TWIE 157: “Invisible” Skyscraper

This Week in Engineering - Tremor-free spoon; hypersonic suborbital spaceplane; "invisible" skyscraper; new memory alloy; robot bees; and Tesla's autonomous car.

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Tremor-free spoon
For the millions of people who, like Michael J. Fox, have Parkinson’s disease, shaking limbs routinely turn simple activities into challenges.  Now, San Francisco-based Lift Labs has created the Liftware spoon, which detects tremors and compensates to keep the spoon stable.  The $64 rechargeable device includes motion sensors commonly found in smartphones, and uses a microprocessor and microcontroller for control.  The company has also announced plans to make other utensils for the device.

Hypersonic suborbital spaceplane
DARPA is seeking technical proposals for the Experimental Spaceplane Project, or XS-1, a reusable unmanned hypersonic jet that takes off and lands from a runway, but that can reach suborbital space, where it can launch small satellites into orbit.  Goals of the project include the “ten by ten by ten” -- launching ten times in ten days and achieving Mach 10.  DARPA intends to have serious proposals submitted in early October, giving very little time for difficult technical challenges.  If successful, the project would greatly reduce the cost and ready-time of satellite launches.  And if it’s cheap enough, maybe I can finally send my Flat Stanley project into space.  Bucket list check-mark!

“Invisible” skyscraper
Korean firm GDS Architects has announced plans to build the Tower Infinity, a 450m tall tower near the Incheon Airport outside of Seoul, that is completely covered in LEDs in order to make it appear invisible.  Images from 18 weatherproof cameras mounted on the building will be streamed to the other side, where they will be displayed on the building’s faces.  While a construction permit has already been granted, the project does not yet have a target date of completion.  I say, an invisible skyscraper might just be hazardous for birds.  But you know what’s not?  A Coca Cola ad.  Bonus: cha-ching!

New memory alloy
Resistive switching memory could improve memory density and speed, and entails taking an oxide (normally an insulator) and transforming it into a conductor, creating a nanoscale filament by applying a high voltage.  Now, a team of researchers in Singapore have demonstrated how conductive nano-filaments in amorphous titanium dioxide thin films can be used in resistive random-access memory devices.  The oxide thin films even showed good initial conductivity without an electrical breakdown initialization process.  The researchers believe that other oxides in addition to titanium dioxide may have similar properties.

Robot bees
For unknown reasons, bee populations worldwide are dying, leaving farmers with a difficult challenge of how to pollinate their crops.  Now, researchers at Harvard have created tiny flying drones roughly the size of bees, small enough to pollinate a flower.  The robot’s wings flap one hundred times per second, in a fly-inspired motion that allows it to hover like a real bee.  At 80 mg, the robobee relies on piezoelectric materials for motion instead of motors, but must rely on wired power since there is no battery pack light enough for it to carry.  I say, it’s only a matter of time before a supervillain equips these robots with stingers, and sets their guidance program to Africanized!

Tesla’s autonomous car
SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk has announced over Twitter that Tesla is working on autonomous driving for its Model S.  In an interview, he predicted that the company should have 90% of miles driven be autonomous within three years. The tweets included a recruiting pitch for engineers interested in implementing autonomous driving, and specified that the team would report directly to him.  But wait, T