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FEATURE: Viva tech Vegas - engineering innovation at CES 2018

James Day, in Las Vegas

(Credit: iStock)
(Credit: iStock)

Power cuts, a vice-presidential visit and no female speakers – the world’s largest gadget show wasn’t without controversy – but some engineering excellence saved the day.

The Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is the world’s largest technology exhibition, so it needs more than a few spare plug sockets to get things going. 

What organisers didn’t bank on was the first rainfall in the Mojave Desert for 116 days, which flooded Sin City and knocked out the power for several hours. 

That’s catastrophic when you consider you can’t simply trip a switch and expect millions of devices to boot up again. There’s an electrical surge to consider, plus the many hours it takes to pair, sync and connect everything back up – a timely reminder that technology is only as good as what powers it.

If one day of disruption wasn’t enough, US vice-president Mike Pence then descended on the show, with security precautions for his surprise visit causing widespread road closures and gridlocked traffic. Smart city mobility couldn’t come soon enough for the 180,000 attendees. 

Finally, an absence of female keynote speakers caused an understandably fiery backlash and spawned the social media hashtag #CESSoMale. HP’s chief marketing officer, Antonio J Lucio, tweeted: “All men should boycott @CES if women are not invited to speak! Insulting in this day and age.”

When I eventually managed to make it into the great myriad of halls I was greeted by a feast of engineering excellence, from robots that play table tennis to bionic underwater drones, all aiming to make as big a splash as the Nevada weather.

A British success

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The Mous team at CES (Credit: Mous)

Show organiser Gary Shapiro labelled the UK government’s lack of support for start-ups at CES “a source of embarrassment” – made worse because 2018 is the Year of Engineering. The talent pool was small, but one group of Brits proving an inspiration was Ipswich-based smartphone accessory company Mous.

Virtually bankrupt and living off 40p packets of noodles, James Griffith and co were working on a Chinese production line just three years ago to study the manufacturing process. After developing its own patent-pending material for making phone cases, Mous raised nearly $2.5m on crowdfunding website Indiegogo. 

The material, Airo Shock, contains micro air pockets that act as springs to dampen the impact of falls. It’s seen Mous go viral after an iPhone X was repeatedly thrown in the air and landed unscathed outside Apple’s Regent Street store in London on launch day. 

“To be one of 10 brands at CES representing UK innovation is really special,” says sales manager Rob Smith. “Hundreds of people recognised us from our viral stunts – we hadn’t even finished setting up and were already being interviewed by CNBC.”

Flying taxis

Bell Helicopter_Air Taxi Cabin_Side [ONLINE]

This futuristic vehicle could be the basis of Uber’s air taxi service from 2020 (Credit: Bell Helicopters)

Readers of a certain age and disposition will be aware that the most famous Bell Helicopter to date is arguably the 222 model used in cult 1980s TV drama Airwolf. You’ll be horrified to discover that the actual chopper came a cropper while operating as a German air ambulance, crashing in 1992 and killing all three occupants. We hope Bell has better luck with its self-piloting air taxi – for all our sakes.

The craft is earmarked for Uber’s 2020 air taxi service in collaboration with the US space agency NASA. Bell debuted the aircraft’s cabin along with a virtual-reality experience for visitors. 

Sadly, the propulsion system remains a closely guarded secret, although rumours are that a gas turbine will power an electric generator, before Bell switches to battery power when technology is at a point that fuel tanks are no longer required. A combination of rotors, fans and wings could complete the set-up. 

Underwater drones

A shoal of underwater explorers surfaced at CES. These marine machines can do everything from baiting fish to saving swimmers.

The $749 PowerVision PowerDolphin glides through the water at 21km/h with a nose-mounted, rotatable camera. Other features include sonar for topographical ocean mapping and fish detection at up to 40m, a bait dispenser and lure line, plus life preserver delivery to divers in distress and a tow line to reel them in. 

Not to be outdone, the $999 Robosea BIKI is claimed to be the “world’s first bionic wireless underwater fish drone”. It collected a coveted CES innovation award. BIKI is built on the bionics and hydromechanics theory and is driven by a caudal fin so it swims like a fish. The drone is designed to film marine life in 4K, Blue Planet-style, but also tracks swimmers, snorkellers and scuba divers to depths of 60m.

Self-parking cars

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Self-parking cars demonstrated their skills in an outdoor lot at CES (Credit: Clarion)

Vehicle technology is massive at CES – now among USA Today’s 10 best car shows. Among the autonomous automotive innovations, Clarion and Hitachi have developed a driverless system for remotely parking cars by smartphone. That means automatically performing parallel, perpendicular and garage parking at the touch of a button. Or, to put it another way, rocking up at Heathrow Airport’s long-stay car park and leaving your motor to do the rest. 

I tried the system in an obstacle-laden Las Vegas parking lot, where a combination of cameras, control units and steering and brake actuators had been retrofitted to a Lexus. 

In a controlled environment, the system worked flawlessly, if slowly. The car found a space and parked itself, before notifying me of its chosen numerical bay. A single tap retrieves the vehicle on your return. Hitachi hopes the system could soon be added to the usual options list alongside air conditioning and chrome wheels. 

A lucrative announcement that went largely unnoticed came from Panasonic, which signed a deal with Toyota to develop prismatic batteries for electric vehicles. Panasonic is already the sole battery provider to Tesla. 

Robo table tennis

FORPHEUS at CES 2018 (1)

Crowds flocked to see Omron’s ping-pong playing robot (Credit: Omron)

Watch Forrest Gump and you’ll know that single-player table tennis requires rebounding shots off an upright section. For a stiffer challenge there’s Omron’s Forpheus, a pro ping-pong robot from Japan that had CES crowds in a tizzy. The 3m machine uses cameras, artificial intelligence and a repurposed arm from a product-packing parallel link bot. AI controls the arm through a five-axis motor system with support from several servos. 

“Forpheus is more than just a ping-pong-playing robot,” says Omron’s chief technical officer Deron Jackson. “It is the embodiment of our integrated technologies, and an exciting illustration of how intelligent machines can help develop and support human potential. 

“The paddle grip, ball hit location and arm position are all controlled to within 0.1mm. The ball’s location is detected up to 80 times per second, and Forpheus can even use its opponent’s movements to predict a smash.”

Shooting star swarms

Kudos to Intel and its swarm of drones for upstaging the Bellagio fountains and bringing the Vegas strip to a standstill. With Area 51 just an hour outside the city it’s not the first time UFOs have been spotted in the Nevada night sky, but there was something special about seeing 250 dancing quadcopters dazzling crowds with a carefully choreographed display. Intel wants its chips to become commonplace in drones, and the stunt used pre-programmed aircraft carrying LEDs capable of four million light combinations. 

On a more practical level, Boeing revealed a delivery drone that carries 227kg of cargo. Designed in under three months by Boeing engineers, it’s powered by an environmentally-friendly electric propulsion system and eight counter-rotating blades. 

“We have an opportunity to really change air travel and transport, and we’ll look back on this day as a major step in that journey,” says Boeing chief technology officer Greg Hyslop. 

Technological toilets

Unless you live in the developed Far East, exposure to technologically advanced toilets is rather restricted, but the Kohler Numi could change that. The US brand’s loo is Alexa-enabled, meaning you can ask Amazon’s AI butler to play songs through its built-in speakers, set LED mood lighting or select your preferred flushing cycle.

The first advanced toilet for the smart home is beautifully designed and engineered with a motion-sensing, pivoting, automatic open-and-close lid. Other features include a heated seat, feet-warming fan, air dryer, charcoal filter deodoriser and a bidet ‘wand’ that slides in and out of the rim on request. 

Price tag? Just $6,650… you decide whether it’s money down the toilet.


Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.
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