10 Examples of Engineering on the Edge in 2017

From flying cars to grey goo, a look back on our favorite Designer Edge features from 2017.

Here’s one of my favorite things about this job: At the start of the year, I get to come up with a list of cutting-edge engineering topics for our writers to research and turn into articles.

Then, I edit them.

That’s less exciting, but it does mean I get to read about a host of new and upcoming technologies. Unless you’re an avid ENGINEERING.com reader, you probably didn’t catch all of these stories as they were posted over the course of this year.

Fear not, your friendly neighborhood editor has you covered.

Read on for a chronological review of our favorite Designer Edge features from 2017.

1) Why Won’t the Dream of a Flying Car Die?

Taken from a 1954 issue of Mechanix Illustrated

Taken from a 1954 issue of Mechanix Illustrated

It’s (almost) 2018, so where’s my flying car?

That’s the question this feature seeks to answer, with a look at past and ongoing attempts to fulfill a dream that we just can’t seem to give up, no matter how foolishly dangerous or grossly impractical it may be.

2) Artificial Intelligence and Engineering

In case you hadn’t noticed, artificial intelligence has been in the news more and more these days, with the potential to steal our jobs, kill us all, or usher in a glorious communist utopia, depending on whom you ask. This feature cuts through all that hyperbole to focus on what AI is and its potential impacts on engineering.

3) Engineering a Brain-Computer Interface

So, you read our feature on engineering and AI but you’re still worried about the impending Machine War. Not to fear: if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em! Those with a more optimistic perspective on our relationship with technology have suggested that the increasingly blurry dividing lines between us and it will eventually vanish altogether. This feature explores how that might happen.

4) The Promise and Peril of Programmable Matter

SEM image of a carbon nanotube. (Image courtesy of CSIRO.)

SEM image of a carbon nanotube. (Image courtesy of CSIRO.)

Now that we’ve lulled you into a false sense of security with features on AI and BCIs, prepare to be terrified by the prospect of…grey goo. Seriously, that’s what it’s called when self-replicating nanobots consume everything in their path without end. Don’t worry, there are upsides to this notion of programmable matter, and they might well be worth the risks.


5) 3 Challenges for Engineering a Space Elevator                              

Artist's conception of a NASA space elevator.

Artist’s conception of a NASA space elevator.

Like flying cars, AI and nanotechnology, the space elevator is one of those ideas that seems to be on every sci-fi author’s wish list. It’s easy to understand why: we’re talking about the largest structure ever created which also happens to be an elevator to space. What red-blooded engineer wouldn’t want to get on board with that project? This feature offers a few reasons to be skeptical.

6) Drone Age – Rise of the Flying Robots

Q-9 Reaper used by the U.S. Air Force. (Image courtesy of U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson.)

Q-9 Reaper used by the U.S. Air Force. (Image courtesy of U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson.)

Drones seem to be everywhere these days, though—thankfully—we’ve not yet reached the point where they’re completely filling our airspace with their incessant buzzing. Still, that point looks to be not far on the horizon, so it’s worth pausing to consider how we got here and what we can expect in the future. This feature does both, offering many examples of present and future drone applications.

7) Asteroid Mining – Who Wants to be a Trillionaire?

(Image courtesy of DSI.)

(Image courtesy of DSI.)

There’s gold in them there asteroids! Actually, there’s a lot more than that, including hydrogen, iron, cobalt, nickel and the platinum-group metals. But how do we get those precious materials from way out there to here? Welcome to the exciting (and still largely theoretical) world of asteroid mining. This feature takes a hard look at the engineering challenges of extracting resources from outer space.


8) Hyperloop – The Story So Far

(Image courtesy of Hyperloop One.)

(Image courtesy of Hyperloop One.)

I know what you’re thinking: “Asteroid mining? Space elevators? How about something a little more realistic?” Well, alright, but only a little! The concept of the Hyperloop was first proposed by Elon Musk in 2012. Earlier this year we saw Hyperloop One complete its first full-scale, full systems test. This feature covers what happened in between.

9) Engineering Destruction: The Terrifying and Awesome Power of The USS Gerald R. Ford

(Image courtesy of the US Navy.)

(Image courtesy of the US Navy.)

I have to admit that this is the one feature on the list I didn’t propose, but I wish I had. Replacing the Nimitz class of aircraft carriers, this nuclear vessel constitutes the first major re-design to aircraft carriers in nearly half a century. Check out this feature to learn all about what went into the overhaul.

10) Driverless Cars – The Race to Level 5 Autonomous Vehicles

We ran three features on driverless cars in 2016, covering their history, the technology involved in autonomous vehicles and the ethics and legislative issues that are bound to crop up as our vehicles become self-driving. This year, we took a more pragmatic approach by looking at all the major players in the emerging autonomous vehicle industry and their progress in the race to level 5 autonomy.

That’s all for 2017. Take the survey below and tell us what you’d like to see in Designer Edge in 2018.

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