TWIE 140: Solar-Powered Plane

This Week in Engineering - Solar-powered plane; power-generating ski slope; soccer ball generator; robot ice analyzer; space junk propulsion; and DRM chair.

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Solar-powered plane
The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology has created the Solar Impulse, a single-person airplane powered only by solar energy that has already flown from Europe to Africa. This year, the plane will fly across the United States, from San Francisco through Washington, D.C., and finally to New York. The plane flies at an altitude of 29,000 feet, where the engine is most efficient, at a speed of only 40-50 MPH. Equipped with batteries for night flying, the plane could reportedly make the entire journey nonstop, but the single pilot cannot, and there is no autopilot, so there will be two or three stops on the way. The ultimate goal of the project is to fly around the world in 2015.

Power-generating ski slope
The Bjarke Ingels Group, or BIG, a Danish design firm, has broken ground on a new garbage-burning energy plant on the outskirts of Copenhagen that doubles as a ski slope. The plant will burn garbage for the heat and energy, while the sloped roof in winter will supply the flat land of Denmark with downhill skiing, possibly as early as 2016. Also, to encourage energy consumption awareness, every time a certain tonnage of CO2 is released, the smokestack will produce a giant, visible smoke ring. I think a ski slope is a great way to merge athletics with smokestacks. Much better than my idea of Industrial Mega-Tetherball. Those games take forever!

Soccer ball generator
Former Harvard University students have created startup Uncharted Play to distribute the Soccket, a soccer ball that generates and stores power when you play with it. The 17 oz ball is only slightly heavier than a regulation ball, and contains a set of pendulums to generate power, and a battery to store it. A small seal on one side opens to a standard 3.5 mm jack which fits a small LED lamp. The lamp could be used as a reading light in the developing world. That¦s good, but for the big leagues, we need soccer shorts that generate power from falling on the ground with fake injuries.

Robot ice analyzer
Engineering students from Dartmouth have conceived and built the Yeti, a 150 lb. robot towing a ground-penetrating radar that traverses glaciers, looking for hidden breaks or crevasses in the ice. This summer, the Yeti travelled ahead of supply tractors in Antarctica, to warn the drivers of hidden dangers, which the light-weight robot could detect without falling in. The robot should help make research on remote glaciers less dangerous and expensive -- the robot¦s convoys to McMurdo alone could save an estimated $2 million per year over plane trips.

Space junk propulsion
In an effort to combat the growing problem of space debris in Earth orbit, Texas A&M University has proposed the Space Sweeper with Sling-Sat, or 4S for short. The satellite would capture a piece of space junk, and then shoot it out, using the momentum change from both capture and ejection to navigate to the next piece of garbage. The ejected junk would burn up safely in the atmosphere, while the debris-hopping technique saves on fuel, enabling a longer mission length. Rockets? So 20th century. The new propulsion is recoil from space loogies!

DRM chair
As part of a design competition, a team of designers developed the DRM Chair, which mimics the restrictive digital rights management commonly used for software and digital media, and applies it to a chair. Controlled by the open-source Arduino processor, the chair counts how many times it is sat upon, and after eight sittings, the plastic joints are melted, and the chair collapses. For the competition, the chair was conceived and implemented in just 48 hours. I say we take DRM to its inescapable extreme: nobody sits anywhere without the express written consent of major league baseball. Nobody!