Tuesday, September 15, 2015

NSF Awakens to Maker Movement

My apologies for the lack of posts over the last few months. Cool stuff is occurring on campus. One bit of news has an embargo placed upon it so I am not at liberty to discuss. However, that bit of news is quite exciting and I am hoping a broad announcement will be forthcoming any week.

A bit of news I can share is the new LightBoard available through the Faculty Development Center (FDC). If you are not familiar with what a LightBoard is and what a LightBoard can do, here is a short demonstration video from the folks at Stanford University.

The LightBoard is a cool, innovative technology used for providing and enhancing online course content. The Murray State University LightBoard was made in-house by Jim Barnett (J-CSET) with student assistance, and Justin Patton (Media Support Technician, CHFA). I'll see if I can get my hands on a Murray State demonstration video and post. In the meantime, direct your questions about the use of the LightBoard to Justin Patton.

I subscribe to the CampusTechnology email newsletter, and find many pertinent items, interesting news, and thought-provoking ideas. In the last email, CT has a story concerning a recent NSF grant awarded to investigators at Indiana University and University of Michigan. These researchers are to study the Maker Movement in the United States and China over the next four years.

One of the researchers, Shaowen Bardzell is interested in innovation and Maker support in the U.S. Midwest:
Similar support exists in the United States, but primarily on the coasts, not in the middle of the country, where, Bardzell observes, "there's a proud tradition of manufacturing." The next generation of products, she said, "from cars and dishwashers to clothing and medical devices" will be tied to manufacturing innovation. "We see potential for everything from prototyping to mass production in the region."
(Source: Dian Schaffhauser; "Maker Movement To Get Professional Makeover in Midwest;" CampusTechnology, 9-11-2015) 

I have to say I agree with her. Following many Maker, DIY, and Spark accounts on Twitter, I learn nearly every day the coasts are recipients of most of the attention as far as innovation, fabrication, and technology are concerned. For example, I recently learned the White House is making an investment in wearable technology due to the president's fascination with his Fitbit. The Department of Defense is contributing $75 million dollars to a pool of private funding, bringing the total investment to about $171 million. The site of this new investment is, of course, San Jose, home of Silicon Valley, and on the West Coast, the pinnacle of U.S. technopoles. (White House Fact Sheet, 8-28-2015)

I am hoping to learn more from the research findings of the NSF-sponsored investigation. I think I sort of know what the findings will be, but surmising from anecdotes is not the same as having evidence, right?

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Aquatic Drones for Environmental Research

The United States has long been exemplary of our societies support for innovation and entrepreneurship. Individuals from George Washington Carver, Otis Boyken, Thomas Edison, to Ellen Ochoa and Steve Jobs, the environment of creation has helped establish the United States as having the best climate for developing new technology and for entrepreneurship.

drone-medium-Mars-Spirit-Rover-MER-A-3000x2250Now upon us, upon American society, is a new age of "personal makership" to coin a new term, maybe. While the United States has never had a want, a desire to make and improve, the technology has generally been out of the range of all but the most sacrificing of people. Today, though, a host of complementary technologies are now available to Americans of all ages, from 8-year old to 80-year old entrepreneurs. Technologies like 3D printers (Makerbot, Cubify), scanners (Cubify), computer-controlled milling machines and routers are now at price points within the grasp of thousands of people. Internet-based companies offer printing and fabrication services for people who would rather not buy equipment but uses someone else's capital. New companies like Make, Arduino, and Littlebits create opportunities to learn, engage, and create using microcomputers. Old companies, like Intel, now offer new micro-boards for hobbyists to use in various projects.

All things considered, this is a very exciting time for millions of people. Never has so much been available to so many at such a low cost of entry, perhaps ever in the history of Humanity. And, these opportunities will only get better, not worse.

Drones, otherwise described as "unmanned aerial systems" or "Unmanned aerial vehicles," are without any doubt an exciting and fascinating component of our environment, from this moment in history forward. Scientists have been using drones for decades. Oceanographers have been using remote vehicles for surveying ocean depths for decades. Meteorologists have been using drones for collecting atmospheric data. Even NASA's space probes are really unmanned drones dispersed through our local solar system neighborhood, really. Curiosity, Spirit, and Opportunity are really terrestrial drones.

Drones have captured the world's attention through their use as a platform for launching missiles at al-Qaeda, al-Shabab, and ISIS. Our military has used them for spying, for keeping countries honest about military actions, and for blasting people and equipment to smithereens. However, drones, UAVs, UASs, have many more useful and benign uses. Unfortunately, military applications have trashed drone reputation, and redemption of reputation through appropriate drone applications is going to be challenging. When the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) appears to require all drones regardless of size to keep a physical copy of a flight manual aboard the drone [techcrunch], even people in our own U.S. government may present the biggest challenge to drone use.

I don't want to focus on the military applications of drones for this post. That is a series of posts into-and-of themselves. For this post, I want to focus upon a very singular application and entreat any interested parties, e.g. Google, Hexagon, or ESRI, to consider these thoughts.

For most of human history, we have gained knowledge about our environment by sending humans "into the field" to collect "ground truth" or, as my first graduate professor preferred, "ground reference information; because, really, what is Truth?" Scientists ventured out themselves, or sent students, or sent themselves and students, or hired locals with student over-sight; whatever the permutation, people had to venture out. Now, we have the technology, almost but-not-quite ubiquitous, to replace or at the very least, supplement, our information collection efforts for our environment. To be clear, I don't think people will ever be fully replaced. We should always maintain some "hands-on" curiosity of our environment, and always remain a little suspicious of any data collected. Data captured by drones should be never be beyond scrutiny.

The Leica-Aibotix X6 hexacopter; good for utility line surveys.Many companies have been founded upon the promise of drones and associated technologies. Some companies, particularly those serving economic sectors whose clients need frequent aerial imagery are also getting in on the action. Utility companies, gas and mining companies, agriculture-based corporations, plus government agencies such as the National Parks Service, need recurrent aerial imagery and surveys simply to manage assets. Leica Geo-systems, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Hexagon Group, showcased a nice hexacopter at the ESRI User Conference in 2013. The Aibotix X6 is capable of handling a variety of image sensors, from simple RGB digital cameras, to multispectral sensor cameras, even to supporting some LiDAR systems.

Liquid Robotics prototype aquatic drone featured at ESRI UC 2013. (Source: author)

SFBaykeeper-UAS-GoogleWhat fascinated me at the ESRI International Users Conference, a conference replete with Makers - I mean the place is lousy with cool, innovative people, excited to meet the challenges of our environment head-on - what fascinated me was a couple of fellows from Stanford and their nifty aquatic drone. These two students had just formed their own company, Liquid Robotics, to develop and build unmanned data collection devices for gathering information on the open ocean. I found their aquatic drone mesmerizing. A simple, surfboard-looking device; no, more like a sealed kayak, maybe. Flat on top, with a keel several inches deep. The flat dorsal surface was covered with solar panels to generate enough power for the communications equipment and sensors. The unit is not self-powered; the drone merely floats along on the waves, broadcasting position via coordinates gathered from the on-board GPS. The drone deploys a series of blades from the keel which catch the current, propelling the drone in the same direction as the current.

At the time I chatted with the founders of Liquid Robotics, their drone essentially measured current velocity, sea surface temperature (SST), and a longitude, latitude (x,y) coordinate, plus all the ephemeral data coincident with collecting a GPS coordinate. I asked, "But, what about other measurements? Water temperature? Salinity, or other characteristics? Will future versions collect samples?" Yes, they replied, they had plans on providing upgrades and different models to accommodate clients needs. I continued my line of questioning. "What about freshwater? What about developing devices for collecting information about our freshwater bodies of water? What about reservoirs, or the Great Lakes, or the Great Salt Lake? Do you have any plans on developing devices for those bodies of water?"

 Their reply took me aback. "No. Why would we want to develop for reservoirs? Those are just standing bodies of water." OK, so, these guys are engineers at Stanford. They are not stupid. However, clearly they do not understand the hydrodynamics of reservoirs very well. Reservoirs, pretty much by definition, are created by the impoundment of moving water. While the study of ocean water and associated currents is extremely important for climate research, the study of freshwater resources is critical for understanding critical ecosystems directly connected to our food supply, energy, human health, and the geopolitics of water. I think I left an impression upon them, but not sure how deep the impression went.

Enter Google, and more specifically, Google.org. Google.org manages a program which lends a Google StreetView camera to groups or organizations with interesting projects. Recently, I ran across an article showcasing the use of a Google StreetView camera to collect imagery along the San Francisco Bay. The Google StreetView camera was attached to a remotely-controlled motorized platform, operated by people located on a nearby boat. What an amazing prototype, right? However, development cannot stop with merely mounting a Google StreetView camera to essentially what amounts to a modified catamaran. A lengthy post, as most of mine tend to be, but stay with me as I am going to bring in some other related projects and expose the potential for far more mature endeavors.  

Reservoir Research Using UAVs and Landsat 8 Satellite Imagery

If unfamiliar with Google and Google's own directed research to help environmental causes, I encourage you to watch the YouTube video below. Google's own server farms host USGS Landsat 8 imagery for researchers world-wide. Anyone who has ever used what I consider to be the granddaddy of all Internet applications, Google Earth, has used Landsat 5, 7, and most recently, Landsat 8 satellite imagery. Landsat imagery forms the foundation basemap imagery against which all other imagery is overlaid.

At Murray State University, the Hancock Biological Station (HBS) monitors the Tennessee River watershed, including the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kentucky Lake. HBS uses a number of different technologies to gather water quality information covering one of the most important and historical waterways in the United States. HBS collects data from fixed locations which also double as osprey nests. Other fixed sources include a small number of buoys. These technologies broadcast data back to HBS using SMS, incorporated with data which has been collected for decades.

 The third data collection method in use at Hancock is a boat. Yes, a boat. On a regular basis, HBS deploys a manned boat to collect all sorts of information. I've been on a couple cruises to observe and help. Water samples are collected, at depth. Turbidity is assessed. Water temperature, wind speed, wind direction, dissolved oxygen are measured. A large number of in situ tests are run, as well as samples collected for later analysis. Each cruise hits 14 to 17 randomly selected sampling sites. At each location the same procedures are duplicated. On November 8th, 2013, Hancock conducted its 500th monitoring cruise.

Now, I said, "...on a regular basis,..." Specifically, HBS deploys its boat every 16 days. Why every 16 days? The Landsat 8 satellite has a return frequency of 16 days, meaning Landsat 8 can image the same Earth location every 16 days. Thus, knowing the return schedule of Landsat 8, HBS plans its monitoring schedule around the return visit of Landsat 8. In fact, over the course of the program, HBS planned each monitoring mission around Landsat 5 and Landsat 7. HBS skips a mission or two in the winter months; a mission is planned every 32 days. Over 200 students and faculty from around the world have used Murray State University and Hancock Biology Station to advance the progress of water science studies.

What I envision is a fleet of SFBaykeeper-style aquatic drones for monitoring Kentucky Lake and nearby Lake Barkley. Currently, HBS monitors 17 stations in the middle reach of Kentucky Lake, and no stations on Lake Barkley. Station management and College of Science faculty, staff, and students have long dreamed of expanding data collection for Kentucky Lake / Tennessee River System, and adding the Lake Barkley / Cumberland River System to the research program. A fleet of aquatic drones, each member pre-programmed to hit a precise location, could be deployed to coincide with the Landsat 8 overpass. Each member would be equipped with instruments for collecting samples and running analysis. The members would then return to HBS for staff to retrieve water samples.

Sure; there are a number of concerns. Some traits of interest of volatile; some chemicals, like those from agricultural pesticides and herbicides do not last long once removed from the lake. Perhaps the fleet collects the data they are best able to measure; some remaining analysis may require a human visit. However, a fleet may allow a "division of labor," allowing human staff to hit more locations to collect the volatile samples, while the fleet members collect the low-hanging fruit.

My point is: considerable work has been performed already to control automated deployment and dispersal of drones. When coupled to GPS and the cellular network, the drone fleet would bring fantastic growth to a mature and robust monitoring reservoir monitoring program.

Europa Sensor Platform

Agreed; my next idea is a bit of a reach. However, any sensor platform developed for Planet Earth could be modified for use elsewhere.

One of the more intriguing locations within our solar system, besides Mars, is Europa. Europa is a moon of Jupiter with a tendency to eject plumes of water, water vapor, or some gaseous fluid closely resembling H2O. The development of an aquatic drone, or an aquatic-capable drone, here on Earth, tested and run through a variety of stress tests, would have at least two positive outcomes. First, the unmanned aquatic vehicle (UAV) technology could be directly applied to any reservoir or other large body of water. Second, the platform could be later adapted for bathymetric surveys, for search-and-rescue, or monitoring of other watershed parameters. Third, the UAV technology could then be modded for other environments, i.e. Europa.

In this post, I have set forth some arguments to push for development of a mature aquatic drone research product. What Google has done in assisting in the creation of the SFBaykeeper has so many applications, the implications stagger me a bit. So very cool what is going on with people engineering things in their garage, in their homes, with industry support, who often, like Google, provide mentors to guide and oversee use of technology.

We live in truly innovative times.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

FIRST Tech Challenge Robotics Competition at OCTC

FIRST Tech Challenge Robotics Competition at OCTC
By Bernie Hale, Owensboro Community and Technical College

​Owensboro Community and Technical College is hosting a real-world robotics competition on Saturday, January 31, 2015 for students in grades 7-12.  The event will be held in the Advanced Technology Center, on the main campus located at 4800 New Hartford Road, Owensboro.

FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) is designed for students in grades 7-12 to compete head to head, using a sports model but applying STEM related skills. Teams are responsible for designing, building, and programming their robots to compete in an alliance format against other teams. The robot kit is reusable from year-to-year and is programmed using a variety of languages. Teams, including coaches, mentors and volunteers, are required to develop strategy and build robots based on sound engineering principles. Awards are given for the competition as well as for community outreach, design, and other real-world accomplishments.

21 teams are scheduled to compete, representing schools and organizations in Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, Ohio, and Indiana, including Lexington Christian Academy, Oakdale Christian Academy, St. Henry District High School, Larry A. Ryle High School, Roberson County High School, Christian Educational Consortium, Daviess County High School, Louisville Robotics Institute, Paducah-Tilghman High School, South Spencer High School, Whitefield Academy, Bethlehem High School, Dayton Regional STEM School, John Burroughs School,  and neighborhood and homeschool association groups. 

Owensboro Community & Technical College, NASA Kentucky, Domtar, and AMTEC are sponsoring this year’s event. For more information about the OCTC’s FIRST Lego League competition, please contact Shawn Payne at (270) 686-3789 or shawn.payne@kctcs.edu

Monday, January 19, 2015

WKCTC to Host "Mars Explorer" Robotics Competition for Local Students

West Kentucky Community and Technical College is hosting the Robot Extreme Challenge March 7th, 2015. The competition is open to any student in western Kentucky Three divisions are open to accommodate entrants from elementary, middle, or high school.

Cost of entry per team is $175, and each team must have a Lego EV3 robotics platform. Teams will develop a robot capable of handling 13 different tasks pertaining to a pre-determined theme. This year's theme is "Mars Adventure." Each task will involve performing some function to assist with or improve the lives of people hypothetically living on Mars.

Registration deadline is January 23rd, 2015.

More details are available on rcxrobot.org.

IEEE Students To Meet, Plan for SoutheastCon 2015

The Murray State University student chapter of IEEE will have a Spring 2015 Kickoff / planning meeting Wednesday, January 21st, 2015 at 3.30 p.m., 135 Blackburn.

The meeting will discuss details pertaining to the formation of a Robot Team. The Robot Team will compete at the SoutheastCon 2015 Student Hardware Competition to be held in Fort Lauderdale, FL, April 9th - April 12th, 2015.

The IEEE Robot Team needs members with the following experience or background:

1. Electrical engineering
2. Mechanical engineering
3. Computer programming

All interested Engineering Physics students plus IET majors are encouraged to attend.

Free pizza and drinks will be available.

For more information, please contact Dr. Leedy at aleedy@murraystate.edu

 IEEE Region 3 Student Information

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Mapping Nobel Prize Winning Women

After the recent passing of author Doris Lessing (1919-2013) I became curious how many women have received the Nobel Prize since 1901. Not that many I have come to discover. Of the 851 individual Laureates, 45 have been women, or roughly 5%. According to NobelPrize.org, 25 organizations have been awarded the Nobel Prize, as well. Examples of organizations include Bangladesh's Grameen Bank (2006), Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders, 1999), Amnesty International (1977), and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF, 1965).

The connection between education for women and girls and economic progress and development is clear. Investments in education for women and girls in developing and underdeveloped countries results in positive economic and social progress. Around the world, from the United States to Africa and Southwest Asia, investment in education, and especially STEM education, improves wages, improves health care, reduces child mortality, and increases political action and commitment.

My hopes are the map may help inspire people to improve the recognition of the contributions of women throughout all segments of global society. 

Click "Legend" to open the map's legend. The pins are color-coded by the Nobel award, green for chemistry, red for physics, silver for economics, and so forth. Click on a pin and the information for a particular Nobel winner will appear. When the window opens, scroll to the bottom. I added a link to the winner's entry on NobelPrize.org and used a link to their Wikipedia.org entry for a picture, if one was available. I assigned the colors, by the way. The interactive map above was created from a simple spreadsheet.

The spreadsheet is very simple to create. A little forethought must be given to how the data is organized. As I tell my students, you don't have to be an expert in the topic, but you do have to understand how to organize information. In this case, I mapped the winners by their place of birth. However, in many cases, the winners did not their award in their home country. Before and during World War Two, a mass exodus of people from Western, Central, and Eastern Europe occurred in advance of Nazi Germany influence. In some cases, the location does not note the place of birth but the country of residence at the time of the award. This special circumstance might make for an interesting lesson plan for middle or high school students, by the way. Both men and women Nobel Prize awards for the 1940's exhibited considerably disruption due to the war.

As the above spreadsheet illustrates, nothing fancy is going on. Year, Winner's Name, City, Country, Prize Category, etc. A couple of special notes; for the data to be mapped, some information about location must be provided. Now, I have provided "city" and "country." I could use a technique called "geocoding," but this process comes at a real cost. Some processes included with ArcGIS Online come with a real dollar amount attached and cost real money. Geocoding is one of those processes. I opted not to charge geocoding against our account and elected to use geographic coordinates instead. Thus, the "x" and "y" are latitude and longitude. The ArcGIS Online dashboard comes equipped to handle data attached to geographic coordinates at no cost to the user. The upload process is also smart enough to identify geographic coordinates in a spreadsheet in the event an unsophisticated user provided unusual field headings, like "peanut_butter" and "jelly." The data within the record is often enough to offset unfortunate headings.

There are two columns missing from the above graphic. The first missing field is "image_LNK." This is a reserved field name. Use this field to provide a link to an online image. The field must contain the fully qualified URL to the image. The second missing field is "wiki_LINK." This field contains the URL to pertinent Wikipedia page. I believe adding other custom fields is possible, though I have not explored this potential. To provide better coverage, below is the rest of the spreadsheet.

This is not a precise tutorial for putting data online. The process is not more involved than what I have described, though. ArcGIS Online maps can be shared with selected Murray State people or Murray State groups, or can even be made public. And, as you have see above, can even be embedded in a website.

The same potential for building map applications similar to the two maps I have posted exists for kids in kindergarten through high school in Kentucky. Sponsored by the Kentucky Geographic Alliance, all K-12 schools in Kentucky have at their disposal ArcGIS Online for Education. Check out connected.esri.com for complete details.

For more information about ESRI's ArcGIS Online for Education at Murray State contact Michael Busby at the Mid-America Remote sensing Center (MARC.)

Dr Robin Zhang Keeps Up with Geoscience Graduates

In the 2013-2014 academic year Murray State University charged individual departments with keeping track of graduates. Figuring out geographic distributions, mapping geography, is something geographers tend to be pretty good at. In the Department of Geosciences, Dr. Robin Zhang took on the task of mapping where Geosciences graduates end up soon after graduation.

Using ArcGIS Online, a free mapping application provided by ESRI courtesy of MSU/MARC, Dr. Zhang decided to give the mapping application a shot. Below, is the GIS-based mapping application created by Dr. Zhang illustrating the distribution of Geosciences graduates.

Interactive maps like the one above are pretty easy to create. To create one of these interactive maps, an ESRI Global Account is required. These accounts are free, created simply by visiting ESRI.com and filling out a short form. An account can also be created by the local ESRI Site License Administrator, Michael Busby. An invitation to join the Murray State University ArcGIS Online community is also necessary. Again, this request goes to the local ESRI Site License Administrator, or can be handled during the ESRI account request.

The account provides access to ESRI's ArcGIS Online for Education. The next bit of the puzzle is managing the data. In Dr. Zhang's map app, her data were the locations of Geosciences alumni - people. People will gainful employment are typically tied to an employer's address, a building. The building can be located in a number of ways, but most commonly with an address or a set of coordinates. By clicking on one of the colored dots, information on a person is revealed, including the longitude and latitude (x and y) of the employer's location. To put a point on a globe one needs a coordinate, a longitude and latitude. With that important element in a spreadsheet, each row in a spreadsheet then becomes a mappable record.

In essence, one really only needs a spreadsheet replete with information, tied in some way to a place on the Earth. Then, an interactive map is born. In my next post, I will demonstrate my interactive map and provide an example of my spreadsheet.