Thursday, 19 February 2009

Bus drivers' skills kept sharp

Original Article - Arizona Star

oe Riggs, a school bus driver for the Marana district, could afford to laugh it off when he crashed into an SUV — it wasn't real.
School bus driver Joe Riggs burst into laughter when he hit an SUV.
Riggs, 64, wasn't at the wheel of his 40-foot-long bus when he hit the other vehicle. He was sharpening his skills in a white trailer equipped with a bus-driving simulation system. Seventy-five Marana Unified School District bus drivers, including Riggs, received one hour of training last week in the driving simulator.

"It's a good training system," Riggs said. "Every driver should have access to a simulator at one time or another." Training concentrated on safe and proper turning techniques and the appropriate use of mirrors.

"There's a lot of blind spots because of the size of the bus, and if drivers are aware of how to use those mirrors, it greatly helps them," said Dean Humphrey, a senior loss-control consultant for the Arizona School Risk Retention Trust Inc., which provided the simulator.

Also known as the Trust, the group provides insurance to Arizona public schools, including Marana, and to community colleges. Marana paid nothing for the one-week use of the mobile simulator.

Humphrey's goal is to train between 2,600 and 2,800 bus drivers all across the state this year. He said about 7,000 school bus drivers are working in Arizona.
Amphitheater, Flowing Wells, Sahuarita and Sunnyside school district bus drivers also will receive training sometime this year, Humphrey said. And he's trying to schedule a training session with the Tucson Unified School District.
"We want to provide a different delivery system for training that's cost-effective as well as effective," Humphrey said.

Dean Humphrey brought the simulator for the drivers to use. "There's a lot of blind spots because of the size of the bus, and if drivers are aware of how to use those mirrors, it greatly helps them," he said.
When Riggs hit the simulated sport utility vehicle, he was practicing his defensive-driving skills on a course in which vehicles dart into the path of the bus.
Drivers sit in front of four screens in a driver's seat that's equipped with all the functions of an actual school bus.

They operate the driving simulator from their point of view and can travel through city, freeway or rural courses. Defensive-driving techniques also can be practiced on skills courses.

"It is great," Riggs said about the driving simulator. "It doesn't teach you, of course, how to drive, but it does make you rely on and learn to use your mirrors more often than you might. And to drive more defensively."
Driving a school bus is the retired stockbroker's second career, but Riggs does have some experience operating large vehicles. Riggs and his wife sold their belongings in Homer, Alaska, four years ago and bought a motor home.
"This gave me a good way to get back to motor home driving, which I dearly loved," Riggs said.

Marana bus drivers viewed the training as an opportunity to hone their skills. They know how important their job is, and additional training will help them be better drivers.

"I think it's great. It's different. I was skeptical," school bus driver Toni Keepers said. "It lets us see what we're doing. It's a different look."
She has driven a school bus for nearly 12 years. She said there's more to the job than driving.

Keepers, 52, doesn't leave the bus yard until she checks the fluid levels on her bus, thoroughly checks the exterior and interior of her bus, and fuels up.
"I take better care of my bus than I do my own car," she said.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Sun-powered device converts CO2 into fuel

Original Article - New Scientist

Powered only by natural sunlight, an array of nanotubes is able to convert a mixture of carbon dioxide and water vapour into natural gas at unprecedented rates.

Such devices offer a new way to take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and convert it into fuel or other chemicals to cut the effect of fossil fuel emissions on global climate, says Craig Grimes, from Pennsylvania State University, whose team came up with the device.

Although other research groups have developed methods for converting carbon dioxide into organic compounds like methane, often using titanium-dioxide nanoparticles as catalysts, they have needed ultraviolet light to power the reactions.

The researchers' breakthrough has been to develop a method that works with the wider range of visible frequencies within sunlight.

Enhanced activity

The team found it could enhance the catalytic abilities of titanium dioxide by forming it into nanotubes each around 135 nanometres wide and 40 microns long to increase surface area. Coating the nanotubes with catalytic copper and platinum particles also boosted their activity.

The researchers housed a 2-centimetre-square section of material bristling with the tubes inside a metal chamber with a quartz window. They then pumped in a mixture of carbon dioxide and water vapour and placed it in sunlight for three hours.

The energy provided by the sunlight transformed the carbon dioxide and water vapour into methane and related organic compounds, such as ethane and propane, at rates as high as 160 microlitres an hour per gram of nanotubes. This is 20 times higher than published results achieved using any previous method, but still too low to be immediately practical.

If the reaction is halted early the device produces a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen known as syngas, which can be converted into diesel.
Copper boost

"If you tried to build a commercial system using what we have accomplished to date, you'd go broke," admits Grimes. But he is confident that commercially viable results are possible.

"We are now working on uniformly sensitising the entire nanotube array surface with copper nanoparticles, which should dramatically increase conversion rates," says Grimes, by at least two orders of magnitude for a given area of tubes.

This work suggests a "potentially very exciting" application for titanium-dioxide nanotubes, says Milo Shaffer, a nanotube researcher at Imperial College, London. "The high surface area, small critical dimensions, and open structure [of these nanotubes] apparently provide a relatively high activity," he says.

Abstract in Nano Letters

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Managing Energy with Swarm Logic

Original Article - MIT Technology Review

Self-organizing equipment could cut energy bills.
By Tyler Hamilton

Smart switch: The controller shown here could improve the energy efficiency of building appliances. The devices communicate wirelessly and use swarming algorithms to collaboratively decide how to manage power usage.
Air-conditioning units and heating systems are examples of power-hungry equipment that regularly switches on and off in commercial buildings. When these devices are all switched on at once, power consumption spikes, and a building's owners are left with hefty peak-demand charges on their electricity bills.

A startup based in Toronto says that it has come up with a way to reduce energy use by mimicking the self-organizing behavior of bees. REGEN Energy has developed a wireless controller that connects to the control box on a piece of building equipment and functions as a smart power switch. Once several controllers have been activated, they detect each other using a networking standard called ZigBee and begin negotiating the best times to turn equipment on and off. The devices learn the power cycles of each appliance and reconfigure them to maximize collective efficiency.

The goal is to avoid everything coming on at the same time without sacrificing individual performance. The devices work through this problem using a "swarm algorithm" that coordinates activity without any single device issuing orders.

"Every node thinks for itself," says Mark Kerbel, cofounder and chief executive officer of REGEN Energy, which invented the proprietary algorithm embedded in each device. Before making a decision, he explains, a node will consider the circumstances of other nodes in its network. For example, if a refrigerator needs to cycle on to maintain a minimum temperature, a node connected to a fan or pump will stay off for an extra 15 minutes to keep power use below a certain threshold. "The devices must satisfy the local restraint but simultaneously satisfy the system objective," says Kerbel, adding that a typical building might have between 10 and 40 controllers working together in a single "hive." The devices are simple and quick to install and, because there's no human intervention, require no special training to use.

It's a dramatic departure from the top-down command model associated with current building-automation systems. Some researchers say that the decentralized approach to energy management offers a cheaper, more effective way to manage supply and demand in a delicately balanced electricity system. Indeed, some believe that it could be an early prescription for an emerging smart grid.

"You're seeing a lot more interest in this on a modest scale," says David Chassin, a scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory's energy-technology group, which is heading up the GridWise smart-grid initiative.

The benefits could extend beyond electricity savings for building owners. Today's electricity system is designed for peak consumption, which means that power plants are built to satisfy those few minutes of each day when power demand surges well above daily averages. By reducing peak demand on a large scale, utilities can maximize the operation of existing power plants while reducing the need to build new plants for occasional use. Another potential benefit is reduced carbon emissions, since power plants that supply peak electricity tend to be less efficient and fueled by coal and natural gas.

George Pappas, a professor of electrical and systems engineering at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert in distributed control systems, says that swarm logic is a natural fit for energy applications. "REGEN is ahead of the curve on this," says Pappas.

Operation within a building is one thing, but less certain is whether swarm logic can be trusted to manage the grid itself. Chassin says that the engineering community is understandably wary of decentralized or "emergent" control systems for the grid because, while they work remarkably well in certain applications, the approach is not well tested.

Kerbel first came up with the idea of using a swarm algorithm to manage power consumption in 2005. "We were politely told that this style of control just isn't ready and requires far more academic research," he says. "It's difficult to think outside the command-and-control box and allow this leap of faith--that is, relinquishing decision-making capabilities to individual nodes of the collective."

It's a bias that Herb Sinnock, manager of the Centennial Energy Institute, in Toronto, admits to having. He says that engineers typically want constant feedback so that they can measure system operation and make refinements. REGEN's technology dispenses with all that, but he notes that its application will allow for some mistakes. "It's not like they're positioning control rods in a nuclear reactor core. We're talking about affecting the temperature in a room by half a degree, so there's room for error," says Sinnock.

Sinnock's institute has been working with REGEN to evaluate the performance of its devices in the field. Tests have so far demonstrated that building owners--of hospitals, hotels, shopping malls, factories, and other large facilities--could save as much as 30 percent on their peak-demand charges. Those savings, REGEN claims, more than cover the cost of renting the devices, which is an option for major electricity consumers reluctant to buy the technology up front. If the devices are purchased, the payback is less than three years, says Kerbel.

The simplicity of the installation is what impresses Sinnock most. "In a few hours, they can have the devices installed and figuring out their environment and surroundings," he says. Pappas, meanwhile, says that he expects there will be much more interest in this type of application over the coming years, pointing to a U.S. economic stimulus package that calls for more investment in energy efficiency and smart-grid technologies. "A lot of the big impact and low-hanging fruit is going to come from using this approach," he says.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

SENSEable City - MIT at Davos

The SENSORy bike wheel (giving a mesh network for data aquisition, monitoring ... why, it's endless)

Disruptive Innovation, Applied to Health Care

Original Article - New York Times

THE health care system in America is on life support. It costs too much and saps economic vitality, achieves far too little return on investment and isn’t distributed equitably. As the Obama administration tries to diagnose and treat what ails the system, however, reformers shouldn’t be worried only about how to pay for it.
Dr. Yan Chow, a pediatrician with Kaiser, demonstrates a videoconferencing system that would allow doctors to speak with patients in their homes.

A laser keyboard could be used in spaces too small for a conventional one and might help prevent the spread of infection among hospital workers.
Instead, the country needs to innovate its way toward a new health care business model — one that reduces costs yet improves both quality and accessibility.

Two main causes of the system’s ills are century-old business models, for the general hospital and the physician’s practice, both of which are based on treating illness, not promoting wellness. Hospitals and doctors are paid by insurers and the government for the health care equivalent of piecework: hospitals profit from full beds and doctors profit from repeat visits. There is no financial incentive to keep patients healthy.

“The business models were all created decades ago, and acute disease drove those costs at the time,” says Steve Wunker, a senior partner at the consulting firm Innosight. “Most businesses in this industry are looking at their business model as entirely immutable. They’re looking for innovative offerings that fit this frozen model.”

Advances in technology and medical research are making it possible to envision an entirely new health care system that provides more individualized care without necessarily increasing costs, some health care experts say.

For instance, genetic breakthroughs have helped reveal time and again that what we thought was one disease — Type 2 diabetes, for instance — actually represents a score or more of distinct illnesses, each of which responds best to a different type of therapy, according to medical professionals.

As researchers develop ways to define diagnoses more precisely, more effective treatments can be prescribed, says Matthew Holt, founder of the Health Care Blog and co-founder of the biannual conference Health 2.0. Ultimately, those therapies can be administered by nurse practitioners or others trained to handle routine ailments. The expensive “intuitive medicine” practiced by doctors trained to wade through a thicket of mysterious symptoms in search of an accurate diagnosis can then focus on those cases that truly require their services.

Using innovation management models previously applied to other industries, Clayton M. Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor, argues in “The Innovator’s Prescription” that the concepts behind “disruptive innovation” can reinvent health care. The term “disruptive innovation,” which he introduced in 2003, refers to an unexpected new offering that through price or quality improvements turns a market on its head.

Disruptive innovators in health care aim to shape a new system that provides a continuum of care focused on each individual patient’s needs, instead of focusing on crises. Mr. Christensen and his co-authors argue that by putting the financial interests of hospitals and doctors at the center, the current system gives routine illnesses with proven therapies the same intensive and costly specialized care that more complicated cases require.

“Health care hasn’t become affordable,” he said in an interview, “because it hasn’t yet gone through disruptive decentralization.”

It’s coming, though. Some health care suppliers have set up fixed-fee integrated systems, and accept monthly payments from members in exchange for a promise of cradle-to-grave health care. Each usually also charges a small co-payment for treatment. Routine cases are handled through lower-cost facilities, leaving more complicated cases to higher-cost hospitals and specialists. Such systems include Kaiser Permanente, Intermountain Healthcare in Utah, the Mayo Clinic, the Geisinger Health System in Pennsylvania and the Veterans Health Administration.

By creating a continuum of care that follows patients wherever they go within an integrated system, says the Princeton University economist Uwe Reinhardt, care providers can stay on top of what preventive measures and therapies are most effective. Tests aren’t needlessly duplicated, competing medications aren’t prescribed by different doctors, and everyone knows what therapies a patient has received. As a result, integrated systems like Kaiser’s provide 22 percent greater cost efficiency than competing systems, according to a 2007 study by Hewitt Associates.

Kaiser’s system, in particular, has proved the benefits of an integrated system, Mr. Reinhardt says. “It is much cheaper than pay-for-service systems, because they have absolutely no incentive to overtreat you, but they have every incentive to keep you healthy,” he says. “Kaiser still makes mistakes — any large system does — but their facilities always come out ahead in every service quality survey I’ve reviewed.”

At Kaiser, experimentation with new technologies and business models occurs at the Sidney R. Garfield Health Care Innovation Center in San Leandro, Calif. Kaiser opened the facility in 2006 to test such new technologies as a videoconferencing system linking health care professionals to patients in their homes. Another is a laser-projected keyboard to prevent the spread of germs via computer equipment.

The Stanford economist Alain C. Enthoven, who has been studying the nation’s health care system for more than 30 years, said integrated systems “are the disruptive innovation we need to turn loose on the rest of America.” In a recent report for the Committee for Economic Development, Mr. Enthoven advocates letting consumers choose between traditional fee-for-service plans and less expensive integrated systems, then letting consumers pocket the difference in premiums. “Medicine is a complicated team sport,” he notes. “It takes an integrated system to keep the patient at the center of it.”

DR. JOHN H. COCHRAN, who as executive director of the Permanente Foundation is the highest-ranking physician among Kaiser’s 14,000-plus doctors, says information technology will play a crucial role in revolutionizing the country’s health care system.

“There’s a mythology that I.T. decreases the personal relationship between the physician and the patient,” he said. “In point of fact, it enhances it.”

Bringing business school concepts to bear on health care simply makes sense, Dr. Cochran says.

“We have a financial, macroeconomic, multinational crisis right now that can be paralytic or catalytic,” he said. “Let’s make sure we’re a catalyst.”