The Engineer's Top 10 Technologies of 2010
The rapid pace of new technology is part of what makes writing for The Engineer so fascinating.
But with so many ideas and inventions appearing every week, it’s sometimes difficult to maintain perspective on which are the most groundbreaking, influential or exciting.
So for our last blog of the year we thought we’d look back at the last 12 months and pick our favourite new technology stories.
These are the developments that have the biggest potential to change our society, or at least attract the most attention.
As for which story has been the most popular on our website, that honour surprisingly goes to our coverage of a new gear-changing system for downhill mountain bikes.
And the article that’s generated the most comment from our readers? Perhaps less surprisingly, it’s this editorial on the UK’s supposed engineering skills shortage.
In full then, The Engineer’s Top 10 Technologies of 2010:
1. Printed body parts
Additive manufacturing – creating products and components using 3D printers – is revolutionising industry, and The Engineer has covered it in some depth this year.
But if you want to see the jaw drop on your non-technical friends then tell them that doctors may soon be able to print organs on demand.
Tens of thousands of chopped up organic cells form a special bio ink that’s used to create soft-tissue implants layer by layer. Goodbye donor cards, hello millions of saved lives.
2. Wireless electric car charging
So-called range anxiety (worrying you won’t have enough power to reach your destination) is a big problem for electric car manufacturers.
But what if your car was constantly charging as it drove, not from mechanical motion but from special pads installed in the road?
Although this idea is decades away, a New Zealand company has already begun gearing up to launch a wireless charging system that uses magnetic induction to abolish plugs and cables.
3. UK space plane
Nothing captures the imagination quite like space travel, but visiting other planets just yet is out of the question, even for NASA.
A small team of British engineers is hoping to change that with designs for Skylon, a commercial spaceplane that could become the first craft to break away from the Earth and return without jettisoning any payload.
At a projected cost of $10m (£6.4m) per flight, it’s unlikely easyJet is going to start operating a service (easyRocket?). But it could make a trip to Mars or nearby asteroids much more feasible for commercial companies.
4. The iPad
You’re probably sick of hearing about it by now and maybe you still can’t see the point of it, but the iPad has set the template for a whole new style of personal computing.
The wave of tablet computers that has followed Apple’s latest gadget is carrying out the impressive feat of making our society look more like a science-fiction future while seeming like the natural next step.
5. Brain implants for the paralysed
Technology that enables computers to bypass traditional interfaces and directly read your thoughts might sound scary to most people, but to those who cannot move their bodies it could mean a whole new lease of life.
British-based scientists are working on a wireless brain implant that could bypass users’ damaged nervous systems in order to control robotic devices placed on their limbs.
6. Glasses-free 3D screens
While Avatar may be the highest-grossing film of all time, that doesn’t mean 3D glasses aren’t an annoying distraction at the cinema. But important steps towards glasses-free 3D screens have been made this year.
Microsoft is among the companies working on a TV that beams 3D images directly into viewers’ eyes, while The Engineer was lucky enough to try out first-hand the fantastic image quality of the Nintendo 3DS hand-held console.
It doesn’t yet work for a whole room of people but at least we won’t all be sat in our living rooms with ridiculous eyewear.
7. Britain’s new stealth fighter
The unveiling of the UK’s prototype unmanned combat aircraft, Taranis, was a bit like one of those movie-based immersive theme-park rides.
Dramatic music, flashing lights, smoke machines running on overdrive – I half-expected our seats to start shaking and the craft to rise up and start firing lasers at us.
Of course the Ministry of Defence has given away very few details of what could become its first autonomous stealth fighter/bomber, but just seeing its eerie glow and angular outline from afar was enough to shock and awe in equal measure.
8. Self-repairing solar cells
Those in the robotics world are very interested in the potential market for robots that scurry around cleaning solar panels, reducing the need for human maintenance in harsh desert environments (or climbing onto your roof).
But researchers at MIT in the US have gone one step better and created an organic solar cell that constantly repairs itself against sun damage with self-assembling molecules.
Although we’ve covered many interesting developments in the solar-energy field this year, including printed panels, spray-on cells and window generators, self-repairing technology has to be the most impressive.
9. Hands-free computer control
Brain-reading technology isn’t yet ready for home use but Microsoft has completed the impressive feat of removing games-console controllers and putting users in command with just their voice and movement.
As well as beating the iPad to the title of this year’s coolest gadget, Kinect is already inspiring technology outside the games world and could help with the rehabilitation of stroke victims.
10. Flying car
Ok, so we’re probably not going to see motorways in the sky but the Terrafugia deserves a mention for creating the most references to classic futuristic cartoon The Jetsons at The Engineer towers this year.
A mere $194,000 (£129,0000) will give you the ability to skip all those nasty traffic jams and take to the sky, if you can find half a kilometre of road to take off from in the first place.
It doesn’t fold up into a briefcase, though.