Posts about Engineering

Self Driving Cars Have Huge Potential for Benefit to Society

Self-driving cars was something that seemed very far-fetched when I first read Google was seriously investing in pursuing that idea as a commercially viable product (Google’s Self Driving Car – 2010 post). I quickly became convinced they were right. I still think it is questionable if they will succeed (the political issues may well be even more difficult than technical ones). But the chances of success seem reasonable and the investment in research could provide a huge payoff.

Google’s self driving cars have driven 700,000 miles without an accident already; which is amazing. Warren Buffett stated that “self-driving cars are a real threat to the car insurance business” (His company owns the GIECO car insurance company) at the 2014 Berkshire Hathaway shareholder meeting in Omaha.

There are some people, stressing that this is not ready for mass market use. They are right. But, I think it is funny to see people thinking that a very early stage huge innovation in transportation not being ready today is a reasonable criticism. I am amazed that this huge innovation may actually be available before 2020. That would be incredible.

Certainly even then it will have limitations. And certainly there will be accidents. The current transportation system with humans driving cars has thosands of accidents a day and tens of thousands of deaths a year in the USA alone every year. Every year 1.2 million people die worldwide in traffic-related incidents, and over 90% of those accidents are due to human error.

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Stop Sign Mistake Proofing

This is a pretty cool example of using technology to prevent problems. The video shows a system that cascades a sheet of water and displays a stop sign directly in the path of trucks ready to crash into a tunnel (because the truck is too tall).

The driver had ignored several less obvious signals that they were headed for danger. This is an application of one of my favorite management (and industrial engineering) concepts: mistake proofing. As I have stated before, often it is really mistake making more difficult rather than mistake proofing. This truck driver ignored the first several warnings and actually could have ignored this one. This system doesn’t physically prevent the error (the options to do this I can think of would be impractical) but this does prevent the errors in any reasonable case it seems to me.

It does seem the process could be improved a big by doing the cool shower stop sign when the truck still has time to turn off without a huge delay. From the video it seems the truck progressed to a point where getting it out of the way created a major traffic backup.

Related: Practicing Mistake-Promoting Instead of Mistake-Proofing at AppleVisual Management with Brown M&MsPoor Results Should be Addressed by Improving the System Not Blaming IndividualsCutting the Boarding Time of Planes in Half

iPhone Addition as Alternative to Expensive Ophthalmology Equipment

Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine have developed two inexpensive adapters that enable a smartphone to capture high-quality images of the front and back of the eye. The adapters make it easy for anyone with minimal training to take a picture of the eye and share it securely with other health practitioners or store it in the patient’s electronic record.

The researchers see this technology as an opportunity to increase access to eye-care services as well as to improve the ability to advise on patient care remotely.

The standard equipment used to photograph the eye is expensive — costing up to tens of thousands of dollars — and requires extensive training to use properly. Primary care physicians and emergency department staff often lack this equipment, and although it is readily available in ophthalmologists’ offices, it is sparse in rural areas throughout the world.

“Adapting smartphones for the eye has the potential to enhance the delivery of eye care — in particular, to provide it in places where it’s less accessible,” said Myung. “Whether it’s in the emergency department, where patients often have to wait a long time for a specialist, or during a primary-care physician visit, we hope that we can improve the quality of care for our patients, especially in the developing world where ophthalmologists are few and far between.”

“A picture is truly worth a thousand words,” he added. “Imagine a car accident victim arriving in the emergency department with an eye injury resulting in a hyphema — blood inside the front of her eye. Normally the physician would have to describe this finding in her electronic record with words alone. Smartphones today not only have the camera resolution to supplement those words with a high-resolution photo, but also the data-transfer capability to upload that photo securely to the medical record in a matter of seconds.

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Water Wheel

As I have posted before I really love appropriate technology solutions that make a difference in people’s lives. And those that help those that have the largest challenges (the very poor where even water and electricity are challenges).

hello wello from wello on Vimeo.

Wello is a venture to improve people’s lives, they found women spend over 25% of their time each day collecting water. With the WaterWheel, they can now transport 50 liters at once – between 3 and 5 times the amount of water possible as compared to traditional methods: this means more water in less time.

Research shows that when women have extra time, they choose to spend it on activities that boost family income, education, health, and wellbeing.

Related: Clay Water Filters for GhanaEngineering a Better World: Bike Corn-ShellerPedal Powered Washing Machine

Segun Oyeyiola Converted a Volkswagen Beetle to Use Renewable Power

This Nigerian College Student Built a Wind- And Solar-Powered Car From Scraps

The engineering senior at Nigeria’s Obagemi Awolowo University spent a year retrofitting a Volkswagen Beetle into a wind and solar-powered car, partly made of free scrap parts donated by friends and family. Everything else cost under $6,000.

Not only did Oyeyiola install a giant solar panel on top of the Beetle; he also inserted a wind turbine under the hood. As Preston explains, that allows air to flow into the grill while the car is moving, subsequently turning the turbine’s rotors and charging the battery at the back of the car. Oyeyiola also built a strong suspension system to deal with the weight of the battery itself.

It’s not perfect. The battery takes four to five hours to charge, but Oyeyiola says he’s working on that. The biggest challenges, he says, came from finding the best materials to use, and the people telling him he was wasting his time.

Super cool.

OAU student builds a solar-powered car

Another thing that distinguishes my car from the common ones you see around is that you can know the state of the car through your mobile phones. I wrote a software that you can install which will give you the basic information about the car while in your room.

My message to my fellow students is that Rome was not built in a day. It is better to start anything you want to do now and don’t never, I repeat, never expect someone to believe in your dreams because they may not understand it as you do. Endeavor to follow your heart and do what will make you happy and that which will not affect your fellow being negatively.

It is so great to read what creative engineers all over the globe are able to accomplish.

Related: Oyeyiola Segun on TwitterPromoting Innovation in Sierra LeoneInspirational Engineer Builds Windmill from TrashClay Water Filters for GhanaHelp Science Education in Tanzania

Alternative Career Paths Attract Many Women in Science Fields

Instead of following traditional paths, women are using their science, technology, engineering, and math degrees to create new careers.

There are plenty of women out there engaged in traditional jobs in science, technology, engineering, and math, but many are forging novel, interdisciplinary, STEM-based careers that blur categories and transcend agenda.

Because women have traditionally been excluded from these disciplines, and because their fresh eyes allow them to make connections between fields, many women are launching careers, and even entire industries, based on a flexible and creative definition of what it means to be a scientist, artist, or engineer. K-12 schools have done a particularly poor job of integrating study across STEM fields and encouraging creativity and interdisciplinary connections.

We continue to teach science, technology, and math in isolation, as if they have little to do with one another. This sort of compartmentalized approach runs counter to what we know about effective learning: Students need to be able to connect content knowledge and concepts to real-world applications in order to develop mastery and passion for a subject.

The challenge for anyone seeking to forge a brave new path through STEM careers, particularly ones that involve interdisciplinary study and practice, is the challenge of job stability. Kendall Hoyt, professor of technology and biosecurity at Thayer School of Engineering explained, “Interdisciplinary career paths are easier to create than they are to sustain, because there is not an established career trajectory and evaluation system.”

The challenge of how to maximize the opportunities for those interested in careers in science, technology, engineering and math is important to all economies. There are difficulties in doing this and so continued focus on this area is good. My personal belief is we focus too much on the gender issue. Yes, we should reduce discrimination. I think we have done well but still have further to go.

Most of the suggested changes in how things should be done help women and also plenty of men that are turned off by the old way of doing things.

I also think we need to be careful in how we use data. Clamoring about discrepancies in a field with far more men (say physics) while not doing the same about a field with far more women (say psychology) is questionable to me. I don’t believe that any field that isn’t 50% male and 50% female is evidence that we need to fix the results so they are 50% each.

I believe we should provide everyone the opportunity to pursue the interests they have. They must perform to earn the right to continue. And we don’t want to waste potential with foolish barriers (for women, minorities or men). But if we do so and certain fields attract more women and others attract more men I think we can waste our effort by being too worried that certain fields are problematic.

If we are concerned it should be based on data and looking at the real world situation. In the coming decades my guess is women will exceed men in careers in many science disciplines (engineering still has fairly high male bias overall though some field, such as bio-engineering are already majority female graduates). It starts with education and women are already the majority of undergraduate degrees in science and engineering overall. And in many disciplines they dominate.

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Pedal Powered Washing Machine

It is very easy to forget billions of people alive today do not have access to electricity, clean water and things like washing machines at home. As I have said before I love appropriate technology. Even more than that I love to see successful deployments of appropriate technology that make people’s lives better.

It is also great to see kids with the perseverance to make these products to meet needs they see around them. We need to do what we can to encourage these types of kids. They are the future engineers and entrepreneurs that will make lives better for the rest of society.

Remya Jose, a 14 year school girl from Kerala, India created this wonderful machine. Another version of it, has the normal bike pedals (closer together, instead of spread out, on opposite sides of the machine, like in the video).

As far as I can tell the original video was from 2008 (and Remya created the machine in 2005). I haven’t been able to find the current status of the product, this is the best I could find (from 2008). Turning these innovations into products that succeed commercially is very hard.

If I had control of a national development program (or if I just become super rich and have millions to devote to making the world better, I think an effort like this would be something I would try) I would put working with these kids to make the products work very high on my list of priorities. The learning process and creation of engineers and entrepreneurs would be extremely valuable on top of any success the products had.

Related: Appropriate Technology: Washing Clothes by Machine Instead by HandWashing Machine Uses 90% Less WaterEngineering a Better World: Bike Corn-Shelleranother bicycle washing machineAutomatic Dog Washing Machine

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Hacking the Standard Bike Wheel

The Copenhagen Wheel stores energy (from braking…) and provides it when you need it (going up hill…). It is good to see innovation that helps transportation and can encourage people to be more active. Order now for $799.

Related: Engineering a Better World: Bike Corn-ShellerSeparated Bike Lanes Reduced Injuries by 45% and Increased Retail Sales 49% (for nearby stores)Bike Folds To Footprint of 1 WheelSports Engineering at MIT

Earnings by College Major – Engineers and Scientists at the Top

graph of earnings by college-major

Median annual income by major based on data from the Georgetown Center On Education And The Workforce – via blog post: The Most And Least Lucrative College Majors.

As we have posted about for years engineers do very well financially. This chart shows the median income by college major (the data includes those who went on to get advanced degrees) based on data for the USA. See the data on those that only have bachelors degrees. Also see a detailed post from the Curious Cat Economics blog looking at the value of college degrees based on the Georgetown data.

Engineering holds 6 of the top spots in the graph shown above and 8 of the top spots for those that didn’t earn an advanced degree. Pharmacy-sciences-and-administration and Math-and-computer-sciences made the top 10 of both lists. Pharmacology and health-and-medical-prepatory-programs make the list when advanced degrees are included.

The highest earning major, petroleum engineering, with $120,000 doesn’t have an increase for those with advanced degrees. The 10th spot goes to electrical engineering with a $94,000 median income.

Related: No Surprise – Engineering Graduates Continue to Reign SupremeEngineering Again Dominates The Highest Paying College Degree ProgramsEngineering Majors Hold 8 of Top 10 Highest Paid MajorsThe Labor Market for Software Developers

Appropriate Technology Brings a $1.30/month Cell Phone Plan to Remote Village

I love this kind of stuff: smart use of engineering provides cell phone service to remote Mexican village, with 9,000 residents, for $1.30/month (1/13 of the price charge by traditional cell phone service in Mexico City).

The town that Carlos Slim forgot

It’s so remote that there was no cell service. In stepped Rhizomatica, a nonprofit with the goal of increasing “access to mobile telecommunications to the over two billion people without affordable coverage and the 700 million with none at all.”

The U.S. and European experts working with Mexican engineers got the network set up by March of this year. At first, they ruled that phone calls were not to be longer than five minutes each to keep the small network from getting saturated.

By May, local numbers in Mexico City, Los Angeles and Seattle were set up, meaning that Oaxacans in Villa Talea could call relatives in the capital or in California as if it were practically a local call, a few cents a minute.

Given the success they are buying equipment that can handle the volume and will donate the existing equipment to setup a new village (a smaller one, I imagine). This was the first village they setup.

Long-distance is go

After almost two months of fine-tuning, long-distance service is finally ready to launch. This means folks in the town will be able to call out of the coverage area (only around 5-10km) to any phone, anywhere. Likewise we purchased a few DID numbers which allow people to call a Mexico City, Los Angeles or Seattle number and connect right to the village.

This is one of so many great efforts to use appropriate technology to improve people’s lives. It is easy for me to get frustrated at the cash for votes mentality of the USA politicians which creates policies against improvement for society and for protection of obsolete business models (until the bought-and-paid-for politicians make the business models sustainable by legislating against better options). It is great to see these kind of examples for the good work being done outside of the political sphere.

Related: Pay as You Go Solar in IndiaProviding Computer to Remote Students in NepalReducing Poverty Using EntrepreneurshipMonopolies and Oligopolies do not a Free Market Make

Hyperloop – Fast Transportation Using a Better Engineering Solution Than We Do Now

Elon Musk (the engineer and entrepreneur behind Tesla electric cars and before that he helped create PayPal) has a very cool idea of how to provide fast long distance transportation (faster than a plane). Essentially it is a big version of pneumatic tubes that used to be used to send small packages around a building, as seen in the movie – Brazil :-) Details are scheduled to be released August 12th.

This Is How Elon Musk Can Build the Hyperloop for a Tenth the Cost of High-Speed Rail

Having a elevated Hyperloop main line also completely avoids or reduces many of the pitfalls of ground-level right-of-ways, and opens up some new opportunities as well:

  • The crossing of other right-of-ways, like roads and railways, will be a breeze.
  • Rivers and other terrain obstacles will only be a 10th the problem of rail construction.
  • Hyperloop can avoid tunnels completely by having more flexible choices of right-of-way.
  • An elevated right-of-way opens up new route options, like leasing farmer’s fields using contracts similar to what wind-power companies sign.
  • That could be paid for by leasing Hyperloop’s right-of-way to communications companies for fiber optic cables, cell phone towers, etc.
  • …and let’s not forget the solar power that a couple of square miles of surface area can generate!

Hype Builds Before Elon Musk’s August Alpha Plan for Hyperloop

The Hyperloop would transport passengers from San Francisco to Los Angeles in about 30 minutes and at about twice the average speed of a commercial jet. The system would be on-demand, cheaper than current alternatives, impossible to crash, and potentially, run entirely on solar power.

Travelers ride in pods magnetically accelerated and decelerated into the main tube (like a rail gun) where the air circulates at speed. The air between pods acts as a cushion, preventing crashes, while more air injected through perforations in the tube levitates the pods and reduces friction, much as it might on an air hockey table.

Elon Musk has some very good ideas but what really sets him apart is turning them into functioning enterprises. Great ideas are wonderful but a huge number never go anywhere. Those people that can actually get ideas into the marketplace are the people that provide a much greater standard of living for all of us. And many of them are engineers.

Update: link to his blog post announcement.

More examples of cool extreme engineering: Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-TunnelTransferring Train Passengers Without Stoppingtransatlantic tunnelWebcast on Machine That Bores Subway Tunnels

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