In the future, our health could be monitored through a patch on our skin, our tablets could bend in half like a piece of paper, and drones could buzz around homes as assistants to the elderly.

These are all projects we’ve come across recently covering Illinois universities’ research and professors. Here are the researchers and innovations that had us believing in moonshot projects this year.

John Rogers: The Star Materials Scientist

Few researchers are given the treatment usually reserved for outgoing star athletes or politicians. But when it was announced that materials scientist John Rogers would leave University of Illinois Urbana Champaign for Northwestern University starting next fall, headlines across the state announced the move of the “star” faculty member.

That’s because Rogers is truly a star of the materials science world, which could have a serious impact on the way we live. He develops bio-integrated electronic devices, which can bend, stretch, and be integrated into the human body. His innovations include a tattoo-like electronics that can be placed directly on the skin (L’Oreal is using the patches to measure skin hydration), solid “transient” devices that will dissolve after they’ve served their function, and a delicate 3D fabrication method that could be used in biomedical devices and energy storage. His research group is also working on implantable LEDs that can manipulate neural circuits that control pain– meaning one day you might be able to relieve pain at the press of a button.

Naira Hovakimyan (Courtesy of Naira Hovakimyan)
Naira Hovakimyan (Courtesy of University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign)

Naira Hovakimyan: The Engineer Bringing Drones To Grandma’s House

Hovakimyan talks about drones with glee, but she knows that everyone isn’t as friendly with robots as she is. That’s why she’s not only working to create functional drones, but make them friendly enough so they can soon be a part of our daily lives. “Today grandmothers are afraid of the drones,” she said to Chicago Inno in August. “I won’t be scared of those in 2030.”

The UIUC mechanical science and engineering professor got a $1.5 million National Science Foundation grant this summer to fund the development of robots that can assist the elderly with daily tasks, in a project called Automation Supporting Prolonged Independent Residence for the Elderly, or ASPIRE. These robot drones could deliver pills from the cabinet or help with cleaning. She received an additional $300,000 grant to lay the groundwork for Non-Intrusive, Collaborative, Empathetic, Robust (NICER) robots, with an aim to understand peoples’ perception of robots.

Tobin Marks and Antonio Facchetti: The Engineer and Chemist Creating Bendable Displays

Any smartphone user has likely dealt with the annoyance (and cost of a cracked phone screen) to to an accidental drop. But what if you could not only drop your phone without fear of it cracking, but you could nearly bend it in half without impacting the screen?

That’s the idea behind Polyera, the startup based on the work of materials scientist Tobin Marks and chemist Antonio Facchetti. Unlike the rigid silicon displays usually seen in our devices, they’ve created a display based on their proprietary technology that can twist, bend, and fold. Polyera teased their first product, the Wove Band, a wearable with a display that wraps around the users’ wrist, earlier this fall with plans to go to market in 2016. In addition both Marks and Facchetti were just named 2015 Fellows of the National Academy of Inventors.

Matthew Spenko: The Roboticist Inspired By Biology

Matthew Spenko's gecko-inspired robot.
Matthew Spenko’s gecko-inspired robot.

Spenko doesn’t believe drones should be limited to flight. What if they could roll on the ground, hover into the air, attach to a wall, and crawl up the side of a building?

The Illinois Institute of Tech engineering professor is creating drones that have mechanical arms inspired by a gecko’s grip, that could be used to dispose space junk. His team is working with nano-sized materials and charged electrodes that can grip materials (traditional adhesives don’t work in space) and potentially transport dangerous defunct satellites. Back here on earth, Spenko is also testing robots that can both fly and roll along the ground with ComEd, in a pilot project using drones to survey power lines. He’s hoping that these projects can lay the groundwork for robots that can roll on the ground, fly, and attach to vertical surfaces.

Supriya Mehta and Amy Johnson: The Epidemiologists Using Google To Track STDs

Think about the last time you felt sick: did you call up your doctor to check your symptoms? Or did you type your questions into Google? Chances are it was the second one, and that valuable public health data is giving two UIC researchers insight into the spread of STDs.

Mehta, and epidemiologist at UIC, and Johnson, a PhD candidate at UIC, are one of a select number of universities nationwide granted back end access to Google search data in order to investigate how to harness the power of search to study the spread of disease. They’re working on a predictive model that can flag public health advocates when a community area has a noticeable increase in search volume of a certain symptom.

An Array of Things (AoT) node (Courtesy of UChicago)
An Array of Things (AoT) node (Courtesy of UChicago)

Charlie Catlett: The Computer Scientist Making Cities Smarter

Next year Chicagoans are going to start to see a number of white devices hanging from lamp posts around the city, thanks to Charlie Catlett, director of the Urban Center for Computation and Data at University of Chicago’s Computation Institute.

It’s called the Array of Things (AoT) project. The devices, or nodes, encase a variety of sensors that are tracking environmental factors such as light, temperature, carbon monoxide, and pedestrian traffic, and making that data publicly available so it can be tracked, analyzed, and utilized to pinpoint infrastructure issues that might otherwise be missed without such granular attention. The AoT project received a $3.1 million grant from the NSF in September to roll out 200 nodes in the city in 2016, and 500 by the end of 2017.

John Novembre: The MacArther Genius Mapping Humanity’s DNA

We have a “genius” in Chicago, and he’s using mathematics and statistics to shed light on the evolutionary history of populations.

John Novembre, an associate professor in the department of Human Genetics at UChicago, was named a 2015 MacArthur Fellow and awarded a “Genius Grant” (along with these other Chicagoans) for his work using algorithms to investigate our genetic history. One of his major discoveries, according to UChicago Science Life, was finding out that studying an individuals DNA can be used to understand almost exactly where they were born, within a few hundred kilometers.  “Sometimes obscure and difficult math can lead to new insights about the evolutionary process and our human origins,” he said to UChicago.