Their accomplishments have dazzled the world of engineering. Helping the blind read. Restoring movement to the paralyzed. Designing record-setting planes. Landing a rover on Mars.
And that's just a small sampling of the ground-breaking technologies that have come from the creative minds of the 19 individuals voted by our readers as Engineer of the Year since 1988.
On the 60th anniversary of Design News, what better group to consult on the future of technology? Most of these engineering superstars continue to shape some of the field's most exciting and ambitious projects. From hard experience, they also know the management approaches, engineering tools and other essentials that can make or break high-profile projects.
Following are edited excerpts from our exclusive interviews with eight of these world-renowned engineers (see the complete interviews on the Design News60th Anniversary microsite, www.designnews.com/60thanniversary).
Burt Rutan: Courage to Take Risks
Design News: Now that the successful SpaceShipOne project is behind you, where is Scaled Composites focusing its attention now?
Rutan: Our commercial business involves development of a spaceship that will fly the public out of the atmosphere.
What are some of the chief design challenges?
SpaceShipOne was a research program to meet our goal of showing that space flight could be safe enough for the public. It didn't have to be big — just big enough to give Paul Allen a return on his investment by winning the $10 million X Prize. It was a three-place airplane that didn't have the room for someone to really enjoy the experience of weightlessness. The ship we're building now is intended to be competitive for decades, because we are doing everything we can to optimize the experience for suborbital flight. That means we need a large ship with big windows and one that will give passengers an opportunity to float within the cabin.
What breakthroughs are needed most?
You must be at least as safe as the early airliners if you are going to get hundreds of thousands of people to fly and establish a sustainable, growing industry. So we focused in SpaceShipOne on challenges like flight controls and feathered actuation to achieve carefree re-entry. Propulsion is also a big challenge. Among the approaches we've taken is to not run the rocket motor until we are almost out of the atmosphere. It's a lot safer to run a rocket when you are at an altitude when there is not much oxidizer in the air.
When will we see spaceship designs for public orbital flight?
Well, I hope it is not too far off, because I am already 63 years old, and I am anxious to get started relatively soon. In my lifetime, I'd like to go to the moon.
What management approaches are needed to create truly innovative products?
Management has to have the courage to go after a difficult goal that you don't know can be achieved. Companies need to run more research programs, rather than just development programs, if they expect to have breakthroughs. NASA today may say they are seeking breakthroughs, but they are not allowed to fly things that they don't know will work. If you had interviewed a group of people in 1961 when Kennedy said we're going to go to the moon before the decade is out, I don't think a majority of them would have bet their own money that it could be done. So the Apollo program really was research, and it achieved enormous breakthroughs.
Gerson Rosenberg: Help for Failing Hearts
Design News: With the annual market for Ventricular Assist Devices pegged at 70,000 in the U.S. alone, why are VAD procedures still at a modest 1,500 per year?
Rosenberg: Those in the field are surprised that the market hasn't grown more quickly. We now have patients who have been supported by these devices for three to five years. The incidence of strokes has been reduced, and completely implanted systems are reducing infections. The quality of life for some of these patients also has been very good. Some patients with our LionHeart device were even able to swim. But there still needs to be improvement in system durability, as well as the overall quality of life for patients. To get to that 70,000 annual figure, we need to get results that start to approach heart transplants — an 80 percent survival rate for five years.
How about the role of the FDA?
It would be good to have a program in the U.S. where we could get investigational devices into clinical trials sooner to prove their safety and efficacy. The FDA is mandated to insure that these devices are very, very safe, and so we get caught up in keeping these devices from the market. I have seen manufacturers look at all the testing and costs involved and the long time frame for getting a return on their investment, and their determination is that it's just too expensive.
In 2006, the FDA gave humanitarian device approval for Abiomed's total artificial heart. What do you see as the future for such devices?
Our research team here at Penn State has worked on the total artificial heart dating back 25 years, and some of our technology was purchased by Abiomed. Our feeling all along is that there will be patients who will do better with a complete replacement of their heart, rather than a ventricular assist device or two such devices. SynCardia has had excellent results with its total artificial heart (a temporary device used as a bridge to transplant). So, yes, I do think there will be a market for the total artificial heart. We would really like to see these patients do well, because the artificial heart has not gotten the best press. Certainly, moving ahead before you are ready, and building up patients' expectations — and then not meeting them — doesn't do anyone any good.
Ray Kurzweil: Merger of Man and Machines
Design News: What is the “singularity” that you talk about in your latest book?
Kurzweil: Within a quarter century, nonbiological intelligence will match the range and subtlety of human intelligence. It will then soar past it because of the continuing acceleration of information-based technologies, as well as the ability of machines to instantly share their knowledge. Intelligent nanorobots will be deeply integrated in our bodies, our brains and our environment. These developments will help overcome pollution and poverty, provide vastly extended longevity and enhance human intelligence. The result will be an intimate merger between the technology-creating species and the technological evolutionary process it spawned.
How can we achieve the intelligence of our brains in a machine?
We can break this down into hardware and software requirements. In my book, I show how we need about 10 quadrillion (1016) calculations per second to provide a functional equivalent to all the regions of the brain. Supercomputers are already at 100 trillion (1014) cps and will hit 1016 cps around the end of this decade. Several supercomputers with 1 quadrillion cps are already on the drawing board, with two Japanese efforts targeting 10 quadrillion cps around the end of the decade. By 2020, 10 quadrillion cps will be available for around $1,000.
And how will we create the software or algorithms of human intelligence?
We need to reverse-engineer the human brain. Here, progress is far greater than most people realize. The spatial and temporal resolution of brain scanning is also progressing at an exponential rate, roughly doubling each year. Just recently, scanning tools can see individual interneuronal connections, and watch them fire in real time. Already, we have mathematical models and simulations of a couple dozen regions of the brain, including the cerebellum, which comprises more than half the neurons in the brain. IBM is now creating a simulation of about 10,000 cortical neurons, including tens of millions of connections. By the mid 2020s, it's conservative to conclude that we will have effective models for all of the brain.
So at that point, we'll just copy a human brain on a supercomputer?
At that point, we'll have a full understanding of the methods of the human brain. One benefit will be a deep understanding of ourselves, but the key implication is that it will expand the toolkit of techniques we can apply to create artificial intelligence. We will then be able to create nonbiological systems that match human intelligence in ways that humans are now superior, such as our pattern- recognition abilities. By 2030, $1,000 of computation will be about a 1,000 times more powerful than a human brain.
Hunter Peckham: Technology or Biology?
Design News: What's the potential market for medical devices based on functional electrical stimulation?
Peckham: Business reports cite the neurotechnology sector as the fastest growing area of medical devices. One large application area is use of electrical stimulation in pain management. Another major program we have going is in devices to control urinary incontinence. Our strategy is to pursue technologies that will serve these larger markets but also benefit the smaller spinal cord injury population — about 250,000 people — who have very serious needs.
What are the design challenges in developing the Cleveland FES Center's networked neural prosthesis?
We need to develop sensor and activation systems throughout the body to serve the multiple needs of the patient. Take a patient with spinal cord injury, where the objective is to enable the person to move and control both hands, stand and transfer from a wheelchair to a bed, and control the bladder function. This new system has a single power source located in the chest area and networked cables beneath the skins to regions of the body where we need to have stimulation and sensor capability. Onto that network cable is attached the stimulation/sensor module for each function. We hope to see clinical trials of this system in three to four years.
How long will it be before paralyzed individuals can use their own brain signals to control motion?
We now have a joint program going with Cyberkinetics in Rhode Island, supported by NIH. Cyberkinetics is working on a fully implanted electrode array that would send brain signals to outside of the body, where they would be processed and then sent to our implanted neural prosthesis. We hope to test the system in humans in four years.
In the long run, what technology will win out in the quest to help paralyzed individuals — FES-based medical devices or microbiological advances?
First of all, neural prostheses are here today and are making a real difference in the lives of patients. We just celebrated the 20th anniversary of the first FES implant in a person with a cervical-level spinal cord injury. At the same time, I am very supportive of the scientific effort into biological cures, such as tissue engineering. Let's say biological advances yield even a very low level of control, such as a person being able to wiggle a finger. Through a neural prosthesis, we might well be able to detect that wiggle and amplify it to stimulate other muscles in the hand to get a full grasp. So there could be an absolute convergence of these approaches, which is why both must be pursued.
Brian Muirhead: Exploring Other Worlds
Design News: What new technologies will we see in future robotic rovers?
Muirhead: The next rover will be the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), scheduled for launch in the fall of 2009. These vehicles keep getting larger. Compared to the Sojourner at 10.5 kilograms (deployed on Mars in 1997), the Mars Science Lab will weigh 775 kilograms — kind of a Mini Cooper. Instead of being a mobile geologist like the previous rovers, the MSL will serve as a mobile biologist. It will need to carry instrumentation and take and process samples in a biologically clean state. It also incorporates a new propulsive descent landing system, which we call the sky crane. A propulsion module, positioned above the rover, descends to about 30 meters about the surface. The rover is then lowered to the surface wheels first on a bridle. The bridle is cut, and the propulsion module flies away and lands a safe distance away. This new system eliminates the airbag, used in past missions to encase the rover and absorb energy as it bounced on the surface.
Which future JPL missions present some of the biggest engineering challenges?
In the area of astronomy, JPL is working on the Space Interferometry Mission. We will be putting into orbit — in the 2015 time frame — a high-precision optical interferometer that will perform continuous scientific observations for five years over the entire celestial sphere. A key goal is to identify the presence of earth-size planets around other stars. Another important area is sample return missions. We've demonstrated that we can land on the surface of a planet and do great science. But scientists would really like to get samples back, and that's the Holy Grail for the next generation of science missions.
To succeed in future projects, must NASA focus more on getting international partners?
That's a great question for the NASA administrator, but my view is yes, especially for manned missions, which are so expensive. I have always been a fan of international cooperation. One major obstacle, though, is the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, which make it difficult for engineers to share technical information across borders.
But is the U.S. in a good position to retain leadership in space?
Yes, because the hallmark of leadership is innovation — being creative about what you do and how you do it. The U.S. is still the best at that.
Charles Munnerlyn: Seeking a Sharper Vision
Design News: Can laser vision correction help a much wider range of patients?
Munnerlyn: The technology is already reaching millions of people to treat nearsightedness, farsightedness and astigmatism. And there have been recent strides in correcting aberrations in the eye. But the condition that many people would like to see addressed is presbyopia. As we get older, w begin to lose our ability to focus close-in. There have been attempts to address this problem through laser-vision correction by modifying the cornea so that it can focus near and far simultaneously. Other solutions involve the insertion of intra-ocular lenses. But probably the best solution — and the most difficult — is to create a lens implant with focusing power so that the muscles in the eye could cause it to change focus.
Could we someday develop optics systems that would allow some level of sight for the blind?
Yes, I believe so, and we've already seen a lot of excitement surrounding experiments that have enabled blind people to detect light. The basic camera concepts that might be employed already exist, but the big challenge is in transmitting or connecting the brain signals to the device.
What changes are needed in management approaches to stimulate innovation?
A lot of very good development comes from entrepreneurial companies where a small group of people work very hard to create a new product. As companies get larger, projects tend to get run by committee. Input from such areas as marketing is important, but if they weigh too heavily versus engineering, you frequently end up with the sum of all competitors trying to go into one product. Too often, this results in projects going nowhere.
In this era of outsourcing, are there any areas of engineering that provide greater job security, such as systems engineering?
The simple answer to this question is to pick a specialty that you love, and let the chips fall where they may. One engineering area may prove more financially secure than another, but from the standpoint of career satisfaction, you need to put the focus on what you truly enjoy doing.
Paul Bevilaqua: Beyond the F35
Design News: What's the potential for applying the lift-fan system, which you developed for the Joint Strike Fighter, to transport aircraft?
Bevilaqua: The basic technology certainly has applications in that area, but it would be a challenge. We need a lot more thrust for a transport, which means bigger fans and more horsepower. And, of course, in a fighter, the pilot has an ejection seat, so if a propulsion system fails, he can punch out. In a transport, with 30, 50 or even 100 people in back, that's not the case. So you have to worry about engine-out safety, and that implies redundancy and cross-shafting similar to that in the B22 (another VTOL aircraft).
What are the chances that Lockheed Martin might tackle such a design?
We're certainly considering it, but there is no active program at this time. There would certainly be military applications. And in the commercial sector, turbojets have replaced turboprops, which required shorter runways. This is causing crowding problems on the main runways, which could be relieved if we had short or vertical takeoff and landing regional jets.
Jumping ahead 20 years, what would you expect to see in performance characteristics for the next generation of fighter aircraft?
That would be a jump. The F35 is not in production yet, and there is a lot of talk that it could be the last manned fighter jet. Some people are talking about an unmanned successor to the F35, but I personally don't think that is going to happen. If there is to be a new airplane to succeed the F35, it would probably be a huge step forward, such as an aerospace plane to defend our satellites from attack. More likely, what we will see ahead is a spiral development to the F35, that is, addition of new technologies to the plane. For example, there is a large cavity behind the cockpit, serviced by 25,000 kilowatts of power. You can add all manner of radar, sensors, jammers and so forth. And you could have other variations of the F35, such as one that might be designed to operate either on the lift-fan or a conventional system, depending on what airport facilities are available.
Dean Kamen: Projects for the Third World
Design News: Where is DEKA research putting its development focus now?
Kamen: Many of our projects are proprietary, but a couple that I can talk about are our water purification and Stirling engine projects. The water project is a small machine about the size of a dorm room refrigerator and is designed to turn anything with water in it into pure drinking water. We do it without the need for filters or membranes or contaminant-specific remediation, relying instead on a special distillation and condensation process. It will be able to purify about 1,000 liters a day of clean water, enough to supply a 100 people, and we hope to have production in a couple years.
And the engine project?
Like the water purification system, we're targeting this power generation system to developing areas of the world. We're designing this equipment to run on virtually any fuel that burns. The key design challenge here is building in long life and durability because of the expected use in remote areas. For example, we're playing with some exotic bearing materials and designs, as well as new lubrication.
Do you have a dream project for the future?
People are always asking, “What's the biggest project you've done?” And my answer is: “I don't know. It hasn't happened yet.” Clean water for a billion people or reliable power for a billion and a half people would be pretty significant accomplishments. In general, DEKA will be looking for larger, meaningful ways to apply affordable, sustainable, environmentally-safe technology to help people around the world.
Are more young people getting interested in science and technology?
The tremendous growth of our FIRST program gives me some reason to believe that we are doing better. At our initial FIRST invent in 1992, we had to convince 23 technology companies to adopt 23 high school teams in a sports-style robot design competition held in a gym in Manchester, New Hampshire. Now, we've grown to the point where we have 33 cities holding regional competitions, and involvement from some 10,000 schools. More than 80,000 engineers are donating their time to these programs. This gives me confidence that if you give kids the opportunity to see what science and engineering are really like, they will respond.