Archive for July, 2006

Paper Airplanes

July 26th, 2006 by Gene
Paper Airplane

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We’ve all played with paper airplanes. It’s fun. But some folks are playing with serious paper airplanes. Smart ones. We’ll take a look, today on Engineering Works!

Some people are really into paper airplanes. The world record for a level paper airplane flight is more than 20 seconds. If that doesn’t sound like very long, try it sometime.

Paper airplanes some engineers are thinking about could make that 20-second flight seem like the blink of an eye. The new airplanes are made of what’s called electroactive paper. Electroactive paper starts out like the paper $10 bills are printed on. With carbon nanotubes added for strength — and a thin layer of gold on each side.

The gold layers conduct electricity and things get really interesting when you apply that electricity. The paper bends — a lot. You can see where this is going — a paper airplane that flies by flapping its wings. An airplane like that could stay in the air a long time — hours, probably. The engineers who came up with the new paper – at Texas A&M University and a university in Korea – say airplanes built from it could be a lot more than a toy.

They could carry miniaturized surveillance equipment. It’d be cheap. A swarm of them could be the eyes and ears of a surveillance network. The possibilities go on forever.

We’ve used up our possibilities for this time, so we’ll flap on out of here. See you next time.



July 19th, 2006 by Gene

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Let’s talk about numbers and information — ones and zeros: digital information. Stick around. Today, on Engineering Works!

Computers are supposed to help us handle the masses of information we need to live in these digital times. And they do. But it’s not that simple.

Here are some numbers to think about while you listen. Around the world, we produce enough new digital information to fill the Library of Congress every 15 minutes. Over a year, that’s five exabytes. Five billion gigabytes. Five quintillion bytes. And you thought your new hard drive was big.

These are impressive numbers, and computer engineers and information specialists worry about them. Not because they’re big. Because of what can happen to them.

When information is stored on paper, it takes a lot to damage it so badly that you can’t read it. And the same operating system – your eyes and brain – will be able to read it a hundred years from now. Computers aren’t like that. Operating systems and formats change so fast it’s hard to keep up. Try opening a word processing document typed into a computer just 20 years ago. Good luck. A lot of early digital information is just gone. And it’s easy to damage digital information beyond recovery. In an instant.

Engineers and info specialists say we need to start planning for preserving digital information so it’ll be safe and we can read it, far into the future.

Our numbers are all turning into zeros. We’ll see you next time.


Autonomous Lawnmower

July 12th, 2006 by Gene

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Be honest. Nobody likes to cut the grass. But what if your lawnmower did the lawn by itself? We’ll take a look. Today, on Engineering Works!

Everybody likes their lawn to be green and neat. But if your lawn is a big one, you can spend hours keeping the grass trimmed to the height you like. Not fun.

Engineers don’t like to spend time following a lawnmower around the yard any more than we do. So they figured out a way not to.

Enter the robot lawnmower. We’re not kidding — a lawnmower that starts up by itself, mows the lawn and goes back to where it lives. All by itself, once you’ve set it up. It’s not especially complicated — no electronic maps of your yard, no GPS receivers. Just a grass-level antenna and a receiver that keeps track of where the mower is in relation to that antenna. And the ability to follow a pattern it’s cut before.

Robot lawnmowers are electric, so they’re quiet. And since you’re not watching where the mower is going, you could program one to mow your yard while you sleep, if you wanted to.

They’re not cheap. Robot mowers run about $1,500 each. But some people are willing to pay a lot for the extra time they’ll gain from not having to mow their lawns each weekend.

Our lawn is getting shaggy and the only robot pushing our mower is us. See you next time.



July 5th, 2006 by Gene

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What would the Fourth of July be without fireworks? Today, we’ll ooh! and ahh! over those spectacular aerial displays, on Engineering Works.

From pom-pom bursts to sparkling flares, there’s nothing like fireworks to captivate a crowd. For centuries, we’ve celebrated royal weddings, baptisms and other special events with lavish productions that light up the night sky. Today fireworks shows set to music have become big entertainment spectacles for sports events, theme parks and holidays.

Your basic firework is a shell, filled with explosive powder and stars – pellets made of metallic salts and other chemicals. The pellets make the shape, and the chemicals in the pellets make the colors. When the powder ignites and bursts – anywhere from 400 to 1,000 feet up – the explosion pushes out the stars. Then the stars themselves explode into the shapes that draw oohs and ahhs – a glittering ring, a weeping willow, a starburst. The pattern you get depends on how you arrange the stars in the shell.

Thanks to advances by experts in pyrotechnics – “fire artâ€? – fireworks get fancier every year. Instead of lighting them by hand, technicians switch on an electric current. They use computers to control the timing of music and fireworks to create displays that seem impossible. With such excitement, it’s enough to keep all eyes on the fireworks show at the Super Bowl unless there’s another … wardrobe malfunction.