Met RHex – the curvy-legged, leaping robot
August 15th, 2013
04:07 PM ET

Met RHex – the curvy-legged, leaping robot

By Doug Gross, CNN

If you only watch one video today of a robot that hurtles across uneven terrain like a water-walking lizard, does gymnastic back flips and climbs tall objects, make it this one.

If you watch two? Send us the other one.

RHex is a creation of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania who hope it could one day climb rubble in emergency rescue situations or zoom across scorching desert sands with its six whirling, springy legs.

"What we want is a robot that can go anywhere, even over terrain that might be broken and uneven," said graduate student Aaron Johnson, one of those researchers. "These latest jumps greatly expand the range of what this machine is capable of, as it can now jump onto or across obstacles that are bigger than it is."

RHex (short for "robot hexapod" and pronounced "Rex") is actually more than a decade old, the brainchild of a multiuniversity project. But Penn researchers recently created a new version - called X-RHex Lite - that, as its name suggests, is lighter and more agile than previous versions.

The result: a moving rectangle that has, in effect, been taught robot parkour.

In the video posted late last month, RHex charges across Penn's campus (with an appropriately epic soundtrack) before showing off an impressive vertical leap, doing several back flips and propelling itself up steps.

Its most impressive moments, though, might be jumping from one picnic table to another over a gap greater than its own length and flipping up on a tall stone block, grabbing on with its curved front legs and pulling itself upward.

On robots, legs are more effective than wheels when it comes to rough terrain. But it can be complicated to teach the human-like legs on walking robots how to respond to unpredictable conditions. RHex's simple, one-jointed legs are better suited to getting around obstacles in creative ways, the Penn team says.


Filed under: Design • Future • Innovation • Robots • Tech
August 13th, 2013
10:22 AM ET

Helping the humpback's comeback

By Rebecca Bluitt, Special to CNN

Off the Hawaiian coast, the humpback whale is thrilling spectators and scientists alike with its acrobatic jumps, complex songs – and its spectacular recovery.

“When we started there was talk of whales in the hundreds out here,” says Jim Darling, renowned whale researcher and co-founder of Whale Trust Maui, a nonprofit devoted to studying whales in the waters of the Hawaiian island. “Now in the North Pacific the best estimates are about 20,000 whales.”

“They become part of the local culture a little bit. And that’s sort of seeping into the national culture,” says Darling, referring to the booming whale-watching industry. Whale tourism added an estimated $2 billion to the global economy last year, a number that is expected to increase by 10% each year.

About the size of a school bus and weighing an average of 45 tons, the humpback whale is an impressive creature. But they weren't always such a visible part of the Hawaiian seascape.  Their recent comeback from near extinction at the hand of whale hunters is as remarkable as the animals themselves, and has wildlife experts in awe of their recovery capabilities.

“The fact that they’ve been able to come back like this proves that it is possible, if we give them half a chance,” Darling says.

Strict international restrictions on whaling, implemented in 1966, gave the humpback population its chance to rebound. But is 20,000 humpbacks in the entire North Pacific really that many?

“When you think about it, it’s not,” Darling says. “I mean, think about how many people attend a football game, you know? It’s a little chunk of a stadium. But ... it’s so many more than were here."

It’s enough of a recovery, some argue, that the North Pacific humpback whale should be taken off of the federal list of endangered species altogether. The Hawaii Fishermen’s Alliance for Conservation and Tradition recently petitioned for removing the North Pacific humpback from the list, claiming that the whales' population increase warrants a reexamination of the current restrictions on fishing practices.

And Japan, the largest whaling country in the world, is already utilizing a loophole in anti-whaling laws to kill some species of whales. Hunters claim the carcasses are used for scientific research – gathering information on the animals’ age, diet, and birthing rate – before the meat is packaged and sold.

In 2007, Japanese whalers insisted that the humpback’s comeback justified adding the whales to their list of prospective prey. But outcry from the international community has forced them to back down, at least for now.

Darling believes this long-term conflict between humans and humpbacks is the greatest threat to the whales' future.

“As far as entanglements and vessel collisions, we can slow boats down, or we can warn vessels when there are whales in the area, or we can come up with different kinds of fishing gear which maybe reduces the entanglements. There are ways to sort of tackle those issues," he says.

"The bigger ones of how we’re all going to survive in the long run are going to be a little more challenging.”

It's a challenge, Darling says, that Whale Trust Maui is ready to tackle.


Filed under: Environment • Science • The Next List • Thinkers
August 1st, 2013
04:44 PM ET

Lifeguard develops inflatable rescue board

By Elissa Weldon, CNN

There’s nowhere quite like the beach in summer. But between the sun, scenery and a relaxed vacation mindset, many beachgoers don't think much about their safety in the ocean.

Ask anyone who has ever had a close call in the water - been caught in a rip current or struggled against powerful tides to make it to shore. Often, there's only one person standing between them and death: a lifeguard.

Meet Archie Kalepa, chief of ocean safety for the Hawaiian island of Maui. Kalepa has a team of 64 lifeguards under his command and is responsible for the safety of about 2 million beach visitors every year.

"It only takes 5 minutes for a person to go brain-dead, or to drown," Kalepa says. "For us, a lot of times the surf is way offshore. And so it's all about the response time. How quickly can we respond from Point A to Point B?"

His commitment to public safety has deep roots. Kalepa pioneered the use of Jet Skis for water rescues nearly 25 years ago.  After Hurricane Iniki struck Hawaii in 1992, he became a local hero by using a Jet Ski to save 12 people from drowning.  Those rescues proved to be a turning point in Kalepa’s drive to adopt the Jet Ski for widespread water-safety use.

“We were the ones with the idea,” says Kalepa, “but we needed everybody’s support to get the officials to realize that this (watercraft) is a tool, not a toy.”

Today, Kalepa is still working on improving his lifesaving techniques while developing innovative rescue equipment.   He has devised an inflatable rescue board that the head of the United States Lifeguard Association calls a “real, significant innovation” with “enormous promise.”   Kalepa is working with partners to commercialize the product.

Kalepa also is an elite athlete who relishes the chance to surf some of the biggest waves in the world.  He's drawn to “the excitement, the thrill, dabbling in danger," he says. "I really, really enjoy being in that kind of environment.”

Kalepa uses his knowledge of the ocean to help others - even rescuing big-wave surfers in dangerous conditions.

“I’ve seen him in action.  He will rush in without question and try to help anyone in peril,” says tow partner Buzzy Kerbox.

As a fifth-generation Hawaiian, Kalepa is probably proudest of his Hawaiian heritage and his honorary title of Waterman.

He was recently inducted into the Duke Kahanamoku Hawaiian Waterman’s Hall of Fame, a prestigious honor reserved only for those with vast knowledge of the ocean and experience in all aspects of water. Watermen can swim, surf, dive, paddle, fish and canoe with skill, strength, agility and instinct. 

“Archie to me exemplifies exactly what a Hawaiian Waterman is, which is connected,” says Kaino Horcajo, an expert in Hawaiian culture.  “We say the words fearless, courageous, brave, crazy.  But what we really mean to say is connected - in tune, down to earth, and without filters.”

For Kalepa, being a Waterman and a Hawaiian means sharing his knowledge of the ocean with others.  He trains some of the world’s most elite military units in water safety and Jet Ski rescues.

“Out of pure respect for what they do to keep America safe, it was an honor to train these people and work with them,” Kalepa says.

As a public-safety expert, a big-wave surfer and a Hawaiian Waterman, Archie Kalepa is driven to help others and spread what he calls the spirit of "aloha," the Hawaiian greeting.

“Sharing the spirit of aloha is always giving somebody a helping hand, always giving somebody a kiss. Always when somebody needs help, you help them, show them how to be good people," he says. "That's what the aloha spirit is, showing people love. It's what people from Hawaii do.  It's how we live our life."


Filed under: Design • Innovation • Tech • The Next List