Tag Archives: engineering

Streampunk Elevator (Lift)

The University of Leicester has one of these in its Attenborough Tower. In fact, it’s one of the few working examples left in Britain. Germany has several, mostly deployed in government buildings. For me, and all other Leicester students who came before and after, riding it was — and probably still is — a rite of passage. Many of the remaining contraptions have been mothballed due to safety fears and limited accessibility. What is it?


The paternoster — is a dual-shaft revolving elevator (or lift). Despite the odd name (from the Latin for the Our Father prayer, often recited while fingering through rosary beads on a looped chain), it’s a wonderful Victorian invention that needs to be preserved, and cherished. Oh, and do you wonder what happens at the top or bottom of the loop? Do you get crushed? Does the paternoster cabin emerge upside down, with you inside? You’ll have to visit and ride one to find out!

From the Guardian:

As the paternoster cabin in which he was slowly descending into the bowels of Stuttgart’s town hall plunged into darkness, Dejan Tuco giggled infectiously. He pointed out the oily cogs of its internal workings that were just about visible as it shuddered to the left, and gripped his stomach when it rose again with a gentle jolt. “We’re not supposed to do the full circuit,” he said. “But that’s the best way to feel like you’re on a ferris wheel or a gondola.”

The 12-year-old German-Serb schoolboy was on a roll, spending several hours one day last week riding the open elevator shaft known as a paternoster, a 19th-century invention that has just been given a stay of execution after campaigners persuaded Germany’s government to reverse a decision to ban its public use.

That the doorless lift, which consists of two shafts side by side within which a chain of open cabins descend and ascend continuously on a belt, has narrowly escaped becoming a victim of safety regulations, has everything to do with a deeply felt German affection for what many consider an old-fashioned yet efficient form of transport.

In the UK, where paternosters were invented in the 1860s, only one or two are believed to be in use. In Germany which first adopted them in the 1870s, there are an estimated 250 and there was an outcry, particularly among civil servants, when they were brought to a standstill this summer while the legislation was reviewed.

Officials in Stuttgart were among the loudest protesters against the labour minister Andrea Nahles’ new workplace safety regulations, which stated that the lifts could only be used by employees trained in paternoster riding.

“It took the heart out of this place when our paternoster was brought to a halt, and it slowed down our work considerably,” said Wolfgang Wölfle, Stuttgart’s deputy mayor, who vociferously fought the ban and called for the reinstatement of the town hall’s lift, which has been running since 1956.

“They suit the German character very well. I’m too impatient to wait for a conventional lift and the best thing about a paternoster is that you can hop on and off it as you please. You can also communicate with people between floors when they’re riding on one. I see colleagues flirt in them all the time,” he added, celebrating its reopening at a recent town hall party to which hundreds of members of the public were invited.

Among the streams of those who jumped on and off as tunes such as Roxette’s Joyride and Aerosmith’s Love in an Elevator pumped out of speakers, were a Polish woman and her poodle, couples who held hands in the anxious seconds before hopping on board, a one-legged man who joked that the paternoster was not to blame for the loss of his limb, and Dejan, who rushed to the town hall straight from school and spent three hours tirelessly riding up and down. Some passengers were as confident as ballet dancers, others somewhat more hesitant.

Read the whole story here.

Video: Paternoster, Attenborough Tower, University of Leicester. Courtesy of inoy0.

A Patent to End All Patents

You’ve seen the “we’ll help you file your patent application” infomercials on late night cable. The underlying promise is simple: your unique invention will find its way into every household on Earth and consequently will thrust you into the financial stratosphere making you the planet’s first gazillionaire. Of course, this will happen only after you part with your hard-earned cash for help in filing the patent. Incidentally, filing a patent with the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) usually starts at around $10-15,000.

Some patents are truly extraordinary in their optimistic silliness: wind harnessing bicycle, apparatus for simulating a high-five, flatulence deodorizer, jet-powered surfboard, thong diaper, life-size interactive bowl of soup, nicotine infused coffee, edible business cards, magnetic rings to promote immortality, and so it goes. Remember, though, this is the United States, and most crazy things are possible and profitable. So, you could well find yourself becoming addicted to those 20oz nicotine infused lattes each time you pull up at the local coffee shop on your jet-powered surfboard.

But perhaps the most recent thoroughly earnest and whacky patent filing comes from Boeing no less. It’s for a laser-powered fusion-fission jet engine. The engine uses ultra-high powered lasers to fuse pellets of hydrogen, causing uranium to fission, which generates heat and subsequently electricity. All of this powering your next flight to Seattle. So, the next time you fly on a Boeing aircraft, keep in mind what some of the company’s engineers have in store for you 100 or 1,000 years from now. I think I’d prefer to be disassembled and beamed up.

From ars technica:

Assume the brace position: Boeing has received a patent for, I kid you not, a laser-powered fusion-fission jet propulsion system. Boeing envisions that this system could replace both rocket and turbofan engines, powering everything from spacecraft to missiles to airplanes.

The patent, US 9,068,562, combines inertial confinement fusion, fission, and a turbine that generates electricity. It sounds completely crazy because it is. Currently, this kind of engine is completely unrealistic given our mastery of fusion, or rather our lack thereof. Perhaps in the future (the distant, distant future that is), this could be a rather ingenious solution. For now, it’s yet another patent head-scratcher.

To begin with, imagine the silhouette of a big turbofan engine, like you’d see on a commercial jetliner. Somewhere in the middle of the engine there is a fusion chamber, with a number of very strong lasers focused on a single point. A hohlraum (pellet) containing a mix of deuterium and tritium (hydrogen isotopes) is placed at this focal point. The lasers are all turned on at the same instant, creating massive pressure on the pellet, which implodes and causes the hydrogen atoms to fuse. (This is called inertial confinement fusion, as opposed to the magnetic confinement fusion that is carried out in a tokamak.)

According to the patent, the hot gases produced by the fusion are pushed out of a nozzle at the back of the engine, creating thrust—but that’s not all! One of the by-products of hydrogen fusion is lots of fast neutrons. In Boeing’s patented design, there is a shield around the fusion chamber that’s coated with a fissionable material (uranium-238 is one example given). The neutrons hit the fissionable material, causing a fission reaction that generates lots of heat.

Finally, there’s some kind of heat exchanger system that takes the heat from the fission reaction and uses that heat (via a heated liquid or gas) to drive a turbine. This turbine generates the electricity that powers the lasers. Voilà: a fusion-fission rocket engine thing.

Let’s talk a little bit about why this is such an outlandish idea. To begin with, this patented design involves placing a lump of material that’s made radioactive in an airplane engine—and these vehicles are known to sometimes crash. Today, the only way we know of efficiently harvesting radioactive decay is a giant power plant, and we cannot get inertial fusion to fire more than once in a reasonable amount of time (much less on the short timescales needed to maintain thrust). This process requires building-sized lasers, like those found at the National Ignition Facility in California. Currently, the technique only works poorly. Those two traits are not conducive to air travel.

But this is the USA we’re talking about, where patents can be issued on firewalls (“being wielded in one of most outrageous trolling campaigns we have ever seen,” according to the EFF) and universities can claim such rights on “agent-based collaborative recognition-primed decision-making” (EFF: “The patent reads a little like what might result if you ate a dictionary filled with buzzwords and drank a bottle of tequila”). As far as patented products go, it is pretty hard to imagine this one actually being built in the real world. Putting aside the difficulties of inertial confinement fusion (we’re nowhere near hitting the break-even point), it’s also a bit far-fetched to shoehorn all of these disparate and rather difficult-to-work-with technologies into a small chassis that hangs from the wing of a commercial airplane.

Read the entire story here.


The Joy of New Technology


We are makers. We humans love to create and invent. Some of our inventions are hideous, laughable or just plain evil — Twinkies, collateralized debt obligations and subprime mortgages, Agent Orange, hair extensions, spray-on tans, cluster bombs, diet water.

However, for every misguided invention comes something truly great. This time, a prosthetic hand that provides a sense of real feeling, courtesy of the makers of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Cleveland, Ohio.

From Technology Review:

Igor Spetic’s hand was in a fist when it was severed by a forging hammer three years ago as he made an aluminum jet part at his job. For months afterward, he felt a phantom limb still clenched and throbbing with pain. “Some days it felt just like it did when it got injured,” he recalls.

He soon got a prosthesis. But for amputees like Spetic, these are more tools than limbs. Because the prosthetics can’t convey sensations, people wearing them can’t feel when they have dropped or crushed something.Now Spetic, 48, is getting some of his sensation back through electrodes that have been wired to residual nerves in his arm. Spetic is one of two people in an early trial that takes him from his home in Madison, Ohio, to the Cleveland Veterans Affairs Medical Center. In a basement lab, his prosthetic hand is rigged with force sensors that are plugged into 20 wires protruding from his upper right arm. These lead to three surgically implanted interfaces, seven millimeters long, with as many as eight electrodes apiece encased in a polymer, that surround three major nerves in Spetic’s forearm.

On a table, a nondescript white box of custom electronics does a crucial job: translating information from the sensors on Spetic’s prosthesis into a series of electrical pulses that the interfaces can translate into sensations. This technology “is 20 years in the making,” says the trial’s leader, Dustin Tyler, a professor of biomedical engineering at Case Western Reserve University and an expert in neural interfaces.

As of February, the implants had been in place and performing well in tests for more than a year and a half. Tyler’s group, drawing on years of neuroscience research on the signaling mechanisms that underlie sensation, has developed a library of patterns of electrical pulses to send to the arm nerves, varied in strength and timing. Spetic says that these different stimulus patterns produce distinct and realistic feelings in 20 spots on his prosthetic hand and fingers. The sensations include pressing on a ball bearing, pressing on the tip of a pen, brushing against a cotton ball, and touching sandpaper, he says. A surprising side effect: on the first day of tests, Spetic says, his phantom fist felt open, and after several months the phantom pain was “95 percent gone.”

On this day, Spetic faces a simple challenge: seeing whether he can feel a foam block. He dons a blindfold and noise-­canceling headphones (to make sure he’s relying only on his sense of touch), and then a postdoc holds the block inside his wide-open prosthetic hand and taps him on the shoulder. Spetic closes his prosthesis—a task made possible by existing commercial interfaces to residual arm muscles—and reports the moment he touches the block: success.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Prosthetic hand. Courtesy of MIT Technology Review / Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

Gephyrophobes Not Welcome


A gephyrophobic person is said to have a fear of crossing bridges. So, we’d strongly recommend avoiding the structures on this list of some of the world’s scariest bridges. For those who suffer no anxiety from either bridges or heights, and who crave endless vistas both horizontally and vertically, this list is for you. Our favorite, the suspension bridge over the Royal Gorge in Colorado.

From the Guardian:

From rickety rope walkways to spectacular feats of engineering, we take a look at some of the world’s scariest bridges.

Until 2001, the Royal Gorge bridge in Colorado was the highest bridge in the world. Built in 1929, the 291m-high structure is now a popular tourist attraction, not least because of the fact that it is situated within a theme park.

Read the entire story and see more images here.

Image: Royal Gorge, Colorado. Courtesy of Wikipedia / Hustvedt.


A Quest For Skeuomorphic Noise


Your Toyota Prius, or other electric vehicle, is a good environmental citizen. It helps reduce pollution and carbon emissions and does so rather efficiently. You and other eco-conscious owners should be proud.

But wait, not so fast. Your electric car may have a low carbon footprint, but it is a silent killer in waiting. It may be efficient, however it is far too quiet, and is thus somewhat of a hazard for pedestrians, cyclists and other motorists — they don’t hear it approaching.

Cars like the Prius are so quiet — in fact too quiet, for our own safety. So, enterprising engineers are working to add artificial noise to the next generations of almost silent cars. The irony is not lost: after years of trying to make cars quieter, engineers are now looking to make them noisier.

Perhaps, the added noise could be configurable as an option for customers — a base option would sound like a Citroen CV, a high-end model could sound like, well, a Ferrari or a classic Bugatti. Much better.

From Technology Review:

It was a pleasant June day in Munich, Germany. I was picked up at my hotel and driven to the country, farmland on either side of the narrow, two-lane road. Occasional walkers strode by, and every so often a bicyclist passed. We parked the car on the shoulder and joined a group of people looking up and down the road. “Okay, get ready,” I was told. “Close your eyes and listen.” I did so and about a minute later I heard a high-pitched whine, accompanied by a low humming sound: an automobile was approaching. As it came closer, I could hear tire noise. After the car had passed, I was asked my judgment of the sound. We repeated the exercise numerous times, and each time the sound was different. What was going on? We were evaluating sound designs for BMW’s new electric vehicles.

Electric cars are extremely quiet. The only sounds they make come from the tires, the air, and occasionally from the high-pitched whine of the electronics. Car lovers really like the silence. Pedestrians have mixed feelings, but blind people are greatly concerned. After all, they cross streets in traffic by relying upon the sounds of vehicles. That’s how they know when it is safe to cross. And what is true for the blind might also be true for anyone stepping onto the street while distracted. If the vehicles don’t make any sounds, they can kill. The United States National Highway Traffic Safety Administration determined that pedestrians are considerably more likely to be hit by hybrid or electric vehicles than by those with an internal-combustion engine. The greatest danger is when the hybrid or electric vehicles are moving slowly: they are almost completely silent.

Adding sound to a vehicle to warn pedestrians is not a new idea. For many years, commercial trucks and construction equipment have had to make beeping sounds when backing up. Horns are required by law, presumably so that drivers can use them to alert pedestrians and other drivers when the need arises, although they are often used as a way of venting anger and rage instead. But adding a continuous sound to a normal vehicle because it would otherwise be too quiet is a challenge.

What sound would you want? One group of blind people suggested putting some rocks into the hubcaps. I thought this was brilliant. The rocks would provide a natural set of cues, rich in meaning and easy to interpret. The car would be quiet until the wheels started to turn. Then the rocks would make natural, continuous scraping sounds at low speeds, change to the pitter-patter of falling stones at higher speeds. The frequency of the drops would increase with the speed of the car until the rocks ended up frozen against the circumference of the rim, silent. Which is fine: the sounds are not needed for fast-moving vehicles, because then the tire noise is audible. The lack of sound when the vehicle is not moving would be a problem, however.

The marketing divisions of automobile manufacturers thought the addition of artificial sounds would be a wonderful branding opportunity, so each car brand or model should have its own unique sound that captured just the car personality the brand wished to convey. Porsche added loudspeakers to its electric car prototype to give it the same throaty growl as its gasoline-powered cars. Nissan wondered whether a hybrid automobile should sound like tweeting birds. Some manufacturers thought all cars should sound the same, with standardized noises and sound levels, making it easier for everyone to learn how to interpret them. Some blind people thought they should sound like cars—you know, gasoline engines.

Skeuomorphic is the technical term for incorporating old, familiar ideas into new technologies, even though they no longer play a functional role. Skeuomorphic designs are often comfortable for traditionalists, and indeed the history of technology shows that new technologies and materials often slavishly imitate the old for no apparent reason except that it’s what people know how to do. Early automobiles looked like horse-driven carriages without the horses (which is also why they were called horseless carriages); early plastics were designed to look like wood; folders in computer file systems often look like paper folders, complete with tabs. One way of overcoming the fear of the new is to make it look like the old. This practice is decried by design purists, but in fact, it has its benefits in easing the transition from the old to the new. It gives comfort and makes learning easier. Existing conceptual models need only be modified rather than replaced. Eventually, new forms emerge that have no relationship to the old, but the skeuomorphic designs probably helped the transition.

When it came to deciding what sounds the new silent automobiles should generate, those who wanted differentiation ruled the day, yet everyone also agreed that there had to be some standards. It should be possible to determine that the sound is coming from an automobile, to identify its location, direction, and speed. No sound would be necessary once the car was going fast enough, in part because tire noise would be sufficient. Some standardization would be required, although with a lot of leeway. International standards committees started their procedures. Various countries, unhappy with the normally glacial speed of standards agreements and under pressure from their communities, started drafting legislation. Companies scurried to develop appropriate sounds, hiring psychologists, Hollywood sound designers, and experts in psychoacoustics.

The United States National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a set of principles along with a detailed list of requirements, including sound levels, spectra, and other criteria. The full document is 248 pages. The document states:

This standard will ensure that blind, visually-impaired, and other pedestrians are able to detect and recognize nearby hybrid and electric vehicles by requiring that hybrid and electric vehicles emit sound that pedestrians will be able to hear in a range of ambient environments and contain acoustic signal content that pedestrians will recognize as being emitted from a vehicle. The proposed standard establishes minimum sound requirements for hybrid and electric vehicles when operating under 30 kilometers per hour (km/h) (18 mph), when the vehicle’s starting system is activated but the vehicle is stationary, and when the vehicle is operating in reverse. The agency chose a crossover speed of 30 km/h because this was the speed at which the sound levels of the hybrid and electric vehicles measured by the agency approximated the sound levels produced by similar internal combustion engine vehicles. (Department of Transportation, 2013.)

As I write this, sound designers are still experimenting. The automobile companies, lawmakers, and standards committees are still at work. Standards are not expected until 2014 or later, and then it will take considerable time for the millions of vehicles across the world to meet them. What principles should be used for the sounds of electric vehicles (including hybrids)? The sounds have to meet several criteria:

Alerting. The sound will indicate the presence of an electric vehicle.

Orientation. The sound will make it possible to determine where the vehicle is located, roughly how fast it is going, and whether it is moving toward or away from the listener.

Lack of annoyance. Because these sounds will be heard frequently even in light traffic and continually in heavy traffic, they must not be annoying. Note the contrast with sirens, horns, and backup signals, all of which are intended to be aggressive warnings. Such sounds are deliberately unpleasant, but because they are infrequent and relatively short in duration, they are acceptable. The challenge for electric vehicles is to make sounds that alert and orient, not annoy.

Standardization versus individualization. Standardization is necessary to ensure that all electric-vehicle sounds can readily be interpreted. If they vary too much, novel sounds might confuse the listener. Individualization has two functions: safety and marketing. From a safety point of view, if there were many vehicles on the street, individualization would allow them to be tracked. This is especially important at crowded intersections. From a marketing point of view, individualization can ensure that each brand of electric vehicle has its own unique characteristic, perhaps matching the quality of the sound to the brand image.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Toyota Prius III. Courtesy of Toyota / Wikipedia.

Bots That Build Themselves


Wouldn’t it be a glorious breakthrough if your next furniture purchase could assemble itself? No more sifting though stepwise Scandinavian manuals describing your next “Fjell” or “Bestå” pieces from IKEA; no more looking for a magnifying glass to decipher strange text from Asia; no more searches for an Allen wrench that fits those odd hexagonal bolts. Now, to set your expectations, recent innovations at the macro-mechanical level are not yet quite in the same league as planet-sized self-assembling spaceships (from the mind of Iain Banks). But, researchers and engineers are making progress.

From ars technica:

At a certain level of complexity and obligation, sets of blocks can easily go from fun to tiresome to assemble. Legos? K’Nex? Great. Ikea furniture? Bridges? Construction scaffolding? Not so much. To make things easier, three scientists at MIT recently exhibited a system of self-assembling cubic robots that could in theory automate the process of putting complex systems together.

The blocks, dubbed M-Blocks, use a combination of magnets and an internal flywheel to move around and stick together. The flywheels, running off an internal battery, generate angular momentum that allows the blocks to flick themselves at each other, spinning them through the air. Magnets on the surfaces of the blocks allow them to click into position.

Each flywheel inside the blocks can spin at up to 20,000 rotations per minute. Motion happens when the flywheel spins and then is suddenly braked by a servo motor that tightens a belt encircling the flywheel, imparting its angular momentum to the body of the blocks. That momentum sends the block flying at a certain velocity toward its fellow blocks (if there is a lot of it) or else rolling across the ground (if there’s less of it). Watching a video of the blocks self-assembling, the effect is similar to watching Sid’s toys rally in Toy Story—a little off-putting to see so many parts moving into a whole at once, unpredictably moving together like balletic dying fish.

Each of the blocks is controlled by a 32-bit ARM microprocessor and three 3.7 volt batteries that afford each one between 20 and 100 moves before the battery life is depleted. Rolling is the least complicated motion, though the blocks can also use their flywheels to turn corners, climb over each other, or even complete a leap from ground level to three blocks high, sticking the landing on top of a column 51 percent of the time.

The blocks use 6-axis inertial measurement units, like those found on planes, ships, or spacecrafts, to figure out how they are oriented in space. Each cube has an IR LED and a photodiode that cubes use to communicate with each other.

The authors note that the cubes’ motion is not very precise yet; one cube is considered to have moved successfully if it hits its goal position within three tries. The researchers found the RPMs needed to generate momentum for different movements through trial and error.

If the individual cube movements weren’t enough, groups of the cubes can also move together in either a cluster or as a row of cubes rolling in lockstep. A set of four cubes arranged in a square attempting to roll together in a block approaches the limits of the cubes’ hardware, the authors write. The cubes can even work together to get around an obstacle, rolling over each other and stacking together World War Z-zombie style until the bump in the road has been crossed.

Read the entire article here.

Video: M-Blocks. Courtesy of ars technica.

Off World Living

Will humanity ever transcend gravity to become a space-faring race? A simple napkin-based calculation will give you the answer.

From Scientific American:

Optimistic visions of a human future in space seem to have given way to a confusing mix of possibilities, maybes, ifs, and buts. It’s not just the fault of governments and space agencies, basic physics is in part the culprit. Hoisting mass away from Earth is tremendously difficult, and thus far in fifty years we’ve barely managed a total the equivalent of a large oil-tanker. But there’s hope.

Back in the 1970?s the physicist Gerard O’Neill and his students investigated concepts of vast orbital structures capable of sustaining entire human populations. It was the tail end of the Apollo era, and despite the looming specter of budget restrictions and terrestrial pessimism there was still a sense of what might be, what could be, and what was truly within reach.

The result was a series of blueprints for habitats that solved all manner of problems for space life, from artificial gravity (spin up giant cylinders), to atmospheres, and radiation (let the atmosphere shield you). They’re pretty amazing, and they’ve remained perhaps one of the most optimistic visions of a future where we expand beyond the Earth.

But there’s a lurking problem, and it comes down to basic physics. It is awfully hard to move stuff from the surface of our planet into orbit or beyond. O’Neill knew this, as does anyone else who’s thought of grand space schemes. The solution is to ‘live of the land’, extracting raw materials from either the Moon with its shallower gravity well, or by processing asteroids. To get to that point though we’d still have to loft an awful lot of stuff into space – the basic tools and infrastructure have to start somewhere.

And there’s the rub. To put it into perspective I took a look at the amount of ‘stuff’ we’ve managed to get off Earth in the past 50-60 years. It’s actually pretty hard to evaluate, lots of the mass we send up comes back down in short order – either as spent rocket stages or as short-lived low-altitude satellites. But we can still get a feel for it.

To start with, a lower limit on the mass hoisted to space is the present day artificial satellite population. Altogether there are in excess of about 3,000 satellites up there, plus vast amounts of small debris. Current estimates suggest this amounts to a total of around 6,000 metric tons. The biggest single structure is the International Space Station, currently coming in at about 450 metric tons (about 992,000 lb for reference).

These numbers don’t reflect launch mass – the total of a rocket + payload + fuel. To put that into context, a fully loaded Saturn V was about 2,000 metric tons, but most of that was fuel.

When the Space Shuttle flew it amounted to about 115 metric tons (Shuttle + payload) making it into low-Earth orbit. Since there were 135 launches of the Shuttle that amounts to a total hoisted mass of about 15,000 metric tons over a 30 year period.

Read the entire article after the jump.

Image: A pair of O’Neill cylinders. NASA ID number AC75-1085. Courtesy of NASA / Wikipedia.