Archive for July, 2012

NASA

Stephen Hawking at a NASA conference

If you could read my mind

July 25th, 2012 by Gene
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Imagine being able to read Stephen Hawking’s mind. Scary thought, but it’s closer to reality than you might think. Technology to read Hawking’s thoughts. Or yours. Today, on Engineering Works!

Physicist Stephen Hawking’s mind has produced some of the most fascinating ideas of the recent past. The problem is getting those thoughts to the rest of us. Hawking has suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, most of his adult life. He communicates by twitching a muscle in his cheek. Conversation is difficult and time-consuming.

Now, Hawking is working with researchers who are developing a device that can detect electrical signals in the brain. These signals change with different thoughts and activities. For instance, the signal associated with – make a fist – are different from the signals that go with – pick up the pencil. One reason the device is so interesting is that it collects all the signals at one place. It doesn’t need an array of sensors scattered over the skull. A sophisticated computer algorithm tells the signals apart.

It’s going to be awhile before the device is ready to interpret Hawking’s ideas about time and space, but in the meantime, Hawking and its developers hope it can help people with ALS and other neurological conditions communicate better than they now can. Similar monitors are being used in brain research and monitoring how some medications work.

We’re through trying to communicate for today, so we’re shutting down our device. See you next time.

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

http://engineeringworks.tamu.edu

Start the discussion: Often, devices such as this are associated with invasions of our mental privacy. But imagine what a gift it would be to allow people like Hawking to communicate more readily.

For more:

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/03/science/ibrain-a-device-that-can-read-thoughts.html

http://www.theatlanticwire.com/technology/2012/04/device-can-almost-read-your-mind/50666/

Department of Defense

Department of Defense

Break out the ray guns

July 18th, 2012 by Gene
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Looks like it’s time to break out the popcorn and malted milk balls. 1950s science fiction is coming to life. Real-life ray guns. Today, on Engineering Works!

Ray guns were staples of science fiction long before Captain Kirk’s phaser or Han Solo’s laser pistol. The first ray gun appeared in H.G. Wells’ War of The Worlds in 1898, and they’ve been with us ever since. Even pioneering physicist and engineer Nikola Tesla tried to develop a directed energy weapon, big words for a ray gun. But it didn’t work.

Now fiction is turning into fact. The Army has been field-testing a real-life ray gun. This one is kind of clunky compared to Captain Kirk’s phaser, but it – is – real. Prototypes were deployed in Afghanistan but never used in combat. The ray gun, known officially as an “active denial system” uses a beam of electromagnetic energy to make people it hits so uncomfortable that they run away. But it’s designed to be non-lethal it won’t kill you.

The active denial system’s energy beam is sort of like the energy that heats your lunch in a microwave. But a microwave can really hurt you. This one won’t, because the beam has a frequency much different from a microwave. It’s so slow that it can only penetrate your skin about 1/64 of an inch. Enough to hurt but not to do damage.

It’s time to get out of here before somebody turns a beam on us. 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.

http://engineeringworks.tamu.edu

Start the discussion: Some ideas sound pretty silly until you look into them a bit. This is one of them. A weapon that keeps people away without hurting them. Neat, if it works.

For more:

http://phys.org/news/2012-03-military-unveils-non-lethal-ray-weapon.html

http://esciencenews.com/sources/physorg/2012/03/11/us.military.unveils.non.lethal.heat.ray.weapon

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raygun

Federal Highway Administration

Federal Highway Administration

Bridging the divide

July 11th, 2012 by Gene
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Replacing a highway bridge, even a small one, is a big deal. Engineers have figured out how to turn that big deal into a small deal, or at least a quick one. A new bridge by morning, almost. Today, on Engineering Works!

Bridges carry traffic over something that’s in the way. A river. A valley. San Francisco Bay. Closing a bridge for months or even years while we build a new one is more than an inconvenience. It costs money.

Now engineers have put together a package of technologies and building techniques they call, accelerated bridge construction, that turns replacing a bridge from a long-term disruption to almost an overnight interlude.

For instance, small bridges, like many that carry urban streets over streams or other streets, can be assembled somewhere else and moved to the site in one piece, like picking up Legos and putting them down somewhere else. Engineers in Boston did this a while ago between Friday night and Sunday afternoon. They hauled in the new bridge, all 400 tons of it, and set it into place with cranes.

On the other end of the scale, engineers are replacing decking on the Golden Gate Bridge in 25-foot-wide prefabricated sections. The bridge keeps carrying traffic with the smallest of traffic disruption. Engineers in Massachusetts replaced 14 bridges on an interstate highway in 10 weekends. No sweat.

We’ve come to the end of our bridge for today and it’s time to pull over. 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.

http://engineeringworks.tamu.edu

Start the discussion: We don’t think about bridges very often unless one we use is closed. Then we think about it a lot. This kind of construction can take a lot of the inconvenience out of keeping infrastructure up to date.

For more:

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/18/us/rapid-construction-techniques-transform-infrastructure-repair.html?_r=1&ref=science

http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/bridge/abc/index.cfm

http://www.structuremag.org/article.aspx?articleID=365

Andrew Bowden/Flickr.com

Andrew Bowden/Flickr.com

Birth of the couch potato?

July 4th, 2012 by Gene
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Some people say it’s where the obesity epidemic got its start. Could be. The remote control. Today, on Engineering Works!

It’s hard to imagine life these days without the remote control. They’re everywhere. TV. Stereo player. Video games. Car door opener. Even your alarm clock can be silenced by remote control. Some curmudgeons even blame the TV remote control for turning generations of teen-agers into couch potatoes.

The idea of controlling machines at a distance has been around for more than 100 years. Physicist Nikola Tesla patented a radio remote control in 1898. He used it to steer a model boat in New York’s Madison Square Garden that same year. The first remote-controlled model airplane flew in 1932.

By the late 1930s, several high-end radio receivers could be tuned by remote control and the first television to use a remote to change channels went on the market in 1950.

Most home remote controls today use invisible infrared light to send commands. The light comes from a small light-emitting-diode, or LED, on the remote unit. The LED sends a coded pulse of light to a receiver on your TV. The receiver reads the code – power on. Go up one channel. Power off — and passes it to a microprocessor that carries out the command.

Newer remote controls respond to motion, such as a wave of your hand, or voice commands.

We’re going to push our remote control and end it for today. 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.

http://engineeringworks.tamu.edu

Start the discussion: It’s easy to chuckle and agree that the TV remote control is responsible for today’s lack of fitness, but remote controls can be helpful and practical. What are some practical remote control applications? Let us know.

For more:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Remote_control