R&D hits the road
Someday, 2005 might be remembered as the year of stuff that moved.
Transportation, one of those dowdy 20th-century industries, emerged as the R&D darling in the last 12 months for start-ups, scientists and venture capitalists. Entrepreneurs sketched out plans for companies that will offer on-demand airlines and personalized helicopters.
Meanwhile, billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson and aeronautics expert Burt Rutan brought visions of the dawn of space tourism closer to reality. Plans for their commercial space venture, Virgin Galactic, began to take form this year, with the company hoping to send flights from a New Mexico launchpad into space for $200,000 per person by 2008.
Researchers at Stanford narrowly edged out a team from Carnegie Mellon to win the $2 million DARPA Grand Challenge, a competition in which unmanned robotic vehicles raced across 131 miles of the Mojave Desert. Stanford's robotic car, named Stanley, finished the desert course in just under seven hours, showing how far the field has come since last year's disappointing race, when not even a single car completed the course. The technology behind these robotic cars will likely start to appear in military vehicles--and, eventually, commercial ones--in the next decade.
One beneficiary of the growing interest in robotics was iRobot, a Massachusetts-based robot specialist. Sales of the company's robotic vacuum cleaner, the Roomba, continued to climb and paved the way for a successful IPO in October. At the end of the year, iRobot began to promote the Scooba, a robotic mopping machine.
One of the few robot flops of the year involved the Talon from Foster-Miller. The U.S. Army planned to put a version of the gun-toting robot into combat in Iraq with the hopes of keeping human soldiers out of some dangerous battle situations. Further testing postponed deployment to an unspecified time.
In a related trend, fears about global warming prompted others to devise vehicles that run more efficiently or on alternative fuel sources. In India, where diesel buses are being banned in big cities, a start-up began to promote electric bikes. Automakers and oil companies continued development work on automobiles that burn less fuel and emit fewer polluting chemicals.
The search for clean fuels also heated up. Genetic researcher J. Craig Venter, for instance, formed a company that will seek to create designer organisms that secrete hydrogen or methane. Others tinkered with algae, waste products and better solar panels.
Other big themes of the year included:
Materials. Currently, nanotechnology mostly means one thing: novel industrial materials. Still largely confined to concept products, fogless glass, waterproof glass, insulation that can resist flames and electrically-conductive plastic all broke out as early results of years of nanotechnology research.
Optical chips. A 40-person start-up called Luxtera has come up with a way to marry speed of optical technology with low-cost silicon manufacturing. Intel and IBM are working on similar projects.
Health. From the looks of things, computers will play an increasing role in monitoring people's health. Several companies are working on surveillance systems that warn a health professional or relative if something out of the ordinary occurs. San Diego's Triage Wireless, meanwhile, is testing a patch that remotely and regularly monitors blood pressure and warns of potential problems. Hospitals took a serious look at the ways in which RFID might revolutionize the operating room of the future.
Elwood "Woody" Norris, who invented directional speakers and medical devices, is now backing a project to make the personal helicopter the recreational vehicle of choice in the future.
Homogeneous Charge Compression Ignition engines could cut emissions drastically and boost miles per gallon by 20 percent, say Toyota scientists.
Scientists actually know very little about the wide variety of ocean microorganisms. A new company believes it can tap metabolic pathways in some organisms to produce useful compounds.
Moore's Law turned 40 this year, and its creator (among others) say it will keep chugging on for a while.
If sodium didn't burst into sparks when exposed to water, we'd already be using it to harvest electrons for fuel cells. New York City's Signa Chemistry has come up with a way to make the reaction proceed calmly.
A lab accident at Ecology Coatings lead to a new method of making paper and other objects impervious to water.
The space elevator--a cable of carbon nanotubes that ferries stuff to outer space--may sound farfetched. But the same materials can be used to construct tall buildings.
How do you keep glass from fogging? Coat it with tiny droplets of water, according to MIT scientists.
The insulation from Aspen Aerogels is only about 1/4 of an inch thick, but it can resist flames and keep oil pumped from the bottom of the sea from getting chilled.
Eleksen has devised fabric that can conduct electricity. With the right jacket, you can control your MP3 player from your sleeve.
The patch from Triage Wireless is a digital camera that monitors the size and volume of your arteries. When blood pressure rises, it detects the changes and pings your doctor.
Dormant since the 1980s, MicroUnity got a $300 million settlement from Intel, 17 years after it was tipped as one of the most promising ventures in Silicon Valley.
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