Ten innovations to remember from 2015

Vision looks back at some of the best innovations and technological developments in 2015 across different sectors, from automotive to space and science

1. Gene editing

For the first time in history, Chinese scientists were able to edit the genomes of human embryos in a lab experiment. The scientists, headed by Junjiu Huang, a gene-function researcher at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, used non-viable embryos that cannot result in a live birth. Utilising a gene-editing technique known as CRISPR/Cas9, their aim was to modify the gene responsible for β-thalassaemia, a blood disorder that could be fatal. The experiment, however, faced challenges, indicating that implementation of gene editing in the medical world is yet o be achieved. Some scientists are hopeful it could have a promising future, helping eliminate genetic diseases before birth, while others warn of its unethical uses and genetic changes to embryos that could affect future generations.

 

2. The first clear images of Pluto

A decade after the New Horizons mission launched, the world witnessed the first stunningly vivid photographs of planet Pluto. The images were so crisp that the heart-shaped area on its surface could be seen for the first time. New Horizons, NASA’s mission to Pluto, aims to study the planet’s atmosphere and composition and help shed light on how our solar system was created. The mission carries the most encompassing suite of instruments ever sent to an unexplored environment.

 

3. The longest solar-powered flight

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While Solar Impulse 2 broke a few world records on its journey around the world, it was in 2015 that it made the longest non-stop flight by a solar-powered plane. Pilot and co-creator André Borschberg spent almost five days in the air, or equivalent to 117 hours and 52 minutes, making it also the longest solo flight ever. The aircraft derived its power from 17,248 solar cells during the day, and stored energy in lithium-polymer batteries to stay in the air at night.

 

4. Human epigenome maps

Following the sequencing of the human genome, the first map of the human epigenome – or the chemical markers that instruct your DNA what to express and when – were released last year. In simple terms, if the genome is your computer’s hardware, the epigenome is the software. The map would enable scientists to determine what causes some cells to become liver cells while others turn into heart cells, or even malignant cancerous ones. Researchers believe the findings could help them reprogramme cells for bioengineering or reveal new triggers for disease.

 

5. 3D-printed human tissue

In a key development for the medical world, drugs produced by pharmaceutical companies can now be tested on mini-livers and mock kidneys created using a 3D-printer. The tissue, synthesised by Organovo from human cells, helps companies assess whether drugs are suitable for human use. Often, new drugs tested successfully on animals fail human trials due to kidney or liver toxicity. Organovo’s system is meant to provide an ideal testing ground.

 

6. Periscope

In the age of smartphones and social media, where everyone can share information and photos, Periscope has gained increasing popularity as a broadcasting platform for the masses in 2015. The app has made live streaming of video content easy and accessible, allowing journalists, activists and regular Joes to use it on their mobile phones.

 

7. Be My Eyes

Whoever thought phone cameras could come in handy for blind people. Thanks to Be My Eyes, an app developed by the Danish Blind Society, visually impaired individuals can now connect to sighted ones through a live video feed. Users with eyesight can help those who cannot see in decrypting unfamiliar street signs, reading expiry dates on food items, and getting other quick visual assistance. The free app has so far assisted north of 23,000 users more than 100,000 times.

 

8. A renewable energy powerhouse

WindStream Technology Solar Mill could be the solution for people eager to use alternative energy, but who have limited roof space in their homes. The hybrid WindStream system lets users harness both wind and solar energy at the same time. The compact solution includes three vertical-axis turbines that rotate beneath a photovoltaic panel. This not only saves space, but also generates 13 per cent more energy than using solar alone.

 

9. Blockchain

Blockchain, the technology linked to digital currency Bitcoin, has gained increasing popularity in 2015. Proponents believe the technology could do for the transfer of value, what the internet did for the transfer of information. Blockchain allows people and businesses to create products that need a layer of trust with unparalleled security.

Last year, a number of bitcoin companies managed to raise millions of funding, while commodities veteran and JP Morgan executive Blythe Masters left the bank to take on the position of CEO at bitcoin trading platform Digital Assets Holdings. What’s more, global stock market company Nasdaq announced it was exploring how blockchain solutions could alter the way shares are transferred and sold. Another big milestone for the bitcoin and blockchain industry came in June last year when the first state-specific licensing for digital currencies was passed.

 

10. Self-driving cars

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Imagine driving a car that at a push of a button can take control, know where to go, and when to break or accelerate. German carmaker BMW has manufactured a car that can do just that. With other players such as technology company Google joining the game, 2015 saw a growing interest in driverless vehicles.

Google is building a prototype car with full autonomy and Apple is also reportedly making its own version of a self-driving vehicle.

While the world may not yet be ready for fully autonomous cars, companies are continuing to push the boundaries with ambitious projects that aim to make driving easier and safer.