E&T news weekly #42 – we choose our favourite engineering and technology news stories from the week

Friday March 20 2015

Lorna Sharpe  Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
Harvesting solar power in space one step closer

Japanese engineering firm Mitsubishi has successfully transmitted a 10kW beam across a distance of 500 metres. While that’s a very small step towards the company’s stated target of harvesting solar energy from space, it’s actually a pretty remarkable achievement in its own right and one that must surely lead to some terrestrial applications. It will be worth watching progress on this.

Carbon nanotube membranes to ‘take over’ water purification

The world’s population is growing, and as lifestyles improve we all use a lot more water than our forebears did, both directly and indirectly. That puts pressure on freshwater supplies. Researchers at the University of Malaya believe that carbon nanotube membranes could become a cost-effective way to desalinate seawater to address the problem. There’s still a lot of work to be done before CNT membranes offer a viable solution, but in the same week we’ve seen a team at Caltech announcing a cheaper way to produce graphene, the base material for CNTs. All in all, the signs are hopeful.

Aasha Bodhani  Aasha Bodhani, industry features editor
Toilet turns waste into drinking water and energy

Sustainability has been taken to a new level as British researchers have designed a low-cost toilet capable of turning human waste into drinkable water and energy for people in developing countries. The nano-membrane, which separates the water molecules from solid waste and other substances, is key to the transformation, along with replacing the flush system to a ‘sweep’ mechanism, which means once separate the waste is transformed into energy. Would you drink the recycled water?

Bluetooth wristband to alert disabled bus travellers when to get off

Seventeen year-old Daria Buszta has developed a vibrating Bluetooth wristband to help improve bus journeys for the sight and hearing impaired. It has been revealed two-thirds of commuters with these impairments have missed their destination stop and also have difficulty with the on-board announcements. Approving of the idea, Baroness Kramer describes the prototype as ‘discreet, cost-effective and has a huge potential’. Winning £1,000 for her entry, Buszta will now work with local businesses to develop her prototype.

Jonathan Wilson  Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
Nintendo’s first smartphone game to launch this year

Two old-school technology giants made the news this week with announcements near-inevitable in the face of a rapidly evolving tech landscape. Firstly, Nintendo president Satoru Iwata has said the company is finally planning to release its first smartphone game in 2015, after teaming up with Japanese games firm DeNA in a deal that saw each party acquire a share in the other’s business. With Nintendo’s Wii U facing intense competition from Microsoft’s Xbox One and Sony’s Playstation PS4 in the console market and with gaming increasingly going mobile, moving away from hardware consoles and on to tablets and smartphone apps, Super Mario’s appearance on an iPhone seems long overdue.

Microsoft to shelve Internet Explorer in re-branding

Elsewhere, Microsoft has announced that it will be dropping its long-established web browser Internet Explorer from the forthcoming Windows 10 operating system, replacing it with an as-yet-unnamed successor, currently labouring under the monicker Project Spartan (insert joke about a lack of useful features here). No one’s favourite web browser, Internet Explorer – or IE, to its (few) friends – has been part of Windows since 1995, around the time Microsoft started unfairly using its corporate weight and dubious competitive advantage tactics to crush rival web browser Netscape Navigator, which actually was the majority of people’s favourite web browser at the time. 20 years later, it will be interesting to see how a Project Spartan web browser fares in a world of Mozilla Foundation’s Firefox, Google’s Chrome and Apple’s Safari.

dominic-lenton  Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Microsoft Band on sale days after Apple Watch pre-orders begin

Unlike the Apple Watch, which will only pair with fellow Apple products, Microsoft’s latest foray into wearable technology plays nicely with iOS and Android as well as Windows devices. Is anyone going to pair their iPhone up with one? The strategy MS hopes will make that happen is to put fitness at the forefront with the emphasis more on health applications than text and email. Or you could just leave your gadgets at home and go for a tech-free run. What’s the worst that could happen?

Facebook’s new payment feature to attract hackers

So Facebook claims the ability to make payment with a single tap will make sending money “more convenient and secure”. Analysts reckon gathering debit and credit card data is a necessary step on the road to embedding e-commerce in the social media platform, while security experts warn of vulnerability due to the casual approach many users have to social media security. For me, TK Keanini of security firm Lancope sums it up – “This payment system is exciting and useful to everyone – including criminals.”

Dickon Ross  Dickon Ross, editor in chief
Budget 2015: key industry points

The budget wasn’t all about pensions, taxes and ISAs. Faster broadband, the Internet of Things and tidal power all got boosts form the Chancellor in case you missed them.

‘Cool’ method improves wonder properties of graphene

Caltech grows larger sheets of graphene at lower temperatures, faster.

Microsoft Band on sale days after Apple Watch pre-orders begin

Wearables are yet to find a killer application but the closest runner so far is in the health and sports arena. And that’s where Microsoft is going first with its fitness-tracking wearable out next month.

Rebecca Northfield  Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
Nintendo’s first smartphone game to launch this year

Nintendo is planning to release its first smartphone game in the coming year. I think this is good news for everyone. It would be awesome for all geeky gamers, and app users alike. In my opinion, if this goes according to plan, I reckon it will surpass Candy Crush’s user numbers big time. Who wouldn’t want Mario on their phone? They’re teaming up with DeNA, the Japanese games firm, and it’s due to launch in the autumn. Everyone is going be stuck to their phone, engaged in the Nintendo world. As a closet geek, I certainly will. But don’t tell anyone.

Tereza Pultarova  Tereza Pultarova, news reporter
Beetle cyborgs could push drones out of business

Ground-breaking technology or animal abuse? Researchers have created insect cyborgs by attaching microchips on flower beetles allowing them to send electronic impulses into the animal’s optic lobes and flight muscles. This allowed them to steer the beetles in flight, making them take off or hover. The team believes the remotely controlled insects could offer a cheaper alternative to drones – but seriously, isn’t it just a dangerous precedent of animal exploitation? Next year, we could see dogs and horses with electrodes in their heads running errands for people.

Drones to chase away birds from airports

It’s certainly not easy to be a wild animal in today’s world. Considered nuisance in places which may have been their natural territories just a few decades ago, birds will be pushed away from airports by falcon-like drones that cunningly rely on the animals’ instincts to flee from predators.

Laura Onita  Laura Onita, news reporter
Layerless 3D printing technique inspired by Terminator 2

When you think you’ve seen it all, a scene like the one in Terminator 2 when Schwarzenegger oozes into existence from a puddle of liquid metal becomes possible. US scientists designed a breakthrough technique rivalling traditional 3D printing, which ‘grows’ objects from a pool of resin in minutes instead of hours by harnessing light and oxygen.

Bluetooth wristband to alert disabled bus travellers when to get off

For people without sight or hearing it can be difficult to identify the number or destination of their bus, know where and when to get off or hear important on-board announcements. The good news is that a 17-year-old science student came up with the idea of designing a vibrating wristband that links with a driver’s ticket machine and informs a passenger when the bus approaches his or her stop. It will become a working prototype this year.

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