Popular Mechanics salutes world-changing ideas, innovative products, and really, really smart people in the 2012 Breakthrough Awards. By Logan Ward
1. Master Of Creative Disruption
Elon Musk, CEO of Space Exploration Technologies and Tesla Motors
Elon Musk, the entrepreneur, is having a good year. His companies, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and Tesla Motors, both hit historic milestones. SpaceX became the first private company to build, launch and operate a spacecraft that docked with the International Space Station. Tesla unveiled the world’s first premium all-electric sedan to positive reviews at a price of R433 000 (after rebate).
Elon Musk, the man, has every reason to be nervous. At 41, the South African-born billionaire has staked his fortune on businesses that could re-shape the future – or implode spectacularly. After creating and selling the Internet payment system PayPal, Musk turned his attention to industries he felt could enhance humanity’s potential: electric cars and affordable spaceflight.
Yet Musk appears calm. Seated at his desk at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California, he quietly told PM editor-in-chief Jim Meigs and senior news editor Joe Pappalardo about his plan to save the planet – and/or leave it.
Q: How has your experience launching a software company influenced the way you approach large engineering projects?
A: I think the high-tech industry is used to developing new things very quickly. It’s the Silicon Valley way of doing business: you either move very quickly and you work hard to improve your product technology or you get destroyed by some other company. And so that’s the approach that I have. I’ve been through many company near-death experiences, starting with (software company) Zip2 and then PayPal.
Q: If the Dragon spacecraft doesn’t work and if the Model S fails to sell, the companies that make them probably can’t survive. Do those previous corporate near-death experiences help you avoid being fearful about the future?
A: I wouldn’t say I have a lack of fear. In fact, I’d like my fear emotion to be less because it’s very distracting and fries my nervous system. I have this sort of feeling that something terrible could happen, like all of our flights could fail and Tesla could fail and SpaceX could fail, and that feeling of anxiety has not left me, even though this has been a great year. So I feel fear quite strongly; I just proceed nonetheless.
Q: You’ve said that you wanted to form a space launch company to help humanity become a multiplanetary species. Why?
A: One reason is defensive: the probability of human civilisation lasting for a long time is much greater if we’re on multiple planets. There are many things that could destroy life as we know it – natural disasters as well as man-made stuff. But the inspirational reason gets me more fired up. Establishing a selfsustaining base on Mars would be the most exciting adventure I could imagine for humanity. That’s the kind of future that I want us to have and I think a lot of people want us to have, particularly Americans.
Q: Why do you think Americans have this impulse?
A: America is a distillation of the spirit of human exploration. People came here from other countries, so America is a nation of explorers. I think a lot of the American people feel more than a little disappointed that the high-water mark for human exploration was 1969. The dream of human space travel has almost died for a lot of people. SpaceX is part of restoring that dream.
Q: When would you go to Mars?
A: If I’m reasonably confident that the company is going to be okay without me, and my kids have more or less grown up, then I think I’d go on the first manned trip. But the first colonising flights to Mars will be robotic. Spaceships will have to prove they can land and take off okay. Automated miner droids will have to gather raw materials for propellant production on the surface. To form a permanent settlement, we have to be able to send millions of people and millions of tons of cargo. For that to occur, we must have a fully reusable Mars transportation system.
Q: In contrast to other automotive and aerospace players, your companies tend to do a lot of component manufacturing. Why?
A: When I started SpaceX and Tesla, we began outsourcing almost everything and then over time we insourced more and more. When you use legacy components you inherit the legacy cost-structure limitations. And you also aren’t able to make a product that works together well as a system. If you design the pieces to all fit together in the right way, then it will make for a beautiful result, technically and aesthetically.
Q: How con dent were you that Tesla could release the Model S this year, and at its price?
A: I wouldn’t say I was superconfident, but I thought that we could do it. I did know we had to make something that was about the same price as a Mercedes, a BMW or an Audi. But it had to be a better car for the same price.
Q: Tesla gets a lot of grief for taking government money.
A: Ordinarily, I would agree that one should minimise government intervention. But when we have externalities (high CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere and oceans) and we’re unwilling to act upon that in the right way – which is to increase taxes on that externality and price it into the goods and services – then the less attractive option is for the government to support things that address the externality.
I should point out that whether Tesla had received a Department of Energy loan or not, we would still be around. The DOE funding is helpful as an accelerant but not as a fundamental exist-or-not-exist situation. We were bailed in, not bailed out.
Q: So you’ve said many times that you imagine retiring on Mars.
A: Yeah. I just want to retire before I go senile because if I don’t retire before I go senile, then I’ll do more damage than good at that point. But I think it would be great to be born on Earth and die on Mars.
Musk vs . . .
Credit card companies
In 1998, Musk co-founded the Internet payment service PayPal. The new company created a secure transactional platform that avoided the hassle and high fees of traditional credit card accounts, democratising commerce for online auctions. eBay bought the company in 2002 for $1,5 billion.
Since his college days in the mid-1990s, Musk has wanted to kickstart the development of electric cars. In 2003, he co-founded Tesla Motors with an investment of $37 million. The small start-up trailblazed the use of lithium-ion batteries in cars; automotive giants like General Motors soon followed suit in cars such as the Volt.
The spaceflight industry
In the post-shuttle era, Nasa has looked to outside companies to design and build spacecraft for the next era of exploration. Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies responded with rockets and vehicles that are far less expensive than anything the space agency has ever flown.
2 Fighting Deflation
Self-Regulating Tyre: Massimo Di Giacomo Russo, John Kotanides Jr, and the Air Maintenance Technology Team, Goodyear Tire & Rubber
What is it? A team led by Massimo Di Giacomo Russo and John Kotanides Jr of Goodyear Research has created a tyre that manages its own pressure. That means no monthly trips to the filling station to check and top up the air. How does it work? A peristaltic pump pushes air through a tube wrapped around the tyre’s interior circumference; the action is similar to the way contracting muscles move food through the human intestine. The weight of the car pinches the rotating tube, forcing tiny gulps of air inside. Why does it matter? Properly inflated tyres will improve the average vehicle’s fuel efficiency by 2 to 3 per cent. Fully inflated tyres also last longer and perform better, especially while cornering, which reduces accidents. These tyres are coming soon: Goodyear has success fully tested prototypes and hopes to begin limited field testing next year.
Intake Air enters the strawsized tube through a small intake/outlet valve, just above the tyre’s bead. The vehicle’s weight pinches the tube shut.
Inflate As the tyre rolls, air is forced towards an internal regulator valve. If tyre pressure is low, the valve opens and air is pumped in.
Exhaust Once pressure equalises, the regulator valve closes and excess air escapes through the intake/outlet valve.
3 Teaching Robots to Walk
MABEL: Jessy Grizzle, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; Jonathan Hurst, Oregon State University
Walking, that fundamental human activity, seems simple: put one foot in front of the other; repeat. But to scientists, bipedalism is still largely a mystery, involving a symphony of sensory input (from legs, eyes and inner ear), voluntary and involuntary neural commands, and the synchronised pumping of muscles hinged by tendons to a frame that must balance in an upright position. That makes building a robot that can stand up and walk in a world built for humans deeply difficult.
But it’s not impossible. Robots such as Honda’s Asimo have been shuffling along on two feet for more than a decade, but the slow, clumsy performance of these machines is a far cry from the human gait. Jessy Grizzle of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and Jonathan Hurst of Oregon State University have created a better bot, a 68 kg two-legged automaton named MABEL that can walk with a surprisingly human dexterity.
MABEL is built to walk blindly (without the aid of laser scanners or other optical technologies) and fast (it can run a 9- minute mile). To navigate its environment, MABEL uses contact switches on its “feet” that send sensory feedback to a computer.
When MABEL steps off a 20 cm ledge, says Grizzle, as soon as its foot touches the floor, the robot is able to calculate the exact position of its body – and can do so faster and more accurately than a human. MABEL uses passive dynamics to walk efficiently – storing and releasing energy in glass fibre springs – rather than fighting its own momentum with its electric motors.
The quest for walking robots is not purely academic. The 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster highlighted the need for machines that could operate in hazardous, unpredictable environments that would stop wheeled and even tracked vehicles. Grizzle and Hurst are already working on MABEL’s successor, a lighter, faster model named ATRIAS. But there’s still plenty of engineering to be done before walking robots can be usefully deployed, venturing into danger zones with balance and haste but no fear.
Video: Visit Bipedal robot traverses uneven terrain using touch instead of sight to see MABEL negotiating uneven terrain using touch instead of sight.
4 Erasing Oil Spills
Grooved Disc Oil Skimmer: Jeff Cantrell, Stewart Ellis, Don Johnson, Brian Orr, Jerome Riley, Paul Smith, Charles Storey, Donnie Wilson, Elastec/American Marine
In 1989, Donnie Wilson and Jeff Cantrell had a revelation. While cleaning an oil spill in a pond with vacuum trucks in southern Illinois, they noticed how oil clung to the sides of a 20-litre bucket (displaying the same property that makes grease stick to Tupperware). The next year, Wilson and Cantrell founded Elastec (now called Elastec/American Marine) to manufacture plastic drum oil skimmers.
In 2010, when BP’s Deepwater Horizon well blew, Elastec/American Marine was called to help with the clean-up. The company’s skimmers were no match for the 56 000-barrels-a-day gusher. So to keep up with the spill, Wilson’s crew used floating booms to corral surface oil and burn it. Watching all that petroleum go up in smoke inspired him and his company to develop a high-volume drum skimmer that could collect more oil, rather than wasting it.
The Deepwater spill also moved Wendy Schmidt, wife of Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt, to create an X Prize offering $1 million (about R8 million) to the fi rst team to recover 2 500 gallons (9 463 litres) of oil a minute from a test slick with an efficiency of 70 per cent (that is, no more than 30 per cent of the liquid collected could be water).
Wilson accelerated Elastec/American Marine’s R&D efforts, and within 16 months of the X Prize announcement, the company had developed a new grooved disc skimmer that won the prize and shattered the competition requirements, collecting 17 677 litres a minute with nearly 90 per cent efficiency. Elastec/American Marine hopes to have units ready to deploy by the end of this year.
“We’re going to have more oil spills. We need to be able to clean up the messes we make better,” Schmidt says. “What the people at Elastec/American Marine have done is incredibly important. It sends a signal that we can do better.”
Video: Visit Erasing oil spills to watch a video showing how the team developed the technology that earned them first place in the Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X CHALLENGE.
5 Outsmarting Pain
Inventing with Heart: Katherine Bomkamp with her Patented Pain-fighting Prosthesis.
In 2006, 15-year-old Katherine Bomkamp and her father, retired US Air Force Lt-Colonel Jeff Bomkamp, went to Walter Reed National Military Medical Centre in Washington, DC, for a medical appointment. In the cafeteria, she saw a young wife feeding her husband, who had lost his right arm and both legs. “She was holding the hand he still had,” remembers Bomkamp, now a junior at West Virginia University. “I overheard him complaining of pain. That always stuck with me.”
That soldier was one of nearly 2 million Americans living with limb loss, 80 per cent of whom experience phantom sensations – such as throbbing and burning – coming from their absent limbs.
The following year, Bomkamp decided to tackle phantom limb pain for the science fair at her Waldorf, Maryland, high school. Her prototype pros thesis used battery-powered foot warmers to apply heat to the stump, the way you’d soothe sore muscles; she later found research indicating that heat distracts the brain from pain. She took first place at the science fair and received an honourable mention at the 2010 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.
Bomkamp has continued to develop the device. Her most recent prototype has automatic temperature regulation, embedded thermo- resistive wiring and a solar-powered lithium-ion battery. She received a patent last year. The next step is to launch human trials.
Bomkamp has come a long way since her high school project, but her inspiration remains the same – helping military amputees get back into the workplace. “I want to make pain one less obstacle that they have to overcome,” she says.
Video: Visit Pain-free socket helps alleviate phantom pain in amputees to watch a video of Katherine Bomkamp explaining the story behind her invention.
6 Outflopping the World
IBM Blue Gene/Q Sequoia Supercomputer: Bruce Goodwin, Michel McCoy, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; Michael Rosenfield, IBM
What is it? Sequoia, an IBM Blue Gene/Q supercomputer newly installed at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in Livermore, California. In June, it officially became the most powerful supercomputer in the world. How powerful are we talking about? Sequoia is currently capable of 16,32 petaflops – that’s more than 16 quadrillion calculations a second – or 55 per cent faster than Japan’s K Computer, which is ranked No 2, and more than five times faster than China’s Tianhe-1A, which surprised the world by taking the top spot in 2010. Sequoia’s processing power is roughly equivalent to that of 2 million laptops. What is it used for? The US Department of Energy, which runs LLNL, has a mandate to maintain America’s nuclear weapons stockpile, so Sequoia’s primary mission is nuclear weapons simulations. But the DOE is also using computers such as Sequoia to help US companies do high-speed R&D for complex products such as jet engines and medical research. The goal is to help the country stay competitive in a world where industrial influence matters as much to national security as nukes do.
V IDEO > Visit Introducing… Sequoia, the fastest supercomputer in the world to find out why Sequoia is a stepping stone on the way to exascale computing – machines that will be 50 times as fast as today’s fastest.
7 Plugging into the Brain
Brain-computer interface: Michael Boninger, Jennifer Collinger, Alan Degenhart, Andrew Schwartz, Elizabeth Tyler-Kabara, Wei Wang, University of Pittsburgh; Tim Hemmes
On the evening of 11 July 2004, Tim Hemmes, a 23-year-old car detail-shop owner, tucked his 18-month-old daughter, Jaylei, into bed and roared off for a ride on his new motorcycle. As he pulled away from a stop sign, a deer sprang out. Hemmes swerved, clipped a mailbox and slammed head-first into a guardrail. He awoke choking on a ventilator tube, terrified to find he could not lift his arms to scratch his itching nose.
Seven years later, Hemmes was invited to participate in a University of Pittsburgh research project aimed at decoding the link between thought and movement. Hemmes enthusiastically agreed and last year made history by operating a robotic arm only with his thoughts.
The science was adapted from work done by Pittsburgh neurobiologist Andrew Schwartz, who spent nearly three decades exploring the brain’s role in movement in animal trials. In 2008, his research group trained monkeys with brain microchips to feed themselves using a robotic arm controlled by signals from the creatures’ brains. Movement, Schwartz explains, is how we express our thoughts. “The only way I know what’s going on between your ears is because you’ve moved,” he says.
To apply this technology to humans, Schwartz teamed up with University of Pittsburgh Medical Centre clinician Michael Boninger, physician/engineer Wei Wang and engineer/surgeon Elizabeth Tyler-Kabara, who attached an electrocorticography (ECoG) grid to Hemmes’s brain surface. Wang then translated the electrical signals generated by Hemmes’s thoughts into computer code. The researchers hooked his implant to a robotic arm developed by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (which itself won a 2007 Breakthrough Award). Hemmes moved the robotic arm in three dimensions, giving Wang a slow but determined high-five.
The team’s ultimate goal is to embed sensors in the robotic arm that can send signals back to the brain, allowing subjects to “feel” whether an object the arm touches is hot, cold, soft, hard, heavy or light. Hemmes has an even more ambitious but scientifically feasible goal. “I want to move my own arms, not just a robotic arm,” he says. If that happens, the first thing he’ll do is hug his daughter.
Thought To touch the apple, the patient imagines a simple action, such as flexing a thumb, to move the arm in a single direction.
Signal pick-up A postage stamp-sized implant picks up electrical activity generated by the thought and sends the signals to a computer.
Interpretation A computer program parses signals from the chip and, once it picks up on specific activity patterns, sends movement data to the arm.
Action The patient can move the arm in any direction by combining multiple thoughts – flexing a thumb while bending an elbow – to guide the arm towards the apple.
VIDEO > Visit Brain-computer interface: debilitated man uses thought to move robotic arm to see Hemmes moving his robotic arm with his thoughts and to learn more about the revolutionary technology.
8 Peering Around Corners
CORNAR Camera: Ramesh Raskar, Andreas Velten, MIT Media Lab
Through two centuries of technological change, one limitation of photography has remained constant: a camera can capture images only in its line of sight. But now a team of university researchers led by MIT Media Lab professor Ramesh Raskar has built a camera that sees around corners.
The CORNAR system bounces high-speed laser pulses off any opaque surface, such as a door or wall. These pulses then reflect off the subject and bounce back to a camera that records incoming light in picosecond intervals. The system measures and triangulates distance based on this time-of-flight data, creating a point cloud that visually represents the objects in the other room. In essence, the camera measures and interprets reflected echoes of light.
“For many people, being able to see around corners has been this science-fiction dream scenario,” says long-time New York University computer science professor Ken Perlin, who was not involved in the research. “Well, dream or nightmare, depending on how people use it.”
V IDEO > Visit CORNAR Camera peers around corners to watch a video showing how the scientists reconstruct a hidden object using scattered laser light, which enables them to see around corners.
9 Building a better metal
Ultralight Micro-Lattice: William Carter, Alan Jacobsen, Tobias Schaedler, HRL Laboratories; Julia R. Greer, Caltech; Lorenzo Valdevit, University of California, Irvine
What is it? An engineered metal mesh that is 100 times lighter than Styrofoam packing peanuts. It can be compressed by up to 50 per cent and bounce perfectly back into shape. The technology was developed by a team from Malibu-based HRL Laboratories, along with researchers from Caltech and the University of California, Irvine. How is it made? The basic structure is made when beams of UV light are shot into a light-sensitive liquid resin that hardens into a lattice structure. This is similar to the two-dimensional photolithographic process used to create microchips, but done in three dimensions. The resin lattice is then dipped into liquid metal, and, once the metal cools into a solid, the resin is dissolved away. What can it do? The resulting metal mesh is hollow and light, like bird bones, yet structurally robust. It can be used as a cushioning or insulating material in cars or aircraft, and it has potential applications in the medical field as a possible scaffold for new bone growth.
Video: Visit Ultralight Micro-Lattice, world’s lightest solid material to find out more about the ultralight metallic micro-lattice, including how it’s formed.
10 Breaking Through the Heliopause
Mechanical Lifetime Achievement Award
Voyager 1 and 2: Nasa Jet Propulsion Laboratory
In 1977, Nasa launched twin Voyager spacecraft to take advantage of a rare alignment of the solar system’s gas giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune) that would allow both craft to swing past all four planets in a single trajectory.
Engineers from Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory originally made plans for a 12-year mission. But by 1972, budget woes had withered their planetary grand tour to a five-year flight. Thirty-five years later, both probes are still sending back data, and within the next couple of years, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 will pass the most distant bounds of the solar system.
Ed Stone, who has been JPL’s project scientist for the Voyager programme for four decades, is awed by the prospect of the probes entering interstellar space. “We have an object made by the human race that’s travelling between the stars,” he says. “It’s not science fiction any more. It’s real.”
Wallpapers: Download wallpaper images of a selection of photos from the Voyager encounters with Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune at Celebrating 35 years of the Nasa Voyager mission
8th annual Breakthrough Awards for products. By Rachel Z. Arndt
A The North Face Powder Guide ABS Vest and Backpack:
Avalanches are a deadly threat to snowmobilers, skiers and others who explore the snowy mountains. The North Face brings existing avalanche airbag technology to a low-profile vest and a backpack; the airbags inflate to help a victim stay on top of cascading debris. The user triggers the system by pulling a toggle that causes a gas canister to inflate the bags. While ABS technology can’t eliminate avalanche risk, it has already saved lives in Europe and North America.
B Lytro camera:
Lytro’s light-field cameras transform photography, letting you focus an image after you shoot it. Unlike a conventional camera, which records light from a single focal point, a light-field camera captures light from all directions. A user can later change the focus to a new area of the image or even make it stereoscopic. In the past, light-field photography required supercomputers. The Lytro makes this technology accessible to casual shooters.
C Autodesk 123D:
Autodesk is a dominant player in the world of professional 3D engineering software; the company’s new suite of free, simple tools gives amateurs the power to create, share and print 3D models. Here’s how it works: the user takes 20 to 30 photos of an object, then loads them into the 123D Catch software (1). The software analyses the images to produce a 3D CAD model that can be edited on-screen like a digital photo (2). The CAD file can be sent to a 3D printer or turned into a series of 2D paper prints that the user can glue to cardboard, cut to shape and assemble into a real-world 3D model (3).
D Microsoft Surface + Windows 8:
The most radical redesign of Windows since 1995, Windows 8 erases the distinction between tablets and full-fledged PCs. The new operating system embraces touchscreen gesture control while retaining mouse and keyboard inputs. The default presentation looks like a mobile interface: tiles displaying snippets of information replace icons, and the static desktop becomes a moving flow of websites and apps. (Users can access a traditional desktop if they prefer.) This reinvention of the OS is a platform for a reinvention of the PC as well. Microsoft’s new Surface series of tablets have keyboards built into their protective covers, and the Pro model offers the full versatility of a laptop.
E Ford 1-Litre EcoBoost Engine:
With its EcoBoost engine, Ford has engineered far more efficiency into the classic internal combustion engine, maintaining performance and boosting fuel economy without resorting to a heavy and expensive hybrid powertrain. Ford’s 1-litre EcoBoost engine has only three cylinders and roughly two-thirds the displacement of the 1,6-litre engine that comes standard in the 2013 Ford Fiesta – but nearly the same power and more torque, thanks to its turbochargers. The engine makes its South African debut in the Ford EcoSport early next year (its bigger brother, the 2-litre EcoBoost, arrived here in October aboard the Focus ST).
F Dow PowerHouse Solar Shingles:
The first photovoltaic system that blends almost seamlessly into a home’s exterior, Dow’s 13 mm-thick shingles are not conventional roofing, but copper indium gallium diselenide solar cells covered with tempered glass. Unlike other solar panels, PowerHouse PVs are nailed directly to the roof deck. Wiring leads inside to the system’s inverter, and a Web-based monitoring system allows you to check the roof’s power production remotely.
G Cubify Cube 3D Printer:
Hobbyists have used desktop 3D printers for several years, but those machines were either pricey or dependent on DIY skills to build. With its new R11 300 device, Cubify brings 3D printing from the hackerspace to the world of consumer products. It lets you print toys, jewellery and other plastic objects in just a few hours. Cubify also has a print-at-home marketplace where users can buy and sell designs. By offering a 3D-printing ecosystem, Cubify is revolutionising DIY commerce.
H Lehr LPG-Powered Outboard Engine:
Lehr won a Breakthrough Award in 2009 for putting its efficient, ultra-low-emissions gas powerplant in a string trimmer. Now the company is extending the technology into people-moving territory with an outboard motor. Gas is not only cheaper than petrol, it’s also easier on machinery and on operators – gas engines require less winterisation than petrol engines, and they don’t flood during cold starts because the fuel is gaseous. Lehr is starting small with 1,8 kW and 3,7 kW models but plans to expand its line with more powerful engines.
I Leap by Leap Motion:
While the computer mouse is losing ground to touchscreens, Leap Motion is offering an alternative to both technologies: fine motion- capture gesture control. Smaller than a stick of butter, the company’s R600 Leap motion-capture device provides a 0,226 m³ gesture-control space (this is bigger than it sounds) in front of the PC or Mac monitor. Unlike the full-body skeleton-mapping technique used by Microsoft’s Kinect, the Leap uses infrared sensors to create an extremely detailed 3D point-cloud representation of just the user’s hands. It can sense movement to an accuracy of 0,01 mm.
Leap opens up everything on a computer to gesture control: Web sites zoom in with the same pinch motion used on touchscreens, and drawing is no more difficult than painting with your fingers – or even a pencil – in mid-air. That makes the Leap more intuitive than other drawing tools such as pen tablets, which require the user to draw on a desk while looking at a screen. With Leap, drawing happens in the air, directly in front of the image you are creating.
J GM Crash-Avoidance System:
General Motors quietly rolled out the first practical and cost-effective single-camera vision system for crash avoidance in passenger cars with its GMC Terrain. In the future, the technology could be used for automated vehicles, but here’s what it does today: mounted behind the rearview mirror (1), the system watches the world much as humans do, detecting shapes and their positions relative to the car. With visual information taken in from a 37-degree field (2), the system warns the user of possible collisions and unintentional lane departures (3).