Archive for December, 2012


Time for Good Stuff

Post from Harry Hutchinson:

Harry Hutchinson

Harry Hutchinson

I got to meet two men who have a bold scheme that is full of entertaining fun and of serious practicality at the same time.

Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg, the president and CEO respectively of Solar Impulse SA, were in New York the other day to publicize their latest plan—to fly their solar-powered airplane on a trip across the United States. (I wrote about the plane for this blog last July.)

They are building another solar-powered aircraft back home in Switzerland, and they intend to fly that one around the world in 2015.

Piccard has made unusual trips before. He and Brian Jones were first to circumnavigate the globe non-stop in a balloon more than a dozen years ago. Now he and Borschberg plan to share the piloting across the U.S. and later all the way around the world.

When I first heard of their circumnavigating intentions a few years ago, I had thought they were talking about a non-stop solar-powered flight. But no, apparently that kind of thing was just for the balloon ride. As Piccard explained it, many people on the ground were probably disappointed that they never got a chance to see the record-breaking balloon.

The Solar Impulse plane will make frequent stops, at least one on each continent it crosses, Piccard said.

The phrase “around the world in 20 days” came up at one point in their presentation during a reception at the residence of the Swiss consul-general.

The aircraft is very lightweight and uses little energy to fly. Piccard talks about “zero fuel,” and sustainability, and will point out that nothing quite like this has existed before. He says, too, that many of the design ideas for efficiency and economy could be applied in homes and vehicles today.

When it comes to flying something so light, there are considerations about winds and weather. Piccard makes another point: You can do a lot if you’re not in a hurry.

The cruising speed for the plane is about 70 kilometers an hour, so speed records are out of the question anyway.

If you are taking your time, and burning no fuel, you can afford to fly south to find better conditions to fly east. Piccard did something like that on a recent flight from Rabat, Morocco, to Madrid, Spain.

The plane was to land in Madrid around midnight so it wouldn’t interfere with airport traffic. Had he flown directly from one city to the other, he says, he would have arrived too early. So to kill time he headed west over Iberia toward Portugal. For a time, the speed of the headwind was greater than that of the plane, so he flew backwards across Spain toward Madrid.

Yes, you can do cool stuff if you don’t have to hurry.


the all-too-human factor

Post from Harry Hutchinson:

Harry Hutchinson

Harry Hutchinson

Cars are safer now than they have ever been before. They are designed to protect the driver and passengers. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration records show a significant decline in traffic deaths beginning in 1988.

Traffic fatalities increased by about 1 percent in the first half of 2012 to 16,290 people. If the trend continues through the end of this month, there will be many people lost on the road this year, but that contrasts with a grimmer toll. Until late in the last decade, it was considered a good year if fewer than 40,000 people died in traffic accidents.

Many of you probably have an idea of all this already, but I want to go over it first so nobody thinks I’m a pessimist whining about the end of civilization as we know it.

The point I want to make is that the human factor has a way of competing with the best plans of engineers.

A telephone survey polling 5,500 teenage drivers and parents found habits among both groups that lead to high levels of distraction when driving. The study was conducted for Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A. Inc. by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. Toyota issued a press release summarizing preliminary findings.

I spend a lot of time on the road, as a driver and as a pedestrian, so studies of driving habits interest me. There are quite a few interesting points in the results, but the one thing that really caught my attention is the inability to turn off the smart phone.

According to Toyota’s release, “More than half of teens (54 percent) report that they use a hand-held cell phone while driving, similar to the six in ten parents (61 percent) who report that they do so.”

And then there’s this: “A quarter of teens (24 percent) respond to a text message once or more every time they drive. Nearly one in three teens (30 percent) read a text or email once or more every time they drive.”

And OK, take some of that “every time they drive” as kids bragging: “Wow, I’m so popular I get texted all the time and everywhere, even when get into the car.” But if the true rate is as low as one in ten, that puts your kneecaps in unusual danger every time you cross the street.

So, I’m passing this along to remind everybody who’s about to cross an intersection: Put down your phone and make sure the driver coming up is paying attention before you head into the open. Or not. It’s your risk.

You can see the rest of the Toyota press release.


at the mercy of sandy

December 2012This was a big moment for me

I realized that technology is a strong sparring partner to Mother Nature, but little more than that. For a while it was beginning to look like engineering had managed to sew up all the creases in Mother Nature’s fold. Not so.

Hurricane Sandy, which swept through here the last week in October, crippled parts of the Northeast, especially much of what we call the tri-state area—New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. ASME’s Manhattan headquarters was forced to close for a week. Personally, I was without electricity, heat, and hot water for six days—and I was, truly, one of the lucky ones.

When some of us were finally able to access the Internet—the fury of the storm interrupted even our now most basic form of communication—a colleague wrote the following:

It has been a rough week to say the least. I live on a barrier island and I am close to the beach. There is extensive damage where I live. The streets are covered with between 1 and 4 feet of sand and a lot of debris. There are wrecked cars everywhere. Two cars floated in front of my house and landed there. There is no power, water or sewers. There is nowhere to buy food, gas or other essentials. Aid from the authorities was slow in coming, but it is now starting to fall into place. There is a 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew in place. The National Guard and state police are patrolling the streets. So it is not livable there right now. My wife and I are staying with relatives for now.

Believe it or not, my colleague was one of the lucky ones as well. Others lost even more; some even their lives. The vastness of the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy was remarkable. This area has never seen anything like it. Based on the age of the infrastructure and topography of this region, the fact that I was without what I’ve gotten used to considering as essential rights—electricity, heat, and hot water—for only a week is akin to a technological marvel.

Yet, as I write this—and the cleanup is still in progress—some politicians, pundits, and even my own neighbors are beginning to blame local utility companies for not being ready for such a storm, for not reacting fast enough, for not having the technology infrastructure in place to withstand the strong winds, for not restoring electricity fast enough.

Human nature, much like Mother Nature, often eludes the realities of technology that is stretched and not infallible. We can’t regulate what is beyond our control—like the weather. We can only work to improve the technology that mitigates the aftermath of storms like Sandy and her kind.

Even if we are not affected personally, intellectually we comprehend the saga of helpless victims of natural disasters in remote areas of the world, or disasters that occur in our own countries. As never before, I now appreciate the technology that I’ve grown to take for granted. It was a big moment.

The Editor

John G. Falcioni is Editor-in-Chief of Mechanical Engineering magazine, the flagship publication of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

December 2012

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