Science Journalism

Baltimore Inner Harbor (Image Credit:

Along with blogging and photography, science journalism is another hobby of mine that I’ve delved into through my academic career. During my senior year at the University of Arizona, I took a class in science journalism. Just a few weeks ago at the 2016 SPIE Defense and Commercial Sensing conference in Baltimore, MD, I was hired as the student journalist. As a journalist, I was assigned to go to multiple talks throughout the week and to complete short write-ups on them for the SPIE news website. Below are some of my favorite articles, which should give a taste of the plethora of topics covered at this conference. I hope to write more for future conferences!


Improvements to THz sources operating at room temperature


Manijeh Razeghi (Photo Credit: SPIE Newsroom)

Manijeh Razeghi, director of the Center for Quantum Devices at Northwestern University, recently turned her attention to the lack of practical, effective far-infrared sources in the 1–5 THz frequency range. She reported on recent results in the opening keynote talk (9856-1) Sunday morning in the conference on THz Physics, Devices, and Systems.

Infrared sources in the 1–5 THz range are desirable in many applications, such as bio-imaging, security screening, remote sensing, and particularly telecommunications. These sources are generally GaAs-based quantum-cascade lasers (QCLs). However, until recently, GaAs-based QCLs were unable to achieve room temperature operation, making them impractical for most research purposes.

Razeghi’s research has resulted in a THz source which makes use of the intracavity difference-frequency generation of the nonlinear effects in mid-infrared QCLs. Her team has achieved a THz peak power of 1.9 mW at 3.51 THz, a continuous-wave THz power of up to 14 μW, and continuous frequency tuning capabilities.

Razeghi’s team plans to further improve their design with increased doping in the QCL active region and wider device areas.


Ultralight robots to replace increasingly heavy tractors

Our vision of the American Midwest may soon incorporate armies of robotic farmers, rather than an imposing John Deere amidst green crops and stormy skies. Simon Blackmore of Harper Adams University College gave an overview Monday morning of recent advances in robotic agriculture and precision farming (9866 – 27).

Blackmore’s invited paper followed an opening talk by Alex Thomasson of Texas A&M University (TAMU) in the new conference on Autonomous Air and Ground Sensing Systems for Agricultural Optimization and Phenotyping. Thomasson and TAMU colleague John Valasek are conference chairs.

Ultralight robot concept (Photo Credit: Simon Blackmore 2016 SPIE Presentation)

Current farming practices waste energy on inaccurate targeting of healthy and damaged crops. Heavy tractors damage the soil via compaction, and farming machines cannot get any larger.

Blackmore and his cohorts at the National Center for Precision Farming are working to overhaul current farming practices by intelligently targeting inputs and energy usage. The team has developed lightweight robots capable of planting seeds in fields even at full moisture capacity, without compacting and damaging the soil.

Robots have also been designed with micro-tillage capabilities, which would target the soil at individual seed positions, and work is being done on selective harvesting of crops for quality assurance.

As they cannot use larger machines, small- and mid-sized farms are expected to see the largest yield increase from these initiatives. With the development of precision agriculture, farms will use less energy, create less pollution, and become more economically sustainable overall.


Health monitoring with soft, wearable electronics

John Rogers (left) (Photo Credit: L. Brian Stauffer, Illinois News Bureau)

Big ideas, even bigger results: that’s what John Rogers’ talk on soft electronics for the human body offered Tuesday morning (9836-40). Rogers, from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, gave a keynote presentation in the conference on Micro- and Nanotechnollgy Sensors, Systems, and Applications detailing work in developing electronics that have the physical characteristics of human skin, i.e., thin, light, stretchable, and water-proof.

Such electronics, akin to a temporary tattoo, last for weeks and are capable of monitoring the electrical activity of the brain, heart, muscles and nerve cells — and that list is not complete.

Rather than being tied to a machine for multiple days or longer, individuals requiring health monitoring could wear a simple skin patch and continue their daily activities with essentially no interruption.

The technology would allow mothers of newborns in neonatal intensive care to physically hold and interact with their children, rather than separating them by a bundle of wires and hardware.

The soft chips could even alert people to the onset of sunburn, before they spend their next full day in pain.

There are 2,000-3,000 volunteers for clinical studies so far, and partnerships exist with L’Oreal Paris, MC10, and Reebok. While the technology may sound incredibly futuristic, Rogers’ talk also suggests that it is incredibly realistic for the near future.


LIDAR for safe and autonomous planetary landings

On 22 June 2012, the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory released a video called “Seven Minutes of Terror,” detailing the Mars Curiosity’s entry, descent, and landing, during which NASA had no contact with the rover.

Although Gale Crater was carefully selected for both its promise of scientific discovery and its adherence to safety constraints, even small, unforeseen surface features such as rocks could have damaged the rover upon landing.

Scott Budge (Photo Credit: Utah State University ECE Homepage)

On Tuesday, engineers and space scientists gathered at the Laser Radar Technology and Applications conference to present their latest research, which uses 3D flash LIDAR to enable autonomous lunar or planetary landings in hazardous terrains (9832, Session 3). Flash LIDAR is capable of accurately measuring the landing site topography in real-time, as well as the velocity of the payload as it approaches the targeted body.

In addition to relieving some of the stress for engineers during a payload’s “seven minutes of terror,” 3D flash LIDAR also opens up the possibility of landing a rover in sites that would have previously been overlooked for being too hazardous — but which are nonetheless sites with high potential for scientific discoveries.

Scott Budge of Utah State University presented results using the LadarSIM software to simulate the proposed LIDAR system and investigate the design tradeoffs. The work also identified key factors affecting performance that should be integrated into LadarSIM.   Vincent Roback of NASA Langley Research Center showed results from the ALHAT project on field-testing of 3D flash LIDAR with the Morpheus lander.

Anup Katake (Photo Credit: SPIE Profile Page)

The technique successfully selected a safe landing site, identified landing hazards as small as 30 centimeters on a slanted surface, and navigated Morpheus to completion of a safe landing in hazardous terrain.

Anup Katake of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory concluded the session by discussing the potential of 3D flash Lidar for deep space operations, focusing on a future landing on Europa, the “ocean moon” of Jupiter.   In addition to increasing a list of potential landing sites, 3D Flash LIDAR also opens up the possibility of landing near useful resources for future, or extended space missions.



The future of soft robotics

What do landing on Mars, wearable exoskeletons, and Big Hero 6 have in common? Soft robotics, observed the Wednesday afternoon session in the Micro- and Nanotechnology Sensors, Systems, and Applications conference (9836, Session 13).

Tensegrity robot example (Photo Credit: NASA Tensegrity Robots)

Vitas SunSpiral of the NASA Ames Research Center gave the keynote presentation on dynamic tensegrity robots for future planetary exploration.

Simulations of the technology were reminiscent of springy tumbleweed blowing across the surface of Mars. Tensegrity robots are modeled after the flexible nature of the human body and promise safer landings and easier traversal of hazardous terrain.

Christopher Atkeson of Carnegie Mellon University then presented work on designing a soft robot for assisted living that can fall and get back up again, much like a human.

Atkeson described heavy metal robots as “brushing your teeth by duct taping your toothbrush to a bulldozer,” and compared his soft robots to the Disney hero Baymax.

Conor Walsh of the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences led the discussion to soft wearable robots in the form of exosuits, which will allow both healthy and disabled individuals to walk further and longer. The exosuits focused on augmenting the strength and power of the wearer’s ankle and hip joints.   Other topics were just as diverse, from foldable origami robots that adapt to different environments, to robot tongues capable of grasping objects over a wide range of sizes and geometries.


Fingerprinting food with spectroscopy

Anna Mignani (Photo Credit: SPIE Newsroom)

Tasting food at the grocery store before purchase may soon be possible — at least photonically. On Thursday morning, Anna Mignani of the Istituto di Fisica Applicata “Nello Carrara” showed recent results of using spectroscopy to analyze food content (9852-34).

The technique, which Mignani dubs “photonic tasting,” uses one shot of light for a multicomponent analysis of food quality and safety. It is quick, nondestructive to the food, and green (no chemicals or waste are involved).

Example applications include the monitoring of meat browning, milk quality, wine and beer fermentation, and the acidity and fatty-acid profile of olive oil. Photonic tasting can also separate fresh soybean oil from inferior oil, and discriminate between authentic and fraudulent alcohol.

Mignani concluded with the idea of clip-on spectrometers for mobile phones, which would allow shoppers to “taste-test” food at the grocery store (think Shazam for food).


See the full set of SPIE news articles from the 2016 Defense and Commercial Sensing conference here.