Archive for December, 2008


December 16th, 2008 by Gene

Photo courtesy


We humans think we’re pretty smart. Sometimes we can use help from the animals. Animalbots, today on Engineering Works!
Many – maybe most – robots in use today have a big problem. They work fine in the lab or on a factory floor. But when you try to move them out into the real world, they get into trouble.
Engineers are finding that animals can give them valuable suggestions on how to make robots that work.
The idea is not that the new robots look like animals or solve problems the same way, but that they do the same things. It’s a big difference. For instance, a robot designed to move like a crab uses only four motors to control each leg. Engineers had expected they’d have to use 18 motors because crabs use 18 muscles to move each leg. Four is simpler and accomplishes the same thing.
Likewise, most robots depend on high-powered computer processing and arrays of sensors to understand and deal with the environment around them. Animal-inspired robots often use a simpler approach. When a sophisticated robot gets into a tight place, its computer tries to figure out what’s going on and what to do about it. When animals get into tight places, they don’t think much. They keep wiggling and squirming and eventually they get out.
Animalbots do the same thing. They just keep moving until they get free.
You can’t see us, but we’re starting to wiggle. Time to go. We’ll see you later.
Engineering Works! is made possible by Texas A&M Engineering and produced by KAMU-FM in College Station. Learn more about engineering. Visit us on the World Wide Web.

Marine energy

December 2nd, 2008 by Gene

Photo: Konrad Mostert


Engineers are getting serious about another green way to generate electricity. Green and wet. Waves and tides. Today. On Engineering Works!

Walk along the beach and watch the ocean. There’s a lot of power out there. Just ask the people whose beachfront houses get washed away in big storms. Engineers are looking hard at using that power to generate electricity.

It’s not a new idea. Prototypes of wave-power generators have been around for 100 years. But people have only started to get serious about it since the reality of global warming started to sink in.
The idea is simple. Anything that moves can power a generator. Water in the ocean moves, all the time. It’s easy to predict how that water will move, next week or next year. We can predict how tides will move in bays and rivers – several years ahead. And satellite images can tell us several days ahead of time how high the waves will be.

Engineers are already testing wave and tide-powered turbines. A turbine on the bottom of New York City’s East River already provides enough electricity to run a nearby grocery store and parking garage. A generator buoy bouncing in the waves off the Oregon coast is being tested, too. Engineers estimate that eventually, 300 buoys could provide power for almost 40,000 homes. Turbines in the Gulf Stream could provide electricity for more than 100,000 homes.

Our tide has turned and we’re leaving. See you next time.

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