Friday November 27 2015
Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
Aerial drones have another job to do – protect surfers in New South Wales, Australia from dastardly sharks. The NSW government are paying out £8m for the project, which will also bring smart drum lines, unmanned aquatic traps and baited hooks into the anti-shark scheme. The drones have already begun surveillance. The idea is that they will feed images to their operator in real time, letting them see whether there are any pesky sharks around. It’s still at trial stages, but if all goes swimmingly, hungry sharks won’t be having humans for dinner and will stay safely outside the coastal area, hunting in deeper territories. This is good for the sharks, who already have a reputation as maneaters. This could lessen their bad name. It’s not their fault their vision is atrocious and people look like seals. Plus, the sea is the sharks’ home. And they were here first. They’ve been around for almost 450 million years! The modern human has existed for only 200,000. Sharks rule. We drool.
Algae could save us all! I never thought I would write that. Ever. In Canada, researchers have made a power cell that takes the electrical energy from algae’s photosynthesis and respiration. Devices that are connected to the cell take away the resulting electrons for energy. It’s pretty awesome. The algae is called cyanobacteria. It’s blue-green and can survive pretty much anywhere. If we can harness that energy, the condition of the earth could be a whole lot better. The whole thing only exists in a small scale, but it’s a really good start. Algae could be our newest super hero. I would call it The Incredible Algae…no, how about The Algae Lantern? Captain Algae? Algaepool? You’ll have to get back to me.
Dominic Lenton, managing editor
I mentioned here a few weeks ago when the ‘VWgate’ storm was at its height that I’d just got rid of the family car and that the furore around some admittedly ingenious engineering being used to cheat emissions tests had put me off looking at Volkswagens or associated brands as a replacement, diesel or not. It happens that the retired runabout was a Renault and now I learn that I might need to scratch their vehicles off my shortlist. The French carmaker disputes allegations by Swiss group DUH that one of its models can only comply with EU caps with the help of a bit of tinkering. You can’t help suspecting that eventually there won’t be any manufacturer not tainted by this whole business. Unfortunately it’s an issue that needs quick and decisive action, something the EU and its associated bodies aren’t renowned for.
Of course, I could forget about car ownership and all its hassles and stick to public transport. It’s possible to catch a bus a couple of minutes from my front door that stops a similar distance from E&T HQ in Stevenage. Pity it only runs every two hours and takes about three times longer than driving. Better news for the environment in Bristol, where a fleet of bio-buses powered by methane extracted from human waste have proved so successful in their first few months of operation that operater Wessex Bus hopes to have more than a hundred vehicles running across the South West. At the end of the day though, people won’t be persuaded to stop driving just because the alternative is better for the environment, it’s got provide the same level of reliability and convenience they’re used to.
Jade Fell, assistant features editor
This system uses sound and lasers to keep birds away from marine oil platforms. Did you catch that? Lasers. Reading this, I immediately pictured a high-tech James-Bond-style machine, capable of blasting seagulls to smithereens mid-flight – imagine the carnage! Cue massive sigh of relief when I noticed that they are ‘animal-friendly’ lasers – I’m not going to pretend to know what that means, but if the WWF support it, it must be ok.
The eco-warrior in me is excited by the amazing potential a creation like this has for clean-up operations – ok, so in an ideal world crude oil would be a thing of the past – but for now, it’s quite exciting to think that oil spills could no longer be a threat to marine life. Those poor seals! At the same time, I can be a real emotional wreck when it comes to non-sentient beings, and I can’t help but feel a bit sad for the poor waterboatman. The little guy is essentially destined to swim forever, all alone, in dirty seas. Perhaps, like good old Curiosity, he’ll even sing happy birthday to himself. I’m thinking of Wall-E; stuck cleaning the earth hundreds of years after the human race has fled the planet, and I feel like I could cry. This device could either be a technical revolution in clean-up operations and environmental monitoring, or the beginning of another epic end-of-the-world-themed Disney family favourite – I just hope it’s the former. Sob.
We need to fund more research like this! Plants always have the answer.
Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
The good drone news just keeps on coming. From nowhere only a few short years ago, now drones are appearing everywhere, sometimes doing bad things, like frightening horses and bothering airline pilots, but mostly doing good things, as in this story about drones patrolling the skies above the beaches of New South Wales, Australia, to aid in more effective shark detection. Shark attacks are a serious concern in Oz, with 23 recorded attacks in 2014 resulting in five fatalities. If drones can help reduce or even eliminate this number altogether, that’ll be bonzer, mate.
Sea birds crapping freely on oil rig helipads is no laughing matter for helicopter pilots trying to land safely, for oil rig workers having to negotiate the slippery surface, or for the platform owners, whose cleaning and maintenance bills are kept inordinately high on account of the ever-present, never-ending supply of greasy guano deposited by the visiting birds. Now a high-tech laser and audio show is being trialled on Total oil rigs to fend off our fouling feathered friends – in the nicest possible way – and encourage them to relieve themselves elsewhere. Where they will now go when nature calls is unknown. Things could get messy out at sea.
The government has announced that the cost of replacing Trident could rise to £40bn, up from £25bn which in itself was an increase on an earlier figure. CND says this is huge understatement and that it will cost £183bn to replace. (Take that with a pinch of salt though, maybe?). The SNP says £167bn. With figures flying from all directions, it seems pretty clear that no one knows exactly how much it will cost but it will definitely be bloody expensive. Whatever the final tally may be, in an era of extreme austerity which is severely impacting some of the worst off in our society, I don’t know whether spending all that on a deterrent that will never be used is the best use of the money. If London is nuked and I have to live in a radioactive wasteland akin to the recently released Xbox game Fallout 4, I doubt I will be too concerned about revenge on those that perpetrated the act. There will be far greater, immediate concerns such as how many experience points I can gather from shooting mutated crabs with homemade pipe guns.
Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
I’m not at all surprised that Estonia is the first country in the world to try Li-Fi – a new form of data transmission which is reportedly a hundred times faster than good old Wi-Fi. This promises to become the latest entry in the long list of Estonia’s pioneering digital-technology achievements which includes Skype, e-elections, e-government and e-voting, e-banking, e-schools and e-policing, to name just a few. How come that this tiny post-Communist nation with a population of less than 1.5 million has become the world’s undisputed high-tech leader? Well, you only have to search E&T online archives for the last eight years or so to find several features in which I have tried to answer this question, including my interview with the incumbent President of Estonia Toomas Hendrik Ilves [http://eandt.theiet.org/magazine/2012/03/is-e-government-good-for-your-health.cfm], himself a devoted technocrat. The short answer is that, faced with the pressing need to find a new identity after the collapse of the USSR, little Estonia chose to invest considerable resources into the areas it had always excelled in – namely, science and engineering. Twenty five years later, the results are truly amazing. Having attended a number of technology events and conferences in Tallinn, Estonia’s capital, I can vouch for the fact that leading e-government and cyber-technology experts from the USA, Germany, France, UK, South Korea and Japan regularly come to Estonia (or e-Estonia, as it is often referred to) not to teach, but to learn. Here it will be relevant to mention another e-Estonia first: a couple of weeks ago it became the first country in the world to offer e-Residency – secure government-backed digital identity available to anyone wishing to enjoy a wide range of government and business services developed in Estonia since the 1990s. My good acquaintance (and committed ‘Estonophile’, if there’s such a word) Edward Lucas of The Economist became the first e-resident of Estonia: “I carry a card in my pocket which gives me something almost nobody in Britain has: secure communications,” he commented in one of his recent interviews. I rest my case. And my e-case too.
What can I say? Not good news to receive on the glorious American holiday of Thanksgiving. Perhaps Americans could use a bit of Estonian experience here too: boost mobile phone payments rather than always using their credit cards? For many years now, it has been possible In Estonia to pay with one’s mobile for nearly everything, including a short bus or tram ride.
I’ve got an idea: how about devising some underwater drone sharks and using them to hunt the sharks proper? Should be more effective than plane drones. A challenge for Australian engineers.
Dickon Ross, editor in chief
What does the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement mean for engineering in the UK? It’s good news for science funding, bad news for energy-efficiency measures, and no reference to the proposed Heathrow expansion. Nor one mention of the word ‘engineering’.
Terrorists are trying to spread a deadly virus over London and a group of young heroes are engaged in a desperate struggle to stop the virus spreading through their building’s air conditioning. It sounds like a new movie plot but that was the scenario given to a group of potential cyber defenders when they gathered for an exercise in Church House, Westminster, last week. In the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks, we learnt that Islamic State is developing the capability to launch cyber attacks and the UK announced it would double its spending on cyber security. So are these the people to deliver it? E&T was there to see how they got on, in words and video.
Tereza Pultarova, news reporter
I hope I can say that E&T wholeheartedly supports this challenge. How cool would that be if there were no stinking polluting cars in the streets of London? Just quite clean electric vehicles charged using perfectly clean renewable power from omnipresent solar panel installations. Sounds like utopia but maybe the new better and healthier London will start emerging soon and maybe our grandchildren would not believe us one day when we tell them that when we were young, people actually had to worry whether the air they were breathing could possible kill them.
This one is clearly from the opposite range of the spectrum. Announced just before the kick-off of the climate change talks in Paris that seek a new international agreement to tackle the dangerously progressing global warming, the UK government has decided to pull a plug on technology that could help reduce emissions by a sixth of what is needed to achieve by 2050 if global temperatures are to be prevented from rising beyond the dangerous 2 °C threshold. With the money gone, the two projects competing for the funding are now likely to be scrapped.