E&T news weekly #39 – we choose our favourite engineering and technology news stories from the week

Friday February 27 2015

Jonathan Wilson Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
Robotic nurse bear to take over demanding healthcare tasks

Cuddly healthcare robots have been in the news this week, just as they have been in cinemas lately. In the Disney animated film Big Hero 6, the friendly humanoid robot Baymax is designed to diagnose medical conditions and also act as an empathetic companion to soothe convalescing patients. Back in the real world, as life imitates art, Japanese engineers have developed a robotic bear that can assist and potentially even replace nurses in hospitals by helping immobile or otherwise movement-impaired patients. Created by a team from Japan’s largest research institute RIKEN and a private company Sumitomo Riko, the robotic creature can lift and transport patients in its arms or support those less stable on their feet.

Robotic cat to help treat dementia

Taking the idea of cuddly robots a fluffier step further, researchers at Mälardalen University in Sweden have created the JustoCat, a furry companion for dementia patients. Expected to appear in Sweden’s mental care facilities soon, the robocat is designed to evoke positive recollections people may have associated with spending time with felines in the past, thus unblocking the access to seemingly forgotten memories. The JustoCat aims to harness the positive effects that animal companions demonstrably have on ill people, whilst avoiding the associated maintenance costs and possible allergy issues. JustoCat follows in the footsteps (flipper-steps?) of Paro, the robotic seal.

Lorna Sharpe Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
EU plan to merge member states’ energy markets

This is a really important proposal that hasn’t attracted as much attention as I would expect. The European Commission has put forward plans “to complete the single energy market” through an Energy Union, in which every member state would have to be able to export at least 10 per cent of its generated electricity via interconnectors. The gas market is covered too, with strategies to assist countries that depend on a single external supplier for gas imports (and are therefore vulnerable to technical or political disruptions). Energy efficiency is to be treated ‘as an energy source in its own right’, which looks sensible to me, and there is talk of promoting EU leadership in low-carbon technologies and electromobility. Of course, the commission’s proposals are just a starting point. The final policy might look very different by the time it has been chewed over by the Parliament and the Council of Ministers. Even then, implementing a single market can come up against the stumbling block of national interests (the rail freight market is a case in point here). But with a general election looming in the UK, and the prospect of a referendum on EU membership being one of the key differentiators between the parties, we really ought to be paying attention.

World’s first 3D-printed jet engine unveiled

Engineers at Australia’s Monash University have achieved a remarkable breakthrough by building a jet engine using 3D printing – and we’re not just talking about a display model here. They say they will test-fly a prototype within a year. Australia’s geographical position means it’s never likely to be a major mass-market exporter, so it makes sense to compete through innovation and advanced technology instead, and the country has some of the most advanced facilities in the world for 3D printing of metals. Global aerospace giants including Boeing, Airbus, Raytheon and Safran have all been involved in the jet-engine project.

Alex Kalinaukas Alex Kalinauckas, assistant features editor
Formula E selects new powertrain manufacturers

The news that eight manufacturers have been chosen to build the Formula E powertrains for the series’ second season is a great boost for the all-electric motor racing championship. Six of the existing teams (Renault, through e.DAMS-Renault, ABT Sportsline, Andretti, Mahindra, Venturi Automobiles and Virgin Racing Engineering) will construct their own components, alongside newcomers Motomatica and NEXTEV TCR. But there was a slight disappointment that Renault was the only major automotive manufacturer to expand its involvement while BMW, a Formula E partner, and Audi, involved with the ABT team, stayed away.

Expansion of night-time services confirmed for London Tube

I’ve chosen this for the purely selfish reason that an expanded 24 hour tube in the capital will make it easier for me to get home after a night on the tiles. For years I’ve been frustrated that London lagged behind other great cities such as New York, which has run 24 hour train services for years. Fingers crossed the services won’t be all be completely made up of vomiting drunks and raucous revellers (although I somewhat suspect it will), but at least it means no more relying on night buses or scurrilous cab companies to get home safely when a little worse for wear.

dominic-lenton Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Start-ups tap into smart parking technology

Whether it’s the seaside in summer or a pre-Christmas shopping trip, hassle finding a parking space can ruin even the best planned day out when public transport isn’t an option. Great news then that several embryonic tech companies are developing services which act as brokerages between people who have private spaces they’re not using and drivers who need somewhere to leave their car. Build them into a driverless vehicle and – in theory at least – you can leave the whole process of reaching your destination and parking to your vehicle.

Labour leader attempts to win over engineers

Ed Miliband and his advisors have been paying to attention to perennial reports of the harm the shortage of engineers is doing to the UK economy. You wouldn’t expect him to tell an audience of engineers anything other than how much his party values the sector and pledge to tackle the situation. Specifically, they’d like as many 18 year olds to start apprenticeships as go into higher education. Is this one of the touchstone issues that will persuade engineers who to vote for in this year’s general election? Keep an eye on our website where we’ll be tracking what the parties are saying in the run up to polling day.

Rebecca Northfield Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
Robotic cat to help treat dementia

Inspiration from nature strikes again. I love is how simple this concept is. The robotic cat behaves like the real thing, all in order to keep old folks with dementia happy. The furry friend doesn’t need feeding and looking after, and is supposed to evoke positive recollections from people, as well as calming them down; the robotic kitty actually looks after you. The positive effects an animal can have on a person with mental health issues are extraordinary. One of my family members suffers from bipolar disorder and adopted a dog from a shelter on doctor’s orders, and he is the happiest he has ever been. Using animals – alive or robotic – as a way of helping people who cannot help themselves is a lovely and effective idea.

Robotic nurse bear to take over demanding healthcare tasks

This is the cutest heavy-duty robot I have ever seen. Developed by Japanese engineers, the ROBEAR takes the pressure off healthcare staff by lifting, transporting and supporting patients who are immobile or unsteady on their feet. I hope they bring the ROBEAR to the UK, so I can give this big guy a hug. And then make him lift me somewhere, so I can giggle like a little girl getting looked after by a Care Bear.

Tereza Pultarova Tereza Pultarova, online news reporter
Whisky waste biofuel plant proposed for Scotland

What a great idea, and what better place to start a whisky waste biofuel business than Scotland. Once all the oil reserves dwindle away the country’s trademark product may be powering its cars as well.

Robotic cat to help treat dementia

Will you get a robotic cat that doesn’t need to eat, isn’t moody, doesn’t produce any waste and can be replaced with an identical unit in the case of ‘death’? Or would you rather get a real cat, perhaps an abandoned one from a shelter? Do robotic pets herald the end for real furry companions?

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