Itsy Bitsy Spiders: Your robotic best friends?

Most people find spiders pretty unappealing.  As an engineer, I find them inspiring even though I do not like them anywhere around me in my home.  I grew up in New York City where black widow spiders were extremely common, especially in your basement.  I knew their bite was poisonous but they mostly stayed to themselves in dark dank areas.  It was the spiders that spun huge precise webs in between bushes that truly impressed me with their handiwork.  I would often catch flies and moths and feed them to watch what they did to encase them for use to feed their young.

Now, curious people have found a remarkable use for dead spiders taking advantage of their leg actuation mechanisms.  Unlike mammals and other animals, spiders do not have opposing muscles to move their legs.  Their limbs are essentially on rubber bands that stretch to open using internal body pressure.  Remove the internal body pressure and they curl up.  That is why dead spiders all look the way they do.

Take a look at this research from IEEE Spectrum:

Best of all, they are biodegradable when your done!  End of story, right?

Don’t be so lazy.  The simplicity of this solution should make us rethink the approach to the problem.  If it was this easy to take a dead bug and make a gripper, perhaps the whole approach to gripping you see in today’s robots should be rethought.

Do you feel the need for speed?

We all know that line from the first Top Gun movie, and who doesn’t admire the incredible flying scenes from it and the sequel.  But, as many know, and engineers will remind us, the energy use goes up as the square of the increase in speed.  That means if you want to travel at twice the speed, you will use about four times as much energy to do so.

It should not be surprising then that the speed limits on highways were reduced down to 55 mph during the oil embargoes in the late 1970s.  Energy use went down, and there were fewer wrecks and highway fatalities.  I found it a bit surprising that our politicians here and around the world have forgotten this lesson … I never hear anyone suggesting we “impose” on the free will of Americans to do their part by slowing down.

Well, it now surprises me even further that the idea of supersonic flight has emerged as an actual plan.  Here is the Wall Street Journal announcement:

“American Airlines has agreed to buy 20 planes from Boom Supersonic, betting on the future of an ultra-fast plane that is still years away.  American put down a nonrefundable deposit on its initial 20 aircraft, known as the Overture, and has the option to purchase 40 more, the companies said Tuesday. The companies didn’t disclose additional financial details of the transaction. Aerospace startup Boom is developing new planes capable of traveling at supersonic speeds, faster than the speed of sound. Overture is being designed to carry 65 to 80 passengers at Mach 1.7 over water, or 1.7 times the speed of sound—about twice as fast as commercial planes can fly today.

“Supersonic travel will be an important part of our ability to deliver for our customers,” Derek Kerr, American’s chief financial officer, said in a statement Tuesday.

Boom has said Overture will be able to fly over 600 routes in half the time those flights currently take—such as Miami to London in under five hours, and Los Angeles to Honolulu in three hours—at fares comparable with current business-class prices.”  Read the full article here. 

Well, why not a single word about carbon footprint or environmental sensitivity.  The only concern is whether they can manage the sonic boom as the plane crosses the sound barrier.

Remember last week’s blog where the airlines had posted the environmental performance of the flight choices?  Doesn’t it seem that this need for speed should answer the societal question of “should” rather than “how?”

Oh, I know, the airlines will offer environmental offsets to the passengers … paying for the carbon emissions with the modern equivalent of indulgences within the Catholic church.

Are we really this tone deaf?

Greener Flights?

My wife Susan and I were getting ready to take a friend to the airport and I just wanted to check to see the exact time we should be at the airport.  You know, you must be there two hours ahead of your scheduled departure.

Upon checking, I was presented with a comparison of his flight with cheaper flights that had one stop by a competing airline.  They were cheaper… that made sense.  But what surprised me was that I was offered a carbon footprint comparison.

Really?  Did they know the fuel efficiency of the specific jets in question?  Or, did they just assume one less takeoff would reduce fuel per passenger in most cases?  Or, was the lower fuel use also associated with a direct route rather than one that stopped in Atlanta?  And, did they really think that a 6% reduction in carbon would help me justify the higher price of a nonstop flight?

I will never know because the math was not given and I assume that is because they didn’t think the average person would understand or even care?

It is unarguable that to manage anything, you must be able to measure impacts.  But, one key question is how do you measure carbon emissions at this granular level?  Then, you could question why anyone would care about incremental efficiency vs convenience?  We will never know about this event.

We do now have mechanisms for the virtue-signaling wealthy flyers to buy carbon offsets. That at least has some seemingly rightful benefit… let the wealthy support the arts… in this case, the art of deception.

Heed the Warning Light

Perhaps your car reminds you when you should change the oil.  This is certainly a helpful reminder.  But, since it is a warning, most of us wait for a convenient time to do it. Oil cleanliness is of course not a time-sensitive measure … you could wait quite a time … or even ignore the warning and extend the intervals between oil changes.  We all know that.

However, there is another way to think of warning lights like this.  The one that I remember best was a sign on my dentist’s spotlight light that read, “Only Floss the Teeth You Want to Keep!”  Flossing teeth is not fun … unless you have been eating something like corn on the cob that gets stuck in your teeth.

As a lover of the sea and a part-time captain of a large vessel, I love this story:  It is reportedly the transcript of a radio conversation of a US naval ship with Canadian authorities off the coast of Newfoundland in October of 1995. This radio conversation transcript was released by the Chief of Naval Operations 10-10-95.

Americans: Please divert your course 15 degrees to the North to avoid a Collision.

Canadians: Recommend you divert YOUR course 15 degrees to the South to avoid a collision.

Americans: This is the Captain of a US Navy ship. I say again, divert YOUR course.

Canadians: No. I say again, you divert YOUR course.

Americans: This is the aircraft carrier USS Lincoln, the second largest ship in the United States’ Atlantic fleet. We are accompanied by three destroyers, three cruisers and numerous support vessels. I demand that YOU change your course 15 degrees north, that’s one, five, degrees north, or countermeasures will be undertaken to ensure the safety of this ship.

Canadians: This is a lighthouse. Your call.

Deference and humility were clearly missing in this story and perhaps the lack of these is required to heed warnings.

So, let’s ask ourselves how many warning lights we have in our lives that need our attention.

Hopefully, we will not be like one of my daughters.  I was riding with her and noticed the Change Oil light was flashing red on the dash.  I asked her how long that had been on, and she said as if noticing it for the first time, “Oh no!  Thanks for pointing that out. These pesky lights keep coming on.  I have been meaning to put tape over that one for years!”