E&T news weekly #81 – we choose our favourite engineering and technology news stories from the week

Friday 12 February 2016

Jade Fell  Jade Fell, assistant features editor
Ground-penetrating radar spies on wombat colonies

This is the news that the University of Adelaide has begun researching the social lives of the southern hairy-nosed wombats using a ground-penetrating radar. Aside from the fact that this piece of news is excellently written by yours truly, I absolutely hate it. I really did not enjoy having to research and write the story, but we wanted to see how many of you would be lured into reading a story about something warm and fuzzy. Normally I’m all for the warm and fuzzy – but not when it involves marsupials. The truth of the matter is I simply do not like them. I’m sorry, I know a lot of people find wombats endearing, or maybe even, gag, ‘cute’, but they are just not for me. Vile little external-wombed rodents. The best thing about this technology is that now I can know exactly where wombats are, and avoid the locations completely.

‘Disgusting’ cockroach robots designed to locate disaster victims

Scientists at University of California Berkeley have developed a miniature robot that could be used in disaster areas to find victims trapped in unreachable areas. The Cram (Compressible Robot with Articulated Mechanisms), which takes inspiration from everyone’s favourite nuclear-war resistant critter, is able to squeeze itself into tiny gaps – just like a cockroach. The ‘soft’ robot is constructed using an origami-like manufacturing technique enabling it to compress its body in order to squeeze through vertically confined spaces. It’s no secret that I am a fan of little robots, and this one is no exception. Unlike cockroaches, this little guy is seriously cool, and dare I say it – cute! At the very least, he is nowhere near as ‘disgusting’ as the southern hairy-nosed wombat.

Vitali Vitaliev  Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
‘Disgusting’ cockroach robots designed to locate disaster victims

Looks like “disgusting” (in the words of their creator) robots are on the rise. The fact that some simple cockroaches could inspire scientists to come up with that very effective (in locating disaster victims) “soft robot” made me recall an article in The Times this week about an ongoing proliferation of bed bugs in hotels throughout the world and giving travellers some useful tips on how to avoid being bitten by those tiny, yet extremely gluttonous, blood-suckers. Now, if you ask me, bed bugs are much higher on my personal ‘disgust’ scale that some friendly, domesticated (and fairly harmless) cockroaches. Why don’t the University of California Berkeley scientists try to get inspiration from the former, who, according to the same Times article, are also extremely adept at moving through cracks and crevices? You never know, they may then come up with a robot many times smaller – and hence many times more dexterous –than the cockroach-inspired one? How ‘disgusting’ would that be! Food for thought.

Drone-killing eagles in Holland inspire Metropolitan police

I apologise if my picks from our news this week have a distinct animal-kingdom (for cockroaches and bed-bugs, while being insects, are also kind of animals, or aren’t they?) touch, if not smell, but I simply could not miss the story of the eagles trained to ‘kill’ illegal stray drones and being offered pieces of meat as reward “after every successful strike”. Dutch police have even taught the predator birds to recognise drones and to treat the latter as their prey (hopefully, not quite, for eagles are bound to choke if they try to gobble up a drone). It is reassuring to learn that London’s Metropolitan Police are thinking of enrolling some eagles too. My only worry is that the birds’ recognition skills could fail them, and – instead of a drone – they could mistakenly attack another flying target, like, say, another large bird, a glider, a small aircraft or even a hapless police chopper on patrol?? The ensuing confrontation could end badly for both parties. I am also rather intrigued by the Dutch policeman’s confession, quoted in the news story, to the effect that he is not sure of “how the birds will fare in a crowd situation”. What exactly does he mean? In short, if I had any say in the matter (which, luckily, I do not), I would advise both Dutch and British police forces to stick to traditional drone-fighting methods, like hacking or net-throwing (as they already do in the Netherlands), and leave eagles to their own devices: building nests and attacking small rodents to feed their hungry fledglings with raw meat, not the drones’ spare parts.

Jonathan Wilson  Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
Climate change to increase cost and length of transatlantic flights

More unexpected side-effects of global warming and climate change: longer and costlier flights across the Atlantic. Permanently stronger jet stream winds, caused by climate change, will slow planes down just as surely as trying to pedal your bike uphill with the wind in your face. Higher fuel bills for airlines will almost certainly mean higher ticket prices for passengers.

AI drones track forest paths to help locate missing people

Contrary to the popular maxim, it turns out that actually some of those who wander _are_ lost. Apparently, our woods and forests are chockablock with people helplessly lost and fearful of imminent attack by wolves. What’s the solution in locating all these geospatially challenged ramblers and restoring them to their rightful urban environs? Drones.

dominic-lenton  Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Robot fears exacerbating UK productivity crisis

The kicker to this story comes in the final paragraph, where we learn that a survey held at the World Economic Forum in Davos came to the conclusion that it’s not just manual workers in manufacturing industry who need to worry about robots taking their jobs. Anyone in an administrative role is at risk of getting the boot as well, plus those employed in “entry-level journalism”. I don’t know about admin, but it should be obvious that every experienced journalist, doing the sort of reporting that robots can’t hope to replicate, had to start somewhere. It’s not as if there’s a bunch of hacks so untalented or unambitious that they’re doing the same work the day they retire that they did in their first few months on the job. The main point ABB is making – that UK manufacturers need to be less cautious about replacing people with machines if they’re not going to be overtaken by overseas competitors – is a fair one, even if it won’t go down well with their workforces. Commentators just need to remember that just because artificial intelligence can do a job almost as well as a human, then it’s always a good long-term plan to make the switch.

Google’s AI gets green light to drive autonomous vehicles in US

One task that AI can do as well as a human, given the chance, should be driving a car safely. A drawback to giving technology the chance has been that the law has generally required a person who’s qualified to drive to be in the vehicle just in case they need to take over. News that US regulators have told Google that a machine can be considered a driver in its own right under federal law will open up this area of research to what it potentially the most useful application – letting people who can’t drive due to disability enjoy the same benefits of car ownership as anyone else.

Rebecca Northfield  Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
Driverless cars set to dominate UK roads by 2050

According to this news story, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers says I’ll be about 60 when driverless cars become the norm. Knowing me, when I get to that age, I’ll be even weirder than I am now. So how would I keep myself busy as I trust my life with a machine?

I’ll do the whole ‘no hands!’ joke when I get my car, for sure, but passengers will tire of that quickly, especially if they have one themselves and everyone else on the roads are chugging along in their super-economic, electrical, renewable-energied vehicles. I dare say it may become quite boring for me. How would I distract myself in busy journeys? It was hard enough travelling in the back seat when I was a child, playing travel-sized noughts and crosses with my brother, losing little pieces and then arguing about who won whilst we threw the remaining bits at each other.

Perhaps I can stare at people in other cars and when they look at me, maintain wide-eyed contact until one of us breaks. I am well-versed in freaking people out in long-haul travelling. I could play a downsized version of ‘walking down the stairs’ with passers-by?

Truthfully, I find my own company rather tiresome, so strangers will have to do. I’ll probably become a public nuisance. Yet I’m sure some super-duper invention will come along to placate people like me. Like a risk-free tranquiliser.

Dickon Ross  Dickon Ross, editor in chief
‘Disgusting’ cockroach robots designed to locate disaster victims

First engineers attached electrodes to cockroaches to make remote-controlled cyber-roaches. Then, in a bizarre twist, they attached sensors to cockroaches to make roach-controlled people. Now they are using these repulsive insects as inspiration for the design of remote robe-roaches that can squeeze into the finest of gaps in, for example, the rubble of a collapsed building, to help to find survivors that need rescuing.

Optical transmission system smashes data rate record

Communications technology is going to be the technological enabler for many other engineering developments over the next decade. This week, British researchers set a new world record for broadband, while Japanese researchers unveiled a wireless transmitter that could give wi-fi the speed of fibre-optics.

Jack Loughran  Jack Loughran, reporter
Biometric systems bringing voting clarity to Africa

Africa has always been dogged by extreme political corruption; many of the so-called democratic countries hardly seem to be ruled by leaders that have the people’s interests truly at heart. This new system that identifies voters based on their biometric data to ensure that they are real people and have only voted once seems like a good idea in principle. Even the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission has announced it wants to introduce the technology in its 2018 election. Despite this, I would put a lot of money on Robert Mugabe winning the presidency again (assuming he lives that long). In the most recent election, his landslide victory coupled with allegations of widespread electoral fraud showed that the entire voting process was little more than a farce to placate people into thinking they had any real say in the outcome. The Zimbabwean system, like those of many other African countries such as Uganda, is clearly corrupt to the core. I doubt that biometric voting technology, while a nice idea on paper, will really lead to fairer elections in many of these countries where the top brass are largely unperturbed by little things such as the will of the people.

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