SciTech Now Episode 510

In this episode of SciTech Now, discover how researchers are developing the next generation Internet; the Holy Grail of online commerce; keeping up with the innovations of Healthcare; and the creation of metal Bubble Wrap.


[ Theme music plays ] ♪♪

Coming up, the next generation of wireless networks...

Today, it might be a 5G infrastructure, and tomorrow it might be a 6G infrastructure.

...the holy grail of online commerce...

As soon as you contact them, it knows all the other ways that you've contacted them so that the representative sees your entire conversation.

...keeping up with innovations in healthcare...

We saw that there was this need for training of surgeons who were already out in practice.

...the creation of metal bubble wrap.

Composite metal form can go through 80% compression.

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.

The next generation of healthcare professionals will be under more pressure than ever to keep up with the latest technology in health sciences.

At the same time, continued innovation in healthcare is also in demand.

One organization in Tampa, Florida, is meeting these challenges.

Here's the story.


The next generation of Internet, the way it is being envisioned, would actually connect everything to the Internet.

It could be our cars, drones, AR, VR, and the list goes on.

But the problem is, how do we invent the next-generation Internet?

The main aim for this project is to build a test bed with the researchers and both in the academic setting and the corporate setting can use to test out new ideas, which will then make the next-generation Internet a reality.

So, POWDER is an acronym for Platform for Open Wireless Data-driven Experimental Research.

It's also the name of the wireless and mobile test bed that we're building in Salt Lake City and on the campus of the University of Utah.

As we thought through what it is that we're building with Powder-RENEW, we realized that we really have a number of world firsts in terms of the way that we're approaching the problem and the actual platform that we will be building.

We have essentially four world firsts.

We have an end-to-end software-defined wireless lab environmentals.

We want to enable research in wireless and mobile technologies, but it's city scale because we need to have the scalability to do real-world experimentation at scale, and then the way we're building the platform is by making use of software-defined technologies end-to-end, and that gives us the flexibility that, you know, today it might be a 5G infrastructure, and tomorrow it might be a 6G infrastructure.

So, the second one is, we have the technologies to allow us to enable researchers from novice to expert.

So whether you're, like, an undergraduate just learning about wireless or whether you're the world expert in the space, we have the technologies and the mechanisms to support that.

Finally, the RENEW team will be providing us with very unique massive MIMO technologies.

If we put more than one antenna in one spot, for example, our cell towers, then we know that we're going to increase the data rates.

We can make the communication more reliable.

But the interesting things which we have learned in the last few years is that if you go beyond the current generation, which only uses two DU8 antennas, we put hundreds of antennas in one spot, dramatically increase the data rates and number of, you know, devices you can support, the reliability you can get.

This idea of putting hundreds of antennas in one spot is called Massive MIMO, and then Rice University is one of the first few universities which has actually built such a system, which is then going to become part of the POWDER deployment on the Utah campus.

So we're on the Honors Residence Building at the University of Utah.

This would be one of the main rooftop deployments for the RENEW Powder test bed that we're deploying here in Salt Lake City.

So we're going to have 10 sites on campus and overall, like, 18 sites between the campus and the downtown area.

So, really, what we're doing out here this morning is, we've done a lot of RF simulations to predict the coverage we would get for our deployment area, and so what we're doing this morning is we have a little rickety setup to make sure that the measurements that we get correspond to the simulation results that we got before.

Signal strength here and the signal we pick up -- See, the blue is better.

Green is getting to be a little less good.

Yellow is starting to get pretty weak, and red is almost gone, in terms of what we can pick up.

Based on that, we will, you know, finalize the actual deployment sites.

The Honors Building is sort of on the southern side of the University of Utah campus.

We have a bunch of university bus routes or shuttle routes that come by here that we hope to cover with our rooftop deployments because we will have equipment on these buses, end-point equipment, that will basically drive around and give us the mobility for our test bed.

Our colleagues are driving a car around campus, and we are actually running a transmitter station here, where we're sending a signal that they'll attempt to receive from different points and log the received signal strength to see whether this is an adequate location to use in our real deployment coming up later this year.

So this laptop here is controlling these radios, which, in turn, is connected to four antennas we've mounted along the barrier at the edge of the roof.

We'll be transmitting on two different frequencies today, and, similarly, they'll have multiple receive antennas in their car.

They are driving around following the shuttle routes that we're going to be using.

These radios are entirely software-controlled, and so the computer is actually synthesizing the waveform that is transmitted over the antennas, and then the counterpart stationed on the receive end works the same way.

We really would like to invite academic researchers, industrial researchers, people who work at national laboratories to take a look at and look at the work that we've done already and that we're planning to do and provide us input.

We're relatively early on in the process, and so we're really looking for input from people who have interesting research, use cases that might impact the way that we're finalizing the design of our platform.

Delighting customers is the holy grail of online commerce, but while it's easier than ever to buy online, the overall customer experience can still be very frustrating.

Here to talk about this is Brian Hecht, our serial entrepreneur and adviser to many start-ups and digital media teams, including our own.

Brian, what are the biggest complaints that people have when it comes to online shopping?

Well, I think they fall into a few categories.

Number one is reaching the companies where they've made a purchase in an efficient way.

Number two is, you know, knowing what to say to them and how to communicate with them, and then number three is the result.

Do they actually get what they're looking for?

You know, are they being listened to, and does the outcome meet their expectations?

Okay, you're talking about a few different start-ups that are in each of these spaces.

Let's talk about that contact in customer service.

The, 'I bought something online.

Now I'm trying to have a word with the company.'

That's right.

So, that's at a company called Gladly, and if you think about it, there's so many different ways to reach out via customer service.

Of course, there's phone and e-mail, but now you can text them, you can tweet them, you can do a Facebook Messenger to them.

And it's very frustrating when you call in.

You have to give your identity, verify, tell them your problem.

If you've reached them before, you have to tell them your problem again, and it's all very frustrating, and it leads nowhere.

So this company actually brings in all of those strands of communication.

As soon as you contact them, it knows all the other ways that you've contacted them, so that the representative, whoever it is, sees your entire conversation, and they say they turn a customer-tickets thing into a conversation with the customer.


You know, it's always so frustrating when you go through the voice-response things, and you say everything, and you press in all the codes.

You get to the person on the phone, and it's, like, they just didn't get any of that information.

Like, what did I just do that for?

Right, and you have to start from square one.

You know, another frustration, I think, is when people find lower prices after they bought the product.

Yeah, that's right.

I mean, we've all done that.

You buy something online, and you're poking around the web, not even looking, and you see, 'Oh, my god. There's something for 20% less.'

There's a company that handles that for you now.

It's called Earny, E-A-R-N-Y.

Not Ernie and Bert.

That's right.

And what they do is, they actually, once you hook into them, they find all the things you've purchased online.

They scan millions of products and prices across the web, and if they find one, even if the company has, you know, a 30-day best price match, or your credit card has a 90-day price match, they actually do the application for that for you, and they actually manage the refund for you, as well.

And they give you the money back?


They take a split, but they do give you the money back, and they do this because they actually have access to your e-mail, so they see the receipts that you're getting, and then they are allowed to actually contact the company on your behalf.

And, finally, the return process can be nightmarish, and I think, for example, the inverse, because of how easy Zappos makes it to return things, a lot of people end up shopping there because it's just easy to return shoes.

That's right. That's right.

Well, there's a company called Happy Returns, and they've found that even when there's companies that have free and easy returns, there are still issues.

You still have to re-box it up with the tape and take it to the packaging store or whatever it is, and they say, 'People actually prefer to go to a physical location.'

So they have over 100 physical locations called Return Bars, where you can go in without a package, and literally, if you bought jeans online, just drop the jeans on the desk and say, 'I want to return these.'

The person has an iPad.

They take a little bit of information, and instantly, while you're standing there, you get a credit to your credit card.

But they'll do the packing for me?

They do everything for you.

And, actually, they are housed inside other stores, and the stores where they are love it because they're getting foot traffic from people who are known to buy these kinds of things.

All right.

Brian Hecht, thanks so much.

Thank you.

So, you want to study Mars with a lander or rover, but where exactly do you send it?

It's a tricky question for engineers and scientists.

You want it all -- to land, work, and discover.

To land safely means no high-elevation sites, where there isn't enough atmosphere to slow you down in time, and try to avoid places with steep slopes or big rocks that could damage something.

You also don't want to sink into a thick layer of dust.

Working is easier near the equator, where seasons aren't so extreme and where solar panels can get lots of sun, and, of course, don't send a rover somewhere it can't drive.

Most important is what you want to discover.

Some sites are great for studying rock layers.

Others might be perfect to listen for quakes.

Using Mars orbiters, you can collect lots of data on potential sites.

When you find the best spot to land, work and discover, you've found your new home on Mars.

The next generation of healthcare professionals will be under more pressure than ever to keep up with the latest technology in health sciences.

At the same time, continued innovation in healthcare is also in demand.

One organization in Tampa, Florida, is meeting these challenges.

Here's the story.

When new technologies were coming out and some of those that we were currently researching and were involved with on the research side, we saw that there was this need for training of surgeons who were already out in practice.

Well, we actually renovated an existing building back in 2014.

We opened what we now call FIVE Labs, and it started out as the Florida Innovation and Education Labs.

Any new endeavor has its risks.

When we expanded and opened this facility, it was a huge jump in terms of our overhead and the expenditures, and so, yes, I had lots of sleepless nights.

It was one of those things that you worry, like, 'Okay.

Is this gonna pan out the way that you thought it was gonna pan out?'

All their planning and development has panned out.

With the Tampa International Airport, hotels, and restaurants conveniently nearby, FIVE Labs has become a major destination for training surgeons.

The way we designed it, we wanted everything to flow seamlessly so that you can have a group in the auditorium, let's say, and have a teacher in the lab that's doing a procedure, and everybody who's in the auditorium can watch it from the comfort of their seat, and they can ask questions in real time.

At the heart of FIVE Labs is a state-of-the-art training facility.

Director Joe Leonard has witnessed the evolution of progress here.

The laboratory space is actually just under 3,000 square feet.

There is over 28 lights in this room and two in the room next door to us here, so we can handle up to 28 stations, 30 stations, depending on what the equipment is, but most events are usually around maybe five to 15 stations.

And the most we've ever done in here is 24 shoulder stations with about maybe 100 to 120 people.

We have enough equipment here, kind of like a small hospital.

We have a ton of, you know, bandages, drapes, you know, different types of knife blades, different types of saw blades.

Behind me, you have an arthroscope, which is a kind of minimally invasive surgical procedure machine, and then there's a C-arm, which is actually a mobile X-ray machine that we can kind of bring into the field and utilize that to get imaging during our labs and during our events.

The skills learned here go far beyond these walls.

They'll take this back from here, and they may teach one of their colleagues or one of their residents kind of something they learned at one of these events that may better them in their practice, so it's kind of like a, you know, a 'six degrees of separation' kind of thing.

You know, the education they learn here may go help, you know, 20, 30 people and even more patients that come through their operating room.

Yet all this learning at FIVE Labs is only the beginning.

Continuing Medical Education Director Janine Hartfield leads the training efforts throughout the United States.

We do approximately 40 CME activities nationally.

Last year, we provided training to about 4,000 medical professionals.

About 2,500 of those were physicians and the others were allied health professionals.

And it all starts with a plan.

As part of doing a continuing medical education activity, you have to determine the reason for that activity, what they call a gap analysis -- why you need to do this activity, what gap is it filling, and then, derived from there, your objectives.

FIVE Labs is also focused on research.

Visiting surgeons and device makers partner in all areas of product development.

We wanted to in-house all of that.

We wanted to have our lab here so that when the surgeons are meeting with us and collaborating with us, they can actually go into the lab and say, 'Okay, here's what I'm thinking.'

And at the same token, when there's a problem, which happens a lot in these testing protocols, the engineers, they are faced with a problem, and so they need sometimes to talk to the surgeon to say, 'Okay, is this relevant to the experimental design?'

We also have medical device companies that have partnered with us and with our design engineer, Sergio, to do some early prototype work and to help facilitate the early design process.

Biomedical engineer Sergio Gutierrez collaborates with surgeons and device makers to develop the latest products for orthopedic surgery.

I can develop the idea that the surgeon has, but I also have to know where that idea is going, meaning what part of the body it's going to be used in or around.

So it's the knowledge that I gain from, you know, doing biomedical engineering that's helped me to know those things.

He works with FIVE Labs Biomechanics Research Manager Miguel Diaz.

Here in the biomechanics lab, we work with mainly orthopedic biomechanics and the medical device industry.

Behind me, we have the servo-hydraulic testing machine, but what we mainly do is we test different cadaveric bones as well as composite bones.

We always talk to clinicians.

They tell us what's wrong with the current products, and we always try to innovate those things, and the best way to do this is use a 3-D prototyper.

We 3-D print these objects, and we test it out and see if they work.

The work here is all about better outcomes for patients.

We are testing, and we're simulating what a patient would have after they leave from surgery, so we take this data, and we give it back to the surgeon, and they have a better idea on how they can treat their patients.

And by having the testing capabilities here, the prototyping capabilities, and then ultimately the bio-skills lab, where you can do some proof-of-concept testing and trial and error, having all that in one facility, it reduces the amount of time that's necessary for the different iterations of the devices and solutions.

Creating cutting-edge technology comes with both risk and reward.

If there is a chance that complications will increase with new technologies, that's a problem.

The doctors don't want to have a complication.

Medical device companies don't want there to be a complication.

If I was a patient, I would want to know that the doctor that was going to operate on me, you know, not only was experienced but had been through some training events prior to doing my surgery.

So that's ultimately why it's so important, is that we know that by practicing and doing these more that it can reduce the chance of complications, and that's what you would want.

That's what is good for the whole healthcare system.

[ Computer keys clacking ]

Bubble Wrap may be getting a much-needed upgrade.

A new design of Bubble Wrap with a composite metal foam is being created to better absorb impact.

Here's a look.

[ Bubble Wrap popping ]

It's the same concept, again, coming back to Bubble Wrap.

When you wrap your vase, glass, a jar around, that cushion ability come from those bubbles is what protect your material and the same concept here, the cushion ability of these hollow spheres but in a higher stress level.

So think again about Bubble Wrap.

The packing material works because the air pockets in the wrap absorb the energy of an impact by changing the shape of the bubble.

The same is true for cardboard and Styrofoam and packing foam.

The packing material may be crushed, but the cushions of air, the spaces between the material, absorbs the energy of an impact.

It's that concept that inspired the creation of composite metal foam.

What we did was to introduce the same concept to metals, and now we have the impact protection because of the porosities inside, exact same concept as Bubble Wrap or Styrofoam box for egg carrying, but this time, you have it against much heavier impacts, and the same concept with heat.

We put our material against fire.

Just watch.

The metal foam is on the left.

The blast is from a high-explosive incendiary round.

It's hitting the metal foam at 5,000 feet per second.

The shells were shattered.

The foam was hardly damaged.

So this is the armor-piercing.


That's what they fired, and that's what was left of it?


After it hit your foam?

Yeah, we actually collected this from the sample.

I was eager to see how it works, so I was so tense, and then once I heard that it didn't hit, so I kind of relaxed, but, you know, my last test was against very, very large bullets, something, you know, in these kind of size.



And these are really large, and when it actually stopped a bullet this size with 10 layer of the material we had, I just ran, and I hugged the guy who shot my sample.

He shot your foam.

And he's such a nice guy.

He's like, everybody congratulating.

Again, just like in Bubble Wrap, the strength in metal foam lies within those spaces.

This is the first time I could show that composite metal foam can go through 80% compression without damaging, so you can see that all the spheres here are squeezed down and absorbed the impact or compressive energy.

Going from this size to that size was kind of...

That size to that size?

To that size, yes.

Everything was compressed, but that's because it absorbed the energy?


It absorbed the energy.

It's exactly what I told you earlier about the Bubble Wrap, squeezing down, press the bubble or something like... This one, all the spheres are squeezed down and absorb the energy.

So this was the beginning of my story, when I could do this without this falling apart or bulging or cracking.

You knew you had something.

I knew I had something.

I called my family.

I said, 'Oh, it squeezed down to 80%,' and there were like, 'Uh-huh.'

[ Both laugh ]

'Okay. Who cares?'

No, they care, but they didn't really know, what does that mean, but it's a, 'Okay, congratulations.'

[ Both laugh ]

But it turns out those spaces not only make the foam strong, the spaces also reduce the weight.

This is made of stainless steel.

Here is almost 1,200 gram, and this one is almost 400, so it's almost a third.

Right, a third the weight but stronger.


It's much more energy absorption.

It's almost two order of magnitude energy absorption, higher energy absorption in compression, mostly in compression because those spheres are giving the cushion ability.

That's what makes my material unique.

The spheres are distributed uniformly, and they are the same size, and there is a matrix in between the spheres that strengthen the spheres.

Strong and lightweight is a good combination.

The metal foam can also be customized to fit the application, adjusting weight, thickness and shape.


So this time, I'm showing you aluminum with aluminum-steel composite foam, meaning that the matrix in between the spheres is made of aluminum, and then the spheres inside it is made of a steel.

So this is an aluminum-steel composite foam.

This one, the aluminum block, is 300 gram, and the other one, the composite foam, is almost half.

More tests with the military are planned.

Metal foam could also be used by law enforcement, emergency personnel, hazardous materials operations.

In fact, the list of possible applications is almost endless.

I am super excited.

I cannot sleep at night because I keep thinking, 'How am I going to take it to the market?

How am I going to help this technology to reach where it, you know, where it should be?'

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...