SciTech Now Episode 327

In this episode of SciTech Now a cathedral is using acoustic engineering to better their sound quality; an investigation of the technology that monitors pipeline leaks; tracking pelicans with solar power; and the CEO of General Motors shares her story.




Coming up, acoustic architecture...

You have a very, very big building here, and you have to be careful of the acoustics with the organ, as well as the spoken word.

This is essentially what we would call a distributed sound system.

Think of it as a parasol, and it collapses downward all the way around.

...detecting leaks in U.S.


The current technology accumulates all this data about what is flowing in the pipeline and how it's flowing.

It's essentially just a monitoring tool.

That has not been developed enough to detect leaks.

...tracking pelicans with solar power.

It's one thing to conserve the breeding habitat of a species, but if it migrates south for nine months of the year, you really have to talk about its full life cycle to get a comprehensive view of conservation.

Meet General Motors' first female C.E.O.

People would come up to me and say, 'Hey, because you're in this role, it has convinced my daughter' or 'my sister' or someone that they know, that they believe they can do it, too.

It's all ahead.

Funding for this program is made possible by...

Hello. I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Welcome to 'SciTech Now,' our weekly program bringing you the latest breakthroughs in science, technology, and innovation.

Let's get started.

Construction is underway in Raleigh, North Carolina, on the first new cathedral to be built in the United States in decades.

From the building materials to the architectural design, engineers are using the latest acoustic technology to make sure both music and the spoken word resonate properly throughout this grand space.

Here's a listen.

[ Machinery beeping ]

One of the biggest priorities for me is the acoustics, the sound.

I mean, 'cause you have a very, very big building here, and you have to be careful of the acoustics with the organ, as well as the spoken word.

And so we have hired experts, because, you know, if you have this beautiful building but people can't hear, that would be a frustration.

But, thank God, the expertise is there.

And we are fully invested in using the best information we can get so the sound is perfect, also.

But to really understand how well you will hear sounds inside the new Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral, you have to see the building while it is under construction.

So, don a hard hat, enter the narthex, or gathering space, just inside the new cathedral, then turn your eyes heavenward and see the skeleton that forms the nave, the cathedral's central aisle.

Then listen.

The sound is extremely important to engineer correctly.

And with the help of the Diocese of Raleigh choir, you can begin to understand how sacred sound will fill the space.

♪ I will praise your name forever ♪ ♪ My king and my God

Every inch of the 2,000-seat cathedral is studied for its acoustic properties, from the size of the worship space to the arches that top the walls and run the length of the building to the more than 200-foot-high dome to the transepts, or wings of the cathedral, the soaring altar, and all of the angles and corners in between.

♪ Worthy of great praise

The sound absorption and reflectivity of the building materials that will cover the interior are also analyzed.

That's the because the acoustic properties of the marble that will cover the floors differs from the layers of Sheetrock on the walls.

And multiple layers of Sheetrock absorb sounds differently than one layer.

♪ My king and my God

It all plays a part in making the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh's new cathedral come acoustically alive.

♪ I will praise the name of the Lord ♪

But when you look at all the construction materials, the size of the space, how many people are gonna be in the space, the materials of the pews.

Everything affects sound, to either benefit or become a hindrance to achieving the ultimate result that you're looking for for speech clarity, but then you can layer in the music performance into that, as well.

You heard correctly.

Acoustical consultants say, while music can fill a worship space and wrap people in a kind of sound blanket, understanding the spoken word is most important.

When you design technology into a space for either audio or visual support, you're affecting and affected by so many different things.

Speech is gonna be your number-one item that if you can't hear well and hear it intelligibly, then what's the point?

Once engineers understood the acoustic environment of the cathedral, they designed an acoustic model.

The sound properties of every seat in the cathedral are analyzed.

This is the wire-frame space.

It's like little faces, and on each side of that face, there's a material assigned to it.

And all that frequency's just like a piano, right?

So, at the low end, all the way to the high end of a piano, it has sound-absorption properties assigned to each material.

And something called scattering, which is, how well does that sound, if sound hits it, you know, how much of it continues on a path, like if you were shooting pool, or how much of it scatters and goes in multiple different directions?

Voices and choirs are recorded in a specially-designed studio.

The recording is then plugged into a computer program, which allows acoustical engineers to virtually hear how words and music will sound at any point in the cathedral.

It'll trace the sound to where you were sitting.

So, where the star is, for example, is where we're sitting in this case.

And, like, say the choir's in the back.

That might be a source.

And it traces that sound as it goes throughout the room and it gets absorbed and scattered until it arrives at that location.

Takes all that information, puts it into what we call an echogram, okay, and then you take the dry source and you take that echogram, and it convolves it and creates a binaural experience with both ears so you can hear it.

All of that information determines the type of sound system required.

You see multiple speakers shown here.

These are actually at different locations down the nave and in the transepts.

So there's not one loudspeaker.

This is essentially what we would call a distributed sound system.

So, the sound is carefully distributed so no loudspeaker's throwing more than a certain distance within this space.

Add to that, because we do not want to make this reverberant space more reverberant, we're going to aim that sound downwards, just into that area.

It all allows worshippers to hear heavenly sounds scientifically helped.

By the steerable loudspeaker, think of it as a parasol, and it collapses downward all the way around.

Now we're keeping off the walls, off the ceiling, and right on the people.

Oh, those are the ones who want to hear it.

[ Choir singing ]

So, all of the senses are being engaged.

So the sound becomes extremely important so they not only experience it in the beauty that they see, but then in the word that they hear, and all the other components where they encounter our Lord.

[ Choir singing ] ♪♪

The network of oil pipelines that stretch across the United States rely heavily on a high-tech leak-detection system to ensure safe transportation.

Devika Krishna Kumar and her colleague Jarrett Renshaw co-wrote an investigation for Reuters on the technology designed to monitor pipeline leaks, how it fails, and what happens to ecosystems when those failures occur.

She joins me now.

So, you know, this has gotten a lot of press recently because of the situation at the Dakota Access Pipeline.

There's been people thinking about the Keystone Pipeline.

But what are the existing safety measures that we have for U.S. pipelines?

So, it's a combination of methods that pipeline operators typically use when it comes to pipeline safety.

It includes having a monitoring tool to make sure that the flow rates, the pressure, and the temperature is maintained throughout the length of the pipeline.

There are other methods, like overhead flights, that they operate on a routine basis to make sure that there are no leaks, and they have regular inspections.

They have someone go out there and actually inspect the right-of-way.

So, they kind of make sure that it happens on a regular basis, to make sure that they are operating safely.

We have thousands of miles of pipe, right?

I mean, and some of them are really old, some of them are very new.

The new ones have sensors built in that can do all this stuff.

What about the old ones?

It's been in practice for more than 40, 50 years, the current technology that's in play.

It's called a SCADA system.

It stands for 'Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition.'

So, that's exactly what it is.

It just accumulates all this data about what is flowing in the pipeline and how it's flowing, and it relays that information to a control room, where operators look at it, and they determine whether everything is normal.

And nearly all the pipelines in the U.S., especially liquid pipelines, have this technology incorporated.

So, what did your investigation find?

That they're not as effective as you would imagine.

Like I said, it's essentially just a monitoring tool.

That has not been developed enough to detect leaks, especially of small quantities.

So, the way that it works is, because this tool, this system, can monitor pressure and flow rates and temperature, whenever there's a slight change in pressure, which is what happens when there's a leak or a rupture, it tells the control-room operators that there's a change in pressure.

And then they have to then determine whether that is genuinely a leak or not.

So, there's a human part to this, too.

There's a lot of training involved.

And they are trained to tell the difference between a regular shift in pressure and when there's an actual leak.

And the rate of error, margin of error for these kind of determinations are pretty high.

Our research analysis of federal data found that, out of about 500 incidents over the last few years, nearly as many incidents that were found by this technology was also found by just a random member of the public.

22% of the cases were found by the system, were detected by the system, and nearly as much by a member of the public.

So, what about the ones that weren't caught by the system or the public?

In the sense that, if somebody hadn't stumbled upon it...


...are there leaks that are evading the system?

So, what happens then is, they have community lines set up.

Most pipeline operators make sure that they communicate with the communities around the area.

So it takes longer, as you can imagine, for someone living in the neighborhood -- 'cause all these pipelines, like you said, are out of the way, and they're not typically in a heavily-populated area.

So, for someone to be able to notice that, it takes a while.

The leak may have progressed for a few days, hours.

It depends on how long it takes.

So, in Colonial Pipeline's case, a mining inspector happened upon the leak, and he noticed dead vegetation and animals, and that's when he notified the company and he said, 'There's a leak here.'

So, what kind of effects are there to the ecosystem?

I mean, obviously it depends on the fluids that's going through the pipe.

I mean, if it's water, it's much less so than if it's some sort of a heavy chemical.


So, the Hazardous Material Safety Administration, they track and monitor to make sure that -- that's the federal agency that makes sure that pipeline operators do ensure safety when they operate on a day-to-day basis.

But when there is a leak, it can vary in intensity.

There are two kinds of leaks, essentially, two categories.

One is a regular leak, and the other one is a rupture.

And the rupture is much more significant in terms of the damage it causes.

That usually is accompanied by an explosion of some sort, or significantly more damage.

The volume is much higher.

The volume is typically much higher, and you -- In the most recent case, on Colonial Pipeline again, workers were trying to repair an earlier leak, and the excavator hit the surface of the pipeline, and that caused an explosion, resulting in the death of two workers.

So, in worst-case scenario, we're looking at human death and fatalities.

But, of course, there's an environmental impact.

The soil can get contaminated.

There's vegetation that grows there that can be affected for months to come depending on how deep the hazardous material has seeped.

And, of course, we're talking about waterways and rivers and sources of water, as well, that can be contaminated if there is a leak on a pipeline that flows around the area.

So, are there improvements coming down to improve this technology or monitoring?

Well, there are some advancements that have been made.

So, on top of a basic system like SCADA, they are adding a few layers to it.

For example, the CPM, which is called Computational Pipeline Model.

That is a method that is touted as one of the more advanced ways to detect leaks, and that's the one that was meant to be a part of the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline, as well.

And it was said that it could detect leaks as small as 1% of the flow rate.

And that's significant because the technology that is in place right now is more suited to detect bigger leaks.

So, when there's a small volume, it's not easily detected, or it causes false alarms.

So, when you can tune it down to detect smaller leaks, that's considered an advancement.

And there are other ways besides these internal systems.

Fiber optics, for instance, is a method that's being widely considered.

The drawback with that for pipeline operators was that it was always considered a more expensive option, because you have to cover the entire length of the pipeline, make sure there are sensors.

And it's hard to maintain for them.

But it is definitely more effective, as you can imagine, 'cause it can detect as soon as there's even a small release.

Devika Krishna Kumar from Reuters.

Thanks for joining us.

Of course.

Thank you so much for having me.

In a new conservation effort researchers in Utah are placing GPS transmitters on pelicans.

The information they gather will be used to protect pelicans ecosystems. But the first step in tracking a pelican with GPS is to catch one.

Let's take a look.

American White Pelicans are considered to be a species of greatest conservation need.

Mostly as a result of historic persecution, and also effects of DDT.

We're monitoring pelicans -- pelican movements, really -- for a few reasons.

One, we'd like to get to know, what are the daily movements from the pelicans that are either nesting on Gunnison Island or foraging on our lakes and streams?

What are the seasonal movements of pelicans?

And then also these annual movements.

So, what are the full migration pathways?

So we can talk about full life cycle of conservation.

It's one thing to conserve the breeding habitat of a species, but if it migrates south for nine months of the year, you really have to talk about its full life cycle to get a comprehensive view of conservation.

Monitoring these pelicans, we have a couple different methods for doing that.

We of course use citizen science, like eBird, where people just report where they see American White Pelicans.

We also band juvenile birds on Gunnison Island.

And the third leg of this is, of course, the satellite telemetry tags.

These gives us very fine-grained information about movement.

My main part of this project is trapping adult pelicans to attach GPS transmitters.

Transmitter's a backpack-mounted transmitter.

It's got a solar panel on the back of it, two separate antennae.

One antenna is for the GPS signal, and the other antenna on it is actually the antenna that transmits all the stored GPS way points back to us.

The GPS unit inside the transmitter will take a way point every hour during the daytime, from about an hour before sunrise to an hour after sunset.

And then it will take another point at midnight.

So, then it will store all those way points onboard on the transmitter, and then every other day it'll transmit those way points back through a separate satellite system.

My name is Sam Hall, and I'm a Senior GIS Analyst.

My primary role in this project has been to create the PeliTrack.

Before, most of the biologists just downloaded the raw data, records that really meant nothing to anybody unless they formatted it correctly and put it on a map manually.

The biologists now can go to the map itself, and then see all that data live any time they want.

It's a great resource.

We've seen this used in a variety of ways.

We had an elementary-school class here that was using the daily movement, how far did each individual bird move in a day, as their math problems.

I think this has been a great project for us to be able to kind of get a lot of the work that we do out in front of the public.

I think a lot of the work the biologists do at the Division doesn't get -- isn't really seen.

The nongame program kind of sits in the background.

A lot of folks think about the Division of Wildlife Resources, and they think about hunting and fishing, and the things that we primarily do.

Every one of our species is shared with some other state or province or country.

So, for us to do effective conservation and management of these species, we have to work together in partnerships, both internal, between different programs within the agency, but also between agencies, and between agencies and the public.

Pelicans are numerous enough that they're a good study system.

They're a big, obvious bird, and they can help tell us about where wetlands are sort of functioning ecologically.

♪♪ ♪♪

Did you know that women make up just 25% of STEM professionals?

One of these women is Mary Barra, the first female C.E.O. of General Motors.

Up next, she explains her road to the top, and why more students should pursue an engineering degree.


If we expect our industry to thrive well into the future, we have to provide solutions.

I'm confident, no matter what you want to do, having a strong science and math background, and understanding technology, is gonna better prepare you to work in that area that you love.

And once you love it, that can mean every day is fun.

Even in the early years of my schooling, I always just thought math was fun.

It's probably part of my personality, but I think it's neat when you get a bunch of inputs or conditions, and then you have to figure out what the best answer is.

It's kind of like -- It's solving a puzzle.

And, so, when my parents realized that, they both really encouraged me to push myself and see what I could do.

Fortunately, I went to General Motors Institute, which is now Kettering University, and we had a co-op program.

So I got to work and see what engineers did, and then go back to school and know that that's what I wanted to study.

And, so, that's really what helped me.

Engineers do so many things.

I worked in the areas where we design vehicles.

I worked in the area where we did engineering and validation.

I worked in the area where we, you know, actually assembled the vehicles.

In all of those areas, there were engineers doing many different things.

And so I realized, if I had an engineering degree -- and I'm specifically an electrical engineer -- that I could work across a wide array of things.

And I loved all of them.

And that's when I also learned I love the car business.

One of the really interesting things that I learned in this role that surprised me is when people would come up to me and say, 'Hey, because you're in this role, it has convinced my daughter,' or 'my sister' or someone that they know, that they see somebody in the role, that they believe they can do it, too, and therefore they're following a STEM background.

And that, to me, is the most rewarding, that simply because, when people see people like them, they believe they can do it, too.

And I believe they can, as well.

At General Motors, we are big believers in education, because we think that is such an important component for every child.

And so we do a lot of work.

We do work with FIRST Robotics.

We do work with World In Motion.

And I've even had the opportunity to go spend time with a third-, fourth-grader.

And, you know, when I ask them, 'What do you want to be when you grow up?'

No matter what they say, it's got a connection to STEM.

Because if you look at industry today, there's not an industry that isn't being impacted or disrupted or transformed by technology.

One of the things that's great about World In Motion, and FIRST Robotics, as well, is they get to actually make something.

So it's not just people talking at them or reading about it.

They get to make something.

They get to see how it works.

They get to change it.

And, so, you know, they're really understanding the foundational principles of physics, or many other aspects of engineering.

So, I think when they actually get to do something, and then they get to make changes and see how they make things better, that's exciting, and that's where I see them, you know, get really excited.

And, also, the little competitions help, as well.

The teenagers, the boys and girls, or the young adults, that are either in K-12 or going to college right now, they are our future.

They will be the people that come in and help us really redefine transportation.

In the world of transportation, we believe we will see more change in the next five years than we've seen in the last 50.

And so it's vitally important that we have people who can help us create that new world and that new transformation.

The whole way people get from point 'A' to point 'B' is being transformed or disrupted.

And technology is a key piece of all that, whether you talk about electric vehicles or increased connectivity or autonomous driving, all of which require very strong STEM backgrounds to really create the future.

So, it is an extremely exciting time to be at General Motors right now.

And we're always looking for great engineers to join the company.

And, so, it will fuel our success.

Right now, for some of the technologies we're putting out, engineers have dreamed up a vision that they want to create, and then actually gone in and done the engineering to create an actual physical property that does that.

A great example of that is the Bolt, or the fact that we have 4G LTE in our vehicles and have connectivity, the fact that you can use your smartphone and beep the horn or unlock your vehicle or start it.

Those are all things that somebody said, 'Hmm, I wonder if I can do this?'

And then they used their education and their degree to make it happen.

So, clearly, if you're sitting in high school today thinking about what you're going to do, an engineering career, or science, math, computer science -- those are all great fields that we're gonna desperately need, and will provide exciting careers for in the future.

And that wraps it up for this time.

For more on science, technology, and innovation, visit our website, check us out on Facebook and Instagram, and join the conversation on Twitter.

You can also subscribe to our YouTube channel.

Until next time, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.

Funding for this program is made possible by... ♪♪