Monday, September 28, 2009

One Step Closer to the $6M Man

Here is an interesting article about technology for overlaying images on top of our normal vision. This is called augmented reality and is achieved in this case by integrating tiny LEDs in contact lenses. This could eventually have great applications in healthcare, by enriching the information richness of doctors'/surgeons' sensory environment. I don't know if I would like to teach classes though, wondering if everyone was secretly watching movies on their contact lenses rather than paying attention. :)

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Off the grid but still extravagant

I just read about Dean Kamen's little island paradise off the coast of Connecticut. He has switched all his lighting to LEDs, which is part of the overall strategy that lets him take his entire island off the power grid. Using a 12-kW solar array and a 10-kW wind turbine, along with a big bank of batteries and a customized energy management system, the "Dumplonian Empire" is completely energy independent. Oh, and don't forget the Stirling engine for emergencies. A pricey pad, but definitely some sweet engineering.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Getting a Few Neat Ideas from Concept to Reality

Several interesting articles caught my attention recently.
First, a recent PhD graduate in biomedical engineering has come up with a way to stimulate inproved blood circulation in the lower body, hopefully preventing or at least lowering the likelihood of all sorts of related illnesses. Makes you want to go out for a brisk walk, doesn't it?
Second, a company in the UK has come out with a robotic system for driving a car, including steering, acceleration and braking, etc. Some of their video is pretty cool; if all cars had this and were robustly integrated together, I would be a lot less skeptical about using this kind of system in traffic. :)
That reminds me of James Bond's remote control BMW in Tomorrow Never Dies. And that brings me to article number three. Just a feel-good reflection on the evolution of technologies from movies into reality. This really brings together two topics that I enjoy discussing: engineering and James Bond. I guess wishing and dreaming are a real part of the engineering design process.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Beautiful Robots

Here is a stunning slideshow of some of the world's best-known robots. Some of my favorites are Toyota's musical humanoids (#14), Kiva's pod carriers (#25), and welding stations (#29). Of course, very relevant to my work are the pictures of the DaVinci surgical system (#3 and #12). Big Dog (#19) is always fun to look at, especially in video. NASA's robots are neat too; one thing that is pretty amazing is the scale - the ATHLETE platforms (#10), although they don't look it, are gigantic, similar to the Mars Science Lab (#32) if I remember correctly.
A few other nice pictures of robots are at:

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Robotic devices, thinking big

What would you do with $71 million? DARPA decided it would develop better prosthetic arms for amputees. The neat thing is that they are actually doing a good job with taxpayers' money. Technologies from the project are already making it into real-life use. The scope of the undertaking is amazing, from neuroscience to mechatronics to battery design, and the list goes on. In a stroke of 21st-century genius, engineers at Johns Hopkins even created a version of (air) Guitar Hero to help users gain proficiency with their new prostheses.
Now students can think big too. WPI announced the new topic for the Robotics Innovation Competition and Conference, which is "Quality of Life." Instead of designing robots for the sake of designing robots (which I am sometimes guilty of), this is motivation for making useful robots. Maybe my students will come up with some ideas?

Thursday, December 11, 2008


Two areas in which medical robotics has been progressing for several years are rehabilitation and telepresence. I just learned about 2 systems which have demonstrated success in these types of applications. Manus is an arm rehab robot developed at MIT that interfaces with a VR-type game to prompt the patient to perform beneficial motions. It also incorporates adaptive constraint to help guide the patient's motion. I think this is a great use of robots doing what they do best - repetitive mechanical tasks.
The military has had a long-standing interest in medical telepresence. Apparently they are now using a robot called RP-7 to provide basic audio/video communication between patients and doctors. This allows specialists to provide their expertise (make rounds, etc.) even from a long distance away. Here's the thing though. The robot costs a quarter of a million dollars. Why don't they just put some fancy networking in all the hospital rooms and achieve the same thing rather than having a dumb robot wandering around the hospital? Now if the robot could do more than just facilitate communications, or if it were much less expensive, I might have a more positive opinion.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Monkey Brains and Virtual Photons

In a new demonstration of the plasticity of the human brain, researchers have now shown that monkeys can quickly learn to redirect their brain activity to drive paralyzed muscles through a brain-computer interface. Cool stuff. Apparently you can do quite a bit with a single brain cell.
I also just learned the theory behind the stiction effect in microdevices. Apparently virtual photons are constantly being formed everywhere, but they can only form in spaces larger than their wavelength. So when two surfaces are very close together, fewer photons are able to form, and this results in a "negative pressure" of photons in the gap, and the surfaces get sucked together. This sounds like a good premise for a nerdy party game.