E&T news weekly #66 – we choose our favourite engineering and technology news stories from the week

Friday October 16 2015

Lorna Sharpe  Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
Fruit-picking robot knows how to deal with change

This story caught my eye purely because the first time I saw industrial automation in action was in a fruit warehouse, round about 1977. I wasn’t even supposed to be there; I was accompanying a government film crew that had been to film one of my own employer’s innovations and they had arranged to go on to the fruit farm afterwards. I remember being very impressed by the way the machines sized and sorted the apples and packed them in a protective cardboard mesh in their cartons. Back then, the notion that a machine could handle an assortment of mixed fruit and even separate green apples from red ones was pure science fiction, but now Cambridge Consultants has demonstrated just that in its development lab. Commercial application must surely follow.

Students head to the Outback for World Solar Challenge

Right now, three UK student teams are in Australia for the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge. This is a tough competition in which they will race solar-powered cars they have designed and built themselves down the full length of the country from Darwin to Adelaide, a distance of 3000km, on public roads alongside normal traffic that includes some very large lorries. Three years ago I met the Cambridge team preparing for the 2013 challenge [http://eandt.theiet.org/news/2012/dec/cambridge-race-car.cfm ] and I was blown away by their enthusiasm, as well as the knowledge, skills and confidence they were acquiring by working on this project alongside their normal studies – all attributes that should be very attractive to future employers. Good luck to all this year’s participants.

dominic-lenton  Dominic Lenton, managing editor
British public gives thumbs up to nuclear power

When a majority of people polled say they support the UK’s continuing use of nuclear power, what they’re really backing is replacement of the country’s ageing infrastructure with new build. Would the answer be different if it was clear to them that it would be constructed and run by foreign companies, or would that give a boost to the significant minority who are opposed? Another finding in this survey by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers is something we could have predicted – despite general support for nuclear, more than 40 per cent of people wouldn’t want the waste-processing facilities that would be an essential part of investment in the technology to be sited anywhere near their own homes. So it’s nuclear power, yes please, but not in my back yard.

Little evidence that NHS-recommended depression apps work

Effective use of technology promises to be one of the solutions to the increasingly embattled National Health Service. It would be great if apps which claim to help people suffering from depression could provide a silver bullet in the area of mental health, but researchers from the University of Liverpool have found that up to 85 per cent of those recommended by the NHS via its own apps library have no proven positive effects on patients’ well-being. It sounds like a similar situation to homeopathy and other ‘complementary’ therapies which have their advocates in the NHS but whose effectiveness is disputed. The argument that if they don’t actually do any harm they shouldn’t be discouraged doesn’t stand up when they’re being used as a stop-gap for vulnerable people at the end of a long waiting list.

Top apprentices can earn more than graduates

Move along, nothing to see here. With three children around school-leaving age looking at options for work and higher education I shouldn’t be highlighting this finding by the Sutton Trust that people following the apprenticeship route into a career can earn more than university graduates. Top apprentices take home almost as much over the course of their working life as colleagues with a degree from Oxford or Cambridge. I’d recommend considering it to my own kids; sadly there are still traditional prejudices in secondary education where almost two-thirds of teachers say they would rarely or never advise a student to look at an apprenticeship if they had good enough grades to go to university.

Jade Fell  Jade Fell, assistant features editor
Portable exoskeleton to help keep elderly active

Without a doubt one of the most exciting things I have read all week. There is so much talk recently about technology to help elderly people with failing minds, now, finally something to help those with failing bodies. Researchers from the Aalborg University in Denmark have developed the idea of a portable exoskeleton designed to provide additional support to aging joints and bones. I am a firm believer in the importance of staying active as you get older – it’s a slippery slope once a daily walk turns into an afternoon nap. Unlike mobility scooters, which provide complete support and can quickly become depended upon, the electric motors in the ‘exoskeleton’ provide only 30 to 50 per cent of the energy needed to carry out certain activities, thereby encouraging movement and allowing the user to remain active for longer.

Hydrogen powered bike brings long range without batteries

Let’s forget all about the weird, pod-like, push bicycle from last week, there’s a new bike in town and this one’s actually pretty cool. Technology company the Linde Group has developed an electric bicycle powered by a hydrogen. The super-efficient prototype is completely emission free, and is capable of assisting travel of distances up 100 kilometres before refuelling. Not only that, it actually looks like a bike!

Vitali Vitaliev  Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
Portable exoskeleton to help keep elderly active

I was cheered up by this news, and not just because I am approaching the ‘elderly’ category myself. (Aren’t we all? As my ailing friend the writer Clive James put it recently: “We are all terminally ill”). Living in Letchworth Garden City in Hertfordshire, I am often exposed to the sight of OAPs bumbling along in crude, bulky and visibly uncomfortable mobility scooters (the better name for some of them would probably be ‘disability scooters’). With the sheer number of those semi-adroit mini-vehicles in the town’s streets and with a handful of stores selling nothing but them, a kind of mobility-scooter emporia of sorts, Letchworth could probably qualify for the (dubious) title of the mobility scooter capital, if not of the whole world, then definitely of Britain. I was always of the opinion that our elderly did deserve something better than that. And here – at last – hope is on the horizon. This prospective suit-like device does sound terrific in everything but name. What pensioner in his or her right mind would voluntarily equip himself or herself with something that is generically known as an ‘exoskeleton’ and, as if that is not enough, is monikered – rather clinically, if you ask me – ‘AXO Suit’? It does sound off-putting, even a bit scary (particularly the skeleton bit). Why can’t it be called, say ‘homo-cycle’, or something of that sort? That would make the manufacturers’ task of convincing the elderly to use it much-much easier.

Fruit-picking robot knows how to deal with change

According to this news story, the new Cambridge-made fruit-picking robot “can automatically tell apples from bananas” – the task that very few humans seem to be capable of, or so it sounds. (I, for myself, always had problems telling apples from watermelons, pumpkins, cucumbers and potatoes; to say nothing of pears and mangos). The next-generation fruit-picking robots should therefore be capable not just of adding apples to oranges, but, hopefully, of comparing them too.

Katia Moskvitch  Katia Moskvitch, technology editor
Moon refuelling would make Mars missions cheaper

With the movie ‘The Martian’ out now and all the constant news updates from the intrepid Mars rovers, it seems like the Red Planet is never off the agenda. So a recent report about refuelling on the Moon on the way to Mars is extremely timely. A team of MIT scientists says that routine human missions to Mars would be much more efficient if they first went to the Moon to top up the tank for the journey. So it’s just a question of creating such a refuelling depot first, at a point of gravitational equilibrium lying beyond the Moon’s far side.

Jonathan Wilson  Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
Smart pavement for superfast Wi-Fi access unveiled in Chesham

I have a lifelong affinity for Chesham, with an aunt and uncle (and associated cousins) living there since the 1970s. While a terribly nice place to pass a leisurely afternoon, it never struck me as a raging hotbed of technological innovation. Turns out times have changed and the well-heeled denizens of this quiet Buckinghamshire market town, nestled comfortably in the rolling folds of the Chiltern Hills, are now enjoying the benefits of smart pavements beaming superfast Wi-Fi at them from the ground up. The pavement, developed by Virgin Media, provides connectivity via submerged access points linked directly to Virgin’s street cabinets, which are connected to the fibre-optic network. I must pay my relatives a visit.

Sainsbury’s mobile network to shut down

An inevitable casualty of the “everyone else is doing it, so why don’t we?” school of management thinking. With Tesco Mobile enjoying runaway success, Sainsbury’s executives heeded the call and jumped aboard that particular bandwagon. Turns out the British public weren’t that bothered about a mobile phone service from Sainsbury’s. We’re on board with eating well for less and tasting the difference, but we don’t much care to have our mobile phone needs serviced there, too. To be honest, I didn’t even know Sainsbury’s had a mobile network, which probably sums up the problem.

Jack Loughran  Jack Loughran, news reporter
Multi-frequency wireless charger handles differing standards

I’m quite excited by this bit of tech. Wireless charging is something that I want to become commonplace; if every table automatically charged my smartwatch/phone/tablet/ laptop it would somewhat negate one of the major problems in tech at the moment – rubbish battery life. Having a whole bunch of competing standards is really holding wireless charging back however. It’s been around for a while but loses its usefulness when you have to ensure you have the right charging plate for the right device and this could solve the problem in one fell swoop or at least mitigate it until one of the standards is heralded as the victor. Competing standards in tech (see Betamax/VHS, Blu-ray/HDDVD) have always been something that only the company’s behind them can benefit from. For consumers it ends up as a confusing mess until someone loses and even then half of the early adopters end up with a bunch of unsupported devices.

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