Our 31st annual Best of What’s New list is the culmination of a year spent obsessing over, arguing about, and experiencing the newest technologies and discoveries across 10 distinct disciplines. Yes, there are eye-poppingly-bright TVs. Sure, there are video games that will suck us in for hours. And, naturally, there’s a car that, on the right road, will just drive itself.

Here, we dig deep, because some innovations don’t make a lot of noise, yet have the potential to make a real and lasting impact. A drug that blocks mind-numbing migraines or a fake egg that scrambles like the real thing are no less impressive than the fastest spacecraft ever to break free of earth’s atmosphere. Why? Because the effects of each of the feats will reverberate for years down the road.

And, while we have you, let’s all just take a moment to appreciate that this year’s collection includes a full-on jet pack.

aerospace
Gravity Industries

Aerospace

Let’s not waste any time: There’s a jet suit in this year’s Best of What’s New list, yet somehow that’s not even what we dubbed the Innovation of the Year. That honor goes to a NASA probe that is, put simply, the fastest thing ever made by humans. Its destination? A little place known as the sun. There’s no doubting the sheer epicness of this year’s top Aerospace innovations; even the more-practical offerings—a floating virtual assistant for the ISS or an extra-safe helicopter—are so awesome you’ll find yourself casually bringing them up on your next first date or company holiday party. Everybody understands how cool space is.

Parker Solar Probe by NASA

Parker Solar Probe

Innovation of the Year

Fastest spacecraft ever
NASA’s Parker Solar Probe is officially the fastest thing ever made by humans, reaching a top speed of 430,000 miles per hour as it makes its 7-year mission in the sun’s outer corona. The probe, which launched in August, will orbit our star, getting closer than any spacecraft ever has before. Despite encountering temperatures north of 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit, most of the probe’s four sensitive instrument suites will remain a cool 85 degrees. This is thanks to an eight-foot-wide, 160-pound heat shield made of carbon foam 4.5 inches thick and coated with a layer of superheated carbon. The foam is so light that, here on Earth, 97 percent of the mass was occupied by air—that doesn’t leave much solid matter for the Sun to heat, keeping the craft cool.

CIMON (Crew Interactive MObile CompanioN) by Airbus & IBM

CIMON (Crew Interactive MObile CompanioN) by Airbus & IBM

Floating AI Astronaut Assistant
On Earth, CIMON weighs 11 pounds and is a bit bigger than a basketball. In low-Earth orbit, the robot, powered by IBM’s Watson natural-language artificial intelligence, is designed to act like a space-bound personal assistant. It’s similar to Siri or Alexa, but equipped with knowledge that can help astronauts make repairs to the ISS, run the many experiments sent into space, or even talk the crew through basic medical procedures. It headed to the ISS this summer as a free-floating assistant, able to fly around the station on command with the help of 14 specialized fans. In mid-November, German astronaut Alexander Gerst successfully walked the floating assistant through its first camera-toting, voice-activated, rubix-cube-solving paces.

TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) by NASA

TESS

An all-sky exoplanet hunter up in space
Over the next two years, NASA’s TESS will monitor about 200,000 nearby stars for evidence of orbiting exoplanets. TESS is expected to find thousands of new planets, which will give astronomers a better understanding of how worlds like our own form—and how common watery, temperate, life-filled orbs like Earth might be. Compared to its predecessor, Kepler, TESS will search an area of the sky 400 times larger, and for less than half the price: just $337 million.

InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) by NASA

InSight

Mission to look inside mars
Yesterday, on November 26, a 1,340-pound parcel hurtled through the Martian atmosphere at 12,300 miles per hour. About six minutes later, when the InSight rover landed, it started the slow and careful process of setting up a fleet of scientific instruments, including a probe designed to burrow 16 feet into the planet to take its temperature. Unlike space and surface-based rovers and orbiters, InSight will give us our first good readings of Mars’s insides. Its ability to track the flow of heat from the interior of the planet toward the surface will help figure out where Mars’s volcanoes came from, and the rover’s seismometer will even measure Marsquakes and meteorite impacts.

H160 by Airbus

H160 by Airbus

Safest helicopter on the market
There isn’t much peril a helicopter pilot can get into (dangerous proximity to power lines, an unexpected gust of wind) that an Airbus H160 can’t also get them out of. The versatile helo—configurable for rugged search-and-rescue missions, VIP transport, or ferrying up to 12 passengers like oil-rig crews—uses a novel two-level rear horizontal stabilizer to minimize downdraft vibration from the main rotor, thereby improving low-speed stability, and an always-on autopilot to ensure that even the greatest airborne surprises don’t become disasters. If the pilot becomes disoriented or the craft gets tossed on its side, double tapping a single red button on the stick will automatically return it to straight and level flight.

Airbus

V-280 Valor by Bell

V-280 Valor by Bell Helicopter

Faster than a helicopter, nimbler than an airplane
The V-280 Valor can fly faster and farther than a helicopter, reaching a top speed of more than 320 miles per hour—a whole lot faster than the venerable Black Hawk’s maximum of 183. This is a new tiltrotor aircraft, meaning its propellers can pivot from horizontal to vertical, allowing it to takeoff and land vertically while still retaining the speed advantages of wings and forward-facing props. The V-280 prototype achieved first flight in December 2017, and it promises to be a smaller, lighter, and more nimble version of the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor. It’ll also be easier to fly, and less damaging to landing and takeoff surfaces: Only the Valor’s rotors will tilt skyward, not the entire engine. This protects surfaces from intense heat, and reduces the dust that can obscure a pilot’s vision.

Bell

Low Power Radar (LPR) by Raytheon

Low Power Radar (LPR) by Raytheon

Eliminating ‘under-the-radar’
For such far-out drone missions as, say, autonomous cheeseburger delivery to become reality, we’ll have to track the small, low-flying vehicles in the sky. Conventional radar coverage peters out if you dip much below 3,200 feet, which is where Raytheon’s new Low Power Radar (also known as Skyler) comes in. The compact unit—less than one-meter-square—scans for objects using a radar system similar to those used in modern fighter jets. Networks of these devices set up on cell towers, buildings, and hills will be far cheaper than the large, moving radar dishes that now scan our airspace.

Raytheon Company

Zephyr S HAPS (Solar High Altitude Pseudo-Satellite) by Airbus

Zephyr S HAPS (Solar High Altitude Pseudo-Satellite) by Airbus

A record-breaking solar-powered plane
Airbus’s Zephyr S HAPS set an all-time record on August 5, 2018, staying aloft for more than 25 days. The flight, staged in Arizona, went to 70,000 feet, comfortably above other aircraft and most clouds. Despite its 82-foot wingspan, the solar-powered UAV weighs just 165 pounds, which—along with a power-management system that focuses on maintaining battery temperatures to ensure optimal charge and discharge rates—helped it consume less overall energy. It maintained its elevation all through the night, a feat that other sun-powered planes still can’t achieve.

Zephyr Airbus

Gravity Jet Suit by Gravity Industries

Gravity Jet Suit by Gravity Industries

A Tony Stark-style jet suit
Jetpacks have come and gone over the years, usually stymied by short flight times and the sheer danger of strapping jet engines to the human body. With a design closer to Iron Man’s suit than Flash Gordon’s pack, Gravity uses a trio of precisely controllable kerosene-powered microturbines—two of the breadloaf-sized engines on each hand and one on the back—to generate a stable “tripod” of thrust totaling 1,000 horsepower. The suit carries enough fuel to fly for up to 8 minutes.

Gravity Industries

gadgets
Brian Klutch

Gadgets

In large part, the items on year’s list of the best new gadgets don’t change the world as much as they change the way we, as tech-loving super nerds, see it. This year’s Best of What’s New gadgets category includes leaps forward in both virtual and augmented reality, which were welcome reprieves from the increasingly hectic world of, well, actual reality. Other honorees help us combat common problems: Tougher glass prevents broken smartphone screens, and a sleep aid blocks noise but lets through crucial alarms. Perhaps most importantly, however, fidget spinners were officially nowhere to be seen in 2018. Rest in the clearance bin, little buddies.

Oculus Go by Facebook

Oculus Go by Facebook

Grand Award Winner

A VR headset that stands alone
Really good VR—the kind that can make your palms sweat when you stand on the edge of a virtual cliff—is hard to come by. Most people settle for lackluster experiences that rely on smartphones and suffer from blurry images and smudgy lenses. The Oculus Go is the first VR headset that can create real immersion experience all on its own, without the help of a high-end gaming PC that costs as much as your first car. The 2560-by-1440-pixel LCD actually has more pixels dedicated to each one of your eyes than the Oculus Rift. And the visor’s built-in speaker system adds to the sensory onslaught, pumping carefully timed audio that can trick your ears into thinking there’s really a zombie sneaking up behind you. Go also launched with more than 1,000 VR experiences, from peaceful meditation apps to riding impossible roller-coaster rides. The 16.5-ounce headset doesn’t feel like a phone accessory or a watered-down version of its predecessor. That’s because it’s neither. It’s a huge step in VR’s journey out of the niche gaming community and into the mainstream.

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