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The Engineer's Top 10 Technologies of 2011

Christmas brings an inevitable reflection on the year gone and what the future may hold for us. With that in mind, it’s time for The Engineer’s roundup of the year’s best technology stories, our pick of the most groundbreaking, influential or exciting developments in engineering over the last 12 months.

The most popular story of the year is among them and dates right back to January. But the article that received the most readers’ comments on our website all year – indeed in the history of The Engineer website – was our blog on the now infamous decision by Lord Alan Sugar to fire a candidate on The Apprentice TV show because, in Lord Sugar’s experience, engineers can’t turn their hands to business.

A cascade of comments followed, mostly in defence of engineers but some showing sympathy for Lord Sugar’s views, sparking an important debate on the importance of business skills among the engineering community at a time when the country is desperate to expand its manufacturing base. Things later took an even more interesting twist, however, when another engineer candidate won the series.

For The Engineer, 2011 was also an exciting year because it saw the launch of our new video reports. The most popular by far has been this feature on the new Wildcat military 4x4, which features myself looking slightly terrified as I’m driven around some bumpy terrain at high speeds.

But the following stories (in no particular order) have been our favourites, either because they have the biggest potential to impact the world or were the most fun to report on and read about.

1. Bee-based security scanners

Our story about handheld devices that can detect airborne molecules from drugs or weapons using live bees and their amazing sense of smell is possibly one of the most incredible The Engineer has ever reported on.

The technology from British firm Inscentinel provides an alternative to invasive body scanners at airports to make use of nature’s superior engineering while eliminating the human-animal relationship that can distract sniffer dogs.

2. Liquid air energy storage

Using liquid air or nitrogen as an energy carrier, either to store electricity or as a vehicle fuel, isn’t a new idea, but creating a viable and efficient commercial technology to do this has been an elusive goal for many years.

UK-based Highview Power Storage has now demonstrated its cryogenic system which could provide a vital piece in the puzzle of building a functioning renewable energy infrastructure – and so impressed the judges at this year’s Engineer awards that the company walked away with the Grand Prix.

Sister firm The Dearman Engine Company is hoping the same technology could create an alternative to hydrogen, batteries or other low-carbon vehicle drives with greater efficiency than has ever been achieved before.

3. Energy-autonomous robots

We’ve had some cracking robotics stories in The Engineer this year, from machines that can recognise and respond to human emotions to this fantastic creation that can play catch.

But one of the most remarkable developments came in the form of a project from Bristol University to build robots that collect organic matter ­–in the form of either liquid sewage or flies – to power a microbial fuel cell that provides the robot with its own energy source.

It will be a some time before this technology filters through to robots operating in the real world but cracking energy autonomy will meet one of the biggest challenges in the robotics world today – even if it does raise some slightly frightening possibilities of robots roaming the planet free of human dependence.

4. Military vehicle ‘invisibility cloak’

There’s plenty of research going on around the world into manipulating light waves to make tiny objects effectively invisible but we’re a long way off this being put to use in any practical sense.

However BAE Systems have come up with an alternative that can camouflage military vehicles or make them disappear completely, at least from infrared sensors.

The scalable system uses individually controlled heat tiles to mask the heat signature of a vehicle or make it appear like something else entirely.

5. Engineer invents his own life-saving heart implant

This was the most popular story on our website all year: the amazing story of the man who invented a heart implant to save his own life and that is now giving hope to thousands of sufferers of Marfan syndrome.

Engineer Tal Golesworthy created a simple device to prevent his aorta rupturing that removed the need for more complicated surgery and a lifetime on blood-thinning drugs.

The emotional responses we received from sufferers and their family members on this story highlighted how important a development this was. And the impressive engineering behind the Exstent device was recognised with an Engineer award in the medical and healthcare category.

6. Natural language computer interfaces

One of the biggest consumer technology stories of the year was, as we’ve become accustomed to, for an Apple product: the iPhone 4S with its Siri voice recognition and control software.

Like most groundbreaking Apple products, the company itself didn’t invent the technology but packaged and marketed it in a way that made it more user friendly and attention-grabbing than ever before.

However, another important development went in a similar area received much less press coverage. Southampton University has developed a way to talk directly to computers without the need for complex code or programming language using a system brain or ‘sysbrain’.

This means it can understand and interpret technical documents written in English. Designed for operating autonomous spacecraft and satellites, its creators say it could even lead to household robots that can easily be reprogrammed by their owners.

7. Airship cruiser

One of the more outlandish plans we’ve reported on this year was the idea for a huge airship cruiser that stays almost permanently in the air and transports goods and people around the world.

The EU-funded international research project envisages smaller feeder airships ferrying cargo and passengers to and from the high-altitude cruiser to reduce the noise and emissions associated with the current global transport system, as well as infrastructure costs.

8. Contact lens display

We’re rarely out of sight of a screen today thanks to the proliferation of smartphones, LCD advertising and other gadgets. But what if you could have your own private display right in front of your eyes?

The contact lens display has been in the works for a few years now but 2011 saw the first test of a working model – displaying a single pixel of light – on a live animal.

Some might see it as a dystopian nightmare, others as the future of computer interfacing, but seeing the world through augmented reality is now a real possibility.


Proposed contact lens display: 1) multi-pixel LED chip, 2) power-harvesting/control circuitry, 3), antenna, 4) interconnects, 5) transparent polymer lens, 6) image projection

9. Autonomous space factories

Space travel is expensive and difficult, even if you’re not sending people into orbit. One way to simplify our exploits could be robotic factories in space that manufacture equipment without human intervention.

An idea that’s literally out of this world it may be, but UK research firm Magna Parva are seriously exploring the possibility.

And if the idea proves successful, it could one day even lead to an orbiting launch pad for manned missions to Mars.

10. Robotic octopus

Animal robots have been quite the rage this year, but one of the most eye-catching stories was a project from Reading University to develop a robotic octopus that could be used for underwater maintenance and salvage.

The idea is to mimic the octopus’s joint-free muscular system that gives it supreme freedom of movement, enabling it to reach places that rigid devices could never squeeze into.

Readers' comments (2)

  • Set the bees free and work on eliminating reasons terrorists can be recruited -- England has the prize for contributing most to inequities across the Arabian & Indian worlds.

    Then set to work on eliminating the absurd financial dangers created by the banking system to which London is very dedicated.

    We engineers need to spend more time holding business & political twits responsible for their foolery. Then we can go off & play with technology.

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  • The bees story is truly amazing. Everyone in my office was convinced it was an early April Fool, but no! Two years on and I am still sharing it. Fascinating stuff, and I think, my favourite ever photo - of the bees seemingly at work at their desks. I hope they get into the garden on breaks...

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