Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Treadle Pump Developed by Michigan Engineering Students

Last year a farmer in a mountain hamlet near Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, carried buckets of water two miles to irrigate his fields, which lay on a hilly landscape, high above the nearest water source. A diesel pump burned too much fuel -- the expense was too much for the farmer to handle -- and the noise was less than desirable. But a team of Michigan Engineering students made things right in his world – today he’s walking in place on a treadle pump, a contraption that resembles a StairMaster but pumps water into his field. It costs no more than his own time and energy.

Michigan Engineering students designed the first pump in 2008, built a prototype in their workshop, then wrote highly detailed, easy-to-read documentation. They traveled to Guatemala and built the first-generation machine. Now they’re at work on a redesign to improve flaws that came to light during the operation of the device in Guatemala.

When the team came back to Ann Arbor from Guatemala, they put their documentation online so that people could download it at no cost – within three days, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Africa had begun to download the materials; to date, there have been hundreds of downloads...



around the world. The team allows those who download the documentation to manufacture and sell the treadle pump to people who don’t have the facilities, skill or inclination to build their own devices. In Bangladesh, entrepreneurial types with manufacturing facilities have sold 1.4 million treadle pumps for $20 each.

The project started when Ann Arbor non-profit Appropriate Technology Collaborative (ATC) challenged Michigan Engineering BLUELab students to design a treadle pump using only materials that were native to Tanzania or another mostly rural African or Southeast Asian country. The students also had to document the design so that individuals and NGOs could easily read the drawings and build their own devices.

The BLUELab team chose to introduce its work in Guatemala, where farmers are poor, resources are limited and the water table makes irrigation difficult. When the team arrived, it found that wood was more expensive that steel, which required on-the-fly redesign. Realizing how wet the climate is, they came up with a unique twist, building pistons with leather exteriors so that, when soaked with water, they’d swell and create a tighter seal in the cylinders.

The treadle pump project shows the power of an idea in the hands of motivated engineers – they can improve the lives of people they’ll never meet or know about, in places they might never travel. How noble is that?

Learn about BLUELab at http://bluelab.engin.umich.edu/node/13. Find out more about the treadle-pump project at http://bluelab.engin.umich.edu/node/9.

Treadle Pump Developed by Michigan Engineering Students

Last year a farmer in a mountain hamlet near Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, carried buckets of water two miles to irrigate his fields, which lay on a hilly landscape, high above the nearest water source. A diesel pump burned too much fuel -- the expense was too much for the farmer to handle -- and the noise was less than desirable. But a team of Michigan Engineering students made things right in his world – today he’s walking in place on a treadle pump, a contraption that resembles a StairMaster but pumps water into his field. It costs no more than his own time and energy.

Michigan Engineering students designed the first pump in 2008, built a prototype in their workshop, then wrote highly detailed, easy-to-read documentation. They traveled to Guatemala and built the first-generation machine. Now they’re at work on a redesign to improve flaws that came to light during the operation of the device in Guatemala.

When the team came back to Ann Arbor from Guatemala, they put their documentation online so that people could download it at no cost – within three days, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Africa had begun to download the materials; to date, there have been hundreds of downloads...



around the world. The team allows those who download the documentation to manufacture and sell the treadle pump to people who don’t have the facilities, skill or inclination to build their own devices. In Bangladesh, entrepreneurial types with manufacturing facilities have sold 1.4 million treadle pumps for $20 each.

The project started when Ann Arbor non-profit Appropriate Technology Collaborative (ATC) challenged Michigan Engineering BLUELab students to design a treadle pump using only materials that were native to Tanzania or another mostly rural African or Southeast Asian country. The students also had to document the design so that individuals and NGOs could easily read the drawings and build their own devices.

The BLUELab team chose to introduce its work in Guatemala, where farmers are poor, resources are limited and the water table makes irrigation difficult. When the team arrived, it found that wood was more expensive that steel, which required on-the-fly redesign. Realizing how wet the climate is, they came up with a unique twist, building pistons with leather exteriors so that, when soaked with water, they’d swell and create a tighter seal in the cylinders.

The treadle pump project shows the power of an idea in the hands of motivated engineers – they can improve the lives of people they’ll never meet or know about, in places they might never travel. How noble is that?

Learn about BLUELab at http://bluelab.engin.umich.edu/node/13. Find out more about the treadle-pump project at http://bluelab.engin.umich.edu/node/9.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Michigan Engineering Students Develop Mobile Communications Technology for Cerebral Palsy Patients

A young woman with cerebral palsy walks into a Starbucks and, despite her compromised motor skills and speech difficulties, uses an iPad to do what she’s never done before – she orders a cup of coffee by herself. That’s a scene that a multidisciplinary team at the University of Michigan hopes to see in the very near future when it completes work on a special app for mobile devices.

In looking for a project to tackle as part of a software-engineering class, a team of computer science and engineering students posed the question: What can we do to help people whose impaired motor movements make it difficult to manipulate touch-sensitive screens or press the small buttons on mobile keyboards? Customized systems on home computers make it possible for these people to use email and instant messaging, but those input systems don’t transfer well to mobile devices.

To solve the problem the students expanded the team, bringing in rehabilitation engineers from the University’s C.S. Mott Hospital. Pooling talents has proved to be invaluable in creating an app that will convert the entire screen of an iPad or smart phone into one large button that’s easy to use. A “scanning interface” will highlight each letter, button or link on the screen, one at a time. As the system highlights the desired item, the user simply touches anywhere on the screen to make the selection.

For those whose compromised motor skills make it hard to do what most people take for granted, the device will be a life-changer.



On Feb. 14, 2011, the mobile app for people with Cerebral Palsy placed second in the University Mobile Challenge at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain. The app is also a featured part of the Product Design Show, an informational series of videos on ENGINEERING.com.

You can also watch this video on YouTube.

Michigan Engineering Students Develop Mobile Communications Technology for Cerebral Palsy Patients

A young woman with cerebral palsy walks into a Starbucks and, despite her compromised motor skills and speech difficulties, uses an iPad to do what she’s never done before – she orders a cup of coffee by herself. That’s a scene that a multidisciplinary team at the University of Michigan hopes to see in the very near future when it completes work on a special app for mobile devices.

In looking for a project to tackle as part of a software-engineering class, a team of computer science and engineering students posed the question: What can we do to help people whose impaired motor movements make it difficult to manipulate touch-sensitive screens or press the small buttons on mobile keyboards? Customized systems on home computers make it possible for these people to use email and instant messaging, but those input systems don’t transfer well to mobile devices.

To solve the problem the students expanded the team, bringing in rehabilitation engineers from the University’s C.S. Mott Hospital. Pooling talents has proved to be invaluable in creating an app that will convert the entire screen of an iPad or smart phone into one large button that’s easy to use. A “scanning interface” will highlight each letter, button or link on the screen, one at a time. As the system highlights the desired item, the user simply touches anywhere on the screen to make the selection.

For those whose compromised motor skills make it hard to do what most people take for granted, the device will be a life-changer.



On Feb. 14, 2011, the mobile app for people with Cerebral Palsy placed second in the University Mobile Challenge at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain. The app is also a featured part of the Product Design Show, an informational series of videos on ENGINEERING.com.

You can also watch this video on YouTube.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Comic Book Engineering

Who put that radio on Dick Tracy's wrist? Who designed Wonder Woman's invisible jet? Who built Iron Man's suit? Engineers.

Engineers and superheroes have been meeting in back rooms for... well, since the Green Hornet ran down villains in "Black Beauty," a car super-packed with advanced technology. Using gadgets and unearthly powers, superheroes turned into a billion-dollar business - first flooding the entertainment market in print, then exploding onto the big screen in movie blockbusters. With an eye for business, the agents of superheroes followed up with merchandising, novelizations and fan conventions - like Comic-Con International, which happens to have an engineer on its board of directors.

Eliot Brown is an artist who inked the supergadgets that appeared in two books from Marvel Comics (The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe and The Iron Manual). Brown did some detailed background work, consulting IEEE Spectrum, for example, to create schematics of the workbench and wardrobe that Tony Stark (Iron Man) uses. Elsewhere in the comic world, writer Stan Lee created Reed Richards, an electrical engineer who, as one of the Fantastic Four, was rocketing through space when cosmic rays turned his body into a rubbery mess. A radioactive spider took a healthy bite out of Peter Parker (Spiderman), after which he concocted a web fluid and designed the web shooter that he wore like a wristwatch. Bruce Banner was a scientist who developed a gamma-ray bomb; unfortunately he slipped up and turned himself into The Hulk. The deaths of Frank Castle's family twisted his life as a weaponry expert into a high-tech vigilante (The Punisher) who murdered, kidnapped, tortured and extorted in order to get his revenge.

Technology transformed comic books into stimulating texts for engineers - or for kids who had the right stuff to be engineers but just needed a gentle nudge. One of the better-known books about this approach to promoting engineering is The Physics of Superheroes, a 2005 volume that University of Minnesota professor James Kakalios, who saw the potential of comic books as teaching tools: "Reading comic books is perfect training for how to be a scientist or engineer," he said. "In comics, you have to learn the rules of the game - what the superhero's powers are and how he can use them. Science has rules in the form of physics and chemistry. Not to mention that superheroes and scientists both have a dashing sense of fashion."

A young engineer's email supported Kakalios' theory, saying that reading The Iron Manual at age 9 inspired him to pursue engineering. The book also planted the seeds that grew into two graduate research projects in robotics.

Engineers like Jorge Cham and even write comics. Jorge Cham, a professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford University and a former Instructor and researcher at the California Institute of Technology, writes "Piled Higher and Deeper," a "comic strip about "life (or the lack thereof) in academia." A lot of non-engineers pen comics like "Future Shock," a single-panel cartoon that covers topics like nanotechnology, cloning and alien life.  The Stuff of Life: A Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA is the first in a series of graphic novels devoted to explaining concepts such as DNA, genetics, cloning and stem cells in a user-friendly manner. HP created The Coder, an episodic graphic novel about an engineer whose software designs becomes the subjects of intrigue.

The American Society for Manufacturing Engineers (ASME) has jumped on the comic-book wagon, creating a monthly comic strip that introduces and educates young readers about the history and contributions of mechanical engineering. Readers, young and old, flock the the ASME site to follow "Heroes of Engineering," which chronicles stories about engineering accomplishments - notable and obscure - during ASME's 125-year history. Check out the first edition (PDF) It features the contributions of Robert Henry Thurston (1839-1903), an author and pioneer in mechanical engineering education. He Thurston earned a reputation as an engineer who showed students how to bring the theories of engineering into practice. He established the first mechanical engineering laboratory model, in 1875, at the Steven Institute of Technology, Hoboken, N.J. And he served as the first president of ASME (1880-1802).

Comics tell us that engineering can be entertaining - even humorous. They show us that behind every superhero in tights there's an engineer conjuring futuristic devices that can save the world. They demonstrate how imaginative engineering and engineers must be.

Don't be surprised if you happen to hear one engineer say to another: "See you in the funny papers."

Want to read more about comics in general? Here are a few places to go. 


The Significant Seven: History's Most Influential Super-heroes

Superheroes Throughout History

Comic Book Engineering

Who put that radio on Dick Tracy's wrist? Who designed Wonder Woman's invisible jet? Who built Iron Man's suit? Engineers.

Engineers and superheroes have been meeting in back rooms for... well, since the Green Hornet ran down villains in "Black Beauty," a car super-packed with advanced technology. Using gadgets and unearthly powers, superheroes turned into a billion-dollar business - first flooding the entertainment market in print, then exploding onto the big screen in movie blockbusters. With an eye for business, the agents of superheroes followed up with merchandising, novelizations and fan conventions - like Comic-Con International, which happens to have an engineer on its board of directors.

Eliot Brown is an artist who inked the supergadgets that appeared in two books from Marvel Comics (The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe and The Iron Manual). Brown did some detailed background work, consulting IEEE Spectrum, for example, to create schematics of the workbench and wardrobe that Tony Stark (Iron Man) uses. Elsewhere in the comic world, writer Stan Lee created Reed Richards, an electrical engineer who, as one of the Fantastic Four, was rocketing through space when cosmic rays turned his body into a rubbery mess. A radioactive spider took a healthy bite out of Peter Parker (Spiderman), after which he concocted a web fluid and designed the web shooter that he wore like a wristwatch. Bruce Banner was a scientist who developed a gamma-ray bomb; unfortunately he slipped up and turned himself into The Hulk. The deaths of Frank Castle's family twisted his life as a weaponry expert into a high-tech vigilante (The Punisher) who murdered, kidnapped, tortured and extorted in order to get his revenge.

Technology transformed comic books into stimulating texts for engineers - or for kids who had the right stuff to be engineers but just needed a gentle nudge. One of the better-known books about this approach to promoting engineering is The Physics of Superheroes, a 2005 volume that University of Minnesota professor James Kakalios, who saw the potential of comic books as teaching tools: "Reading comic books is perfect training for how to be a scientist or engineer," he said. "In comics, you have to learn the rules of the game - what the superhero's powers are and how he can use them. Science has rules in the form of physics and chemistry. Not to mention that superheroes and scientists both have a dashing sense of fashion."

A young engineer's email supported Kakalios' theory, saying that reading The Iron Manual at age 9 inspired him to pursue engineering. The book also planted the seeds that grew into two graduate research projects in robotics.

Engineers like Jorge Cham and even write comics. Jorge Cham, a professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford University and a former Instructor and researcher at the California Institute of Technology, writes "Piled Higher and Deeper," a "comic strip about "life (or the lack thereof) in academia." A lot of non-engineers pen comics like "Future Shock," a single-panel cartoon that covers topics like nanotechnology, cloning and alien life.  The Stuff of Life: A Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA is the first in a series of graphic novels devoted to explaining concepts such as DNA, genetics, cloning and stem cells in a user-friendly manner. HP created The Coder, an episodic graphic novel about an engineer whose software designs becomes the subjects of intrigue.

The American Society for Manufacturing Engineers (ASME) has jumped on the comic-book wagon, creating a monthly comic strip that introduces and educates young readers about the history and contributions of mechanical engineering. Readers, young and old, flock the the ASME site to follow "Heroes of Engineering," which chronicles stories about engineering accomplishments - notable and obscure - during ASME's 125-year history. Check out the first edition (PDF) It features the contributions of Robert Henry Thurston (1839-1903), an author and pioneer in mechanical engineering education. He Thurston earned a reputation as an engineer who showed students how to bring the theories of engineering into practice. He established the first mechanical engineering laboratory model, in 1875, at the Steven Institute of Technology, Hoboken, N.J. And he served as the first president of ASME (1880-1802).

Comics tell us that engineering can be entertaining - even humorous. They show us that behind every superhero in tights there's an engineer conjuring futuristic devices that can save the world. They demonstrate how imaginative engineering and engineers must be.

Don't be surprised if you happen to hear one engineer say to another: "See you in the funny papers."

Want to read more about comics in general? Here are a few places to go. 

The Significant Seven: History's Most Influential Super-heroes
Superheroes Throughout History

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Water Footprint Calculator

It takes nearly 2,000 gallons of water a DAY -- twice the global average -- to keep the average American lifestyle afloat. What’s your water footprint? Find out with the water footprint calculator

This video covers water usage in a different way.


The Water Footprint Calculator

It takes nearly 2,000 gallons of water a DAY -- twice the global average -- to keep the average American lifestyle afloat. What’s your water footprint? Find out with the water footprint calculator

This video covers water usage in a different way.


Thursday, August 12, 2010

Where Is FIPS?

FIPS, the Fast Imaging Plasma Spectrometer, is an instrument aboard Mercury MESSENGER, a spacecraft launched on August 3, 2004 -- the first mission to Mercury since Mariner 10 in 1975. MESSENGER will study the characteristics and environment of Mercury from orbit. FIPS will have two functions: first is to analyze ions liberated from Mercury's surface by solar winds; second, to analyze solar winds.

click to enlarge
MESSENGER returned to Earth for a gravity assist on August 2, 2005. The craft then headed toward the first of two Venus flybys. The first occurred on October 24, 2006, when the spacecraft approached the planet from its dayside. MESSENGER flew past a mostly sunlit Venus on June 5, 2007.

The Mercury flybys on January 14, 2008, October 6, 2008, and September 29, 2009, provided the first close-up look at Mercury in more than 30 years. On all three flybys, the spacecraft acquired sunlit views of the planet, taking pictures of the regions that Mariner 10 didn't see. Those flybys have been invaluable in formulating strategies for MESSENGER's observations of Mercury during a historic yearlong orbit mission that will begin in March 2011.

MESSENGER's journey requires several trajectory correction maneuvers. Meanwhile FIPS is keeping engineers busy, particularly Thomas Zurbuchen, a professor of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences at the University of Michigan. Zurbuchen, the FIPS team leader, explains the project in this video.


For more information refer to the MESSENGER website or either of the group's two websites: one, two.


Why Mercury? Because it's the key to terrestrial planet evolution.

Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars are terrestrial (rocky) planets. Among these, Mercury is an extreme: the smallest, the densest (after correcting for self-compression), the one with the oldest surface, the one with the largest daily variations in surface temperature, and the least explored. Understanding this "end member" among the terrestrial planets is crucial to developing a better understanding of how the planets in our Solar System formed and evolved. To develop this understanding, the MESSENGER mission, spacecraft and science instruments are focused on answering six key outstanding questions that will allow us to understand Mercury as a planet. For additional, detailed information about the driving science questions of the MESSENGER mission, check out some of the articles on the MESSENGER site

Where Is FIPS?

FIPS, the Fast Imaging Plasma Spectrometer, is an instrument aboard Mercury MESSENGER, a spacecraft launched on August 3, 2004 -- the first mission to Mercury since Mariner 10 in 1975. MESSENGER will study the characteristics and environment of Mercury from orbit. FIPS will have two functions: first is to analyze ions liberated from Mercury's surface by solar winds; second, to analyze solar winds.

click to enlarge
MESSENGER returned to Earth for a gravity assist on August 2, 2005. The craft then headed toward the first of two Venus flybys. The first occurred on October 24, 2006, when the spacecraft approached the planet from its dayside. MESSENGER flew past a mostly sunlit Venus on June 5, 2007.

The Mercury flybys on January 14, 2008, October 6, 2008, and September 29, 2009, provided the first close-up look at Mercury in more than 30 years. On all three flybys, the spacecraft acquired sunlit views of the planet, taking pictures of the regions that Mariner 10 didn't see. Those flybys have been invaluable in formulating strategies for MESSENGER's observations of Mercury during a historic yearlong orbit mission that will begin in March 2011.

MESSENGER's journey requires several trajectory correction maneuvers. Meanwhile FIPS is keeping engineers busy, particularly Thomas Zurbuchen, a professor of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences at the University of Michigan. Zurbuchen, the FIPS team leader, explains the project in this video.


For more information refer to the MESSENGER website or either of the group's two websites: one, two.


Why Mercury? Because it's the key to terrestrial planet evolution.

Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars are terrestrial (rocky) planets. Among these, Mercury is an extreme: the smallest, the densest (after correcting for self-compression), the one with the oldest surface, the one with the largest daily variations in surface temperature, and the least explored. Understanding this "end member" among the terrestrial planets is crucial to developing a better understanding of how the planets in our Solar System formed and evolved. To develop this understanding, the MESSENGER mission, spacecraft and science instruments are focused on answering six key outstanding questions that will allow us to understand Mercury as a planet. For additional, detailed information about the driving science questions of the MESSENGER mission, check out some of the articles on the MESSENGER site

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A Special Time for Saturn

Photo courtesy of NASA
This is a special time for those of us who have a fascination with Saturn. Shortly after sunset, look toward the west and you'll see three planets in a line. The brightest is Venus. Above it and to the left is Mars, distinctly reddish but much fainter. And just beyond that, Saturn. Check them out -- binoculars will work just fine (they're far better than Galileo's astronomical telescope). You might -- emphasis on "might" -- be able to see Saturn's rings. Or you might see the "Mickey Mouse ears" that Galileo saw and described in his sketchbook. 

Unfortunately, his telescope wasn’t good enough to get a good look at something that seemed very different from anything he'd seen until that time. He described Saturn as "triune," mistaking the rings for two moons that seemed to orbit 180 degrees from each other, giving the appearance of ears on the planet.

In 1609, when Galileo first turned his new astronomical telescope on the night sky, Saturn was just a bright point in a black sky -- so unremarkable that a year passed before he turned his new instrument at it. But he finally gave Saturn his attention on July 25, 1610 -- a monumental date in planetary study because, from that night forward, Saturn gripped his imagination. 

About 50 years passed before Saturn’s rings came into focus for Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens. He described them a flat, circular disk. Something altogether different from anything he and Galileo had ever seen or expected to see. It was truly unearthly.

Today, NASA's Cassini spacecraft, orbiting Saturn since July 2004, inundates researchers with remarkable new data… about the planet and its rings and moons… the plumes of dust venting from cracks in the surface of the moon Enceladus… sunlight reflecting off a lake on Titan… flashes of meteorites hitting the rings. Thanks to Cassini, Saturn continues to amaze.

Tamas Gombosi is the Rollin M. Gerstacker Professor of Engineering and chair of Michigan Engineering's Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences. He has a lot to say about Cassini and what it's taught scientists about Saturn's space environment. 


You can also learn about Saturn and Cassini at the NASA site dedicated to the spacecraft's mission.

A Special Time for Saturn

Photo courtesy of NASA
This is a special time for those of us who have a fascination with Saturn. Shortly after sunset, look toward the west and you'll see three planets in a line. The brightest is Venus. Above it and to the left is Mars, distinctly reddish but much fainter. And just beyond that, Saturn. Check them out -- binoculars will work just fine (they're far better than Galileo's astronomical telescope). You might -- emphasis on "might" -- be able to see Saturn's rings. Or you might see the "Mickey Mouse ears" that Galileo saw and described in his sketchbook. 

Unfortunately, his telescope wasn’t good enough to get a good look at something that seemed very different from anything he'd seen until that time. He described Saturn as "triune," mistaking the rings for two moons that seemed to orbit 180 degrees from each other, giving the appearance of ears on the planet.

In 1609, when Galileo first turned his new astronomical telescope on the night sky, Saturn was just a bright point in a black sky -- so unremarkable that a year passed before he turned his new instrument at it. But he finally gave Saturn his attention on July 25, 1610 -- a monumental date in planetary study because, from that night forward, Saturn gripped his imagination. 

About 50 years passed before Saturn’s rings came into focus for Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens. He described them a flat, circular disk. Something altogether different from anything he and Galileo had ever seen or expected to see. It was truly unearthly.

Today, NASA's Cassini spacecraft, orbiting Saturn since July 2004, inundates researchers with remarkable new data… about the planet and its rings and moons… the plumes of dust venting from cracks in the surface of the moon Enceladus… sunlight reflecting off a lake on Titan… flashes of meteorites hitting the rings. Thanks to Cassini, Saturn continues to amaze.

Tamas Gombosi is the Rollin M. Gerstacker Professor of Engineering and chair of Michigan Engineering's Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences. He has a lot to say about Cassini and what it's taught scientists about Saturn's space environment. 


You can also learn about Saturn and Cassini at the NASA site dedicated to the spacecraft's mission.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Hello Goodbye Lutetia

On July 10, the European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft cruised past asteroid Lutetia, coming within 3,160 kilometers (1,950 miles) at a velocity of 15 kilometers (9 miles) per second, completing the flyby in just a minute. The craft will rendezvous with comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 2014. Michigan Engineering alum Claudia Alexander (AOSS PhD '93), project scientist for the U.S. role in the Rosetta mission, said that NASA instruments aboard Rosetta should unravel at least a little of the mystery that enshrouds Lutetia, the biggest asteroid visited by a spacecraft.

Before the flyby, scientists knew little more than the asteroid's size (a width of 62 miles). But Rosetta's cameras and other instruments took the first close-up image of the object, collected data to derive its mass and reveal surface properties, record the solar wind nearby and look for evidence of an atmosphere.

Read more about the Rosetta mission at http://rosetta.jpl.nasa.gov.

Hello Goodbye Lutetia

On July 10, the European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft cruised past asteroid Lutetia, coming within 3,160 kilometers (1,950 miles) at a velocity of 15 kilometers (9 miles) per second, completing the flyby in just a minute. The craft will rendezvous with comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 2014. Michigan Engineering alum Claudia Alexander (AOSS PhD '93), project scientist for the U.S. role in the Rosetta mission, said that NASA instruments aboard Rosetta should unravel at least a little of the mystery that enshrouds Lutetia, the biggest asteroid visited by a spacecraft.

Before the flyby, scientists knew little more than the asteroid's size (a width of 62 miles). But Rosetta's cameras and other instruments took the first close-up image of the object, collected data to derive its mass and reveal surface properties, record the solar wind nearby and look for evidence of an atmosphere.

Read more about the Rosetta mission at http://rosetta.jpl.nasa.gov.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Water, Water Everywhere -- and Usually Safe to Drink

On average, bottled water costs
500 times as much as tap water.
Drinking water is one more thing that most Americans take for granted. But it's important to know where drinking water comes from, how it's been treated, and if it's safe to drink. Yet few people take the time to consider its sources -- usually public water systems, private wells or bottled water. An EPA-regulated public water system pretty much ensures what drinking water is safe and healthy. Other water sources might need a water filter, a check on water fluoridation, or an inspection to ensure that the source isn’t too close to a septic tank.

The United States is fortunate to have one of the safest public drinking water supplies in the world. Globally, the water-supply story isn't as good -- more than 884 million people worldwide DON'T have access to a good water source. Many more get their drinking water from microbiologically unsafe sources. Engineers at the University of Michigan are addressing these and other problems. One of their recent contributions is a strip of paper infused with carbon nanotubes that can quickly and inexpensively detect a toxin produced by algae in drinking water.

Bottled Water Mania

Americans spend billions of dollars every year on bottled water, choosing from an ever-growing selection. They base their choices on aesthetics (e.g., taste), health concerns or as a substitute for other beverages.

Water isn't just water; it's a thirst-quencher, an increasingly popular drink of choice, a health elixir and a necessity of life. Know what you’re drinking. Start by knowing the basics: http://tinyurl.com/2cyt6dd.

Read about water and your health at the River Network website.

Water, Water Everywhere -- and Usually Safe to Drink

On average, bottled water costs
500 times as much as tap water.
Drinking water is one more thing that most Americans take for granted. But it's important to know where drinking water comes from, how it's been treated, and if it's safe to drink. Yet few people take the time to consider its sources -- usually public water systems, private wells or bottled water. An EPA-regulated public water system pretty much ensures what drinking water is safe and healthy. Other water sources might need a water filter, a check on water fluoridation, or an inspection to ensure that the source isn’t too close to a septic tank.

The United States is fortunate to have one of the safest public drinking water supplies in the world. Globally, the water-supply story isn't as good -- more than 884 million people worldwide DON'T have access to a good water source. Many more get their drinking water from microbiologically unsafe sources. Engineers at the University of Michigan are addressing these and other problems. One of their recent contributions is a strip of paper infused with carbon nanotubes that can quickly and inexpensively detect a toxin produced by algae in drinking water.

Bottled Water Mania

Americans spend billions of dollars every year on bottled water, choosing from an ever-growing selection. They base their choices on aesthetics (e.g., taste), health concerns or as a substitute for other beverages.

Water isn't just water; it's a thirst-quencher, an increasingly popular drink of choice, a health elixir and a necessity of life. Know what you’re drinking. Start by knowing the basics: http://tinyurl.com/2cyt6dd.

Read about water and your health at the River Network website.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Ride, Sally Ride

Sally Ride
On June 18, 1983, a young engineer took her seat aboard the space shuttle and launched into history. On that date, Sally Ride, a University of Michigan graduate, became the first American woman in space as a mission specialist on STS-7. In this image Ride monitors control panels from the pilot's chair on the Flight Deck. Image Credit: NASA

Ride, Sally Ride

Sally Ride
On June 18, 1983, a young engineer took her seat aboard the space shuttle and launched into history. On that date, Sally Ride, a University of Michigan graduate, became the first American woman in space as a mission specialist on STS-7. In this image Ride monitors control panels from the pilot's chair on the Flight Deck. Image Credit: NASA

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Phoenix Mars Lander -- Gone but Not Forgotten

Nearly two years to the day after it landed on the red planet, the Phoenix Mars Lander officially ended operations when NASA failed to contact the spacecraft despite repeated and varied attempts to communicate. Phoenix far outlived its predicted lifespan, surviving the dark, cold, icy winter on Mars. New images from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter showed signs of severe ice damage to the lander’s solar panels.

The passing of Phoenix removes a key exploratory tool from the kit used by University of Michigan engineering Professor Nilton Renno,  whose discovery of liquid water on Mars was named one of Discover magazine's top 100 science stories of 2009 and one of National Geographic's top 10 most popular space stories. His Mars research continues, as does the research of others, but the final signals from Phoenix were a good-bye message from one of the most productive probes that NASA has sent into the Universe.

Phoenix Mars Lander -- Gone but Not Forgotten

Nearly two years to the day after it landed on the red planet, the Phoenix Mars Lander officially ended operations when NASA failed to contact the spacecraft despite repeated and varied attempts to communicate. Phoenix far outlived its predicted lifespan, surviving the dark, cold, icy winter on Mars. New images from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter showed signs of severe ice damage to the lander’s solar panels.

The passing of Phoenix removes a key exploratory tool from the kit used by University of Michigan engineering Professor Nilton Renno,  whose discovery of liquid water on Mars was named one of Discover magazine's top 100 science stories of 2009 and one of National Geographic's top 10 most popular space stories. His Mars research continues, as does the research of others, but the final signals from Phoenix were a good-bye message from one of the most productive probes that NASA has sent into the Universe.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Oil Spills You Don't Hear About

Millions of gallons of oil each source
puts into the oceans worldwide each year
The devastating effects of oil spills and the failures to clean them up have been the lead stories on nightly news for more than a month. One thing we've learned is that oil and water -- especially water that harbors life -- don’t mix.

What the news hasn't told us is that we damage the oceans with oil in disastrous ways with unpublicized regularity -- hundreds of millions of gallons of oil make their way quietly into seawater every year, mostly from non-accidental sources.  


Where does all of that oil come from? Big spills and offshore drilling we already know about. The silent flood of oil is the one that does the most damage.

About 363 million gallons each year go DOWN THE DRAIN and eventually wind up in waterways. Where does the stuff come from? Your car. My car. Every vehicle around us. The average oil change uses five quarts; one change can contaminate a million gallons of fresh water. In a city of five million, ROAD RUNOFF of oily substances each year could equal the spillage from one large tanker mishap. ROUTINE SHIP MAINTENANCE -- cleaning bilges and thousands of discharges from other areas of ships -- flush 137 million gallons of oil into seaways every year. AUTOMOTIVE AND INDUSTRIAL AIR POLLUTION sink 92 million tons of hydrocarbons into the oceans each year. NATURAL SEEPAGE from ocean bottoms and sedimentary rocks releases 62 million gallons into the sea.

By comparison, large spills are a relatively minor source of ocean oil pollution, but they can cause irreversible damage.

Cleanups, as we know from media coverage, take a long time and never return the environment to its original condition. An entire community of cleanup experts, such as those at the University of Michigan College of Engineering, has grown up in the wake of so many disasters like the one that British Petroleum seems unable to get under control. More significantly, these experts receive few calls unless disaster strikes, as it did when BP's Deepwater Horizon
rig sank and started leaking oil on April 22.

Read more about oil spills and their effects on the ocean ecosystem. If you agree that tighter controls are needed, contact your congressional representative and make your opinion known.



Oil Spill's Devastating Effects on the Environment

Oil Spills You Don't Hear About

Millions of gallons of oil each source
puts into the oceans worldwide each year
The devastating effects of oil spills and the failures to clean them up have been the lead stories on nightly news for more than a month. One thing we've learned is that oil and water -- especially water that harbors life -- don’t mix.

What the news hasn't told us is that we damage the oceans with oil in disastrous ways with unpublicized regularity -- hundreds of millions of gallons of oil make their way quietly into seawater every year, mostly from non-accidental sources.  


Where does all of that oil come from? Big spills and offshore drilling we already know about. The silent flood of oil is the one that does the most damage.

About 363 million gallons each year go DOWN THE DRAIN and eventually wind up in waterways. Where does the stuff come from? Your car. My car. Every vehicle around us. The average oil change uses five quarts; one change can contaminate a million gallons of fresh water. In a city of five million, ROAD RUNOFF of oily substances each year could equal the spillage from one large tanker mishap. ROUTINE SHIP MAINTENANCE -- cleaning bilges and thousands of discharges from other areas of ships -- flush 137 million gallons of oil into seaways every year. AUTOMOTIVE AND INDUSTRIAL AIR POLLUTION sink 92 million tons of hydrocarbons into the oceans each year. NATURAL SEEPAGE from ocean bottoms and sedimentary rocks releases 62 million gallons into the sea.

By comparison, large spills are a relatively minor source of ocean oil pollution, but they can cause irreversible damage.

Cleanups, as we know from media coverage, take a long time and never return the environment to its original condition. An entire community of cleanup experts, such as those at the University of Michigan College of Engineering, has grown up in the wake of so many disasters like the one that British Petroleum seems unable to get under control. More significantly, these experts receive few calls unless disaster strikes, as it did when BP's Deepwater Horizon
rig sank and started leaking oil on April 22.

Read more about oil spills and their effects on the ocean ecosystem. If you agree that tighter controls are needed, contact your congressional representative and make your opinion known.



Oil Spill's Devastating Effects on the Environment

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Digital Textbooks -- Heavy Topics, Light Reading

Students with mobile phones seemingly attached to their heads are common sights on college campuses. But coming soon to a college near you will be steams of students with iPad and Kindle readers under their arms -- because digital textbooks are a natural, for a number of reasons.

Using digitexts on an iPad, students can highlight text in any of six different colors to categorize topics. They can jot notes or use the iPad's built-in microphone to record audio notes. They can search for text by subject, topic and other criteria. They can even play videos
embedded in the digital text to bring engineering and science to life in ways that ink on paper never could -- just think how rapidly the learning curve would rise if nuclear engineering students could follow a lecturer into a reactor and ride the coolant water on a tour, following reactant, from refined ore to nuclear waste. Students can take interactive quizzes and track their right and wrong answers on the device. They'll affix e-notes and insert bookmarks. And they'll eventually do group study and tutoring from remote locations.

There's discussion that online bookstores will allow students to buy individual chapters, so professors will be able to assign specific content  rather than entire volumes in which substantial sections sometimes go unread. Publishers -- or even professors -- could update digitexts as soon as new material surfaced. New editions would be unnecessary because publishers could simply issue online updates, much as software publishers update their products.

Skeptics immediately point to price as a deal-breaker -- at $499-829, the iPad seems a bit hefty for most students. But the low-end $499 version plus inexpensive e-texts will be a drop in the bucket in comparison to the costly ink-and-paper tomes that become used books or doorstops after a semester.

Publishers have jumped on the digitext wagon. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Kaplan Publishing, McGraw-Hill Education and Pearson will be among the first to transform 500-page monsters into zeros and ones that're iPad-friendly.


It's a brave new world for authors, readers and publishers. Read more...

E-Reader Applications for Today, and Beyond

Inkling Lets Textbook Makers Embrace the iPad

Students Need iPad for College Text Books

Digital Textbooks -- Heavy Topics, Light Reading

Students with mobile phones seemingly attached to their heads are common sights on college campuses. But coming soon to a college near you will be steams of students with iPad and Kindle readers under their arms -- because digital textbooks are a natural, for a number of reasons.

Using digitexts on an iPad, students can highlight text in any of six different colors to categorize topics. They can jot notes or use the iPad's built-in microphone to record audio notes. They can search for text by subject, topic and other criteria. They can even play videos
embedded in the digital text to bring engineering and science to life in ways that ink on paper never could -- just think how rapidly the learning curve would rise if nuclear engineering students could follow a lecturer into a reactor and ride the coolant water on a tour, following reactant, from refined ore to nuclear waste. Students can take interactive quizzes and track their right and wrong answers on the device. They'll affix e-notes and insert bookmarks. And they'll eventually do group study and tutoring from remote locations.

There's discussion that online bookstores will allow students to buy individual chapters, so professors will be able to assign specific content  rather than entire volumes in which substantial sections sometimes go unread. Publishers -- or even professors -- could update digitexts as soon as new material surfaced. New editions would be unnecessary because publishers could simply issue online updates, much as software publishers update their products.

Skeptics immediately point to price as a deal-breaker -- at $499-829, the iPad seems a bit hefty for most students. But the low-end $499 version plus inexpensive e-texts will be a drop in the bucket in comparison to the costly ink-and-paper tomes that become used books or doorstops after a semester.

Publishers have jumped on the digitext wagon. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Kaplan Publishing, McGraw-Hill Education and Pearson will be among the first to transform 500-page monsters into zeros and ones that're iPad-friendly.


It's a brave new world for authors, readers and publishers. Read more...

E-Reader Applications for Today, and Beyond

Inkling Lets Textbook Makers Embrace the iPad

Students Need iPad for College Text Books

Friday, May 14, 2010

Tarmac Delay Rule May Punish Passengers as Well as Airlines

By Amy Cohn
Associate Professor, Industrial and Operations Engineering
Affiliate, MIT Global Airline Industry Program

Amy Cohn
When the airlines are good, they're very, very good: Last year, more than five million flights transported U.S. passengers to their destinations within 15 minutes of their scheduled arrival time. The trip that took the Pilgrims 66 days on the Mayflower in 1620 now takes less than eight hours by plane -- with ice cream, on-demand movies and your choice of complimentary cocktails. You can fly from Detroit to Ft. Lauderdale for less than the cost of the gas to drive there. And let's not take safety for granted -- in 2008, more than 37,000 people died in car accidents in the U.S.; there were zero fatalities for the 650 million passengers who flew that year.

But when they're bad -- well, "horrid" only begins to describe it. The stories are legend. On New Year's Day in 1999, passengers landing at the Detroit airport in the middle of a blizzard were met with chaos. Several flights were trapped on the tarmac; in the worst case, passengers sat for eight hours before finally being able to de-plane. In the so-called "Valentine’s Day Massacre" of 2007, passengers spent more than six hours idling on the taxiways of New York's JFK airport, their planes queued up for departure slots that would never materialize. The longest delay in that case was more than 10 hours. And most recently, in August of 2009, 47 passengers spent the night on the tarmac of the Rochester, Minnesota airport -- trapped on a cramped regional jet without food, water or fully-functioning lavatories, in sight of the terminal that they weren't permitted to enter because of confusion over security regulations.

These extreme cases are so egregious that they have motivated the U.S. Department of Transportation to pass a new ruling. Effective April 29, 2010, the ruling allows the DOT to fine an airline up to $27,000 per passenger for any flight that's delayed on the tarmac for more than three hours. A single delayed flight could accrue more than $3 million dollars in fines.

As a frequent flier, and someone who has chronic health problems that often flare up when traveling, it's hard for me to disagree with the motivation behind this ruling. Even though rationally I recognize that the odds of experiencing one of these extreme events are very small (roughly one-hundredth of one percent of flights in the last year have experienced a tarmac delay of three hours or more), the thought of being trapped on a crowded plane for hours and hours without food or water, inadequate lavatory facilities and no chance to control my environment nonetheless literally gives me nightmares.

But as someone who studies the airline industry for a living, I find the ruling frustrating. Not because I don't recognize that there's a problem. Not because I don't think the airlines should be held responsible for cases such as those mentioned above. But because I don't think it's going to make things much better for passengers. If we really want to see change, it's not enough to punish the airlines when things go wrong -- we have to find a way to keep them from going wrong in the first place. And this is no small task.

When things go wrong, it's human nature to look for someone to blame, and the airlines certainly deserve that blame some of the time. But things can easily go wrong in aviation even when an airline does everything right. Weather is the most obvious reason for this. And it doesn't even have to be your weather. If there's fog in San Francisco that delays a flight to Detroit, your Detroit flight to Ft. Lauderdale can be delayed as a result, because you have to wait for your aircraft to arrive. And you can experience a mechanical delay when there's nothing wrong with your plane. If there's a problem on the flight from La Guardia to Detroit, your flight to Ft. Lauderdale has to wait because it's bringing your pilot.

The challenge is that these flights all interconnect in one enormous, complex system. They share aircraft, crews, gates, runways and corridors in the sky. When something goes wrong in one part of the system -- whether it's as big as a thunderstorm shutting down a hub airport for hours or as small as a flight pushing back from the gate a few minutes late because of slow boarding -- the effects can ripple throughout the entire system. The delayed aircraft from San Francisco to Detroit means the Detroit flight to Ft. Lauderdale flight is delayed, which in turn means that it occupies its departure gate longer than planned. Therefore the flight from Baltimore that's just landed in Detroit has to sit on the tarmac waiting to pull into this gate. When it finally does so, one passenger misses her connection while her seatmate makes his with minutes to spare… but his bags don't.

Of course, most people don't want to think about system complexity; they just want to get from A to B, safely and on time. And they most definitely don't want to sit on the tarmac for three hours in the process. The DOT ruling seems like a simple solution to this: Fine the airlines $3 million per incident, and pretty quickly they'll find a way to stop these delays.

But can they?

This is no trivial task, not only because of the system-wide effects but also because different passengers want different things. Let's look at the case of a plane that has been sitting on the taxiway, awaiting departure, and is now approaching the three-hour mark. To avoid a $3-million fine, the airline tells the pilot to return to the terminal to allow passengers to de-plane. (It's not guaranteed that this is even possible, by the way: Picture being on a grid-locked highway and deciding to give up on your trip and just turn around and go home. Great. Except you still have to reach an exit ramp before you can get off the highway, and no one ahead of you is moving. Well, that's exactly what can happen at an airport…) But let's assume that the aircraft can in fact easily return to the gate. For one passenger, this might be a lifesaver. Claustrophobia has set in and he will happily postpone his business meeting to another day, just to be off the plane. But for another passenger, her top priority is reaching her destination at any cost -- perhaps for a wedding, a funeral, a big job interview -- and her delay has just gotten worse: Once the passengers who choose to do so get off, the plane heads back out, and goes to the end of the line to start waiting behind all the other flights in queue. That is, if the flight doesn't just get cancelled outright at this point, which is often the case (for example, if the crew has exceeded its duty limits). So the ruling has made the situation better for one passenger but worse for another.

More importantly, this begs the question of why the flight was sitting on the tarmac for so long in the first place. If there are already too many planes lined up for departure on the taxiway, the obvious solution is to delay passengers at the terminal instead of on the plane. They can remain inside the terminal enjoying a meal or working on their laptops, then board and push back once a departure slot is imminent. Of course, all airlines would have to agree to do this; otherwise, while one airline's passengers are patiently waiting in the bar, another airline could be grabbing the next several spots in lines. But even if flights were only allowed to pull back from the gate when the queue was short enough to ensure a timely take-off, there would still be a problem during periods of peak congestion (the very times that lengthy tarmac delays tend to arise). If too few departure flights push back from the gate, then arrival flights will have nowhere to go -- all the gates will be occupied. So the outbound passengers don't experience long tarmac delays, but now the inbound passengers do.

Ok, let's try another approach. When extreme conditions decrease the number of departures/landings that can occur at an airport (this reduced capacity is the main cause of lengthy tarmac delays), airlines can only avoid lengthy delays by cancelling flights. But at a time where airlines are flying at historically high load-factors (i.e., the percentage of empty seats is very small), passengers' ultimate delay in reaching their destination may be enormous, because it can take so long to re-accommodate them on a future flight. Here's some simple math: If flights are 95 percent full and you cancel one of them, it will take the next 19 flights to that destination to find available seats for all of the disrupted passengers. If an airline offers three flights a day to that destination, it will be a full week before everyone can travel. So this isn’t an easy fix either.

Frankly, there aren't any easy fixes. Limitations will always stress the system: weather, congestion and the very nature of the physics of flight. Airlines need to collectively deal with the challenges of constrained resources -- the airports, the runways and even the airspace itself -- that must be shared and managed by multiple players. Things can improve, but it will take change on the part of not only the airlines, but the associated government agencies as well as the flying public.

First and foremost, the airlines need to take responsibility for their mistakes. They can't cry "system complexity" as an excuse to cover up the bad decisions that were made in cases such as the flights mentioned above. Airlines are charged with the safety and wellbeing of their passengers, and in these cases, they failed miserably.

The DOT ruling also requires airlines to develop contingency plans for emergencies. Passengers stuck on the plane for hours because an international flight diverted to a non-international airport? This is actually an issue under the jurisdiction of Customs and Border Protection, and CBP should be responsible for establishing guidelines; but the airlines still need to be fully informed and prepared to act on them. Bad weather? Obviously airlines can't prevent snow, thunderstorms or high winds. But a passenger may need medical attention while a plane is delayed on the tarmac, all passengers have basic needs that must be met. The airlines should have protocols in place to deal with these situations, and these protocols should be followed.

But it's not enough to plan for what to do when these delays happen, the airlines should work to avoid them in the first place. To do so, they need to work closely with government agencies and with other airlines, dealing with the challenge of constrained resources -- the airports, the runways and even the airspace itself -- that must be shared and managed by multiple players.

One area worth exploring is new paradigms for how flights queue up for departure. In most cases, flights enter the runway queue under a strict first-come-first-served policy. And when a plane gets out of queue to de-ice, to let a passenger off, for re-fueling, etc., that plane typically returns to the end of the taxiway. This is not out of fairness (it seems quite reasonable that a plane that returns to the gate to give passengers the option to disembark should be able to re-claim its original place in the taxi queue) but out of practicality -- there's often no easy way to re-enter the line, except from the end. This is a physical characteristic of most airports, especially congested ones, and thus not trivial to change (at best, it would require enormous capital costs; in the case of land-starved airports such as Boston or La Guardia, it's a virtual impossibility). It is nonetheless worth investigating whether new policies for sequencing flight departures (when there isn't enough capacity to enable all scheduled flights to depart, should we treat a once-a-day wide-body departure to Asia the same as a regional-jet flying to a small rural airport?), as well as new physical airport layouts to facilitate these policies, could lead to better outcomes.

Likewise, it's worth thinking outside the box about how to disembark passengers during periods of extreme congestion. In many European airports, which typically have fewer terminal gates than U.S. airports, it's standard practice to have passengers deplane on the tarmac rather than at a gate; buses then transport the passengers from the tarmac to the terminal. During periods of extreme congestion and lack of gate access, could a similar approach be employed in the U.S.to ensure that inbound passengers don’t experience prolonged delays on the aircraft after they’ve landed? What would the cost be for this infrastructure, and what would it mean for passengers with limited mobility? How viable is it during extreme weather conditions? Alternatively, could outbound aircraft, themselves quite likely delayed, be pushed back from the gate empty to allow inbound aircraft to use the gate for deplaning, then swap the empty aircraft back for outbound boarding? This is a sizeable task that would consume time, fuel, crew resources and aircraft space (that is, "parking lots" for the empty planes), but again is worth evaluating as a possible alternative to cases such as the Detroit 1999 debacle. The feasibility and value of such changes to our present system key can only be determined through thorough and thoughtful analysis of costs and benefits.

It's also worth finding ways to encourage and support greater collaboration across airlines during extreme conditions. The most obvious example is in re-accommodating passengers from one airline to another during periods of extensive cancellations (e.g., in January and February of this year, when thousands of flights were cancelled due to several large snowstorms), in giving fliers greater flexibility in changing their plans, and in facilitating alternative transportation modes where appropriate.

Another area where collaboration is needed to reduce delays (and where government intervention may be required) is in the more day-to-day problem of congestion in New York. Thirty-three percent of the past year's 3+ hour delays has occurred in New York, largely due to the very high volume of flights in this area. These delays may well be reduced with the implementation of NextGen, a major FAA initiative to completely re-vamp the air traffic control system. (Today, think of planes as following a highway system in the sky, restricted to specific corridors that move between tracking points; in the future, planes will have far greater flexibility in where they fly and how they're tracked, meaning more room for more planes.) But NextGen is still many years and many, many dollars away. It certainly won't fix the delays in New York in the short term, and it's unlikely to fully solve the problem in the long term,

Ultimately, delays in New York will always be a function of the volume of flights into and out of its popular airports. No one airline alone is likely to take a pro-active stance in reducing its schedule to decrease delays. At first glance it seems like a promising business opportunity -- reduce your schedule and then charge a premium for better on-time performance. In reality, though, their competitors would see the same reduction in delays, eliminating their ability to charge higher fares. Or, more likely, their competitors would simply start offering more flights to pick up the slack and increase their own market share. Delays are always going to exist unless passengers are willing to give up the frequency of flights into and out of New York to which they're accustomed, and only if the government steps in to impose schedule limitations.

What, then, is the role for the flying public? We need to think hard about the choices that we're faced with, and ultimately vote with our wallets. We all want perfectly reasonable things: frequent, non-stop flights that are on time and spacious, plenty of leg room and space for our carry-ons, high-quality customer service. Unfortunately, it's not reasonable to expect these things at current airfares (today, on average, domestic fares adjusted for inflation are about 50 percent lower than they were in 1978 when the airline industry de-regulated). Everything comes down to trade-offs. For example, the cost of operating a flight is largely fixed. So the lower the fare, the more people an airline needs to pack in just to break even. But, as we've seen, the more people that are packed onto a flight, the harder it is to recover from a cancellation. Of course, you can make recovery easier by keeping reserve aircraft available to add in extra flights once the storms have passed, but at a cost of more than $100 million a pop, this will certainly impact fares substantially. Likewise, if you were to add just 15 extra minutes between every flight connection, you could greatly reduce the amount of propagated delay. But for an airline flying 2,000 flights a day, you'd need on the order of 50 more planes in order to fly this expanded schedule -- an investment of roughly $5 billion. Funding NextGen, building more runways, expanding airports to have extra gates, buying busses to transport passengers off the tarmac -- none of these comes cheap.

So the good news is that just about everything we want from our air transportation system -- more frequent flights, fewer delays and increased reliability -- all of these are possible. But just like our desire for more legroom and better airplane food, we have to answer the question: How much are you willing to pay?