Research Notebook

January/February 2013

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Prakash appears to be speaking from a stage. He holds a chart out in front of himself.SCOPE OF VISION: Prakash wants to make science affordable and accessible around the world. (Photo: James Duncan Davidson) 

A team led by assistant professor of bioengineering Manu Prakash has invented an ultra-low-cost microscope. Printed on paper, it can be folded into shape in minutes and costs just 50 cents in materials to produce. These "Foldscopes" can be shipped flat anywhere in the world to be used in the field for disease diagnostics. 

Worldwide, approximately 1 billion tests for malaria are needed per year. Yet, in the regions most affected, there is virtually no infrastructure to deliver them. Prakash, who grew up poor in India, is committed to "frugal science" and global health.

Using a special machine, the optics and mechanical structures of the microscope are printed on the substrate. A sequence of origami-inspired folds aligns the optics. The completed device has no moving parts and can be assembled by anyone in about three minutes.

In November, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation awarded Prakash a $100,000 Grand Challenges Explorations grant to test the Foldscope in India, Thailand and Uganda. He and his team will gather user feedback to help refine the design. The eventual goal, he says, is to "print them like newspapers," to take advantages of economies of scale and amortize the cost of the printing machine.

A 2011 TED Fellow, Prakash is a prolific inventor whose previous creations include an app that uses a smartphone's camera to diagnose oral cancer and a "computer" that uses bubbles in place of ones and zeroes.


A yellow, cylinder-shaped device is lain on the deck of a boat at sea.COURSE CORRECT: Houts designed algorithms to help AUVs anticipate obstacles. (Photo: Peter Kimball)Working with researchers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), engineers in Stanford's aeronautics and astronautics department are perfecting software that will enable autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) to be deployed into hazardous terrain that was previously accessible only by remotely steered vehicles operated from onboard a ship.

The AUVs can traverse the ocean floor on their own using terrain-relative navigation (TRN) developed by aerospace robotics lab director Stephen Rock and MBARI's Rob McEwen, but only where it's relatively flat. However, the more interesting underwater features, from a scientific standpoint, may well be found in twisting ravines and steep-walled gorges. An AUV could be deployed to collect a series of images of the same area over time to monitor changes to organisms and ecosystems.

The software, created by Sarah Houts, a doctoral candidate in Rock's lab, builds on the TRN system and gives the autonomous vehicle the ability to anticipate and avoid obstacles. The Stanford and MBARI engineers ran successful field tests in Monterey Bay in November and December. Rock expects the system to be mission ready in 2013.

Sarah HoutsPhoto: Peter Kimball

What's more, Houts plans to adapt the software for another MBARI project to monitor icebergs, which presents an additional challenge: "The vehicle needs to be able to also have an estimate of how the iceberg is moving so that it can stay with it." NASA, which is funding the project, is interested in using similar technology to study asteroids hurtling through space.

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