Monthly Archives: December 2019

Robots! A Story of Engineering and Biology

Meet Nathan Justus, a Robotics Engineer at Oregon State University.

“I never thought I’d end up in graduate school funded by grape lobbyists,” says Nathan Justus, a robotics engineer at OSU, “but here we are!”

Imagine you reach down into a bag of grapes only to notice a black widow spider crawling through the grape stems. These small spiders have an unusually potent venom containing a neurotoxin that is harmful to large vertebrates (aka humans!). Although there haven’t been any deaths from black widows transmitted through grape production to date, you can imagine why the 800 people that find black widows in their grapes every year get quite the scare. Not surprisingly, the grape industry is looking for a sustainable way to solve this problem. After all, the use of pesticides and fumigants is harmful for humans and the environment, and black widow spiders are actually beneficial to the grape-growing ecosystem. Nathan is part of a team that is using robotics as a creative tool to tackle this issue, and by taking this interdisciplinary approach, the development of a promising solution is underway. 

Generally, Nathan studies the robotics of biological motion. It turns out that when a black widow spider enters the web of another, the two spiders pluck at the web to communicate and ultimately determine who gets to stay and who has to leave. Nathan’s lab is partnered with arachnologists and researchers at the USDA who found that when you record the spiders plucking and play it back to them, sometimes the spiders would leave the webs. Part of what Nathan worked on for his Master’s project was a new method to measure the frequency of the web vibrations in order to fine tune and develop a method for implementing this spider evacuation plan. 

The status quo method of measuring such vibrations has been to use a fancy laser, which catches shifts in wavelength in order to deduce the frequency of vibration. Although this method works great for flat surfaces, it is understandably a challenge to use a laser on a moving spider or web. Enter video vibrometry: the new method that Nathan has been working towards developing. Simply put, this method involves pointing a video camera at a target, in this case, the black widow web, and then a little bit of “math magic” will yield the vibration frequency. This piece of technology works towards the greater goal of the project; to allow spiders to live comfortably in their homes as grapes grow, but leave when the time comes to harvest. Happy farmers, (relatively) happy spiders.

Luckily, Nathan is not leaving OSU as a researcher any time soon. He will be beginning his PhD in Robotics with Dr. Joe Davidson working to solve an entirely different puzzle. The overarching project goal is the development of autonomous robots that can navigate and interact with the underwater environment. This has many practical applications; just to name one, there is the extensive feat of keeping up with the frequent maintenance needed for our global telecommunications infrastructure, which, of course, is underwater. Maybe we want robots that will be able to work on ship hull examinations and repair, or perhaps we are envisioning a fleet of scientific robots that can explore shipwrecks or the ocean floor. Currently we have robots for the underwater environment, however, most are either human operated and thus attached to a tether, or must be within 10 meters of controls. Creating a robot that can break free of these limitations and navigate through the noise of currents and frictions, all while receiving feedback from the environment, is incredibly complex. Nathan’s PhD work will move the state of research on underwater robotics closer to autonomy.

Nathan was on the winning team for the NASA RASCAL Robotics Ops Competition. His team received $10,000 of funding to build a rover. Their rover was inspired by the Russian style Marsicon and was roughly 1m by 1m upon completion.

Nathan didn’t always know that he would end up working on underwater robots. He grew up dreaming of being an aerospace engineer, and went to the University of Oklahoma for just that. In his undergrad, he joined a team that got funded 10,000 to join a national competition to build a rover for NASA, and even won. After graduating, he joined NASA and worked in mission controls for the International Space Station. Nathan was part of the communications teams that worked in real time, 24-hours a day to keep the communication channels at NASA up and running. Legend has it that he has even gone rock climbing with astronauts. 

Mission Controls at NASA

Impressed? Me too. Intrigued? Tune into the live interview with Nathan this Sunday, December 8that 7:00pm on 88.7 KBVR Corvallis or stream it live!