When the Space Shuttle Discovery made its final flight, piggybacking on a modified 747 for one leg of its final journey home, the craft gave us a parting glimpse of the one among many of the century’s great mechanical marvels. Watching this explained why thousands of students spent their evening pouring over material from top online master degree programs, all seeking to engineer the next Discovery. With about two and a half million moving parts, as NASA information reminds us, Discovery was one of the most complex machines ever built. In order to fly into space and back 39 times, it had to be.

The space program is famous for its improvised solutions, and a whole generation of engineers have taken note. “Innovation lives between a rock and a hard place,” Harvard graduate Jessica Matthews told the Huffington Post. Matthews is one of a new wave of inventor-entrepreneurs who have turned designers’ dreams into working creations. Here are just a few other bits of science fiction that are now mechanical feats:

  • Bionic limbs. Robotic arms or legs are getting ever smarter about guessing what the wearer needs them to do, and some are coming close to actually reading your mind.
  • Guided bullets. AWired article describes a four-inch sniper bullet that can change its own course 30 times a second.
  • Robot planes. Drones have moved from the realm of hobbyists to the front lines of military and law enforcement, and even full-size jetliners have autopilots that can fly and even land the planes themselves.
  • Computers that understand you. Voice recognition was another futuristic blueprint, and now the technology accessible to anyone with a…
  • Smartphones. They’re already so plentiful that they can be overlooked, but the amount of computing power many people have in their pocket used to fill warehouses of silicon and plastic.
  • Electric soccer balls. That’s the idea that Matthews turned into a global sensation. The ball turns kinetic energy from being kicked around the court into light, so that kids can practice after dark in power-starved parts of the world.
  • The Segway. The product that launched a thousand jokes is also quietly revolutionizing urban transportation. Our cities are only getting more crowded, and whoever finds an efficient way to navigate them is bound to find a niche.
  • Augmented reality. Computers have become advanced enough to move the heads-up display from the fighter cockpit to your smartphone — and, maybe soon, to your glasses. This is one of those tools that will make information easier to find and interact with than ever.

Some of these innovations came from major research institutions with massive budgets, building on generations of development. Others are the product of a few entrepreneurs with a clever idea. And all of them are changing the world.

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