E&T news weekly #55 – we choose our favourite engineering and technology news stories from the week

Friday June 19 2015

dominic-lenton  Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Elderly to get screening technology to block nuisance calls

Older people aren’t idiots, but even if they’re canny enough to hang up on phone calls trying to sell them things they don’t want or need the sheer persistence of some callers can be distressing in itself. Many won’t take the fact that their victim can’t even afford what they’re offering as an excuse, so it’s helpful that the government is looking at providing the most vulnerable households with free devices that block unwanted calls. Yes, a lot of modern phones come with this feature built-in, but how easy is it to set up? One addition that would make them even better – the ability to log the caller’s number even if they’ve hidden it, then ring them back at regular intervals throughout the day and night to see how they like it.

Mobile phone usage shows when people are unemployed

One the face of it, the results of research by MIT data scientists are hardly surprising: the number and destination of phone calls a person makes changes significantly when they’re made redundant. Among other patterns, months after being laid off from a factory in Europe, ex-staff were making half as many calls as former colleagues. That looks self-evident, but where it could be useful is in reversing the process to identify from phone records areas that are hardest hit by unemployment rather than waiting weeks for official figures to be recorded. Is the inevitable next step an app that warns you based on your mobile use just before you’re about to get fired?

Rebecca Northfield  Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
Whale tail-powered ships harness wave energy

Ships may soon be joining the eco-friendly movement, and it’s all thanks to the biggest mammals on earth – the whale. Researchers from the Norwegian University of Science looked into the tail of the whale and how it propels them through the water. The researchers then designed their own and this artificial tail was attached to the front of a 1:16.57 scale model ship to see how effective it was. The waves moved the fins up and down, and the shape exploited the energy from the waves to help the ship move. If all goes according to plan, this product would reduce fuel consumption as ships would use the power of the sea. For the team, the long-term goal at the moment is for small boats to embrace wave power without using motors, which would be awesome. I’m always happy to see nature inspiring good things for our planet. And if this helps the whales in the long-run by helping our planet, I’m happy. I love whales. They’re so big and cuddly.

Squid-inspired ‘skin’ to make camouflage materials smart

Researchers from Bristol University have come up with a smart materials system to mimic the mighty squid’s skin. The prototype artificial skin means the advancing of smart materials. The ‘skin’ system is similar to natural chromatophores, the cells which change the colours of squid skin, which help them to hide from predators. The researchers hope that one day the skin can ‘mimic fast-acting active camouflage’, which would be very useful for search and rescue operations, or hiding from people at work that you really don’t want to talk to. I joke.

Jonathan Wilson  Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
Smelly maps reveal odour footprint of cities

Nothing like as unpleasant as it sounds, these are actually maps designed to show you around a city via more enjoyable routes. It’s all about getting off the well-trodden, traffic-choked path and enjoying a more scenic, occasionally fragrant, route from A to B. Such diverting diversions typically add only a couple of minutes to a journey, so there’s little reason not to explore more.

Digital Magna Carta Top 10 rights revealed

As you might expect, the current number one clause – as voted for by 30,000 members of the public – is: “Not let companies pay to control it [the web] and not let governments restrict our right to information”, which was written by students aged 12. Hard to argue with that, even as it happens ever more each day.

Alex Kalinaukas  Alex Kalinauckas, assistant features editor
Digital Magna Carta Top 10 rights revealed

It was a great idea to mark the 800th anniversary of King John signing the Magna Carta and the 25th anniversary of the world wide web with a list of the top 10 clauses the public would like to see online in the digital age. 10 might be a stretch, though, as three of the clauses have been repeated at least three times with slightly different wording. Still, they got the first one “The Web we want will not let companies pay to control it, and not let governments restrict our right to information” as the most important and that’s what counts – let’s see if the politicians will listen.

Whale tail-powered ships harness wave energy

How ironic: the Norwegians gaining inspiration from whale fins to create device that can harness the power of the waves to reduce fuel consumption. Perhaps it’s the many whale fins they’ve got piled up after the hunting season – who knows?

Tereza Pultarova  Tereza Pultarova, news reporter
Virtual reality floor unleashes Oculus Rift in Milton Keynes

Trying the Oculus Rift headset on Omnifinity’s Omnideck virtual reality floor was almost like stepping into the Matrix movie. In a few seconds I completely forgot there was another – real world – around. The floor enables you to move in the virtual environment as if you were completely unconstrained. It is certainly a powerful tool but I found it also a bit frightening. Just imagine the future where everyone is locked up in his own virtual world. What will that do with our ability to enjoy real life?

Thousands of apps leave data exposed to hackers

Oops … that doesn’t sound like good news, does it? Maybe it’s time either for developers to start taking this seriously of for user to say NO to apps that ask for too many permissions and don’t even know how to protect the data.

Lorna Sharpe  Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
Toy car powered by evaporating water engine

Scientists at New York’s Columbia University have hit on the idea of exploiting humidity-driven changes in the size of bacterial spores to extract useful amounts of energy – and they have built two different machines to demonstrate the point. Talk of producing devices comparable in output to wind turbines is probably a bit premature, but it sounds like an interesting idea and worth exploring further.

Whale tail-powered ships harness wave energy

Norwegian researchers have also taken inspiration from the world of biology in a bid to find new sources of energy, but the NTNU team members are working on a larger scale. They have fitted a device resembling a whale’s tail to a model ship and used it to exploit wave energy for propulsion, reducing fuel costs. As a bonus, the structure has reduced heaving and pitching.

Laura Onita  Laura Onita, news reporter
Toy car powered by evaporating water engine

A powerful yet invisible force pulls water from the earth to the top of the tallest trees and beyond, but water evaporation’s potential to propel self-sufficient devices or produce electricity has remained largely untapped – until now. A group of scientists from Columbia University have created machines that harness the power of evaporating water: a floating, piston-driven engine that generates electricity to make a light flash and a rotary engine that drives a toy car. The miniature car rolls on its own powered just by evaporation, and researchers hope that in the future engines will use the process to propel a real car, which would require neither fuel nor electricity to work.

Smelly maps reveal odour footprint of cities

I was on a night stroll the other week and as we were walking my friend kept identifying different smells: lamorna in the air, from the trees in bloom, and petrichor, the smell of wet tarmac that comes with the first rain after a long period of warm. I was pleased to read this week that researchers created smell maps of European cities to help city dwellers choose their paths or places based on odours they would enjoy or prefer to avoid. Now I’m just waiting for the app!

Vitali Vitaliev  Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
Pepper the robot with a ‘heart’ goes on sale in Japan

Well, here we go – a robot with emotions. Ave, Ava! And while I personally have nothing against a robot having a heart (as long as that heart is healthy), I was saddened to learn that he (she? It? I mean the robot) will be prone to fits of depression, too. Now, this is cruel and brings back memories of the poor Vogons from “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. I was always of the opinion that depression is a purely human condition and although one can sometimes hear about the seemingly depressed pets (dogs, pigs, goldfish and cats, in particular), there’s nothing sadder than a machine, which (who?) feels down, even if it (she? he?) is cheerfully called Pepper. Isn’t it time to introduce the Fourth Law of Robotics (see our robotics special issue of E&T magazine) that would read approximately like this: “A robot may not feel depressed, fed up or cheesed off, leaving these questionable prerogatives to humans”?

Aasha Bodhani  Aasha Bodhani, industry features editor
Pepper the robot with a ‘heart’ goes on sale in Japan

Channel 4’s new TV series, Humans, which explores the emotional impact between humans and robots, with the latter looking like real-life humans, could possibly be a prediction of what is to come. Softbank, a technology company in Japan, is half way there as it has created a robot, Pepper, with a heart. Despite having no legs, it is designed to identify human emotions, such as anger and joy. Would you have Pepper in your home?

Digital road signs get mobile phone real-time updates in Denmark

Denmark, renown for being a smart city, has taken it a step further by digitising its road signs. The plan is to cut down delays in traffic and alert drivers of any accidents and advise them to use alternative routes. The road signs receive traffic data from 125 sensors places on roads which are typically known for congestions, these sensors are connected to the driver’s headsets and mobile, via a Bluetooth connection.

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