News

Transforming Design

This week, I’m coming to you live from Anaheim, CA, and SolidWorks World 2010. The SolidWorks user community continues to flock to this annual event, and this year, there are more than 5,000 registrants learning about new features coming up in the next version of SolidWorks, as well as networking with other users, SolidWorks executives, and members of the press (the most important group!). But let’s talk about what I saw here on opening day. I have to tell you that today I saw a technology that has the potential to completely transform the way designers design. The company is called InfiniteZ (based in Campbell, CA) and the technology is called the zSpace™ platform. Essentially, it’s a virtual-holographic system in which lifelike stereoscopic images appear in open space in front of you, and you can directly interact with them using a special stylus. It uses an LCD display that’s a workbench environment that lets you navigate, grab, slice, carve, zoom, and explore models. I saw a few different demos of this platform, and the ability to move and create models in open space right in front of you is amazing. InfiniteZ CEO Paul Kellenberger told me that the platform will be available soon (“in months, not years,” he said). In the meantime, check out the company’s Web site and stay tuned. This is one technology that any CAD user is going to want to keep track of.

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Do The Russians Know Something We Don't?

Do the Russians know something we don’t? In the waning days of 2009, the head of Russia’s federal space agency, Dr. Anatoly Perminov, made huge headlines by telling a Russian radio station that their space agency was contemplating sending a mission to Apophis, an 885-foot (270-meter) asteroid first discovered in 2004. Why? To prevent it from hitting Earth, of course. If you think you’ve heard this story before, you’re probably one of those people who sat through the painful Bruce Willis movie, Armageddon, or its equally painful predecessor, Deep Impact, in 1998. My initial reaction upon hearing about Dr. Perminov was to assume it must have taken an awful long time for the DVDs of those cinematic clunkers to reach Moscow, but apparently the man wasn’t poking fun at Hollywood. He was dead serious. Although he wouldn’t divulge the source of his information, Perminov was quoted as saying, “I don’t remember exactly, but it seems to me it [Apophis] could hit the Earth by 2032. People’s lives are at stake. We should pay several hundred million dollars and build a system that would allow us to prevent a collision, rather than sit and wait for it to happen and kill hundreds of thousands of people.” By “we” he meant more than just the Russians, since he intimated that at some point NASA, the European Space Agency, and even China’s space agency might be invited to join the effort. Just what most Americans wanted to hear, I’m sure. After pouring billions of dollars of stimulus money into rescuing our banks, investment firms, car companies, and God knows what else, what’s a few hundred million more to save the world? What makes this story particularly bizarre is the fact that, assuming he had not started celebrating New Year’s Eve a day or two early, Anatoly Perminov is not your run-of-the-mill doomsday prophet. Quite the contrary. The man holds a PhD in engineering from Russia’s Military Academy, he’s a respected professor who chairs the Moscow Aviation Institute’s Operations of Launch Vehicles and Spacecraft department, and he’s written more than 70 technical papers on space exploration. He’s been the Director of Russia’s space agency since March 2004, and before that he managed the testing and launching of satellites and missiles for Russia’s Department of Defense. With credentials like that, one has to wonder – what does Dr. Perminov know that we don’t know? Two years ago I had an opportunity to interview Dr. David Morrison, senior scientist at the NASA Astrobiology Institute and one of the agency’s foremost experts on not only the risk of asteroid impacts, but potential ways to mitigate that risk. According to Dr. Morrison, there is no danger of Apophis hitting the Earth when it flies by us on April 13, 2029. He went on to add, however, that there is “… a very, very small chance that, subsequent to that flyby, it will find itself in another orbit, which brings it right back to hit the Earth seven years later. That is a chance that is not zero, and it is worth considering seriously. But it’s not an imminent threat.” So, at one point in the interview I asked Dr. Morrison the obvious question: were we to discover an asteroid on a collision course with Earth, do we have the technology to prevent a collision? His answer was very interesting. “Given several decades of warning, I have no doubt that we have the space technology and could develop the specific techniques to deflect an asteroid. But given only a few years of warning, we do not have the technology.” Isn’t that precisely the point Dr. Perminov is trying to make? Except he seems to think we should do it right now, which brings me back to my original question. Do the Russians know something we don’t?

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Scan My Body - As Long As It Is Safe

I mentioned in my last blog post I will travel to Anaheim in early February to attend several shows, notably the Pacific Design & Manufacturing Show and Medical Design & Manufacturing West . That means once again subjecting myself to the rigors of airport security - whipping out my photo ID, emptying my pockets of loose change, taking off my shoes, belt, and watch, and if necessary show security I’m not carrying any top-secret files on my laptop computer. I’ll likely pass through the familiar X-ray machines I’ve been going through for several decades as a technology journalist. But since the foiled Nigerian terrorist attack attempt aboard a Northwest Airlines flight landing in Detroit this past Christmas, there’s been a renewed outcry for more effective screening devices, as the X-ray machine failed to detect the terrorist’s concealed explosives. Indeed, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has for months been conducting a pilot program at selected airports, where a whole body scanning machine that uses millimeter-wave imaging technology screens passengers instead of the x-ray machine. Not surprisingly, whole body scanning has come under fire from some elected officials due to concerns they violate the privacy of individuals. We asked NASA Tech Briefs readers in our Question of the Week if whole body imaging should be used for airport security, and so far the response has been in favor of the technology. Like many of the respondents, I believe the potentially greater security whole body scanning technologies offer outweigh any possible indignities these devices impose. Various parts of my body have been imaged for medical purposes throughout my life, so I’m not bothered by airport security looking at my insides for a few minutes. But I do concur with one of the respondents, who raised the issue of how effective and safe whole body scanning technologies are. Are there are potential problems arising from being exposed to ultra-high frequency energy fields? Can they pose a risk to people with certain medical conditions? How accurate and thorough are these machines? Can they be fooled by certain objects or in certain lighting situations? Then you have to consider the cost and logistics of implementation. How many hundreds of millions of dollars are we talking about retrofitting hundreds of airports to use these technologies? And will whole body scanning technologies be adopted in other nations as well? What good is it if someone cannot transport concealed weapons through our stringent airport security systems, but can easily pass through another nation’s more lax airport security systems and possibly create havoc when a plane is landing or is in mid-flight? Let’s hope our officials look beyond knee-jerk privacy concerns to address the nitty-gritty safety and economic considerations of using whole body scanning.

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Gearing Up For Trade Shows

As the holidays fade and the New Year unfolds, it’s back to business for most of us. For NASA Tech Briefs, that includes a bunch of trade shows and conferences our editors will attend over the next few months. One show I plan to attend is the Pacific Design & Manufacturing Show, taking place at the Anaheim Convention Center in Anaheim, Calif., from February 9 through 11. The show will feature the latest design and manufacturing solutions from hundreds of companies. The diverse array of products and services include adhesives, CAD/CAM/CAE software and services, electrical and electronic components, fluid handling media and controls, instruments and controls, materials, mechanical components, motors and motion controls, testing and inspection products and services, and valves, switches, and controls. No less than seven other shows are co-located with the Pacific Design & Manufacturing Show. Three of the more significant shows are the Medical Design & Manufacturing Show West, Electronics West, and Green Manufacturing Expo. The Medical Design & Manufacturing Show West and Green Manufacturing Expo represent the burgeoning fields of medical technology and "green" technology – sectors that held their own during the economic downturn and are increasingly important to design engineers. In coming weeks, I hope to get more details on some of the products and technologies being shown. If your company plans to exhibit, drop me a line and let me know what you'll be showing. Hopefully, we can meet during the show to discuss what's new and exciting.

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A Muddled Crystal Ball

As another decade comes to a rapid close, it seems like just yesterday that the main topic of discussion was how to prepare for the impending Y2K disaster that was supposed to throw computer networks into chaos and create massive disruptions in our lives. Though most level-headed citizens did not buy into the Y2K hype, many of us heeded warnings to back up data and stockpile water, food, batteries, lanterns, and other survival supplies just in case. Fortunately, the dire Y2K predictions did not materialize. But few of us could have predicted what has transpired since then. From the tragedy of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks to rapid changes in technology to arguably the deepest economic downturn in decades - all have combined to create unprecedented changes in our professional and personal lives. And the recent aborted terrorist incident aboard an airplane landing in Detroit served as a stark reminder the world remains a politically volatile place. What lies ahead? Economists say conditions are improving, yet there are millions of people – encompassing a wide range of skills and educational levels – that remain unemployed or underemployed. There’s increasing concern over the nation's Social Security system as the population ages, and no one really knows what the real effects of impending health care reform will bring. If we examine technology and science - the world many of us breathe and sleep - the picture is no clearer. Computers will likely get faster and network speeds will increase. But can we harness technology to reduce our use of imported oil and conserve precious natural resources? Will the U.S. space program stall due to budget cutbacks or will we make progress on interplanetary exploration? What innovative technologies and applications will change our lives the way iPods, smartphones, and social networks have over the past decade? There's no shortage of expert predictions on what 2010 and the decade ahead will bring. While I'm not discounting these predictions, the only clear vision in my crystal ball is that the world will likely be a very different place when we look back ten years from now.

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Even Santa Loves High-Tech

One may not normally associate Santa Claus with cutting-edge science and technology, but a story in our recent Tech Briefs INSIDER newsletter shows that notion is outdated. The story, based on research by North Carolina State University professor Dr. Larry Silverberg, paints a picture of St. Nick as a technical guru. Everything about Santa's sleigh shouts high-tech, ranging from the aerodynamic construction to the laser sensors that help St. Nick smoothly navigate through the sky. Even Santa’s reindeer are equipped with side-mounted jetpacks powered by cold fusion. Reading this story makes even a sometimes-jaded person like me marvel at the extent to which science and technology influences our lives. It is also a testament to the wonderful imaginations and creative thinking our scientists and engineers utilize year-round to find solutions to our most pressing problems. All of us at NASA Tech Briefs wish you a happy and healthy holiday season.

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NASA Challenges Young Rocket Scientists

Have a son or daughter fascinated by space travel? NASA has invited more than 350 student rocketeers from middle schools, high schools, colleges, and universities to take part in its 2009-2010 Student Launch Projects. The contest is designed to inspire students to channel their interests in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics into careers critical to NASA's exploration and scientific discovery endeavors. The contest challenges student teams to build rockets of their own design, complete with a working science payload, and launch them to an altitude of 1 mile. Beginning in the fall school term, each team will spend eight months designing, building, and field-testing their rocket – encountering the same challenges faced by professional rocket engineers. In addition, the students must create a unique on-board science experiment able to survive the mile-high flight, and produce test results after the vehicle parachutes back to earth. The projects will conclude April 15 to 18, 2010, when the teams gather at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. There, NASA engineers will conduct a professional design review of the students’ rockets - similar to the design review taken for every NASA launch. Following the review is a two-day launch fest at Bragg Farms in Toney, Ala. There are two levels to the contest. The Student Launch Initiative enables middle and high school students to participate in the contest for up to two years and awards grants to participating teams. For college and university students, the University Student Launch allows participating teams to seek funding from their state’s Space Grant Consortium. The university-level contest is sponsored by ATK Space Systems of Magna, Utah, which awards prizes ranging up to $5,000 to the first-place winner. U.S. engineering education has come under fire by some industry critics for being more theoretical than practical. This NASA effort addresses the practical aspects of engineering education by challenging students to build a working rocket. More information on the middle and high school Student Launch initiative can be found here. To learn more about the University Student Launch initiative, go here.

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