Gyroscopic Billiards

I saw this video the other day of a self-leveling pool table on the cruise ship Radiance of the Seas. Products like this or the Segway are great examples of how powerful inertial sensors such as gyroscopes and accelerometers can be, and as their capabilities and price continue to improve I think we will be seeing many more cool applications using them. I wonder if this pool table was just a proof-of-concept for applying the technology to beds – maybe we’ll be saying goodbye to seasickness soon (at least in first class).

Button Sprouts

A company called Tactus is developing an amazing touchscreen technology that allows buttons to literally sprout from a completely flat touch surface giving the users real 3d buttons to use (as opposed to a vibration based haptic button like on the Blackberry Storm). When the buttons are no longer needed they retreat back into the touch surface leaving a smooth flat touchscreen. Wow.

Robot Swarms

I came across a very cool research video from a lab out of UPenn showing synchronized flying of a flock of nana quadrotors. This stuff is really fun to watch. Let’s just hope they never become self aware.

High Tech Hand Washing

I’m always on the look out for new home appliances/fixtures that make every day home life feel like I’m living in the future. That’s why I was pretty interested when I came across this new faucet that tries to innovate on the traditional “washing your hands” experience.

Poco-Intro: George Nelson

This is the kind of plane I usually fly, a Cessna 172

Hello everyone, I’m George. I am a big fan of both mechatronics and aviation. I’ll be posting about both of those here.

The 172 has been around since 1956, and while there have been many improvements, the basic airframe has changed very little. The engine has gotten bigger, more powerful, and more reliable, but its wing design and four-seat cockpit configuration are very similar to the original design. A pilot that could fly the 1956 version would not be lost in a more recent model; it is still a very popular airplane. The reason I’m bringing this up is that until a few years ago, cockpits used to be filled with round dials and elaborate instruments. Now, the cockpit has two LCD screens that give more information to the pilot in a much more efficient way.

Modern Instrument Panel (left) and Steam Gauge Instrument Panel (right)

These screens have to take data from extremely accurate instruments scattered around the plane, check them for accuracy, and display the data to the pilot in a meaningful way.

Not your father’s compass

This is what mechatronics is all about: using cutting edge electronics and engineering to transform an otherwise stagnant technology. Integrating super precise instruments with the physical airframe, creating a clean circuit, and writing intuitive software that a pilot can use, even in emergencies. Mechatronics really brings a bunch of technologies that used to be separate and integrates them all into one awesome package. I’m really excited about mechatronics, and I’m looking forward to sharing it with you.

Poco-Intro: Alex Forman

As one of the newest additions to the team, I wanted to take the opportunity to introduce myself. This being a blog, it may devolve into a game of “Things I Think are Cool” but rarely is there a better way to get a quick handle on someone’s passions and the way they think.

I come from a slightly different background from the other members of our group. I’ve spent my time with the oscilloscope and soldering iron, but my real expertise lies in the physical prototyping process. I work best with my hands on the mill (or wrench, or torch, or mouse…), helping flesh out early concepts and build up a functioning system.

I grew up in Colorado, and like most of my generation got my design start early on through Legos. My spaceships and castles were never complete, though, without a mechanism of some form. A secret door operated by lever halfway across the building, or an escape vehicle that disengaged at a moments notice. I wasn’t really aware of engineering, or how this might relate to what I had been building, until I started to prep for college. A career path where I could continue to design real-life versions of models? Perfect.

The story gets a little murkier here. Too much spent with theory and modeling led to grad school and a lifetime spent in front of a computer, running MATLAB code. A career as an academic researcher was derailed by a chance encounter with the machine shop. There, I rediscovered both my love of building, and teaching. The desire to get my hands dirty, and make something that works in the world, had been what brought me to engineering in the first place. And it only took me ten years to figure it out.

Mechatronics and smart product design offers a greatly expanded toolkit to the engineer. The increasing number of ways interact digitally with the world opens new avenues for problem solving, without the space or energy requirements of older systems. Sometimes, this can be merely a way to spice up a faltering design. But when applied in creative ways, the fix can have astonishing results.

So, where does this leave me as a designer? I like items that are functional, often in unexpected ways. Modularity, although there’s a point where open-ended solutions becomes its own problem. Clever, simple DIY creations. And two wheeled vehicles of all forms, although I’ll always prefer a heavy duty all-mountain bike over a hand-brazed heirloom. I’m looking forward to sharing examples of all of these, and all the projects the new year will bring!