Caltech aeronautic and bio-engineering professor Dr. John Dabiri is on the front lines of combating climate change. Searching for energy sustainability solutions, he’s taking cues from some simple animals.

“The name of the game here is how you generate energy and how you consume it,” Dabiri told “TechKnow.” “And in biological systems—whether it’s a school of fish in the ocean, a flock of birds, or just a plant growing in a field—they’ve come across ways to very efficiently generate energy and to consume it efficiently as well. So our goal is to use concepts from physics to extract how they do that and apply it to systems like wind energy and underwater vehicles.”

The common wind turbines seen around the world producing energy are the large, three-bladed propeller type. But Dabiri is re-thinking their size, shape, and overall effectiveness.

“The challenge you see in wind energy is that an individual wind turbine—although it might be very efficient—creates a very choppy air behind it,” he says. “One of the challenges we have on a wind farm then is to arrange them to deal with that turbulence.”

For answers, Dr. Dabiri is looking underwater and taking a lesson from schools of fish.  

“As each one of those fish are flapping its tail, it’s also creating this choppy wake behind it. They swim close together and arrange themselves in such a way that they’re able to be more efficient in the group than by themselves. And so that’s what we wanted to get after, a design for a wind farm where the wind turbines was actually more effective in the group than they are by themselves.”

In California’s dusty, hot and windy Antelope Valley, scientists are able to test their latest hypothesis about the best way to harness energy from all this wind.

Caltech post-doctorate scholar Mattias Kinzel spends much of his time out there, studying different types of vertical wind turbines.

“We can space them closer and therefore get more energy for a given area of land,” says Kinzel, who is trained as a mechanical engineer. “The amount of sunlight [brought] to Earth in a matter of a few hours would be enough to supply energy for the whole globe for a whole year. We’re doing such a poor job so far of capturing that energy—my time is well spent advancing the technology to do this.” 

Watch “TechKnow” Saturday on aljazeeraamerica at 7:30 p.m. ET/4:30 p.m. PT and read more on our site

Found this parrot by one of the buildings in the vast illegal gold mining areas of Madre de Dios, Peru. As mining pushes deeper into the rainforest, humans end up pushing into wildlife that they’ll hunt or, in this case, take as a chick from its nest to have as a pet.

This macaw was kept out with the chickens and not well cared for. After a soft approach, he eventually warmed up to me and we had a nice lil’ parrot/human snuggle.

These intelligent birds are highly social and are almost always found in pairs with their long term companion. It seriously pained me to leave it behind but was happy to provide some enrichment in its decades long life.
#Peru #AJTechKnow #conservation #macaw


This week on “TechKnow,” we go inside an operating room for the third-ever U.S. surgery to implant the Argus II, a sensor placed directly on the retina that can help people see again. 

One bonus to having such a great team of super-smart contributors: Kosta Grammatis once actually designed a prosthetic eye equipped with a camera for a filmmaker.

Learn more on our site, and watch Saturday on aljazeeraamerica.


Caltech aeronautic and bio-engineering professor Dr. John Dabiri already taught us how schools of fish could inform and improve the design of wind farms.

Dabiri is also studying another sea creature for clues on improving real world energy efficiencies—jellyfish. 

“They’re so simple to begin with, but these are the first animals to figure out how to swim in the ocean,” he says. “They’re about 500 million years old, and they’re very efficient in how they use energy. We as engineers are interested in stealing those ideas and using them for different technologies that would allow us to use less fuel—for example, in underwater vehicles.“

The key to jellyfish efficiency is their vortex ring—“not unlike the smoke ring you can make with a cigar,” Dabiri explains. It makes them able to move through the water more effectively than jet propulsion systems used by underwater vehicles.

“The U.S. Navy has been particularly interested in this technology for developing underwater vehicles that use less energy,” Dabiri says. “This helps them reduce the cost of the various missions they support, but it also enables new missions that they can’t do currently.” 

Watch “TechKnow” Saturday on aljazeeraamerica at 7:30 p.m. ET/4:30 p.m. PT and read more on our site

Last year, TechKnow rode along with Oakland police officers who wear cameras on their uniforms, one piece of cop technology that—unlike the military-grade weaponry seen in Ferguson, Missouri—has a strong case to make for being both effective and potentially welcomed by communities and police departments alike. 

Producer Laura LeBlanc wrote more on our blog when the episode originally aired: 

When technology is used to expand the reach of those tasked with keeping us safe, figuring out where to draw the line is more challenging—and the stakes are even higher. Do unmanned military drone strikes save American lives by keeping American soldiers out of harm’s way or do they endanger American lives by killing innocent civilians and creating more people who want to do us harm? And do cameras that read license plates in a matter of seconds protect us from crime or do they create a system where our movements can be tracked by a “Big Brother” government?

As a resident of the community he polices, Oakland Police Department Capt. Ersie Joyner III, says he understands those “Big Brother” concerns. “I wear two hats. I’m a law enforcement person responsible and dedicated to, obligated to policing this city, as well as a lifelong Oakland resident who’s also concerned about his privacy and the privacy of my family.”

For Joyner, technology like ShotSpotter, license plate readers (LPRs) and body cameras strike a fair balance between security and privacy.

“Everything that a license plate reader captures, everything ShotSpotter captures, everything our lapel camera captures is all within public view,” Joyner says. “I very much understand individuals’ wants and needs for privacy. But I think there’s a perfect balance in regards to public safety and being able to capture data that’s in public review.”

The American Civil Liberties Union, an organization that admits to taking “a dim view of the proliferation of surveillance cameras,” has been tracking two of the technologies transforming police work—license plate readers and body cameras. And while they give a cautious thumbs-up to body cameras, they are sounding alarm bells for LPRs. In a report released in July of 2013, the ACLU acknowledged LPRs can serve a legitimate law enforcement purpose, but warned the technology poses serious threat to privacy and civil liberties:

“More and more cameras, longer retention periods, and widespread sharing allow law enforcement agents to assemble the individual puzzle pieces of where we have been over time into a single, high-resolution image of our lives… If not properly secured, license plate reader databases open the door to abusive tracking, enabling anyone with access to pry into the lives of his boss, his ex-wife, or his romantic, political, or workplace rivals.”

In October of 2013, the ACLU also released a report on law enforcement use of body cameras. The organization saw this technology as a potential win-win for the public and police.

“For the ACLU, the challenge of on-officer cameras is the tension between their potential to invade privacy and their strong benefit in promoting police accountability. Overall, we think they can be a win-win—but only if they are deployed within a framework of strong policies to ensure they protect the public without becoming yet another system for routine surveillance of the public, and maintain public confidence in the integrity of those privacy protections. Without such a framework, their accountability benefits would not exceed their privacy risks.”

Oakland PD’s Joyner says the public’s reaction to police officers wearing body cameras has been all over the map.

“We’ve had journalists questioning in regards to why didn’t officers have their cameras on during this protest,” Joyner says. “We’ve had people say on camera that they were upset that officers were actually videotaping them. We also have a group of people that actually welcome the cameras because they feel like, ‘Hey, this camera’s also going to help prove that I didn’t do what these officers are alleging I did.’ And, they’ve actually said, ‘Hey, I hope the camera was on.’”

A recent study done in the Southern California city of Rialto suggests that body cameras can have a big impact on policing. The first year police wore the cameras, incidents where police officers used force dropped by close to 60 percent. Complaints filed against officers dropped by 88 percent.

Oakland PD Officer Brian Hernandez says the cameras hold the public accountable too. “It kind of puts the accountability not just on us,” Hernandez says. “It puts it on the person we’re making contact with. So, they know everything’s being documented. They can’t just make us out to be the bad guy, which really works to our advantage.”

More news coverage from aljazeeraamerica on Ferguson can be found here.


Tonight on “TechKnow”: mapping climate change with NASA’s Operation Ice Bridge over Greenland in a low-flying, Cold War-era plane stuffed to the gills with scientists and their specialized equipment. 

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV here, then tune in at 7:30PM ET/4:30PM PT.


Hiking. Hiking through mud. Boating. More hiking. Hiking at night. Motorcycling. So much of field work in the Amazon is getting around in some rough, gorgeous terrain. #Peru #AJTechKnow #science