Into the danger zone

A team of BGU scientists is taking part in a US challenge to develop search and rescue robots.

WallE 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
WallE 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
A team of scientists from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) in Beersheba, Technion – Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, and Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan has been chosen as the only non- American team to participate in a US robotics competition aimed at saving lives.
The competition is held by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), established in 1958, to explore problem-solving in search and rescue operations after man-made and natural disasters, such as at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan, where radiation made the environment too dangerous for humans.
The team named Robil (a combination of robot and Israel) is led by Prof. Hugo Guterman of the BGU Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and also includes personnel from Israel Aerospace Industries. In total, the team comprises 20 experts and around 40 students.
Robil has been granted $379,000 to develop control software by Boston Dynamics, Inc. for its Atlas humanoid robot, which is being adapted for the competition. The first phase of the challenge will run for six months.
Guterman tells The Jerusalem Report that the basic idea of the challenge is to use humanoid robots since they can use tools or drive cars. The DARPA Robotic Challenge holds two parallel contests, one for those building their own robots, and one for teams – like Robil – who are developing software.
“We began with a simulation to show that we are able to create a system clever enough to act by itself without human intervention,” Guterman says.
“We will be testing three different tasks: firstly for the robot to get in a car, drive it along a road, deal with obstacles, and then get out of the car. The second one is to walk on different surfaces, and the third is to connect a hose or a power cord to an outlet,” Guterman explains. “For human beings these are simple things, but, for a machine, it is very difficult.”
Guterman says that if the team moves on from the first stage, they will be given a robot to work with for the second stage, also six months long, and, should they progress, then there is is a third and final one-year phase.
He adds that he was chosen to lead the team, firstly because he and a fellow scientist from BGU had participated in another DARPA challenge in 2007 and also because he was voted in to the position by his teammates.
Finding a bomb shelter with your phone
They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and Israelis’ need to locate a bomb shelter during rocket attacks from Gaza is no exception. With sirens giving only 30 to 90 seconds of warning, many found the Secure Spaces iPhone application a genuine lifesaver in November’s conflict.
The app, which is free to download and appeared in Apple’s App Store within days of the start of the conflict, uses the phone’s position via Google Maps to identify the nearest public bomb shelter.
The app is the brainchild of Umbrella Business Development Ltd., which develops apps from its offices in Herzliya on behalf of the municipalities in Ashdod, Ashkelon and Beersheba.
Ori Segal, Umbrella Business Development CE O, tells the Report that from the start of Operation Pillar of Defense, there were more than 10,000 downloads per day, and the app has now added Tel Aviv and other communities in southern and central Israel hit or targeted by rockets.
Segal says that the app is improved by its users, who constantly update information about the location of shelters.
“How did we not think of this before?” wrote one user on the app’s reviews page. “Thank you.”
Cleaner and cheaper water
Now your filtered drinking water could be even cleaner, thanks to a new purification system.
Passing water through a filter to remove unwanted bacteria and chemicals is a well-proven technique, but to get the water thoroughly cleaned means forcing it through a membrane – a slow and energy inefficient process.
To get around this, Mem-Tech has developed a filter based on a unique chemical compound (polymer) of materials that lets the water pass through it without hindering the flow.
Traditionally, membranes are constructed by hydrophobic polymers, which resist the passage of water through them. But by combining hydrophobic polymers with those that are not resistant to having water passed through them, an efficient filter can be constructed.
Finding the right balance can be tricky; some polymers change their structure and size when they get wet, which further complicates the process and raises the cost.
Mem-Tech also claims that their membrane is less prone to biofouling, when mold or slime develops on a wet surface.
The company aims to have their product market-ready in 2013, and is currently looking for further investment.