Archive for June, 2005

Engineered Back

June 22nd, 2005 by dstmartin

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Everybody’s back hurts now and then. We’ll find out how engineers are helping ease the pain – today, on Engineering Works!

About 65 million of us suffer get backaches every year. Most of the time, it’s just from working too hard in the yard last weekend. For about 12 million people, though, it’s more – something called degenerative disc disease. It can be pretty serious. Degenerative disc disease is what happens when discs between sections of your backbone in your lower back collapse. You can’t move your back the way it’s supposed to, and it hurts – a lot.

Doctors usually treat serious degenerative disc disease by taking out what’s left of the disc and allowing the vertebra on either side of where the disc used to be to grow together. Usually it helps the pain, but not always. And you can’t move as well as before.

Engineers and surgeons in Germany have come up with what may be a better idea. It’s an artificial disc made of special plastic and chromium alloy. It looks kind of like a sandwich – layers of plastic between thin slices of metal. Pins in the metal go into the vertebrae on each side of where the original disc used to be. The plastic between the metal discs slides around so you can bend pretty much like you used to.

Laboratory tests suggest they should be good for at least 40 years. That’s 88 million worth of bending over to pick up your newspaper from the driveway.


Healthy Heart

June 15th, 2005 by dstmartin

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Getting your heart healthy again after a heart attack can be complicated. Engineers think they can help. We’ll see how – today, on Engineering Works!

More than a million people suffer heart attacks every year in the United States. Most of them survive, but that’s just the beginning. Just because you survive a heart attack doesn’t mean your heart is healthy. In fact, chances are that it’s been damaged – a lot or a little.

If you pull a muscle playing softball on the weekend, getting it healthy again isn’t hard. The first thing is don’t play softball for a while. Getting your damaged heart healthy again is more complicated. It can’t just stop pumping blood while it heals.

Biomedical engineers are working on a way to help your heart take it easy after a heart attack. It’s a device they call a direct cardiac compression device, or DCCD.
A DCCD is like an inflatable bag that fits around your heart and inflates and deflates as your heart beats. The bag inflates and presses in on your heart at the same time your heart contracts to pump blood. The extra pressure from the inflating bag means the heart muscles don’t have to work as hard to move blood through your veins and arteries.

For your heart, it’s like sitting on the bench instead of stepping up to the plate before your hamstring is healed.

Our heart feels fine, so we’ll wrap it up for today.


Long Distance Touching

June 8th, 2005 by dstmartin

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Here’s something the inventors of the internet never thought of – petting your chicken. We’ll take a look, today – on Engineering Works!

Computer scientists and engineers in Singapore have come up with a nifty system that you can use to pet your pet chicken without touching it with your fingers. Pretty neat, huh? Well, maybe.

Here’s how it works. Sensors in a life-sized statue of a chicken are linked with a wireless connection to a nearby PC. The PC uses another wireless connection to send what the sensors feel to a network of tiny vibrating motors in a sort of jacket that the chicken wears. The little motors transfer the pressure of your fingers to the chicken. We’re not sure what the chicken thinks about it, but the researchers are pretty excited. They see it as the first step in a whole new system of long-distance touching.

Before anybody starts snickering, they’re really not that interested in petting chickens – near or at a distance. They are interested in touching by long distance for other more practical reasons. Imagine a security guard silently directing a guard dog by long-distance touch, or a search-and-rescue operator directing a search dog by touch deep inside a wrecked building. Or how about learning how to dance by feeling the same motions in your legs as an expert dancer feels, or – you fill in the blank.

Uh-oh. I can feel it. Somebody’s messing with my chicken. Gotta go.


Radar Bees

June 1st, 2005 by dstmartin

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Radar tracks everything from aircraft in the sky to you when you’re speeding. Radar also tracks some unusual things. We’ll home in on one of them, today on Engineering Works!

People who study bees argue about the dances bees do. You’ve heard of them. Bees gathering pollen do a little dance when they find the pollen they use to make honey. Some experts say the dances tell other bees where the pollen is. Others say it’s just dancing. Everybody had an opinion, but nobody knew.

Engineers in England got together with bee researchers to figure out a way to use radar to track bees after they flew away from the hive after a bee did the honey dance. The engineers designed and built a tiny radar transponder that helps radar to see the tiny bees. The transponder is a micro antenna with a really small computer chip on it. The whole thing weighs about as much as a large grain of sand. When a radar signal hits the transponder, it sends out its own signal that the radar can pick up, just like an airliner flying from New York to Dallas.

It turns out that the bee dances do tell other bees where they can find the pollen. Dancing in a circle means it’s close – within 100 feet or so. A figure eight means it’s farther away. The bees read direction from angles in the dance.
It’s time for us to buzz out of here.