Archive for the ‘engineering’ Category


Engineering toys for girls

24 November 2013

Your little girl doesn’t have to grow up to be a princess. Maybe she wants to be an engineer.


Meet ATLAS, an advanced humanoid robot

14 July 2013

In 2008 I blogged about Boston Dynamics and the four-legged robot called Big Dog that they’d created.

In 2010 I blogged about their even more nimble Little Dog.

Now Boston Dynamics have gone humanoid. Check out ATLAS.

Next week: Skynet.


Richard Hammond’s Engineering Connections

12 September 2011

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 They were originally made for the National Geographic channel in the UK, but have also been shown on BBC2 and – here in Oz – on SBS.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

20 October 2010

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.

BBC News – The place where crazy inventors crea…, posted with vodpod



NYC transport on a spreadsheet

6 June 2010

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.

Fragment of the NYC traffic spreadsheet. Click to enlarge.


First of the last shuttle launches

15 May 2010

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

2 March 2010

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

4 May 2009

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

30 April 2009

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

16 March 2009

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

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


How Formula 1 helps us in everyday life: a Science Museum exhibit

14 March 2009

There’s a special (and free) exhibit on at London’s Science Museum just now called Fast Forward: 20 ways F1™ is changing our world.

It’s promoting the idea that Formula 1 racing isn’t just about going really fast around a track. It’s about cutting-edge engineering, about developing new technology from raw science. And mostly it’s about how those developments often turn out to have real-world applications.

The ways I find most fascinating are how tyre pressure-monitoring technology has made its way into consumer road cars, how to make rubber boots that slip less, and how the time-critical methods of pit stop crews have translated into faster procedures for hospital intensive care operating theatres.

I certainly didn’t know that this much F1 technology had such broad and interesting applicability. I’ll be down to see this exhibit as soon as I can.

F1 hydraulic dampers to keep a racecar in contact with the road can also prevent knee damage to soldiers in fast-moving inflatable boats

F1 hydraulic dampers to keep a racecar in contact with the road can also prevent knee damage to soldiers in fast-moving inflatable boats


NASA’s Kepler mission to look for other planets capable of sustaining life

5 March 2009

Tomorrow evening (US eastern time) is the earliest window in which NASA’s Kepler mission may launch. This is very exciting because Kepler’s main mission is to locate planets that are similar, and in similar positions, to our own. Planets like Earth are the ones where we’d be most likely to find life as we know it.

Nearly all of the planets we’ve spotted that are located outside our own Solar System have so far been gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn. They’re easy to spot, though, because they’re big and hot. Kepler will find smaller, rockier, Earth-like planets.

Photometer Being Lowered onto Spacecraft

Photometer Being Lowered onto Spacecraft

There’s a huge amount of really fascinating science, from the general to the detailed, on the mission page. Here are some excerpts I really like.

How will Kepler look for extrasolar planets? By looking at stars, and watching for signs that something has moved across the front of them:

The Kepler spacecraft…will orbit our own Sun, trailing behind Earth in its orbit, and stay pointed at Cygnus starfield for 3.5 years to watch for drops in brightness that happen when an orbiting planet crosses (transits) in front of the star. Cygnus was chosen because it has a very rich starfield and is in an area of sky where the Sun will not get in the way of the spacecraft’s view for its entire orbit.

How does a transit tell us that there’s a planet there?

Transits by terrestrial planets produce a small change in a star’s brightness of about 1/10,000 (100 parts per million, ppm), lasting for 2 to 16 hours. This change must be absolutely periodic if it is caused by a planet. In addition, all transits produced by the same planet must be of the same change in brightness and last the same amount of time, thus providing a highly repeatable signal and robust detection method.

Once detected, the planet’s orbital size can be calculated from the period (how long it takes the planet to orbit once around the star) and the mass of the star using Kepler’s Third Law of planetary motion. The size of the planet is found from the depth of the transit (how much the brightness of the star drops) and the size of the star. From the orbital size and the temperature of the star, the planet’s characteristic temperature can be calculated. From this the question of whether or not the planet is habitable (not necessarily inhabited) can be answered.

What else will Kepler do?

The scientific objective of the Kepler Mission is to explore the structure and diversity of planetary systems. This is achieved by surveying a large sample of stars to:

  1. Determine the percentage of terrestrial and larger planets there are in or near the habitable zone of a wide variety of stars;
  2. Determine the distribution of sizes and shapes of the orbits of these planets;
  3. Estimate how many planets there are in multiple-star systems;
  4. Determine the variety of orbit sizes and planet reflectivities, sizes, masses and densities of short-period giant planets;
  5. Identify additional members of each discovered planetary system using other techniques; and
  6. Determine the properties of those stars that harbor planetary systems.

This is a really exciting mission to undertake during the International Year of Astronomy.


Silver Dart replica makes five flights

23 February 2009

Everyone knows the Wright Brothers flew the first airplane in late 1903.

A lesser-known aeronautical fact – outside of the Great White North, at least – is that an early plane called The Silver Dart made Canada’s (and the British Empire’s) first powered flight on 23 February 1909.

A Canadian astronaut made some practice flights on a replica of the Dart on the weekend in anticipation of a 100th anniversary celebration today. From the Globe & Mail:

Conditions were perfect as Bjarni Tryggvason climbed into the fragile bird-like biplane and made five separate flights over a 1,000-metre runway on the ice-covered lake.

Leanne Beddow, a spokeswoman for the centennial celebration, said another flight will go ahead as planned on the actual anniversary Monday, weather permitting.

Environment Canada was forecasting snow, ice pellets, rain and high winds for the area, but Ms. Beddow said ceremonies would proceed as planned, including flypasses by military planes and another flight of the replica late in the morning.

“The Silver Dart is actually the most likely to fly out of all of them because it doesn’t need a very high ceiling,” Ms. Beddow said of the potential for poor weather.

“It only needs to get off the ground 20 feet.”

Thanks to Dan for the story.

Original 1909 Silver Dart

Original 1909 Silver Dart


Engineering Students Rock

21 February 2009

I just got Guitar Hero III as a late birthday present, and tried it on our Wii last night. Seems fun, and with lots of room to practice and become good. I’ll see how long the fun lasts.

From ScienceDaily today, a University of Virginia engineering class is building on the popularity of Guitar Hero by introducing a class where students have to build their own guitar game:

Mechanical engineers combined their skills with that of electrical engineering and computer science to create a college class inspired by the Guitar Hero game. The hands-on course requires students to build their own guitar. To do this, students choose a shape for the guitar, which is cut out of lumber by a computer. Located under the guitar strings, magnets detect vibrations and wire coils send an electronic signal to an amplifier and speaker. Effects pedals can also distort the sound and add special effects.

Skills from mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and computer science come together to form a cool kind of class that’s a hit with students.


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