Aero/astro Professor R. John Hansman Jr. SM '80, PhD '82 (far right) was one of the scientists involved in analyzing the plane crash.

Aero/astro Professor R. John Hansman Jr. SM ’80, PhD ’82 (far right) was one of the scientists involved in analyzing the plane crash.

What really happens during a plane crash? Could you survive? That’s what the Discovery Channel show Curiosity sought to find out recently. So they enlisted the help of an expendable Boeing 727 and several researchers—one of whom was Aero/astro Professor R. John Hansman Jr. SM ’80, PhD ’82. Hansman heads the Division of Humans and Automation and directs the International Center for Air Transportation.

The crash took place in a remote part of the Sonoran Desert of Baja California, Mexico. To “safely” crash the plane, the crew parachuted out then a former Navy test pilot in a nearby plane took over via remote control. The 727 hit the ground at 140 mph, close to regular landing speed, but after descending 1,500 feet per minute, much faster than the 10 to 20 feet per minute of a typical airliner landing. The crash mimicked two others (in 2008 and 2009) in which a plane lost speed and power just before landing hard and breaking into pieces. Read more in USA Today’s documentation of the crash.

The 727 broke apart when it crashed in the desert.Cameras capturing all angles (one was even in the ejecting pilot’s helmet), sensors, and crash-test dummies recorded the event. The results? The plane’s design is sound, Hansman told USA Today. And wearing seatbelts and properly bracing for a crash are very important. But there’s bad news if you fly first class. In this crash, at least, those passengers would have died. Seat 7A even catapulted 500 feet from the plane. People in the back of the plane could have walked away. Travelers in the middle of the cabin might have suffered concussions and broken bones. The pilots could have survived though the cockpit was extensively damaged.

“If you were to take a flight every day, in order for you statistically to be in a fatal aircraft accident, you’d have to live 35,000 years….There is no other means of transportation that is equivalent in terms of its success. It’s actually much safer than riding on an escalator.” –R. John Hansman in USA Today.

Scientists hope the data will help them improve aviation safety. The amount of dust that rushed into the cabin and obscured exits is one thing scientists will look to minimize in the future, for example.

The video here shows much of the crash, but view more videos of the experiment on the Curiosity website. The episode will be rebroadcast tonight, tomorrow, and on Oct. 14. And if you’re interested in Hansman’s research, he and colleagues in Spain recently created a new tool to analyze black-box data for flight anomalies that can help airlines improve aircraft safety and operations.

Discover Channel Taps Experts with MIT Ties

The Curiosity website features numerous experts—many of them alumni and/or professors—on a variety of topics. Here are just some:

Computers: Rosalind W. Picard SM ’86, ScD ’91 (MIT media arts and sciences professor); Leonard Kleinrock SM ’59, PhD ’63

Communications: Brewster Kahle ’82, Joi Ito (Media Lab head), Megan Smith ’86, SM ’88

Culture and History: Peter Diamandis ’83, SM ’88

Education: Mitchel Resnick SM ’88, PhD ’92 (head of the Media Lab’s Lifelong Kindergarten group)

Physics: Robert Metcalfe ’68

Robotics and Artificial Intelligence: Colin Angle ’89, SM ’91

Science and Society: Alex Sandy Pentland PhD ’82 (MIT media arts and sciences professor), Daniel Hillis ’78, SM ’81, PhD ’88

Space Exploration: Michael Massimino SM ’88, ME ’90, ENG ’90, PhD ’92


Using a cell phone while operating an automobile has been linked to aggresssive driving, and most states have enacted laws—such as hands-free only and a ban on texting—that limit or prohibit it. But a new study from MIT’s New England University Transportation Center (UTC) argues that the relationship between cellphone usage and erratic driving is more complicated. Many drivers who frequently talk behind the wheel tend to drive hostile even when they’re not on the phone.

Bryan Reimer, UTC associate director, told The Boston Globe:

“The people who are more willing to frequently engage in cellphone use are higher-risk drivers, independent of the phone. It’s not just a subtle difference with those willing to pick up the phone. This is a big difference.”

The UTC group analyzed 108 Boston-area drivers in three age brackets (20s, 40s, and 60s). Before the test drive, each participant answered questions about cell phone use while driving, plus their driving habits and citation history, and were split in two categories: “frequent user” and “rare user.”

The 40-minute test drive was conducted in a souped-up Volvo SUV  that contained an eye tracker, heart and skin monitors, on-board sensors, and outward-facing video cameras on the front and back of the car. Phone calls were not allowed during the ride, which was held on a section of Interstate 93 just north of Boston.

According to the study, frequent users—even when not on their cellphone—drove almost three miles per hour faster, switched lanes twice as often, spent more time in the far-left lane, and were prone to brake-slamming.

The UTC research indicates that frequent users are naturally aggressive drivers, with or without a cellphone. The study also recommends that less focus be paid to laws that ban cellphone use, and more focus put on training that discourages cellphone use and other bad habits.

The study, “Self-Reported and Observed Risky Driving Behaviors among Frequent and Infrequent Cell Phone Users,” appears in an August 2012 issue of Accident Analysis & Prevention.

Who’s to blame in erratic driving—man or machine? Let us know in the comments below or on Facebook.

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In 2009, MIT’s Robust Robotics Group won the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International’s (AUVSI) aerial-robotics competition when its autonomous mini-helicopter navigated its way through a simulated nuclear meltdown without access to GPS data.

For an encore, the group set a tougher goal: develop an autonomous micro-airplane that can handle the close quarters of indoor flying using only its on board sensors. As a bonus, they built their plane from scratch.

Traditional autonomous micro air-vehicles are usually limited to slow, deliberate flights. The MIT group’s fixed-wing vehicle, which weighs a little more than four pounds, can fly and navigate obstacles at relatively high speeds.

In the MIT News video, the airplane is put through a series of tests in the parking garage below the Stata Center and successfully avoids obstacles like columns, cars, and a low-ceiling. The plane averaged 22 miles per hour and covered more than three miles.

In tight spaces, airplanes are more difficult to navigate than helicopters because they can achieve faster speeds but can’t make arbitrary motions like hovering or moving sideways. The team, which includes Professor Mark Drela and Associate Professor Nick Roy, created a slim plane with short, wide wings (about six and a half feet long) and the computational power of a netbook.

From PC World:

It needs all this processing power to run a state-estimation algorithm in conjunction with a set of lasers, accelerometers, and gyroscopes. With these combined technologies, the UAV is able to figure out its own orientation (i.e. pitch, roll, and yaw) and velocity, as well as 15 other in-flight factors without a GPS signal. At the same time, the UAV constantly runs an algorithm that it uses to avoid obstacles it comes across on the fly.

The MIT-designed airplane was uploaded with a digital map of its surroundings, something the helicopter did not have. Their next goal is to develop an algorithm that can map the plane’s environment on the fly.


Oscar Pistorius

If you like underdogs, the most enduring story of the Olympics is South African runner Oscar Pistorius, the first double-amputee to compete at the Games.

Pistorius was born without a fibula in either leg. When he was 11 months old, both of legs were amputated below the knee. Nicknamed “Blade Runner,” he competes using j-shaped carbon-fiber prostheses and is a four-time Paralympics champion.

The Blade Runner’s Olympic story almost never began. In 2008, the International Association of Athletics Federations banned Pistorius from competing in able-bodied competitions after tests showed that he expended 25 percent less energy than able-bodied runners.

Associate Professor Hugh Herr SM '93

Pistorius challenged the ruling, with an assist from Associate Professor Hugh Herr SM ’93. Herr assembled a team of biomechanical experts and appealed to the Court of Arbitration in Sport. The group’s research showed that Pistorius uses energy at the same rate as other elite runners and his prostheses are no more efficient than human legs, and the court reversed the ban.

Pistorius finishing eighth in his heat during the 400-meters semi-final on August 5.

Herr told The Boston Globe:

“The scientific evidence we have today does not suggest an overall advantage in the 400-meter race,” said Herr. “How anyone could conclude an overall advantage with so little science conducted is speculation. There is not a single data point on the acceleration phase of the race, nor a single data point on running around the curved track with prostheses. In society we cannot ban an athlete from competition because he has a funny-looking body.”

Herr was also featured in a video documenting Pistorius’s journey that originally aired during NBC’s Olympics television coverage.

Herr’s connection to Pistorius extends beyond research. While rock climbing at New Hampshire’s Mount Washington in 1982, Herr was caught in a blizzard and spent three nights in -20°F temperatures. Herr suffered severe frostbite, and following the rescue, both of his legs were amputated below the knees.

As head of the Biomechatronics group at the Media Lab, Herr’s research focuses on develop technologies and creating robotic systems that help augment human physical capability. His variable-damper knee prosthesis and his active ankle-foot orthosis were named a Time Magazine Top 10 health invention in 2004 and 2007, respectively.


Map shows airports influence on the spread of disease.

Map shows airports influence on the spread of disease.

Conventional wisdom suggests that airplanes are great places to catch viruses and spread bacteria. Apparently some of that is true. A new MIT study actually identifies which airports are the most likely to spread a pandemic.

Civil and Environmental Engineering researchers have examined the first few days of an epidemic, determining how likely the 40 largest U.S. airports are to influence the spread of a contagious disease from their home cities. Understanding this can help public health officials make decisions, such as the distribution of medications, that might stem an outbreak.

A given airport could become an aggressive spreader of disease because of complex factors. It is not about size, apparently. The airports with the most traffic are not the most influential spreaders of disease, they say.  Examining travel patterns and  geography is more useful.

Associate Professor Ruben Juanes’s studies of the flow of fluids through fracture networks in subsurface rock and the research of Assistant Professor Marta González, who uses cellphone data to model human mobility patterns and trace contagion processes in social networks, helped determine influential travel patterns.

And which airport is most likely to spread contagion?

Kennedy Airport is ranked first, followed by airports in Los Angeles, Honolulu, San Francisco, Newark, Chicago (O’Hare), and Washington (Dulles).

Read the MIT News article for the full list, details on the research, and a video illustrating the spread of disease.



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A new vehicle safety system developed by two MIT alumni is the perfect backseat driver. Dubbed “the intelligent co-pilot,” the system stays mostly idle, never chirping directions or taking full control of the wheel. It only reacts in situations when an accident is imminent, quietly steering the car to safety and immediately transferring control back to the driver.

A screenshot from the MIT News Office video simulates the "intelligent co-pilot" in action.

Developed by Sterling Anderson SM ’09, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and Karl Iagnemma SM ’97, PhD ’01, a principal research scientist in the Robotic Mobility Group, the system monitors a driver’s performance and, when sensing oncoming harm, springs to action and navigates the vehicle to a safe area.

From MIT News:

“The system uses an onboard camera and laser rangefinder to identify hazards in a vehicle’s environment. The team devised an algorithm to analyze the data and identify safe zones—avoiding, for example, barrels in a field or other cars on a roadway.”

Anderson and Iagnemma have run more than 1,200 trials of the system using a modified Jeep-style vehicle on a self-made obstacle course in Saline, Mich., and reported minimal accidents. The trials also indicate that the human drivers with faith in the system, especially in moments of near-collision, drove the test course with more confidence and accuracy than those who did not trust it.

The team presented their research paper, “Constraint-based planning and control for safe, semi-autonomous operation of vehicles,” at the 2012 IEEE Intelligent Vehicles Symposium and a series of posts by Sterling  at Design Impact describes the background, motivation, and early results of their research.

What’s your take? The system could be especially helpful if a driver falls asleep at the wheel. But could you trust a semi-autonomous vehicle, especially in a moment of danger? Let us know in the comments below or on Facebook.


The Etak Navigaot. Photo: LiPo Ching.

The pre-GPS (global positioning system) days when drivers relied on maps and verbal directions are long gone. For most trips, an in-car navigation system has evolved from a luxury to a necessity, and to some, an afterthought.

While GPS popularity is a phenomenon from the past decade, the first publicly available automobile-navigation system, the Etak Navigator, first came to market in the mid-1980s. Over 25 years later, it’s believed that only one functioning Navigator still exists.

It’s located in the Toyota Camry of Jon Landes, a former Etak software engineer, who installed it in his car in 1989. Alongside Tristan Thielmann, an MIT visiting associate professor, Landes recently took the Camry for a spin, using the Navigator to guide its journey. According to Landes and Thielmann, the Navigator’s direction was accurate and precise.

View a slideshow of their journey from The Mercury News.

To call the Atari-looking Navigator–which retailed for about $1,500 in the late 1980s–a GPS would be a misnomer, as it does not use satellites to position itself in space.

From The Mercury News:

“Instead, it uses ‘dead reckoning,’ comparing the car’s location to a fixed spot. Landes’ system includes a compass affixed in the rear of the car, a central-processing unit about the size of a large loaf of bread, a series of cassette tapes that contain the digitized maps, and a choice of two green vector monitors, one large and one small. Inside the rim of the wheels is a series of magnetic beads that feed information to the computer about how fast the car is going, when it is turning, and so on.”

Thielmann, who studies mapping and media and is writing a book on the rise of navigation systems, recorded their journey in hope that the footage will be part of the evolution of media technology.

Does anyone remember the Etak Navigator, or know anyone who paid $1,500 to have it installed in their car? Let us know in the comments below or on Facebook.


BuzzyBaby offers a sling and shoulder strap that attach to the baby, the stroller, and the parent, who can easily carry both baby and stroller to navigate difficult terrain. It works with most brands of lightweight strollers.

BuzzyBaby offers a sling and shoulder strap that attach to the baby, the stroller, and the parent, who can easily carry both baby and stroller to navigate difficult terrain. It works with most brands of lightweight strollers.

It’s not easy being an urban parent with a stroller. There are revolving doors to contend with, uneven pavement, cobblestones (right, Bostonians?), and public transportation with its turnstiles, out-of-order elevators, and escalators. How are environmentally hip parents supposed to ditch their cars in favor of public transportation when strollers are involved?

Enter the BuzzyBaby Child Carrier System, a harness that allows parents to easily transfer a baby to their body and sling a stroller over a shoulder for easy maneuverability. As the BuzzyBaby Facebook page says, the design is optimized to handle any urban environment—without having to ask a stranger for help up a mountainous staircase. It’s also designed to work with most brands of lightweight strollers.

BuzzyBaby is the end result of a joint MIT–Rhode Island School of Design graduate class, “Product Design and Development,” which sought to deliver useful inventions. Nineteen RISD students joined 30 engineering and 30 management students from MIT in Cambridge twice each week for the class, which was taught by MIT faculty and those with joint appointments at MIT and RISD.

Last month, the 11 teams presented their products to a panel of product-development professionals; some teams, including BuzzyBaby, have already applied for patents. BuzzyBaby hopes to begin selling the strollers next spring and has received a lot of buzz lately, with write-ups in the Boston Globe and the Atlantic online.

View a photo gallery with many past class projects from “Product Design and Development.”


As innovations in software and technology make the world more complex, one MIT professor is focusing on the basics—safety.

STAMP is a holistic approach to engineering safety.

STAMP is a holistic approach to engineering safety.

Nancy Leveson, professor of aeronautics and astronautics and engineering systems at MIT, says that this increasing complexity makes systems more vulnerable to accidents. In addition, traditional engineering safety practices—such as checking individual components—won’t guarantee the safety of a complex system. All the parts must work together.

So Leveson and her students have developed a new, holistic approach to safety engineering. Their approach, dubbed STAMP for System-Theoretic Accident Model and Processes, addresses the impacts of human, social, economic, and governmental factors as well as the technical components.

The first applications were for aviation and transportation systems but it is now being used to address issues in nuclear power plants, occupational health, and medicine.

The system is holistic, according to her website, because of its comprehensive nature:

“Our techniques are based on a new system-theoretic model of accidents (STAMP) that replaces the traditional chain-of-events model underlying most current accident investigation, prevention, and assessment procedures. The model includes software, organizations, management, human decision-making, and migration of systems over time to states of heightened risk.”

The approach is gaining attention. The Federal Aviation Authority adopted the formal requirements specification for a real collision-avoidance system required on all commercial aircraft in U.S. airspace that she and her students developed. More than 250 safety engineering professionals from around the world came to campus for a three-day April workshop to learn about STAMP. The event also coincided with the publication of Leveson’s new book on the topic, titled Engineering a Safer World: Systems Thinking Applied to Safety.

Learn more about her work:




For a few years, the now-famous 2.007 robot contest has included an optional electric vechicle section for students who favored crafting an experimental ride to a robot. But this year, EVs got an official final event all their own, with two parts: a 50-meter drag race and a hill climb up a four-story parking garage.

Chibikart, designed by grad student Charles Guan '11.

Chibikart, designed by grad student Charles Guan '11.

Charles Guan ’11, a grad student in mechanical engineering, taught this special 2.007 EV section, which students affectionately named 2.00gokart.

Guan has made a name for himself lately on the Interwebs for video of his own three-week CAD-to-completion project, Chibikart, an “ultra-small four-hub motor drive go-kart designed to test out the ability of the 100mm size hub motors to move a person without assistance,” according to Guan’s blog, Equals Zero. Chibikart exceeded his expectations in efficiency and power use at speed, even when climbing the parking-garage course. It’s also his first use of 80/20 slotted framing which is very popular for prototyping machines quickly. Read his entries about building the machine, and watch it in action in the video below.

As for the 2.007 section Guan taught, he details the semester and the student projects on his blog. A123Systems donated batteries. Here are the rules, as Charles posts on his website. Read through his post for his analysis of what he’d do differently next time:

“You had to use 1 to 3 of the A123 12V7 bricks in your design, or else if you do want a custom battery solution a charger must be included in the budget. You got one 8″ pneumatic tire for free, choice between one with a sprocket, one with a belt pulley, and a ‘front’ wheel i.e. no  attached drive parts. You didn’t have to use it—this was a last minute pre-term rule change, because I was about to make everyone use an 8″ drive wheel. This was to encourage some more diversity in design…and in the end, I’m glad it happened. There were just some seriously creative efforts that would have been hampered by a wheel requirement. Major components, including motor, controller, frame materials, power transmission components, and any other vital parts (such as the deck, for the only skateboard-style project) must be under $300 not including shipping costs. Hardware and some small incidental metal stock was [sic] not included.”

The drag race was held in a relatively smoothly paved back alley under the Brain & Cognitive Sciences complex. Securing a parking garage for the hill climb was more challenging. But Guan and others convinced campus officials they had taken appropriate safety precautions for the narrow turns at the ends of the garage—by setting up literal safety nets—and MIT Parking and MIT Police closed off an entire parking facility on a Sunday for the event.

Check out the highlight footage below. Scooters averaged 9 to 11 seconds, and Melonkart hit an 8.28 second run. Instructors also got in on the fun. Chibikart managed an 8.26 second run. “The cool part about it,” say Guan on his blog, “is now that there exists an official activity safety process for this kind of event, we could throw a go-kart race almost whenever.”

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