Sand Trap

DARPA's 320-kilometer robotic race across the Mojave Desert yields no winners, but plenty of new ideas

16 min read

On A Gorgeous Spring Morning in the southwestern U.S. desert, I find arrayed before me the motleyest assortment of vehicles assembled in one place since the filming of Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior . I'm at the California Speedway, in Fontana, which has certainly seen its share of automotive oddities. But this is something else again.

Here, on a vast expanse of shimmering blacktop and concrete just south of the San Bernardino Mountains, an Armadaof four-wheelers, six-wheelers, and even one two-wheeler has gathered. There's a big red 18-year-old Humvee stuffed with US $3 million worth of computers, lasers, cameras, and other sensor systems. There's a tracked crawler that looks like a huge beetle, with a red dome on top and "wings" that splay to right it when it flips. There's a hulking 2.7-meter-tall electric-green military supply truck, and in its shadow what appears to be--yes, it is--an orange golf cart. And then there's a collection of customized pickup trucks and SUVs, less outrageous at first glance, but with cab and hood ornamentation like nothing ever seen on any used-car lot.

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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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