FPS-Hosted Sessions at the APS March Meeting

Philip Taylor and Brian Schwartz

The annual March meeting of the APS was held at the Dallas Convention Center from March 21-25, 2011. FPS hosted or co-hosted sessions on Robotics; Science, Art and Culture; and K-12 Outreach and Engagement. The following paragraphs briefly summarize the papers presented. The complete scientific program of the meeting can be found at http://meetings.aps.org/Meeting/MAR11/Content/2061. Summaries of all sessions were not available at press time.

Session P8: The Physics, Technology, and Future of Robotics. This session was co-sponsored with the Forum on Industrial and Applied Physics and was organized by Brian Schwartz and chaired by Philip Taylor. The session comprised four talks, each of which presented a slightly different view of the progress that physicists have helped make in robotics in the past few years. The first speaker was Randy Dumse, who was a physics student at the University of Northern Iowa and a naval officer before forming his own electronics component company in the 1980s.  In a talk entitled “Where’s the Physics in Robotics?” he described a problem he solved for the movie industry, which needed a method of automating the way a camera operator pans and zooms a movie camera. It was necessary to have a movable boom sturdy enough to support an elevated camera operator so that the right camera angles and distances could be achieved. With Randy’s device it was possible to use a much cheaper and more agile boom that carried only the camera, while a computer automatically pointed and focused to get the desired artistic effect. 

The next talk was by Paul Bouchier, a firmware architect and president of the Dallas Personal Robotics Group. His talk, “Recent Advances in Robotics and Career Opportunities for Physicists”, described some of the most significant advances in robotic systems over the last year in the areas of autonomous and partly autonomous robots. Robots have been thought of as “dumber than a dog”, in that they don’t defend themselves, but this may be changing. Within the United States, most of the advances made outside academia are in support of national defense. We saw some amazing movies of tiny insect-like helicopters flying at great speed and with alarming precision through tiny windows. Within academia there is now a movement towards open-source robotics programs, which should do for robotics what Linux did for computing.

The third talk was “Physics and Robotic Sensing -- the good, the bad, and approaches to making it work”, given by Brian Huff from the University of Texas at Arlington. He started by telling us how some of the technological advances that have benefited consumer electronics have direct application to robotics. These have resulted in a dramatic reduction in size, cost, and weight of computing systems, while simultaneously doubling computational speed every eighteen months. The same manufacturing advancements that have enabled this rapid increase in computational power are now being leveraged to produce small, powerful and cost-effective sensing technologies applicable for use in mobile robotics applications.  The inertial sensors that trigger air bags to inflate in cars, for example, can provide cheap components for robotic navigation.  However, despite the increase in computing and sensing resources available to today’s robotic systems developers, there are sensing problems typically found in unstructured environments that continue to frustrate the widespread use of robotics and unmanned systems.  As we switch from the blind one-armed robot on the production line to autonomous vehicles or automated health-maintenance devices, the need for more intelligent, inexpensive, and robust sensors grows. A particular example where this need is felt is in the effort to build expendable robots capable of clearing minefields.

Finally, Steve Rainwater of the Network Cybernetics Corporation described “Robot Competitions Around the World”, of which there are now more than 1,000 every year. Some of these robots are lawnmowers, vacuum cleaners and sailboats, while some operate in the air or underwater. The goal is to make them able to assist or to compete with humans. Examples include the robotic bartender who dispenses cocktails and conversation, or the human exoskeleton that can be donned to win weightlifting competitions. Steve concluded the session with some more amazing movies showing how much progress has been made in developing robotic rats that can run through a maze at staggering speeds. The computational speed is so fast that in order to maximize the acceleration around corners it was necessary to increase the friction of the robot’s wheels with the ground. This was achieved by installing under the belly of the robotic rat a vacuum pump that sucked it to the floor of the maze, and enabled accelerations much greater then that due to gravity!

Session H8: Science, Art, and Culture. This session was chaired by Brian Schwartz of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and featured four talks. A review of parts of the session appeared in the Dallas Observer Blog. The first speaker was David Hanson of Hanson Robotics, who spoke on “Robotics in the World of Entertainment.” Hanson is a builder of robots that simulate human beings. He displayed a robotic head and upper-body based on his favorite science fiction author, Philip K. Dick, who wrote the novel on which the movie Blade Runner was based and wherein humans and robots are indistinguishable. Hanson also described a flexible material which he patented and named Frubber. The robot’s face is made of Frubber, and 28 tiny motors are programmed to enable the face develop very realistic expressions. Further information can be found at http://hansonrobotics.wordpress.com/ and http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/tech/social-robots.html.

The second speaker in this session was Stephen Wharton, who is an engineer and director of new technology for the Tulsa-based company Winnercomm. Wharton spoke on “XPower plus the Physics of Rodeo.” Winnercomm provides technology for better visualization of sports programming for ESPN and other network sporting events. Wharton described a puck-sized sensing device he developed which can be put on the rear of a bucking bull and which measures the g-forces that a rider will experience. He showed that the data can be used to quantify the degree of difficulty of riding the bull and can be used in the scoring of bulls and bull riders. For more information, see http://www.cablecam.com/AboutUs.aspx?id=94 and http://www.usatoday.com/tech/news/techinnovations/2006-09-05-rodeo-tech_x.htm.

The third talk was titled “Singing Tesla Coils”, and was presented by Joe DiPrima. DiPrima plays in the band ArcAttack that constructs Tesla coils that become part of the band’s sound. Two custom engineered Tesla coils throw out electrical arcs up to twelve feet long with buzz-like sounds reminiscent of the early days of synthesizers. ArcAttack's six member band plays rhythmic instrumental melodies while a robotic drum set accompanies them. During the show, the band MC walks through the sparks of the Tesla coils wearing a thin-layer Faraday suit. For more information see http://www.arcattack.com  and http://gizmodo.com/5367329/arcattack-lightning+proof-musicians-share-their-tesla-coil-secrets.

The last speaker in this session was Davey Griffen of Texas A & M University, who spoke on “The Science of Barbecue (Texas Style).” Griffin is associate professor in the Department of Animal Science at Texas A & M who is a meat specialist and teaches a course on The Art and Science of Barbeque. Davey described the different cuts of beef and why slow cooking in a moist environment helps tenderize and break up the collagen, which holds the protein muscle fibers together, by liquefying it into soft gelatin. Davey also joked that slow cooking gives the diner more time to drink beer. Davey also suggested a number of first-rate barbeque restaurants in the Dallas area. For more information see http://animalscience.tamu.edu/facultystaff/faculty/griffin.htm and http://www.nbbqa.org/_pdf/BBQ101_2009_Downloadable.pdf

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.