Friday, October 2, 2015

Drones For Everyone: Uneccessary Or Inevitable?

Start-Up CyPhy's latest model, the LVL 1

New Jersey over the past few years has suddenly becoming a state home to an increasing amount of drone enthusiasts. Hobby groups like the Oaklyn Rotor-E Drone Club have proven there are a sizable amount of the public across the spectrum of income and demographics that not only enjoy drone technology for individual purposes, but for social interaction as well.

With that in mind, it's only a matter of time before someone puts a serious investment behind an effort to integrate drones into our day-to-day lives. But how exactly should they fit into those lives? The obvious part of drone-tech- its camera ability- has been used recently in a variety of monitor-oriented methods. One such example is the implementation of a drone by Turner Corporation to oversee the Kings arena construction site in Sacramento, California. While there is real value in the getting real-time data return on the productivity of a construction team, this kind of application of constant surveillance can have the adverse effect of overworking laborers aware of always being watched (to say the least of annoying them as well; nobody likes an "all-seeing eye" camera above them at work.)

However, on the individual level, drone technology, while harder to practically apply, makes a lot more sense. Imagine the drone not as a primary point of focus every time you use it, but an accessory in the background, providing functional information when needed and serving as an extension of your smartphone. Gizmodo, in a recent podcast, featured a project by the R&D lab, Superflux called the Drone Aviary. The purpose of the project was to explore literally every pracitcal purpose having a drone nonchalantly hovering in a person's own "bubblespace" that could be. The results were quite interesting: monitoring health, pets at home, traffic while running or bicycling, even a house or apartment while you sleep. Those were just a fraction of the myriad of possibilities Superflux's design team came up with, and when put into the context of app technology, it is quite possible one drone can be programmed through a smartphone to perform each function on command.

Some would say that while a nice idea, the hardware of a drone is not at a point where navigating the pitfalls of real-world use, like accidents, mistakes of use, or outright vandalism, is possible. Maybe so, but more and more, start-ups are building drones customized exactly for these kinds of variables. Take the CyPhy LVL 1 for example; a lightweight, hard plastic drone with its camera built inside to take into account environmental hazards. Not only can it be "added on" with supplemental tech to do different things, but its geometric design enables it to fly in close quarters, around tight corners, and always with its camera level; in other words, ideal for densely populated urban landscapes.

Yes, this is a long way down the road, and most likely coming after drones are used in a sparse way that takes into account just how much of a nightmare mass use could be for air traffic and congestion (as the recent disaster of a wildfire on the route 5 interstate in California illustrated. Drones can seriously impede needed air services we depend on.) However, as they get cheaper to make and various in use, it is only a matter of time before the public will be clamoring for a drone of their own. The industry is closer to meeting that demand than it may seem.

Donal Thoms-Cappello is a freelance writer for Rotor Clip Company.

Friday, September 25, 2015

The Era of Drought-Coping-Manufacturing Is Here

In the western US, it's time to face the very real possibility this half-decade-long drought is not going away anytime soon. Snow-capped mountains in Southern California are a thing of the past, and water conservation has moved very sharply into the collective consciousness of the public mind.

Consequently, the time has come for technological advancements dealing with water sustainability to move out of the R&D labs and into real world application. Already, there are several interesting ideas making their way either through resident or public use. They include:

DIY Fog Catchers

Global Design Company Ideo has multiple irons in the fire when it comes to originality. However, Will Carey, one of its directors in San Francisco, has taken an old idea- harvesting moisture from the air- and re-imagined it. Researching the design of the desert-based Stenocata beetle shell, Carey came up with a water-harvesting fog catcher easy to make and maintain for any Bay Area resident. After successfully building a micro fog catcher good enough to provide him water for coffee every morning, Carey then built bigger "panel" models, and mounted them on the roof of his apartment complex. How much water do these larger catchers provide the tenants? Enough for the toilets and short showers.

Fog Catcher extracts moisture from the air.

"Shade Balls"

Recently, Los Angeles dumped over 96 million small, plastic shade balls into its reservoirs as part of a $35 million water improvement plan. At $.36 a piece, the balls are a cost-effective way of preventing two natural events from sunlight that have a surprisingly costly effect on the city's water. One is evaporation; the other, unhealthy chemical reactions when ultraviolet light hits the added chlorine used to keep the drinking source clean. In addition, the balls prevent algae bacterial buildup. City officials estimate the shade balls will save over 300 million gallons of water every year.

Urban Runoff Capture

But the more important innovation coming out of LA could be LADWP's recent announcement of a city-wide plan to capture rainfall from running off into the ocean, sanitizing it, and redistributing it into the city's drinking supply. Surprisingly, Los Angeles and most other cities still rely heavily on snow pack that melts during the Spring. While the process is a natural system in how the local Sierra Mountains fertilize lush surrounding valleys, it takes a long time and travels long distances before replenishing LA's drinking supply. What's worse, this past year recorded the lowest snowfall for the Sierras yet: just five percent of its normal levels. Clearly the city cannot rely on them anymore for the millions of residents that surge in population each year.

Permeable pavement reduces runoff and filters water back into the aquifer.
The good news is rainfall levels, while uneven, are still adequate enough to be a potential water source. This is going to require a major overhaul of Los Angeles' infrastructure. After cutting their water use by 27 percent this past year, Californians get the gravity of the situation, and there is enough public support for ambitious development. LADWP is aiming high: $200 million worth of "case-by-case" conversions. The methods include strategically-placed gardens for bioretention, "green streets" with permeable pavement, and underground basins.

Donal Thoms-Cappello is a freelance writer for Rotor Clip Company.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Elon Musk Reclaims The Hyperloop

When Elon Musk published his 57-page alpha white papers on the concept of a Hyperloop back in 2013, he made a clear intention that they were for some other ambitious group of innovators to take and run with, as he had a bit on his plate already.

Little did he, or really anyone, suspect someone would take up his challenge so quickly, but that is precisely what Dirk Ahlnborn and others did when they created Hyperloop Transportation Technologies. Through successful marketing and crowdfunding efforts, the start-up has made incredible strides in introducing Musk's core concept to real-world applications.

Just recently, Hyperloop Technologies announced a partnership with Oerlikon Leybold Vacuum and global engineering firm Aecom. In exchange for stock options, both companies will facilitate their employees' expertise in how to make Musk's initial vision of a pneumatic tubing network firing passengers across the country a reality. The location of a future prototype has already been chosen the silicon valley-engineered "Quay Valley" that will be situated in between Los Angeles and San Francisco. With more investment, Hyperloop Technologies hopes to have a 5 mile test track built there. The speed at which the concept is developing into actual application illustrates how contagious a good idea can be, and how it can even trump traditional monetary benefit for those who understand its importance. From Wired :

"The startup also announced today that it has 400 'team members' working on the project. They aren’t employees, but women and men with regular gigs at places like NASA, Boeing, and SpaceX, who spend their spare time on Hyperloop in exchange for stock options"

While the interest in the idea owes itself to Musk's white paper publishing, it's worth mentioning his real intention for introducing the idea was to criticize California's high speed rail project- or rather its price tag. Because of this ulterior motive, it has always been tricky to gauge how serious Musk's commitment to the idea really was. That certainly changed in June, however, when the billionaire's company SpaceX announced a competition to design the ideal pod to house passengers for a future Hyperloop project. While the competition only covers one aspect of the incredibly complex endeavor, it proves Musk believes enough in the merits of his idea that he is willing for SpaceX to devote time and money. 

Donal Thoms-Cappello is a freelance writer for Rotor Clip Company (

Friday, August 28, 2015

Airless Tires Breathe New Life into Conventional Wheels

More and more, recent innovations in the automotive industry demonstrate the importance of further refining existing products instead of constantly trying to come up with brand new ones.

Case in point: Korean-based company Hankook unveiled a successful test run of its prototype, the iFlex: an airless tire. While a non-pneumatic tire is certainly a new development, the concept is not a new one. Militaries around the world use airless tires in heavy transport vehicles. The details around Hankook's particular design show an awareness of the process of manufacturing being just as crucial as the end result itself.

The iFlex comes in three sections: an outer layer, inner layer, and central frame fitted around the hub. The outer layer is, of course, the section built to interact with the ground the most. The inner layer is a mesh network of spokes (made from organic, rice husk material), designed to absorb the impact passed through from the outer layer.  The central frame links the two together, but is also available in multiple colors; a clever built-in nod to the average car-buyer's desire for personal customization. Probably the most interesting change Hankook made is finding a way to manufacture this model in four steps, when the standard tire model takes at least eight. Reusable materials, not needing pneumatic maintenance, and a shorter process greatly contribute to the promise of the iFLex reaching the holy grail of mass production.

Although the company is a little quiet on this latest test run, the results they disclosed sound promising. The car driving with iFLex tires reached a peak of 80mph without any issues in durability, stability, hardness, slalom (ability to zigzag), and speed. You can view Hankook's promotional video for the iFlex below:

(Note: Bridgestone Americas is also working on an airless tire design).

Donal Thoms-Cappello is a freelance writer for Rotor Clip Company (

Monday, August 10, 2015

Virtual Arcade In Utah Set To Change Immersive Gaming Forever

Utah may not be the first place that comes to mind when envisioning the latest development in virtual technology.

That may change within the year, however, if all goes as well as planned for the new company Void. The Void, or The Vision of Infinite Dimensions, boasts it has come closest than any company before in providing virtual gear that, when worn by a player, completely immerses their senses into a "holodeck" simulation game happening all around their environment. A look at this promo video proves they may not at all be exaggerating:

There are other virtual projects out there utilizing full immersion like this. Cyberith's Virtualizer and Oculus Rift harness had a recently successful Kickstarter campaign.

None of them seem to be committing as much as The Void to space expansion. The use of maze halls and props is a perfect way to lure families used to attending immersion parks similar to what bigger theme brands like Universal Studios employ.

This way, virtualism, although clearly being packaged for gamers, may also hold the promise of cross-demographic interest to Mom and Dad as well.

Donal Thoms-Cappello is a freelance writer for Rotor Clip Company (

Friday, July 24, 2015

Bladeless Wind Turbines: Progress Or Quixotic?

The collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in 1940 provides a textbook example for physics students about the dangers of overestimating the force of oscillation and aeroelastic flutter.However, not everyone has taken it as a lesson in what to avoid, but rather how to capture the dangerous phenomena and put it to good use.

Vortex Bladeless, a start-up company based in Spain, has introduced a new type of wind turbine built around the idea of oscillation including a distinct feature: no blades. The bladeless turbine, invented by Daniel Yanez, generates energy not from a basic "windmill" design, but by oscillating to and fro as wind swirls around its cylindrical top. This is essentially using the principles of vorticity to harness the power of the wind, ironic in that prevention of vorticity has been the lesson most engineers have taken from the fate of the first Tacoma Bridge.

"This is a very good way to transmit energy from a fluid to a structure,” Yanez explains. Not to mention save money. The design has no excess gears or bearings needed to hold things in place, and does not come in fractured pieces that do not fit a standard storage transportation unit (unlike blades, which demand more customization for delivery the bigger each model gets). The cylinder poles in Yanez's design would also take up less space, cost half the amount of standard wind turbines to manufacture, make less noise, and crucial for the environmental lobby, be of minimal risk to birds' flight paths.

Of course there are downsides; being more lightweight taking up less area of wind to harness means less conversion energy. Wind turbines usually have a rate of 90 percent kinetic energy conversion, while Yanez believes his model will amount to somewhere around 70 percent (it also bears reminding Yanez and his partners have only built one miniature prototype right now). Also, there are those who question the idea of an oscillating pole being silent, especially at the size it will have to be in order to produce anything worth investment. “The oscillating frequencies that shake the cylinder will make noise,” says Sheila Widnall, an aeronautics and astronautics professor at MIT. “It will sound like a freight train coming through your wind farm.”

Vortex has already received about $1 million in venture capital to work with; it hopes to receive $5 million more to help build a larger version of its current prototypes. While Yanez and his compatriots agree there is a long way to go, if they have hit upon a model of wind turbine that can be improved and developed for more efficiency of space and integration into densely populated areas, they may have just invented the next generation of wind infrastructure.

Donal Thoms-Cappello is a freelance writer for Rotor Clip Company ( 

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Battery May Have Just Changed...and Changed All Industry With It

Ask industry experts what's really holding alternative energy back, and even Elon Musk would admit: it's the stalling out of the battery.

The lithium ion battery, although a reliable source of energy storage, has simply hit a ceiling of efficiency with how much energy output it can give versus how expensive it is to manufacture. No one has been able to make any headway in finding a way to boost the energy output while minimizing cost-efficiency.

Until now. 24M, a battery start-up that has been in stealth mode for almost five years, has now emerged publicly to present a brilliant package of innovations that will most likely change the battery industry and the entire energy sector.

While they did not change the overall chemistry properties of the lithium-ion battery, they may have done something even better: discover a process of manufacturing that builds a lithium-ion battery faster and cheaper, with more energy capacity. Dr. Yet-Ming Chiang, co-founder, chief scientist, and a lifelong MIT mind, gave an incredible interview to Quartz about the journey he took in going all the way back to the drawing board with the battery. At one point, the start-up company had thrown all its bets onto the prospects of creating a new model flow battery (a design where unlike traditional solid cells, the cathode and anode would be delivered and maintained through two storage units of liquid.) But while the flow battery model had come with cheaper materials, one the size of a nuclear reactor would be needed in order to have a prayer of competing with gas fuel.

Chiang, to his credit, recognized when to re-prioritize. He went back to the traditional lithium-ion cell models and realized something that had been overlooked; the original manufacturers of lithium batteries was Sony, and they had done so on the same machines used to create magnetic strips for the dying cassette tape. From Chiang's interview in Quartz:

The result was the first lithium-ion cell, which Sony commercialized in 1991...But Sony also had to quickly figure out how to manufacture this new kind of battery on a commercial scale. Providence stepped in: As it happened, increasingly popular compact discs were beginning to erode the market for cassette tapes, of which Sony was also a major manufacturer. The tapes were made on long manufacturing lines that coated a film with a magnetic slurry, dried it, cut it into long strips, and rolled it up. Looking around the company, Sony’s lithium-ion managers now noticed much of this equipment, and its technicians, standing idle. 
It turned out that the very same equipment could also be used for making lithium-ion batteries. These too could be made by coating a slurry on to a film, then drying and cutting it. In this case the result isn’t magnetic tape, but battery electrodes.
This equipment, and those technicians, became the backbone of the world’s first lithium-ion battery manufacturing plant, and the model for how they have been made ever since. Today, factories operating on identical principles are turning out every commercial lithium-ion battery on the planet.
The machines were big, and their process was slow and expensive. They were a large part of the reason batteries couldn’t compete with gasoline. It was time to correct that mistake and figure out a new way to make the battery. “We got sidetracked by a historical accident and a reluctance to switch to something that works (better),” Chiang said.

Chiang and 24M were able to remove 80 percent inactive materials, simplify the layers inside each inidividual cell (from 24 to 5) and cut the time it takes to create one cell from 22 hours to a couple minutes. The average capital needed for an entry-level battery plant is $100 million. Chaing belives these innovations in process alone can knock the price down to $10 million; a very reasonable amount for smaller start-up companies to compete with larger battery giants.

More importantly, these efficiency changes, if they really can be duplicated on a mass level, now make batteries a direct competitor with the oil and gas sector. Heavy expensive batteries have been a literal and figurative anchor holding down the 21st century ideas of electric cars, and off-the-grid housing. With the help of Chiang and 24M, the anchor has just gotten a lot smaller.

Donal Thoms-Cappello is a freelance writer for Rotor Clip Company.