Archive for June, 2007

Robot Birdwatcher

June 26th, 2007 by Gene

Some ideas are good and some are for the birds. We’ll check out one that’s both. Today. On Engineering Works!

Everybody knows what a robin looks like. Or a sparrow. But you’ve probably never seen an ivory-billed woodpecker. You’re not alone. They’re supposed to have gone extinct in the 1930s or 1940s. But a couple of years ago, a birdwatcher claimed he saw one in northeastern Arkansas. That got bird experts squawking.

If it was a real ivory-billed woodpecker and not its cousin, the common pileated woodpecker, it’s a big deal. Finding out for sure is going to be tough. The area the elusive bird hides out in is wild and swampy and hard to get around in.

Enter the engineers, with a nifty idea — special high-resolution video cameras and computers that will recognize a bird when it flies in front of the lens. Set up the cameras in places ivory-billed woodpeckers are likely to be found, turn them on and come back every so often to collect the images. A lot easier than splashing through the swamp.

What makes the idea worthwhile is that software loaded into the computers knows what a bird looks like and gets rid of everything that doesn’t look like a bird. That makes scanning the images easier and faster than if the experts had to wade through everything that passed in front of the cameras.

It’s about time for us to fly on out of here. See you later.

EngineeringWorks! is made possible by Texas A&M Engineering and produced by KAMU FM in College Station. We’re on the World Wide Web, too. Visit us at

Light bulbs

June 22nd, 2007 by Gene


How many engineers does it take to make a better light bulb? We’ll find out today on Engineering Works.

The round incandescent light bulb we all know hasn’t changed much since Thomas Edison invented it 125 years ago. Thin wires, called filaments, inside the glass bulb glow when electricity zips through them. That glow gives us light to see by. But there’s a hitch. Only about a tenth of that energy gives us light. The rest just heats the bulb so we can burn our fingers. Ouch!

Fluorescent lights – those long tubes that light offices and other commercial spaces – appeared in 1938. Instead of filaments, fluorescent tubes are filled with a gas that glows when electricity passes through it. They’re lots more efficient.

Fluorescent lights are cool. Really. They don’t get hot, and they need just one-fourth the energy incandescent bulbs need to produce the same amount of light. And fluorescent bulbs last 10 times longer than incandescent ones. They had problems, though. They didn’t fit a lot of places regular light bulbs did. And they hummed.

Then, compact fluorescent lamps entered the picture in the 1980s. They solved a lot of the problems regular fluorescents had: they screw into regular light sockets; they’re small enough to fit most places a conventional bulb will fit; they don’t hum; and they’re as stingy with the energy they use as regular fluorescent bulbs.

Guess it’s time to turn out the lights for today.

Engineering Works! is made possible by Texas A&M Engineering and produced at KAMU-FM in College Station. Visit us on the Web at


June 6th, 2007 by Gene

Listen to the episode

It’s like something out of Star Wars – a tiny satellite that keeps a close-up eye on orbiting spacecraft. We’ll take a look, too – today on Engineering Works!

One of the big problems with flying spacecraft into orbit is that astronauts can’t see very well what’s going on outside. That could be why the space shuttle Columbia was lost in 2003. Nobody knew that a piece of foam had damaged tiles that were supposed to protect the shuttle from re-entry heat.

Even before that, NASA engineers were working on a miniature satellite that could give future astronauts a clearer view of what’s going on outside their spacecraft. The satellite is about the size of a volleyball and weighs about 10 pounds.

Tiny xenon gas engines will move it from place to place outside the space shuttle or the International Space Station. It will use camera-on-a-chip imagers to see what’s going on and a global positioning system, or GPS, will help controllers keep track of where it is.

The computer control system is based on a microprocessor from a Power PC computer. Its designers expect that it’ll even be able to launch and refuel itself. And either astronauts in orbit or ground controllers will be able to fly the satellite into position.

The pint-sized satellite also should help astronauts working on the International Space Station inspect the outside of the orbiter without having to make a space walk to do it.

Our orbit is taking us out of range. See you later.

Image courtesy of NASA/ Johnson Space Center