An engineering roundup of 2015
Published: 09 Dec 2015
With 2015 drawing to a close, it’s the perfect time to look back at some of the year’s most important achievements and major technological advances which are set to transform the future of engineering.
Tech giant Google announced in January that its humanoid Atlas robot has undergone a 75 percent upgrade and is now able to move under battery power and open doors. The machine is being used as a test bed in a US government competition to develop search and rescue robots. However, robots are a long way off moving like a human, and with a battery life of just one hour, it will be a while before Google’s robots are seen lifting people out of the rubble of collapsed buildings.
While robot heroes might be some way off, a razorblade that never rusts is a more immediate prospect. Scientists in New York published a paper describing their use of an intricate laser-patterning technique to transform metals into super-hydrophobic materials without the use of temporary coatings. This could be applied to make metallic objects rust-proof and ice-resistant.
In February scientists discovered the strongest natural material yet known to man: limpet teeth. Researchers believe their unique structure could be copied and used to construct the cars, boats and planes of the future. Limpets rely on their teeth to rasp over rock surfaces, harvesting algae during high tide. The structure of their teeth retains its strength regardless of its size, bypassing the usual problems with up-scaling materials.
In March the Solar Impulse 2 set off from Abu Dhabi on its round-the-world journey, attempting to become the first solar powered aircraft to circumnavigate the world. With 17,248 solar cells, the plane was designed to charge during the day and then fly through the night under battery power. During the same month, Siemens announced a new more powerful electric motor design which could help make electric-powered passenger flight a reality.
Scientists in California announced a breakthrough in aluminium-ion battery technology which could charge in minutes and prove longer lasting and safer than current lithium-ion batteries. Although more work is needed to give them the same power output, aluminium-ion batteries could withstand over 7 times the number of charging cycles as lithium-ion batteries. They are also far less likely to cause fires. These factors, coupled with their much quicker charging time, mean these batteries could be replacing lithium-ion across the board in the near future.
Researchers at UC Santa Barbara developed a simple neural circuit which can recognise three letters by their images in various styles and when saturated with noise. This human-like image recognition brings us significantly closer to developing artificial intelligence.
Crossrail reached a key milestone in June as the giant tunnelling machines boring underneath the British capital finally fell silent after almost three years, having completed the carving out of 26 miles of 6.2m diameter rail tunnels. Crossrail is due to begin operating in 2018 and will link Reading, to the west of London, with Essex, in the east, expanding London’s rail capacity by 10 percent and carrying a projected 200 million passengers each year.
A man suffering from age related macular degeneration became the first person with the condition to receive a bionic implant to restore his sight in July. The device converts video images from a miniature camera installed in his glasses into small electrical pulses that are transmitted wirelessly to electrodes on the retina. These stimulate the retina’s remaining cells, which can then be interpreted by the brain, restoring a level of vision which, while falling short of restoring true eyesight, can help people live more independently.
Scientists published details about a new brain-computer interface designed to control a lower limb exoskeleton by interpreting specific brain signals. The system uses an electroencephalogram (EEG) cap and a set of five flickering LEDs. By focusing their attention on one of the LEDs, each flickering at a different frequency which the EEG cap is able to identify, users can move the exoskeleton forward, sit and stand and turn left and right. Although tested on healthy individuals, it is hoped that research in such interfaces could develop technology to allow disabled people to walk again by controlling mechanical limbs with their minds.
NASA was able to use the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to confirm the presence of flowing salt water on the surface of Mars in September. The spacecraft’s high-resolution camera and imaging spectrometer were able to discover the water trickling down the walls of craters during the Martian summer. The salts detected in the water lower its melting point, allowing it to flow in the balmy -23°C temperatures. The origin of the water remains unknown, but this raises the intriguing possibility that microbial life could survive on Mars. This is likely to be a target for future space missions.
New self-healing concrete techniques have been trialled by researchers from Cardiff University, which could help slash Britain’s enormous £40bn concrete maintenance and repair bill. Three separate concrete-healing technologies, which were tested for the first time in a real-world setting, could eventually be incorporated into a single system for automatically repairing concrete structures.
The first is based around shape-memory polymers to repair large cracks, the second involves pumping organic and inorganic healing agents through a network of tiny tunnels in the concrete, and the third relies upon tiny capsules imbedded into the concrete containing bacteria and healing agents, which will produce calcium carbonate to repair cracks as they occur.
Last month private space company Blue Origin successfully landed a re-usable sub-orbital rocket for the first time in history. The vehicle, which is being developed to conduct manned flights at the edge of space for tourists, managed to land just four and a half feet from the centre of its designated landing pad.
Reliable reusable rockets will be a game-changer for human spaceflight, significantly lowering the cost barrier to exiting the Earth’s atmosphere. This could stimulate a new era of commercial spaceflight and space exploration, with many more nations and private ventures being able to loft their own cargo into orbit. For the time being, it looks as if Blue Origin’s success could see the company winning the race to conduct the first private space tourism flights in the next few years.
What will you achieve in 2016?
There’s never been a better time to be an engineer in the UK. Perhaps it’s time you looked for a new opportunity? Check out our jobs page for a huge variety fantastic roles in various industries across the country.