Cool Engineering Projects

Engineers are working to change life for the better in ways that we can hardly even imagine. Check out some of the cool ideas they are bringing to life.

1. The Hyperloop—Travel Faster than a Jet?

What if you could travel at 700 mph? What if you had to be in an airless tube? This is what the new Hyperloop proposes. By combining the engineering of trains, air hockey, and t-shirt guns, the Hyperloop promises to get passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco (about 400 miles) in 30 minutes. The Hyperloop will reach unprecedented speeds by eliminating the two primary drags on movement: friction and gravity. The airless tube eliminates any friction from wind. A cushion of air levitates the Hyperloop car (like an air hockey puck), escaping gravity and getting rid of ground friction. The result? A world in which Beyoncé fans from Los Angeles can go to an evening concert in Chicago and get home in time to get a good night’s sleep.

2. Human Exoskeleton—Freedom from Wheelchairs

Sasha broke her spine in a mountain biking accident. If she tries to stand, her body spasms violently. Today, she can walk across a room without a walker or even a crutch-- thanks to the Ekso Bionics exoskeleton (called Ekso). The exoskeleton is a computerized mechanical framework that fits around her back and legs, supporting her body from the outside and increasing her strength, mobility, and endurance. Inspiration and design ideas for human exoskeletons come from insects. This same technology is being used to make soldiers stronger in battle and to allow humans to do the work of a machine. For Sasha, the software turns her small gestures into actual forward movement. This allows her muscles to relearn the movements of walking without worrying about supporting her full weight. Her goal: To one day cross the room and leave the Ekso on the other side.

3. The Makani Energy Kite—Generating energy at 1,200 feet

Anyone who has flown a kite knows this simple rule: the higher you go, the better the wind. This is the theory behind the Makani Airborne Wind Turbine. Unlike a traditional wind turbine whose three enormous blades are thrust high into the air atop a 328-foot tower, the Makani uses one fixed-wing glider attached to a tether (like a kite) that pilots itself in the same pattern as a spinning turbine. The tether allows the kite to fly much higher than a turbine to reach much stronger and more consistent winds. The energy it creates then travels down the tether and into the power grid. At one-tenth the mass and half the cost of a regular turbine—but generating the same amount of power--the Makani makes generating energy seem like child’s play.

4. The HoloLens—Say Goodbye to Computer Screens

Do you get tired of staring at a screen? What if all your screens could be replaced by a pair of sunglasses? With its HoloLens, Microsoft places the content of your computer or phone into your world in 3-D. The lens uses cameras and sensors to map the space around you and track your movements. It also tracks your eye movements to follow your gaze and change what you see. So your living room is still there, but your files and your music are there too. Playing Pokemon Go? Now you will see them right next to you in 3-D. Want to watch your favorite show on a big screen? The HoloLens will give you a 100-inch screen, no wall space needed. Your virtual world and your real world can finally become the same place.

5. Solar Sunflowers—Powering a House Near You

The sun is one of our greatest sources of energy, and nothing harnesses it more efficiently than plants. How does a sunflower make sure it gets the best sun, even as the sun moves across the sky? It simply turns to follow the sun. How do trees gather enough energy to sustain their size? They reach up towards the sun with thousands of leaves, all of which pull in energy from the sun. Engineers are turning these lessons from nature into new solar-power technologies. Solar sunflowers maximize exposure by following the sun. Photovoltaic, or solar, trees are tall, artistic structures with multiple branches supporting solar panels. They allow for more panels in a much smaller area, and also pull energy in more efficiently by placing and angling the leaves strategically. Beauty and efficiency? An engineer’s dream.

Special thanks to the United Engineering Foundation for sponsoring this page.