Getting bot responders into shape

Steve Buerger (6533) is leading a Sandia project to demonstrate how energy efficient biped walking robots could become. Increased efficiency could enable bots to operate for much longer periods of time without recharging batteries, an important factor in emergency situations.     (Photo by Randy Montoya)

by Stephanie Holinka

Sandia is tackling one of the biggest barriers to the use of robots in emergency response: energy efficiency.

Through a project supported by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Sandia is developing technology that will dramatically improve the endurance of legged robots, helping them operate for long periods while performing the types of locomotion most relevant to disaster response scenarios.

One of Sandia’s new robots that showcases this technology will be demonstrated at an exposition to be held in conjunction with the DARPA Robotics Challenge Finals next June.

As the finals draw closer, some of the most advanced robotics research and development organizations in the world are racing to develop emergency response robots that can complete a battery of tasks specified by DARPA. Competing robots will face degraded physical environments that simulate conditions likely to occur in a natural or man-made disaster. Many robots will walk on legs to allow them to negotiate challenging terrain.

Sandia’s robots won’t compete in the finals next June, but they could ultimately help the winning robots extend their battery life until their life-saving work is done.

“We’ll demonstrate how energy efficient biped walking robots could become. Increased efficiency could allow robots similar to those used for the competition to operate for much longer periods of time without recharging batteries,” says project lead Steve Buerger of Sandia’s Intelligent Systems Control Dept. 6533.

Battery life is an important concern in the usefulness of robots for emergency response.

“You can have the biggest, baddest, toughest robot on the planet, but if its battery life is 10 or 20 minutes, as many are right now, that robot cannot possibly function in an emergency situation, when lives are at stake,” says Steve.

The first robot Sandia is developing in support of the DARPA Challenge, is known as STEPPR (Sandia Transmission Efficient Prototype Promoting Research). It is a fully functional research platform that allows developers to try different joint-level mechanisms that function like elbows and knees to quantify how much energy is used.

Sandia’s second robot, WANDERER (Walking Anthropomorphic Novelly Driven Efficient Robot for Emergency Response), will be a more optimized and better-packaged prototype.

The key to the testing is Sandia’s novel, energy-efficient actuators, which move the robots’ joints. The actuation system uses efficient, brushless DC motors with very high torque-to-weight ratios, very efficient low-ratio transmissions, and specially designed passive mechanisms customized for each joint to ensure energy efficiency.

“We take advantage of dynamic characteristics that are common to a wide variety of legged behaviors and add a set of ‘support elements,’ including springs and variable transmissions, that keep the motors operating at more efficient speed/torque conditions, reducing losses,” Steve says.

Electric motors are particularly inefficient when providing large torques at low speeds, for example to a crouching robot, Steve says. A simple support element, such as a spring, would provide torque, reducing the load on the motor.

“The support elements also allow robots to self-adjust when they change behaviors. When they change from level walking to uphill walking, for example, they can make subtle adjustments to their joint dynamics to optimize efficiency under the new condition,” Steve says.

Robots must adapt to the diverse kinds of conditions expected in emergency response scenarios.

“Certain legged robot designs are extremely efficient when walking on level ground, but function extremely inefficiently under other conditions or cannot walk over different types of terrains. Robots need an actuation system to enable efficient locomotion in many different conditions,” Steve says. “That is what the adjustable support elements can do.”

Early testing has shown STEPPR to operate efficiently and quietly.

“Noise is lost energy, so being quiet goes hand-in-hand with being efficient. Most robots make a lot of noise, and that can be a major drawback for some applications,” Steve says.

STEPPR’s and WANDERER’s electronics and low-level software are being developed by the Open Source Robotics Foundation. The designs will be publicly released, allowing engineers and designers all over the world to take advantage of advances.

The Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition is developing energy-efficient walking control algorithms for both robots. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Globe Motors also are contributing to the project.

Sandia’s robotic work will be demonstrated in the technology exposition section of the DARPA Robotics Challenge, scheduled for June 5-6 at Fairplex in Pomona, Calif.


-- Stephanie Holinka

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Studies look at aging of electronics in nuclear weapons

DEVICE AGING STUDIES — Rachelle Thompson (1356) inspects an electronic device that is part of a 30-year Sandia program that looks at how environments, including radiation from a nuclear weapon itself, could affect the performance of electronics inside a W76-1 warhead. The study begun in 2006 will provide real-time data for the first time on how electronics age within the weapon.    (Photo by Randy Montoya)

by Sue Major Holmes

Researchers at Sandia are studying how environments, including radiation that originates from a nuclear weapon itself, could affect the performance of electronics in the W76-1 warhead as they age.

Sandia, which is responsible for most non-nuclear components in US nuclear weapons, is helping replace W76 warheads in the nation’s stockpile with a refurbished version under the W76-1 Life Extension Program (LEP). The ballistic missile warhead is carried on the Trident II D5 missile aboard Ohio-class Navy submarines.

Researchers have studied radiation effects since the early days of nuclear weapons. But a 30-year program begun in 2006 will provide real-time data for the first time on how electronics age within the weapon. Studies in the past used techniques that artificially accelerated the aging process based on assumptions resulting from experiments and previous research.

“There has always been the question with accelerated aging data, how reliable is it?” says principal investigator Rachelle Thompson (1356).

The long-term project combines experiments, also known as physical simulation, with computational simulation and analysis. The approach developed as part of this project can be used in future LEPs, says manager Steve Wix (1356). Costs should be reduced for future stockpile surveillance and monitoring as well, since such lab-based studies cost less than accelerated aging techniques, which require using large environmental test facilities.

Study important in moving more toward predictive models

The project by Sandia’s Electrical Sciences Group 1350 is important for science-based stockpile stewardship because new electronic parts have been introduced into the W76-1 system since production began in 2008. The parts must function with assured reliability and performance throughout the life of the system. The project also is moving such evaluations toward more predictive models of aging for stockpile stewardship, Steve says. Stockpile stewardship assures the safety, security, and reliability of weapons in the absence of the underground nuclear tests the US halted in 1992.

The Commercial-Off-the-Shelf Electronics Component Engineering Dept. 2634 is collaborating on the study, which is sponsored by Stockpile Evaluation Dept. 2952 and is based on innovative technology developed by Kevin Horn in Radiation Effects Experimentation Dept. 1343.

Most of the experiments and analysis are done in a small laboratory full of racks of test and computer equipment and in an adjacent room packed with small test chambers, square white boxes that resemble miniature refrigerators. Each test chamber contains parts in a unique environment that is continually monitored to control temperature, relative humidity, and vibration frequency to ensure consistent levels of the multiple aging processes that will take decades. The experiments are overseen by test engineer Monica Espinosa.

Researchers develop and use advanced, physics-based computational simulations to predict how the electronics will perform as they age. They verify their predictions with experiments on the electronics to improve their understanding of the underlying physics engaged during the aging process. This research then guides further development of these critical simulation capabilities to resolve differences between the computer simulations and the aging experiments.

The researchers monitor thousands of devices that fall into six families of transistor and diode types. Hundreds are removed annually from the test chambers to determine their electrical performance under various operating conditions. The long-range test schedule was developed to assure that an adequate number of devices remain available for testing over the entire three decade-long study.

The parts under study were pristine when the project started eight years ago. Steve and Rachelle say no significant aging changes were expected in these early years, and what they have seen matches those predictions. Currently, only simple electrical devices are being tested, but researchers hope to add more complex parts later in the project.

Exposing devices to laser-based testing

Once the devices have aged in the predetermined storage environments, the team uses a sophisticated laser-based technique to expose each one to more hostile short-duration operating environments, Rachelle says.

Researchers take basic electrical measurements on aged transistors and diodes, then repackage them in preparation for evaluation with a benchtop laser-based simulated radiation environment source. They expose the parts to two different types of lasers: a broad beam that sweeps the entire device and a focused laser beam to expose it in specific areas. This process evaluates the performance of aged devices in more harsh environments. It takes up to 15 to 20 minutes for each test, and the project studies hundreds of parts per year, Rachelle says. “There is a lot of handling of parts and data analysis involved,” she says.

Unless the part is damaged or fails during testing, it goes back into the appropriate aging environment for future testing. The team evaluates each damaged or failed part to better understand the underlying cause.

The techniques Sandia is developing will help officials make future stockpile decisions based on an improved understanding of the impact of aging on how parts perform in multiple environments, Steve says.

-- Sue Major Holmes

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Sandia Science & Technology Park helps fuel Albuquerque economy

BUSINESS LEGACY — Sherman McCorkle, right, shows a photo of the May 28, 1998, groundbreaking for Emcore Corp., one of the founding tenants in the Sandia Science & Technology Park. Emcore’s longtime president and CEO Hong Hou, a former Sandian who is stepping down following the sale of the company’s photovoltaics division in the research park, looks on along with Jackie Kerby Moore, the park’s executive director and manager of Technology and Economic Development Dept. 1933. McCorkle, former president of Technology Ventures Corp., was instrumental in establishing the park and is now chairman of the board of the SS&TP Development Corp.

by Nancy Salem

The $2.3 billion worth of economic activity generated by the Sandia Science & Technology Park (SS&TP) has produced more than $89 million in tax revenue for the state of New Mexico and $12.9 million for the city of Albuquerque in the past 16 years. That's the conclusion of a new report by the Mid-Region Council of Governments (MRCOG).

And jobs associated with the research park, which houses private companies and some Sandia sites in a collaborative environment, have paid out $3.8 billion in wages, giving the local economy a major boost, the report said.

Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry announced the report’s findings Nov. 19 at Emcore Corp. in the 300-acre master-planned SS&TP established in May 1998. Berry said the park “is a great example of a successful public-private partnership. Its impact on local and regional economic development is a reflection of Albuquerque’s collaborative efforts that ultimately result in companies and jobs for our residents. The city of Albuquerque is honored to be an active partner in the SS&TP.”

“The Sandia Science & Technology Park has been instrumental in creating economic stability within the region,” said Bernalillo County Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins. “Through ups and downs in the economy, the park continues to contribute to our nation through innovation and technology, and to our region through increased local investment, area revitalization, and jobs that provide opportunities for our residents. Bernalillo County is proud to be a partner in this effort.”

MRCOG assessed the research park’s economic impact on the local and state economy from its inception through the end of 2013. The report also measured the number of Albuquerque-area jobs created in the park, economic activity in the community, and wage and salary levels.

“We are fortunate to have the Sandia Science & Technology Park in our community, building on our regional strengths in innovation, ingenuity, and entrepreneurship; providing opportunities for high-wage jobs; and contributing to the goal of long-term economic prosperity,” said Dewey Cave, MRCOG’s executive director.

“The park plays a critical role in our economy,” said Jackie Kerby Moore, manager of Technology and Economic Development Dept. 1933 and executive director of the SS&TP. “We continue to contribute to an increase in tax revenues and wage impacts despite a tough economy.”

Job creation and investment

The report found that the salaries for full-time employees in SS&TP last year averaged $83,300. The park has been home to 2,470 jobs, including about 1,000 Sandia Labs jobs. The park’s activities have created an additional 4,123 indirect jobs throughout the regional economy for a total of 6,593 jobs, according to the report.

“The purpose of the park is to create high-quality, high-wage, long-term jobs,” said Sherman McCorkle, chairman of the board of the SS&TP Development Corp. “Our track record has been strong.”

Public investment since the park was established has been more than $89 million, including DOE’s contribution for the Master Development Plan, Sandia’s management of the park, land from Albuquerque Public Schools and the New Mexico State Land Office, and landfill cleanup by Bernalillo County, the report said. Other federal, state, and local government entities helped the park by providing grants or matching funds, the report said. For example, the US Economic Development Administration provided significant grants for secure fiber-optic communications and security network infrastructure. The city of Albuquerque also contributed to infrastructure improvements in the park.

“The report shows that investment in the park has been more than $368 million with 75 percent coming from private sources, and that’s a tremendous impact,” said Rob Leland, VP of Science and Technology Div. 1000 and Sandia’s chief technology officer. “Sandia’s presence in the park shows its commitment to a continuing contribution to the community. Six Sandia facilities in the park employ more than 1,000 Sandia workers.”

New center to boost collaboration

The SS&TP is located next to Sandia and Kirtland Air Force Base, giving park companies the ability to collaborate more easily with scientists and engineers from Sandia and the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL). Many park companies supply Sandia and AFRL with goods and services or have commercialized technologies that originated at the federal laboratories.

Sandia announced last month it would pursue a Center for Collaboration and Commercialization to strengthen partnerships, technology transfer, and ties to the community. The center, known as C3, will be located in the SS&TP and support the city of Albuquerque’s and the University of New Mexico’s Innovation District and Innovate ABQ initiatives.

The park is a partnership of Albuquerque Public Schools, Bernalillo County, the city of Albuquerque, Lockheed Martin Corp., the Mid-Region Council of Governments, the New Mexico congressional delegation, the New Mexico State Land Office, Public Service Company of New Mexico, Sandia National Laboratories, the Sandia Science & Technology Park Development Corp., the state of New Mexico, Technology Ventures Corp., the DOE, Union Development Corp., and the US Economic Development Administration.


-- Nancy Salem

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Download Lab News November 28, 2014 (PDF, 2MB)