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Tech Beat - May 20, 2015

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Editor: Michael Baum
Date created: June 23, 2010
Date Modified: May 20, 2015 

Global Cities Expo to Showcase ‘Internet of Things’ Apps, June 1

The community of the future will solve problems using machines linked and coordinated by Internet-style networks. For a glimpse of this exciting future as it arrives, visit the Global Cities Teams Challenge Expo on June 1, 2015, at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.

The Expo, sponsored by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and US Ignite, will showcase more than 65 “smart cities” projects that are poised to be deployed this year in communities around the world. Each is a collaborative effort between businesses, university researchers and communities to harness Internet of Things technologies in ways that address needs of the world’s rapidly urbanizing population. 

The projects will demonstrate how connecting smart devices and systems—in sectors such as energy, health care, education, disaster response and transportation—will enable communities to improve services, promote economic growth and enhance their citizens’ quality of life. Presentations will include smart water-leak detection and public lighting control systems in Los Angeles, Calif.; driverless campus shuttles for Greenville, S.C.; and a gunshot-sensing safety network for a middle school in Ammon, Idaho. 

Among the high-level national and international leaders who are scheduled to appear are the king and queen of the Netherlands, who will visit the Expo in the early afternoon. Several of the projects involve companies and communities in the Netherlands, which has long focused on sustainable urban design and finding clever solutions to water- and energy-related problems. 

Keynote speakers will be U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx; Tom Kalil, Deputy Director for Technology and Innovation at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; and NIST Director Willie May, Under Secretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology.

Details, including an agenda and a link for the registration (which is free), are available on the US Ignite website at

Media Contact: Chad Boutin,, 301-975-4261

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Standard Knowledge for Robots

What do you know? There is now a world standard for capturing and conveying the knowledge that robots possess—or, to get philosophical about it, an ontology for automatons.

Crafted by a working group of 166 experts from 23 nations, the IEEE Standard for Ontologies for Robotics and Automation (IEEE P1872) is designed to simplify programming, extend the informationprocessing and reasoning capabilities of robots, and enable clear robot-to-robot and human-to-robot communication.

“As technology advances, robots are growing in their capabilities and, someday, may become jacks of many—if not all—trades,” explains NIST engineer Craig Schlenoff, who chairs the IEEE working group that developed the standard. “They will work collaboratively with other robots and with humans. So, there will be—and, in fact, there already is—a need for clear, unambiguous communication.”

The working group’s core ontology for robotics and automation, or CORA, is an important step toward achieving this shared understanding. It establishes a formal way of representing knowledge that robots possess to perform tasks in their particular area of activity such as manufacturing plants or hospitals. This “common ground” enables efficient and reliable exchanges of information and integration of new data.

Artificial intelligence and information technology researchers borrowed the notion of ontology from the field of philosophy, where it denotes the study of things that exist and how they are grouped and related to each other. Applied to robotics and automation, an ontology specifies key concepts, properties, relationships and self-evident truths—or axioms—in a particular domain of activity. All of this job-relevant knowledge can be rendered in a computer-interpretable format so that software can reason through new information.

With this structured base of knowledge, a manufacturing robot, for example, will know what tasks it can do, how much it can lift, whether it can work around people, and other performance-defining features. So when a new order comes, the robot will be able to assess whether it can do the required work.

The new standard is a starting point. It defines what a robot is in the scope of the standard, defines common concepts, and provides an organizational framework for succeeding efforts to develop for specific classes of robots.

Next week, at ICRA 2015, a conference organized by IEEE’s Robotics and Automation Society, the working group will launch its effort to develop an ontology specific to industrial robots, focusing initially on assembly tasks. At the Seattle, Wash., meeting, Schlenoff and his colleagues also will announce the release of a NIST-developed messaging language for sending commands to robots and for receiving status reports from the machines. It will be proposed as a standard for the group working on industrial robots.

During the conference, IEEE will recognize Schlenoff and key members of the working group with an award for their leadership during the development of the standard.

Media Contact: Mark Bello,, 301-975-3776

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Get Ahold of This: NIST to Demonstrate Tests of Grasping by Robot Hands

The act of grasping and shaking hands is a defining human ritual, with the grip intimating traits of each person involved. But what about our android counterparts?

What does the grip of a robot’s hand say about the machine’s capabilities, especially its dexterity—the ability to wield and manipulate different objects under challenging circumstances, such as in manufacturing or assembly operations?

Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) are developing tests to take full measure of robotic grasping—specifically, the motion and effort that gripping and manipulating entail. Their immediate goal: To provide useful performance-benchmarking tools to support research and innovation leading to ever-more handy capable robot appendages.

Ultimately, the team aims to create a suite of metrics and tests that manufacturers can use to assess whether a particular robot has the fine-motor skills necessary to perform different types of tasks in a factory.

University and industry robotics experts will get a chance to review the first set of NIST tests during the May 30 Workshop on Robotic Hands, Grasping, and Manipulation in Seattle. Held in conjunction with ICRA 2015, a conference organized by IEEE’s Robotics and Automation Society, the workshop will survey the current state of practice and research on robot dexterity.

“Intelligent grasping requires precise control of motions and forces,” explains NIST mechanical engineer Joe Falco. “This level of control results from the effective coupling of hardware—robot hands—and software, especially the algorithms that function like a brain. The performance of both parts of this combination needs to be benchmarked.”  

Robot hand
A robotic hand, or gripper, undergoes a NIST test to measure the contact force exerted by a robotic finger on an object.
Credit: NIST

Falco and colleague Karl Van Wyk will demonstrate six tests, developed with an informal working group of collaborators that included start-ups, a U.S. auto manufacturer, and several universities. Designed for easy set-up and to accommodate most budgets, the tests measure touch sensitivity (the force exerted at the point of contact), finger and grasp strength, resistance to slipping, and a finger’s ability to maintain contact at the desired level of force.  

“We’d like the participants to react to and comment on the metrics and test methods and to propose improvements or additions that can increase the usefulness of these tools,” says Elena Messina, who leads NIST’s Robotic Systems for Smart Manufacturing Program. “We’re offering these tools as a starting point for a community-driven effort to develop and implement standardized performance measures.” 

Called hands, grippers, manipulators and end effectors, the business ends of robots are now largely single-purpose tools, designed to grasp parts with a specific shape at a defined orientation. However, more capable, multiple-function grippers with hand-like capabilities are edging into the market, opening the way to more flexible manufacturing operations that are geared to small-batch production of multiple products.

On the way toward a universal gripper—the field’s holy grail—test methods will help the research community communicate results, compare designs, and identify opportunities for progress.

At the workshop, Van Wyk also will report results of his efforts to develop an automated, force-based control strategy that coordinates “digits” on a multi-fingered robotic hand and enables robust grasping and manipulation of objects.

Media Contact: Mark Bello,, 301-975-3776

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NIST-led Research Group Creates First Whispering Gallery for Graphene Electrons

GAITHERSBURG, MD--An international research group led by scientists at the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has developed a technique for creating nanoscale whispering galleries for electrons in graphene. The development opens the way to building devices that focus and amplify electrons just as lenses focus light and resonators (like the body of a guitar) amplify sound.

They reported their findings in the May 8, 2015, issue of Science.*

graphene whispering gallery
An international research group led by scientists at NIST has developed a technique for creating nanoscale whispering galleries for electrons in graphene. The researchers used the voltage from a scanning tunneling microscope (right) to push graphene electrons out of a nanoscale area to create the whispering gallery (represented by the protuberances on the left), which is like a circular wall of mirrors to the electron.
credit: Jon Wyrick, CNST/NIST
In some structures, such as the dome in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, a person standing near a curved wall can hear the faintest sound made along any other part of that wall. This phenomenon, called a whispering gallery, occurs because sound waves will travel along a curved surface much farther than they will along a flat one. Using this same principle, scientists have built whispering galleries for light waves as well, and whispering galleries are found in applications ranging from sensing, spectroscopy and communications to the generation of laser frequency combs.

“The cool thing is that we made a nanometer scale electronic analogue of a classical wave effect,” said NIST researcher Joe Stroscio. “These whispering galleries are unlike anything you see in any other electron based system, and that’s really exciting.”

Ever since graphene, a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb lattice, was first created in 2004, the material has impressed researchers with its strength, ability to conduct electricity and heat and many interesting optical, magnetic and chemical properties.

However, early studies of the behavior of electrons in graphene were hampered by defects in the material. As the manufacture of clean and near-perfect graphene becomes more routine, scientists are beginning to uncover its full potential.

When moving electrons encounter a potential barrier in conventional semiconductors, it takes an increase in energy for the electron to continue flowing. As a result, they are often reflected, just as one would expect from a ball-like particle.

However, because electrons can sometimes behave like a wave, there is a calculable chance that they will ignore the barrier altogether, a phenomenon called tunneling. Due to the light-like properties of graphene electrons, they can pass through unimpeded—no matter how high the barrier—if they hit the barrier head on. This tendency to tunnel makes it hard to steer electrons in graphene.

Enter the graphene electron whispering gallery.

To create a whispering gallery in graphene, the team first enriched the graphene with electrons from a conductive plate mounted below it. With the graphene now crackling with electrons, the research team used the voltage from a scanning tunneling microscope (STM) to push some of them out of a nanoscale-sized area. This created the whispering gallery, which is like a circular wall of mirrors to the electron.

“An electron that hits the step head-on can tunnel straight through it,” said NIST researcher Nikolai Zhitenev. “But if electrons hit it at an angle, their waves can be reflected and travel along the sides of the curved walls of the barrier until they began to interfere with one another, creating a nanoscale electronic whispering gallery mode.”

The team can control the size and strength, i.e., the leakiness, of the electronic whispering gallery by varying the STM tip’s voltage. The probe not only creates whispering gallery modes, but can detect them as well.

NIST researcher Yue Zhao fabricated the high mobility device and performed the measurements with her colleagues Fabian Natterer and Jon Wyrick. A team of theoretical physicists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology developed the theory describing whispering gallery modes in graphene.

Graphene-based quantum electronic resonators and lenses have as yet untold potential, but if conventional optics is any guide, the ramifications could be huge.

Fabrication and measurement of the device was performed at NIST’s Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology (CNST), a national user facility available to researchers from industry, academia and government.

A non-regulatory agency of the Commerce Department, NIST promotes U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness by advancing measurement science, standards and technology in ways that enhance economic security and improve our quality of life. To learn more about NIST, visit

*Y. Zhao, J. Wyrick, F. Natterer, J. Rodriguez-Nieva, C. Lewandowski, K. Watanabe, T. Taniguchi, L. Levitov, N. Zhitenev, and J. Stroscio. Creating and probing electron whispering-gallery modes in graphene. Science. 8 May 2015: Vol. 348, no. 6235, pp. 672-675. DOI: 10.1126/science.aaa7469.


Media Contact: Mark Esser,, 301-975-8735

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NIST Aims for Tool to Help Manufacturers Select Wireless Network That’s Right for Them

Going wireless is appealing to a growing number of manufacturers. Using wireless sensor networks to monitor and control equipment and processes eliminates the costly labyrinth of dedicated cabling to hardwire devices, enables flexibility in organizing operations, and expands opportunities for keeping tabs on plant-floor conditions and performance.

But before making the leap, companies need to be certain that a candidate wireless platform will reliably capture and communicate measurement data in harsh industrial environments with lots of sources of interference. Interrupted, delayed or incomplete hand-offs of critical data could be dangerous for workers and disastrous to production. 

To help manufacturers make confident decisions, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has set out to develop best practice guidelines for evaluating wireless-sensor-network performance and selecting the option that best meets their requirements.

“Our goal is to develop a tool that will enable manufacturers and their technology suppliers to design, assess, select and deploy secure, integrated wireless platforms that perform dependably in factory conditions,” NIST’s Rick Candell said during this week’s International Instrumentation Symposium in Huntsville, Ala.

Candell, head of NIST’s Wireless Platforms for Smart Manufacturing project, noted that a variety of standards-based technologies have been adapted or developed to support industrial wireless applications. The guide will include benchmarking tests and metrics for comparing how well different technologies meet specific sets of requirements, he said.

NIST is in the early stages of commissioning a wireless network test bed that will replicate a smart manufacturing environment. It will re-create conditions representative of a variety of industrial settings and support development of network-performance measurements and tests. The test bed also will be used to evaluate the usefulness of NIST network models and simulations. 

To ensure that the test bed accurately reproduces the messy and challenging realities of a variety of manufacturing operations—from chemical processing to aerospace—the NIST team is making a special request. They are asking companies to open their plant doors so that the researchers can characterize conditions and factorssuch as heat, vibrations, reflections, interference and shielding obstaclesthat impact network performance.

“We want to re-create the factory and network entirely in the lab,” Candell said. “To do that, we need to make measurements in the field to capture channel and environmental characteristics and to represent the current state of wireless activity in different types of manufacturing operations. We want to assess how the network performs and how the wireless network impacts factory performance.”

The NIST team has just completed gathering needed data at NIST’s own machine shop and at a U.S. automaker’s transmission assembly plant.

“We would like to expand our measurement efforts from discrete manufacturing to a broader range of industries, including the process control industries such as oil and gas, chemical, and water treatment,” Candell explained.

To learn more about NIST’s Wireless Platforms for Smart Manufacturing project, and for contact information, go to:

Media Contact: Mark Bello,, 301-975-3776

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NIST Announces 2016 Plans for Manufacturing Center Competitions

The National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST) Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) has announced that it will hold two separate competitions in 2016 for MEP centers in 21 states and Puerto Rico. The upcoming competitions are part of a multi-year effort to make the most of MEP’s federal investment in U.S. manufacturing and to allocate additional funds to areas with higher concentrations of manufacturers.

NIST MEP, through a state-federal network of 60 centers and 1,200 manufacturing experts, helps small and medium-sized manufacturers across the country improve their production processes, upgrade their technological capabilities and bring new products to market, improving their competitiveness and increasing employment and investment across the country. 

Every dollar of federal investment in the MEP translates into $19 of new sales for small and medium-sized manufacturers, or almost $2.5 billion annually across the 30,000 small and medium-sized manufacturers that typically use MEP services in a given year. 

The federal government uses periodic full and open competitions to ensure a rigorous, transparent process for selecting the best applicants to fulfill public functions. The decision to implement the process is not a reflection on the performance of individual centers; incumbent center operators in good standing are eligible to apply. 

Benefits of participating in the competition include:

  • the opportunity to realign MEP center activities with state economic development strategies;
  • a reset of state funding levels to reflect the regional importance of manufacturing and the national distribution of manufacturing activities;
  • a reduction and simplification of reporting requirements; 
  • a reduction of the annual paperwork burden through five-year awards; and
  • an immediate readjustment of the local cost share from 2:1 to 1:1.

“We’re announcing next year’s competitions now in order to reach as many potential applicants as possible and to give them ample time to prepare,” said Carroll Thomas, MEP director. “MEP centers do so much to support their local manufacturers, and we want applicants to have the time to pull together the partnerships and resources that will make a center successful.”

In January 2016, NIST MEP anticipates announcing the competitions for Alabama, Arkansas, California, Georgia, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Missouri, Montana, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico and Vermont.

In July 2016, NIST MEP anticipates announcing competitions for Delaware, Hawaii, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Mississippi, New Mexico, Nevada, North Dakota, South Carolina and Wyoming.

NIST MEP intends to conduct approximately two to three regional forums prior to or in conjunction with each funding announcement to provide potential applicants with general information and guidance on preparing proposals. NIST MEP staff will provide information on business model approaches, developing proposals and sharing lessons learned from the previous MEP competitions. 

The first round of state competitions, for centers in 10 states, was completed in February 2015. That competition focused on states where the MEP investment in terms of dollars per manufacturer was below MEP’s national average, making them the most underfunded of its centers.

On March 9, 2015, NIST announced funding opportunities in 12 states, with an application deadline of June 1, 2015, and an award announcement expected in the fall of 2015.

Visit the MEP website for more information on these upcoming funding opportunities.

Media Contact: Jennifer Huergo,, 301-975-6343

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NIST Awards $7.8 Million for Advanced Manufacturing Technology Planning Grants

GAITHERSBURG, MD--The U.S. Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) today announced 16 awards totaling $7.8 million to help accelerate the growth of advanced manufacturing in the United States. The grants will support industry-driven consortia in developing research plans and charting collaborative actions to solve high-priority technology challenges.

The University of North Carolina at Charlotte’s Consortium for Large-scale Precision Manufacturing Innovation
The University of North Carolina at Charlotte’s Consortium for Large-scale Precision Manufacturing Innovation will identify and prioritize technology needs of the aerospace, defense, mining, energy, transportation, and other industries that make that make big products. It is among 16 industry-driven partnerships receiving AMTech funding to help accelerate the growth of advanced manufacturing in the United States.
photo courtesy of UNC Charlotte
NIST's Advanced Manufacturing Technology Consortia (AMTech) Program has awarded the grants to universities and other nonprofit organizations in 11 states and the District of Columbia. The grants range from $413,000 to $500,000 for a period of up to two years. More than 40 organizations will share funding for work done in support of the 16 projects. In addition, more than 250 businesses, trade associations, universities and other organizations will collaborate as unfunded partners. 

“Strengthening American manufacturing is a key component of the Commerce Department’s ‘Open for Business Agenda,’” said U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker. “The awards announced today will support public-private partner collaboration that boosts advanced manufacturing, which is critical to supporting economic growth. We will continue to make investments that keep our manufacturing sector on the cutting edge of innovation in order to create new growth industries and American jobs.”

The new AMTech-funded projects span a wide variety of industries and technologies, from next-generation gas turbines and aerospace manufacturing to hybridized semiconductor and synthetic-biology devices and glass manufacturing.

“These projects will set a path for innovation and productivity growth in established and emerging U.S. manufacturing industries,” said Willie E. May, Under Secretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology and NIST Director. “Partnerships like these are needed to tackle shared technical obstacles and, ultimately, to capture the practical and economic benefits of new knowledge, new technologies and new capabilities.”

Thirteen of the projects will launch new consortia. All will initiate technology roadmapping activities or similar efforts intended to identify, prioritize and align research and development in targeted industry sectors.

Established in 2013, the AMTech program sparks partnerships between U.S. industry, academia and government. It encourages the formation of new industry-led consortia—and the strengthening of existing ones—for the purpose of tackling shared technical barriers to the growth of advanced manufacturing.

On July 30, 2014, the program announced its second competition for AMTech planning grants. Today’s award recipients were selected from an initial pool of 118 applicants, seeking a total of $56.6 million in federal funding. 

Visit the NIST website to read summaries of the AMTech-funded projects and to see maps of the locations of the projects' lead organizations and their funded partners.

As a non-regulatory agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce, NIST promotes U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness by advancing measurement science, standards and technology in ways that enhance economic security and improve our quality of life. To learn more about NIST, visit

Media Contact: Mark Bello,, 301-975-3776

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