E&T news weekly #47 – we choose our favourite engineering and technology news stories from the week

Friday April 24 2015

Lorna Sharpe  Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
Japan’s maglev train breaks world speed record again

Japan’s newest magnetically levitated train has just achieved a new top speed of 603km/h (375mph) in a test run. I’ve been following progress of the chuo shinkansen ever since I first heard of the project, so it’s satisfying to see that it’s progressing well. Trials like this don’t just generate good publicity; they also ensure that the trains will be running well within their capabilities at normal in-service operating speeds.

‘Ghost’ railway station uncovered in London

Going from the future railway to the past, I’m well aware that this story may not interest the many E&T readers who don’t have London connections, but I grew up there and I’ve always liked history so I was delighted to read that engineers have uncovered the ticket hall and platforms of a station last used a century ago.

Rebecca Northfield  Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
Humanoid robot can read facial expressions and interact with people

Nope. Just nope. This is brilliant, but horrendous. It’s one more step towards the Terminator/Do Androids Dream/Matrix future. Han, the humanoid robot, is able to recognise and interact with a person who is in front of it. Han can react through the controller’s commands on a mobile phone, and due to patterned recognition software and cameras in its eyes and chest, can identify someone’s eyes, maintain eye contact and read human facial expressions. The creepiest thing of all, it can respond to your expressions with its own. Han can also answer simple questions and can be used in situations like hotel desks or museums. Hansons Robotics will be commercialising their female robot Eva, which will be going into production this year. Make sure you don’t look it in the eye.

‘Ghost’ railway station uncovered in London

Engineers recently uncovered a ‘ghost’ station that was closed 100 years ago. The Southwark Park station was only used for 13 years before it was closed, and the engineers, who are part of a £6.5bn rail project, found its ticket hall and platforms. They are currently working up the roof space of the ticket hall to fill in old sky lights, and the stretch of viaduct will be replaced by ramps. The only thing that will remain from the old station will be the booking hall. Several stations like Southwark Park closed because of trams, buses, and WW1. I would like to see some ghosts in the new developments. Perhaps they’ll get rid of the arch after that. That would be a shame. I like some good old ghost stories.

Tereza Pultarova  Tereza Pultarova, news reporter
SpaceX gets espresso maker to ISS for astronaut Cristoforetti

Italians are famous for their delicious espresso; no surprise then that Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti has been dissatisfied with the instant coffee only available at the International Space Station. But she’s dissatisfied no more as the first espresso-making machine has been delivered to the orbital outpost. As ordinary as coffee making may be on Earth, in zero-gravity conditions it may present unexpected challenges.

Project Fi smart mobile network launched by Google

Google’s latest ambitious venture aims to revolutionise mobile communications. The Project Fi virtual mobile network can not only smoothly switch between available mobile networks, always choosing the best performing one, it can also switch between mobile networks and free WiFi hotpots to offer the most cost effective connectivity. As part of the project, Google also explores the concept of cloud-based phone numbers to allow users to use their phone number from another device if they forget their phone at home.

dominic-lenton  Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Last-minute rush sees 460k register to vote in 24h

One in the eye for Russell Brand and anyone else encouraging some kind of boycott of the impending election as nearly half a million people, most of them aged under 35, went online to register to vote. The changes we’ve seen in the internet since 2010 mean it’s going to be used for campaigning and reporting in many new ways; at the end of the day though, it’s getting as many people as possible to engage in the process that is the web’s biggest achievement.

Japan’s maglev train breaks world speed record again

While HS2 remains one of the big election issues in areas that would be affected by the construction of a new rail line between London and the Midlands, Japan is getting on with making one of the world’s most advanced train services even faster. Latest breakthrough came this week as a magnetic levitation train topped 600km/h in a test run, smashing its own world speed record. Operator JR Central is talking about a service that would cover the 286km route between Tokyo and Nagoya in just 40 minutes, with some of the £67bn cost justified by potential sales of similar systems to other countries. Any chance of seeing maglev trains coasting into Birmingham this century?

Laura Onita  Laura Onita, news reporter
Invisible UV inks devised to help detect counterfeits

The level of sophistication that goes into counterfeits has made it almost impossible to spot a fake without close inspection, so the news that we might soon benefit from invisible inks to tell what’s authentic and what’s not is a relief. Scientists in the US have invented difficult-to-reproduce fluorescent inks to allow consumers to snap a photo with their smartphones to identify products that are often fake. The inks could be printed as either barcodes or QR codes on anything from banknotes to luxury items such as cosmetics or handbags.

Japan’s maglev train breaks world speed record again

Well, 603kmh is undoubtedly fast and with test runs going well it’s no surprise Japans’ high-speed rails services are one of the most advanced in the world. The maglev surpassed its previous record of 582kmh set 12 years ago and right now there aren’t other trains in sight to topple the world record. Maybe that’s why the government is looking to sell the bullet train systems overseas in a bid to strengthen the Japanese economy through infrastructure exports.

Aasha Bodhani  Aasha Bodhani, industry features editor
Mountains of e-waste worth £35bn hit global peak

Mobile phones, calculators and washing machines are just a few of the electronics which contributed to 2014’s global high of e-waste and experts predict a 21 per cent increase in 2018. A report, by the UN University explains e-waste not only contains gold, silver, plastic and iron, but also large amounts of health threatening hazardous toxins.

UK car industry productivity hits all-time high

Car manufacturing is on a high as figures show 144,893 cars were built in March, a record high since March 2006. The demand for newer and more diverse cars seems to have played a part in this increase, along with an adoption of newer technologies, such as collaborative robots.

Alex Kalinaukas  Alex Kalinauckas, assistant features editor
Japan’s maglev train breaks world speed record again

I often find myself going absolutely nowhere on trains. Not for fun, I should add, but because the railway network is slow, expensive and shambolic at best and downright infuriating, overpriced and suspended at its worst. Perhaps we need to be looking to Japan’s record breaking maglev train for inspiration. I wouldn’t mind paying exorbitant rail fares to travel at 602kph but I do object to ticket prices going up year-on-year with no apparent benefit to passengers. Don’t even get me started on London’s Central line.

Last-minute rush sees 460k register to vote in 24h

While I am glad to see that almost 470,000 people registered to vote in the final 24 hours before the deadline for the UK general election, I do find myself despairing that they had not done so already. After all voting, particularly amongst the younger people this online system was designed to attract, is vital if they are ever going to see any benefit from whichever party (or coalition) emerges triumphant from May’s poll. The reason politicians pander to the older generations is because they vote in huge numbers. If young people want to properly represented and helped by the government they need to vote. Manifesto over.

Vitali Vitaliev  Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
Bee population decline caused by changing landscape

A few years ago E&T reported on a rather amazing new technology – using honeybees to detect explosives during security checks at airports. As far as I can remember, it was the bees’ keen sense of smell that allowed them to react to even the tiniest amounts of drugs or explosive substances by emitting a special hormone which, if detected, would activate an alarm. Since then I’ve been watching airport security officers closely (not too closely – I don’t want to arouse suspicions of suspicious behaviour) during my frequent travels, but have so far failed to spot any bees, or devices with bees, at the checkpoints. Well, now I know why: it must have been not so much due to the fact that the technology failed to take off, but rather because of the shortage of bees! Indeed, I forgot when I saw an ordinary honeybee, as opposed to some fluffy, noisy and still ubiquitous bumble bee (my son used to call them “humble bees” when a toddler) and equally noisy and ubiquitous wasps, whose usefulness to humankind is limited to pollinating some flowers, in my backyard. Yet, with the continuing shortage of bees in our gardens and airports, security officers may have to resort to using wasps instead. Not sure if the latter are capable of detecting dangerous substances, but they can at least give a potential terrorist or a drug mule a rather painful, albeit not at all lethal, sting.

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