Godzilla or Lassie?


Nov|Dec 2012 Contents
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I found myself thinking of those two pop-culture icons as I read this issue’s cover story, “Drone’s Day Scenarios,” by freelancer David Wolman. The Tokyo-smashing monster and Timmy-saving collie seemed to represent the spectrum of views regarding the machines known variously as drones, unmanned aerial vehicles, and flying robots and their role as agents of destruction or protection—a dichotomy that also inspired our cover illustration.

The article highlights the pioneering work going on at Penn’s General Robotics, Automation, Sensing & Perception (GRASP) Lab, where the amazing quadrotor flying robot has been developed. (To confirm the adjective, visit YouTube and watch them.)

Wolman spoke with Penn Engineering Deputy Dean Vijay Kumar—“Penn’s high priest of drones”—and with Daniel Mellinger GEng’10 Gr’12, who, with fellow GRASP Lab alumnus, Alex Kushleyev EE’07 GEE’07, founded KMEL Robotics to develop quadrotors commercially. He also interviewed law and philosophy professor Anita Allen, who shared her expertise regarding the many serious privacy concerns—so far largely unaddressed—surrounding drones, and also offered a more visceral response: “Even the word: drone. Doesn’t it make you think of Darth Vader or something?”

While acknowledging that this technology, like any other, can be misused, Kumar and Mellinger tend to dismiss the more, let’s say imaginative, visions for their robots’ future. And even if the quadrotors did somehow become self-aware, Skynet-style, who’s to say that, rather than take over the world, they wouldn’t be seduced by show biz, with gigs like the music-and-lights show KMEL helped put on at Cannes earlier this year?

Speaking of imaginative leaps, in “The Transformer” Alyson Krueger C’07 profiles landscape architect and Penn Design Professor James Corner GFA’86 GLA’86, whose firm recently won the assignment to design the public spaces for the Queen Elizabeth II Olympic Park, scheduled to open next year on the site of the London 2012 summer games.

Corner has been a leading advocate for the value of public parks not only aesthetically¬† but as engines of economic development. That has certainly proved true of New York’s High Line, credited with $2 billion in development two years after it opened, which was Corner’s most visible project until this one. It has also proved extremely popular. “No matter how beautiful it is,” Corner says, “if there are no people there, it’s no good.”

Corner describes his work with terms like dramatic, edgy, playful, and fun, which few people would associate with Van Pelt Library, whose half-century of service we mark in “Van Pelt at 50.” Penn’s central library building is certainly well used, however—and, on top of that, is more welcoming than it has ever been, thanks to an ongoing series of renovations and upgrades.

Back when I was an undergraduate, killing time between classes or avoiding studying, I used to like to go into the third-floor stacks at Van Pelt and read a page or two from old novels that usually hadn’t been checked out for decades. The works of alumnus and University trustee S. Weir Mitchell might have been among the neglected volumes I took off the shelves.

His name these days is most likely to ring a bell as the inadvertent inspiration for the feminist classic, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” built around an ill-advised rest cure for women that Mitchell—a prominent physician and scientist as well as popular novelist—promoted. In “The Case of S. Weir Mitchell,” Dennis Drabelle G’66 L’69 argues that his novels—and insight into women’s psychology—deserve a second look.

Finally, in “From Brand to Role Model,” Kathryn Levy Feldman LPS’09 chronicles the meteoric rise of fashion-designer Tory Burch C’88 and her work, through the Tory Burch Foundation, to help other women achieve success by providing mentoring and microloans.

—John Prendergast C’80

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  ©2012 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 10/30/12