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Engineering Life

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Fausto De Martini created the concept art for the SARs in the film Kill Command. (via Fausto Design)


Kill Command is set at some unspecified point in the near future (Future UK?). It opens with a synthesizer generated “SciFi drone of doom”. You know, the kind found in science fiction films from the 70s and early 80s that signaled to audiences that they are about to be treated to some gut-churning moral ambiguity.


The plot revolves around a Marine fire squad sent out on a training mission to practice fighting against military robots. These robots, are called SARs which is an acronym for Study Analyze Reprogram.


The machines reprogram and rebuild themselves according to interactions with their enemies in order to do better the next time around. They come off as precursors to the “mimint” automated weapons found in Richard K Morgan’s awesome book, “Woken Furies”.



SARs adaptable robots from Kill Command. Ready to mess you up. (via IMDB)


A technician called Mills from Harbinger Robotics, the company that manufactures the SARs, is sent to accompany the marines on their training. She is charged with investigating some anomalous behavior from the SARs and typically, the Marines don’t want her around. Shortly after their arrival at the island training facility, the situation starts to get weird... and deadly. No-one knows what’s going on, you won’t know what’s going on. Just watch and let the story play out. 


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British actor David Ajala plays the cybernetically enhanced sniper called Drifter in Kill Command. (via IMDB)


Despite the action, the core of the story is actually a slow burn mystery as we wait to see where loyalties lie. The movie does have some very cool elements in it, like snipers with their rifles electronically linked to implants in their eyes, man portable drones and brain augments similar to the “augs” seen in Neal Asher’s Polity series of books. We also get to see what appears to be a future revision of a V-22 Osprey troop transport.


Is this the best SF movie ever? Absolutely not. But it does seem to be extremely difficult to make truly bulletproof SciFi, to build a story and a world that an experienced SciFi audience can say to themselves, “yeah ok, I’ll buy into it”. I am definitely a snobby and experienced consumer of all things SciFi and I liked it. I’d say it was about a B- effort. They could have budged that grade a bit if the story had been developed a bit more. You will see what I mean after you watch it.



Note the similarity in design cues with the Harbinger symbol. (via Synthetic Dreamer)


As a final thought, the Harbinger Robotics symbol looks a whole lot like the Weyland-Yutani logo from the Aliens series of movies. Well, at a glance it does anyway. This similarity may have been intentional to associate the fictional megacorp from this film with an evil megacorp that is already established in the psyches of SciFi audiences.


3.5 out of 5.

This review of Passengers is loaded with spoilers.


If you haven’t seen the film yet, go watch it and come back.



Jennifer Lawrence’s character Aurora Lane is a beautiful writer and the absolute last person you want help from if you find yourself on a broken spaceship. (Image courtesy of Sony Pictures)


Passengers (2016): Why it’s important not to wake up the wrong people.


It really is an entertaining movie. From an engineering standpoint, though, I have no idea why everybody didn’t die. It was the testament against the Too Big To Fail approach to engineering. A company thinks their designs are perfect and will never fail. “It just works.” Sound familiar?


That said… let’s carry on. The premise of the film begins with 5,000 colonists on their way to an uninhabited planet known as Homestead II. All of them, including the crew are in hibernation and the ship is on autopilot as the trip takes 120-years to get there, traveling at roughly half of the speed of light.


The ship soon runs into an asteroid field and takes multiple massive hits, but luckily the ship has a shield that prevents most of the Manhattan-sized asteroids from penetrating. Only to fail as a Volkswagen-sized rock pushes through, ultimately damaging the vessel. As a result, some of the ships systems malfunction and mechanical engineer Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) is awakened from his slumber- beginning a year-long’s worth of troubles.



The Starship Avalon created by Guy Hendrix Dyas with its multiple rotating modules. (Image courtesy of Guy Hendrix Dyas)


The starship Avalon itself is great design- it has three long thin modules all interconnected to a spinning central hub and has everything anyone could want. There’s an entertainment section, learning center, medical bay, labs, mess hall and a bar, complete with an android bartender (Michael Sheen). What’s interesting is that the ship has systems that can be found today, albeit in rudimentary forms such as a self-healing (biomimetics) applications like those being undertaken by Arkema and an elaborate AI, which is currently being developed by a multitude of companies, but still in it’s infancy.


It’s the AIs job to take care of the ship, while the passengers and crew are in hibernation. It would then provide information to the populace when the awaken (where to go, what to do and their job roles) and this is where my first issue with the film begins.


Kudos on it waking mechanical engineer Preston, however it should have jump-started the crew first as they are the ones responsible for the ship and its passengers. Surely the programmers thought of this contingency, that accidents were bound to happen and would need a way to get the professionals, all 258 of them, up and moving when the ship is in danger.


This is a blatant oversight in failure analysis. Several times during the show, the computer system states there has never been a failure in “xyz,” so feel safe. Any system can and will fail at some point. (Even the HP LaserJet 4L. I’ve seen it first hand!)


Regardless, a mechanical engineer should be able to figure out where the damage is located and come up with an idea on how to fix it right? Wrong, after noticing he’s the only one awake it dawns on him something is amiss and goes in search of the flight crew on the bridge. Only the problem is, there’s no crew and the door to the bridge won’t open without a specialized wristband. Wristbands are worn by everyone and grant access based on job function and societal status i.e. wealth, etc. I found this part to be a startling realistic view of the future.


He then learns he has another problem- he was awoken 90-years ahead of schedule due to the ship’s damage and can no longer enter the stasis pod to go back to sleep.


Like any engineer, he heads to the bar and hits up the android bartender for a drink in an effort to gain a handle on the situation. After all, he’s has plenty of time to do so as the ship isn’t in any immediate danger just yet, except for… you know… minor damage from the asteroid collision. I try to imagine myself in his situation and find myself thinking about first: is the ship ok or is it about to explode, second: if there’s immediate danger, locate it and try to repair it and third, once the danger is dealt with or not possible to fix, try to wake the crew.



How a mechanical engineer tackles the problem of a sealed door. To his credit, it does look like he tried to hack the control pad on the side of the door. Or how about cutting through the wall instead? (Image courtesy of Sony Pictures)


He doesn’t do any of those things, at least not at first. He does in fact find a bunch of technical manuals for a myriad of devices, systems, tools, machines, and a practical storehouse of every object imaginable. Sorry.... no.... can't fix anything.


The first thing he tries is to fix his stasis pod and returning to sleep but it turns out he needs special equipment not onboard to do so. It also turns out the crew is behind an impenetrable fire door and no matter what tools he uses to get in, he can’t.


It should be noted at this point each person in hibernation has their own job title listed on an info display on their respective pods.


Why’s that important?


Well one, you can unlock the pods and awaken the people manually by hacking into a certain electrical board and two, I would find all the engineer and software/hardware people I could and wake them up to brainstorm the issues I was undertaking at this point. However unless we found a solution to go back into hibernation they would more than likely be pissed as hell to live with me, alone in space, for the rest of their lives with dwindling resources.


Preston, on the other hand, decides to take it easy and seemingly abandons trying to solve the issues with ship and crew and relax a while by breaking in to the ships other areas including high-class living quarters and restaurants.


This is another problem I have- as the time goes by (a year), he learns some Japanese and Spanish interacting with robotic restaurant servers. If he can learn new languages, why can’t he figure out how to get into the ship’s crew quarters? Why can’t he learn to code (if he doesn’t already know) and find out a way to interface or reprogram the door security measures to let him in or use the android bartender to help him get in by acting as an intermediary to the ship’s system if he can interface directly? A kind of ‘code talker’ if you will, there is just so many things he could have tried up to this point and no effort was undertaken.



Surely there are some engineers in here somewhere as they are headed to colonize a new world. (Image courtesy of Sony Pictures)


He slowly becomes suicidal after not having any human contact and decides to wake Aurora Lane (a writer/novelist) for companionship. Again, why not an engineer? I do have to hand it to Aurora though, as she does try to brainstorm ideas on how to fix the hibernation pods or find another way to go back into hibernation shortly after awakening. I mean, she even offers to try to help to come up with a way to build a completely new platform after learning about the tools and hardware in storage!


Preston shoots her ideas down claiming he has tried everything to fix all the issues, which made me angry, as there are no bad ideas, even those suggesting trying the same solution twice. “It’s impossible” is the cry of lasiness.


It’s at this point I was ready to throw Preston out of an airlock thinking he should have just cashed it in when he was suicidal. The amount of tools and materials, an extensive online knowledge base and time should have worked in the character’s favor; they should have been able to come up with a solution to fix at least some of the problems on the ship with all the equipment they had on hand. It made me think of the Apollo 13 crew and the solutions they and the NASA team had to come up with using nothing but a junk drawer of items and some duct tape.


Think of the film, the Martian, and the stoic calm way problems were dealt with in succession.



Preston modded a cleaning robot, outfitting it with a camera and control system but couldn’t figure out a way to get through a door. (Image courtesy of Sony Pictures)


The final nail in the coffin for me that made me want to pilot the ship into the nearest sun, was the fact that Preston spent time fabricating trinkets for Aurora. First an Empire State building and later  modded a cleaning robot with a camera and control system to bring a note to her, asking for a date. He could do these things but not figure out a way into the crew compartment? I’m not going to go into detail with the rest of the movie, but suffice it to say, they only address and try and fix problems when it becomes 100% life threatening. The classic cliché of the last second left to go!


Yes, I know it’s just a movie, for entertainment, and it was entertaining to some extent. But, it centered on a main character who was a mechanical engineer. He had the tools, the materials, the knowhow and he blew it. All the while he had the skills to fix most anything on the ship, he wouldn’t or didn’t try hard enough in my book- just like he couldn’t fix this movie.  


Best parts:

- Ship design, function, and the premise of traveling to a new world for colonization.

- Overall acting was believable, despite a weak story.

- Mechanical engineer Preston before failing at life and after he redeems himself.

- The authenticity of the technology onboard, not too far off from what we could have in a near future.

- Arthur, the bartender.

- Aurora’s ‘can-do’ attitude of looking to solve or learn to solve the myriad of problems afflicting the ship.

- Beautiful sets and backgrounds

- The end credits.


Iffy parts:

- No realistic approach to utilizing tools and materials to solve problems.

- Preston’s inability to work those problems on a serious level, whiny/suicidal attitude.

- Poor use of the concept of “engineering.” Bested by other films in a similar category, like ‘The Martian.’

- Aurora’s reluctance to chuck Preston out of an airlock.


I am giving this 2.7 out of 5. It’s Ok, but the potential is there to be so much better... as frustrating as the film itself.

Oh... lookie here... Passengers flopped.


Concept art of a key scene in Spectral (via conceptworld)


Spectral is a 93-minute feature length Netflix Original movie, and part of their aggressively expanding output of self-produced content. Starring actor James Badge Dale as DARPA engineer/scientist, Dr. Mark Clyne.


As an engineer myself, I can’t help but get a kick out of an engineer protagonist. The me of my childhood would have loved this for the action and the “science”. Or at least what was passed off as science.


Sometime in the near future, a group of US Special Forces on some unspecified assignment in Moldova is seeing ghostly, “spectral,” shapes with their new helmet mounted enhanced vision equipment. When it appears that that one of these anomalies may have killed one of the soldiers, help is demanded. The help comes in the form of Dr. Clyne who is called out on location for a bit of field service. After his arrival, the situation rapidly deteriorates and all eyes turn to Clyne for answers.




The acting is perfectly serviceable. At no time did I find myself cringing from woodenly delivered lines or from an over the top, emotionally laden speech, so common whenever soldiers of any sort are portrayed in film. It is just a really fun SciFi film that has a level production value that I wish could be seen in a lot of other small budget SciFi films. We also get to see some aircraft and robots that take design cues from the dropship in Aliens and the Tachikoma multilegged robots from Ghost in the Shell.


Spectral isn’t perfect by any stretch though. It leans pretty heavily against quite a few worn-out film tropes. For starters, the soldiers are initially mistrustful and hostile toward the egghead. We are also treated to a MacGyver/A-Team style equipment building montage. During the montage, a glue gun being shoved into the workings of an anti-spectral rifle is accompanied by the sound of a cordless screwdriver.


Tired old tropes and lazy sound effects aside, the film is still very enjoyable. Any engineers or engineering types, you may not like it if you watch with the same critical eye reserved for completing DFMEA’s or design reviews. However, if you can reign in your professional critique of all things technological, then just lay back, and enjoy it. A brain-buster it is not. 


A big 3 out of 5.

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Above, Rogue One visual story guide page.... (All images courtesy of Disney and Lucas Film)




Spoilers, below!




You’ve been warned!

Spoilers, ahead!


Rogue One suffers, like the other films, from a lack of realistic complexity in a world of the highest-of-tech. Everything is taken for granted, it always works, frayed wires and items can hang out of a device and it will still function. Inspired by the “Droids,” Lightsabers, ships and all, THIS film left me wanting more. Showing how it all works, would have been a good addition.


What I like the most…. this is a story of how an engineer built the most destructive weapon in the galaxy. Apparently, an engineer so sought after in the galaxy, was made an offer he couldn’t refuse. Being extremely GOOD at one thing made him MVE (most valuable engineer). Which is definitely counter to today’s engineering climate, where we have to be proficient at a spread of subjects. We can’t just be electrical engineers, we also have to be mechanically adept and an advanced coder.


I would love to see where all these Star Wars devices are made. George Lucas I’m looking in your direction. What was your concept? Forexample, one book (now not canon) mentioned a race of aliens that made all the tech. If I recall, they almost magically could design systems. I guess that was an explanation. Anyway…


rogue one 2.PNG

Just like real engineers, once the Death Star team was finished with their work… they were unceremoniously “let go.” Not as violent, but this has happened to me and a few other engineers I know. They bring you in for a job that only you can do, soon as it’s done, you’re gone. It’s money. I am sure the Death Star engineers were offered big space bux. That's inspiration for us all, right? Space bux? The moment you sit in the dank cubical to work, you realize it was a huge mistake.


As the story goes... Things happen… some exciting, some on the slower side, and some quips thrown in here and there.


Our main hero gets a message from her father, the designer of the Death Star. In it, he apologizes for being away for most of her life. But, he worked tirelessly to hide a flaw in the Death Star design, for her… and the rest of the galaxy. If he could deliver a holographic message, could he not also attach a file with the flaw laid out? Not very creative here, the message was on what looked like a bulky USB flash storage device.


Technological difficulties plagues our heroes, as they must get a signal out to the rebels. Which they can’t do unless they plug in some random cable from their cargo ship. In retrospect, wireless isn’t standard? All their personal communication devices seem to work just fine, at any distance, even inside the bowels of some super-structure.


rogue one 5.jpeg

Unused scene from Rogue One. What is Jyn holding? Looks like a 5.25" hard-drive.


It’s no mystery what the rebels were searching for, plans to the Death Star. Where were these plans? On what looked like a 5.25” ancient hard disk drive from the 1970's. (Fitting for the time the film was made.) I could see the gravitas being diminished if all they needed was something the size of a micro SD card. To be honest, I’m OK with the big disk drive. But, remember episode 2? Didn’t Count Dooku has every aspect of the Death Star design on something much smaller?


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I felt this was realistic to designing of modern day technology. Imagine the number of files involved in the design of an airplane, the LHC, or even a smartphone. You need a lot of storage. Now... they are building a planet! However, we wouldn’t store the files inside a giant “claw-game” like in Rogue One.


The final, ultimate, step that everyone will die for is literally a single lever switch. The “go” switch, I suppose, for data transfer. Of course, just out of reach as the big-bad shows up to stop our hero. So cliché… didn’t we see this in Captain America the Winter Soldier too? After all is said and done, the end was what you’d expect, with a twist. And of course, "that Vader scene."


Since we all have watched the next movie, A New Hope, since the 1970’s… we know what must happen here. In the end it is a drama -- and not an exploration of the high-technology in this universe. Perhaps, the Han Solo film will focus more on the tech behind it all… I mean, they are always fixing the Millennium Falcon after all.


Best parts:

- An engineer is the unsung hero of the series. Changes how the whole series can be looked at. An engineer saved the galaxy from evil technology – and a new Jedi saved it from spiritual evil.

- Darth Vader scenes.

- New devices, ships, and rag-tag heroes.

- Cool new Droids. Chopper from Star Wars Rebels, too.

- It's a fun ride overall.


The iffy areas:

- Tech just works. No explanation even when engineering is involved in the plot. Geez… can you imagine the number of revisions on every single part of the Death Star? I imagine where were plenty more flaws in the design the rebels could exploit. HA HA!

- Clichés and tropes


A solid 3.8 out of 5, for sure.


Message me at: cabe(at)element14(dot)com

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Norway's new, rad, pixel art currency


Some people work themselves to the bone for the almighty dollar. But, let's face it, our legal tender is pretty drab compared to European currency. However, Norway is setting a new, higher standard with its abstract pixel art featured on the back side of their currency. This is basically the coolest thing to happen to money since... money – cause money is cool, but pixel art money is cooler.


Norway's Norges Bank recently announced the winner of their design competition for the national currency. Two winners have been picked from the bunch. The front side of the new bills will feature traditional Norwegian art created by The Metric System. Basically, the front side will be very nationalistic and boring.


The back side of the new Norwegian bill will bring Norway into the 21st Century with a pixel party! The design was created by Snøhetta and features abstract pixel artwork that makes money fun. The pixel artwork uses Norwegian landscapes as its basis. The art has turned coastal landscapes into color pixels which become more progressively abstract as the monetary value increases. They titled their pixel color-block artwork Beauty of Boundaries. It's quite a cool concept and you can see their winning money design collection on their website (



A juxtaposition of the Norwegian landscapes used to create the pixel money art


The photo above shows the juxtaposition of how Snøhetta turned a photo of a Norwegian coastal landscape into a hazy, abstract, purple dream using pixels. This money is set to enter circulation by 2017, so you may want to hold off on your Norwegian travel plans until then.


The pixelated color-block design was determined in-part by using the Beaufort wind force scale. They tried to indicate the strength of the wind by the length of the squares of color. Hence, the art not only depicts a scene, but tries to give the view a sense of the sensation of experiencing the coast in person. As the wind increases in the particular coastal city, the value of the note also increases. These were very clever designers, indeed.


The art is beautiful, and the concept behind it melds nature with the age of technology to create something inspiring.



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Political promising can be deceiving.


See the real differences in a comparative look at "Who will be better for the engineering industry - Romney or Obama."




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This joke made the whole lab laugh. But is it funny to everyone else?





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Truly an overlooked, underappreciated part of the team. Remember, they always make it work.


Read some stories from out in the field:

The military's uncelebrated heroes, the Joint Robotics Repair Detachment

Military mechanics go Augmented with help from ARMAR

Why Is My Equipment Being Taken Away?

ESD Testing Does Not Test EMC Susceptibility

Infrastructure Improvement: The Smart Bridge

(More to follow, soon...)





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Engineering On Friday Down on the organic-LED farm by Cabe Atwell.jpg
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To some extent organic-electronics are natural, but they are not quite picked from the vine.


Read about what exactly are organic electronics.




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Phillip's ErgoSense monitor constantly watches your posture. It will become annoying in the late afternoon for sure.




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Combine the following:

The thermal cloaking concentric rings developed by Sebastien Guenneau at the Institut Fresnel in France.

The electromagnetic cloak cylinder from Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona, Spain.


Add them up, you get the Battlefield Invisibility Uniform (BIU) worn by all our future war fighters.


"You can't shoot what you can't see."




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University of Belgium students created a touchscreen interface using CRT monitors. The system requires a glove laden with phototransistors to work. Cumbersome apparatuses to operate a defunked technology is not a winning combination, except for those with a lot of TVs.


I remember Montgomery Ward's Electric Avenue, it seemed like the future to my young eyes. It was the company's first entrance into the budding world of technology. Unfortunately, their last. Or is it?




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NASA's Robo-Glove gives a user a grip strength boost. It is possible with only 10 pounds of pressure, 20 pounds or more is experienced between the clutches of the gloves.



How many objects do you think the NASA test engineers squished with those gloves?





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Robot Jockeys replaced child riders in the United Arab Emirates camel racing circuit due to international human rights pressure.


Since then, several generations of the robotic riders have come and gone. The latest having arms used to manipulate reigns along with the riding crop.


There must be a Robot Jockey superstar in the camel racing world. Others tremble when they see him coming.




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