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
June 25th, 2013
09:03 AM ET

How scientists are making ice skating safer

Editor’s note: Tune in to CNN Saturday, June 29th, at 2:30 pm ET to see "The Next List's" 15-minute profile of biomechanist Jim Richards.

With only seven months until the Olympic caldron shrines bright on host city Sochi, Russia, athletes are vigorously training in preparation. Competition is fierce and Olympic hopefuls are expected to be faster, stronger and capable of superhuman feats. But one winter sport, known for its grace and beauty, is wreaking havoc on the joints of developing bodies: ice skating.

“We’ve seen skaters as young as 20 who have had major surgeries and hip replacements,” says Jim Richards, a scientist at University of Delaware’s human performance lab.

When Richards decided to pursue a career in sports biomechanics and kinematics, or the study of human motion, he had no idea he would be spending so much time in a damp cold ice skating rink. However, when the university built his lab, they neglected to include one major necessity, and he had to walk through the rink every day to reach the restroom.

After watching elite figure skaters crash to the ice over and over, he thought he could approach their training in a more efficient way.

Richards is one of the first scientists to successfully leverage motion capture data to create 3-D simulations. The models help assess athletic ability and decrease the chance of physical injury.

“The whole point of what we’re doing is to accelerate their ability to learn these jumps,” Richards says, “We’re decreasing the number of impacts which we hope would have an effect on the long-term health of their lower extremity joints.”

Motion capture technology has been used to develop lifelike movements in animations and video games. For skating, 40 markers are placed on the athlete’s body while 10 high-speed infrared cameras record the markers' movements. Richards and his team are doing something other sports haven’t done; they’re constructing models that allow them to play what-if games.

The research is sponsored by the United States Olympic Committee and United States Figure Skating, and while the university has had requests from all around the world, the program is exclusive to U.S. athletes.

It could take up to a year to master aerial tricks known as triple and quadruple rotation jumps. After completing the analysis, one skater landed the perfect jump the same day. The learning curve is drastically reduced and most participants successfully complete the jumps within two weeks.

Nearly 70 skaters have gone through the system and they are blown away by the results.

“This program is going to help skaters for the future figure out how to do more quads, and who knows, maybe quints,” said Alex Johnson, an internationally ranked figure skater and Olympic contender.

Richards envisions the day when he is able to measure motion without markers. New systems in development do not require tracking, which means the analysis could be performed in real time. It opens up an entire world of possibilities. Richards could analyze a fast ball pitch during the World Series, a three-point shot in an NBA game, and a gymnast’s mid-air vault.

Athletes aren’t the only ones benefiting from this technology. Richards spends a significant amount of time working with children whose shoulders are injured during difficult deliveries.

“He has tackled a problem that we have wrestled with for the last 100 years,” says Dr. Scott Kozin, M.D., chief of staff at Shriners Hospital for Children in Phila., Pa.

Approximately four out of every 1,000 births result in brachial plexus birth palsy, an injury that causes nerves in the shoulder to tear during childbirth. Skeletal simulation enables surgeons to measure upper extremity motion without radiation. The long-term goal is to operate on the model and see the outcome on the computer before ever working with the patient.

“It’s fun to work with a population that can do incredible things when it comes to physical ability,” Richards says, “but the reality is if you can play some small role in helping a child walk better or be able to use their arm better, that’s a far more rewarding experience.”

Richards is revolutionizing the way athletes train and he is transforming the way doctors treat children.

You can learn more about his work and the human performance lab on "The Next List," this Saturday at 2:30 p.m. ET on CNN. Please Follow us, Like us, and check out our photos!

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Controlling flying robots with your mind
June 6th, 2013
03:43 PM ET

Controlling flying robots with your mind

By Heather Kelly, CNN

A graduate student wearing a skull cap covered in wires sits perfectly still and thinks about making a fist with his right hand.

Nearby, a small quadcopter - a flying drone with four rotors - turns right. He imagines making a fist with his left hand and the robotic flying copter goes left. After a thought about clenching both hands, it lifts higher into the air.

He is controlling the device with his mind.

The system is part of a new research project that reads the brain's electrical activity and translates certain thoughts into commands for the unmanned aerial vehicle. It's called a brain-computer interface, and someday it could have important uses for people who are paralyzed.

"We envision that they’ll use this technology to control wheelchairs, artificial limbs or other devices," said University of Minnesota engineering professor Bin He in a post announcing the project.

This graduate student wears a special skull cap that allows him to manipulate the flying robot with his mind.

Here's how it works: Imagining specific movements without actually doing them produces electric currents in the motor cortex. The interface itself isn't new, but the researchers used brain imaging scans to find out exactly which imagined movements activated which neurons.

Once they mapped out the various thoughts and associated signals, they used them to control a helicopter simulation on a computer. Next, they moved on to real flying devices.

There are no implants or invasive brain tweaks needed for subject to control the copter with their brain. The technology is called electroencephalography (EEG). The skull cap uses 64 electrodes to detect these currents from a subject's brain as they think about associated actions, then translates that data into instructions and transmits them to the quadcopter over Wi-Fi.

In the test, pilots weren't allowed to look at the quadcopter while they controlled it, only a screen showing the view from a small camera mounted on the front of the flying vehicle. After a few hours of training, the subjects could move the quadcopters with precision, even  guiding them through hoops suspended from the ceiling.

Flying is just the start for this technology, He said.

"It may even help patients with conditions like autism or Alzheimer’s disease or help stroke victims recover," he said. "We’re now studying some stroke patients to see if it’ll help rewire brain circuits to bypass damaged areas."

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May 23rd, 2013
11:31 AM ET

Asteroid Hunter seeks out asteroids hurtling towards Earth

By Ed Lu, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Ed Lu is a former NASA astronaut and current founder and CEO of the B612 Foundation. His mission is to build the world’s most powerful asteroid tracking system to find asteroids on a collision course with earth. Watch his full story this Saturday at 2:30p ET on CNN’s “The Next List.”

Next week on May 31, 2013, a 1.7 mile wide asteroid, 1998 QE2, will fly past the Earth at a distance of 3.6 million miles.

If this asteroid were to hit the Earth (don't worry, it won't this time), it would be the end of human civilization.  Think about that.  Not only would it kill billions of people, but it would take with it our very history. Gone would be our cities, our culture, our languages, our art, our music, our scientific knowledge - everything that we as a species have built up during the past 10,000 years. Gone in an instant.

Asteroid impacts are the only global scale natural disaster we know how to prevent. We have the technology to deflect asteroids, but we cannot deflect an asteroid that we haven't found yet. This is why the B612 Foundation is building the Sentinel Space Telescope, the world's most powerful asteroid detection and tracking system, to see the millions of asteroids we can't see today and could pose threats to our planet.  The B612 Foundation is a nonprofit organization, dependent on private donations for our mission. We welcome you to join our efforts at the B612 Foundation and help protect not only our planet, but our future.


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Is this (finally) our flying car?
May 9th, 2013
03:52 PM ET

Is this (finally) our flying car?

By Doug Gross, CNN

It's one of science fiction's greatest unfulfilled promises, right up there with teleportation and time travel.

And, no, Terrafugia hasn't built us a Tardis or promised to beam us up. But they say they're closer than ever to giving us a flying car.

This week, the Woburn, Massachussetts-based aerospace company announced it has begun feasibility studies on a car capable of vertical takeoffs and landings. The TF-X would be a four-seat, plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, according to the company.

“We are passionate about continuing to lead the creation of a flying car industry and are dedicating resources to lay the foundations for our vision of personal transportation,” Terrafugia CEO Carl Dietrich said in a media release. “Terrafugia is about increasing the level of safety, simplicity, and convenience of aviation.  TF-X is an opportunity to provide the world with a new dimension of personal freedom!”

Yes, the long-awaited promise of "The Jetsons" may soon become reality.

Lest you think  the company is just getting our hopes up for some cheap publicity, know this - they've already created a flying car of sorts.

The Transition is a street-legal vehicle that's designed to fly in and out of airports. It was successfully flown for the first time in 2009. The second-generation version of the Transition performed a driving-and-flying demo last year.

The new TF-X project comes as work on the Transition shifts "from research and development to certification, production, and customer support activities," the company said.

Terrafugia says it has about 100 orders for the Transition, which goes for $279,000.

MORE: Robotic jellyfish could be undersea spy

The big difference between the Transition, which is scheduled to hit the market in 2015, and the new flying car is that the TF-X would be able to take off anywhere,  like a helicopter, and not just at an airport.

Its automation systems would make taking off and landing a self-driving process, though the driver would be able to take over manual control at any time.

Terrafugia (Latin for "escape from Earth") says it has had "preliminary conversations" with the Federal Aviation Administration about the TF-X and that the agency has "demonstrated their willingness to consider innovative technologies and regulatory solutions that are in the public interest and enhance the level of safety of personal aviation."

In other words, we might actually get to ride in one someday.

What do you think? Will we see widespread use of flying cars in our lifetimes? Let us know in the comments.

More: Rugged wheelchair offers off-road freedom for disabled

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Testing touchscreen tables in classrooms
May 8th, 2013
05:28 PM ET

Testing touchscreen tables in classrooms

By Heather Kelly, CNN

Forget tiny iPads - the classrooms of the future might turn entire tables into interactive touchscreens.

Given that many children can sit rapturously before a glowing touchscreen for hours, such gadgets seem like a natural for the classroom. But as with any new teaching technology, it's important to make sure it actually helps students learn and teachers teach before getting caught up in its "cool" factor.

A recent study by researchers at Newcastle University in the UK took touchscreen tables into the classroom for some hands-on tests and found the technology (and training) still have to improve before they are fully effective. The researchers say theirs is one of the first studies of this type of technology in actual classrooms, instead of lab situations.

The tables were used in real classrooms over the course of six weeks for lessons in geography, English and history.  The five teachers involved in the study prepared the projects based on what the kids were currently learning in class. Each table was used by two to four students at a time, though the table's creators say it can hold up to six students. On the screen were a collaborative writing program and an app called Digital Mysteries, which were designed specifically for large tabletop PCs.

These types of tables are already commercially available and can be seen in the wild in locations like museums. SMART Technologies, for example, makes a table with a 42-inch, 1080p display for $7,749. The prices for these interactive tables will likely come down in the future, but they will still remain a big investment for any school district.

And before schools invest heavily in these kinds of tools, the study's authors say that more in-class research and tweaks to the software should be done.

Read CNN's education blog: Schools of Thought

A few of the issues raised were the same that come up in most group work. Some students would complete tasks faster than others, while others would lose focus and fall behind. Teachers in the study found they couldn't always tell when students were working versus just pretending to work and moving items around the screen.

Suggested improvements to the tools included more detailed progress indicators for the individual students. Researchers also recommend that the apps add more flexibility so that teachers can control, change and pause the lessons. In an old-school twist, researchers also recommended that the programs include an option for exporting kids' progress so they can print it out.

Researchers also emphasized the need for more teacher-friendly features and control over the apps, plus proper training for any educator who plans on integrating these types of tables with their regular classroom curriculum.

"To make the most use of them teachers have to make them part of the classroom activity they have planned – not make it the lesson activity,” said Dr Ahmed Kharrufa in a statement.

In other words, even the most advanced technology won't be able to replace good teachers.

[Via PhysOrg]

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March 19th, 2013
09:07 AM ET

Leslie Saxon: Better tech for better health

Editor's note: Dr. Leslie Saxon is chief cardiologist at USC's Keck School of Medicine and founder of the Center for Body Computing, an innovation think tank dedicated to wireless health. For more on Saxon, watch "The Next List," Sunday at 2:30 p.m. ET on CNN. 

What if tracking your heart rate and blood pressure was as simple as getting your e-mail?

That’s the future Dr. Leslie Saxon imagines at the University of Southern California. She is chief of the Division of Cardiovascular Medicine at USC’s Keck School of Medicine and founded the university’s Center for Body Computing (known as the CBC). Saxon is determined to create digital tools that will allow doctors and patients to monitor and share health data.

“It's almost obscene to think about how information is everywhere now and shared over the most trivial things, yet patients can't get even the data from an implanted device they have in their body. They're locked out,” says Saxon. “After 20 years, I finally understand that just telling the patient what to do in a paternalistic way doesn't result in good outcomes. Patients have to partner with you.”

At the CBC, Saxon spearheaded a unique collaborative system with the university's schools of engineering, business and film, along with USC's athletics department, to research and develop wireless devices and health solutions.

"The essence of digital health is interdisciplinary connectivity," says Carmen Puliafito, dean of USC's Keck School of Medicine. " And Leslie has been a true pioneer at that."

“Within digital there’s a lot of ability to integrate different skill sets,” says Saxon, 53. “My brother’s a film producer. My husband’s a sportswriter. So I was always looking for a way to integrate what I did with the things I’m also passionate about.”

FULL POST


Filed under: Future • Innovation • Smartphones • Social change • Tech • The Next List
February 8th, 2013
10:44 AM ET

How biotechnology can solve the energy crisis

Editor's Note: The Next List will air a full 30min profile of synthetic biologist Jay Keasling this Sunday, Feb. 10th, at 2:30PM ET (all-new time!) only on CNN.

It's a great time to be working in biotechnology. We are developing powerful new approaches to find cures to diseases, curb climate change and reduce reliance on foreign oil.

Synthetic biology promises to change the world by making biology easier to engineer and enabling solutions to some of the world’s most difficult problems.

At the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI), I work with a motivated team of people that is at the forefront of the emerging field of advanced biofuels production. Our mission is to develop scientific breakthroughs to help solve the energy crisis.

Inside our Emeryville laboratories, JBEI researchers use the latest techniques in plant science, molecular biology and chemical engineering to produce affordable, sustainable, carbon-neutral fuels identical to gasoline, diesel and jet fuel.

Traditionally, most of the chemicals we use are produced using chemical synthesis, which is the combination of simple chemicals to form more complex ones. For complicated chemicals like drugs, it might take many chemical steps to produce the final molecule. Some chemicals are too difficult or impractical to produce using chemical synthesis. Due to the difficulty in producing these chemicals, many drugs and other products that could make our lives better are not available.

Since 1992, I’ve been redesigning microbes (like yeast) to be miniature chemical reactors that transform sugars into fuels.

Enzymes can do in one step what might take many steps using synthetic organic chemistry. To engineer a microbe to be a chemical factory, we graft genes from plants and other naturally occurring life forms into the microbe. Once inside the cells, the genes produce enzymes that do the chemistry to transform sugars into chemicals.

One of our first products was a yeast that we engineered to produce the life-saving anti-malarial drug artemisinin. Later this year, anti-malarial drugs bearing the microbially produced artemisinin will begin saving the lives of malaria sufferers throughout the world.

At JBEI, we are focused on making biofuels out of sugars. We have engineered microbes to transform sugars into energy-rich fuels that can directly replace petroleum-derived gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. Because we produce biofuels that have identical properties to petroleum-based fuels, there is no need to replace our cars, trucks or planes to use the fuels.

We are also exploring ways to extract sugar from cellulosic biomass, such as paper waste, trees that have fallen down in the forest, the residue of crops such as corn husks and stalks - everything but the kernel of corn - and non-food plants such as switchgrass.

Because plants grow by fixing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, burning a fuel made from cellulosic biomass does not add extra carbon to the atmosphere, unlike the burning of fossil fuels, which produces carbon emissions. In fact, our diesel reduces greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 80 percent over petroleum-derived diesel. And because we produce the fuels from non-edible cellulosic biomass, production of the fuels does not directly compete with food.

There are many advantages to advanced biofuels. That’s why we're focused on converting biomass to biofuels. I’m passionate about advancing basic science for public benefit. That’s my motivation.

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February 5th, 2013
10:15 AM ET

Jay Keasling: Using microbes to create the next generation of fuel

Editor's Note: The Next List will air a full 30min profile of synthetic biologist Jay Keasling this Sunday, Feb. 10th, at 2:30PM ET (all-new time!) only on CNN.

Quotable Jay Keasling: “The carpets, the paint on the walls, the ceiling tiles, we have the potential to produce all of these products from sugar.”

Who is he: Jay Keasling, a pioneer in the burgeoning field of synthetic biology, is engineering microbes – single cell organisms like yeast and E. coli – to produce biofuels, medicines, even cosmetic compounds from simple ingredients like sugar cane and grass.

In addition to teaching bioengineering at UC Berkeley, Jay is CEO of the U.S. Dept of Energy’s Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) in Emeryville, California.

Why you might know him: Keasling’s biggest breakthrough came in 2003 when he and his students reprogrammed yeast to produce a synthetic version of an expensive anti-malarial drug known as artemisinin. Armed with a $42 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, they’ve since perfected this inexpensive and effective replacement drug, providing a royalty-free license for mass production to pharmaceutical giant Sanofi-Aventi. Sanofi will bring it to market in 2013, producing 100 million treatments annually. Malaria kills roughly 1 million people a year, many of them children.

Why he matters: Today Keasling is focusing his efforts on creating a new generation of biofuels. Overseeing a team of 200 researchers at the Joint BioEnergy Institute, his goal is to “engineer microbes to produce fuels that behave exactly the same as petroleum-based fuels.” Ultimately, he believes all petroleum-based products – everything from hard plastics and paints to soda bottles – can be produced from these sugar-fed microbes.

Keasling’s philosophy: “Energy is our biggest industry on the planet. But unless we stop putting carbon into the atmosphere, sea levels are going to continue to rise and it's going to create huge problems."

Something you might not know about him: Keasling's a small town boy made good. He grew up on a fifth generation pig farm in Harvard, Nebraska (pop. 1000) where hard work and family were his focus. He jokes he spent the first 18 years of his life shoveling manure. Today, he may spend his day in a lab coat, but as a single father of two adopted boys, ages nine and 15, family continues to keep him grounded.

Why biofuels matter: Keasling doesn’t think we’ll ever see a day when biofuels cost less than petroleum-based fuels, but they will be cleaner. “We won’t be extracting oil from a foreign country, then hauling it to the U.S., and putting that excess carbon into the atmosphere,” he said. Instead, by producing high performance fuels from sugars, he says we can limit the carbons released into the atmosphere and, as a result, help slow global warming.

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DIY Africa: Empowering a new Sierra Leone
November 14th, 2012
08:36 AM ET

DIY Africa: Empowering a new Sierra Leone

Editor's note: David Sengeh is a doctoral student working at MIT’s Media Lab.

By David Sengeh, Special to CNN

(CNN) - When Kelvin Doe, a then-13-year-old from Sierra Leone, saw that off-the-shelf batteries were too expensive for the inventions he was working on, he made his own at home. Kelvin did not have the privilege to do his project in a school environment. Rather, he was compelled to act by necessity and for the joy of solving practical problems. Kelvin combined acid, soda, and metal, dumped those ingredients in a tin cup, waited for the mixture to dry and wrapped tape around the cup to make his first battery. He failed several times before completing a final, working prototype. He hasn’t purchased a battery since.

Next up: A generator. Kelvin made one of those by hacking an old rusty voltage stabilizer he found in a dustbin. The generator’s motor, plug, and other components are either homemade or picked from the garbage. In addition to providing electricity to his home, where neighbors come to charge their mobile phone batteries, the generator powers Kelvin’s homemade FM radio station, fully equipped with a custom music mixer, recycled CD player and antenna that allow his whole neighborhood to tune in. Now 16, Kelvin has expanded operations: he employs his friends as reporters and station managers, tasking them to interview spectators at local soccer games and keep the calendar of requests for his DJ services at parties and events. The average age of his crew is 12.

I am a doctoral student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab working on developing the next generation of prosthetic sockets and wearable mechanical interfaces. I am motivated to do this work by the needs I have seen in my country, Sierra Leone, and elsewhere. At the MIT Media Lab, I have access to immense resources and expertise. But it has become apparent to me that when I take the prostheses back to Sierra Leone, the machines and technologies needed to maintain them will be left at my lab. And, as important, the recipients of the technology will not have participated in finding solutions to their problems nor shared in the joy of creation. FULL POST


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