SciTech Now Episode 415

In this episode of SciTech Now, we discover the molecular basis for the glowworm’s bioluminescence; learn about the next generation of drones; using facial recognition technology as a diagnostic tool to determine health risk; and a new solar power facility in Tampa Bay.



Coming up... shedding light on glowworms.

Before we started our work, no one knew exactly what makes the glowworm glow.

The next generation of drones.

It really takes sort of the next generation of startups to applied drone technology to specific problems in society.

And some of them seem almost cosmetic, and some of them are really world-changing.

What does your face reveal about you?

We can use the face and other technologies to come up with the health index that we can provide to anyone.

And all they need is a smartphone that can take a selfie.

Tapping into the Florida sun.

We're at a little bit less than 20 megawatts of A.C. power, which covers about 3,300 homes.

It's all ahead.

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.

If you were to gaze upon a cave full of New Zealand glowworms, you may think you're looking at a star-lit night sky.

Using a small organ at the end of their bodies, this tiny gnat larvae illuminate surfaces of the caves and ravine walls they call home.

In this segment, we meet biochemists on a mission to discuss the molecular basis for the glowworm's bioluminescence.

Our partner 'Science Friday' has the story.

They're found right across New Zealand.

They like caves and they like the banks of steams and rivers.

They're carnivorous.

They use their light to attract their prey.

It's the larva of a kind of fungus net.

So, technically, a glowworm is actually a glowing maggot.

[ Laughs ] But that doesn't sound as romantic.

[ Laughs ] Doctors Kurt Krause and Miriam Sharpe are biochemists at the University of Otago.

Their goal is to shed some light on the New Zealand glowworm's particular method of illumination.

Before we started our work, no one knew exactly what makes the glowworm glow.

Possibly the best-studied, the most well-known of those systems is the firefly.

That system's really well-understood.

But, for some reason, no one had gone into that with the New Zealand glowworm.

And answered the basic question...

Are the glowworms going to have a unique mechanism of bioluminescence.

And, at first glance, you would say, 'Well, no, probably not, because glowworms and fireflies are sort of alike,' right?

But it turns out that fireflies are beetles, not flies, so they're quite different.

And because New Zealand has been isolated for more than 85 million years...

Creatures have had the opportunity to evolve systems, including bioluminescence, which are entirely independent from anywhere else.

Luckily for doctors Sharpe and Krause, they don't have to travel far to acquire specimens.

Nichols Creek -- it's just down the road, and that's where the New Zealand glowworm was initially described in a Royal Society publication, where this was like the big tourist attraction.

You walked up Nichols Creek and you saw the glowworms.

We go out at night.

They're very hard to find during the day.

What we do is -- we scan the area for a space with light coming out of it.

And I take a pointy stick -- A kebab stick works quite well.

You basically just touch the stick to the glowworm, and it comes off.

Oh, he's escaping.

Ah, got him.

And you put it into your tube and look for the next one.

Once they've got enough, they bring them back to their lab.

I lay them out on pieces of foil placed on dry ice and freeze them until I'm ready to use them.

When I want to carry out an experiment, I have to cut off their light organ on the end of their tail -- sac of those light organs -- and mush them up, then start doing a bit of biochemistry on them.

We separate out the proteins according to size.

And then test each protein for its ability to produce light.

We have a machine that can measure where the light is coming out of the samples.

Once they determine which molecules help to produce the light, they can get clues about the chemical processes at work.

There's chemical substrates...

Known as luciferin...

...that always reacts with oxygen.

But they won't react together very easily without a little bit of help.

A protein called an enzyme will hold the two molecules together in exactly the right way so that they will react together.

And it causes this small molecule to assume an excited state, where it then decays to a ground state and emits a photon.

So it's essentially like a little, tiny power plant, but on a molecular level.

Looking closer at the components of the glowworm substrate, its potential becomes brighter.

It's made out of chemicals which are different to the ones that the firefly uses.

And, so, their hypothesis is that the unique chemical components of the glowworm's glow could yield new tools.

People use bioluminescence as a tool all the time in biomedical research.

But the thing is -- with every different bioluminescence system, it has its own characteristics, and with different characteristics, you can come up with different uses for that particular system.

But that's not what keeps Dr. Krause and Dr. Sharpe interested in the glowworms.

If there are practical applications, that's great.

That's awesome.

But once you get into bioluminescence, you know, it kind of grabs you.

Whoa! Animals making light.

How do they do that?

Drones are being used by everyone, from television producers to scientists to your next-door neighbor.

As drone usage becomes more and more common, engineers continue to expand the impact this technology has on the global community.

Here to talk about the next generation of drone technology is Brian Hecht, our serial entrepreneur and adviser to many start-ups and digital-media teams, including our own.

So, you know, we see these beautiful shots in television news stories and so forth and we kind of get that, but how are drones really changing our landscape?

Well, you know, at this point, you can go into any consumer electronics store and buy a drone and fly it over your field or take some pictures, but it really takes sort of the next generation of start-ups to apply drone technology to specific problems in society.

And some of them seem almost cosmetic, and some of them are really world-changing.

Okay, one of them you're talking about is home security.

How does a drone help?

Yes. This is a company I like called Sunflower Labs.

And this may not seem like it's gonna change the world, but it is really an irritant for a lot of people.

Lots of homes have home security for exterior.

And, you know, a problem is -- you get a lot of false-negative alarms.

A deer goes across your lawn, and then when it does, a siren comes on and wakes up the whole neighborhood or alerts 911, which diverts important resources.

So, these are little lights that go in your lawn.

And it's a superior software both to detect an intrusion -- things like vibration and a more sophisticated kind of motion sensor.

But here's where the cool stuff comes in.

When it detects a threat, a drone launches from your lawn, goes exactly to where the threat is, shines lights on it, and sends you an alert so you can get a real-time video feed of what's going on on your property.

How's that for cool?

That is cool.

And then, of course, that goes back into the court record and says, 'You were clearly on my lawn at 3:30 in the morning.'

You have evidence.

And it's up to you, as the consumer, to actually trigger the 911 call or to send your neighbor over.

There are some, you know, FAA regulations about that, and you have to trigger the drone, but it's pretty amazing.

Okay. Agriculture?

Yeah. There's a company I like called Agribotix.

And they are a leader in the field called precision agriculture.

So, if you're a typical small farmer -- Big agro companies have this nailed, but if you're a small farmer -- Let's say you have a field that's a half mile by a half mile and you're going through a drought.

What do you do?

You just drench the field with water and hope that you get the problem.

But, in fact, of course, it's not uniform across an entire field.

So, they produce drones and software for the drones that allow you to the farmer himself or herself to fly the drone over the field and detect where there may be patches of dryness or infestation or where the crops might be ready to be harvested.

And that allows them to target different treatments to different areas of the field, rather than having the incredibly wasteful activity of just throwing resources at an entire, you know, square footage.

So that increases their efficiency and yield.

It increases the efficiency and yield and it also just makes their lives easier.

I mean, they don't have to plan for an entire effort every time there's a little bit of a dry patch.

Well, a lot of us get packages delivered, and we know that Amazon is working on drone delivery and these packages.

At least, that's been something that they put videos out about.

But they're not gonna be the only ones.

That's correct.

Yeah, and we all saw that news report a few years ago, on another station, about Jeff Bezos saying how Amazon was going to deliver everything in the world via drone to your front door.

But, you know, Amazon is just one company, and there's plenty of room for other companies to do it.

A company called Flirtey -- I'm not sure how they got the name.

But a company called Flirtey is another competitor.

It's very well-funded by venture capital.

And they are specializing in smaller package delivery, everything from food to medical supplies.

And, in fact, one of their pilot programs was delivering Slurpees from 7-Eleven to customers.

And, you know, again, not Earth-shattering, but I think it demonstrates how it actually can be used in real life.

There's still concerns about where you can fly a drone, right?

The FAA has strict rules.

If you're living in a big city or near an airport, you can't go 'X' number of feet up in your backyard.

That's right.

Well, I think the bigger metaphor here is -- I think it's such a big movement that you think about the coming of the automobile at the turn of the last century.

You know, people couldn't conceive -- It was so dangerous to have cars, you know, there with horses and buggies.

And how would the streets ever be safe with children playing in the streets and so forth?

And, sure enough, if the benefit to society is great enough, we figure out these problems -- the convenience, the price, and the safety, most importantly.

All right.

Brian Hecht, thanks so much for joining us.

Thank you.

And, so, what we're gonna have right here is the launch-vehicle stage adapter, which is the initial adapter above the launch vehicle.

And that also holds the upper stage that is nested inside of there so when we get into orbit, it will separate and come out of the launch-vehicle stage adapter and, again, put the crew capsule on its orbit.

Now, we're very proud of that adapter, along with the Orion stage adapter.

We built both of those adapters here at Marshall Space Flight Center, using some friction-stir-welding capability that we have here at the center.

So, the panels were made out in California.

They're a lightweight aluminum alloy.

And then they're shipped here to Marshall Space Flight Center.

And then we weld eight panels on the aft cone, eight panels on the forward cone, and then we weld the two cones together.

And then we go through an analysis phase, but then we want to make sure that analysis was accurate, so that's why we perform these structural-test articles -- so we can actually apply loads greater than what we expect to see during the mission to prove that we have sufficient margin to assure mission success.

We've been doing instrumentation for about three months on this launch launch-vehicle stage adapter, and now we're getting ready to lift it and put it on the K-Mag and transport it to the test stand.

So, once we get to the test area, we will have to de-mate it from the K-Mag.

And then we will begin the process of attaching the 300-ton mobile crane and lifting it and putting it into 4699 to test that.

And then we will apply all the loads that are required of us and collect all the data.

Then we'll turn that data over to all the stress analysis, which is NASA, Teledyne Brown Engineering, United Launch Alliance with Boeing.

So there's actually several test requesters for this test that are responsible for different pieces of the test that will collect the data and then go and do all their analysis to compare it to their models.

Facial-recognition systems are typically used to identify or verify a person for security purposes.

Now researchers at the University of North Carolina Wilmington are using facial-recognition technology as a diagnostic tool to determine health risks.

Here's the story.

And I get into the points?

Yeah, those are actual units, like I was talking about, the facial muscles.



This is a story about faces.

Well, not just my face.

So, think about a place with lots of people... say the North Carolina State Fair.

All those people, all those faces, young and old, happy and sad, and every age and expression in between.

And all those faces tell a story about that individual.

So, when we look at a face, you know, and we're trying to identify that face, again, we say, male or female, right?

Then we say roughly an age.

And then we say roughly a race.

And then we say, 'Oh, okay.

Do I know anybody who looks like these things -- this age, this gender, and this race?'

And then we start searching in our database, our brain database, of faces like that.

That's how we pick out faces in a crowd.

It's called facial recognition.

And that prompted Dr. Karl Ricanek to wonder whether a computer could do the same thing and perhaps much more.

So, we started out looking and modeling the face.

And then we discovered that, 'Wow.

There's all this other information that I can extract from a face that has nothing to do with identity.'

But if you pair it with identity, wow, we improve face recognition tremendously.

That's called facial analytics.

Researchers at the Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies in Identity Science at the University of North Carolina Wilmington have studied the face for 12 years.

They've discovered that unhealthy habits, over time, as well as certain chronic conditions leave their markers on the face.

In short, understand the factors affecting health, you'll find and understand the changes on the face.

Researchers mapped 250 landmark points on the face, and they've developed software so computers can create feature maps and analyze the findings, comparing a test subject's face to others in their category.

Take smoking.

So, if you are a long-time smoker, for example, you start to affect the face in very specific ways.

You start to develop wrinkles in certain areas of the face.

And if you think about sort of the biology of smoking, then it makes sense, because what smoking does is -- it literally dries out the dermis layer, right?

And so what happens is -- then you start to prematurely wrinkle in certain areas.

And here's another example.

Let's go back to my face.

I wanted to test the software to see if it could capture and understand something really basic -- my expressions.

...when you have a different expression.

So, for example, if you have joy, there are a set of muscles which get engaged.

And then so what you will see here is -- it will just give you whether, you know, you have sadness or surprise or you just have a neutral expression or you have fear or disgust.

So, the box that you're looking at there is a face detection.

Right here.


Okay. And it looks like it's highlighting certain areas.

Yes. And those are the landmarks.

So, after the face detection is done, it will look for your eye, it will look for your nose tip, and it will look for your mouth.

So, basically, it's registering your face.

So, the box is the first thing.

So it detects the face, and inside the box, it will look for different landmarks, basically, the different features in your face.

Because certain parts of my face register joy or disgust.

Correct. So, and those points, those red points, are used to detect different action units on your face.

Okay. All right.

So, let me get -- So, smile.

[ Laughs ] Watch the charts.

Joy registered strongly.

And the computer interpreted my lost smile as sadness.

Researchers have found a person's facial features change as their health changes.

For example, weight loss can be spotted.

So, the new focus is whether the face can be used as a healthcare tool and whether it can predict life expectancy.

I see nothing but how we can help humanity with this technology.

So, just think about it.

I mean, if we can use the face and other technologies to integrate together to come up with -- let's call it a health index that we can provide to anyone.

And all they need is a smartphone that can take a selfie, and they can start to understand what their health index is.

And they can use this health index to make changes in their life.

So, if your health index is bad, you can make those changes.

So, the beauty of the face -- I mean, it has a lot of information.

And I'm hoping that we can use that information for good.

The Tampa Electric Company has decided to harness the power of the Florida sun.

Now the Tampa Bay area is home to a new solar-power facility.

Here's the story.

This 110-acre site is the location for the newest and largest solar-power installation for the Tampa Electric Company.

The planning and construction of this project was a major undertaking.

It took us about six months to get to the point where we had a contractor on board and we had the location selected for us to move forward with the project.

It took us about another six months to get through the design phase and get the permitting in place through the different agencies and then about six months to get it built.

And we went in commercial operation in the middle of February of 2017.

Due to the proximity to a salt-water bay and being located in a hurricane/flood zone, special considerations were taken.

The site in itself has a slope of 5 feet from the front to the back.

And we had to have everything above the floodplain.

We put in over 14,000 steel posts, and because of the soil conditions, the steel posts that we used had to be galvanized, and then we had an epoxy coating on them.

And as we put everything together, we had to account for the fact that, this being a hurricane state, everything had to meet 135-mile-an-hour wind conditions.

During the construction phase, project manager Guy Morris had to make sure the job was completed on time and on budget.


One of the nice items about having a 100-acre site is -- you can have a lot of different activities going on in, you know, several spots within the facility.

Now, at any given time, we had over 200 local workers that were here doing all the installation work for the panels and the electrical underground work and all the tie-in work that we had to do.

We have a little over 202,000 modules that are on this site.

Each one of them is about 26 pounds, about 2x4 They are a thin-film technology, newest technology that works well in Florida because of our high-humidity conditions, work much better in the fact that we do have a lot of rain in Florida, and the efficiencies are higher for the location here in Florida.

One of the other things that we did is -- we ended up selecting a tracking system, where the panels rotate and follow the sun all throughout the day.

We move them in groups of 6,000 at a time.

They move 144 times throughout the day.

So, they start at an angle of 45 degrees, pointed due east, and by the end of the evening, they are pointing due west, following and tracking the sun each step of the way.

That gives us a much higher efficiency on the power output, but it also gave us additional challenges, because with the 135-mile-an-hour wind rating, we had to have a system that was robust enough to withstand any hurricanes that we might have.

And how do the sun's rays become electrical power for our homes?

The sun is hitting these thin-film solar panels.

In there, it's converted into a D.C. voltage.

Each one of the panels puts out about 114 watts of power.

We ended up with a little over 20,000 panels tied together into an inverter skid.

We had the inverter that took it from a D.C. power to an A.C.


And right next to it, we had a transformer that changed the power voltage to a voltage that we could use for transmission and to be able to tie everything together and bring it out of the station.

So, we're at a little bit less than 20 megawatts of A.C. power is what this facility puts out, which covers about 3,300 homes.


The cost of using solar has been hotly debated.

Thomas Hernandez, senior vice president of business strategies and renewables at Tampa Electric, explains why they did this project now.

Every generating technology has a cost to procure, engineer, and to build the asset, and so that can be referred to as 'overnight construction costs.'

And to compare various technologies, you would look at the cost per megawatt.

The cost of solar PV technology is relatively higher than other fossil-type units -- natural-gas or coal-fired units.

You have to look at not only the construction costs, but you also have to look at the operating costs on a dollar-per-megawatt hour or cents-per-kWh output over the life of the asset.

So, that's where solar PV is now getting more cost-competitive, compared to other traditional coal- and natural-gas-fired-type units.

And the cost for the construction of this solar field is priced at $2 per watt.

Gas-fired plants run 67 cents to $2 per watt, depending on the technology used.

Although solar photovoltaic panels offer great promise, there is a limit to how much we can depend on this energy source at the current time.

As it turns out, there is a theoretical maximum amount of solar PV generation or other renewable-type generation that can be integrated into a utility system.

And it's simply because you have to have enough other generating capacity to offset, pretty quick -- it's almost instantaneously -- the loss of your solar PV or wind power, whatever it is.

And, so, around 18% to 20% of your generating capacity is about what most utilities will target as the ceiling.


Besides big savings in fuel, there is a major benefit to the environment.

So, from a company perspective, we're able to reduce our environmental footprint by significantly reducing the air emissions, the impact on water and land.

Solar power basically has the effect of reducing our CO2, our carbon dioxide emissions, our nitrogen oxide emissions, and our sulfur dioxide emissions.

Even though we have environmental controls on all of our generating technologies, it will further reduce those emissions and reduce the operating costs for those assets.

As long as the sun's shining, it's a benefit to both the customer and to the company.


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.

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Until next time, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.