Update

I’ve been less than frequent in posts, though my drafts folder is full.  So I’m lowering the bar and hope to push out posts that could probably use more polish but which I’m tired of having linger in the drafts…and so, AmISheltered occurred today and is now public.  Cheers.

AmISheltered

Consider a Facebook/Netflix/etc. app that analyzes a user’s profile to determine how sheltered they may be relative to their peers.  This data would be presented to the user, accompanied by a breakout plan to get them up to their peer norm.  Offers from media providers (Netflix/Amazon/etc.) would encourage the user to ‘rectify’ the situation through term-limited catch-up deals/packages ($10 to ‘get’ Game of Thrones or $20 and the Fifty Shades of Gray will be on your doorstep tomorrow).  The obvious revenue elements are kickbacks from providers (essentially referral fees), demographic intuition for advertisers (what groups are not responding to our advertising campaigns), appreciation from data providers (for promoting complete taste profiles), social literacy trivia games (à la Jeopardy), and offers in an ongoing to-do list to maintain social literacy (number and frequency of entries informed by prior rectification speed/thoroughness).  The offerings should also be tailored by age/maturation as the desire to be socially-literate varies/decreases with age.

I can’t say I would use such a ‘service’, but because the data and revenue model exist it should as well.

 

Control Diagrams in LaTeX

[latexpage]

Over Christmas break I’ve become dangerous with $\LaTeX$ document typesetting (wikipedia).  There’s something incredibly attractive about having the entire source of a document embedded in a single, text file.  Indeed the learning curve has been a bit steep (it may yet get stepper…), but I’m now able to reasonably produce dynamics and controls documents with integrated figures.  Here’s the state block diagram for the quintessential spring-mass-damper problem, composted in $\LaTeX$:

\begin{tikzpicture}[node distance=5mm and 15mm, >=stealth, skip loopDL/.style={to path={– ++(0,-.5) |- (\tikztotarget)}},skip loopLU/.style={to path={ -| (\tikztotarget)}}]
[+preamble]
\usepackage{tikz}
\usepackage{graphicx}
\usetikzlibrary{ arrows,  shapes.misc,  shapes.arrows,  chains,  matrix,  positioning,  scopes,  decorations.pathmorphing,  shadows, calc}
\tikzset{
nonterminal/.style={rectangle, minimum size=6mm, very thick, draw=red!50!black!20, top color=white, bottom color=red!50!black!50, font=\itshape },
terminal/.style={rounded rectangle,  minimum size=6mm, very thick,draw=black!50, top color=white, bottom color=black!20, font=\ttfamily},
junction/.style={circle, draw }}
\pgfsetlinewidth{.4mm}
[/preamble]

\node (xddot) {};
\node (plus1) [junction,right=of xddot] {[N]};
\node(invM) [nonterminal,right=of plus1] {$\frac{1}{M_p}$};
\node(intT1) [nonterminal,right=of invM] {$\int$dt};
\node(intT2) [nonterminal,right=of intT1] {$\int$dt};
\node(x)    [right=of intT2] {};
\node(Cp) [nonterminal,below=of invM] {$C_p$};
\node(Kp) [nonterminal,below=of Cp] {$K_p$};

\path[->,every node]
(xddot)                 edge node[pos=-.1]    {$\ddot{x}$}                 (plus1)
(plus1)                edge node[above]        {\emph{ $M_p\frac{d\nu}{dt}$ }}     (invM)
(invM)                    edge node[above]         {\emph{ $\frac{d\nu}{dt}$ }}         (intT1)
(intT1)                edge node[above]        {\emph{ $\nu=\frac{d\nu}{dt}$ }}    (intT2)
(intT2)                edge node[pos=1.1]    {\emph{x}}                    (x)
($ (intT1.east)+(2mm,0)$)    edge[skip loopDL]                                (Cp.east)
(Cp.west)                 edge[skip loopLU]                                (plus1.south)
($ (intT2.east)+(2mm,0)$)     edge[skip loopDL]                                (Kp.east)
(Kp.west)                 edge[skip loopLU]                                 (plus1.south west);
%add minus signs to plus1 — can’t this be added to the skip loops above?
\node at ($(plus1.west)+(-.2,.2)$) {+};
\node at ($(plus1.south west)+(-.2,-.2)$) {$-$};
\node at ($(plus1.south)+(.2,-.2)$) {$-$};

\end{tikzpicture}

 

Some parts are still a little rough, but the capability is there.  In case you’re wondering, I’m using QuickLatex, which renders TikZ graphics.  I’m planning to write some more advanced posts in Dynamics and Controls using these tools, but for now here’s the code for the above diagram:

!\begin{tikzpicture}[node distance=5mm and 15mm, >=stealth, skip loopDL/.style={to path={-- ++(0,-.5) |- (\tikztotarget)}},skip loopLU/.style={to path={ -| (\tikztotarget)}}]
[+preamble]
\usepackage{tikz}
\usepackage{graphicx}
\usetikzlibrary{ arrows,  shapes.misc,  shapes.arrows,  chains,  matrix,  positioning,  scopes,  decorations.pathmorphing,  shadows, calc}
\tikzset{
nonterminal/.style={rectangle, minimum size=6mm, very thick, draw=red!50!black!20, top color=white, bottom color=red!50!black!50, font=\itshape },
terminal/.style={rounded rectangle,  minimum size=6mm, very thick,draw=black!50, top color=white, bottom color=black!20, font=\ttfamily},
junction/.style={circle, draw }}
\pgfsetlinewidth{.4mm}
[/preamble]

\node (xddot) {};
\node (plus1) [junction,right=of xddot] {[N]};
\node(invM) [nonterminal,right=of plus1] {$\frac{1}{M_p}$};
\node(intT1) [nonterminal,right=of invM] {$\int$dt};
\node(intT2) [nonterminal,right=of intT1] {$\int$dt};
\node(x)    [right=of intT2] {};
\node(Cp) [nonterminal,below=of invM] {$C_p$};
\node(Kp) [nonterminal,below=of Cp] {$K_p$};

\path[->,every node]
(xddot) edge node[pos=-.1] {$\ddot{x}$}                        (plus1)
(plus1) edge node[above]   {\emph{ $M_p\frac{d\nu}{dt}$ }}     (invM)
(invM)  edge node[above]   {\emph{ $\frac{d\nu}{dt}$ }}        (intT1)
(intT1) edge node[above]   {\emph{ $\nu=\frac{d\nu}{dt}$ }}    (intT2)
(intT2) edge node[pos=1.1] {\emph{x}}                          (x)
($ (intT1.east)+(2mm,0)$) edge[skip loopDL]                    (Cp.east)
(Cp.west) edge[skip loopLU]                                    (plus1.south)
($ (intT2.east)+(2mm,0)$) edge[skip loopDL]                    (Kp.east)
(Kp.west) edge[skip loopLU]                                    (plus1.south west);
%add minus signs to plus1 -- can't this be added to the skip loops above?
\node at ($(plus1.south west)+(-.2,-.2)$) {$-$};
\node at ($(plus1.south)+(.2,-.2)$) {$-$};

\end{tikzpicture}

#PennyForNASA

In response to #PennyForNASA’s campaign to double NASA’s funding, I emailed my representatives:

Dear Sen. Ron Johnson [R, WI], Sen. Herbert Kohl [D, WI], Rep. Tammy Baldwin [D, WI-2]:

I’m an engineer and I support Doubling Funding for NASA and U.S. Involvement in Space because solving difficult problems drives innovation while inspiring the nation.  Manned space exploration is one of the most interdisciplinary applications of high-technology.  Though founded on winning the Cold War, I believe the largest benefit of the Apollo program of Moon landings was the installation of a ‘can-do’ attitude across the nation’s work force.  When walking on the Moon – a recognizable feature of an idyllicized future –  was recent memory, there could be no doubt that our country was capable of building that idyllic future.  Thus we started the computer revolution which has now made possible the most democratizing and freedom-spreading communications medium, the Internet.  This was not an aim of the Apollo program; we beat the USSR, but in so doing created a number of audacious and innovative generations.  These generations created the information economy, whose profits have defended our preeminence among nations.  Stimulate our country; fund our future.

I would enjoy further discussion on innovation, competitiveness, exploration, and/or our country’s future at your leisure.

-Ben Conrad

TRACLabs

After graduating in December 2010 I had 6 months to spend before starting grad school, so I went on an extended internship with TRACLabs in Houston, TX.  TRACLabs is a small company that does automation and robotics research and development work for NASA and the Defense Department.

My work centered on developing and using TRACBot, a powered wheelchair – based development robot.  During the spring and summer Patrick, Mars, Bryn, and I significantly upgraded TRACBot from

TRACBot outside
TRACBot outside

to

I worked on a number of projects over the spring and summer, here are some highlight videos:

Beat-Based Gestures with Brown University

Leader Following

Wounded Soldier Extraction

And some pictures:

Letter in Support of NASA & Commercial Crew

A Letter to Senators Kohl and Johnson in support of robust funding of NASA’s Commercial Crew program.

As your committee marks-up NASA’s 2013 budget I hope you will consider my thoughts on the future of NASA and government-funded research and development in general.  I’m from Wausau, earned my undergraduate degree from UW-Madison in Engineering Mechanics-Astronautics, and am now a graduate student in Mechanical Engineering at UW.

Both of you are in a position to recall, hopefully favorably, the national excitement surrounding the Apollo program while witnessing a defining moment of our history.  The program was a proxy for national defense, and once it was clear that the USSR was nowhere close to our capabilities the program was drastically pared back with little succession planning.  Apollo was a weapon of the Cold War and, after accomplishing its purpose, funding priorities shifted away from space.  NASA has continued at essentially the same level of congressional support since then, leading to an inefficient space program whose lead over other nations is dwindling.

However the effect of the Apollo program was not limited to our winning of the Cold War, and it is now being argued that its effect on the Cold War was not its greatest benefit to our country.  Rather, Apollo was a visibly daring endeavour and its accomplishment inspired multiple generations to pursue technically-demanding careers while instilling in them a can-do attitude that they have carried throughout their careers.  The Apollo program bears some responsibility for the revolutions in computing and communication that have recently defined our country and our economy.  I don’t know the exact degree of influence Apollo has had on our country, but since you are entrusted with shaping our future of our country you should be interested in the answer.

What I can say, as an engineer, a past President of the UW section of the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics, and a member of the National Space Society is that we cannot know what we will learn from tackling the challenging problems implicit in doing anything new.  The hard questions often have profound answers; we cannot lead the world from our armchairs.

If you allow that the Apollo program increased our national prestige and enshrined us symbolically, and literally, as the technologic and economic leaders of the past 60 years, a good question is how can we recapture some of that (we still lead, but our plaque has lost some of its luster).  A better question is how can we create an environment that fosters future advances and continued leadership.  Both of these questions are easy to pose but are difficult to answer in a concrete, actionable way.  Instead, I like to ask: what kind of people are responsible for Apollo’s achievements, what motivated them, and do they exist today.  If the latter is true, where are they and why do many claim that America is on the way out?  If we can lead, if we can do better, why don’t we?

The median age of the Apollo launch controllers was 26; I’ll be 25 in May.  I’ve worked at NASA Kennedy Space Center and have friends working a Johnson Space Center and Ames Research Center.  I enjoyed my work and my friends derive great satisfaction from working directly for the space program, making whatever contribution they can.  What NASA does not have are droves of young engineers, scientists, technicians, and managers.[1]  NASA is cool, but true excitement is elicited only by companies that are developing systems which have the potential to launch these droves of young workers into space and return them safely.[2]  SpaceX is preeminent among them, but I follow, with bated breath, developments from Orbital Sciences, Blue Origin, and Boeing.

It is essential to fund NASA’s Commercial Crew program.  The simple reason is that the engineers at companies that are developing new spaceflight systems are in pursuit of something greater than shareholder profits, theirs is the dream of expanding the frontier.  This dream is grounded in reality: my peers and I have at least twenty years where we will be physically capable of enduring spaceflight, performing complex tasks, and dealing with intense situations, and in these commercial companies we have the opportunity to create the systems that will sustainably transport us into the future.

After watching the significant amount of work put into the Constellation Program, I have little faith that Congress’ current fashion, the Space Launch System, will meet its development and fiscal targets.[1]  It may fare better than Constellation, but NASA cannot afford another system where NASA is the sole designer, producer, operator, and customer with anything resembling its current budget.  The Shuttle program has many accomplishments, but it significantly limited the agency’s programmatic flexibility and shares the blame, with past Congresses, for our current payments to Russia and expected seven year human spaceflight gap.  In comparison, Commercial Crew is a steal.

Becoming an astronaut, that is one who works at the frontier of human experience and at the height of our technical capability while directly shaping our future beyond Earth, is my ultimate aspiration.  Though my education and experiences have grounded my expectations of becoming an astronaut, it is still possible and is something I continue to seek.  Irregardless of my present likelihood in that regard, that desire has made me into a competent engineer.  My graduate research is in medical robotics and it is quite possible that my career will continue along this path.  If so, then my future achievements are due in part to NASA’s existence and its advancing of the space frontier.

It is therefore also essential to fund NASA and our other agencies that support American R&D.  In the national context, seeing NASA, commercial space companies, and other entities pursue challenging problems motivates future generations of our technical workforce.  Once motivated, there is no personal or societal loss if there are too few opportunities, as their training and inclination towards solving challenging problems will ensure that they remain active contributors to our nation, but we must be visibly attempting the future.

In summary, in funding the NASA you fund the dreams of tomorrow, and by fully funding the Commercial Crew program you encourage the realistic expectation that those dreams can become reality.

 

Thank you for your time, I would enjoy answering any questions you may have about me personally or how the aerospace industry affects Wisconsin students.

Ben Conrad

 

1 – This inability to create a vibrant, do-anything culture is due to NASA’s inability to add significant numbers of new employees, its obligations to the civil servants, and its earned perception as an often lethargic, bureaucratic entity (in comparison to a new, sexy, lithe, commercial company).  I watched as the successor to the shuttle, Ares I-X, was developed, assembled, and launched on its first test flight.  Constellation was developed to the point that we had test hardware, but shifts in administration and Congresses scuttled it.  Now we won’t have another, government-designed and government-built rocket until 2017 at the earliest.  I advocate in support of Commercial Crew, and the Administrations request in this regard because Commercial Crew is the fastest, most sustainable investment the Congress can make.  For unlike Constellation (and Shuttle) once awarded future Congresses and administrations can only build on top of what the companies have already constructed.  In so doing, the customer is separated from the builder; the builder only gets paid if the customer likes the product, but the customer carries no veto over the builder.  Moreover, if our country wishes to stop wasting money, we would do well to give NASA some funding stability beyond the three-year horizon.

2 – NASA is capable of great things and could reattain the culture of accomplishment it had during the Apollo program.  But without a significant restructuring to its funding and accompanied modifications to the civil servant workforce to make it more competitive with commercial companies, NASA will be increasingly consumed by paper studies and budget projections of systems that never get built, tested, or flown.

Pictures from Big Bend National Park

I spent Memorial Day weekend hiking around Big Bend National Park, located in southwest Texas. It was hot, super-dry, and a 10 hour drive from Houston, but I enjoyed exploring the mountains and getting out of Houston.

The high fire danger prohibited backcountry camping in the higher elevations, so I hiked about 15 miles on Saturday and did a bunch of shorter hikes on Sunday.

Here’s a High Chisos map and some pictures:

LEVITATE

—Acronym says it all: The Lunar Exploration Vehicle for Intraplanetary Transport and Terrestrial Expansion. An enormous project, but a good time.

The EMA senior design spans two semesters; the first develops an idea into a consumer product, while the second tasks us to design an airplane, submarine, or spaceship. Last semester I developed BoomAlert, a device to warn sailboat crews of a dangerous boom movements. This semester Tim, Adam, Kevin, Tyler, and I are developing LEVITATE, the Lunar Exploration Vehicle for Intraplanetary Transport And Terrestrial Expansion. Props to Kevin for the NASA-worthy acronym.

We documented (somewhat) LEVITATE’s development over the semester, see Team LEVITATE. We’re also on Twitter, give us a follow.

From left: Tim, Kevin, Adam Tyler, and Ben
From left: Tim, Kevin, Adam Tyler, and Ben

Project Summary

LEVITATE is a lunar exploration vehicle capable of providing intra-lunar transportation of two astronauts to any scientifically interesting or resource-rich location by means of orbital and sub-orbital transfers. It has the capability to sustain two astronauts for up to fourteen Earth days at the remote site. LEVITATE is motivated by a dichotomy in the way our nation has previously planned to explore the Moon, as presented in the Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee’s analyses of possible lunar missions. LEVITATE enables global lunar access in addition to lunar base development.

Project Documents

RASC-AL Report [.pdf, 4.7MB]

RASC-AL Presentation [.pdf, 4.5MB]

RASC-AL Poster [.pdf, 1.6MB]

Ben’s Recap

Let’s keep it short: over the course of 66 days, 5 undergraduate Engineering Mechanics students designed a spaceship. The semester began with some pie-in-the-sky ideas on aerospace vehicles capable of carrying two people or 500 lbs…

…proceeded to some rocket science…

…included some enthusiasm…

…and ended with a 7″ stack of engineering drawings.

Assuming a standard daily consumption of 2 20oz bottles of Mt. Dew, each member drank approximately 20gal (78L) of the lime-green stimulant. Of course, this increase in consumption is inversely-mirrored by the daily decrease in sleep, as the May deadline approached. Thankfully, the feared correlation between frustration with Solidworks and optical mouse failure was not observed. All-told, team LEVITATE put a ton of work into the project, learned countless lessons about engineering design and documentation, team coordination, and individual motivation along the way, and left with an invaluable encapsulization of their undergraduate education.

RASC-AL Competition Summary

As briefly mentioned on the blog, we entered LEVITATE into the 2010 Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts Academic Linkage forum, held in Cocoa Beach, FL. This program solicits undergraduate and graduate teams to solve general problems faced by NASA’s exploration efforts. Solutions to these problems are grounded in academic research, leverage existing technologies and systems, and optimize some essential parameter, usually mass or fuel consumed.

The key advantage of an intra-lunar vehicle like LEVITATE is that it allow mass (money) to be spent building a permanently-inhabited base at a single lunar location while providing access to the entire lunar surface. Thus, it combines the ‘Lunar Outpost’ concept — future missions reuse equipment and facilities launched on previous missions — with the ‘Lunar Global’ concept, where short missions are conducted at various locations, returning samples to Earth for analysis and never returning to the same location. Once on the lunar surface LEVITATE requires no Earth-launched resources. Assuming lunar resource gathering and processing is a significant activity, LEVITATE’s fuel can be collected with no additional effort during this processing. And since more than four lunar equipment landings are required to enable continual human habitation, there will be a surplus of spare landers on the lunar surface from which to salvage replacement parts for the majority of LEVITATE’s systems.

As you may appreciate above, LEVITATE was designed to every nut and bolt and, I would argue, that we gave the best presentation/paper/poster session of our vehicle in the undergraduate competition. The only outstanding elements of our design were those systems that we knew depended heavily on the other systems in the lunar architecture (outpost module, spacesuits, robotic assets, etc.) and/or those that were already of a sufficient technology readiness level (>TRL 6) to give us confidence in their availability. (This is why we fully designed the life support, vehicle structure, suitport airlocks, and habitat wall structure.) Unfortunately, from the perspective of the RASC-AL competition, this reliance on the lunar exploration architecture and the time pressure of our academic schedule prevented us from adequately documenting our vehicle design decisions. While I can attest to the background research performed on each system choice and our valuation of each option, these decisions were not conducted nor documented in the most rigorous way (namely trade studies). Our compressed development and decision-making process, combined with RASC-AL’s virtual requirement of trade studies, prevented us from placing in the competition. Despite that, I greatly enjoyed developing LEVITATE and my time in Florida.

A Sample Size D Drawing:

This assembly drawing is one of the panels that form LEVITATE’s pressure vessel.  The annotations refer to additional drawings that describe components of the wall panel.  This drawing describes how those parts should be arranged and fixed together.