E&T news weekly #83 – we choose our favourite engineering and technology news stories from the week

Friday 26 February 2016

Jack Loughran  Jack Loughran, news reporter
Apple v FBI may speed up government-proof safeguards

The FBI’s recent efforts to convince Apple to produce software that can bypass iPhone security systems are a cynical attempt to use a tragic event as a means to bolster their surveillance powers. The San Bernardino shootings were widely covered in the national media and understandably provoked a lot of anger from the public. The FBI argues that gaining access to the smartphone of one of the shooters would help it to advance the investigation; Apple has declined due to its policy to never undermine the security features of its products. The FBI is attempting to ride the wave of public outrage over the event in order to leverage its position. After all, it’s not like there haven’t other times in the past where it would have been useful to uncover the data on an iPhone, it’s just that now is the time where the public might actually support this level of intrusion. But Apple is right to stick to its stance. To give way would be akin to compromising the locks of every door in the country in order for the FBI to gain access to one house.

Vitali Vitaliev  Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
Wearable tech for cats and dogs at MWC 2016

Apart from being a truly amazing story per se, this news report gave me some faint hope that my wife and I will at last be able to acquire a dog soon! We both have been dreaming of buying a friendly cocker spaniel for years. The problem is we are both in full-time employment, and dogs in general (spaniels in particular) do not take loneliness very well and get easily depressed when left to their own devices. In plain speak, we have no one who could look after our dream pet in our absence. As for a fairly new, yet quickly multiplying, breed of dog walkers who would be happy to look after our would-be doggy for some meagre 10 quid an hour, we simply cannot afford them. But now there’s hope at last! The new “programmable robot to keep the dog company when no one is at home” could herald a much-coveted resolution to our dilemma. There’s one potential small problem though: what if the robot starts feeling lonely in the company of the dog and gets depressed as a result too? The solution of course would be to get another robot, who would keep the first one company. But then the old affordability issue will kick in, I am sure. Well, life is not meant to be easy, in the words of one intelligent Australian Prime Minister. Having weighed all pros and cons, I decided I’d rather invest in a fitness tracker. Not for my non-existent dog, mind you, but purely for myself.

Farming robot autonomously roots out and destroys weeds

The caption underneath the photo illustrating this story claims that the amazing farming robot is designed not just to destroy but also to identify “all kinds of weeds”. If he (she? it?) is really able to do so, then she (he? it?) is far more intelligent than yours truly: I always manage (inadvertently) to root out a number of precious (from my wife’s point of view) flowers while mowing the lawn. So if this robot can indeed tell yarrow from daisies and creeping thistle, and all three of those from carnations, I cannot help admiring it (him? her?) and hope he (she? it?) will soon be available for hire.

Jonathan Wilson  Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
Robot pet plaything also patrols your home – MWC 2016

Cute bots are everywhere – not just in your jeans. At this year’s Mobile World Congress telecoms expo, LG demonstrated its rolling, remote-controlled, home-monitoring robot, which will patrol your house, entertain your pets, control smart IoT objects in your house and beam its findings back to your LG G5 smartphone, all via a dedicated Android app. Rolly (not its real name; that’s what I’ll be calling mine) can even roll itself back to the charging station when its power gets low. Who needs a real pet at all when you’ve got a robot friend this amenable?

Moon landing 1969 telescope discovers new galaxies

Listen up, kids: gather round to hear proof positive tales of old stuff still being highly relevant and productive in the modern world without needing to be relegated to the status of retro or vintage simply by dint of its age. An Australian telescope used to broadcast live vision of man’s first steps on the moon in 1969 has found hundreds of new galaxies hidden behind the Milky Way by using an innovative receiver that measures radio waves. The electronic technology at the back end has substantially advanced over the years, enabling the scientists to take full advantage of the high quality of the telescope front end.

Lorna Sharpe  Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
Moon landing 1969 telescope discovers new galaxies

Scientists at Australia’s Parkes Observatory have detected 883 galaxies, a third of which had never been seen before, using an innovative 21cm multibeam receiver to pick up radio waves emanating from areas previously obscured by the Milky Way. I like the idea that such an old telescope can be updated with modern electronics and continue to perform sterling service in an age when new technology always seems to have a shorter lifespan than what it replaces.

Facebook uniting telecom sector for 5G development

In a way, this story illustrates my previous point. It’s really not that long in the overall scheme of things since 3G was the coming technology, worthy of articles in the technical press, yet now we’re already preparing for 5G. That’s partly because, in a twist on Parkinson’s law, content expands to fill the bandwidth available, and people are encouraged to feel short-changed if they can’t download full-length feature films over the air. In many ways all this enhanced capability is a good thing, but I can’t help thinking that a lot of perfectly sound hardware is going to become unusable as a result. How can we balance technological progress with sustainability?

dominic-lenton  Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Farming robot autonomously roots out and destroys weeds

The first of a couple of welcome stories to counter the ‘robots are coming to take our jobs’ alarmism. Unless you’re a mediaeval peasant scraping a living through subsistence farming on remote hillside, it’s good news that an agricultural robot being tested in Yorkshire can seek out and destroy weeds in isolated and hilly areas which would otherwise be difficult or expensive to utilise for crops. The result is reduced use of environmentally unfriendly herbicides, and less emissions from tractors and quad bikes bombing around the countryside. The only worrying thing if you buy into ‘rise of the robots’ fears of androids planning to eliminate humanity is that IBEX has apparently been built to military standards. Fleets of autonomous vehicles equipped with heavy duty weeding equipment turning on their masters before heading for the world’s cities isn’t quite a Terminator scenario; ‘caution: robot at work’ could eventually replace ‘beware of the bull’ as a warning to ramblers in the future though.

Wearable robot arm lets drummers play with three hands

From the world of music comes a device that isn’t going to replace human instrumentalists but will help them play in different ways. There’s never been a shortage of drummer jokes (“What do you call someone who hangs around with musicians?” being a perennial favourite) and it’s amusing just to think what the creators of Spinal Tap would have made of a wearable robotic limb which provides percussionists with an additional hand. The fact it’s described as a ‘smart arm’ doesn’t help.

Katia Moskvitch  Katia Moskvitch, technology features editor
Robots: autonomous deep-sea explorers and multi-terrain walkers

Robots don’t quite look like humans yet and there’s still much they can’t do – but they are getting there. Scientists have now developed autonomous underwater devices able to make decisions in real time based on their surroundings – and these particular machines could help help us with deep-sea exploration. Unlike most autonomous vehicles currently used for ocean exploration, these robots are programmed to allow them to change their behaviour in response to what is going on around them. For example, when acoustic sensors aboard the device detected the right size and concentration of squid, it triggered a second mission to report the robot’s position in the water and then run a pre-programmed grid to map the area in finer detail. I don’t believe that robots will one day completely replace humans, but they will – and already are – certainly lend us a helping (mechanical) hand!

Tereza Pultarova  Tereza Pultarova, news reporter
Robot pet plaything also patrols your home – MWC 2016
Wearable tech for cats and dogs at MWC 2016

Animal-centred wearables and electronic devices have received quite some attention at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week, clearly showing that manufacturers are looking to explore new markets. A fitness tracker for dogs has been unveiled by South Korea’s largest wireless operator SK Telecom, together with a GPS tracker that allows dog owners to talk to their pets in case they get lost. The firm also showcased a robotic ball that can be used for the dog’s or cat’s entertainment when no one is at home. SK Telecom hasn’t been the only electronics company exploring the latter idea. In fact, LG has gotten one step further. While SK Telecom’s Friendsbot cannot be remotely controlled, LG’s Rolling Bot, although moving around much more slowly, enables the owner to engage with the pet remotely via an Android app. LG’s ball-like bot is connected to WiFi and fitted with speakers and microphones, which means that the owner can even talk to the lonely animal or hear whether it’s in distress.

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