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solar carsSummer 2015 Sessions Canceled
Due to reorganization the Tech Academy of Silicon Valley will NOT be hosting academy classes this summer 2015. Thank you for your patronage and support after all these years.

—Deborah and Eleanore Pinson

Tech Academy
The Tech Academy continues its introductory course (TECH I) with a multi-week schedule. TECH I will be two weeks of full day classes (with a supervised hour for lunch). This provides the opportunity to explore a wider range of material in a relatively quick, but comfortable span of time.

Teamwork, in TECH I courses, is a major component of the hands-on projects. Two to three students compose a team, and each student is a stakeholder in the team's project. These small groups facilitate discussion, division and accomplishment of significant tasks, and verbal reporting of progress and test results.

We also realize the full day format offers an opportunity to expand the hands-on model of introducing engineering to new topic areas. All students taking TECH I will experience the basics of defining problems, then designing and testing solutions, but will have focus in each class in a different area of Energy, Water and Machinery, or High Technology. We believe that within a two-week session, students will have a more enriching experience while still having “inspirational fun” in this new environment.

Teen Tech Awards
You may soon never miss another call while charging cell phone batteries, thanks to Eesha Khare of Lynbrook High School in Saratoga, California. The 18-year-old invented a device that can recharge cell phone batteries in as few as 30 seconds. Her invention won her a Young Scientist Award at the 2013 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair

Khare's device is a supercapacitor, in a black, rectangular package about an inch long—packing a large amount of energy in a tiny capsule. The technology may also have applications for recharging car batteries in a relatively short time.

The award includes a $50,000 prize which will help pay for Khare’s education at Harvard University.

The co-winner of a Young Scientist Award was Henry Lin of Shreveport, Louisiana. To help scientists "better understand the mysteries of astrophysics: dark matter, dark energy and the balance of heating and cooling in the universe's most massive objects," he created a computer-simulation of “thousands of clusters of galaxies".

The top ISEF award went to Ionut Budisteanu of Romania, for his virtual model of a low-cost autonomous vehicle, developed through artificial intelligence. In receiving the Gordon E. Moore Award, Budistineau received a $75,000 prize.

Consider donating to help inspire the next generation of engineers


The Cutting Edge of Robotics
By the end of the 20th century, movies like Blade Runner and Terminator had fired the general public’s minds about, respectively, robots that looked almost indistinguishable from humans, and more futuristic machines that had conquered human beings and ruled the earth. Both were chilling, thrilling science fiction, and perhaps say as much about what makes us human as they do about our technology.

In 2014, the state of robotics does not reflect either movie scenario, but is in rapid growth, with engineers working across disciplines achieving amazing robotic capabilities. Although much of the work is funded through U.S. military research, other industries are on the leading edge in making machines “more human”. Here are some of the technologies with breakthrough potential, and some of the remaining deep challenges remaining in robotics engineering:

Military & hazardous duty
Need a robot that moves like a human for military work? PETMAN is Boston Dynamics’ answer, through funding from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. PETMAN stands for Protection Ensemble Test Mannequin, and is a test-bed for protective clothing in hazardous environments. PETMAN is not autonomous, but is cabled for power and hydraulics.

Hydraulics are key to the capabilities of a rescue robot named the Battlefield Extraction-Assist Robot (BEAR). Remotely-controlled, BEAR is designed to rescue injured soldiers in hazardous situations without risk to another human. It can carry objects up to 520-pounds over rough terrain, sensing its way via cameras, with night vision, or by infrared.  Vecna Technologies has also given BEAR batteries and treads that are resistant to fire and explosion, as well as the fine touch of handling an egg without breaking it.

If speed and agility are the criteria, a robot called Cheetah by Boston Dynamics can already outrace the speediest human. Usain Bolt holds the sprint record at 27.78 mph, and Cheetah has been clocked at 28.3 in tests for the Department of Defense.

Another stand-in for people in high-risk situations like nuclear meltdowns, is the nearly six foot tall Atlas, which weighs more than 325 pounds, and has 28 hydraulic joints in its head, torso, arms and legs. Its on-board computer has environmental cognizance through an array of sensors, guiding it to walk, grab, climb a ladder, drive a car, and other tasks. The operating environment is extended to long range by mapping through lasers. Search and rescue is its designed role. In trials, Atlas has shown it can balance on one leg after being hit with a 20-pound weight, something most of us humans couldn’t do.

NASA and General Motors combined in 2011 to put Robonaut 2 aboard the International Space Station, where the torso-only machine started by flipping switches. In 2014, Robonaut is scheduled to get legs and a battery pack for increased maneuverability. Robots in space are less susceptible to radiation and require only electricity, instead of air, water and food, unlike humans.

Flying Robots
SmartBird is a flying robot takes is the closest yet to realizing Leonardo DaVinci’s dream of imitating a bird’s propulsion. Festo has made SmartBird with the capability to flap its wings and move virtually silently. This ability may take its applications down the path of stealth and security.

Amazon recently unveiled its development of delivery quad-copters for small packages. Questions abound over whether the FAA would approve them to share the skies with light aircraft, potential privacy issues for “drones” equipped with cameras, and over limitations imposed by trees, power lines and densely-populated areas. Still, quad-copters are proving to be an inexpensive tool for autonomous flight, as well as a hobby item for capturing remarkable video images.

Humanlike Robots
Human beings can walk erect, at varied paces, over diverse terrain, uphill and downhill and across the face of a hill. Robots are learning to master our movements in an evolutionary rather than revolutionary process. Honda’s Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility robot (ASIMO), having taken its lumps navigating real-world environments, is the public ambassador of not only mobility, but also of interaction. ASIMO can interact with humans by sensing postures, gestures, sounds, and faces – being able to turn to face a human entering a room and shake hands as a reflex.

In Japan, the HRP-4C Miim is imitating the swinging gait of human legs, and has advanced from ‘baby steps’ to long strides. This android also recognizes faces, speech, and ambient noises. The National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, “Miim‘s” maker has chronicled for researchers interested in the complex math of such motion, the robot’s efforts, in a paper “Human-Like Walking with Toe Supporting for Humanoids.”
Small steps are what Paris-based Aldebaran Robotics has produced for Nao, a tabletop robot used globally as a teaching aid in schools and companies. NAO has been created with an ability to recognize and learn facial and body language, enabling it to form an attachment to people it sees most. This perception allows NAO to mimic the way young children learn emotions—whether by watching teachers or by trial-and-error.

If modeling robotics after humans, the greatest compliment may be due Terasem Movement‘s BINA48, modeled after the co-founder of Terasem’s wife, Bina Rothblatt.  David Hanson created and programmed BINA48, spending more than 100 hours assembling the thoughts, emotions, memories and feelings of its human predecessor to upload into the robot. As this machine spends time with people, its knowledge base grows, it makes decisions based on experience and it can converse, using Bina’s mannerisms when it does.

Robotics researchers have discovered humans can be squeamish interacting with robots intended but failing to convince us of humanlike qualities. Digging deeper into that realm, University of Pisa scientists are working with a robot named FACE. Thanks to studies of the complexity of human expression, this machine can mimic a wide range of emotions – from amazement, indifference, and fear to happiness, sadness and disgust. FACE additionally expresses subtlety falling between these emotions. That subtlety is in part due to a battery of 32 motors replicating key points of movement in human expressions. Among the projections for FACE’s use is teaching autistic children to understand mood through recognition of facial expressions.

Other Robot bits
Thinking out of … errr… in the box, MIT researchers have created M-Blocks—metal cubes powered by flywheels for movement. These cubes feature magnetic properties, enabling them to stick together and form basic structures. The Cubli goes one step further. Developed by ETH Zurich the Cubli robot cube not only moves using flywheels, but it can balance on one corner.

Cubli, just less than six inches per side, is a framework housing three brushless motors powering momentum wheels, one for each axis of motion. The motor controllers and inertial sensors are all linked to a microprocessor, which can maintain balance, or shift momentum to rotate or move, by controlling falls in given directions. The aim right now for such a device is to give robots a greater sense of balance and mobility as they explore other planets.

Just shy of full autonomy is the notion of the human mind directly controlling a robot. Through an electrode-filled swim-cap, a human can now control the robot “Morpheus” through commands given as thoughts. Human controllers at the University of Washington have experienced a success rate of up to 94 percent, all via the scalp interface. The developer’s aim for Morpheus will be able to provide rescue capability as well as companionship to humans.

In summation, engineering is tackling a remarkable number of robotics challenges in terms of mechanical “framing”, artificial intelligence and complex multiple-processor capabilities, and making inroads on dynamic problems like balance, flexible responses and speed. There remains a greater frontier in fundamental components – critical technologies such as batteries, servos, and electric motors that must evolve to make robots strong yet fluid and even more adaptable. And the multidisciplinary approaches of bioengineering are already at work in these areas.

Social Media Gone Wild—Aussie swimmers warned by #Chomp
Australian government researchers have attached acoustic transmitters to 338 sharks off Australia’s west coast. The devices ping off an automatic alert on the Surf Live Saving Western Australia’s Twitter feed when they come in proximity of a beachfront receiver.  So when a tagged shark is in the danger zone, its transmitter broadcasts the shark’s size, species and location.

Since 2012, shark attacks have claimed six people in Western Australia. This new alert system using Twitter technology is an automated version of one in South Africa that relies on human shark-spotters tweeting their observations.

The technology isn’t foolproof, as not all sharks will be tagged, and an alert doesn’t necessarily mean there will be an attack, as many beaches worldwide have sharks loitering much of the time.

Hopes are this early warning system will save lives—and not just human lives. The researchers also hope that lessening the possibility of attacks on people will dampen desires to hunt such predators in beach regions. Australia has a new shark-killing program aiming to keep beaches safe.