Faster. Better. Cheaper. Those were the instructions of then NASA administrator, Daniel Goldin, regarding space missions of the 1990s. While not a mantra synonymous with success during that time, the programme did deliver one spectacular triumph. And, like freeze-dried food, memory foam mattresses and Speedo swimsuits, the technology is used every day on Earth, by millions of people.
In the early 90s, while working for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, engineer Eric Fossum developed CMOS image sensors. CMOS sensors, or complementary metal oxide semiconductors, are the final evolution of the digital image sensors invented by George Smith and Michael Tompsett back in the 1970s. Smaller in size, these new sensors used much less power and were much cheaper to make than their predecessors.
Michael was clearly frightened. He said he’d seen a flash of light and the next thing he knew a dark curtain had come across his vision. Two hours later, he’d been sent from the emergency room to me – a trainee eye surgeon – and I was straining to get a good view of his retina to diagnose the problem. Seeing the disappointment and desperation on his face, I wished I had a way of sharing down the phone with my consultant what I had seen.
Three years later, I was working in Uganda. A young teacher called Abraham came to the eye clinic, having lost sight in his only seeing eye. Like Michael, he’d had the same symptoms of a flash then a dark curtain. This time, however, I was able to examine him and correctly diagnose a retinal detachment.
Engineers at Sandia’s Combustion Research Facility and the Technical University of Denmark have discovered a new way to see and photograph pollutants in car engines. By understanding when – and how – soot forms inside engines, researchers can cut harmful emissions at the source.
Traditional engines work by pulling petrol and air into a cylinder, compressing it with a piston and igniting it with a spark. The resulting explosion forces the piston down, producing power. In a bid to clean up their cars, many manufacturers are adopting low emission, ‘direct injection’ fuel systems. Instead of mixing the air and fuel beforehand, nozzles spray petrol under high pressure directly into the cylinder. This burns less fuel with each explosion, giving better fuel economy and lower carbon dioxide emission per mile driven.
Over the years, drones have gained popularity in the engineering and construction industry. Small and simple to fly, drones can quickly snap photos from every angle, giving a bird’s eye view of inaccessible areas. But thousands of photos are meaningless without the right tools to manage them. Drone mapping technology, or ‘photogrammetry’, helps make this task easier by converting drone photos into a 3D model. However, having only the 3D model is still not practical in most engineering work, especially in infrastructure inspection and maintenance. Trik is a specialised system, creating a 3D database. This allows engineering companies to make the most of their drone data.
When Nobukazu Teranishi began tinkering with semiconductors in the University of Tokyo’s undergraduate physics lab, he never dreamed it would land him the world’s most prestigious engineering prize. As he prepares to receive his award at Buckingham Palace next month, the news of the announcement is still sinking in.
“It makes me very happy and proud to have spent 40 years developing digital imaging sensors. There are so many technologies that are indispensable to our everyday lives and I feel very lucky that our work on imaging sensors has been chosen,” he said.
Teranishi is one of four engineers responsible for creating the digital imaging sensors found in digital cameras and smartphones around the world- and above it. His innovation, the pinned photodiode, is the missing puzzle piece linking the first CCD sensors to the tiny CMOS sensors of today.
Roads are critical to modern society. Whether you are a commuter or commercial driver, bus rider or cyclist, our road transport network is a vital part of getting from A to B. However, this universal reliance on roads has consequences. Congestion continues to get worse, with the average London driver wasting 100 hours a year stuck in traffic. Worse, there are hundreds of thousands of accidents annually in the UK, resulting in almost 2,000 deaths a year on our roads.
Stepping outside our office in central London, it’s impossible to miss the impact of this year’s QEPrize-winning innovation. Tourists wear expensive SLR cameras slung casually about their necks; school children gather on Westminster Bridge, all vying for a selfie in front of Big Ben; and every so often the insect-like chatter of shutters explodes from a flurry of press photographers camped outside No.10 Downing Street.
Quizzed about digital imaging, most of us will instantly think of our mobile phones. High-resolution cameras are now common-place in the pocket-sized devices we carry every day. They give us quality face time with friends a world away and can upload a hipster shot of your ‘latte art’ before it’s even begun to cool.
Smart phones are the most iconic piece of technology of the modern age. They combine processors much faster than those that put a man on the moon, with colour touchscreens and high resolution digital imaging sensors. They can wirelessly send data to anywhere in the world and are ubiquitous; approximately 1 in 3 people worldwide own a cell-phone. Smart phones are changing the world, but still the potential of their technology is relatively untapped.