13 Terrifying Tools Engineers Use Every Day

October 28, 2013

Engineers aim to be badasses. And with the variety of dangerous, deadly and unpredictable devices available for them to use, there are plenty of opportunities to horrify onlookers during a typical day’s work. Here are 13 examples.

13. High Voltage Switchgear.

high voltage switchgear

Those dangerous-looking matrices of towers, frames, pylons and wires you see while driving through less desirable parts of town are used to control the flow of city electricity, allowing circuits to be isolated and maintenance to be conducted. These high-voltage switching stations, which today are largely automated, can accommodate over one million volts of electricity. You may have been assuming that, should automation prove unreliable, this would be enough to flash-broil the typical electrical line technician. Your assumption would be correct.

12. The Caterpillar 797F Haul Truck.

caterpillar 797F

(Image credit: Motorstown)

Like many earth-moving machines, this strikingly huge dumper is used extensively in the mining industry where ordinary digging activities are endeavored to be replicated on the scale of Roman deities. With its four thousand hp engine, 1.4 million-pound gross operating weight, and 400-ton payload capacity, the CAT 797F requires seven forward gears to reach its top speed of 42 mph. Anything standing it its way becomes something additional to be mined out of the ground. The human-squashing power of a Mazda Miata traveling at 10 mph is enough to do the trick – after all, humans are not biologically equipped to survive encounters with wheeled vehicles. When one stops to contemplate the unfathomable force of a cement-filled two-story building rolling forward at lazy freeway speeds, one may wonder, can I still run while wetting myself?

11. Humanoid Crash Test Dummies.

crash test dummies

(Image credit: HowStuffWorks)

They are formally called Anthropomorphic Test Devices (ATDs), and their relationship with their sentient, impressionable counterparts has been sweetened by ’90s commercials in which Vince and Larry trade casual banter before being dismembered. This playful relationship between humans and their plastic and polyurethane replicas continued with toys — otherwise healthy Americans delighted in watching 1:12-scale action figures drive crushable toy cars, get into grisly wrecks and have body parts pop off at impact. Despite this infatuation, however, the reality of arranging these life-size figures into life-like poses inside life-size vehicles to be sent to their imaginary but clinically informative doom is morbid, no matter what Tyco says.

10. BigDog Robots.

BigDog robot

(Image credit: Boston Dynamics)

As a rule, robots are already creepy because they imitate humans, but are much more powerful and precise. Similarly, dogs are fast, agile and unpredictable. Even though the combination of these two entities seems to have resulted in a harmless, radio-controlled pack mule that doesn’t mind being kicked by guys in fatigues, one wonders when its digital rage instincts will overcome its passive wiring and make it gut its operator or tear a limb off of an analyst. Imagining packs of autonomous robo-Cujos roaming through quiet neighborhoods, creating dens in scrap yards and birthing litters of ravenous LittleDog pups sort of makes one want to start carrying a mace can loaded with rust-inducing seawater.

9. The TALON Robot

Talon MTRS

The function of QinetiQ North America’s rugged, track-driven bot is noble: The TALON line of robots retrieves and disposes of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), acts as soldiers’ eyes, ears and hands in scenarios where human eyes, ears and hands would be at risk, and performs other public-serving tasks that involve the handling of dangerous chemicals, contaminants and explosives. Weighing between 115 and 156 lbs and containing a versatile array of sensors, they are built to climb rubble, survive concussive bursts and even fire ammunition. Their marketing materials describe one situation in which a TALON bot followed a suicide bomber into a building and survived both the explosion and the collapse of the building. It seems designed for an apocalypse. Which is why if you see one, you should be utterly terrified, because it means you are near something very dangerous. Our advice is to get behind it and run the opposite direction.

8. The Bagger 293 Bucket-Wheel Excavator.

bagger 293

At 30 stories tall and weighing 14,200 metric tons, the passing motorist might mistake this machine for the buzz saw that will slice the planet in half. Part of a line of massive excavators built by the German manufacturer TAKRAF, Bagger 293 drives on a set of tracks at a top speed of 4 mph and is currently the largest land vehicle ever built. Fortunately for our earthly habitat, it is not armed with a ferris-wheel-sized blade, but with a bucket wheel designed to move 8.5 million cubic feet of earth each day. Today it is confined to an open-pit mine near Hambach, Germany, where it harmlessly mines lignite. Still, a simple retrofit would bring about the precise situation discussed previously, making Bagger 293 something to be watched closely.

7. Supercomputers.

Chemnitzer Linux Cluster (CLIC)

The irrational threat here is similar to that of robots, in that anything mightier than human is inherently scary. What makes a supercomputer scary is mostly the fact that researchers keep endeavoring to reverse-engineer the human brain, to greater and greater success. IBM’s Blue Gene supercomputer was used to partially simulate a human cerebral cortex, and another attempt led to the simulation of a rat’s entire brain. In Physics of the Future, theoretical physicist Michio Kaku discusses creating robot brains equipped with switches that shut off at the presence of murderous thoughts, something not far from the realm of possibility. Not to point out the obvious, but does such a technology not prevent the terminator from going back in time to kill Miles Dyson and rescue us from the inevitable human/machine war? Just saying.

6. Jet Engines.

Pratt & Whitney turbofan engine

Your basic jet engine, another thing humans should technically not be messing with, presents a wealth of opportunities for accidental self-destruction. Both ends are bad news, with a 900-degree C blowtorch on one end and an 885-ft/s vacuum on the other. Should you successfully attach it to an aircraft, making any piloting mistake can result in a swift, fiery and highly publicized death. Nothing more need be said on this matter.

5. Deepwater Oil Drilling Platforms.

deepwater oil drilling platform

About the only thing less pleasant than being near an oil rig that has blown out and caught fire is probably being stuck between one of them and a 2.3 mile-deep expanse of frigid ocean water. The fact that oil rigs have a reputation for two things – spilling thousands of gallons of crude oil into fish habitats and catching fire – should by no means subtract from the fact that they can also explode due to gas leaks, capsize in storms, sink, and be raided by pirates or terrorists. Round trip ticket, please.

4. Hydrofluoric Acid.

hydrofluoric acid

(Image credit: TradersCity)

Hydrofluoric acid is a liquid much like water, and it can be spilled like water. Unlike water, though, hydrofluoric acid can melt your face. According to the CDC, even a small splash of concentrated HF can be fatal due to the acid’s rapid absorption rate and lack of immediate effects, with serious burns sometimes taking 12 to 24 hours to appear. Your worst enemies do not deserve this fate.

3. Spy Satellites.

spy satellite

As of last week, there are 1,071 satellites orbiting the planet, and an unknown percentage of them are watching you at any given moment. Technically, if you are not a military target, chances are these are not actual spy satellites, but there are still more than enough eyes up there to make nude sunbathing a pastime for a more innocent era. Fortunately there are ways to be aware of this intrusive surveillance, but unfortunately there will always be Google Earth and its casual observers. Back in the pool house.

2. Nuclear Reactors.

nuclear reactor

The benefits of nuclear power make quite a long list: a lack of airborne emissions, lower environmental impact than other forms of energy, and cheaper power than most alternative electricity sources. However, nuclear reactors get their power by splitting atoms and releasing enormous amounts of energy, and this presents risks. For one, radiation is no friend of the common human, and despite many layers of carefully planned defense against escaping radiation, humans run nuclear reactor defense mechanisms. Though the chances of a problem are very small, there is that little bit. And when that little bit happens, there is SL-1, Chernobyl and Fukushima.

1. Mind Control Devices.


(Image credit: Backyard Brains)

A team of  researchers has figured out how to control the movements of cockroaches by using pulses of electricity to “steer” them the way reins steer a horse. They’ve also placed this functionality into an app that allows convenient control from your smartphone. Pending a few revisions, the technology will be available commercially. Run.