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Five Really Cool Technologies Being Developed Here

Jim Sayer with a transmitter at UMTRI
Jim Sayer with a transmitter at UMTRI - Doug Coombe
Makers are making noise in the Ann Arbor environs, applying technological know-how to new product development for profit, play, and social entrepreneurship. The creators gather at places like Maker Works, or cultivate ideas in their basements and, sometimes, even foreign lands. Concentrate focuses on five Washtenaw County-area entrepreneurs and organizations whose R&D is, or will, result in some really cool solutions

1. Traffic signals for smart cars
 
You have to connect before you can have autonomous cars operating safely. While Google's wireless automotive technology has made news, it lacks a cohesive social infrastructure that allows car technology to communicate with each other. 
 
In Ann Arbor, the University of Michigan Traffic Research Institute has 2,500 cars on the road testing wireless safety communication technology developed by Crash Avoidance Metrics Partnership, a joint venture between Ford Motor Company and General Motors in Farmington Hills. 
 
Each car is fitted with wireless devices allowing them to detect hazards. Initial performance observations from the study, scheduled to conclude in August 2013, is positive, depending on the crash, notes Jim Sayer, PhD, principal investigator. The in-car wireless technology and regional technological infrastructure holds the promise of making autonomous car driving not only possible, but safe. 
 
"Some people may think they don't need warnings at all," Dr. Sayer says. "Everybody thinks they're above average. We know that's statistically impossible." 
 
Dr. Sayer has been with the Institute for 19 years and has found that the area's creative environment has improved considerably in recent years.

"People are a lot more upbeat." He says the potential for reinventing the region through innovation is good. "This is especially true with the transportation sector. There are a lot of bright people finding new areas to be creative." However, he adds, "there's a real dirth of folks with experience in vehicle technology."

2. Listening to outer space with a home-made radio telescope 
 
Brad Boegler is a citizen scientist who "listens" for visions of outer space through a radio telescope that he's constructed with scrap electronics.  
 
A computer scientist by day, Boelger built a radio telescope for the challenge... and to feed his curiosity in astronomy. Just for fun. 
 
Most star gazers go the optical route. Boelger wanted to be different. Though not as "exciting" as visual telescopes, radio astronomy allows the listener to "see through dust," he says. Radio telescopes have been used to identify quasars and other phenomena in space not visualized through optical telescopes. The radio telescope is one of several projects Boelger has in the works at any one time. Boelger inventions are meant to be play -- not profit. 
 
"It's the challenge of building something and have it work that excites me," he says. 
 
What's next? A step back in radio technology. Boegler recently got a HAM radio license and plans to make his own equipment and explore unique ways of communicating through radio.

"It's a great time to be interested in electronics and engineering," and Southeast Michigan is a good place to be doing it, he says. "It's definitely an area where innovation is flourishing."

He says he values the community of people who collaborate in the Ann Arbor area through GO-Tech and at Maker Works.

3. 'Small wind' potential
 
As big wind power companies struggle to capture the wind along Michigan's coastline and at inland wind farms a long distance from population centers, distribution of power remains a costly factor.  ArborWind (www.arborwind.com) has developed an efficient, smaller "vertical axis wind turbine" to operate in metropolitan areas. 
 
"Most power is generated at large fossil fuel, nuclear, or hydroelectric power plants. Then it is transmitted over long distances to consumers," the company notes on its website. "But power losses in transmission, and capital cost to connect these plants to the grid, reduce the efficiency advantages of large power plant. Distributed power, where electricity is generated in small local plants, can fulfill many needs for today's large users of power." 
 
While wind intensity in Southeast Michigan isn't nearly what it is at prime locations, ArborWind claims that small wind turbines, as sources of distributed power, don't face the same economic challenges as big wind, which require capital intensive wind farms that generate power on the scale of utility power plants. That's not only an expensive way of generating wind power, but much of the power is lost through long distance transmission.
 
 According to ArborWind, the vertical axis wind turbine offers advantages in "efficiency, durability, and effective cost of the electricity produced." Vertical axis wind turbines are omnidirectional -- always facing the wind -- less susceptible to fatigue loads, rotate at speeds compatible with electric generators, and eliminate the need for a gearbox.

4. Tangled up in headphones... no more 
 
The YouTube video opens opens like a classic off-hour television product pitch: "Have you ever reached into your pocket and dealt with this mess?" 

Paul Schrems, a graduate of the University of Michigan Masters program in Energy Systems Engineering, displays tangled headphone wire. "Pretty frustrating, isn't it?"
 
Schrems and Nicholas J. Turnbull, a U-M Mechanical Engineering student, created "Turtle Cell," a clever adaptation of the reptile's protective shell as a smartphone case with enclosure for headphones. 
 
"In much the way a turtle uses its shell as a protective home, turtle cell is a permanent home for your headphones. No longer will your headphones get tangled or potentially lost every once and a while," Schrems promises. "Everything stays packaged neatly within the case itself. A smart phone slides into the case and is locked. When the earphones are pulled out, the audio signal is automatically transmitted to them." 
 
When retracted, the audio automatically comes out of the phone in a normal fashion so you can answer a call. The product will list at $30 before retail mark-up and distributed through smart phone points of purchase. Start up revenue will be raised through crowd funding platforms like kickstarter.com.
 
5. Developing tech solutions for the least gain, but greatest good
 
In 2004, John Barrie decided to end his career as an architect and product designer on the roof of a hospital in Ecuador. Instead, he would design sustainable solutions for the developing world, using new technology and creative imagination. 
 
"I had a skill set that could alleviate poverty," he realized. The developing world needs products that make their lives easier, just as well as affluent markets.  
 
Barrie contacted Stanford, MIT and other universities and found fewer than 25 social entrepreneurs doing this type of international product development and distribution. 
 
"I have the market to myself," he thought, "four billion clients!" Barrie created The Appropriate Technology Collaborative, which links the technological brainpower of local entrepreneurs at Maker Works and University of Michigan BLUELab engineering students with enabling partners in developing countries. 
 
The Collaborative designs sustainable innovations such as bamboo reinforced concrete, solar refrigeration and LED lighting replacements for kerosene lamps, and a treadle water pump. The design process includes onsite research in the communities where the solutions will be applied, discussing with clients options, production strategies, costs, and job creation. 
 
The Collaborative operates on a  market model, not charity. The products are sold to customers at affordable prices and with a margin that provides a modest profit. 
 
"The bang for the buck is amazing," Barrie says, admitting it's a "razor thin" profit margin. His value comes from creating sustainable value "lifting families out of poverty by buying a light," among other products that makes their lives easier. And Barrie doesn't worry about the competition.


All photos except Arbor Wind and Turtle Cell by Doug Coombe
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