E&T news weekly #30 – we choose our favourite engineering and technology news stories from the week

Friday December 12 2014 

Tereza PultarovaTereza Pultarova, online news reporter
Construction of first large solar farm in Pakistan gets under way

With some 3,000 sunshine hours each year, Pakistan has an enormous potential for renewable energy generation. That potential, however, has so far been largely untapped, mostly due to the complicated economic and political situation in the region. It’s great to see things may be slowly changing (at least in the solar energy generation area). The first large scale solar power plant, the Quaid-e-Azam Solar Park, has received a shipment of 100MW-worth of solar panels and is well on track to be plugged into the underpowered Pakistani grid.

Raspberry Pi goes to space to teach kids spacecraft coding

What else would one expect from the enormously successful credit card sized computer designed to teach kids coding skills than aiming for stars. Less than three years in the market, Raspberry Pi has already sold four million units. Now its creators introduced a space extension allowing students to run experiments at the International Space Station and are already dreaming of sending the smart unit on an interstellar journey.

Rebecca NorthfieldRebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
Crowd-funding campaign to make ‘rain on request’

There are plenty of places that spring to mind when you think of drought. It is understood that California needs the water for farmland etc, but will they starve if they don’t meet the season’s quota for cereals? Also, there’s a Pacific storm headed their way that will be a fantastic help with the state of the land. The Florida-based ‘Rain on Request’ said that it could help prevent environmental disasters, reduce famine and improve the economic situation in many of the world’s countries struggling with lack of fresh water resources. Why not use the money raised and head straight for those in desperate need, instead of testing it somewhere where people can buy bottled water when they’re thirsty?

Photodetectors for better control of artificial limbs

Scottish researchers could have found a way to help amputees gain better control their prosthetic limbs. Amputees can often have a tough time adjusting to their changed bodies. When you add a prosthetic limb into the mix, it can get even harder. However, if they can now get better control, and the prosthesis is lightweight, it means that the wearer is much more comfortable, and can avoid obstacles that prosthetics often cause, like pain or discomfort after prolonged use. The researchers used light to detect muscle contractions, not needles, so it’s non-invasive and the device is assembled as a flexible bandage. The natural movement of the prosthetic limbs comes from the sensor, which can distinguish between different kinds of contraction. It’s simply awesome.

Aasha BodhaniAasha Bodhani, assistant technology features editor
Nokia opens security centre in Berlin

Security experts predict mobile malware is going to be a big problem in 2015; already 2014 saw two million unique mobile malware samples, and other threats including eavesdropping and web session hijacking according to TrendMicro. With this in mind, Nokia has opened a research hub, Nokia Security Centre, in Berlin to combat such issues by carrying out compressive network testing and providing solutions.

Raspberry Pi goes to space to teach kids spacecraft coding

The UK Space Agency and Raspberry Pi Foundation announced its plans to send two Raspberry Pi computers into Space with astronaut Tim Peake. The competition, Astro Pi, involves primary and secondary school children to write code for space experiments; however it is also part of a bigger plan to encourage children from a young age to take an interest in coding and engineering.

dominic-lentonDominic Lenton, managing editor
Ralph Baer, ‘the father of video games’, dies at 92

Nowadays we talk about the ‘lean forward’ experience of interacting with your television; when Ralph Baer came up with the idea of using the screen in the corner of the living room to play games on in the 1960s doing anything other than sitting back and passively enjoying whatever broadcasters threw at you it was a novel idea. One thing that’s true of what’s become a massive industry though is that whatever this year’s must have console is, and however sophisticated the games, you can be sure that in a ten or twenty years’ time it’ll all look as primitive and quaint as the seminal Pong does to us today.

Instant purchases on virtual storefronts in New York

Impulse shopping gets even easier with PowaTag, a mobile device app that lets users buy straight from a display. In a trial running until the end of the year, passengers in New York taxis will be able to order clothes from menswear brand 2(X)IST by just pointing their phone at a video playing in the back of their cab. I just hope it’s secure enough that tired and emotional partygoers catching up with social media on their smartphone on the way home at night don’t find a few days later that they’ve accidentally ordered a whole new outfit.

Jonathan WilsonJonathan Wilson, online managing editor
Emotions expressed online measurable by new software

Software designed to measure the array of emotions that people express online has been developed by Belfast-based technology start-up Adoreboard. The software can detect up to 24 specific emotions such as admiration, rage and terror (the three primary emotional drivers for most Daily Mail web content), with over 60,000 news and blog sources used, including social media platforms, to narrow down online behavioural patterns. Dr Fergal Monaghan, Adoreboard’s chief technology officer, said: “We are taking the emotional pulse of the online world in the same way people communicate in everyday life.” Having read countless forum discussion threads that quickly degenerated in to childish name-calling, your correspondent became convinced a long time ago that people are just as aggressive, unreasonable and misanthropic online as they are in the real world. With the benefit of virtual anonymity, possibly even more so.

Radars to prevent drone-aircraft collisions already in testing

It was revealed this week that a small drone was spotted flying dangerously close to a passenger Airbus near Heathrow airport in July this year – the first known near miss between a passenger jet and a drone in the UK. Having escaped the air-traffic control radars, the small unmanned aircraft was only noticed by a pilot of the Airbus when flying at 700 feet, sparking calls for stricter regulations for the booming drone technology. However, radars capable of detecting common unmanned aerial systems that can be purchased by hobbyists are already in testing. Speaking to E&T, Plextek Consulting, which specialises in defence technology, said that it has already been trialling local airspace monitoring radars for defence applications capable of keeping track of small drones up to a distance of 20km. This news may be of little solace to the woman accidentally hit in the face by a mistletoe-toting drone in a TGI Friday’s in Brooklyn, USA, recently, although the management of that particular restaurant chain would do well to catch up on drone tracking technology.

Vitali VitalievVitali Vitaliev, features editor
Instant purchases on virtual storefronts in New York

This latest technological addition to the mounting Christmas shopping frenzy will hopefully help to avoid, or at least to minimise, the shameful ‘Black Friday’ scenes when some UK shoppers were literally at each other’s throats trying to get to the front of the queue. This year so far appears to have beaten all previous in the sheer power of bargain-hunters’ zeal, and technology is partly to blame for this; the latest I heard was that, in the run-up to Christmas, one now has to register online first to gain physical access to some superstores of Milton Keyes, and that the respective website are often overloaded with traffic. Allegedly, it may take a long time to register as a potential shopper. The outcome is rather gruesome (to me at least it is): on top of the ‘normal’ Black Friday crowds, we now have online shopping queues too. The only difference is that one cannot possibly inflict any physical harm on a fellow would-be shopper. Happy Christmas, everyone!

Laura OnitaLaura Onita, online news reporter
Young Woman Engineer of the Year winner announced

Ever since the IET revealed earlier this year that only 6 per cent of engineers are women, the dreadful figure has been a talking point. Events like the Young Woman Engineer of the Year Awards – where 28-year-old software engineer Naomi Mitchison snatched the prize, are more of what we ought to be doing to make sure that the engineering industry doesn’t remain heavily male populated. Mitchison told E&T: “Engineering is just an umbrella term for so many things and people are cutting up the option of understanding what it is. Having the role models is one part of it, but a lot of it is changing the perception of society as a whole.”

Internet of Things network launched nationwide

In France local authorities are putting in place monitors that check when bins are full, thus cutting 40 per cent of their waste collection costs and avoiding overflowing bins. Clever, right? Similar initiatives might find their way to the UK sooner than we think since this week an Internet of Things network launched nationwide making it simple and affordable for cities to connect millions of devices. Bring on the smart apps!

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