TWIE 108: Crustacean Battle Armor

This Week in Engineering – African teens win $50,000; armor like crustacean claws; autonomous sewing factories; transits across other stars; NASA gets free satellites; and quadcopter jogging partner.

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African teens win $50,000
14-year-olds Sakhiwe Shongwe and Bonkhe Mahlalela, from Swaziland, Africa, have won the Science in Action award from Scientific American, part of the Google Science Fair, by inventing the Unique Simplified Hydroponic Method of farming vegetables. Using chicken manure, sawdust and other organic waste instead of expensive nutrient mixtures, they made hydroponics affordable for poor farmers, increasing production by 140% over traditional farming. The team gets $50,000, a year of Scientific American mentoring, travel to the Google Science Fair in July, and they help out Swaziland's reliance on food aid. In America, we have inexpensive food, too: it's a taco made with a Dorito. Two food groups in one!

Armor like crustacean claws
Researchers have studied the claws of the peacock mantis shrimp, which is technically not a shrimp, not a mantis, and not a peacock, but a very aggressive crustacean with a claw that is tougher than any synthetic materials. Built of a layer of very stiff and brittle hydroxyapatite, backed by some noncrystallized hydroxyapatite and even less-stiff chitin, the naturally-evolved material tolerates small, local structural failures, thus preventing catastrophic breaks. The team is already developing materials that mimic the claws. Can you imagine battle armor from crustaceans? I'd hate to think that future war-torn battlefields would look like my picnic table after a crawfish boil.

Autonomous sewing factories
Darpa has been investigating ways to automate the process of manufacturing military clothing, with the goal of creating a factory run completely by robots, with no direct human labor. The agency has trusted SoftWear Automation with the task, doling out over $1.25 million, hoping to shave millions off the military clothing budget, estimated at around $4 billion a year. I thought military uniforms were already made by machines! You mean a person invented pixelated camou? Yeah, maybe an eight-bit person named Mario.

Transits across other stars
You may have seen pictures of the recent transit of Venus. And you may know that exoplanets are discovered by measuring the decrease in a star's brightness when a transit occurs. Now, astronomer Gerard van Belle of the Lowell Observatory in Arizona hopes to take pictures of an exoplanet transiting another star using an interferometer -- an array of telescopes combined to mimic a larger one. With a decent image, scientists can learn about a planet's atmosphere by seeing how it refracts light during transit. I say, what if aliens are looking for transits on our star? Quick, let's orbit the sun with the greatest shadow puppet ever constructed. See? It's a puppy. Ruff!

NASA gets free satellites
The National Reconnaissance Office has given NASA two spy satellites that were built but never used, each of which is more powerful than the Hubble. Now, NASA has a plan to launch one of the satellites to fulfill the purpose of Wfirst, the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, instead of developing a brand new satellite. Repurposing a satellite isn't free, but the NRO satellites already have the wide view camera required by Wfirst, and a 94-inch mirror diameter giving twice the area required. Free satellites? The military is holding a buy-none-get-two-free sale. Only one kind of math where that makes sense: government math!

Quadcopter jogging partner
Floyd Mueller and Eberhard Graether from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia have created the Joggobot, a quadcopter that hovers near you when you jog. The Joggobot recognizes a pattern on the jogger's shirt, and tries to hover nearby at about three feet off the ground, keeping a set distance, and if it ever can't find the pattern, it is programmed to land. Great, but if you're gonna