Alumni News Blog

  • Swarms (of Robots) That Help Farms

    By now, autonomous robots were supposed to be part of our everyday lives, helping us perform a myriad of tasks at home, work and school, says Magnus Egerstedt, one of Georgia Tech’s top robotics experts and the Schlumberger Professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “The truth is, we’re just not there yet,” Egerstedt says. “This level of autonomy has been challenging.”

    However, one industry continues to make strides in this area: agriculture. “For instance, today’s farm tractors don’t really need drivers; they use programs and GPS to navigate fields,” he says. “But there’s more that can be done.”

    Egerstedt and his student researchers are exploring how teams of smaller, more agile robots could work in swarms to perform a host of farming functions—without the downsides of large tractors that compact the soil and devour gas. “Swarm robots could be programmed to tend crops on a micro level, inspecting individual plants for moisture and insects, and then make decisions based on what they find, such as watering or administering pesticides,” Egerstedt says.“And farmers could control and communicate with them using nothing more than iPad app.”

    Egerstedt and his team have already developed the fundamental algorithms to carry out some basic farming tasks. “We’ve started by deploying teams of swarm robots in lab-based artificial environments,” he says. “Our goal is to test them in real fields with real crops as early as this summer. Eventually, I hope we can develop robots that operate autonomously and continuously over a full crop-growing cycle.”

  • A Passion for the Perfect Cup of Coffee

    condesa-mainDaniela Staiculescu and Octavian Stan have very diverse interests. They are engineers. They are urbanists. And they are really, really into coffee.

    So when they had the opportunity to buy the Condesa Coffee shop in Atlanta’s up and coming Old Fourth Ward neighborhood in 2011, they didn’t let the fact that they both had full-time jobs stand in the way.

    They teamed up with fellow Yellow Jackets Amin Rida, PhD ECE 11, an entrepreneur with a Silicon Valley startup company, and Moe Reda, AE 14, a coffee enthusiast who  has jumped into the management of the shop.

    Staiculescu, MS EE 98, PhD  ECE 01, is a graduate advisor in Georgia Tech’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Stan, MS EE 95, PhD ECE 99, is an engineer with Ericsson.

    Before they bought Condesa Coffee, neither had any experience in the food and beverage industry.

    “When we opened this shop we were completely clueless,” Staiculescu says. “But it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. Period. We’ve learned a lot about ourselves and a lot about people.”

    It’s a radical departure from their engineering backgrounds, but they look at Condesa as acondesa-moe creative outlet.

    They love the experience of tasting the complex flavors in a great cup of coffee and seeing the intricate designs swirled into the foam topping a cappuccino.

    But engineering and coffee overlap more than you might think, they say.

    “Coffee culture is chemistry and science,” Staiculescu says. “It touches on our nerdy side.”

    All four of Condesa’s owners made cross-Atlantic moves to study at Georgia Tech—Reda and Rida from Lebanon, and Staiculescu and Stan as a young married couple from Romania.

    Upon arriving at Georgia Tech in the 90s, they were surprised to find that Georgia’s capital city was not nearly as vibrant as their home in Bucharest.

    “Coming from Europe, it was a bit of a shock,” Stan says.

    The international students eventually grew to love their new city, and have watched it grow and evolve over the past 20 years. They’ve been especially interested in the renaissance of the neighborhoods surrounding downtown Atlanta.

    “There’s this energy of people trying to change things here,” Stan says. “Atlanta in 10 years is going to be a completely different city. It’s being defined right now.”

    In 2011, they wanted to become part of the rising tide in the Old Fourth Ward, the once downtrodden neighborhood that in recent years has welcomed trendy new bars and restaurants.

    Stan says they were drawn to Condesa Coffee because they wanted to offer a sustainable coffee program and a gathering space to promote community. 

    condesa-coffeeThey recently celebrated their third year at Condesa, named by its former owners after an artsy neighborhood in Mexico City.

    Staiculescu said while it has been an incredible experience, it hasn’t been easy. Which is why they were skeptical when developer Gene Kansas, who is also a graduate student in digital media at Tech, contacted them about opening a second location on Auburn Avenue.

    Kansas is redeveloping the Atlanta Daily World building, the historic home of Atlanta’s first African American newspaper, to include high-end apartments and shops.

    “Why would I open a second location when I’m already so busy with this one?” Staiculescu says.  “But we saw the building and it made perfect sense.”

    Staiculescu and Stan fell in love with the old brick building and were inspired by Kansas’ historically sensitive vision. They think Condesa Coffee will be a perfect fit for the Sweet Auburn neighborhood and offer a nice gathering spot for nearby Georgia State students.

    It’s another way they think they can contribute to their adopted city, one cup of coffee at a time.

  • Hunger Heroes

    There’s enough food in the world to feed everyone—all 7-plus billion of us. So why are so many people going hungry?

    “The core problem is food distribution, not supply,” says Ozlem Ergun, Georgia Tech professor of industrial and systems engineering. “It’s quite expensive and challenging to deliver food that is abundant in one region of the world to another.”

    As co-founder and co-director of Georgia Tech’s Center for Health and Humanitarian Systems, Ergun and her team of faculty, staff and students work with groups such as the United Nations’ World Food Programme to create more efficient food distribution systems. When thinking about who can solve the world’s hunger crisis, industrial and systems engineers may not exactly be the heroes that jump to mind. But Ergun says the engineers who make these sorts of logistical and supply chain improvements not only save time, effort and money, but also human lives.

    Mallory Soldner, PhD IE 14, is one of these unsung hero engineers. As a graduate student, Soldner spent more than a year in Rome helping the World Food Programme create a supply chain dashboard designed to help humanitarian workers track problem areas using key performance indicators. For example, one aspect the dashboard measures is the reliability of food commodity orders placed by a country office. The dashboard uses graphs to show what percentage of orders have arrived on time, in good quality and in the right amount to their destination. If orders are arriving early or late, the dashboard will help pinpoint what’s causing the problems.

    “It promotes a better dialogue around what’s happening, why it’s happening and what you have to do to tweak things to get where you want,” Soldner says. “It’s a really digestable way to focus on the most important pieces.”

    Soldner, who now works at UPS’ corporate headquarters in the advanced analytics group, says engineers indeed have an important role to play in the humanitarian arena. “Engineers help translate solutions to areas where tradeoffs are difficult,” she says.

    The Center for Health and Humanitarian Systems was what initially attracted Soldner to Georgia Tech. She attended the Center’s annual logistics conference before she decided to pursue her doctorate at Tech.

    The center was established in 2007 as a way for students and faculty to share their skills to improve logistics in the public sector. And that’s important because resources in the nonprofit world are often limited.

    “Every dollar that can be saved in operational costs can be used to help another person,” Ergun says.

    But humanitarian organizations present some very unique challenges. Unlike at a typical private-sector company, it’s very difficult to predict what demand will be like from one day to the next. A typical corporation can predict demand for its products in the future based on sales from past years. But predicting a tsunami or political revolution isn’t quite as straightforward.

    Humanitarian organizations often struggle with consistent funding as well.

    “Even if you can estimate demand, without a confirmed donation you cannot start your supply chain action,” Ergun says. “The money starts to trickle in when there’s an emergency. But when there’s an emergency or humanitarian event—such as a storm that wipes out food supplies—it’s already too late to start buying.”

    Simply put, Ergun says one of the goals of the center and its partnerships with humanitarian organizations is to help ensure that they get the right amount of food, at the right price, to the right place at the right time.

    “That really fits into our expertise at Tech,” Ergun says. “We have one of the best departments in the world in this area and we have a lot of experience.”

    In fact, Ergun believes the Institute deserves some credit for the growing prominence of engineering in the humanitarian sector. “We were one of the pioneer groups, but it has become quite a big field for academia,” Ergun says. “And I think part of it is due to our leadership.”

  • Coca-Cola Freestyle’s Winning Formula

    Tech alumni play a major role in developing the technology and business strategy of Coca-Cola’s groundbreaking drink dispenser.

    If the curvy, racy red Coca-Cola Freestyle drink dispenser reminds you of a Ferrari, it’s with good reason. Their sleek-and-stylish exteriors are both designed by Pininfarina, the legendary Italian sports car design firm. However, it’s what lies under their hoods that should really get you excited.


    The Freestyle machine debuted in Atlanta in late 2009, and just five years later there are more than 27,000 dispensers deployed worldwide in more than 16,000 restaurants, movie theaters and retail stores. But far before critical mass took hold, it took considerable Georgia Tech knowhow to build that first unit—which perhaps borrows more from the consumer electronics and medical industries than the traditional beverage world—and bring it to market.

    Of the six engineers who created the original touchscreen machine, two are Yellow Jackets: David Newman, MS EE 86, Coca-Cola Freestyle director of engineering, and Gregg Carpenter, BS ME 85, global program director of engineering. In addition, three Tech alumni played instrumental roles in spearheading the Freestyle business engineering and IT strategy.

    This trio recently gave the Alumni Magazine a tour of their startup-like headquarters located near Tech campus, but separate from the main Coca-Cola campus. “The Freestyle project was one of the largest internal innovation projects in the 128-year history of the company,” says Jim Sanders, IE 88, Coca-Cola group director of business development. “And so in many ways, we approached the challenge much like a high-tech startup would. And that doesn’t just mean we have a ping-pong table in the break room.”

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    Jim Sanders, IE 88

    Marc Katz hi res photo

    Marc Katz, ME 94

    Chris Dennis hi res

    Chris Dennis, Mgt 95






    With Freestyle, Coca-Cola made a big-bet investment in a cutting-edge innovation, Sanders says. “We had to operate in a quick and nimble environment,” he adds. “In this building, we house dozens of cross-functional associates—all 100-percent focused on Freestyle.”

    The genesis for Coca-Cola Freestyle came in the mid-2000s when company leaders recognized consumers wanted a better fountain-drink experience in restaurants and retail locations. “First off, they wanted more variety,” Sanders says. “Typically they could only order six to eight flavors, and usually only one of them a no-calorie option. Consumers also wanted more consistency in the taste of  dispensed drinks. And younger consumers wanted a more engaging and personalized experience.”

    Charged with these demands, the soft-drink giant launched the Coca-Cola Freestyle project (code-named JET)—and handpicked some of its top technical minds to start working on the considerable engineering issues at hand.

    “One of the most obvious obstacles was being able to deliver what they asked for in a limited footprint,” says Marc Katz, ME 94, Coca-Cola Freestyle VP of global operations. “Restaurants and retail stores don’t have a lot of extra space to spare.”

    Regular soft-drink dispensers use boxes of syrup and water, which typically take up considerable space in a storage closet. Adding more flavors to this already unwieldy situation would only exacerbate the problem.

    So the Coca-Cola Freestyle engineers had to think small—really small. They found inspiration in the micro-dosing technologies used in the U.S. healthcare industry to administer medicines. “We contracted with Dean Kamen’s DEKA, probably best known for developing the Segway, to tap into their specialized expertise in this area,” Sanders says.

    Adapting micro-dosing for beverage dispensing, the Freestyle machine employs printer toner-sized cartridges filled with highly concentrated ingredients. When a specific beverage brand or mix of flavors is selected by a consumer, these ingredients combine according to proprietary recipes with either soda water or still water in precise, accurate amounts to deliver the perfect-tasting drink.

    “And flavors like vanilla or cherry aren’t added like you add a flavor shot to your coffee,” Sanders says. “They are added at the appropriate ratios to provide a consumer-preferred consistent taste. For example, Sprite Orange and Coke Orange have different levels of orange that are unique to their recipes.”

    To illustrate how complex the Coca-Cola Freestyle micro-dosing and dispensing technology is the dispensing nozzle itself boasts three patents, Katz says. “To make sure flavors don’t mingle from drink to drink, only pure still or soda water touch the plastic part of the nozzle—the flavor ingredients are mixed mid-air,” he says.

    In effect, each Freestyle dispenser behaves like a mini, ultra-high-tech, personalized bottling plant, Katz says. He should know—he spent nearly 20 years in bottling and engineering operations for years before joining the Coca-Cola Freestyle team. “And each of these machines can dispense up to 125 different beverages plus consumers’ custom recipes,” he says.

    The combinations are mind-boggling. A single vending-machine-sized unit can serve up sparkling soft drinks (Coke, Sprite, etc.), flavored waters (Dasani), sports drinks (PowerAde) and even other categories such as lemonades. There are approximately 70 low- or no-calorie options, and up to 90 caffeine-free options. And that’s not even getting into international, country-specific offerings.

    A new wrinkle being rolled out in 2015 is replacing the plastic flavor cartridges with something more sustainable, Sanders says. The company projects that its recyclable, paperboard SmartPAK will have the same carbon benefit as taking 430 cars off the road or planting 1,700 acres of forest.

    While Coca-Cola Freestyle’s dispensing technology marks a groundbreaking achievement for the beverage industry, its automated systems, wireless connectivity and touchscreen interface are equally impressive. The machines boast powerful internal CPUs that not only can provide analytics and consumption data, but also can monitor component performance and repair needs, says Chris Dennis, Mgt 95, Coca-Cola Freestyle group director of platform management. “What’s more, every Freestyle unit is wirelessly connected to the Internet and can provide this information back to us, as well as to restaurant and retail owners,” Dennis says. “The dispenser ‘calls’ in every night and updates its operating status and needs.”

    In fact, the Freestyle dispensers are capable of automatically ordering new beverage cartridges and other supplies when they’re running low. “All of its automated processes makes a manager’s job that much easier,” he says. “It’s end-to-end, global and closed loop network integration.”

    A huge benefit of such seamless integration is the ability to roll out new products and even a new brand with relative ease. “In many cases, all it takes is an overnight software update and customers are able to enjoy a new beverage the next day,” Dennis says.

    Dennis is currently overseeing a rollout of a new touchscreen interface. The current version is relatively simple and intuitive to use, though it can be overwhelming to browse through a Freestyle machine’s 125-plus possible flavors. “The new interface draws upon our analytics and testing that shows how consumers use Freestyle to make drink selections, and groups them into top-menu categories such as ‘Low-Calorie’ or ‘Fruit-Flavored’,” Dennis says.

    In addition, Freestyle fans can download the Coca-Cola Freestyle app onto their smart devices where they can mix and save personalized flavor combinations. Then they can use the app to find the location of the nearest machine, walk up to it, connect via a quick QR code “virtual handshake” and upload their favorite drinks for a speedy, personalized experience. “In the future, we’d like to make this interaction even faster,” Dennis says.

    Though Freestyle is an unqualified success, the management team isn’t satisfied. “One thing Georgia Tech taught us was to always be thinking about how we can make it even better,” Sanders says.

    In the near-term pipeline are even smaller Coca-Cola Freestyle machines for locations that can’t accommodate a large floor-standing unit. Currently, the primary models in the market are the Freestyle 9000 for self service in fast food and retail locations and the Freestyle 8000 for wait staff crews to use in full-service restaurants. Both are the size of a large vending machine.

    “Smaller units are a technical challenge,” Sanders says, “but they provide an opportunity for Freestyle to be in places it couldn’t be before. And while they do offer fewer beverage choices—they can sit on countertops and still provide all the interactivity and connectivity of the top versions.

    There’s much more to come from Coca-Cola Freestyle, Sanders says. “Like every Georgia Tech graduate knows, barriers are simply problem-solving opportunities for an engineer.

  • How to Make a Craft Beer

    The official definition of a craft beer, according to the Brewers Association, is one that’s produced by a small, independent and traditional brewer. But to Atlanta’s Second Self Beer Company, craft beer means something much more—namely high-quality ingredients and processes that produce “layers of character and flavor” which come together in a beer that’s “greater than the sum of its parts.” Second Self’s purveyors take us through the steps—and science—of how they make one of their best-selling craft beers.

    Step 1: Raw Ingredients1 spice_malt_IMG_1336_v1fs

    “Thai Wheat was inspired by my trip to Thailand in 2010,” says Second Self Beer Architect Jason Santamaria, Mgt 06. “I loved the flavor combinations there, and I came back, took cooking classes, ate a lot of food. We started with a plain ale with ginger and lemongrass, but eventually we switched to an American wheat because it better suited the style. We stayed away from coriander, but eventually added galangal, which is a cousin of ginger. It’s a much more robust flavor, and much more potent, so dialing that in was hard. That’s where we’re at now.”

    Step 2: Step on the Scale

    Early on, Second Self made small batches of Thai Wheat—five to 10 gallons at a time. (These days, the brewery makes 620 gallons at a time.) “Our boil used to finish in five minutes and that was it,” says Alechemist Chris Doyle, Mgt 07, MBA 11. “Now we’re talking 30 minutes, which means all new interactions of your herbs in the beer. When scaling, we had to do a lot of adjustments.” He says they’re still tweaking to this day, restlessly striving for perfection.

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    Step 3: Too Many Cooks

    “We typically didn’t ask for public opinion until we are really confident,” Santamaria says. He and Doyle would brew every other weekend, and always had volunteer friends who would try the beer and give feedback—20 to 30 people total. “They’d like one batch way better than another batch, and we’d take notes,” Doyle says. “This focus group of friends had a history of trying a given beer, which made them experts on its evolution.” Since Santamaria and Doyle were meticulous with their notes, they could always find out why one Thai Wheat was different from another, especially when it got particularly favorable feedback from their tasting crew.

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    Step 4: The Spice is Right

    Second Self gets its lemongrass and ginger from Buford Highway Famers Market, Your Dekalb Farmers Market and Restaurant Depot, but they’d like to bring the spice production in-house. “We’re in talks with some local farmers and hydroponic growers to do it here,” Santamaria says. They tend to go shopping the night before or the morning of brewing, and they make Thai Wheat once or twice a month. “Which means once or twice a month, those markets are out of galangal,” Doyle says, laughing. The pair adds that all the local farmers markets think they’re insane.

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    4 spice_ginger_IMG_1332_v1fs4 spice_lemongrass_IMG_1324_v1fs

     Step 5: Milling About

    The malt—malted barley and wheat—shows up whole-kernel in 50-pound bags to Second Self from malters in the Midwest or Canada. Santamaria and Doyle lug it to the tanks and manually dump it in. “It’s just transferring seeds into usable sugar,” Doyle says. “You’re cracking the seed, the hull, to get the sugar out. That’s what milling does.”

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    Step 6: Do the Mash

    “Mashing is when you add water to it, extracting all that sugar into the water,” Doyle says. “The enzymes are still active in the seed, so it pulls the sugar out, puts it in the water, and that water is what you draw off and turn into wort. Wort is what you boil and add hops and spices to.” Once all the potential sugar is converted, you rinse off the remaining sugar and then it’s time for the boil.

    6 mash_D1A6407_v1fs

    Step 7: Making the Magic Happen

    “Boiling takes about an hour and a half,” Doyle says. Then it’s time to cool it down from 212 degrees to 70. Then it goes to the fermenter for 10 days. “We pitch yeast from one of the other tanks into the clean, empty fermenter,” Doyle says. “We add oxygen, and that allows the yeast to grow daughter cells and expand. When it’s rolling, there’s trillions of cells in the tank, eating all the sugar and converting it into alcohol and CO2. Once that’s done, they start to fall out and fermentation stops.”

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    Step 8: Quality Control

    “We do lots of tasting before and during fermentation,” Doyle says. “We generally check gravities every day.” In the end, he says it’s up to his and Santamaria’s palates. If the flavor is off, they’ll know. Sanitation is extremely important in preventing off flavors, as well.

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    Step 9: Goodbye and Good Luck

    After Santamaria and Doyle are satisfied with a batch, the beer is kegged, loaded onto a United Distributors truck and hauled to various bottle shops, bars and restaurants all over metro Atlanta. “We test beer in market before we have locations sell it to make sure it’s pouring right, that the CO2 levels are right,” Santamaria says. “Because we’re growing, there’s no set route just yet. We’re out there trying new approaches, trying to drum up new sales.”