Thursday, September 22, 2011

An 8-inch step down for MABEL is a step up for robotkind

The fastest two-legged robot with knees can now step gracefully down an 8-inch, stair-height platform—blind.

MABEL, which stands for Michigan Anthropomorphic Biped with Electric Legs, has no cameras. The drop she negotiates in this video is a total surprise to her, like when the curb sneaks up on you. And if the curb were 8 inches high, many humans wouldn't be able to recover and hold their footing as well as MABEL does. They'd stumble or twist an ankle, says robotics researcher Jessy Grizzle, a University of Michigan electrical engineering professor and MABEL's owner.

This isn't just cool. It's a useful skill that we'd all expect from the rescue robots of the future. There probably wouldn't be a clear path for machines you might send into a burning building to make sure everyone had escaped. They might have to traverse stairs or maybe step over toys in the living room, Grizzle says.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Understanding climate change from the ground up

Electrical engineers install sensors at Matthaei Botanical Gardens to measure soil moisture

Planted at the U-M Matthaei Botanical Gardens right now are seeds to some answers to a major quandary in climate change prediction: How is moisture distributed throughout the Earth’s soils?

“Root zone soil moisture is one of the most important pieces of information for understanding how ecosystems function, and how the water, energy, and carbon cycles are regulated around the globe,” says Mahta Moghaddam, a professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

A NASA satellite called the Soil Moisture Active and Passive (SMAP) is scheduled to launch in 2014. Its mission will be to gather soil moisture data from above, eventually leading to global maps. In support of this project, Moghaddam and her colleagues are installing networks of wireless sensors on the ground in several test spots. The data from the sensors will be used to validate the satellite data—to help ensure that the orbiting instrument is giving accurate readings.

Friday, August 12, 2011

First a computer lab. Then an intercontinental collaboration.

That’s the hope of two computer science and engineering professors who chanced upon a technology need in Ethiopia and set about filling the void.

Addis Ababa Institute of Technology professors
Fitsum Assamenew, Michael Anbessei and
Daniel Dilbin in the new computer lab.
A state-of-the-art computer lab is open for learning at Addis Ababa Institute of Technology in Ethiopia, thanks to a pair of computer science and engineering professors who work to attract bright graduate students to Michigan even while they’re on vacation.

During a trip to Africa in 2009, Valeria Bertacco and Todd Austin visited what was then known as Addis Ababa University to give a talk about Michigan Engineering.

“Wherever we go, I try to recruit students,” said Bertacco, who is an associate professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

On this trip, not only did she find Biruk Mammo, who is working in her lab now as a doctoral student, they uncovered a pipeline of enthusiastic computer scientists and engineers. New government incentives to educate more engineers in Ethiopia have led to a leap in the number of young people there going into the field, Mammo said.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Turning toilet water into energy and drinking water

Adam Smith keeps the lab fridge stocked with partially-treated sewage. It's one of the less glamorous parts of his civil and environmental engineering Ph.D. work. Every few weeks, he takes a field trip to the Dundee, Michigan treatment plant, where he fills a couple jugs with murky liquid.

"It doesn't smell the greatest, but you get used to it," Smith said.

He's working on a project that aims to turn toilet water into a source of energy and maybe even drinking water. Tag along with him on a visit to the treatment plant in this video:

This project is run out of the lab of professor Lutgarde Raskin, in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. She and her collaborators have developed what's called an anaerobic membrane bioreactor that could make this transformation of municipal wastewater to energy possible.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Crash Testing social entrepreneurship part 2

Simple and inexpensive child car seat design proven safe, meets standards

“The goal here is to validate the design and then give it away with the confidence that it met the highest standards.” Matthew Reed (Research Associate Professor in the Biosciences Group at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute) said moments before the bumper sled slammed home.

Rachel Strauss (left) and Megan Bland (right) fabricating their design. 
Photo by Marcin Szczepanski.
In early February of this year, LabLog reported on a pair of biomedical engineering students who will graduate from the University of Michigan College of Engineering this spring. Though a noteworthy accomplishment, Rachel Strauss and Megan Bland have succeeded at something even more inspiring:

They designed an inexpensive and simple to fabricate child restraint that has passed the NHTSA standards for rear and front facing impact.

“Megan and I were both very happy to see that the crash testing proved that this concept is feasible. It was very gratifying to see that all of the time that was put into the development of the child restraint paid off,” says Strauss.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Remote Stethoscope

The heart of the matter sets the pace for new understandings, future progress


“We came down here, to Guatemala, about a week ago with a prototype of our remote stethoscope and a whole bunch of unanswered questions.” Jeremy Koehler sat on the steps of a hostel in Antigua, juggling a doll in one hand and the prototype in the other.

As we reported on
LabLog, before their trip, the M-HEAL team had no real idea what they would encounter on their exploratory mission to Guatemala. All they knew for certain was that each year, nearly 1,600 Guatemalan babies are born with congenital heart defects. 

They also understood that many of these babies are born in rural areas; places a potentially life-saving diagnosis might be impossible to make in time to prevent serious complications. Some of the villages that the team visited didn’t even have a traditional stethoscope available, let alone one that could remotely transmit heart sounds to doctors in Guatemala City.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Update from Guatemala: "It broke our hearts to have to say we could not help"

At a clinic in the mountains of central Guatemala, a mother and baby waited hopefully for the American students and their special stethoscope.

Students meet with Dr. Cristian Barrios (first right) and the staff
of a clinic in Nueva Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán.
Photo by Marcin Szczepanski. More coverage on tumblr.
The tool could eventually help diagnose congenital heart defects early enough for children to get preventative treatment and avoid permanent damage to their hearts, brains and lungs. But right now, it's an early prototype.

The Michigan Engineering students were visiting the clinic to learn how to improve their device. Because it's still in the development stage, they weren't prepared to actually use it yet.

"It broke our hearts to have to say we could not help," said Nathaniel Skinner, a Ph.D. student in mechanical engineering who is leading the team designing the stethoscope. "The team was surprised, saddened, and encouraged. Nothing could make us want to move faster and deliver technology and hope to Dr. Christian Barrios and his staff more intensely."

Dr. Barrios heads a clinic in Nueva Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán---one of many the students visited this week as they journey across Guatemala. They're meeting with the midwives, doctors and patients who need this technology as the students work to refine it into something that can help save young lives. The College of Engineering's Marcin Szczepanski is traveling with the team and posting photos, videos and observations of the trip on tumblr.

15-month-old Wilson Irael Mendez has a congenital heart defect
known as tetralogy of Fallot. Wilson needs to get stronger
before surgery. Wilson’s sister is keeping an eye out on him.
Photo by Marcin Szczepanski. Learn more on tumblr.
The goal is to build a stethoscope that can record the heartbeats of infants in rural areas and send them to a specialist in the city who could make more sense of the sounds. That specialist is internationally-known pediatric cardiac surgeon Dr. Aldo Castañeda, who requested the device. Since 1998, his foundation has diagnosed and treated more than 2,000 children with congenital heart defects in Central America. But there are many more who need help, his website says. Every year, another 1,200 babies in Guatemala alone are born with these heart conditions. It can be difficult or impossible to get newborns to the city for early diagnosis and treatment.

The young engineers belong to the student organization M-HEAL. This is their spring break. They've spent a lot of it in a van---traveling up to 12 hours a day. They've made progress narrowing their objective and understanding the ecosystem that their technology will be a part of. Read a full Q and A with team leader Nathaniel Skinner on tumblr. Students from biomedical engineering and computer science and engineering are also involved in this effort.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

YouTube sensation MABEL to appear on Discovery Channel

A Discovery Channel Canada crew in Prof. Jessy Grizzle's lab
Photo by Catharine June

MABEL, the robot that walks like a person, got her 15 minutes last year when a video of her breaking a leg in an experiment went viral.

She'll be back in the spotlight soon to redeem herself. The Discovery Channel Canada's science documentary show Daily Planet was in electrical engineering professor Jessy Grizzle's lab last week filming a spot. This was their second visit.

The segment (airdate TBA) will show MABEL's progress in navigating bumpy ground. In MABEL's May 2010 debut, she fails to recover after a 2.5-inch curb. Grizzle says she can hack twice that these days.

"For anyone who thinks this is not so impressive, we keep a set of stilts and a blindfold in the lab and invite them to beat MABEL," Grizzle said. "So far, no one has taken us up on the challenge."

Monday, February 21, 2011

Remote Stethoscope

Students scope out solutions to big challenges on spring break

Part One: Preflight

Less than four months ago, eight students and graduate students from Biomedical, Mechanical, and Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Michigan committed to spending their spring break on a mission to address a big global challenge.

They are heading to Guatemala…not in search a good time for themselves but to do some good for others.

Each year approximately 1,600 infants born in Guatemala are afflicted with a malformed heart, which can cause permanent brain, lung, and heart damage or death if not treated surgically within weeks of birth. Proper diagnosis in remote areas is a serious problem. And this team intends to do something about that.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Crash testing social entrepreneurship

Simpler children's car seat being developed by University of Michigan engineering students

By Matt Nixon

Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for children 3 to 14 years old, according to the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

If that doesn’t get your attention, then consider this on a global level: While 90 percent of high-income countries have laws requiring young children to be properly restrained in vehicles, only 20 percent of low-income countries do, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). 

Monday, January 10, 2011

A shark inspires an artist to build a new hydropower generator

Testing at the Marine Hydrodynamics Lab proves the concept and gets its creator into the tow tank

The artist’s hair was wet, and he apologized for shivering. When I met Anthony Reale, he had just popped out of a tank of 60-degree water at the University of Michigan's Marine Hydrodynamics Lab.

This was the seventh time in three days he’d emerged from the chilly basin. The last four times, he wore a dry suit he borrowed from friends. But the first three dives he did in jeans and a t-shirt. He had no other choice.