Vision picks: global innovations

Georgina Lavers
Georgina Lavers

In a tumultuous year, there have been innovations that have managed to make their voices heard above the din. From revolutionary cancer drugs to a new kind of tube travel, here are the five of the best

1. 3-D printing

Heralded as the beginning of the third Industrial Revolution, 3-D printing has expanded beyond figurines in shopping malls to larger or more significant projects. Take, for example, prosthetics – one bio-medical printing start-up based in Pakistan is focused on creating bionic arms that aim to be more customisable than their counterparts using 3-D printing.

In 2015, the United Arab Emirates National Innovation Committee announced plans to erect an entire building using a 20-ft high printer that will be assembled on the build site.

The end result, unveiled this year, was a 2,000-sq-ft building, and appropriately fitting as a headquarters for the Museum of the Future in Dubai.

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Jack Andraka discovered a groundbreaking method of cancer detection

2. The boy who could cure cancer

“It’s not every day you get an email from a 15-year-old that comes with a detailed protocol,” said Dr Anirban Maitra of Jack Andraka. The teenager was writing in the hopes of gaining some lab space to work on his test that could potentially recognise the first stages of pancreatic, ovarian and lung cancer 168 times faster and 126 times cheaper than other cancer treatments.   

Maitra was the only professor out of 200 to give Andraka a chance, and admits there is a lot of testing still to be done before the test can go to market. But, the possibilities could be transformative.  

Pancreatic cancer is an almost universally lethal malignancy, with a survival rate of less than five per cent at five years. Adding to that, over 85 per cent of all pancreatic cancers are detected late, when a patient has less than a 2 per cent chance of survival.

Andraka’s test for the protein mesothelin, using a paper sensor coated with carbon nanotubes, could change the way these cancers are detected.

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Rather than taking cars or boarding trains or airplanes in Dubai, passengers could enter a driverless pod inside an elevated tube

3. The Hyperloop

Ask people what their superpower would be, and alongside the ability to fly or become invisible, transporting themselves at the click of a finger would surely be at the top of the list. Enter the Hyperloop; visionary Elon Musk’s idea to replicate the vacuum tube system that whizzes papers around an office, using humans.

The technology has been floated for regions spanning Europe to the Middle East: The UK government has expressed its interest in technology that would make a journey from London to Manchester just 18 minutes, and Dubai and Hyperloop One have agreed plans to build the world’s first Hyperloop transportation system, which will slash journey times from Abu Dhabi to Dubai.

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Bertrand Piccard and his co-pilot André Borschberg circumnavigated the globe using solar power

4. Round the world by solar

Betrand Piccard is the third generation in a family of scientist-explorers. His grandfather Auguste Piccard was a noted physicist and explorer who was the inspiration behind Professor Calculus in the Tintin adventures, and his father Jacques was one of the first oceanographers to visit the deepest parts of the ocean floor, the Mariana Trench.

Following on from his family, Bertrand sought to push the limits of the aviation industry, building an airplane the size of a 747 that was as light as a car and that runs without fuel. ‘Solar Impulse 2’ was built to take up the challenge of achieving the first round-the-world solar flight.

Piccard and fellow pilot Andre Borschberg completed their epic journey in July, touching down in Abu Dhabi after having travelled more than 43,000 kilometers across Japan, Hawaii, San Francisco and Cairo.

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Billions of light bulbs could become wireless hotspots in the future

5. Li-Fi

The lighter version of Wi-Fi, ‘Li-Fi’ – using household light bulbs to enable data transfer – has enormous implications for anywhere that lacks Internet access. 

Harold Haas from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland invented Li-Fi in 2011, and in a TED Talk in 2015 demonstrated how billions of light bulbs could become wireless hotspots in the future.

Though the technology is still at laboratory level, Dubai is aiming to become the first city to test-drive Li-Fi service by the end of 2016, as part of its aim to become one of the world's smartest and most connected cities within five years.