A View from John Pavlus
2010's Most Innovative Tech Product Is Not a Damn Jetpack
Despite what annual “Best Tech” roundups would have you believe, the world doesn’t need flying cars. Here are three innovative products that have a good reason to exist.
Ah, November: leaves are falling, Thanksgiving is coming, and magazines start rolling out their year-end “Best Tech” lists. Time.com published “The 50 Best Inventions of 2010” last week, and as one would expect, it’s larded up with plenty of shiny flying things that no one on Earth needs.
But hidden in the chaff are three genuinely innovative products that approach technology from a new angle. Drum roll…
We all saw The Hurt Locker: defusing roadside bombs is scary business, even in that protective suit. Steve Todd, a retired Navy SEAL at Sandia National Laboratories, wanted to give explosive ordnance disposal teams a faster, safer way of neutralizing IEDs than their traditional tools. His idea: a blade of water that slices through the bomb instantly and precisely.
Todd’s clear plastic device uses a small explosive charge whose shockwave propels water through a small concave opening, where it slams into itself and ejects outwards in a thin blade that “penetrates the IED extremely effectively,” according to Greg Scharrer of Sandia. The device is small, light, and rugged enough to withstand sand and grit. It uses much less explosive than is traditionally necessary to neutralize a bomb – and since soldiers carry plenty of water on missions anyway, Scharrer says, “convenience is a major advantage.”
Sandia has licensed the technology to a small company, TEAM Technologies, which is already shipping the devices to U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.
Here in the U.S., premature infants usually do fine. But in the developing world, 1.8 million premature and low-birth-weight babies die each year because they don’t have enough body fat to keep warm on their own – and there are often no incubators on hand to save them.
Conventional incubators are too expensive for poor countries, and they’re too high-maintenance to last long in rural clinics. But junked cars are often plentiful, as are folks with the know-how to work on them. Enter the NeoNurture: a cheap infant incubator powered by repurposed car parts.
Sealed-beam headlights below the bassinet provide heat. A dashboard fan circulates it. Power comes from a motorcycle battery or, in a pinch, a 12-volt cigarette lighter. Door chimes serve as the device’s temperature alarm signals. And if anything breaks down, a replacement part or auto technician is easy to find–no matter what part of the world you’re in.
The NeoNurture ingeniously proves that technological innovation isn’t necessarily about newness – it’s about context.
Sugru – a flexible, curable, sticky silicone that’s part Silly Putty, part duct tape – is technology that improves your technology. Inventor Jane ni Dhulchaointigh teamed up with materials scientists from Dow Corning and Queen Mary University of London to cook up something that would let normal people “hack things better” – easily repair or modify their aging gadgets instead of throwing them out.
It took the team five years to develop a substance that met all of Jane’s specs: moldable by hand, waterproof, curable at room temperature, rigid but flexible after curing, able to adhere to almost anything. The new class of silicone they created, called Formerol, can do anything from repair a cracked laptop to weatherproof a bike basket.
“Our biggest technical challenge was achieving such versatile adhesive properties,” Jane says. “Until now, [similar products] have been flowable materials used either for sealing, gluing or coating, rather than free moulding.” Sugru is named after the Irish word for play, but its applications could potentially extend far beyond arts and crafts.