MIT Makes Washable LED Fabric

Let’s face it, one of the challenges of wearable electronics is that people are filthy. Anything you wear is going to get dirty. If it touches you, it is going to get sweat and oil and who knows what else? And on the other side it’s going to get spills and dirt and all sorts of things we don’t want to think about on it. For regular clothes, that’s not a problem, you just pop them in the washer, but you can’t say the same for wearable electronics. Now researchers at MIT have embedded diodes like LEDs and photodetectors, into a soft fabric that is washable.

Traditionally, fibers start as a larger preform that is drawn into the fiber while heated. The researchers added tiny diodes and very tiny copper wires to the preform. As the preform is drawn, the fiber’s polymer keeps the solid materials connected and in the center. The polymer protects the electronics from water and the team was able to successfully launder fabric made with these fibers ten times.

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Cheetah 3 Is Learning To Move Blindly Before Learning To See

Stand up right now and walk around for a minute. We’re pretty sure you didn’t see everywhere you stepped nor did you plan each step meticulously according to visual input. So why should robots do the same? Wouldn’t your robot be more versatile if it could use its vision to plan a path, but leave most of the walking to the legs with the help of various sensors and knowledge of joint positions?

That’s the approach [Sangbae Kim] and a team of researchers at MIT are taking with their Cheetah 3. They’ve given it cameras but aren’t using them yet. Instead, they’re making sure it can move around blind first. So far they have it walking, running, jumping and even going up stairs cluttered with loose blocks and rolls of tape.

Cheetah 3 jumping 30 inches onto a desk
Jumping 30 inches onto a desk

Two algorithms are at the heart of its being able to move around blind.

The first is a contact detection algorithm which decides if the legs should transition between a swing or a step based on knowledge of the joint positions and data from gyroscopes and accelerometers. If it tilted unexpectedly due to stepping on a loose block then this is the algorithm which decides what the legs should do.

The second is a model-predictive algorithm. This predicts what force a leg should apply once the decision has been made to take a step. It does this by calculating the multiplicative positions of the robot’s body and legs a half second into the future. These calculations are done 20 times a second. They’re what help it handle situations such as when someone shoves it or tugs it on a leash. The calculations enabled it to regain its balance or continue in the direction it was headed.

There are a number of other awesome features of this quadruped robot which we haven’t seen in others such as Boston Dynamics’ SpotMini like invertible knee joints and walking on three legs. Check out those features and more in the video below.

Of course, SpotMini has a whole set of neat features of its own. Let’s just say that while they look very similar, they’re on two different evolutionary paths. And the Cheetah certainly has evolved since we last looked at it a few years ago.

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Extracting Water from Fog

Most of us take it for granted that water is as close as your kitchen tap. But that’s not true everywhere. Two scientists at MIT have a new method for harvesting water from fog, especially fog released from cooling towers such as those found from power plants. It turns out, harvesting water from fog isn’t a new idea. You typically insert a mesh into the air and collect water droplets from the fog. The problem is with a typical diameter of 10 microns, the water droplets mostly miss the mesh, meaning they typically extract no more than 2% of the water content in the air.

The team found two reasons for the low efficiency. Water clogs the mesh openings which can be somewhat mitigated by using coated meshes that shed water quickly. Even in the lab that only increases the yield to about 10%. The bigger problem, though, is basically only some of the droplets hit the mesh, and even those that do may not stick because of drag. Fine meshes can help but are harder to make and have low structural integrity. Their solution? Inject ions into the fog to charge the water droplets and impart the opposite charge on the mesh.

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Modular Blocks Help Fight Disease

When engineering a solution to a problem, an often-successful approach is to keep the design as simple as possible. Simple things are easier to produce, maintain, and use. Whether you’re building a robot, operating system, or automobile, this type of design can help in many different ways. Now, researchers at MIT’s Little Devices Lab have taken this philosophy to testing for various medical conditions, using a set of modular blocks.

Each block is designed for a specific purpose, and can be linked together with other blocks. For example, one block may be able to identify Zika virus, and another block could help determine blood sugar levels. By linking the blocks together, a healthcare worker can build a diagnosis system catered specifically for their needs. The price tag for these small, simple blocks is modest as well: about $0.015, or one and a half cents per block. They also don’t need to be refrigerated or handled specially, and some can be reused.

This is an impressive breakthrough that is poised to help not only low-income people around the world, but anyone with a need for quick, accurate medical diagnoses at a marginal cost. Keeping things simple and modular allows for all kinds of possibilities, as we recently covered in the world of robotics.

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Modular Robotics: When You Want More Robots in Your Robot

While robots have been making our lives easier and our assembly lines more efficient for over half a century now, we haven’t quite cracked a Jetsons-like general purpose robot yet. Sure, Boston Dynamics and MIT have some humanoid robots that are fun to kick and knock over, but they’re far from building a world-ending Terminator automaton.

But not every robot needs to be human-shaped in order to be general purpose. Some of the more interesting designs being researched are modular robots. It’s an approach to robotics which uses smaller units that can combine into assemblies that accomplish a given task.

We’ve been immersing ourselves in topics like this one because right now the Robotics Module Challenge is the current focus of the Hackaday Prize. We’re looking for any modular designs that make it easier to build robots — motor drivers, sensor arrays, limb designs — your imagination is the limit. But self contained robot modules that themselves make up larger robots is a fascinating field that definitely fits in with this challenge. Join me for a look at where modular robots are now, and where we’d like to see them going.

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AlterEgo Listens to Your Internal Voice

Recent news reports have claimed that an MIT headset can read your mind, but as it turns out that’s a little bit of fake news. There is a headset — called AlterEgo — but it doesn’t actually read your mind. Rather, it measures subtle cues of you silently vocalizing words. We aren’t sure exactly how that works, but the FAQ claims it is similar to how you experience reading as a child.

If you read much science fiction, you probably recognize this as subvocalization, which has been under study by the Army and NASA. However, from what we know, the positioning of sensor electrodes is crucial and can vary not only by speaker, but also change for the same speaker. Perhaps the MIT device has found a way around that problem. You can see a video of the system, below.

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Coaxing Water From Desert Air

From the windtraps and stillsuits of Dune’s Arrakis, to the moisture vaporators of Tatooine, science fiction has invented fantastic ways to collect the water necessary for life on desert worlds. On Earth we generally have an easier go of it, but water supply in arid climates is still an important issue. Addressing this obstacle, a team of researchers from MIT and the University of California at Berkeley have developed a method to tease moisture out of thin air.

A year after the team first published their idea, they have successfully field-tested their method on an Arizona State University rooftop in Tempe, proving the concept and the potential for scaling up the technology. The device takes advantage of metal-organic framework(MOF) materials with high surface area that are able to trap moisture in air with as little as 10% humidity — even at sub-zero dewpoints. Dispensing with the need for power-hungry refrigeration techniques to condense moisture, this technique instead relies on the heat of the sun — although low-grade heat sources are also a possibility.

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