Category Archives: Engineering

Magic Mountain – The Engineering of Palomar Observatory

Hale Telescope (Caltech)

Hale Telescope (Caltech)

Time spent around the physical artifacts of discovery – laboratories, museum displays, university offices – can provoke questions about how advances are really made: Who is most responsible for new scientific knowledge?  And who gets the credit?  Is the breakthrough in the mind or in the tool that made it possible?

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Robots Like Us – From Tools to Teammates

If robots aren’t everywhere yet, they’re well on their way. Robots are getting better vision, dexterity, and intelligence, so they’ll be used to do more things in more settings. And they won’t be confined to special rooms or behind barriers on the factory floor, either; they’ll be working right next to us. Consider that robots are already used for some pretty personal tasks such as:

If robots aren’t quite colleagues, they’re already more than tools

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Archaeology from Above

The remnants of ancient cultures are often hidden by more than dirt. What isn’t eventually reclaimed by forests and jungles can be hidden by urban development. Technologies originally developed for other purposes, however, are being harnessed to survey large parts of the planet for science, and their effect on archaeology has been particularly dramatic. . .

Egypt may top most archaeological A-lists but Sarah Parcak, of the University of Arkansas, has shown that there’s still a lot left to excavate. She used satellite imagery to locate 17 new pyramids, 1000 tombs, and 3,100 ancient settlements without setting foot in Egypt’s sands.

Afghanistan isn’t a healthy place for hiking, especially for Westerners, so David Thomas, of La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia used Google Earth to locate over 670 new archaeological sites in Afghanistan’s Registan Desert without leaving his lab.

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Cruise Control – Automation, Trust, and Human Skill


Air France Flight 447 crashed into the Atlantic in 2009. Colgan Air Flight 3407 crashed the same year in Buffalo NY. In 2013, Asiana Flight 214 crashed on approach to San Francisco Airport and a few weeks later, a UPS cargo flight crashed on approach into Birmingham, Alabama. In each case, pilots were coping with problems in their automated cockpit systems at critical points in the flight and had to fall back on manual skills to fly their aircraft.  And, in each, case, the outcome was tragedy.

Automation has improved by orders of magnitude since its first serious use in WWII and flying safety has improved with it. Success, however, may have diminished one problem (pilot workload) while triggering another. Accident trends indicate that pilots may now be placing too much faith in automation at the expense of their fundamental flying skills. The effect isn’t limited to aviation, either; in an era of driverless cars, automated factories, and drones, we’re all involved with issues of how human agency best fits in with increasingly intelligent technologies.

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Driverless Cars – Still in the Hands of the Driver


Self-driving cars have been getting a lot of buzz lately.  Residents of Florida, Nevada, and California have already seen Google’s experimental cars cruising their highways, with sensor packages on their roofs and no one inside.

If the technology works in the “real world,” driverless cars are just around the corner, right?  Well, maybe. Just because the test cars are licensed to operate in three states doesn’t mean they’ll be for sale soon. Some important issues are still unresolved but the final effect may be merely to shift the driver from operator to supervisor – a typical transition in most automated systems.

The dream of driverless cars isn’t new.  Concepts for automated cars and highways go back to the 1930s, and have resurfaced periodically through the 1990s.

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3D Printing for Space – Handy, Tasty, and BIG

Between the end of the Space Shuttle program and the US budget sequester, it might look like NASA is scaling down. The space agency is making ambitious strides, however, in at least one technology – 3D printing. Along the way, the effect may be to revamp how we design big things and how we get those things running in space.


NASA thinks that 3D printing technology could transform space operations of the near and far future, and they’re

backing that belief with money. NASA just awarded a $500,000 contract to Tethers Unlimited (TUI) to demonstrate a robot-operated 3D printing system – SpiderFab – that could build large structures in orbit.

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