E&T news weekly #50 – we choose our favourite engineering and technology news stories from the week

Friday May 15 2015

Jonathan Wilson  Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
Dangerous drone flyers should face jail, survey suggests

Lock ’em all up! Yes, the British public has spoken and according to a survey by the British Airline Pilots’ Association, cavalier operators of drones who play fast and loose with the concept of airspace safety, putting passenger jets at risk, should be jailed. Fair enough, really. Given how cheaply drones can be picked up and the big-boys toys fun to be had with flying one, if you’re that way inclined, making a nuisance of yourself with your snazzy new radio-controlled UFO, the appeal of buzzing people, places and planes is always going to be too strong for some to resist. Not to mention those operators with more sinister intent. As quickly as drones have risen in the public consciousness, there is going to have to be an equally rapid suppression in terms of legislation designed to inhibit their unrestricted use.

Nasa’s sci-fi concepts to change future of space exploration

For Nasa, considering anything as pedestrian as a drone is so last year. The space agency is instead looking to the realms of the fantastical in its quest to boldly go where no man has gone before. Curtains that revitalise the air inside spaceships or an eel-like robot that harvests energy from surrounding magnetic fields as it explores other planets are just two of the 15 out-of-this-world proposals selected for its Innovative Advanced Concepts programme. Each of the concepts will receive $100,000 for a phase 1 study.

dominic-lenton  Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Google admits it had 11 self-driving car accidents

Everyone considers themselves a pretty safe driver – it’s always the other idiots on the road who are the cause of all the accidents. I feel pretty justified in taking this stance because in a couple of decades on the road the only mishap I’ve been involved in was when a lorry went into the back of me while I was stationary at traffic lights. Google’s claiming to have achieved a similar level of safety for its driverless vehicles, saying that the incidents they’ve been involved in during a million miles of test journeys were all the fault of human road users. The question remains though – if you find you’ve rear-ended a car with no driver, who do you get out and discuss insurance details with?

Robotic pets set to replace real furry friends in the future

I don’t dislike animals, it’s just that given the choice I wouldn’t give free board and lodging to the various creatures the rest of my family feel the need to have around. So the idea of robot pets that don’t need feeding or cleaning up after sounds like a good compromise. Until I realise that instead of trips to the vet there would be inevitable journeys to expensive dealerships for routine maintenance and repairs, with an added level of emotional blackmail that just doesn’t exist with your car.

Rebecca Northfield  Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
Octopus-inspired robot arm to revolutionise keyhole surgery

Inspiration from nature takes the spotlight again. A soft robotic arm that simulates the tentacles of an octopus could be a new lead in improving the safety of surgery. Invented by Italian scientists, it can flex, twist and stretch to adapt to the patient’s insides just like an octopus would if it was rummaging around in there. This means that doctors could safely navigate through body bits without damaging the patient so much that it requires intervention. It also has the bonus factor of changing its condition, from soft to stiff, meaning that things like tumours can be removed with more ease. For example, one ‘tentacle’ can move organs away from the area, whilst another ‘tentacle’ can perform the surgery, switching to rigid mode. They used water balloons instead of organs to test it. Best. Operation. Ever.

Artificial pancreas at risk of being hacked

US researchers have realised there is a pretty big problem with artificial pancreases controlled by mobile phone devices. Seeing as there’s a thing called hacking, and you can hack onto mobile phones, you can hack onto someone’s pancreas and mess them about. It could put patients’ lives at risk, according to the Cybersecurity in Artificial Pancreas Experiments study warned. Like the name didn’t give it away. It would be weird if someone pretty much controlled your body. Like a robot. Let another freak out about the vulnerability of the human race begin!

Laura Onita  Laura Onita, online news reporter
US House votes to end NSA bulk collection of phone data

The end to NSA’s bulk data collection of American’s phone records may be in sight after the US House of Representatives has overwhelmingly voted against it with 338-to-88 this week, but don’t hold your breath. The House bill must pass the Senate, where its fate is much less certain and many key lawmakers seem to oppose it. Also, a similar bill died in the Senate in November last year after an up-or-down vote on it was blocked with a filibuster.

Google admits it had 11 self-driving car accidents

I’m sorry, but 11 accidents in six years over 2.8 million kilometres travelled is not that bad, and dare I say good news for driverless cars? Yes, the details of the collisions haven’t been made public, but we would’ve known if something sordid had happened. Google said its cars were never the cause of an accident and the ones they were indeed involved in were minor with “light damage, no injuries”. I’d much rather know how driverless cars behave on the road than just guess, so if takes a few scratches and bumps so be it.

Alex Kalinaukas  Alex Kalinauckas, assistant features editor
US House votes to end NSA bulk collection of phone data

A victory for privacy at last as the US House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to back the USA Freedom Act to stop the bulk collection of phone and internet data. Hopefully the bill won’t be torpedoed when it reaches the Senate, later this year…

Robotic pets set to replace real furry friends in the future

No, sorry, this is not going to happen. Robots will never replace real pets – you just have to look at the outrage and campaigning on behalf of any species on the verge of extinction to realise people won’t let animals die just to replace them with robots – they also really love their furry companions. Rather than funding such a pointless endeavour, surely that finance could be better used organising a system where the seemingly endless amount of food thrown away by developed nations is redistributed to countries where it’s desperately needed? A silly idea, I know…

Aasha Bodhani  Aasha Bodhani, industry features editor
Robotic pets set to replace real furry friends in the future

Could robotic pets soon replace real animals for human companionship? According to Jean-Loup Rault, the answer is yes. As the world becomes overpopulated, this could be the case for the next generation, but Rault also explains this is happening now. Since the birth of the Tamagotchi in Japan, people are attached to their robot dogs and even hold funerals for them when the circuits die.

Artificial pancreas at risk of being hacked

The Internet of Things era we now live in means cyber threats are increasing, especially in the healthcare sector. A study has warned that modernised health devices are prone to targeted attacks, which in return puts patients’ lives at risk. The study also reveals how artificial pancreas systems are subject to threats due to software and malware vulnerabilities.

Katia Moskvitch  Katia Moskvitch, technology editor
World’s first 3D printed photosynthetic wearable revealed

First we printed in 2D and only on paper; then we started 3D printing various parts and tools, and now there are even attempts to print human organs. Well, designer Neri Oxman, who works at the MIT Media Lab, decided to combine 3D printing, live microorganisms and art – and created the first-ever 3D-printed photosynthetic wearable artwork housing live bacteria, inspired by the human digestive system. This “wearable microbial factory” looks like human innards – and it glows. It has been designed to house live microorganisms like E.Coli and cyanobacteria, capable of converting sunlight to energy. Exposed to light, the cyanobacteria create sugar via photosynthesis, which E.coli then consume to produce flashing proteins, hence the glow. Dubbed Mushtari, the piece certainly draws one’s attention, although I can’t think of anybody who would wear it for real. But then, Lady Gaga did wear a steak gown and Bjork had her swan dress designed with real swan feathers, so why not?

Vitali Vitaliev  Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
World’s first 3D printed photosynthetic wearable revealed

Next Turner Prize seems to be guaranteed for this “photosynthetic” work of conceptual art. Move over, Damien Hirst, whose pickled cow starts looking bleak and shallow in comparison to this brazenly intestinal “wearable”. My only question is: which part of the body is one supposed to wear it on? On one’s tummy, most probably – exposed and visible to everyone… I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want to find myself next to a wearer of this “wearable” in a restaurant or in a pub.

Artificial pancreas at risk of being hacked

When I had two metallic stents installed in my long-suffering smoke-saturated arteries seven years ago (just to keep them open, you know), my main worry was that I would now start beeping every time I go through security controls at an airport. That, however, has not happened: the amount of metal inside my bod is probably insufficient to activate an alarm… Now I have another worry: what if my both stents, or even just one of them, get hacked by my enemies (and I have plenty remaining from my turbulent Soviet past) trying to gain control of my heart? Or maybe they have done it already without my knowledge? I think I am beginning to understand can why I am not longer moved almost to tears by a sight of a puppy or of (someone else’s) baby on a commuter train, or not in hurry to vacant my seat for an invalid. The hackers must have turned me into a cold-hearted – uncaring and indifferent – person!

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