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Six of Tomorrow's Top Engineering Fields

Author: David T. Johns
January, 2013 Issue

Technological innovations that feed on each other are making the world an ever more exciting place—and it’s these same innovations that will give rise to new areas of engineering in the coming decades. Here are just a few of the sectors that are increasingly capturing the imagination.
Renewable energy. The need to reduce our dependence on unsustainable fuel sources is widely acknowledged. So as oil and gas production reduces in years to come, solar, wind and tidal power are all waiting in the wings to take their place. More exotically, there’s the potential for the development of a hydrogen economy based on the widespread use of fuel cell technology. However, this will require substantial investment in creating a nationwide hydrogen infrastructure.
Advanced manufacturing. Processes are certain to become increasingly sophisticated, requiring highly skilled and knowledgeable engineers to help create a generation of new materials, such as “self-healing composites” that will become essential components of our future planes, ships and spacecraft. This sector will also see the development of new roles such as that of the mechatronical engineer—who will bring expertise in a range of disciplines, including mechanical engineering, electronics, control engineering and computing—to the product design process.
Robotics and artificial intelligence. Robots may still seem the stuff of science fiction to many, but the field is developing quickly with some experts believing that robotics will transform many jobs in just a decade. For example, robotic arms are already being used to perform precision surgery rather than entrusting it to the human hand. In the not-too-distant future, not only will this require engineers to become skilled in robot maintenance, but they’ll also need to create innovative solutions to everyday needs, such as producing “wearable robots” (powered exoskeletons that can move large objects).
Nanotechnology. The science of the “micro-small” will be used ever more widely and on larger and larger projects, fundamentally altering the way we make things. When combined with biotechnology, information technology and cognitive science, collectively known as NBIC, countless opportunities will arise for engineers in all manner of areas. This innovative technology even offers up the possibility of reprogramming our bodies’ “software” to let us live longer—and consigning the certainty of death to the history books.
Space exploration. The heady days of moon landings may well be half a century or so behind us, but it’s only a matter of time before our exploration of space begins in earnest once more. The recent Mars lander program, which beamed back such dramatic images from the planet’s surface, will do its bit to fire up the human imagination to once more “boldly go,” again conjuring up all manner of engineering challenges.
Green engineering. Increasing focus will fall on solving our planet’s environmental issues by technological means. This will encompass finding ways to irrigate crops in arid zones, providing off-grid power in remote areas and finding innovate ways to manage climate change, such as using depleted oil reservoirs deep below ground to capture carbon.
These fields are just the tip of the engineering iceberg, and if just a few of the predictions about them come true, then in just a decade or two, the world could be a very different place.


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