Cool innovations in engineering: solar space plane and hopping robots announced

There have been a number of developments in the field of engineering this year and here we round up some of the most notable recent advancements and news stories.

solar space plane

The solar space plane developed by SolarStratos has been unveiled at a ceremony in Payerne, Switzerland.

The aircraft is 8.5 meters long with a wingspan of 24.8 meters. It weighs 450kg and is covered with 22m2 of solar panels. It is hoped that it will become the first manned solar-powered plane to reach the stratosphere.

Raphael Domjan, creator of the first solar-powered boat to undertake a circumnavigation of the world in 2012 and the founder and pilot of the SolarStratos project, said: “Our goal is to demonstrate that current technology offers us the possibility to achieve above and beyond what fossil fuels offer.

“Electric and solar vehicles are amongst the major challenges of the 21st century. Our aircraft can fly at an altitude of 25,000 meters and this opens the door to the possibility of electric and solar commercial aviation, close to space.”

Initial test flights are set to take place in February 2017 and medium altitude flights are planned for the summer. The first stratospheric flights are due for 2018.

hopping robot

Engineers at UC Berkeley in California, US, have developed a robot billed as the most vertically agile ever.

It is able to leap into the air and spring off a wall as well as perform multiple vertical jumps in a row. The engineers responsible hope that this robot and other vertically agile robots can be used to jump around rubble in search and rescue missions.

To build the robot, known as Salto (for saltatorial locomotion on terrain obstacles), the engineers studied the most vertically agile creature on earth: the galago. It can jump five times in just four seconds to gain a combined height of 8.5 meters (27.9 feet). The galago has a special ability to store energy in its tendons so that it can jump to heights not achievable by its muscles alone.

The researchers developed a new metric to measure vertical agility, defined as the height that an animal or a robot can reach with a single jump in Earth gravity, multiplied by the frequency at which that jump can be made.

Salto’s robotic vertical jumping agility is 1.75 meters per second, which is higher than the vertical jumping agility of a bullfrog (1.71 meters per second) but short of the vertical jumping agility of the galago (2.24). The robot with the second highest vertical agility that the team measured is called Minitaur (1.1 m/s).

Duncan Haldane, a robotics Ph.D. candidate at UC Berkeley, who led the work, said: “Developing a metric to easily measure vertical agility was key to Salto’s design because it allowed us to rank animals by their jumping agility and then identify a species for inspiration.”

aerospace cost saving


A research project to enable robots to accurately create holes in composite aircraft components has matured into a production system. It is thought that it will significantly reduce operational costs.

Developed by the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC), UK, the technology has been installed at BAE Systems, where it will be used to processes a wide range of composite components for military aircraft.

Ben Morgan, head of the AMRC’s Integrated Manufacturing Group, said: “We have been able to develop a cost-effective solution with the latest state of the art control systems.

“The architecture of the system will allow the technology to evolve over time and embrace the ideas behind Industry 4.0. We’re now advancing the development system further, enabling process monitoring and generating big data.”

The robotic countersinking technology uses multiple robots to automatically handle composite components and then countersink high tolerance pre-drilled fastener holes. According to the AMRC, non-contact metrology integrated with the machining robot locates predrilled holes and corrects the robot’s position before countersinking.

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(Copyright photo: SolarStratos)

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