E&T news weekly #75 – we choose our favourite engineering and technology news stories from the year 2015

Friday December 18 2015

It’s the last Friday before Christmas and the last time this year E&T’s editors will be bringing you their thoughts on what’s been happening in the week’s news. For a change, and in the spirit of the season, rather than restrict ourselves to the seven days just gone we’ve looked back at the past twelve months and thought about which of the many, many stories that have appeared on http://eandt.theiet.org/news/index.cfm were particularly significant either globally or personally. See you again in 2016!

Vitali Vitaliev  Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
Iceland: powered by the planet

Sometimes, on seeing a feature in E&T, I say to myself, “I wish I’d written that!”. That was precisely the feeling I had after reading in the June 2015 issue Felicity Aston’s report on the uses of geothermal energy in Iceland, ‘Iceland: Powered by the Planet’. Here I have to confess that until several months ago, Iceland remained one of the two or three countries in Europe that I hadn’t visited (albeit I had always wanted to, particularly after the time spent researching a book in the Faroe Islands, Iceland’s closest neighbour). That unfortunate oversight of mine had to be corrected, and I chose Iceland as the destination for a week-long holiday in autumn 2015. As a writer (and a travel writer, in particular), I always try to learn as much as possible about the place I visit – be it for holidays or for the purposes of research, and while in Iceland I could not help noticing the truly amazing achievements of the locals in the fields of energy and ecology – an attitude that can be explained by the country’s unique geographical situation. Indeed, for millions of years, Europe’s second largest island has been sitting on top of the highly seismic Mid-Atlantic Ridge, separating North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. Every year, over 20,000 earthquakes and tremors of different strength are registered in the country, whose territory straddles four volcanic zones, 32 volcanic systems and 130 volcanic mountains. Thirty of those 130 volcanoes are active, and many have erupted mightily and repeatedly throughout the years. Countless geothermal springs are among the signs of the ongoing volcanic activity, so it wouldn’t be a huge exaggeration to say that Iceland is sitting on top of a natural powder barrel with a smouldering detonation cord attached.

One of the archetypal traits of the Icelandic psyche is practicality. Not only have the Icelanders learned to live on top of that proverbial powder barrel, but they have also managed to turn that daily threat into a source of energy. On the offshore island of Heimaey, the site of a powerful 1973 volcanic eruption that caused temporary evacuation of the whole population, they even found the way of heating the island’s only settlement with the energy of the cooling lava as the exiled locals started returning home several months after the disaster.

And while world leaders were debating the issues of climate change at numerous summit meetings, Icelanders were actually busy building geothermal plants. There are now five large geothermal power stations producing over a quarter of the country’s electricity and heating nearly 90 per cent of all its buildings. It’s not common knowledge that in winter all pavements in Reykjavik, the country’s capital, are heated with thermal energy.

I was lucky to spend a day in Hveragerði, a small town about 50 km from Reykjavik which is also known as the hot spring capital of the world. Indeed, Hveragerði and the surrounding area are literally swarming with hot springs, and the locals routinely use geothermal energy not just for heating their dwellings and Iceland’s biggest public swimming pool, but also for cooking, baking, washing up and even for making their world-famous ice cream! The hot springs’ energy is used in dozens of hot houses in which various tropical and subtropical plants are being cultivated, so some of the bananas we buy in UK supermarkets could have easily been grown in Hveragerði, Iceland!

Never before had I come across a better illustration to the old adage “Every cloud has a silver lining”. The Icelanders have managed to turn their permanent volcanic “cloud” from a huge disadvantage to a natural bonanza. It was a truly amazing story, and I would have certainly written it for E&T myself, had it not been for Felicity Aston’s excellent feature, commissioned by another editor and published before I even travelled to Iceland.

That alone, however, wouldn’t have been enough to nominate it as my pick of the year, were it not for a news story covered by the British media on 16 October. “Icelandic volcanic energy may power British homes” was its headline in The Times. The story revealed the plans to start using the power of Icelandic volcanoes to power British homes within seven years, for which purpose an undersea cable carrying hydro and geothermal-generated electricity would be stretched between the two countries.

Whether those far-reaching (in the true sense) plans come to fruition or not, to me, it all sounds like a positive development incorporating the best principles of international co-operation, goodwill and engineering ingenuity – the news that the modern world, overcome with problems and negativity, is so desperate to hear.

And – believe it or not – when I learned of the recent signing of the long-awaited Paris Climate Change Conference Agreements, my first thoughts were about that small European country – Iceland – which has inspired the world with its continuous and determined eco-policies.

Jack Loughran  Jack Loughran, news reporter
Boy arrested over TalkTalk data hack
Average age of cyber-criminals drops to 17

Cyber-security issues have really come to a head this year with one company after another reporting that data has been stolen from their servers. Off the top of my head I can think of TalkTalk, T-Mobile, Marks & Spencer, Wetherspoons, even the US Government, that have all been impacted by a spotty teenager messing around on his mum’s laptop, porn probably playing in another window. A recent analysis found that the average age of cyber-criminals is now just 17. The massive data breach at TalkTalk was orchestrated by a 15 year old from Northern Ireland for example. It seems that virtual security is dragging far behind its physical equivalent. While key cards and locked doors prevent anyone from just wondering into an office and taking what they like, it seems this same principle is not being applied to cyber-space.

Rebecca Northfield  Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
Spiders sprayed with graphene weave superwebs

2015 has been chock-full of discoveries that have taken inspiration from the wonderful world of nature. Earlier this year, a superfast octopus robot drone was made to show how underwater UAVs could be made more powerful. In June, squid-inspired ‘skin’ was developed to make materials smart, meaning the substance could be used for things like camouflage or search and rescue operations. Another tentacle innovation was the robot arm that behaves like an octopus’s limb, which could revolutionise keyhole surgery. This month, American researchers developed a biological chip that could pave the way for power sources in ATP-rich environments like inside living cells, by using natural enzymes responsible for transporting energy.

Looking back at the news stories from this year, it surprises me how much nature comes up. As ‘mother nature’ has been doing fine all by herself for a long time, and life has evolved in its own beautiful and extraordinary way, it’s no wonder that researchers look to the wonders of the natural world.

One brilliant idea that Italian scientists were working on in May was graphene-sprayed super-spiders. The spiders were sprayed with graphene and carbon nanotubes, creating a type of super-fibre when they wove their webs. The process combined the properties of one of nature’s best materials and man-made substances, making an unprecedented fibre with awesome mechanical properties. This means we could have bionic materials available to us sooner than we think. It could even catch falling aircrafts if the work continues. That would have been really useful for all the horrific plane crashes that have been happening this year.

Nature is one of those things that will never fail. It will always evolve and become greater, and I suppose we should grow with it. The possibilities are potentially endless when we work with nature to better ourselves.

dominic-lenton  Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Technology addiction a ‘lifelong struggle’ for teenagers
Average age of cyber-criminals drops to 17

Kids these days…. Turning 50, and realising I’ve got a couple of years ahead when all three of my children will be teenagers, may explain why I’ve sometimes sounded like a sitcom dad straight out of central casting when commenting on E&T’s news coverage during 2015. I hope younger readers have some sympathy with my cynicism. When you’ve seen how often the shiny promise of new technology fails to live up to expectations or creates more problems than it solves, you tend to be pessimistic about anything that promises to solve all mankind’s problems. In a way though, it’s harder for anyone having to get through their formative years in a time of such rapid change. When I was a teen, the worry was whether the Atari console or digital watch you were hoping to get for Christmas would still be the latest thing in a year or two’s time. Now the wrapping’s hardly off a gadget before it’s telling you itself, via social media, that you’re already behind the curve.

It was easy enough to find news to illustrate the situation – two examples bookend our news coverage at the start and end of the year. Our first story of 2015 warned how a small number of 12-18 year olds are still getting their kicks the traditional way from underage drinking, but that around two thirds consider their real vices, the things they can’t imagine living without, to be texting and social media. The idea of gadget addiction’s nothing new, what we’re seeing though is a change in underlying causes. Instead of being glued to a screen trying to complete the next level of a game, kids are driven by a need for peer approval, instant gratification and an unhealthy degree of narcissism. If anything, the estimate that the average teenager checks social media 11 times a day and sends 17 text messages shows how quickly the picture is changing. Twelve months on, most parents will recognise that as a conservative amount of online engagement.

Come December, and we’ve had a series of cybercrimes that have caused serious disruption to consumers and have done much to erode public confidence in online security. Who’s to blame? Well, there haven’t been any convictions yet, but following the arrests of several youngsters the National Crime Agency has suggested the average age of cybercriminals has fallen from 24 at the start of the year to just 17. It’s not archetypical geeky boys hunched over screens in their bedrooms either. The prestige associated with hacking and general savviness with technology has created a generation for whom activities that could earn them a criminal record are worth the risk.

Sounds like bad news all round, but at the same time we’re told repeatedly about the skills crisis in UK engineering and technology, and the problem of getting young people to consider careers in the sector. The challenge for 2016 then is to harness all that excess energy being expended on doing things for fun or to impress friends and show how with a bit of discipline it can lead to a fun, interesting and well-remunerated job. The National Crime Agency’s doing its bit with a campaign aimed at parents, who are then supposed to talk to their offspring. What self-respecting teen hacker’s going to listen to careers advice from their mum and dad though? Let’s hope some of the genuinely influential role models – writers, musicians, social media CEOs or whoever – can be persuaded to start talking about this in 2016.

Lorna Sharpe  Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
Network Rail delays infrastructure projects, sells £1.8bn in assets

One way and another, it’s been a mixed year for railway projects in Britain. The Borders Railway opened in Scotland, and Crossrail is coming along nicely in London, but work to electrify the Great Western line is way behind schedule and its current costings suggest that the original budget was based on not much more than optimistic guesswork. Other electrification projects have been ‘paused’ and then ‘unpaused’ again with receding completion dates, and Network Rail has been subject to no less than three investigations, essentially covering past mistakes, its present situation and what its future should look like. I don’t note all this in any spirit of gloating; I like travelling by train and I want to see the railway thriving. But I was asked to pick one significant story from the year. I hope the significance of this one will be that it marks a turning point, from which things start to get better.

Jonathan Wilson  Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
First people injured in crash of self-driving Google cars

Autonomous vehicles have become increasingly mobile in recent times, with 2015 seeing driverless vehicles of all shapes and sizes – from soap-bar concept cars to articulated delivery trucks – take their first tentative forays outside the safe confines of private test tracks and begin to explore the more unpredictable roads of the wider public world. Inevitably, all has not gone smoothly. The news in July that one of Google’s Lexus SUV autonomous cars had been involved in a fender bender in Caifornia and that the three occupants of the self-driving vehicle all reported suffering whiplash injuries seemed to serve as a stark warning about mankind’s rush to abandon the steering wheel and allow robots to run amok on our public highways and byways in some terrifying live-action emulation of Death Race 2000.

Lightly scratching the surface of this story, however, it transpired that actually it was the Google autonomous vehicle that was rudely rear-ended by a car under human control, while the Google car waited politely and correctly in the circumstances for the traffic in front to clear before it moved ahead. Moreover, of all 13 known traffic incidents involving autonomous vehicles, all were the result of human error on the part of the driver of the other vehicle. So, bad humans, not bad robots.

Perhaps with this in mind, California state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) has recently – if somewhat cautiously – waved the chequered flag to allow driverless cars to be freely allowed on its roads by 2017. Gentlemen, start your engines – or at least have your autonomous robot butlers start them for you.

Aasha Bodhani  Aasha Bodhani, industry features editor
Almost half of UK consumers have experienced cybercrime

What a year it has been for cybercriminals; this year alone almost every large company, such as TalkTalk, Marks & Spencer’s, Carphone Warehouse, Ashley Madison, and most recently VTech have experienced a cyber-attack. This year the government launched a Cyber Governance Health Check for 350 of the biggest businesses in the UK to enable them to understand what a cyber-attack is and how to protect their infrastructure. Of course when a company has been hacked, the consumer is also at risk. Norton Cybersecurity Insights reported 44 per cent of UK consumers have been targeted. This again is no surprise with the Internet of Things influencing our homes, transport, and personal lives. It is unlikely 2016 will be cyber-crime free, but there’s hope companies will better protect their networks.

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