Over the last couple decades, solar panels have been touted as the holy grail of green technology. But there are plenty of other technological advances changing the world that don't involve the use of photovoltaics. From 3D printers that are revolutionizing manufacturing to Raspberry Pis giving thousands of people access to affordable computing, new bits of gadgetry are changing lives everyday. To highlight some of the revolutionary advances that are helping to push the world along, we've rounded up a list of seven smart technologies that are tackling the greatest problems the planet faces today—most of which are already in use or can be purchased!
3D printing lets anyone make just about anything from nick nacks to full-size rooms. While the novelty is certainly there, 3D printing is also a technology that’s starting to make a splash in manufacturing. Instead of having a giant factory full of specialized machines—like the injection molding machines in a LEGO factory—an army of smaller 3D printers can fabricate the same object. And because the printer is fabricating an object from scratch, it only uses exactly the amount needed to create the object. It also allows you to also design objects with a unique internal structure that’s not possible when casting or carving plastic into shape. On top of saving space and resources, switching production lines are as simple as loading up a different design onto your computer. 3D printing is also expanding to include a more robust material palette and the technology will soon be used in outer space.
On the flip side of 3D printers, which use an additive process to fabricate objects, a computer numerical control (CNC) machine works by carving shapes from a solid block. A CNC is basically a controlled mill equipped with a computer-controlled cutting bit that can slice practically any material into shape whether it be glass, wood, or even metal. The advantage here is you don’t need nearly the same amount of skills or tools and machines as a normal craftsman. So instead of using a specialized saw to cut through metal or skills with wood carving chisels, you could just load up a computer and tell the CNC machine exactly what you want made. Some people might argue you can never replace the quality of a handcrafted item; but, like 3D printers, CNC machines have become a newly commercialized technology that could make factories much smaller and efficient.
The fantasy of an automated home is 40 years late. First dreamt up in 1930s as part of multiple world’s fairs, home automation tech, like lights that smartly turn themselves off when you leave the room, have always been either too expensive or full of bugs. Today, apart from a couple of intelligent thermostats and Energy Star appliances, just about everything hogs more energy than it should. But Arduinos could be the solution we’ve been looking for. They are small computer boards that you can hook up with a number of sensors including temperature monitors and motion detectors. At the same time you could connect something as electronically brainless as a toaster to the Internet, allowing you to make “an Internet of things” from all your appliances—all remotely controlled from your computer.
Sensors aren’t the only things that are getting simpler. Powerful computers are being shrunken down to the size of a phone you can put in your pocket. Known as a computer-on-a-stick, Raspberry Pi is a small, low-powered computer that’s allowing people around the world to make any TV with a USB slot smart and Internet connected. Aside from entertainment, people are using the diminutive little device as a main computer to control robotics, run web servers, and, of course, play Minecraft. The most amazing thing about the Raspberry Pi is that for all it can do, you can pick one of them up for just $25—that’s way cheaper than the OLPC ever was! Raspberry Pi giving more people around the world access to a computer, in addition to encouraging them to learn programming on their own.
The human genome project let us look at our genetic code down to its minute detail. And now advanced genomics is letting us finally do something with all that information. Researchers are already figuring out practical applications including bizarre TomTato plants that grow tomatoes and potatoes, personalized drug prescriptions, and ways to better understand animals and agriculture. Beyond affecting living animals and systems, advanced genomics could also allow us to make more efficient fuels and help us better understand how we can work with Mother Nature to fulfill our planet’s needs.
Brain Controlled Gadgets
Things are about to get mental–literally. We’ve already got electronics in our pockets, Google Glass on our faces, and now our gadgets are reading our minds! There are more than a handful of commercial mind reading devices that you can buy today. Most of them are kind of silly and include things like these necomimi cat ears that react to your mood. But silliness aside, there are real, practical uses for mind controlled gadgets, namely with disabled users who are trying to regain their mobility or interface with computers without the use a mouse and keyboard. It’s amazing that this technology, once relegated to medical EEG machines, is now a commercial headset you can wear like a hat.
Assuming we don’t give rise to a real robot uprising, robots are another exciting field of technology that’s also advancing. Thanks to more robust computer vision programs and smarter machines, driverless automated cars are finally being realized. Boston Dynamic engineers are also creating a robust series of robots from the hauntingly human-like Petman to this lightning quick Cheetah that can reach speeds as fast as 29 miles per hour.