AQUA man: The rise of the six-limbed robot turtle
Noreen Fagan | April 2, 2014
It has six rotating flippers and can walk along a shoreline, swim in open water or dive deep into the dark ocean. It is not a toy or a character in a computer game, but an amphibious autonomous robot named AQUA.
“It’s a six legged robotic turtle,” says Michael Jenkin, a professor of Computer Science and Engineering at York University, whose work focuses on developing algorithms to enable AQUA to build and reason its position and orientation in a 3-D environment.
AQUA is part of a research project on autonomous vehicles being developed by researchers at York and McGill universities, to explore underwater environments and gather data with minimum disturbance to aquatic life. AQUA is primarily a research platform allowing scientists to ask fundamental and applied questions to autonomous systems.
“The fundamental question that we are trying to ask is, how do you build machine that can operate autonomously under complex environmental conditions,” says Jenkin. “We are trying to answer questions that will allow us to build machines that will operate anywhere.”
AQUA is programmed to answer questions such as “Where am I?” and, “What is my orientation?” Jenkin says GPS systems help people navigate the Earth’s surface, but in more complex environments people have difficulty in orienting themselves.
“It is not very easy for scuba divers and pilots to know which way is up, because the internal systems that normally generate that information don’t work as well because of the complexities of the environment.”
Advanced robotic systems have begun to emerge as a key component in technology–based industries. As Jenkin points out there are cars that automatically stop when sensing danger and airbags that are triggered before impact.
Jenkin sees AQUA as a possible answer to solving problems that would normally require extreme measures. Autonomous robots have the potential to help solve problems like monitoring oil pipelines. This would help streamline the current methods that require a multitude of components including using airplanes to take radar images.
AQUA is one of four amphibious autonomous robots on the planet. Although AQUA a research platform, versions of the robot have been used commercially. Jenkin’s last project involved developing a robot used to assist police in the investigation of crime scenes.
There is no timeline for how long AQUA can be used as a research platform. Robotic technology is rapidly advancing and it is only through continued research that scientists like Jenkin can remain on the cutting edge of robotics.
Michael Jenkin will be speaking next week at the What Matters Now event on April 9. This is a free public event scheduled from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection gallery.
The whole package
Teresa Pitman | September 26, 2014If you’ve ever bought ready-to-eat sushi, you may have noticed a blob of wasabi on the tray. It’s a convenient way to add pungent flavour to your lunch, but it also serves another purpose: it protects your food from micro-organisms. As food science professor Loong-Tak Lim explains, wasabi contains allylisothiocyanate, (AITC) a natural and potent anti-microbial that kills yeast and bacteria. Of course, not every food is enhanced by the strong flavour of wasabi, so Lim has developed a packaging system that offers the same antimicrobial benefits . Lim derives his AITC from ground mustard powder, and uses a patented nanotechnological process to spin tiny fibres that encapsulate the naturally sourced agent in the packaging. “The conventional approach to adding preservatives has been to add them to the food,” says Lim's research colleague Suramya Mihindukulasuriya. “But processing the food may break down the preservative. By having the preservative in the packaging, we don’t need as high a concentration to enhance the shelf-life, safety and quality of the food.” So-called “active packaging,” responds to changes in the environment and the food itself, Lim says. In this case, the membrane responds to a certain level of moisture and releases a preservative to prevent spoiling. Other active packaging materials respond to heat and light. Mihindukulasuriya works with a preservative called hexanal, the volatile organic compound you smell when you cut grass or slice a cucumber. Hexanal helps preserve cell membranes of fruits and vegetables so they don’t become soft or soggy as they ripen. The preservative also has some anti-microbial properties, which are activated by heat and humidity. Mihindukulasuriya calls her technique of enclosing the preservative using ultra-high electrical forces “electrospinning.” Lim jokes that “we are like Spiderman, spinning tiny fibres.” And the fibres are tiny – about 400 times smaller than a human hair. When exposed to humidity or water, these fibres become permeable and release the hexanal. During her PhD studies, Mihindukulasuriya also developed an oxygen indicator that is activated by ultraviolet radiation. When there is little or no oxygen in the package, the indicator is white, but if the package is damaged or torn, allowing oxygen to enter, the indicator turns blue. This matters because oxygen causes rapid deterioration of some foods, and higher levels of oxygen encourage the growth of more micro-organisms. These foods are sealed in vacuum packs or in packages flushed with nitrogen to remove the oxygen, but if the package becomes damaged at some point, oxygen can get inside. That’s where Mihindukulasuriya’s product comes in: a label with a blue line would indicate that the package should not be purchased. What’s next in active and intelligent packaging? Mihindukulasuriya is planning to develop a compound that will detect the volatile compounds produced by food when it spoils and indicate to consumers that the food should not be eaten. The technique would supplement expiry dates, which are only estimates based on typical situations. Not only would such packaging warn people that food had spoiled, it could also reassure them when it was safe to eat – even if the expiry date had passed. “People throw away lots of food that has expired but is still perfectly good to eat,” says Lim. This article was originally published by the University of Guelph. It has been edited for brevity, clarity and style, and is republished here with permission.