As 2018 comes to a close we reflect on some our favorite engineering advancements we've seen this year. Whether it was a plane with no moving parts or a medical device that enhances optical care in the developing world, this year had a lot to offer to the engineering, scientific, and medical communities. Here is our countdown of the top engineering advancements in product design and development of 2018.
Electronic skin, or e-skin, is a thin, translucent material that mimics the function and mechanical properties of human skin. Recognized for their adaptability and usefulness, e-skins are being developed in labs across the world for a wide range of applications. Researchers at University of Colorado Boulder have developed a new type of e-skin that can self-heal when specific compounds are applied. Additionally, the e-skin can be broken down using a special recycling solution and then reused to make new electronic skin, cutting down on the amount of electronic waste produced. The new skin is malleable and can conform to curved surfaces such as arms and hands.
From the University of Colorado Boulder article: "The technology has several distinctive properties, including a novel type of covalently bonded dynamic network polymer, known as polyimine that has been laced with silver nanoparticles to provide better mechanical strength, chemical stability and electrical conductivity."
One of the hangups of expanding optometry care to the developing world is cost. An MIT startup, PlenOptika, is hoping to change that with the QuickSee low cost autorefractor. This handheld medical device can take eyeglass prescription measurements in about ten seconds, for a third of the cost of conventional autorefractors.
From the MIT article: "QuickSee runs on a modified version of a wavefront aberrometer, an advanced device used to map the eye prior to LASIK surgery. Light is shined into the eye, reflected off of the retina, and then measured after it passes back through the eye’s lens and cornea. Distortions in the light waves, called aberrations, represent specific vision errors, such as nearsightedness, farsightedness, and astigmatisms. Among other benefits, the method is more precise than traditional autorefraction technology, producing more accurate measurements."
Scientists at the University of Bath have developed an adhesive bloodless glucose monitor patch that measure glucose levels without ever piercing the skin. Instead of using blood from a traditional finger-prick, the patch draws glucose from fluid between hair follicle cells. The glucose is collected in tiny reservoirs an measured, with the ability to read results every 10 to 15 minutes.
From the University of Bath article: "An important advantage of this device over others is that each miniature sensor of the array can operate on a small area over an individual hair follicle – this significantly reduces inter- and intra-skin variability in glucose extraction and increases the accuracy of the measurements taken such that calibration via a blood sample is not required."
A new study by researchers at Cincinnati Children's and published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine suggests that a neck collar may protect the brain, of competitive female soccer players, against injury.
From the Cincinnati Children's Hospital article: "Myer and his colleagues studied 46 female high school soccer players. Twenty-four of them wore a Q-Collar. All 46 athletes underwent neuroimaging at up to three points in time over a six-month period. This included the three-month soccer season and three-month post season rest period, with no exposure to head impacts. Head impacts were tracked using accelerometers--a computer chip--placed behind the left ear during practice and games."
Researchers at University of Houston have come up with a new type of soft robot that can crawl; similar to the movement of a caterpillar. Made of artificial muscle, deformable sensors, and actuators the soft robot can change shape in response to its surroundings. This allows it to slip through narrow crevices and spaces humans can't access. The researchers plans for them to be used in applications ranging from surgery to search and rescue.
From the University of Houston article: "The prototype adaptive soft robot includes a liquid crystal elastomer, doped with carbon black nanoparticles to enhance thermal conductivity, as the artificial muscle, combined with ultrathin mesh shaped stretchable thermal actuators and silicon-based light sensors. The thermal actuators provide heat to activate the robot."
Rutgers University engineers have created a 3D printed smart gel that can grab and move objects and walks underwater. In order to move, the hydrogel is placed in an electrolyte solution with two wires. When electricity is applied, the gel is stimulated to move and change shape. The speed of movement is controlled by the object's thickness and it's shape is determined by the strength of the electrolyte solution and amount of electricity applied.
From the Rutgers University article: "During the 3D-printing process, light is projected on a light-sensitive solution that becomes a gel. The hydrogel is placed in a salty water solution (or electrolyte) and two thin wires apply electricity to trigger motion: walking forward, reversing course and grabbing and moving objects, said Lee. The human-like walker that the team created is about one inch tall."
Researchers at University of East Anglia, in the UK, have developed an Intelligent Fingerprint Drug Screening System that detects multiple categories of drugs, from a fingerprint sample, in as little as ten minutes. The non-invasive technology uses sweat that accumulates in the fingerprint and can work on both living and deceased persons. Since it does not require blood or urine samples, it does not require any biohazardous waste disposal or specialized collection equipment.
From the University of East Anglia article: "Unlike conventional screening methods which require the collection of saliva or urine samples, the technique is non-invasive, dignified and non-biohazardous. Its use in coroner mortuaries demonstrates the value of the system, which is also being used in drug rehabilitation centres and workplaces. Studies are also underway for its use in airport screening and for offender management applications within prisons and probation services."
Engineers at MIT have successfully built and flown a first of it's kind plane with no moving parts. The plane is powered using "ionic wind", a principle first identified in the 1920s, to create enough thrust to propel it over a sustained flight. This creates a plane this is completely silent and does not rely on fossil fuels to fly.
From the MIT article: "About nine years ago, Barrett started looking for ways to design a propulsion system for planes with no moving parts. He eventually came upon “ionic wind,” also known as electroaerodynamic thrust — a physical principle that was first identified in the 1920s and describes a wind, or thrust, that can be produced when a current is passed between a thin and a thick electrode. If enough voltage is applied, the air in between the electrodes can produce enough thrust to propel a small aircraft."
MIT's Cheetah 3 robot can climb a staircase covered in obstacles, leap, and gallop across treacherous terrain without the use of any cameras or external environmental sensors. The ninety pound robot, is designed to "feel" its way through surroundings similar to someone feeling their way around a pitch black room. A contact detection algorithm helps the robot determine its optimal walking pattern and how it reacts to stepping on a rock verses a sticks.
From the MIT article: "The contact detection algorithm helps the robot determine the best time to transition a leg between swing and step, by constantly calculating for each leg three probabilities: the probability of a leg making contact with the ground, the probability of the force generated once the leg hits the ground, and the probability that the leg will be in midswing. The algorithm calculates these probabilities based on data from gyroscopes, accelerometers, and joint positions of the legs, which record the leg’s angle and height with respect to the ground."
A University of California, Los Angeles neuroscientist has successfully restored bladder control to paralyzed patients using magnetic stimulation. Drawing on previous research where doctors used magnetic stimulation to improve nerve cell function, the technique applied the same type of stimulation to the spinal cord for 15 minutes every week. After a month of sessions, patients began to see significant improvement in bladder control and improvement in quality of life by 60%.
From the UCLA article: "In a study of five men whose injuries occurred five to 13 years ago, UCLA neuroscientists stimulated the lower spinal cord through the skin with a magnetic device placed at the lumbar spine. The research is the first to show that the technique enables people with spinal cord injuries to recover significant bladder control for up to four weeks between treatments. The findings are published today in Scientific Reports."