A Dragon Comes Home

The Big Picture features technology through the lens of photographers.

Every month, IEEE Spectrum selects the most stunning technology images recently captured by photographers around the world. We choose images that reflect an important advance, or a trend, or that are just mesmerizing to look at. We feature all images on our site, and one also appears on our monthly print edition.

Enjoy the latest images, and if you have suggestions, leave a comment below.

Figure From Fiction

For centuries, people in China have maintained a posture of awe and reverence for dragons. In traditional Chinese culture, the dragon—which symbolizes power, nobility, honor, luck, and success in business—even has a place in the calendar; every twelfth year is a dragon year. Flying, fire-breathing horses covered in lizard scales have been part of legend, lore, and literature since those things first existed. Now, in the age of advanced technology, an engineer has created his own mechatronic version of the mythical beast. François Delarozière, founder and artistic director of French street-performance company La Machine, is shown riding his brainchild, called Long Ma. The 72-tonne steel-and-wood automaton can carry 50 people on a covered terrace built into its back and still walk at speeds of up to 4 kilometers per hour. It will flap its leather-and-canvas-covered wings, and shoot fire, smoke, or steam from its mouth, nose, eyelids, and more than two dozen other vents located along its 25-meter-long body. Long Ma spends most of its time in China, but the mechanical beast has been transported to France so it can participate in fairs there this summer. It has already been featured at the Toulouse International Fair, where it thrilled onlookers from 9 to 18 April.

Alain Pitton/NurPhoto/AP

Body Area Network

Your social media accounts and your credit card information are not the only targets that are in cybercrooks’ crosshairs. Criminals will take advantage of the slightest lapse in the security even of electronic medical devices such as pacemakers, implantable insulin pumps, and neural implants. No one wants to imagine their final experience to be a hostile takeover of their life-saving medical device. So, researchers are brainstorming ideas for foiling cyberattacks on such devices that exploit security weak points in their wireless power or Internet connections. A team at Columbia University, in New York City, has developed a wireless-communication technique for wearable medical devices that sends signals securely through body tissue. Signals are sent from a pair of implanted transmitters to a pair of receivers that are temporarily attached to the device user’s skin. Contrast this with RF communication, where the device is continuously transmitting data waiting for the receiver to catch the signal. With this system, there is no security risk, because there are no unencrypted electromagnetic waves sent out into the air to hack. The tiny transmitter-receiver pair pictured here can communicate through the petal of a flower. Larger versions, say the Columbia researchers, will get signals from transmitters located adjacent to internal organs deep within the body to noninvasive external receivers stuck onto the skin.

Dion Khodagholy/Columbia Engineering

Sun in a Box

Anyone who has ever paid attention to how an incandescent lightbulb works knows that a significant amount of the energy aimed at creating light is lost as heat. The same is true in reverse, when solar panels lose some of the energy in photons as heat instead of it all being converted into electrons. Scientists have been steadily cutting these losses and ramping up the efficiency of photovoltaics, with the aim of bringing them to operational and economic parity with power plants that generate electricity via the spinning of turbines. The most efficient turbine-based generators convert only about 35 percent of the total theoretical energy contained in, say, natural gas into electrical charge, . And until recently, that was enough to keep them head and shoulders above solar cells. But the tide looks to be turning. A thermophotovoltaic (TPV) cell developed by engineers at MIT has eclipsed the 40-percent-efficiency mark. The so-called “Sun in a Box” captures enough light energy that it reaches temperatures above 2,200 °C. At these temperatures, a silicon filament inside the box emits light in the infrared range. Those infrared photons get converted from light to charge instead of more heat, ultimately boosting the device’s overall conversion efficiency. The TPV’s creators and outside observers believe that such devices could operate at 50-percent efficiency at higher temperatures. That, say the MIT researchers, could dramatically lower the cost of electric power, and turn the fossil-fuel- and fission-fired power plants upon which we so heavily rely into quaint anachronisms. “A turbine-based power production system’s cost is usually on the order of [US] $1 per watt. However, for thermophotovoltaics, there is potential to reduce it to the order of 10 cents per watt,” says Asegun Henry, the MIT professor of mechanical engineering who led the team that produced the TPV cell.

Felice Frankel

One Large Rat, Hold the Droppings

Rats are irrepressible. They go where they want, eat what they want, and seem immune to our best efforts to eradicate them and the pathogens they carry. Scientists have now decided that, since we cannot beat them, the smart thing to do is to recruit them for our purposes. But training rodents to carry out our wishes while ignoring their own instinctive drives is not likely to be a successful endeavor. Therefore, researchers are making robotic rats that have real rodents’ physical features but can be remotely controlled. One of the first use cases is in disaster zones, where debris and unstable terrain make it too dangerous for human rescue workers to tread. The robotic rat pictured here is a product of a group of researchers at the Beijing Institute of Technology. They tried other designs, but “large quadruped robots cannot enter narrow spaces, while micro quadruped robots can enter the narrow spaces but face difficulty in performing tasks, owing to their limited ability to carry heavy loads,” says Professor Qing Shi, a member of the team that developed the automaton rodent. They decided to model their machine after the rat because of how adept it is at squeezing into tight spaces and turning on a dime, and its remarkable strength relative to its size.

Qing Shi