TWIE 79: New Taurus gets 100 mpg...and can fly

This Week in Engineering - Million-dollar aircraft efficiency prize; flight simulation sphere; China restricts rare-earths; robots play ping-pong; make any surface a touch screen; and balloon mission to Titan.

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Million-dollar aircraft efficiency prize The Google-sponsored 2011 Green Flight Challenge has awarded its one point thirty-five million dollar prize to Slovenia-based Pipistrel, who teamed up with Penn State University to create the Taurus, a four-passenger, dual-fuselage, single-propeller aircraft that managed four-hundred two point 5 passenger-miles per gallon at an average one hundred seven miles per hour. This is the third time the Slovenian company has taken home the prize, causing Americans to wonder, (Slovenia? We got beat by Slovenia?÷ Apparently, they have been focused on energy efficiency, whereas American aviation companies have been innovating new and exciting passenger fees. (Beverage refrigeration fee, that¦s clever!÷

Flight simulation sphere Barco, maker of large-format projectors, has unveiled the Barco RP-360 flight simulator, the first of its kind to offer pilots a full 360-degree unobstructed view during virtual flights. The sphere is brought to life by up to fourteen laser-calibrated ten-megapixel projectors, equipped with brightness equalization, edge blending and warping. Awesome technology, but a flight simulator? Three words: First. Person. Shooter. Honestly, where are your priorities?

China restricts rare-earths Rare-earth metals are vital to the production of electronics, and China owns roughly 30 percent of the world¦s deposits, but since other countries don¦t like to mine or process, China controls 97 percent of rare earth oxide production. Now, China has announced it will eliminate sales of rare earths to the U.S., Europe and Japan for one month, in an effort to raise the prices, which have been falling. Aw, man! Call me old-fashioned, but I like my toothbrush wet, my whiskey dry, and my valuable geologic resources owned by easily-exploitable third-world kleptocratic regimes. It¦s called being American, people.

Robots play ping-pong Humanoid robots Wu and Kong have been unveiled at Zhejiang University in China, where they were filmed playing a game of table tennis. The robots have a response time of fifty to a hundred milliseconds, and their eye cameras film at one hundred twenty images per second. The robots predict a ball¦s landing position to a margin of error of under one inch. I think it¦s great; in fact, I can¦t wait for robots that can do everything Forrest Gump did. Like getting shot in the butt-ocks. Okay, that¦s actually all I want to do to it.

Make any surface a touch screen Microsoft Research and Carnegie Mellon University have teamed up to produce the OmniTouch, a shoulder-mounted projection system that can sense surfaces to use as a touch screen. The system also has a depth-sensing camera, much like the Microsoft Kinect, which interprets the control, while the projector puts an image on the wall, or a desk, or even your hand. It can even project, say, the image of a more-attractive hand. Oh, that¦s better. Oh, yes!... Now, Internet, don¦t go there!

Balloon mission to Titan A small Oregon company called Near Space Corp is working with NASA JPL on a possible balloon-based exploration mission to Saturn¦s largest moon, Titan, which has an atmosphere ten times thicker than the earth¦s, as well as frigid rain, lakes and rivers of liquid methane. Loading instrumentation on a balloon could help us explore underneath the perpetually-cloudy atmosphere. I say we don¦t just send a balloon -- send a balloon animal! If there is life on Titan, they¦ll think they¦re at a Pink Floyd concert. (I wonder which moon it was the dark side of.)