Wind turbine blades bend under heavy winds in UVA prototype

Virginia universities are pushing the envelope in technology and design. A group of reporters recently toured their labs, and FierceElectronics was invited along for a glimpse of the future.

Researchers at the University of Virginia have designed a wind turbine inspired by palm trees that has two blades instead of three and faces downwind instead of upwind. 

A 10-story prototype version of the design has been functioning well in Colorado at the National Renewable Energy Lab for nearly a year, holding up under wind speeds that reach to 100 mph. The blades are lightweight and partly made of fiberglass but could be made of other lightweight materials.

“Mass is money and turbines are less costly with a lighter system,” said Prof. Eric Loth in an interview at the UVA campus in Charlottesville. GE is an official partner in the research. Loth said a future iteration of the wind turbine prototype could be 10 times taller. The team is also studying placing these lightweight turbines on offshore moorings so they actually float in the Atlantic Ocean to catch the wind and generate power.

The most unusual feature of the prototype is that the blades can bend near the hub, similar to how palm tree branches bend in high winds. The researchers are using artificial intelligence to learn the ideal angle of the blades for catching wind and producing electricity. “Wind turbines are actually the world’s largest robots,” given the emerging ability to use machine learning for producing greater efficiency, Loth said.

AI can also help wind farms that have dozens of turbines adapt to efficient use of wind as well, he explained. If a turbine in the front of a group of turbines catches most of a gust of wind, it might impair the efficiency of turbines downwind from it.  With AI in a system controlling the turbines, an entire group of turbines could potentially work in concert to provide the most effective gathering of wind energy and resulting power.

By reversing the direction that the wind turbine faces, the blades can be lighter. In a typical wind turbine, the heavier blades face the wind and a sudden gust can rip the blades off, causing them to crash into the vertical tower, resulting in catastrophic damage and costs.  UVA has posted a video of the prototype in action, along with a short video clip of what can happen if a traditional blade breaks free and damages a tower.

AVs and more

Other teams at UVA are researching autonomous mobile robots and safety for assisted vehicle systems. In one lab, assistants to Prof. Nicola Bezzo demonstrated a small LiDAR-equipped rolling robot that could spot barriers to avoid collisions. A series of high-definition cameras were also used to guide a small flying drone that was being directed by a lab assistant who gestured directions with a three-foot metal wand in a T-shape. The cameras sense a series of lights along the wand, then convey that data to nearby computers to steer the drone. 

In another lab run by Prof. Lu Feng, a subject sits behind the wheel of an assisted vehicle simulator, then experiences driving with hands on the wheel and later with hands off the wheel. As the subject proceeds along a course in the simulation, he or she can indicate whether their level of trust in the assisted vehicle technology has increased or gone down. Feng said most assisted vehicle passenger tests only ask subjects what their level of trust in the assisted vehicle technology was after completing a simulation.

The experiment uses eye-tracking data to detect what subjects are seeing, such as a pedestrian on the shoulder or a truck in a nearby lane. Comparing the eye tracking with the subject’s level of trust can help researchers know whether drivers are “over-trusting” the assisted driving technology or not.

Travis Hite, academic program director for UVA’s Engineering Link Lab, said research is underway to help sensors, AI and data systems better understand traffic situations that autonomic vehicles might encounter. For example, he said an AV needs to be able to understand a scenario in which it sees a truck’s headlights directly in front in the same lane. The AV needs to learn ways to determine if it is really a vehicle approaching and about to cause a head-on collision or just a truck being towed by a vehicle in front of it that is moving forward in the same direction as the AV.

UVA’s School of Data Science is also exploring ethics and justice issues related to data and “what it means to be responsible” with data science, said Arlyn Buress, associate director for operations and strategic initiatives. The school is studying and teaching in areas such as data models for credit card fraud. Another unusual project wants to reveal when religious groups become violent as determined by their use of certain language. “Can you tell escalation in language?” is part of the research concept.

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Virginia Tech’s ICAT

At Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, the Institute for Creativity, Arts and Technology (ICAT) explores a series of interdisciplinary research projects with artists, designers, engineers and scientists working together. The goals of the institute are profound: “to foster creativity and promote critical reflection,” according to the ICAT website.

Founding Director of ICAT Ben Knapp described for reporters a series of projects undertaken recently as he stood in front of a massive circular curtain hanging in a black box theater with video projected onto the curtain from 24 locations. One project is a study of bees to find insights about why pollinators are in decline. The work brought together entomologists and musicians to simulate sounds that bees may react to. Another recent project investigated new ways to allow virtual reality users to touch and manipulate virtual objects using robots to provide haptic feedback.

Prof. Eric Standley, a contemporary artist in the school of visual arts, showed examples of intricate laser-cut paper designs meant to provide a conceptual interpretation of DNA found in fruit flies. In his work, up to 75 layers of colorful paper are laser cut in a complex variety of shapes and patterns to create a 3D image.

“The beauty of fundamental laws of nature has inspired great artworks from the ancient Greeks to Da Vinci to Dali,” a description of the project reads. “The mysterious yet fundamental geometrical objects relevant to chromatin biology will inspire new art forms that we will develop in this project. We will develop computational models of chromosome organization in nuclei for polytene chromosomes, focusing on ways to visualize the most relevant information.”

The visual art that Standley developed with help from a team of students is meant to describe “what’s revealed and what’s concealed” in the DNA at 1/1000th of an inch in size, Standley told reporters. The visual work helps demonstrate the “fragility” inherent in the DNA.

Knapp said the project is a good example of how major corporations such as Apple and Bell Labs have hired resident artists and incorporated creativity through art and music into their design processes for products such as the iPad.  “It helps in solving problems,” he said. “We have so much technology now, and with the problems we have we have to think forward. If somebody doesn’t think forward, we’ll only fuel a capitalist market. We need people who think differently. “

Knapp said he realizes that taxpayers might question the value of such a project. “It’s a hard time. People want answers,” Knapp said. “Every major company is doing this kind of work. This is integral. Universities are catching up to companies.”

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