Saturday, December 20, 2014


Top 5 Ways You Are Spied On Every Day And Don’t Know It
By Ryan Dube,
Make Use Of, 19 December 2014.

You walk into the supermarket, and the camera on the ceiling sends your face to the corporate mainframe for facial recognition analysis. You log into Facebook, and a key logger on your computer emails your password to a covert security building inside of Beijing. Do these sound like scenes from a movie? Believe it or not, they could be happening to you every day.

Many people are oblivious to the ways in which they are monitored nearly every day, in some aspect of their lives. It might be while conducting business at a store, getting money out of an ATM, or even just talking on their cell phone while walking down a city street.

The first step to protecting yourself is understanding the biggest surveillance threats that actually exist. The next step is taking precautions to protect yourself against them. In this article, you’ll learn about those surveillance threats, and some ways to safeguard against them.

1. Facial Recognition

The first inklings that something was amiss in the world of consumer surveillance came in November of 2013, when the Guardian reported that the UK retailer Tesco was installing advanced face-scanning technology called OptimEyes, for marketing purposes.

The intent of the system went far beyond the typical security cameras you may find in stores. Instead, it was to scan the eyes of petrol customers to determine age and gender for the purpose of delivering targeted ads to the screens installed in the petrol stations.

The use of such technology has only expanded. Companies like Face First offer surveillance technologies to retailers that use advanced facial recognition technology to identify known shoplifters and alert store managers to their presence. The technology is also used to recognized known repeat “good” customers, so that they can receive VIP treatment - making sure they return to the store in the future.

For retailers this technology is promising, but it’s a disturbing privacy concern to consumer and privacy rights advocates. As far back as 2012, when this was initially coming to maturity, the Consumers Union issued an open letter to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), advising the agency that the technology - while immensely useful for the retail and advertising industries - could pose very serious privacy issues for consumers.

“The ubiquitous installation of facial recognition devices in malls, supermarkets, schools, doctor’s offices and city sidewalks could seriously undermine individual’s desire and expectation for anonymity.”

The Consumers Union pointed out that such technology targeting children could make the current youth obesity epidemic worse, and targeting teens with weight-loss products could make adolescent self-esteem issues worse. The most serious issue is the fact that there are no guidelines preventing companies from collecting and storing such surveillance information about you and your purchasing behaviours.

“Facial detection and recognition software could offer consumers a number of tangible benefits. At the same time, we cannot ignore the fact that these technologies pose significant privacy risks and seriously threaten consumers’ right to anonymity.”

The next time you’re going shopping, keep an eye out for those overhead cameras tracking your every move!

2. Webcam Hacking


In May of 2014, U.S. officials arrested 90 people who were part of an organization known as “Blackshades”. Blackshades produced and sold software that let hackers connect into any computer running Microsoft Windows and take control of the webcam. One college student was even arrested for using the software to capture nude photos of Miss Teen USA.

If  you’re wondering whether you should be concerned, consider the fact that the organization sold thousands of copies totalling US$350,000 of sales, with an estimated 700,000 victims across 100 countries since 2010. Yes, it really is possible for someone to hack your webcam, as James recently explained.

The scary part of the software is that it isn’t just the webcam that’s susceptible. Hackers get access to keystrokes and passwords, they can take screenshots, and they can access your computer files. The only safety that might set your mind at ease is the fact that victims need to be tricked into actually clicking on a malicious link that installs the offending software. If you’re clever enough at identifying phishing emails, and you avoid clicking on suspicious web links, you may be able to keep yourself safe from this particular threat.

Sounds simple to keep yourself safe right? Well, think again.

In December of 2014, Telegraph writer Sophie Curtis asked her “ethical hacker” friend John Yeo, an employee of Trustwave, to try and hack into her computer. The hackers worked tirelessly to learn as much as they could about Sophie online, and eventually crafted phony emails that fooled Sophie into clicking - immediately infecting her laptop and giving hackers access to everything, including her webcam. Even people who believe they are immune to such tactics can be fooled.

3. Fake Cell Towers


In September of 2014, rumours started surfacing about so-called “fake cell towers” suspected of intercepting cell phone communications around the country. These towers were confirmed by investigator Aaron Turner, also the owner of mobile security firm Integricell.

Aaron Turner told The Blaze that the odd towers were set up to literally trick cell phones into thinking that the fake tower was the only available tower in the local area.

“These towers are tricking your phone into saying ‘I need to talk 9-1-1 information to you,’ but then it doesn’t.”

According to Turner, the towers - concentrated heavily in Pennsylvania and downtown Washington D.C. - could literally “break open your communications” and see what’s going on with the phone.

Multiple other investigators confirmed “encounters” with fake cell towers - yet no actual photos surfaced of any real cell towers in any specific location. There were questions as to whether the odd “interceptor” towers were yet another arm of a wide-reaching federal surveillance program already under steady public criticism. Others suspected that the towers could be part of an international espionage program.

It wasn’t until two months later, in November that the Wall Street Journal broke the news that the Department of Justice - essentially police authorities across the nation - were actually placing fake mobile phone “towers” on airplanes through the use of a device called a DRTBOX, nicknamed a “dirtbox.” Made by Digital Receiver Technology (a subsidiary of Boeing), the device looks like a cell tower to mobile phones, and performs a “middle man attack” to extract registration information from those phones.

Authorities were flying those planes around metropolitan areas in order to scoop up as much cell phone information as possible.

“Planes are equipped with devices - some known as ‘dirtboxes’ to law-enforcement officials because of the initials of the Boeing Co. unit that produces them - which mimic cell towers of large telecommunications firms and trick cell phones into reporting their unique registration information.”

Identifying a person’s cell phone “identity” and location information would allow law-enforcement to locate and track pretty much any citizen with a cell phone. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sifted through publicly available documents on the use of these “Stingray” devices by state and local police, and published a map showing where the devices are currently in use.


As technology advances faster than the laws can keep up, authorities are taking full advantage of loopholes to collect as much data as possible. You can learn more about these efforts and the efforts to keep them concealed at the ACLU investigation page. If you live in any of the coloured areas on the map, the chances are your cell phone data and location has been collected by local or state law enforcement.

4. China Cyberwar Hacking

Photo via CIO Today

If you think that only your own government is spying on you, think again. In late October of 2014, the Washington Post announced that a security research team had identified a sophisticated Chinese cyber espionage group called “Axiom” that was targeting western government agencies in a bid to gather any intelligence surrounding Chinese domestic and international policies.

In mid-October, before the publication of the Washington Post, the FBI had actually issued a warning to U.S. industry, to be alert of an advanced Chinese hacker group running a campaign to collect sensitive and proprietary information from U.S. companies and government agencies.

According to the FBI, the new group is a second state-sponsored unit, following the earlier disclosure by security experts of another government hacking unit called People’s Liberation Army Unit 61398. The Axiom group has been operating for at least four years, specifically targeting industrial and economic interests in Western countries.

The important thing to understand here is that if you work for a major corporation that has well-protected proprietary secrets, you may very well be targeted by the Axiom group. It deploys what are known as “zero-day exploits” of Microsoft’s Windows operating system - one of the more difficult and advanced hacking techniques. By infiltrating a company or government agency through the computer of any single employee, the group can attempt to gain access to network or system access, and potentially gain access to sensitive and valuable industrial secrets.

Don’t think that your computer is a valuable target for these hackers? It is. So work with your corporate security group and make sure to take security rules and policies seriously.

5. Industrial Espionage at Business Conferences

Photo: Marcus Evans

Your company decides to send you to this year’s industry conference. Maybe it’s CES or some other really cool tech conference. Packing up your things for the trip, you remember to bring your work laptop, company supplied cell phone, and of course a memory stick containing some of your most important files from work. Most people, in their excitement about taking a business trip and seeing so many cool technologies, never for a moment consider that they may be putting their own company’s competitive advantage in the marketplace at risk.

How so? By not properly security company laptops, mobile phones and data while traveling. International espionage groups know that travel is when company employees are most vulnerable, and so conferences are a major target for industrial intelligence collection.

There are so many security weak points when you’re traveling and attending a conference, so it’s important to keep all of these in mind, and take appropriate action to protect yourself before you end up a victim of industrial espionage.
  • Holding videoconferencing meetings over an insecure hotel network opens up the transmission of confidential information to clever hackers.
  • Theft of laptops or cell phones from hotel rooms may provide agents with proprietary company information stored on those devices.
  • Use our list of tips for safeguarding against government surveillance of your cell phone.
  • Using your company laptop in an open public area allows spies to observe your activities from behind.
  • Having phone conversations about sensitive company matters in a public area allows anyone to overhear the conversation just by standing nearby.
  • Giving a presentation at an industry conference could potentially leak confidential company information if you don’t properly “scrub” those presentations beforehand.
In 2014, Carl Roper wrote a book titled “Trade Secret Theft, Industrial Espionage, and the China Threat,” where he explained that some Chinese industrial espionage efforts actually focus on gathering technical information from openly available presentations at conferences.

“Conferences with such subject areas as composite materials, missiles, engineers, lasers, computers, marine technology, space, microelectronics, chemical engineering, radars, armaments, and optical communications are just some of the more interesting ones that the Chinese will try to attend. Data from these types of conferences will be among the most significant contributions to their projects.”

It’s debatable whether information provided in a public conference presentation may provide espionage agents with trade secrets, however poorly scrubbed (or completely uncensored) presentations are very likely to accidentally reveal very big clues about a corporation’s trade secrets.

Thankfully, there are ways to protect yourself. If you are giving a presentation for your company, always pass the presentation to your company’s Communications Department or the Legal Department. Some companies may even require that all external communications get approved by either or both departments. Don’t forget to do this, or it could very well cost you your job.
  • Make use of laptop theft alarm devices or software that will alert anyone nearby if your laptop is ever removed from where you left it.
  • Make sure you lock your laptop, and that your information on it is properly encrypted. Doing this will dramatically reduce the espionage dangers from laptop theft.
  • If you have to bring a memory stick with you, make sure to password protect it, or encrypt it with software like Truecrypt.
  • Boost your mobile lock screen security. Christian offered some great screen lock tips for accomplishing this.
  • Use your laptop in an area where no one can stand or sit behind you and see your screen. This seems like common sense, but far too many people don’t pay attention.
Kihara recently provided  an extensive list of additional tips and safeguards you can use to protect yourself from illegal spying. Well worth a read.

Be Aware, But Don’t Obsess

Being aware of all of the ways you are being spied on every day doesn’t mean that you have to constantly worry about who is listening to you, reading your emails or tracking your location. What it does mean is that you should always be aware of your surroundings, and how you are using technology when transmitting information that you actually consider to be either sensitive or very personal.

There are plenty of ways to evade surveillance attempts - even attempts by your own government - by using encrypted resources when you’re dealing with sensitive information, or simply beefing up your computer’s security environment in a big way.

But once you’ve put all of your safeguards in place, stop worrying. Life your life, comfortable in the knowledge that you’ve taken the appropriate steps to protect yourself.

[Source: Make Use Of. Edited.]


10 ways graphene could change the world
By Bryan Nelson,
Mother Nature Network, 18 December 2014.

This ultra-strong, ultra-thin supermaterial could yield a technological revolution.

Graphene might be the world's most useful material. Though it is only one carbon-atom thick, it is 100 times stronger than steel, and highly flexible to boot. Ever since it was first isolated by researchers about a decade ago, the list of patents involving graphene has grown exponentially every year. It may not be long before this supermaterial spawns a technological revolution that could truly change the world.

Here are 10 of the most profound graphene inventions to look forward to in the near future.

1. Fuel from the air

Photo: AlexanderAlUS/Wikimedia Commons

The same researchers who won the Nobel Prize for isolating graphene, Andre Geim of Manchester University and colleagues, have recently shown that graphene could be used to make mobile electric generators powered by hydrogen extracted from the air. Geim's team discovered that although graphene is impermeable to even the smallest of atoms, it can nevertheless be used to sieve hydrogen atoms that are stripped of their electrons.

This means that graphene films could be used to vastly improve the efficiency of proton-conducting membranes, which are essential components of fuel cell technology. Geim imagines a future where vehicles could be powered just by the tiny amounts of hydrogen in the air.

"Essentially, you pump your fuel from the atmosphere and get electricity out of it," Geim said.

2. Predator vision

Photo: PEOSoldier/Flickr

The classic sci-fi action film "Predator" features an alien assassin that has the ability to see the world in thermal infrared. Now thanks to graphene, you might also be able to have Predator vision. Researchers from the University of Michigan have developed a graphene contact lens that allows its wearer to sense the whole infrared spectrum - plus visible and ultraviolet light.

"If we integrate it with a contact lens or other wearable electronics, it expands your vision," said Zhaohui Zhong, one of the researchers developing the technology. "It provides you another way of interacting with your environment."

3. Graphene-based electronics

Photo: Ji Hye Hong via The New York Times

Forget about Silicon Valley; the future may rest in Graphene Valley. Today our electronic devices rely on silicon as an essential component, but transistors made of silicon are approaching the minimum size at which they can be effective, which means the speed of our devices will soon bottom out. The ultra-thin nature of graphene could be the answer to this problem, however. It may not be long before graphene replaces silicon in our electronic devices, which will make them faster than ever before.

Graphene will also make it possible to build super thin, flexible touchscreens that would be virtually unbreakable. You'll never have to worry about shattering your smartphone again.

4. The perfect condom

Image via Materia

Graphene may even have the ability to improve your sex life. Condoms made from graphene are super-thin, which means more sensation. They're also super-strong, which means they never break - which is the true test of any reliable condom.

"If this project is successful, we might have a use for graphene which will touch our everyday life in the most intimate way," said Dr. Aravind Vijayaraghavan, the materials scientist who's leading the research into the graphene condom.

5. A world without rust


Because graphene is virtually impermeable, a coat of graphene-based paint could one day be used to eradicate corrosion and rust. Researchers have even shown that glassware or copper plates covered with graphene paint can be used as containers for strongly corrosive acids.

"Graphene paint has a good chance to become a truly revolutionary product for industries that deal with any kind of protection either from air, weather elements or corrosive chemicals,” said Dr. Rahul Nair, one of the researchers developing the technology. “Those include, for example, medical, electronics and nuclear industry or even shipbuilding, to name but the few."

6. Drinkable oceans


Yes, graphene could even help to solve the world water crisis. Membranes made from graphene could be made that are big enough to let water through, but small enough to filter out the salt. In other words, graphene could revolutionize desalination technology. MIT researchers have found "that the water permeability of this material is several orders of magnitude higher than conventional reverse osmosis membranes, and that nanoporous graphene may have a valuable role to play for water purification."

7. Glowing wallpaper

Photo: R▲▲S/Flickr

Glowing walls could soon replace the light bulb, thanks to the development of new graphene-based electrode technology that makes displays thinner than ever before. Such glowing "wallpaper" provides more pleasant, adjustable light across a room than light bulbs can, and it can also be made more energy-efficient. And let's face it, few things seem more futuristic than illuminated, "Tron"-like walls.

"By using graphene instead of conventional metal electrodes, components of the future will be much easier to recycle and thereby environmentally attractive," said Nathaniel Robinson from Linköping University, where the technology is being developed.

8. Bionic humans


If you feel overly-integrated with your technology already, you ain't seen nothing yet. Graphene research is now leading to experiments where electronics can integrate with your biological systems. Basically, it may soon be possible to be implanted with graphene gadgets that can read your nervous system or talk to your cells. This could lead to breakthroughs in medical science, as doctors can better monitor your body and also potentially help to diagnose and adjust your biological systems for optimal health. The technology could also help fitness fanatics track and monitor their workout regimen.

9. Stronger liquor


Researchers have discovered that graphene membranes can also be used to distill spirits and make them stronger. Graphene is impermeable to all gases and liquids, but a graphene filter can allow water to evaporate more quickly. When placed over a bottle of vodka, for instance, researchers found that the membrane allowed water from the alcohol to escape, which distilled the vodka and made it stronger.

Though not as profound as some other graphene discoveries, this finding does at least have the potential to one day revolutionize frat parties everywhere.

10. Bulletproof armour

Image: Jae-Hwang Lee via

Given how thin and strong graphene is, it seems inevitable that it should also be used to build improved bulletproof vests. Sure enough, researchers have found that sheets of graphene absorbed twice as much impact as Kevlar, the material commonly used in bulletproof vests. Also an improvement over Kevlar, graphene is super-lightweight and therefore less restrictive to wear. The breakthrough could help keep our soldiers and law enforcement officers safe when being fired at. The thin nature of graphene could even lead to developments in other bulletproof surfaces, such as windows.

Related on Mother Nature Network:
Top image: Fluorographene structure seen from side. Credit: Krapnik/Wikimedia Commons.

[Source: Mother Nature Network. Edited. Some images added.]


Top 10 Techs that Exploded in 2014
By Tracy Staedter,
Discovery News, 18 December 2014.

Some technologies, like solar power, which have been around for decades made shining breakthroughs this year, while others you may have never heard of, like quantum teleportation, came on strong. Check out ten technologies from 2014 that never let up the entire year.

1. Solar Power

The average solar panel now costs about 75 percent less than it did just five years ago and the price
continues to drop.

A report from the US Department of Energy says, "The year 2014 marks a significant milestone in the history of American solar energy." Five new concentrating solar power plants (three in California, one in Nevada and one in Arizona) were scheduled to come online in 2014.

The biggest of those - and so far, the world's largest - is the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in California's Mojave Desert, which came online earlier this year and is generating 392 megawatts (MW) of power, enough to provide 140,000 homes with electricity.

Solar power has come down drastically in price. Advances in the underlying technology of solar panels as well as ramped-up production in China has made this form of renewable energy competitive with natural gas, even as the price of fossil fuels drops. According to Forbes, the full-cycle, unsubsidized cost of solar power is about 13 cents per kilowatt-hour, versus 12 cents for advanced coal plants.

It should come as no surprise then that electricity generated from solar power plants is rising. As of September 2014, solar power in the United States reached 15.9 gigawatts of installed capacity, enough to power 3.2 million homes, reports Forbes. That number is more than twice as big as it was in 2013, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Efficiency levels are improving as well. Just this year, scientists at the University of New South Wales set a record by developing solar cells that convert 46 percent of the sun's energy into electricity - the highest conversion to date.

This year was a good year for solar power, but it's not the last. Solar power will continue to come down in price and electricity generated from it will continue to soar.

2. 3-D Printing

A man looks at a model of a Buddha (C) being printed from a 3-D printer at the 2014 China International
Industry Fair in Shanghai.

Nearly every time you turned around this past year, someone was 3-D printing some thing. If you're not up to speed on this technology, a 3-D printer contains a kind of ink that is less like pen ink and more like a viscous plastic. Working from a digital file, a 3-D printer builds up a three-dimensional object by printing one thin layer at time. After the "ink" dries, the object becomes solid.

This past year, the technology was used to print just about anything you could imagine, including chairs, garments, drones, cars, customized sex toys, houses, electronics, biological parts like prosthetic devices and skull parts and even food.

Three-dimensional printing is also making its way into space. This past summer, the first 3-D printer designed for microgravity was delivered to the International Space Station, and in November, the very first object was 3-D printed there. In the future, printing components or even food in space could reduce spacecraft payloads to simply printers and ink.

3. Augmented Reality

A model demonstrates a virtual fitting room using a technology of augmented reality, produced by Japan's
apparel shop chain Urban Research in Tokyo.

Add graphics, sounds, the illusion of touch or even smell to your world and you have augmented reality. Google's Glass, which overlays graphics onto the world via the lenses is just one example. But since Glass came out in 2012, augmented reality tech seems to be growing in popularity.

Jaguar Land Rover recently announced using the technology to overlay graphics on the vehicle's windshield that provide not only navigational information but also information about pedestrians or other cars that the driver may not be able to see. The technology is also being adapted for retail stores (above) to allow shoppers to try on clothing virtually.

A helmet made by Fusar Technologies incorporates a heads-up display (HUD) system, plus video recording and voice commands. And you can even buy a scuba diving mask that has a built-in, heads-up display indicating dive time, depth, water temperature and more.

4. Brain Computer Interfaces

A pilot inside a flight simulator wears an electroencephalography (EEG) cap and uses his thoughts to land a plane

What's on your mind? Scientists are getting better and better at interpreting brain signals and converting those messages into computer commands. Not too many years ago, researchers figured out a way for a person to use her brain to control a cursor on a screen. But science has advanced much farther today.

In May, a team from the Institute for Flight System Dynamics and the Berlin Institute of Technology developed a technique that allowed a pilot to precisely manoeuvre a plane in a simulator without touching the controls or pedals.

Flying a plane in a simulator is good, clean fun, but there are nobler causes. Namely, controlling a prosthetic device wired to a person's nervous system. So-called neuroprostheses are becoming more and more advanced, giving amputees the ability to move artificial limbs as if they were real.

Back in October, two research groups - at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and the Chalmers University in Sweden - reported on their success getting two patients with prosthetic limbs to gently grasp objects, and even "feel" the texture of those objects.

A brain machine interface was also developed by scientists at Ohio State to help a quadriplegic man move his hand using his own thoughts. This was the first time anything like this ever worked. The scientists implanted a computer chip in the man's brain and then used a Neurobridge to reroute his brain signals to a sleeve that transmitted electrical signals to the man's forearm and hand. After some practice, he moved his hand with his thoughts.

And if that weren't great enough, Japanese exoskeleton manufacturer, Cyberdyne, announced this year that they were making brain-controlled exoskeletons that would assist people by detecting electrical pulses in a person's skin when the wearer's brain sent the message to the limb to move.

But arguably the biggest event and perhaps the most-watched happened at the World Cup Games' opening ceremony in Sao Paolo, Brazil, when a paraplegic man wearing a mind-controlled exoskeleton made the first kick.

5. Exoskeletons

A more complete version of this military exoskeleton should be ready between 2016 and 2018.

While we're on the topic of exoskeletons: This year, the U.S. Military made available a prototype of its Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit, or TALOS. The suit protects its wearer from bullets, assists with heavy-lifting and also comes with an arsenal of technology to sense the environment. But these suits are not just for the military.

Shipyard workers employed by South Korean corporation Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering are wearing exoskeletons to assist with heavy-lifting duties. And wearable robot arms, developed by researchers at MIT, were designed to help warehouse workers reach and lift heavy packages.

One of the biggest indicators that exoskeletons are exploding onto the scene, though, was the announcement of a new competition called the Cybathlon. The event is for people with disabilities who use advanced assistive devices, including robotic and exoskeleton technologies. The competition is being organized by ETH Zurich and the Swiss National Competence Centre of Research in Robotics to not only challenge parathletes but also the technologies that assist them. The first event will debut in 2016.

6. Activity Trackers

The latest in FitBit tech - FitBit Force.

Wearable tech, namely activity trackers - a.k.a. fit bands - came onto the consumer market strong this year. Last year, around gift-giving time, you may have had a handful to choose from, but this year, the choices are almost overwhelming. Basic Peak, FitBit, Garmin, Jawbone, Micrsoft, Fitbit Flash. The list goes on. (If you're looking to buy one, by the way, here's a nice comparison chart from PC Mag of the nicest ones out there.)

What's interesting to us is not necessarily the myriad choices, but the data being gathered. For the first time ever, researchers are able to collect tons of information about how people move throughout the day from a host of individuals that represent a range of ages. Gone are the surveys that scientists used to rely on and in their stead are actual data points amassed by sensors. More than ever before, scientists are able to study how and when people are moving, as well as analyze when people are sitting, standing and walking.

Such fine-grained data will change both how scientists study activity and also shed light on how much is just right. We're looking forward to those results.

7. Quantum Computing

A handful of experiments this year teleported the quantum state of a light particle - that is, the direction it was
spinning - from one location to another.

Research in quantum computing has not yet advanced beyond the adolescent years. But in 2014, we heard several buzzes, bleeps and blips coming from the quantum computer room.

First, there was the news early in the year that documents provided by Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA was building "cryptologically useful quantum computer." Such a computer would be much, much faster than any supercomputer currently known to humankind and would also be virtually impossible to hack, thanks to some laws of quantum physics.

We also learned this year that the NSA is not the only one working hard to develop such a computer. In September, Google hired physicist John Martinis and his team from the University of California, Santa Barbara, to work on a quantum computing chip. In the past, Google has funded research for D-Wave Systems, a Canadian company that has a machine with quantum properties. And Microsoft, which has also been devoting resources to the area for several years, launched a new quantum hardware design group this year, headed up Burton Smith, a well-known supercomputer designer.

My favourite piece of news this year in the field of quantum computing, however, comes from a team of researchers from the University of Geneva, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. In December, they announced they had teleported the quantum state of a particle of light - that is, the direction it was spinning - 15.5 miles across an optical fibre, becoming the farthest successful quantum teleportation feat yet.

To think that the state of a subatomic particle was teleported 15 miles really gets the imagination going. If only we could blink and instantly teleport to Europe or Asia. Hey, we can dream, can't we?

8. Fusion

A concept fusion reactor creates renewable, emission-free energy.

Fusion energy is one of those areas of research that always seems decades off from becoming a reality. But if we had it, we could power the planet with limitless, emission-free energy.

Well, a new announcement this year was the first ever to indicate we might be closer than ever to fusion energy. Researchers from Lockheed Martin said demonstrated the feasibility of a reactor small enough to fit on the back of a truck and capable of generating 100-megawatts of electricity.

The researchers claim they could have a prototype built in a year and a working truck-sized reactor in 10 years' time. Now that is huge!

9. Cloaking

Using simple, inexpensive, off-the-shelf components, researchers were able to hide objects in the visible
spectrum of light.

Cloaking technology is ubiquitous in science. We have the evil Romulans from Star Trek, who can cloak their spaceship at a moment's notice, and we have Harry Potter's cape, which can turn the wearer invisible. In science, however, cloaking technology is still new.

Up until this year, most researchers had some success cloaking parts of the light spectrum not visible to the human eye. They found a way to hide a 3-D object from magnetic waves, cloak sound, hide metal objects from a magnetic field and make an entire city impervious to the seismic waves from an earthquake.

But this year, we finally got our wish. Researchers at at the University of Rochester used simple, inexpensive, off-the-shelf components to hide objects in the visible spectrum of light. Instead of using expensive "meta-materials" used by other scientists interested in cloaking objects, John Howell, a professor of physics at the University of Rochester, and graduate student Joseph Choi combined four optical lenses to bend light and send it through the centre. It's not perfect yet, but demonstrates that some of the most difficult problems often have simple solutions.

10. Floating Architecture

Scientific research has show that over the last 100 years, sea levels worldwide have risen by as
much as eight inches.

Perhaps it was all of the news about melting glaciers and the imminent, irreversible rise of global temperatures, but we sure did see a lot of news this year about floating architecture. There was the floating farm that harvests iceberg meltwater, the floating beach planned for NYC, the floating nuclear plant that would be unaffected by a tsunami, and an underwater city, to name a few.

The Netherlands-based architectural firm, Waterstudio, leads the pack in this area. They've come up with several different concepts, including an apartment building, a hotel, a complex for low-income people and even a nature preserve.

As 2014 comes to a close, we're ready to roll up our pant legs and wade into 2015.

Top image: Solar power, via Whirlwind Steel.

[Source: Discovery News. Edited. Top image added.]

Friday, December 19, 2014


The 20 Greatest Engineering Feats of 2014
By Amanda Orson,
Engineer Jobs, 12 December 2014.

As we’ve done in 2012 and 2013, we’re bringing you what we think were this year’s biggest engineering feats. But, as our writer Kal astutely pointed out, “2014 is, like, a whole year. A lot of stuff happened.” So we’ve expanded from our previous lists of 8 and 12 to a more robust 20.

We think you’ll agree 2014 was a pretty great year in engineering.

20. Compression Space Suit will Aid in Planetary Exploration. (Also, it looks badass)


Location: Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
Who’s Working on it: MIT
Field: Aerospace Engineering

Dr. Dava Newman, a professor of Aeronautics, Astronautics and Engineering Systems at MIT, created compression garments that incorporate small, springlike coils that contract in response to heat to improve upon the out-dated, clunky spacesuits astronauts currently wear.
“With conventional spacesuits, you’re essentially in a balloon of gas that’s providing you with the necessary one-third of an atmosphere [of pressure,] to keep you alive in the vacuum of space,” says Newman, who has worked for the past decade to design a form-fitting, flexible spacesuit of the future. “We want to achieve that same pressurization, but through mechanical counter-pressure - applying the pressure directly to the skin, thus avoiding the gas pressure altogether. We combined passive elastics with active materials.
Ultimately, the big advantage is mobility and a very lightweight suit for planetary exploration.”
19. Engineers Build World’s Smallest, Fastest Nanomotor

Location: Austin, Texas, USA
Who’s Working on it: University of Texas at Austin
Field: Mechanical Engineering

Leave it to engineers to work on curing cancer with super-fast miniature robots.

The smallest, fastest, and longest-running tiny synthetic motor to date. The team’s nanomotor is an important step toward developing miniature machines that could one day move through the body to administer insulin for diabetics when needed, or target and treat cancer cells without harming good cells.
18. Robot Cheetahs and Kangaroos, Oh My.

Location: Arnstadt, Germany and Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
Who’s Working on it: Festo AG and MIT
Field: Mechanical Engineering

So it’s safe to say animalian robots had a pretty good year. Scientists at Festo AG of Germany developed a “Bionic Kangaroo,” that technologically reproduces the unique way a kangaroo moves. Bonus: You can summon it with simple arm gestures! (Fast forward to 1:00 in the above video to see it in action).

Stateside MIT’s Biomimetic Robotics Laboratory developed “an algorithm for bounding that they’ve successfully implemented in a robotic cheetah.” At the moment it’s clocking in at 10 mph but they expect this same model will eventually reach 30 mph, or about half the speed of a cheetah in the wild. Sangbae Kim, an associate professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, describes why this particular animalian robot is different:
Most robots are sluggish and heavy, and thus they cannot control force in high-speed situations,” Kim says. “That’s what makes the MIT cheetah so special: You can actually control the force profile for a very short period of time, followed by a hefty impact with the ground, which makes it more stable, agile, and dynamic.”
17. Solar Energy Became Much More Efficient


Location: Australia & Germany
Who’s Working on it: University of NSW and Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy
Field: Solar Engineering

Engineers at the University of New South Wales announced that they have achieved a world-beating 40.4% “conversion efficiency” by using commercially available solar cells combined with a mirror and filters that reduce wasted energy.

Reddit’s /r/Technology subforum, however, was quick to point out that “The Germans have 44.7% efficiency already,” and subsequent conversation debated which claim was legitimate on the basis of mass produceable vs. lab cells.

All of which works to confirm what Martin Green, director of the Australian Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics, said:
It’s horse and buggy days as far as solar is concerned at the moment.
So, TL;DR - while we’re not quite ready to abandon fossil fuels, we’ve made great strides in realizing commercially viable solar energy this year. And this won’t be the only achievement in solar to make our list.

16. Engineers Create Cheap, Paper-Based Cancer Test


Location: Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
Who’s Working on it: MIT
Field: Biomedical Engineering

Yet another MIT research team, this one led by biological engineer Sangeeta N. Bhatia (M.D., Ph.D.) has developed a simple, cheap, paper test that could improve diagnosis rates and help people get treated earlier. This diagnostic works much like a pregnancy test and could reveal within minutes, based on a urine sample, whether a person has cancer.

In nations where there is little medical infrastructure, this test has the potential to be a game-changer.

15. Squid-Inspired Autonomous Camouflage


Location: Houston, Texas, USA
Who’s Working on it: University of Houston, University of Illinois, Northwestern University
Field: Mechanical Engineering

Cephalopods (squid, octopi, cuttlefish) are able to change coloration quickly for camouflage. Dr. Cunjiang Yu, a mechanical engineer from the University of Houston, led a collaborative study with researchers from the University of Illinois and Northwestern to replicate this pattern through manufactured camouflage.

While other researchers have developed similar technologies in years past, Dr. Yu’s is the first to adapt autonomously.
“Our device sees colour and matches it. It reads the environment using thermochromatic material.”
The prototype developed by the researchers works in black and white, with shades of grey, but Yu said it could be designed to work in the full colour spectrum. Similarly, he said while the prototype is less than one-inch square, it can be easily scaled up for manufacturing.
The flexible skin of the device is comprised of ultrathin layers, combining semiconductor actuators, switching components and light sensors with inorganic reflectors and organic colour-changing materials in such a way to allow autonomous matching to background coloration.
The researchers describe their work as including pixelated devices that include analogues to each of the key elements included in the skin of cephalopods, with two exceptions, the iridophores and central ocular organs.
14. Swarm Robots Mimic Termites; Build Things Without Being Instructed

Location: Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
Who’s Working on it: Harvard
Fields: Computer Engineering, Mechanical Engineering

The Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences has created an autonomous robotic construction crew that mimics the behaviours of termites. Per the Harvard Gazette:
The system needs no supervisor, no eye in the sky, and no communication. It uses simple robots - any number of robots - that cooperate by modifying their environment.
Harvard’s TERMES system demonstrates that collective systems of robots can build complex, 3-D structures without requiring a central command structure or prescribed roles.
13. Pocket Molecular Detector


Location: Herzliya, Israel
Who’s Working on it: Consumer Physics, Inc.
Fields: Chemical Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Software Engineering

Are you the kind of person that gets really specific about the variety of apples you eat? Or perservates over what, exactly, something is made of? Then SCiO, a pocket spectroscope that syncs to your smartphone, is about to be your new best friend.

Consumer Physics, Inc - the company that produces SCiO - launched a Kickstarter campaign this year to get the project off the ground and to mass market. The gist of how the device works is:
  • you scan the item in question with your SCiO for 1-2 seconds
  • an accompanying iOS or Android app sends the readings to the cloud
  • algorithms process the data in real time
  • then the readout can be checked on a Bluetooth-linked smartphone.
At first SCiO will come with apps for analyzing food, medication, and plants. You can use it to refine the ingredients of your home-brewed beer or figure out if an Internet site’s cheap Viagra is fake. Later, the company will add the ability to check samples from cosmetics, clothes, flora, soil, jewels, precious stones, leather, rubber, oils, plastics, and even human tissue or bodily fluids.
12. World’s Largest Indoor Farm Built in Japan


Location: Japan
Who’s Working on it: Mirai
Field: Agricultural Engineering

With disarmingly bad headlines like “Lettuce See the Future,” we expected that the “World’s Largest Indoor Farm” claim would be more pop than science. We were wrong.

Run by a plant physiologist, Mirai has indeed built the world’s largest indoor farm - 25,000 square feet to be exact - in an old semiconductor factory. The gardens are fed with 17,500 LED lights in a bacteria-free, pesticide-free environment. Why did we include it?
  • This farm produces faster, more, and with less waste (of both water and product).
  • Produce is grown under these LEDs 2.5x faster than in sunlight.
  • They’ve reduced produce loss from an industry-standard 30-40% to less than 3%.
  • This farm cuts water usage to 1 percent.
  • Oh, and they produce about 10,000 heads of fresh lettuce each day.
11. Daewoo Morphs Workers into RoboShipBuilders


Location: South Korea
Who’s Working on it: Daewoo
Fields: Mechanical Engineering, Electrical Engineering

Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering is no stranger to incredible engineering feats. But turning ship workers into superman that can pick up, carry 100-kilogram hunks of metal as if they’re nothing via robotic exoskeletons? That was unexpected.
The prototype robo-suits weigh a tad under 62 pounds and can accommodate anyone from 5-foot-3 to 6-feet tall. Users can walk at their normal gait and get assistance from the suit in lifting and moving objects that weigh up to 66 pounds during the suit’s three-hour battery life. Engineers have ambitions of eventually getting total lifting capacity to 220 pounds.
10. Engineers Create Self-Healing Plastic


Location: Champaign, Illinois, USA
Who’s Working on it: University of Illinois
Field: Chemical Engineering

Would you spend a little extra on a smartphone with a screen that self-healed every time you dropped it?

Thanks to engineers at the University of Illinois, that day is coming soon. This year they unveiled a polymer that automatically patches holes 3cm wide - more than 100 times larger than previous milestones. The polymer relies on a network of capillaries similar to a human blood clotting system that deliver chemicals to the damaged areas.

The best part may be that the materials used to create this polymer are relatively cheap and widely available:
“The key advantage of using this material is that it’s catalyst-free and low-temperature, and can be healed multiple times,” Cheng said. “These are very nice materials for internal cracks. This can heal the crack before it causes major problems by propagating.”
Other self-healing material systems have focused on solid, strong materials. However, the new study uses softer elastic materials made of polyurea, one of the most widely used classes of polymers in consumer goods such as paints, coatings, elastics and plastics.
9. We Finally Have Hoverboards. (Sort of.)


Location: Los Gatos, California, USA
Who’s Working on it: Arx Pax
Fields: Electrical Engineering, Electronics Engineering

Our Back to the Future dreams have arrived. This year Arx Pax launched a Kickstarter campaign for the Hendo Hoverboard amid much fanfare and applause by Marty-McFly-wannabes around the world.

However (and this is a big however), this board only works across metal surfaces and operates via electromagnetic suspension.

So why did we include it? As per this useful StackExchange thread, the Hendo Hoverboard is still an original idea in the application of electromagnetics:
Earnshaw’s theorem says it’s impossible to have perfectly stable magnetic levitation where none of the fields are changing with time. But…it is possible to have levitation that appears stable to the naked eye if the the currents that create the magnetic field continually adjust to small movements of the levitated magnet in such a way as to quickly damp out these movements.
The Hendo Hoverboard doesn’t use superconductors or ordinary diamagnetism where the magnetic response is caused solely by the realigning of electrons in atoms though - instead it relies on…a magnetic field that’s designed to oscillate in the right way (which can apparently be achieved either using rotating permanent magnet or a varying current in a non-rotating electromagnet) will induce eddy currents in a nearby conductor, motions of large numbers of electrons that are not bound to particular atoms in the conductor.
…this is really a large-scale version of diamagnetic levitation–apparently the swirling eddy currents adjust to continually repel the source of the oscillating field in the same way that individual electrons adjust in ordinary diamagnetic levitation.
Or, as our Director of Engineering Outreach summed, it got “people excited about and using electromagnetic suspension, which is sweet.”

8. The Germ Ebola-Zapping Robot


Location: San Antonio, Texas, USA
Who’s Working on it: Xenex
Fields: Electrical Engineering, Biomedical Engineering

A television station described the Xenex as “essentially a tall Roomba” with an ultraviolet light. But the germ-killing robot that bathes hospital rooms with intense, millisecond pulses of ultraviolet light from a high-wattage strobe light is a hot item this year. The light is capable of killing germs in an entire hospital room in 5 minutes - and will destroy Ebola, specifically, on any surface in 2 minutes.

Post domestic Ebola crisis, hospitals are clamouring for the machine. And they seem to be good-humoured about their new co-worker:
Nearly 200 hospitals across the U.S. have implemented Xenex’s room disinfection system. Many of the hospitals consider their germ-zapping robot part of their infection prevention team and hospital employees have bestowed names such as Rosie, Mr. Clean, Violet, Ray and Germinator on their devices.
7. 43 Terabits/Sec Data Transfer


Location: Denmark
Who’s Working on it: Technical University of Denmark
Field: Electrical Engineering

The High-Speed Optical Communications team at the Technical University of Denmark set a new record for data transmission this year, passing 43 terabits per second worth of data over a single optical fibre. To put this in perspective, reddit user candiedbug points out:
At 43 terabits per second you could download Netflix’s entire 3.14 petabyte library in 9.7 minutes.
You probably can’t make Jiffy Pop that fast.

6. MacGyver Paradigm

Location: Atlanta, Georgia, USA and Tokyo, Japan
Who’s Working on it: Georgia Tech and the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (Japan)
Fields: Mechanical Engineering, Electrical Engineering

Autonomous robots are the rage this year, but MacGyver may be the best of them. Where most robots have been built to treat the environment around them as an obstacle to be avoided, this robot uses its environment. Autonomously.
In this experiment, we design a complete rescue scenario with a 100 kg brick object blocking entry to a room and another 100 kg loaded cart. Interestingly, the loaded cart becomes a fulcrum for an arbitrary board to topple the bricks. Then the bricks, which were initially an obstacle, are used as a fulcrum for a lever to pry open the door. Finally the robot uses a wider board to create a bridge and perform the simulated rescue.
IEEE nails it: “Yes, this means that soon they will be unstoppable. And there’s video to prove it.”

5. Google Cardboard: Virtual Reality Experience Using Stuff You Already Own


Location: Palo Alto, California, USA
Who’s Working on it: Google

Google’s meta description for Cardboard explains the product in its simplest form:
Cardboard: DIY VR for all. We want everyone to experience virtual reality in a simple, fun, and inexpensive way. That’s the goal of the Cardboard project.
Not only is Google’s Cardboard virtual reality experience more enjoyable than I imagined (we’ll get to my hands-on experience later), but also Cardboard is much more than just a DIY toy. As silly as it seems, this combination of cardboard, Velcro strips, magnets and plastic lenses is Google’s first serious entry into the brave new world of virtual reality.
But our own JF Stackhouse may have said it best:
Google designed a VR headset you can fold out of cardboard and run off an Android phone, developed programming and manufacturing standards, then pointed out that you probably already own it. Mic drop.
4. Wireless Electricity Is a Thing Now


Location: Watertown, Massachusetts, USA
Who’s Working on it: WiTricity
Field: Electrical Engineering

Resonant wireless power transfer technology is not new this year, but commercially viable products are. This year Witricity unveiled a charging system for the iPhone 5 at CES 2014 and inked a technology licensing deal with Intel. It’s only a matter of time before you see wireless charging capabilities for Intel powered-devices. Moreover, the technology is highly efficient - by some estimates 90% efficient.
…and since it’s based on magnetic resonance instead of induction, you don’t have to place the devices directly on a pad for the power transfer - they can be placed around the pad, and it even works through various materials like wood and metal. Also, you can charge up multiple devices with a single transmitter, and you can add repeater pads - which can come in the form of floor mats - should you require an extended range.
In terms of power output, WiTricity already has solutions providing as little power as 10W for portable devices, all the way up to 6kW for cars; and it’s prepping for 20kW support for even bigger applications.
3. FALCON 9 Reusable Test Vehicle Reaches 1000M

Location: Cape Canaveral, Florida, USA
Who’s Working on it: SpaceX
Fields: Aerospace Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Electrical Engineering

Yes, we’ve featured SpaceX’s reusable rockets in previous lists. But this year SpaceX created and successfully tested a reusable rocket that reached an altitude of 1000m. That was an important milestone as the company announced they plan to start reusing rockets next year.

2. Solar Power can be Generated in the Dark


Location: Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
Who’s Working on it: MIT and Harvard
Fields: Solar Engineering, Materials Engineering

Generating energy is far easier than storing it (outside of liquid fuel form).

That has been the primary obstacle to widespread adoption of solar technology - but this year researchers from MIT and Harvard used a photoswitching substance called azobenzene to create carbon nanotubes capable of absorbing the sun’s radiation and storing it in chemical form. And once stored on the molecular level, it can be tapped at will to generate heat on demand. Even in the dark. The Atlantic makes another important point about this breakthrough:
The best part: The molecules can store the heat forever and be endlessly re-used while emitting absolutely no greenhouse gases.
1. We Landed on a Frickin’ Comet


Location: European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany
Who’s Working on it: European Space Agency
Fields: Aerospace Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Electrical Engineering

On November 12th, Philae, a robot spacecraft the size of a large dog, successfully landed on 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. Sure, it may have landed a few hundred meters away from the intended location (and, unfortunately for its solar-powered machinery, under a shady cliff). But the scope of the accomplishment is absolutely mind-blowing.

Consider that this project took:
  • 20 years of planning, including
  • a 10-year-long flight that required “gravity assists” from four planetary flybys - one by Mars (2007) and three by Earth (2005, 2007 and 2009)…
  • in order to travel 300 million miles,
  • at speeds of 34,000 mph,
  • to land on a rock approximately 2.5 mi by 2.7 mi at its widest and longest dimensions,
  • moving at 84,000 mph.
Well done ESA.

+ Biggest Non-Engineering Breakthrough of 2014


In what may be the best-titled-CEO-memo-ever, Elon Musk announced “All Our Patent Are Belong to You” and summarily gave away the patent rights to everything Tesla Motors has built thus far.

Aside from probably giving his intellectual property attorneys a heart attack - the immediate effect of this release is unclear. But we’re betting that Musk’s generosity helps open the door to both pace of market adoption and evolution in electric vehicle technology - hopefully resulting in the kind of engineering feats that bedeck future instalments of our annual list.

Top image: Depiction of Rosetta's Philae touchdown on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Credit: DLR German Aerospace Centre/Wikimedia Commons.

[Source: Engineer Jobs. Edited. Top image and some links added.]