What comes FIRST

E&T hears the iconoclastic engineer Dean Kamen's plans to save the world.

Dean Kamen is not happy with you. The inventor of the mobile insulin pump, the Segway Transporter, and an innovative integrated water purifier for developing countries thinks you should be working harder. He might not expect you to work quite as hard as he does - Kamen claims that he hasn't taken a holiday in 44 years - but he is calling on scientists and engineers to stand up and be counted.

"Engineers have a professional obligation to create awareness and excitement about their profession, but they haven't done very well; there's almost no problem now the scale of which is not potentially more disastrous than it was in the past, but we have fewer people capable of dealing with the problems, and fewer people capable of even understanding the issues," Kamen says. "The average kid on the street has no idea where food or clean water or electricity comes from."

But before a horde of technologists sharpen their slide-rules, fire up their Bunsen burners and descend on the brick warehouses of Deka, the design and development company in Manchester, New Hampshire that he founded and still runs, Kamen tempers his criticism: "The engineering community gets an A+ for doing its day job, for creating the stuff that everyone takes for granted. The lights are on, the planes are flying, everything is good. Most engineers would tell you, 'That's my job, that's what I do'. However, that should only be a part of what we do. We get a D for having a voice in the culture."

No one can accuse Kamen of not exercising his own voice. From intimate meetings with Presidents Clinton and Bush to high profile partnerships with some of the biggest medical and automotive companies, Kamen has been the loudest engineer in the world for decades. Who else would have the hubris to invent an entirely new sport, just to give children positive role models in engineering?

"As we become a more media-driven world, the worlds of sports and entertainment dominate where kids get heroes," says Kamen. "It's so easy to see why kids, and particularly girls and minorities, have been convinced by the time they're 12 years old that science and engineering are boring. I don't think a kid on the street could tell you the name of a living scientist or engineer. Not a single one. We can't blame them for thinking this stuff isn't exciting, because we're not out there showing them that it is. So I thought, if kids are excited by sports, let's turn science and engineering into a sport."

Robotics competition

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) began as a robotics face-off between 18 American secondary schools in 1989, and has since grown into an international competition with teams from 16,700 schools in 42 countries. "We had 84,000 engineers giving their time this year," enthuses Kamen. "FIRST has taken the sport and entertainment models. We've applied it to something that has content and made it work. In a free society, you get what you celebrate. We've got to change the attitude of kids really fast. The long-term fact is that it takes a full generation to train kids to be competent, to be smart, to be competitive."

He adds: "This should be a wake-up call to get out in public reminding people of how critically important it is that the next generation is capable of dealing with real issues."

Although best known for the tremendous hype - and surge of disappointment - surrounding the launch of his Segway electric scooter (see box above), Kamen has actually spent most of his career tackling those real, global issues. He dropped out of college to develop the world's first drug-infusion pump and soon built a thriving business creating medical devices (such as the iBot wheelchair that can stand up and climb stairs) that he spun out into separate companies or sold to multinationals.

"We gave these firms access to better technology, they gave us a sustained way to get these technologies, particularly medical technologies, to people all over the world," explains Kamen. "It was also a back door way to get technologies developed so we could go our own way and make water machines." He's referring to Deka's integrated water purifier (codenamed Slingshot), and his scalable Stirling engine, that he hopes will one day help to save lives all over the world.

The Stirling engine can generate up to 1kW of electricity using virtually any fuel source, from petrol to cow dung, while Slingshot is a rugged vapour compression distiller that can render even the foulest polluted water potable. Working in concert, the machines could provide a small village with an ample supply of fresh water and clean energy.

"We want to deliver point-of-use generation of water in a way that can be micro-financed from the bottom up by local entrepreneurs, without the need for massive civil infrastructure," says Kamen. "We create hardware that can be the solution, but also we need to create the social and economic models to deliver that hardware. Ask me right now which of those things is harder to do, and I'll say the latter. I normally partner with major corporate clients that have the marketing and distribution reach to turn a core technology into a product. But these companies don't have business models around creating products for the developing world."

"We sit here in our economic crisis, wanting to get back hundreds of billions or trillions of dollars that we never really had, but the lights are still on," observes Kamen. "Meanwhile, a couple of billion people are living on a dollar a day. If they could get up to the outrageous goal of two dollars a day - an extra dollar - they would spend it on absolutely basic things like water and electricity. And once they have those, they'll start climbing that ladder. They'll be our customers, they'll be our partners."

North dumpling island

Kamen isn't waiting for society to catch up with his vision, though. "Life is so short, I can't waste my time on things that aren't big and important," he says, before revealing where Deka might be headed next. "Over the next few decades, hundreds of applications of robotics will transform engineering. Sensor technologies, whether visual or audio or chemical, are coming on at a good clip. The tool chest that allows you to quickly create robots with the capacity to interface with the human environment is getting better at a very healthy rate."

Kamen also hints that Deka will be moving into the solar energy business: "I was at the University of Arizona recently and got a tour of some stuff they've done with various kinds of collector and transducer technologies. A lot of great technologies are going to evolve and develop, and that's a good thing. We're working on it now."

Just as Kamen used his engineers and their families to road-test the first Segways, he's now using his own private island - a three-acre retreat off the coast of New York called North Dumpling - to showcase Deka's technologies. "We have our own little Stirling engine down there for power, burning only local fuel, and we're making our own water with our water machine out of the ocean," says Kamen. The island uses a sophisticated energy management system from one of Kamen's companies that has just been bought by Philips, and is lit entirely by LEDs. "In the US, they have zero tolerance for drugs. On Dumpling, we have a zero tolerance for filaments," Kamen explains. "We're inviting some very senior people from the US policy team down to Dumpling to let them see what we're doing."

But while he courts official recognition, Kamen is too much of an individualist to put much faith in government. "There are virtually no major global issues that are going to be solved by politicians," he says, "There's never a shortage of politicians with solutions and it's always some superficial scapegoat. There's never a shortage of finance guys with some new accounting plan. Where have we heard from the people that solve the real problems and create the real wealth? The engineering community is virtually silent in this great debate."

With one notable exception, of course. If Kamen succeeds in his plans to give the world's poorest access to clean water and sustainable power, what's the betting that kids who can't name a single engineer today will know, at the very least, the name of 'that Segway guy'?

Segway segues to puma

Back in 2001, the tech world was buzzing with rumours of 'Ginger', a revolution in personal transportation that would be "as big a deal as the PC" (Steve Jobs), or perhaps even "bigger than the Internet" (Amazon venture capitalist John Doerr). Kamen himself fuelled speculation by stating that Ginger "will be to the car what the car was to the horse and buggy". Would Ginger be an antigravity belt or a fuel cell-powered hover-board? When it turned out to be a $3,000, 12mph, one-man electric scooter, albeit one packed with sophisticated gyroscopic sensors and an intuitive leaning control system, the sense of anti-climax was palpable. Kamen had invested heavily in factories capable of producing 40,000 units a month. Eight years later, the company has shipped just over 50,000 Segway Transporters in total; but the Segway story isn't over. In April, Segway and carmaker GM unveiled a prototype two-man, semi-enclosed update of the Segway called PUMA (Personal Urban Mobility and Accessibility) with top speed of 35mph and a range of up to 35 miles. This time round, Kamen is wary of hyping the new vehicle: "The idea of the original Segway was to bring advanced sophisticated technology to the pedestrian environment. How many different ways you can package that? Well, that's stuff that people beside us are good at."

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