Celebrating ingenuity (December 2010 issue)

Stellenbosch University"â„¢s multidisciplinary Food Security Initiative has given birth to an unpiloted minihelicopter. See page 54 in the December 2010 issue...
Date:24 November 2010 Tags:,

Our second PM Inventors Conference is a wrap, our delegates have returned to their computers and workshops, and our learning curve continues on its relentless upward sweep. We sincerely hope that the event delivered real value to everyone involved – especially the (mercifully few) inventors who have been bent, folded, spindled and mutilated in their pursuit of The Big Idea. Bloodied but reassuringly unbowed, they represent some of the best minds in the country.

One of the things that struck us about the conference was the remarkable candour of the participants. In a world where the cynical apportioning of blame is almost a given, it takes someone special to admit that he “blew it” because he didn’t do his homework properly. One presenter cheerfully admitted to winning and losing a couple of fortunes along the way to commercial success; another described how a competitor had effectively “hijacked” his business while he was out of the country.

A few days after the event, we had lunch with a delegate from the Middle East who confessed to being stunned by this degree of honesty, commenting: “Back home, no one would ever admit to failure in front of an audience such as yours. It’s so honest and refreshing… it brings everyone together.”

For the record, planning has already started on the 2011 event, which will probably return to Gauteng sometime in the third quarter. We intend expanding the event to include a public element – possibly a version of the “Pitch it to the panel” session that remains one of the highestrated components of our annual conference. It goes without saying that we’re looking forward to it.

Now to this month’s issue. Our cover story, focusing on “20 bold ideas that will change the world”, showcases some extraordinarily clever concepts and technologies ranging from the designer organisms of genetics guru Craig Venter (he was the man who created the first synthetic cell) to earthquake-proof buildings, radical aircraft, eco-friendly cars and a deliciously off-beat soccer ball that harvests the game’s kinetic energy.

Next, we travel to the Boland, where Stellenbosch University’s multidisciplinary Food Security Initiative has given birth to an unpiloted minihelicopter, courtesy of the university’s department of electrical and electronic engineering – the fourth machine they’ve automated.

Previously, typical UAV customers would be biased towards the military, but Stellenbosch’s envisaged uses include measuring the water content of soil and the chlorophyll content of plants (by analysing the different colour bands in photographs), monitoring soil erosion, dam levels and fencing, and counting livestock. There’s more: UAVs could also be useful in areas such as forestry, conservation, policing, and for monitoring environmental disasters such as oil spills.

In “The death of rivers”, we make a disturbing statement: our world is rapidly approaching a freshwater crisis – and we are entirely to blame. As researchers point out, simply building more dams won’t solve the problem. In fact, as governments race to secure and manage access to clean water, they could be creating a nasty social and political headache for the next generation. Read the article and be alarmed.

Finally, we invite you to sit back and enjoy the awesome images captured by the European Southern Observatory (ESO). Our Universe may be 13,7 billion years old and largely inexplicable, but it never ceases to delight us.

– Alan Duggan (aland@ramsaymedia.co.za)

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