E&T news weekly #49 – we choose our favourite engineering and technology news stories from the week

Friday May 8 2015

dominic-lenton  Dominic Lenton, managing editor
QWERTY soft keyboard miniaturised for wearable devices

Having just moved from an ageing BlackBerry handset to a smartphone with touchscreen, the single thing I miss is the BB’s chunky keypad and the ability to hammer out emails at a decent pace using both thumbs. In fact I’m getting used to being a lot more brief in my communications on the move. Reassuring news then that when I bow to the inevitable and embrace the brave new world of wearable technology there will be decent keyboards usable even on devices a couple of centimetres across. I’ll reserve judgement on how easy it is to type on something that’s about the same size as my actual finger until I’ve had a go on one though.

Drone-detecting air-traffic radar successful in trials

Every week seems to bring a new thing for nervous fliers to worry about, so it’s good to balance that with a solution to one issue that’s of increasing concern to aviation authorities. With so many people mucking around with aerial drones that are now affordable to the general public, distracting pilots is a real danger. Step up UK company Aveillant, whose holographic radar can spot unmanned pests when they’re several kilometres away, something conventional air-traffic systems can’t do. So as you descend towards your destination you can sit a little easier in your seat – until the next airborne hazard appears on the horizon.

Rebecca Northfield  Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
Spiders sprayed with graphene weave superwebs

Super spiders! Like Spider-Man, but much cooler. And factual. Using fifteen of the little critters, researchers from the University of Trente, Italy, sprayed them with a water and graphene particles solution. It turns out that a few of them had the ability to weave webs of unprecedented mechanical properties. So they’re like little superheroes. The best spiders created fibres much stronger than the best unaltered silk made by another arachnid, the giant riverine orb spider. The Italian scientists said knots could further increase toughness of the material. According to Nicola Pugno, the leading scientist in the team, the graphene enforced procedure could be applied to other animals and plants, which means we could have bionic materials, which would be stronger than synthetic, very soon. Graphene with spider silk could do awesome things in the future, like catching planes falling out of the sky. Sweet.

New self-cleaning paint could lead to stain-free future

This self-cleaning paint could be the answer for any clumsy individual like me. The cool water-resistant paint can clean itself, even when damaged or exposed to oil, and can be scratched with a knife and scuffed with sandpaper, and still look freshly painted. It’s been developed by British and Chinese researchers, and the paint can be applied to clothes, paper, glass and steel. Adhesives were added to the paint to keep it super water repellent and self-cleaning. It could mean tough, self-cleaning surfaces will be available to the public. This would be great for me, seeing as I ruin pretty much everything I own.

Jonathan Wilson  Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
Gates Foundation funds disease surveillance data network

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has announced that it will be giving $75m to a network of disease surveillance sites in Africa and Asia to gather better data about childhood mortality. The network wants to help collect better data, faster, about how, where and why children are becoming sick and dying in order to better prepare for any future potential epidemic. This data is expected to give the global heath community a clearer insight in to what the optimum intervention may be. This is an excellent example of philanthropy in action for the betterment of people in dire need of such help.

QWERTY soft keyboard miniaturised for wearable devices

In a development that might pique Bill Gates’ techno curiosity, the age of wearable technology took another modest step forward with this announcement by Spanish and German researchers, who have developed two tiny QWERTY soft keyboard prototypes that enable users to manually input text on wearable devices. Trying to write a comprehensible text to a friend on a smartwatch using a QWERTY keyboard smaller than a two pence piece sounds like an exercise in maddening frustration to me, but this is the age we live in.

Vitali Vitaliev  Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
Russia’s ‘masterpiece’ tank breaks down in parade rehearsal

I am slightly concerned by a somewhat triumphant tone of the Western media, gloating over a seemingly minor technical problem with the new Russian Armata T-14 tank. Such comments reminded me of the Pravda newspaper and other Soviet periodicals that would routinely savour any minuscule problem with Western (mostly American) defence and space initiatives. Yes, Armata T-14, manufactured by Uralvagonzavod Research and Production Corporation, did come to a halt during the annual Victory Day parade rehearsal. Yes, the new Russian tank does cost a fortune. And, yes, the country is still in the throes of an economic crisis, triggered by Western sanctions – a reaction to the continuing war in Eastern Ukraine (albeit Putin’s Russia seems to be coming out of it relatively unscathed). But let’s not forget that Armata T-14 is not just an impressive, highly innovative and hugely destructive military vehicle, equipped with an unmanned turret and a 125mm smooth bore cannon, capable of firing shells and guided missiles (some commentators believe that the new machine’s reinforced chamber and computer technology are superior to the tanks currently in service and that this tank is potentially capable of becoming the first robotic, unmanned military vehicle), but – first and foremost – a weapon of aggression. The fact that Armata T-14 is the first offensive tank, produced in Russia and the Soviet Union in the last 40 years in an obvious show of military strength in NATO’s face, should cause concern, and dismissing it on the basis of a small technical hitch during the parade rehearsal is not just unwise, but also dangerous.

Alex Kalinaukas  Alex Kalinauckas, assistant features editor
Facebook ‘I’m a voter’ button makes UK election debut

Call me a cynic (and believe me you’d be right to do so), but I don’t see how getting a few people to press a button that advertises they’ve exercised the democratic rights is going to get people out voting as social media, and Facebook in particular, is little more than a tool for people to show off. Used correctly, social media can be a great way to engage with a wide audience and I hope this works, I really do, but surely it would have been better to have been urging people to make their choice throughout the campaign and, crucially, before the voter registration closed a few weeks ago.

Parents confused by children’s use of internet slang

What I’m about to write will (quite rightly) lead to me being classed as an irrationally angry pedant, but I don’t care. Internet slang, particularly employed away from the internet, winds me up. I’m not a parent – I’m not even 24 years old – but I couldn’t tell you what “fleek” or “bae” means (actually I do know the latter after it was brought to my attention during a recent trip to the pub). “ICYMI” and “NSFW” both had to be googled – although “TBT” is pretty self-explanatory. Used on the internet, mainly in places I don’t have to see them, these terms are fine. But in text messages – come on people, it’s not 2001 any more, we don’t pay by the number of characters – or even worse, when using these terms whilst speaking out loud needs to be banned urgently for sake of the English language and my own sanity.

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