So this is why train wheels are conical

Watch this short video to understand why train wheels are conical instead of cylindrical and why they have rigid axels. Read the rest

New US dollar coin honors Native Americans' contributions to the space program

The latest addition to the US Mint's Native American $1 Coin series celebrates "American Indians in the Space Program." The heads-side of the coin still features Sacagawea. From Space.com:

The reverse features Mary Golda Ross, the first known Native American woman to become an engineer. Ross' work for Lockheed Martin helped advance the Agena rocket stage used by NASA for rendezvous and docking trials during the Gemini program in the 1960s.

The tails-side also depicts an Atlas-Agena rocket lifting off and, peering down from the top of the coin, a spacesuited astronaut. The Mint describes the latter as being "symbolic of Native American astronauts, including John Herrington (mission specialist on the 2002 space shuttle Endeavour visit to the International Space Station)..."

"The nice thing is when something like this comes out, it opens up people to something they did not know about before and people who are really curious will go and learn more about it," explained Herrington. "They might learn about Jerry Elliott [of Osage and Cherokee heritage], who worked in Mission Control during the Apollo program and was part of the team that won the Presidential Medal of Freedom for the return of Apollo 13."

"Or Mary Ross, who was honored with the Ely S. Parker Award, the highest award that AISES, the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, gives out for contributions to math, science and engineering in the native community," he said. "She was one of the original people at Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works."

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Can there be a mile-high skyscraper?

In 1956, Frank Lloyd Wright proposed the Illinois Sky-City, a skyscraper taller than one mile (~1,600 meters). That's more than twice the height of Dubai's Burj Khalifa, currently the tallest structure in the world. In the video above, Dutch architest Stefan Al asks "Will there ever be a mile-high skyscraper?"

If it happens, there should be a rooftop bar named... the Mile-High Club.

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Noise-cancelling pillow for bedmates of people who snore

Northern Illinois University researchers have designed a noise-cancelling pillow for people who sleep near loud snorers. It works using the same principle as noise-cancelling headphones but with an adaptive algorithm that changes with the snore. Noise-cancelling headboards have been available for some time, but according to electrical engineering professor Lichuan Liu who led this new research, they're bulky and limited in their efficacy because the "quiet zone" isn't right near the sleeper's ears. From IEEE Spectrum:

(The new approach) involves an adaptive filter that receives two input signals—snoring signals, which are detected by a reference microphone, and residual noise (errors), which are detected by two error microphones. Based on these inputs, the adaptive filter then generates the appropriate antinoise signal, which is emitted by two speakers within the partner’s pillow.

What’s more, conventional noise-canceling systems for snoring have relied on least mean square (LMS) algorithms to generate antinoise. Here, Liu and her colleagues used an adaptive LMS algorithm.

“Since each snorer’s snore signals have their unique time-frequency characteristics, it is essential to design an adaptive LMS algorithm for the best cancellation performance for different snore signals,” says Liu. Thanks to the adaptive LMS, the filter in this system can adjust to the length of an individual’s unique snore, and respond to subtle changes in its acoustic characteristics...

Moving forward, Liu and her colleagues plan to use machine learning techniques to recognize the snore signals that are indicative of sleep disorders, for better screening and monitoring purposes.

"Ear field adaptive noise control for snoring: a real-time experimental approach" (IEEE/CAA Journal of Automatica Sinica) Read the rest

Embodied logic: Using stimuli-responsive materials and geometric principles to create smart objects

A new paper in Nature describes the US-Army-funded research of U Penn materials scientists to create a new generation of 3D printed "smart objects" whose geometry and materials enable them to interact with their environments without having to use embedded computers, sensors or actuators. Read the rest

The Furby was "coded for cuteness"

Released in 1998 by Tiger Electronics, more than 40 million Furbies were sold in its first three years of life. What made this bizarre animatronic toy so damn popular? Read the rest

Explainer video on how to build a Dyson Sphere

The latest explainer video from Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell examines what it would take to actually build a crazy cool idea conceived by Princeton physicist Freeman Dyson - a photovoltaic shell (or, less ambitiously, a satellite swarm of mirrors that focus the star's energy to a collector) that envelops a star in order to capture its energy. Read the rest

How to use science fiction to teach tech ethics

Science fiction writer/lawyer Casey Fiesler is a maven in the field of tech ethics education (she maintains the amazing spreadsheet of tech-ethics syllabi); she uses science fiction stories as a jumping-off point for her own classroom discussions of ethics in technology. Read the rest

Bricks made from human urine

University of Cape Town researchers created the world's first "bio-bricks" made from sand, bacteria, and human urine collected from special toilets in the engineering school's bathrooms. From The Guardian:

Bio-bricks are created through a natural process called microbial carbonate precipitation, said (project supervisor and water quality engineering lecturer Dyllon) Randall, similar to the way seashells are formed. Loose sand, which has been colonised with bacteria that produces urease, is mixed with the urine. Urease breaks down the urea in the urine, producing calcium carbonate, which cements the sand into shape.

While regular bricks are kiln-fired at temperatures of 1,400C and produce large amounts of carbon dioxide, the bio-bricks do not require heat.

“If a client wanted a brick stronger than a 40% limestone brick, you would allow the bacteria to make the solid stronger by ‘growing’ it for longer,” said Randall...

Randall described urine as liquid gold. By volume, urine accounts for less than 1% of domestic waste water, but it contains 80% of the nitrogen, 56% of the phosphorus and 63% of the potassium found in waste water.

(via NextDraft) Read the rest

Robots! A fantastic catalog of new species

IEEE Spectrum editor Erico Guizzo and colleagues have blown out their original Robots app into a fantastic catalog of 200 of today's fantastic species of robots. They're cleverly organized into fun categories like "Robots You Can Hug," "Robots That Can Dance," "Space Robots," and "Factory Workers." If they keep it updated, it'll be very helpful for the robot uprising. After all, you can't tell the players without a program!

Robots: Your Guide to the World of Robotics (IEEE Spectrum)

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Scientists print robotic flippers based on sea lions

Most aquatic animals propel themselves with a tail or fluke, so roboticists have long been interested in the remarkable speeds possible by mimicking sea lion propulsion with front flippers. Read the rest

The Mars Curiosity Rover's wheels are as thin as credit cards

Brian McManus looks at the engineering challenges behind the Curiosity's thin aluminum wheels, which are sustaining significant damage on the Martian surface. Read the rest

Incredibly sensible notes on software engineering, applicable to the wider world

François Chollet's "Notes to Myself on Software Engineering" is posed as reminders from Chollet to himself, but they're a really wonderful list of extremely sensible advice on how collaborative projects work, how to be a good collaborator, how to build things for other people to use, and how to collaborate with future engineers and builders who will some day want to hook things up to the thing you're making. Read the rest

Supersonic: a glorious new art book about the Concorde airplane

During its 1970s heyday, the Concorde, the commercial supersonic plane that did NYC to London in under three hours, wasn't just a revolution in aerospace engineering; it was an icon of industrial design, set the bar in luxury travel, and, quite literally, embodied the jet-set lifestyle. Now, my friend qnd colleague Lawrence Azerrad, the creative director of the Grammy-winning Voyager Golden Record vinyl box set we released last year, has created a glorious art book about the Concorde and its scene in the sky. The book, Supersonic: The Design and Lifestyle of Concorde, overflows with historical and technical information and stunning photos of the plane, its marketing materials, and amenities designed by the likes of Andrée Putman, Raymon Loewy, and Sir Terence Conran who wrote this book's foreword. From CNN:

Taking a branded item home was part of the experience. Anything that could be removed from the plane would be taken by passengers as a souvenir. Some of these items were particularly sought after, like those designed by Raymond Loewy, the father of industrial design who created cabin interiors for Air France.

"He used a very forward-thinking, futuristic approach for that time, down to the design of the seats, the headrests, the fabric and, probably more famously, the stainless steel flatware, which Andy Warhol would famously steal," said Azerrad. "There's a story where (Warhol) asked if the person sitting next to him was taking theirs, she said no and he took her set."

Supersonic: The Design and Lifestyle of Concorde is a magnificent celebration of the history of our in-flight future. Read the rest

Electromechanical "skin" turns everyday objects into robots

Yale engineers developed "robotic skins" from elastic sheets integrating sensors and electromechanical actuators. The idea is that most any flexible object could be transformed into a robot. Professor Rebecca Kramer-Bottiglio and her colleagues reported on their project, called OmniSkins, in the journal Science Robotics. From YaleNews:

Placed on a deformable object — a stuffed animal or a foam tube, for instance — the skins animate these objects from their surfaces. The makeshift robots can perform different tasks depending on the properties of the soft objects and how the skins are applied.

“We can take the skins and wrap them around one object to perform a task — locomotion, for example — and then take them off and put them on a different object to perform a different task, such as grasping and moving an object,” she said. “We can then take those same skins off that object and put them on a shirt to make an active wearable device.”

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Marvelous scans of Leonardo da Vinci's journals

London's Victoria and Albert Museum has digitized and posted two of Leonardo da Vinci's personal notebooks. From The Art Newspaper:

“The notebooks remind us that Leonardo was as much an engineer as he was an artist. When he wrote in the early 1480s to Ludovico Sforza, then ruler of Milan, to offer him his services, he advertised himself as a military engineer, only briefly mentioning his artistic skills at the end of the list,” (says Catherine Yvard, Special Collections curator at the V&A’s National Art Library.)

Codex Forster I dates from the time Leonardo spent at the Milanese court and focuses on hydraulic engineering, featuring drawings of instruments for digging canals and for moving and raising water. It also includes a treatise on geometry and measuring solids.

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Video explainer on universal quantum computers

Universal quantum computers have the potential for exponentially faster processing speeds. Seeker looks at where things stand in the race to build the first one. Read the rest

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