Scitech Now Episode 422

In this episode of SciTech Now, we learn about the adventures of hurricane hunters; we take a look at soft robotics; we visit a tech kitchen for kids; and go inside a Texas company creating holographic toys.



Coming up, the adventures of hurricane hunters.

This tail Doppler radar gives us a cross section through the entire storm environment.

It's akin to looking at a cake and taking a nice slice through it and looking at all the layers of that cake.

A breakthrough in soft robotics.

It's a very lightweight device, but it acts like a muscle.

It expands and contracts.

Go inside a tech kitchen.

So, I've always thought, 'Okay, how do we introduce more girls, more children in rural areas of the country to tech in a way that feels approachable and accessible and fun.

The hologram you hold in your hand.

We're taking the real-world view and imposing digital imagery on top of that.

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.

To track a hurricane, forecasters rely heavily on the work of hurricane hunters, who fly directly into the eye of the storm in order to collect vital data.

In this segment, we meet the hurricane hunters and find out about the specialized aircraft and instruments that make these missions possible.

We'll generally fly into the eye, and then it will take us two hours to do it again.

So we'll fly out and then back through, so a triangle pattern in between.

And what we're doing is -- we're collecting data around the perimeter of the storm.

Most people avoid severe storms.

Hurricane hunters fly precise routes tropical storms.

Each storm is different and each storm is a living, breathing thing.

It's going through a life cycle, right?

So it's enhancing and gets to a mature stage and then, eventually, it dissipates.

The data collected by the flight crew and weather crew on the plane is the only way to precisely locate the eye of the storm.

It's called fixing the eye.

Because the only data that they have available to them to forecast, at that point, is satellite data.

They can see what they think could be the eye, but the eye will generally -- It will dissipate and redevelop.

So they need to find that exact center, because they put that information and that pressure into their forecast models, and that generates better models, better forecasts.

The modified C-130 propeller-driven aircraft fly through the eye wall at the center of the storm, crisscrossing it multiple times from 1,000 to 10,000 feet.

So, a lot of data is gathered from the aircraft itself.

We have sensors on the airplane unlike any other C-130 that help us gather weather data.

But then one of the main instruments we do use to drop out of the bottom of the airplane is called the sonde, or a dropsonde.

And it falls under a drogue parachute.

It falls at about 2,500 feet per minute.

And then as it falls, several times a second, it's sampling pressure, temperature, humidity, and wind speed.

So we get a nice vertical profile of the atmosphere, from the altitude of the aircraft down to the surface of the ocean.

The data will be used in creating the forecast track for the storm.

Typically, we'll drop one in the eye wall, in bound into the center, we'll drop one in the center, and then we'll drop another one in the eye wall, outbound from the storm.

If we notice something interesting, like some maximum winds or a strong rainband, we'll drop one in those, as well.

Typically, in any storm, we're dropping about a dozen, maybe 15 of those dropsondes.

All of that information is vital to forecasters because of the way a hurricane forms and grows.

Hurricanes are born in areas where vast stretches of ocean are warmed to 82 degrees.

Warm, moist air rises over those hot spots, creating thunderstorms.

Upper-level and surface winds come together to form circular clouds and a tropical depression.

That's the signature spinning cloud pattern.

That central area of the spinning clouds becomes the eye of the storm.

It has the lowest pressure and it's calm.

The surrounding eye wall has the highest winds.

As the air from the sea surface is pulled in towards the eye, it rises and cools, releasing moisture and heat.

The heat causes the air to rise farther.

That continues building and driving the hurricane.

It's also why so much rain comes with a tropical storm.

The storms are pushed by trade winds.

However, once a hurricane arrives over cold water or land, the energy supply is cut.

The storm breaks apart.

Hurricanes are not just a point on the map, and the deadly hazards can occur far from the center, outside of the cone, and then it's not just about wind.

You know, we think of tropical storms and hurricanes as these big wind machines, right?

And the wind can be damaging and deadly.

But 9 out of 10 people who die in U.S. land-falling tropical systems die due to water.

The goal for a meteorologist is to see what is happening in the storm, as well as the surrounding ocean and atmosphere.

That data helps researchers better forecast what the storm will do next.

And that's why as one team of hurricane hunters flies through the storm, there's another team flying around the storm.

This tail Doppler radar gives us a cross section through the entire storm environment.

It's akin to looking at a cake and taking a nice slice through it and looking at all the layers of that cake.

We can look at all the layers of the storm from 45,000 feet, down to the surface of the ocean.

Commander Doug MacIntyre pilots this modified Gulfstream jet.

He grew up in Durham.

We can not only study the storm itself but actually study the air and weather systems that surround the storm.

My best example of this is for Hurricane Matthew.

We were able to take off out of Saint Croix, fly into the Atlantic Ocean, sample the air mass in the Atlantic, circumnavigate the entire storm, getting all the readings and data from the storm environment, and then transit over to the Gulf of Mexico, sampling the air mass there.

NOAA meteorologists say the data from hurricane-hunter teams provides a complete picture of a hurricane.

And that can increase the accuracy of forecasts by 30%.

We are not here, you know, at a popularity contest.

We're here to, you know, protect lives and property.

And so when we say it's gonna be bad, you know, people really need to take heed.


The emerging field of soft robotics deals with development of robots comprised of materials similar to those found in living organisms, like the creation of a synthetic soft-muscle tissue.

Joining us to discus this development is Hod Lipson, professor of mechanical engineering and data science at Columbia University.

So, what we're looking at in front of us on a desk here is a soft muscle?

Explain that to me.

How does that work?

Yeah, what you see here is a basic device.

It's soft and it's electrically actuated.

And when you pass current through this small device, at a fairly low voltage, it expands and can expand up to nine times in volume.

So, it's a very lightweight device, but it acts like a muscle.

It expands and contracts.

It's about 15 times stronger than a natural muscle.

And it's -- You know, I think it's opening the door to a lot of new possibilities when it comes to soft robotics.

So, give me some of those possibilities.

15 times stronger -- you kind of had me at that there.

So what is something that that soft muscle could do that it's much harder for a human to do?

It's -- When we talk about strength of muscles, we usually talk about sort of strength per weight.

So, of course, a larger muscle can always lift more, the question -- how much can it lift per gram of its own material?

And this thing can lift at least 1,000 times its own weight, which is -- You know, you can imagine it opens up quite a few possibilities -- not necessarily in terms of how much can it lift, but also the fact that you can sort of make it small enough and still useful.

You can shape it in lots of different ways.

It really, you know, opens up some new possibilities for us.

So, if you -- And you've got wires coming out both sides, meaning that's where the electricity goes through.

And it's similar to how our own muscles work, that there's impulses.

There's electrical current that's running through us.

When we want to contract a muscle, those kind of pulses are happening really, really quickly.

So, here, this is actually -- You know, the analogy, I think, is actually sort of more of a steam engine.

So, the way this muscle works is actually very, very simple.

It's just a mixture of silicone, sort of the soft silicone you use, you know, to seal windows and alcohol.

And you mix those in an 80/20 ratio.

And what happens when you pass current through this device, the tiny, tiny droplets of alcohol in the silicone boil and they become sort of balloons and they expand.

And you get a lot of force from that.

You start passing that current, they shrink back and become liquid again, and it's back to its original size.

And because they are very, very small, they can expand and contract fairly quickly, and the whole cycle sort of is repeatable.

So, it's a very simple device.

It sort of looks a little bit like a natural muscle, but the physics behind it are very different, but the effect is sort of equivalent.

So, how does this compare to other kind of soft muscles -- or artificial muscles, I should say -- that are being developed out there?

So, you know, the whole field of soft robotics is expanding rapidly.

People are looking at all kinds of things.

But, usually, when you see a soft robot doing fascinating things, usually, what you don't see is -- right off the screen, there is a big compressor supplying air pressure.

There's all these tubes with this whole mechanism outside.

And that sort of makes it that the soft robot is rarely -- You know, it can rarely move untethered.

It's always hooked up to some big device.

Alternatively, you might see soft robots that have hard motors inside, metal, conventional electromechanical motors.

So all of these things are sort of unsatisfying, in terms of soft robotics.

They don't really sort of allow you to make this soft robot that can move untethered.

So, that's, I'd say, the main difference.

This is sort of a new kind of material.

It's not a device.

It's actually material.

If you cut this in half, it still works.

It's not sort of a system with all kinds of things in it.

It's just the material.

You can 3-D-print it, you can cast it, you can cut it, you can do anything you want, and you can shape this into any structure you want, and you can actuate it electrically, which, for robotics, is a really important thing, because that means you can start embedding it and controlling it, electronically, and so on.

So, you know, really, this is an important piece of a puzzle, which is, you know, how you make robots that are entirely soft.

Give me an example.

I mean, how much electricity would it take to actually expand that thing.

Is it a tiny Double-'A' battery, a 9-volt battery, or more?

No, no.

You can do this with a double-'A' battery pretty easily.

Sort of the real question is how fast you want to expand this.


It's the speed which governs the power.

But in terms of voltage and current, it's pretty low voltage and low current, which means, again, it's compatible with most electronic devices, with most controllers, and so on, the sort of things you find in conventional robotic systems.

How far out are we from a future where soft robots are kind of interacting with us?

I mean, this is, as you said, a new material that could help advance the field, but where is that field headed.

How are we gonna see soft robots?

So, you know, that's a great question.

And I would say, in general, the field of soft robotics is fairly new.

For many reasons, it hasn't been making a lot of progress, and part of it is because, I think, there haven't been good actuators that can actuate those kinds of soft robots.

It's more difficult to control.

Rigid bodies -- we can calculate exactly where they're gonna go.

When it comes to soft things, it's more challenging.

So it's a field that's sort of nascent at this point.

But I think, in general, if you look at biology, you'll see much -- You know, most animals are soft or at least have soft components in them, and that allows them to do a lot of things that the hard, rigid robots can't or animals.

So I think we're heading towards sort of lots and lots of different applications of soft robots that we haven't yet imagined, all the way from human-machine interaction to the medical applications.

But it's really, you know, still a nascent field, so it's difficult to know.

All right.

Hod Lipson, professor of mechanical engineering and data science at Columbia University.

Thanks for joining us.

My pleasure.

STEM education is an imperative for 21st century students.

Up next, a tech entrepreneur combines learning, food, and fun, taking her creation on the road to share with cities nationwide.

Here's the story.

A special restaurant is popping up in cities across the country.

Sue's Tech Kitchen teaches kids science, technology, engineering, and math through a universally loved medium -- snacks.

The unique space is the brainchild of Randi Zuckerberg, head of Zuckerberg Media and creator of the kids TV show 'Dot.', which features a young, tech-savvy girl who loves problem-solving.

I have a real passion for creating girl characters that help to inspire.

And I kept dreaming up this girl, Sue, who loves cooking and loves science.

She's always thinking of these zany ways to combine the two -- you know, blowing up stuff in her kitchen and inventing things.

And I thought, 'Well, Sue wouldn't have a TV show.

She'd have a restaurant.

She would invite her friends to come to her kitchen and see how she's 3-D-printing chocolate and putting different ingredients together in wild ways.'

And, so, we decided, 'All right, we're just gonna open her restaurant,' and here we are.

Zuckerberg hasn't put a face to her character because she doesn't want to define what a tech-kitchen entrepreneur looks like.

But she is adamant that a female name be on the marquee.

Because I think, in today's society, you walk into -- You know, it's like Mickey Mouse, Willy Wonka, Chuck E. Cheese.

Anything that's fun and innovative have boys's names on the marquee.

I want boys and girls alike to have an amazing time in this space, and they will, but I think it does something to the psychology of little girls to know, 'Okay, I'm going to a high-tech space, and there's a girl's name on it.'

And Sue's Tech Kitchen is high-tech.

There are virtual-reality and 4-D video stations, Piper Craft kits that teach kids engineering through the game 'Minecraft,' and Cubetto, a wooden robot from the toy company Primo that teaches the basics of coding.

Of course, it wouldn't be a tech kitchen without food.

Kids can do edible science experiments, make healthy cookies, and even 3-D-print pancakes and s'mores.

As of now, Sue's Tech Kitchen won't be a permanent fixture in any one city.

The restaurant is a pop-up experience on a nationwide tour.

Zuckerberg sees a strong STEM education as key for the job seekers of the future, and she fears that millions of kids across the country without access to a solid STEM education or even reliable Wi-Fi could be left behind.

So, I've always thought, 'Okay, how do we introduce more girls, more children in rural areas of the country to tech in a way that feels approachable and accessible and fun'? Because if you can't kind of force kids to go to the tech, sometimes, you have to bring it to them.

Zuckerberg is a parent herself, so she knows what technology children find cool.

And she also knows why the word 'technology' sometimes makes parents cringe.

Parents are really divided on the role of tech in their own household.

They know that they need to introduce tech to their kids, but then they're worried about too much screen time.

So one of my big visions for this space is -- I wanted to show that there are thousands of ways to introduce children to technology that never once involves a screen.

Zuckerberg says Sue's Tech Kitchen will continue to grow and change as it tours the country.

Already, more activity stations have been introduced, and evening hours have been added so adults can get in on the fun.

We had, you know, young adults come on date nights and things, and we'd talk to them and say, 'Okay, why are you here?

We built this as a family experience.'

And they would say, 'Well, I really want to learn about tech, too, and this seemed like a really approachable, fun way to learn about it.'

So we're opening up on Friday nights for 21-plus, so you can come, you know, have a cocktail, enjoy the space.

And do something you can't really do at a fancy restaurant -- play with your food.

Sue's Tech Kitchen will set up shop in 10 cities over the course of 2018.

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.

A San Antonio, Texas, company has developed the world's first holographic toy to allow you to hold a hologram in your hand, changing the way we interact with the virtual world.

Here's a look.

Merge Cube is the world's first holographic object, and what we're doing is merging the physical and the digital.

As well as with augmented reality, we're merging kind of the real and the unreal, if you will.

We're taking the real-world view and imposing digital imagery on top of that.

So, the Merge Cube is an interactive toy that we've developed that allows you to hold holograms in your hand.

So, you hold it in your hand, and when you're wearing a Merge headset or any kind of V.R.

headset and you look at it, it actually comes to life.

It's 'Star Wars' technology in a modern-day product that we're releasing this summer.

For a long time, we've had these holograms that you can look at and sort of, kind of walk around or sort of see from a distance, but this is the first product that you're gonna actually be able to touch and hold and feel.

And so that adds sort of this level of interaction that makes it really compelling and really interesting.

So, virtual reality is kind of what you see a lot of people doing.

When they put on the headset, they sort of enter a completely virtual world.

So they can look around the world, they can interact with the world in different ways, but it completely seals them off from the real world.

What augmented reality is -- or what people are calling it sort of -- is the idea that you see the real world and then you overlay sort of virtual components on top of the real world.

So, for example, if I was gonna build some sort of augmented-reality interaction with you here, I would see you, but then maybe I would see a heads-up display next to your head that says your name, your birthday, where you're from, the things you like, the things you don't.

So, that's kind of augmented reality, this idea of the real world but with information added on top.

All right, Jeremy, what are we looking at here?

So, this is the Merge Cube, and this is how it works.

What we have here is -- we have the physical cube behind the camera.


And then we're showing you here, on a tablet, the digital layer that's added on top of the cube.

So, in this case, we have kind of a fantasy castle, and when you tap on it, it shoots out fireworks.

And it's pretty cool.

But you can actually grab it, and you see my hand here actually assisting and turning it, like it's a hologram right here in the palm of my hand, so it's pretty cool.

So, you're merging, as we talked about, the virtual world, which is the world of the cube, merged with the real world, which is you and your hand and the room we're in right now.

I can take the human skull and superimpose it on top of this cube, and it does a couple of interesting things.

First, I can connect with it and I can control it and look at it, you know, up and down from every different possible angle, number one, but also, number two, what's been really gratifying is that although we have you holding a cube in your hand, you actually have your brain fooled into feeling a skull in your hand, in the example of the anatomy viewer.

I think it's gonna be used in classrooms to do things like anatomy viewers, viewing the periodic table of the elements, viewing astronomical bodies, for example.

I think it will be used a lot in entertainment and gaming.

But some of the other things that we've been approached about by others is architects and engineers using it as a visualization tool, where they can take something simple out into the field and show their client or perspective client.

Hey, here's the building or the car or whatever it is that I want to build for you, or here's a progress report, and they can actually look at it, again, you know, from every possible angle, manipulate it, and really kind of have fun, you know, have fun connecting with it, but also learn a lot.

One thing that we've found with virtual reality, augmented reality, in general, is that it's just that extra dimension adds emotions in a way that's far more powerful than anything that has ever existed before.

And so one of the things that we really see the cube being used for is connecting with something emotionally, not just, you know, something I'm kind of visualizing.

And we've actually seen people experience that when we put, you know, a hologram in their hand.

And, sometimes, it's something fun, and sometimes, as you've seen with the anatomy viewer, you know, they really kind of are in awe and really kind of profoundly connect with it.

It's like, 'Oh, this is what my skull looks like.

Here are the different parts.'

And it's something that you almost kind of see almost a little bit of a tear, you know, when they walk away.

It's like, 'You know, look how beautiful this thing is.

[ Laughs ] That is awesome.

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.