Archive for January, 2009

Crash barriers

January 29th, 2009 by Gene
 

Photo courtesy Andy Shaffer/stock.xchng/

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Today, we’re going to get into the zone – the construction zone – on Engineering Works.

Everybody likes a smooth commute. Nobody likes to see traffic backing up for a construction zone. Even when construction crews are busy repairing or improving roads and streets, we still need to get the kids off to school and get to work ourselves. But it seems like everywhere we drive these days, we run into highway construction.

Well, not exactly. Engineers spend a lot of time and trouble making sure we don’t run into the construction. Portable concrete barriers are one way to keep traffic moving alongside the jackhammers and asphalt spreaders and protect construction workers from wayward vehicles.

For years, these concrete barriers were 32 inches high – about the height of your desk, at work. These barriers worked well for one-way traffic through the work zone. But when you added oncoming traffic, the number of crashes went up.

Here’s why. When the traffic is two-way, drivers pulling out of side roads and driveways couldn’t see over the 32-inch-high barriers. And at night, oncoming headlights were hard to see.

Engineers at the Texas Transportation Institute found that shorter concrete barriers could still do the job. They developed a low-profile design – only 20 inches tall. The shorter height makes oncoming and cross traffic easier to see. The result? Fewer construction zone crashes.

That’s the end of the road for today. See you on down the highway.

EngineeringWorks! is made possible by Texas A&M Engineering and produced by KAMU-FM in College Station. Learn more about engineering. Visit us on the World Wide Web. Engineeringworks.tamu.edu.

Engineering Earth

January 22nd, 2009 by Gene
 

Photo courtesy Patrick Moore/stock.xchng/

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Engineers have always been willing to think big. We’ll look at one of the biggest ideas ever. Today, on Engineering Works!

Big problems often need big ideas to fix them. Probably the biggest problem facing us today is global warming. And engineers around the world are thinking of some really big ways to deal with it. Like re-engineering the earth to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Science fiction writers have written for years about re-engineering, or terraforming, Mars and Venus so people could live there. That’s fiction. The engineers are serious about the stuff they think we might try here on Earth. Here’s a sample.

How about fertilizing the oceans with iron? Some scientists think more iron in the ocean could lead to more plankton. More plankton might take a lot of the carbon dioxide out of the air. That might slow or stop global warming.

A really science-fiction-sounding idea is to use high-powered lasers and radio waves to spin carbon dioxide out into space from over the South Pole. Or how about spraying clouds with seawater so they’d reflect the sun’s heat away from Earth.

Most of the other ideas sound pretty goofy, too. Some might actually work. But there’s no way to tell from here. Or what else might happen that we wouldn’t like.

Oh, well. At least they’re thinking about it.
We’ve used up our supply of good ideas for the day and we’re through. See you later.

EngineeringWorks! is made possible by Texas A&M Engineering and produced by KAMU-FM in College Station. Learn more about engineering. Visit us on the World Wide Web. Engineeringworks.tamu.edu.

Slinky

January 13th, 2009 by Gene
 

Photo: www.stock.xchng.com

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Listen close. If you’re a kid, or you’ve ever been one, chances are you know what this sound belongs to. Do you know? We’ll find out if you’re right, today on Engineering Works!!

Did you guess? You’re right, of course. It’s that silly engineering marvel, the Slinky.

The toy generations of kids know as the Slinky was born by accident on a U-S Navy ship during World War II. Naval engineer Richard James was trying to design a way to use springs to insulate fragile shipboard instruments from shocks and vibration. He got the idea for the Slinky when one of his experimental springs walked off a shelf and down onto the deck. As it turned out, the Navy never used James’ idea. But when he got home after the war, he and his wife perfected the steel ribbon spring toy we all know today.

The Slinky was an instant success. The Jameses sold their first four-hundred Slinkys within an hour and a half of when they offered the springy toys for sale.

Most of us still think of Slinkys as toys. But they have their serious side, too. The springy steel spirals have been used to build everything from radio antennas to light fixtures and pecan pickers. Physics teachers use them in class to demonstrate cool stuff like – wave properties – forces – and – energy states.

The Slinky has even made it to the big screen, in the “Toy Story” movie series.

Time’s up. It’s time for us to slink away.

Engineering Works! is made possible by Texas A&M Engineering and produced by KAMU-FMin College Station. Learn more about engineering. Visit us on the World Wide Web. Engineeringworks.tamu.edu

UAVs

January 6th, 2009 by Gene
 

Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force

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They’re the ultimate in radio-controlled model airplanes. UAVs. Today on Engineering Works!

Almost everyone played with model airplanes when they were kids. Powered by wound-up rubber bands or tiny gasoline engines. Some of our friends really got into it and flew them by radio control. UAVs, or unmanned aerial vehicles, are the ultimate radio-controlled airplane. They’re powered by engines like snow mobiles, and they navigate with autopilots and GPS and look around with video cameras and advanced radar. Some can stay up in the air for 24 hours at a time.

UAVs look a lot different from the model airplanes we flew as kids. Not too surprisingly, they’re a lot bigger. Some are 30 feet long and have wings almost 50 feet across. The military uses UAVs a lot in the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Technicians flew the little aircraft into inaccessible areas to find enemy troop concentrations and guide coalition troops to their locations.
UAVs also have launched missiles at terrorists. UAVs are important to the military because they can watch or attack enemy troops without risking a live pilot. We’re still a ways from being able to replace manned military aircraft with UAVs, but that’s where planners are headed. They also can be used to patrol borders and conduct research.

It’s time to fire up our UAV and fly on out of here. We’ll talk to you later.

Engineering Works! is made possible by Texas A&M Engineering and produced by KAMU-FM in College Station. Learn more about engineering. Visit us on the World Wide Web. Engineeringworks.tamu.edu.