Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Tesla Would Be Proud

So, I may have mentioned that a few months ago the local Kent paper started getting better. Their coverage of the threat of flooding has been good, and from time to time they have an interesting local-interest piece.

Such was the case the other day when their 'feature-a-local-Kent-business' page had a full-page article about how a company here named LaserMotive has just won a NASA contest relating to the Space Elevator NASA is hoping to build somewhere down the line.

Now, I'm dubious about the whole Space Elevator concept, but I'm impressed that they're thinking far enough ahead to start encouraging work on some of the technology that'll be necessary to make it useful if they ever do manage to get it up and running in the first place. Hence the contest: make a robot capable of climbing a one-kilometre tall cable. Which the folks from Kent just won, giving them boasting rights, a sense of achievement, and $900,000 prize money.

Their breakthrough idea? Their climbing robot, named "Otis" after the elevator company, didn't have to carry its own power pack or generate power for itself. Instead, the bottom of the robot was covered with photoelectric cells, which they kept charged while it climbed by focusing a laser on it.

The result? Broadcast power. Or at least that's what Tesla might have called it. As I've heard the story, Tesla was famous for claiming the better part of a century ago that he'd found a way to transmit power over a distance without any wires or cable: electricity like radio waves. So far as I know, no one's ever found any evidence of how he planned to do this. Most assume it's another 'cold fusion', but Tesla was brilliant enough, and paranoid enough, that it's just possible he was on to something but left no records behind. And now the Kent folks have figured out a way to transmit power, via a concentrated beam of light, to a distant engine's photoelectric cells. Neat.

And in other news, there are definite signs that spring thinks it's here, despite it's being far too early in the year for that kind of thing. Weekend before last I saw the first dandelions, the daffodils in the yard are all coming up, and today the first cherry blossoms. And on the bird front, the swans disappeared for a while but are now back. Except that there are now fourteen of them. Turns out they're probably Tundra Swans, and the slightly smaller greyish ones are definitely youngsters. Janice speculated that the unusually low level of the lakes this year (they've been keeping them half-emptied so the water will have someplace to go if the river gets too high) might have made the neighborhood more appealing to them somehow. Or maybe it's climate change at work. Or maybe just luck. Hard to say.

--John R.


David Bratman said...

One of LaserMotive's principals, Jordin Kare, is a science-fiction fan and old friend of mine. Long ago I helped out on another little project of his.

Wolfgang said...

Wonderful story, thanks for sharing.

John D. Rateliff said...

Hi David
Hm. Once upon a time I wd have said "small world!", but now I think it's a v. big world, just w. lots of interconnections.
Jordan Kane is actually mentioned in the article as the co-founder (with Tom Nugent) of the company involved. There's a photo of Nugent and another person from LaserMotive, Dave Bashford, accompanying the piece, but unfortunately Kane isn't shown.

Hi Wolf: glad you liked it. I'll keep an eye out to see if there's a follow-up piece when they have the next stage of the competition in May, devoted to increasing the rate of the climb (which is pretty important, given the 22,000 mile distance of the planned tower).