Discussing current issues in engineering
You might have noticed more and more mention of autonomous cars recently—big companies like Tesla and Google are working on taking advantage of what many hope is the next big technological leap. Driverless cars come with many potential benefits including safer driving, but there are still issues to work out before making autonomous driving mainstream. One of them is basic reasoning.
Humans are remarkably good at navigating roads we’re unfamiliar with; even when using a GPS, we rely on observation and our senses to determine where we need to go. Driverless cars, however, can’t reason in the same way. Part of the problem is due to how these cars navigate now: in every new area, they first use complex maps to analyze all new roads, then generate 3D scans to rely on. This process is time-consuming and not always reliable in more rural areas.
Researchers at MIT are working on this shortfall by creating a system that uses only simple maps and visual data to help driverless cars navigate routes in new, complicated environments. By creating an end-to-end navigation system, offering new maps available for cars to download, and creating an easier way to store and process maps, these cars should be able to navigate more easily in unfamiliar areas. Since car-to-infrastructure communication is essential for driverless cars to function smoothly, researchers are hoping this new system will make the process run more efficiently.
It turns out that even smart, driverless cars need to depend on human intuition to fill in the gaps that advanced technology can’t match! For more on MIT’s project, see the article here on Science Daily.
Earthquakes like this month’s 7.1 magnitude quake can be devastating. But new ways of planning and building now exist to take into account these disasters, particularly in urban cities along fault lines. For engineers in these areas, this adds an important dimension to civil and structural design.
Buildings are already built to withstand vertical stress on a day-to-day basis; anything from heavy weight bearing to strong winds are always considered when designing a structure. However, major quakes put horizontal stress on buildings—a stress for which earlier buildings weren’t designed, making old buildings far more likely to collapse or suffer damage during an earthquake.
Earthquake simulators are one way engineers can assess potential seismic behavior in vulnerable regions. For example, researchers at Lehigh University established a real-time multi-directional simulation facility to develop models of large-scale structures to replicate seismic events. The data collected from sensors are then processed by a team, ultimately enabling them to accurately test the nature of structural collapse. This helps to make sure any new structures are adequately designed and built in case of another fault-line disaster.
To read more about earthquakes and their impact on the way civil engineers have shaped design strategies around them, check out this graphic from Norwich University.
The American Society of Civil Engineer’s new effort, Future World Vision: Infrastructure Reimagined, asks civil engineers to consider the shifts in ways we learn, practice, and manage our profession in the upcoming decades. With rapid development in technology approaching, the most important global trends civil engineers will need to consider are:
The ways these trends intersect and affect one another will be critical in determining the ways civil engineers utilize their services in the future. Transportation needs, artificial intelligence, and new forms of construction will significantly change our everyday lives as we continue to progress, and keeping up with these trends early-on allows us to envision ways to accommodate this new environment.
For example, growing needs in transportation automation lead us to consider new ways people and goods will be moved more efficiently. If automated vehicles and hyperloop public transportation become commonplace, soon enough it will fundamentally affect the ways cities are built around them, which in turn would impact almost any design. With hyperloop plans already considered in many major cities worldwide, changes in the ways we live, work, and commute are only a few ways technology will change the field in the future.
To learn more about the full Future World Vision effort, take a look at their website and full report here.
A school district in Rockford, Illinois has recently debuted a school designed to imitate a town hall with an open, pragmatic spatial layout.
The prototype, designed along with students, features a central “town hall” surrounded by classrooms targeted to students based on their age groupings from kindergarten to fifth grade. It unites the school’s gym, cafeteria, art classrooms, library, and its other public spaces. Workshops were conducted with students to develop new ideas based on how the students view their surroundings, leading to the unique design. The architecture directly engages children and is both stimulating and educational. Each space contains geometric, colorful windows, movable furniture, and more development behind the prototype’s spatial reasoning.
Experts have long worried about keeping a new generation of students focused in school, and new technologies have arisen to address the issue. But Rockford takes a different perspective by communicating with students directly and changing the spaces they see daily into something engaging and beneficial. Learn more about this innovative school prototype.
A recent NPR interview with Tom Smith, the executive director of the American Society of Civil Engineers, discusses the United States’ D+ grade on the Society’s last report card from 2017.
Smith explains that this is mainly due to neglected infrastructure. Issues like national transportation aren’t receiving adequate funding from Congress, which has not been building upkeep and maintenance into budgets. Smith states that the country’s infrastructure requires funding and leadership from the federal government.
The effects of neglecting U.S. infrastructure are not just internal or invisible—in fact, consequences are becoming more visible every day. Currently in the water sector, Smith points out there are “240,000 waterline breaks a year. So every couple of minutes, we’re seeing a waterline break,” which not only affects waterlines but also spreads to system shutdowns, such as the Metro system in Washington, D.C.
Traffic is another side effect of our poor infrastructure, and though taxpayer money is a main part of the solution to this problem, taxpayers are actually paying more due to a failure to invest in infrastructure—a hidden tax of about $3,400 a year. He concludes that, by investing in roadway upkeep, waterlines, and other important infrastructural systems, we can save money for households and make large strides towards a more efficient system.
Researchers at Washington State University have recently developed a plant-based insulation alternative to Styrofoam, according to this article on Science Daily.
Styrofoam is a popular material because it’s cheap and good for insulation—you might recognize it from takeout boxes and disposable coffee cups. However, Styrofoam is made from petroleum, it doesn’t degrade naturally (similar to plastic), and burning it is harmful to the environment.
This new plant-based alternative is created from 75% cellulose nanocrystals from wood pulp. The new material is lightweight, degrades well, and is far better for the environment even if disposed of. In fact, the new material appears to be a better insulator than Styrofoam.
Researcher Xiao Zhang, associate professor at the Gene and Linda School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering who was interviewed for the article, states that this material “has many desirable properties, and to be able to transfer these properties to a bulk sale for the first time through this engineered approach is very exciting.”
Innovations like this are very exciting because they bring us one step closer to a more environmentally sustainable future. The best way to stop manufacturing existing harmful materials is to create better alternatives, and researchers at Washington State are doing just that.
With rising global temperatures, natural disasters have become more frequent and intense in recent years—costing over $1.5 trillion and resulting in nearly 10,000 casualties since 1980.
But what’s also becoming more prevalent are “cascading natural disasters”—when one hazardous event impacts or creates another, creating a domino effect of destruction.
For example, after a wildfire or deforestation, topsoil becomes destabilized, leaving the earth incapable of absorbing rainfall. This then leads to flooding and landslides, such as the 20-foot high mudslide that hit Montecito, California homes at 20 miles per hour in January 2018.
Or consider hurricanes and their resulting storm surges. Flooding from these events typically impacts low-income households the most—as it did during Hurricane Katrina—since the most affordable homes tend to be located in the floodplains. This leads to a humanitarian disaster.
Although it’s impossible to predict the next hazardous event, civil engineers work to build solutions to reduce their impact and prevent the cascading effect. This means designing with the big picture in mind—rather than solving just the issue at hand.
To learn more about cascading natural disasters, check out this insightful article from Nature, International Journal of Science.
The April issue of the ASCE magazine features a short article on Los Angeles’s Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant (WRP). The plant is among the largest, most advanced facilities of its kind in the U.S. and presently processes over 80% of the city’s water, but the city recently revealed plans to recycle all wastewater by 2035.
In an interview with the ASCE, Paul Liu, a managing water utility engineer in the Water Resources Division of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) says, “Ultimately, however much water LADWP injects into the underground aquifer, the department can extract that same amount out of the ground to offset our imported purchased water. That’s the beauty of the system.” Recycled water requires microfiltration and reverse osmosis to prevent seawater imposition. Advanced future treatment might also include a membrane bioreactor and ultraviolet and advanced oxidation processes to make sure the water is safe to drink.
This ambitious idea would cost an estimated $8 billion but would benefit the city greatly in its attempts to be more environmentally friendly and cost-beneficial in the long term. Currently, Los Angeles imports the vast majority of its annual water supply from other parts of California, the Sierra Nevada Mountains, or the Colorado River. If plans go smoothly, the city should greatly reduce its dependence on importing water from outside regions in a few years.
By recycling wastewater and cutting import costs, Los Angeles is taking steps to contribute to a better environment and waste less water. Hopefully we see more cities follow suit!
In recent news surrounding environmental sustainability, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has awarded a total of $6.2 million to nine projects that work to research the environmental impacts of wind energy.
These projects include those conducted by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory of Colorado, the American Wind Wildlife Institute of Washington D.C., and seven other project partners who are committed to researching technologies that reduce the impact to wildlife such as birds and bats, and lower overall energy costs. Peer-reviewed research includes those conducted by organizations like the National Wind Coordinating Collaborative and the Bats and Wind Energy Cooperative.
By investing in these projects, the Wind Energy Technology Office along with the U.S. DOE can help to better understand the consequences for different energy sources, and the steps companies can take to assess environmental risk before making the decision that best works for the company. By collecting and disseminating rigorous research, national conservation organizations can work with energy companies to address solutions that work for both parties.
To learn more about these projects, check out https://www.energy.gov/eere/wind/environmental-impacts-and-siting-wind-projects.
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With St. Patrick’s Day coming up, you might be looking forward to one of the many nationwide parades and celebrations, but did you know that St. Patrick is considered the patron saint of engineers?
While legend tells us that St. Patrick drove all the snakes out of Ireland, the Christian missionary and bishop is also credited with bringing Roman building technology to Ireland, teaching the Irish to build arches of lime mortar instead of dry masonry. This made him instrumental in the construction of clay churches in Ireland in the fifth century.
Due to this little-known fact, many engineering students across the United States celebrate St. Patrick’s day as a holiday set aside for engineers. The day is also one of spiritual renewal for those who celebrate its traditional meaning.
Don’t forget to wear green, and may the luck of the Irish (engineers) be with you!
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