TWIE 152: Quantum Enigma Machine

This Week in Engineering - Hacking cars; sling-inspired space railroad; laser space communication; quantum enigma machine; smart scalpel; and exploding baseball bats.

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Hacking cars
Software plays an increasingly important role in new car features.  Now, security experts Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek have demonstrated a hacking technique to take over the steering and braking of someone else’s car.  In order to work, the hack requires special devices be physically installed into the electronic control units -- the same on board diagnostics port used by mechanics to identify problems.  The demonstration was performed on two car models: the 2010 Ford Escape and the Toyota Prius, although many cars have similar systems.  The researchers hope their work will lead to improved car security in the future.

Sling-inspired space railroad
HyperV Technologies of Chantilly, Virginia, has created a Kickstarter campaign for the Slingatron, a spiral-shaped rail that it hopes will one day send small satellites into space, mostly without rockets.  The rigid steel rail gyrates at between 40 and 60 cycles per second, and the projectile increases speed as it approaches the outer rings.  The project estimates it needs a velocity of about 7 km/s to get to space, and once the payload is out of the atmosphere, a small kick motor will adjust it into a more circular orbit.  A small prototype has already fired a half-pound brick at 100 m/s.  I would wager at least one of the early backers of this project is a coyote looking for an innovative dinner-catching solution.

Laser space communication
Most communication with space missions is still done with radio waves, with relatively low bandwidth rates.  Now, NASA is preparing for the Lunar Laser Communication Demonstration mission, that should achieve high-speed communication for planetary distances using near-infrared lasers.  The LLCD space terminal will attempt to orbit the moon, where it will communicate with three ground-based terminals.  The goal is to demonstrate a 622 Mb/s transfer rate -- about five times the current state-of-the-art at lunar distance.  I say we need more interplanetary bandwidth -- nobody wants a one-way ticket to colonize Mars without Netflix streaming.  No Arrested Development?  That’s a barren world.

Quantum enigma machine During World War II, the Nazis encrypted secret messaging with the Enigma cipher machine, which was eventually cracked by the Allies, exploiting weaknesses in pseudo-random mechanical encryption.  Now, MIT researcher Seth Lloyd has demonstrated that it is possible to have a truly unbreakable encryption machine using quirks of quantum physics.  With individually-fired photons in a secure lock, an eavesdropper will not be able to observe the photon state without affecting their behavior, whereas the intended recipient can decode the message with prior knowledge of the quantum state.

Smart scalpel
Dr. Zoltan Takats, a researcher from Imperial College in London, has developed the iKnife, an electrosurgical knife that uses heat to cut through tissue, and then analyzes the smoke to determine whether or not the tissue was cancerous, all in real-time.  The surgeon can then be reasonably sure, during the surgery, that the tumor has been completely excised.  The iKnife has already diagnosed cancerous tissue in 91 test patients with a 100% success rate.  Great invention -- though I bet it’s tough to market to patients with the “smoke from your incinerated flesh tells me when I’ve cut too much” ad campaign.

Exploding baseball bats
Most major league baseball players use bats made of maple, but sadly, maple bats will sometimes explode, causing a danger to players, and also to fans.  Scientists determined that bats that strayed from the original wood grain were more likely to shatter, inspiring league regulations p