The Engineer’s Top 10 Technologies of 2011

Senior reporter

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 4×4, 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.

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.