While some college students struggle to pick a major or procrastinate on a dissertation, others invent solutions to help solve major problems. Here are the seven inspiring winners of the 2016 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize, a contest rewarding the country's most inventive college and graduate students.
Kale Rogers, Michael Farid, Braden Knight and Luke Schlueter, MIT
Fast food restaurants spend about half of their budgets on labor and operations, so less money is left over for decent ingredients. A tiny new automatic restaurant—combining a fridge, dishwasher, stovetop, and robo-chef in one device—is designed to take care of everything, so the restaurant can afford to buy better-quality, fresh ingredients. Sensors measure out the right quantity of each food, and then cook it from scratch at the perfect temperature. The whole thing, called the Spyce Kitchen, fits in only 20-square feet, so it can squeeze in places where McDonald's can't.
Catalin Voss, Stanford University
For children with autism, recognizing social cues in facial expressions can be a challenge—and behavioral therapy (sometimes by memorizing expressions through flashcards) can be tedious. Twenty-year-old Catalin Voss designed an alternative: An artificial intelligence system, running on Google Glass, tracks expressions in real time and tells the child what they're seeing. At the end of the day, a parent and child can look back at video footage through an app. The goal of the Autism Glass Project is to provide continuous feedback, so children can make faster progress, and eventually not need the aid.
Thomas Pryor and Navid Azodi, University of Washington
When a deaf person pulls on the SignAloud gloves, the gloves start recording hand position and movement. As they gesture, the data is sent to a computer, which looks for a match in American Sign Language, and then speaks the word or phrase so a hearing person can understand. Though designed by sophomores, the gloves are reportedly more accurate than alternatives designed by much more experienced engineers.
Jason Kang, Katherine Jin and Kevin Tyan, Columbia University
After the Ebola outbreak began in 2013, 881 health care workers got sick, despite wearing space suits, using disinfectant, and taking other precautions. More than 500 of them died. One of the challenges is that disinfectants are usually clear, so it's hard to see if a hazmat suit, for example, has been fully sprayed down. Three undergraduates invented Highlight, a brightly colored powder that can be mixed with disinfectant just before it's used. If a spot is missed when someone sprays, it's easy to see. The team will be taking the product to Guinea for field testing in June, and also plans to test it in hospitals.
Heather Hava, University of Colorado Boulder
One of the biggest challenges for living in space—even temporarily, on the space station—is access to healthy fresh food. PhD student Heather Hava developed a set of tools for gardening in space. Inside the SmartPot, a chamber that controls temperature, humidity, and lighting, a reservoir drips water and nutrients on plant roots, eventually collecting the water again to repeat the process. Data about plant health shows up for astronauts to read, or, if they don't have time, can be beamed back to Earth for someone else to manage. An AI system detects any problems, and a remote-controlled rover can move plants or check up on them as needed.
Achuta Kadambi, MIT
Instead of trying to mimic the human eye, Achuta Kadambi designs cameras that can see better. His nanophotography system, soon to be released as a DIY kit, can capture light in motion by using a patterned flash and software. His polarized 3-D camera can incorporate the rotation of light waves, something that's invisible to humans. By capturing 3-D photographs, it can help surgeons better understand where to make a cut, and it can make virtual reality more real.
Dan Dorsch, MIT
The hybrid Porsche 918 may be fun to drive, but it's less efficient than a hybrid Honda Accord or Toyota Prius. PhD student Dan Dorsch invented a new transmission system that performs like a supercar, but is also super-efficient. The transmission doesn't have a clutch, and uses an extra electric motor instead to shift seamlessly to the next gear. It makes it possible to drive in the city only using electricity, and not gas. Dorsch has partnered with a sports car manufacturer to commercialize the design, and a prototype car will be on the road in 2017.