Tag Archives: science

This lower-limb exoskeleton is controlled by staring at flickering LEDs

Scientists have developed a brain-computer interface for controlling a lower limb exoskeleton.

As recent experiments have shown, exoskeletons hold great promise in assisting those who have lost the use of their legs to walk again. However, for those who are quadriplegic, diagnosed with a motor neuron disease or have suffered a spinal cord injuries, hand control is not an option. To overcome this barrier, researchers at Korea University and TU Berlin have developed a brain-computer interface that can command a lower limb exoskeleton by decoding specific signals from within the user’s mind.


This is achieved by wearing electroencephalogram (EEG) cap, which enables a user to move forwards, turn left and right, sit and stand simply by staring at one of five flickering LEDs, each representing a different action. Each of the lights flicker at a different frequency, and when the user focuses their attention on a specific LED, this frequency is reflected within the EEG readout. This signal is then identified and used to control the exoskeleton.

The exoskeleton control system consists of a few parts: the exoskeleton, an ATmega128 MCU powered visual stimuli generator and a signal processing unit. As the team notes, a PC receives EEG data from the wireless EEG interface, analyzes the frequency information, and provides the instructions to the robotic exoskeleton.


This method is suitable for even those with no capacity for voluntary body control, apart from eye movements, who otherwise would not be able to control a standard exoskeleton. The researchers believe that their system offers a much better signal-to-noise ratio by separating the brain control signals from the surrounding noise of ordinary brain signals for more accurate exoskeleton operation.

“Exoskeletons create lots of electrical ‘noise,’” explains Professor Klaus Muller, an author on the paper that has been published in the Journal of Neural Engineering. “The EEG signal gets buried under all this noise — but our system is able to separate not only the EEG signal, but the frequency of the flickering LED within this signal.”


The control system could serve as a technically simple and feasible add-on to other devices, with EEG caps and hardware now emerging on the consumer market. According to the researchers, it only took volunteers a few minutes to get the hang of using the exoskeleton. Because of the flickering LEDs, participants were carefully screened and those suffering from epilepsy were excluded from the study. The team is now working to reduce the ‘visual fatigue’ associated with long-term use.

“We were driven to assist disabled people, and our study shows that this brain control interface can easily and intuitively control an exoskeleton system — despite the highly challenging artefacts from the exoskeleton itself,” Muller concludes.

Those wishing to learn more can read the entire paper here, or watch the brain-controlled exoskeleton in action below.

[Images: Korea University / TU Berlin]

This cockroach-inspired robot can make its way through obstacles

These cockroach-like robots could be used for everything from monitoring fields to search and rescue missions.

Inspired by discoid cockroaches, researchers at UC Berkeley have created a robot that can use its body shape to slip through tight spaces using natural parkour moves. Equipped with the insect’s characteristic rounded shell, the running robot can successfully complete a grass-like obstacle course, without the need for additional sensors or motors.

(Source: UC Berkeley)

(Source: UC Berkeley)

The Berkeley team, led by postdoctoral researcher Chen Li, hopes that the robot will one day inspire the design of future terrestrial robots that can be used in any number of applications, ranging from search and rescue operations to monitoring the environment. While many terrestrial robots have been developed with the ability to avoid obstacles in the past, very few have ever actually traversed them.

“The majority of robotics studies have been solving the problem of obstacles by avoiding them, which largely depends on using sensors to map out the environment and algorithms that plan a path to go around obstacles,” Li explains. “However, when the terrain becomes densely cluttered, especially as gaps between obstacles become comparable or even smaller than robot size, this approach starts to run into problems as a clear path cannot be mapped.”

(Source: UC Berkeley)

(Source: UC Berkeley)

Whereas many robots are able to work on flat surfaces with a few obstacles, in nature, cockroaches and other small animals often have to navigate environments cluttered with shrubs, leaf litter, tree trunks and fungi. So for their study, the researchers employed high-speed cameras to film the movement of the discoid cockroaches through an artificial course comprised of tall, grass-like beams with limited spacing. The cockroaches were fitted with three different artificial shells to observe how their movement was affected by various body shapes, including an oval cone, a flat oval and a flat rectangle.

When the cockroaches were left unmodified, the researchers discovered that, although they sometimes pushed through or climbed over the fake grass, they most frequently used a fast and effective natural parkour moves to slip by the obstacles. In these situations, the robotic insects rolled their body so that their thin sides could slide through the gaps and their legs could push off the beams to help them maneuver.

(Source: UC Berkeley)

(Source: UC Berkeley)

They found that with a flat oval and rectangular bodies, the robot could not often traverse the beams and frequently collided with the objects in its way, often becoming stuck. Conversely, when fitted with the cockroach-esque rounded shell, the six-legged were able to successfully get through the course using a similar roll maneuver to the cockroaches. This adaptive behavior came about with no change to the robot programming, showing that the behavior came from the shell alone.

Looking ahead, the researchers hope to follow up this discovery by searching for other shapes in nature that could enhance the robots’ ability to advance through difficult terrain.

“There may be other shapes besides the thin, rounded one that are good for other purposes, such as climbing up and over obstacles of other types. Our next steps will be to study a diversity of terrain and animal shapes to discover more terradynamic shapes, and even morphing shapes. These new concepts will enable terrestrial robots to go through various cluttered environments with minimal sensors and simple controls,” Li adds.

The first results of the robot’s performance were shared in IOP Publishing’s journal Bioinspiration & Biomimetics.

Mic-equipped cockroach cyborgs can detect and trace sounds

The next time you’re in trouble, who you gonna call? Cockroach cyborgs! That’s because researchers at North Carolina State University say they’ve discovered a way to create remote-controlled, robotic roaches in hopes of one day being able to aid in rescue missions by fitting into otherwise unreachable disaster zones and picking up sound with its tiny on-board microphones.


These microphones can pick up sounds, seek the source of the sound and then ultimately control its movements. Aptly called biobots, the roaches are equipped with uber-small electronic backpacks comprised of an inexpensive microcontroller and a wireless receiver/transmitter. The microcontroller is connected to the cockroach’s antennae and abdominal sensory organs, which typically detect air movement to warn of approaching predators. When these senses are instead stimulated by the MCU, the cockroach’s innate reaction causes the robotic bug to move.

Led by assistant professor Dr. Alper Bozkurt, the team has developed two types of customized backpacks using microphones. One type of biobot features a single microphone that can capture relatively high-res sound from any direction to be wirelessly transmitted to first responders; meanwhile, the later version boasts a set of three-directional microphones that detect the whereabouts of a sound and steer the biobot in that direction.

“The goal is to use the biobots with high-resolution microphones to differentiate between sounds that matter – like people calling for help – from sounds that don’t matter – like a leaking pipe. Once we’ve identified sounds that matter, we can use the biobots equipped with microphone arrays to zero in on where those sounds are coming from,” explains Bozkurt.

Bozkurt’s team also recently exhibited a new technology that is capable of creating an invisible fence for keeping biobots in a designated area. This is significant breakthrough as it can one day be used to keep biobots at a disaster site, and to keep the biobots within range of each other so that they can be used as a reliable mobile wireless network. This technology could also be used to steer biobots to light sources, so that the miniaturized solar panels on biobot backpacks can be recharged, the paper reveals.


Ada Lovelace Day: Celebrating the world’s first computer programmer

A poet, a programmer, a pioneer. On October 14th, the STEM community comes together to celebrate the success and achievements of the world’s first computer programmer. Augusta Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace — more commonly known as “Ada Lovelace” — was born in London on December 10, 1815. From an early age, she conveyed an astonishing aptitude for mathematics and embodied a true Maker spirit, which together, led Ada to discover a multitude of computer concepts.

Unlike those before her, the Countess was a champion for Charles Babbage’s calculating machine, the Analytical Engine. Ada is commemorated for having the foresight that an instrument of this nature held such significant and scientific uses.


Mathematician Mother

Ada had an unusual upbringing for an aristocratic girl in the mid-1800s. Her mother had insisted that she be instructed by tutors on mathematics and science — such challenging subjects were not all that common for women at the time.

A Young Maker

Ada not only showed an astonishing aptitude for math and science from a young age, but possessed an innovation streak as well. In fact, she designed her very own flying machine before the age of 13. This inventive spark was noted by her tutors, who predicted that she would become “an original mathematical investigator, perhaps of first-rate eminence.”

A Teen Analytical Machine

At age 17, Ada was introduced to Charles Babbage at a dinner hosted by friend Mary Somerville. Upon learning of Babbage’s prototype for his Difference Engine, her interest was thoroughly piqued. In 1841, Babbage published his findings in Turin, Italy (the home of the Arduino and its recently-announced open apartment!). During a nine-month period of 1842-43, Ada translated the Italian article and sent Babbage the translated report on his newest proposed machine with her own notes — which came out to be three times the length of the original piece.


A Big Idea 

Long before the days of the ZX Spectrum, Apple I and Atari 2600… there was the 19th century. While computers may have existed as a concept in the mid-1800s, it had yet to come to fruition and materialize into something tangible. One of the first revolutionary ideas for “the computer” was the Analytical Engine, a proposal for a clockwork counting machine conceived by Babbage himself. Ada is credited with a vision on extending the capabilities of these sort of machines to go well beyond mere calculation; in order to facilitate this, she developed an algorithm for Babbage’s engine that would calculate a sequence of rational numbers.

In Ada’s own words, “The purpose which that engine has been specially intended and adapted to fulfil, is the computation of nautical and astronomical tables… The Analytical Engine, on the contrary, can either add, subtract, multiply or divide with equal facility; and performs each of these four operations in a direct manner, without the aid of any of the other three.”

The Analytical Machine was also able to automatically use results of previous calculations in future calculations. This and a number of other components made this machine surprisingly similar in architecture to how modern day computers work.

Ahead of Her Time

Like many inventors, Ada was not recognized as a true visionary during her lifetime, as it would take many years until her ideas would influence the world. Her notes were reintroduced to the world by B.Y. Bowden, who republished them in Faster Than Thought: A Symposium on Digital Computing Machines in 1953. Since then, Ada has received many posthumous honors for her incredible work.

In 1980, the U.S. Department of Defense named the computer language “Ada” after Lovelace herself. (Fun fact: The military standard for the language, “MIL-STD-1815″ was given the number of the year of her birth.) Then, there is The Ada Initiative — a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering women in the tech industry to increase their involvement in the free culture and open source movement.

Today, we continue to see Ada’s influence on the ever-growing Maker Movement. Did you know Limor Fried of Adafruit Industries’ moniker ladyada was created to pay homage to Lady Ada Lovelace?

The Future

Ada Lovelace Day is all about shining the spotlight on the Maker’s achievement and inspiring more women into careers in the technology sector, as well as pursuit of STEM-related degrees.

From IBM President Ginni Rometty and Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer to Oracle CEO Safra Catz and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, her influence continues to spawn a whole new generation of female tech leaders. Not to mention, a number leading lays are helping steward the DIY community, including Ayah Bdhei and Limor Fried — both of whom were recently named by Glamour Magazine to the “35 Women Under 35 Who Are Changing the Tech Industry” list.

Much like a modern-day Maker, Ada saw technology through the lens of humanities and culture, once writing, “We may say most aptly, that the Analytical Engine weaves algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard-loom weaves flowers and leaves.”

Lifelike 3D-printed hearts are helping train surgeons

Researchers at the Nottingham Trent University have successfully created a 3D-printed heart.


Led by Richard Arm, the team has used silicone gel to mimic the texture of a real heart and its inner workings. Unlike previous efforts to 3D print prosthetic organs, this project has developed one that is “as close as you can get” to the real organ.

CT scans of real hearts established the density of all the different parts of the organ and, using that data, the 3D printer produced for the heart. Prior to the scientists newfound solution, cardiothoracic surgery relied solely on basic plastic models, which unfortunately don’t provide a realistic learning experience. Now, these 3D-printed hearts will offer near exact replicas of those found within human body.

“Students would be able to make incisions to experience how it would feel and see what the inside of the heart looks like.” The study even looked at plans to pump artificial blood through the prosthetic organ to enhance the realism of a mock operation.


“This study shows how it’s possible to replicate the human heart, inside and out, and make it so realistic that it could literally be operated on by trainee surgeons,” Arm adds.

The university’s endeavor is the first step in establishing a near lifelike system for researchers and students to use to gain the most precise experience possible.

“This could be a real benefit to way in which we educate students, by providing them with more realistic experiences before they go into live theatre,” said Professor Michael Vloeberghs of Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust.

As previously discussed on Bits & Pieces, the Maker Movement has used Atmel powered 3D printers, such as MakerBot and RepRap, for some time now. However, 3D printing recently entered a new and exciting stage in the medical world —  ranging from “growing” cartilage to treat cancers, osteoarthritis and traumatic injuries to orthopedic implants for patients with fractured pelvises.

Atmel celebrates Makers with President Obama

As Tom Kalil and Jason Miller note on the White House blog, the United States has always been a nation of tinkerers, inventors and entrepreneurs.

“In recent years, a growing number of Americans have gained access to technologies such as 3D printers, laser cutters, easy-to-use design software and desktop machine tools. These tools are enabling more Americans to design and build almost anything,” Kalil and Miller write.

“Across the country, vibrant grassroots communities of innovators, visionaries and manufacturers are organizing Maker Faires, creating local Makerspaces and mentoring the next generation of inventors.”

According to the White House, the rise of the Maker Movement represents a huge opportunity for the United States, with new tools for democratized production boosting innovation and entrepreneurship in manufacturing.

Indeed, Making is capable of inspiring and empowering more young people to excel in design and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), as well as helping them pursue careers in manufacturing.

That’s why President Obama is hosting the first-ever White House Maker Faire today, with Makers, innovators and entrepreneurs of all ages showcasing their cutting-edge tools and projects.
 We at Atmel are proud to be at the very heart of the global Maker Movement, with Quin Etnyre and Super Awesome Sylvia (both sponsored by Atmel) attending the DC Faire.

Indeed, our microcontrollers (MCUs) power a wide range of open source platforms and devices, from 3D printers to wildly popular Arduino boards.

For us, every Maker Faire has always been the Greatest Show (and Tell) on Earth – a family-friendly venue of invention, creativity, resourcefulness and a celebration of DIY culture. Simply put, it’s a place where people of all ages and backgrounds gather together to show what they are making and share what they are learning, whether in Washington DC, New York, San Mateo or Shanghai.

Working together, we can prove that in America, the future really is what we make of it.

Tom Kalil is Deputy Director for Technology and Innovation at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and Jason Miller is Special Assistant to the President for Manufacturing Policy at the National Economic Council.

Bridging the gap between science and art

Writing for The Conversation, Sydney tech researcher Olivier Mehani describes how the evolving Maker Movement is helping to bridge the gap between science and art.

Photo Credit: Chris Devers, The Conversation

“The Maker movement has recently gained a lot of momentum. Yet, in many aspects, Makers have been around for a while, from amateur radio operators adjusting their rig to allow clearer communication with remote contacts to software hackers reprogramming their printer so it works the way they want it to,” writes Mehani. 
“Even the casual DIY-er who builds a vertical garden out of found materials is a Maker. Seeing a problem and fixing it yourself (rather than buying a new radio, printer or a bigger house) is often not that hard and quite rewarding.”

According to Mehani, the Maker Movement is rapidly growing due to a number of factors including the increasing availability of reasonably priced and easily modded technology such as Atmel-powered Arduino boards.

“The advent of various models of Arduino boards tremendously lowered the barrier to entry to tinkering with electronics,” says Mehani. “Communities quickly formed around these new technologies. One no longer needs a degree in computer science to work out how to make computers do interesting things.”

Mehani also notes that 3D printers, such as the Atmel-powered MakerBot and RepRap, have been playing a major part in the paradigm shift from user to Maker.

“These devices transform reels of plastic filament (or metal wire) into physical items. The cost of producing prototypes and parts is greatly reduced, and design by trial-and-error is much more affordable,” he continues. “Not all makers are driven by a prosaic problem they need to solve. Artists are also embracing these new technologies and the possibilities they represent.”

As Mehani points out, one of the most important aspects of the Maker Movement is its potential to be used for education.

“Whenever I need help, I know I can rely on the Maker communities around the Internet for information and advice, but most importantly, I’m having fun while learning. Making represents a great opportunity to teach technology – not only how to use it, but also how it works – to the next generation of adults,” he added.

“Makers know how to bend the world to their needs, and don’t let objects dictate their use to us. In a world increasingly reliant on technology, it is important to be able to lift the cover of everyday black boxes, and make devices behave the way we want them to (not the other way around). The Maker communities offer a great way to learn how to do just that and may help shape the next generation of scientists, engineers and artists.”