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It’s an elegant way to avoid urban flooding: Lay down paving tiles that soak up rain and divert it from sewers to greenery. But that innovation, the Climate Tile, is just one of the problem-solving projects we’ve named the best engineering breakthroughs of 2018. There’s also a 3D printer slated to build affordable homes in impoverished areas, and a sea life sampler that lets biologists gather marine specimens without damaging their squishy bodies. Other “bests” are a bit more whimsical: a banana that grows in the cold, vegan scrambled eggs, and robots that turn backflips 60 feet in the air.
Climate Tile by Tredje Natur (Third Nature)
As climate change brings stronger storms with drenching downfalls, the risk of flash floods from overflowing sewers balloons. In the past two years, for instance, Ellicott City, Maryland, has endured two “thousand-year” drenchings. Soon, communities will be able to replace impervious sidewalks with absorbent ones. Climate Tile pavers, first tested along a 55-yard stretch in Copenhagen this year, can divert about 30 percent of rain away from otherwise overwhelmed drainage. The wet stuff passes into 42 0.2-inch pores that dot the surface of each concrete block, then runs into horizontal channels that funnel the flow from tile to tile and into underground storage, which also collects roof water. H2O eventually feeds into permeable landscapes, such as tree roots beside walkways. The excess winds up in the sewers. The fresh plantings, which radiate less heat than paths and buildings do, also provide welcome shade on hot days.
Rotary Actuated Dodecahedron (RAD) by Harvard University
When marine biologists snag soft-bodied organisms like octopuses, their tools can easily squish the delicate critters. Harvard University mechanical engineer Zhi Ern Teoh developed an origami-inspired grasper that wraps around specimen like petals around a rose stamen. Five foldable panels on the “rotary actuated dodecahedron” (RAD) link to a scaffold of rotating joints. One motor at the center of the device induces the elements to spin and form a hollow, 12-sided ball around a sample. During ocean testing, the RAD caught and released squid and jellyfish unharmed.
Mongee banana by D&T Farm
If humankind only ate bananas where they can grow naturally and without pesticides, no one outside the tropics could enjoy the potassium-rich fruit. Late last year, a Japanese farm introduced the Mongee: a variety that can handle a temperate-zone chill. The farmers freeze cells from saplings at -76 degrees for 180 days, which awakens the genes that induce cold tolerance. Plants cultivated from the cells grow comfortably at temperatures in the 50s, far below the the typical 80 degrees. The fruit also tastes sweeter than usual, with a hint of pineapple, and has a thin, edible peel. The Mongee costs about $6 a nanner and sells only in Japan, but the farm is eyeing broader distribution.
The Loupe on the Space Needle
When renovation of Seattle’s iconic Space Needle began, its managers were myopic: all they wanted was better views. So they added 176 tons of glass—37 of them to turn the lower deck’s revolving floor transparent. The new bottom, called the Loupe, consists of 10 glass layers—four that stay put and six that spin on 48 visible motorized rollers. Sheets of a stiff laminating plastic called “ionoplast” keep any cracks from propagating. The floor lets visitors peer 500 feet straight down.
Guardian GT robot by Sarcos
Think of the Guardian GT robot like the Power Loader from Aliens, just more graceful. Instead of a joystick or other remote, human operators don an upper-body exoskeleton to maneuver the behemoth. The system embiggens their gestures on the robot’s 7-foot arms, which can together hoist 1,000 pounds yet have hands agile enough to join pipes, slice metal with a saw, and press a single button. Actuators in the control device let an operator feel a scaled-down version of the forces that hit the robot’s arms and adjust accordingly. Specialists can also remotely operate the rig, spying video from two cameras mounted between the machine’s “shoulders” through a headset.
Vulcan printed housing by ICON & New Story
In El Salvador, erecting a house can take weeks. A new large-scale 3-D printer from building startup ICON could construct a one-story, two-bedroom, 650-square-foot home in a day for about $4,000. Designed for the developing world, the one-ton printer fits on a trailer truck for easy transport and will be able to run round the clock on a built-in generator. The machine also uses a proprietary mix of mostly locally sourced ingredients like cement and sand. Together with housing nonprofit New Story, ICON plans to build 100 homes in Latin America next year.
Stuntronics by Disney Imagineering
C-3PO, the Pirates of the Caribbean, and other animatronics that dot Disney parks spend their lives pinned to the ground. This year, the media giant’s “imagineers” launched Stuntronics: humanoid robots that soar 60 feet in the air, turn somersaults or backflips, and safely land, ready to perform again. Onboard gyroscopes and accelerometers help the flying entertainers orient themselves and self-correct their motions mid-flight. Sadly, there’s no word yet on when an airborne Tinkerbell might whizz overhead at one of the parks.
Morpheus Hotel by Zaha Hadid Architects
Built atop an abandoned rectangular foundation in Macau, China, the 42-floor Morpheus hotel is a study in openness. Between the building’s two towers, visitors enter a 131-foot-tall atrium. Their view upward and sideways is unencumbered by support columns thanks to a freeform steel mesh exoskeleton—the world’s first in a high-rise. The complex exterior helps hold the building up and completely supports the atrium’s façade. All the better to admire the artful, irregular holes punched between the towers.
Amazon Go by Amazon
Amazon Go convenience stores have no cashiers or finicky do-it-yourself checkout stations. At the entrance, customers scan a QR code in the Amazon Go app. Then they pick up what they want, walk out, and receive a digital receipt. That’s it. As shoppers wander the aisles, hundreds of cameras and sensors feed an artificial intelligence that tracks each person and product, building customers’ carts as they peruse. Six stores stocking meals and snacks opened this year in Seattle, San Francisco, and Chicago. More companies, including Zippin and Dutch retailer Ahold Delhaize (which owns Stop & Shop and other U.S. grocers), are tinkering with similar grab-and-go schemes.
Steel Vengeance by Rocky Mountain Corporation
The specs on Cedar Point’s Steel Vengeance grossly belie its wooden origins. Built atop the aging timber coaster Mean Streak, the 2.5-minute ride swoops thrill-seekers through a record-breaking whip, including a 200-foot drop, four upside-down inversions, 74-mile-per-hour speeds, and 27.2 total seconds of airtime (the feeling of getting pulled out of your seat). At the core are Rocky Mountain’s patented IBox Track steel rails, which, instead of round tubes, have flat tops that create a smoother ride. The result is the tallest (205 feet), longest (5,740 feet), and fastest steel-wood hybrid in the world.
Just Egg by Just
Americans love eggs. Domestic McDonald’s stores alone burn through about 2 billion a year. But production creates a load of greenhouse gas and can be brutal for chickens. Just Egg—a pour-and-cook, plant-based substitute—looks and tastes a lot like the real thing and has a 39-percent-smaller carbon footprint. The key ingredient is mung bean protein, which food scientists chose because its chemistry suggested it would cook much like the same component in eggs. A serving equivalent to one egg delivers five grams of the macronutrient (a large egg has six) and no saturated fat. Scrambles and sandwich patties are already cropping up in high-end and casual restaurants. In stores, an eight-serving bottle runs eight dollars.
See the entire list: The 100 greatest innovations of 2018
Spot by Boston Dynamics
Most robots trip up on steps, but not Spot. Boston Dynamics’s first commercial bot—which resembles a 3-foot-tall dog—moves on four legs that can negotiate not only stairs but also rocks, hills, and snow. (The pup also dances!) To measure its steps, Spot synthesizes inputs from five sets of stereo cameras (two on the front and one each on the rear and sides), and gyroscopes and accelerometers in its body. Added hardware and software can customize the dog for various tasks—say, roaming construction sites to check job status or hauling packages from delivery trucks to porches. An optional jointed arm is dexterous enough to open doors.