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4 Hurricane Simulators That Whip Up Fake Storms

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The University of Miami's SUSTAIN. Image Credit:Gort Photography

Accurate hurricane forecasting is vital for warning those who live in a storm’s path. Underestimates of a hurricane's strength can result in a dangerous lack of preparedness, while overhyped predictions can lead to some people choosing not to evacuate during the next big storm.

Besides their threat to human lives, hurricanes have been some of the most expensive natural disasters in the U.S., destroying homes, businesses, and infrastructure. A 2011 estimate put the median cost of damage from a single hurricane at $1.8 billion dollars, though some, such as Hurricane Katrina, cost much, much more. 

To figure out how exactly hurricanes work and how they will impact the communities they strike, scientists not only use computer simulations and models, but create artificial hurricanes. To mark the start of hurricane season on June 1, here are just a few examples of the many ways in which researchers whip up fake storms. 

1. SUSTAIN

Skip to 2:22 to see SUSTAIN.

The world’s largest hurricane simulator just opened at the University of Miami in Florida. At 20 feet wide and 75 feet long, the SUrge-STructure-Atmosphere INteraction facility holds 38,000 gallons of seawater and can simulate winds stronger than 155 mph. Inside the lab, with the help of paddles and huge fans, researchers can recreate the effects of hurricane-force winds combined with waves and water surges across coastal topography, studying the impacts of storms that make landfall. Some of the studies currently on the facility’s roster include one to determine how hurricanes spread oil spills, as well as one about hurricanes’ impact on fishing nets. Eventually, the research will help improve forecasting models that predict storm surges. 

2. Harvard Forest hurricane manipulation experiment 

The aftermath of a 1938 hurricane in New England. Image Credit: Harvard University

In 1990, Harvard Forest, a 3,500-acre ecological research site at the university, set up a study to analyze the impacts of the rare but powerful hurricanes that hit New England every 50 to 200 years. These storms tear up forests, changing ecosystems for centuries afterward. To simulate how a hurricane damages trees, Harvard researchers recreated the effects of a 1938 hurricane in the area. Ecologists used a mechanical winch to pull down trees in a two-acre plot of the forest, using data from the 1938 hurricane to determine which trees would fall and in which direction. For the more than two decades since, the scientists have been studying how the ecosystem is coping and adapting to the damage. 

3. A hurricane on wheels

Skip to 3:05 to see the portable hurricane at work.

The University of Florida built the world’s largest portable hurricane simulator in spring 2007. An assistant professor in the civil and coastal engineering department put together a truck-sized fan system that could simulate the impact of a Category 3 hurricane and the torrential rain that accompanies it on residential buildings. With eight five-foot-tall fans and a 5,000-gallon water tank, it sprayed vacant houses with 35 inches of rain per hour and winds up to 130 miles per hour. Now-associate professor Forrest Masters and his undergrad researchers constructed the hurricane-on-wheels for just $500,000

4. The Wall of Wind

Florida International University houses the Wall of Wind, a 12-fan hurricane simulator that can simulate Category 5 storms. The first two-fan incarnation of the system, built in 2005, could generate 120 mile-per-hour winds with horizontal rain. The latest simulator can blow air up to 140 miles-per-hour, allowing researchers to study how to build more resilient structures.

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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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