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FIRST LOOK - Breakthroughs and trends in the world of technology
X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV)

New Shuttle Service

Though its mission remains shrouded in mystery, the unmanned spacecraft that hurtled into orbit from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in December is no engineering secret. Launched like a satellite and just as versatile, the U.S. Air Force’s X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) has the same lifting-body design as the now retired space shuttle but is a quarter the size, measuring a mere 29 feet from nose to tail with a 15-foot wingspan. The solar-powered autonomous drone, developed in partnership with Boeing over the past decade, uses composites lighter than traditional aluminum and has a new generation of high-temperature, oxidation-resistant ceramic leading-edge wing tiles. It also has no crew or hydraulics; everything from de-orbiting to landing is automated, with electromechanical flight controls and brakes. The recent launch marks the second time in orbit for OTV-1; two years ago, after spending 224 days in space, it became the first unmanned vehicle in U.S. history to return from space and land on its own. A second spacecraft, OTV-2, shattered records for the longest space shuttle mission when it returned last June from 469 days aloft. Speculation about these missions ranges from developing a satellite killer to a nuclear bomber to a spy camera. The Air Force suggests a more prosaic purpose: proving the utility and affordability of reusable autonomous spacecraft. – Mary Lord

Photos courtesy United States Air Force


Jet Technology
Wright Stuff

Skylon, a spaceplane that can leap from runway to orbit without the need for multistage, disposable rockets, is one step closer to soaring into the stratosphere. The European Space Agency (ESA) has certified that Skylon’s core technology works. As one ESA engineer put it: “The gateway is now open to move beyond the jet age.” Skylon’s Sabre engine starts out in jet mode, sucking in oxygen from the atmosphere that mixes with hydrogen to propel it. That lets Skylon avoid the need for expendable rockets, making it lighter and giving it a larger thrust-to-weight ratio. Today’s jet engines also suck oxygen from the atmosphere, but because the air must be compressed before entering the combustion chamber, the process generates a lot of heat and limits today’s jets to a top speed of 2.5 times the speed of sound. Any faster and the amount of heat generated melts the engine. To overcome that hurdle, Reaction Engines—the small U.K. company behind Skylon—designed a heat exchanger that can cool air from 1,000 degrees Celsius to minus 150 degrees in a hundredth of a second without creating a frost build-up that would shut down the engine. That allows Skylon to fly at the hypersonic speed of Mach 5, up to an altitude of 25 kilometers, where the Sabre engine switches into rocket mode. The technology could enable superfast airliners to one day reach any destination on Earth within four hours. Or, affixed to current engines, it could cut airline fuel bills dramatically. Reaction wants to raise $400 million to build a small-scale prototype with the aim of having an operational engine ready within 10 years. – Thomas K. Grose

Photo courtesy of Reaction Engines


Biomedical Engineering
House Calls

California start-up Scanadu wants to send your smartphone to med school. The digital home healthcare company has unveiled its first three products, all tied to its Scanadu app. Scout is a handset device that, when held to the temple for around 10 seconds, sends data via Bluetooth to the phone app, displaying a variety of vital signs, including pulse rate, electrical heart activity, temperature, and blood oxygenation. The data can be forwarded to the user’s physician. Scout is expected to retail for less than $150 when released late this year. The other two products are disposable cartridges. ScanaFlo, geared toward pregnant women, analyzes urine for complications. ScanaFlu tests saliva for early diagnosis of viral infections, such as strep and influenza. Over time, the app will give users the ability to track trends in their vital signs, says Scanadu, which is located at the NASA-Ames Research Center. CEO Walter de Brouwer says the app-based devices should help people make better decisions about when they need to go to the doctor. – TG 

Photo courtesy of Scanadu


Arms Control

Of the more than 1,570 U.S. service members who have lost limbs, hands, or feet while serving in Afghanistan or Iraq, around 280 are missing arms. But prosthetic devices for upper limbs are very difficult to engineer, because arms are more complex apparatuses than legs and have a greater reliance on the sense of touch. Until recent years, the technology used for prosthetic arms was almost archaic. The devices were so cumbersome and uncomfortable that many amputees shunned them. But bold advances are being made. Todd Kuiken, a neurosurgeon at Northwestern University’s school of engineering, has pioneered a surgical procedure called targeted muscle. It improves the functionality of myoelectric prosthesis control by moving residual arm nerves to other muscles in the chest, where it’s easier for electrodes to pick up their signals. The surgery enables upper-limb amputees to control a robotic arm with their thoughts. Newer versions of the procedure redirect hand-sensation nerves to reinnervate spare skin near the device, allowing users to regain some sense of touch. DEKA, the company founded by entrepreneurial engineer and serial inventor Dean Kamen, has been working for several years on “Luke,” a DARPA-funded robotic arm that would be much more functional than current versions. And at Sweden’s Chalmers University of Technology, researchers early this year plan to test a new type of surgery that will connect a thought-controlled mechanical arm directly to nerves and bone of volunteers with titanium screws. The premise is that it will be much more effective in reading nerve impulses than electrodes attached to skin. – TG

Photo courtesy of DARPA & DEKA

Photo courtesy of  Cardboard Technologies

Mass Transportation
Peddle Pusher

Izhar Gafni’s eureka moment came a few years ago when he heard about a cardboard canoe and wondered: “Why not a cardboard bicycle?” The challenge proved harder than the Israeli systems engineer and biking enthusiast originally thought. It took several years of trial-and-error work before he finally succeeded in building a reliable model. The adult version of Gafni’s bike weighs a mere 20 pounds, but it’s stronger than carbon fiber, costs only about $10 to make, and is water- and fireproof. (A kids’ version weighs 8 pounds.) Its strength—it can hold a 485-pound rider—comes from folding recycled cardboard origami-style, reinforced with glues, resins, and recycled car tires. There are no metal parts. With a possible retail price of around $20, the cardboard bike has the potential to revolutionize travel in congested developing-world cities. Gafni, 50, has created a company called Cardboard Technologies to market the bike and develop other wheeled contraptions. Cardboard wheelchairs or strollers, anyone? – TG

Photo courtesy of Cardboard Technologies

Biodiversity Green Wall, Edible Green Screen and Water Harvesting Demonstration Project

Urban Design
Green Screen

The idea behind green walls, or vertical gardens, can be traced back to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. In modern times, they’ve become a way to bring more greenery to cityscapes while also making urban areas more environmentally friendly. A new project at the University of Washington’s College of Built Environment aims to “show the capacity of building skins to ecologically contribute to the urban environment.” Called the Biodiversity Green Wall, Edible Green Screen and Water Harvesting Demonstration Project, the $86,000 effort was the brainchild of Nancy Rottle, an associate professor of landscape architecture. The idea, she says, is to discover just how effective green walls and screens can be to “promote biodiversity, produce food, and reduce energy use.” The project’s two 10-foot-by-10-foot green walls are home to more than 500 plants from 23 species, growing on a permeable fabric attached to an aluminum frame. The screen is essentially a giant trellis on which hops and kiwi vines, grown from the ground, attach themselves. Two 750-gallon cisterns hold harvested roof water for irrigation. Students monitor such things as plant growth rates, effects on building and local air temperatures, and water use. So it’s a wall-to-wall learning experience, too. – TG

Photo courtesy of University of Washington

Photo courtesy of Old Dominion University

Plasma Engineering
Cancer Killer

Leukemia, the most prevalent childhood cancer, causes nearly a third of all cancer-related deaths in youngsters. The side effects of treatments can be harsh. But Mounir Laroussi, who heads a laser and plasma engineering institute at Old Dominion University, has developed a room-temperature plasma that, within 10 minutes, can kill more than 90 percent of leukemia cells while leaving healthy cells unmolested. The treatment is delivered via a laser-like beam that’s almost cool to the touch. Plasma is created by injecting ultrafast electrons into helium and air, creating so much energy that it cooks up a brew of free electrons and ions. Laroussi tells the Inside Science News Service (ISNS) that the effects are not immediate, but after four to eight hours the cancer cells begin to essentially commit suicide. Michael Keidar, a George Washington University mechanical and aerospace engineer who also works on plasma cancer treatments, told ISNS that the reason it works might be ozone, which is part of the cold plasma soup. Ozone has long been recognized as a disinfectant that can kill bacteria. Cancer cells already have high levels of ozone, so additional amounts of the gas may be more than they can handle, Keidar suggests. Healthy cells have lower metabolisms, with lower ozone levels, and thus are unaffected by the addition of more ozone. Laroussi thinks that eventually cold plasma may also be used to treat bacterial infections and the plaque that builds up in the brains of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s sufferers. – TG

Photo courtesy of Old Dominion University



Alpine Engineering

The Titlis Cliff Walk Bridge spans a gorge some 1,500 feet above a glacier like a thin, gossamer ribbon. Perched 9,800 feet above sea level on Mount Titlis in central Switzerland, it is Europe’s highest suspension bridge. Like its less dramatic counterparts, the 320-foot-long, 3-foot-wide walkway also—gulp—sways. The $1.6 million tourist destination opened in December to mark the 100th anniversary of the mountain’s Engelberg-Gerschnialp cable car link. Engineers managed to complete construction in just five months despite having to deal with occasional snowstorms—even in summer—as well as winds sometimes gusting to 120 mph and other logistical challenges. Cable cars transported 90 percent of the materials, but some had to be helicoptered in. Given the year-round wintery conditions, the bridge was built to handle 500 tons of snow. Want to trek across it? At $90, which includes a round-trip cable car ticket, the journey’s hardly cheap. The panoramic view, however, is priceless. – TG

Photos courtesy of Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters/Newscom


K12 Engineering
Building Blocks

Minecraft, an engineering-oriented online game created by Swedish video-game developer Markus “Notch” Persson, has grown in just three short years to become a global gaming phenomenon that’s sold more than 8 million copies for Macs and PCs, and over 3 million more for smartphone and console platforms. In this sandbox, or “open world,” game, players use virtual textured blocks—a bit like Legos—to construct anything from buildings to cities to mines to... whatever. Players are free to roam, collect resources, and engage in combat. Increasingly, Minecraft is being used as a teaching resource. New York computer teacher Joel Levin spotted its educational potential and began blogging about it. He eventually set up MinecraftEdu with Mojang, Persson’s publishing company. MinecraftEdu offers discounted, official versions of the game tailored for the classroom. Da Vinci Schools, which runs a group of charter schools in Los Angeles, worked with MinecraftEdu and Pepperdine University grad students to create Electrical Engineering & Minecraft to teach circuitry and computing to students. Brentwood School, also in L.A., has a program called Middle School Minecraft. Science teacher Bob Khan tells online magazine Quartz that it allows students to have unlimited resources to test designs without risk. “It is a great platform for experimentation that couldn’t happen in the real world.” – TG

IMAGE courtesy of Minecraft


Computer Engineering
Light Touch

A Ph.D. student at MIT’s Media Lab has developed a device that turns a desktop into, well, a desktop computer. Natan Linder’s LuminAR screws into a lamp fixture just like a light bulb. Stuffed inside is a Pico-projector, a camera, and a tiny-but-powerful wireless computer. The augmented-reality device can turn any object into an interactive touch-screen. Need a keyboard? It can project one onto your desk. Its beam can track not only hands and fingers but objects as well. Touch a can of soda, say, and LuminAR will display product information about the drink. Beyond in-store marketing, the device has potential uses for video calls that project the person you’re talking to onto a wall. Need to scan a document? You could literally do that from your desk and then email it with a few finger taps. Call it computing with a light touch. – TG

Photo courtesy of MIT Media Lab

Bright Eyes

Computer Science
Geek Chic

Shutter shades, novelty sunglasses fitted with slats like window shutters, have been around since the 1980s. They became cool again in recent years after rapper Kanye West sported a pair in videos and on stage. Now a London start-up hopes that coolness factor will also act as an incentive for youngsters to learn computer coding. Technology Will Save Us says it “exists to educate and enable people to make and experiment creatively with technology.” And its main product is Bright Eyes, a do-it-yourself kit that lets users assemble a pair of shutter shades that are studded with 174 LED lights. With a bit of coding, the lights can be made to do all sorts of fun things, from scrolling text to making moving images. Bright Eyes offers users three levels of coding. The first is just copying, the second requires a bit of coding, while the third is what cofounder Daniel Hirschmann calls the “hard-core level.” Level 3 coders, he says, are limited only by their imaginations. – TG

Photo courtesy of Technology Will Save Us

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