it flows by, slowing its progress down slightly through this temporary interaction.  Each component of the mixture will react with the stationary phase slightly differently, which means that the different components will take different amounts of time to flow through the column.  If you make the column long enough, all the different components of the gas mixture will come out at different times.  This allows you to either analyze the mixture for its constituents, or even collect each of them into a different container, in effect producing purified gasses from mixtures.

In Agah’s lab, he has found a way to pack all that scientific goodness into a very small space, using manufacturing techniques originally developed for the computer-chip industry.  Agah etches tiny trenches in silicon wafers that replace the chromatographic column described above, and then coats them with a special molecular material that functions as the stationary phase.  Because the trenches are microscopic, he can etch very long channels by simply arranging them in tiny spiral structures.  That way, he can get many inches of column length onto a structure the size of a postage stamp.  And, they are very inexpensive to fabricate.

So what, you say.  Well, let me tell you.

Let’s say you are a passenger in a commercial airplane on your way from somewhere to, oh, say,  Detroit.  And it’s Christmas Day.  And let’s say that another passenger has hidden on his person in very intimate places, some materials that when mixed together could explode.  Wouldn’t you be happy to know that such a person has been screened out of the passenger line before you boarded the plane by a security person with a handheld wand that can sniff out one part in a trillion of the potentially explosive materials?

If Dr. Agah is successful, and of course if some company steps up to take his technology to the market, then this scenario could be a reality someday in the not-too-distant future.

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Filed under Materials, Sensing