The weirdest, wackiest, and coolest sci/tech stories of 2015

Advancements in renewable energy, robot capabilities, and space exploration are some of the ways science and technology moved forward this year

wack tech 2015 1
Reuters/ Toby Melville

Wacky

It’s that time of year again when we take a look at some of the most interesting and sometimes silly sci/tech stories of the year. This year we have flame-throwing drones, wicked cool pictures of Pluto, and quantum computing advancements, to name just a few topics. Take a look.

Related: The weirdest, wackiest and coolest sci/tech stories of 2015 (so far!)

The weirdest, wackiest and coolest sci/tech stories of 2014

20 years ago: Hot sci/tech images from 1995

Flame-throwing turkey drone

Apparently, you can roast a turkey with a flame-throwing drone. While the turkey looks a little crispy, the man flying the drone attracted the attention of local police, though he wasn’t charged with anything yet. That man, Austin Haughwout, 19, earlier this year also had a chat with police when he modified a drone to fire a handgun. Charges are pending on that flight.

Extreme robots

Extreme robots

Engineers at NASA's Kennedy Space Center Swamp Works are inventing a flying robotic vehicle that can gather samples on other worlds in places inaccessible to rovers. The vehicles -- similar to quad-copters but designed for the thin atmosphere of Mars and the airless voids of asteroids and the moon -- would use a lander as a base to replenish batteries and propellants between flights. The Extreme Access Flyers and their designers intend to create vehicles that can travel into the shaded regions of a crater and pull out small amounts of soil to see whether it holds the water-ice promised by readings from orbiting spacecraft. Running on propellants made from resources on the distant worlds, the machines would be able to execute hundreds of explorative sorties during their mission. They also would be small enough for a lander to bring several of them to the surface at once, so if one fails the mission isn't lost.

Thinking man’s car
Reuters/ Kim Kyung Hoon

Thinking man’s car

Researcher Zhang Zhao, wearing a brain signal-reading equipment, poses with a vehicle that can be controlled with his brain wave during a demonstration at Nankai University in Tianjin, China. Researchers from ISI lab at the university claim the car can move straight forward, backward, come to a stop, and be locked and unlocked with their brain-controlled vehicle system. The system can capture EEG (electroencephalogram) signals from user's brain and send the control command to the car, researchers told Reuters.

No driver? No ticket?
Reuters/ Stephen Lam

No driver? No ticket?

A Google self-driving car is seen inside a lobby at the Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., in November. A Google autonomous car was pulled over by the Mountain View police after it was reportedly traveling at a speed of 24 mph in a 35 mph zone, causing traffic backlog. The vehicle was not cited.

Gremlins!

Gremlins!

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is moving forward with a program that will launch and recover volleys of small unmanned aircraft from one or more existing large airplanes such as B-52s, B-1s, or C-130s. The Gremlins program has as a goal to launch groups of drones or gremlins from large aircraft such as bombers or transport aircraft, as well as from fighters and other small, fixed-wing platforms while those planes are out of range of adversary defenses. When the gremlins complete their mission, a C-130 transport aircraft would retrieve them in the air and carry them home, where ground crews would prepare them for their next use within 24 hours, DARPA said.

Wall-E lives
Reuters/ David Mercado

Wall-E lives

A replica of Wall-E character built by a Bolivian student Esteban Quispe, 17, is seen near a rubbish dump in Patacamaya, south of La Paz. Quispe built the Wall-E robot using materials he obtained from a rubbish dump in the town located in the Andean highland region. He hopes to mechanize agriculture in Patacamaya by making use of robots that operate on solar energy.

Weird wings

Weird wings

A complex aircraft called the Preliminary Research Aerodynamic Design to Lower Drag, or Prandtl-D, is seen in a NASA picture during a test flight at Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, Calif. Resembling a boomerang, the aircraft features a new method for determining the shape of the wing with a twist that could lead to an 11-percent reduction in fuel consumption, according to NASA. In this photograph, the Prandtl-D No. 2, which had a 12.5-foot wingspan, lands following a flight test.

Not really a drone
Reuters/Edgar Su

Not really a drone

Zheng Xiaowen sits in the Snowstorm, a personal flying machine built by a group of engineering students of the National University of Singapore (NUS), as team members discuss in NUS gymnasium in Singapore. The prototype, a collaboration between the Engineering faculty's Design-Centric Program and the University Scholars Program, sports 24 motors each driving a propeller of 76cm in diameter and can bear the load of a single person up to 70kg for a flight time of about five minutes. The flight control system provides automated flight controls similar to Unmanned Aerial Vehicles as well as manual control by the pilot.

Mystery arrest?
Reuters

Mystery arrest?

Australian Federal Police officers search the home of probable creator of cryptocurrency bitcoin Craig Steven Wright in Sydney's north shore. Australian Federal Police raided the Sydney home on Wednesday of the man named by Wired magazine as the probable creator of cryptocurrency bitcoin, a Reuters witness said. The property is registered under the Australian electoral role to Wright, whom Wired outed as the likely real identity of Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonymous figure that first released bitcoin's code in 2009.

Your qubit or mine?
Reuters/ Stephen Lam

Your qubit or mine?

A D-Wave 2X quantum computer is pictured during a media tour of the Quantum Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (QuAIL) at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif. Housed inside the NASA Advanced Supercomputing (NAS) facility, the 1,097-qubit system is the largest quantum annealer in the world and a joint collaboration between NASA, Google, and the Universities Space Research Association.

Energy trees
Reuters/ Stephane Mahe

Energy trees

Two "wind trees," a renewable energy innovation, are pictured at the sunset during the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21) at Le Bourget, near Paris, France.

Jetpack
REUTERS/Bobby Y

Jetpack

A Martin Jetpack made by New Zealand-based Martin Aircraft flies in the air as it is remote-controlled by a pilot on the ground during a demonstration at a water park in Shenzhen, China. Kuang Chi Science, a Hong Kong-listed Chinese company and investor of Martin Aircraft, will sell the flying machine in mainland China for $249,902.

Solar power everywhere
Reuters/ Ashraf Mohammad Mohammad Alamra

Solar power everywhere

A man speaks on the phone as he walks past solar panels at the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park in Dubai. Dubai will spend billions of dollars on generating clean energy, the government said on Saturday, aiming to have solar panels installed on the roofs of all buildings by 2030. The fast-growing desert city state of 2.4 million, located in one of the hottest regions of the world, uses huge amounts of energy to air-condition its skyscrapers and provide water supplies through desalination. The Dubai government will encourage building owners to place solar panels on their roofs and link them to a network of the local power utility, Dubai's ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum said in a statement. All Dubai buildings would have solar cells by 2030.

telescope
Reuters

One big dish

A 500-metre (1,640-foot) aperture spherical telescope (FAST) is seen under construction among the mountains in Pingtang county, Guizhou province, China. The telescope, which will be the largest in the world, will be put in use by September 2016.

I can hear you
Reuters/ David W Cerny

I can hear you

Workers test a newly developed through-wall radar Retwis at a plant in Pardubice, Czech Republic. According to the company, the Retwis is a portable radar that can detect and display the exact position of living beings from behind walls or under rubble, as well as track their movements in real time and even capture micro-movements such as breathing.

Robocycle
Reuters/Issei Kato

Robocycle

Yamaha Motor displays the company's prototype model of a motorcycle riding robot 'MOTOBOT Ver. 1' at the 44th Tokyo Motor Show in Tokyo. Japanese motorcycle manufacturer Yamaha Motor showcased an autonomous "robot motorcycle" at the motor show, where visitors stopped in their tracks to get a photo of the blue, sleek robot sitting on an equally sleek sports bike. The humanoid robot called 'MOTOBOT Ver. 1' can analyze its location and route through a global positioning system (GPS) via satellite. It can travel as fast as 120 kilometers per hour (75 miles), and has two small protracted assist wheels either side to help keep its balance when riding at slower speeds of around 5 kilometers per hour.

The year of Marty McFly
Reuters/ Lucy Nicholson

The year of Marty McFly

Toby Fulp, 38, holds an iPhone as he stands dressed as a character from the film "Back to the Future Part II" outside the Burger King featured in the movie, in Los Angeles, on Oct. 21, 2015This marks the day that the movie's main character, Marty McFly, travelled to the future in the 1989 "Back to the Future" sequel.

Boom!
NASA

Boom!

The barred spiral galaxy NGC 4639 is seen in an undated image taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. NGC 4639 lies over 70 million light-years away in the constellation of Virgo and is one of about 1,500 galaxies that make up the Virgo Cluster. NGC 4639 also conceals a massive black hole that is consuming the surrounding gas, according to NASA.

flight simulator Birdly
Reuters/Arnd Wiegmann

I can see my house from here

A visitor tries the flight simulator Birdly at the exhibition "Animated Wonderworlds" at Museum fuer Gestaltung (Museum for Design) in Zurich. Birdly simulates the flight of a red kite over New York City, controlled by the entire body of the user. The flight simulator was developed by scientists at Zurich University of the Arts.

Big Blue does quantum

Big Blue does quantum

IBM recently got a multi-year grant from the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) to build key components of what it calls a universal quantum computer. You may recall that IARPA operates as part of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Big Blue award was granted under the auspices of the group’s Logical Qubits (LogiQ) program, which is looking to develop technologies that overcome the limitations of current quantum systems by building a logical qubit from a number of imperfect physical qubits.

Radar = Lidar
Shutterstock

Radar = Lidar

Under a new program called Modular Optical Aperture Building Blocks (MOABB), researchers at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency want to build extremely small light detection and ranging (LIDAR) systems -- which use light to image objects and their motions like RADAR systems use radio waves -- to enable a host of new applications that would let high-tech systems “see” as they never have before.

Tesla goes driverless…sorta
Reuters/ Beck Diefenbach

Tesla goes driverless ... sort of

From the IDG New Service: The most futuristic consumer technology to appear in commercially available products this year slipped in as an over-the-air software upgrade to Tesla Model S sedans: Autopilot functions that let the cars maintain distances from other cars, change lanes and park themselves. Within weeks of the October upgrade, a million cars had the features installed and Tesla rushed to limit some of the controls after drivers posted what CEO Elon Musk called "crazy" videos showing drivers taking their hands off the wheel. While the Teslas are not fully autonomous, they break ground in a market chased by Google and Apple as well as automakers, introducing a technology that will fundamentally change transportation.

Wacky moons

Wacky moons

As if Pluto and its moons weren’t unique enough, scientists at the SETI Institute say if tiny Hydra were spinning much faster its surface would fly off. The fact that most of Pluto’s moons -- Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra -- are spinning wildly anyway is an anomaly. So when NASA’s New Horizon’s space probe got close enough to make some observations about the spin rates of Pluto’s known satellites, what was found surprised a few folks. One moon, Nix, is tilted on its axis and spinning backwards. The outermost moon, Hydra, is spinning like a top, rotating 89 times every time it circles the dwarf planet. “If Hydra were spinning much faster, material would fly off its surface due to the centrifugal force,” NASA said.

ICARUS drone
Reuters

Can you see me now?

Engineers at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency envision the disappearing drones as ideal for a number of missions, including the delivery of humanitarian or military aid to people or military personnel in rough terrain or hard-to reach-places. The program aimed at developing these drones is called the Inbound, Controlled, Air-Releasable, Unrecoverable Systems -- or ICARUS. DARPA’s description of ICARUS drone requirements includes this requirement: "[The plane must] fully vanish within four hours of payload delivery or within 30 minutes of morning civil twilight (assuming a night drop), whichever is earlier."

water on Mars

Red water

NASA in September said that liquid water flows intermittently on Mars -- a significant finding in the decades-long search for life and for possible human use on future trips to the red planet. The water flow evidence was spotted by researchers from Georgia Tech employing NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), a 4,800-pound spacecraft that has been taking pictures and measurements of Mars since 2006. In this case, using an imaging spectrometer researchers detected signatures of hydrated minerals on slopes where mysterious dark streaks are seen on the red planet in dozens of locations.

Drone swims with the fishes

Drone swims with the fishes

The U.S. Naval Research Lab is developing an unmanned aircraft that can fly, land in the water, and swim like a fish. The Navy calls its flying/swimmer FLIMMER and says it is a combination airplane/submarine that at first flies to a location, then lands on the water and submerges. After that it can swim like a fish.

Vacuum tubes rise from the dead

Vacuum tubes rise from the dead

The notion of vacuum electronics may sound ancient in high-tech terms, but a new program from the scientists at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency aims to transform the widely-used equipment into the next century. A new program called Vacuum Electronic Science and Technology, or INVEST, looks to build systems that support higher operation RF signals that are “louder” and thereby harder to jam and otherwise interfere with. DARPA says higher frequency operation brings with it vast swaths of previously unavailable spectrum which opens the way to more versatile communication, data transmission, and other capabilities that will be beneficial in both military and civilian environments.

Grid to get cyberguards

Grid to get cyberguards

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is looking to bolster the nation’s grid defenses with a system called Rapid Attack Detection, Isolation, and Characterization (RADICS) that will detect and automatically respond to cyber-attacks on U.S. critical infrastructure. DARPA is interested specifically in early warning of impending attacks, situation awareness, network isolation, and threat characterization in response to a widespread and persistent cyber-attack on the power grid and its dependent systems.

Sonic boom returns

Sonic boom returns

There could be supersonic private passenger flights by 2023 if Airbus and Aerion have their way. The two companies in November expanded their existing partnership and detailed the results of their research: the AS2, a 170-foot long needle-shaped, three-engine jet capable of hitting speeds over 1,200 mps, which is about Mach 1.5. The idea is to test fly the jet by 2021 -- which can handle about 12 passengers -- and have it in service by 2023.

Emoji rejoice

Emoji rejoice

From the IDG New Service: Sixteen years after they first appeared on cellphone screens, the Oxford English Dictionary this year named an emoji as its word of the year. The tears of joy symbol 😂 won out for its common usage -- accounting for nearly one fifth of all emoji characters used in the United Kingdom and United States. But few people know that emojis were created by NTT DoCoMo in 1999 for its I-mode service, and many still exist that refer to Japanese food, culture, society, and holidays.

Pluto

Smile!

This NASA photo of Pluto was made from four images from New Horizons' Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) combined with color data from the Ralph instrument in this enhanced color global view released on July 24, 2015. The images, taken when the spacecraft was 280,000 miles (450,000 kilometers) away, show features as small as 1.4 miles (2.2 kilometers).