Gravitic Engineering: The Next Technological Frontier?

Is it “anti-gravity”?  Ummm… No!  There’s no such thing, and given our present understanding of general relativity, there never will be.  But that doesn’t mean that we can’t develop technologies that use gravitational gradients in a loosely analogous manner to the way that we use the electromagnetic force gradients.

Before I launch into my own speculative “inventions” in gravitics, it is incumbent upon me to tell you about the man who was likely the true father of gravitics, Robert L. Forward.  He invented the rotating cruciform gravity gradiometer or ‘Forward Mass Detector’, for Lunar Mascon (mass concentration) measurements.  This device is so sensitive that it can detect the gravitational gradient of an object as small as a fist held near it.  His 1965 physics doctoral thesis was Detectors for Dynamic Gravitational Fields, for the development of a bar antenna for the detection of gravitational radiation.  He was an inventor with eighteen patents.  Learning of his ideas by reading his science fiction novels shaped my own.

So, can we build something that looks like antigravity (but isn’t)?  Yes we can, in theory.  First, imagine, if you will, finding a mountain of solid heavy metal, uranium will do.  If you dig a tunnel under it, the gravity there will be lower than on the surface because of the huge mass above.  But only by a tiny fraction.  Sorry, no antigravity hoverboard.

Anything else?  Why yes.  Here’s my idea for a gravitically propelled orbtal transport ship.  I apoligize in advance, the explanation of how it works gets a bit technical and requires a good grounding in basic physics and orbital mechanics.  But bear with me.

First, lets imagine a space station that is built like two Eiffel towers stuck together by their feet.  Such a huge structure, built in orbit, would experience tidal forces that would tend to tidally lock its rotation to match its orbital period.  (I did warn you that this would take some understanding of orbital mechanics, right?).  That is to say, that it, like the moon which is also tidally locked, will always point toward the center of the Earth unless something is done to change that.  Oh, and just for fun, and to make it even more likely to become tidally locked, we put big masses on each end of this long structure.

Now imagine putting a set of huge gyros on this structure.  It’s placement probably wouldn’t matter, but for simplicity, lets place it at the center of the structure.  Once spun up, gyros have the convenient property of resisting a force that would change its axis of rotation.  Satellites often have gyros to aid in pointing them where we want them to point.  Now imagine what would happen if, after they have been spun up, the gyros were to be locked to the structure so that it resisted the tidally locked rotation.  That is to say, we attempted to make it point at a single star in the far distance, instead of rotating to always point to the center of the Earth?

Can you guess?  Well first, the rotation would have to be stopped… so lets just assume that we did that.  OK, now what?

Well, that tidal force isn’t going to go away.  As the structure continues in its orbit, the angular difference between where the structure is pointed and where it “wants” to be pointed to reduce the tidal stress will grow.  Now, imagine we suddenly let the structure free.  It would relax the tidal stress and start to rotate, exchanging potential energy for kinetic energy.  Where did that energy come from?  Can you guess?

It came from the potential and kinetic energy of the orbit.  We caused the structure to “drop” into a lower orbit, all without propellent!

The reverse can be done as well.  Consider what would happen if we use motors between the gyros and the structure to force the structure to “lean forward”, as though it was already pointing to a direction that tidally speaking, it will in the future when its orbit brings it to that position.  Now, when we “lean” the structure, we are putting energy into its energy of potential.  But when the structure gets to the point where its tidal forces are gone, as it points to the center of the Earth… oops, the potential energy is gone!  Where did it go?  Can you guess?

Yes, it is in the potential and kinetic energy of the orbit.  We caused the structure to “climb” into a higher orbit, all without propellent!

We can also use this same concept to shift orbits laterally.  So, we can go up, down, and sideways in orbit, all without propellent!

The downside of this technique?  The gravitic forces are very weak, so the change in orbits will be very slow.  Further, the limit to how much angular mementum that can be pre-stored in the gyros to allow a climb limits the orbital altitude that may be gained.   (Angular momentum is still conserved in this scheme, of course.)  The concept might work for station keeping though.  But still, as an excersize in thinking creatively and big, its a great idea.

So, your turn.  Think about gravitics.

(Addendum 1/8/2016:  Exciting new paper, “How current loops and selenoids curve space-time” regarding generating artificial gravity fields using magnetic energy stored inside of electromagnets.  Yes, its real physics, based on Einstein’s General Relativity and the Equivilance Principle.  The effect is REALLY tiny, but may allow us to generate controlled gravity pulses someday:  http://arxiv.org/abs/1504.00333 )

Ad Hoc Public Display Using Cellphones

Have you ever seen, or maybe participated, in an event where colored cards are held up by people in a stadium?  Each card deck is assigned to a given seat location.  Upon a given signal, a given card to held up for the rest of the folks in a stadium to see.  Each person is acting as a pixel and the cards are the pixel values.  I personally love the effect.

I suggests to me that maybe we can do the same at many outdoor venues, anywhere hundred or thousands of people have gathered, using our cellphones.  Each cellphone has a display that can light up in a wide range of colors.  We just need an app to turn on the cellphones to the right color.  The trick would be to know where a person was standing… but that’s not hard, given the amazingly accurate and precise location hardware in most smartphones today.

Think of the possibilities, twinkling fireworks, socially conscious, or even political protest messages… or just pretty patterns.  Anything could be shown on the group’s ad hoc display.  Think of the fun that the participants would have being a part of the show, holding up their smartphone as their pixel contribution to the collective image.

So, here’s a challenge to any like minded app developers.  Care to write and promote an app that would enable giant ad hoc smartphone based displays?

A Room With A View

About twelve to thirteen years ago, I set down to design my dream house.  Paraphrasing a popular saying, “In one’s life, one should build a house, plant a tree, and raise a child” or “One should build a house, write a book, raise a child”… in my life it has been “Start a company, raise children, and renovate a house”… Oh.. you get the idea.  But seriously, I have started businesses, invented a bunch of stuff, written a couple chapters in a couple books, and had a family.  So, I wanted to build a house.  But not just any old house.  A new house that looked like an old house, a grand house.  You can find the design here:

http://comstockhouse.org/misc/housedesign2002.pdf

Navigation Lights on Rotor Lift Drones

As a pilot, I have been both amused and concerned about an obvious error on a pro-sumer four rotor drone that had the red and green navigation lights oriented fore and aft instead of the normal port and starbard, and a white light aft.  But then it struck me:  The navigation lights don’t really work for such drones, as we pilots use them to determine the direction of travel of aircraft in low visibilty (e.g. night).  But a rotor lift drone could be moving in ANY direction relative to its airframe, unlike airplanes and helicoptors.

So, I have a suggestion for such aircraft, that they include tricolored lights at every rotor.  The direction of travel would determine which color is illuminated, with red to port, green to starbard, and YELLOW to aft.  I suggest yellow because many aircraft include “landing lights”, including my own airplanes, which we leave on for perpescuity, just as cars on the road now leave headlights on during the day.  Drones will also likely need to use bright white lights for night flight operations such as news gathering or search and rescue, to illuminate the scene for the on board cameras.  Using yellow lights will reduce the confusion between aft and whatever direction the camera illumination light is coming from.

Obviously, for all operations, strobes will also be used on the drone, as are required on most conventional aircraft today.

United States Patent Office 225th Anniversary

I will be on a panel at the USPTO’s celebration of its 225th anniversary on April 10th, 2015, speaking on the “Challenge of the Future”.  I will be joining two National Inventor Hall of Fame inductees, Jim West and Al Langer.

For more information:  http://www.uspto.gov/about-us/events/225th-anniversary-patent-act-celebration

Addendum 4/12/2015:

I enjoyed participating in the event, getting to meet some really great people, especially my two co-panalists.  You can view some photos of the event here:

http://mclevephotography.zenfolio.com/p485756486

Addendum 4/23/2015:

I received the following email from Michelle Lee today,

Dear Ms. Elliott,

I want to take a moment to personally thank you for your involvement in commemorating the 225th anniversary of the first Patent Act on April 10. The events of the day were a resounding success and reaffirmed the important purpose of intellectual property and its role in the technological development of our nation and the world.

It was an honor to have you participate in the discussion panel with the other inventors. Your inspiring discussion of your inventions, as well as innovation in general and the importance of intellectual property in creating it, was truly enlightening. The combined wisdom offered that afternoon is not something, I am sure, anyone in the room will soon forget.

Soon after George Washington signed the Patent Act of 1790, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of War Henry Knox, and Attorney General Edmund Randolph began meeting as the first board of patent examiners to evaluate submitted applications for “letters patent.” They granted just three patents that first year. As you recently witnessed, the USPTO has now issued over 9 million U.S. patents, collectively detailing and disclosing the vast majority of mankind’s technologies. It is the great honor of this agency, one whose origins are rooted in the Constitution itself, to catalog, protect, and promote the Progress of Science and Useful Arts.

Thank you again for your participation in marking the 225th anniversary of the first Patent Act. We greatly appreciate your involvement and could not have made it as successful without you.

Best,

–Michelle

Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director

United States Patent and Trademark Office

Book Chapter

Bhowmik_mobile_9.qxdIts been six years since I wrote a chapter for Mobile Displays – Technology and Applications.  What I find amusing is how prescient it turned out to be in that at the time I wrote it, PenTile displays had yet to ship in commercial products.  Now, hundreds of millions of PenTile displays are being shipped.  The book is still available, of course:

http://www.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-0470723742.html

If you are at all interested in my work, this chapter is a must read.  However, if you are the type that can wade through the much more technical and legalese of patents, you may wish to read my issued US Patents here.

The Greatest Technologist of All

Those that have heard me speak on designing color displays will recognize a consistent refrain of carefully matching the capabilities of the display to that of the Human Vision System (HVS).  At times, to accomplish this, I take advantage of the design inspiration concept of biomimicry, the recognition that natural selection has already found a favorable solution through evolving forms toward a local optimum, given the constraints of the cost of time, energy, and materials that nature must use.  By taken a lesson from nature, we often can find that a good solution already exists.

But we must differentiate between taking inspiration from nature and actually using an evolved solution to essentially the same problem that we as designers, engineers, and inventors face.  Nature can provide abundant beauty in both form and color.  Many an artist as reflected that beauty in their work.  But this is not “biomimicry”… and just because an engineering solution bears a resemblance to something in nature, may even have been inspired by such, does not mean that it is being applied to the same problem.

Consider an example often touted in the press as being engineering biomicry, the curved impeller / propeller designed by Jay Harmon and manufactured by Pax Scientific.  Their impeller is often described as having been inspired by the calla lily or the spiral nautilus shell:

http://peakenergy.blogspot.com/2008/05/biomimicry-are-humans-smarter-than-sea.html

But, while it may have been inspired by the lovely curves of the flower, this impeller owes its design more to Archimedes’ screw than any evolutionary process to solve the problem of fluid mixing.

Similarly we must differentiate between merely using a natural biomaterial, though it may be used for exactly the same purpose for which it was selected for by nature.  For example, antibiotics are most often discovered in nature, since many organisms must fend off bacteria.  But that shouldn’t be called biomimicry.

So what would be an example of biomimicry?  For one of the most obvious example, one need look no further than up into the sky at the nearly constant traffic of airplanes.  The early pioneers of aviation, starting with Leonardo DaVinci, Otto Lilienthal, John Montgomery, onto the Wright Brothers, all took careful note how nature solved the problem of flight and emulated her.

Sometimes engineers and nature come up with the same solution.  Albert Einstein was a great inventor as well as a famous physicist.  One of his most important inventions was the reverse flow heat exchanger, perhaps the most efficient heat exchanger yet developed, or evolved.  It turns out that many marine mammals, notably the cetacea (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) use exactly this same mechanism to supply oxygen to their skin will retaining body heat.  I don’t know if Einstein knew that or not, but I doubt it.  So, should we call that an example of biomimicry, or merely that great minds think alike?

In any case, if one wonders why a high tech inventor like myself bothered to study not only physics, but psychology and biology, one need look to further than at nature, the greatest technologist of all.