A Robotic Life Raft, the Evolution of Your Nose, and the Joy of Sleep

7:46 minutes

Credit: Hydronalix

Since 2010, rescue workers have been using a robotic life raft called Emily near Los Angeles beaches. More recently, the craft has been deployed to assist refugees abroad. However, the current version of the robot needs to be steered via remote control. Researchers are working to make the Emily more autonomous, and thus able to navigate to stranded people in the water on its own. They’re also trying to make the robot gentler in its approach, teaching it ways to reach swimmers quickly but without slamming into them.

Lauren Silverman, science and technology reporter at KERA in Dallas, Texas, joins Ira to talk about the robot life raft and other science news from the week. We’ll hear about research into how the shape of noses around the world may have evolved in response to local climate; the finding that many asthma sufferers aren’t using their inhalers correctly; and work that found that improving your sleep habits could make you happier—even as happy as a lotto winner.

Segment Guests

Lauren Silverman

Lauren Silverman is a Health, Science & Technology Reporter at KERA News in Dallas, Texas.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. You’ve seen the images. Refugees in tiny boats, rough waters, struggling to make landfall. Well, since last year, rescue workers have been trying out a new tool to save them– a robotic lifeboat called EMILY. And in the first 10 days it was in use, EMILY helped more than 240 refugees make it to shore safely. Wow.

Lauren Silverman of KERA News in Dallas is here to talk about that and other selected short subjects in science this week. Welcome back to Science Friday, Lauren.

LAUREN SILVERMAN: Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Tell us about EMILY.

LAUREN SILVERMAN: Yes, so I wish the name didn’t stand for something, but it does. It stands for Emergency Integrated Lifesaving Lanyard. And it’s essentially a remote controlled rescue boat that’s about four feet long and it looks like a cylindrical surfboard. But it has the power of almost a jet ski. So it can go about 20 miles an hour. And since 2010, rescue professionals have been using EMILY robotic rafts to save people in places like Los Angeles but never before abroad. So this is the first time that they’re being used to help refugees.

And like you said, it has been used off the shore of Greece, off the Island of Lesbos. And the woman who’s helping make this happen is named Robin Murphy. She’s put robots in some of the biggest disaster zones in the last decade– in Louisiana after Katrina, above mudslides in Washington state, into rubble at the World Trade Center. So the crisis she’s looking at now is the refugee crisis.

And the thing is they’re trying to make these EMILY life rafts more autonomous. Right now, someone on shore or on a boat monitors them like a remote control vehicle. But the idea is to make it possible for someone to call off the coordinates of a victim far away and have a computer convert those, send them to GPS to the robot so that the robotic raft can arrive and help someone in the water while the lifeguard can tend to people who need help elsewhere.

So here’s the one thing about that though. If you can imagine floating in the water and having something come at you 20 miles an hour and you’ve just fallen off of a boat or something traumatic has happened, it would be pretty scary. So here’s what Robin Murphy told me.

ROBIN MURPHY: EMILY can come at you at full speed ahead. And it can hit you and it won’t hurt you. It’s designed not to. But you’re not going to be happy. And if you’re already stressed, this is not going to make it better. So now, you can use your location to slow down, to not invade personal space. But you can start doing even better if you start using the camera– in a thermal camera to say person in the water, I’m going to slow down, and I’m going to turn myself the long way toward them to make it easier to grab hold of.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, so the person– they’re not dragging you into the boat. You grab on and boat goes back. EMILY goes back.

LAUREN SILVERMAN: Exactly. Exactly. So pretty cool stuff they’re doing.

IRA FLATOW: It is cool. I know that you have a story about evolution and the shape of your schnoz– your nose– in evolution. Tell us about that.

LAUREN SILVERMAN: Yes, so a new study helps explain why people from different parts of the world have very different nose shapes. And I thought nostrils were just, I don’t know, for sniffing things maybe for piercing. But it turns out our noses–

IRA FLATOW: You haven’t seen mine obviously. [LAUGHTER] Getting in the way. Go ahead. Sorry.

LAUREN SILVERMAN: At some point, I’ll put that on my agenda there. They do something really important though. They warm and they moisten the air that we breathe. So for adults, somewhere around 18,000 liters of air passes through our nose each day. And all of that air has to be warmed to a certain temperature before it reaches our lungs. So some nose shapes have adapted to more efficiently warm that cold air.

And the study out of Pennsylvania State University, published in PLOS Genetics, shows that people whose parents and ancestors come from warmer, more humid climates– like South Asia– tend to have wider nostrils. And people from colder, drier climates– like northern Europeans– tend to have narrower ones, which is something a lot of people might have noticed. But the science behind this has to do with the mechanics of airflow and the geometry of the nose. I heard you say you’re going to talk about geometry later in the show. Narrower nostrils help warm air because the shape creates more turbulence and forces that cold air to have more contact with warm, moist mucus in the nose.

IRA FLATOW: Well, I must be the exception to the rule I think. [LAUGHTER] We’ll move on. Speaking of breathing, let’s talk about breathing easily. You have a story about asthma inhalers.

LAUREN SILVERMAN: Yeah, I mean, we’ve all seen those puffers. Some people call them puffers. They’re also known as MDIs. They are inhalers. And tens of millions of Americans use them every day, but most people aren’t doing it right. This is a study out of Baylor in Texas. And what the research showed is that even though those devices look easy to use, there are actually nine steps involved. And people are only getting about half as much medicine as they should from each puff, which is both a waste of medicine and dangerous because you’re having to be sicker, perhaps, longer.

To do the experiment, the researchers collaborated with some electrical engineers at Rice and used sensors to build a model where they measured how patients shook the inhaler, whether they held it upright, the timing, and so on. And they did this on a small number, 23 patients. But these are all patients with asthma or COPD who you would think know how to use inhalers because they’ve done it for a very long time. And everyone made at least one mistake.


LAUREN SILVERMAN: So, the biggest mistake is the timing. You’ve got to– the most successful people are the ones who started inhaling and then, within one or two seconds, pushed on the inhaler. But it’s not as easy to do as it sounds. And if people don’t get the right training and education on how to do it, it’s a problem.

IRA FLATOW: It makes lot of sense. Finally, there is news about the value of a good night’s sleep. Yes! Tell us.

LAUREN SILVERMAN: Sort of the monetary value, actually, I guess you could say. When you get a full night’s sleep, people know in general, I think, you feel a little bit better. But there was a study at the University of Warwick in England that analyzed the sleep patterns of more than 30,000 people in the UK, across four years. Long study. And they discovered that improving sleep quality lead to levels of mental and physical health comparable to someone who won a jackpot of around $250,000, which it’s not a huge jackpot, but it’s a good size. It’s a good chunk of change.

So the thing is though I was looking at the study and, as you know, medical research studies aren’t the most thrilling reads. There’s only one line in the whole thing that talks about the lottery. So there are lots of headlines in the news that focused on this. But the researchers also point out that if you improve your sleep, it feels about the same as completing an eight-week program of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy.

IRA FLATOW: That’s great.

LAUREN SILVERMAN: Yeah, a few different ways to feel happier– cognitive therapy, winning the lottery, or just improving your sleep.

IRA FLATOW: Well, I certainly will try to take advantage of that. Lauren, thank you for taking time to be with us today.

LAUREN SILVERMAN: Yep, sleep well tonight.

IRA FLATOW: I’ll try. Lauren Silverman, science and technology reporter at KERA in Dallas.

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