E&T news weekly #27 – we choose our favourite engineering and technology news stories from the week

Friday November 21 2014

Rebecca NorthfieldRebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
Electronic shark-repelling cable installed in South Africa

Glencairn Beach near Cape Town is trying out a new, big-fish-friendly deterrent. By using a cable fixed to the seafloor, vertical ‘risers’ supporting electrodes produce a harmless electronic field that should keep the sharks away from the bay. It’s called SharkShield (a very inventive name), created by researchers KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board. Previously, the South African coastline has been using nylon nets to repel the big guys, which on occasion is lethal to them. So it’s great news they’re taking the sharks into account and using more fish-friendly methods.

Human waste powered ‘Bio-Bus’ hits the roads

Yes, you read that right. Human waste is powering a bus right now. Firstly, I had a think about how badly the exhaust fumes would smell. Reading the article, there was no mention of an odour, so I presumed it doesn’t have a rotting waste stench. The ‘Bio-bus’ runs on biomethane, the result of anaerobic digestion of waste products. The vehicle produces less emissions than a diesel engine, and is a sustainable way of fuelling our buses in the future. That is nothing but a good thing. But the smell? Is there one? Anyway, kudos for air quality.

Lorna SharpeLorna Sharpe, sub-editor
Printing electronic circuits with common T-shirt printer

Researchers in Singapore have come up with a low-cost way to create printed electronic circuits. They say they only use non-toxic organic materials, and hope their process will lead to a new wave of cheap mass-produced electronic labels. I’m less convinced, though, that ‘disposable’ and ‘green’ can easily coexist.

Scientists give LEDs a warm glow

E&T has been talking for many years about the potential use of LEDs in general lighting, but their ‘cold’ white light has been one of the things holding up development. Now scientists at Philips and Eindhoven University of Technology have come up with a way to produce a warmer white.

Jonathan WilsonJonathan Wilson, online managing editor
Gecko-inspired climbing gloves help man scale 12ft glass wall

Gloves inspired by the method used by geckos to climb walls have enabled a human to scale a 12ft vertical pane of glass. The 11-stone volunteer used sticky attachments on his hands and feet developed by Stanford University’s Biomimetics and Dexterous Manipulation Lab that exploits the electrostatic Van der Waals forces, used by the ceiling-hugging lizards, which cause neighbouring molecules to be attracted to each other. The effect of the force is multiplied by thousands of tiny hairs that cover a gecko’s toes, allowing them to stick firmly to surfaces. Using the same principle, scientists created tiny tiles called microwedges to generate Van der Waals forces and produce a dry adhesive even more efficient than the gecko’s.

Computer performs card tricks better than human magicians

An artificial intelligence system capable of outsmarting humans by pulling sophisticated card tricks has been developed by UK researchers. The team from Queen Mary University of London fed the computer with a large amount of data on how various magic and mind-reading card tricks work and how people understand them. The program subsequently created completely new variations of the tricks using complex mathematical techniques and algorithms. The main point, the researchers said, is that a human magician still can adopt these tricks and basically advance his or her craft with the help of the computer. The researchers believe the technology could be used in other, more serious applications, advancing medical technology by creating devices that couldn’t be manipulated.

dominic-lentonDominic Lenton, managing editor
Regulator demands nationwide recall of ‘risky’ airbags

If there was a suggestion that the airbags in your car, far from keeping you safer in a collision, might rupture, shooting shrapnel into the vehicle, you’d probably want to get them looked at. Worrying for US motorists then that the recall of parts alleged to have been linked to fatal incidents has been a ‘targetted’ one, limited to hot, humid areas where failure is thought to be most likely. Reassuring, perhaps, for drivers in States including Florida, Alabama and Georgia, but what about those from further north who haven’t been notified but make a long holiday trip to warmer climes?

Intel launches gold-coated ‘smart jewellery’ bracelet

If the consumer tech industry has anything to do with it, Santa’s sleigh will be laden with wearable electronics this Christmas. That includes jewellery and Intel has launched a smart bracelet known as MICA – or My Intelligent Communication Accessory – that delivers text messages, Gmail notifications and the like. Designed, according to Intel, for “today’s modern woman”, it even boasts a ‘Time to Go’ feature that uses satnav to give the wearer a prod (or “intelligent reminder”) when they need to leave if they’re going to have time to get to their next appointment.

Vitali VitalievVitali Vitaliev, features editor
Password warning as hackers access thousands of webcams

The key sentence in this news story is the final one, stating that a hacking website displaying the contents of stolen CCTV cameras footage would be illegal in the UK, or almost anywhere else, but not in Russia. There is a good Russian word to describe the general situation with legality (and that includes online regulations) in present-day Russia – ‘bespredel’ – which can be rendered in English as ‘lawlessness’, but with much stronger underworld connotations. In actual fact, that word has – literally – escaped from a prison (that is, from Russian criminal jargon) to become a ‘respected’ part of the country’s literary speak. Criminals’ rule, or ‘bespredel’, reigns on the Russian Internet, with countless sites that can be described as racist, anti-Semitic, sadistic and bellicose as well as those openly displaying child pornography. My Russian-born and Montreal-based son, who is an electronic security expert, often says that the web itself cannot be blamed for anything, for it only reflects the state of those who control it. The ongoing outrages of Russian hackers prove that the online ‘bespredel’ is but a reflection of  the general lawlessness in modern Russian society.

Tereza PultarovaTereza Pultarova, online news reporter
Volcanic ash detector fitted to long-haul jet

Many travellers still remember the 2010 aviation mayhem after an eruption of an Icelandic volcano grounded fleets around Europe and caused massive travel disruption. As the Icelandic volcanoes never really sleep, the aviation industry is seeking ways to prevent such a situation in the future – by enabling aircraft to detect and avoid dangerous ash clouds. The first experimental ash detector has just been installed aboard a British Airways Boeing 747 aircraft to start a one-year trial.

Password warning as hackers access thousands of webcams

If you have a CCTV camera or a webcam installed to be able to keep an eye on your property while you’re away, you’d better make sure to set up a proper security password. As revealed this week, footage from thousands of unprotected devices from around the world could be easily viewed by cunning hackers and used to tip off burglars. Maybe someone is watching you right now!

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