E&T news weekly #71 – we choose our favourite engineering and technology news stories from the week

Friday November 20 2015

Lorna Sharpe  Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
UK pledges to end coal use by 2025

Working for the IET, I’ve perhaps paid more attention to government energy policy over the last 15 years than most people have, and it’s not very edifying. Ministers and governments come and go, and policy seems to be swayed by the most vociferous lobby groups at any given time, when what’s really needed is a bit of consistency, based on what’s actually achievable. We’ve known for a long time that our coal-fired power stations would have to be replaced with something else but there’s been precious little agreement about what would be affordable, technically possible and politically acceptable in voters’ backyards. Constantly shifting subsidy regimes don’t help either – they just create bubble industries and deter long-term investment. Now the Energy Secretary has decided to back a new dash for gas, let’s hope she and her successors stick with it. Shivering by candlelight is no fun for anyone.

Graphene production 100 times cheaper with new method

Glasgow researchers have come up with a way of producing large sheets of graphene on commercially available copper substrates, which they say is much cheaper than other methods and gives better-quality results, too. There’s often a long and rocky path between early scientific discoveries and their commercialisation, so let’s give credit to those who tread it and don’t always get much recognition.

Jonathan Wilson  Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
Anonymous shutting down IS Twitter accounts

Excellent news from the hacking group Anonymous, members of which have been using their considerable tech skills to identify the social media accounts of Islamic State sympathisers and shutting them all down, neatly and effectively cutting off any further public propagation of fanatical hatred at the source. Anonymous has announced that it is launching a cyber-war against IS militant “vermin”. Other online security groups are also coordinating attacks on web sites associated with IS. In this predominantly digital age, such people at the top of their game using their specific niche skills in this way may well prove to be a simple but effective strategy in frustrating extremists.

Volvo demonstrates driverless in-car entertainment system

Sweden’s Volvo cars are working on a comprehensive in-car entertainment system that replaces the steering wheel when the driver chooses to kick back and take things easy. I like the sound of this immensely: I could definitely find more diverting and amusing things to do with the half hour it takes me to drive to and from E&T Towers every day. Volvo hopes to have a large fleet of autonomous cars on the streets of Gothenberg by 2017 – the company being sufficiently confident in its autonomous vehicle technology that it is prepared to accept full liability in the event of any incident caused when one of its cars is driving in autonomous mode – so all that remains is for me to open the local Swedish office of E&T between now and then.

Aasha Bodhani  Aasha Bodhani, industry features editor
Ford tests autonomous cars in simulated city

Driverless cars aren’t just a Jetsons fantasy anymore, with the likes of Google, Nisan and now Ford announcing how they are making this idea a reality. Ford’s Fusion Hybrid Autonomous Research Vehicle will test out its embedded cameras, radar and lidar sensors and real-time 3D mapping technology in a simulated city, which has been designed to mimic real-world driving scenarios. Though Ford has been developing autonomous vehicles for the last decade, the manufacturer has revealed its plans to integrate such technologies into its next-generation vehicles.

Vitali Vitaliev  Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
2,300 UK road bridges deemed not fit for purpose

This brings us back to the story of the deplorable state of Britain’s infrastructure that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, of which bridges, alongside roads and railways, are essential components. “Deemed not fit for purpose” strikes me as a rather dubious euphemism. If a bridge is “not fit for purpose”, does it mean that it doesn’t actually bridge anything together? Or does it imply that it may collapse at any moment, with you or your car right in the middle? Whatever it is, I’m not looking forward to my next Dartford Crossing experience. For some reason, I have always felt uneasy driving across what is, allegedly, Europe’s longest viaduct, even less so to paying £2.50 each way for actually using it (it was less than a pound only a few years ago!). The only sign of progress here is that now you have to pay your crossing fees online rather that at the barrier, which means that some aspects of its operation can be modernised and improved. I only wish those ‘aspects’ were not limited to receiving tolls from motorists, but could also be extended to making that and other UK bridges more “fit for purpose”.

Largest Chinese developer employing robot servants

Doesn’t the very concept of a servant contradict the much-hyped (and entirely false) Communist equality doctrine (still in force in China) which makes the whole idea of official servitude totally unacceptable? Unless of course, the new mechanical helpers are going to be referred to and addressed as “Comrade Robot”.

Are smarter cities also more vulnerable?

Not so “smart” then, eh?

Rebecca Northfield  Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
Storm Barney ravages UK electricity and rail networks

It’s been a windy few days. Storm Barney – the name reminding me of an angry purple dinosaur – has been wrecking our electricity grid here in the UK. I’m a train goer and the storm has been a little inconvenient with my way to and from work as rail networks have been facing delays. Plus it’s chilly. Luckily I haven’t been really affected by Barney, the naughty lizard. However, many homes have been left without power. That sort of situation would be awful for me, as I like a toasty home… and I love toast. Most of the power cuts have been in Wales which is unfortunate. Eighty mile an hour winds have been whipping around the UK and pulling down trees on the train lines, as well as messing up my hair on the way to work. Good old Barney is on his way out now, apparently. Thank goodness. I’ve been using way too much hairspray. Go away, giant purple dinosaur. Nobody wants you here.

Ingestible sensors to measure heart rate from within

Stethoscopes could be a thing of the past, as researchers from MIT are working on sensors that can be swallowed to measure your heart and breathing rate inside the digestive tract. The sensors detect sound waves from your heart and inhalations and exhalations. Plus, the pill will only be about the size of a multivitamin, so it’s not too hard to swallow. This could be really cool, but at the same time, doctors could end up losing one of their biggest identifiers, apart from saving people’s lives, that’s a big one. The stethoscope is one of the main items someone would pick when thinking what a doctor should have on their person. I certainly won’t miss destroying my modesty by baring my back when the docs want to check my lungs or heart. I definitely won’t miss the cold metal on my skin as they tell you to “breathe in… and breathe out”. I just end up feeling super awkward. I bet it’s pretty cringe-inducing for some practitioners too. Let’s see what happens.

Jade Fell  Jade Fell, assistant features editor
Government wants UK businesses to undergo ‘cyber health check’

I will confess to getting a certain amount of joy out of big companies falling foul of hackers, providing they’re not a company I deal with that is – there’s nothing quite like a bit of schadenfreude. That said, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the cyber health of the UK is in dire need of some TLC. It’s difficult to argue against this when the country’s top businesses are so clearly inept when it comes to protecting their customers, and are currently taking it in turns to suffer huge data breaches– seriously TalkTalk, three times since January?! Consequently, earlier this week George Osborne announced that the Government would double its spending on cyber security, and now it has emerged that one way this will be done is through offering a ‘cyber health check’ to some of the country’s biggest companies. Is this appropriate use of Government spending? No comment. But the companies certainly need it.

Ingestible sensors to measure heart rate from within

This is another one of those pieces of technology that are really quite amazing, but just make my skin crawl. MIT researchers have developed ingestible sensors that can monitor a person’s heart and breathing rate from inside their digestive tract. Such technology would allow for the medium-term remote monitoring of patients undergoing medical observations, and could be developed with further sensors to allow for core temperature monitoring. This is a very exciting development for the health care industry, and offers some amazing prospects in terms of future diagnostics and medical care. That said the idea of having a piece of medical technology inside my body is nothing short of horrifying. It’s great work, but I’m not swallowing it.

dominic-lenton  Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Engineering still a white person’s job

When new IET President Naomi Climer – the first women to hold the post in the Institution’s history – made the tentative suggestion that with no evidence other ways of getting more women into the engineering workforce were working employers should perhaps be given quotas to aim for, it generated one of the biggest responses from readers that we’ve seen at E&T. The reasonable point made by many who are responsible for recruitment was that the absence of applications from women makes the controversial question of whether it’s fair to discriminate in favour of a less suitable candidate solely on the basis of their gender moot. Which brings us back to the perennial question of how to attract not just women, but other groups who are underrepresented in the sector. This report from the Royal Academy of Engineering found that whereas a quarter of UK schoolchildren are from ethnic minority backgrounds, and make up the same proportion of students on university engineering courses, that figure falls to just 6 per cent in the engineering workforce. Tackling this isn’t some kind of tokenism; we’ve had repeated warnings of the skills crisis facing British industry, yet enormous groups of people seem to share a perception that it’s just not the career for them. Any question of race is going to be controversial, so maybe it’s understandable that the Academy found it tends to be the Cinderella issue when it comes to diversity initiatives, with companies focusing on improving the gender ratio and dismantling barriers faced by the LGBT community. We’d all like to think that colour, gender or sexual orientation isn’t something we really pay attention to in the workplace, or that makes any difference to how we interact with our co-workers. If you’re reading this at work though, take a look around and ask yourself whether it’s the sort of environment where a potential team member from any background would feel they could fit in.

Dickon Ross  Dickon Ross, editor in chief
Bank of England’s chief economist warns robots might steal 15m UK jobs

Could a robot do your job? Millions of jobs have been lost to technology over the last century and that trend will accelerate in the future due to developments in robotics, artificial intelligence and related technologies. But when is much harder to predict. I always thought estate agents would be the first to go as buyers and sellers went online and cut out the middle man, yet they are still in business. And new jobs we can’t yet imagine will created by the emerging Internet of Things or Internet of Everything just as old jobs disappear. It’s not all doom and gloom.

China investing £31bn in microchip manufacture

What is surprising about China’s £31bn plan to become one of the world’s largest chipmakers is that it is not already the world’s largest manufacturer of components that became commodities long ago. China spends more on importing chips than oil but the reasons are not just economic – they’re military too. Chips may be cheap, but the equipment to make them is highly advanced and expensive. And it’s dominated by American and European companies who may not be get the export licences for equipment that would appear to have an indirect military use. Will China have to develop its own semiconductor production equipment industry necessary to equip its fabs?

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