Archive for May, 2012


enterprise for the bottom of the pyramid

Post from Harry Hutchinson:

Harry Hutchinson

Six years ago, Evan Thomas was working as part of a team building a water-purification system for a village in Rwanda. At the time, he was a doctoral student in aerospace engineering at the University of Colorado at Boulder. His day job, at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, involved water recovery systems.

He was in Rwanda as part of the NASA chapter of Engineers Without Borders-USA. The EWB group teamed with residents of the village, Mugonero, and with students from a nearby technical school to construct a gravity-fed water filtration system that could serve the community. Mechanical Engineering magazine published a story about that project in the February 2007 issue.

I got in touch with Evan the other day and found that he has been busy since then. Today, as an assistant professor of engineering at Portland State University, he runs the SWEETLab. That stands for “Sustainable Water, Energy, and Environmental Technologies.”

He is also involved in three young startups, all connected with the delivery of technology to improve the lives of the rural poor around the world.

He co-founded Manna Energy Ltd. about five years ago along with a few associates, including another member of that EWB team, Max Gold. The company combines carbon credit finance markets with sustainable technologies for the developing world.

Among its projects in Africa, for instance, Manna Energy consulted for a Swiss company, Vestergaard Frandsen, to help them develop a carbon credit model to distribute their home scale water filtration system called the LifeStraw Family, LifeStraw is a portable filter that removes bacteria and parasites from water.

Filtering water means people do not have to boil it to make it safe to drink. So they cut down fewer trees for fuel, and there’s less combustion in general. That qualifies for carbon credits under the voluntary Gold Standard as well as the United Nations Clean Development Mechanism. Some of these carbon credits are tied to a “demand” for firewood use that is currently not being met—instead many of the users previously drank untreated water.

The SWEETLab develops small sensors that can run for a year on a double-A battery. They can tell how many times a latrine door opens, how much water flows through a filter, how much cooking is done on a fuel-efficient stove. And they can transmit that information over the cellular phone network a website.

They might even be able to establish patterns of use to confirm that the devices in place are being used, and how often.

Manna has teamed with DelAgua, a spinoff of the University of Surrey in England, to form a new company called DelAgua Health & Development Programs. That company is mounting a program now to deliver water filtration systems and fuel-efficient stoves to as many as 750,000 homes in Rwanda. A sample of about 500 filters and stoves will be fitted with SWEETLab sensors. Evan says the company is still in talks with prospective suppliers of the filters and stoves.

As if that isn’t enough, Evan has a third venture on his plate. That’s SWEETSense Inc., which will market the lab’s devices for uses that include the same kind of field research that DelAgua Health will conduct, and also for environmental monitoring.

In Evan’s case, “EWB” may stand for “entrepreneur without borders.”


Bird Bot

Post from Jeffrey Winters:

Jeffrey Winters

Flying robots are doing the most amazing things these days. (See this from a few months back.) The most recent example comes from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where engineers are developing a robot that’s a fairly radical departure from what we’ve grown accustomed to seeing.

Most flying robots come in two basic types: autonomous airplanes—the kinds of drones that circle over battlefields doing reconnaissance or launching missiles—and helicopters with two, four, or more rotors, which are much more common among hobbyists. The Illinois researchers, led by Soon-Jo Chung, an assistant professor of aerospace engineering, and postdoctoral student Aditya Paranjape, are working on a different paradigm altogether. Their flying robot has articulated wings that bend and flap like birds’ wings. And just as birds can, the Illinois flying robot can swoop to a location, pull up, and then perch on a human hand.

It’s beautiful to watch, but right now Chung and Paranjape’s flying robot is limited to gliding. And whether it develops beyond this clever trick to become as versatile as a quadcopter remains to be seen. But it’s fascinating to see so many ideas that were tried out and discarded in the days before and shortly after the Wright Brothers getting another look in the 21st century.


Personal radio

Post from Jean Thilmany:

News from engineers at the University of California San Diego suggests that a computer algorithm they’ve developed and are calling game-powered machine learning, would enable music lovers to one day search every song on the web well beyond popular hits, with a simple text search using key words like “funky” or, even more precise, “spooky electronica.”

The engineers found that a computer can be taught to automatically label every song on the Internet using sets of examples provided by unpaid music fans. And the results are as accurate as using paid music experts to provide the examples, saving time and money, said Gert Lanckriet, a professor of electrical engineering at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering, who led the work. The results were published in the April 24 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The official link to the press release heralding the algorithm can be found by here.

The eventual hope is to create a text-based multimedia search engine that will make it much easier to access the explosion of multimedia content online. Today, humans working round the clock labeling songs with descriptive text could never keep up with the volume of content being uploaded to the Internet, Lanckriet said. For example, YouTube users upload 60 hours of video content per minute, according to that company.

Lanckriet foresees a time when, thanks to this massive database of cataloged music, cell phone sensors will track the activities and moods of individual cell phone users and use that data to provide a personalized radio service—the kind that matches music to one’s activity and mood, without repeating the same songs over and over again.

Speaking for myself, I’ve never had much luck with Pandora Radio, which purports to learn your musical preferences based on your input of the type of songs that you enjoy listening to. You’re then prompted to give each song Pandora subsequently plays a thumbs up or down, and the radio station, backed by its algorithm, goes on to hone in on your musical taste and refine the songs it plays for you.

I know the UC engineers said their machine-learning tool will go well beyond Pandora and the “if you like” style algorithms, but my tastes are broad, from rag time to hip hop, and such algorithms seem to have a hard time accounting for that—and I want to find my way to my own songs. For some reason, the “if you like this, then you’re sure to like this” style of finding my way to new songs and musical genres has never appealed to me. I’d rather be an explorer on my own.

“What I would like long-term is just one single radio station that starts in the morning and it adapts to you throughout the day,” Lanckriet has said. “By that I mean the user doesn’t have to tell the system, ‘Hey, it’s afternoon now, I prefer to listen to hip hop in the afternoon. The system knows because it has learned the cell phone user’s preferences.’”

But I can’t be alone when I say I may enjoy listening to hip hop for an hour or so some afternoons, but then want to hear three hours straight of Dizzy Gellespie on another day. Bottom line is music, like taste in food, is highly personal and people tend to eat what they have a craving for right then, which varies by day and by hour.

There are just some human preferences a computer can’t predict or follow.


engineering classrooms getting “smarter”

Thought I’d share an interesting release I received from the University of Pittsburgh:

Classrooms have become smarter, thanks to the use of digital devices such as computers, SMART™ boards, and other handheld devices. But are these technological advancements birthing a new and smarter generation of engineers? According to a University of Pittsburgh study, yes: Students using such tools are more successful than those who don’t because the technologies promote better working memory and more flexible and transitional thinking.

The study’s findings were published in the April issue of the Journal of Mechanical Design.

“We found that when students hold discussions while using a SMART™ board, for example, as they communicate more clearly through direct referencing, easy writing, or drawing,” said Christian Schunn, a professor of psychology in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences and a research scientist in Pitt’s Learning Research and Development Center. “It not only puts everyone on the same page, but it saves time that otherwise might have been spent on additional explanations or unproductive conflicts resulting from miscommunication.”

To understand the cognitive processes of students in the throes of engineering design processes, Schunn and Jooyoung Jang, lead author and a Pitt PhD student in psychology, set out to study the characteristics of innovation-supporting environments. They collected data across eight semesters, studying 43 interdisciplinary engineering teams consisting of advanced undergraduate and graduate students in biological, industrial, chemical, mechanical, and electrical engineering programs. The teams worked on a single project all semester, with each team being assigned to a different industry-sponsored project.

Early in the process, surveys were distributed to the students with questions related to the students’ prior experiences with engineering design. Group meetings were also video-recorded and analyzed. Lab spaces were equipped with wall-mounted video and audio recording devices that automatically recorded all happenings in the classroom. Each lab space included a meeting table with four chairs, a SMART™ board, and a desktop computer. After collecting the recordings, the researchers labored over several thousands of hours of video to count when each team used the equipment in the space and how often.

The percentage of time each tool was used was analyzed. The teams were then grouped according to levels of success (low, medium, high) in meeting the goals of the project. High- and medium-success groups did not differ statistically in tool use; the main statistical differences were between low-success groups and the other two success levels. Compared to the low-success groups, the high- and medium-success groups used shareable tools like the SMART™ board and prototypes much more frequently, said Schunn.

Additionally, the effectiveness of a tool differed somewhat by the time the tool was incorporated into the design process, as those who used the shareable tools later in the process had extremely unsuccessful designs. The researchers also found that those with engineering experiences outside of a university better used the tools more often.

“There are many underlying mechanisms regarding how these tools support and hinder social and cognitive processes, and these psychological effects should be further explored in greater depth,” said Schunn. “Engineering education may benefit from teaching the importance of shareable tools and early physical prototyping as part of design instruction.”

Funding for this project was provided by the National Science Foundation.


energy, water and women

Kendra Sharp, associate professor of mechanical, industrial and manufacturing engineering at Oregon State University recently delivered an interesting and inspiring talk at TedXOSU on the topic: “Energy, Water and Women Engineers.”

In the talk, she alludes to the ASME-led Engineering for Change initiative. The talk is available online by clicking here. 


Integrated sustainable buildings

ASME’s Energy Grand Challenge, some years ago, identified the need to increase the Society’s profile in renewable and emerging technologies. As an outcome of this initiative, last Friday, ASME’s Integrated/Sustainable Building Equipment and Systems Task Force, headed by Jorge Gonzalez, Ph.D., The City University of New York, held a roundtable discussion focusing on opportunities for integrating technologies and disciplines.

The areas covered included:

  • Building systems control strategies
  • Integrated power generators
  • Building integrated solar technologies
  • City-scale integrated sustainable energy technologies

The full roundtable session was videotaped and will be released soon. In her opening remarks, ASME President Victoria Rockwell said, “A word about being sustainable, or Green. To be sustainable, to be green, makes cities more livable, and also more competitive. The earlier we introduce it in our thinking the better.”

She continued, “In the U.S. and Canada, the top four green cities are San Francisco, Vancouver, New York and Seattle—according to the Green City Index commissioned by Siemens last year. Generally speaking, American cities fared well as compared to other global regions in the areas of air and waste policies as well as recycling and water infrastructure. Cities that performed best have comprehensive sustainability plans that encompass every aspect of creating a greener future including transportation, land use, energy use, carbon dioxide emissions, and water.”


Submarine races

Post from Harry Hutchinson:

The 2012 Lemelson-MIT Award for Global Innovation was announced a few days ago, and because it has to do with water, it caught my attention. After all, clean water is as important to me as good beer, and I use a lot more of it. So when somebody finds a way to make water safer for people around the world, we all owe a debt of gratitude. The foundation of the award also has an interesting irony—but more about that later.

Ashok Gadgil of the University of California, Berkeley, and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory received the $100,000 prize “in recognition of his steady pursuit to blend research, invention, and humanitarianism for broad social impact,” according to a press release issued by the Lemelson-MIT Program.

A biographical sketch on the Lemelson-MIT website says Gadgil was inspired to study cheap forms of water purification after an outbreak of cholera killed tens of thousands of people in India in the summer of 1993. Today, biologically contaminated water is the largest environmental hazard for humans. About 2 million people, mostly children below age 5, die every year from waterborne diarrheal diseases.

Gadgil, currently the Andrew and Virginia Rudd Family Foundation Professor of Safe Water and Sanitation at the university and director of the Environmental Energy Technologies Division at the lab, invented a means to kill pathogens in water for a fraction of a cent.

In that summer of ’93, Gadgil and a grad student determined that they could disinfect water with UV-C light. According to Gadgil, “We were completely amazed. Using the simplest engineering, we could disinfect water for half a cent per ton. That’s shockingly cheap. You could disinfect one person’s drinking supply for a full year for a couple of cents.”

After two years of work with a number of collaborators the final design was ready for licensing. It consists of a compact box where an ultraviolet lamp hangs over a shallow pan. Water propelled by gravity flows through the pan under the light.

About 12 seconds’ exposure to the shortwave ultraviolet radiation damages the DNA of bacteria and viruses. When that happens, they can’t reproduce or make the enzymes they need in order to live. They die shortly after they are exposed, but even if someone ingests them alive, they can’t reproduce and so nobody gets sick.

Simple, elegant, and best of all, cheap enough to use in places that need it.

He calls the system UV Waterworks. It consumes 40 watts to power the lamp and so can run on a car battery. It handles four gallons a minute, destroying six nines of bacteria and viruses. Gadgil estimates that this rate could supply 2,000 people with 10 liters each of clean water every day.

WaterHealth International is the licensee and has deployed the technology in several countries to offer affordable safe drinking water to 5 million rural people. WaterHealth does not sell individual units of UV Waterworks. The company works with local village councils on a turn-key basis. An installation includes bank-financing, public education in hygiene and sanitation, and mechanical filtering and filtering with activated charcoal before UV disinfection of the water source.

Gadgil’s jobs keep him contributing to humanitarian efforts. He helped develop fuel-efficient stoves, for instance, to be used by displaced persons in Africa.

The Lemelson-MIT Program says it “is dedicated to honoring the acclaimed and unsung heroes who have helped improve our lives through invention.”

The program issues a number of prizes and awards Inventeam grants, one of which went to the Kell High School Robotics Team from Georgia. The resulting work took them to the White House. There’s a March 6 entry about that.

The program is funded through the Lemelson Foundation, which in turn was funded by Jerome Lemelson’s personal fortune. Lemelson held hundreds of U.S. patents in key technologies, including machine vision. Claims for one patent application could grow to the point where he would spin some off to file another. Sometimes an application would include the same illustration used in an earlier Lemelson patent.

Lemelson didn’t manufacture anything. He went to people who brought out products involving the subjects of his patents and told them to pay a licensing fee or leave the market. It is a strategy called the submarine patent.

R.P. Siegel wrote about Lemelson’s strategy in the October 2004 issue of Mechanical Engineering under the title of “Down but Not Out.” According to Siegel, Lemelson’s patents could take decades working their way through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. During this time, entire markets could develop based on the same technology.

It often turned out that, as Siegel wrote, “technologies in question had become widely commercialized by others who may have known nothing of Lemelson’s work. Like the warship they’re named for, submarine patents would surface, fully loaded, in the middle of a marketplace with plenty to lose.”

No matter what you may think of the submarine patent, the money Lemelson raised seems to be going for good causes now.

The Editor

John G. Falcioni is Editor-in-Chief of Mechanical Engineering magazine, the flagship publication of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

May 2012
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