Opening paths to progress with programmable materials

ASU researchers developing self-organizing particle systems to monitor and maintain structures, mechanical systems, and even our bodies

March 6, 2017

Think of engineers conducting a checkup on a large bridge to assess its structural stability.

The job would typically require a team on site using a variety of specialized tools and devices to perform tests and take measurements. programmable materials, self-organizing particle systems, computational theory Computer science doctoral students Joshua Daymude (left) and Zahra Derakhshandeh (right) play key roles in professor Andrea Richa’s work to boost the performance of self-organizing particle systems that could provide solutions to many technical challenges. Photo by Pete Zrioka/ASU Download Full Image

Given the many interconnected components of modern bridges, some of which can be difficult to access, the labor is likely to be time-consuming and expensive.

Now, says Andrea Richa, imagine the work could instead be done by a “smart” material, composed of many tiny sensors capable of detecting and measuring such things as temperature, traffic, and structural cracks and stresses.

This “smart” network of tiny sensors would be achieved through the use of “programmable material” — material that can monitor and respond to its environment — consisting of “self-organizing” particles that could coat the surface of bridge components or any other objects.

And in addition to its sensing abilities, the material might also be able to fix small fractures and other defects.

Similar types of repairs could also be made on things such as aircraft, space shuttle components, nuclear reactors — or even within the human body.

Exploring plethora of uses for programmable matter

Turning that concept into reality is the focus of research by Richa, a professor of computer science in Arizona State University’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, in collaboration with colleagues at the Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Paderborn in Germany.

Her role is to develop the computer science theory and distributed algorithms necessary to explore and broaden the possibilities of using programmable matter.

Distributed algorithms are those designed to run concurrently on several independent, interconnected computational devices that cooperate via local interactions, without centralized control. They’re used in many applications in computing, from telecommunications and networking to information processing and process control.

“We try to answer the question of exactly what kinds of problems programmable matter would be able to solve, given certain constraints on its computational power or the movement of its individual sensors,” Richa explained.

In using programmable matter, she added, “It’s important that the distributed system is able to self-organize, so that it does not require any central control or human intervention, and that it achieves the desired behavior by means of local interactions of the computationally limited sensors.”

Some of the more significant recent findings made by her Self-Organizing Particle Systems research group were reported on in the prominent research publication MIT Technology Review and in a  computation theory blog that’s popular in the field.

"compression" graphic

A series of snapshots illustrate a particle system performing compression. There are 100 particles, which were initially in a straight line. Snapshots (a) through (e) were taken at regular intervals, showing the system’s steady progress toward a tightly gathered (compressed) state.

'Amoebot' model provides the framework

Those articles detail her group’s theory for a system of self-organizing particles that can perform “universal coating” and “compression” with only local communication and limited information about the environment. For example, the particles are able to perform these processes without having to rely on a global coordinate system, or any global orientation that they all share.

Universal coating involves layering a given object with material as evenly as possible, as in the aforementioned bridge. Compression, in this context, refers to gathering the material together as tightly as possible.

The findings were based on work with professor Christian Scheideler and doctoral students Robert Gmyr and Thim Strothmann at the University of Paderborn to develop a framework to describe programmable matter systems, which they call the “amoebot model” (the name is inspired loosely by the way amoebas move).

Using the model, Richa and her associates addressed the problem of coating surfaces of any shape through their universal coating algorithm for programmable material that “is indifferent to the shape or size of the surface that it must coat,” she said.

Applying the amoebot model to the challenges of compression, they took a cue from collective systems in nature and in some man-made systems, in which elements need to be as close as possible to each other to optimize their overall effectiveness,

“Think of army ants forming floating rafts to cross bodies of water, or ants exploring for food sources and then gathering around a source once it’s found, or a swarm of robots doing similar explore-and-gather operations,” she said.

three people watching a video

Daymude, Richa and Derakhshandeh view a computer simulation they developed to depict how their self-organizing particles can act together to form a coating over large surfaces. Photo by Pete Zrioka/ASU

Algorithms for finding and fixing problems

Through collaborations with Georgia Tech professor Dana Randall and doctoral student Sarah Cannon, Richa’s group has constructed and analyzed a new compression algorithm that enables system behavior similar to that of ants and other insects when they swarm to collectively carry out tasks.

Improved compression would likely help tiny particulate sensors not only perform better at gathering information but also improve their communication with each other, enabling them to work faster in some cases.

Such progress in developing self-organizing particle systems is likely to have myriad applications beyond monitoring and maintaining structures. They could also be used to form nanoscale devices for use in surgery and molecular-scale electronic structures.

Programmable matter with improved abilities to alter its physical properties — such as shape, density, electrical conductivity and optical properties — opens the door to even more practical uses, particularly for increasing the kinds of technical operations that could be performed remotely, such as finding and sealing leaks in a nuclear reactor.

Coordinating the performance of 'particle friends'

Richa is providing Fulton Schools students valuable computer science experience through her research endeavors.

Doctoral students Zahra Derakhshandeh and Joshua Daymude, along with undergraduate Alexandra Porter, have been involved in the development of the universal coating algorithm. Daymude has also contributed to work to improve compression of programmable matter.

“What excites me the most,” Daymude said, “is that these individual particles, which know almost nothing about the world around them — which way is north, how many particle friends they have to work with, or even what time it is — and are armed with only a little memory and some rules to follow, can perform coordinated, large-scale behavior.”

It’s “a very human idea,” he added. “We can do things together that are impossible for us to do alone. All it takes is some coordination. The communication necessary to make that happen tends to be the hard part. But if tiny particles can do it, I think we can, too.”

Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


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Gary K. Herberger, ASU patron, dies at 79

Gary Herberger, ASU patron, apprentice to Frank Lloyd Wright, dies at 79.
March 6, 2017

Herberger, apprentice to Frank Lloyd Wright, leaves legacy in design institute, school for gifted children

Editor's note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now's year in review. To read more top stories from 2017, click here.

He was an architect, one of the last to apprentice under Frank Lloyd Wright.

He was a businessman, head of Herberger Enterprises, a real estate development firm.

And he was a philanthropist, once described by a sitting governor as “a living example of what Henry David Thoreau meant when he said, ‘If you give money, spend yourself with it.’”

Gary K. Herberger, one of Arizona State University’s most generous supporters, died Feb. 28, his wife, Jeanne Herberger, said. He was 79.

Gary Herberger

Gary K. Herberger

One of Herberger's most significant legacies is his namesake Gary K. Herberger Young Scholars Academy, a school for academically gifted children at ASU’s West campus. Gary and Jeanne Herberger donated $20 million to launch the school in 2011 and added $5 million to expand the campus this year.

Such donations are synonymous with the Herberger family name, which has for decades been one of the most visible in the Phoenix area — especially within the ASU community. The family’s first donation to the school came in 1962: $200 to the School of Music. Over the years, that grew to more than $40 million in support, including a $12 million gift in 2000 that started the transformation of the School of Fine Arts into the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. 

ASU President Michael Crow said Herberger had a sweeping impact.

“Gary had an extraordinary intellect that was wide-ranging and effortlessly curious about how to design things better, how to make things better,” he said. “He was totally committed to upgrading the intellectual capability of the community. His legacy here at ASU and around the Valley will be felt for generations to come.”

Steven Tepper, dean of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, said that Gary Herberger is a “patron saint” of the college and that his creative genius inspires students and faculty every day.

“As an architect, developer and inventor, Gary embodied the true spirit of a designer — someone who sees the world as an endless space for reinvention and imagination,” Tepper said.

“Gary and the Herberger family invested in the Institute because they believed in the power of architecture, design and the arts to advance and elevate Phoenix as a sustainable and culturally rich city,” he said, adding that the support has allowed the college to hire renowned faculty and directors and to fund research and innovation in design, digital culture, performing arts, film and art.

Herberger knew architecture firsthand, having worked under Wright in 1958 at Taliesin West in Scottsdale and helping him with New York City’s Guggenheim Museum. When Wright died in 1959, Herberger traveled to Kansas to finish the famed architect’s buildings at Wichita State University. Herberger later served as chairman of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.

“As an architect, developer and inventor, Gary embodied the true spirit of a designer — someone who sees the world as an endless space for reinvention and imagination.” 
— Steven Tepper, dean of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts

Tepper recalled visiting Gary and Jeanne Herberger in their Paradise Valley home.

“Gary designed every detail of that house — from the exterior structure to the kitchen cabinets, the chandeliers, the tables and bookshelves. I remember thinking, ‘How wonderful to be able to live in a house where everything — small and large — was a reflection of one’s own creative talents and hard work,’ ” he said.

“This is the spirit of craftsmanship, intelligence and creativity that Gary brought to everything he did and that we aspire to when preparing the next generation of designers and artists.”

Herberger was a private person, but in 2007 then-Gov. Janet Napolitano declared May 16 of that year as Gary Kierland Herberger Day. Her proclamation included the famous Thoreau quote. Napolitano also noted the many interests that benefited from Herberger’s devotion: adoption, health, theater, art, music, senior citizens, environmental concerns, population issues, hunger, homelessness, youth, education, architecture and academic excellence.

ASU also has recognized the generosity of Gary and Jeanne Herberger, who shared his passion for advancing the school. In 2012, the couple was selected “ASU Philanthropists of the Year” by the President’s Club of the ASU Foundation for A New American University.

Herberger often visited ASU and his Young Scholars Academy, which teaches an accelerated curriculum to middle and high school students that allows them to acquire credits from the university.

He was passionate about creating a safe space for gifted children to thrive and said of the academy: “I dream of a place where our most promising children can realize their true potential — a place where they can play, create, inspire and innovate.”

Herberger loved being with the students, said Kimberly Lansdowne, executive director of the academy. During his visits, they would often hold “jam sessions” around the baby grand piano in the lobby that he donated.

“The kids would stand up and do a dance or a song, or poetry or play the guitar,” Lansdowne said.

The Herbergers “hoped for us to be a place where highly gifted kids could come and learn and be in a safe environment to take risks and be innovative and creative and be OK with struggling with things and experiencing failure and what you learn from that,” she said.

Though his name is on the school, the gracious and soft-spoken Herberger was never intimidating, she said.

“He would always greet me with a hug,” she said. “When he came to visit he was quiet, but you could see he was pleased with all the things that were going on.”

Lansdowne said Herberger had been a brilliant student who wasn’t always comfortable in the classroom.

“Academically, he knew more than most of his instructors,” she said. “But he struggled with finding a place where he felt comfortable learning and valued as a student.”

Gary and Jeanne Herberger were intellectual partners who embraced lifelong learning. Jeanne Herberger eventually earned three degrees from ASU’s Hugh Downs School of Human Communication.

In 2002, Gary and Jeanne Herberger were awarded honorary degrees from Thunderbird, The American Graduate School of International Management, as it was known then. Gary Herberger had been on the Thunderbird Board of Trustees. In 2015, ASU partnered with the school, now known as the Thunderbird School of Global Management.

He was a member emeritus of the American Institute of Architects, a member and former president of the Economic Club of Phoenix, and former chairman of the Dean's Council of 100 at Arizona State University.

Herberger was on the boards of the Design School and the Council for Design Excellence and was involved in the creation of the Herberger Center for Design Research, which has been a conduit for several million dollars in research funding over the past 20 years.

He supported research for the Digital Phoenix Project and was an adviser for the creation of ASU’s Master of Real Estate Development program in the W. P. Carey School of Business.

Gary and Jeanne Herberger also made significant donations to the Phoenix Symphony, Musical Instrument Museum and Herberger Theater Center.

Gary Herberger’s parents, Bob and Katherine “Kax” Herberger, moved the family from Minnesota to the Valley in 1949. Bob Herberger’s family owned the Herberger’s chain of department stores in the Midwest. Since then, few families have had as profound of an impact on ASU and the Phoenix area.

Gary Herberger is survived by his beloved wife and his brother, Judd.

Lansdowne said the children at the Gary K. Herberger Young Scholars Academy are his legacy.

“What they will do in their lives,” she said, “will reflect back on the generosity of Gary.”


Top photo: Gary Herberger speaks to a group of patrons at the launch of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts in 2009. Photo by Tom Story/ASU

Mary Beth Faller

reporter , ASU Now