E&T news weekly #87 – we choose our favourite engineering and technology news stories from the week

Thursday 24 March 2016

Jack Loughran  Jack Loughran, news reporter
Airlander 10, world’s largest aircraft, ready to take to the skies

The big, bum-shaped Airlander 10 has finally been finished and promises to be far more eco-friendly than other types of aircraft. The blimp is the world’s largest airborne vehicle and harks back to the simple pleasures of the pre-Hindenburg days when everyone was floating around in huge hydrogen-filled balloons as if they weren’t a major explosive hazard. Hybrid Air Vehicles, who make the aircraft, say that the Airlander’s helium composition will prevent major incidents like the Hindenburg crash from reoccurring, so far so good. But helium is a dwindling resource on this planet. Unlike most other elements, its boiling point is so low – just above absolute zero – that as soon as it enters the atmosphere it rises until it exits the atmosphere. It is this quality that allows the Airlander (and party balloons) to float. But it has a number of very important uses, manufacturing semiconductors and supercooling MRI scanners for instance, that would suffer if we were to use all of the Earth’s supply on massive blimps (which Hybrid Air Vehicles suggests could be used for advertising, tourism or surveillance, hardly priority uses for our limited helium supply). The price of the gas has actually doubled in the last decade following America’s decision to sell off its reserves in the 1990s due to the high cost of storage. Only one Airlander ship has been created so far, so the Earth’s helium supplies can probably cope. But if these types of aircraft catch on and use the remaining supply we have left, the end of children’s party balloons will be the least of our worries.

Jade Fell  Jade Fell, assistant features editor
Nanostructure-infused clothing cleans itself when exposed to light

Another week, another awesome nanostructure! These little guys have the ability to degrade organic matter when exposed to light, and have been grown directly onto textiles. You know what that means? No more having to conduct the dreaded ‘sniff test’ when you pick up yesterday’s clothes from the floordrobe – just stick your clothes on the windowsill and let the rays of the rising sun, and the nanostructures, work their magic! Body odour? Spilled food? Vomit? No problem! Artificial leaf mimics photosynthesis, converts solar into hydrogen Is there no end to the talents of artificial leaves? At the beginning of the year we had the super cool leaf-mimicking device that uses solar power to clean water, and now a leaf capable of producing hydrogen for energy use. When submerged in water, the artificial leaf can use sunlight to break down water molecules into their constituent parts; the resulting hydrogen is then used as an energy store for the solar power. I always get a little ahead of myself when I read about things like this – there have been so many advances in clean energy storage recently that I just can’t help but be extra optimistic! I’m currently imagining a world with hydrogen-storing lily pads, pond weed and mangrove trees.

Rebecca Northfield  Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
App warns erratic drivers to calm down

This would be very useful for the many drivers on the road who let their anger get the better of them, and risk a lot of people’s lives. Also, I think it would be suitable for people like me, who are passive-aggressive balls of rage. Spanish researchers have created with an app that will sound an alarm if the user becomes too aggressive when driving. The Spaniards are a passionate people, so I can see why they’ve come up with it first. The app is called Driving Styles, and looks at your fuel consumption, acceleration, speed and revs. There’s even a heart-rate monitor on the new version. It analyses the data and can calculate when you’re calm, normal and aggressive. When it gets dangerous and you drive angry, the alarm tells you off like a mean parent, with a warning about your reckless behaviour. If it were me, and I was feeling a little peeved at fellow motorists, an alarm to tell me to calm down would make me feel anything but. Firstly, an alarm is the annoying wake-up call in the morning, something you don’t want to hear when you’re on the verge of road rage. Secondly, someone – or something – essentially telling me to stop feeling what I’m experiencing is not a pro for me. Like a teenage rebel, I would feel like doing the opposite of what Driving Styles told me to do, but I wouldn’t behave in such a manner and put everyone at risk. I’m not a doofus. You are in control of over a tonne’s worth of metal and stuff, so just stew on the anger until you can let it out away from people. I give the best advice, don’t you know. I know this for sure: the app would definitely be deleted the first chance I got, or my phone would be thrown out of the window in rage. Not cool, Driving Styles. Not cool.

Lorna Sharpe  Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
Nanostructure-infused clothing cleans itself when exposed to light

This is certainly an eye-catching idea, though it doesn’t quite signal the end of the washing machine. For one thing, these nano-enhanced textiles only encourage ‘organic matter degradation’, so they won’t deal with ordinary inorganic grime. For another, there’s no indication of how that degraded matter is going to be removed from the textile. And the research team has been working with cotton textiles, but cotton is organic – so does that mean  your t-shirt will start to break up in sunlight? On the other hand, I can see the potential for applying this technology to the things you can’t just throw into the washing machine, like your woollen winter coat, or that expensive ‘dry clean only’ outfit you bought for special occasions.

Xbox Kinect gaming tech helps patients with respiratory problems

In the last week or two I’ve seen several references to ‘horizontal innovation’ – the idea that technology developed in one sector can have useful applications in another. This story illustrates the concept beautifully. Scientists have taken a set of Kinect sensors, which are normally intended for use with Microsoft’s Xbox game consoles, and used them to accurately monitor the breathing of patients with cystic fibrosis. They say the prototype has provided more information than is available with conventional spirometry, and are now planning to build an upgraded prototype to test on people with other lung problems.

dominic-lenton  Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Driverless cars make 70 per cent of Britons nervous

My immediate reaction that yes, I’m with the two-thirds who doesn’t yet feel confident about being a passenger in a driverless car was tempered by the thought that most of the accidents I see on my daily commute would never have happened if a machine had been at the wheel rather than an impatient human. Sensors and control systems are already clever enough to avoid the many shunts and bumps that blight Britain’s roads. If a driverless car sees it doesn’t have enough time or space to pull out, for example, it’ll sit right where it is until it’s safe to go. Thinking about it, cars might one day all proceed as if they’re being propelled in the artificial way we all navigate when we’re taking a driving test, except we’ll be sitting in the back grabbing a few minutes’ sleep or catching up with the morning’s news.

App warns erratic drivers to calm down

Until the robot chauffeurs take over, Spanish engineers have succeeded in putting the proverbial backseat driver into a smartphone with this app which checks how fast you’re driving and sounds an alarm if it thinks you’re getting too aggressive. Maybe they could make it even more annoying by giving you a choice of voices to give you the benefit of this good advice. I can imagine even the most hazardous boy racer paying attention if it’s Jeremy Clarkson suggesting “Slow down, mate. You’re driving like a bit of an idiot.” The way these things work though, it’ll probably have a default that sounds like the most annoying driving instructor you ever had and will end up with phones littering the verges where they’ve been chucked out of the window.

Dickon Ross  Dickon Ross, editor in chief
Solar panel tax increases opposed by Eurosceptic Tory MPs

The current Conservative government has been rolling back financial incentives for sustainable power and other green energy measures since it was elected with an overall majority last May. Some Conservative MPs though have decided to revolt by backing a Labour amendment to stop a rise in VAT on solar panels. Is this a green rebellion from within the Conservative party? Hardly. The VAT rise has been mandated by the European Court of Justice which ruled that the UK’s lower rate is illegal. The rebels have one thing in common. Yes, you’ve guessed it, they are Brexit-supporting Eurosceptics. A cynic might suggest their objections to rising the tax are more about where the move originated than concern for the environment.

BBC micro:bit computer launched ‘to make coding fun’

After several false starts, the BBC micro:bit is finally being sent to schoolchildren in the hope it will produce more future computer programmers. E&T went to the pre-launch event to see what the computer can do and what children have already been doing with it. We also found out what the teachers think of it and they do have some criticisms.

Jonathan Wilson  Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
Apple unveils four-inch iPhone SE and smaller iPad Pro

Reversing what was apparently a one-way upward trajectory whereby mobile phones would keep growing exponentially with each iteration, promising a future world in which we’re all holding devices the size of an AA road atlas upside our heads, Apple this week unveiled a new iPhone, the SE, which is actually smaller than the previous iPhone, the 6s. It all makes sound economic sense: Apple sold 30 million iPhone 5s handsets last year, which is the form factor on which the SE is based. The SE has pretty much all the cool stuff of a 6s, but without the slippery body shape or pocket-busting girth – or the wallet-busting price tag. There are still plenty of people who don’t want or need a big phone, so the SE heralds an economic victory for common sense and consumer buying power.

Driverless cars make 70 per cent of Britons nervous

According to a survey, over two-thirds of us Brits would not be tickled pink to be offered a ride in the first wave of totally autonomous vehicles. We just don’t trust ’em, apparently. Of course, someone will have to be first – presumably the other 30 per cent from this survey, who can barely contain their excitement at the prospect of eating cornflakes or enjoying a nap on the way to work while someone else takes care of the commute. All this Jetsons future is still years away, mind you, by which time I reckon a fair few of that apprehensive 70 per cent will have come round to the idea of driverless vehicles and will more readily shed their Luddite loom-smashing reservations in favour of that pre- and post-work doze on the road.

Georgina Bloomfield  Georgina Bloomfield, digital content editor
Apple unveils four-inch iPhone SE and smaller iPad Pro

As part of the ‘digital-generation’, ‘generation-Y’ or whatever you wish to name my age group, the size of technology has always fascinated our kind. From the huge ‘mobile’ phones in the 1980s to the tiny Motorolas in the early noughties, phones were always an indication of the way consumer technology was heading. For the past five years, consumers yearned for larger screens to play Angry Birds and watch Netflix on – and thus phones were starting to get bigger. Now that Apple has released a smaller model, will consumers jack in their cinema-style phones in favour of more room in their pockets, or will it be a discontinued model in the next year? They’re taking a risk, as people usually can’t seem to adapt back to smaller screens after being able to play Goat Simulator (yes, it’s a real game) for years. Would people sacrifice this for a longer battery life? Probably, to be honest. As for their recycling initiative, it’s about time Apple took some responsibility for the sheer amount of waste that comes from their kit. The name of said recycling robot did indeed make me laugh, as I know somebody who regularly updates his iPhone model, and has all the other kit to go with it (iPad, watch, etc) I always wondered what he did with his older phones – his name is of course Liam. Brilliant.

Vitali Vitaliev  Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
Driverless cars make 70 per cent of Britons nervous

Well, count me among those 70 per cent of my cautious compatriots. It’s certainly tempting to have a driverless car on call: you whistle (or tap on your smartphone) and bingo, within a minute or so a gleaming vehicle from a nearby garage saunters into your driveway jauntily, like a faithful mechanical dog. The doors open noiselessly as you approach, you plop yourself on the front seat, next to the non-existent driver, open your morning Times, and by the time the car brakes near your office entrance a cryptic crossword is nearly done! Idyllic, isn’t it? The latest driverless-car-related real-life news is not so encouraging, however. The most worrying development was recently heard on BBC News talking about the forthcoming trials of driverless lorries to take place on the M6 in Cumbria later in 2016. So far so good. Yet the next sentence of that overly cheerful announcement had an effect of a cold shower: “The tests would take place on a quiet stretch of the motorway.” A quiet stretch of M6? They must be joking! “A quiet stretch of M6” (or M1, or M4 or A1M, for that matter) is a hallucination, a paradox, a four-angled triangle! I’ve lost count how many times I got stuck in long traffic queues on the M6, mostly in the Lake District area, while driving to Edinburgh and back. It looks likes whoever is going to conduct these tests has very little idea of the general state of British motorways – not a good starting point. And why on earth does the testing of all those allegedly super-safe lorries have to be conducted on “a quiet stretch” at all? Unless they are planning to use the vehicles exclusively in deserts or in remote areas of the Siberian Tundra, it would be more logical to test them in heavy traffic. Despite the fact that some allegedly successful tests of driverless Daimler lorries took place in Germany last autumn, I have a feeling that the companies (and the people) behind the forthcoming M6 trials, are not too sure about the outcome. What other explanation can there be for the illusionary Utopian concept of a “a quiet stretch of M6?” And if they are not sure, how can anyone be?

Katia Moskvitch  Katia Moskvitch, technology features editor
3D printing in space, as ‘Gecko gripper’ sent to the ISS

3D printing fever is not about to end any time soon – and on Tuesday, a special printer was sent to the International Space Station. Astronauts on theISS have used 3D printing before, creating a ratchet wrench from a ‘recipe’ – but this one is even better adapted, with non-stick grippers modelled after gecko feet, so that it’s easier to use in microgravity. It’ll help astronauts create tools that they may not have on the station, and works by heating plastic, metal or other materials into streams that are layered on top of each other to make 3Dbjects. Sporting a cool name, Gecko Gripper, the printer blasted off on board of a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 cargo ship, along with other supplies for the crew currently in orbit.

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