28 Jan. 2023

“Electric cars will not save the climate. It is completely wrong,” Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency (IEA), has stated.

If Birol were from Maine, he might have simply observed, “You can’t get there from here.”

This is not to imply in any way that electric vehicles are worthless. Analysis by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) argues that EVs are the quickest means to decarbonize motorized transport. However, EVs are not by themselves in any way going to achieve the goal of net zero by 2050.

There are two major reasons for this: first, EVs are not going to reach the numbers required by 2050 to hit their needed contribution to net zero goals, and even if they did, a host of other personal, social and economic activities must be modified to reach the total net zero mark.

For instance, Alexandre Milovanoff at the University of Toronto and his colleagues’ research (which is described in depth in a recent Spectrum article) demonstrates the U.S. must have 90 percent of its vehicles, or some 350 million EVs, on the road by 2050 in order to hit its emission targets. The likelihood of this occurring is infinitesimal. Some estimates indicate that about 40 percent of vehicles on US roads will be ICE vehicles in 2050, while others are less than half that figure.

For the U.S. to hit the 90 percent EV target, sales of all new ICE vehicles across the U.S. must cease by 2038 at the latest, according to research company BloombergNEF (BNEF). Greenpeace, on the other hand, argues that sales of all diesel and petrol vehicles, including hybrids, must end by 2030 to meet such a target. However, achieving either goal would likely require governments offering hundreds of billions of dollars, if not trillions, in EV subsidies to ICE owners over the next decade, not to mention significant investments in EV charging infrastructure and the electrical grid. ICE vehicle households would also have to be convinced that they would not be giving activities up by becoming EV-only households.

As a reality check, current estimates for the number of ICE vehicles still on the road worldwide in 2050 range from a low of 1.25 billion to more than 2 billion.

Even assuming that the required EV targets were met in the U.S. and elsewhere, it still will not be sufficient to meet net zero 2050 emission targets. Transportation accounts for only 27 percent of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) in the U.S.; the sources of the other 73 percent of GHG emissions must be reduced as well. Even in the transportation sector, more than 15 percent of the GHG emissions are created by air and rail travel and shipping. These will also have to be decarbonized.

Nevertheless, for EVs themselves to become true zero emission vehicles, everything in their supply chain from mining to electricity production must be nearly net-zero emission as well. Today, depending on the EV model, where it charges, and assuming it is a battery electric and not a hybrid vehicle, it may need to be driven anywhere from 8,400 to 13,500 miles, or controversially, significantly more to generate less GHG emissions than an ICE vehicle. This is due to the 30 to 40 percent increase in emissions EVs create in comparison to manufacturing an ICE vehicle, mainly from its battery production.

In states (or countries) with a high proportion of coal-generated electricity, the miles needed to break-even climb more. In Poland and China, for example, an EV would need to be driven 78,700 miles to break-even. Just accounting for miles driven, however, BEVs cars and trucks appear cleaner than ICE equivalents nearly everywhere in the U.S. today. As electricity increasingly comes from renewables, total electric vehicle GHG emissions will continue downward, but that will take at least a decade or more to happen everywhere across the U.S. (assuming policy roadblocks disappear), and even longer elsewhere.

If EVs aren’t enough, what else is needed?

Given that EVs, let alone the rest of the transportation sector, likely won’t hit net zero 2050 targets, what additional actions are being advanced to reduce GHG emissions?

A high priority, says IEA’s Birol, is investment in across-the-board energy-related technology research and development and their placement into practice. According to Birol, “IEA analysis shows that about half the reductions to get to net zero emissions in 2050 will need to come from technologies that are not yet ready for market.”

Many of these new technologies will be aimed at improving the efficient use of fossil fuels, which will not be disappearing anytime soon. The IEA expects that energy efficiency improvement, such as the increased use of variable speed electric motors, will lead to a 40 percent reduction in energy-related GHG emissions over the next twenty years.

But even if these hoped for technological improvements arrive, and most certainly if they do not, the public and businesses are expected to take more energy conscious decisions to close what the United Nations says is the expected 2050 “emissions gap.” Environmental groups foresee the public needing to use electrified mass transit, reduce long-haul flights for business as well as pleasure), increase telework, walk and cycle to work or stores, change their diet to eat more vegetables, or if absolutely needed, drive only small EVs. Another expectation is that homeowners and businesses will become “fully electrified” by replacing oil, propane and gas furnaces with heat pumps along with gas fired stoves as well as installing solar power and battery systems.

Cyclist waiting at a red light at an intersection in Copenhagen, Denmark. Dronning Louise’s Bro (Queen Louise’s Bridge) connects inner Copenhagen and Nørrebro and is frequented by many cyclists and pedestrians every day.Frédéric Soltan/Corbis/Getty Images

Underpinning the behavioral changes being urged (or encouraged by legislation) is the notion of rejecting the current car-centric culture and completely rethinking what personal mobility means. For example, researchers at University of Oxford in the U.K. argue that, “Focusing solely on electric vehicles is slowing down the race to zero emissions.” Their study found “emissions from cycling can be more than 30 times lower for each trip than driving a fossil fuel car, and about ten times lower than driving an electric one.” If just one out of five urban residents in Europe permanently changed from driving to cycling, emissions from automobiles would be cut by 8 percent, the study reports.

Even then, Oxford researchers concede, breaking the car’s mental grip on people is not going to be easy, given the generally poor state of public transportation across much of the globe.

Behavioral change is hard

How willing are people to break their car dependency and other energy-related behaviors to address climate change? The answer is perhaps some, but maybe not too much. A Pew Research Center survey taken in late 2021 of seventeen countries with advanced economies indicated that 80 percent of those surveyed were willing to alter how then live and work to combat climate change.

However, a Kanter Public survey of ten of the same countries taken at about the same time gives a less positive view, with only 51 percent of those polled stating they would alter their lifestyles. In fact, some 74 percent of those polled indicated they were already “proud of what [they are] currently doing” to combat climate change.

What both polls failed to explore are what behaviors specifically would respondents being willing to permanently change or give up in their lives to combat climate change?

For instance, how many urban dwellers, if told that they must forever give up their cars and instead walk, cycle or take public transportation, would willingly agree to doing so? And how many of those who agreed, would also consent to go vegetarian, telework, and forsake trips abroad for vacation?

It is one thing to answer a poll indicating a willingness to change, and quite another to “walk the talk” especially if there are personal, social or economic inconveniences or costs involved. For instance, recent U.S. survey information shows that while 22 percent of new car buyers expressed interest in a battery electric vehicle (BEV), only 5 percent actually bought one.

Granted, there are several cities where living without a vehicle is doable, like Utrecht in the Netherlands where in 2019 48 percent of resident trips were done by cycling or London, where nearly two-thirds of all trips taken that same year were are made by walking, cycling or public transportation. Even a few US cities it might be livable without a car.

People ride bicycles at Stationsplein Bicycle Parking facility located near Utrecht Central Station in Utrecht, Netherlands The world’s largest bike parking facility, Stationsplein Bicycle Parking near Utrecht Central Station in Utrecht, Netherlands has 12,500 parking places.Abdullah Asiran/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

However, in countless other urban areas, especially across most of the U.S., even those wishing to forsake owning a car would find it very difficult to do so without a massive influx of investment into all forms of public transport and personal mobility to eliminate the scores of US transit deserts.

As Tony Dutzik of the environmental advocacy group Frontier Group has written that in the U.S. “the price of admission to jobs, education and recreation is owning a car.” That’s especially true if you are a poor urbanite. Owning a reliable automobile has long been one of the only successful means of getting out of poverty.

Massive investment in new public transportation in the U.S. in unlikely, given its unpopularity with politicians and the public alike. This unpopularity has translated into aging and poorly-maintained bus, train and transit systems that few look forward to using. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives the current state of American public transportation a grade of D- and says today’s $176 billion investment backlog is expected to grow to $250 billion through 2029.

While the $89 billion targeted to public transportation in the recently passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will help, it also contains more than $351 billion for highways over the next five years. Hundreds of billions in annual investment are needed not only to fix the current public transport system but to build new ones to significantly reduce car dependency in America. Doing so would still take decades to complete.

Yet, even if such an investment were made in public transportation, unless its service is competitive with an EV or ICE vehicle in terms of cost, reliability and convenience, it will not be used. With EVs costing less to operate than ICE vehicles, the competitive hurdle will increase, despite the moves to offer free transit rides. Then there is the social stigma attached riding public transportation that needs to be overcome as well.

A few experts proclaim that ride-sharing using autonomous vehicles will separate people from their cars. Some even claim such AV sharing signals the both the end of individual car ownership as well as the need to invest in public transportation. Both outcomes are far from likely.

Other suggestions include redesigning cities to be more compact and more electrified, which would eliminate most of the need for personal vehicles to meet basic transportation needs. Again, this would take decades and untold billions of dollars to do so at the scale needed. The San Diego, California region has decided to spend $160 billion as a way to meet California’s net zero objectives to create “a collection of walkable villages serviced by bustling (fee-free) train stations and on-demand shuttles” by 2050. However, there has been public pushback over how to pay for the plan and its push to decrease personal driving by imposing a mileage tax.

According to University of Michigan public policy expert John Leslie King, the challenge of getting to net zero by 2050 is that each decarbonization proposal being made is only part of the overall solution. He notes, “You must achieve all the goals, or you don’t win. The cost of doing each is daunting, and the total cost goes up as you concatenate them.”

Concatenated costs also include changing multiple personal behaviors. It is unlikely that automakers, having committed more than a trillion dollars so far to EVs and charging infrastructure, are going to support depriving the public of the activities they enjoy today as a price they pay to shift to EVs. A war on EVs will be hard fought.

Should Policies Nudge or Shove?

The cost concatenation problem arises not only at a national level, but at countless local levels as well. Massachusetts’ new governor Maura Healey, for example, has set ambitious goals of having at least 1 million EVs on the road, converting 1 million fossil-fuel burning furnaces in homes and buildings to heat-pump systems, and the state achieving a 100 percent clean electricity supply by 2030.

The number of Massachusetts households that can afford or are willing to buy an EV and or convert their homes to a heat pump system in the next eight years, even with a current state median household income of $89,000 and subsidies, is likely significantly smaller than the targets set. So, what happens if by 2030, the numbers are well below target, not only in Massachusetts, but other states like California, New York, or Illinois that also have aggressive GHG emission reduction targets?

Will governments move from encouraging behavioral changes to combat climate change or, in frustration or desperation, begin mandating them? And if they do, will there be a tipping point that spurs massive social resistance?

For example, dairy farmers in the Netherlands have been protesting plans by the government to force them to cut their nitrogen emissions. This will require dairy farms to reduce their livestock, which will make it difficult or impossible to stay in business. The Dutch government estimates 11,200 farms must close, and another 17,600 to reduce their livestock numbers. The government says farmers who do not comply will have their farms taken away by forced buyouts starting in 2023.

California admits getting to a zero-carbon transportation system by 2045 means car owners must travel 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2030 and even more by 2045. If drivers fail to do so, will California impose weekly or monthly driving quotas, or punitive per mile driving taxes, along with mandating mileage data from vehicles ever-more connected to the Internet? The San Diego backlash over a mileage tax may be just the beginning.

“EVs,” notes King, “pull an invisible trailer filled with required major lifestyle changes that the public is not yet aware of.”

When it does, do not expect the public to acquiesce quietly.

In the final article of the series, we explore potential unanticipated consequences of transitioning to EVs at scale.

28 Jan. 2023

Apptronik, a Texas-based robotics company with its roots in the Human Centered Robotics Lab at University of Texas at Austin, has spent the last few years working towards a practical, general purpose humanoid robot. By designing their robot (called Apollo) completely from the ground up, including electronics and actuators, Apptronik is hoping that they’ll be able to deliver something affordable, reliable, and broadly useful. But at the moment, the most successful robots are not generalized systems—they’re uni-taskers, robots that can do one specific task very well but more or less nothing else. A general purpose robot, especially one in a human form factor, would have enormous potential. But the challenge is enormous, too.

So why does Apptronik believe that they have the answer to general purpose humanoid robots with Apollo? To find out, we spoke with Apptronik’s founders, CEO Jeff Cardenas and CTO Nick Paine.

IEEE Spectrum: Why are you developing a general purpose robot when the most successful robots in the supply chain focus on specific tasks?

Nick Paine: It’s about our level of ambition. A specialized tool is always going to beat a general tool at one task, but if you’re trying to solve ten tasks, or 100 tasks, or 1000 tasks, it’s more logical to put your effort into a single versatile hardware platform with specialized software that solves a myriad of different problems.

How do you know that you’ve reached an inflection point where building a general purpose commercial humanoid is now realistic, when it wasn’t before?

Paine: There are a number of different things. For one, Moore’s Law has slowed down, but computers are evolving in a way that has helped advance the complexity of algorithms that can be deployed on mobile systems. Also, there are new algorithms that have been developed recently that have enabled advancements in legged locomotion, machine vision, and manipulation. And along with algorithmic improvements, there have been sensing improvements. All of this has influenced the ability to design these types of legged systems for unstructured environments.

Jeff Cardenas: I think it’s taken decades for it to be the right time. After many many iterations as a company, we’ve gotten to the point where we’ve said, “Okay, we see all the pieces to where we believe we can build a robust, capable, affordable system that can really go out and do work.” It’s still the beginning, but we’re now at an inflection point where there’s demand from the market, and we can get these out into the world.

The reason that I got into robotics is that I was sick of seeing robots just dancing all the time. I really wanted to make robots that could be useful in the world.
—Nick Paine, CTO Apptronik

Why did you need to develop and test 30 different actuators for Apollo, and how did you know that the 30th actuator was the right one?

Paine: The reason for the variety was that we take a first-principles approach to designing robotic systems. The way you control the system really impacts how you design the system, and that goes all the way down to the actuators. A certain type of actuator is not always the silver bullet: every actuator has its strengths and weaknesses, and we’ve explored that space to understand the limitations of physics to guide us toward the right solutions.

With your focus on making a system that’s affordable, how much are you relying on software to help you minimize hardware costs?

Paine: Some groups have tried masking the deficiencies of cheap, low-quality hardware with software. That’s not at all the approach we’re taking. We are leaning on our experience building these kinds of systems over the years from a first principles approach. Building from the core requirements for this type of system, we’ve found a solution that hits our performance targets while also being far more mass producible compared to anything we’ve seen in this space previously. We’re really excited about the solution that we’ve found.

How much effort are you putting into software at this stage? How will you teach Apollo to do useful things?

Paine: There are some basic applications that we need to solve for Apollo to be fundamentally useful. It needs to be able to walk around, to use its upper body and its arms to interact with the environment. Those are the core capabilities that we’re working on, and once those are at a certain level of maturity, that’s where we can open up the platform for third party application developers to build on top of that.

Cardenas: If you look at Willow Garage with the PR2, they had a similar approach, which was to build a solid hardware platform, create a powerful API, and then let others build applications on it. But then you’re really putting your destiny in the hands of other developers. One of the things that we learned from that is if you want to enable that future, you have to prove that initial utility. So what we’re doing is handling the full stack development on the initial applications, which will be targeting supply chain and logistics.

A rendering of a busy construction site on Mars with humans and humanoid robots working together. NASA officials have expressed their interest in Apptronik developing “technology and talent that will sustain us through the Artemis program and looking forward to Mars.”

“In robotics, seeing is believing. You can say whatever you want, but you really have to prove what you can do, and that’s been our focus. We want to show versus tell.”
—Jeff Cardenas, CEO Apptronik

Apptronik plans for the alpha version of Apollo to be ready in March, in time for a sneak peak for a small audience at SXSW. From there, the alpha Apollos will go through pilots as Apptronik collects feedback to develop a beta version that will begin larger deployments. The company expects these programs to lead to full a gamma version and full production runs by the end of 2024.

27 Jan. 2023

The Big Picture features technology through the lens of photographers.

Every month, IEEE Spectrum selects the most stunning technology images recently captured by photographers around the world. We choose images that reflect an important advance, or a trend, or that are just mesmerizing to look at. We feature all images on our site, and one also appears on our monthly print edition.

Enjoy the latest images, and if you have suggestions, leave a comment below.

The Wurst Use of AI

Two people standing in a room of sausages pointing to a small laptop.

From the time the ancient Sumerians started making sausage around 4,000 years ago, the process has been the province of artisans dedicated to the craft of preserving meat so it remained safe to eat for as long as possible. Yet even traditional methods can stand to be improved on from time to time. Katharina Koch of the Landfleischerei Koch in Calden, Germany [right], has retained ancient customs such as the clay chambers in which Ahle sausages ripen while also fine-tuning the conditions under which the meats are cured (such as temperature and moisture level) via AI algorithms. The digital modifications she and scientists at the nearby University of Kassel have developed replicate the production methods that have been passed down for generations. So, instead of spending nearly a year manually monitoring the meats’ maturation process, a sausage maker using the new AI methods will be able to set it and forget it.

Uwe Zucchi/picture alliance/Getty Images

A small tweezer holding a small device.

Electronic Pill Fueled by What You Eat

People with diabetes will usually prick their fingers multiple times a day in order to get readings on the amount of glucose (the type of sugar the body uses for fuel) that is in their bloodstream. But researchers at the University of California, San Diego, have developed a bloodless method for tracking blood sugar and other chemical metabolites in the gastrointestinal tract that can be used to infer the person’s relative state of health. Their solution to the finger-pricking problem: an electronic pill capable of sensing metabolite levels and transmitting data wirelessly every 5 seconds over a span of several hours. So, instead of snapshots of how the body is reacting to stimuli like food, clinicians will get a steady stream of data. The major innovation boasted by the UCSD team is that their pill draws power from a fuel cell that runs on the glucose in the gut, instead of relying on a battery laden with potentially harmful chemicals.

David Baillot/UC San Diego

A pair of rubber gloves holding an object with glowing elements.

Stretchy Circuits, Wired With Sound

The phrase musical arrangement has long referred to the work of art that results from a composition being adapted for different instruments or voices. But going forward, sound will get in on the act of arranging. Engineers at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology report that they used sound waves to disperse metallic droplets embedded in a polymer in order to make flexible circuits. This “musical arrangement” yields an archipelago of droplets spaced so that electrical conductivity is maintained even when the polymer is bent or twisted.

Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology

A photo of a device balancing on the tip in the middle.

A Well-Balanced Machine

The relative proportions of a bee’s body and its wings say that, at least in theory, it shouldn’t be able to fly. But where would we be if bees were incapable of flitting from flower to flower, collecting nectar and spreading pollen? Roboticists at ETH Zurich, taking a page from nature, say they too have created a machine whose movement seems to defy the laws of physics. The 1.TK-meter-long gadget, called Cubli, balances on a single point, with a single internal reaction wheel whose spin keeps the unit upright. The way this is supposed to work, the Cubli would need a wheel to manage pitch and another to handle roll. But the Zurich team worked out the Cubli’s dimensions so the one wheel is capable of counterbalancing any forces that would topple the machine.

ETH Zurich

27 Jan. 2023

Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your friends at IEEE Spectrum robotics. We also post a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months. Please send us your events for inclusion.

IEEE RO-MAN 2023: 28–31 August 2023, BUSAN, KOREA
RoboCup 2023: 4–10 July 2023, BORDEAUX, FRANCE
CLAWAR 2023: 2–4 October 2023, FLORIANOPOLIS, BRAZIL
RSS 2023: 10–14 July 2023, DAEGU, KOREA
ICRA 2023: 29 May–2 June 2023, LONDON
Robotics Summit & Expo: 10–11 May 2023, BOSTON

Enjoy today’s videos!

Sometimes, watching a robot almost but not quite fail is way cooler than watching it succeed.

[ Boston Dynamics ]

Simulation-based reinforcement learning approaches are leading the next innovations in legged robot control. However, the resulting control policies are still not applicable on soft and deformable terrains, especially at high speed. To this end, we introduce a versatile and computationally efficient granular media model for reinforcement learning. We applied our techniques to the Raibo robot, a dynamic quadrupedal robot developed in-house. The trained networks demonstrated high-speed locomotion capabilities on deformable terrains.

[ Kaist ]

A lonely badminton player’s best friend.

[ YouTube ]

Come along for the (autonomous) ride with Yorai Shaoul, and see what a day is like for a Ph.D. student at Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Institute.

[ AirLab ]

In this video we showcase a Husky-based robot that’s preparing for its journey across the continent to live with a family of alpacas on Formant’s farm in Denver, Colorado.

[ Clearpath ]

Arm prostheses are becoming smarter, more customized and more versatile. We’re closer to replicating everyday movements than ever before, but we’re not there yet. Can you do better? Join teams to revolutionize prosthetics and build a world without barriers.

[ Cybathlon 2024 ]

RB-VOGUI is the robot developed for this success story and is mainly responsible for the navigation and collection of high quality data, which is transferred in real time to the relevant personnel. After the implementation of the fleet of autonomous mobile robots, only one operator is needed to monitor the fleet from a control centre.

[ Robotnik ]

Bagging groceries isn’t only a physical task: knowing how to order the items to prevent damage requires human-like intelligence. Also … bin packing.

[ Sanctuary AI ]

Seems like lidar is everywhere nowadays, but it started at NASA back in the 1980s.

[ NASA ]

This GRASP on Robotics talk is by Frank Dellaert at Georgia Tech, on “Factor Graphs for Perception and Action.”

Factor graphs have been very successful in providing a lingua franca in which to phrase robotics perception and navigation problems. In this talk I will revisit some of those successes, also discussed in depth in a recent review article. However, I will focus on our more recent work in the talk, centered on using factor graphs for action. I will discuss our efforts in motion planning, trajectory optimization, optimal control, and model-predictive control, highlighting SCATE, our recent work on collision avoidance for autonomous spacecraft.

[ UPenn ]

27 Jan. 2023

The five largest auto manufacturers will face massive U.S. patent fees within the next five years. This report examines auto industry lapse trends and how a company’s decisions on keeping, selling or pruning patents can greatly impact its cost savings and revenue generation opportunities.

Patent lapse strategies can help companies in any industry out-maneuver the competition. Volume 2 of the U.S. Patent Lapse Series highlights how such decisions, especially during uncertain economic times, can impact the bottom line exponentially within a few years.

Download the report to find out:

  • What is the patent lapse strategy leading Honda to save millions each year?
  • How has Toyota’s patent lapse rate changed in the last 10-years?
  • How do the patent lapse rate and associated costs vary between top OEMs?
  • Where are the opportunities for portfolio optimization during uncertain economic times?

Get the insights.

27 Jan. 2023

This sponsored article is brought to you by COMSOL.

To someone standing near a glacier, it may seem as stable and permanent as anything on Earth can be. However, Earth’s great ice sheets are always moving and evolving. In recent decades, this ceaseless motion has accelerated. In fact, ice in polar regions is proving to be not just mobile, but alarmingly mortal.

Rising air and sea temperatures are speeding up the discharge of glacial ice into the ocean, which contributes to global sea level rise. This ominous progression is happening even faster than anticipated. Existing models of glacier dynamics and ice discharge underestimate the actual rate of ice loss in recent decades. This makes the work of Angelika Humbert, a physicist studying Greenland’s Nioghalvfjerdsbræ outlet glacier, especially important — and urgent.

As the leader of the Modeling Group in the Section of Glaciology at the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI) Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research in Bremerhaven, Germany, Humbert works to extract broader lessons from Nioghalvfjerdsbræ’s ongoing decline. Her research combines data from field observations with viscoelastic modeling of ice sheet behavior. Through improved modeling of elastic effects on glacial flow, Humbert and her team seek to better predict ice loss and the resulting impact on global sea levels.

She is acutely aware that time is short. “Nioghalvfjerdsbræ is one of the last three ‘floating tongue’ glaciers in Greenland,” explains Humbert. “Almost all of the other floating tongue formations have already disintegrated.”

One Glacier That Holds 1.1 Meter of Potential Global Sea Level Rise

The North Atlantic island of Greenland is covered with the world’s second largest ice pack after that of Antarctica. (Fig. 1) Greenland’s sparsely populated landscape may seem unspoiled, but climate change is actually tearing away at its icy mantle.

The ongoing discharge of ice into the ocean is a “fundamental process in the ice sheet mass-balance,” according to a 2021 article in Communications Earth & Environment by Humbert and her colleagues. (Ref. 1) The article notes that the entire Northeast Greenland Ice Stream contains enough ice to raise global sea levels by 1.1 meters. While the entire formation is not expected to vanish, Greenland’s overall ice cover has declined dramatically since 1990. This process of decay has not been linear or uniform across the island. Nioghalvfjerdsbræ, for example, is now Greenland’s largest outlet glacier. The nearby Petermann Glacier used to be larger, but has been shrinking even more quickly. (Ref. 2)

Map of Greenland showing location of cracks and ice flow near the coast.

Existing Models Underestimate the Rate of Ice Loss

Greenland’s overall loss of ice mass is distinct from “calving”, which is the breaking off of icebergs from glaciers’ floating tongues. While calving does not directly raise sea levels, the calving process can quicken the movement of land-based ice toward the coast. Satellite imagery from the European Space Agency (Fig. 2) has captured a rapid and dramatic calving event in action. Between June 29 and July 24 of 2020, a 125 km2 floating portion of Nioghalvfjerdsbræ calved into many separate icebergs, which then drifted off to melt into the North Atlantic.

Direct observations of ice sheet behavior are valuable, but insufficient for predicting the trajectory of Greenland’s ice loss. Glaciologists have been building and refining ice sheet models for decades, yet, as Humbert says, “There is still a lot of uncertainty around this approach.” Starting in 2014, the team at AWI joined 14 other research groups to compare and refine their forecasts of potential ice loss through 2100. The project also compared projections for past years to ice losses that actually occurred. Ominously, the experts’ predictions were “far below the actually observed losses” since 2015, as stated by Martin Rückamp of AWI. (Ref. 3) He says, “The models for Greenland underestimate the current changes in the ice sheet due to climate change.”

Sequence of photos showing the flow of ice in the Nioghalvfjerdsbr\u00e6 glacier.

Viscoelastic Modeling to Capture Fast-Acting Forces

Angelika Humbert has personally made numerous trips to Greenland and Antarctica to gather data and research samples, but she recognizes the limitations of the direct approach to glaciology. “Field operations are very costly and time consuming, and there is only so much we can see,” she says. “What we want to learn is hidden inside a system, and much of that system is buried beneath many tons of ice! We need modeling to tell us what behaviors are driving ice loss, and also to show us where to look for those behaviors.”

Since the 1980s, researchers have relied on numerical models to describe and predict how ice sheets evolve. “They found that you could capture the effects of temperature changes with models built around a viscous power law function,” Humbert explains. “If you are modeling stable, long-term behavior, and you get your viscous deformation and sliding right, your model can do a decent job. But if you are trying to capture loads that are changing on a short time scale, then you need a different approach.”

To better understand the Northeast Greenland Ice Stream glacial system and its discharge of ice into the ocean, researchers at the Alfred Wegener Institute have developed an improved viscoelastic model to capture how tides and subglacial topography contribute to glacial flow.

What drives short-term changes in the loads that affect ice sheet behavior? Humbert and the AWI team focus on two sources of these significant but poorly understood forces: oceanic tidal movement under floating ice tongues (such as the one shown in Fig. 2) and the ruggedly uneven landscape of Greenland itself. Both tidal movement and Greenland’s topography help determine how rapidly the island’s ice cover is moving toward the ocean.

To investigate the elastic deformation caused by these factors, Humbert and her team built a viscoelastic model of Nioghalvfjerdsbræ in the COMSOL Multiphysics software. The glacier model’s geometry is based on data from radar surveys. The model solved underlying equations for a viscoelastic Maxwell material across a 2D model domain consisting of a vertical cross section along the blue line shown in Fig. 3. The simulated results were then compared to actual field measurements of glacier flow obtained by four GPS stations, one of which is shown in Fig. 3.

How Cycling Tides Affect Glacier Movement

The tides around Greenland typically raise and lower the coastal water line between 1 and 4 meters per cycle. This action exerts tremendous force on outlet glaciers’ floating tongues, and these forces are transmitted into the land-based parts of the glacier as well. AWI’s viscoelastic model explores how these cyclical changes in stress distribution can affect the glacier’s flow toward the sea.

Left photo with text overlay indicating the location of where GPS stations were positioned. Right photo shows closeup of GPS station.

Three plots comparing experimental and simulated data.

The charts in Figure 4 present the measured tide-induced stresses acting on Nioghalvfjerdsbræ at three locations, superimposed on stresses predicted by viscous and viscoelastic simulations. Chart a shows how displacements decline further when they are 14 kilometers inland from the grounding line (GL). Chart b shows that cyclical tidal stresses lessen at GPS-hinge, located in a bending zone near the grounding line between land and sea. Chart c shows activity at the location called GPS-shelf, which is mounted on ice floating in the ocean. Accordingly, it shows the most pronounced waveform of cyclical tidal stresses acting on the ice.

“The floating tongue is moving up and down, which produces elastic responses in the land-based portion of the glacier,” says Julia Christmann, a mathematician on the AWI team who plays a key role in constructing their simulation models. “There is also a subglacial hydrological system of liquid water between the inland ice and the ground. This basal water system is poorly known, though we can see evidence of its effects.” For example, chart a shows a spike in stresses below a lake sitting atop the glacier. “Lake water flows down through the ice, where it adds to the subglacial water layer and compounds its lubricating effect,” Christmann says.

The plotted trend lines highlight the greater accuracy of the team’s new viscoelastic simulations, as compared to purely viscous models. As Christmann explains, “The viscous model does not capture the full extent of changes in stress, and it does not show the correct amplitude. (See chart c in Fig. 4.) In the bending zone, we can see a phase shift in these forces due to elastic response.” Christmann continues, “You can only get an accurate model if you account for viscoelastic ‘spring’ action.”

Modeling Elastic Strains from Uneven Landscapes

The crevasses in Greenland’s glaciers reveal the unevenness of the underlying landscape. Crevasses also provide further evidence that glacial ice is not a purely viscous material. “You can watch a glacier over time and see that it creeps, as a viscous material would,” says Humbert. However, a purely viscous material would not form persistent cracks the way that ice sheets do. “From the beginning of glaciology, we have had to accept the reality of these crevasses,” she says. The team’s viscoelastic model provides a novel way to explore how the land beneath Nioghalvfjerdsbræ facilitates the emergence of crevasses and affects glacial sliding.

Aerial view of Nioghalvfjerdsbr\u00e6 glacier showing vast expanse of ice covered by deep crevasses.

“When we did our simulations, we were surprised at the amount of elastic strain created by topography,” Christmann explains. “We saw these effects far inland, where they would have nothing to do with tidal changes.”

Plot showing ice movement in different parts of the Nioghalvfjerdsbr\u00e6 glacier.

Figure 6 shows how vertical deformation in the glacier corresponds to the underlying landscape and helps researchers understand how localized elastic vertical motion affects the entire sheet’s horizontal movement. Shaded areas indicate velocity in that part of the glacier compared to its basal velocity. Blue zones are moving vertically at a slower rate than the sections that are directly above the ground, indicating that the ice is being compressed. Pink and purple zones are moving faster than ice at the base, showing that ice is being vertically stretched.

These simulation results suggest that the AWI team’s improved model could provide more accurate forecasts of glacial movements. “This was a ‘wow’ effect for us,” says Humbert. “Just as the up and down of the tides creates elastic strain that affects glacier flow, now we can capture the elastic part of the up and down over bedrock as well.”

Scaling Up as the Clock Runs Down

The improved viscoelastic model of Nioghalvfjerdsbræ is only the latest example of Humbert’s decades-long use of numerical simulation tools for glaciological research. “COMSOL is very well suited to our work,” she says. “It is a fantastic tool for trying out new ideas. The software makes it relatively easy to adjust settings and conduct new simulation experiments without having to write custom code.” Humbert’s university students frequently incorporate simulation into their research. Examples include Julia Christmann’s PhD work on the calving of ice shelves, and another degree project that modeled the evolution of the subglacial channels that carry meltwater from the surface to the ice base.

The AWI team is proud of their investigative work, but they are fully cognizant of just how much information about the world’s ice cover remains unknown — and that time is short. “We cannot afford Maxwell material simulations of all of Greenland,” Humbert concedes. “We could burn years of computational time and still not cover everything. But perhaps we can parameterize the localized elastic response effects of our model, and then implement it at a larger scale,” she says.

This scale defines the challenges faced by 21st-century glaciologists. The size of their research subjects is staggering, and so is the global significance of their work. Even as their knowledge is growing, it is imperative that they find more information, more quickly. Angelika Humbert would welcome input from people in other fields who study viscoelastic materials. “If other COMSOL users are dealing with fractures in Maxwell materials, they probably face some of the same difficulties that we have, even if their models have nothing to do with ice!” she says. “Maybe we can have an exchange and tackle these issues together.”

Perhaps, in this spirit, we who benefit from the work of glaciologists can help shoulder some of the vast and weighty challenges they bear.


  1. J. Christmann, V. Helm, S.A. Khan, A. Humbert, et al. “Elastic Deformation Plays a Non-Negligible Role in Greenland’s Outlet Glacier Flow“, Communications Earth & Environment, vol. 2, no. 232, 2021.
  2. European Space Agency, “Spalte Breaks Up“, September 2020.
  3. Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research, “Model comparison: Experts calculate future ice loss and the extent to which Greenland and the Antarctic will contribute to sea-level rise“, September 2020.
27 Jan. 2023

There’s a handful of robotics companies currently working on what could be called general-purpose humanoid robots. That is, human-size, human-shaped robots with legs for mobility and arms for manipulation that can (or, may one day be able to) perform useful tasks in environments designed primarily for humans. The value proposition is obvious—drop-in replacement of humans for dull, dirty, or dangerous tasks. This sounds a little ominous, but the fact is that people don’t want to be doing the jobs that these robots are intended to do in the short term, and there just aren’t enough people to do these jobs as it is.

We tend to look at claims of commercializable general-purpose humanoid robots with some skepticism, because humanoids are really, really hard. They’re still really hard in a research context, which is usually where things have to get easier before anyone starts thinking about commercialization. There are certainly companies out there doing some amazing work toward practical legged systems, but at this point, “practical” is more about not falling over than it is about performance or cost effectiveness. The overall approach toward solving humanoids in this way tends to be to build something complex and expensive that does what you want, with the goal of cost reduction over time to get it to a point where it’s affordable enough to be a practical solution to a real problem.

Apptronik, based in Austin, Texas, is the latest company to attempt to figure out how to make a practical general-purpose robot. Its approach is to focus on things like cost and reliability from the start, developing (for example) its own actuators from scratch in a way that it can be sure will be cost effective and supply-chain friendly. Apptronik’s goal is to develop a platform that costs well under US $100,000 of which it hopes to be able to deliver a million by 2030, although the plan is to demonstrate a prototype early this year. Based on what we’ve seen of commercial humanoid robots recently, this seems like a huge challenge. And in part two of this story (to be posted tomorrow), we will be talking in depth to Apptronik’s cofounders to learn more about how they’re going to make general-purpose humanoids happen.

First, though, some company history. Apptronik spun out from the Human Centered Robotics Lab at the University of Texas at Austin in 2016, but the company traces its robotics history back a little farther, to 2015’s DARPA Robotics Challenge. Apptronik’s CTO and cofounder, Nick Paine, was on the NASA-JSC Valkyrie DRC team, and Apptronik’s first contract was to work on next-gen actuation and controls for NASA. Since then, the company has been working on robotics projects for a variety of large companies. In particular, Apptronik developed Astra, a humanoid upper body for dexterous bimanual manipulation that’s currently being tested for supply-chain use.

But Apptronik has by no means abandoned its NASA roots. In 2019, NASA had plans for what was essentially going to be a Valkyrie 2, which was to be a ground-up redesign of the Valkyrie platform. As with many of the coolest NASA projects, the potential new humanoid didn’t survive budget prioritization for very long, but even at the time it wasn’t clear to us why NASA wanted to build its own humanoid rather than asking someone else to build one for it considering how much progress we’ve seen with humanoid robots over the last decade. Ultimately, NASA decided to move forward with more of a partnership model, which is where Apptronik fits in—a partnership between Apptronik and NASA will help accelerate commercialization of Apollo.

“We recognize that Apptronik is building a production robot that’s designed for terrestrial use,” says NASA’s Shaun Azimi, who leads the Dexterous Robotics Team at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. “From NASA’s perspective, what we’re aiming to do with this partnership is to encourage the development of technology and talent that will sustain us through the Artemis program and looking forward to Mars.”

Apptronik is positioning Apollo as a high-performance, easy-to-use, and versatile system. It is imagining an “iPhone of robots.”

“Apollo is the robot that we always wanted to build,” says Jeff Cardenas, Apptronik cofounder and CEO. This new humanoid is the culmination of an astonishing amount of R&D, all the way down to the actuator level. “As a company, we’ve built more than 30 unique electric actuators,” Cardenas explains. “You name it, we’ve tried it. Liquid cooling, cable driven, series elastic, parallel elastic, quasi-direct drive…. And we’ve now honed our approach and are applying it to commercial humanoids.”

Apptronik’s emphasis on commercialization gives it a much different perspective on robotics development than you get when focusing on pure research the way that NASA does. To build a commercial product rather than a handful of totally cool but extremely complex bespoke humanoids, you need to consider things like minimizing part count, maximizing maintainability and robustness, and keeping the overall cost manageable. “Our starting point was figuring out what the minimum viable humanoid robot looked like,” explains Apptronik CTO Nick Paine. “Iteration is then necessary to add complexity as needed to solve particular problems.”

This robot is called Astra. It’s only an upper body, and it’s Apptronik’s first product, but (not having any legs) it’s designed for manipulation rather than dynamic locomotion. Astra is force controlled, with series-elastic torque-controlled actuators, giving it the compliance necessary to work in dynamic environments (and particularly around humans). “Astra is pretty unique,” says Paine. “What we were trying to do with the system is to approach and achieve human-level capability in terms of manipulation workspace and payload. This robot taught us a lot about manipulation and actually doing useful work in the world, so that’s why it’s where we wanted to start.”

While Astra is currently out in the world doing pilot projects with clients (mostly in the logistics space), internally Apptronik has moved on to robots with legs. The following video, which Apptronik is sharing publicly for the first time, shows a robot that the company is calling its Quick Development Humanoid, or QDH:

QDH builds on Astra by adding legs, along with a few extra degrees of freedom in the upper body to help with mobility and balance while simplifying the upper body for more basic manipulation capability. It uses only three different types of actuators, and everything (from structure to actuators to electronics to software) has been designed and built by Apptronik. “With QDH, we’re approaching minimum viable product from a usefulness standpoint,” says Paine, “and this is really what’s driving our development, both in software and hardware.”

“What people have done in humanoid robotics is to basically take the same sort of architectures that have been used in industrial robotics and apply those to building what is in essence a multi-degree-of-freedom industrial robot,” adds Cardenas. “We’re thinking of new ways to build these systems, leveraging mass manufacturing techniques to allow us to develop a high-degree-of-freedom robot that’s as affordable as many industrial robots that are out there today.”

Cardenas explains that a major driver for the cost of humanoid robots is the number of different parts, the precision machining of some specific parts, and the resulting time and effort it then takes to put these robots together. As an internal-controls test bed, QDH has helped Apptronik to explore how it can switch to less complex parts and lower the total part count. The plan for Apollo is to not use any high-precision or proprietary components at all, which mitigates many supply-chain issues and will help Apptronik reach its target price point for the robot.

Apollo will be a completely new robot, based around the lessons Apptronik has learned from QDH. It’ll be average human size: about 1.75 meters tall, weighing around 75 kilograms, with the ability to lift 25 kg. It’s designed to operate untethered, either indoors or outdoors. Broadly, Apptronik is positioning Apollo as a high-performance, easy-to-use, and versatile robot that can do a bunch of different things. It is imagining an “iPhone of robots,” where apps can be created for the robot to perform specific tasks. To extend the iPhone metaphor, Apptronik itself will make sure that Apollo can do all of the basics (such as locomotion and manipulation) so that it has fundamental value, but the company sees versatility as the way to get to large-scale deployments and the cost savings that come with them.

“I see the Apollo robot as a spiritual successor to Valkyrie. It’s not Valkyrie 2—Apollo is its own platform, but we’re working with Apptronik to adapt it as much as we can to space use cases.”
—Shaun Azimi, NASA Johnson Space Center

The challenge with this app approach is that there’s a critical mass that’s required to get it to work—after all, the primary motivation to develop an iPhone app is that there are a bajillion iPhones out there already. Apptronik is hoping that there are enough basic manipulation tasks in the supply-chain space that Apollo can leverage to scale to that critical-mass point. “This is a huge opportunity where the tasks that you need a robot to do are pretty straightforward,” Cardenas tells us. “Picking single items, moving things with two hands, and other manipulation tasks where industrial automation only gets you to a certain point. These companies have a huge labor challenge—they’re missing labor across every part of their business.”

While Apptronik’s goal is for Apollo to be autonomous, in the short to medium term, its approach will be hybrid autonomy, with a human overseeing first a few and eventually a lot of Apollos with the ability to step in and provide direct guidance through teleoperation when necessary. “That’s really where there’s a lot of business opportunity,” says Paine. Cardenas agrees. “I came into this thinking that we’d need to make Rosie the robot before we could have a successful commercial product. But I think the bar is much lower than that. There are fairly simple tasks that we can enter the market with, and then as we mature our controls and software, we can graduate to more complicated tasks.”

Apptronik is still keeping details about Apollo’s design under wraps, for now. We were shown renderings of the robot, but Apptronik is understandably hesitant to make those public, since the design of the robot may change. It does have a firm date for unveiling Apollo for the first time: SXSW, which takes place in Austin in March.

26 Jan. 2023

Simple, effective solutions that can help lessen the impact of climate change already exist. Some of them still need to be implemented, though, while others need to be improved.

That’s according to 2023 IEEE President Saifur Rahman, who was among the speakers from engineering organizations at the COP27 event held in Egypt in November. The IEEE Life Fellow spoke during a session addressing the role of technology in delivering an equitable, sustainable, and low-carbon resilient world.

Rahman, a power expert and professor of electrical and computer engineering at Virginia Tech, is the former chair of the IEEE ad hoc committee on climate change. The committee was formed last year to coordinate the organization’s response to the global crisis.

About one-third of emissions globally are produced through electricity generation, and Rahman said his mission is to help reduce that amount through engineering solutions.

At COP27, he said that even though the first legally binding international treaty on climate change, known as the Paris Agreement, was adopted nearly a decade ago, countries have yet to come to a consensus on how to stop burning fossil fuels, among other issues. Some continue to burn coal, for example, because there are no other economically feasible choices for them.

“We as technologists from IEEE say, ‘If you keep to your positions, you’ll never get an agreement,’” he said. “We have come to offer this six-point portfolio of solutions that everybody can live with. We want to be a solution partner so we can have parties at the table to help solve this problem of high carbon emissions globally.”

The solutions Rahman outlined were the use of proven methods that reduce electricity usage, making coal plants more efficient, using hydrogen and other storage solutions, promoting more renewables, installing new types of nuclear reactors, and encouraging cross-border power transfers.

Energy-saving tips

One action is to use less electricity, Rahman said, noting that dimming lights by 20 percent in homes, office buildings, hotels, and schools could save 10 percent of electricity. Most people wouldn’t even notice the difference in brightness, he said.

Another is switching to LEDs, which use at least 75 percent less energy than incandescent bulbs. LED bulbs cost about five times more, but they last longer, he said. He called on developed countries to provide financial assistance to developing nations to help them replace all their incandescent bulbs with LEDs.

Another energy-saving measure is to raise the temperature of air conditioners by 2 °C. This could save 10 percent of electricity as well, Rahman.

By better controlling lighting, heating, and cooling, 20 percent of energy could be saved without causing anyone to suffer, he said.

Efficient coal-burning plants

Shutting down coal power plants completely is unlikely to happen anytime soon, he predicted, especially since many countries are building new ones that have 40-year life spans. Countries that continue to burn coal should do so in high-efficiency power plants, he said.

One type is the ultrasupercritical coal-fired steam power plant. Conventional coal-fired plants, which make water boil to generate steam that activates a turbine, have an efficiency of about 38 percent. Ultrasupercritical plants operate at temperatures and pressures at which the liquid and gas phases of water coexist in equilibrium. It results in higher efficiencies: about 46 percent. Rahman cited the Eemshaven ultrasupercritical plant, in Groningen, Netherlands—which was built in 2014.

Another efficient option he pointed out is the combined cycle power plant. In its first stage, natural gas is burned in a turbine to make electricity. The heat from the turbine’s exhaust is used to produce steam to turn a turbine in the second stage. The resulting two-stage power plant is at least 25 percent more efficient than a single-stage plant.

“IEEE wants to be a solution partner, not a complaining partner, so we can have both parties at the table to help solve this problem of high carbon emissions globally.”

Another method to make coal-fired power plants more environmentally friendly is to capture the exhausted carbon dioxide and store it in the ground, Rahman said. Such carbon-capture systems are being used in some locations, but he acknowledges that the carbon sequestration process is too expensive for some countries.

Integrating and storing grid and off-grid energy

To properly balance electricity supply and demand on the power grid, renewables should be integrated into energy generation, transmission, and distribution systems from the very start, Rahman said. He added that the energy from wind, solar, and hydroelectric plants should be stored in batteries so the electricity generated from them during off-peak hours isn’t wasted but integrated into energy grids.

He also said low-cost, low-carbon hydrogen fuel should be considered as part of the renewable energy mix. The fuel can be used to power cars, supply electricity, and heat homes, all with zero carbon emissions.

“Hydrogen would help emerging economies meet their climate goals, lower their costs, and make their energy grid more resilient,” he said.

Smaller nuclear power plants

Rahman conceded there’s a stigma that surrounds nuclear power plants because of accidents at Chernobyl, Fukushima, Three Mile Island, and elsewhere. But, he said, without nuclear power, the concept of becoming carbon neutral by 2050 isn’t realistic.

“It’s not possible in the next 25 years except with nuclear power,” he said. “We don’t have enough solar energy and wind energy.”

Small modular reactors could replace traditional nuclear power plants. SMRs are easier and less expensive to build, and they’re safer than today’s large nuclear plants, Rahman said.

Though small, SMRs are powerful. They have an output of up to 300 megawatts of electricity, or about a quarter of the size of today’s typical nuclear plant.

The modular reactors are assembled in factories and shipped to their ultimate location, instead of being built onsite. And unlike traditional nuclear facilities, SMRs don’t need to be located near large bodies of water to handle the waste heat discharge.

SMRs have not taken off, Rahman says, because of licensing and technical issues.

Electricity transfer across national borders

Rahman emphasized the need for more cross-border power transfers, as few countries have enough electricity to supply to all their citizens. Many countries already do so.

“The United States buys power from Canada. France sells energy to Italy, Spain, and Switzerland,” Rahman said. “The whole world is one grid. You cannot transition from coal to solar and vice versa unless you transfer power back and forth.”

Free research on climate change

During the conference session, Rahman said an IEEE collection of 7,000 papers related to climate change is accessible from the IEEE Xplore Digital Library. IEEE also launched a website that houses additional resources.

None of the solutions IEEE proposed are new or untested, Rahman said, but his goal is to “provide a portfolio of solutions acceptable to and deployable in both the emerging economies and the developed countries—which will allow them to sit at the table together and see how much carbon emission can be saved by creative application of already available technologies so that both parties win at the end of the day.”

25 Jan. 2023

There is currently a lot of interest in AI tools designed to help programmers write software. GitHub’s Copilot and Amazon’s CodeWhisperer apply deep-learning techniques originally developed for generating natural-language text by adapting it to generate source code. The idea is that programmers can use these tools as a kind of auto-complete on steroids, using prompts to produce chunks of code that developers can integrate into their software.

Looking at these tools, I wondered: Could we take the next step and take the human programmer out of the loop? Could a working program be written and deployed on demand with just the touch of a button?

In my day job, I write embedded software for microcontrollers, so I immediately thought of a self-contained handheld device as a demo platform. A screen and a few controls would allow the user to request and interact with simple AI-generated software. And so was born the idea of infinite Pong.

I chose Pong for a number of reasons. The gameplay is simple, famously explained on Atari’s original 1972 Pong arcade cabinet in a triumph of succinctness: “Avoid missing ball for high score.” An up button and a down button is all that’s needed to play. As with many classic Atari games created in the 1970s and 1980s, Pong can be written in a relatively few lines of code, and has been implemented as a programming exercise many, many times. This means that the source-code repositories ingested as training data for the AI tools are rich in Pong examples, increasing the likelihood of getting viable results.

I used a US $6 Raspberry Pi Pico W as the core of my handheld device—its built-in wireless allows direct connectivity to cloud-based AI tools. To this I mounted a $9 Pico LCD 1.14 display module. Its 240 x 135 color pixels is ample for Pong, and the module integrates two buttons and a two-axis micro joystick.

My choice of programming language for the Pico was MicroPython, because it is what I normally use and because it is an interpreted- language code that can be run without the need of a PC-based compiler. The AI coding tool I used was the OpenAI Codex. The OpenAI Codex can be accessed via an API that responds to queries using the Web’s HTTP format, which are straightforward to construct and send using the urequests and ujson libraries available for MicroPython. Using the OpenAI Codex API is free during the current beta period, but registration is required and queries are limited to 20 per minute—still more than enough to accommodate even the most fanatical Pong jockey.

An LCD screen with a joystick on the left-hand side and two buttons on the right-hand side, a microcontroller, and a USB cable. Only two hardware modules are needed–a Rasperry Pi Pico W [bottom left] that supplies the compute power and a plug-in board with a screen and simple controls [top left]. Nothing else is needed except a USB cable to supply power.James Provost

The next step was to create a container program. This program is responsible for detecting when a new version of Pong is requested via a button push and when it, sends a prompt to the OpenAI Codex, receives the results, and launches the game. The container program also sets up a hardware abstraction layer, which handles the physical connection between the Pico and the LCD/control module.

The most critical element of the whole project was creating the prompt that is transmitted to the OpenAI Codex every time we want it to spit out a new version of Pong. The prompt is a chunk of plain text with the barest skeleton of source code—a few lines outlining a structure common to many video games, namely a list of libraries we’d like to use, and a call to process events (such as keypresses), a call to update the game state based on those events, and a call to display the updated state on the screen.

The code that comes back produces a workable Pong game about 80 percent of the time.

How to use those libraries and fill out the calls is up to the AI. The key to turning this generic structure into a Pong game are the embedded comments—optional in source code written by humans, really useful in prompts. The comments describe the gameplay in plain English—for example, “The game includes the following classes…Ball: This class represents the ball. It has a position, a velocity, and a debug attributes [sic]. Pong: This class represents the game itself. It has two paddles and a ball. It knows how to check when the game is over.” (My container and prompt code are available on (Go to to play an infinite number of Pong games with the Raspberry Pi Pico W; my container and prompt code are on the site.)

What comes back from the AI is about 300 lines of code. In my early attempts the code would fail to display the game because the version of the MicroPython framebuffer library that works with my module is different from the framebuffer libraries the OpenAI Codex was trained on. The solution was to add the descriptions of the methods my library uses as prompt comments, for example: “def rectangle(self, x, y, w, h, c).” Another issue was that many of the training examples used global variables, whereas my initial prompt defined variables as attributes scoped to live inside individual classes, which is generally a better practice. I eventually had to give up, go with the flow, and declare my variables as global.

Nine example screenshots The variations of Pong created by the OpenAI Codex vary widely in ball and paddle size and color and how scores are displayed. Sometimes the code results in an unplayable game, such as at the bottom right corner, where the player paddles have been placed on top of each other.James Provost

The code that comes back from my current prompt produces a workable Pong game about 80 percent of the time. Sometimes the game doesn’t work at all, and sometimes it produces something that runs but isn’t quite Pong, such as when it allows the paddles to be moved left and right in addition to up and down. Sometimes it’s two human players, and other times you play against the machine. Since it is not specified in the prompt, Codex takes either of the two options. When you play against the machine, it’s always interesting to see how Codex has implemented that part of code logic.

So who is the author of this code? Certainly there are legal disputes stemming from, for example, how this code should be licensed, as much of the training set is based on open-source software that imposes specific licensing conditions on code derived from it. But licenses and ownership are separate from authorship, and with regard to the latter I believe it belongs to the programmer who uses the AI tool and verifies the results, as would be the case if you created artwork with a painting program made by a company and used their brushes and filters.

As for my project, the next step is to look at more complex games. The 1986 arcade hit Arkanoid on demand, anyone?

25 Jan. 2023

This sponsored article is brought to you by COMSOL.

“Laws, Whitehouse received five minutes signal. Coil signals too weak to relay. Try drive slow and regular. I have put intermediate pulley. Reply by coils.”

Sound familiar? The message above was sent through the first transatlantic telegraph cable between Newfoundland and Ireland, way back in 1858. (“Whitehouse” refers to the chief electrician of the Atlantic Telegraph Company at the time, Wildman Whitehouse.) Fast forward to 2014: The bottom of the ocean is home to nearly 300 communications cables, connecting countries and providing internet communications around the world. Fast forward again: As of 2021, there are an estimated 1.3 million km of submarine cables (Figure 1) in service, ranging from a short 131 km cable between Ireland and the U.K. to the 20,000 km cable that connects Asia with North America and South America. We know what the world of submarine cables looks like today, but what about the future?

Photo of a ship carrying huge coils of submarine cable for deployment in the ocean.

Moving Wind Power Offshore

The offshore wind (OFW) industry is one of the most rapidly advancing sources of power around the world. It makes sense: Wind is stronger and more consistent over the open ocean than it is on land. Some wind farms are capable of powering 500,000 homes or more. Currently, Europe leads the market, making up almost 80 percent of OFW capacity. However, the worldwide demand for energy is expected to increase by 20 percent in 10 years, with a large majority of that demand supplied by sustainable energy sources like wind power.

Offshore wind farms (Figure 2) are made up of networks of turbines. These networks include cables that connect wind farms to the shore and supply electricity to our power grid infrastructure (Figure 3). Many OFW farms are made up of grounded structures, like monopiles and other types of bottom-fixed wind turbines. The foundations for these structures are expensive to construct and difficult to install in deep sea environments, as the cables have to be buried in the seafloor. Installation and maintenance is easier to accomplish in shallow waters.

Wind turbines for offshore wind farms are starting to be built further out into the ocean. This creates a new need for well-designed subsea cables that can reach longer distances, survive in deeper waters, and better connect our world with sustainable power.

The future of offshore wind lies in wind farms that float on ballasts and moorings, with the cables laid directly on the seafloor. Floating wind farms are a great solution when wind farms situated just off the coast grow crowded. They can also take advantage of the bigger and more powerful winds that occur further out to sea. Floating wind farms are expected to grow more popular over the next decade. This is an especially attractive option for areas like the Pacific Coast of the United States and the Mediterranean, where the shores are deeper, as opposed to the shallow waters of the Atlantic Coast of the U.S., U.K., and Norway. One important requirement of floating OFW farms is the installation of dynamic, high-capacity submarine cables that are able to effectively harness and deliver the generated electricity to our shores.

Photo of dozens of wind power towers installed offshore.

Design Factors for Resilient Subsea Cables

Ever experienced slower than usual internet? Failure of a subsea cable may be to blame. Cable failures of this kind are a common — and expensive — occurrence, whether from the damage of mechanical stress and strain caused by bedrock, fishing trawlers, anchors, and problems with the cable design itself. As the offshore wind industry continues to grow, our need to develop power cables that can safely and efficiently connect these farms to our power grid grows as well.

Before fixing or installing a submarine cable, which can cost billions of dollars, cable designers have to ensure that designs will perform as intended in undersea conditions. Today, this is typically done with the help of computational electromagnetics modeling. To validate cable simulation results, international standards are used, but these standards have not been able to keep up with recent advancements in computational power and the simulation software’s growing capabilities. Hellenic Cables, including its subsidiary FULGOR, use the finite element method (FEM) to analyze their cable designs and compare them to experimental measurements, often getting better results than what the international standards can offer.

Left photo shows a submarine cable with its layers remove revealing three inner cables; right image shows closeup of three inner cables, each surrounded by layers of metal and plastic for insulation, structure, and protection.

Updated Methodology for Calculating Cable Losses

The International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) provides standards for electrical cables, including Standard 60287 1-1 for calculating cable losses and current ratings. One problem with the formulation used in Standard 60287 is that it overestimates cable losses — especially the losses in the armor of three-core (3C) submarine cables. Cable designers are forced to adopt a new methodology for performing these analyses, and the team at Hellenic Cables recognizes this. “With a more accurate and realistic model, significant optimization margins are expected,” says Dimitrios Chatzipetros, team leader of the Numerical Analysis group at Hellenic Cables. The new methodology will enable engineers to reduce cable cross sections, thereby reducing their costs, which is the paramount goal for cable manufacturing.

An electric cable is a complex device to model. The geometric structure consists of three main power cores that are helically twisted with a particular lay length, and hundreds of additional wires — screen or armor wires — that are twisted with a second or third lay length. This makes it difficult to generate the mesh and solve for the electromagnetic fields. “This is a tedious 3D problem with challenging material properties, because some of the elements are ferromagnetic,” says Andreas Chrysochos, associate principal engineer in the R&D department of Hellenic Cables.

In recent years, FEM has made a giant leap when it comes to cable analysis. The Hellenic Cables team first used FEM to model a full cable section of around 30 to 40 meters in length. This turned out to be a huge numerical challenge that can only realistically be solved on a supercomputer. By switching to periodic models with a periodic length equal to the cable’s cross pitch, the team reduced the problem from 40 meters down to 2–4 meters. Then they introduced short-twisted periodicity, which reduces the periodic length of the model from meters to centimeters, making it much lighter to solve. “The progress was tremendous,” says Chrysochos. (Figure 4)

Screenshot of COMSOL simulation showing FEM analysis.

Although the improvements that FEM brings to cable analysis are great, Hellenic Cables still needs to convince its clients that their validated results are more realistic than those provided by the current IEC standard. Clients are often already aware of the fact that IEC 60287 overestimates cable losses, but results visualization and comparison to actual measurements can build confidence in project stakeholders. (Figure 5)

Plot showing energy losses in various types of cables.

Finite Element Modeling of Cable Systems

Electromagnetic interference (EMI) presents several challenges when it comes to designing cable systems — especially the capacitive and inductive couplings between cable conductors and sheaths. For one, when calculating current ratings, engineers need to account for power losses in the cable sheaths during normal operation. In addition, the overvoltages on cable sheaths need to be within acceptable limits to meet typical health and safety standards.

As Chrysochos et al. discuss in “Capacitive and Inductive Coupling in Cable Systems – Comparative Study between Calculation Methods” (Ref. 3), there are three main approaches when it comes to calculating these capacitive and inductive couplings. The first is the complex impedance method (CIM), which calculates the cable system’s currents and voltages while neglecting its capacitive currents. This method also assumes that the earth return path is represented by an equivalent conductor. Another common method is electromagnetic transients program (EMT) software, which can be used to analyze electromagnetic transients in power systems using both time- and frequency-domain models.

The third method, FEM, is the foundation of the COMSOL Multiphysics software. The Hellenic Cables team used COMSOL Multiphysics and the add-on AC/DC Module to compute the electric fields, currents, and potential distribution in conducting media. “The AC/DC Module and solvers behind it are very robust and efficient for these types of problems,” says Chrysochos.

The Hellenic Cables team compared the three methods — CIM, EMT software, and FEM (with COMSOL Multiphysics) — when analyzing an underground cable system with an 87/150 kV nominal voltage and 1000 mm2 cross section (Figure 6). They modeled the magnetic field and induced current density distributions in and around the cable system’s conductors, accounting for the bonding type with an external electrical circuit. The results between all three methods show good agreement for the cable system for three different configurations: solid bonding, single-point bonding, and cross bonding (Figure 7). This demonstrates that FEM can be applied to all types of cable configurations and installations when taking into account both capacitive and inductive coupling.

Illustration showing three cables buried underground and their structure, which includes a conductor at the core surrounded by insulation, sheath, and oversheath.

Plots showing reactance simulations comparing EMT, FEM, and CIM methods.

The Hellenic Cables team also used FEM to study thermal effects in subsea cables, such as HVAC submarine cables for offshore wind farms, as described in “Review of the Accuracy of Single Core Equivalent Thermal Model for Offshore Wind Farm Cables” (Ref. 4). The current IEC Standard 60287 1-1 includes a thermal model, and the team used FEM to identify its weak spots and improve its accuracy. First, they validated the current IEC model with finite element analysis. They found that the current standards do not account for the thermal impact of the cable system’s metallic screen materials, which means that the temperature can be underestimated by up to 8°C. Deriving analytical, correcting formulas based on several FEM models, the team reduced this discrepancy to 1°C! Their analysis also highlights significant discrepancies between the standard and the FEM model, especially when the corresponding sheath thickness is small, the sheath thermal conductivity is high, and the power core is large. This issue is particularly important for OFW projects, as the cables involved are expected to grow larger and larger.

Further Research into Cable Designs

In addition to studying inductive and capacitive coupling and thermal effects, the Hellenic Cables team evaluated other aspects of cable system designs, including losses, thermal resistance of surrounding soil, and grounding resistance, using FEM and COMSOL Multiphysics. “In general, COMSOL Multiphysics is much more user friendly and efficient, such as when introducing temperature-dependent losses in the cable, or when presenting semi-infinite soil and infinite element domains. We found several ways to verify what we already know about cables, their thermal performance, and loss calculation,” says Chatzipetros.


The conductor size of a subsea or terrestrial cable affects the cost of the cable system. This is often a crucial aspect of an offshore wind farm project. To optimize the conductor size, designers need to be able to accurately determine the cable’s losses. To do so, they first turned to temperature. Currents induced in a cable’s magnetic sheaths yield extra losses, which contribute to the temperature rise of the conductor.

When calculating cable losses, the current IEC standard does not consider proximity effects in sheath losses. If cable cores are in close proximity (say, for a wind farm 3C cable), the accuracy of the loss calculation is reduced. Using FEM, the Hellenic Cables team was able to study how conductor proximity effects influence losses generated in sheaths in submarine cables with lead-sheathed cores and a nonmagnetic armor. They then compared the IEC standard with the results from the finite element analysis, which showed better agreement with measured values from an experimental setup (Figure 8). This research was discussed in the paper “Induced Losses in Non-Magnetically Armoured HVAC Windfarm Export Cables” (Ref. 5).

Plots showing the magnetic flux behavior in the cables.

Thermal Resistance of Soil

Different soil types have different thermal insulating characteristics, which can severely limit the amount of heat dissipated from the cable, thereby reducing its current-carrying capacity. This means that larger conductor sizes are needed to transmit the same amount of power in areas with more thermally adverse soil, causing the cable’s cost to increase.

In the paper “Rigorous calculation of external thermal resistance in non-uniform soils” (Ref. 6), the Hellenic Cables team used FEM to calculate the effective soil thermal resistance for different cable types and cable installation scenarios (Figure 9). First, they solved for the heat transfer problem under steady-state conditions with arbitrary temperatures at the cable and soil surfaces. They then evaluated the effective thermal resistance based on the heat dissipated by the cable surface into the surrounding soil.

Diagrams showing the model representing soil and a buried cable.

Simulations were performed for two types of cables: a typical SL-type submarine cable with 87/150 kV, a 1000 mm2 cross section, and copper conductors, as well as a typical terrestrial cable with 87/150 kV, a 1200 mm2 cross section, and aluminum conductors. The team analyzed three different cable installation scenarios (Figure 10).

The first scenario is when a cable is installed beneath a horizontal layer, such as when sand waves are expected to gradually add to the seafloor’s initial level after installation. The second is when a cable is installed within a horizontal layer, which occurs when the installation takes place in a region with horizontal directional drilling (HDD). The third scenario is when a cable is installed within a backfilled trench, typical for regions with unfavorable thermal behavior, in order to reduce the impact of the soil on the temperature rise of the cable. The numerical modeling results prove that FEM can be applied to any material or shape of multilayer or backfilled soil, and that the method is compatible with the current rating methodology in IEC Standard 60287.

Six illustrations showing models of a single cable or three cables buried underground.

Grounding Resistance

The evaluation of grounding resistance is important to ensure the integrity and secure operation of cable sheath voltage limiters (SVLs) when subject to earth potential rise (EPR). In order to calculate grounding resistance, engineers need to know the soil resistivity for the problem at hand and have a robust calculation method, like FEM.

The Hellenic Cables team used FEM to analyze soil resistivity for two sites: one in northern Germany and one in southern Greece. As described in the paper “Evaluation of Grounding Resistance and Its Effect on Underground Cable Systems” (Ref. 7), they found that the apparent resistivity of the soil is a monotonic function of distance, and that a two-layer soil model is sufficient for their modeling problem (Figure 11). After finding the resistivity, the team calculated the grounding resistance for a single-rod scenario (as a means of validation). After that, they proceeded with a complex grid, which is typical of cable joint pits found in OWFs. For both scenarios, they found the EPR at the substations and transition joint pit, as well as the maximum voltage between the cable sheath and local earth (Figure 12). The results demonstrate that FEM is a highly accurate calculation method for grounding resistance, as they show good agreement with both numerical data from measurements and electromagnetic transient software calculations (Figure 13).

Two illustrations showing models and variables used to analyze ground resistance.

Illustration showing model used to simulate underground cable system.

Plots showing simulation results of short circuit scenarios.

A Bright and Windy Future

The Hellenic Cables team plans to continue the important work of further improving all of the cable models they have developed. The team has also performed research into HVDC cables, which involve XLPE insulation and voltage source converter (VSC) technology. HVDC cables can be more cost efficient for systems installed over long distances.

Like the wind used to power offshore wind farms, electrical cable systems are all around us. Even though we cannot always see them, they are working hard to ensure we have access to a high-powered and well-connected world. Optimizing the designs of subsea and terrestrial cables is an important part of building a sustainable future.


  1. M. Hatlo, E. Olsen, R. Stølan, J. Karlstrand, “Accurate analytic formula for calculation of losses in three-core submarine cables,” Jicable, 2015.
  2. S. Sturm, A. Küchler, J. Paulus, R. Stølan, F. Berger, “3D-FEM modelling of losses in armoured submarine power cables and comparison with measurements,” CIGRE Session 48, 2020.
  3. A.I. Chrysochos et al., “Capacitive and Inductive Coupling in Cable Systems – Comparative Study between Calculation Methods”, 10th International Conference on Insulated Power Cables, Jicable, 2019.
  4. D. Chatzipetros and J.A. Pilgrim, “Review of the Accuracy of Single Core Equivalent Thermal Model for Offshore Wind Farm Cables”, IEEE Transactions on Power Delivery, Vol. 33, No. 4, pp. 1913–1921, 2018.
  5. D. Chatzipetros and J.A. Pilgrim, “Induced Losses in Non-Magnetically Armoured HVAC Windfarm Export Cables”, IEEE International Conference on High Voltage Engineering and Application (ICHVE), 2018.
  6. A.I. Chrysochos et al., “Rigorous calculation of external thermal resistance in non-uniform soils”, Cigré Session 48, 2020.
  7. A.I. Chrysochos et al., “Evaluation of Grounding Resistance and Its Effect on Underground Cable Systems”, Mediterranean Conference on Power Generation, Transmission , Distribution and Energy Conversion, 2020.
24 Jan. 2023

The IEEE Board of Directors has nominated Life Fellow Roger Fujii and Senior Member Kathleen Kramer as candidates for IEEE president-elect.

The winner of this year’s election will serve as IEEE president in 2025. For more information about the election, president-elect candidates, and petition process, visit the IEEE election website.

Life Fellow Roger Fujii

Photo of a smiling man in a suit in tie. Joey Ikemoto

Nominated by the IEEE Board of Directors

Fujii is president of Fujii Systems of Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., which designs critical systems. Before starting his company, Fujii was vice president at Northrop Grumman’s engineering division in San Diego.

His area of expertise is certifying critical systems. He has been a guest lecturer at California State University, the University of California, and Xiamen University.

An active IEEE volunteer, Fujii most recently chaired the IEEE financial transparency reporting committee and the IEEE ad hoc committee on IEEE in 2050. The ad hoc committee envisioned scenarios to gain a global perspective of what the world might look like in 2050 and beyond and what potential futures might mean for IEEE.

He was 2016 president of the IEEE Computer Society, 2021 vice president of the IEEE Technical Activities Board, and 2012–2014 director of Division VIII.

Fujii received the 2020 Richard E. Merwin Award, the IEEE Computer Society’s highest-level volunteer service award.

Senior Member Kathleen Kramer

Photo of a smiling woman in a blue jacket.  JT MacMillan

Nominated by the IEEE Board of Directors

Kramer is a professor of electrical engineering at the University of San Diego, where she served as chair of the EE department and director of engineering from 2004 to 2013. As director she provided academic leadership for engineering programs and developed new programs.

Her areas of interest include multisensor data fusion, intelligent systems, and cybersecurity in aerospace systems.

She has written or coauthored more than 100 publications.

Kramer has worked for several companies including Bell Communications Research, Hewlett-Packard, and Viasat.

She is a distinguished lecturer for the IEEE Aerospace and Electronic Systems Society and has given talks on signal processing, multisensor data fusion, and neural systems. She leads the society’s technical panel on cybersecurity.

Kramer earned bachelor’s degrees in electrical engineering and physics in 1986 from Loyola Marymount University, in Los Angeles. She earned master’s and doctoral degrees in EE in 1991 from Caltech.

24 Jan. 2023

This is a sponsored article brought to you by LEMO.

A bomb explodes — medical devices set to action.

It is only in war that both sides of human ingenuity coexist so brutally. On the one side, it innovates to wound and kill, on the other it heals and saves lives. Side by side, but viscerally opposed.

Dr. Joe Fisher is devoted to the light side of human ingenuity, medicine. His research at Toronto’s University Health Network has made major breakthroughs in understanding the absorption and use of oxygen by the body. Then, based on the results, he developed new, highly efficient methods of delivering oxygen to patients.

In 2004, together with other physicians and engineers, he created a company to develop solutions based on his innovations. He named it after the Toronto neighborhood where he still lives — Thornhill Medical.

Meanwhile, the studies conducted by Dr. Fisher started drawing attention from the U.S. Marines. They had been looking for solutions to reduce the use of large, heavy, and potentially explosive oxygen tanks transported by their medical teams to military operation sites.

“At first, they asked us if we could prove that it was possible to ventilate patients using much less oxygen,” says Veso Tijanic, COO of Thornhill Medical. “We proved it. Then, they asked us whether we could develop a device for this. Finally, whether we could integrate other functionalities into this device.”

The device is currently saving lives in Ukraine, Thornhill Medical having donated a number of them as well as its mobile anesthesia delivery module MADM.

These back-and-forths lasted about five years, gradually combining science and technology. It resulted in a very first product, launched in 2011: MOVES, an innovative portable life support unit.

This cooperation has also deeply transformed Thornhill Medical.

“We used to see ourselves as an R&D laboratory, we have now also become a medical device manufacturer!” says Tijanic.

Whilst the U.S. Marines started using MOVES, Thornhill Medical continued to innovate. In 2017, it launched an enhanced version, MOVES SLC.

Today, the Canadian company employs a staff of about 70. It continues to do research and development with its own team and partners around the world, publishing regularly in scientific journals. It has sold MOVES SLC around the world and launched two other solutions, MADM and ClearMate.

MADM is a portable device (capable of functioning on extreme terrain) which connects to any ventilator to deliver gas anaesthesia. ClearMate is an instrument — also portable and without electricity — which allows to take quick action in case of carbon monoxide poisoning. This is the most common respiratory poisoning, where every second without treatment worsens consequences on the brain and other organs.

An innovative ventilator design

Just like these two products, the heart of MOVES SLC is a technology stemming directly from Dr. Fisher’s research in breathing sciences. It includes a ventilator operating in circle-circuit: It recovers the oxygen expired by the patient, carefully controls its concentration (high FiO2) and redistributes only the strict minimum to the patient.

MOVES SLC operates with significantly less oxygen than required by traditional open-circuit ventilators. This is so little that a small oxygen-concentrator — integrated into MOVES SLC, that extracts oxygen from ambient air — is sufficient. No need for supplies from large oxygen tanks.

Yet, MOVES SLC is more than an innovative ultra-efficient ventilator, says Tijanic: “It is a complete life support device.” In addition to its integrated oxygen concentrator, it also includes suction and several sensors that monitor vital signs and brings it all together via a unique interface that can be operated on the device or by a mobile touch screen.

The MOVES SLC portable life-support unit.

The user can intubate a patient and monitor its ventilation (FiO2, ETCO2, SpO2, ABP and other indicators) in addition to the patient’s temperature (two sensors), blood pressure (internal and external) and 12-lead ECG. The evolution of these measurements can be followed over the last 24 hours.

All of this, in a device measuring only 84 cm x 14 cm x 25 cm, weighing about 21 kilograms (including interchangeable batteries) which can be slung across the shoulder.

“MOVES must function in the middle of military operations, and be resistant to vibrations, crashes and shock, continue operating smoothly in sandstorms or in the rain.”
—Veso Tijanic, COO of Thornhill Medical

“MOVES SLC represents no more than 30 percent of the volume and weight of traditional equipment — ventilator, concentrator, suction, monitoring device,” adds the COO. Integrating various technologies in such a lightweight, compact package was, without surprise, a major challenge for the engineers. Still, not the most difficult one.

Making medical device components capable of withstanding extreme conditions will have been even more complex. “Traditional technologies were designed to function in hospitals,” explains Tijanic. “MOVES must function in the middle of military operations, and be resistant to vibrations, crashes and shock, continue operating smoothly in sandstorms or in the rain, in temperatures between -26°C and +54°C.”

Sometimes, the engineers could take existing components and develop protective features for them. Occasionally, they would recast them from different markets (oxygen sensors, for instance) to integrate them into their device. And in other cases, they had to start from scratch, creating their own robust components.

Military-grade ruggedness

The challenge was successfully overcome: “MOVES is designed under the highest industry standards and has been tested and fully certified by various regulatory bodies.” It has been certified MIL-STD-810G, a ruggedness U.S. military standard, verified by over twenty different tests (acoustic vibration, explosive atmosphere, etc.).

The device is hence approved for use — not only transported, but actually used on a patient — in various helicopters, aircraft and land vehicles. And this makes a world of difference for Tijanic. “Critical care, such as we provide, normally requires specially equipped facilities or vehicles. With MOVES SLC, any place or vehicle — even civilian — of sufficient size, is an opportunity for treatment.”

Thornhill’s fully integrated mobile life support has been used by military medical teams for five years already. The device is currently saving lives in Ukraine, Thornhill Medical having donated a number of them as well as its mobile anesthesia delivery module MADM.

An Introduction to MOVES SLC

In July 2022, the U.S. Army published a report summarizing its medical modernization strategy. The 22-page report confirms the need for ever more lightweight, compact, and cost-effective technology. It also mentions the use of artificial intelligence for more autonomous monitoring of the patients’ medical condition. Thornhill is exploring the AI angle.

“There isn’t always a qualified expert available everywhere,” explains Tijanic. “AI could ensure the optimum settings of the device, and then modify these depending on how the patient’s condition evolves.”

Thornhill is also exploring another solution for cases where no experts are available on spot. Last April, a MOVES SLC was used in a demonstration of “remote control of ventilators and infusion pumps to support disaster care.” Operators based in Seattle successfully controlled remotely a device based in Toronto. Science-fiction thus becomes science, and turns into reality.

The Canadian company continues innovating to heal and save lives on rough chaotic terrain and in the most extreme and unpredictable circumstances. It is driven by medical and technological progress. It is also driven by a many-thousand-year-old trend: Humans will likely never stop waging war.

23 Jan. 2023

With the combination of requiring all new light-duty vehicles sold in New York State be zero-emission by 2035, investments in electric vehicles charging stations, and state and federal EV rebates, “you’re going to see that you have no more excuses” for not buying an EV, according to New York Governor Kathy Hochul.

The EV Transition Explained

This is the tenth in a series of articles exploring the major technological and social challenges that must be addressed as we move from vehicles with internal-combustion engines to electric vehicles at scale. In reviewing each article, readers should bear in mind Nobel Prize–winning physicist Richard Feynman’s admonition: “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.”

Perhaps, but getting the vast majority of 111 million US households who own one or more light duty internal combustion vehicles to switch to EVs is going to take time. Even if interest in purchasing an EV is increasing, close to 70 percent of Americans are still leaning towards buying an ICE vehicles as their next purchase. In the UK, only 14 percent of drivers plan to purchase an EV as their next car.

Even when there is an expressed interest in purchasing a battery electric or hybrid vehicle, it often did not turn into an actual purchase. A 2022 CarGurus survey found that 35 percent of new car buyers expressed an interest in purchasing a hybrid, but only 13 percent eventually did. Similarly, 22 percent expressed interest in a battery electric vehicle (BEV), but only 5 percent bought one.

Each potential EV buyer assesses their individual needs against the benefits and risks an EV offers. However, until mainstream public confidence reaches the point where the perceived combination of risks of a battery electric vehicle purchase (range, affordability, reliability and behavioral changes) match that of an ICE vehicle, then EV purchases are going to be the exception rather than the norm.

How much range is enough?

Studies differ about how far drivers want to be able to go between charges. One Bloomberg study found 341 miles was the average range desired, while Deloitte Consulting’s 2022 Global Automotive Consumer Study found U.S. consumers want to be able to travel 518 miles on a fully charged battery in a BEV that costs $50,000 or less.

Arguments over how much range is needed are contentious. There are some who argue that because 95 percent of American car trips are 30 miles or less, a battery range of 250 miles or less is all that is needed. They also point out that this would reduce the price of the EV, since batteries account for about 30 percent of an EVs total cost. In addition, using smaller batteries would allow more EVs to be built, and potentially relieve pressure on the battery supply chain. If longer trips are needed, well, “bring some patience and enjoy the charging experience” seems to be the general advice.

While perhaps logical, these arguments are not going to influence typical buying decisions much. The first question potential EV buyers are going to ask themselves is, “Am I going to be paying more for a compromised version of mobility?” says Alexander Edwards, President of Strategic Vision, a research-based consultancy that aims to understand human behavior and decision-making.

 Driver\u2019s side view of 2024 Chevrolet Equinox EV 3LT in Riptide Blue driving down a road Driver’s side view of 2024 Chevrolet Equinox EV 3LT.Chevrolet

Edwards explains potential customers do not have range anxiety per se: If they believe they require a vehicle that must go 400 miles before stopping, “even if once a month, once a quarter, or once a year,” all vehicles that cannot meet that criteria will be excluded from their buying decision. Range anxiety, therefore, is more a concern for EV owners. Edwards points out that regarding range, most BEV owners own at least one ICE vehicle to meet their long-distance driving needs.

What exactly is the “range” of a BEV is itself becoming a heated point of contention. While ICE vehicles driving ranges are affected by weather and driving conditions, the effects are well-understood after decades of experience. This experience is lacking with non-EV owners. Extreme heat and cold negatively affect EV battery ranges and charging time, as do driving speeds and terrain.

Peter Rawlinson serves as the Chief Executive Officer and Chief Technology Officer of Lucid. Peter Rawlinson serves as the CEO and CTO of Lucid.Lucid

Some automakers are reticent to say how much range is affected under differing conditions. Others, like Ford’s CEO Jim Farley, freely admits, “If you’re pulling 10,000 pounds, an electric truck is not the right solution. And 95 percent of our customers tow more than 10,000 pounds.” GM, though, is promising it will meet heavier towing requirements with its 2024 Chevrolet Silverado EV. However, Lucid Group CEO Peter Rawlinson in a non-too subtle dig at both Ford and GM said, “The correct solution for an affordable pickup truck today is the internal combustion engine.”

Ford’s Farley foresees that the heavy-duty truck segment will be sticking with ICE trucks for a while, as “it will probably go hydrogen fuel cell before it goes pure electric.” Many in the auto industry are warning that realistic BEV range numbers under varying conditions need to be widely published, else risk creating a backlash against EVs in general.

Range risk concerns obviously are tightly coupled to EV charging availability. Most charging is assumed to take place at home, but this is not an option for many home or apartment tenants. Even those with homes, their garages may not be available for EV charging. Scarce and unreliable EV charging opportunities, as well as publicized EV road trip horror stories, adds to both the potential EV owners’ current perceived and real range satisfaction risk.

EVs ain’t cheap

Price is another EV purchase risk that is comparable to EV range. Buying a new car is the second most expensive purchase a consumer makes behind buying a house. Spending nearly 100 percent of an annual US median household income on an unfamiliar technology is not a minor financial ask.

That is one reason why legacy automakers and EV start-ups are attempting to follow Tesla’s success in the luxury vehicle segment, spending much of their effort producing vehicles that are “above the median average annual US household income, let alone buyer in new car market,” Strategic Vision’s Edwards says. On top of the twenty or so luxury EVs already or soon to be on the market, Sony and Honda recently announced that they would be introducing yet another luxury EV in 2026.

It is true that there are some EVs that will soon appear in the competitive price range of ICE vehicles like the low-end GM EV Equinox SUV presently priced around $30,000 with a 280-mile range. How long GM will be able to keep that price in the face of battery cost increases and inflationary pressure, is anyone’s guess. It has already started to increase the cost of its Chevrolet Bolt EVs, which it had slashed last year, “due to ongoing industry-related pricing pressures.”

An image of a Lucid  Air electric vehicle. The Lucid Air’s price ranges from $90,000 to $200,000 depending on options.Lucid.

Analysts believe Tesla intends to spark an EV price war before its competitors are ready for one. This could benefit consumers in the short-term, but could also have long-term downside consequences for the EV industry as a whole. Tesla fired its first shot over its competitors’ bows with a recently announced price cut from $65,990 to $52,990 for its basic Model Y, with a range of 330 miles. That makes the Model Y cost-competitive with Hyundai’s $45,500 IONIQ 5 e-SUV with 304 miles of range.

Tesla’s pricing power could be hard to counter, at least in the short term. Ford’s cheapest F-150 Lightning Pro is now $57,869 compared to $41,769 a year ago due to what Ford says are “ongoing supply chain constraints, rising material costs and other market factors.” The entry level F-150 XL with an internal combustion engine has risen in the past year from about $29,990 to $33,695 currently.

Carlos TavaresChief Executive OfficerExecutive Director of Stellantis Carlos Tavares, CEO of Stellantis.Stellantis

Automakers like Stellantis, freely acknowledge that EVs are too expensive for most buyers, with Stellantis CEO Carlos Tavares even warning that if average consumers can’t afford EVs as ICE vehicle sales are banned, “There is potential for social unrest.” However, other automakers like BMW are quite unabashed about going after the luxury market which it terms “white hot.” BMW’s CEO Oliver Zipse does say the company will not leave the “lower market segment,” which includes the battery electric iX1 xDrive30 that retails for A$82,900 in Australia and slightly lower elsewhere. It is not available in the United States.

Mercedes-Benz CEO Ola Kallenius also believes luxury EVs will be a catalyst for greater EV adoption—eventually. But right now, 75 percent of its investment has been redirected at bringing luxury vehicles to market.

The fact that luxury EVs are more profitable no doubt helps keep automakers focused on that market. Ford’s very popular Mustang Mach-E is having trouble maintaining profitability, for instance, which has forced Ford to raise its base price from $43,895 to $46,895. Even in the Chinese market where smaller EV sales are booming, profits are not. Strains on profitability for automakers and their suppliers may increase further as battery metals prices increase, warns data analysis company S&P Global Mobility.

Jim Rowan, Volvo Cars' new CEO and President as of 21 March 2022 Jim Rowan, Volvo Cars’ CEO and President.Volvo Cars

As a result, EVs are unlikely to match ICE vehicle prices (or profits) anytime soon even for smaller EV models, says Renault Group CEO Luca de Meo, because of the ever increasing cost of batteries. Mercedes Chief Technology Officer Marcus Schäfer agrees and does not see EV/ICE price parity “with the [battery] chemistry we have today.” Volvo CEO Jim Rowan, disagrees with both of them, however, seeing ICE-EV price parity coming by 2025-2026.

Interestingly, a 2019 Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study predicted that as EVs became more widespread, battery prices would climb because the demand for lithium and other battery metals would rise sharply. As a result, the study indicated EV/ICE price parity was likely closer to 2030 with the expectation that new battery chemistries would be introduced by then.

Many argue, however, that total cost of ownership (TCO) should be used as the EV purchase decision criterion rather than sticker price. Total cost of ownership of EVs is generally less than an ICE vehicle over its expected life since they have lower maintenance costs and electricity is less expensive per mile than gasoline, and tax incentives and rebates help a lot as well.

However, how long it takes to hit the break-even point depends on many factors, like the cost differential of a comparable ICE vehicle, depreciation, taxes, insurance costs, the cost of electricity/petrol in a region, whether charging takes place at home, etc. And TCO rapidly loses it selling point appeal if electricity prices go up, however, as is happening in the UK and in Germany.

Even if the total cost of ownership is lower for an EV, a potential EV customer may not be interested if meeting today’s monthly auto payments is difficult. Extra costs like needing to install a fast charger at home, which can add several thousand dollars more, or higher insurance costs, which could add an extra $500-$600 a year, may also be seen as buying impediment and can change the TCO equation.

Reliability and other major tech risks

To perhaps distract wary EV buyers from range and affordability issues, the automakers have focused their efforts on highlighting EV performance. Raymond Roth, a director at financial advisory firm Stout Risius Ross, observes among automakers, “There’s this arms race right now of best in class performance” being the dominant selling point.

This “wow” experience is being pursued by every EV automaker. Mercedes CEO Kallenius, for example, says to convince its current luxury vehicle owners to an EV, “the experience for the customer in terms of the torque, the performance, everything [must be] fantastic.” Nissan, which seeks a more mass market buyer, runs commercials exclaiming, “Don’t get an EV for the ‘E’, but because it will pin you in your seat, sparks your imagination and takes your breath away.”

Ford believes it will earn $20 billion, Stellantis some $22.5 billion and GM $20 to $25 billion from paid software-enabled vehicle features by 2030.

EV reliability issues may also take one’s breath away. Reliability is “extremely important” to new-car buyers, according to a 2022 report from Consumer Reports (CR). Currently, EV reliability is nothing to brag about. CR’s report says that “On average, EVs have significantly higher problem rates than internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles across model years 2019 and 2020.” BEVs dwell at the bottom of the rankings.

Reliability may prove to be an Achilles heel to automakers like GM and Ford. GM CEO Mary Barra has very publicly promised that GM would no longer build “ crappy cars.” The ongoing problems with the Chevy Bolt undercuts that promise, and if its new Equinox EV has issues, it could hurt sales. Ford has reliability problems of its own, paying $4 billion in warranty costs last year alone. Its e-Mustang has been subject to several recalls over the past year. Even perceived quality-leader Toyota has been embarrassed by wheels falling off weeks after the introduction of its electric bZ4X SUV, the first in a new series “bZ”—beyond zero—electric vehicles.

A vehicle is caught up in a mudslide in Silverado Canyon, Calif., Wednesday, March 10, 2021. A Tesla caught up in a mudslide in Silverado Canyon, Calif., on March 10, 2021. Jae C. Hong/AP Photo

Troubles with vehicle electronics, which has plagued ICE vehicles as well for some time, seems even worse in EVs according to Consumer Report’s data. This should not be surprising, since EVs are packed with the latest electronic and software features to make them attractive, like new biometric capability, but they often do not work. EV start-up Lucid is struggling with a range of software woes, and software problems have pushed back launches years at Audi, Porsche and Bentley EVs, which are part of Volkswagen Group.

Another reliability risk-related issue is getting an EV repaired when something goes awry, or there is an accident. Right now, there is a dearth of EV-certified mechanics and repair shops. The UK Institute of the Motor Industry (IMI) needs 90,000 EV-trained technicians by 2030. The IMI estimates that less than 7 percent of the country’s automotive service workforce of 200,000 vehicle technicians is EV qualified. In the US, the situation is not better. The National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE), which certifies auto repair technicians, says the US has 229,000 ASE-certified technicians. However, there are only some 3,100 certified for electric vehicles. With many automakers moving to reduce their dealership networks, resolving problems that over-the-air (OTA) software updates cannot fix might be troublesome.

Furthermore, the costs and time needed to repair an EV are higher than for ICE vehicles, according to the data analytics company CCC. Reasons include a greater need to use original equipment manufacturer (OEM) parts and the cost of scans/recalibration of the advanced driver assistance systems, which have been rising for ICE vehicles as well. Furthermore, technicians need to ensure battery integrity to prevent potential fires.

And some of batteries along with their battery management systems need work. Two examples: Recalls involving the GM Bolt and Hyundai Kona, with the former likely to cost GM $1.8 billion and Hyundai $800 million to fix, according to Stout’s 2021 Automotive Defect and Recall Report. Furthermore, the battery defect data compiled by Stout indicates “incident rates are rising as production is increasing and incidents commonly occur across global platforms,” with both design and manufacturing defects starting to appear.

For a time in New York City, one had to be a licensed engineer to drive a steam-powered auto. In some aspects, EV drivers return to these roots. This might change over time, but for now it is a serious issue.” —John Leslie King

CCC data indicate that when damaged, battery packs do need replacement after a crash, and more than 50 percent of such vehicles were deemed a total loss by the insurance companies. EVs also need to revisit the repair center more times after they’ve been repaired than ICE vehicles, hinting at the increased difficulty in repairing them. Additionally, EV tire tread wear needs closer inspection than on ICE vehicles. Lastly, as auto repair centers need to invest in new equipment to handle EVs, these costs will be passed along to customers for some time.

Electric vehicle and charging network cybersecurity is also growing as a perceived risk. A 2021 survey by insurance company HSB found that an increasing number of drivers, not only of EVs but ICE vehicles, are concerned about their vehicle’s security. Some 10 percent reported “a hacking incident or other cyber-attack had affected their vehicle,” HSB reported. Reports of charging stations being compromised are increasingly common.

The risk has reached the attention of the US Office of the National Cyber Director, which recently held a forum of government and automaker, suppliers and EV charging manufacturers focusing on “cybersecurity issues in the electric vehicle (EV) and electric vehicle supply equipment (EVSE) ecosystem.” The concern is that EV uptake could falter if EV charging networks are not perceived as being secure.

A sleeper risk that may explode into a massive problem is an EV owner’s right-to-repair their vehicle. In 2020, Massachusetts passed a law that allows a vehicle owner to take it to whatever repair shop they wish and gave independent repair shops the right to access the real-time vehicle data for diagnosis purposes. Auto dealers have sued to overturn the law, and some auto makers like Subaru and Kia have disabled the advanced telematic systems in cars sold in Massachusetts, often without telling new customers about it. GM and Stellantis have also said they cannot comply with the Massachusetts law, and are not planning to do so because it would compromise their vehicles’ safety and cybersecurity. The Federal Trade Commission is looking into the right-to-repair issue, and President Biden has come out in support of it.

You expect me to do what, exactly?

Failure to change consumer behavior poses another major risk to the EV transition. Take charging. It requires a new consumer behavior in terms of understanding how and when to charge, and what to do to keep an EV battery healthy. The information on the care and feeding of a battery as well as how to maximize vehicle range can resemble a manual for owning a new, exotic pet. It does not help when an automaker like Ford tells its F-150 Lightning owners they can extend their driving range by relying on the heated seats to stay warm instead of the vehicle’s climate control system.

Keeping in mind such issues, and how one might work around them, increases a driver’s cognitive load—things that must be remembered in case they must be acted on. “Automakers spent decades reducing cognitive load with dash lights instead of gauges, or automatic instead of manual transmissions,” says University of Michigan professor emeritus John Leslie King, who has long studied human interactions with machines.

King notes, “In the early days of automobiles, drivers and chauffeurs had to monitor and be able to fix their vehicles. They were like engineers. For a time in New York City, one had to be a licensed engineer to drive a steam-powered auto. In some aspects, EV drivers return to these roots. This might change over time, but for now it is a serious issue.”

The first-ever BMW iX1 xDrive30, Mineral White metallic, 20\u201c BMW Individual Styling 869i The first-ever BMW iX1 xDrive30, Mineral White metallic, 20“ BMW Individual Styling 869i BMW AG

This cognitive load keeps changing as well. For instance, “common knowledge” about when EV owners should charge is not set in concrete. The long-standing mantra for charging EV batteries has been do so at home from at night when electricity rates were low and stress on the electric grid was low. Recent research from Stanford University says this is wrong, at least for Western states.

Stanford’s research shows that electricity rates should encourage EV charging during the day at work or at public chargers to prevent evening grid peak demand problems, which could increase by as much as 25 percent in a decade. The Wall Street Journal quotes the study’s lead author Siobhan Powell as saying if everyone were charging their EVs at night all at once, “it would cause really big problems.”

Asking EV owners to refrain from charging their vehicles at home during the night is going to be difficult, since EVs are being sold on the convenience of charging at home. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg emphasized this very point when describing how great EVs are to own, “And the main charging infrastructure that we count on is just a plug in the wall.”

EV owners increasingly find public charging unsatisfying and is “one of the compromises battery electric vehicle owners have to make,” says Strategic Vision’s Alexander Edwards, “that drives 25 percent of battery electric vehicle owners back to a gas powered vehicle.” Fixing the multiple problems underlying EV charging will not likely happen anytime soon.

Another behavior change risk relates to automakers’ desired EV owner post-purchase buying behavior. Automakers see EV (and ICE vehicle) advanced software and connectivity as a gateway to a software-as-a-service model to generate new, recurring revenue streams across the life of the vehicle. Automakers seem to view EVs as razors through which they can sell software as the razor blades. Monetizing vehicle data and subscriptions could generate $1.5 trillion by 2030, according to McKinsey.

VW thinks that it will generate “triple-digit-millions” in future sales through selling customized subscription services, like offering autonomous driving on a pay-per-use basis. It envisions customers would be willing to pay 7 euros per hour for the capability. Ford believes it will earn $20 billion, Stellantis some $22.5 billion and GM $20 to $25 billion from paid software-enabled vehicle features by 2030.

Already for ICE vehicles, BMW is reportedly offering an $18 a month subscription (or $415 for “unlimited” access) for heated front seats in multiple countries, but not the U.S. as of yet. GM has started charging $1,500 for a three-year “optional” OnStar subscription on all Buick and GMC vehicles as well as the Cadillac Escalade SUV whether the owner uses it or not. And Sony and Honda have announced their luxury EV will be subscription-based, although they have not defined exactly what this means in terms of standard versus paid-for features. It would not be surprising to see it follow Mercedes’ lead. The automaker will increase the acceleration of its EQ series if an owner pays a $1,200 a year subscription fee.

Essentially, automakers are trying to normalize paying for what used to be offered as standard or even an upgrade option. Whether they will be successful is debatable, especially in the U.S. “No one is going to pay for subscriptions,” says Strategic Vision’s Edwards, who points out that microtransactions are absolutely hated in the gaming community. Automakers risk a major consumer backlash by using them.

To get to EV at scale, each of the EV-related range, affordability, reliability and behavioral changes risks will need to be addressed by automakers and policy makers alike. With dozens of new battery electric vehicles becoming available for sale in the next two years, potential EV buyers now have a much great range of options than previously. The automakers who manage EV risks best— along with offering compelling overall platform performance—will be the ones starting to claw back some of their hefty EV investments.

No single risk may be a deal breaker for an early EV adopter, but for skeptical ICE vehicle owners, each risk is another reason not to buy, regardless of perceived benefits offered. If EV-only families are going to be the norm, the benefits of purchasing EVs will need to be above—and the risks associated with owning will need to match or be below—those of today’s and future ICE vehicles.

In the next articles of this series, we’ll explore the changes that may be necessary to personal lifestyles to achieve 2050 climate goals.

23 Jan. 2023

With Boston Dynamics’ recent(ish) emphasis on making robots that can do things that are commercially useful, it’s always good to be gently reminded that the company is still at the cutting edge of dynamic humanoid robotics. Or in this case, forcefully reminded. In its latest video, Boston Dynamics demonstrates some spectacular new capabilities with Atlas focusing on perception and manipulation, and the Atlas team lead answers some of our questions about how they pulled it off.

One of the highlights here is Atlas’s ability to move and interact dynamically with objects, and especially with objects that have significant mass to them. The 180 while holding the plank is impressive, since Atlas has to account for all that added momentum. Same with the spinning bag toss: As soon as the robot releases the bag in midair, its momentum changes, which it has to compensate for on landing. And shoving that box over has to be done by leaning into it, but carefully, so that Atlas doesn’t topple off the platform after it.

While the physical capabilities that Atlas demonstrates here are impressive (to put it mildly), this demonstration also highlights just how much work remains to be done to teach robots to be useful like this in an autonomous, or even a semi-autonomous, way. For example, environmental modification is something that humans do all the time, but we rely heavily on our knowledge of the world to do it effectively. I’m pretty sure that Atlas doesn’t have the capability to see a nontraversable gap, consider what kind of modification would be required to render the gap traversable, locate the necessary resources (without being told where they are first), and then make the appropriate modification autonomously in the way a human would—the video shows advances in manipulation rather than decision making. This certainly isn’t a criticism of what Boston Dynamics is showing in this video; it’s just to emphasize there is still a lot of work to be done on the world understanding and reasoning side before robots will be able to leverage these impressive physical skills on their own in a productive way.

There’s a lot more going on in this video, and Boston Dynamics has helpfully put together a bit of a behind-the-scenes explainer:

And for a bit more on this, we sent a couple of questions over to Boston Dynamics, and Atlas Team Lead Scott Kuindersma was kind enough to answer them for us.

How much does Atlas know in advance about the objects that it will be manipulating, and how important is this knowledge for real-world manipulation?

Scott Kuindersma: In this video, the robot has a high-level map that includes where we want it to go, what we want it to pick up, and what stunts it should do along the way. This map is not an exact geometric match for the real environment; it is an approximate description containing obstacle templates and annotated actions that is adapted online by the robot’s perception system. The robot has object-relative grasp targets that were computed offline, and the model-predictive controller (MPC) has access to approximate mass properties.

We think that real-world robots will similarly leverage priors about their tasks and environments, but what form these priors take and how much information they provide could vary a lot based on the application. The requirements for a video like this lead naturally to one set of choices—and maybe some of those requirements will align with some early commercial applications—but we’re also building capabilities that allow Atlas to operate at other points on this spectrum.

How often is what you want to do with Atlas constrained by its hardware capabilities? At this point, how much of a difference does improving hardware make, relative to improving software?

Kuindersma: Not frequently. When we occasionally spend time on something like the inverted 540, we are intentionally pushing boundaries and coming at it from a place of playful exploration. Aside from being really fun for us and (hopefully) inspiring to others, these activities nearly always bear enduring fruit and leave us with more capable software for approaching other problems.

The tight integration between our hardware and software groups—and our ability to design, iterate, and learn from each other—is one of the things that makes our team special. This occasionally leads to behavior-enabling hardware upgrades and, less often, major redesigns. But from a software perspective, we continuously feel like we’re just scratching the surface on what we can do with Atlas.

Can you elaborate on the troubleshooting process you used to make sure that Atlas could successfully execute that final trick without getting tangled in its own limbs?

Kuindersma: The controller works by using a model of the robot to predict and optimize its future states. The improvement made in this case was an extension to this model to include the geometric shape of the robot’s limbs and constraints to prevent them from intersecting. In other words, rather than specifically tuning this one behavior to avoid self-collisions, we added more model detail to the controller to allow it to better avoid infeasible configurations. This way, the benefits carry forward to all of Atlas’s behaviors.

Is the little hop at the end of the 540 part of the planned sequence, or is Atlas able to autonomously use motions like that to recover from dynamic behaviors that don’t end up exactly as expected? How important will this kind of capability be for real-world robots?

Kuindersma: The robot has the ability to autonomously take steps, lean, and/or wave its limbs around to recover balance, which we leverage on pretty much a daily basis in our experimental work. The hop jump after the inverted 540 was part of the behavior sequence in the sense that it was told that it should jump after landing, but where it jumped to and how it landed came from the controller (and generally varied between individual robots and runs).

Our experience with deploying Spot all over the world has reinforced the importance for mobile robots to be able to adjust and recover if they get bumped, slip, fall, or encounter unexpected obstacles. We expect the same will be true for future robots doing work in the real world.

What else can you share with us about what went into making the video?

Kuindersma: A few fun facts:

The core new technologies around MPC and manipulation were developed throughout this year, but the time between our whiteboard sketch for the video and completing filming was six weeks.

The tool bag throw and spin jump with the 2- by 12-inch plank are online generalizations of the same 180 jump behavior that was created two years ago as part of our mobility work. The only differences in the controller inputs are the object model and the desired object motion.

Although the robot has a good understanding of throwing mechanics, the real-world performance was sensitive to the precise timing of the release and whether the bag cloth happened to get caught on the finger during release. These details weren’t well represented by our simulation tools, so we relied primarily on hardware experiments to refine the behavior until it worked every time.

23 Jan. 2023

This sponsored article is brought to you by COMSOL.

The 1985 action-adventure TV series MacGyver showcased the life of Angus MacGyver, a secret agent who solved problems using items he had on hand. For example, in one episode, he made a heat shield out of used refrigerator parts. In another, he made a fishing lure with a candy wrapper. More than three decades later, the show still has relevance. The verb MacGyver, to design something in a makeshift or creative way, was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2015.

Try putting your MacGyver skills to the test: If you were handed some CDs, what would you make out of them? Reflective wall art, mosaic ornaments, or a wind chime, perhaps? What about a miniaturized water treatment plant?

This is what a team of engineers and researchers are doing at Eden Tech, a company based in Paris, France, that specializes in the development of microfluidics technology. Within their R&D department, Eden Cleantech, they are developing a compact, energy-saving water treatment system to help tackle the growing presence of micropollutants in wastewater. To analyze the performance of their AKVO system (named after the Latin word for water, aqua), which is made from CDs, Eden Tech turned to multiphysics simulation.

Contaminants of Emerging Concern

“There are many ways micropollutants make it into wastewater,” says Wei Zhao, a senior chemical engineer and chief product officer at Eden Tech. The rise of these microscopic chemicals in wastewater worldwide is a result of daily human activities. For instance, when we wash our hands with soap, wipe down our sinks with cleaning supplies, or flush medications out of our bodies, various chemicals are washed down the drain and end up in sewage systems. Some of these chemicals are classified as micropollutants, or contaminants of emerging concern (CECs). In addition to domestic waste, agricultural pollution and industrial waste are also to blame for the rise of micropollutants in our waterways.

Micropollutants are added to the world’s lakes, rivers, and streams every day. Many conventional wastewater treatment plants are not equipped to remove these potentially hazardous chemical residues from wastewater.

Unfortunately, many conventional wastewater treatment plants (WWTP, Figure 1) are not designed to remove these contaminants. Therefore, they are often reintroduced to various bodies of water, including rivers, streams, lakes, and even drinking water. Although the risk they pose to human and environmental health is not fully understood, the increasing number of pollution found in the world’s bodies of water is of concern.

A wastewater treatment plant seen from above, with multiple tanks and channels filled with water.

With this growing problem in mind, Eden Tech got to work on developing a solution, thus AKVO was born. Each AKVO CD core is designed to have a diameter of 15 cm and a thickness of 2 mm. One AKVO cartridge is composed of stacked CDs of varying numbers, combined to create a miniaturized factory. One AKVO core treats 0.5 to 2 m3 water/day, which means that an AKVO system composed of 10,000 CDs can treat average municipal needs. This raises the question: How can a device made from CDs decontaminate water?

A Sustainable Wastewater Treatment Method

A single AKVO system (Figure 2) consists of a customizable cartridge filled with stacked CDs that each have a microchannel network inscribed on them. It removes undesirable elements in wastewater, like micropollutants, by circulating the water in its microchannel networks. These networks are energy savvy because they only require a small pump to circulate and clean large volumes of water. The AKVO system’s cartridges can easily be replaced, with Eden Tech taking care of their recycling.

The AKVO device, which consists of a transparent cylinder filled with a stack of CDs.

AKVO’s revolutionary design combines photocatalysis and microfluidics into one compact system. Photocatalysis, a type of advanced oxidation process (AOP), is a fast and effective way to remove micropollutants from wastewater. Compared to other AOPs, it is considered safer and more sustainable because it is powered by a light source. During photocatalysis, light is absorbed by photocatalysts that have the ability to create electron-hole pairs, which generate free hydroxyl radicals that are able to react with target pollutants and degrade them. The combination of photocatalysis and microfluidics for the treatment of wastewater has never been done before. “It is a very ambitious project,” said Zhao. “We wanted to develop an innovative method in order to provide an environmentally friendly, efficient way to treat wastewater.” AKVO’s current design did not come easy, as Zhao and his team faced several design challenges along the way.

Overcoming Design Challenges

When in use, a chemical agent (catalyst) and wastewater are dispersed through AKVO’s microchannel walls. The purpose of the catalyst, titanium dioxide in this case, is to react with the micropollutants and help remove them in the process. However, AKVO’s fast flow rate complicates this action. “The big problem is that [AKVO] has microchannels with fast flow rates, and sometimes when we put the chemical agent inside one of the channels’ walls, the micropollutants in the wastewater cannot react efficiently with the agent,” said Zhao. In order to increase the opportunity of contact between the micropollutants and the immobilized chemical agent, Zhao and his team opted to use a staggered herringbone micromixer (SHM) design for AKVO’s microchannel networks (Figure 3).

Simulation of the microchannel network system, which has V-shaped channels along a rectangular container where the water enters the inlet and exists the outlet.

To analyze the performance of the SHM design to support chemical reactions for micropollutant degradation, Zhao used the COMSOL Multiphysics software.

Simulating Chemical Reactions for Micropollutant Degradation

In his work, Zhao built two different models in COMSOL Multiphysics (Figure 4), named the Explicit Surface Adsorption (ESA) model and the Converted Surface Concentration (CSC) model. Both of these models account for chemical and fluid phenomena.

Screenshot of COMSOL simulation software showing the microfluidic system.

In both models, Zhao found that AKVO’s SHM structure creates vortices in the flow moving through it, which enables the micropollutants and the chemical agent to have a longer reaction period and enhances the mass transfer between each fluid layer. However, the results of the ESA model displayed that the design purified about 50 percent of the micropollutants under treatment, fewer than what Zhao expected.

Screenshot of COMSOL simulation showing the water behavior inside the microchannels.

Unlike the ESA model (Figure 5), in the CSC model, it is assumed that there is no adsorption limitation. Therefore, as long as a micropollutant arrives at the surface of a catalyst, a reaction happens, which has been discussed in existing literature (Ref. 1). In this model, Zhao analyzed how the design performed for the degradation of six different micropollutants, including gemfibrozil, ciprofloxacin, carbamazepine, clofibric acid, bisphenol A, and acetaminophen (Figure 6). The results of this model were in line with what Zhao expected, with more than 95 percent of the micropollutants being treated.

Plot showing the photodegradation of pollutants and the flow of water through the device over time, with the photodegradation yield increasing as the flow rate decreases.

“We are really satisfied with the results of COMSOL Multiphysics. My next steps will be focused on laboratory testing [of the AKVO prototype]. We are expecting to have our first prototype ready by the beginning of 2022,” said Zhao. The prototype will eventually be tested at hospitals and water treatment stations in the south of France.

Using simulation for this project has helped the Eden Tech team save time and money. Developing a prototype of a microfluidic system, like AKVO, is costly. To imprint microchannel networks on each of AKVO’s CDs, a microchannel photomask is needed. According to Zhao, to fabricate one photomask would cost about €3000 (3500 USD). Therefore, it is very important that they are confident that their system works well prior to its fabrication. “COMSOL Multiphysics has really helped us validate our models and our designs,” said Zhao.

Pioneer in the Treatment of Micropollutants

In 2016, Switzerland introduced legislation mandating that wastewater treatment plants remove micropollutants from wastewater. Their goal? Filter out over 80 percent of micropollutants at more than 100 Swiss WWTPs. Following their lead, many other countries are currently thinking of how they want to handle the growing presence of these contaminants in their waterways. AKVO has the potential to provide a compact, environmentally friendly way to help slow this ongoing problem.

The next time you go to throw out an old CD, or any other household item for that matter, ask yourself: What would MacGyver do? Or, better yet: What would Eden Tech do? You might be holding the building blocks for their next innovative design.


  1. C. S. Turchi, D. F. Ollis, “Photocatalytic degradation of organic water contaminants: Mechanisms involving hydroxyl radical attack,” Journal of Catalysis, Vol. 122, p. 178, 1990.

MacGyver is a registered trademark of CBS Studios Inc. COMSOL AB and its subsidiaries and products are not affiliated with, endorsed by, sponsored by, or supported by CBS Studios Inc.

20 Jan. 2023

Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your friends at IEEE Spectrum robotics. We also post a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months. Please send us your events for inclusion.

IEEE RO-MAN 2023: 28–31 August 2023, BUSAN, KOREA
RoboCup 2023: 4–10 July 2023, BORDEAUX, FRANCE
CLAWAR 2023: 2–4 October 2023, FLORIANOPOLIS, BRAZIL
RSS 2023: 10–14 July 2023, DAEGU, KOREA
ICRA 2023: 29 May–2 June 2023, LONDON
Robotics Summit & Expo: 10–11 May 2023, BOSTON

Enjoy today’s videos!

With the historic Kunming-Montreal Agreement of 18 December 2022, more than 200 countries agreed to halt and reverse biodiversity loss. But becoming nature-positive is an ambitious goal, also held back by the lack of efficient and accurate tools to capture snapshots of global biodiversity. This is a task where robots, in combination with environmental DNA (eDNA) technologies, can make a difference.

Our recent findings show a new way to sample surface eDNA with a drone, which could be helpful in monitoring biodiversity in terrestrial ecosystems. The eDrone can land on branches and collect eDNA from the bark using a sticky surface. The eDrone collected surface eDNA from the bark of seven different trees, and by sequencing the collected eDNA we were able to identify 21 taxa, including insects, mammals, and birds.

[ ETH Zurich ]

Thanks, Stefano!

How can we bring limbed robots into real-world environments to complete challenging tasks? Dr. Dimitrios Kanoulas and the team at UCL Computer Science’s Robot Perception and Learning Lab are exploring how we can use autonomous and semi-autonomous robots to work in environments that humans cannot.


Thanks, Dimitrios!

Bidirectional design, four-wheel steering, and a compact length give our robotaxi unique agility and freedom of movement in dense urban environments—or in games of tic-tac-toe. May the best robot win.

Okay, but how did they not end this video with one of the cars drawing a “Z” off to the left side of the middle row?

[ Zoox ]

Thanks, Whitney!

DEEP Robotics wishes y’all happy, good health in the year of the rabbit!


[ Deep Robotics ]

This work presents a safety-critical locomotion-control framework for quadrupedal robots. Our goal is to enable quadrupedal robots to safely navigate in cluttered environments.

[ Hybrid Robotics ]

At 360.50 kilometers per hour, this is the world speed record for a quadrotor.

[ Quad Star Drones ] via [ Gizmodo ]

When it rains, it pours—and we’re designing the Waymo Driver to handle it. See how shower tests, thermal chambers, and rugged tracks at our closed-course facilities ensure our system can navigate safely, no matter the forecast.

[ Waymo ]

You know what’s easier than picking blueberries? Picking greenberries, which are much less squishy.

[ Sanctuary AI ]

The Official Wrap-Up of ABU ROBOCON 2022 New Delhi, India.


20 Jan. 2023

In parts of the United States, using the term “systemic racism” to refer to persistent discrimination against Black people has become a political flash point. To some ears, it sounds like an attack on the country and the local community. Several states have enacted laws that ban, or would appear to ban, discussing the concept in public schools and colleges, and even private workplaces. But racial-equity consultant Tynesia Boyea-Robinson uses the term with an engineer’s precision. When she first heard the phrase, she recalled her training in quality control in the transportation unit of GE Research, in Erie, Pa. And, sure enough, a lightbulb went on in her head: The system could be reengineered. “Oh my God, we can fix this!” she thought. “I don’t think everybody else sees it that way.”

Boyea-Robinson helps companies, government agencies, and other organizations meet goals for diversity and equity through her consulting firm, CapEQ. In October, her second book on this work, The Social Impact Advantage, was published. And she is the steward of Path to 15/55, an ambitious effort to deliver desperately needed capital to Black businesses across the United States. Since 2018, Boyea-Robinson has been assembling a coalition—including financial institutions, grassroots community groups, political and policy leaders, and corporate and philanthropic donors—to reprogram the systems of lending to and investing in these businesses.

Employer CapEQ

Title President and CEO

Alma mater Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering

Boyea-Robinson helps companies, government agencies, and other organizations meet goals for diversity and equity through her consulting firm, CapEQ. In October, her second book on this work, The Social Impact Advantage, was published. And she is the steward of Path to 15/55, an ambitious effort to deliver desperately needed capital to Black businesses across the United States. Since 2018, Boyea-Robinson has been assembling a coalition—including financial institutions, grassroots community groups, political and policy leaders, and corporate and philanthropic donors—to reprogram the systems of lending to and investing in these businesses.

Boyea-Robinson grew up in Cocoa Beach, Fla., where her father fixed satellites for the U.S. Air Force and her stepmother gave manicures in the family’s living room. In other circumstances, the straight As Boyea-Robinson earned at school and the lessons in mechanics her dad taught her might have ensured a trajectory toward a top STEM university. But her parents hadn’t gone to college and didn’t push her in that direction. Moreover, as the oldest, she was expected to help care for her four younger siblings. She expected to enroll at a community college until one of her stepmother’s clients pushed her to set her sights higher.

She attended Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering, in Durham, N.C., where she earned a dual bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and computer science. The curriculum was daunting, and she had to confront a persistent sense of being an outsider. But it was more than just the academics.

“There’s so many things about the culture of college that my parents couldn’t teach me,” she says. Adding to her initial anxiety was her status as one of the relatively few women at the engineering school—women made up just a quarter of the student body at Pratt—and there were even fewer Black students enrolled there (around 5 percent).

But when Boyea-Robinson graduated in 1999, she landed a plum ­information-management job at General Electric through the company’s prestigious leadership program. Though her anxiety about fitting in lingered, her career flourished. In 2003, she headed to Harvard Business School for an MBA that could give her upward trajectory an extra boost. Then her course changed when she took an internship at a nonprofit called Year Up. The organization helps prepare young adults, mostly poorer people of color, for entry-level IT jobs at large companies—jobs that recalled her first assignments at GE. “That student was me,” she says, “with different options and choices.”

Her assignment was to map out an expansion of Year Up from Boston to either Washington, D.C., or New York City. Boyea-Robinson pitched both. When she graduated in 2005, the nonprofit hired her to open the Washington location. She launched the first class in January 2006, and as she built Year Up’s presence in Washington, ­Boyea-Robinson’s work became a model for the organization nationwide, starting in New York later that year. Today, the nonprofit serves 16 metro areas and operates virtually in five others.

At Year Up, Boyea-Robinson began to hear about systemic racism, the biases that people collectively inject, consciously or not, into so many of the institutions and the rules governing society, leading to the disparate treatment of different groups of people. The knock-on effects from that discrimination exacerbate inequality—which then reinforces those biases in a sort of feedback loop. Thinking about all this, Boyea-Robinson concluded that she wanted to use systems engineering to tackle the problems of systemic racism on a larger scale.

Since launching CapEQ in 2011, Boyea-Robinson has worked with more than 50 clients, helping businesses such as Marriott and Nordstrom address their diversity and equity shortcomings. She has also worked with nonprofits and others seeking broader change, including those collaborating on Path to 15/55.

Path to 15/55 takes its premise from recent research by one of those organizations, the Association for Enterprise Opportunity, a trade group of nonprofits that make small loans to underserved entrepreneurs. The group found that if 15 percent of existing Black businesses could finance a single new employee, it would create US $55 billion in new economic activity. But Black entrepreneurs have been hobbled by the effects of an especially pernicious example of systemic racism. Until the 1960s, federal government policies explicitly prohibited Black people from buying homes in white neighborhoods and simultaneously decimated the value of Black neighborhoods. The result has been to deny most Black families the opportunity to build generational wealth on par with their white counterparts. Even today, Blacks are less likely to seek, or obtain, a home mortgage. Most small businesses are financed by savings or loans conditioned on good credit scores and a home that serves as collateral.

The coalition Boyea-Robinson assembled is pressing for systemic change on several levels. It’s pushing bankers and the financial industry at large to confront their own biases in lending. It also disseminates novel strategies for financing Black businesses to avoid the barriers that Black borrowers face, such as the use of credit scores to assess creditworthiness. The group will then rigorously collect data on which strategies work and which don’t to propagate what’s successful. Separately, it’s agitating for government policy changes to allow these new strategies to flourish.

Boyea-Robinson manages Path to 15/55 as if she were testing software with a feedback loop of its own. It starts with building awareness around a specific issue and forging alliances, or alignments, with like-minded organizations, which then go to work as communities of action to implement change.

“Everything we learn from communities of action becomes the information that we raise awareness on,” she says. “And the loop starts again: awareness, alignment, action. These are all unit tests that become systems tests.”

Boyea-Robinson still finds resistance to financing equity among bank loan officers. “The way racism shows up in lending is bankers saying that this work is not investable,” she says. “Shifting the narrative is why we spend so much time sharing reports and stories.”

Backed with a $250,000 grant from the Walmart Foundation, Path to 15/55 launched its first Community of Action in January. Piggybacking on work led by the Beneficial State Foundation, ­Boyea-Robinson has recruited five financial institutions to experiment with innovative ways to underwrite loans, and to build durable support within their organizations for the work—which, ­Boyea-Robinson says, is the only way these changes will stick. These institutions are expected to begin lending money by midyear. To lessen the risk of losses, Path to 15/55 will make the $1 million it has raised so far available for these loans.

And she’s joining forces with business accelerators to launch a second community of action, aimed at helping Black entrepreneurs buy existing businesses in corporate supply chains, later this year.

“Being able to kind of turbocharge work that is already compelling,” she says, “has been pretty exciting.”

This article appears in the February 2023 print issue as “Tynesia Boyea-Robinson.”

20 Jan. 2023

Timing accuracy is vital for multi-channel synchronized sampling at high speed. In this webinar, we explain challenges and solutions for clocking, triggering, and timestamping in Giga-sample-per-second data acquisition systems.

Learn more about phase-locked sampling, clock and trigger distribution, jitter reduction, trigger correction, record alignment, and more.

Register now to join this free webinar!

Date: Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Time: 10 AM PST | 1 PM EST
Duration: 30 minutes

In this webinar, we explain challenges and solutions for clocking, triggering, and timestamping in Giga-sample-per-second data acquisition systems.

Topics covered in this webinar:

  • Phase-locked sampling
  • Clock and trigger distribution
  • Trigger correction and record alignment
  • Daisy-chaining to achieve 50 ps trigger accuracy for 64 channels sampling at 5 GSPS per channel

Who should attend? Developers that want to learn more about how to optimize performance in high-performance multi-channel systems.

What attendees will learn? How to distribute clocks and triggers, triggering methods, synchronized sampling on multiple boards, and more.

Presenter: Thomas Elter, Senior Field Applications Engineer

20 Jan. 2023

This sponsored article is brought to you by COMSOL.

Over 80 million magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans are conducted worldwide every year. MRI systems come in many different shapes and sizes, and are identified by their magnetic field strength. These scanners can range from below 0.55 tesla (T) to 3 T and beyond, where tesla is the unit for the static magnetic field strength. For patients with implanted metallic medical devices, the strong magnetic fields generated by MRI systems can pose several safety concerns.

For instance, high-powered magnets generate forces and torques that can cause the implant to migrate and potentially harm the patient. In addition, the gradient coils in MRI systems, used for spatial localization, can cause gradient-induced heating, vibrations, stimulation of the tissue, and device malfunction. Lastly, the large radiofrequency (RF) coil in MRI systems can cause the electrically conductive implant to electromagnetically resonate (called the “antenna effect”), resulting in RF-induced heating that can potentially burn the patient (Ref. 1).

MED Institute, a full-service contract research organization (CRO) for the medical device industry, is using multiphysics simulation to better understand the effects of RF-induced heating of medically implanted devices for patients that need MRI scans (Ref. 2).

A woman and a man in medical aprons next to a MRI machine.

Standardized Test Methods for Medical Devices

MED Institute provides support throughout the entire product development cycle. Its MRI Safety team helps manufacturers evaluate and perform physical testing of their medical devices for safety and compliance in the MRI environment (Figure 1). The team works closely with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which oversees the development of medical products to ensure safe and effective use. Furthermore, the team complies with the standards of the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) and International Organization for Standardization (ISO). Specifically, it follows the ASTM F2182 standard to measure RF-induced heating of a medical implant within a gel phantom (Figure 2) and follows ISO/TS 10974 to evaluate electrically active implantable medical devices (AIMD) during MRI.

The gel phantom used for testing is a rectangular acrylic container filled with a conductive gel that approximates the thermal and electrical properties of average human tissue (Ref. 3). The phantom is placed on the patient table inside the RF coil of an MRI scanner and fiber optic temperature probes (1 mm in diameter) are attached to the device before submerging it into the gel. The probes measure the temperature changes experienced by the device during the MRI scan. This type of physical experiment is used often, but it poses some potential problems. For instance, movement within the phantom can introduce uncertainty into the experiment, and inaccurate probe placement can lead to invalid results. In addition, depending on the materials of construction and their magnetic susceptibility, magnetic force could also be an issue (Ref. 4).

Two images, on the left two people performing a test using wires on a plastic bin with devices inside, and on the right an illustration of a test device inside a RF body coil.

To help address these issues, the team at MED Institute uses computational modeling and simulation as an alternative to physical testing. David Gross, PhD, PE, Director of MRI Safety Evaluations and Engineering Simulations, leads a team of analysts that use simulation to gain a better understanding of physics-based problems. He says, “The simulation provides us with 3D temperature contours anywhere within a volume of interest; we are not limited to discrete point-probe measurements, and we do not have to worry about the inaccuracies of the equipment or uncertainty of probe placement from the experiment.”

The team has experience conducting these simulations for closed-bore MRI systems, in which a patient is contained in a compact tube. The team is now using simulation to perform these same analyses for open-bore systems (Figure 3), which have wider physical access, making them beneficial for “imaging pediatric, bariatric, geriatric and claustrophobic patients”, as is explained on the MED Institute website (Ref. 5).

Three images, on the left an MRI system, in the middle a coil with a virtual human model inside, and on the right a knee implant inside two coils.

Multiphysics Simulation for RF-Induced Heating

With COMSOL Multiphysics, MED Institute is able to evaluate the RF-induced temperature rise of implants and compare the results of various sizes and constructs of a device within a product family to determine a worst-case configuration. The analysts at MED can import a CAD file of a client’s device using the CAD Import Module, an add-on to COMSOL Multiphysics. In terms of RF-induced heating, the team uses the RF Module and Heat Transfer Module add-on products to combine the physics of electromagnetics with transient heat transfer. For analyzing electromagnetics, the RF Module enables the use of Maxwell’s equations to solve for the wave equation at every point within the model that is impacted by electromagnetic fields. This is done in a steady-state frequency domain, which is then sequentially coupled to the transient heat transfer. With the Heat Transfer Module, the team is also able to solve heat conduction equations.

In the example below, MED Institute imported a CAD file of a knee implant into the COMSOL Multiphysics software. The geometry of the implant included a stem extension, tibial tray, femoral tray, and other components. All of these components can have various sizes and can be assembled in various ways, and patients with the implant can be scanned in various MRI systems that create different electromagnetic fields. With the overwhelming amount of permutations that these variables can produce, it is often not clear which configuration would result in the worst-case RF-induced heating.

“With our Medical Device Development Tool (MDDT), we can not only augment physical testing but even replace it with simulation in some cases. The immediate, positive results are that our clients are able to have their products evaluated quicker and at less cost because we are able to rely on the simulation.”
—David Gross, MED Institute Director of MRI Safety Evaluations and Engineering Simulations

“This is where the use of simulation comes in; you focus your efforts on the primary factors that can change the resonance of a particular implant,” Gross says. By using the COMSOL software, the organization is able to better understand the relative bounds of where it would expect to see resonance and how the device behaves under different electromagnetic fields. This helps with performing sensitivity analyses, where the team can test what causes the change in resonance, such as modifying the diameter of the stem or other components of the implant. For this particular case, the team ran hundreds of simulations to determine the worst-case device size and worst-case RF frequency.

Using worst-case analysis is crucial in the verification process because it allows manufacturers to test different factors for a wide range of devices — such as determining which size brings the most complications — rather than conducting physical testing for every variant of one product (Ref. 6). “Performing multiple physical experiments becomes very expensive and time-consuming, especially when you account for the hourly cost of using a physical MRI scanner,” says Gross.

Four images showing simulations of a knee implant in a gel during an MRI scan.

As shown in Figure 4, the electric field in the gel phantom of a 1.2 T open-bore system (upper left) is very different from a 1.5 T closed-bore system (upper right). The knee implant was simulated in both systems, where the results show a different resonance and maximum temperature rise at the end of the stem (lower images).

Using COMSOL allowed the team to better understand how a device behaves under electromagnetic fields. With these results, the team was then able to determine where they should place temperature probes while physically testing the device in an actual MRI system to obtain temperature rise results.

FDA Qualification of MED Institute’s Virtual MRI Safety Evaluations

MED Institute’s experience with using simulation to test RF-induced heating of medical devices has inspired development of a promising new simulation tool that accelerates the product development cycle. The MED Institute team submitted this simulation tool to the FDA’s Medical Device Development Tool (MDDT) program, which allows the FDA to evaluate new tools with the purpose of furthering medical products and studies. As stated on the FDA website, “The MDDT program is a way for the FDA to qualify tools that medical device sponsors can choose to use in the development and evaluation of medical devices.” (Ref. 7) Once qualified, the FDA recognizes the tool as an official MDDT.

In November 2021, MED Institute was granted FDA qualification of its MDDT, “Virtual MRI Safety Evaluations of Medical Devices”. This is an evaluation process that involves using multiphysics modeling and simulation to test the interactions of medical devices in an MRI environment. The tool is used for modeling an RF coil of an MRI system, ASTM gel phantom, and a medical device placed within the gel. Simulation is then used to analyze the electromagnetics and the heat that generates around the device (Ref. 8).

After testing is complete, the labeling of the device is described by ASTM 2503 or, if it is an electrically active implant, by the ISO 10974 test. The labeling is placed on the device packaging and inside the instructions for use (IFU) so that an MRI technologist or radiologist can see the relevant information for a patient with an implanted device.

“With our MDDT, we can not only augment physical testing but even replace it with simulation in some cases,” says Gross.

Modeling and Simulation Support from the FDA

Over the years, MED Institute has evaluated many medical devices for MRI safety with COMSOL Multiphysics simulations. It has found that COMSOL is a powerful and efficient platform for solving complex multiphysics problems. “The immediate, positive results are that our clients are able to have their products evaluated quicker and at less cost because we are able to rely on the simulation. It does not require them to send us the actual product to test for RF-induced heating,” says Gross.

The FDA has been supportive of computational modeling and is willing to evaluate and accept data from simulation in lieu of physical testing. “It is important for medical device sponsors to know that they have the encouragement and support of the Agency,” Gross says. MED Institute has had the privilege of working alongside the FDA for many years for the benefit of patients. “It goes to show that they are invested and believe in the power of modeling and simulation,” Gross adds.


  1. “Thermal Injuries,” Questions and Answers in MRI;,likely-to-create-heating-problems
  2. D. Gross, “Top 10 Challenges for MRI Safety Evaluation,” MED Institute Inc., June 2020;
  3. “Medical Device MRI Safety Testing,” MED Institute Inc., April 2016;
  4. “Keynote: RF-Induced Heating of Medical Devices in Open-Bore MRI,” COMSOL;
  5. “Radiofrequency-Induced Heating in Open Bore MRI,” MED Institute Inc., Aug. 2020;
  6. “The Worst-case Scenario,” Packaging Compliance Labs;
  7. “Medical Device Development Tools (MDDT),” U.S. Food and Drug Administration;
  8. “MDDT Summary of Evidence and Basis of Qualification Decision for Virtual MRI Safety Evaluations of Medical Devices,” Apr. 2021;

19 Jan. 2023

The five most important areas of technology this year, according to a recent survey, will be cloud computing, 5G, the metaverse, electric vehicles, and the Industrial Internet of Things.

The survey consulted 350 CIOs, CTOs, IT directors, and other technology leaders in Brazil, China, India, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

In “The Impact of Technology in 2023 and Beyond: An IEEE Global Study,” the global senior executives also weighed in on what areas could benefit from 5G implementation, what tasks would be automated by artificial intelligence, and how they plan to adopt the metaverse.

Almost 95 percent of the leaders said incorporating technologies that would help their organization become more sustainable and energy efficient was a top priority.

The executives said they thought telecommunications, transportation, energy, and financial services would be the areas most affected by technology this year.

They also shared what areas would benefit from 5G implementation.

The impact of 5G

Almost all of the tech leaders agreed that 5G is likely to impact vehicle connectivity and automation the most. They said areas that will benefit from 5G include remote learning and education; telemedicine; live streaming of sports and other entertainment programs; day-to-day communications; and transportation and traffic control.

About 95 percent said satellites that are used to provide connectivity in rural areas will enable devices with 5G to connect from anywhere at any time. In an interview with IEEE Transmitter about the results, IEEE Senior Member Eleanor Watson predicted that the space satellites will be game-changers because they “enable leapfrogging off the need to build very expensive terrestrial infrastructure. They’re also the ultimate virtual private network—VPN—for extrajurisdictional content access.”

Automation through AI and digital twins

Nearly all the tech leaders—98 percent—said routine tasks and processes such as data analysis will be automated thanks to AI-powered autonomous collaborative software and mobile robots, allowing workers to be more efficient and effective.

The same percentage agreed that digital twin technology and virtual simulations that more efficiently design, develop, and test prototypes and manufacturing processes will become more important. A digital twin is a virtual model of a real-world object, machine, or system that can be used to assess how the real-world counterpart is performing.

Meetings in the metaverse

The leaders are considering ways to use the metaverse in their operations. Ninety-one percent said they plan to use the technology for corporate training sessions, conferences, and hybrid meetings. They said that 5G and ubiquitous connectivity, virtual reality headsets, and augmented reality glasses will be important for advancing the development of the metaverse.

Companies are looking to the metaverse to help them with their sustainable development goals. IEEE Senior Member Daozhuang Lin told IEEE Transmitter that “metaverse-related technology will be a major contributor to reducing carbon emissions because it allows technologists and engineers to perform simulations, rather than relying on real-world demonstrations that run on traditional energy.” But for the technology to really take off, the respondents said, more innovations are needed in 5G and ubiquitous connectivity, virtual-reality headsets, augmented-reality glasses, and haptic devices.

Read more about IEEE members’ insight on the survey results on IEEE Transmitter.

19 Jan. 2023

Happy 40th Birthday to Lisa! The Apple Lisa computer, that is. In celebration of this milestone, the Computer History Museum has received permission from Apple to release the source code to the Lisa, including its system and applications software.

You can access the Lisa source code here.

What is the Apple Lisa computer, and why was its release on 19 January 1983 an important date in computer history? Apple’s Macintosh line of computers, known for bringing mouse-driven graphical user interfaces (GUIs) to the masses and transforming the way we use computers, owes its existence to its immediate predecessor, the Lisa. Without the Lisa, there would have been no Macintosh—at least in the form we have it today—and perhaps there would have been no Microsoft Windows either.

From DOS to the Graphical User Interface

There was a time when a majority of personal computer users interacted with their machines via command-line interfaces—that is, through text-based operating systems such as CP/M and MS/DOS, in which users had to type arcane commands to control their computers. The invention of the graphical user interface, or GUI, especially in the form of windows, icons, menus, and pointers (collectively known as WIMP), controlled by a mouse, occurred at Xerox PARC in the 1970s. Xerox’s Alto was a prototype computer with a bitmapped graphics display designed to be used by just one person—a “personal computer.” Key elements of the WIMP GUI paradigm, such as overlapping windows and popup menus, were invented by Alan Kay’s Learning Research Group for the children’s software development environment, Smalltalk.

In 1979, a delegation from Apple Computer, led by Steve Jobs, visited PARC and received a demonstration of Smalltalk on the Alto. Upon seeing the GUI, Jobs immediately grasped the potential of this new way of interacting with a computer and didn’t understand why Xerox wasn’t marketing the technology to the public. Jobs could see that all computers should work this way, and he wanted Apple to bring this technology out from the research lab to the masses.

From the Apple II to the Lisa

In its own R&D labs, Apple was already working on a successor to its best-selling, but command-line-based, Apple II personal computer. The machine was code-named “Lisa,” after Steve Jobs’ child with a former girlfriend. The code-name stuck, and a backronym, Local Integrated Systems Architecture, was invented to conceal the connection to Jobs’ daughter. Unlike the Apple II, which was aimed at the home computer market, the Lisa would be targeted at the business market, use the powerful Motorola 68000 microprocessor, and be paired with a hard drive.After the PARC visit, Jobs and many of Lisa’s engineers, including Bill Atkinson, worked to incorporate a GUI into the Lisa. Atkinson developed the QuickDraw graphics library for the Lisa, and he collaborated with Larry Tesler, who left PARC to join Apple, on developing the Lisa’s user interface. Tesler created an object-oriented variant of Pascal, called Clascal, for the Lisa Toolkit application programming interfaces. Later, with the guidance of Pascal creator Niklaus Wirth, Clascal would evolve into the official Object Pascal.

A black-and-white bitmapped screenshot of a 1970s computer display. A screenshot from the Apple Lisa 2 shows icons on the desktop and the menu bar with pulldown menus at the top of the screen. This interface is very similar to that of the original Macintosh.David T. Craig

A reorganization of the company in 1982, however, removed Jobs from having any direct influence on the Lisa project, which was subsequently managed by John Couch. Jobs then discovered the Macintosh project started by Jef Raskin. Jobs took over that project and moved it away from Raskin’s original appliance-like vision to one more like the Lisa—a mouse-driven, GUI-based computer but more affordable than the Lisa.

For a few years, the Lisa and Macintosh teams competed internally, although there was collaboration as well. Atkinson’s QuickDraw became part of the Macintosh, and Atkinson thus contributed to both projects. Lisa software manager Bruce Daniels worked on the Macintosh for a time, greatly influencing the direction of the Mac toward the Lisa’s GUI. Tesler’s work on the object-oriented Lisa Toolkit would later evolve into the MacApp frameworks, which used Object Pascal. Owen Densmore, who had been at Xerox, worked on printing for both the Lisa and the Macintosh.

The Lisa’s user interface underwent many versions before finally arriving at the icon-based desktop familiar to us from the Macintosh. The final Lisa Desktop Manager still had a few key differences from the Mac. The Lisa had a document-centric rather than application-centric model, for example. Each program on the Lisa featured a “stationary pad” that resided on the desktop, separate from the application icon. Users tore off a sheet from the pad to create a new document. Users rarely interacted with the application’s icon itself. The idea of centering the user’s world around documents rather than applications would reemerge in the 1990s, with technologies such as Apple’s OpenDoc and Microsoft’s OLE.

The Lisa was released to the public on 19 January 1983, at a price of US $9,995 (about $30,000 today). This was two years after Xerox had introduced its own GUI-based workstation, the Star, for $16,595, which was similarly targeted at office workers. The high price of both machines compared to the IBM PC, a command-line-based personal computer that retailed for $1,565, was enough to doom them both to failure.

But price wasn’t the Lisa’s only problem. Its sophisticated operating system, which allowed multiple programs to run at the same time, was too powerful even for its 68000 processor, and the machine thus ran sluggishly. Additionally, the Lisa shipped with a suite of applications, including word processing and charts, which discouraged third-party developers from writing software for it. The original Lisa included dual floppy drives, called Twiggy, that had been designed in-house and proved unreliable.

From the Lisa to the Macintosh

Meanwhile, the Macintosh project competed with Lisa internally for resources and had Jobs’ full attention. Announced in the famous Superbowl ad, the Macintosh began shipping in January 1984 for $2,495. Unlike the Lisa, it had no hard drive, had greatly reduced memory, didn’t multitask, and lacked some other advanced features, and thus was much more affordable. An innovative marketing program created by Dan’l Lewin (now CHM’s CEO) sold Macintoshes at a discount to college students, contributing significantly to the Mac’s installed base.

The advent of Postscript laser printers like the Apple LaserWriter in 1985, combined with the page layout application PageMaker from Aldus, created a killer application for the Macintosh: desktop publishing. This new market would grow to a billion dollars by 1988. The Macintosh would become the first commercially successful computer with a graphical user interface, and its product line continues to this day.

A brochure showing several versions of personal computer introduced by Apple in 1984. The Lisa 2 series was announced in January 1984 alongside the Macintosh.Computer History Museum

The Lisa 2, whose two models were priced at $3,495 and $5,495, respectively, was announced alongside the Macintosh in January 1984. The original Lisa’s problematic Twiggy floppy drives were replaced with a single Sony 3.5-inch floppy drive, the same as that used on the Mac. A year later, the Lisa 2/10 was rebranded as the Macintosh XL with MacWorks, an emulator that allowed it to run Macintosh software. But despite improved sales, the product was killed off in April 1985 so that Apple could focus on the Mac, according to Owen Linzmayer’s 2004 book Apple Confidential 2.0.

From the Macintosh to the World

The release of the GUI-based Lisa and the Macintosh inspired several software companies to create software “shells” that would install GUI environments on top of MS-DOS command-line-based IBM PCs. The first of these was VisiOn, released in late 1983 by VisiCorp, publisher of the first spreadsheet program VisiCalc. This was followed in 1985 by GEM from Digital Research, the company behind the command-line-based CP/M operating system. Microsoft came out with Windows later the same year, although Windows wouldn’t see wide use until the 1990s, when Windows 3.0 came out. Both GEM and Windows were influenced by the Mac’s user interface. And between Windows and the Macintosh, GUIs have become the user interface paradigm for personal computers.

Black and white photo of a smiling man looking on as a young boy types at a computer keyboard. Apple’s John Couch and his son demonstrate the “what you see if what you get” concept on a Lisa computer.Roger Ressmeyer/Corbis/Getty Images

Despite the Lisa’s failure in the marketplace, it holds a place in the history of computing as the first GUI-based computer to be released by a personal computer company. Though the Xerox Star 8010 beat the Lisa to market, the Star was competing with other workstations from Apollo and Sun. Perhaps more importantly, without the Lisa and its incorporation of the PARC-inspired GUI, the Macintosh itself would not have been based on the GUI. Both computers shared key technologies, such as the mouse and the QuickDraw graphics library. The Lisa was a key steppingstone to the Macintosh, and an important milestone in the history of graphical user interfaces and personal computers more generally.

Learn more about the Art of Code at CHM or sign up for regular emails about upcoming source code releases and related events.

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on the blog of the Computer History Museum.

18 Jan. 2023

This sponsored article is brought to you by COMSOL.

As we try to objectively study nature, we are often reminded of how natural forces affect us personally. We can sit at a desk and consider heat in its various forms, but we might be distracted if our toes are cold! When we turn up the heat in our homes and workplaces, we must balance our personal need for warmth with the global impact of burning fossil fuels like oil, gas, coal, and biomass. Anthropogenic climate change confronts humanity with a challenge: How can we keep warm now as we try to prevent our world from overheating in the future?

It is a daunting question that a startup called Polar Night Energy, in the small and chilly nation of Finland (Figure 1), is attempting to answer. In a region known for long, dark winter nights, Polar Night Energy is building a system in the city of Tampere that can heat buildings with stored solar energy — all day, all night, and all winter long. The apparent contradictions do not end there. In an era of complex cleantech solutions, often made from rare and expensive materials, Polar Night Energy’s heat storage and distribution system consists of simple ducts, pumps, valves, and sand. The novel system shows potential for tackling global problems in a patient, thoughtful, and human-scaled way.

A map of Finland showing its capital Helsinki and two other cities.

A Small Country with Large Heating Needs

Big problems demand big solutions, and there is perhaps no bigger 21st-century problem than climate change. To meet this challenge, many governments and organizations are investing in new technology to help lessen the use of fossil fuels. These initiatives have largely focused on renewable electric power generation, distribution, and storage.

“When you ask people about cleaner energy, they think of electricity,” says Tommi Eronen, CEO of Polar Night Energy. “But we also have to cut emissions from heating.” Out of Finland’s energy-related emissions, 82 percent come from heating domestic buildings (Ref. 1). “We want to replace all of that if we are to have any hope of meeting our global climate goals,” Eronen says.

Think Globally, Heat Locally

The spirit of “Think Globally, Act Locally”, a mantra associated with the 1960s, lives on with Polar Night Energy’s team of innovators. Their journey began with a question posed by its founders, Tommi Eronen and Markku Ylönen, when they were university classmates: “Is it possible to build an energy-self-sufficient and cost-effective hippie commune for engineers using only solar power?” After graduation, the project they codenamed “Hippie Commune” became Polar Night Energy, with Eronen as CEO and Ylönen as CTO.

What began as a lighthearted (but serious) student project led to a 3 MWh/100 kW pilot plant in the Finnish city of Tampere, which began operation during the winter of 2020–2021. The system uses electricity to heat air, which is then circulated through an exchanger that heats water and distributes it to multiple buildings in the city’s Hiedanranta district (Figure 2).

Left image shows schematic of the heat-storage system during the day, with solar panels capturing energy and heating up the sand for later use. Right image shows the system at night, with heat from the sand being consumed.

Inside the system, electrically powered resistive heating elements heat air to more than 600°C. The hot air is circulated through a network of pipes inside a sand-filled heat storage vessel. The hot air then flows back out of the vessel into a heat exchanger, where it heats water that is then circulated through building heating systems. The sand’s heat storage capacity ensures that even when the resistive elements are cool, the circulating air is still hot enough to keep the water (and buildings) warm.

“We only have pipes, valves, a fan, and an electric heating element. There is nothing special here!” Eronen says, laughing.

A Battery for Heat Made from Sand

Noted chemical engineer Donald Sadoway is quoted as saying: “If you want to make a dirt-cheap battery, you have to make it out of dirt.” Polar Night Energy’s system faces the same core challenges as any other energy infrastructure. It must deliver power to people when they need it, where they need it, and at a manageable price. This means that storing and distributing energy is as important as its generation. Existing infrastructure meets these challenges in familiar ways. For combustion-based heating, fuels like oil and gas are stored and moved to where they can be burned. The electrical grid also supports the efficient distribution of power and makes use of energy generated through renewable means like wind and solar. The intermittent nature of daylight and strong winds, however, is a stubborn problem. Energy storage is needed to maintain steady power output throughout the peaks and valleys of renewable inputs. But even with recent advances in battery technology, storing electric power remains relatively expensive, especially at the scale required for heating buildings. What if, rather than storing electricity, a “battery” could store heat instead?

Markku Yl\u00f6nen dressed in construction gear stands inside a pile of sand-like dirt.

Many conventional heating systems already store and distribute heat by retaining and circulating warm water. Eronen and Ylönen recognized the benefits of water-based heat storage as well as its limitations. “There is only so much heat you can add to water before it becomes steam,” says Eronen. “Steam can efficiently distribute heat, but it is not really cost-effective for large-scale storage.” To avoid the drawbacks of storing heat in water, they instead turned to sand — 42 metric tons of it! (Figure 3) After the Sun goes down, the sand’s stored heat is gradually released back into the circulating airflow. This keeps the air hot enough to maintain steady temperatures in the water that flows through customers’ radiators. In this way, sand enables solar power to keep people warm, even during the darkest and coldest Finnish nights. “Sand provides four times the energy storage capacity of water,” Eronen says. “Sand is efficient, nontoxic, portable, and cheap!”

“We need predictive modeling to answer as many questions as possible, before we commit to assembling all this equipment—and all this sand!”
—Tommi Eronen, CEO of Polar Night Energy

The Sophisticated Analysis Behind a Simple Solution

Cost efficiency is the foundation of Polar Night Energy’s value proposition. “As soon as we decided to pursue this idea, we were trying to figure out how the finances looked,” says Eronen. In their quest to do more with less, Polar Night Energy has long depended on numerical simulation tools. Eronen and Ylönen began using the COMSOL Multiphysics software as students and it remains integral to their design process. For example, Eronen mentions the specifications of an expanded heat storage system that would serve more buildings in Tampere. The team calculated that supplying heat to a district of 35,000 people would require a sand-filled storage cylinder that is 25 meters tall and 40 meters in diameter. How did they arrive at these dimensions? “The rough quantity of material needed is actually easy to calculate, because we know how much heat we can store in a cubic meter of sand,” Eronen explains. “We also had to determine the space required for efficient heat transfer between the sand and our air circulating system (Figure 4). That is much more difficult to do! We used COMSOL to model and evaluate different design options.”

Tommi Eronen dressed in construction gear stands near the company's heat-storage system.

Multiphysics simulation software helped shape Polar Night Energy’s heat exchanger design (Figures 5–6). Eronen says, “We built a particular model to explore a design idea: What if we created a super hot core of sand surrounded by heating ducts around the perimeter?” By modeling fluid flow and heat transfer effects in the COMSOL Multiphysics software, the Polar Night Energy team could quantify its design’s comparative advantages and drawbacks. “The simulation confirmed that the ‘hot core’ design was good at storing heat for very long periods of time,” says Eronen. “But for our intended operational cycle, it makes more sense to evenly distribute hot air ducts throughout the sand storage vessel,” he explains.

Three images showing simulated temperature inside the sand heat-storage vessel, with the temperature decreasing over a 100-hour period.

Simulation of the airflow inside the ductwork that is part of the sand vessel storage.

The sheer scale of Polar Night Energy’s sand-based heat storage system makes simulation software indispensable. “We cannot possibly build full-size prototypes to test all of our ideas. We need predictive modeling to answer as many questions as possible, before we commit to assembling all this equipment — and all this sand!” Eronen says. “It is essential for us to use these immensely powerful tools.”

Adapting New Ideas to Existing Infrastructure

By separating the task of heat storage from heat generation and distribution, Polar Night Energy has made its system more efficient and adaptable. There is great potential for retrofitting their sand-filled heat storage and transfer systems into existing infrastructure (Figure 7). Tampere, an inland Finnish industrial city of nearly 250,000 people, is an ideal testing ground for this new technology. “Tampere, like many European cities, already has a district heating system that circulates water across entire neighborhoods,” says Eronen. “That enables us to switch many buildings to a renewable heat source quickly,” he says. Polar Night Energy’s pilot plant in Tampere can also tap into power from the existing electrical grid, along with electricity generated by new solar panels. Reliable thermal storage enables the city to generate or purchase power when it is most affordable and then distribute heat when it is needed most.

Photo of the company's heat transfer system, which consists in part of large horizontal and vertical metal pipes.

Today: Finland; Tomorrow: The World

Since the Tampere system began operation during the winter of 2020–2021, the Polar Night Energy team has been gathering data to compare to their models. “Our simulations have proven to be very accurate, which is encouraging,” Eronen says. And as the Polar Night Energy team continues to develop their ideas locally, they are aiming to act globally as well. The same technology that warms Finland’s long, chilly nights can also provide better energy management options to the rest of the world. Affordable thermal storage could help industries and cities capture heat that is currently wasted, as well as balance the inconsistencies in wind and solar power output. But while Polar Night Energy is eager to work directly with potential customers, they realize that the challenges ahead are too big for them to tackle alone.

A man dressed in a red jacket stands near the Polar Night Energy's heat transfer system.

“We want to license this technology. If you operate a power plant, please contact us,” Eronen says with a laugh. On a more serious note, he adds, “We have to get away from all kinds of combustion, even biomass. We need to protect and restore forests so they can keep removing carbon from the air. Because climate change is happening so fast, we want our ideas to spread as quickly as possible.”


Statistics Finland, “Over one-half of Finland’s electricity was produced with renewable energy sources in 2020”, November 2021.

17 Jan. 2023

High school student Rian Tiwarihas developed a mobile app that uses artificial intelligence to help pregnant people spot nutrient deficiencies by scanning their fingernails. Tiwari’s app uses data from the scans to trigger diet and lifestyle recommendations, aiming to reduce the likelihood of a user developing anemia.

People with anemia have low levels of healthy red blood cells needed to carry oxygen to body tissues. More than 50 percent of pregnant people become anemic, according to the Cleveland Clinic, risking premature birth, low birth weight for the baby, and postpartum depression. Preventing anemia can be as easy as eating iron-rich foods such as beans, red meat, and dried fruit.

In 2020, as a sophomore at South Brunswick High School in New Jersey, Tiwari was learning remotely during the coronavirus pandemic, and he found himself bored. His father suggested he think about ikigai, a Japanese concept referring to something that gives a person a sense of purpose. Tiwari decided that his purpose was to help others through technology.

He began researching several chronic conditions and zeroed in on anemia. He found that apps already existed to monitor hemoglobin levels. But he also learned that a fingernail’s appearance can give clues about a person’s health. Discoloration, ripples, bumps, and other changes in a nail can be signs of nutrient deficiencies or disease. White spots, for example, might indicate a zinc deficiency. Brittle, cracking nails suggest low levels of folic acid.

Tiwari built an app that analyzes fingernail scans for signs of deficiencies in vitamin B12, calcium, zinc, and other nutrients. If these signs exist, the app recommends dietary and lifestyle changes, potentially preventing the development of anemia.

He presented his app at last year’s IEEE International Conference on Intelligent Reality during an event hosted in collaboration with Amazon Web Services. The event focused on how AWS is helping startups that are developing health care technology.

“Presenting my work in front of respected and accomplished engineers felt unreal,” Tiwari says. “I felt humbled by the opportunity to showcase my work and to learn from the other presenters.”

Turning an idea into a mobile app

In 2020 Tiwari and two of his classmates submitted a pitch and a business plan for their product to the Conrad Challenge, a competition for students developing technologies that address a global problem. Selected as finalists, they presented their idea virtually to the Conrad Challenge Innovation Summit at the Space Center Houston. Although they didn’t win, Tiwari moved ahead with developing the app.

He needed help, however. He found Viswanatha Allugunti, a solutions architect at Arohak—a software company in Monmouth Junction, N.J.—on LinkedIn and contacted him. Tiwari says he felt Allugunti’s experience in machine learning and business development would be beneficial.

“Having Dr. Allugunti as a mentor really helped me push myself and this project to the next level,” Tiwari says. “He taught me more about coding, how to file for a patent, and how to more effectively conduct research.”

Allugunti also helped him narrow down his target users from anyone with anemia to pregnant people, focusing on a group with a particular need for the technology, Tiwari says.

Tiwari filed for a U.S. patent for his invention in 2021. He was granted a patent in Germany last year.

How AI can read your nails

Tiwari created the algorithms his app uses by running data sets obtained from open-source website Kaggle through a machine-learning platform. The algorithm classifies images of nails based on their appearance. It looks for cracks, ridges, peeling, and discoloration. Lips and inner eyelids can show signs of nutrient deficiencies as well, but Tiwari chose to analyze nails, given that they are easier to photograph.

The app starts with a photo of a nail taken by a user. It then uses a device-based neural network to analyze the image and classify the nail as healthy or unhealthy, Tiwari says.

If, for example, the app detects the person has a folate deficiency, it recommends foods such as asparagus, spinach, and sunflower seeds, he says.

The app stores some medical information as well as records of the analytics and recommendations from past scans.

To test the app, Tiwari contacted maternal health organizations. He spoke with Reach, a nonprofit that provides mentorship and educational opportunities to people developing technology that enables individualized care for patients. The organization launched its own project—the Maternal Mortality Prevention Program—to ensure pregnant people’s access to health monitoring.

Tiwari says he worked closely with the organization’s president, Fran Ayalasomayajula, to learn what it takes to run a business. She helped him establish an advisory board and do patient outreach, he says.

He is working on getting the app to analyze images of lips and the inner eyelids as well, which can also show signs of nutrient deficiencies, he says. He also wants to add recommendations for medications and vitamin supplements.

Tiwari says he will be piloting the app this year. He plans to make it available for Android and iOS devices.

Inspired by IEEE

Tiwari says he was inspired to pursue a career in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics thanks to his father, Rajiv, who introduced him to IEEE’s products, services, conferences, and publications. The IEEE senior member serves as cochair of the IEEE Future Directions Committee.

Tiwari says IEEE Spectrum and many other award-winning IEEE publications his father subscribes to have made a significant impact on him. Reading articles published in Spectrum helped him discover that he wanted a career in technology, he says.

“So many of the cool technologies IEEE Spectrum writes about, such as quantum computing, sound like they are from a science fiction movie,” he says. “I want to work on these types of technological advancements.”

He says he plans a career in machine learning, specifically natural language processing.

“Helping patients monitor their health is only one of the problems I hope to solve using AI,” he says. “Developing the APT mobile app helped me discover that I want to expand my work into other fields such as language translation.”

The high school senior recently has been applying to colleges. His top choices are Cornell, Georgia Tech, the University of Michigan, and the University of Illinois because of the types of STEM programs they offer.

“The work students and faculty members in these universities are doing is extraordinary,” Tiwari says. “The programs offered at these schools can help me enhance existing technology or develop my own solution to language barriers that exist around the world.”

He says he’s looking forward to becoming an IEEE student member and is looking forward to conferences and networking opportunities.

17 Jan. 2023

One of the most vexing social challenges confronting the transition to EVs at scale is dealing with the effects that governmental EV transition policies will have on millions of jobs across a wide swath of industries. For example, the Biden administration has proudly proclaimed that moving to EVs will be the source of new, high-paying, jobs. President Biden says his EV policies will result in “one million new jobs in the American automobile industry. One million.”

The President’s “fuzzy math,” as the Associated Press termed it, however, fails to calculate how many jobs will be lost by his policies.

As does the U.S. 2050 net-zero strategy document, which explains how America will get to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. It has 60 pages of detail selling the myriad benefits and assumptions of new “well-paying jobs” accruing by getting to net-zero, but a mere three sentences are devoted to the “difficult transition” getting to net-zero will entail over the next three decades.

By some estimates, upwards of 80,000 auto workers and a similar number in the auto supply chain have already been laid off globally to support the EV transition.

But the effects of the transition are already being felt by workers. Ford, for example, recently cut 3,000 highly paid salaried and contract workers as a down payment to help fund the transition to EVs. Ford CEO Jim Farley has said, employee cuts are necessary as Ford has “too many places in some places, no doubt about it. We have skills that don’t work anymore, and we have jobs that need to change.”

The EV Transition Explained

This is the ninth in a series of articles exploring the major technological and social challenges that must be addressed as we move from vehicles with internal-combustion engines to electric vehicles at scale. In reviewing each article, readers should bear in mind Nobel Prize–winning physicist Richard Feynman’s admonition: “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.”

Ford is not alone. Stellantis is offering certain higher salaried U.S. employees separation packages to help its “transformation to become a sustainable tech mobility company and the market leader in low-emissions vehicles,” a company spokesperson said. The automaker has already begun idling auto plants and is warning of future closures to pay for its transition to EVs and to try to keep EV prices affordable.

By some estimates, upwards of 80,000 auto workers and a similar number in the auto supply chain have already been laid off globally to support the EV transition. For example, Daimler and Audi reportedly have eliminated 20,000 jobs, while auto supplier Bosch will be laying off 1,000 workers in a move to support vehicle electrification.

It is not surprising that policymakers tout the benefits of their policy decisions while ignoring the downsides. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, for example, claimed that since she took office in 2019, 25,000 new auto jobs were added to the state through her leadership in “the future of mobility and electrification.” However, a more accurate number is a net loss of 1,600 jobs as internal-combustion-engine (ICE) jobs were cut, and EV jobs moved elsewhere.

Knowing how many net jobs the transition to EVs and related renewable energy will create, change, or eliminate—and over what time period—is critical to determining the impacts of governmental policies and whether they need revision. However, accurate job figures are exceedingly hard to determine, and the process can become a mug’s game if care is not taken.

Counting Jobs

In many ways, it is easiest to determine how many new EV-related jobs are needed. An obvious example involves the making of millions of EV batteries. For example, Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm has stated that the United States “needs over 100 battery cell manufacturing locations by 2035” to meet the projected EV demand. Currently, 15 battery factories are in operation or will be within five years.

If each factory employs 2,000 to 3,000 workers, then 200,000 to 300,000 new battery-related jobs will likely be created, along with the tens of thousands of jobs needed to construct the factories. For their part, European Commission officials predict EVs will lead to major job growth across the 27 EU countries, with up to 4 million battery-related new jobs being created by 2025 because of its formation of the European Battery Alliance.

Of course, more EV battery factories creates more demand for raw materials. Mineral market analysis company Benchmark estimates that at least 74 lithium, 55 cobalt, 64 nickel, and 97 graphite mines, as well as 54 new synthetic graphite factories will be needed by 2035 to meet the global demand for EV and renewable energy storage batteries. Each mine and factory will need hundreds of workers to operate them.

The impact of EVs on auto manufacturing and supplier jobs is harder to assess. Electric vehicles require new or retooled factories, each requiring thousands of employees. How many will be new hires versus existing workers who are retrained is not clear. BMW, for example, claims it will not cut jobs in the transition to EVs, but it is likely that it will still reduce its workforce by both reskilling and attrition as other German automakers are contemplating. Further, given that EVs are said to need 30 percent less labor to produce than ICE vehicles, coupled with more automation that will be used for their manufacturing, many assembly line jobs may disappear.

By one estimate at least 74 lithium, 55 cobalt, 64 nickel, and 97 graphite mines, as well as 54 new synthetic graphite factories will be needed by 2035 to meet the demand for EV and renewable energy storage batteries.

In addition, the elimination of the power train required in ICE vehicles means all those related auto-part manufacturing jobs in the auto-supplier community will disappear. The Congressional Research Service (CRS) estimates that, “Of the nearly 590,000 U.S. employees engaged in motor vehicle parts manufacturing, about one-quarter—nearly 150,000—make components for internal combustion powertrains.”

High-end engineering and computer software and systems jobs at auto suppliers are also at risk, as auto manufacturers are moving to shift those jobs in-house. Former Volkswagen CEO Herbert Diess said, for example, that he expected by 2030 that software “will account for half of our development costs.” VW, like every other automaker, wants to control those costs.

A recent analysis by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) finds that U.S. auto-industry jobs could rise by 150,000 by 2030 if battery electric vehicles sales reach 50 percent by 2030 and the vehicle market share of U.S.-assembled vehicles increases to 60 percent from today’s 50 percent. As a data point, the 15 major automakers in the United States employ about 388,000 workers, according to the American Automakers Policy Council. Including such employers as suppliers, dealers, and service centers, there are more than 7.25 million people employed in the industry at large, or about 5 percent of the U.S. workforce.

However, EPI concedes, it would take even more governmental policy intervention to make these goals happen. Without additional government involvement in the EV market, EPI states, the industry could lose 75,000 jobs instead.

Workers lower an R1T truck body onto a chassis in the assembly line at the Rivian electric vehicle plant in Normal, Illinois, on April 11, 2022. Workers lower an R1T truck body onto a chassis in the assembly line at the Rivian electric vehicle plant in Normal, Ill., on 11 April 2022.Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service/Getty Images

A Boston Consulting Group (BCG) analysis of the European auto industry posits that about 930,000 existing auto manufacturing and supplier jobs will disappear with the introduction of EVS by 2030, but another 895,000 new jobs will be added. So, BCG says, the transition to EVs will basically be a net job wash. The European Association of Automotive Suppliers (CLEPA), however, is more pessimistic. It believes that there will be a net loss of 275,000 auto-industry jobs by 2040, with most of the drop-off coming between 2030 and 2035.

It’s unknown how many existing workers will find comparably paying jobs.

There are also concerns in Japan, or at least at Toyota, over the potential for job losses from the transition to EVs. Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda has stated that moving solely to battery electric vehicles would “risk losing the majority of 5.5 million jobs” in the Japanese auto industry. However, another study by consulting group Arthur D. Little Japan cast doubts on that number. It estimates that out of the current 686,000 auto-part supplier jobs in the country, about 84,000 will be lost by 2050.

Fossil-Fuel Job Impacts

EVs will obviously have an impact on jobs in the fossil-fuel and biofuel industries as well. Again, determining how much impact will be directly attributed to EVs versus the change to renewable energy is hard to unravel. For instance, an in-depth study by Princeton University’s Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment assessed different U.S. policy scenarios from conservative to aggressive for achieving net-zero by 2050. The Princeton analysis estimates that by 2030 net fossil fuel energy jobs in the United States could decrease anywhere from 131,000 to 210,000 positions. On the other hand, the study estimates that somewhere between 777,000 to 5.1 million new energy-related jobs could be created in the United States by 2030.

Other job impacts are likely as well. California estimates that some 32,000 auto mechanics would lose their jobs in that state alone by 2040, while thousands working for family-owned service and fueling stations across the country would also be at risk.

There are also worries in dozens of states that depend on fossil-fuel sales to fund schools, libraries, hospitals, and other public services that they will not be able to replace those funds, or the jobs they create.

Canada’s federal Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, on the other hand, believes the transition to EVs and renewable energy will create so many “good, well-paying jobs and economic prosperity in every region of the country” that there will not be enough workers to fill them all.

Wilkinson told the Canadian Broadcasting Company News that, “I said it many times publicly that I do not believe that the challenge we are going to face is that there are workers who are displaced that will not find other good-paying jobs.”

“I am actually quite worried that there are so many opportunities...we will not have enough workers to fill the jobs.”

A Princeton University study estimates that somewhere between 777,000 and 5.1 million new energy-related jobs could be created in the United States by 2030.

All these numbers should be taken with a heavy dose of skepticism, however. It is useful to remember that even as EV sales increase, that even in optimistic scenarios, there will likely still be 300 million ICE vehicles on the road in the United States alone in 2030, up from 280 million in 2020. There will still be jobs needed to support tens of millions of ICE vehicles for two decades or more after that. One study shows that even in 2050, some 44 percent of all vehicle sales globally will still have internal combustion engines, albeit perhaps using biofuels.

This is not to say there is not going to be intense personal and economic pain faced by tens of thousands of workers across multiple industries during the transition to EVs at scale. It will be easy to view these figures as abstract statistics, unfortunately, and not as actual individuals whose livelihoods are disrupted.

While there has been some consideration to helping those who are going to lose their jobs, it is not nearly enough. Furthermore, government retraining programs has a long history of being expensive failures.

The bottom line is that no one really knows how many jobs will be added or lost or how rapidly in the EV transition. Better statistics are needed. However, the increasing number of EVs and their increasing job disruption across multiple industries do point toward one important need: workers with new skills.

The Insatiable Need for Talent

The rapid and largely unforeseen shift in global governmental policies since 2010 in strongly promoting EVs and renewable energy have left the industries involved short on the technical and managerial skills needed to make the transition.

For instance, the EV battery industry has grown from three gigafactories in 2015 to more than 285 currently being built or planned globally. Not surprisingly, this has exposed a massive skills gap spanning workers to managers that may last for years, with leading battery manufacturers engaged in spirited fights over talent. South Korean battery manufacturers, for example, are short some 3,000 new hires with graduate degrees to work in battery research and design. Attempting to fill in its battery talent shortfall, the EU is setting out to retrain or upskill 800,000 workers by 2025.

GM announced in an investors call that it was pushing back its target of making 400,000 EVs in North America by the end of 2023 into mid-2024. One reason for the delay according to GM CEO Mary Barra was that the company was taking “longer than expected” to hire and train staff for its new Warren, Ohio, battery plant. Another reason: “battery pack assembly” issues that need to be corrected.

Skill shortages are hitting the mining, energy, and auto industries, too, especially regarding workers with advanced engineering and digital skills. Even traditional jobs, like qualified electrical lineman, are in short supply across the United States, affecting even small utilities. Some 29,000 linesman need to be hired by 2023, along with tens of thousands of others, including technicians, plant/field operators, and engineers.

Attempting to fill in its battery talent shortfall, the EU is setting out to retrain or upskill 800,000 workers by 2025.

The auto industry is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to also upskill its workforce. Ford, for example, has pledged to spend US $525 million in the United States over the next five years to train technicians to service EVs. Mercedes-Benz says it will be investing €1.3 billion ($1.4 billion) by 2030 in Germany alone to train all its staff from production to administration in vehicle electrification and digitalization. Auto supplier Bosch says it will be spending another €1 billion reskilling its workforce in EV-related technology over the next five years on top of the €1 billion it has already spent.

The EV battery startup company SPARKZ is going to fill its worker needs in its planned West Virginia plant by recruiting and retraining laid off coal miners. It says the new plant will employ at least 350 people and could grow to 3,000 workers.

How much the coal miners will earn in wages and benefits in comparison to what they previously did will be interesting to watch. As mentioned, a point of contention in the transition to EVs is whether the new jobs will in fact be “good, high-paying jobs” as is frequently promised. Fossil-fuel industries are traditionally where a worker can earn a large paycheck without needing a college degree. While energy employment generally pays more than the average, the International Energy Agency data also indicates that renewable energy jobs pay less than those in the fossil-fuel industry.

Brad Markell, the executive director of the AFL-CIO Industrial Labor Council, told a National Academy EV workshop last year that, “Since 2000, real wages for nonsupervisory production workers in the auto industry are down 20 percent.” Unions are concerned that automakers and battery manufacturers will aim to further reduce worker wages and benefits at new EV and battery factories.

Indeed, new factories by Ford and GM that are being built in lower-cost, right-to-work states like Kentucky and Tennessee will be staffed by thousands of nonunion workers earning significantly less than their union counterparts. Subaru recently announced it will not build an EV factory in the United States because the wage it pays at its U.S. auto plants cannot compete with what McDonald’s pays. The UAW is trying to unionize GM battery plants like the one in Lordstown, Ohio, to increase worker wages and benefits in line with its unionized auto workers.

Exacerbating this trend is that auto worker jobs are leaving their traditional locales in Michigan and Ohio because of the EV subsidy death-cage-match bidding wars among state governors hypercharged by billions of dollars in federal aid to have EV and battery factories, and the jobs they bring, locate in their state. Tennessee provided Ford $884 million in incentives to locate in the state, while Kentucky provided $250 million. North Carolina has provided $1.2 billion in incentives to the Vietnamese EV startup VinFast to locate there, while Georgia has provided incentives worth $1.8 billion to South Korean company Hyundai and $1.5 billion to Rivian.

The state of Michigan has been the epicenter of the U.S. auto industry for the past century with 11 assembly plants, 2,200 auto-research or design facilities, and 26 automaker and supplier headquarters. However, Michigan is finding the auto industry center of gravity moving away, as EV battery factories pop up across the Midwest “battery belt.” Automakers like to colocate EV factories near their battery factories, meaning the auto industry will not be the job creator in Michigan it once was.

Michigan has countered out-of-state financial carrots by providing nearly $2 billion of its own to Ford and GM to stay in the state, with billions more in incentives likely. Whether it will be enough to keep auto jobs in the state is unlikely and the long-term impact on Michigan’s economy and middle-class jobs could be severe.

More state EV incentives deals can be expected over the next few years. Whether they are a good idea is debatable. Every job being brought in or saved is costing hundreds of thousands of dollars in subsidies, and automakers have been known to take the money and run. States, however, continue to view them as good investments that will, at the very least, bring better paying jobs than exist there today.

As North Carolina’s Commerce Secretary Machelle Baker Sanders has gushed over VinFast’s decision to locate in the state, “Automotive assembly plants are incredible engines for economic growth, due to the positive ripple effects they create across a region’s economy.”

In the next article of this series exploring transition to EVs at scale, we’ll examine factors you should consider when purchasing an EV.

16 Jan. 2023

This sponsored article is brought to you by COMSOL.

The modern internet-connected world is often described as wired, but most core network data traffic is actually carried by optical fiber — not electric wires. Despite this, existing infrastructure still relies on many electrical signal processing components embedded inside fiber optic networks. Replacing these components with photonic devices could boost network speed, capacity, and reliability. To help realize the potential of this emerging technology, a multinational team at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL) has developed a prototype of a silicon photonic phase shifter, a device that could become an essential building block for the next generation of optical fiber data networks.

Lighting a Path Toward All-Optical Networks

Using photonic devices to process photonic signals seems logical, so why is this approach not already the norm? “A very good question, but actually a tricky one to answer!” says Hamed Sattari, an engineer currently at the Swiss Center for Electronics and Microtechnology (CSEM) specializing in photonic integrated circuits (PIC) with a focus on microelectromechanical system (MEMS) technology. Sattari was a key member of the EPFL photonics team that developed the silicon photonic phase shifter. In pursuing a MEMS-based approach to optical signal processing, Sattari and his colleagues are taking advantage of new and emerging fabrication technology. “Even ten years ago, we were not able to reliably produce integrated movable structures for use in these devices,” Sattari says. “Now, silicon photonics and MEMS are becoming more achievable with the current manufacturing capabilities of the microelectronics industry. Our goal is to demonstrate how these capabilities can be used to transform optical fiber network infrastructure.”

Optical fiber networks, which make up the backbone of the internet, rely on many electrical signal processing devices. Nanoscale silicon photonic network components, such as phase shifters, could boost optical network speed, capacity, and reliability.

The phase shifter design project is part of EPFL’s broader efforts to develop programmable photonic components for fiber optic data networks and space applications. These devices include switches; chip-to-fiber grating couplers; variable optical attenuators (VOAs); and phase shifters, which modulate optical signals. “Existing optical phase shifters for this application tend to be bulky, or they suffer from signal loss,” Sattari says. “Our priority is to create a smaller phase shifter with lower loss, and to make it scalable for use in many network applications. MEMS actuation of movable waveguides could modulate an optical signal with low power consumption in a small footprint,” he explains.

How a Movable Waveguide Helps Modulate Optical Signals

The MEMS phase shifter is a sophisticated mechanism with a deceptively simple-sounding purpose: It adjusts the speed of light. To shift the phase of light is to slow it down. When light is carrying a data signal, a change in its speed causes a change in the signal. Rapid and precise shifts in phase will thereby modulate the signal, supporting data transmission with minimal loss throughout the network. To change the phase of light traveling through an optical fiber conductor, or bus waveguide, the MEMS mechanism moves a piece of translucent silicon called a coupler into close proximity with the bus.

Illustraion of a MEMS phase shifter in the off and on positions.

The design of the MEMS mechanism in the phase shifter provides two stages of motion (Figure 1). The first stage provides a simple on–off movement of the coupler waveguide, thereby engaging or disengaging the coupler to the bus. When the coupler is engaged, a finer range of motion is then provided by the second stage. This enables tuning of the gap between the coupler and bus, which provides precise modulation of phase change in the optical signal. “Moving the coupler toward the bus is what changes the phase of the signal,” explains Sattari. “The coupler is made from silicon with a high refractive index. When the two components are coupled, a light wave moving through the bus will also pass through the coupler, and the wave will slow down.” If the optical coupling of the coupler and bus is not carefully controlled, the light’s waveform can be distorted, potentially losing the signal — and the data.

Designing at Nanoscale with Optical and Electromechanical Simulation

The challenge for Sattari and his team was to design a nanoscale mechanism to control the coupling process as precisely and reliably as possible. As their phase shifter would use electric current to physically move an optical element, Sattari and the EPFL team took a two-track approach to the device’s design. Their goal was to determine how much voltage had to be applied to the MEMS mechanism to induce a desired shift in the photonic signal. Simulation was an essential tool for determining the multiple values that would establish the voltage versus phase relationship. “Voltage vs. phase is a complex multiphysics question. The COMSOL Multiphysics software gave us many options for breaking this large problem into smaller tasks,” Sattari says. “We conducted our simulation in two parallel arcs, using the RF Module for optical modeling and the Structural Mechanics Module for electromechanical simulation.”

The optical modeling (Figure 2) included a mode analysis, which determined the effective refractive index of the coupled waveguide elements, followed by a study of the signal propagation. “Our goal is for light to enter and exit our device with only the desired change in its phase,” Sattari says. “To help achieve this, we can determine the eigenmode of our system in COMSOL.”

Left image shows EM simulation of an optical bus with light going through it, and right image shows six cross sectional images of how the light beam behaves for different configurations of the bus.

3D model showing the waveguide, with outer structure in red and inner elements that suspend and flex in blue.

Left shows plot of the phase shift increasing as the vertical gap increases; right plot shows voltage decreases and loss increases as the vertical gap increases.

Along with determining the physical forms of the waveguide and actuation mechanism, simulation also enabled Sattari to study stress effects, such as unwanted deformation or displacement caused by repeated operation. “Every decision about the design is based on what the simulation showed us,” he says.

Adding to the Foundation of Future Photonic Networks

The goal of this project was to demonstrate how MEMS phase shifters could be produced with existing fabrication capabilities. The result is a robust and reliable design that is achievable with existing surface micromachined manufacturing processes, and occupies a total footprint of just 60 μm × 44 μm. Now that they have an established proof of concept, Sattari and his colleagues look forward to seeing their designs integrated into the world’s optical data networks. “We are creating building blocks for the future, and it will be rewarding to see their potential become a reality,” says Sattari.


  1. H. Sattari et al., “Silicon Photonic MEMS Phase-Shifter,” Optics Express, vol. 27, no. 13, pp. 18959–18969, 2019.
  2. T.J. Seok et al., “Large-scale broadband digital silicon photonic switches with vertical adiabatic couplers,” Optica, vol. 3, no. 1, pp. 64–70, 2016.