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O.H. Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory

5 Machines that Simulate Natural Disasters

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O.H. Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory

Natural disasters can strike at any time, causing huge loss of life and billions of dollars in damage. Scientists are using these machines to help us be better prepared.

1. UC San Diego Jacobs School Shake Table

If you were the kind of kid who liked to build houses out of blocks then knock them down, consider enrolling or getting a job at UC San Diego, where scientists do that kind of thing pretty often: They build full-sized structures on top of a 25 x 40-foot table—the largest in the country—then shake it to see how well different types of construction, various kinds of materials, and retrofits to existing buildings might stand up in a quake.

The $5.9 million hydraulically-driven machine can vibrate at 6 feet per second with a maximum force of 4.2 Gs. The machine has been used to test everything from “wind turbines, to masonry, wood-frame and precast concrete buildings, as well as non-structural building elements, such as stairs, elevators and even hospital equipment,” according to a school press release. You can watch the table shake a 4-story 1920s-style building retrofitted with cross-laminated timber above.

2. Iowa State University Tornado Simulator

This first-of-its-kind machine, which opened in 2004, consists of two parts: a huge cylinder, suspended from a 5-ton crane, that contains a 6-foot-wide fan; and a test bed that can be raised and lowered. Scientists construct model towns on the test bed, then fire up the fan—which creates a tornado-like vortex with 55mph winds—and move it over the “town.” The machine’s sheer size allows scientists to build bigger model structures, creating a more realistic version of what might happen in an actual tornado.

3. and 4. Oregon State University’s Tsunami Basin and Large Wave Flume

The O.H. Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory at Oregon State University has a pair of wave-generating machines. The 160-foot-long, 87-foot-wide, and 7-foot-deep Directional Tsunami Wavemaker is equipped with electric motors and uses pistons to push out 29 waveboards to create tsunami-like waves.

The Large Wave Flume (the largest in North America) measures 342 feet long, 12 feet wide, and 15 feet deep, and can create waves 5 feet high. In both structures, scientists study the effects of the kinds of waves seen in nature on models of everything from buildings to telephone poles to levees. Recent research done using the machines showed that coastal forests might help mitigate tsunami damage.

5. Florida International University’s “Wall of Wind” Hurricane Simulator

This massive, $8 million machine consists of 12 fans, each 6 feet in diameter and 700hp, that can generate winds up to 157 mph—the kinds of winds you’d see in a Category 5 hurricane. At peak flow, the system pumps as much air as 7650 leaf blowers. In one demonstration, the FIU team built two structures: One built to code before 1992's Hurricane Andrew, and one built with codes created after. According to the Miami Herald,

The first things to go were roof shingles but pre-Andrew designs, rated for just 60 mph, held up nearly as well as heavier products rated for 130 mph. Half of the supposedly stronger shingles began peeling away as the digital wind gauge hit 109 mph, just Cat 2 strength. But as the wind increased, there was no comparison between old and new. At Cat 3, the older design lost half the tar paper intended to keep out rain. At Cat 4, a whole section of thinner plywood sheathing began buckling furiously, then flew off in a flash.

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Honda Debuts a Rain-Proof Disaster Robot That Can Climb Ladders
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A new Honda robot could signal the future of disaster response technology. According to IEEE Spectrum, the Japanese company recently debuted a prototype for a cutting-edge disaster-response robot agile enough to climb ladders, ascend stairs, maneuver over pipes, and move through narrow spaces, among other capabilities.

Honda unveiled the prototype for the E2-DR at September’s IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems in Vancouver. The slow-moving humanoid robot looks like a beginning skater stepping onto the ice for the first time, stepping cautiously up stairs and through small spaces, but the fact that it can navigate these kinds of obstacles is a feat. Scaling ladders and walking up and down stairs are usually no easy tasks for robots, and both are among the challenges featured in the annual DARPA Robotics Challenge obstacle course—which is infamous for making very, very expensive robots fall all over the place.

Designed to inspect, maintain, and provide disaster response in places like factories and power plants, the E2-DR is 5.5 feet tall, weighs around 187 pounds, and can run for about 90 minutes at a time. Crucially, it’s less than 10 inches thick back-to-front, allowing it to squeeze through small corridors laterally.

The robot can reverse its knees to allow it to keep them from bumping against stairs as it walks, and its hands can grip ladders and rails. It can also open doors and climb on all fours. It’s equipped with rangefinders, cameras, and 3D sensors so that it can be piloted remotely.

Because it’s designed to work in disaster zones (like within the Fukushima power plant) the robot has to be able to withstand water, debris, dust, and extreme temperatures. It’s already been able to climb up and down a ladder in the face of 1 inch-per-hour rain, according to Honda.

IEEE Spectrum notes that we haven’t seen it fall, and falling down is, despite how silly it looks in testing, an important thing to test before sending robots into the field. In unpredictable settings and rough terrain, it’s likely that a robot is going to misstep and fall down at some point, and it needs to be able to not just withstand the fall, but get itself back up.

The E2-DR is just a prototype, and Honda will continue to work on it for the foreseeable future. For now, though, it’s made an impressive start.

[h/t IEEE Spectrum]

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This Just In
Want to Become a Billionaire? Study Engineering
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If you want to get rich—really, really rich—chances are, you should get yourself an engineering degree. As The Telegraph reports, a new analysis from the UK firm Aaron Wallis Sales Recruitment finds that more of the top 100 richest people in the world (according to Forbes) studied engineering than any other major.

The survey found that 75 of the 100 richest people in the world got some kind of four-year degree (though others, like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, attended a university but dropped out before graduation). Out of those who graduated, 22 of those billionaires received engineering degrees, 16 received business degrees, and 11 received finance degrees.

However, the survey doesn't seem to distinguish between the wide range of studies that fall under the "engineering" umbrella. Building a bridge, after all, is a little different than electrical engineering or computing. Four of those 100 individuals studied computer science, but the company behind the survey cites Amazon's Jeff Bezos (who got a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering and computer science from Princeton) and Google's Larry Page (who studied computer engineering at the University of Michigan and computer science at Stanford) as engineers, not computer scientists, so the list might be a little misleading on that front. (And we're pretty sure Bezos wouldn't be quite so rich if he had stuck just to electrical engineering.)

Aaron Wallis Sales Recruitment is, obviously, a sales-focused company, so there's a sales-related angle to the survey. It found that for people who started out working at an organization they didn't found (as opposed to immediately starting their own company, a la Zuckerberg with Facebook), the most common first job was as a salesperson, followed by a stock trader. Investor George Soros was a traveling salesman for a toy and gift company, and Michael Dell sold newspaper subscriptions in high school before going on to found Dell. (Dell also worked as a maitre d’ in a Chinese restaurant.)

All these findings come with some caveats, naturally, so don't go out and change your major—or head back to college—just yet. Right now, Silicon Valley has created a high demand for engineers, and many of the world's richest people, including Bezos and Page, earned their money through the tech boom. It's plausible that in the future, a different kind of boom will make a different kind of background just as lucrative. 

But maybe don't hold your breath waiting for the kind of industry boom that makes creative writing the most valuable major of them all. You can be fairly certain that becoming an engineer will be lucrative for a while.

[h/t The Telegraph]

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