Professor Munther Dahleh

Professor Munther Dahleh

At the next Faculty Forum online on March 19, you can find out what 21st century statistics means and how this new approach can shape global problem solving. Plus you can ask your own questions either now via email or during the 45-minute live webcast.

The speaker is Munther Dahleh, an expert in areas from networked systems to the future of the electric grid. Dahleh, the William A. Coolidge Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, will lead a new center at MIT aimed at applying 21st century statistics to diverse problems from systems behavior to social networks.

Dahleh is already working with complex problems. He is the acting director of the Engineering Systems Division, founded in 1998 to undertake interdisciplinary, systems approaches to challenges such as making healthcare affordable and accessible and managing global manufacturing and supply chains. He led the Laboratory for Information and Decisions Systems, an interdepartmental research center engaged in the analytical information and decision sciences. Both ESD and LIDS will become part of the new, as yet unnamed, entity, which will also include a significant new initiative in statistics.

During the Faculty Forum Online, Dahleh will share his hopes for this new undertaking and take questions from the worldwide MIT community via interactive chat.

Register today to participate in the Thursday, March 19, webcast from noon-12:45 p.m. EDT. A link to the webcast will be sent upon registration. A reminder email will be sent on the morning of the event. Email questions for the speaker ahead of time or ask them live or via Twitter using #mitfaculty.

About Munther Dahleh

Munther Dahleh’s research interests include networked systems, social networks, the future electric grid, transportation systems, and systemic risk. He is a three-time winner of the prestigious George Axelby Outstanding Paper Award from IEEE, winner of the Eckman Award for the best control engineer under 35, and a fellow of IEEE. At MIT, he has received the Graduate Student Council’s best teaching award. He is currently the housemaster at MacGregor House and the chair of the Committee on Discipline.

In the Press

The Connector,” MIT News
Dahleh appointed leader in LIDS,” MIT News
Gaming the System,” Technology Review

About Faculty Forum Online

Up to eight times per season, the Faculty Forum Online presents compelling interviews with faculty on timely and relevant topics, including nuclear weapons, neuroscience, digital privacy, and climate policy and research. Viewers watch and participate in live 30-minute interviews via interactive chat. Since its inception in 2011, archival editions of these programs have been viewed more than 75,000 times.

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Brint Markle, AvaTech, MIT Alumnus

Photo credit: Philipp Becker

An increase in avalanche deaths has paralleled the rise in recreational backcountry activities in recent decades. Although avalanches can happen unexpectedly, many of the warning signs can be detected. Key risk factors include recent rain or snowfall, visible cracking and sounds of shifting terrain, extreme temperature changes, and weak layers of snow in the snowpack. These weak layers can often cause an avalanche when no other signs are present and they are the most difficult to detect with basic manual tests, such as digging snow pits and feeling layers, which offer only subjective insight.

After Brint Markle MBA ’14 had a close call in 2010 while skiing with friends in Switzerland, he wanted to know much more than the surface characteristics of snow. With this goal in mind, he enrolled in the Sloan School of Management.

SP1 Probe, AvaTech

The SP1 Probe, created by MIT alumni

While at MIT, Markle teamed up with Jim Christian SM ’14 and Sam Whittemore ’14 to form AvaTech, a company focused on proactive avalanche safety that starts with a better understanding of snow. Their first product is the SP1 probe, which was launched in September and was recognized as a National Geographic Gear of the Year for 2014 and one of the Top 100 Innovations of the Year by Popular Science. The probe is inserted into snowpack and reads the characteristics of the layers through numerous sensors—determining hardness, resistance, slope angle, aspect, GPS orientation, and ultimately detecting weak layers that could cause slides. Along with the SP1 probe, they also launched AvaNet, a cloud platform that helps backcountry travelers share critical snowpack and avalanche safety data all across the world.

The product is being marketed to professionals and forecasters, helping to make their evaluations of snow safety more informed. “The snowpack is really complex,” says Whittemore, “and we want the SP1 to make it much easier for the people out there in the backcountry to assess how the snow changes in space and time.”

Brint Markle, AvaTech, SP 1 Probe, Himalayas

Markle (right) tests the SP1 in the Himalayas, Feb. 2015. Photo credit: Brennan Lagasse.

Today Markle, who is AvaTech’s CEO, Christian, the lead product designer, and Whittemore, the lead engineer, are based in Park City, Utah, the most popular backcountry locale in the US. From there, they travel around the world demonstrating their product. For much of February, Markle has been working with the SP1 and AvaNet in the Alps and the Himalayas. “We’ve spent the last two years validating our technology with leading industry professionals,” says Markle. “Today, we have more than 400 organizations from 35 countries sharing data on the platform, spanning ski patrol, guiding companies, forecast centers, departments of transportation, snow scientists, and other snow professionals.”

Up to this point, most research and development in the avalanche field has been focused on equipment and devices to save individuals already caught in an avalanche, but a more technical understanding of avalanche prevention could truly revolutionize the industry.

Originally, the vision of the company was focused on developing the first proactive avalanche safety technology in the world, says Markle. But they have come to realize that the SP1 is the cornerstone of a much broader information sharing platform. “We talk about building a global mountain community that can share information in real time to benefit the safety of all mountain travelers. That to us, is extremely powerful.”


Image: Sosolimited and The Atlantic

Image: Sosolimited and The Atlantic

The MIT alumni who founded the art and technology studio Sosolimited are experts at visualization. They used the Empire State Building to display Super Bowl predictions, transformed a chandelier into a global data map, and turned the London Eye into a massive mood ring at the 2012 Olympics.

But their most recent task was much more abstract: visualizing a thrill. In the November issue of the Atlantic, the studio teamed up with Porsche and Atlantic Re:think, the magazine’s creative group, to visualize the heart beats, breathing rates, and acceleration of 25 drivers behind the wheel of a Porsche Macan—speeding more than 100 miles per hour—on a closed 1.5-mile course.

“A lot of our projects are on the border between data visualization and artistic interpretations,” says Sosolimited’s Eric Gunther ’00, MEng ’02. “This one was definitely on the artistic interpretation side.”

Each driver wore a high-tech t-shirt that measured heart beats, breathing rates, and body movement. The Sosolimited team—which also includes Justin Manor ’00, SM ’03 and John Rothenberg ’02, SM ’07—then combined millions of data points with information from GPS devices plotted along the course.

“Once we had the data, our biggest challenge was to bring enough legibility to our designs so people could understand what was happening,” Gunther says. “I don’t think any of us actually knew what the data would look like.”

The end result was a racetrack-like design that used colors to contrast upticks in heart rate and respiration with car acceleration and hair pin turns.

Art of the Thrill,” The Atlantic

“You can see someone coming around a corner and their heart rate spikes or they start to breathe heavily,” said Wade Aaron, a designer at Sosolimited. “When you trace their data over the track, you end up with this really unique fingerprint of their experience on the racetrack.”

In addition to the snake-like data designs for all 25 drivers, Sosolimited also displayed a collection of individual still images that track heart and breathing rates plus the acceleration and positions of the cars.


A depiction of all drivers transitioning from a straightaway to a tight corner. Image via Sosolimited and The Atlantic

In the image below, according to The Atlantic, the blue, pink and green colors depict the heart rate, and the outer translucent form represents breathing rate. When the shapes expand, the driver is experiencing the “thrill” of a 120 miles-per-hour joy ride.

“We wanted a complex image that would still be pretty elegant,” Gunther says. “In the end, by playing with different mathematical mappings, we were able to let the data speak for itself.”

Visit The Atlantic Re:think website to learn more about the project and see all the images, data, and videos associated with the project.

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Last week six alumni working in space exploration as managers, engineers, and researchers joined us for Twitter chat MIT Alumni and the Final Frontier. The alumni fielded questions about their favorite projects, life at MIT, and shared insider knowledge on upcoming missions like OSIRIS-REx and Mars 2020.

New NASA Projects

All the alumni experts have a connection to NASA—as a current or past employee—and all have a great interest in upcoming missions, especially their favorites. Alessondra Springmann SM ’11 leaned towards asteroids, while Allen Chen ’00 SM ’02 had to pick an obvious favorite. Bobak Ferdowsi ‘03 chimed in with why he thinks the Europa Clipper mission is so exciting.

Mars 2020

The Mars 2020 mission will send another rover to the red planet—one with more capabilities than current rover Curiosity. Tamra Johnson ‘01 and Vanessa Thomas ’98 were curious how this newest mission might be different. Chen and Noah Warner ‘01, SM ‘03, PhD ‘07 shared some changes we can look for in 2020.

See You on Mars

Warner also shared insight into the future of the Curiosity—one we may never get to see.

Mission Moments

Caley Burke SM ’10 works in launches and Chen works in landings—both of which can be very stressful. Burke and Chen discussed what it’s like when they can finally breathe again.


Which AeroAstro class do the alumni keep thinking about? David Oh ’91, SM ’93, SCD ’97 joined in with his favorite.

To end the chat, Chen summed up what makes MIT and NASA so similar in his eyes.

This chat was cosponsored by MIT AeroAstro. See a more complete transcript of the chat


Pulling off Massachusetts Avenue and into the Edgerton Center’s Fabrication Space in Building N51, Valkyrie turns a lot of heads.

Valkyrie—MIT’s Solar Eclectic Vehicle Team’s (SEVT) current vehicle—is often road tested around MIT’s campus to the delight of onlookers.

Valkyrie. Photo: Michelle Chao '17

Valkyrie. Photo: Michelle Chao ’17

“We see people kind of pace the car and taking videos,” explains Rose Abramson ‘15, SEVT’s Electrical Lead.

SEVT, which was founded in 1985,  has long been supported by the Edgerton Center which provides the team with seed money, safety and administrative oversight,  workspace, equipment, and mentorship.

Valkyrie is the 12th road-ready vehicle to be designed and built by SEVT.  The current model boasts an all-composite chassis, 21 percent efficient solar cells (the ratio of the electrical output of a solar cell to the energy in the form of sunlight), and a top speed of nearly 65 miles per hour. What often turns heads is Valkyrie’s design—it has a flat top covered in solar panels and rides on three wheels—looking more rocket than car.

Vehicles created by SEVT cruise the busy streets of Cambridge to prep for their ultimate test—solar car races. SEVT recently raced Valkyrie at the American Solar Challenge in Austin, TX.

The event featured 20 college teams and several rounds of track races culminating in an open road trek from Austin to Minnesota. Valkyrie advanced through the first round of track races, but was stopped short of the open road race.

“We had a couple parts that had problems at the track and we were trying to debug it, but we just ran out of time. It was disappointing to us because we have been driving around Boston,” say Abramson.

Fortunately this isn’t the only chance SEVT gets to showcase their skills. The team is looking to the World Solar Challenge 2015 in Australia next—though Valkyrie won’t be joining them.

“Every five years or so the World Solar Challenge adds a regulation to make the cars less experimental and more like a real car,” Abramson explains.

The newest regulation change? No more three wheel vehicles.

That means the SEVT team will soon be starting over, but not entirely from scratch.

“We are planning on reusing a substantial portion of the parts from Valkyrie to save on the enormous manufacturing costs,” Abramson explains.

SEVT poses with Valkyrie. Photo: Michelle Chao '17

SEVT poses with Valkyrie. Photo: Michelle Chao ’17

The team of about 20 students makes almost every vehicle part in-house—from building mechanical systems to soldering electrical boards. “It gives you a lot of opportunity to design different things,” says Abramson.

While the team has big plans for their newest car, one major component still needs to be selected: the name. The team is looking for a snappy name to follow up Eleanor, Chopper del Sol, and Valkyrie. Abramson says the team is open to suggestions.



Guest Post by Sarah Jensen from the Ask an Engineer series, published by MIT’s School of Engineering

Get out your calculators, it’s time to do some math…

Photo: Samuel Landete

Photo: Samuel Landete

It seems everybody’s caught zip-line fever. From Florida to Mexico to Nicaragua, outdoor adventure enthusiasts zoom along the gravity-propelled cables strung between tall support structures. Smaller-scale zip-lines delight kids on the playground, and resorts and zip-line parks offer guests a truly exhilarating vacation. But before hosting an afternoon of team-building activities with coworkers or a one-of-a-kind bachelor party featuring your own backyard zip-line, it’s a good idea to make sure it’s as safe and sturdy as possible.

“Wood is a great structural element, and using a tree to support the cables would be fine,” says Amos Winter SM ’05, PhD ’11. “What really matters is the geometry of the tree. You want to use one with a large enough diameter that the zip-line doesn’t pull the tree over.” While a fat, sturdy tree will withstand a high buckling force and large bending loads, the flexing of a tall, thin tree can result in slackening of the cable—or cause the tree itself to snap under the stress imposed by the zip-line.

Discovering the amount of load a given tree can endure before it will break is no easy task and involves applying Euler’s buckling equation and formulas for determining maximum bending stress, as well as knowing the strength of the wood. Such intricate calculations aren’t really necessary for the backyard builder, who should be able to empirically tell whether a given tree is suitable for use in a zip-line, says Winter. “A tree with a large diameter can give enough stiffness and leverage to counteract the bending loads of a zip-line.” He suggests stringing a cable to the tree and hanging five to 10 times the weight of the intended zip-line-plus-rider. Jiggle and pull the weight, and if the tree holds up under the test, it should be adequate for supporting the actual zip-line. “When testing the system, be careful to stay clear of the cable or parts of the tree that could snap or break.” Read more.

Visit the MIT School of Engineering’s Ask an Engineer site for answers to more of your questions.

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Have you ever battled with a stranger for an armrest on a plane? James Lee SM ’08 has—that’s what prompted him to design the Paperclip Armrest.

armrest war

The potential dangers of sharing an armrest.

Lee was in the first year of his studies at MIT when the idea for a uniquely designed armrest came to him.

“I was in packed lecture hall at MIT, in 10-250, and the person next to me kept his arms on both armrests. I looked at where his arms were positioned and realized if the armrest were double level, then there could be space for me to place my arms,” he explains.


Side view of the design

Armed with a problem and a passion for aircraft seating design—something Lee says he’s always been interested in—Lee came up with a simple armrest design that looks like a paperclip. The armrest is two levels with the top level slightly more forward and shorter than the bottom level. This design allows for two separate arms on one armrest.

Lee kept armrest design as a hobby during his time at the MIT International Center for Air Transportation and as he began working for Hong Kong airline Cathay Pacific. It wasn’t until 2009 when Lee submitted his armrest design to the Crystal Cabin Awards—the only international awards for aircraft interior innovation—that his design started to take off.

“I submitted my idea and it got in the finals,” Lee says, which pushed him to make his first real prototype. The result was a paperclip style armrest like his original design that he snapped to an IKEA folding chair.

Lee took home one of the six Crystal Cabins Awards that night.


The Paperclip Armrest allows two people to share one armrest.

“Aircraft seating combines a few things I really like: mechanical engineering and aviation—I’m an airplane nerd—and also design,” Lee says. Lee kept designing innovative solutions for aircraft seating in his free time until 2012 when he founded Paperclip Design. Lee now has several design solutions for airplane seating, including Caterpillar Convertible Seating, which won a Crystal Cabin award in 2014.

So when can we expect to say farewell to armrest battles and see Lee’s innovative designs? Hopefully soon. Lee says his design can be helpful in any high-density seating arrangement.

“Currently my focus is on theater seating companies. It’s a lot harder to get into the aviation market with regulations and costs,” he explains. “But I hope to see them in planes within the next few years.”


Guest Post by Sarah Jensen from the Ask an Engineer series, published by MIT’s School of Engineering

Because 15th-century sailors didn’t have GPS…

Photo: Jo Schmaltz

Photo: Jo Schmaltz

Adventure novels and history books are filled with harrowing stories of sailing ships delayed at sea—tales of sailors running low on food and fresh water, dying of scurvy, and getting trapped in the doldrums, or the tropics during storm season. Unless sailors knew how fast they were going, they could end up days off schedule, endangering those on board and worrying loved ones awaiting them in port.

“With no landmarks to gauge their progress across the open sea, sailors couldn’t tell how fast or how far they were traveling,” explains Camila Caballero ’13, former academic coordinator for Amphibious Achievement, an athletic and academic outreach program for urban youth in Boston. But when the nautical mile – 1.852 kilometers – was introduced in the 15th century, they had a handy standard against which to measure speed and created out of necessity the chip log, the world’s first maritime speedometer. “They used materials they had on hand,” she explains. “A wedge-shaped piece of wood, a small glass timer, and a really long rope.”

But not just any rope would do. Based on the length of the nautical mile, knots were tied along the log line at intervals of 14.4 meters. One end was secured to the ship’s stern and the other was attached to the wooden board, which was dropped into the water. “As one sailor watched the sand empty through the 30-second glass, his shipmate held the line as it played out behind the ship and counted the knots as they passed between his fingers,” says Caballero. Dividing that 14.4 meters by 30 seconds told them that one knot equaled 1.85166 kilometers per hour, or one nautical mile. By performing the calculation using the actual number of knots that unspooled, the sailors were able to measure the ship’s speed.

The average of frequent measurements taken throughout the day proved to be a highly accurate reflection of how fast a ship was moving. The data was used to help them navigate by dead reckoning, the method used before the advent of modern instruments.

Today, maritime speed is determined by ultrasonic sensors or Doppler measurement, and the 30-second divisor in the rate equation has been replaced by 28. But the instrument for measuring a vessel’s speed is still called a log, and marine and aeronautical distances are still measured in nautical miles. “Maps used at sea and in the air are based on the earth’s circumference,” says Caballero. “Their scale varies with latitude, and the nautical mile, about 500 feet longer than the land mile, reconciles those differences.”

And in both today’s pilothouse and cockpit, the speed equal to one nautical mile an hour is still called a knot, the term an echo of the days when crewmembers of square-riggers and caravels got creative with a few simple materials and produced an essential and significant little gadget.

Thanks to S. Venkatesh from Tirunelveli, India, for this question. Visit the MIT School of Engineering’s Ask an Engineer site for answers to more of your questions.

More information about Amphibious Achievement and their third annual Erg-a-Thon

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Update: Happy April Fools’ Day! Currently, there are no plans for a moving walkway in the Infinite Corridor. Walk safely! 

The Infinite Corridor may soon seem much less infinite. Beginning in 2015, portions of the corridor will include a moving walkway, called Zero Footprint, which will allow members of the MIT community to safely text, read a book, or study as they travel through the corridor.

The proposed walkway—similar to the slow-moving conveyors commonly seen in airports—was designed by researchers at MIT’s Historical Edifice Innovation Center and will have a dual purpose of safety and sustainability. According to a new MIT study, 30 percent of MIT students reported injuries related to texting or reading while walking within the Infinite Corridor or other busy MIT pathways in the past school year.

Fran Swanson, Hayden S. Finch Professor of Building Theory, says the walkway will add another layer of safety to campus while also being mindful of MIT’s commitment to sustainability. Zero Footprint will be a first-of-its-kind carbon-neutral moving walkway.

A mockup of Zero Footprint. Credit: Alan Scott

A mockup of Zero Footprint. Credit: Alan Scott

“It’s called Zero Footprint because it will create nearly 95 percent of the power required to operate,” explains Swanson. “The most important issue is student safety, but the name is a nice tie-in with the Infinite Corridor. It explains just how sustainable this new installation is.”

Based on research from MIT’s Urban Re:Construction Lab, Zero Footprint will be powered almost entirely by piezoelectric tiles that will frame the walkway. Those who choose to walk outside of Zero Footprint will generate energy with each step on the tiles.

To allow for maximum mobility within the corridor and easy on/off access, Zero Footprint will consist of five short moving walkways.

Additionally, to mitigate traffic congestion in the corridor, Zero Footprint has been designed as a one way walkway that will change direction depending on traffic flow. For example, as students rush to campus for morning classes, Zero Footprint will move away from Lobby 7 towards Bldg. 4. The walkway will then reverse directions in the late afternoon as students return home.

Plans for Zero Footprint are pending final review by the Cambridge Historical Commission. Currently, construction on the walkway is slated to begin April 1, 2015.


Guest Post by Peter Dunn from the Ask an Engineer series, published by MIT’s School of Engineering

In an era when everything else is accelerating, airplanes are actually flying at slower speeds than they used to…

A 1950s advertisement for the Boeing 707; Credit: 1950s unlimited

“Your link to faraway continents in hours less time: the new, fabulously swift Boeing 707.”
Credit: 1950s unlimited

Specified cruising speeds for commercial airliners today range between about 480 and 510 knots, compared to 525 knots for the Boeing 707, a mainstay of 1960s jet travel. Why? “The main issue is fuel economy,” says Aeronautics and Astronautics professor Mark Drela. “Going faster eats more fuel per passenger-mile. This is especially true with the newer ‘high-bypass’ jet engines with their large-diameter front fans.”

Observant fliers can easily spot these engines, with air intakes nearly 10 feet across, especially on newer long-range two-engine jetliners. Older engines had intakes that were less than half as wide and moved less air at higher speeds; high-bypass engines achieve the same thrust with more air at lower speed by routing most of the air (up to 93 percent in the newest designs) around the engine’s turbine instead of through it. “Their efficiency peaks are at lower speeds, which causes airplane builders to favor a somewhat slower aircraft,” says Drela. “A slower airplane can also have less wing sweep, which makes it smaller, lighter and hence less expensive.” The 707’s wing sweep was 35 degrees, while the current 777’s is 31.6 degrees.

There was, of course, one big exception: the Concorde flew primarily trans-Atlantic passenger routes at just over twice the speed of sound from 1976 until 2003. Product of a treaty between the British and French governments, the Concorde served a small high-end market and was severely constrained in where it could fly. An aircraft surpassing the speed of sound generates a shock wave that produces a loud booming sound as it passes overhead; fine, perhaps, over the Atlantic Ocean, but many countries banned supersonic flights over their land. The sonic-boom problem “was pretty much a show-stopper for supersonic transports,” says Drela.

Some hope for future supersonic travel remains, at least for those able to afford private aircraft. Several companies are currently developing supersonic business jets. Their smaller size and creative new “boom-shaping” designs could reduce or eliminate the noise, and Drela notes that supersonic flight’s higher fuel burn per passenger-mile will be less of an issue for private operators than airlines. “But whether they are politically feasible is another question,” he notes.

For now, it seems, travelers will have to appreciate the virtues of high-bypass engines, and perhaps bring along a good book.

Visit the MIT School of Engineering’s Ask an Engineer site for answers to more of your questions.