From robotic nurses to submersible aircraft, the stuff of science fiction is close to becoming a reality. Monocle tracks down five innovative high-tech firms that are on the brink of achieving great things in 2009.
— Japan leads the robotics industry which is currently worth an estimated ¥712.3bn (€5bn) a year, and will boom to ¥9.63tn (€75bn) by 2030, according to the Japan Robot Association. And ZMP, a Tokyo-based robotics company, aims to open the eyes of the world to this robot-run future.The firm already boasts an extended family of robots, from PINO to Nuvo (both sold as toys). But the future of robotics is not confined to these tap-dancing, football-playing humanoids; robots are also set, says ZMP, to be used to provide nursing care – increasingly important in Japan’s ageing society. Next year, ZMP will also research the use of robotics in cars, while a new version of its robotic rolling music speaker Miuro will go on sale in Europe and the US.
— Scientists have spent three decades trying to create synthetic cells, but a research group led by Craig Venter, the American biologist who mapped the human genome, is closing in on the final breakthrough. A year ago Venter’s team in Rockville, Maryland, completed work on the world’s first synthetic bacterial genome. Now, like uploading new operating software to a PC, they’re attempting to “boot up” this artificial genome within a living cell. Venter says the resulting synthetic cells could be “paradigm shifting technologies” for the world – building blocks of green fuels to replace oil and coal, digest waste and capture greenhouse gases. An organism could be designed, for example, to perform single tasks, like converting sugar to ethanol – a truly renewable fuel. Venter, described by The New York Times as the Larry Ellison of the lab and the Richard Branson of biology, maintains the biggest challenges are commercial, not scientific. “Renewable fuel companies will need to be able to produce efficient, cost-effective green fuel on a large scale if they are to have a meaningful impact,” he says.
— Imagine a Goodyear blimp that floats on a tethered cable and is able to power 10 homes in your neighbourhood – for life. Fred Ferguson, airship visionary and founder of Magenn Power, has developed this electricity-generating blimp (it’s kept aloft by the helium inside it) that he claims will soon make it possible to harness wind power anywhere in the world. The Magenn Power Air Rotor System (MARS) spins in the air and turns wind energy into rotational power that is then converted by generators and transferred down the holding cable to a transformer on the ground. Ferguson explains further, “There’s wind above the ground at a certain altitude, all the time, everywhere. MARS harnesses the winds found at around 300m. This is the equivalent to the height of a 100-storey building or small radio tower.” Unlike traditional wind turbines that must be sited on say cliffs or hillsides, MARS can be placed anywhere and is designed for use in rural or urban areas. The first prototype unit will be in service this summer over a state park in Ontario and Ferguson has also had interest from large Pacific Rim countries. He hopes to begin making thousands of MARS, in various sizes, from ones as large as a house to a backpack version. “We’ve found that because of blade efficiencies, we can produce three times the electricity than we originally anticipated,” he says. “Right now, we’re holding the crowd back.”
— An aircraft that flies through the air and then dives into the water, turning into a sub, before crawling onto the shore to drop off a crack team of soldiers – this is the Project Runway of the US Defense Agency. As we go to press, technology teams around the world have been working frantically to make the 1 December 2008 deadline for proposals on how to build the craft. The idea for a submersible aircraft came from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). It believes that a submersible plane would improve the Department of Defense’s tactical abilities during coastal rescue and war operations. Agency spokesperson Jan Walker says, “DARPA came up with the idea and knows it can work but they just don’t know how.” The broad call to the technical community worldwide for ideas will result in multiple lucky winners who will be awarded a contract to pay for initial research and the building of prototypes. But it’s a challenging task given that a lightweight structure is needed for an aeroplane and an extremely heavy one for a submarine.
— During the US election season, a Perceptive Pixel multi-touch-screen was the hottest accessory for networks. But zooming in on a state’s electoral vote count is just a fraction of what this technology can do. The Perceptive Pixel enables several people to simultaneously touch and organise sensitive data and images. It can be applied to medical imaging to zoom in on X-rays in 3D; in finance, for tracking transaction patterns and in publishing for interactive brainstorming. The current six-figure price tag is not about to come down and it will be some time before it’s available at local electronics stores. “Our strategy has been to work at the high-end first and eventually trickle down to the consumer,” says Jeff Han, a native New Yorker of Korean descent who in 2006 founded Perceptive Pixel after a Newtonian “ah-ha” moment as a research scientist at New York University. Han can’t wait to see what his top-secret customers have developed based on his product: “This is going to be a great year,” he says.