TWIE 82: Learning Water Conservation from Beetles

This Week in Engineering - Russian mission to Martian moon fails; fruit labels dissolve into soap; harvesting water from desert air; launching satellites from airplanes; tracking customers with cell phones; and world’s tiniest nanoscale vehicle.

Russian Mission to Martian Moon Fails -

Fruit labels dissolve into soap -

Harvesting water from desert air -

Launching satellites from airplanes -

Tracking customers with cell phones -

World¦s tiniest nanoscale vehicle -

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Russian Mission to Martian Moon Fails
It¦s been about a week since Russia launched their Phobos-Grunt spacecraft, which was supposed to gather samples from the Martian moon Phobos and return to Earth. But the booster rockets failed to fire, leaving the mission in Earth orbit. Russia is frantically trying to reprogram the spacecraft before the launch window expires in early December, and if they can¦t, then it is expected to reenter and burn up in early January. Remember that metric-conversion disaster? Why is getting to Mars so difficult? This isn¦t rocket science. I mean, it¦s not brain surgery. Cause it is rocket... You know what I mean.

Fruit labels dissolve into soap
What keeps me from eating my five fruits and vegetables a day? Those annoying fruit labels that either leave that sticky goo, or pull off fruit skin making it impossible to wash. That¦s why Scott Amron, an electrical engineer from New York, has invented Fruitwash stickers, that, when exposed to water, dissolve into an organic fruit soap that can help remove pesticides, fungicides and wax. This is a fantastic idea. I can¦t wait to cover my face in fruit labels at night, so I can wash up quicker in the morning. Might help me get to work on time.

Harvesting water from desert air
Edward Linacre of Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne has won the James Dyson Award for his innovative system of irrigation for desert crops. Inspired by the Namib beetle, which survives on the moisture from the air that condenses on the hydrophilic skin on its back in the early morning, his self-powering device condenses moisture in underground pipes, and then delivers it to the roots of nearby plants. I say we use this to grow crops in previously barren areas, and together we will change the face of Arrakis! Father! The sleeper has awakened!

Launching satellites from airplanes
The Pentagon has announced the Airborne Launch Assist Space Access program to build satellite launch platforms on airplanes, which has several advantages: A rocket would start out with a speed advantage above the thickest part of the atmosphere. It could reduce the turnaround time to twenty-four hours, and reduce the cost per pound by two thirds. And it would eliminate the military vulnerability of a single fixed-location launch site. I think the only downside is that satellites launched from airliners are subject to the same fees as any other checked baggage. Even the Pentagon can¦t get out of those.

Tracking customers with cell phones
Scott Crosby, the man behind Google Analytics, and his startup Euclid Dynamics, has announced Euclid Analytics: a sensor box and analysis tool that allows stores to learn traffic patterns for customers that are carrying cell phones. While it does not store a customer¦s personal information, it will be able to tell if a cell phone returns to the store, track what parts of the store the phone visited, and even how long the phone¦s owner was looking at any particular display. Look, if you want people to stop and look at your display, I¦ve got four words for you: cardboard cutout bikini girls. Why invent technology, when you could just ask Bud Light?

World¦s tiniest nanoscale vehicle
Scientists at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands and at Empa in Switzerland have built a four-wheel drive car out of a single molecule. The molecule must first be sublimated to a copper surface. Each of the four (wheels÷ is a rotating motor unit, which, when exposed to electricity with each half-rotation via a scanning tunneling microscope, will propel the car in a straight line, always forward, never in reverse. What, did you want to go offroading? You can¦t! Hear that? That¦s the sound of the world¦s smallest nano-molecular violin, weeping for you.