E&T news weekly #85 – we choose our favourite engineering and technology news stories from the week

Friday 11 March 2016

Jack Loughran  Jack Loughran, news reporter
Tomatoes, peas and rye successfully grown in Mars soil

Simulated Mars soil has been shown to successfully cultivate ten different crops; could this be an important stepping stone to human colonisation of the Red Planet? Maybe. The soil itself is packed full of nasty elements like mercury and arsenic that could be absorbed by the plants and their fruits and would make a human very sick indeed. But the whole experiment really leads to the wider question of whether we want to colonise Mars at all. During the night, the planet gets down to about minus 70 degrees C, the kind of temperature that could kill a human very quickly. The problem here is that the planet is simply too far away from the Sun, it’s about 50 per cent further away than the earth. There is no life on Mars for an obvious reason- these inhospitable temperatures simply cannot cultivate it. Even if terraforming technology was somehow capable of creating a viable atmosphere on the planet, the heat retention would not be sufficient without physically moving it closer to the Sun. Without an interstellar tow truck, dreams of Mars colonisation should probably be put to rest for now.

Vitali Vitaliev  Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
Tomatoes, peas and rye successfully grown in Mars soil

This news story could have been illustrated with a picture of Matt Damon, playing Mark Watney, an astronaut of the future accidentally abandoned on Mars by his fellow crew members and left to his own devices in ‘The Martian’. As those who have seen that movie may remember, Damon (who got an Oscar nomination for this role), alias Mark Watney, tried to survive on Mars by growing potatoes in his own faeces. If we believe the news story in question, by doing so he was pretty much wasting his time (and faeces too), for he could have – theoretically at least – grown rye, tomatoes, peas, radish and possibly even potatoes too, using the natural Martian soil, as the ingenious scientists from the Wageningen University & Research Centre in the Netherlands did (they didn’t bring the soil from Mars, but simulated it in a laboratory). There was only one small, yet significant, difference between their ‘end products’ and Watney’s. The scientists’ veggies, as they themselves acknowledged, were all but inedible. Unlike Mark/Matt’s life-saving and seemingly yummy potatoes, which he kept gobbling up for all he was worth! So, in reality, it was not Watney, but the respected Dutch academics who were wasting their time as well as their research resources and facilities. They would have done better by following in the movie astronaut’s footsteps, which would have led them straight to the nearest toilet.

Cambridge initiative aims to create ‘hyper-connected’ city

I wonder if – as someone who lives less than 30 miles away from it – I qualify to be called a resident of “Cambridge and its surrounding areas” and could therefore take part in the initiative designed to improve the region’s “connectivity”, which as I can myself testify is both poor and erratic at present? According to this news story, taking part is not going to be particularly burdensome: I will just have to use my iPhone as often as possible while a special OpenSignal App will send the data of my levels of connectivity to the relevant monitoring authorities. Sounds simple. Yet, there’s catch here. The clever app has to be downloaded to my phone first. What if, due to the chronic weakness of WiFi signal and services in my area, I’m not able to do that – a not too unlikely scenario, I have to admit. A catch indeed, or rather a classic Catch 22. Any ‘appt’ advice will be welcome.

Dickon Ross  Dickon Ross, editor in chief
Siemens and BMW warn Brexit would damage UK tech sector

Some companies have nailed their colours to the mast for or against a Brexit (that’s the UK leaving the European Union for those who aren’t so familiar with the coming referendum in the UK). Most that have – like BAe Systems, Cisco or Airbus – are more business-to-business corporations than consumer-facing companies like supermarkets and banks, which have been more reluctant to come out and say what they think either way. BMW and Siemens are all for the UK staying in the EU but then they are of course German – even if BMW now owns two iconic British car brands in the very different shapes of Mini and Rolls-Royce. Their reasoning is interesting though, and E&T will be looking at the implications of a Brexit for European research in an upcoming issue.

‘Vegetable steel’ bamboo helping to rebuild Nepal homes

Traditional local building materials may sometimes lack the high-tech image for governments or clients, but sometimes the old ways are the best and Nepal is rebuilding its earthquake disaster areas with bamboo – which is light, strong, plentiful and fast growing. That’s why it’s called ‘vegetable steel’, and combined with new technological advances it can literally reach new heights.

Jade Fell  Jade Fell, assistant features editor
UK solar farms to create habitats for endangered birds

A new scheme launched by the RSPB aims to replicate the natural habitats of much-loved but threatened birds, including turtle doves and skylarks, in solar farm sites across the UK. This is great news. There are a lot of people in the UK who, although all for wind and solar power in principle, are wholly against the idea of such structures being placed near their homes because they see them as an eyesore – we call them idiots, am I right? Personally, I think they’re pretty cool to look at, but of course you can’t please everyone. I think this new scheme is not only unquestionably great for the birds, but also has the potential to convert even the most hardboiled nimbyists – after all, how could you possibly think a solar panel ugly when it’s surrounded by hordes of singing skylarks?

Boeing develops far UV self-cleaning airplane bathroom

When it comes to things I dislike – and there are many – dirty bathrooms are right up there with the likes of ladybirds, ketchup and the use of the word ‘airplane’. The economy bathrooms on aircrafts, already fairly below acceptable for even a short-haul flight, are nothing short of abominable once you enter the tenth hour of a transcontinental journey, bleary eyed with fatigue and liable to fall into whatever slippery mess invariably covers the entire floor of the cramped, dimly lit cubicle. Developing a self-cleaning bathroom for use in these circumstances can only be a good thing.

Cambridge initiative aims to create ‘hyper-connected’ city

As a resident of Cambridge, who also wrote this news story, I am a firm supporter of this initiative. We’re a super city – let’s get broadband speeds to match!

Rebecca Northfield  Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
Tomatoes, peas and rye successfully grown in Mars soil

The first settlers on Mars will be able to eat peas – at least that’s a guarantee. Researchers simulated the soil on the Red Planet and found that they could grow tomatoes, peas, rye, rocket, radish and even garden cress. Simply vegan. But what about Mars bars? Surely they should be a staple when people go and live on the namesake. Anyway, future colonisation is all systems go, as long as they can get there and no one burns alive or dies from the lack of oxygen due to a freak accident. But sure, growing plants is a definite maybe. Also, the researchers didn’t want to eat the crops they had harvested. Well, that isn’t very adventurous, is it?

Tereza Pultarova  Tereza Pultarova, news reporter
Mobile 5G holds key to future success of virtual reality

The 2016 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona was overflowing with virtual reality technology, with every major exhibitor showing off their latest contraptions. As various keynote speakers asserted throughout the show, what was on display in Catalonia’s capital in late February is just the beginning. The true era of virtual reality will only fully take off once the technology frees itself from bulky PCs and can run smoothly on mobile phones, supported by major connectivity strides enabled by the development of 5G wireless telecommunication networks. The future, the industry experts envision, will see people wandering around with a bit less immersive headsets than we can see today, living their lives in between virtual and physical realities.

Snowden says FBI does not need Apple to unlock shooter’s iPhone

NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden, the man who made the public aware of the mass surveillance practices of US security agencies, has weighed into the dispute between Apple and the FBI about the legitimacy of the latter’s requirement to have the tech giant unlock the iPhone of an alleged terrorist. Speaking from his Moscow exile, the computer expert called FBI’s claim that it can’t extract viable data from the device without Apple’s assistance “horse shit,” saying the agency definitely does possess the means to get inside the San Bernardino shooter’s phone by itself.

Katia Moskvitch  Katia Moskvitch, technology features editor
‘Virtual walls’ to stop drones entering restricted UK sites

Drones are still fascinating many of us – but because there are more and more of them in the sky they’re also becoming a nuisance. Now the UK government is thinking of implementing mandatory geo-fencing technology for drones to prevent unauthorised devices from entering restricted areas. Some drones already have the technology in them, but soon it might become mandatory to fit it into all drones flown for leisure purposes. At the moment in many countries the regulations governing flying drones aren’t always perfectly clear. It’s normally not advised, and often illegal, to fly them near airports, or anywhere near where planes tend to fly. So better regulations would be very welcome, to avoid any potential future disasters.

dominic-lenton  Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Driverless lorry platoons to be tested on the M6

So you’re driving sensibly along the motorway at a reasonable speed when you realise you’re going to have to manoeuvre to overtake a line of driverless lorries occupying the inside lane, nose to tail, for some distance ahead. A few minutes later, as traffic in the busy middle lane slowly creeps ahead of the juggernaut procession, you’re nearing the junction where you want to exit. If the lorries are travelling close enough to enjoy the benefits of being in convoy there’s not going to be space to creep in, and without a friendly driver on board to flash and drop back to give you space you’re presumably stuck until the next junction, if you’re past them by then. These driverless convoys sound like a brilliant idea in theory that we should at least give a chance with tests like the ones expected to be announced in next week’s Budget, but anyone who’s tried to negotiate a stretch of unfamiliar road in perfect conditions, let alone bad weather, will immediately think of problems that could have disastrous consequences.

Ford’s driverless cars scan surroundings with lasers

Of course, one day all we’ll need to worry about is being passengers in the back of a driverless car that has to negotiate the tricky aspects of a journey for us, getting around obstacles like lorries that don’t have drivers either. Regardless of smart sensors like the LiDAR Ford is embedding in its latest self-driving cars, the vehicles will be connected to each other and know when to give way, slow up and speed up. In theory at least we’ll have the politest roads since the arrival of the internal combustion engine.

Jonathan Wilson  Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
‘Virtual walls’ to stop drones entering restricted UK sites

Nice proof that as easily as technology can produce a monster, technology can also tame that monster. The skyrocketing popularity of drones over the past two or three years has naturally created problems, as their uncontrolled use has seen ad hoc localised legislation hastily written on the fly, as venues, cities and countries try to curb the enthusiastic stupidity of drone owners who fly their remote nuisances in places they’re not welcome and never will be. Now, the idea of geo-fencing specific locations presents a neat solution to drone control: no-fly zones that repel any approaching drone as effectively as any nightclub bouncer who doesn’t like your face. Your name’s not down, son, so you’re not getting in.

Snowden says FBI does not need Apple to unlock shooter’s iPhone

That there is absolutely an ulterior motive behind the FBI’s challenge to Apple is unquestionable. It is a Trojan horse tactic by which the US secret service agencies hope to sneak in a watershed court ruling that enables them to snoop in and around all future communication devices. What the FBI didn’t bank on, perhaps, is technological people smarter than them pointing out the holes, flaws and contradictions inherent in their paper-thin legal case. Smart hackers can already hack an iPhone. It may take time and it can potentially backfire and irreparably damage the phone, but it is possible. Of course it is – it’s only a mobile phone, designed by humans in California. It’s not an alien communication device recovered from the Roswell crash site. Is it?

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