May 31, 2012

The following blog was inspired by an article written by Ann R. Thryft.   Ann is the senior technical editor for Materials and Assembly for Design News.  This is a marvelous magazine that highlights engineering efforts underway and making news on a daily basis.  The photographs were also taken from that article.

I have a fascination with robotic systems that can perform functions emulating human beings and various animals.   There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that “homo sapiens” are the most complicated organisms on our planet.   An electromechanical device capable of performing functions hazardous and unsafe for humans would necessarily be patterned after subjects who can get the job done—namely us.   There are also certain capabilities animals have that definitely apply to the performance of some functions.     Let’s now take a look several research and development efforts specifically patterned after “lesser creatures”.


The Multi-Appendage Robotic System (MARS) from Virginia Tech’s Robotics & Mechanisms Laboratory looks like a giant spider with six legs instead of eight. Fabricated out of carbon fiber and aluminum, the robot’s legs are spaced axi-symmetrically around its body, which lets it walk omni-directionally. Each leg uses a proximal joint with two degrees of freedom and a distal joint with one degree of freedom for added strength and rigidity. The goal is to develop a walking gait system for negotiating terrain with variations in height.   Changing elevations has always been a considerable impediment to robotic systems relative to continued motion.  The system is based on simplified biological neuron networks, arranged in sub networks and subsystems to support the operation of another neural network: a central pattern generator (CPG) that generates gait patterns based on feedback from all supporting systems.  .    I think it’s a little scary what these things can do.  I certainly understand the need to go where human health and safety would be compromised but I’m a little nervous relative to the more clandestine possibilities.  Remember the movie “Minority Report” and the “bots” used to search for the hero (Tom Cruise)?   He’s lying there in the tub, under water, to avoid these pesky little devices that will certainly cause his capture and possible death.  (OK so I’m paranoid!)  The mechanical aspects represent just how far engineering has come and how successful y we have mastered emulating “moving things”.  I am also fascinated that programming can make these things do what is needed.   This “spider” robot reminds me of that movie.  It certainly appears that fact has caught with fiction.   (Source: Virginia Polytechnic and State University)



The Massachusetts Institute of Technology‘s Inchworm (shown above) moves like a caterpillar by flexing and extending itself. Electromagnets at each end of its body provide the anchoring force. Developed by a team at the Distributed Robotics Laboratory of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, the Inchworm can climb vertical steel walls or crawl across a steel ceiling by using the electromagnets to attach itself to surfaces. It can also navigate autonomously in unknown environments by making transitions between surfaces. Its stepping gait for straight-line motion consists of four phases: attach the back foot, extend the front foot, attach the front foot, contract the back foot. While navigating, it can also push and pull objects.    Of course the effectiveness is negated when the device tries to move over a surface that is not metallic in nature.  This represents the fact that it has been designed for a very specific purpose.    (Source: Massachusetts Institute of Technology)


Some winged robots are designed to work in swarms, such as the MonolithicBee, or MoBee, from Harvard University’s Microrobotics Lab. This lab focuseson creating high-performance aerial and ambulatory microrobots and soft robots inspired by biological models. The robots can be used for exploring hazardous environments, search-and-rescue operations, environmental monitoring, and assisting agriculture. The MoBee, which is about the size of a housefly, is made from custom hardware. It is part of the RoboBees Project funded by the National Science Foundation for mimicking the behavior of a bee colony and adapting to changing environments.   The most fascinating fact, at least to me, is the very small size and how engineers and manufacturers fashion the individual component parts to assemble the device.  Please look at the JPEG above and notice the comparison with the quarter it sits on.  Truly marvelous engineering from the guys at Harvard.   (Source: Harvard University)

The University of California, Berkeley’s Biomimetics Millisystems Laboratory has designed two small winged robots: the Dynamic Autonomous Sprawled Hexapod (DASH), a cockroach-like robot with wings added to boost ground locomotion, and the flying Bipedal Ornithopter for Locomotion Transitioning (BOLT), shown below. The BOLT, a 13-gram ornithopter, is based on the lab’s OctoROACH, also inspired by a cockroach. The BOLT uses its flapping wings to provide passive stability when running at up to 2.5m/sec while maintaining ground contact, as well as for flying. This lets it travel over a variety of difficult environments for surveillance or search-and-rescue operations.   (Source: University of California, Berkeley)

These systems are important and fascinating because they represent research underway to advance “state-of-the -art” for robotic systems and fulfill definiteneeds—very definite needs.   Each system was developed for a specific purpose but all represent the ability to remove an individual from harms way.    Most of the effort is funded by the DOD or DARPA but the results have definite possibilities for law enforcement also.  Used properly, lives and property could save the agony of personal injury and reduce unnecessary liability.  Another huge benefit necessary to these programs is the development of software and mathematical algorithms required to drive systems such as the ones shown above.   We are a long way from “terminator-type” devices but we probably do not wish to go there anyway.  I certainly hope you enjoyed this very brief summary and have gotten some idea as to where we are relative to robotic systems.  Exciting work is continuing and I’m sure by this time next year remarkable advances will have taken place.



Last week my wife and I visited our youngest son now living in Dallas, Texas.  (It’s really nice to have them gainfully employed and off the “payroll”.)    He is an MIS graduate from the University of Georgia and works for AT&T in their 401K area as a quality control specialist.   Monday was a tough day for him with multiple meetings so we decided to take the day and visit Dallas Cowboy Stadium.   Let me mention right now that I am a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and I went only to observe and not to praise.  The stadium is located in Arlington about forty-five minutes west of Dallas.   Fairly easy drive even with traffic.   I was not disappointed.  It is an absolutely fabulous stadium.  The architecture is stunning; the engineering is remarkable.  I’m not saying it is one of the ten wonders of the modern world, but maybe eleventh.  What I would like to do now is give you an engineer’s viewpoint relative to the structure with several observations along the way.   Let’s look at the stadium itself.

  The picture does not really do justice to the size or basic configuration.  By that I mean you cannot tell the walls are canted outward 14 degrees to enhance the mechanical design and support the massive movable panels located in the dome itself.   This structure replaced the Texas Stadium which opened in 1971 and served as the Cowboys’ home through the 2008 season.   The new stadium was completed on May 27, 2009 and seats 80,000, making it the third largest stadium in the NFL.  The maximum capacity, including standing room, is 110,000. The Party Pass (open areas) sections are behind seats in each end zone and on a series of six elevated platforms connected by stairways. The cost for “standing room only” is about $29.00 with sell-outs every game.   The original estimated cost to build the structure was $650 million dollars but the actual costs was $1.15 billion, making it one of the most expensive sports venues ever built.  The city of Arlington, the state of Texas and the NFL contributed to overall financing which made construction possible.      It is the largest domed stadium in the world, has the world’s largest column-free interior and the 2nd largest high definition video screen which hangs from 20 yard line to 20 yard line. The screen assembly is absolutely massive.  Our tour guide indicated that when the screen was positioned, the supporting beams dropped four inches due to the weight.  (The maximum calculated drop possible was eight inches.)   These screens hang ninety feet above the playing field.   Two video screens facing the sidelines each measure 72 feet high by 160 feet wide, roughly equivalent to 4,920 52-inch flat panel television screens.    LEDs serve as individual pixels for viewing and, of course, they all work in unison when operating.  That alone is an engineering marvel in my opinion. 

During a game with the Tennessee Titans, the very first year, the Tennessee kicker actually hit the screen during a forth-down punt.  This generated some concern but not enough to necessitate any real changes to elevation or positioning.   In addition to the magnificent screen, there are 3200 HD TVs located throughout the stadium for the benefit of the fans. 

The facility can also be used for a variety of other activities outside of its main purpose (professional football) such as concerts, basketball games, boxing matches, college football and high school football contests, soccer matches, and motocross races.  We were told that the previous week, there were three weddings, all on the fifty yard line and right on the Texas star.  That’s devotion.

Before we go much further, let’s give credit where credits due and look at the companies performing the work.  These are as follows:

General Contractor: Manhattan Construction, Dallas, Texas
Architect: HKS, Dallas, Texas
Structural Engineer: Walter P Moore & Assoc, Dallas, TX
Concrete Contractor: TXI Operations, LP, Dallas, Texas
Consulting Architect: Cooper Robertson & Partners, New York, NY
Contractor: Bencor Corporation of America, Dallas, TX
Contractor (steel): Desert Steel, Irving, Texas
General Contractor: 31 Construction, Dallas, Texas
Grouting/Millwrights: Derr Steel Erectors & GroutTech, Inc, Hurst, TX

You will note that all of the work, with one exception, was performed by firms within the state.  I personally think this is very admirable.  Now for interesting specifications:

Site Size: 135 Acres
Total Sq. Footage: 2.3 million
Project Est. Completion Date: June, 2009
Fixed Seating: 80,000 people
Total Capacity: 100,000 people
Total Yards, Concrete: 200,000 cu. yds.
Total Reinforced Steel: 21,000 tons
Size Moveable Roof: 661,000 sq. ft.
Ea. Mechanized Roof Panel: 63,000 sq. ft.
Ea. (2) Arched Roof Supports: 1224.5 ft. long x17 ft x 35ft
Max. Roof Height: 292 ft.
Arched Truss Weight (ea.): 3,255 tons
Video Score Board Size: 20,000 sq. ft.
Grouts Used On Arch Footers: L&M EPOGROUT 758
Total Epogrout 758 Used: 440 Cubic Feet (880 units)

The field you see below is actually three stories DOWN.  It’s subterranean.  96,000 truck loads of earth were removed prior to starting the foundation work.    Can you imagine the time it took to remove and haul that number of loads? 

The “carpet” is laid in ten yard widths with the yard-line markings stitched into the backing then adhered onto one inch open cell foam padding.  There is no “painting” on the surface at all—just stitched into the composite.  I thought this was very interesting.  If you look closely, you can see two stars in the picture.  One indicating the Cowboys’ locker room and one indicating the Cheerleader locker room.  The visiting team does not get a star to run through.   I might mention the wood used for the individual lockers is made from the same material as the wood trim in Ms. Jerry Jones’s Bentley.

The stadium’s 660,800-square-foot retractable roof can be open or closed, depending on weather conditions.  It takes 12 minutes to open or close each roof panel and the roof opening is visible from an elevation of five miles. The roof is supported by two enormous arches, soaring 292 feet and weighing 3,255 tons each.   Please go back and take a look at the first picture of the stadium and you can see the huge beams supporting the roof panels.   The roof isn’t the only thing that can be opened when the weather is nice. Cowboys Stadium has the largest retractable end zone doors in the world, measuring 120 feet high by 180 feet wide and made of glass.   You can see one end zone section below.                              

These doors allow entry for special events, such as “monster truck” demonstrations, motocross races, etc etc.

 I certainly recommend that if you are in the Dallas area you take a look at the Cowboy’s stadium.    We took the self-guided tour but there are audio tours and tour guides for visiting groups.  It truly is an engineering marvel.

I really don’t know who said it first but—“sometimes the only way you know where you are going is to take a look at where you are right now”.   There is a great deal of truth in this statement so I thought we might take a look at where we are relative to S & E (science and engineering).  Since this is not a subject that can be covered quickly, I am writing the first in a series of documents that will cover the following:

  • Overview of science and engineering—where we are now with conclusions as to where we need to go.
  • Current labor force relative to S & E professions.  This is a fairly broad look, but an important indicator as to where we are falling behind.
  • R & D trends (Global)
  • Public Attitude towards S & E professions.
  • State indicators.  What states within our Unites States provide the majority of trained S & E professionals and offer the greatest number of jobs.

This first effort is a brief overview of where we are now.  The next publications will follow during the month of May.   All of the information for each segment comes from the following publication:

 National Science Board—National Science Foundation, “Science and Engineering Indicators–2012”, required by 42 USC, Paragraph 1863(j) (1)

It is very important to note that—“Science and Engineering Indicators (SEI)” is first and foremost a volume of record comprising the major high-quality quantitative data on the U.S. and international science and engineering enterprise. SEI is factual and policy neutral. It does not offer policy options, and it does not make policy recommendations.  The data are “indicators.” Indicators are quantitative representations that might reasonably be thought to provide summary information bearing on the scope, quality, and vitality of the science and engineering enterprise. The indicators reported in SEI are intended to contribute to an understanding of the current environment and to inform the development of future policies.  All we are after here is to present the basic facts as they exist, without embellishment or fanfare.  Just the facts!   The overview focuses on the trend in the United States and many other parts of the world toward the development of more knowledge-intensive economies in which research, its commercial exploitation, and other intellectual work are of growing importance. Industry and government play key roles in these changes.  We primarily will be looking at knowledge-based economies and other intellectual work of growing importance on a global basis.  There is absolutely no doubt; those economies that have and continue to develop technologies benefiting their populations will progress faster, maybe much faster, than those countries otherwise dormant relative to science and technology.  Even though manufacturing is critical to continued national sovereignty, science, technology and engineering in general drive manufacturing.   We will be looking at trends relative to the United States, China, the European Union, Japan and those eight countries; i.e. India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand, etc. within the east Pacific theatre.  There are several generalities we can state relative to the global progression in question.  These are as follows:

  • We definitely live in an interconnected world with intertwining economies.  Those countries continuing to prosper economically offer open markets and willingness to participate in the transfer of technology.   No doubt about it.
  • Open markets exist in just about every country on our globe.  One exception is North Korea and even that potential trading partner is beginning to recognize the benefits of world-wide trade.
  • Most countries recognize the significant importance of education and dedicated R & D effort relative to global commerce.  It is imperative that a knowledge-based workforce exist to promote technology on a wide scale.
  • With Asia’s rapid ascent, China is a major player on a global scale.  A rising superstar on the world stage that must not be taken lightly.  China has made a commitment toward being a world force, thereby promoting science and engineering education.
  • The European Union is “holding it’s own” but much of the trade is between members of the “union”.
  • Brazil and South Africa show very high rates of growth relative to science, engineering and technology and recognize the great importance of an educated population.
  • Israel, Switzerland and Canada are examples of countries with mature growth relative to science and engineering- technology in general.  Continued progress is dependent upon a well-trained work force, and they recognize that fact.
  • Global R & D expenditures have grown faster than global GDP with significant efforts to make economies more knowledge and technology based.  An example of this—global R&D efforts in 1996 were $522 billion USD whereas in 2009, that number was $1.3 trillion USD.  This fact is demonstrated by the following graph.  There is a 69.23 percent increase in R & D expenditures in just thirteen (13) years.  A 5.325percent in R & D spending per year for thirteen years.  


  • The United States is the largest contributor to the R & D effort with $400 billion (2009) USD but with Asian countries, mostly China, a very close second.  Please note, the EU figure represents all expenditures for R & D by the seventeen (17) countries within the “Union”. This is a conglomerate number.

For many countries, there is an R & D target of 3% of GDP.  They recognize the great importance of technology and engineering relative to continued economic improvement.    It is also a recognized fact that industry is the mechanism that fuels this technology growth.  In the USA, industry funds 62% of the R & D effort.  70% for Germany, 45% for the United Kingdom and 60% for China, Singapore and Taiwan respectively.  The chart that follows gives the percentages of GDP for each region.   That percentage being on the ordinate (vertical) axis of the chart. The percentage in the USA is roughly flat over the last thirteen years.   China has grown consistenly.


If we look at the annual growth rates for selected countries, we see the following:    China has made significant efforts to invest in R & D whereas the EU, USA and Japan have reduced  R & D funding.   2008 and 2009 exhibit percentages that, in my opinion, are truly alarming.



There is no doubt that China and the Asia/Pacific countries are giving the US a real “run for the money”.  The chart below will demonstrate that fact quite well.

North America; i.e. USA, Canada and Mexico, etc. traditionally spend more than the rest of the world but Asia/Pacific is catching up.  Figure 0-6 is a fascinating look at how R & D expenditures “travel” across our globe.  This graphic represents the global transfer of technology and further demonstrates how intertwined global commerce is.

The relative importance of global technology is driven home by the following chart, showing graduation rates by region.  This chart represents the importance associated by each country as to what is expected of education.   It also is a very definite indicator as to where the jobs will continue to be in the twenty-first century.

Next, we will look at the current labor force and those professions participating in that labor force.  You may be surprised as to where scientists and engineers work.




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