March 31, 2022
My kids love to go sledding, so they were thrilled when we finally started getting heavy snowfalls in January and February. The snow has stayed on the ground, too, with very little melted. Their favored sledding hill has several inches of snow packed on top of a few inches of ice, which can make for a fast-but-bumpy ride.
As a parent watching my kids fly over the ramps they have constructed out of packed snow, I frequently catch my breath. There they go, up the ramp and into the air. Sometimes they make a perfect landing on the sled and keep right on sliding to the bottom. Sometimes my children and their sleds separate mid-flight. The sled lands lightly and slowly skids to a stop; my kids land heavily with an audible “crunch,” then get up, shake off the snow, and start all over again. I exhale.
Watching the Winter Olympics has not helped, and the older I get the harder it is to watch people hurtling down hillsides and icy tracks at inhuman speeds.
Engineering has made this even more difficult for me. Most Olympic teams are now regularly consulting with engineers, particularly in the bobsled, luge and skeleton events. Most of the equipment designs have had at least some input from engineers who normally create race cars and rockets.
Unlike race car drivers and astronauts, however, the people manning these vehicles are incredibly exposed while traveling at unprecedented speeds. As a result, there has been quite a bit of counter-engineering on the tracks to slow them down.
This is no doubt disappointing to the designers and athletes, who are seeing some of the work they have done to improve speeds being undercut by the design of the track.
Safety, however, is key. Dramatic crashes are always a risk in these sports, but more and more research has shown that the vibrations the riders experience at top speeds can have long-term consequences for their health.
We see this type of engineering push-and-pull in other contexts. This issue is focused on aerospace engineering, where technological advancement is often tempered by new safety regulations. There has been a push to create air taxis, small electric planes and autonomous aircraft that can be used in much the same way as a car. Some vehicles are essentially flying cars. Proper safety precautions will be critical if any of these nascent technologies are to be adopted.
I certainly hope we can achieve safer, cleaner flight in my lifetime. I am a bit less enthusiastic about flying cars. I can barely stand to watch the kids sled down a hill; flying away to school would be too much.