Connecting Ironman and engineering

By Terence Tan

It all started with a problem. How will he escape from the cave – one with menacing armed guards bent on ensuring no escape was possible?

All he has are some hand tools and scrap metal. Under the gaze of his captors, he makes an iron suit!

The way he blasts his way to freedom later is ingenious, almost incredible, but is really the clever application of knowledge to solve a problem – the very essence of engineering.

I am, of course, referring to Tony Stark a.k.a. Ironman, the most famous engineer in the comic book universe.

Comics and movies have an uncanny way of ‘showing’ the future. In the movie Minority Report, Tom Cruise uses his hands and fingers to interact with the computer, selecting and moving items on screen, zooming in and out effortlessly. When the movie was first released, people considered such technology futuristic. However, today, I use my fingers to tap SMSes on my mobile phone, view photos and make phone calls. Engineers have apparently brought the future to the present!

Now, realistically speaking, what would it take to make an Ironman suit? The latest advances in engineering could hold the answer.

Recently, I showed my students a video of multimillionaire inventor Dean Kamen showcasing his latest invention, a robotic prosthetic arm, to illustrate the immense possibilities with engineering.

In the video, an amputee who had lost both arms was able to feed himself for the first time in 19 years after being outfitted with the state-of-the-art prototype robotic arm, which was light, self-powered, precision-controlled and in many ways resembled an arm from the Terminator.

What made the story even more spectacular was the fact that a multi-disciplinary team built the working prototype in just a year. Then again, it was not all that surprising, as engineers are known for achieving the improbable.

If someone were to ask me what the most amazing piece of technology in Ironman was, I would not say the anti-tank missiles, or the artificial intelligence, or even the mini jet engines that enabled him to fly. Aside from Ironman’s superior mechanical and electronics, I think the most amazing piece of technology was his power source – the fictional arc reactor.

If it were real, that single piece of technology would bring about significant political (think Middle East), environmental (look at the ongoing oil spill disaster in the United States), economic (many industries would be transformed overnight) and societal changes (finally a reliable, clean, perpetual energy source).

Are such power sources really that far-fetched? Though it might be some time yet, perhaps not in our lifetimes, but scientists and engineers are on the road to discovering that ultimate energy source.

Dr. Nader Barsoum, a brilliant award-winning associate professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Curtin Sarawak, is one of many researchers around the world studying and developing clean energy. Dr. Nader has written numerous research papers, presented at prestigious conferences, and supervised graduate students on the subject. Indeed, he is considered an authority on clean energy and was awarded Curtin’s Best Researcher Award in 2009.

Based on Dr. Nader’s research into renewable energy (creating a hybrid energy system that harnesses solar, micro-hydro, biomass, hydrogen fuel cell and wind energy), the Malaysian Ministry of Science and Technology (MOSTI) has given him a grant to further develop his ideas.

With the work of Dr. Nader and all the other researchers around the world, I think affordable renewable energy should be in our homes within a generation.

Now, if someone were to ask me what piece of technology in Ironman would most likely become a reality in the immediate future, say, in the next five years, was, I would say a real-time personal health system.

Consider this: right now as I write this article on my computer, I know the temperature of the processor on my motherboard, the bandwidth I am using online, the amount of RAM the operating system is using and so on. I have a wealth of information about the state of my computer at my fingertips.

For car drivers, the dashboard dials provide information on engine speed and temperature and fuel level. More futuristic cars provide additional information such as fuel efficiency in litres per kilometer travelled, tyre pressure, average speed travelled and so on. Wouldn’t it be great if such a variety of information was available for our personal health?

Think of the implications of having real-time health data. Instead of going for annual health checkups to check cholesterol, blood sugar levels or blood pressure, we can have up-to-the-minute information on our physical condition every day. One does not have to have a heart attack to discover that one’s cholesterol level is shooting up and reaching dangerous levels. Our personal health system will inform us of an impending heart attack the same way our computers tell us that our hard drives are nearly full!

That is indeed the type of research that Curtin Sarawak’s senior lecturer in Electrical and Computer Engineering, Dr. Wong Kiing Ing, is doing. His latest research work involves developing a system where non-intrusive sensors can transmit information onto a watch or bracelet which can subsequently be uploaded onto a network. The network can be a home network which may contain your personal health database or a network that links to a doctor or hospital monitoring outpatients.

On 4 October 2009, the Borneo Post carried a report on third-year electrical and computer engineering student Nurul Jameela Nor Mazlan, who was on Dr. Wong’s research team and has just returned from presenting the device and its capabilities at conferences in Egypt, Austria and Ireland.

The news report stated that Dr. Wong and his student engineers had created a wireless electrocardiogram (ECG) body sensor that could detect one’s vital signs and relay the information to doctors via a mobile telephone network. Therefore, it seems the technology is already available, literally on our doorstep.

All these bring us back to the original question I posed: What would it take to make an Ironman suit? It is not technology, as some might think, for technology cannot create itself. It is the stimulated minds and imaginations of scientists, engineers and knowledge workers who create the technology.

In addition to Dr. Nader, Dr. Wong and the student engineers, there are numerous examples of such bright minds at Curtin Sarawak, all working towards advancing the fields of engineering and science.

Earlier this year, Lau Sing Ong and his fellow student engineers spent many late nights and weekends designing and building robots for in the international-level ABU Asia-Pacific Robot Contest (RoboCon). These students do what they do because they enjoy tinkering with technology, even under pressure from assignments and tests. They would seize the opportunity to learn through applying knowledge and skills they acquire in the classrooms to their projects. In such an environment, technology and learning inevitably expands.

Seeing the engineering talent of his friends in the Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) Department, fourth year student Sia Yee Yu initiated the ECE Electronics Exhibition at the university’s Recreation and Event Centre on 22 May 2010 to give ECE students the opportunity to showcase their projects to other students.

Visitors to the exhibition got to see the Curtin Sarawak Robocon team’s robot, CUTIES, in action. In addition, they experienced using their mobile phones to control a miniature mechanical arm and were dazzled by light-emitting art pieces that showed off the artistic and fun side of electronic design.

I once asked Yee Yu why he was so passionate about electronics and communications engineering and he said, “When I was in secondary school, I was exposed to electronics and it was fun to make stuff. I still find it a lot of fun.”

These are just some examples of past and ongoing projects at Curtin Sarawak. There have been numerous other interesting projects, such as the designing and building of an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle and programming of Artificial Neural Networks, which will be highlighted on a different occasion.

Tony Stark a.k.a. Ironman is merely a fictional engineer hero in the comic book universe. However, there are many real-life Tony Starks, such as those at Curtin Sarawak, who are working to create a better future for us.

So, what does Ironman have to do with engineering? Quite a lot, it seems.

Terence Tan is a lecturer in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, School of Engineering and Science, at Curtin Sarawak. He holds a MEng. degree in computing from the prestigious Imperial College London, and MSc. degree in international business economics from City University London. He started his teaching career at Curtin Sarawak in 2005 and his credentials include winning Curtin’s Excellence and Innovation in Teaching (EIT) Award in 2008 and Student Choice Award for three consecutive years from 2006 to 2008. His research interests are genetic algorithms timetable scheduling and research in education, on which he has co-authored a number of research publications and conference papers. Terence can be contacted at +60 85 443939 ext. 3833 or by e-mail to