Engineering in the news and around the ‘net

It’s my turn to bring you a roundup of engineering stories in the news over the last few weeks – and what a few weeks it has been! Firstly, an insight into the technology that enabled Felix Baumgartner’s record breaking leap from the edge of space. Also, news of a near production cardboard bicycle that could cost as little as $20,  and Nissans plans for steer-by-wire cars to hit dealers in 2013. Finally, and for no reason other than I can, a gratuitous link to a picture of eleven SR-71 Blackbirds (perhaps the single most awesome thing to trash the sound barrier…. until Felix) hanging out together.

The technology behind Felix Baumgartner’s leap from the stratosphere

For those of you who have been living under a rock, last weekend Felix Baumgartner, an Austrian skydiver/daredevil, jumped from a capsule 39,045 metres above the New Mexico desert. Yes, that’s 24 miles up. He proceeded to freefall for 4 minutes and 19 seconds, reaching speeds up to 834mph. He became the first human being to break the sound barrier outside of a vehicle and without any external propulsion (other than gravity). So, what does one wear when jumping from the edge of space, breaking the sound barrier in the process, before somehow slowing down and making an all too easy looking landing? And how do you get there in the first place? Well, Art Thompson, Red Bull Stratos’ technical project director explains some of the tech in an interview, and CNN have a summary of some of the tech that went into the capsule, the suit & the parachutes.

Cardboard bicycle close to production

As I’m sure you’re aware, used correctly, cardboard (more specifically corrugated card) can be an amazing building material. It’s cheap, light and rigid, if used correctly. An Israeli engineer, with a history of experimenting with ‘alternative’ applications of cardboard, has designed a bicycle that works around the strengths/weaknesses of cardboard that he says is close to production and could cost as little as $20! The man behind it, Izhar Gafni, hopes the bike could help mobility in the most congested cities and impoverished rural areas alike, with local manufacturing opportunities and low costs. He even says it is waterproof!

Nissan’s plans to have a steer-by-wire car in dealerships by 2013

‘X’-by-wire controls are where the users inputs are transmitted not through mechanical/hydraulic linkages, but through electronic signals. ‘Drive-by-wire’ (throttle) has become increasingly prevalent in the passenger car market (first used by BMW in ’88) for optimal control of driveability & emissions, and certain vehicles are currently available with ‘Brake-by-wire’, but to this day, ‘steer-by-wire’ has yet to be applied to mass produced cars. Steer-by-wire is already extensively used in aerospace (fly-by-wire), but has yet to make the crossover into passenger cars; Nissan have announced plans to change that next year, stating they will give users  an ‘improved driving experience’. Car buyers have long been wary of allowing computer systems to take over fully (and sometimes rightfully so), so Nissan have decided to install a backup mechanical linkage that would allow the steering wheel and front wheels when problems occur. Steer-by-wire is one of the key stepping stones in enabling driverless cars, so this author will be looking on with interest!

Gratuitous SR-71 Story

And finally, for no reasons other than I spotted it on the the web recently and I can, here’s a link to a picture of eleven(!) SR-71 Blackbirds hanging out together. (I think it would constitute a ‘flock’?)

SR-71 at Duxford Imperial War Museum

To vaguely justify this piece, I thought I’d remind you all how awesome the Blackbirds were/still are. Simply put, it was the fastest, and highest flying (sustained altitude) manned aircraft in operation. It could fly at 25,929m (still some way below Felix, which puts his leap into perspective!), reach speeds of 2,193.2mph, and fly from New York to London in 1 hour 54 minutes and 56.4 seconds (average of Mach 2.68 including slowing down for some fuel). For comparison, Concorde took a rather tardy 2 hours 52 minutes; a 747 takes a glacial 6 hours 15 minutes. The SR-71 came out of the original ‘skunkworks’ at Lockheed as is an intoxicating mix of titanium and composites. It’s purpose was strategic reconnaissance;  it had no weapons and it’s strategy for dealing with ground-to-air missiles was simply to accelerate and leave them wondering where it went. It’s J58 engines are a work of art, using shockwave management to effectively become a ramjet at high mach numbers. It was more efficient the faster it went. And it was bloomin beautiful, so the sight of eleven of them together got my attention!

Peter Bonnington

I am one of the current vice chairs of the Young Members Board at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE). I’m my role, I also sit on Council & the Education Advisory Group.

I lead a research based team for Delphi Diesel Systems, developing diesel common rail fuel systems for the heavy duty market. I am studying my Engineering Doctorate in Systems Engineering & Management at the Universities of Bristol & Bath.

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