Archive for January, 2010

Cyborgs, for real

January 27th, 2010 by Gene

If you liked Ahnald in the Terminator movies, you’re going to love this one. Cyborgs. Cyborg beetles, that is. Today, on Engineering Works!

When you saw the Terminator movies or Star Trek, you know that mixing up computers and humans is standard stuff in science fiction. But now, engineers are doing the next best thing. Computers and insects. Beetles.

They’re putting electrodes into the nervous systems of immature beetles. When the beetles grow up, they add a tiny battery and a computer microcontroller. The whole assembly can be connected to a laptop computer through a wireless link. And they’re ready to go.

Flying a beetle is pretty straightforward. A joystick attached to the computer can send an electric current into any of the electrodes. If the operator, pilot?, wants the beetle to fly to the right, an electric pulse to the left-side electrode gets the muscles on that side working a little harder and the beetle makes a right turn. You get the idea.

The Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, is paying for the research. It’s not clear exactly what the Pentagon wants radio-controlled beetles for, but we can make some guesses. They’re also looking into flies, moths and dragonflies. Other researchers say the cyborg beetles are a good way to learn more about the dynamics of flight.

The beetle we’re watching is getting ready to head out the door, so we better be close behind. See you next time.

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.

Hybrids on the construction site

January 20th, 2010 by Gene

When you drive down the street, you see hybrid automobiles every day. But how about a hybrid bulldozer? Big iron. Today, on Engineering Works!

Hybrid automobiles have been around for quite a while. Honda introduced the first gasoline-electric hybrid to the United States in 1999. In 2004, Toyota started selling the Prius and Ford’s Escape hybrid S-U-V came on the market. Now, it seems like everybody’s got a hybrid. Even Cadillac and Mercedes-Benz.

Everybody sees why driving a hybrid makes sense, mostly great gas mileage. Some, more than 50 miles per gallon. And then there’s the hybrid bulldozer. Yep, bulldozer. You know, the big yellow machines that push dirt around construction sites. Caterpillar has brought out a hybrid bulldozer, a diesel-electric version of its D7 dozer.

It’s the first one, and it seems to do the same for dozers that the Prius and its automotive brethren do for automobiles. The D7E, for electric, dozer offers better fuel economy than its non-hybrid counterpart. Between 25 and 30 percent better. And it’s quieter. None of this comes for free, of course. Like automobiles, the hybrid dozer is more expensive than standard diesel dozers. About 20-percent more expensive than a comparable D7 diesel. The contractor that bought the first one says he’s happy with the way the hybrid dozer performs, and he expects it to pay for itself in less than three years.

Our dozer is at the door and we’re out of here. See you next time.

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.

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Hyperspace travel?

January 13th, 2010 by Gene

We’re going to step into the middle of a nifty science and engineering controversy. Today. On Engineering Works!

If you’ve ever taken a physics course, you know that nothing can go faster than the speed of light. A hundred-86-thousand miles a second. Seven-hundred – million – miles an hour. Everything physicists know says you can’t go faster. But some physicists and engineers think they can do an end run around the speed-of-light limit.

They say that ideas developed about 50 years ago by a German scientist named Burkhard Heim suggest that we could use a very strong magnetic field to push spacecraft into another dimension. A dimension where the physical laws that make the speed of light as fast as anything can go, don’t exist.

The idea sounds like science fiction. And a lot of top physicists say that’s all it is. But if it’s real, it could mean traveling to Mars in three hours or to a nearby star in three months. The interesting part is that the Department of Energy has a device – the Z-machine – that could produce the kind of ultra-powerful magnetic field we’d need to see if the idea might work. If it does, researchers could be testing a working engine in five years.

Even if everything turns out the way the visionaries think it will, it’ll be a long time before you can buy a ticket for a day trip to Mars.

So, beam us up, Scotty. We’re through here for now.

EngineeringWorks! is made possible by Texas A&M Engineering and produced by KAMU-FM in College Station. We’re on the World Wide Web, too.

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Saving energy Italian style

January 6th, 2010 by Gene


Say Italy, and most people think of fashion, fast cars and spaghetti. Maybe we should be thinking of something else. Saving energy. Today, on Engineering Works! Just about everywhere in the industrialized world, people are looking for ways to save energy. Especially electricity. So far, Italy seems to be ahead in developing an electrical grid that manages electricity efficiently. A smart grid. The key to the Italian smart grid is a new kind of electric meter. A smart meter. The smart meter tells the electric company how much electricity you’re using, right now, and tells you how much the electricity you’re using, right now, costs. This helps the company run its generators efficiently and lets you decide when to do activities that use a lot of electricity, maybe at times when rates are cheaper. More than eight in 10 Italian homes have smart meters, and they work. Power engineers estimate that using the new meters saves Italy’s largest electric company seven-hundred-50-million-dollars a year and cuts customers’ energy bills by as much as half. One of the little but important things about the new meters is that they’re installed inside the house, where you can see them easily, instead of outside, where you can’t. Might there be a smart meter in your future? We can’t say, but electric companies in Florida and California have visited to take a look. Our smart meter says it’s time to hit the switch. See you next time. 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.