Andrew Stone outlines some inspiring innovations that
could help make the planet more habitable - and enrich our
A moa's print.
Forget Amazon's parcel delivery stunt - these are drones that
deliver aid directly to those in need, rather than targeting
terrorists. A fledgling firm called Matternet is building a
network of drones to bring essential supplies to places
without roads, such as cities flattened by earthquakes or
villages isolated by floods or landslips.
The Silicon Valley start-up says it wants to delivery the
technology to the ''people who need it the most''. Two trial
runs illustrated the reach of the unmanned autonomous
vehicles - a successful foray in Haiti using three drones
flying from a camp for displaced families and an exercise in
Dominican Republic, where supplies and diagnostic tools were
ferried between healthcare centres while samples were carried
back to base.
2 A PILL FOR ALZHEIMER'S
By 2050, it is estimated 135 million people will have
Alzheimer's, a disease that gradually causes dementia. A
clinical trial in the US is looking at a Colombian family
afflicted with Alzheimer's, whose members are virtually
helpless by their early 50s. Doctors are using a drug that
hones in on a substance in the brain called amyloid plaques.
Investigators are uncertain whether amyloid is a trigger or a
by-product of the disease but the protein forms clumps in the
brains of Alzheimer's patients, affecting memory and thinking
and destroying nerve cells. The trial differs in one
important respect from earlier work - the focus is on people
who do not have the disease, but are at risk of developing
Previous research looked at helping patients with symptoms.
The big dividend of this costly research - drug companies are
stumping up more than $100 million - is the prospect of
finding a drug to tackle a disease that no country with
ageing populations can escape.
3 TINY HOUSES
Hammered for a decade by financial calamities, the American
Dream of a big house in the 'burbs is a fading memory. In its
place is a modest alternative, more in keeping with the
shrunken superpower - the so-called ''tiny house''. The
downsized homes once would have been a dog kennel or doll's
house in the backyard of a typical US home.
Small enough to throw on a trailer and tow around wide-open
spaces, they can be as compact as 10sq m, with a loft for
sleeping and high-end appliances for the creature comforts.
Into a basic shape, owners squeeze narrow bathrooms with
toilet and shower and what they quaintly call ''great
rooms'', which are twice the size of the small rooms.
Homes can be built using 14 tools, cost less than $US20,000
($NZ24,500) and satisfy council red tape. New Zealand has had
tiny houses for decades. Known as house trucks, they tended
to gather in summer on public land beside beaches and rivers.
They're still with us but in the US, in an era of diminished
expectations, a tiny house movement is building to satisfy
the needs of owners to share their good fortune of actually
having four walls and a roof to call their own, rather than
4 A STEP AT A TIME
Last month on a chilly New York day, American war veteran
Gary Linfoot took a stroll around the Statue of Liberty. The
wonder of his walk is that Linfoot is paralysed below the
waist, the result of a helicopter crash in Iraq in 2008
during his 19th tour of duty. Usually confined to a
wheelchair, the decorated US army pilot managed to move
hesitantly around the famous landmark with the aid of a
bionic suit called an ''exoskeleton''.
Resembling a high-tech wetsuit, the wearable robot that
guided Linfoot uses built-in sensors to detect the user's
weight shifts and send a signal to start stepping out.
Lightweight battery-powered motors move the legs, overcoming
the lack of able-bodied drive. Developed by California-based
Ekso Bionics, the infant technology is being trialled in
hospitals and rehabilitation units for patients with spinal
cord damage and stroke injuries.
Linfoot's suit cost about $US100,000 and just five people own
one, including blind and paralysed endurance athlete Mark
Pollack, who has walked the equivalent of 2.4km in an
hour-long training session. The developers, citing early
cellphone technology, predict costs could tumble.
Engineers and doctors at Georgia Tech Research Institute are
devising enhanced sensors that could let wearers push into
tougher country and New Zealand company Rex Bionics is also
growing fast. After his celebrated New York shuffle, Linfoot
said: ''One day, one day soon, we'll be able to leave that
5 VERTICAL FORESTS
Milan's Bosco Verticale ( ''vertical forest'' ) comprises two
downtown residential towers bristling with reinforced
terraces. The $100 million project, which is ready for
occupation, features buildings engineered to support an urban
forest where six oak, cherry and beech trees grow in hefty
containers right outside your 20th-floor lounge window.
Besides being home to a famous football team - Silvio
Berlusconi's AC Milan - the northern Italian fashion capital
is an ideal location to pioneer high-rise forests because it
is one of the most polluted cities in Europe. The architects
say their green apartments will create a new microclimate,
filtering dust, removing carbon dioxide and creating oxygen.
Critics have challenged the green credentials of the Milan
sky forest, which is kept watered by greywater from baths,
sinks, washing machines and dishwashers. Grunty engineering
was needed to support the weight of 900 trees and the extra
cost could have created a decent forest beyond Milan's city
boundaries without the carbon footprint from all that
6 ROADS THAT TALK
The clever Dutch have come up with a road that lets drivers
know when the surface is slippery, charges electric cars as
they travel over its surface and produces electricity to
light the journey. The Smart Highway is the brainchild of
Daan Roosegaarde, who calls the fusion of engineering and
ideas ''techno poetry''.
Using embedded technology, the road comes alive as
temperatures fall below freezing. Surface paint awakes,
covering the road surface with a dusting of bright
''snowflakes'', which can last for 10 hours in the dark.
Pinwheels sitting like sunflowers alongside the road shoulder
spin as cars pass, creating energy for street lighting, while
electric cars get a charge from induction coils below the
surface of a dedicated electric lane.
Says Roosegaarde: ''Why is so much money and time spent on
cars when the roads are still stuck in the Middle Ages? Why
can't we develop paints that charge in daytime and give light
at night?'' The idea is that luminescent markings painted on
the road end the need for street lighting. The innovator
thinks the intelligent road could have a bright future in
Africa, where funds are limited, electricity often erratic
and street lights are dismantled for their copper.
7 EXTINCTION IS NOT FOREVER
Imagine coming across a family of moa on one of New Zealand's
Great Walks. Fiction now, but moving into the category of
possible, as scientists in Australia got a few days' life out
of an extinct frog that gave birth through its mouth.
Researchers with the Lazarus Project used genome technology
to insert gastric-brooding frog DNA collected from tissue and
stored in a freezer into deactivated eggs from the distantly
related great barred frog. None of the embryos lasted beyond
a few days but tests confirmed the samples were loaded with
genetic material from the extinct gastric-brooder, which was
last recorded in 1983. In the US, a flap surrounds a project
using similar techniques that aims to resurrect the passenger
pigeon, last seen around the time of World War 1.
The issue of so-called ''de-extinction'' has divided
scientists and conservationists. For many, de-extinction
tends to sideline more urgent concerns about environmental
degradation, which might have brought about the demise of a
species in the first place. Moreover, it derails efforts to
save endangered species because it fosters the hope that
scientists can bring back long-gone birds and animals.
8 SHARE THE WEALTH
The job's gone. The bills keep coming. Trouble ahead, then.
Not if you follow the lead of Heidemarie Schwermer, who for
16 years has managed without a bean. She took the plunge in
her early 50s, quitting a comfortable job as a
psychotherapist to live money-free. She has got by without a
permanent address, wandering between lodgings.
Leftover food from outdoor markets has kept the wolf from the
door, along with provisions exchanged in return for the odd
job. Her story has fascinated Germans, who have followed her
existence through three books and frequent television
appearances. On the other side of the Atlantic, American
sociologist Juliet Schor believes the sharing economy is
becoming a permanent part of the landscape, especially as
people whose jobs have disappeared devise new ways to gain
access to income, goods and services.
The shift is already entrenched in the US, where people use
''time banks'' to trade services such as babysitting or
tutoring, sell labour for cash on social media, rent their
cars, homes and goods, and give, rather than dump,
possessions via websites.
9 WOODEN SKYSCRAPERS
The tallest wooden building in the world is a 10-storey block
in Melbourne. Norway expects to put up a 14-storey block by
next year. Why stop there? asks Canadian architect Michael
His system is capable, he claims, of safely supporting
20-storey-plus skyscrapers using engineered wood products and
he offers his plans free to architects worldwide under an
open-source licence. Green doesn't use four-by-twos for his
wooden designs - ''nature's fingerprints in the built
His buildings use ''mass timber panels'' made from young
trees, super-strong flat plates from small pieces of wood
glued together into pieces as big as 2m x 30m in various
thicknesses. On the question of fire, Green says the giant
panels are very flame-resistant and the building techniques
safe for earthquake zones. He maintains that a planet that
needs to house more people cannot rely forever on concrete
10 PERSONAL AIR VEHICLES
''We're terrible drivers,'' says Missy Higgins, MIT scientist
and former US navy pilot. She thinks we would make better
fliers, so long as we do not touch the controls. Leave the
driving to computers is her advice, just like pilots do with
Higgins believes our transport networks will be safer when we
hand them over to computers, which react much, much faster
than humans. In California, aerospace start-up Terrafugia has
produced images of its TF-X, a concept design for personal
air transport. Combining batteries and a conventional
internal combustion power plant, the twin-engine machine
lifts off using its propellers and moves forward with thrust
from a ducted fan.
At speeds of 300kmh the TF-X can cover 700km before it needs
refuelling. The hybrid electric TF-X has not got much further
than the drawing board, but the company behind it has a
design called Transition that could be with the first
customers by 2015.