E&T news weekly #74 – we choose our favourite engineering and technology news stories from the week

Friday December 11 2015

Vitali Vitaliev  Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
American teenager builds turkey-roasting drone

This is one of the most bizarre news stories I have come across this year, so much so that it almost defies any comment. Yet it immediately brought back memories of one of the most popular magazines of my childhood – ‘Yuniy Tekhnik’, or ‘Young Technician’ in Russian. With a monthly circulation of over 8 million copies, it used to be the favourite read of any Soviet teenager who knew how to read – and most of us did. The magazine actively encouraged inventiveness among its readers, yet of a particular belligerent kind. The most common winners of its regular readers’ competitions were young inventors of fully functioning models of tanks, APCs, rocket launchers and missiles – much smaller in size (thank God) than the originals, yet capable of shooting (or being shot), and with regulation red stars lovingly painted on them, leaving little doubt as to who these ‘toys’ were targeting. As a popular children’s rhyme by Vladimir Mayakovsky went: “Let’s all take new guns, made of wood, and attack our enemies!” Looking back, I am glad for that “made of wood” clause. At first glance, the turkey-burning drone, invented by gifted American child prodigy has little to do with fighting and aggression. But as I watched it in operation on YouTube I couldn’t help feeling uneasy, for it was obviously not just some uncomplaining Thanksgiving Day turkeys that the sinisterly hissing device could burn (or incinerate) at the whim of its not-too-mature an operator, who, as it turns out, had already been in trouble with police for inventing a “handgun-shooting drone”! And although the story did not contain a direct link to the gun culture and to regular shootings in American schools (as someone who had lived in the States I know only too well that they happen nearly every day and only a few get reported internationally), I somehow could not help thinking that there was a connection.

Jonathan Wilson  Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
Average age of cyber-criminals drops to 17

When I was 17, my life was mostly about music, guitars, underage drinking and wishing more girls would talk to me. The film War Games had been out a few years earlier, featuring a teenage computer hacker who accidentally hacks in to a military supercomputer while searching for new games, although as entertaining as this was I couldn’t much relate to the story when the most powerful computer I’d experienced at that time was my Sinclair Spectrum ZX48K. A fine computer for playing Manic Miner and Penetrator, no doubt, but I couldn’t conceive of it being capable of hacking in to anything or using it for any nefarious intent. Then again, my coding skills at that time amounted to little more than typing “10 Print Hello everyone / 20 Go to 10 / 30 Run” on every demo machine in the shops in my local town. My friends and I sometimes typed other, more colourful messages, too, but we can’t reproduce them here for reasons of decency. Good times. Anyhoo, the news that the average age of cyber-criminals has dropped to 17 is indicative of what more and more teenagers do with their computer time these days and how easy it has become to acquire the advanced hardware, software and IT skills necessary to carry out such complex attacks. I’m sure they still have the same trouble talking to girls, though. Some things never change.

Jade Fell  Jade Fell, assistant features editor
Turning CO2 into fuel with sunlight and water

American researchers from the University of Pittsburgh have developed a new method of turning atmospheric carbon dioxide into fuel using water and sunlight. The method uses principles identical to those of plants in nature, which harvest water, sunlight and CO2 to create sugars to grow, and may eventually be developed into technology to power conventional fossil fuel power plants. Now, I’m not saying that this development isn’t interesting – it’s great news for the renewable energy sector, and that’s always a plus in my book – but feel like the flora behind the process are being exploited by having their ideas stolen and getting nothing in return. I know, I’m a sucker for non-sentient beings, and you probably think I’m insane, but this is something that plants have been doing naturally since the beginning of time. These researchers may have developed a method of artificially replicating this process, but it’s the plants that actually created this method of fuel production. So no, Pitt, I’m not impressed by your work, you should give credit where credit is due – this one’s a point for the green team.

American teenager builds turkey-roasting drone

A nineteen-year-old daredevil drone enthusiast has invented an unmanned, fire-spitting aircraft that is capable of roasting a whole turkey. That may sound dangerous, but when you take into account that this young entrepreneur has previously had run ins with the police for using a drone to take pictures of a woman on the beach, and for developing another capable of firing a gun, I think it’s great he’s finally putting his interest to good use. Think about it, no more pesky turkey fumes invading your house every Thanksgiving, because now you can cook that bird in the back yard using this fire-breathing, turkey-roasting drone! And, as long as you have “fire extinguishers, hoses and buckets of water at hand” just in case anything goes wrong I have it on rather good authority that the drone poses absolutely “no risk or danger”. Fantastic.

Heat from sewage scheme warms Scottish students

Oh. This is just gross. Like when you try to sit down in a public place but the seat is already warm – I know where that heat came from, and I don’t want to share it. No thank you.

Lorna Sharpe  Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
Flood expert advocates elevating all new UK buildings off ground

Eminent civil engineer Professor David Balmforth is reported as saying that all new buildings should be raised a metre above the ground to prevent flood damage. That’s perhaps a rather sweeping statement – I live at the top of a hill and worry more about high winds than flooding – but we do need to understand that a ‘once in a hundred years’ flood risk doesn’t mean that there won’t be a flood before 2115. Nor does protecting the whole country to that level mean that there won’t be floods somewhere every few years – just that they won’t always happen in the same place. And maybe every household should develop a plan for emergencies, rather than having to work it out from first principles when a crisis is looming.

India gives go ahead for Japanese bullet train line

India is expected to announce plans to build a high-speed railway line between Mumbai and Ahmedabad any day now, following agreement on the terms of a loan from Japan for the project. Given its large size and long railway history, it’s perhaps surprising that India doesn’t yet have any high-speed lines. It looks as if Japan has stolen a march on China in breaking into this market, but the first line isn’t likely to be the last.

Rebecca Northfield  Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
Digital Tom Hanks created in 3D just from online images

I want my own Tom Hanks! Well, the research from the University of Washington won’t give me my own Tom, but at least I could have a conversation with him. A planned conversation, anyway. The team created a 3D reconstruction of the actor’s face which can give authentic-looking speeches which the actor never said. This means that if I got my hands on the research, he could say quotes from his films and not be annoyed by it. Maybe I could put him on repeat. “WILSON! COME BACK!” or “YOU ARE A TOY!” That sort of thing. It would really make my day. The Oscar winner has got one of the coolest voices in the business. Perhaps they could do Morgan Freeman next. Now that man has the best voice. Or David Attenborough. He could narrate my boring life in the most enigmatic way.

dominic-lenton  Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Beijing unveils gigantic, ultra-fast EV charging station for buses

As the British government effectively punts the question of how it’s going to cope with the need for airport expansion into the long grass for the time being, China demonstrates that however distasteful you might find its way of making decisions about infrastructure, it at least gets things done. In London, prospective neighbours of a huge depot capable of charging up fleets of electric buses would likely have been up in arms and got into a planning wrangle that would have taken years to resolve. Beijing, which has already started replacing natural gas hybrid buses with fully electric ones to help mitigate an air pollution problem that’s also been in the news this week, was able to get on with the project with no such worries. Few would regard either regime’s approach as ideal, but the situation illustrates what a dramatic difference prevailing political influence can have on the speed with which new technology is allowed to get a foothold.

Obama wants to stop terrorists using social media

Meanwhile, in America the President is faced with the need to be seen to be doing something in response to a terrorist attack on home soil. His ability to force social media companies to collaborate with security services in identifying where chatting about politics crosses the line into actual planning of criminal activity is questionable, but the fact he’s said it needs to be done could be interpreted as a veiled threat to anyone not prepared to cooperate. How far do you take monitoring though? Speculation that the recent atrocities in Paris might have been planned using the Playstation gaming network proved unfounded, but highlighted that there are busy and well populated areas of the internet outside Facebook and Twitter that can still be considered part of the social media ecosystem that government agencies will have their work cut out keeping an eye on.

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