We run down the most amazing, interesting and unbelievable technology stories of the year.
The Engineer's top ten technologies of 2013
Trying to assess a technology’s potential impact is a difficult and risky game. The most astounding looking invention may find little takeup in the real world or encounter major operational inefficiencies, while something seemingly dull or conventional like an electronic component can gradually have a transformative effect on the world.
With that in mind, compiling The Engineer’s top 10 technology stories of the year becomes as much about what developments have made us laugh, shake our heads in disbelief or that we’ve spent hours poring over, as what we think have been the most important inventions.
So the following are our favourite stories of the year, but what have been yours? Have we missed anything that you think will make a huge contribution to the way we live in years to come. What did you most enjoy reading?
2013 was a big year for The Engineer with the return of our regular printed magazine, our move into podcasting and the launch of our conference, and next year promises to be even more exciting with the first Engineer Design & Innovation Show, as well as couple of other ideas we have in the pipeline.
In the meantime, we’d like to wish all our readers a very merry Christmas and happy New Year.
Creating a truly autonomous vehicle probably won’t come with a single major breakthrough; it’s more of an evolutionary process. But even though we have yet to see a self-driving car come onto the market, 2013 felt like a year in which the prospect of one has come tantalisingly close. Major car firms have been testing prototypes on European roads while various elements of autonomous technologies (sense-and-avoid, self-parking) have been filtering their way into road-worthy models. As long as appropriate legislation can be put in place quickly, it seems likely that we could very soon be living in a world where the cars drive us.
As with self-driving cars, technology that enables us to control machines is being developed incrementally. But this year saw a big breakthrough for its use in this country when a soldier became the first UK citizen to receive a robotic arm linked directly to his brain. This has the potential to make a huge contribution to the quality of life of prostheses wearers, though it also begins to start a slightly scary new debate on upgraded human cyborgs.
2013 saw the hype around 3D printing ramp up almost exponentially. Much of it was centred around the first known production of a 3D-printed gun (http://www.theengineer.co.uk/opinion/comment/a-shot-across-the-bows-for-3d-printing/1016229.article), but the reality was that the technology had existed to do this for years – it just took someone in the US with enough of an interest in enabling lots of people to have firearms to build one. A much more interesting 3D printing story was a project to create buildings on the Moon from the dust on its surface.
The world of consumer electronics can sometimes experience genuine revolutions. This year’s big new trend of so-called smart watches turned out not to be one of them. A better design might still change this and the likes of Google Glass and other wearable electronics probably will make a big impact, but in 2013 we got much more excited by a new way of interacting with computers. Microsoft Kinect and Leap Motion have already brought us gesture-based interfaces but researchers at Bristol University have added a new dimension known as Ultrahaptics where users can ‘feel’ a screen without touching it by sending vibrations through the air to their hand.
It’s not only cars that are becoming autonomous. We’re actually at the start of an age where some of the things we build – electronics, satellites even artificial materials – actually build themselves. This year saw an array of development in self-assembly from the nano to the macro scale, and even the creation of the idea of 4D-printing, where additive manufactured items change their structure over time.
There was a fantastic reaction to our story on a new non-lethal weapon that uses radio waves to disable the electronic systems in car engines from up to 50m. There was plenty of scepticism that it would ever become commercially available but also quite a few entertaining suggestions of what it might be used for.
Another story that created quite a lot of disbelief and excitement was the proposals by Paypal billionaire and Space X founder Elon Musk for a solar-powered vacuum tube train. Given that Musk has indicated he doesn’t have time to push the project forward it looks unlikely to ever be built, but that hasn’t prevented speculation and debate on the future of mass transport.
Electric cars have some way to go before they become commonplace, but several big projects are hopefully helping to dispel some of the myths about them. One was Elon Musk’s other project, Tesla Motors, which began selling its electric super car in the UK this year. The other is the electric racing series Formula E, which has unveiled its first car in advance of the competition’s launch next year. It’s an incredible piece of largely British engineering, although neither it nor Tesla can do anything about the big sticking point of electric cars – their big price tag.
One of our previous top ten lists featured 3D-printed organs and the potential for growing biological medical implants is an exciting one. But another route may provide an even better alternative to the current transplant system combining the best of nature with added human engineering through devices that we’ve deemed cyborgans.
Possibly the most outlandish idea we’ve encountered this year, this 1km-tall inflatable tower designed to generate electricity by channelling air heated by the sun through turbines is probably not going to solve all our energy needs. But it certainly deserves a prize for being one of the most creative solutions.