Date:21 November 2013
Celebrating world-changing ideas, innovative products and really, really smart people. By Logan Ward
1. Leadership Award: the techno optimist Peter Diamandis
For a man with such outsize influence, Peter Diamandis has a surprisingly small office. Or maybe it just seems small because it’s so filled with stuff – a treadmill desk, a regular desk, a coffee table, a couch, Star Trek memorabilia, model planes, astronaut action figures, toy UFOs, dozens of badges from conferences and speaking engagements, and a framed poster of 28 “Peter’s Laws”, including “The squeaky wheel gets replaced” and “The ratio of something to nothing is infinite”.
That densely packed office, located in Playa Vista, California, seems symbolic of the breadth of Diamandis’s ambitions, crammed into a single human life span. Through the X Prize Foundation, which he started in 1995, he uses competitions and cash prizes to jump-start innovation in the aerospace, automotive, environmental, technology and life-science fields. He is an unflagging optimist who believes that humanity’s challenges are surmountable through technology and ingenuity. (Read our interview with Peter Diamandis.)
The X Prize competitions
Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health X Prize (launched in 2013) goes to the first teams to develop low-cost, accurate devices that can measure global ocean acidification. Purse: R20 million.
Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize (launched in 2011) goes to the creator of an easy-to-use device capable of quickly diagnosing a set of 15 medical conditions. Purse: R100 million.
Google Lunar X Prize (launched in 2007) goes to the first privately funded team to land a rover on the Moon, drive 1 600 feet (about 488 m), and send back video. Purse: R400 million.
2. Martian Chronicler
Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory: John Grotzinger (Caltech, Jet Propulsion Laboratory), James Erickson (JPL) and teams
On 5 August 2012, after nine months in space, the 1 000 kg Curiosity rover made its descent to the surface of Mars via a so-crazy-it-just-might-work rocket-powered sky crane.
“Curiosity landed, drove 500 metres, and hit paydirt,” says principal project scientist and Caltech geologist John Grotzinger. That paydirt was a grey soil sample dug up by Curiosity from just beneath Mars’ red surface. The soil’s chemical makeup proved Mars once had enough fresh water to sustain life. “Modern Mars is red and inhospitable,” Grotzinger says. “Ancient Mars was grey and habitable if you were a simple microorganism.” The Curiosity programme has proved that it is possible to deliver heavy payloads to Mars and to collect valuable samples. Next, Nasa hopes to land a craft that can bring those samples back to Earth.
3. Highway Autopilot
General Motors Super Cruise: John Capp, Jeremy Salinger, Eric Raphael and team
The self-driving car started as a science-fiction fantasy – then DARPA and Google turned it into a real-world experiment. Now GM is working to make automotive autonomy part of an option package. The car maker has combined two existing technologies – adaptive cruise control and lane centering – into its Super Cruise system, which allows for hands-free driving at highway speeds. It could be available in a production vehicle as soon as 2018.
How it works
A long-distance radar system detects vehicles more than 90 m ahead. The vehicle will automatically accelerate or apply brakes to maintain a preset following distance. Using a combination of GPS and infrared optical cameras, the Super Cruise system watches the road ahead and adjusts steering to keep the car in the middle of its lane.
4. Next Generation Award: No-cost water filter
Moringa-seed water filter: Meghan Shea
Sometimes, the way to address an epic problem is to search for a simple solution. Meghan Shea, an 18-year-old from West Chester, Pennsylvania, designed an inexpensive water filter that removes up to 99 per cent of E coli bacteria and can be built by anyone, potentially saving lives in the world’s poorest regions.
While attending a summer science fellowship at Texas Tech University in 2012, Shea learned about the “miracle” moringa – a common tropical tree with seeds that turn foul water potable. Crushed moringa seeds act as a flocculant, causing contaminants in water to clump. Shea engineered a simple, segmented filter that can be built of PVC, plastic bottles or bamboo. Inside, crushed moringa seeds are used along with other common filtering materials such as dirt, charcoal and fabric. “Meghan has shown remarkable innovation and initiative,” says Greg Allgood, whose PUR water filtration packets won a 2008 Breakthrough Award.
“We need every bit of creativity to address the global water crisis.”
5. Electro-mechanical medical miracle
Indego exoskeleton: Michael Goldfarb, Vanderbilt University), Ryan Farris (Parker Hannifin Corp) and team
Forty-two-year-old Michael Gore of Whiteville, North Carolina, remembers when he couldn’t wait to plop into a chair after a 12-hour shift at the vinyl fencing plant where he used to work. “Now it’s the opposite,” he says. “I can’t wait to stand up.” For the past decade, Gore has been in a wheelchair, paralysed from the waist down after a workplace fall that wrecked his spinal cord. But when he’s strapped into the Indego, a powered exoskeleton developed by a team led by Vanderbilt University engineer Michael Goldfarb and his former graduate student Ryan Farris, Gore can stand, walk and even climb stairs.
The Indego fits tightly around the torso and extends down to the ankles. Powerful, battery-operated electric motors drive hip and knee joints. e user operates the system by leaning forward to stand up or walk and by leaning back to sit down. Standing and walking, even for a few hours a week, addresses health problems that plague paraplegics, including loss of bone density and poor blood circulation.
To commercialise the exoskeleton, Goldfarb partnered with Cleveland-based Parker Hannifin, which hired Farris to join the Indego team. e company hopes to make the Indego available in rehab clinics as early as 2014, with a consumer model to follow.
6. Navy’s smartest jet
Captain Jaime Engdahl, Don Blottenberger (US Navy); Carl Johnson, Tim Kesecker (Northrop Grumman) and teams
Landing a fighter jet on the deck of an aircraft carrier is a Navy pilot’s toughest challenge. On 10 July 2013, the bat-winged X-47B jet landed aboard the USS George HW Bush in a split second of smoke and squealing rubber.
It was a scene straight out of Top Gun, with one key difference: the X-47B had no pilot. This historic first marked the final stages of the Navy’s Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration (UCAS-D) research project.
Started 10 years ago with funding from the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and help from Northrop Grumman, the X-47B is purely experimental and will soon be retired. But the Navy plans to use its technology to create a new fleet of carrier ready unmanned combat jets that will improve military surveillance and reduce pilot casualties. According to Don Blottenberger, the Navy’s deputy programme manager for UCAS-D, the technology could also benefit civilians by leading to more accurate autopilot systems in commercial aircraft and to safe, self-driving cars.
Video: X-47B jet completes first arrested landing on an aircraft carrier
7. Reality Machine
Oculus Rift: Palmer Luckey
Palmer Luckey is obsessive about virtual reality. The 21-year-old from Long Beach, California, has been a hardcore gamer since he was a boy and was so disappointed by the high prices and latency of existing VR gear that he decided to develop his own device. In 2012, he set out to raise R2,5 million on Kickstarter – and ended up with nearly R25 million. In March this year, Luckey’s new company shipped the first development kits for the Oculus Rift, a low-cost (R3 000) 3D headset with sensors that track the user’s motions at 1 000 Hz. Before it has even launched as a consumer device, the Rift has developed a cult following among game developers.
The device lacks headphones, which Luckey knows will be essential in a final product, but the experience is so immersive that videos of stunned and stammering first-time users have become a YouTube meme.
The excitement around the Oculus Rift extends beyond game designers to educators, architects and even medical researchers. “The Rift is a game changer,” says Albert Rizzo, a University of Southern California psychologist who treats post-traumatic stress disorder with virtual-reality therapy. “I’ve been waiting for this moment for nearly 20 years.”
8. Custom-made lifesaver
3D Printed tracheal splint: Glenn Green, Scott Hollister (University of Michigan)
Tracheobronchomalacia is a rare condition that causes the windpipe to collapse. It’s especially deadly for infants, whose airways are small and weak. In February 2012, paediatric surgeon Glenn Green and biomedical engineer Scott Hollister from the University of Michigan were researching a way to create custom 3D-printed tracheal implants, when Green got a call from a surgeon in Ohio. “I know you’re not ready for human trials,” he told Green, “but I’ve got a patient who needs it now.”
“It was clear that this child would die if we didn’t do something,” says Hollister. _ e team got emergency clearance from the FDA and used a CT scan of the 6-week-old boy’s trachea and bronchi to print a custom splint. The boy’s breathing normalised immediately after it was implanted, and today he is a healthy toddler.
Cornell engineer Hod Lipson, who shared a 2007 Breakthrough Award for the Fab@Home open-source 3D printer, sees the work of Green and Hollister spawning a new age of on-demand medical devices. “As surgeons learn about this, we’ll see more innovations of this type.”
How it works
A CT scan creates a 3D image of the young patient’s collapsed bronchus. Using that image, a 3D printer creates a custom splint from a biopolymer. The splint acts as a scaffold as the tissue repairs itself; then it is absorbed by the body.
9. Robotic touch
BioTac Sensor: Gerald Loeb (USC), Jeremy Fishel (SynTouch) and team
Much of the fine motor control in the human hand relies upon its ability to sense temperature, vibration and pressure. “If your fingers are numb from the cold, your hands are almost useless,” says University of Southern California biomedical engineering professor Gerald Loeb. Loeb and former graduate student Jeremy Fishel, co-founders of a company called SynTouch, have developed bionic fi ngers that give machines human-like touch.
Using a flexible polymer skin and a variety of sensors, the robot fingers were able to correctly identify test materials 95 per cent of the time by touching them, outperforming blindfolded human subjects. BioTac sensors could eventually lead to prosthetic arms with sensory neural feedback as well as to worker robots that operate safely in close contact with humans.
BioTac fingertips, such as the ones on this robotic hand, each have sensors to detect heat, pressure and vibration. Taking a cue from human anatomy, BioTac digits even have textured “fingerprints” to improve sensitivity.
How it works
BioTac fingerprints, such as the ones on the robotic hand pictured above, each have sensors to detect heat, pressure and vibration. Taking a cue from human anatomy, BioTac digits even have textured “fingerprints” to improve insensitivity.
10. Tiny drone squadron
Swarm micro-UAVs: Vijay Kumar, Shaojie Shen, Matthew Turpin, Daniel Mellinger and Alex Kushleyev (University of Pennsylvania); Nathan Michael (Carnegie Mellon University)
In the future, the first responders for many disasters could include flying robots, sent in to map dangerously compromised buildings. A team of engineers, led by the University of Pennsylvania’s Vijay Kumar, is developing autonomously flying nano-quadrotors that can fly in squadrons and pull off incredible tasks. They can spontaneously create maps or assemble a miniature truss structure out of a kit of parts.
Each quadrotor has an on-board mobile processor and sensors for gauging how to move through the air while also accounting for obstacles and wind, plus a short-range wireless antenna for communicating with other drones. Those capabilities help the drones weave figure eight patterns in the air and stream through windows without crashing. The long term applications include construction and environmental monitoring.
But disaster response may come first. Nathan Michael, a former student of Kumar’s who is now a professor at Carnegie Mellon, predicts the search-and-rescue community will be using small flying-swarm robots in the next three to five years. “In the long term, UAVs may change how we think about the whole cycle of disaster,” Michael says. “Not just responding to the aftermath but preventing losses beforehand by mapping out challenging environments.”
* Interview with Breakthrough Leadership Award winner Peter Diamandis
* Top products of 2013 | annual Breakthrough Awards