Inflatable Robotics

I recently saw a cool article and video (below) on a new project from Other Lab, one of the most interesting groups in the Bay Area robotics scene.

The video gets into some inflatable robotics work that they are doing, with some really interesting potential applications around human-safe robots and medical robotics. However, what I found most interesting were some thoughts from Otherlab co-founder Saul Griffith on the impact that engineers can and do have on the world around them. The topic of how and how meaningfully we as engineers can affect the world really resonates with me and I am happy to see it get discussed in a larger forum. I couldn’t agree more with Saul’s challenge to all of today’s (and tomorrow’s) engineers: keep dreaming and stretching your notions of what is possible. The world is a canvas with infinite possibility for improvement and beauty.

$300 Prosthetic Arm

Came across this uplifting video about a super affordable ($300!) prosthetic arm. For comparison, a prosthetic arm typically ranges from $3,000 to $30,000, depending on how much articulation the prosthetic allows. This prosthetic arm was developed by a team of engineers at the University of Illinois who then went on to form their own company, Illini Prosthetic Technologies (IPT).

Village Tech Solutions

Pocobor recently started helping out Village Tech Solutions, an awesome non-profit organization dedicated to providing affordable and relevant technology solutions to the developing world. One of the first systems they developed was the WireBridge (shown below), which is a human-powered river crossing system that has facilitated over 3 million river crossings across deep river gorges in Nepal to date.

One of their current projects is to develop Looma, which is an affordable audio-visual technology device that can provide an interactive window to the internet and access to educational content for village schools that don’t have access to electricity, computers, or even books. The portable, battery powered system integrates a projector with control wand (imagine a Wii controller) so it can act as an electronic whiteboard. It also provides an internet connection over WiFi or any mobile data network if either is available. If not, there is a wide variety of educational content (textbooks, lessons, etc.) stored locally on the device itself to facilitate learning. The system can be recharged from solar panels in villages where the electric grid is not available or is unreliable.

A team of volunteer students from Stanford, Dartmouth, Columbia, Johns Hopkins, George Washington University and Menlo School spent this summer developing an amazing initial prototype. As the fall rolled around and field testing in Nepal begins, there were a few more design tasks that Pocobor started helping out with, including developing a custom power supply for the module and a circuit board for the IR camera used to track the control wand motion.

It’s been a great collaboration and Pocobor is excited to continue helping out with such an interesting and useful project!

Les Machines de L’Ile

We’re going today to Nantes, France, and a really cool interactive mechatronic art installation located on an island in the Loire river. Called Les Machines de L’Ile and created by Francois Delaroziere and Pierre Orefice, its purpose is to fire the imaginations of visitors by helping them visualize a fantasy world at the intersection of Jules Verne and Leonardo Da Vinci.

There are currently two main installations (with a third scheduled for completion in 2014):

1. The Great Elephant: weighing in at nearly 50 tons, this beast can take up to 49 passengers.

2. The Marine World Carousel: even bigger than the Great Elephant, this carousel boasts 35 underwater creatures over 3 levels.

The site is very interactive, with many of the pieces built such that guests can ride them. I’ve never been there but as far as I’m concerned, it sounds way better than Disneyland.

Metal Machine Music

I’m always interested in people’s side projects, where they combine their engineering skills with labors of love. My musical taste also runs distinctly towards the loud end of the spectrum. This can be a common source of complaint from the other Pocobytes after a day where I’ve grabbed control of our speakers. So when the video below was brought to my attention, I was pretty thrilled with the results. Adding force feedback to playing an instrument is an interesting way to change the performer’s experience. It’s even packable, as he recently played a concert in San Francisco. The following video does feature loud, industrial inspired music, as well as some minor cursing, so headphones are recommended.

Today’s Factory Automation

Building on my post a few months ago that looked at pre-WWII automotive manufacturing technology, I thought it would be interesting to contrast that with some state of the art (post-millennium) technology. I recently saw the below video, which is a fascinating look at a literally transparent Volkswagen plant in Dresden, Germany for the Phaeton.

The idea behind the factory is that customers and the general public can see the whole assembly process for the cars and (presumably) marvel at the level of quality and technological sophistication being used. It actually is a beautiful facility and, in typical German fashion, everything is always precisely in its place.

Amongst the features of the factory that I found particularly cool were the autonomous part delivery sleds that bring components to the assembly line, the inductive charging (from the floor!) of the part tracking modules, the inventory and progress tracking system itself (which registers when each individual bolt and other component is added), and the electric assembly lift. All in all, the factory is a great example of how far personal transportation manufacturing has come over the past 80 years. I have no doubt that it will be amazing to see where things stand after the next 80 years as well – bring on the flying cars.


“Well sir, there’s nothing on earth
like a genuine
bona fide
– Lyle Lanley

In keeping with the gyroscope theme from my last post, I wanted to highlight an interesting application space for inertial tilt sensors: monorails! If you’re like me, all of your mental associations with that word revolve around The Simpsons but there is actually some cool history around this idea, as well as some excellent contemporary mechatronics projects.

A gyroscopic monorail is essentially a train that runs on a single rail and uses the gyroscopic properties of spinning wheels to balance. Theoretical advantages of a monorail as compared to traditional bi-rail trains include sharper turns (because the cars will automatically bank during bends, which also eliminates lateral centrifugal acceleration) and the suppression of hunting oscillation (basically swaying of the rail cars arising from the interaction of inertial and adhesion forces). Furthermore, track gauge mismatch issues can be avoided. However, the downside is that all the cars require a powered gyroscopic system to stay balanced.

In practice, full size gyroscopic monorails never progressed beyond prototypes, although several people worked on the idea in the early 20th century. However, there are several contemporary projects working on small-scale systems that are pretty cool. In particular, Youtube user AkubiLR has posted a number of interesting videos documenting a series of prototypes and experiments; including these two of his prototype #11 both balancing statically and running at speed.

The monorail didn’t work out for Springfield on TV but continual improvement of inertial sensor performance and decreases in price mean that maybe someone will revisit this space a little sooner than we think. All aboard!

Leg-Wheel Hybrid Mobile Robot

I recently saw the below video showing a hybrid leg-wheel mobile robot developed at the National Taiwan University. The robot has two modes: (1) wheeled mode, for driving quickly and efficiently on flat terrain and (2) legged mode, for rugged or uneven terrain.

It is a pretty cool robot (particularly for the Transformers fan in all of us) and an excellent example of a creative mechatronic solution to the problem of how to maximize locomotion efficiency for a wide variety of terrains – I can’t wait to get one for my car.

Kinetic Art

I’m always on the look out for cool art pieces that incorporate engineering. When I came across the Kinetic Sculpture exhibit at the BMW museum in Munich, Germany I was very excited. It’s basically a sculpture made up of metallic balls suspended on very thin wire to give the illusion that the balls are floating. The balls can be made to move up or down via the wires to create different forms. Enjoy.

Help Me Obi Wan

I found out today that Japan has created a system utilizing lasers that can create true 3D video. Let’s hope the Death Star isn’t next on their list.