OPINION: Mission now includes tiny swarm robots and helping wounds heal
Nov 30, 2012 (Fort Worth Star-Telegram - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
I like gadgets as much as the next guy -- which, given that many guys really like gadgets, means I like them a lot. Hardware stores are like toy stores for me.
So I was in heaven Wednesday night at an open house at the newly re-branded and re-purposed University of Texas at Arlington Research Institute in northeast Fort Worth. My wife, Sandy, was with me and was just as fascinated as I was, so it wasn't just a guy thing.
The event was a coming-out party for the institute's ambitious new mission, focusing on specified "strategic sweet spots" and taking research discoveries brought by university faculty, students and industry partners to real-world commercial use within two years.
The institute's three-story, 48,000-square-foot building is on the university's 18-acre Riverbend Campus near Airport Freeway and East Loop 820. It opened in 1986 and formerly was known as the Automation and Robotics Research Institute. The name change comes because the institute has greatly expanded its original focus on robots for advanced manufacturing.
Robots are still a big part of the picture, but now they're much smaller and cheaper and targeted for other uses. UTARI researchers are working on things like assisted living robots to help older people. Remember those "Help! I've fallen and I can't get up" ads So last century.
Ever heard of swarm robotics Really, really cool gadgets. They're very small, can communicate with each other, have some aspects of artificial intelligence and are deployed in swarms, using sensors to gather information in places where it's not safe or wise for their handlers to go.
One of the "sweet spots" for the new UTARI mission is medical technologies, including medical training simulators, surgical robots and advanced prosthetics.
In that same category is a kind of artificial skin. It feels creepily like human skin but can be implanted with sensors and used to make a robot or a prosthetic limb more "aware" of its surroundings.
Maybe the coolest thing of all, UTARI researchers are working on wound-covering materials that with their own sensors and other devices can tell when is the right time to deliver the right amount of medication to aid the healing process. They're doing this in collaboration with the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, where many severely burned soldiers are taken for treatment.
That's the sort of thing UTARI's new executive director, Rick Lynch, says he holds dear. Lt. Gen. Lynch, a West Point graduate, retired Jan. 1 after a 35-year Army career that included assignments as a division commander in Iraq, as commander of the 3rd Corps at Fort Hood and finally as manager of all 163 Army installations worldwide.
Lynch and his wife, Sarah, serve on advisory boards of the Gary Sinise Foundation and Operation Finally Home, which aid wounded warriors.
He hasn't lost his military bearing and probably won't. He's direct in what he says, clearly goal-oriented and driven in what he does. UT Arlington President James Spaniolo gives a simple explanation for hiring Lynch: "Generals get things done."
The assignment is a tough one. The goal is to increase the institute's research spending from grants and industry partnerships from its current $1 million a year to $100 million a year by 2022.
Somewhere along the way, the facility will have to expand to hold more faculty, staff, students, industry researchers and laboratories. Lynch has written a strategic plan to be halfway to the goal, $50 million a year in research spending, in five years.
He has a lot to work with. Don't bet against him.
Mike Norman is editorial director of the Star-Telegram.
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