E&T news weekly #53 – we choose our favourite engineering and technology news stories from the week

Friday June 5 2015

Alex Kalinaukas  Alex Kalinauckas, assistant features editor
Obama passes Freedom Act to cut back bulk data collection

A victory for privacy – sort of. The Freedom Act does allow the NSA to carry on harvesting data from millions of Americans but it does at least place some restrictions, including the need for a court order to study the data, on what they can access. Can Edward Snowden come home yet? Not very likely…

Drone technology keeps BMX riders on track for gold

Another marginal gain from British Cycling. Many scoff at their innovations and mega budget, but it’s hard to argue with their medal haul in track cycling and Tour de France success with Team Sky, and now they’re turning their attention to BMX riding as well. The LED data loggers that track the riders as they progress around the track will prove very useful in training but hopefully won’t be allowed in races as rider skill should trump technology to keep competition pure.

Rebecca Northfield  Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
Tweeting seals help gather polar data

All hail the tweeting seal! They’re better with technology than most human beings. Seals with silly things on their heads recently helped researchers to achieve a comprehensive database of information about the state of polar glaciers and ice sheets in the most inaccessible bits of the world. Good news for the dogs of the sea: they won’t be stuck with the unflattering headgear forever, as when they moult the satellite tag will just drop off. The ten-year project gave researchers from the University of St Andrews a better picture of the state of the world’s oceans. The information from the seals’ tags was immediate, thus it was described like ‘tweeting’ by one of the lecturers. How modern. The small army of seals with sensors produced almost 400,000 environmental profiles. Well done seals. You gave up your beauty – and dignity – to help us. You can go back to being cute now.

Digital music turned into visuals with augmented reality

Researchers from the University of Bristol are using augmented reality displays to let audiences better understand music. Am I the only one who is thinking that’s a little bit ridiculous? Apparently, people will be able to follow digital music performances by using 3D virtual content and mixed reality displays to enhance the audience’s experience; according to the researchers, people have a tough time appreciating digital music performances. Digital instruments can play any sound you want, not that it would help these poor, helpless people. The reality display is called Rouages, and it’s designed to better the perception of musical gestures. It uses reflective transparent surfaces to show the audience the content. I don’t know if it’s for a better understanding of music. People ‘see’ music in many different ways. You listen to the music, and you can appreciate it and interpret it in your own way. Music has the ability to portray emotions, scenery, days, animals, planets, people, chairs, everything…why do we need a visual representation of what is already visceral?

Tereza Pultarova  Tereza Pultarova, news reporter
Tweeting seals help gather polar data

Some researchers have been developing robots and unmanned submarines to gather data about remote polar areas. But what if instead, they could simply recruit the original polar inhabitants, the sea mammals, for the job? In fact St Andrews University researchers together with an international team of experts did exactly that – and compiled what they say is one of the largest databases of environmental data regarding polar areas. The seals look quite cute with GPS tags on their fore-heads, a bit like sea unicorns. And the good thing is the antennas just fall of their furs when they moult.

60 years of atomic time and the future of scientific clocks

60 years ago today…, well not today but on 3 June, British physicist Louis Essen demonstrated the world’s first practical atomic clock. There may have been no fanfares then and there may not have been any now but the invention certainly changed the world and enabled a whole plethora of applications without which the world we know today wouldn’t be possible. Current caesium atomic clocks used for global time-keeping such as the one at the National Physical Laboratory won’t either lose or gain a second in more than a hundred million years. But that doesn’t deter scientific minds around the world to search for even better ways to keep time. It is thus possible that when the 70th anniversary of the caesium atomic clock comes in a decade, the technology will be replaced with another.

dominic-lenton  Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Robots fight it out in the Darpa Robotics Challenge

Without giving too much away, this month’s issue of E&T is going to mark the fact that Isaac Asimov’s famous Three Laws of Robotics made their first appearance in a story published in 1942 but set in the then distant future of 2015. Things haven’t progressed quite as quickly as science-fiction writers expected them to back in the first half of the 20th century, but some pretty impressive technology will be competing for millions of dollars in prizes in this weekend’s Darpa challenge in California. The tasks the robots are being asked to undertake don’t obviously include an ethical dimension. When machines are doing things like helping out in disaster zones though, you can see how their creators have to start thinking about that side of things. Faced with a choice of two or more people to rescue, how is a robot going to decide who gets out first?

London Met police force equipped with 20,000 body cameras

The extent to which mobile phones have put good quality video cameras in the hands of so many people has done a lot to change the dynamics of crime. Never mind the CCTV, how confident can a wrong-doer be that someone isn’t standing out of sight behind a curtain, filming what they’re up to? Sometimes though it’s the police that are on camera and we’ve seen some high-profile cases from the USA where public video has put a very different slant on the official version of what’s happened. London is pre-empting the issue by buying tens of thousands of body-worn cameras, enough for the majority of police officers to be wearing one by next year.

Laura Onita  Laura Onita, news reporter
Obama passes Freedom Act to cut back bulk data collection

The Freedom Act is probably the most significant scaling back of national security policy formed after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks. The NSA lost its authority to collect Americans’ phone records in bulk, after a reformed bill was signed into law this week by Obama. For all those quick to negate the effects of Snowden’s revelations in 2013, this move stands as proof that there’s been a paradigm shift in ubiquitous surveillance practices and Obama knew he had to compromise on spy agencies’ powers to address privacy concerns.

Large Hadron Collider restarts at higher power for season two

I’m excited about the restart of the LHC after a two-year pause; so excited I’d quite like to talk about it with Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory over lunch. During its first run the Higgs boson was discovered – the last missing piece from a theory that explains our physical world, at 8 trillion electron volts. Now the machine will run around the clock for the next three years at almost double the collision energy paving the way for the discovery of new scientific phenomena.

Lorna Sharpe  Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
Life-saving water filter wins African engineering prize

A Tanzanian chemical engineer has won the Royal Academy of Engineering’s first Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation, securing £25,000 to help commercialise his sand-based water filter and deliver safe drinking water in places where that’s still a scarce and expensive commodity. Dr Askwar Hilonga’s trademarked Nanofilter is engineered for a specific body of water to absorb contaminants such as heavy metals, pesticides, bacteria and viruses. Three runners up have each won £10,000 and eight shortlisted innovators will receive six months’ mentorship and training, so the Prize has the potential to do a great deal of good in sub-Saharan Africa.

Jonathan Wilson  Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
EU polluters could get 10 years of free carbon credits

Inevitably, money talks and big business wins, regardless of the global environmental consequences. What started out as an eminently sensible EU plan to tackle climate change and target the heaviest polluters has been diluted by the threat of economic withdrawal by those same companies, which have said they’ll simply move to a new geographical location where the climate change regime is less strict unless they’re given certain carbon credit concessions. It’s the big business equivalent of taking their ball home if no one plays the game the way they say.

‘Brainprint’ signals proposed as unique human ID

Forget having to memorise all those pesky passwords: your brain waves could offer a unique biometric key. All you have to do is think. Oh, and submit to electrodes probing your brain. Little bit awkward at the supermarket checkout counter as you verify your card payment, perhaps, but it’s ultra-secure.

Aasha Bodhani  Aasha Bodhani, industry features editor
Online security attacks cost big business at least £1.46m

With nine out of 10 large organisations suffering from an online security breach, it is not surprising the cost of these attacks reached £1.6m this year. The styles of attacks are becoming more sophisticated and whilst staff awareness measures have been put in place, organisations still need a defence plan. The Information Security Breaches Survey 2015 also revealed organisations were keen to protect customer data and its reputation.

Apple recalls Beats Pill speakers due to fire risk

Batteries have a bad rep, either the power is limited or they are too bulky in size. To add to the list of cons, Apple has recalled the Beats Pill XL due to the batteries overheating, leading to a possible fire hazard. This is the second time Apple has had to recall one of its products; in 2011 the company had to recall its first generation iPad Nano. Apple has asked customers to return the speakers for a refund.

Vitali Vitaliev  Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
UK surveillance laws challenged by MPs in court

I don’t often talk about it, but this news item brought back some rather painful memories from my last months in the Soviet Union, when as a dissident investigative reporter  I found myself under round the clock (or 24/7 as we say now) surveillance by the KGB. Their “K” measures (that was the code name for the surveillance, conducted in the open, without camouflage to apply psychological pressure to the “object”, i.e. me) were not limited to having a burly agent (or “toptun”, “the one who tramples”) underneath my 1st-floor Moscow flat windows at all times. All my mail was intercepted, steam-opened and forwarded on to me concertina-shaped. The phone conversations of myself and my wife were brutally interrupted with threats and swear words. Those were all aimed at throwing me off balance, making me lose my sang-froid and start playing by THEIR rules. The psychological effect they had on myself and my family (my elder son was just 9 years old then) was truly devastating, but instead of succumbing to the pressure, we chose to defect. The fact that the harassment was conducted in the open was in a way helpful: at least we knew who we were dealing with. The surveillance methods, challenged by two MPs in the High Court (see the news story), however, are clandestine and therefore potentially even more ruinous for the “objects”. As one of the very few UK citizens who had actually been victims of similar “measures”, I whole-heartedly support the MPs’ stance. In a free society, surveillance and intrusion of people’s privacy can only be justified and permitted in the most extreme and pressing cases.

Katia Moskvitch  Katia Moskvitch, technology editor
EasyJet chooses drones for aircraft inspections

Drones are often in the news nowadays: delivering parcels and pizzas, helping farmers and the military. Now, budget airline EasyJet plans to start using them, too, for plane inspections, to speed up maintenance. Passengers are unlikely to see buzzing mechanical creatures out of their cabin windows, but engineers may begin working alongside them as early as next year. Let’s hope they all get along.

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