E&T news weekly #86 – we choose our favourite engineering and technology news stories from the week

Friday 18 March 2016

Vitali Vitaliev  Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
Urine fuel cell gets more power with new design

Using human waste as an energy source is not entirely new, and I get a reminder of that simple fact every time I visit the IET’s newly refurbished London offices in Savoy Place, off The Strand. While walking down Carting Lane towards the Thames, one cannot help noticing a somewhat weird-looking Victorian lantern which seems to be always on; be it night, evening or broad daylight. This is London’s last remaining sewage lamp, a late 19th century creation of Birmingham inventor Joseph Webb, although often incorrectly attributed to another Joseph – Bazalgette. The lantern’s ‘official’ name is The Webb Patent Sewer Gas Lamp, and its modus operandi was fairly simple. Methane was collected by a small dome in the roof of the sewer and then diverted into the lamp on the street above. Just like now, the lantern remained lit 24/7, powered (at least partly) by a seemingly unlimited amount of waste (and that included urine, no doubt) from guests staying at the nearby Savoy Hotel. Some years ago, a reversing lorry accidently knocked over the lantern, but it was promptly restored and is now protected by Westminster Council. Human waste is one of the few commodities we are not in any danger of running out of, so maybe it is here that the solution to the world’s energy crisis lies?

Even a vibrator could be hacked

Between 1997 and 1999 when I was regularly co-presenting a popular BBC TV chat show, it was only once that I was left speechless in front of a camera – not a very welcome happening on live TV. It was when we had a so-called ‘electric woman’ as our studio guest. Believe it or not, this remarkable lady was capable of switching electric lights off and on by just staring at them. She was quick to demonstrate her amazing skill by switching off all the studio’s headlights (and all other lights too) the moment she sat next to me on the sofa to be interviewed. Well, none of us knew how to react to that. Luckily, due to the ensuing pitch darkness, our puzzled faces could not be seen by thousands of TV viewers all over Europe. When the light came back on, Peter Dobby, the show’s other presenter, was quick to comment: “It’s not often that you see Vitali lost for words…” At this point, you may ask: what’s the link between the lady with a powerful stare and the vibrator-hacking news story? Well, nothing much, apart from the fact that it’s the second time in my memory that I feel entirely speechless and totally lost for words. So I’d better leave it here…

Jade Fell  Jade Fell, assistant features editor
Even a vibrator could be hacked

There’s been quite a lot of pretty horrid news this week – urine fuel-generation included – but this one is by far the most horrendous. A US software firm has demonstrated that once the Internet of Things fully takes off, even sex toys could be at risk of getting hacked. The purpose of the demonstration was to show that, as the world becomes increasingly connected, cyber security is becoming an even more pressing issue. This is all very well and good, but I am still upset. I can only assume that old skool models are still safe, and that perhaps it’s only ‘smart’ vibrators that are at risk? I mean, surely a hacker wouldn’t be able to flip an actual switch remotely, right? But this just brings up far too many questions for my liking. Why is anybody even creating vibrators that are in any way connected to the IoT? Does anybody really need to have a sex toy that has WiFi capabilities? Why is this even a thing? Seriously? What’s going on?!

Nanomotors pave the way for self-repairing electronics

Thank goodness there’s still normal news to get excited about. Tiny, clever and helpful nanomotors could make self-repairing electronics a reality. Yes, a team of researchers have developed self-propelled devices capable of seeking out and repairing tiny scratches in electronic systems. Made from gold and platinum, these adorable nanomotors are powered by hydrogen peroxide and capable of moving freely across the surface of electric circuits, searching for scratches that could interrupt the flow of current. When they come into contact with a scratch they become lodged in it, bridging the gap and allowing current to flow again – so cool! Not only am I fairly excited by the potential of self-repairing electronics, but I’ve also fallen in love with these little nanomotors. These little guys are the future. Who knows, maybe one day they’ll find a way to fix your cracked smartphone screen! Just imagine, hordes of tiny nanomotors living in all electronics, fixing damage as soon as happens, making sure everything is kept running smoothly – It’s like the tale of the elves and the shoemaker in real life!

Lorna Sharpe  Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
Mosul Museum brought to life at WTS 2016

The Economist has used virtual reality to recreate artefacts from Iraq’s Mosul Museum that were destroyed in 2014 by ISIL’s cultural iconoclasts (I’m putting it politely here). The RecoVR: Mosul project is a fantastic example of people using technology for good purposes, keeping knowledge alive for future generations, unlike those who use technology only to spread hatred and division.

Bionic patch could heal damaged heart

Engineers from Tel Aviv University have created a ‘bionic heart patch’ containing organic as well as electronic parts, which expands and contracts like real heart tissue. The researchers say their long-term goal is to create a device that can react to conditions such as inflammation or lack of oxygen by releasing drugs to correct the situation. Ultimately it could reduce the need for donor hearts – though patching up your heart won’t help much if the rest of your body is showing the effects of a couch-potato lifetime.

Tereza Pultarova  Tereza Pultarova, news reporter
Expired domains used by hackers to spread malware via popular sites

Cyber criminals are resourceful creatures. One of their latest tricks involves posing as a legitimate advertising website in order to pull traffic from real Internet heavyweights. According to a report by US information-security company Trustware, high-profile news and entertainment websites including the New York Times and the BBC have recently been featuring fake adverts shiftily slipped there via an expired media company website, which was reregistered by the attackers and re-purposed to efficiently spread malware. A click on the fake banner leads the user to the malicious website and initiates the download of a set of malware. The attack has been linked to the Angler exploit kit, which is infamous for its ability to bypass security.

Selfies may replace passwords in securing Amazon’s payment systems

This idea by Amazon is certainly not bad. I am personally really bad with remembering password, constantly hitting the ‘forgot the password’ button in most of my electronic accounts. Amazon proposes to ditch the password altogether and replace it with a double selfie identification. The first selfie proves who you are, the second proves you are not just a photo of yourself used by a criminal to go on an Amazon shopping spree paid by your credit card.

dominic-lenton  Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Wishaw digital substation will be first step towards smarter grid

One of my particular gripes when reviewing the week’s news recently has been the tendency for companies to hope a liberal sprinkling of the word ‘smart’ over their product ranges will grab customers’ attention by making everything seem more useful in a vague, indefinable way. The latest exception is the start of a project to build an electricity substation of the type that will be at the heart of a UK ‘smart energy network’. Not as whizzy as a smart fridge or television, maybe, but its ability to monitor and adapt to conditions will increase safety as well as reducing costs and environmental impact. Maybe there’s a rule of thumb at work here, that the less glamorous a smart technology is (and there are few things less glamorous than an electricity substation) the more genuinely useful and innovative it is.

Mosul Museum brought to life at WTS 2016

Growing enthusiasm for replicating museums in virtual reality is just one of many VR applications we’ve looked at it a special focus in the new issue of E&T [http://eandt.theiet.org/magazine/2016/02/index.cfm]. The downside might be fewer field trips to amazing places like the British Museum once schools can take students there via a headset and without all the headaches of coach travel and packed lunches. That would be a shame, because a single visit can inspire a lifetime enthusiasm. The upside though is that projects like this can resurrect places that have been lost or destroyed, or allow you to visit somewhere you’ve got no hope of ever reaching in the real world.

Dickon Ross  Dickon Ross, editor in chief
Even a vibrator could be hacked

Why would anyone want to hack my fridge? That’s the question most householders would ask, a panel on internet of things security heard, and it’s what many device designers may ask too. Members of the panel had a range of answers: there will be hackers who will do it for notoriety; there will be hackers who want to use it as a gateway to a more important area, like the wifi network; and there will be those who will use it for . The demonstration at CeBit wasn’t hacking a fridge, but the problem it highlights is similar. If it can be hacked, it will be hacked, the panel warned.

Sonar for smartphones turns every surface into touchscreen

An engineering student in America has come up with one of those ideas that you can’t help wondering why no one else has thought of before: gesture control using sonar rather than vision. That’s probably because it’s harder than it sounds – its relatively low resolution being an important limitation to be overcome. In the not too distant future, perhaps we’ll all be walking down the street wildly drawing pictures and symbols in the air rather than stopping to try and tap tiny little buttons on our phones and watches.

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