Could unmanned tugboats serve as aquatic drones someday, rescuing stranded ships without putting crews at risk?
I scored a window seat in a restaurant the other day, which was great until the sun shifted and sent an annoying glare through the blinds.
Wouldn’t it be handy, I thought, if this place had those light-sensing SmartBlinds I saw at Olin College last week?
SmartBlinds aren’t on the market yet, but they were among the impressive bunch of innovations by Olin students that I witnessed at the school’s end-of-semester exposition. Others included model tugboats that used infrared sensors to navigate safely around buoys, and an iPhone attachment that helps ophthalmologists perform cornea exams.
The whole affair was a good reminder that companies and investors would be wise to start — if they haven’t already — paying attention to the tiny engineering school in Needham that graduated its first class in 2006.
SmartBlinds started as a class project for Chu-Hao Fan and three other sophomores. They attached motors to a set of blinds to control height and tint, and connected the motors to light and temperature sensors.
A wireless microcontroller can be programmed to adjust the blinds according to changes in light and temperature.
“So say you want to let in light in the morning,” Fan said. “You can set the blinds to open at any pace as the sun comes up.”
The iPhone attachment for cornea exams already is being used by eye doctors just months after junior Riva Kahn Hallock designed it. Hallock worked on the instrument with a Wellesley company called Eidolon Optical, which makes other tools for eye doctors. She used three-dimensional design software to imagine a 7.5-times magnification lens that incorporates Eidolon’s patented eyeball illumination technology and can attach to the camera of an iPhone, allowing doctors to easily snap closeup pictures of eyes.
Until now, said Eidolon president Victor J. Doherty, doctors have struggled to capture images of what they see through magnifiers, sometimes holding cameras up to lenses in awkward attempts to document their exams.
He said Hallock, who works 10 hours per week at Eidolon outside of class, quickly solved the problem and helped the company sell about 40 of the new devices — for $300 a pop — at the American Academy of Ophthalmology annual meeting in New Orleans last month. Orders have been streaming in since.
The tugboats have farther to go before customers start lining up, but they could find a market eventually as unmanned vessels gain broader acceptance. The idea is that full-size boats could serve as aquatic drones, perhaps rescuing stranded ships without putting crews at risk.
For now, models are confined to a pool. But sophomore Alex Crease, a member of Olin’s robotic sailing team (yes, there is such a thing) already has a bigger goal in mind. The team, he said, believes it will be able to sail an unmanned boat across the Atlantic within the next two years.
“It’s amazing how in our classes we get to develop cool projects that apply what you know and cause you to think about how it impacts the world,” he said.