E&T news weekly #68 – we choose our favourite engineering and technology news stories from the week

Friday October 30 2015

Jack Loughran  Jack Loughran, news reporter
Fracking rule amendments ‘sneaked in’ says Greenpeace

As someone who used to work as a content writer for the fracking industry, I have a fair amount of knowledge on the issue and this is a very bad idea. In America, where fracking has taken off in a big way, the industry has generated some major catastrophes already, in states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Texas. Greedy operators who force too much water down the wells to boost extraction rates have ended up breaching the water tables and damaging them irreversibly. Frankly, oil companies are renowned for their underhand tactics and profit motivations over all other considerations including safety, need I bring up the Gulf of Mexico.

Essentially, in a dodgy fracking operation, water crammed with chemicals and muck brakes through an underground barrier of rock and leaks into neighbouring water tables resulting in permanently contaminating a source of drinking water. In America, vast swathes of desert are fracked, if a water table is damaged its bad news for the local population but these areas are often largely uninhabited.

If the same thing occurred in England however, it would have devastating and permanent effects on our fresh water supplies with far bigger consequences for the densely packed population of our little island. With one hand in each other’s pockets, the Conservative Party and the big oil companies will prioritise cheap, easily accessible fuel in the short term with potentially dire long term consequences for the future safety of our drinkable water supplies.

The Conservative focus on short term energy supplies without any sort of consideration for the energy needs of the country in the coming decades is made even more apparent when considering the massive cuts made to renewable subsidies over the summer.

Rebecca Northfield  Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
Walmart to join drone-delivery race

Walmart applied for a permit on the 26th October to join the army of drone deliverers and are asking for permission from the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to get goods to customers using the open skies. The retailer has been doing trials for several months and they think they are ready to get their products flying. Drones manufactured by SZ DJI Technology are the company of choice for Walmart, who would like a distribution centre with hundreds of trailers. Basically this is going to be big if all goes to plan. Commercial drones are banned at the moment in America, exceptions are considered by the FAA on a case-by-case basis. In the near future, I can imagine all of the drones from major retailers blacking out the skies, dropping groceries off to eager consumers. Hopefully, a drone doesn’t drop its load onto an oblivious pedestrian. I for one wouldn’t be too happy if I had a load of broken eggs and milk on my head. Or a Star Wars toy.

Tractor beam moves objects using sound waves

British researchers have found a technology that moves objects using sound waves. It’s described as the world’s first tractor beam. It’s exciting stuff, really. The system can only handle tiny, light items like polystyrene balls, but the scientists think it can have more useful applications, like in surgical procedures. It works by the scientists controlling dozens of loudspeakers to generate an acoustic hologram that manipulates objects in real-time with no contact. High amplitude sound waves trap the objects and the force field can keep them in the air using 64 tiny loudspeakers. It’s so Jedi-like, I love it. Use the force!

dominic-lenton  Dominic Lenton, managing editor
British Gas blames data leak on external source

As if Talk Talk wasn’t getting enough bad press about its reaction to last week’s cyberattack, the media is now contrasting it with how British Gas handled the exposure of some of its own customers’ data. Admittedly it’s a lower-key incident, and appears to be the result of individuals themselves falling for phishing attacks, but as a British Gas customer I was much more reassured by the messages coming from the company than I would have been if I was relying on Talk Talk to keep my data safe. Like the hammer blow that the emission-testing scandal has dealt to Volkswagen’s reputation, will breaches of cybersecurity be one of the new big issues that affects consumer confidence in major brands in the future?

Explicit filenames providing hacker signposts to sensitive data

In the case of British Gas, it looks like however strongly you advise people not to click on links in unsolicited emails or respond to phone calls they’re not expecting, enough will fall for the scams to make it worth the effort for criminals. We’re all just as aware of the need to use different passwords for everything and to change them regularly, but how much attention do we pay to naming files? This survey found businesses had uploaded thousands of documents to filesharing services with giveaway words like ‘confidential’ in the title. It’s not just companies that should be bother though; how long would it take a hacker to find the most sensitive material on your computer just by scanning directory and file names?

Vitali Vitaliev  Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
British Gas blames data leak on external source

A rather unfortunate irony in this news story: British Gas is more accustomed to dealing with leaks of a different nature – good old gas leaks. Data leaks, however, while not immediately identifiable by their smell, are potentially much more dangerous and explosive than leakages from gas pipes. Can another 15-year old geek (pace the recent hacking of Talk Talk) be at fault here? Having in mind the double nature of the leaks and the inevitable Talk Talk analogies, I can suggest a new jokey nickname for British Gas – ‘Leak Leak’?

Poor infrastructure hampering Britain, say business leaders

If the tedious tongue-twisting word ‘infrastructure’ does imply the quality of roads and railways, then I am in total agreement with the anonymous ‘British business leaders’ quoted in this news story. Indeed, this country, being one of the four leading economies in the world, has the roads that – in the sheer number of bumps and holes – can only be compared to the mid-1970s Moscow ring road (I can feel the validity of this comparison every day when driving to and from work via the wheels of my old Fiat Punto). I read somewhere recently that a Japanese carmaking company had to be build a special testing range – with holes and bumps – to test-drive some Japanese-made cars intended for export to the UK. They were simply unable to find any stretch of road in their own country that would be comparable to British motorway in its bumpiness. As for the railroads, despite some recent improvements, in terms of speed, comfort, cleanness and punctuality, while being slightly ahead of Mongolia and Bangladesh they are still far behind Romania and Poland. Let alone Italy. Not to mention Germany and Switzerland. There are of course thousands of excuses – some plausible, others less so: old track and even older rolling stock, climate fluctuations (as if Germany doesn’t have those), leaf slippage (as if leaves do not fall off trees in Switzerland), and so on. Whatever the reasons (and political procrastination can indeed be one of them), the fact remains: these gaps in the otherwise solid “infrastructure” of British economy, do hamper the pace of progress. As a British patriot and citizen of many years standing, and at the peril of sounding like an old fogey (maybe I am one, who knows?), I would be delighted to see some real changes here. I’m sure they will come one day, and when they do, I will know immediately from not feeling like James Bond’s Vodka Martini (“shaken, not stirred”) after a short drive home of an evening.

Jade Fell  Jade Fell, assistant features editor
Poor infrastructure hampering Britain, say business leaders

Personally, I can’t say I’m shocked with this news – it’s no secret that Britain’s roads and railways aren’t up to scratch – and if you are then I suggest jumping into a car and risking the congested roads at rush hour, or hopping onto a creaky, cross country train at peak time, it will more than open your eyes to the state of our ageing infrastructure. Results from an industry survey, conducted by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), have revealed widespread dissatisfaction among industry leaders as to the progress of infrastructure projects to improve Britain’s railways and roads and boost airport capacity. The survey highlights fears that the country’s ageing infrastructure could negatively impact on future investment. As a result business leaders are calling on the current parliament to commit to the delivery of key infrastructure development projects.

Self-healing concrete tested in Wales

Following on from the disappointment of a relatively hoverboard-free 21 October, this piece of futuristic news has put a smile on my face. Ok, so it’s not even nearly a hoverboard, but it’s still seriously cool. Researchers from Cardiff University have developed concrete equipped with ‘healing’ properties that should enable it to remain intact without the need for human intervention. The concrete contains shape-shifting polymers, capsules filled with bacteria, and organic and inorganic healing agents, which, the researcher envisage, will work together to detect damage in the concrete structure and automatically fix it.

Jonathan Wilson  Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
MI6 recruiting spies from Mumsnet and launches cyber-security apprenticeship

You only have to read the first part of this headline and you’re drawn to the story. The British Intelligence service has indeed launched a recruitment drive for intelligence officers on parenting advice website Mumsnet after it was urged by MPs in March to recruit a new generation of female spies. Mum knows best.

Google balloons to offer internet access to Indonesians

Another marvellous headline enticing you to read an equally marvellous story. Like a 21st-century Phileas Fogg, minus the tortilla chips, Google is about to launch its internet-beaming balloons into orbit over Indonesia in order to boost online access across the 17,000 islands that comprise the region. The Project Loon programme uses thirty 12m-tall solar-powered balloons, travelling at speeds of up to 30km/h, which contain equipment that broadcasts 3G-like wireless speeds to ground-based antennas.

Dickon Ross  Dickon Ross, editor in chief
Cosmic rays to reveal treasures of Egyptian pyramids

I’ve been fascinated by ancient Egypt since childhood and there are so many ancient ruins and artefacts strewn down the Nile that you can’t but help feel that what you can see is just the tip of what is really there, laying under the sand just waiting to be discovered. So this project to use technology to look for chambers under the well-trodden pyramids is really quite exciting – not just for what may be found under the pyramids but for how it could be used to explore so much more up and down the Nile and in the desert beyond.

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