Ten big ideas for 2014

By Andrew Stone

Smart roads. Shrunken homes. The reinvention of drones as ambulances instead of spying or killing machines ... Andrew Stone outlines some of the most clever and inspiring innovations that could help make the planet a more habitable home and enrich our lives

Matternet use drones to supply aid directly to those in need.
Matternet use drones to supply aid directly to those in need.

1. Dronbulance

Forget Amazon's parcel delivery stunt - these are drones that deliver aid directly to those in need, rather than targeting terrorists. A fledging firm called Matternet is building a network of drones to bring essential supplies to places without roads, such as cities flattened by earthquakes or villages isolated by floods or landslides. The Silicon Valley start-up says it wants to delivery the technology to the "people who need it the most". Two trial runs illustrated the reach of the unmanned autonomous vehicles - a successful foray in Haiti using three drones flying from a camp for displaced families and an exercise in Dominican Republic, where supplies and diagnostic tools were ferried between healthcare centres while samples were carried back to base. Co-founder Andreas Raptopoulos told a TED conference last month: "The internet connects information, but it hasn't connected all people. We're designing the very edge of the web that can reach every unnavigable place where there's human need."

2. A pill for Alzheimer's

By 2050, it is estimated 135 million people will have Alzheimer's, a disease that gradually causes dementia. A clinical trial in the US is looking at a Colombian family afflicted with Alzheimer's, whose members are virtually helpless by their early 50s. Doctors are using a drug that hones in on a substance in the brain called amyloid plaques. Investigators are uncertain whether amyloid is a trigger or a by-product of the disease but the protein forms clumps in the brains of Alzheimer's patients, affecting memory and thinking and destroying nerve cells. The trial differs in one important respect from earlier work - the focus is on people who do not have the disease, but are at risk of developing it. Previous research looked at helping patients with symptoms. The big dividend of this costly research - drug companies are stumping up more than $100 million for the investigation - is the prospect of finding a drug to tackle a disease which no country with ageing populations can escape.

3. Tiny houses

Hammered for a decade by financial calamities, the American Dream of a big house in the 'burbs is a fading memory. In its place is a modest alternative, more in keeping with the shrunken superpower - the so-called "tiny house". The downsized homes once would have been a dog kennel or doll's house in the backyard of a typical US home. Small enough to throw on a trailer and tow around wide-open spaces, they can be as compact as 10sq m, with a loft for sleeping and high-end appliances for the creature comforts. In a basic shape, owners squeeze narrow bathrooms with toilet and shower and what they quaintly call "great rooms", which are twice the size of the small rooms. Homes can be built using 14 tools, costs less that US$20,000 ($24,000) and satisfy council red tape. New Zealand has had tiny houses for decades. Known as house trucks, they tended to gather in summer on public land beside beaches and rivers. They're still with us but in the US, in an era of diminished expectations, a tiny house movement is building to satisfy the needs of owners to share their good fortune of actually having four walls and a roof to call their own, rather than the bank's.

4. A step at a time

Last month on a chilly New York day, American war veteran Gary Linfoot took a stroll around the Statue of Liberty. The wonder of his walk is that Linfoot is paralysed below the waist, the result of a helicopter crash in Iraq in 2008 during his 19th tour of duty. Usually confined to a wheelchair, the decorated US Army pilot managed to move hesitantly around the famous landmark with the aid of a bionic suit called an "exoskeleton". Resembling a high-tech wetsuit, the wearable robot which guided Linfoot uses built-in sensors to detect the user's weight shifts and send a signal to start stepping out. Lightweight battery-powered motors move the legs, overcoming the lack of able-bodied drive. Developed by California-based Ekso Bionics, the infant technology is being trialled in hospitals and rehabilitation units for patients with spinal cord damage and stroke inquries. Linfoot's suit cost around US$100,000 ($122,000) and just five people own them, including blind and paralysed endurance athlete Mark Pollack, who has walked the equivalent of 2.4km in an hour-long training session. The developers, citing early cellphone technology, predict costs could tumble. Engineers and doctors at Georgia Tech Research Institute are devising enhanced sensors which could let wearers push into tougher country and New Zealand company Rex Bionics is also growing fast. After his celebrated New York shuffle, Linfoot said: "One day, one day soon, we'll be able to leave that wheelchair behind."

5. Vertical forests

Milan's Bosco Verticale ( "vertical forest" ) comprises two downtown residential towers bristling with reinforced terraces. The $100 million project, which is ready for ocupation, features buildings engineered to support an urban forest where six oak, cherry and beech trees grow in hefty containers right outside your 20th floor lounge window. Besides being home to a famous football team - Silvio Berlusconi's A.C. Milan - the northern Italian fashion capital is an ideal location to pioneer high-rise forests as it's one of the most polluted cities in Europe. The architects say their green apartments will create a new microclimate, filtering dust, removing carbon dioxide and creating oxygen. Critics have challenged the green credentials of the Milan sky forest, which is kept watered by greywater from baths, sinks, washing machines and dishwashers. Grunty engineering was needed to support the weight of 900 trees and the extra cost could have created a decent forest beyond Milan's city boundaries without the carbon footprint from all that reinforcing. Milan has become a way-point in the challenge of greening cities while making them denser than ever.

6. Roads that talk

The clever Dutch have come up with a road that lets drivers know when the surface is slippery, charges electric cars as they travel over its surface and produces electricity to light the journey. The Smart Highway is the brainchild of Daan Roosegaarde, who calls the fusion of engineering and ideas "techno poetry". Using embedded technology, the road comes alive as temperatures fall below freezing. Surface paint awakes, covering the road surface with a dusting of bright "snowflakes", which can last for 10 hours in the dark. Pinwheels sitting like sunflowers alongside the road shoulder spin as cars pass, creating energy for street lighting while electric cars get a charge from induction coils below the surface of a dedicated electric lane. Says Roosegaarde: "Why is so much money and time spent on cars when the roads are still stuck in the middle ages? Why can't we develop paints that charge in daytime and give light at night?" The idea is that luminescent markings painted on the road ends the need for street lighting. The innovator thinks the intelligent road could have a bright future in Africa, where funds are limited, electricity often erratic and street lights are dismantled for their copper.

7. Extinction is not forever

Imagine coming across a family of moa on one of New Zealand's Great Walks. Fiction now, but moving into the category of possible, as scientists in Australia got a few days' life out of an extinct frog that gave birth through its mouth. Researchers with the Lazarus Project used genome technology to insert gastric-brooding frog DNA collected from tissue and stored in a freezer into deactivated eggs from the distantly-related great barred frog. None of the embryos lasted beyond a few days but tests confirmed the samples were loaded with genetic material from the extinct gastric-brooder, which was last recorded in 1983. In the US, a flap surrounds a project using similar techniques which aims to resurrect the passenger pigeon, last seen around the time of World War I. The issue of so-called "de-extinction" has divided scientists and conservationists. For many de-extinction tends to sideline more urgent concerns about environmental degradation, which might have brought about the demise of a species in the first place. Moreover it derails efforts to save endangered species because it fosters the hope that scientists can bring back long-gone birds and animals.


8. Share the wealth

The job's gone. The bills keep coming. Trouble ahead then. Not if you follow the lead of Heidemarie Schwermer, who for 16 years has managed without a bean. She took the plunge in her early 50s, quitting a comfortable job as a psychotherapist to live money-free. She has got by without a permanent address, wandering between lodgings. Leftover food from outdoor markets has kept the wolf from the door, along with provisions exchanged in return for the odd job. Her story has fascinated Germans, who have followed her existence through three books and frequent television appearances. On the other side of the Atlantic, American sociologist Juliet Schor believes the sharing economy is becoming a permanent part of the landscape, especially as people whose jobs have disappeared devise new ways to gain access to income, goods and services. The shift is already entrenched in the US, where people use "time banks" to trade services such as babysitting or tutoring, sell labour for cash on social media, rent their cars, homes and goods, and give, rather than dump possessions via websites.

9. Wooden skyscrapers

The tallest wooden building in the world is a 10-storey block in Melbourne. Norway expects to put up a 14-storey block by next year. Why stop there, asks Canadian architect Michael Green? His system is capable, he claims, of safely supporting 20-storey-plus skyscrapers using engineered wood products and offers his plans free to architects worldwide under an open-source licence. Green doesn't use four-by-twos for his wooden designs - "nature's fingerprints in the built environment". His buildings use "mass timber panels" made from young trees, super-strong flat plates from small pieces of wood glued together into pieces as big as 2m x 30m in various thicknesses. On the question of fire, Green says the giant panels are very flame resistant and the building techniques safe for earthquake zones. He maintains that a planet that needs to house more people cannot rely forever on concrete and steel.

10. Personal air vehicles

"We're terrible drivers," says Missy Higgins, MIT scientist and former US Navy pilot. She thinks we'd make better fliers, so long as we don't touch the controls. Leave the driving to computers is her advice, just like pilots do with Airbus planes. Higgins believes our transport networks will be safer when we hand them over to computers, which react much, much faster than humans. In California, aerospace startup Terrafugia has produced images of its TF-X, a concept design for personal air transport. Combining batteries and a conventional internal combustion powerplant, the twin-engine machine lifts off using its propellers and moves forward with thrust from a ducted fan. At speeds of 300kmh the TF-X can cover 700km before it needs refuelling. The hybrid electric TF-X hasn't got much further than the drawing board, but the company behind it has a design called Transition that could be with the first customers by 2015.

- NZ Herald

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