OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

engineering and technology

Assessment shows metagenomics software has much room for improvement

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A recent critical assessment of software tools represents a key step toward taming the “Wild West” nature of the burgeoning field of metagenomics, said an Oregon State University mathematical biologist who took part in the research.

Metagenomics refers to the science of genetically studying whole communities of microorganisms, as opposed to sequencing single species grown in culture.

“Microbes are ridiculously important to life,” said David Koslicki, assistant professor of mathematics in the OSU College of Science. “They not only can cause terrible things to happen, like blight and disease, but in general, overwhelmingly, microbes are our friends. Without them doing their jobs, crops couldn’t grow as well, it would be hard to digest our food, we might not get sleepy at appropriate times. Microbes are so fundamental to life, to health, we really need to know as much as we can about them.”

Koslicki, a leader in a university-wide research and education program known as OMBI – the OSU Microbiome Initiative – described the findings, published recently in Nature Methods, as “sobering." 

“There are not a lot of well-established, well-characterized computational techniques and tools that biologists can use,” he said. “And the assessment showed that a lot of the tools being used do not do nearly as well as had been initially thought, so there’s definitely room for improvement there.

“That said, depending on the situation that a biologist is interested in, there are definitely different tools that have proven to be the best so far.”

Metagenomics is a relatively new field that developed quickly once next-generation sequencing grew inexpensive enough that looking at entire microbial communities became economically feasible, said Koslicki.

“The typical view of biology is a wet lab and everything like that, but a whole other facet has to do with these high-throughput ways of accessing genetic material,” he said. “You end up with a ton of data, and when you end up with a ton of data, you introduce new problem: How do I get the important information out of it? You have to come up with an algorithm that allows biologists to answer the questions they find important: What critters are there, how many are there, what are they doing, are there any viruses? We need to answer those questions and not just answer them quickly but also have some sort of idea how accurate the answer is.”

The dizzying array of tools biologists are using to try to answer those questions is “kind of like the Wild West,” Koslicki said. “If you want to learn what bacteria are in a sample, there are no less than three or four dozen different tools people have come up with, and in a rather disjointed manner. You have teams of statisticians, mathematicians, biologists, microbiologists, engineers all looking at this from their own perspectives and coming up with their own tools. Then the end-user biologist comes along and is faced with 40 different tools, and how do they know how good they are at answering the questions they need answered?”

Koslicki’s research, known as the CAMI challenge – critical assessment of metagenome interpretation –was aimed at ranking those tools to provide a road map for biologists.

“The challenge engaged the global developer community to benchmark their programs on highly complex and realistic data sets, generated from roughly 700 newly sequenced microorganisms and about 600 novel viruses and plasmids and representing common experimental setups,” he said. “This was an independent initiative. Typically when tools are compared, it’s attached to the publication of a new method that’s compared to other tools that do worse, so the new method looks good. There hasn’t been a lot of independent research into which tools actually work, how well they work, what kind of data do they well on, etc.”

The UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the U.S. Department of Energy, the Cluster of Excellence on Plant Sciences, the Australian Research Council, the European Research Council, the Agency for Science, Technology and Research Singapore, the Lundbeck Foundation, and the National Science Foundation supported this research.

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Steve Lundeberg, 541-737-4039

Oregon State to host grid energy storage symposium

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Leaders in energy storage technology will converge on the Oregon State University campus Nov. 5-6 for a symposium to discuss opportunities and challenges for next-generation, large-scale grid energy storage systems in the Pacific Northwest and nationwide.

The meeting, expected to draw 100 to 150 participants, is intended to serve as a forum for industry representatives, utility companies, academic and government researchers, and policymakers to discuss energy storage and potential major applications in the region.

 “This meeting brings together the thought leaders who are driving the implementation of novel energy storage systems for the grid, wave power, and other sustainable energy technologies,” said conference chair Zhenxing Feng, assistant professor of chemical engineering in OSU’s College of Engineering. “These are the enabling technologies that can make the dream of 100 percent renewable energy into a reality.”

The symposium is being organized by Oregon State with assistance from the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research, a public/private partnership established by the U.S. Department of Energy in 2012. Topics for discussion include the status of current battery technology, challenges and opportunities in the emerging sectors of transportation and the energy grid, energy resilience in the electrical grid, special needs in Oregon, and commercialization and manufacturing opportunities throughout the region.

Invited presenters include researchers from Argonne National Laboratory, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Idaho National Laboratory, as well as representatives from industry, such as Lebanon, Oregon-based Entek International LLC.

The agenda includes keynote speakers, panel discussions, breakout sessions and a poster session networking event. Also planned are tours to a local utility company and Oregon State’s state-of-the-art facility for energy storage and materials characterization research.

More information and registration are available online at cbee.oregonstate.edu/energy-storage-symposium. 

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Keith Hautala, 541-737-1478

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Ocean Sentinel

Testing wave energy

New blue pigment discovered at Oregon State earns EPA approval

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The vibrant YInMn blue pigment discovered at Oregon State University has been approved for commercial sale by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The Shepherd Color Co., which licensed the pigment from OSU, announced that the EPA has granted the company a “low volume exemption” that paves the way for the pigment, commercially known as Blue 10G513, to be used in industrial coatings and plastics.

YInMn refers to the elements yttrium, indium and manganese, which along with oxygen comprise the pigment. It features a unique chemical structure that allows the manganese ions to absorb red and green wavelengths of light while only reflecting blue.

The pigment, created in OSU’s College of Science, has sparked worldwide interest, including from crayon maker Crayola, which used the color as the inspiration for its new Bluetiful crayon.

The pigment is so durable, and its compounds are so stable – even in oil and water – that the color does not fade. Those characteristics make the pigment versatile for a variety of commercial products; used in paints, for example, they can help keep buildings cool by reflecting the infrared part of sunlight.

The EPA approval announced this week does not include making the pigment available for artists’ color materials, but Shepherd is in the process of seeking approval for its use in all applications and is confident that will happen, company spokesman Mark Ryan said.

YInMn blue was discovered by accident in 2009 when OSU chemist Mas Subramanian and his team were experimenting with new materials that could be used in electronics applications.

The researchers mixed manganese oxide – which is black in color – with other chemicals and heated them in a furnace to nearly 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. One of their samples turned out to be a vivid blue. Oregon State graduate student Andrew Smith initially made these samples to study their electrical properties.

“This was a serendipitous discovery, a happy accident,” said Subramanian, the Milton Harris Chair of Materials Science at OSU. “But in fact, many breakthrough discoveries in science happen when one is not looking for it. As Louis Pasteur famously said, ‘In the fields of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind.’

“Most pigments are discovered by chance,” Subramanian added. “The reason is because the origin of the color of a material depends not only on the chemical composition, but also on the intricate arrangement of atoms in the crystal structure. So someone has to make the material first, then study its crystal structure thoroughly to explain the color.”  

Subramanian notes that blue is associated with open spaces, freedom, intuition, imagination, expansiveness, inspiration and sensitivity.

“Blue also represents meanings of depth, trust, loyalty, sincerity, wisdom, confidence, stability, faith, heaven and intelligence,” he said. “Through much of human history, civilizations around the world have sought inorganic compounds that could be used to paint things blue but often had limited success. Most had environmental and/or durability issues. The YInMn blue pigment is very stable and durable. There is no change in the color when exposed to high temperatures, water, and mildly acidic and alkali conditions.”

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Study shows high cost of truckers not having enough places to park and rest

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A pilot study by Oregon State University illustrates the high economic cost of having too few safe places for commercial truck drivers to park and rest.

Over a seven-year period on one 290-mile stretch of highway alone, at-fault truck crashes resulted in approximately $75 million of “crash harm,” research conducted by the OSU College of Engineering for the Oregon Department of Transportation shows.

“Current crash data collection forms don’t have an explicit section for truck-parking-related crashes, but we can operate under the assumption that specific types of at-fault truck crashes, such as those due to fatigue, may be the result of inadequate parking,” said the study’s lead author, Salvador Hernandez, a transportation safety and logistics researcher at Oregon State.

Hernandez and graduate research assistant Jason Anderson analyzed Oregon’s portion of U.S. Highway 97, which runs the entire north-south distance of the state along the eastern slope of the Cascade Range.

Highway 97 was chosen, Hernandez said, because the idea for the study originated from ODOT’s office in Bend, which is near the highway’s Oregon midpoint. An impetus for the research was the 2012 passage of “Jason’s Law,” which prioritized federal funding to address a national shortage of truck parking.

Jason’s Law is named for truck driver Jason Rivenburg, who was robbed and fatally shot in South Carolina in 2009 after pulling off to rest at an abandoned gas station.

For “property-carrying drivers,” as opposed to bus operators, federal rules require drivers to get off the road after 11 hours and to park and rest for at least 10 hours before driving again.

“Around the country, commercial drivers are often unable to find safe and adequate parking to meet hours-of-service regulations,” Hernandez said. “This holds true in Oregon, where rest areas and truck stops in high-use corridors have a demand for truck parking that exceeds capacity. That means an inherent safety concern for all highway users, primarily due to trucks parking in undesignated areas or drivers exceeding the rules to find a place to park.”

Researchers looked at what other states were doing in response to the parking issue, surveyed more than 200 truck drivers, assessed current and future parking demand on Highway 97, and used historical crash data to identify trends and hot spots and to estimate crash harm.

“Crash trends in terms of time of day, day of the week, and month of the year follow the time periods drivers stated having trouble finding places to park,” Hernandez said. “In Oregon, if we do nothing to address the problem and freight-related traffic continues to grow, we’ll face greater truck parking shortages. A possible solution is finding ways to promote public-private partnerships, the state working together with industry.”

A solution is not, Hernandez said, simply waiting for the day autonomous vehicles take over the hauling of freight as some predict.

“There are many issues yet to be worked out with autonomous commercial motor vehicles,” he said, “and even if autonomous commercial motor vehicles become commonplace, we’re still going to need truck drivers in some capacity. For now and in the foreseeable future, we need truck drivers and safe and adequate places for the drivers to park and rest.” 

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Steve Lundeberg, 541-737-4039

OSU partners with ODOT on system for better transit planning

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Public transit planners throughout the nation should soon be rolling toward more informed decision making and better service thanks to a partnership between Oregon State University’s College of Engineering and the Oregon Department of Transportation.

The university and state transportation officials have teamed up on an extension to the General Transit Feed Specification, commonly known as the GTFS. The extension is called GTFS-ride.

OSU will release open-source tools for GTFS-ride data storage and analysis sometime this fall, said J. David Porter, professor of industrial engineering at Oregon State. With those tools, planners can see in general how well transit networks are functioning and also easily access specific information about where riders tend to get on and off.

In existence for just over a decade, the GTFS defines a common data format for public transportation schedules and related geographic information. Mobile developers use the publicly available data to create applications that riders can use to learn, for example, when the next bus is arriving.

The 12-month OSU-ODOT partnership resulted in the GTFS-ride extension, which defines a common format for fixed-route transit ridership. The extension will support the creation of common tools for enhancing transit planners’ ability to analyze and share ridership data.

“The main motivation for the project was ODOT and in particular their Rail and Public Transit Division didn’t feel they had enough access to ridership data to be able to make informed decisions about funding and improvement projects,” said Porter, who teamed with OSU graduate students Ben Fields, Sylvan Hoover and Phillip Carleton on the project.

“GTFS-ride extends GTFS and incorporates additional files and fields for transit agencies to reflect their ridership information. It will enable agencies at many different levels of maturity and technological capability to represent ridership in a standardized way that will facilitate information sharing and the use of common software tools. Planners will be able to better understand what a change to a single network does to the entire state network.”

At present, each transit agency in Oregon uses a mix of proprietary tools and locally developed solutions to analyze and report transit ridership data; there has been no standardized format for representing ridership.

“The old way of doing things made taking advantage of and sharing transit ridership data difficult,” said Hal Gard, administrator of ODOT’s Rail and Public Transit Division. “The GTFS-ride data standard will make it possible for organizations at all levels to get easy access to detailed ridership data.”

A description of the GTFS-ride standard is available at https://github.com/ODOT-PTS/GTFS-ride/blob/master/spec/en/reference.md, and a companion open source GTFS-ride validation tool is available at https://github.com/ODOT-PTS/transitfeed-ride.

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Steve Lundeberg, 541-737-4039

New algorithm, metrics improve autonomous underwater vehicles’ energy efficiency

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Robotics researchers have found a way for autonomous underwater vehicles to navigate strong currents with greater energy efficiency, which means the AUVs can gather data longer and better.

AUVs such as underwater gliders are valuable research tools limited primarily by their energy budget – every bit of battery power wasted via inefficient trajectories cuts into the time they can spend working.

“Historically, a lot of oceanography data sets and sampling came from using ships, which are expensive and can only really be out for a few days at a time,” said Dylan Jones, a third-year Ph.D. student in Oregon State University’s robotics program and lead author on the study. “With autonomous underwater vehicles, you can get months-long monitoring. And a way to extend those vehicles’ missions is through smarter planning for how they get from one point of interest to another.”

Jones and Ph.D. advisor Geoff Hollinger, assistant professor of mechanical engineering in OSU’s College of Engineering, have built a framework for the vehicles to plan energy-efficient trajectories through disturbances that are strong and uncertain, like ocean currents and wind fields.

The framework involves an algorithm that samples alternate paths, as well as comparison metrics that let a vehicle decide when it makes sense to switch paths based on new information collected about environmental disturbances.

The researchers tested the framework in a simulated environment – a data set of currents from the Regional Ocean Modeling System – and also on a windy lake with an autonomous boat.

The results, recently published in IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters, show that the algorithm can plan vehicle paths that are more energy efficient than ones planned by existing methods, and that it’s robust enough to deal with environments for which not much data is available.

Findings also indicate that three of the framework’s five path comparison metrics can be used to plan more efficient routes compared to planning based solely on the ocean current forecast.

“We generalized past trajectory optimization techniques and also removed the assumption that trajectory waypoints are equally spaced in time,” Jones said. “Removing that assumption improves on the state of the art in energy-efficient path planning. 

“These are under-actuated vehicles – they don’t go fast in relation to the strong ocean currents, so one way to get them to travel more efficiently is to go with the flow, to coast and not use energy,” he added. “We’re building more intelligence into these vehicles so they can more reliably accomplish their missions.”

Jones notes that overcoming strong disturbances is a critical component of putting any kind of robot in a real-life environment. Past planning algorithms haven’t always considered the dynamics of the vehicle they were planning for, he said.

“Sometimes we make assumptions in the lab or do simulations that don’t translate in the real world,” Jones said. “Sometimes a disturbance is too strong to be overcome, or sometimes it can be overcome but the path deviates so significantly that it would put the robot in a danger area. We have to consider all the possible locations of a robot. There are smarter ways of considering these various disturbances, and this gives us a better way of planning paths that are least affected by disturbances.”

Any disconnect between the controller and the planner can be dangerous, Jones said.

“The way we see this work going is to bridge that gap – how do we look at paths that are easier for controllers to follow, and how do we make controllers follow paths better?” he said. “We can be more energy efficient when we consider the whole environment, planning paths so that the controller of the vehicle doesn’t have to work as hard.”

Future research will also deal with “informative path planning” – planning paths that initially gather information about the environment and disturbances that the algorithm can use later to plan more energy-efficient routes.

“How do we combine these two ideas – planning a path for energy efficiency while also trying to gather information that will inform efficient path planning?” Jones said. “There will be tradeoffs and it might come down to, do I pay five hours now to save six hours later on? Another possible research direction is to look at a multivehicle situation where one vehicle can scout ahead and relay information to one or more others – they could possibly have a low shared energy cost by intelligently assigning goals and sharing information.”

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AUV paths planned by framework

OSU researcher studies cross-laminated timber as seismic retrofit tool

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Safer historic buildings and more jobs for the timber industry are the goals of a partnership between an Oregon State University structural engineering researcher and a newly formed nonprofit group in Corvallis, Oregon.

Andre Barbosa of the OSU College of Engineering is collaborating with Cascadia Seismic Strategies on a $150,000 project to study the use of cross-laminated timber panels for seismic retrofits on unreinforced masonry buildings. 

A grant coordinated through the Downtown Corvallis Association and Oregon Main Street is covering roughly two-thirds of the cost of the project, which will result in mockups of CLT retrofit systems at the 107-year-old Harding Building at Third Street and Madison Street in Corvallis.

“We’ll build prototypes that will provide details that will let engineers and construction folks see how things go together,” said Barbosa, a volunteer with Cascadia Seismic Strategies.

Barbosa is one of the original members of the group, named after the subduction zone that lies off the coast of Oregon. The major Cascadia earthquake that experts say is on the horizon would be particularly damaging to vintage masonry structures like the Harding Building, the cornerstone of the original Third Street business district.

“The DCA is concerned about the potential devastation that a Cascadia Subduction Zone mega-quake would wreak,” said Cascadia Seismic Strategies spokeswoman Roz Keeney. “Members of the DCA’s design committee recruited structural engineers, historic architects and other building professionals to join in a conversation about earthquake preparedness and historic building preservation. This group went on to form Cascadia Seismic Strategies, which is now focused on this cutting-edge project to develop a low-cost reinforcement method using local wood products and off-the-shelf steel connectors.”

Engineering work is scheduled to start in August. The grant for the 34-month project underwrites multiple design and construction strategies for dealing with weaknesses in unreinforced masonry buildings, as well as production of a video demonstrating how to implement upgrades that can serve as a guide for other communities wanting to use similar strategies in preservation and retrofitting efforts.

“This project identifies seismic retrofits for historic buildings that improve their safety performance without compromising their historic integrity,” said project manager and historic preservation architect Sue Licht. “It also demonstrates that historic rehabilitation can create local, site-specific jobs that cannot be outsourced.”

Barbosa notes that OSU is a leader in developing new wood products such as cross-laminated timber and in growing forest-products jobs amid reduced harvest levels.

“It’s important to bring jobs back to the timber industry in Oregon and to find new applications for mass timber,” he said. “This could potentially be one of them, while improving the resiliency of downtowns and the older buildings that give us liveliness and history.”

Portland firm KPFF Consulting Engineers will handle most of the structural engineering, led by Reid Zimmerman, with Barbosa lending his expertise in cross-laminated timber and seismic retrofits.

“This comes from what we’ve been learning by visiting different earthquake sites, like Napa (California) and Nepal,” Barbosa said. “We keep learning and try to bring back that knowledge and share it with communities, including by creating a model for affordable seismic retrofits for historic buildings. This is a grass-roots, community-driven solution for a big problem, a huge Cascadia quake.” 

The primary funding organization, Oregon Main Street, is a Main Street America coordinating program administered by the State Historic Preservation Office. It works with Oregon communities to “develop comprehensive, incremental revitalization strategies based on a community’s unique assets, character and heritage.”

Its goal is to build “high-quality, livable and sustainable communities that will grow Oregon’s economy while maintaining a sense of place.”

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Timber research

Cross-laminated timber

Alloying materials of different structures offers new tool for controlling properties

CORVALLIS, Ore. – New research into the largely unstudied area of heterostructural alloys could lead to greater materials control and in turn better semiconductors, advances in nanotechnology for pharmaceuticals and improved metallic glasses for industrial applications.

Heterostructural alloys are blends of compounds made from materials that don’t share the same atom arrangement. Conventional alloys are isostructural, meaning the compounds they consist of, known as the end members, have the same crystal structure.

“Alloys are all around us,” said study co-author Janet Tate, a physicist at Oregon State University. “An example of an istostructural alloy is an LED; you have a semiconductor like aluminum gallium arsenide, dope it with a particular material and make it emit light, and change the color of the light by changing the relative concentration of aluminum and gallium.”

Structure and composition are the two means of controlling the behavior of materials, Tate said. Combining materials gives the alloy properties between those that the end members have individually.

“If two materials have different structures, as you mix them together it’s not so clear which structure will win,” said Tate, the Dr. Russ and Dolores Gorman Faculty Scholar in the College of Science. “The two together want to take different structures, and so this is an extra way of tuning an alloy’s properties, a structural way. The transition between different crystal structures provides an additional degree of control.”

Tate and collaborators from around the world, including the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, published their findings in Science Advances.

“This is a very interesting piece of materials science that represents a somewhat uncharted area and it may be the beginning something quite important,” Tate said. “The heterostructural alloy concept had been known before, but it’s different enough that it hadn’t really been explored in a detailed phase diagram – the mapping of exactly how, at what temperature and what concentration, it goes from one structure to another.

“This paper is primarily the NERL’s theoretical work being supported by other collaborators’ experimental work,” Tate said. “Our involvement at OSU was in making one of the kinds of heterostructural alloys used in the research, the combination of tin sulfide and calcium sulfide.”

Tate and graduate student Bethany Matthews have been focusing on the semiconductor application.

“Tin sulfide is a solar cell absorber, and the addition of calcium sulfide changes the structure and therefore the electrical properties necessary for an absorber,” Tate said “Combining tin sulfide with calcium sulfide makes it more isotropic – properties being the same regardless of orientation – and that’s usually a useful thing in devices.”

In this study, thin-film synthesis confirmed the metastable phases of the alloys that had been predicted theoretically.

“Many alloys are metastable, not stable – if you gave them enough time and temperature, they’d eventually separate,” Tate said. “The way we make them, with pulsed laser deposition, we allow the unstable structure to form, then suppress the decomposition pathways that would allow them to separate; we don’t give them enough time to equilibrate.”

Metastable materials – those that are thermodynamically stable provided they are not subjected to large disturbances – are in general understudied, Tate said.

“When theorists predict properties, they tend to work with materials that are stable,” she said. “In general the stable compounds are easier to attack. The idea here with heterostructural alloys is that they give us a new handle, a new knob to turn to change and control materials’ properties.”

In addition to scientists at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the collaboration included researchers at the University of Colorado, the Colorado School of Mines, the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, and Harvard University.

The U.S. Department of Energy supported this research.

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Northwest researchers map out regional approach to studying food, energy, water nexus

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Natural resource researchers at Oregon State University, Washington State University and the University of Idaho are gearing up for a late-summer summit aimed at addressing food, energy and water challenges as interconnected, regional issues.

The August meeting in Hermiston, Ore. – centrally located to many National Science Foundation-funded research projects – represents the second step of a collaboration that began with an April workshop in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.

Research offices at the three universities hosted the gathering, where scientists explored ways to partner with each other and with industry to address issues that affect regional economies as well as environmental and human health.

Stephanie Hampton from WSU and Andrew Kliskey from Idaho led the planning of the workshop, at which six teams combined to start five U.S. Department of Agriculture and NSF grant proposals on issues ranging from water conservation to energy infrastructure.

“We’re really building a critical mass of researchers and research experience in the region,” said Chad Higgins, an agricultural engineering professor leading OSU’s role in the partnership. “The workshop was awesome. It exceeded all expectations with mind-blowing scientific discussions, new collaborations formed and new proposals floated. And now we have to keep it going because that was just the opening salvo, not the crescendo.”

Topics for future exploration might be broad – such as, will the region have enough food in 2050? – or narrow, like tracing the impact of a single technology. For example, a more efficient system for irrigation could lead to less energy used for pumping and also result in more food being produced.

“The food, energy, water nexus is so huge that it’s scary, but it’s also exciting,” Higgins said. “There are so many opportunities to look at things either in detail or to try to be broad and think about how the region will be influenced. We can bring each person’s expertise together to predict pain points, like are we going to be scarce in any one resource in the future, and where?”

Janet Nelson, vice president for research and economic development at the University of Idaho, said the tri-state collaboration “will poise us to build relationships among researchers from all three universities with many areas of expertise in order to work toward solutions that improve communities, economies and lives.”

“The University of Idaho is committed to examining issues that are critical not only to the people of Idaho, but also to the entire Northwest region, with rippling effects around the world,” she said.

Those issues include how to best update aging hydropower plants and food production infrastructure.

Cynthia Sagers, vice president for research at Oregon State, notes that when it comes to food, energy and water challenges, a solution in one location can lead to problems hundreds of miles away.

“That’s why this demands regional cooperation,” she said. “I am proud that our three land grant institutions are working together on these issues for a healthy Pacific Northwest." 

Christopher Keane, vice president of research at WSU, echoed the sentiment and said he “looks forward to seeing the results of continued collaboration.”

“Working across disciplines and institutions to ensure a sustainable supply of food, energy and water for future generations is a top research priority for WSU,” he said.

In addition to the August event, the planning team is applying for external funding to support ongoing meetings to help sustain momentum. 

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Sunflower crop

OSU College of Engineering establishes institute for robotics, intelligent systems

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon State University’s College of Engineering has established a new research institute to advance the theory, design, development and deployment of robots and intelligent systems able to interact seamlessly with people.

It’s called the CoRIS Institute, short for Collaborative Robotics and Intelligent Systems.

Institute director Kagan Tumer said the new center would conduct research in robotics and artificial intelligence, as well as machine learning, vision, sensors, devices, and new materials. The institute also will explore public policy and ethical questions surrounding the deployment of robots and intelligent systems.

Tumer said the institute would enable research in oceanography, forestry, agricultural science and other fields, as well as identify and facilitate possible partnerships with companies around the globe to bring algorithms, software, hardware and integrated systems into everyday use.

“The CoRIS Institute will cement Oregon State’s position as a national leader in robotics and artificial intelligence,” said Scott Ashford, dean of the College of Engineering.

“The institute is poised to become a venue for exploring not just the technological advancement of robotics, but also all of the other dimensions of the robotics revolution. It will investigate the promise and the risks of robotics in the real world today, tomorrow and well into the future and help us plot a course through uncharted territory.”

The college offers a top-tier artificial intelligence program, as well as one of the five doctorate-granting robotics programs in the U.S. Those two programs received more than 500 student applications for the 40 openings available in fall term 2016.

“Our robotics and artificial intelligence faculty have a strong reputation for conducting cutting-edge research, holding key leadership positions in international organizations and drawing the best students from Oregon, the nation and the world,” said Tumer, a professor of mechanical engineering with a background that spans computer science and electrical engineering. “Research at Oregon State focuses on robotics and intelligent systems as a whole, exploring both the interaction between technology and human beings and the impact that technology will have on society.”

The institute’s core faculty are 25 researchers in robotics and artificial intelligence. Collaborators include more than 40 other researchers from across OSU who are looking to apply robotics and AI concepts to their own work.

“I can think of no better place than Oregon State for the home of the new CoRIS Institute,” Ashford said. “Our visionary robotics program already is recognized as one of the nation’s best and most progressive, and OSU’s deeply rooted culture of collaboration provides an ideal environment for this interdisciplinary institute to thrive and grow.”

Tumer notes that the moment a robot exits a lab and enters the everyday world, the large, complicated issue of human-robot interaction is at play in full force.

“You have to look at the big picture,” he said. “You have to think about how that robot is going to interact with people months down the road, years down the road. There are technical issues to putting robots in homes and also ethical issues. For example, what are the privacy issues of having a robot in your home 24-7? What is the emotional impact of interacting with that robot daily? It’s fair to say our emphasis on societal impact is one of the unique aspects of our institute.”

Early on in the field of robotics, Tumer said, a robot was typically a “big mechanical device on a factory floor, caged away, unpredictable and dangerous, not designed to be interacting with humans in a way that was natural to them.”

“But in the future, a robot might be sitting with you, working with you with some level of interaction,” he said. “Oregon State didn’t have a robotics program 10 years ago, which is in some ways liberating because we’re not saddled with the legacy of what a robotics program ought to be. We have a lot of young faculty who are looking at where the field is going and are not in any way stuck with how things were perceived in past. They’re looking at how robotics ought to be rather than how robotics was.”

Tumer’s leadership team includes three associate directors: Julie A. Adams, for deployment and policy; Alan Fern, for research; and Bill Smart, for academics. Adams and Fern are professors of computer science, and Smart is an associate professor of mechanical engineering.

Funding sources for research by the institute’s core faculty include federal and state grants, industry grants, and philanthropic gifts.

The institute will be located within existing research space within the College of Engineering.

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Cassie the robot

Cassie the robot