E&T news weekly 33 – we choose our favourite engineering and technology news stories from the week

Friday January 16 2015

  Jonathan Wilson Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
Virtual guitar pedal board with A/B comparison launched

Being a keen, if largely incompetent, guitarist with a potentially expensive lust for new effects pedals, the idea of an online A/B comparison web site that allows me to pit one pedal against another is a godsend. Over 100 pedals are already online, covering overdrive, distortion, fuzz, delay, chorus, reverb and more. With the ability to audition the exact same riff recorded through the exact same signal chain as treated by the different pedals of my choosing, comparing the sonic results is surprisingly convincing. It’s saved me hundreds of pounds already!

Beagle 2 wreckage potentially identified on Mars

The (bitter)sweet science story that was Mars lander Beagle 2’s mysterious disappearance may finally have a happy ending. The British space project was largely funded by private donations and money raised by promotional campaigns led by Professor Colin Pillinger, with a mission call-sign composed by Britpop band Blur and a calibration ‘test card’ for its scientific instruments painted by Damien Hirst. However, having got to within touching distance of Mars, after hitching a lift aboard the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter, all communication was suddenly lost on Christmas Day 2003. Now, Nasa scientists have reported that they may have discovered signs of the wreckage of Beagle 2 on the surface of the Red Planet.

  Lorna Sharpe Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
Train powered by batteries to carry first passengers

Conventional wisdom in the rail industry is that diesel passenger trains have no future. Replacing the present fleets with new trains custom-built for the constraints of Britain’s infrastructure would be too costly and the fuel is predicted to become exorbitantly expensive (nobody foresaw the current oil-price slump) if not unobtainable, quite apart from the struggle to meet ever-stricter emissions standards. On the other hand, there’s no magic wand that will electrify the entire network overnight or even over a decade. Even if there was a bottomless money-pit, the supply chain of people and equipment wouldn’t be able to keep up. So what is to be done? The Independently Powered Electric Multiple Unit is an attempt to create an electric train that can serve routes which are only partly electrified, using a rechargeable battery to bridge the gaps. This first demonstration train will provide valuable information to assist that objective.

Google teams up with automakers on self-driving car

This announcement is hardly a surprise – Google was never likely to build its own automotive production line. But the Internet giant is said to be talking about bringing self-driving cars to market by 2020. Well, maybe. Personally, I very much doubt if the general public will be able to buy wholly autonomous cars (with no possibility of driver intervention) and let them loose on public roads by then. There are legal and insurance issues as well as the small matter of creating a market. If I’m wrong, feel free to remind me in 2020.

  Rebecca Northfield Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
Computers ‘know you better’ than friends

According to a recent study, future machines could become emotionally intelligent and socially skilled, all because of our Facebook ‘likes.’ Well it won’t be all down to our impulsive liking on Facebook, but researchers from Cambridge University and Stanford University had a computer analyse ‘likes’, and it turns out it could judge personalities better than friends. Apparently it’s an ‘important milestone’ in the social human-computer interaction. It’s quite scary to think that artificial intelligence can predict a Facebook user’s personality accurately if they average on 227 ‘likes’. Thank goodness I don’t like anything.

Samsung rumoured to discuss Blackberry takeover

I know the rumour is from ‘insider sources’, and the whole thing may be some strange gimmick from Blackberry to get their shares up a bit and get noticed, but I really would recommend BlackBerry doing business with Samsung. Samsung are the big bosses, and they have their fingers in a lot of pies. Maybe they should try the BlackBerry pie. Having a shake-up and bringing Samsung on board may be the best decision the fruity corporate phone company can make since their downfall.

  Aasha Bodhani Aasha Bodhani, assistant technology features editor
Samsung rumoured to discuss BlackBerry takeover

Rumours have emerged that Samsung has allegedly offered to takeover BlackBerry for $7.5 bn. Though both companies have denied the speculation, insider sources from Reuters revealed Samsung wants to become the world’s number one smartphone manufacturer, and show its presence in the corporate world. The rumours also had an impact on the price of BlackBerry’s shares, first spiking but only to fall when BlackBerry denied the negotiations.

Obama proposes enhanced cyber-security laws to fight hackers

2014 was a tough year for the US as cyber-security became one its biggest problems to tackle. However one month into the New Year, and already the US military command’s Twitter and YouTube accounts have been hacked into. These attacks have forced US President Barack Obama to set legislation to strengthen cyber-security laws, provide broader powers to investigate but also offer protection to companies.

  Alex Kalinaukas Alex Kalinauckas, assistant features editor
Honda’s new lane changing technology predicts drivers’ behaviour

While adaptive cruise-control systems have been around for a while, they only focus on maintaining a safe distance from the car in front of you and would often suffer from very abrupt braking if another driver suddenly cut in front. This new development from Honda uses a camera and radar combination with an intelligent algorithm to calculate the position of surrounding vehicles. So when an erratic driver suddenly decides to switch lanes as you’re cruising along, Honda’s new system can handle the sudden change in the situation and quickly and safely you slow down.

SpaceX’s maiden rocket-landing attempt ‘close but no cigar’

The news that SpaceX was attempting to land its Falcon 9 rocket in a controlled manner had many people excited that an easily refurbished and reusable rocket could reduce the cost of space travel dramatically. But unfortunately the 14-storey rocket descended too fast and broke apart on impact. However, SpaceX is confident it has identified the problem and found a solution– fit more hydraulic fluid – for its next attempt in February. Fingers crossed it works this time and the expected lower cost of space travel will drive development and investment in the field.

  Laura Onita Laura Onita, news reporter
Computers ‘know you better’ than friends

A study has shown that computers can rival our co-workers, friends, family and even partners when it comes to how well they know us, and all based on Facebook ‘likes’. By examining ten likes likes, the machine was a better judge of personality than a work colleague. Looking at 70 likes, the computer measured up to a friend or housemate, and it needed 150 to compete with a family member. Partners proved to be the most difficult to outperform with 300 likes. I suspect it won’t be long until computers start making decisions for us?

  dominic-lenton Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Smart shoe devices produce power from walking

Another of those unintended but potentially more useful byproducts of research into something completely different is a technique for powering wearable electronics from the energy generated as the user walks along. The German researchers responsible were originally working on a self-lacing shoe for the elderly. Now, however long you spend wandering around trying to follow directions on your smartphone’s GPS, at least the battery won’t run out.

Computing and maths tops most popular school subject list

Inter-generational conflict on the horizon as a survey finds computing and maths are the most popular school subjects with children, but their parents rate English highest. All we need to do now is convince young people that maths is the way into interesting careers in technology and the adults to stop putting them off with warnings about how difficult it is.

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