The 8 most fantabulous engineering contraptions of 2014

24 Dec 2014

This year, a number of projects went from childhood fantasy to adulthood reality, including speedy robots, 3D-printed food, and even a real-life Transformer. We look at eight feats of engineering that shaped 2014.

1. Ian, the karate-fighting robot

When we think of who is leading the latest technology in robots, a company that has become synonymous with everything two and four-legged is Boston Dynamics. The company has developed a number of mechanical creations, particularly for use in military operations assisting ground forces, which is why internet search giant Google purchased the firm in December 2013.

However, in November this year, Boston Dynamics showed off a slightly less-terrifying robot, Ian the ‘Karate Kid’ robot, which was able to balance with ease on one leg.

The 6-foot robot, with his ‘Iron Man-like’ glowing energy chest was able to perform his crane stance, just like LaRusso in the classic kids’ film.

It’s now just a matter of time before karate Terminators …

2. Robot exosuit lets man kick football during World Cup

Despite the event itself being mired in controversy and protests from the local Brazilian population, the 2014 FIFA World Cup saw one shining moment when a Brazilian man, who, despite being a paraplegic, kicked the first ball at the opening ceremony.

With the help of an exosuit developed by Miguel Nicolelis, a neuroengineer based at Duke University in North Carolina, 29-year-old Juliano Pinto showed what the power of neuroscience and engineering could achieve.

While still in early development, exoskeletons could one day enable people who do not have control of their lower body to walk freely.

Prior to the World Cup, Nicolelis had this to say about the development of his exosuit: “All of the innovations we’re putting together for this exoskeleton have in mind the goal of transforming it into something that can be used by patients who suffer from a variety of diseases and injuries that cause paralysis.”

3. Student engineer creates life-saving Medi-Pod for battlefield drones

Engineering student James King from Cork Institute of Technology (CIT) has proposed building a transportation device for drones that could do a lot more than capture cool footage or deliver your new hairdryer.

As the winning entry at 2014’s Innovative Student Engineer of the Year Awards, King’s Medi-Pod has been designed to deliver critical medical supplies over long distances and to remote, inaccessible, natural disaster or war-torn areas via aerial drone.

While the drone market is ever-developing, and has been used for a number of years in the military, there has never been, until now, a drone performing a humanitarian function. Medi-Pod could potentially save a significant number of lives if successful.

Following his success, King entered his concept in the James Dyson Awards, where he cited research showing that 88.9pc of deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan amongst US troops occurred before the injured reached a medical facility. Of the 4,090 troops who suffered mortal wounds on the battlefield – 1,391 troops died instantly and 2,699 troops succumbed before arriving at a treatment centre. King went on to say just 506 service members made it to a field hospital before succumbing to their injuries, citing the need for greater drone use, with devices such as Medi-Pod.

4. hitchBot, the friendly hitchhiking robot

While most robotics research is spent trying to make them as anatomically close to human beings as possible, it’s nice to see that some out there are still looking to keep that Eighties retro charm and putting some fun back into the field.

In this case, Canadian researchers developed hitchBot, a hitchhiking robot, to help them study human kindness and artificial intelligence by sending the robot on a trip across the enormous North American country.

After its 21-day journey and having met hundreds of people along the way, aside from a cracked LED shield protector, the researchers found hitchBot’s speech became a little bit more random than it was at the start of the trip.

Using a conversational artificial intelligence format called Cleverscript, hitchBot even apologises for being weird – and can speak a couple of sentences in French.

Since finishing his journey last August, hitchBot continues to be a minor celebrity, even appearing in a recent Santa Claus parade in the Toronto area.

5. 13-year-old builds a working nuclear reactor

Thirteen-year-old Jamie Edwards from the UK in March this year amazed readers after he developed his own working nuclear reactor with the help of his school, making him the youngest person to have ever undertaken the project, beating the previous record-holder, 14-year-old Taylor Wilson.

With the stg£2,000 raised by Jamie’s school head, Jim Hourigan, Jamie developed his idea on a nuclear fusion process that originally came about in the 1960s known as ‘inertial electrostatic confinement’. The process involves sending a high level of voltage through a confined gas, thereby creating tiny pockets hotter than the surface of the sun or, as Edwards calls it, ‘a star in a jar’.

In what was sure to make the US government feel wary, Edwards sourced the components for his reactor on the internet, where he was also able to obtain the parts he required from the UK, the US and Lithuania.

Here’s hoping Jamie’s reactor is immune to the Stuxnet computer virus …

Jamie Edwards with his nuclear reactor

6. 3D-printed food with Natural Machines

At the Web Summit in Dublin in November, many eyes were drawn to a machine that looked like a microwave oven, but did much more than just heat food.

Called the Foodini, the machine developed by Natural Machines is one of the first commercial 3D food printers that aims to bring food creation back into the kitchen.

While it won’t be able to make your Sunday roast, the Foodini can create a number of dishes, including pizzas and pastries, with the help of a few tubes of ingredients and time.

Speaking to at the event, the company’s CMO, Lynette Kucsma, said 3D-printed food could bring food production back to the kitchen.

“We’ve become too reliant on processed, packaged pre-made foods loaded with additives and preservatives … so our proposition is to get people back into the kitchen, make those same foods with a 3D printer, which you can do faster and easier than you can by hand.”

The Web Summit 2014: Interview with Lynette Kucsma of Natural Machines

7. 3D-printed furniture now available to consumers

While 3D-printed food is still in the developmental phase, 3D-printed furniture has had a much-longer development cycle and in February this year, one of the first 3D printers capable of printing pieces of furniture was launched, aiming to change consumers’ purchase of household items.

Known as the BigRep ONE, the machine will allow a printing volume of more than one cubic metre, making it possible to produce prototypes and models at a scale of 1:1, as well as creating final products, such as designer furniture.

One of the founders of the machine, Marcel Tasler, said its aim was to take the unfair advantage away from large industry.

“Large-format 3D printing has always been an exclusive right of industrial corporations, such as automobile and machine engineering firms. We wanted to change this.”

The BigRep ONE costs US$39,000.

One of the tables produced by the BigRep ONE

8. 100Gbps transatlantic cable to aid EU/US science research

For years, the notion that a physical bridge of any kind would be built between Europe and North America fell into the category of ‘Paddy Irishman’ jokes that was something only a crazy person would suggest.

Well now, at least technically, the Atlantic Ocean will be spanned by a bridge, that is, a 100Gbps transatlantic cable connecting the two continents to close a ‘knowledge bridge’.

Four of these cables will be laid across the ocean floor by the US Energy Sciences Network (ESnet), to give American researchers access to scientific data from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Switzerland at an unprecedented speed.

In total, the cables will be able to provide 340Gbps of data to more than 16 different research organisations and universities across the US.

To put this speed onto perspective, the cables could send uncompressed, full quality 4K UHDTV video streams at almost 100pc efficiency with no drop-off in speed or quality.

The actual endeavour of laying cables is no easy task and face a number of challenges to remain out of harms’ way, particularly shipping that may accidentally cut a cable as a result of an anchor drop.

The ESnet cables will span the Atlantic Ocean, connecting two two continents for the benefit of scientific research. Image via ESnet

Robots image via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic