NASA has challenged designers to develop a conventional drone to work inside a space station, navigating with no ‘up’ or ‘down’. The winning design, ArachnoBeeA, would use cameras and tiny beacons to manoeuvre its way around. How popular drones would be in such a confined space is a different question.
Hate commuting? Imagine, instead, your train carriage hurtling down a tunnel at the same speed as a commercial jet airliner. That’s the dream of PayPal, Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk. His Hyperloop system would see ‘train’ passengers travel at up to 760mph through a vacuum tube, propelled by compressed air and induction motors. A site has been chosen with the goal of starting test runs in two years. Once built, the loop will ferry passengers between San Francisco and LA in 35 minutes, compared to 7.5 hours by train.
London’s coffee industry creates over 200,000 tonnes of waste every year, so what do we do with it? Entrepreneur Arthur Kay’s big idea is to use his company, bio-bean, to turn 85 per cent of coffee waste into biofuels for heating buildings and powering transport.
Drown forest fires in sound
Forest fires could one day be dealt with by drones that would direct loud noises at the trees below. Since sound is made up of pressure waves, it can be used to disrupt the air surrounding a fire, essentially cutting off the supply of oxygen to the fuel. At the right frequency, the fire simply dies out, as researchers at George Mason University in Virginia recently demonstrated with their sonic extinguisher. Apparently, bass frequencies work best.
The AI scientist
Cut off a flatworm’s head, and it’ll grow a new one. Cut it in half, and you’ll have two new worms. Fire some radiation at it, and it’ll repair itself. Scientists have wanted to work out the mechanisms involved for some time, but the secret has eluded them. Enter an AI coded at Tufts University, Massachusetts. By analysing and simulating countless scenarios, the computer was able to solve the mystery of the flatworm’s regeneration in just 42 hours. In the end it produced a comprehensive model of how the flatworm’s genes allow it to regenerate.
Although humans still need to feed the AI with information, the machine in this experiment was able to create a new, abstract theory independently – a huge step towards the development of a conscious computer, and potentially a landmark step in the way we carry out research.
If you want to take a trip into space, your quickest bet might be to take a balloon. The company World View Enterprises wants to send tourists into the stratosphere, 32km above Earth, on hot air balloons. Technically ‘space’ is defined as 100km above sea level, but 32km is high enough to witness the curvature of the Earth, just as Felix Baumgartner did on his space jump. The balloon flew its first successful test flight in June, and the company will start selling tickets in 2016 – at the bargain price of just £75,000 per person!
Viagra for women
Now approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, flibanserin looks set to become the first in a new class of drugs for improving female sexual desire. Though it’s been dubbed ‘the female Viagra’, flibanserin works rather differently: Viagra works by boosting blood supply to the penis, while flibanserin acts on serotonin receptors in the brain. Its makers say it increases sexual satisfaction, but critics question the drug’s safety and effectiveness.
The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has developed devices that can monitor alcohol levels by sniffing a driver’s breath or scanning the blood in their fingertips via the steering wheel, immobilising the car if levels are too high. Drivers using the system could be offered lower insurance premiums.
Swallowing seawater is part of surfing. But now the scientists behind a new initiative called Beach Bums want to swab the rectums of surfers, to see if this water contains the key to developing new antibiotics. They’re searching for antibiotic resistant bacteria known as superbugs: by studying the samples from the surfers, they hope to learn more about these potentially dangerous organisms in the hope of producing new drugs to combat them.
Internet for everyone
After Tesla and SpaceX, PayPal founder Elon Musk is turning his attention back to the internet: he’s awaiting permission to send almost 4,000 small satellites into low-Earth orbit that would beam back a high-speed wireless signal to everyone on the planet. And things are moving fast: Musk hopes to launch a series of test satellites in 2016, with a view to completing the project by 2020. He has competition to get there first though, as British billionaire Richard Branson also wants to cover the world with wi-fi.
Personalities for robots
Google has obtained a patent on robot personalities, reminiscent of the ‘Genuine People Personalities’ of robots in The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. Owners could have a personality automatically chosen to match their needs, or select one based on a fictional character or even a loved one. Although the patent was announced suspiciously close to April 1, it does exist (US Patent 8,996,429), and with our natural tendency to anthropomorphism it seems a likely development.
Smart food labels
UK homes throw away 30 to 50 per cent of what we buy from supermarkets, says a 2013 report by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. The report claimed we’re guided by ‘use by’ and ‘best before’ dates on food packaging, which are kept conservative because they are driven by shops’ desire to avoid legal action. An invention called ‘Bump Mark’ could change all that. Originally developed for blind people, it’s a label that starts out smooth to the touch but gets bumpier as food decays. And since it decays at the same rate as any protein-based food within, it’s far more accurate than printed dates.
We’ve almost got used to the idea of driverless cars before we’ve even seen one on the roads. The truth is, you might well see a lot more driverless trucks – after all, logistics make the world go round. They’ll be cheaper to run than regular rigs, driving more smoothly and so using less fuel. Computers never get tired or need comfort breaks, so they’ll run longer routes. And they could drive in convoys, nose-to-tail, to minimise wind resistance. Companies like Mercedes and Peloton are already exploring these possibilities, and if the promised gains materialise, freight companies could upgrade entire fleets overnight. On the downside, it could put drivers instantly out of work, and even staff at the truck stops set up to service them, but many companies have said the trucks will still need a human passenger to ensure their cargo is safe.
Got a tattoo that you now regret? There may soon be a gentler, cheaper alternative to laser removal. PhD student Alec Falkenham in the US has worked out how to harness a property of your body’s own immune system. He’s developed a cream that delivers drugs to white blood cells called ‘macrophages’ (Greek for ‘big eaters’), causing them to release the ink they took up in order to protect your skin during the tattooing process.
Sleep in a petri dish
Up to 30 per cent of us have trouble sleeping, but help may be at hand. A team at Washington State University has identified the smallest set of neurones in our brains responsible for sleeping, grown a tiny group of these cells in the lab and induced them to fall asleep and wake up. Their work could help to unravel the science of sleep disorders.
Human head transplants
Sergio Canavero , an Italian neurosurgeon, intends to attempt the first human head transplant by 2016, though no successful animal transplants with long-term survival have yet been made. Because of the difficulty of connecting the spinal cord, Canavero has suggested improvements in the process using a special blade and polyethylene glycol, a polymer used in medicine as well as in everything from skin cream to the conservation of the Mary Rose, can help start growth in spinal cord nerves.
Other experts say Canavero is wildly optimistic, but we can at least expect improved ability to repair damaged spinal cords over the next decade, restoring body function to some spinal injury patients.
Your brain print as a password
Could your brainwaves function as your computer password? A team at Binghamton University, New York, looked at the way volunteers’ brain signals changed as they read a list of acronyms. Each person reacted differently enough for the system to predict who was reading the list with 94 per cent accuracy. In future, a honed version of this idea could verify who is sitting at a PC.
Holiday by Airship
If you’ve heard of the Hindenburg disaster, you’ll probably question the advisability of firing up massive passenger balloons filled with flammable gas. But modern airships are filled with helium rather than hydrogen, and can fly for thousands of kilometres while burning less fuel than an aeroplane. The UK-built Airlander 10 is actually a hybrid, using helium to provide 60 per cent of its lift, while the rest is provided by its wide, wing-like hull. The first airships have been given government grants to investigate whether they could replace long-haul freight trucks and cargo ships, but the company also has more ambitious plans for tourism.
The UN predicts there will be two billion more people in the world by 2050, creating a demand for 70 per cent more food. By that time, 80 per cent of us will be living in cities, and most food we eat in urban areas is brought in. So farms moored on the sea or inland lakes close to cities would certainly reduce food miles. But how would they work? A new design by architect Javier Ponce of Forward Thinking Architecture shows a 24m-tall, three-tiered structure with solar panels on top to provide energy. The middle tier grows a variety of veg over an area of 51,000m2, using not soil but nutrients in liquid. These nutrients and plant matter would drop into the bottom layer to feed fish, which are farmed in an enclosed space.
A single Smart Floating Farm measuring 350 x 200m would produce an estimated 8.1 tonnes of vegetables and 1.7 tonnes of fish a year. The units are designed to bolt together, which is handy since we’ll need a lot of them: Dubai, for instance, imports 11,000 tonnes of fruit and veg every day.
The four-day working week
It turns out working less might mean more work gets done. A raft of studies have shown that with less time to work, less time is wasted – there’s less absenteeism and, in most cases, greater productivity. A more compact working week has also been shown to encourage employees to stay with companies for longer, and works as a recruitment tool. A shorter working week could even reduce global carbon emissions, with fewer commuters clogging the roads on certain days.
Russian scientist Sergey Zimov hopes to recreate a 12,000-year-old environment in a wildlife park for herbivores like wild horse and bison, with extinct megafauna like mammoths replaced by modern hybrids. Zimov will study the impact of the animals on environment and climate.
There are two things the majority of people in the Western world own: a refrigerator and a mobile phone. And aerogels could revolutionise the manufacture of both.
An aerogel is a material that’s full of tiny holes. Made by extracting all the liquid from a gel, it can be up to 95 per cent pores. Those pores are so small – between 20 and 50 nanometres – that gas molecules can’t squeeze through them. As a result, aerogels can’t transport heat, making for a material with incredible insulating properties.
The unusual electrical properties of aerogels also make them suitable as lightweight antennae for mobile phones, satellites and aircraft.
This article has been edited for the web. The original version of this article appears in the September 2015 issue of BBC Focus magazine and features 16 extra innovations