You can help design open-source tractors.

The GVCS is an open-source design kit for 40 industrial and agricultural machines.


arcin Jakubowski, Ph.D, believes in open source. But not the software kind: the tractor kind.

Marcin has been working for some time to create inexpensive, open-source designs for agricultural tools like tractors. Designed to be cheaper than the commercial ones most big-scale farmers use—which would be affordable to people in lower-wealth areas—these designs are available right now and could increase productive of small-scale farmers.

That means tough-to-farm areas could produce more food, and support more people, which would allow for historically poorer areas to flourish and grow.

Check out this inspirational video:

Marcin sure knows how to wear a welding mask. And check out the awesome
home-made tank treads.

Oh, and because everything is open-source, it’s totally free of cost and can be improved by anyone who wants to help. You could even download it all, make whatever changes you want, and release your own version, based on the original.

We talked about this before, almost two years ago. Check out our post about Marcin’s TED talk, which is still interesting and relevant today.

Read on:


OSU lab simulates giant waves “for the lulz”

Okay, that’s a fake quote. But someone somewhere was definitely thinking about how cool it would be to learn about these waves. Hopefully without planning to use them for war, but maybe for a waterpark.

Quick crash course on giant destructo waves: there are real tsunamis which are caused by shifts in tectonic plates, and then there are the ‘tsunamis’ triggered by landslides, which are pretty impressive themselves. Scale: the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami went as high as 100 feet in some places. But the biggest landslide tsunami, in Lituya Bay, Alaska, went as high as 1,720 feet.

These guys rode the same kind of wave that OSU can recreate in their lab:
a landslide tsunami.


You think something like this might be a little scary? We definitely do. Watch the simulation of the Lituya Bay tsunami. The Lituya Bay tsunami only killed 2 people, while the Indian Ocean tsunami killed over 200,000, but imagine if the Lituya Bay tsunami happened in a place like Hong Kong.

Here's OSU's small-scale tsunami simulation in action. Image from the Gazette Times

One could only hope that the unlucky people, wherever it hit, were prepared.

The folks behind this project, at Oregon State University’s Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory, are civil and environmental engineers who are concerned that something like this will happen in a populated area. The point of the study is to learn more about these kinds of waves, so engineers can figure out where they’re likely to happen, and what to do in order to defend against them.

And while this research would be cool for a new waterpark, it’s probably a bit more productive that it’s being used to keep people safe.

Labor Day link dump

Happy Labor Day to everyone! In celebration, we’re doing a mini link-dump to some of mankind’s most ambitious projects—all of which are marvels in engineering and human labor!

  • MSNBC’s top 10: “Humankind’s most ambitious science projects.”
  • While the Burj Khalifa is the tallest man-made structure in the world right now, Kingdom Tower in Saudi Arabia has been approved for construction and will take its place around 2017! It will stand one mile tall.
  • Here’s a video of Bagger 288, the world’s largest land vehicle. Enjoy the weird, weird, apocalyptic techno song. Someone had fun with this video.
  • Check out ASIMO, which is still considered by many to be the world’s most advanced robot. Except maybe this kid.
  • Some of the most ambitious (hypothetical) bridge designs. And some of the most ambitious transportation projects, a few of which overlap with that last link.

The US’s Smart Power Grid

Not too long ago, President Obama announced that he’d be putting billions of dollars into a ‘smart power grid’ for America.

He makes an analogy to Eisenhower’s investment in the US interstate highway system;
upgrading the power grid to be smarter and more efficient would really help improve the infrastructure of the country.

This news has gained some steam in the last few months, because of recent technological advances in wi-fi. Mainly that there is now technology that can send a wi-fi signal over 45 miles. It’s the kind of signal that doesn’t send a lot of information (about 50 bits per second, compared to the national consumer average of several megabits per second), but something like a smart power grid wouldn’t have to stream videos like the average user. It would have to send important diagnostic information, or statistics. Something like that would take roughly 50 bits per second. Oh wait a second.

Plus, with recent advances in renewable energy (some of which don’t provide a super consistent supply–what if it’s not windy?) it’s important for our power plants to be able to communicate with the rest of the grid.

Here’s an interesting article, which seems to take a bit of a negative spin, about Obama’s smart grid initiative. But it does mention that Google might be getting involved. Which probably means cool stuff.

So what’s this mean for you?

This is a massive project (seen how big America is?) and it’s going to take a long time to implement if it gets off the ground. That means that we won’t see a truly smart grid until about 10 years from now–maybe more. Hey, that’s about the time you’ll be getting out of college, isn’t it?

A project like this means one thing: jobs. Lots of them:

  • They’ll need electrical engineers to design the components which actually make the grid ‘smart,’ and make it communicate wirelessly.
  • A power grid communicating wirelessly could be hacked, and would need network security specialists and computer engineers to keep it secure.
  • Furthermore, wireless communication limited to 50 bits per second would need to be efficient. They’ll need data communications specialists (read: programmers) to make it work well.
  • And what about functionality? A smart grid that can’t do anything is like a genius who drops out of school–it’s just a waste unless you make something out of it. Even more software engineers needed here.
  • Infrastructure revamping on this scale requires a ton of engineers to design it, a ton of engineers to find a way to transition from old to new, and even more engineers to actually do it.
  • What about the architects, designers and civil engineers who figure out how to squeeze this all into a city?

Think of more. If this project gets going this is likely to be a pretty good, long-term job. If Google is getting involved–and they’d be wanted because Google is known for making really fast infrastructures, just for fun–that means it might be a privatized job. Which typically means really high pay. High pay is good, right? Yeah, I think so.

How Engineering saved millions of lives in Japan

About the disaster

Sometimes disaster strikes without much warning. Sometimes with none; the biggest earthquake to hit Japan in 170 years, and caused a massive tsunami to hit much of the Japanese coast. Some areas had as little as 15 minutes warning. Look at some of the photos on this article from The Atlantic.

News stations in America are hyping up the small threat of tsunamis hitting the American/Canadian west coast, as well as the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska. And they obviously make big note of the huge disaster in Japan. But the spin on regular news is always the danger, the crisis, the death, the horrible horrible ness of it all.

What makes it interesting

Here’s an interesting insight in to it all: This earthquake is currently considered an 8.9-9.1 on the Richter scale. An earthquake only slightly larger (9.1) hit Indonesia and the Philippines in 2004, and there were something like 230,000 deaths caused by the quake and concurrent tsunamis.

Image of Tokyo aftermath from the 2011 Sendai earthquake

Some real damage, but everything is still standing. Everyone is still standing

So far, deaths caused by this quake number at 400, with 700 missing. The population density of Japan is much higher than Indonesia, so how can that many people be kept safe?

How can the casualties be so low?

It’s pretty simple: Japan has some beastly civil engineers. Look at those pictures from the Atlantic article; lots of fires, lots of cars swept away, lots of mud, lots of dirt—none of the big buildings are collapsed, though. That means everyone inside their office at work only had to watch out for things falling off their desk. They didn’t have to worry about buildings falling off their foundation. And Japan did that on purpose.

Civil engineers in Japan have been hard at work making ways to prevent building collapse in the event of a massive earthquake such as this. In fact, Japan is the proud owner of at least 37 shake tables, as well as the world’s most famous one, the E-defense shake table in Miki, Japan. These are used to test construction patterns and designs to the point of failure, to find which methods are the most rugged.

Japan is also known for having a delightfully high number of mass dampeners in high-rise buildings, which reduce the shock of an earthquake’s shaking.

Our hearts go out to the people affected by this disaster. And it’s always a tragedy when things like this happen. But let’s be thankful we have engineers who dedicate their lives to saving lives by doing it right.

Edit: The death toll is unofficially around 10,000 now. This is a grave tragedy but, again, not nearly as horrific as it would have been without the wonderful work of Japan’s engineers.

Related Links

  • Here’s a video of the tsunami hitting Sendai—the first place to get hit after the earthquake. A lot of the smaller buildings go down, but it’s really amazing that so few people were hurt.
  • Edit: Another video. This one maps the epicenters of the several earthquakes before and after the big one in Japan.