E&T news weekly #70 – we choose our favourite engineering and technology news stories from the week

Friday November 13 2015

Vitali Vitaliev  Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
Russian TV ‘accidentally’ leaks secret nuclear weapons plans

“Accidentally? Only kittens get born accidentally!” Major Popov, my secondary school’s military instructor shouted when I – “accidentally”, as I hastened to explain – aimed the barrel of my loaded Kalashnikov at him. The incident happened during shooting practice in military summer camp – part of the annual ‘academic’ routine for all senior male school kids in the Soviet Union. The Major’s vodka-bloated face was ready to burst with rage – and on that particular occasion I couldn’t blame him for over-reacting. He was also right about the kittens, so to speak, for in my heart of hearts I hated him and the whole military madness of the summer camp so much that my involuntary move was hardly accidental. That is why when I read a Russian military spokesman’s explanation of the “accidental” nature of a top-secret torpedo leak on Russian TV, I was tempted to repeat the slightly paraphrased popular Russian saying. What we have here is a brilliant example of Russian new military PR aimed – rather clumsily – at the West, just like my AKM was once aimed at that ruddy and ever-smoking Soviet Army Major.

First jet-powered 3D printed drone unveiled

Call me a retrograde, but I find this latest 3D printing epidemic a bit frightening. Only recently we learned of the first 3D printed car – and now the drone! Are there any limits to what is going to come off the printers in the near future? Can we envisage 3D printed trains, ocean liners and – who knows – maybe even spacecraft? And how about weapons? 3D printed air-to-air missiles? Possible? Why not? But here’s a warning from the recent past. If you read my feature, Sixty Years of Engineering Records, in the latest issue of E&T, you will find the story of Joshimoto Imura, who on 21 October 2014 received the first ever jail sentence for 3D printing. He printed out a six-shot revolver, which could fire bullets and was therefore in breach of Japan’s strict weapon-ownership laws. By now, he probably wishes his printer had run out of paper, or plastic, or whatever material his fully-functioning printable revolver was constructed from. Conclusion: 3D printing, apart from being easy and fun, can also be dangerous, and we should think twice before pressing that alluring Print button.

TalkTalk takes £35m hit from cyber attack

Coming back to the unfortunate, in the view of the recent hacking attack, name of the poor TalkTalk, whose bosses must now be frantically thinking of how to rename their hapless company, here are a couple of suggestions: HackHack (albeit that would be a bit cruel), or else – and more practically – ShooshShoosh; or HushHush.

Jack Loughran  Jack Loughran, news reporter
Policies missing to meet renewable targets, Rudd admits

So Amber Rudd has said the UK doesn’t have enough policies in place to meet EU renewable energy targets. Well that’s weird isn’t it Rudd? Why do you think that could be? Maybe because you got rid of all the renewable energy subsidies over the summer. She said it’s her ‘aim’ to meet the EU 2020 target of having 15 per cent of the UK’s energy generated by renewable resources but she’s not sure it can be done. Well with the kind of policies that she is favouring, which include recent changes to make fracking easier in the country, she’s probably right. She recently wrote to the Big Six energy companies asking them nicely to make prices cheaper for their customers. Pathetic. If that is her idea of taking action, I really fear for the UK’s energy sector over the next five years. Or maybe I’m being too kind. In July Rudd failed to disclose that her brother is the boss of lobbying firm Finsbury which campaigns on behalf of huge energy companies despite a requirement for all MPs to disclose family members that are engaged in lobbying the public sector. Yet funnily enough, her blatant attempt to conceal this fact didn’t have any impact at all and the Tories didn’t seem to find this concerning behaviour for someone in her position.

Tereza Pultarova  Tereza Pultarova, news reporter
Greenhouse gases concentration at record high

This is certainly not optimistic, coming from the World Meteorological Organisation that has urged the world leaders ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris to step up efforts to battle the progressing global warming to avoid devastating consequences. The news emerged as the UK Met Office said that 2015 has been the first year in history when average global temperatures exceeded those of pre-industrial times by 1 degree C. That’s already halfway to the 2 degrees C threshold considered safe to prevent unpredictable effects including severe weather events, droughts and floodings. In this context, it comes even more disappointing to learn that the UK clearly doesn’t have sufficient policies in place to achieve the binding EU 2020 renewable energy target, as Energy and Climate Change Secretary Amber Rudd humbly admitted [http://eandt.theiet.org/news/2015/nov/renewables-target-rudd.cfm] after a letter to her colleagues was leaked to the Ecologist magazine.

Tweeting about feeling sick could help predict epidemics

Something every social media over-sharer might like to hear. Your obsession to share virtually everything about your life, including how many times you have visited the bathroom, may actually have some scientific merits as the chief scientist of the UK Food Standards Agency revealed.

Lorna Sharpe  Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
Mobile phone data help in earthquake-stricken Nepal

When an earthquake hit Nepal in April, anonymised mobile phone data showed up the population flows as half a million people left the stricken Kathmandu Valley. It also showed which districts they went to – just the kind of information public authorities need so they know where to direct extra help. The app that made it possible was developed by a team at the University of Southampton, and they were already setting up a trial with the Nepalese mobile phone operator Ncell when the earthquake happened, so it was a case of being in the right place at the right time. What strikes me, though, is just how quickly mobile phones have been taken up all over the world, even in quite poor places that don’t have many of the other utilities we take for granted in Europe. After all, it was only a mere 15 years ago when even in Britain owning a mobile began to spread widely into the adult population, following the example of our teenage children.

British Museum offers cyber tours via Google Street View

Even for those of us who live within reasonable reach of the British Museum, paying a visit involves planning and setting aside a day. For most people, they are never going to get near it unless they are already in London for some other reason. Now, though, it’s possible to take an online guided tour with the help of Google Street View. I must admit that the need to write this was more than enough excuse for me to spend a little working time reminding myself what’s on offer and it might even tempt me to plan a proper visit when I have a day off.

Jade Fell  Jade Fell, assistant features editor
Ford’s new car features sound cancelling technology

Ford has developed a new sound-cancelling system for cars to give drivers quieter journeys. The company’s Mondeo Vignale will now come fitted with a system called Active Noise Control, which uses microphones to detect noises produced by the vehicle. Opposing soundwaves are then produced by the audio system broadcasts effect counteracting those made by the car. In principle, I really like the idea of having a super quiet car, for relaxed journeys with no annoying engine noise interfering with the radio – a motorway journey in my 2003 Vauxhall Corsa is nothing short of horrific – but I was of the opinion that modern cars were already pretty quiet? I’ve been in new Fords, and I’ve got to say that I didn’t notice the engine noise interfering with my ability to listen to music, or have a conversation. In fact, I spent most of my time interfering with the in-built voice-activated satnav, which, by the way, worked perfectly – possibly suggesting that the cabin was already pretty quiet. I think the technology involved in the new system is quite cool, but I’m not sure it’s entirely necessary. If I was to upgrade my car to a newer, fancier model, I can think of plenty of optional extras that I’d love to have in place, but extravagant noise-cancelling technology is not one of them.

Greenhouse gases concentration at record high

The concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has reached a record high, prompting the WMO to call for an immediate intervention to keep warming manageable. I’m absolutely devastated by this news, and what makes me even sadder is the fact that a lot of people are still infuriatingly blasé about GHG levels, and completely ignorant of just what increased GHG levels actually mean for the world. I’ll tear a page from the WMO’s book, and tell you what it means right now – it means increased global temperatures (and to highlight this UK Met Office also announced this week that 2015 has been the first year in history when average global temperatures have reached 1 degree C above pre-industrial levels. Yay! Go us!); it means more extreme weather events like heatwaves and floods; and it means melting ice, rising sea levels, and increased oceans acidification. Sounds great doesn’t it? Do you know what all those things have in common? No? Well, I’ll tell you. None of these things appear to have an immediate impact on humans – quite ironic really, if you consider the fact that our lifestyles are the very root of the problem. I mean, sure, it sounds like the earth is going to be a much less pleasant place to live in, what with the countryside flooded by poisoned seawater, starving polar bears and entire ecosystems driven to extinction, but we will adapt, right? I hope not. If you want to live in some horrific dystopian society portrayed in the likes of Blade Runner good for you – but as WMO secretary-general Michel Jarraud said “we are moving into uncharted territory at a frightening speed” and I, for one, am terrified.

Rebecca Northfield  Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
Police searching for owner of drone that killed horse

This is just tragic. A drone killed a horse recently and police are searching for the model’s owner. A member of the police force said it was totally inappropriate for the drone to fly so close to the horse who was named Fimber. Officers found the radio-controlled drone at the site of the incident after it was spotted by a police helicopter. The 14 year old horse vaulted the fence of its paddock, causing fatal injuries due to the drone frightening him. Fimber was also a police horse for West Yorkshire. If you have a drone, learn how to fly it. Idiots. Also, be aware that there are things around you that may be wary of your drone. The police haven’t definitely said that the drone spooked Fimber, but this horse is trained to be okay with loud noises due to his line of work, so it’s a pretty big coincidence that a crashed drone was near a dead police horse. I would be freaked by a UAV flying in my face, too. The drone is a Walkera Runner 250 which is around £200 and is easily available on the internet. Poor Fimber. What a waste of a great animal. I hope the culprit is found and faces a penalty. The horse was a valuable member of the police force, so I reckon the drone owner is in for quite a hefty fine, at least. I’d smack the drone right in the owner’s face. RIP Fimber! May you gallop to the Rainbow Bridge, my friend!

Dickon Ross  Dickon Ross, editor in chief
Tag Heuer releases premium Android smartwatch

How do traditional watch companies deal with the advent of smart watches? Should they try to bring their premium brand cachet to the emerging market, or should they just carry on regardless, and “rise above it” as Noel Coward used to say? The top watch brands know they have sell product that lasts. ‘You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation,” goes the marketing slogan. Technology moves at such a pace that consumer electronics, whether it’s a laptop, a phone or a smart watch is superseded and out of date within a few years. But Tag Heuer is taking the plunge with a simple smart watch developed with Google. What happens when it’s looking a bit, well, last year? Tag Heuer will then offer you an upgrade to a good old fashioned analogue watch. It’s an interesting sales plan but we’ll see if it works. I suspect the style end of the watch market and the smart watch market will end up being poles apart.

Aasha Bodhani  Aasha Bodhani, industry features editor
Smart home technology could increase property value

A survey has revealed home buyers are prepared to pay £3,000 extra for a house if it is equipped with smart technology, such as smart alarms and thermostats and sensors. The Barclays Mortgages Digital Home Report revealed buyer are more likely to invest more in home technology, such as faster broadband, rather than the traditional requirements, such as bigger gardens. Despite the IoT playing a significant role in smart homes, 61 per cent said of respondents said cyber-attacks are still at the forefront of concerns.

dominic-lenton  Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Drones could be used to detect ‘invisible’ water leaks

I hope it’s not too much of a spoiler to reveal that the location chosen by the arch baddie in new James Bond movie Spectre as his lair is well off the beaten track in the middle of a north African desert. (We suggested some alternatives for future adversaries to consider in last month’s E&T). Where it gets its energy and water from isn’t revealed – that’s not the point of a Bond film, and a high-tech arrangement of tubes and cables is sufficient to imply there’s some advanced technology at work which we needn’t worry about. If it is as simple as a very, very long pipe, Blofeld might welcome this project by researchers at Nottingham Trent University, who I’m sure definitely aren’t in league with any international conglomerate of evildoers intent on taking over the world. By equipping flying drones with infra-red cameras they reckon they can identify changes in temperature that indicate where precious water is being lost in transit in arid regions. Joking aside, there are parts of the world where an erratic water supply can be a matter of life and death and something like this could make a real difference. The challenge now for engineers is to get the robots landing and making repairs without the need for a team of humans.

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