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research and development

Researchers Develop Technology for Tailor-Made, Multipurpose Robotics

March 25, 2013
By George I. Seffers

Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, are continuing to develop a robotic technology that can transform into a virtually infinite number of shapes. In fact, the breakthrough has led to some surprising spin-off projects, including research into aircraft control actuators and medical devices.

MIT first announced the caterpillar-size device last November after the original effort, which was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), was completed. The original Programmable Matter project resulted in a device called a milli-motein, a name inspired by its millimeter-size components and a motorized design resembling proteins that fold themselves into complex shapes.

The technology could one day allow warfighters to design and build robotic systems on the fly to meet specific challenges—maneuvering through the space inside walls to gather reconnaissance information, for example. Now, the technology is being further developed in another DARPA project, the Maximum Mobility and Manipulation program, which seeks to improve the capability of robots to traverse tough terrain and to grasp or manipulate objects. “What our group has been doing is looking at how to apply our technologies for building structures from digital composite technology,” reports Ara Knaian, a visiting scientist at MIT, who helped design the unique electro-permanent motor that drives the milli-motein technology.

Increasing Machines’ Learning Curve

March 21, 2013

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is searching for companies to participate in its recently launched Probabilistic Programming for Advanced Machine Learning (PPAML) program. Probabilistic programming is an innovative approach to manage the uncertain information that computers use to understand data, manage results and infer insights. The PPAML seeks to increase the number of people who can successfully build machine learning applications as well as boost the effectiveness of current machine learning experts. In addition, the project will focus on creating more economical, robust and powerful applications that require less data to produce more accurate results. “Our goal is that future machine learning projects won’t require people to know everything about both the domain of interest and machine learning to build useful machine learning applications,” Kathleen Fisher, DARPA program manager, says. The three-phase program is scheduled to run for 46 months beginning this year and continuing to 2017. The agency is hosting a Proposers’ Day at the Executive Conference Center, Arlington, Virginia, on April 10, 2013, to familiarize potential participants with the PPAML’s technical objectives. Interested organizations must register by 5 p.m. on April 5, 2013. A DARPA special notice document describing the specific capabilities the agency is interested in is available online.

 

NASA Tests Biofuels for Environmental Effects, Performance

March 15, 2013
By Max Cacas

NASA is in the midst of its first phase of flight tests to determine the effects of alternative biofuels on the emissions and performance of jet engines flying at altitude.

The program is called the Alternative Fuel Effects on Contrails and Cruise Emissions, or ACCESS, according to Dr. Ruben Del Rosario, project manager of NASA’s Subsonic Fixed Wing project. The goal is to investigate how biofuels perform compared with traditional jet fuel and also to measure the environmental impact of biofuels. The results of the tests are significant because of the growing popularity of biofuels for both the U.S. Air Force and Navy as well as private sector aviation.

During the ACCESS tests, the space agency’s highly modified Douglas DC-8, which normally is used as a flying laboratory, will conduct a series of flights at altitudes as high as 40,000 feet, while a NASA Falcon HU-25 aircraft follows behind at distances of between 300 feet and more than 10 miles, according to Del Rosario. The flights will take place primarily over restricted airspace over Edwards Air Force Base in California.

ACCESS is the outgrowth of earlier preliminary research on biofuels and jets. “It was born out of two previous experiments that we conducted in 2009 and 2011 at NASA’s Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility,” Del Rosario explains. During those tests, ground-based instruments measured the exhaust emissions of the DC-8 while the plane was parked on a ramp at the Palmdale, California, facility.

“During the ground tests, we took very detailed emission measurements, measuring CO2 [carbon dioxide], different oxides, different particulates, measuring sulfur, all the different kind of emissions we could possibly measure with many other companies and institutions joining us, as well,” Del Rosario says.

A New Chip Thinks Like a Brain

March 1, 2013
By Max Cacas

An Army research team develops a device that could assist warfighters' decision making.

A U.S. Army scientist and his colleagues, working in the nascent field of neural computing and quantum physics, have earned a patent for a powerful quantum neural dynamics computer chip. The device, which has been tested in a laboratory, and the advanced mathematical computations that make it work may lead one day to powerful devices that could help warfighters sift through huge datasets of information and make important tactical decisions in the field. The chip also holds promise for civilian applications requiring the rapid analysis of big data, and it could represent a bridge to the next generation of computing.

“The patent covers different ways to make computer chips,” states Ron Meyers, a computer scientist with the Army Research Laboratory (ARL) who is the principal investigator for the neural chip project. “We developed a type of mathematics that allows for quick function-changing and also emulates some of the processes of neural intelligence that the human brain uses. We combined those together, and we made a new type of computer chip that incorporates those functions. It’s qualitatively different. It doesn’t do the same kinds of computations as traditional computer chips.”

The chip, and its underlying operating system based on newly developed mathematical formulas, will make possible faster and more powerful computers. “We’re talking about the ability to compute that exceeds exponentially millions of times greater than any of the computers that exist today or are on the drawing boards using conventional approaches,” Meyers explains.

Cloud Industry Group Issues Mobile Computing Guidelines

March 1, 2013
By Max Cacas

When it comes to popular smartphones and tablets, security can be a many-layered and necessary endeavor

The growing use of advanced mobile devices, coupled with the increase in wireless broadband speed, is fueling demand by employees to bring their own devices to the job. This situation has opened a new set of security challenges for information technology staff, especially when it comes to the use of apps.

As the popularity and capability of mobile devices expands, standards are necessary to ensure that personal devices can function securely on enterprise networks. To address this need, the Cloud Security Alliance (CSA) organized its Mobile Working Group last year. The group recently released guidance to members on how enterprise administrators can successfully integrate smartphones and tablets into their work environment. The CSA is a not-for-profit organization of industry representatives focused on information assurance in the cloud computing industry.

Two-in-One Unmanned Aircraft

February 25, 2013
By George I. Seffers

U.S. Navy technology may allow in-flight conversion from helicopter to fixed wing.

Researchers at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory are developing unmanned aircraft technology that will allow the conversion from a vertical take-off and landing system to a fixed-wing craft during in-flight operation. The conversion capability will provide the take-off and landing flexibility of a helicopter with the longer range, higher speeds and lower wear and tear of an airplane.

The technology demonstrator is referred to as the Stop-Rotor Rotary Wing Aircraft. It is capable of cruising at about 100 knots, weighs less than 100 pounds and can carry a 25-pound intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) or electronic warfare payload, such as the Expendable, Mobile Anti-submarine warfare Training Target (EMATT). “We decided to do a demonstration vehicle that could carry an EMATT. It’s like a little submarine that can generate sonar signals, and it’s for training anti-submarine warfare operators,” explains Steven Tayman, an aerospace engineer at the Naval Research Laboratory. “It’s a neat payload.”

The unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) includes a removable payload bay that is about 12 inches wide, 38 inches long and six inches deep with “bomb bay doors” for dropping payloads, such as sonobuoys. “You could use a UAV to deploy a sonobuoy field, which would be pretty exciting,” Tayman says. “There’s really no limit to the payload other than volume.”

Johns Hopkins Laboratory Awarded Research and Development Contract

February 19, 2013
George I. Seffers

The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHU/APL), Laurel, Md., is being awarded a five-year, sole source, cost-plus-fixed-fee, indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity, task order contract for research, development, engineering, and test and evaluation for programs throughout the Defense Department. The maximum ceiling amount is $2,296,583,964 for up to 11,964,743 staff hours of research and development in the core competency areas approved for JHU/APL by the department, which include: strategic systems test and evaluation; submarine security and survivability; space science and engineering; combat systems and guided missiles; theater air defense and power projection; and information technology; simulation, modeling, and operations analysis. This contract includes an option for an additional five years, which requires separate review and approval by assistant secretary of the Navy (research development and acquisition) and assistant secretary of defense (research and evaluation), which, if exercised, would bring the cumulative maximum ceiling value of the contract to $4,904,853,263 for up to 23,929,486 staff hours. Naval Sea Systems Command, Washington, D.C., is the contracting activity on behalf of the Defense Department.

Liquid Metal Research Makes Wires That Stretch and Self-Repair

February 4, 2013
by Max Cacas

Imagine a wire that can stretch eight to 10 times its original length and still send crystal clear audio from your music player to your earphones, or imagine accidentally cutting a cable to a tactical radio and repairing the cut just by physically putting the wires back together.

Those are just two of the many possible products that could result from materials science research now underway at North Carolina State University under the direction of Dr. Michael Dickey, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the university.

Both scientific developments are the result of separate but related avenues of scientific research into advanced materials, explains Dickey, who says much of the work has been conducted by graduate and undergraduate students. “They’re related in the sense that we’ve used some common materials, but they are two different projects,” he says.

“Both ideas are almost embarassingly simple,” Dickey goes on to relate. “What we’ve done is taken the architecture of a conventional wire, which is a metal core surrounded by a plastic casing, and we’ve done two things. We’ve replaced the plastic casing with an elastomeric polymer that’s more like a rubber band, so it's stretchable, and then for the core of the wire, we use a special liquid metal alloy.”

That alloy, made up of gallium and indium, is a liquid at room temperature but has a unique characteristic. “We can shape it because there’s an oxide ‘skin’ that forms on the metal. The best analogy I can use is a waterbed, which, in the absence of a plastic casing, would be a big puddle.”

NASA Leverages 
Video Game
 Technology for Robots and Rovers

February 11, 2013
By Max Cacas

Earthbound technologies and computer programming that make most popular video games possible are driving development of the remote-controlled robots now in use by NASA in the unmanned exploration of Mars and the solar system. Those improvements in both hardware and software also spur innovation in the next generation of robots envisioned for use by government and industry. That is important because NASA recently has proposed a new, multiyear program of sending robot explorers to Mars, culminating in the launch of another large scientific rover in the year 2020.

“The technologies and the software that the video game industry has developed for rendering data, scenes, terrain—many of the same visualization techniques and technologies are infiltrating into the kinds of software that we use for controlling spacecraft,” according to Jeff Norris, manager of the Planning and Execution Systems Section with NASA’S Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. In a similar way, joysticks and gaming consoles such as the Microsoft XBox Kinect are examples of gaming technology hardware that have functional analogues in the systems used to control robotic spacecraft.

Researchers Organize to 
Share Data, Speed Innovation

February 1, 2013
By Max Cacas

To meet the challenge of implementing big data, a new international scientific organization is forming to facilitate the sharing of research data and speed the pace of innovation. The group, called the Research Data Alliance, will comprise some of the top computer experts from around the world, representing all scientific disciplines.

Managing the staggering and constantly growing amount of information that composes big data is essential to the future of innovation. The U.S. delegation to the alliance’s first plenary session, being held next month in Switzerland, is led by Francine Berman, a noted U.S. computer scientist, with backing from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Meeting the challenges of how to harness big data is what makes organizing and starting the Research Data Alliance (RDA) so exciting, Berman says. “It has a very specific niche that is very complementary to a wide variety of activities. In the Research Data Alliance, what we’re aiming to do is create really tangible outcomes that drive data sharing, open access, research data sharing and exchange,” all of which, she adds, are vital to data-driven innovation in the academic, public and private sectors. The goal of the RDA is to build what she calls “coordinated pieces of infrastructure” that make it easier and more reasonable for people to share, exchange and discover data.

“It’s really hard to imagine forward innovation without getting a handle around the data issues,” emphasizes Berman, the U.S. leader of the RDA Council, who, along with colleagues from Australia and the European Union, is working to organize the alliance. Ross Wilkinson, executive director of the Australian National Data Service, and John Wood, secretary-general of the Association of Commonwealth Universities in London, are the other members of the council.

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