We are living in a rapidly changing world. Engineers play a big role in the advancement of our society by pushing technology forward to feats that were not thought to be possible even ten years ago. 2015 has already seen some of these incredible feats with many more to come in the remaining months.
The competition among the leading car manufacturers is pushing automotive technology forward at a rapid pace. The German automaker BMW is at the forefront of this push. BMW has revealed details of the upgrades made to the 2016 7 Series to be released in coming months. Among the many upgrades are two technologies that are in production for the first time. The first of these technologies is the BMW Gesture Control system. With the use of 3D sensors capturing the driver’s movements, he or she can operate many of the available infotainment options. The driver can perform such actions as adjust the radio volume and answer or reject a phone call with individualized hand gestures.
The other added technology is the self-parking capability. Self-parking cars have been in production for a few years. But, with the 7 Series, the driver will be able to park in tight spaces as well as retrieve the car without being inside of the vehicle with the use of a small, smartphone-like LED control device. Although these technologies will only be available for 2016 in the 7 Series, BMW expects to include them in their less expensive models in coming years.
Much of our daily lives depend on computers. Researchers are constantly searching to find ways to make them faster and more efficient. With the current systems, electrical currents carry data through wires from place to place, accounting for most of the processing time and power consumption. Researchers believe that using photons rather than electrons to transmit the data is the future of computing. In these light-based computing systems, rather than through electrical current, the data is sent through silicone channels in the form of infrared light. This is like fiber-optic cables, but on a much smaller scale. By using light, which can carry 20 times the amount of data than electrical current, computing speeds can be drastically increased and power consumption can be reduced. One obstacle to the light-based systems is creating the silicone pathways. Each pathway has to be designed and developed individually to maintain a certain frequency of infrared light to a specific point.
Electrical engineers at Stanford University may have the answer to this problem. They have developed an inverse design algorithm that can potentially take the technology from conceptual to reality. The algorithm creates the pathway design that tells how much and at what angles the silicone prisms need to be to transmit the data properly. This design can then be used in standard production facilities to create the silicone circuit boards.
Huge strides are being made in the world of robotics. Pepper, the emotional robot introduced in 2014, was sold for the first time in Japan in June of 2015 by SoftBank Robotics. The robot was designed to be an emotional companion rather than a functional part of the home. By reading facial expressions and analyzing vocal tones, Pepper can respond to the person’s emotions accordingly to “make people happy” as well as develop his own emotions. Along with speaking Japanese, English, French, and Spanish, he can sing, dance, and tell jokes to cheer a person up. The company produced 1000 units for its first offering to the public, and all of the units were sold out within a minute. SoftBank not only has its sights set on individual use. It intends on marketing Pepper to businesses and already has used him to sell coffee makers in Japanese stores.
Robotics researchers in Switzerland have taken a different direction with robots to aid disabled people with limited mobility. A team at Defitech Foundation Chair in Brain-Machine Interface (CNBI) at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EFPL), led by Jose del R. Millan have created a robot that is controlled by a person’s mind. Using only brain signals analyzed by an electrode-studded hat, 19 people, including nine quadriplegics, were able to control a robot remotely with 100% accuracy with less than ten days of training. The robot was located in an EFPL laboratory while the participants were controlling it via the internet from Italy, Germany, and Switzerland. The robot features a camera to record its movements as well as a screen that allows the user to communicate with other people via Skype. This technology allows the individuals to overcome their limited mobility partially by being able to interact with others through the robot.
Elon Musk is expanding his power-storage technology used in Tesla Motors to be used in the home and eventually for commercial use. The battery storage units for the home will be available in 7 and 10 kilowatt-hour sizes. These suit-case sized lithium-ion batteries are meant to be used along with solar power to store the energy for use when the sun goes down. Demand for these units have been extremely high, with pre-orders that Musk feels will not be able to be fulfilled until mid-2016.
It is an exciting time in to be an engineer with rapid advancements in all areas of science and technology. The year has already seen such developments as self-parking cars to thought-controlled robots that were once considered to be science fiction. Now these ideas are becoming a reality thanks to the many creative and innovative researchers and engineers around the world.