Richard Hammond’s Engineering Connections

I was never a gearhead, nor was I a toff, so I never watched Top Gear that much.

I am an engineer, though, so when I saw a show called Engineering Connections on SBS I tuned in, even though it was prefaced as being presented by Top Gear‘s Richard Hammond.

It turned out to be just my sort of show. Hammond walks the viewers through the engineering challenges behind some of the biggest construction and design challenges in the world, including the Airbus A380, the Sydney Opera House, the Bilbao Guggenheim, super tankers, the Space Shuttle, and Japanese bullet trains.

The program’s focus is explaining how engineers overcame these challenges, though. Hammond describes the sources of inspiration – either in nature, or in simpler devices – for how these design problems were solved. These are the engineering connections.

He then proceeds – in his gee-whiz way – to construct examples, with the help of experts, that illustrate how these inspiring engineering connections work. For example, the show I caught last night was about the Opera House. They explained that the arched concrete blocks of the structure’s sails were strengthened using the same principles as one of those collapsing pop-up toys, and then showed how they could make a very strong arch out of styrofoam using the same principle of post-tension.

This show explains what engineering is about: the practical application of science, and re-using established ideas in new contexts. They do it in very simple ways that anyone can get. Hammond isn’t too annoying. I think it’s a great science show.

There have been three series. They were originally made for the National Geographic channel in the UK, but have also been shown on BBC2 and – here in Oz – on SBS.

The place where crazy inventors create your future

MIT’s Media Lab contains all sorts of wacky forward-looking inventing engineers. Watch the vid below and read the article from the BBC to learn more about powered foot prostheses, automatic snack-makers, Guitar Hero, hand gesture controls, and more future-looking things.

There’s a short ad at the front of the embedded video.

NYC transport on a spreadsheet

Many who know me – especially those who know me professionally – know that I love a spreadsheet. It’s perhaps unsurprising that an engineer who loves maths is tickled by all those figures and calculations and charts. But I really do love ’em. I put everything work-related into spreadsheets. The orderliness appeals to me, and because it’s easy to manipulate and chart the data (even if that’s only a possibility later). I’m one of those guys people in the office go to when they have a spreadsheet question.

I put my personal life into spreadsheets, too: lists of the CDs I own (when I bought them) and flags and calculations for how many of the artists I’d seen live. Inventories for insurance purposes. Task lists for moving. Christmas gift lists. I wrote a program to calculate beam deflections in grad school with spreadsheet macros.

I love spreadsheets.

Yesterday I read a Wired article about Charles Komanoff, a traffic expert, who has modelled “the economic and environmental impact of every single car, bus, truck, taxi, train, subway, bicycle, and pedestrian moving around New York City” in an effort to create the optimum set of tolls and flows. And he’s done it all in an Excel spreadsheet. If you read that article there’s even a link where you can download the spreadsheet itself.

That’s so hot. I’m serious, it’s so amazing.

It’s got 50 tabs. Everything’s well-documented (a key element if you want to share your spreadsheet with others). It may be a bit pie-in-the-sky to expect Americans to accept Komanoff’s vision, which would implement several public road tolls around the city. But I am in awe of his dedication, organisation, and capacity to numerically model what is an inherently chaotic system.

First of the last shuttle launches

NASA’s Space Shuttles have become an icon of science, engineering, space, and – if I can wax lyrical – the spirit of human adventure. They’ve been in operation since 1982, and by the time they retire this year will have launched 130 missions into space. They’ve launched satellites, run experiments, and made possible the construction of the International Space Station. And, sadly, there have been two shuttle disasters. There’s a lot of space shuttle history, and it’s all been made in my lifetime, before my eyes.

But the end is near. The shuttles are old, and won’t be up for the job much longer. New orbiting vehicles will need to be developed if we want to remain in space. So the last few shuttle missions are being treated with the importance they deserve. Dan sent me a link to a series of excellent photos showing shuttle Atlantis’ recent activity, as it returned from orbit last year, landed, and has been prepared for yesterday’s final launch. There will be two more launches after this, for Discovery and Endeavour.

Check out the Atlantis pics.

Atlantis on the launch pad (Photo: NASA/Amanda Diller)

How toasters work

It’s not just big science that intrigues me, it’s everyday tech that excites me too. For instance, despite having used toasters for most of my 41 (what! when did that happen?) years, I’m still amazed that the little machines won’t stay down unless they have power applied and that they somehow toast bread pretty consistently.

There are many kinds of toasters, but they’re all quite clever. They use the movement of us dropping the bread in to turn on the circuits that hold the bread in place, and run current through the elements that electromagnetically radiate our bread. Some use timers, some use bi-metallic strips, some use sensors that measure heat through the bread.

For a good explanation of the inner workings of toasters, check out the always well-written HowStuffWorks.

Exploded toaster from

And I can’t resist a toaster-themed engineering dig at computer science types.

Nanotube Sensing Skin can detect bridge cracks early

Checking older bridges for cracks and faults is usually something that civil engineers need to do visually. A new device, however, can make use of electrical current to locate cracks, gaps, and corroded spots before they’re visible with the eye. From ScienceDaily:

Now, civil engineers have a new device — called a sensing skin — to help find damage deep inside bridges that may be missed. “So, this skin is applied to the surface of the bridge, and essentially can self-sense whether corrosion is occurring, cracking is occurring on that bridge,” says Dr. Lynch. The skin is a thin material, lined with electrical wires. An electric current is sent through the wires. If there is any corrosion or cracking inside the bridge, it will break the electrical current.

A computer then creates a visual map of the change, which alerts inspectors exactly where damage is located. “So, essentially, if the bridge cracks the skin will crack. If the bridge is corroding, the skin will also observe that corrosion.”

More supersticky wall-climbing robots

I blogged last summer about a “geckobot”, a sticky-footed robot that could climb walls by mimicking the foot textures of geckos.

Clever folks at Carnegie Mellon are coming up with other types of wall-climbing robots, like Tankbot (with sticky tracks) or the FourBar robot (with 16 sticky feet that even lets it walk on ceilings). There’s a neat video at that link.

All of these are great improvements over older-style wall-climbing machines with suction feet, which take a lot of time and effort to stick and un-stick.

Soon your Roomba will be able to get the cobwebs out of those high corners.

GOCE launch approved for today: getting the details on gravity

The Russian State Commission has given the green light for the launch, in just a couple of hours, of a sophisticated satellite to investigate the Earth’s gravitational field. The Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE), a European Space Agency (ESA) project is to be launched today at 15:21 CET.

GOCE data will let us accurately measure sea-levels and ocean circulation, which are affected by climate change. So what? you say.

Well, we all know the Earth (like all objects with mass) results in gravity. However, the effect of gravity depends on the amounts of mass involved and on the distance away from the mass. Although it’s usually sufficient to think of the Earth as a big round ball, it is in fact neither a perfect sphere on macro (a big sphere in space) nor micro (hills and valleys and seabeds) levels. Neither is its mass distributed uniformly around the globe nor through the layers of its interior. Thus, gravity varies around the surface of the globe.

If we want to get down to the nitty-gritty of the dynamic processes taking place on Earth’s surface and in its interior – sea level changes due to climate change, seismic activity, etc – we need the nitty-gritty detail of how gravity varies around the world. An accurate gravity map – called a geoid – thus becomes an important thing to understand.

Check here for the main GOCE site.

The GOCE Ion Propulsion Assembly being prepared for testing in QinetiQ's thermal vacuum chamber