Challenges unmet Unclaimed prizes in science and technology

first_imgThis month, after more than 30 years of waiting, a team of engineers finally claimed the Sikorsky Prize. The challenge was to build a human-powered helicopter, a goal that’s been called impossible since Da Vinci scribbled out a crude drawing of the goal hundreds of years ago.  The winners collected a purse worth a quarter of a million dollars, and set a new standard for light-weight aeronautical engineering. Would the goal have ever been reached without that prize on the table?Forget the money involved. Science prizes have power because they engage the competitive spirit, turning previously unachievable goals into posts in a race. We move toward these goals by steps, competitors often becoming co-conspirators who build off each other’s innovations. Prizes like this have solved some of the oldest problems in mathematics, put humans into space with reusable spacecraft, and helped found the nascent civilian space flight industry. However, there are plenty of prizes still out there, driving innovation and inspiring hard work. Here is a selection of science challenges still waiting to be conquered.Marathon Kremer Prize – £50,000Since we began by talking about the Sikorsky prize, which challenged inventors to create a human-powered helicopter, let’s begin this list with a similar challenge: a human-powered plane. The Kremer Prize, marathon edition, asks engineers to create a human-powered aircraft that can travel roughly 42 kilometers (26 miles, or a full marathon) while weaving a figure-eight around two posts.The course must be completed in under an hour and the aircraft must remain at least five meters above ground for the entire trip. Imagine sailing over your fellow commuters on the way to work — despite a threshold of just 26 miles per hour, the b-line efficiency a Kremer prize winner would allow might get you there faster, regardless.Night rover challenge – $1.5 millionThis challenge is part of NASA’s Centennial Challenge series, and it’s not hard to imagine why a space agency would be willing to shell out for the technology. Entrants must create a solar-powered robot that can store enough solar energy during the day to continue powering the robot through the night.This is an especially promising idea for the exploration of Mars and of Earth’s moon, since neither have a thick atmosphere to block solar radiation. This would also allow longer excursions into the fabled dark side of the moon. And, of course, any great improvement in solar cell and energy storage efficiency would also have immediate applications here at home.Lunar X-Prize – $20 millionThis Google-sponsored version of the X-Prize puts up the largest purse in X-Prize history. The Lunar Challenge essentially looks to crowd-source the design, creation, launch, and operation of rovers. The rules are quite specific: the winning robot must land on the lunar surface and move no less than 500 meters to simulate exploration, then successfully transmit high-definition video and imagery back to Earth.Of course, the hope is that it will be able to travel much further than 500 meters, but that threshold for a first success might make the project more achievable in the short time-frame NASA is pushing for. Interestingly, speed is such a priority that the $20 million grand-prize will reduce to $15 million upon the next successful government-funded mission to explore the lunar surface.The N-Prize – £9,999.99Despite a frankly obnoxious obsession with nines, this is one of the most interesting challenges on the list. The ‘N’ in the title refers to nano-satellite, and challenges teams to put a satellite weighing between 9.99 and 19.99 grams into space. The satellite must complete at least nine Earth orbits to win. Most interestingly, the whole project must cost less then £9,999.99 (US$15,315) making it the most budget-conscious entry on the list.Any launch method is acceptable, from conventional rockets to slingshots, but the final mass must obtain an orbit stable enough to round the Earth 9 times. The satellite must only be technically a satellite, meaning that all it has to do is achieve orbit; getting a stone to do it would count. The launch mechanism is the main focus of this challenge, and the organizers will leave it to a later generation to figure out how to do something useful with a 10 gram orbiter.Tricorder X-Prize – $10 millionBeing a doctor on Star Trek looks pretty easy. In that future, you simply wave your magic diagnosis wand, and out pops the answer to virtually any answer you can to ask. The X-Prize foundation is handling Qualcomm’s new Tricorder challenge, which tasks engineers with inventing a diagnosis device with very similar properties.It will be able to capture key “health metrics” like blood pressure, diagnose a set of 15 diseases, extract images of internal structures, and do it all totally noninvasively. Perhaps the biggest challenge is the weight restriction, which is set at 5 measly pounds. This is a tool that’s meant to be used in the home for accurate self-diagnosis. No more running to the emergency room to see if those gas pains are actually an appendix that’s about to burst!Next page: Virgin’s Earth Challenge, PETA’s lab grown meat, and more… 1 2last_img

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