SciTech Now Episode 334

In this episode of SciTech Now, the PBS documentary Military Medicine Beyond The Battlefield takes a look at the unique engineering and research center in Pittsburgh with a mission to save and better lives; a new trend in robotics to create durable and malleable robots using soft materials; exploring the uncharted Amazon; and equipping students with technical skills to thrive in today’s workforce.


Coming up, adding robotic arms to wheelchairs.

Instead of having me move every joint, have to do all of that thinking, the robot does some of the thinking for me.

The soft future for hard robots.

So you could have a simple on-and-off kind of sensor to actuate a soft robot.

Exploring the uncharted Amazon.

It's so tightly twisting that it almost doubles back on itself, and then there's just rapids after rapids after rapids.

Equipping students with technical skills.

The apprenticeship allows me to actually see what I'm doing in my college classes used in real life, and it's much easier to learn by doing.

It's all ahead.

Funding for this program is made possible by...


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.

For military medicine, the mission to save lives is also a mission to make lives better, and you can see science advancing on this new medical frontier in laboratories and hospitals and at universities all across the country.

Next, a look at a unique engineering and research center in Pittsburgh from the PBS documentary 'Military Medicine: Beyond the Battlefield.'

At the human engineering research laboratories at the University of Pittsburgh, engineers and designers imagine and manufacture devices that make independent living easier for anyone with a disability.

It's easier if you do an open grip on the door because it kind of comes with you.


The laboratory's logo gives the Pittsburgh Panther mascot wheels because wheelchairs are the main focus.

We do wheelchairs and robotics and prosthetics and cognitive aids and wireless technologies, virtual reality.

It's here that the lab's director, Rory Cooper, combines his PhD in engineering and his personal experience as a disabled veteran.

Cooper was an Army sergeant stationed in Germany in 1980 when he was hit by a truck while bicycling to his base, leaving him paralyzed below the waist.

Determined to make a difference for all disabled veterans, Cooper decided to study engineering and began building better wheelchairs.

He took up racing, won a bronze medal in the Paralympic Games in 1988, and still competes.

His current challenge -- making wheelchairs with robotic arms.

Some people that use wheelchairs, they have limited use of their upper extremities, so their arms as well as their legs.

The first designs use keyboards and then joysticks to control the arms, and now there's an app for that.

So this makes it a lot more intuitive, especially because people are already used to using phones and tablets.

I'm just saying up or down, but then all the joints are moving in synchrony in order to move me up and down.

So the robot's thinking, 'Rory wants the bottle to go down,' and it's, how do I need to move the joints to do down?

So, in a sense, we're sharing the control.

The robot is doing part of the control, and I'm doing part of the control.

So I'll just go up again, and now, if you watch, you'll see that the shoulder, the elbow, and the wrist are all moving, so it's doing those calculations.

Instead of me moving every joint and have to do all of that thinking, the robot does some of the thinking for me.

To build and manage these complex robots and devices, Cooper makes sure there are veterans and wheelchair users involved at every level.

What we try to do is bring all the disciplines together, so physicians and engineers and therapists, and include veterans and people with disabilities and bring them into those professions and use technology to, as much as possible, ameliorate the disability but also promote full inclusion and full participation in society, in every aspect of society.

This is the Mobility Enhancement Robotic Wheelchair, or MEBot.

Graduate student Andrea Sundaram is working with Cooper on the MEBot, a powered wheelchair that can keep the seat level while navigating steps or uneven ground.

What we try to do is make a wheelchair that can go everywhere that current wheelchairs can go and then go places where they can't.

This self-leveling chair may mean both better and safer mobility.

They had 100,000 reports of emergency-room visits by wheelchair users in a single year.

65 to 80 percent of those visits are attributed to tips and falls.

This is what happens when you have a war.

Medicine starts sort of at one place, and it rapidly has to evolve to another place.

And, for us in rehab, it was the same way.

The trauma surgeons and the acute care surgeons, they figured out how to keep a lot of people alive that wouldn't have normally stayed alive before, and then that gave us in rehab the obligation to help them maximize their function, return to participation.

To see the full documentary, 'Military Medicine: Beyond the Battlefield,' visit

Today's technology has taken robots out of the factory and integrated them into the world around us to serve as medical devices, prosthetics, and even to replace humans in the workplace.

While traditional robots are typically made of hard, mechanical parts, a new trend in robotics is emerging to create durable and malleable robots using soft materials that conform to the human body.

Kari Love, Soft Goods Engineer at robotics company Super-Releaser, joins us now.

So, first, what are soft robotics?

So I think you did a wonderful introduction to start with.

So, when we think about soft robotics, we often place it in direct contrast to traditional robotics, in which almost all of the components are hard.

Whereas in soft robotics and also in hybrid robotics, a lot of the main components are made of soft things.

So soft things could be things like silicone, fabrics, or it could be things like actual cells.

So soft robotics is a very broad field in terms of what it means.

It could be any soft component.

So what defines a robot?

I like to take robots very much back to the basics and to look at them as something that can do a complex series of events that do work primarily and also that use computer control.


So what are the examples that you have here?

So the examples I have here aren't computer-controlled.

They are just physical embodiments of soft actuators.

So this is a gripper.

A gripper is a very classic example of why you would want a soft robot.

Hard robots that are grippers can only interact usually with things that are the same and are durable.

But say you want it to interact with something like a tomato, or you want it to interact with lots of different kinds of objects.

A hard robot would have to have a lot of sensors and a lot of complexity to be able to handle those things whereas you could have a simple on-and-off kind of sensor to actuate a soft robot.

So that looks just like a blood pressure cuff that we see in the doctor's office.

This is.

So, if this were computer-controlled, you can hook it up to a computer-controlled valve that has air pressure, but this is just a hand demonstration.


So it could squeeze a tomato without crushing it whereas you really have to teach a mechanical robot exactly the right pressure, and, you know, it's probably going to have several spoiled tomatoes in the process.


And then I brought this other gripper, as well.

So this gripper is interesting because it gets its ability to bend from the form that it has whereas this is one that has a very simple shape, but it has fabric embedded inside, and that's what allows it to conform to a different shape.

So these are two kinds of soft actuators that make the same motion but through a different sort of mechanic.

So do you see soft and hard robots kind of working in tandem?

I think that, when we talk about soft robotic research, we're talking about very early stages of research right now, and so a lot of the most interesting research and the most useful to building out a library of possible mechanisms is very early.

But we will see the fastest gains maybe in the hybrid robotic space where you use maybe half hard components and half soft components.

When we look at our own bodies, we are soft and hard together.

We're held in tension, and we are utilizing all of these soft components to make us move.


So give me some examples.

I mean, ow would, say, NASA use a soft robot in the future?

So NASA is a great case because of the extreme environment.

There's a lot more call for kind of these early research phases.

So one thing that Super-Releaser was lucky enough to work on was as a subcontract for Final Frontier design on a NASA contract to work on a mechanical counterpressure concept.

So mechanical counterpressure is where, instead of creating a bubble of air around an astronaut to protect them from the vacuum of space, you can provide physical pressure directly onto the body.

Another area in which NASA is very interested in utilizing soft components is for rovers.

So, for example, if you have a rover that is going to be underneath an ocean... So, here on Earth, most sea life is soft because the pressure of the water on it is such that a soft component is more durable and flexible in that space.

Another example, in terms of the rover space, is say you want to land a rover on a place where there's no atmosphere.

Our traditional use of something like a parachute isn't functional there.

So, if you can make a robot that can bounce when it hits the surface, you don't need the atmosphere to slow its descent.

So, when you said an astronaut can have pressure right on their skin, so the space suit would be almost a soft robot that they're wearing that would continue to regulate the pressure around them?


There is a concept where it would be passive, but the thing is, as you move, your body shape changes, so an active system would be able to apply more even pressure.


So, besides NASA, do you see this changing the assembly lines of what we consider the world of robots today?


A lot of the companies that are working on developing, putting this directly into the field are interested in robotic grippers, either like the one I showed that is pneumatic and bends, or it utilizes vacuum.

They're called jamming grippers.

So they have a bunch of loose particles that, when the particles get under a vacuum, they harden, so you can conform around something and then suck the air out, and that allows you to pick it up.

So what's the thing that, you know, you're looking forward to 5 years out, 10 years out, that you think, 'Well, it's just this one or two other things happen.

Soft robots could really get to the next level'?

I think that the thing that I am most excited about is actually the medical space because, as I mentioned, there are soft robots that are made out of cells.

So that is something that could do all kinds of medical work inside of your body.

There is work on edible robotics, and the focus on that is that, if you had something that was in your stomach, you could swallow the robot, and then it could do work.

An example of that was there's a robot that's focused on getting watch batteries out of people's stomachs, which apparently this is a problem.

People are swallowing watch batteries.


But there all kinds of ways in which soft robotics could revolutionize the way we do work.

All right.

Kari Love, Super-Releaser.

Thanks so much.

Great. Thank you.

Theodore Roosevelt was known to most as the 26th president.

He was also an avid naturalist who traveled the world pursuing the unfamiliar and the unexplored.

In 'The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's darkest journey,' author Candice Millard describes Roosevelt's trip down an unmapped part of the Amazon River.

She joins us now via Google Hangout.

I'm kind of curious.

What was the Amazon like when he went versus what we know about it today?

So happily, there's not a lot of change in this part of the Amazon, at least.

When I went there, you know, you can see scars.

You can see largely soy field plantations, but it's so deep and so remote still today that it's largely unchanged, and it was just miraculous to see it essentially as Roosevelt and his men saw it, you know, only a little more than 100 years ago.

He bit off more than he could chew.

This was not a trip that he planned the way that it turned out.

That's right.

So he was in a very difficult time in his life.

He had just lost the election of 1912.

He was the pariah for the first time.

He wasn't used to losing.

And so he had this opportunity to go on a speaking tour.

He was a naturalist, had written books largely about birds, but loved natural history, loved expeditions, and so this was just an opportunity to get away.

But he wasn't paying attention, and he let an old friend of his plan this, what he thought was going to be just a collecting trip.

But, when they got there, he met with the foreign minister of Brazil who said, 'Yeah. You can go on a regular collecting trip, or you could do something more interesting.

We've just found the headwaters of this river, and we have no idea where it goes.'

And, of course, being Theodore Roosevelt, he couldn't resist.

So this is somebody who had a pattern there of, when things get tough in his life, he heads for the hills, so to speak.

Yeah, in a way.

It's just a pattern again and again in his life.

When he faced heartbreak or sorrow or disappointment or frustration, he would throw himself into very difficult, very dangerous, physically demanding situations.

So when his father died when he was at Harvard, he went to the backwoods of Maine.

When his mother and his first wife died on the same night, that's when he went to the Badlands.

When his presidency ended and he really wasn't ready for it to be over, he went to Africa.

So again and again, he would throw himself into these difficult situations so to sort of prove something to everybody else and to himself.

He goes out to the uncharted territory of the headwaters of the Amazon.

What's the ecosystem there like?

What's he describe?

So, as you know, it's the richest ecosystem on Earth.

It's incredibly beautiful, incredibly complex.

And what's stunning about it and what I found difficult to understand until I went there myself is that you think, 'Okay.

Here's the richest ecosystem on Earth.

Here's this sort of vaunted hunter.

He's been hunting his whole life, and he has with him this man, Candido Rondon, who had spent most of his life -- he's a Brazilian -- had spent most of his life charting the Amazon, and they're starving to death.

They're literally starving, and how is that possible?'

And, when you go there, you understand right away.

It is absolutely silent.

I mean, you don't see anything you can eat.

I mean, you yourself are being eaten alive constantly by everything crawling, every kind of insect.

But anything you can eat -- There are a few monkeys high in the canopy.

A few came and sort of disappearing.

But it's absolutely silent, and it's evolution.

You know, everything is incredibly good.

For millions of years, they've been working on being incredibly good at either being a predator or not being prey, and so they can hide.

So, when you went there, what were the things that caught your eye or your ear or what surprised you?

I knew that I would be sort of eaten alive by insects, but I didn't really understand how relentless it was, and there's absolutely nothing you can do.

I mean, today, obviously, we have all kinds of bug spray.

Roosevelt and his men had something called fly dough that wasn't very effective.

But the beauty, the intricate beauty, of the plants and the trees themselves are incredible, and you think, 'Oh, you know, it's a rainforest, but it's going to be unbelievably thick and impossible to get through,' and that's true only along the river's edge because obviously everything is competing for sunlight.

And so you've got the canopy obviously way up, and those trees have grown to reach that light, but underneath, it's very dark and very open, and there's very little leaf litter.

And, you know, I think a lot of people think, 'Oh, it must have a very, very rich soil to have so much plant life,' but it's actually incredibly thin.

It just has this unbelievably fast recycle rate.

Everything that's possible and any type of use, it's sucked up immediately.

You know, you think about, in his day, he didn't have an REI to go to.

There's so many technological toys, even the type of clothes that have insect repellent built into them, all the different, you know, gadgets that we have today, and he didn't have any of those.

No, he didn't.

In fact, part of what we were talking about earlier, how he wasn't really paying attention in this incredibly difficult and dangerous expedition was just dropped in his lap.

By the time they get to the river, they don't even have boats, so they have to buy boats from the Namaqua tribesmen who are nearby.

And so they're going down what are essentially class-four rapids again and again and again in hollowed-out tree trunks.

And so what I was able to do when I was on this river is not only be on the river but fly over it.

And Roosevelt and Rondon, his cocommander, carefully charted it, so I had all the coordinates.

So I today, which they don't have, I had a GPS, and I could just dial it in, and I could see where everything happened, where Paishon was murdered, where Simplicio drowned, and you can see also how they got in trouble right away.

Right at the headwaters, it's so tightly twisting that it almost doubles back on itself, and then there's just rapids after rapids after rapids.

It's really astonishing any of them survived.

Why do you think -- Your book has been translated into multiple languages around the world.

But why do you think there is such an international appeal to this?

Well, I think it's this incredible sense of adventure and that idea that a former president would go out -- I mean, it's really kind of hard to imagine a former president today just disappearing into the Amazon, and he literally did just disappear.

It would almost be impossible with today's technology to just go away, and nobody knows what's happening.

And Roosevelt very easily could have died on this expedition in a number of different ways, and it's incredible, and we would have never known.

It would have been this great mystery.

And it's incredible to think that Theodore Roosevelt, one of the most famous men, not only in our country but in the world, would have disappeared and no one would have known what have happened to him.

So it's this great story of adventure and courage and survival.

All right.

Candice Millard, author of 'The River of Doubt,' thanks for joining us.

Thank you so much for having me.

While the tech industry continues to grow, there's an increasing need for more skilled workers in fields ranging from mechatronics to information technology.

In an effort to bridge this gap, an innovative technology program in Michigan, known as MAT2, is partnering colleges with employers to create an intensive 3-year apprenticeship program, equipping students with the technical skills to thrive in today's workforce.

Here's a look.

My name is Ian Costew, and I work for Heller Machine Tools.

My day begins about 6:30 in the morning.

When I arrive here, usually start going over what we've got to do for the day with whoever I'm working with.

A lot of it is troubleshooting, machine building, wiring, picking things up and putting them down.

That's kind of the common saying around here.

So a lot of the machines we get come in large pieces, and we're able to just bolt them together or wire them together and use them.

When I first started here, something that really caught my attention was just the sheer scale and size of what we work on, so seeing something, a big project come together after 3 or 4 months of working on it, is really cool, being able to flip the switch and run the thing.

But personally, I really enjoy troubleshooting.

So, if we get a problem with a machine, that's when I actually get to work.

So say it's not functioning or not running this part correctly, why is that?

What switches are faulting out?

What programs aren't operating?

And you can spend a 1/2 hour at fixing it, and you can spend half a day at fixing it.

You don't know, so that's what keeps it interesting.

MAT2, that stands for Michigan Advanced Technicians Training.

MAT2 begins at the high-school level.

We fill out job applications just like normal working people do, and we go to career fairs, and we interview with a bunch of companies.

So, for me, what prepared me was my technical education.

I went to Oakland Schools Technical campus for 2 years during high school, got some training in robotics and electronics and did some really cool projects, at least at the high-school level.

And, when I brought that here to Heller and the management saw that, they said, 'Hey, here's somebody we can invest in and put training into.'

So part of the benefits from MAT2 is that we were employees from day 1, and to begin with a program we started with a double school session, so we spent 4 months, from September to December, like a standard school term.

The apprenticeship allows me to actually see what I'm doing in my college classes used in real life, and it's much easier to learn by doing and seeing someone do a process or put together a machine instead of just learning it on a piece of paper or in a book and then trying to apply it to class.

A lot of the classes we took in MAT2 were very technical-based courses, especially when we started out, because they wanted to get us moving forward in the program so we would actually be useful employees when we came to work.

And, depending on which employee hires you, their practices are different, but here at Heller, we jump straight into it, and my boss put us with other employees who are building machines and said, 'Hey, go learn from this guy.'

Now that I've graduated, I've got skills that I can use and jobs that I can do.

I get calls occasionally from my old mentors or high school instructors, or a lot of times, it's people from the tech campus saying, 'Hey, we have an event.

Can you come speak?

Can you come try and encourage these students to push forward in these career paths?'

Because a lot of these technical campuses are incredibly well funded by the state, but we've got -- They're not at capacity.

A big push that I have anytime I go to speak is getting people to understand that these are real, technical, important jobs that need to be filled.

We've got engineers.

We've got designers.

We've have, you know, the high-level people, the managers, to put everything together, but if you don't have anybody to build it and to actually do it, then we're not going to have a functioning economy.

A big piece of advice I would give to high-school students is to get involved with your technical campuses.

Whether it's a robotics program that your school has or a full-blown technical campus like I had, that is the biggest and easiest way to get in these types of careers.

It's not the down and dirty work that it used to be or that it's seen to be.

It's real technical work.

And, in all honesty, I'm seeing where my 4-year colleagues are going, and I'm, in reality, ahead of them because of this path that I chose.

And that wraps it up for this time.

For more on science, technology, and innovation, visit our website.

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Until next time, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.

Funding for this program is made possible by...