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20 March 2017

Ants, bees, and octopuses: bioinspired robotics, drones, and smart structures

Ready to fly
Robotic pollinator
Photo and video: Miyako et al.
Can you imagine a world in which our crops and flowers are pollinated by autonomous drones the size of bees? Researchers at Japan's National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology believe this reality could be closer than we may think due to staggering declines in bee populations around the world.

Eijiro Miyako and his colleagues have used the principle of cross-pollination to engineer a bioinspired robotic pollinator, which can mimic the functionality of real bees, reports an article published in Science Direct. Measuring 4 centimeters wide and weighing a mere 15 grams, each drone is equipped with a strip of horsehair coated in an iconic liquid gel, allowing it to pick up pollen from one flower and deposit it in another.

"GPS, high-resolution cameras and artificial intelligence will be required for the drones to independently track their way between flowers and land on them correctly, " said Miyako.


While other methods sometimes prove to be more practical in some applications, bioinspired technology offers unique solutions to a wide variety of complex problems across numerous industries, and research is advancing.

Bioinspiration, Biomimetics, and Bioreplication VII, a conference focused on research and technology influenced by natural biological processes found in a variety of plants and organisms, will feature reports on research for several applications areas.

The conference is one of 11 being presesnted at SPIE Smart Structures/Nondestructive Evaluation 25–29 March in Portland, Oregon.

Among the presentations, David Hanson of Hanson Robotics, Ltd., will report in an all-conference plenary talk on research investigating how conventional motors limit bioinspired robotics and how electroactive polymer (EAP) actuators and sensors improve simplicity, compliance, and physical scaling in motors driving robotics. Hanson will also describe bioinspired advantages in robotic locomotion, grasping, manipulation, and social expressions, and present a roadmap for EAP actuators in bioinspired intelligent robotics.

In "Foldable drones: from biology to technology," Dario Floreano, Stefano Mintchev, and Jun Shintake of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne will discuss the advantages and current limitations of adaptive morphological capabilities in drones.

Foldable wings enable better transition between aerial and ground locomotion, advancing the development of multimodal drones for extended mission envelopes. Currently, the potential of foldable drones is limited by the use of conventional design strategies and rigid materials. Tackling this challenge includes the development of structures that can become soft during morphing and stiff during regular operation by using origami structures or variable stiffness materials such as EAPs.

Folding, crawling, gripping -- to save lives

In other work drawing inspiration from nature, Michael Tolley of the University of California, San Diego, reported last August at SPIE Optics + Photonics on his team’s work in creating small robots capable of folding, gripping, or crawling through small spaces.

The goal is to create smart robots capable of working in uncontrolled environments, such as search and rescue missions or inhospitable locations, Tolley said.

One inspiration came from a particular seed pod in a very dry area of the world. The pod unfolds when the humidity is just right, releasing seeds.

In another capability, an ant-inspired gripper starts as a 2-D piece of layered plastic and folds into a useful little robot capable of moving objects. Rather than fold the robots by hand, Tolley’s research team developed layered structures that self-fold into pre-printed shapes when heat is applied. Adding localized heating to the structure allows for sequential folding; heating the structure in one area, then the next area leads to self-folding structures – even furniture.

Typical robots are made of material too hard and tough to be flexible. However, using silicone elastomers, Tolley created a soft-bodied robot – inspired by soft-bodied octopuses that are capable of squishing through very small spaces – that could tolerate heat, water, and getting run over, all while being flexible and capable of crawling along using inflatable pneumatic tubes. This soft-bodied robot may come to rescue earthquake victims one day.

Tolley's group will present on "Fluid electrodes for submersible robotics based on dielectric elastomer actuators," at SPIE Smart Structures/NDE in the conference on EAP Actuators and Devices.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Bernhardt, research assistant in nonlinear optics at Washington State University, reported on Michael Tolley's research from 2016 SPIE Optics + Photonics. 

08 March 2017

Celebrating women in optics and photonics: stories to inspire

International Women's Day has been observed on 8 March for more than 100 years, and Women's History Month is celebrated variously in March (Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and October (Canada) for nearly as long. (See some of that history via The Huffington Post.)

Women in optics are celebrated year-round in a planner produced by SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics. The 2017 version features comments from 28 women in multidisciplinary fields within science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), sharing their inspirational stories, crediting influential mentors and role models, and lending valuable advice to others considering careers in STEM. (The planner is distributed at no charge; to get yours, email CustomerService at SPIE.org.)

The SPIE 2017 Women in Optics Planner includes comments
from women such as Irene Sterian, ReMAP, who advises,
"If you are interested in STEM, have passion and dream big.
Take calculated risks, meet challenges with creativity, and
turn failures into assets. Failure is the colleague of
success; it takes both to balance the equation.
Industries and disciplines falling under the umbrella of STEM have often proven to be challenging environments for women. In addition to celebrating women's accomplishments in the annual planner, SPIE Women in Optics programs serve in a number of ways to explore how the professional environment and culture within the optics and photonics community can better facilitate equal employment opportunities, rewards, and recognition for members, irrespective of their gender. Efforts focus on identifying measurable steps to improve ongoing advocacy and career support for women, as well as attract more women to careers in optics and photonics.

To better understand gender disparity issues within the optics and photonics community, a series of questions have been incorporated into the annual SPIE Global Optics and Photonics Salary Survey, helping to set the stage for real and measurable change in the community. The 2016 report produced many key findings; some expected and some that may come as a surprise.

Women made up 17% — about the same as their representation in SPIE membership and at SPIE events — of the 7,000 survey respondents from 105 countries.

Among the findings related to gender:
  • Median salaries are 38% higher overall for men than for women. The salary gap is smallest during early career and grows over time.
  • Wage gaps persist in most demographic subsets of the data, though gaps are lowest in early career stages, non-existent in lower-income Asian countries, and reversed in lower-income Europe.
  • Women’s representation in the workplace declines over time. At the earliest career stage, 26% of workers are women, but participation drops with increasing years on the job, reaching 11% for employees with thirty or more years at work.
  • Men and women are similarly satisfied about most aspects of their careers — more than 90% of both genders enjoy their work and find it meaningful. In contrast, fewer women feel that they are paid fairly (69% women versus 76% men), and that promotions are handled fairly at their organizations (59% women versus 65% of men).

First task: combat unconscious bias

First, combat unconscious bias, advised Kuheli Dutt
In a compelling presentation at SPIE Photonics West in San Francisco, California, a few weeks ago, Kuheli Dutt, Assistant Director for Academic Affairs and Diversity at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO), offered counsel based on extensive studies.

“One cannot address a problem if a majority of people don’t believe there is one,” Dutt pointed out.

Presenting only a fraction of the research on gender bias in the STEM workplace, Dutt addressed how the natural tendency to develop subconscious biases has led to vast under-representation of women and minorities, and created an environment that favors men.

She outlined recommendations for organizations wanting to create a culture of inclusion:
  • examining search committee procedures
  • adjusting work-life-balance and family-friendly policies
  • embracing institutional accountability and transparency and mentoring programs
  • advocating for visibility and recognition of women and minorities.

Most importantly, she urged individuals and organizations both to acknowledge that awareness of implicit bias was key to the successful implementation of change.

Dutt also tasked women and minorities in STEM to find their voices to influence awareness. As scientists, she said, "go back to the data," and advocate for yourself and for other women in science.

Reporting from SPIE Photonics West by Alison Walker, SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics.

07 March 2017

Temperature-sensitive technology for artificial skins: smart structures

Researchers around the world are in the midst of developing artificial skins essential to modern robotics, prosthetic limbs, and other applications. Designed to emulate the most practical properties of human skin, some artificial skin technologies have managed to surpass the sensory capabilities of living tissues. One such technology is a temperature-sensitive electronic film, which has paralleled the record performance of the world's most sensitive heat-detecting organism, the Crotalinae, commonly know as the pit viper.


While in the process of fabricating materials for synthetic wood, a team of researchers discovered a film made of pectin, a sugar molecule responsible for the temperature sensitivity in plants, could exhibit an electrical response to changes in temperature when enriched with positively-charged calcium ions. This finding led to the study "Biomimetic temperature-sensing layer for artificial skins" by senior author Chiara Daraio, et al., which was published in the February issue of Science Robotics. The transparent and flexible pectin films under examination were incorporated into artificial skins made from elastic materials such as silicon rubber, then tested for sensitivity.

Pectin is considered a bionic material; a class of materials utilized to preserve, enhance, and exploit properties of living systems for engineering purposes. Until now, bio-engineering synthetic materials that reproduce or surpass the performance of natural materials has been intangible. Fabricating the synthetic pectin material by combining carbon nano-particles in a matrix of plant cells, has resulted in new temperature sensors with record-breaking responsivity.

Flexible pectin film
Photo: Caltech/Science Robotics

When temperatures rise, molecules of pectin detach from one another, releasing calcium ions that can be detected by electrodes embedded in the film. Artificial skins containing the pectin film can precisely map temperature variations across its surface. From the gentle touch of a finger to warm objects–a teddy bear microwaved to 37° C–a meter away, the films maintain their sensitivity even after being warmed and cooled over 215 times, as well as experiencing physical deformations, a highly desirable trait for artificial skins.


The pectin films “are extremely easy to fabricate and extremely low cost—you can buy pectin at your local supermarket to make gelatin, jams, or jellies,” said Daraio, Professor of mechanical engineering and applied physics and materials scientist at the California Institute of Technology. “We think it’s pretty straightforward to scale up to large-scale production if needed."

Daraio will share her team's research in a plenary presentation titled "Plant nanobionic materials for thermally active, soft, artificial skins" at SPIE Smart Structures/NDE in Portland, Oregon. Spanning 25–29 March, the symposium offers a unique collaboration between engineers who develop advanced materials and researchers who use sensor networks and non-destructive evaluation methods to monitor the health of structural and biological systems.

19 January 2017

German optical company helps refugees succeed at work

In 2015 alone, more than 1.1 million refugees streamed into Germany seeking a new life. Thousands more have arrived since then. For many, finding work is a key step in the successful integration into a new society.

To help with this transition, the city of Berlin held Germany’s first refugee-only job fair in December of 2016. Berliner Glas, a company that designs and manufactures optical components, assemblies, and systems, was one of the 211 companies that met with more than 4,000 refugee job seekers during the one-day event. The attendees came from a wide variety of vocational backgrounds -- from science and technology to sales and construction. They also presented challenges not usually found among native-born German job applicants.

Berliner Glas booth at job fair for refugees in Berlin
"The integration of refugees into everyday work does not succeed just by pressing a button, said Dr. Regina Draheim-Krieg, head of Human Resources at Berliner Glas.” Many conditions have to be fulfilled and willingness from both the company and the refugee to try something new is essential.”

Dr. Draheim-Krieg points out that “a high degree of appreciation, flexibility, and openness” is required by both the company hiring and the refugees themselves. Language plays a key role, and learning German is basic for integrating refugee employees, said Draheim-Krieg.

Some companies in Germany offer German language courses for refugees, while others, such as Berliner Glas, offer flexible hours so new employees can participate in language classes outside of work. Berliner Glas also pays part of the course fees for refugees.

Job qualification also plays a key role. Working with Germany’s Federal Employment Agency (Bundesagentur für Arbeit), Berliner Glas has set up training for those new to the industry and experienced workers who may need additional training.

Since the 2016 job fair, Berliner Glas has taken on two refugee workers and recently hired a new intern.

Employees in clean room at Berliner Glas
There have been other refugee-only job fairs in cities across Germany and Berlin will be hosting their second on 25 January. Due to their positive experience with refugee workers, Berliner Glas will be attending again.

According to Ekkehard Streletzki, initiator of the Berlin job fair and owner of Estrel Berlin where the event is held, the response from job seekers and employers has been “overwhelmingly positive.” Through the job fairs, Berlin’s business community is creating a platform for incorporating work and vocational training, said Streletzki. “We see it as our social responsibility to ensure a successful future economy and peaceful coexistence.”

Kevin Liddane, Director of Business Development for North America at Berliner Glas, is proud of his colleagues for participating in this program, especially in light of recent violent events in Berlin. “This program says a lot about the people at Berliner Glas, the citizens of Berlin, and Germans in general who have been sheltering refugees,” said Liddane. “I believe we could all learn a valuable lesson from them.”

16 January 2017

Understanding the brain through photonics collaborations

Raphael Yuste discusses work in brain mapping
in a new video interview with SPIE.
Rafael Yuste and his research group at Columbia University are trying to image the neural circuits of the brain in hopes of gaining a better understanding of how the brain functions.

However, said Yuste in a recent tour and video interview of his lab with SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics, “The methods in neuroscience have not been there yet.”

Yuste is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator and co-director of the Kavli Institute for Brain Circuits at Columbia. He and David Boas (director of the optics division of the Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School) chair the new Brain applications track at SPIE Photonics West 2017 in San Francisco, running 28 January through 2 February.

Using novel optical techniques such as two-photon and nonlinear microscopy, Yuste’s lab is trying to bring 3D imaging to the activity of the neural circuits inside the brain. It isn’t yet understood how these circuits work, but it is believed that this is where behavior and mental states are determined.

“Unless we have the basic understanding of the biology of the tissue that generates these diseases we are not going to be able to go in intelligently and cure them. It’s kind of like trying to fix a car if you don’t know how it works,” Yuste explained.

Originally trained as an M.D., Yuste switched to basic neuroscience because of his frustration with trying to treat schizophrenic patients and patients who have mental or neurological diseases.

“I’m sure everyone has family or friends who suffer from mental disorders or neurological disorders and you know very, very, well that there are no cures for these diseases as of today. There is nothing we can do for these patients. We treat them by trying to bring down their symptoms, but without attacking the cause of the problem, because we do not know what the causes of the problem are.”

Yuste’s lab is one of many labs worldwide working on imaging the brain and its functions. Recent increases in federal funding including the BRAIN Initiative have brought a new energy to discovering how the brain functions and how to better address mental illness through the physical sciences.

Bringing these researchers together to discuss their successes and failures is an important part of advancements in the field, he notes.

“Neuroscience has not profited from advances in physical sciences as much as it could,” he said. “SPIE Photonics West is an ideal venue for the transfer of expertise from the physical sciences and engineering into biology and neuroscience. And we need to build a bridge, to have people who know how to build and operate microscopes and design optical systems with biologists who need methods to answer particular biological questions. “

The Brain applications track is organized to bring together all the presentations that have to do with this interface between optical methods and neuroscience, Yuste said, highlighting some of the most interesting work being doing in the field and discussing multidisciplinary collaborations to move the work forward.

Yuste also will give a talk in the Neurotechnologies plenary session Sunday afternoon (29 January) during Photonics West.

View more about content and participants in the SPIE Photonics West playlist on YouTube/SPIEtv.

09 January 2017

#FacesofPhotonics: Educated

Among the #FacesofPhotonics: Student Leadership
Workshop participants at SPIE Optics + Photonics
Guest blogger: Emily Power is a 2016 graduate in communications from Western Washington University, and most recently social media intern for SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics. She blogged on responses to the SPIE #FacesofPhotonics campaign, to share the stories of SPIE students around the globe. This is the second of four posts.

One of the many perquisites of being a student in the optics and photonics field is being able to pass along knowledge to those who will follow your footsteps in the future. Throughout the #FacesofPhotonics campaign, it became clear that current SPIE students thrive on educating a younger generation while simultaneously working diligently on their own academic careers.

In this post, we feature students who have educated others as well as themselves.

Teboho Bell
Teboho Bell is from the Republic of South Africa, and is involved with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) Optics Student Chapter in South Africa. He is currently a researcher for the CSIR in the National Laser Centre. He shares the story of his favorite outreach event:

“I was visiting my hometown during South African National Week; I went to two high schools that are there, gave a public lecture about lasers and optics, and on career paths after high school. Most importantly, I motivated the scholars before their final exams trials.

In addition, Bell notes, “Our student chapter bought about nine textbooks to give to those scholars to share since they do not have study materials. The textbooks we gave as awards for answering questions based on the public lecture that was given.”

Elizabeth Bernhardt and friend
Elizabeth Bernhardt is a doctoral candidate and graduate research assistant in Department of Physics and Astronomy at Washington State University. She studies nonlinear optics, and is very involved with the student chapter at her school. She tells two stories of her involvement with the education of young minds:

“It's the little moments that make life the very best,” Bernhardt said. “Our OSA/SPIE chapter created a laser maze; during the grand unveiling, there was a little kid who was super-afraid of the lasers. He was so worried he was going to die! I asked him if he could help me get to the other side to refill the candy bowl, and we worked together to get through the maze. When he realized the lasers wouldn't hurt him, he kept getting in line to go through the maze again. His mom had to drag him home after an hour or two, and he was crying!

“Another little moment I really liked was when a fifth-grade girl explained polarization to her clueless classmates. We had the kids make polariscopes. When the girl offered her explanation as to why the polarizers behaved the way they did, it was so thorough and so awesome that I took a video. I keep the video on my photo so I can watch it when science is not going well.”

Guillermo Sanchez
Guillermo Sanchez is an SPIE member and PhD student in the Department of Mathematical Physics at the Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León. He was involved with the pioneering of outreach events within his chapter, and he shared from is experience:

“I got involved in optics and photonics back in 2010, as a bachelor student with the student chapter at my university. I was involved as an officer. That year I assisted at my first optics and photonics event and fell in love with optics when meeting this awesome community. Our chapter organized the first ‘Optics 4 Kids’ event, with a few experiments. It was the first outreach event of its kind at our university!

“When I graduated with my bachelor’s degree, I continued my studies at my university and started to study optics with a solar illumination project, the first project in non-imaging optics in our facility.”

Kate Clancy
Kate Clancy is a biomedical engineer and biochemist from San Francisco, California, with a master’s degree from McGill University. She was heavily involved in the SPIE Student Chapter at McGill — she helped establish it! Her passion for educating others shines through in her story about the International Year of Light (IYL) event her chapter sponsored:

“At our event, our chapter partnered with the astronomy club to do long exposure photography of the stars, and also with sparklers while teaching about different light phenomena. It was a great moment to see students and the general public coming together and sharing their knowledge and ideas all the while having a good time playing with lights, cameras, and lasers and enjoying free snacks. We got some amazing photos from it and lots of good memories!”

For full stories, follow @SPIEphotonics on Instagram or check out the SPIE Students Facebook page and look for the #FacesofPhotonics tag.

09 December 2016

#FacesofPhotonics: Inspired

Among the #FacesofPhotonics: Student Leadership
Workshop participants at SPIE Optics + Photonics
Guest blogger: Emily Power is a Winter Quarter graduate in communications from Western Washington University, and most recently social media intern for SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics. She is blogging on responses to the SPIE #FacesofPhotonics campaign, to share the stories of SPIE students around the globe.

It is a commonly known fact: students are the future. Around the world, students with ideas, opinions, and innovative minds are preparing for their opportunities to conceptualize and create the next advances for the ever-changing world in which we live.

In the field of optics and photonics, students are making a difference even now, sharing their work and building their networks through conferences such as SPIE Photonics West, coming up next month in San Francisco.

The SPIE campaign #FacesofPhotonics was developed as a showcase across social media to connect students from SPIE Student Chapters around the world, highlighting similarities, celebrating differences, and fostering a space for conversation and community to thrive. Students were invited to share their perspectives and successes via SPIE’s social media channels.

The results were amazing, and we’ll be sharing some excerpts on these pages over the next few weeks.

This week, we feature students who described how they are inspired by their field.


Michael J. Williams
Michael J. Williams is a PhD student at Delaware State University, studying optics, and earned his master’s degree in material science from Fisk University and bachelor of science at Morehouse College.

In #FacesofPhotonics, he tells of a moment during SPIE Optics + Photonics 2016 when he was inspired by SPIE CEO Eugene Arthurs.

“At a town hall meeting held during the conference, there was a question asked by a professor of how optics and photonics awareness can be spread to third-world countries for their benefit,” Michael wrote. “Dr. Arthurs responded by saying that before we even think about going to other countries, we need to reach the inner-city black and Latino communities in our cities first.

“That encouraged me so much because quite honestly, I was the only born-and-raised black American at the event, and I come from the inner-city where people have written those kids off as being too unintelligent or saying they do not have the propensity to learn complex science.

Laura Tobin
“I thanked Dr. Arthurs personally for redirecting the need for optics awareness to poor and low-income communities who may have the desire and intrinsic skill to create colorful innovation for a different point of view. They just need consistent encouragement and the opportunity.”

Laura Tobin is a postgraduate student at University College Dublin. She pursues her interests in optics and renewable energy by studying electrical and electronic engineering.

Laura said she found inspiration at SPIE Optics + Photonics 2010, when “I attended my first outreach workshop, ‘Optics Magic’ by Judy Donnelly and Nancy Magnani. This workshop inspired and motivated me to start doing #scicomm and outreach. I honestly don’t think I would have achieved or gone for half the things that I have done if I hadn’t attended that conference.”

Matt Posner
Born and raised in France, Matt Posner is a postgraduate student studying optoelectronics at the University of Southampton. He is currently president of his university’s SPIE Student Chapter. Matt wrote about the inspiration he found at Optics + Photonics in 2016, centered on connections he made there: “I had really rich and inspiring discussions with the people that came to see our experiments, and made lots of contacts with people from all around the world whom passionate about photonics.”

For full stories and more inspiration, follow @SPIEphotonics on Instagram, and look for the #FacesofPhotonics tag.