2013 brought many exciting, promising advancements in many areas of engineering. Here are the moments, concepts, and products that caught our eye this year.
Hello from the future!
There’s a lot of really sweet stuff on this list — Made in Space took the first step towards the future of orbital manufacturing, Volvo started an autonomous car field testing project — but 2013 was a several Internet lifetimes ago. You can either come check out the greatest engineering feats of 2014, or continue reading this post out of historical curiosity.
10. Google Glass
Like many things Google, Glass got a somewhat polarized reception when it hit the market (to a limited crop of early adopters) in February. Similar to Google’s robot project, Glass represents a bold attempt to push sci-fi-like concepts into the world and make them commonly accessible. The ubiquitous computer idea is ambitious, and in a few iterations it could be very interesting and useful. For now it’s on the radar as a great engineering feat in seedling stage.
9. One World Trade Center
When it comes to notable works of engineering, records are almost a gimme. But 1 WTC isn’t only notable for its symbolic 1,776-foot height and acquisition of the title of Tallest Building in the Western Hemisphere. It’s also notable for its example of sustainability, including construction from recycled materials and sustainably sourced wood, fuel cell-powered electrical infrastructure, interior lights that dim on sunny days, rain water-based cooling, steam-powered heating, and even facilities for bike-riding tenants. The building is expected to open in 2014.
8. Atlas Human-Powered Helicopter
The Igor I. Sikorsky Human Powered Helicopter Competition has been on the table since 1980 and had never been claimed. Then in June, Canadian team AeroVelo took the prize with Atlas, a human-powered copter that sustained flight for 64 seconds, reaching an altitude of around 10 feet and meeting other challenging criteria. More than winning a competition, it’s a feat of engineering perseverance, as four other teams over 33 years had attempted the extremely difficult challenge of balancing rotor efficiency and power-to-weight ratio. It’s not necessarily going to change the world, but it does fly in the face of impossibility.
7. First Carbon Nanotube Computer
In the world of electronics, carbon nanotubes have been explored as a hopeful replacement for silicon, which is nearing its limits with regard to Moore’s law and how well it can accommodate smaller and smaller circuits. The benefit of carbon nanotubes is their inherent size and semiconducting efficiency, which could lead to hugely faster and more efficient computers, if their production and use was mastered. That has proven to be a challenge – but a group of engineers at Stanford University recently created a central processor based on them entirely, demonstrating that stepping off the silicon path may be viable. Their processor isn’t polished – it’s comparable to a 1971 Intel 4004 – but give it time and the processors of the future could make the Core look like a jalopy.
6. Space-Based Manufacturing
3D printing has been a big news item this year. But Mountain View-based company Made in Space is doing us one better: 3D printing in space. The way things are manufactured for space today, everything that goes up has to be manufactured here on Earth under many limitations, then expensively and painstakingly launched into space and assembled. The critical milestone MIS passed this year means all of that may eventually be foregone for space-based 3D printing, which can be used to create parts on site for the International Space Station – or to create parts for spacecraft and other future space hardware. Made in Space, set us a course for the future. Engage.
5. High Voltage Direct Current Super Grids
Transporting electricity from renewable sources to remote consumption centers has been a challenge in the past – but near the beginning of 2013, developments in component technologies of HVDC super grids reached a point that it will soon be feasible to carry electricity efficiently over incredible distances. Super grids could link distant cities, national grids, and potentially continents, becoming the framework for a global energy market that could bring energy from where it’s abundant to where it’s needed.
4. Thought-Controlled Medical Devices
It sounds like science fiction, but advances in brain-computer interfaces have led to several ground-breaking medical devices controlled by thought. One example is this thought-controlled wheelchair, which provides off-the-shelf mobility to quadriplegic patients at a reasonable price. Another is this moveable, thought-controlled prosthetic arm. The devices, which are programmed to recognize specific brain wave patterns and react accordingly, are opening exciting doors for the field of medical technology, and of course for the patients themselves.
3. The Volvo “Drive Me” Autonomous Driving Project
Driverless cars are making progress in US, but not fast enough for Volvo. Their goal is to eliminate all driver fatalities in Volvo vehicles, period. (Eliminating traffic fatalities in the US, for example, would prevent 9.9 9/11s worth of fatalities per year, based on 2011 numbers.) The Drive Me project is kicking off this year to place 100 autonomous 2014 Volvo XC90s on the roads of Gothenburg, Sweden by 2017.
This two-dimensional, ultra-strong, ultra-efficient material has been discussed as a potential replacement for silicon in the realm of circuit design, as well as being targeted for a myriad of other applications. But in September, Stanford University reported creating ribbons of graphene the size of DNA strands, complete with transistors, making that possibility a very near reality. If large-scale production can be achieved, we may soon have some very fast, very efficient electronics on our hands.
1. The SpaceX Grasshopper
SpaceX is the brainchild of Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk, and its mission is simple: They want to enable people to live on other planets. In October SpaceX made a record test-launch of Grasshopper, a reusable rocket that launches, maneuvers, hovers and lands again. The rocket reached nearly half a mile into the atmosphere before returning safely to its launch pad, further breaking ground for rockets that can deliver satellites – or humans – to orbit and return to be reused. More than a test launch, it represents a very real step in the ambitious mission to get humans off of the planet and onto other worlds.
Think anything else should be on this list? Tell us in the comments below.
This story was co-written by JF Stackhouse.