E&T news weekly #37 – we choose our favourite engineering and technology news stories from the week

Friday February 13 2015

Vitali Vitaliev  Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
Driverless cars hit the road in the UK

More on driverless cars which, reportedly, have just been given the green light in Greenwich, Bristol, Coventry, and – of all places – Milton Keynes, where it is already next to impossible to find a parking spot for a ‘normal’ ‘driver-full’ car. Talking about lights – green and other – I heard on the news yesterday that the new ‘self-driven’ (let’s call them that for a change) cars would have problems recognising temporary traffic lights (as well as police cars and police sirens), which brings us back to Milton Keynes – the town, where, according to my observations, at least a dozen major road works and road closures (with resulting temporary traffic lights) happen at any given time. Having appraised all of the above, my wife and I took a firm decision to do our next Christmas shopping (for which we would normally drive to Milton Keynes) in Cambridge, where they will only be testing Amazon delivery drones but, thankfully, not the driverless cars. Just to be on the safe side, you know, for the risk of being hit on the head with a book (unless of course it is a Shorter Oxford Dictionary, or, say, a Wiring Regulations folio), accidentally dropped by a drone, looks bleak in comparison with a head-on collision. Incidentally, in case you were put off by my freshly invented neologism ‘driver-full cars’, I did it deliberately to underline the paradoxical (from my point of view) nature of the term ‘driverless car’. We’ll have to wait and see whether it will be absorbed by the language of Shakespeare. Incidentally, the Lutz pod on the photo that appears with our story looks a bit scary, don’t you think?

Manufacturers to replace people with robots, study predicts

The singularity point is coming closer. An ardent supporter of technological progress and far from a Luddite, I nevertheless feel sorry for all those human workers (in China and elsewhere) who will be soon replaced by machines. But I can understand the rationale of the manufacturers too: robots do not go on strike, get sick, fall in love (and get depressed as a result) or hold trade union meetings. Or do they? Having just seen Ex Machina, I am no longer sure. I would make it compulsory for all factory managers who are thinking of replacing their human workforce with machines to watch this fascinating movie before they start signing redundancy packages.

Jonathan Wilson  Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
IBM’s artificial brain to power Japan’s companion robot

In the same month that the latest Disney animated film Big 6 hits cinemas, about an empathetic robot created as a companion for humans, comes a news story about – you guessed it – an empathetic robot created as a companion for humans. Pepper, developed by French robotics company Aldebaran and Japan’s mobile phone operator Softbank, will go on sale in Japan in the next weeks, and very cute he is too.

‘Kill switches’ reduce smartphone theft

An encouraging statistic for forgetful or careless smartphone owners, with the news that according to authorities in London, New York and San Francisco, the number of iPhones reported stolen decreased by between 25 and 50 per cent in the twelve months after September 2013, when Apple introduced the ‘kill switch’ into its devices. Similar disabling technology has also been introduced to both the Google and Microsoft mobile operating systems.

dominic-lenton  Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Free train wi-fi for UK passengers

I hope the Government will forgive rail travellers if they’re a little underwhelmed by the prospect of free wi-fi on UK trains. The £50m project may be funded from fines for missing punctuality targets, so we’re at least seeing some compensation for disrupted journeys, but how about making being able to sit down during your journey a standard feature? Being able to catch up with some work on the way in to the office every morning isn’t that appealing when you’re always standing squashed in an aisle with several fellow commuters looking over your shoulder at what you’re doing.

Solar panels could save Network Rail up to £150m

Also on the railways, consultancy WSP Global reckons that setting up solar panels alongside half of the length of Britain’s track it could provide a generation capacity of 2.44GW, or half of what is currently used to power the country’s trains. Sounds good, but what about services that run after dark, or in the winter? And how does the energy get from one part of the country to another? Innovative thinking, but let’s see what the engineers who would have to put it into practice make of it.

Tereza Pultarova  Tereza Pultarova, online news reporter
MPs allow national park fracking

No fracking in natural parks! Energy minister Amber Rudd promised just a couple of weeks ago. Well, don’t get excited too quickly. There is NO fracking in national parks, and then there is no fracking in national parks, but right next to and quite well underneath. I guess it always depends on your point of view.

NHS to trial cancer breath test device

If there is something desperately needed for engineering wizards to address then it’s certainly lung cancer diagnostics (and any other cancer by the way). The dreadful disease frequently goes unnoticed until it’s too late – because of cumbersome diagnostic methods. A simple lab on a chip breath test in your GP’s office would allow screening the population for the earliest signs – an exciting development already being tested in some hospitals.

Laura Onita  Laura Onita, online news reporter
Driverless cars hit the road in the UK

The Government has backed this week the testing of driverless cars on public roads and unveiled the first self-driving vehicles at Greenwich in South London. The ‘Lutz pod’, somewhat resembling a Smart car in size and shape, but with a more futuristic look, can seat two people and is designed to work on pavements and pedestrianized areas. The Ministry of Transport said Britain should be at the forefront of “this exciting new development” and from where I stand we’re on the right track to foster a considerable part of what is expected to be a £900bn industry by 2020.

Solar storm forecasting satellite launched

After a bumpy start with a couple of postponed lift-offs, the DSCOVR satellite was deployed into space to replace a 17-year-old satellite to monitor potentially dangerous solar storms. DSCOVR will observe and provide advance warning of extreme emissions from the sun which can affect power grids, communications systems, and satellites close to Earth. Up, up and away!

Rebecca Northfield  Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
Free train wi-fi for UK passengers

Free wi-fi is nothing short of genius. As a person who lives in the sticks, any signal – whether it is 3G or E – in my area, is a miracle. When travelling to work on the train, nothing irritates me more than having absolutely no way of communicating with the outside world, especially when you’re in the middle of responding to an urgent email and your signal cuts completely. I feel that the free wi-fi will especially help the early commuters, often grumpy from the constant delays, to be a little less peeved at the inconsistent times. At least they can browse Facebook or eBay to curb the boredom. Bring on 2017.

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