E&T news weekly #44 – we choose our favourite engineering and technology news stories from the week

Friday April 2 2015

Lorna Sharpe  Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
Gigantic airship launches equity crowdfunding drive to fly again

Airships might seem like a throwback to the past, but they still have potential uses, especially for carrying heavy loads to and from remote places that don’t have runways for conventional cargo planes. A year ago, when Hybrid Air Vehicles unveiled its first airship to the press in the historic hangar at Cardington, the project’s backers were talking optimistically about preparing for flight trials early in 2015. That schedule has clearly slipped a bit, but the company has secured £3.4m of government support this year, and now it is turning to crowd-funding to raise the matching private investment it needs to get HAV10 airborne.

Graphene light bulb heads for shops

Graphene was discovered at the University of Manchester 11 years ago, so it’s good to hear that the university will benefit from the material’s rapid progress from arcane research topic to commercial application. Apparently we will soon be able to buy light bulbs incorporating graphene that consume less energy than LED bulbs, offer longer lifetime and cost less to manufacture.

Rebecca Northfield  Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
Depression app created to analyse the user’s mental state

This app seems ideal for someone who suffers with depression. It’s unobtrusive, and with the many symptoms of the sometimes debilitating condition, could be a kind of guardian angel. The data gathered from the smartphone app can evaluate someone’s mental health over time rather than someone just filling out a questionnaire, which means sufferers would have to remember how they felt at the time. The app is called the LifeRhythm, and uses sensors, like the phone’s microphone and GPS, to create a detailed picture of the user’s mental state. Trials will hopefully run soon on university students, who suffer quite a bit of stress in their higher education, like being away from home.

Type 1 diabetes device is ‘step towards artificial pancreas’

Type 1 diabetic patients with insulin pumps could stop hypos in their tracks, thanks to this new diabetes device. It’s refreshing to see some progress on the Type 1 front. All I seem to see in the news is how there are leaps and bounds in the treatment of Type 2. I have a diabetic mother, who has suffered with Type 1 for over 30 years. Hypos can have horrible effects on diabetics, especially the older sufferers. When a hypo hits, my mum becomes irritable, angry, and often feels sick. It is known that hypos kill brain cells, thus repeated hypoglycaemic attacks can lead to permanent memory loss. The attacks also damage the body’s overall condition. I think this MiniMed640G device is a great thing, particularly for younger diabetics, who often have the ‘invincibility’ complex, and sometimes do not follow the rules. Diabetes is such a hassle in my mother’s life, so I’m glad something is being done to allow people to lead a freer existence.

Tereza Pultarova  Tereza Pultarova, news reporter
Depression app created to analyse the user’s mental state

With a new app developed by Connecticut University researchers, your shrink could be watching your every move – or could he really? What if you go to the gym and leave the devilish device at home or stored safely in your backpack in a dressing room – will the shrink think you are not sufficiently physically active, an obvious sign of depression? Or what if you are just notoriously forgetful? You go to work or out with friends and your device sits on your kitchen table, sending out GPS information that you are stuck at home – another ‘obvious’ sign of depression? What if you prefer to talk with your friends over a cup of coffee instead of exchanging myriads of text messages, phone calls, Facebook messages or any other social media interaction? Your shrink would think you are not social – yet another indicator of depression, according to the researchers. Let’s face it Big Brother may not get anything near a perfect picture about anyone’s mental health just by collecting smartphone data.

City with 3.5 hour winter days to host Finland’s largest solar plant

One of the northernmost cities in the world, Finnish Oulu, has announced plans to build what is set to become Finland’s largest solar power plant. Thumbs up Oulu, I applaud your renewable enthusiasm!

dominic-lenton  Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Backing fracking branded ‘political suicide’

Fracking isn’t on the list of key questions the IET is suggesting members ask candidates in the run up to the general election, but it’s an important local issue for anyone living in a constituency where exploration is possible. A Greenpeace survey found that nearly a third of people would be less likely to vote for a candidate who supports shale gas exploration, prompting the organisation to warn that backing the technology would be a bad move. This might make it a critical factor in key marginals, almost half of respondents said it won’t affect the way they vote though.

Girls ‘discouraged’ to pursue engineering by parents’ perceptions

Neither of my daughters has shown an interest in a career in engineering yet, but unlike 93 per cent of parents polled by the IET I wouldn’t hesitate to support them if they did. The disappointing figure is of course more to do with what the public think a job in the sector involves, and the salary it would attract. Good news is that 39 per cent of girls enjoy subjects at school that can lead to a career in engineering or technology. All they have to do now is persuade their parents that it’s a good alternative to hair and beauty.

Katia Moskvitch  Katia Moskvitch, technology editor
Google launches computer on a stick

So, computers are getting ever smaller – and Google has just announced plans to launch (working with Asus) a PC on a stick. Carry it around in your pocket, and when you need to check your emails or browse the web, just plug it into any TV screen – and voila: You’ve got a computer. Well, provided you have a keyboard and mouse handy, too. Dubbed the Chromebit, the computer on a stick is much cheaper than your ordinary laptop, priced at just $100. Let’s see how it works once it hits the market in mid-2015 – but with the promised spec such as an ARM Mali 760 processor, 2GB of RAM and 16GB of storage, as well as a USB port, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi capabilities, I might just opt to have the stick in my purse rather than lug around a heavy laptop in my rucksack.

Laura Onita  Laura Onita, news reporter
Big data to cut delays on construction sites

Excavation work on the new Crossrail transit line in London was halted in March after construction workers stumbled across the graves of some 3,000 skeletons under Liverpool Street and it will take archaeologists a few good months to clear the site. Scenarios like this can cause delays that in turn cost companies – or the taxpayer – money. However, Oxford-based start-up Democrata developed a new tool that will allow engineers and construction companies to tell what’s under the ground before they start digging. Bye bye, ancient burial grounds.

Graphene light bulb heads for shops

I recently bought a light bulb for one of my lamps, but I it was the wrong type, so I had to go back and get a different one, which didn’t fit either – you’re probably questioning my discerning abilities, but that’s not the point here. The third attempt was a success, but I had already spent almost £10 on light bulbs by then, so I was thrilled to hear that a new type, made of graphene, will hit the market in a few months and it will cost less than the conventional LED bulb – I’m sure you can see why. However, triviality aside, it will consume less energy and is expected to have a longer lifetime, and most importantly it uses graphene, “the wonder material” with great mechanical strength and electrical conductivity, which from the moment of discovery up until now has been put to good use.

Vitali Vitaliev  Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
Google launches computer on a stick

Google’s new computer on a stick can add a totally new meaning to that popular and somewhat cliché-ed ‘carrot-and-stick’ idiom, usually used with reference to politics. Purely for marketing purposes and to maintain the ongoing trend to name electronic goodies after berries, fruit and veggies, I would strongly advise Google developers to call their new sticky creation ‘Carrot’, or better ‘Carrot GA’ (for Google and Asus). Who knows – it might even outsell the Raspberry Pi. Bon appetit!

City with 3.5 hour winter days to host Finland’s largest solar plant

A bit of heartwarming news on the eve of an unusually chilly and drab Easter weekend. I haven’t visited Oulu, but did spend several days in Rovaniemi, another of Finland’s northernmost town, advertising itself as “the official hometown of Santa Claus”. (It was the latter whom I went to interview there on the Christmas Eve 1992 – a rather unusual journalistic assignment). Well, if Oulu, reportedly, has 3,5 hours of daylight on an average winter day, Rovaniemi has even fewer – no more than a couple of hours, as far as I can remember. And that was not actually daylight, but what the locals call “a blue moment” – a brief, and indeed bizarrely blue-ish, interlude between night and… another night. In summer of course, the Sun doesn’t set at all for several months in the area close to the Polar Circle. Oulu therefore sounds like an ideal location for a large solar plant. I hope, with time, Rovaniemi gets one too, for it is uncomfortable for Santa’s numerous elves to write their Christmas greetings to all the good kids of the world in semi-darkness. As they say, fiat lux – let there be light!

Jonathan Wilson  Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
Alan Blumlein, pioneer of stereo sound, honoured at Abbey Road

It was a pleasure to attend the celebration of the life and work of Alan Dower Blumlein at Abbey Road Studios for the unveiling of the IEEE plaque that officially recognises his work. As your correspondent is both an amateur recording enthusiast and a lifelong devoted Beatles fan, standing in Studio 2 where all the Beatles music was made in the 1960s, and surrounded by the vintage equipment that Blumlein designed 30 years earlier in his pursuit of stereophonic capture and reproduction, it was genuinely an occasion to savour. Blumlein’s work in the audio realm has stood the test of time and become more than a standard: it is simply the way things get done, the natural order of things. One of the most telling comments at the unveiling came when one of the presenters pointed out that if Alan Blumlein were to walk into Abbey Road Studios today, much of what he saw, the type of equipment and recording techniques being employed, would still be familiar to him. That is the ultimate testament to the legacy of his brilliant mind and groundbreaking work over 80 years ago.

Aasha Bodhani  Aasha Bodhani, industry features editor
Biometric paint ‘changes colour to reflect mood’

HMG Paints claimed this week to have developed a biometric paint which can ‘change’ colour to reflect eight different ranges of mood and emotion a person may express. The electrostatic paint, which can show anger, stress, happiness and even hungry, just happened to be announced on the first of April.

Depression app created to analyse the user’s mental state

Unlike the paint, a behavioural app has been developed to monitor a person’s mental state and to detect signs of depression. The LifeRhythm app can gather data from the sensors, microphone and GPS from the users smartphone, plus any calls and messages the user has engaged in. The researchers hope the app could help in diagnosing those with depression at an early stage.

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