23 Greatest Engineering Highlights from 2020
The year 2020 has certainly been an "interesting" year, to put it mildly. From wildfires ravaging Australia and California at the start of the year, the life as we know it completely disrupted by something invisible to the naked eye, 2020 will be one for the history books — to say the least.
With most of us focusing on the negative events of the year, it is understandable that you might have missed some amazing engineering highlights from 2020. Here are some of the most notable examples.
What were some of the engineering highlights from 2020?
And so, without further ado, here are some of the greatest engineering achievements and announcements from the year 2020. This list is far from exhaustive and is in no particular order.
1. Google's DeepMind AI beat experts at detecting cancer
Back in January 2020, it was announced that Google's DeepMind AI reduced the number of false-positive results by almost 6% in US-based test groups. False negatives were also greatly reduced by as much as 9.5%.
While based on a set of mammograms from confirmed cancer patients, this was a huge development in the field of AI-powered breast screening.
2. The DeLorean is officially back in business
The iconic vehicle from the "Back to the Future" franchise, the Delorean, officially made a comeback at the start of 2020. It was announced in January that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration made a judgment that the carmaker could re-start production of the classic car.
While new DeLoreans were in production only a few years ago, legal restrictions literally and figuratively put the breaks on the enterprise. This all changed earlier this year when further legal changes were made that could allow full production to commence again.
3. News that nuclear waste can be reused for "near infinite" power was announced
Also back in January this year, it was announced that researchers from the University of Bristol were working on a method of recycling nuclear waste. The plan is to turn the hazardous byproducts of nuclear power plants to create diamond batteries with ultra-long lifespans.
The batteries work by placing artificially-grown diamonds inside a radioactive field, which then generate an electrical current. By using carbon-14 isotopes, which has a half-life of 5,730 years, a near-infinite amount of power could be achieved theoretically.
Talk about killing two birds with one stone.
4. Earth 2.0 may have been discovered
Also back in January, it was announced that an Earth-sized planet that was recently discovered could also be habitable. The planet, which lies within its star's habitable zone, was discovered by NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite or TESS.
In their press release, NASA said that the planet is at a distance from its parent start that would provide ideal conditions for liquid water to exist on its surface. Called TOI 700d, the planet orbits a small, cool M dwarf star that is around 100 light-years away from us.
5. Researchers successfully 'printed' new skin onto serious burn victims
Back in February, it was announced that researchers at the University of Toronto had managed to develop a technique for "printing" new skin onto serious burn victims. Work started on the device back in 2018, but recently completed its first successful test on a pig.
The device works similar to a tape dispenser but instead of a roll of tape, the device squeezes out a piece of living tissue instead. This news brings the machine one step closer to real-life applications for human burn victims in the not too distant future.
6. The Airbus MAVERIC was unveiled
In February of 2020, Airbus unveiled their concept for a new and potentially revolutionary form of air travel — the MAVERIC. The futuristic aircraft, whose full name is the Model Aircraft for Validation and Experimentation of Robust Innovative Controls, features a blended wing-body design with minimal separation between the main body and wings.
Because of this setup, the interior of this futuristic commercial aircraft has a lot more space than would be expected from the overall size of the aircraft, and also features impressive aerodynamics that could reduce fuel consumption by 20%.
But don't get too excited by the prospect of such an aircraft, it will be quite a few years before a working prototype will be realized.
7. The Renault "Morphoz" concept was unveiled
Back in March of this year, Renault officially unveiled their "transforming" concept electrical vehicle, the Morphoz. The USP of this concept EV is the fact that it can reconfigure itself for city or long-distance journeys.
In its longer long-distance form, the car can be fitted with a larger battery, and provide more cabin space for passengers. The larger battery would also improve the vehicle's range. The city mode, where the car would likely spend the majority of its life, has a smaller battery and a consequently smaller cabin size.
8. SpaceX delivered six astronauts to the ISS this year
This year, SpaceX made history in spacecraft development by delivering a total of six astronauts to the International Space Station in two launches.
First, two astronauts were shuttled above in May as part of the Demo-2 mission. They safely returned home in August.
Later, in November, after a smooth ride above SpaceX's revolutionary "Dragon" capsule, four astronauts were sent to the ISS, and they will remain there until May 2021.
This marked the first US-based delivery of NASA astronauts to the ISS since the retirement of the Space Shuttles, after years of asking Russia for a lift into space.
Developments like the Dragon capsule could also pave the way for humans to travel to Mars and beyond in the future.
9. A New Zealand-based company unveiled its wireless power transmitter
Earlier this year, a New Zealand-based startup called Emrod announced its wireless electrical power transmission system to the world. The system can transmit power over long distances without the need for any cabling of any kind.
Emrod teamed up with New Zealand's second-largest energy distributor, Powerco, to begin real-life testing of the system. According to the startup, the system can efficiently transmit large amounts of electricity between two points, so long as they're within the line-of-sight of one another.
The company already has a working prototype of its device and is planning on building another one for Powerco. Delivery and testing of the prototypes were scheduled for October this year. The prototypes will deliver "only a few kilowatts" of power, but the company claims they can easily be scaled up.
10. Engineers managed to set a new internet speed at 178 Terabits per second
Earlier this year, engineers successfully set a new internet speed record with 178 Terabits a second. The engineers from University College in London set the record back in May of this year.
The record was set by conveying data through a wider spectrum of light than usually sent through a typical optical fiber cable. The bandwidth researchers used was 16.8 THz, which is almost double that of the commercial bandwidth range of 9 THz.
At that speed, it would be possible to download the entire Netflix library in less than a second!
11. World's largest camera took the world's largest picture
Back in September, the world's biggest camera managed to capture the biggest picture of all time. The amazing 3,200-megapixel camera, took a picture of... some broccoli.
The camera will later be installed at the Vera Rubin Observatory (VRO) in Chile where it will be used to help astronomers understand many unknown aspects of the cosmos, including possibly dark matter and dark energy.
It will also be used to map the night's sky in exquisite detail over a period of a decade.
12. These graphene batteries can be charged in 15 seconds
Back in September of this year, a novel ultrafast charging battery concept based on graphene was unveiled. The batteries would be capable of charging in 15 seconds. They have been developed by the Estonia-based Skeleton Technologies and the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) in Germany.
Called the "SuperBattery", this groundbreaking development could revolutionize many industries, from electrical vehicles to renewable power generation.
Its main feature is a novel curved graphene carbon material, patented by Skeleton Technologies, that enables long-lasting ultracapacitors to be linked with graphene batteries.
13. A robot helped human surgeons in real operation
In July of this year, a robot provided assistance during a cancer patient's surgery. The procedure was conducted at Norwich University Hospital and cut surgery and recovery times by almost one-third.
A world first, 14 surgeons in three teams worked alongside the robot, which carried out three different stages of the operation at the same time — thereby saving valuable time. The team behind the procedure hopes it will open the doors for other similar operations in which teams can work at the same time to finish faster.
14. The giant Japanese Gundam Robot walked unaided
September was a good month for any fan of Gundam with the announcement that a 60-foot (18.2 mt) tall "real" Gundam robot managed to walk unaided for the first time. Based on the famed 1970s Japanese animated series "Mobile Suit Gundam", the robot weighs an amazing 25 tonnes.
Built by a Japanese company, the robot is currently in development at the Port of Yokohama, just south of Tokyo. It is hoped that the massive robot will be showcased completed at the Gundam Factory in Yokohama sometime next year.
15. NuScale's micro-nuclear reactor designs were approved
Back in September, NuScale's ingenious small modular reactor designs were finally approved by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. These relatively tiny reactors could see a future where domestic-scale nuclear reactors become a reality.
Called a Small Nuclear Reactor (SMR), these reactors are specifically designed for rapid construction within a factory, rather than building it up in situ like conventional nuclear reactors. Once commercially scaled, these reactors should ensure that nuclear power remains relevant through lower assembly costs and unparalleled safety — albeit with a considerably lower power output than larger reactors.
16. The first supersonic jet since Concorde, the XB-1, was announced
In October of this year, Boom Supersonic debuted a full-scale commercial supersonic jet prototype — the XB-1. The prototype is scheduled to make its first flights sometime in 2021.
This announcement made the jet the world's first independently developed supersonic jet. It features a sleek design to help minimize drag and offer unparalleled performance and maneuverability.
Powered by three engines, each is able to pump out around 12,000 lbs of thrust (5,443 kg).
17. World's first hydrogen fuel cell bus started trials in Aberdeen, Scotland
In huge news for supporters of hydrogen fuel cell technology, the world's first hydrogen cell-powered bus began testing in Aberdeen, Scotland. The new bus will be one of six that will form part of the city's Net Zero Vision to tackle air pollution.
Other cities around the UK are also planning to operate similar buses in the future, and they could become an integral part of the country's bus fleet very soon.
18. NASA managed to grab a sample from a nearby asteroid
Earlier this year, NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft successfully managed to take rock and dust samples from the nearby asteroid Bennu. The sample, consisting of 2 ounces (50 grams) and 4.4 pounds (2 kg) of dust and pebbles respectively, is scheduled to be returned to Earth sometime in 2023.
The asteroid in question, Bennu, is over 200 million miles (321 million km) from Earth.
The mission moved seamlessly and NASA Administrator, Jim Bridenstine, praised the team, "Our industry, academic, and international partners have made it possible to hold a piece of the most ancient solar system in our hands."
19. Nuclear fusion is one step closer to being a reality in the UK
Back in October, it was announced that the MAST fusion reactor was turned on for the first time in the UK. Currently still in its experimental phase, the spherical tokamak reactor managed to generate its "first plasma" meaning that all its essential components run together simultaneously.
It cost a whopping $71 million (£55 million) and, according to various experts, is a "really momentous occasion".
20. China launched a mission to collect moon rocks
After almost 40 years since the last mission to the Moon, China announced they too had now successfully launched a mission to collect moon rocks. The craft, called the Chang'e 5, blasted off from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Center in Wenchang, Hainan province, in November of this year.
The craft successfully landed and collected moon rocks and soil, before lifting off and docking with an orbiter. The capsule transferred the moon samples to the orbiter, which will then separate and return to Earth.
21. South Korea's Hyper-Tube train hits major milestone
Earlier in November, it was announced that South Korea's Hyper-Tube train had hit a major milestone. The Korean Railroad Research Institute (KORAIL) announced that its hyper-tube train reached speeds over 621 mph (1,000 km/h) during a test.
This marked a major milestone in the move towards faster trains for the country. The Hyper-Tube is the nation's alternative to the more famous Hyperloop.
Started in 2017, this news is a welcome one and puts South Korea on track to cut the journey time between Seoul to Busan from three hours and thirty minutes, down to just thirty minutes.
22. SpaceX make space history, again
Also in November of this year, SpaceX announced the 7th successful reuse of one of their Falcon 9 rockets. Occurring on the 24th of November, the two-stage Falcon 9 rocket launched from the Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
The mission also marked the 100th successful mission for the Falcon 9 project, and was also the 23rd SpaceX launch of the year, and the 16th Starlink mission to date.
23. First CO2-neutral cargo plane took to the air
In November of 2020, Lufthansa announced the first successful flight of their carbon-neutral cargo plane. A joint venture between Lufthansa and DB Schenker, the flight was performed by a Boeing 777F traveling to Shanghai from Frankfurt and back again.
The flight used a special kind of fuel called Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAFs), which is a sustainable, synthetic kerosene produced mainly from biomass, such as vegetable and cooking oils.
While this was a proof of concept flight, Lufthansa plan on using the fuel regularly on flights from the summer of 2021.
And that, ladies and gentleman, is a wrap for today.
We hope you have enjoyed this whistle-stop tour through some of the engineering highlights of 2020.