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Whisker sensors could control the robots of the future

By John Biggs as written on techcrunch.com
Rats and other whiskered animals use senses that we don’t yet possess. In addition to being able to run mazes and lick our faces to confirm we aren’t covered in BBQ sauce, scientists have confirmed that some animals use their flowing front whiskers to sense wind position, a technique that could be used in future direction-sensing robots.
A team of students working at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering have found that rats “use their whiskers to help locate airflow sources.” While this seems like common sense, there has been no way to prove this until now.
To perform the experiment that led to this discovery, Yan Yu and Matthew Graff, co-first authors of the work, placed five, equally-spaced fans in a semicircle around the edge of a 6-foot circular table. In each trial, one of the five fans was randomly selected to blow air toward a “start-door” located on the opposite side of the table. A rat had to run from the door toward the fan blowing air, and go down a rat-sized hole directly in front of that fan. Each of the five holes (one in front of each fan) led to a tunnel beneath the table, where the rat was rewarded for choosing the correct fan. Cameras positioned above the table recorded the rats’ performance.
During the trials some of the rats were given a painless whisker haircut, a move that resulted in a 20 percent decrease in performance. The rats could have used any sense data to perform the task — from feeling the wind on their fur or sticking their little rat noses into the wind — but it was clear the whisker usage was far better at the task.
“The rat clearly uses more than one cue,” said study author Chris Bresee. “But rats still choose to rely heavily on their whiskers, which suggests that whiskers facilitate wind-sensing even when wild rats explore naturally.”
The team is working on artificial “flow sensors” that can be added to robots, creating bendable systems that vibrate in the wind. Receptors at the base of the whisker can then be read and translated into location data. This means future robots could use these sensors to read their positions, sense their speed or even move toward high or low pressure areas.
“Estimating the structure of airflow is particularly important when locating an odor source,” said Professor Mitra Hartmann. “And odor localization is important for finding explosives, chemical spills, and biological agents.”
Not bad for some foof.


girls robotics team - managed solution

Don't Tell This Robotics Team That STEM Is For Boys

By Sarah Hedgecock as written on forbes.com
At the Javits Center in Manhattan last Saturday, hundreds of teenagers milled about in sneakers and safety goggles, tinkering with the robots they had brought to the FIRST Robotics Competition New York City Regional. Requests for parts (dowel rods, PVC pipe) boomed out over the PA system. Parents lingered near each team’s staging area, sporting their children’s team colors.
Robotics competitions this large haven’t been a standard part of high school for very long. The ability of so many schools to support teams that build semi-autonomous machines–or find enough kids to even build a team–is a fairly new phenomenon. One thing about the competition will be familiar to anyone who participated in a particularly nerdy hobby in high school: It was very dude-heavy.
But the team FORBES had come to see was busting that trend: The Fe Maidens–pronounced “Iron Maidens”–is one of two robotics teams from the Bronx High School of Science, a magnet school in New York City. It’s made up of 42 girls. The only male members of the team are coaches and mentors. (The high school’s other team is coed, and it’s neck-and-neck with the Fe Maidens when it comes to competitive wins.)
“It wasn’t until I came here that I realized that STEM fields are more than just a career,” says team captain Violet Killy. “I thought you could just start them after college, or during college, and I’d have to wait to get my hands dirty. And then I saw kids driving robots at Bronx Science, and I was like, ‘I want to do that.’”
The team was founded in late 2006, expressly to encourage girls to get into STEM and break down the gender stereotypes that are, nearly a decade later, still rampant in technical fields. Even the students who make up the Fe Maidens regularly hear people saying they’re pretty good at this–for girls. “We’re trying to get girls to realize that this is something they can do, this is what’s out there, it’s available to them, it’s fun,” says Killy.
And the name? The team’s first captain was a fan of the band Iron Maiden. “We’re a group of girls, we’re tough as iron, we’re building what the guys are building,” explains the team’s PR chief, Luz Jimenez. “So we just went with it.”
At the competition, the team was tinkering with its robot for the first time in several weeks. Per competition rules, each team gets six weeks to build its robot (they start with a basic kit of parts provided by FIRST, the STEM education nonprofit that sponsors the competition, but can add parts as needed). The robot must then go into a bag until competition day.
At the competition itself, teams compete in two-and-a-half-minute rounds of a game that changes every year. This year the theme was castles. Students compete in two three-team “alliances,” each defending a castle at one end of the playing field. Among other things, robots were tasked with operating autonomously for the first 15 seconds of each round, clearing certain barriers on the playing field and scoring goals by sending balls through holes in the opposing alliance’s castle.

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