E&T news weekly #90 – we choose our favourite engineering and technology news stories from the week

Friday 15 April 2016

Vitali Vitaliev  Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
Netherlands home to world’s most sustainable office building

It doesn’t surprise me that the Netherlands is home to the world’s most sustainable building. I’ve always admired this small and densely populated European country, almost all of which is below sea level, for the care it takes of its natural environment. Dutch windmill-and-wind-turbine-dotted countryside is a trademark in its own right and is immediately recognisable by its cleanliness and neatness. The same can be said about Holland’s towns and cities. I have just returned from an assignment in Amsterdam (which IS, incidentally the nation’s official capital – not The Hague as many are inclined to think) with more fresh proof of the above. My hotel and the conference that I attended were both in one of the modern Amsterdam suburbs which have sprung to life in the last 5-10 years and are still pretty much under construction. Walking to the conference of a morning, I was able to see how new cycle lanes are being laid next to the still half-finished office blocks. And the already existing lanes were swarming with cyclists careening to work. A lonely pedestrian (i.e.moi) had to exercise great caution when crossing them: cyclists in the Netherlands have the right of way not just over pedestrians, but also over all other means of transport, including the famous Amsterdam trams. No wonder, if we remember that, according to official statistics, nearly 27 per cent of all trips for distances up to 5 miles in the Netherlands are taken on bikes. On average, there are 1.1 bicycles per every single resident of the Netherlands (I wonder what each of them does with that extra one-tenth?) including pre-cycling age babies and the post-cyclingocto- andnonogenarians, albeit in Holland the latter are likely to still be dashing around on bicycles for all they are worth. This proliferation of cyclists inevitably leads to less traffic, less pollution and – generally – a healthier population. It has to be said here that the country’s all-permeatingcyclomania (forgive my neologism) was not always morally healthy. When living in Amsterdam for a short while in the late 1990s, I learned about a dedicated stolen bicycle website on which the very well organised local thieves could advertise their latest two-wheeled loot for a quick sale. An adventurous and hard-up customer could then fix a meeting and acquire a freshly stolen bike for ten euros or so. In case of a sudden police raid, the sellers would promptly dump the stolen bikes into a nearby canal (and there’s no shortage of those in central Amsterdam), from where a specially assigned police dredger would ferret them all out once a month – solely out of clean environment considerations, no doubt. I’m not sure if the bike thieves’ website is still in existence, but I can vouch for the fact that in my hotel corridor one of the doors was marked as ‘Europe’s most sustainable hotel room’. Unfortunately, it wasn’t mine.

Jade Fell  Jade Fell, assistant features editor
Robotic falcon ‘hired’ to protect German airport

Sometimes it’s difficult to pick out one favourite news story, but not when there’s a robotic falcon on the scene!Robird – cute name huh? – was developed by a team from the University ofTwente in the Netherlands, and has the cunning ability to scare away birds, just like a real falcon! This robotic feathery friend has just landed his first real job at a small German airport where he’ll be responsible for keeping the area clear of pesky organic birds, which are a massive nuisance to airport control. You know how much damage these selfish creatures cause to airports every year? I don’t, but I’m sure it’s a lot, and don’t even get me started on the safety issues the spiteful little blighters cause every time they’re inconveniently sucked into a plane’s engines. Now all this could be a thing of the past, thanks to theRobird. By mimicking the flight of a real peregrine falcon,Robird scares away the nuisance birds, which react to the robot security guard as they would to the real predator: by flying away to a safer area, away from the planes, out of the airport and out of my sight.

Rebecca Northfield  Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
Loch Ness Monster hunt renewed by marine robot

‘Nessie the Loch Ness Monster
Wad seem to be gey blate,
And doesna like the scientist chiels
That come, and sit, and wait.’ JKAnnand’s first quatrain from the aptly-named poem ‘Nessie’ says that the mystical, dinosaur-like creature is very shy and doesn’t like the scientist fellows that come to see if they can spot her. Too right, my old girl. I wouldn’t want my ancient privacy spoiled either. Now ‘scientistchiels’ have taken it one step further by plopping a robot in LochNess to spy onNessie and ruin the fun. The marine robot is calledMunin and it’ll be sticking its theoretical nose into the mythical beast’s business, as it explores the deepest parts of the loch to try and find her. Apart from being a nosyparker, the sonar-equippedMunin, developed by companyKongsberg Maritime, will be gathering data about LochNess’ topography. It’ll dive as deep as 230m. Perhaps deep enough to findNessie, but probably not. Additionally, scientists say the waterproof bot will be able to discover whether the ‘monster’ existed at all.Nessie is a secretive dinosaur and an ancientPlesiosaur. Obviously she doesn’t want to be found. Stupid scientistchiels.

Micro spaceships powered by lasers to search for alien life

Pew! Pew! Pew! That’s the sound of tiny laser beams getting shot out of tiny spaceships! Actually, I’m not sure how the lasers will sound. However, nanocraft will be sent to space with laser beams to find extraterrestrial life in AlphaCentauri. They’ll carry cameras, thrusters, a power supply and navigation communication equipment. Each spaceship is no bigger than a mobile phone chip. I WANT ONE.

Georgina Bloomfield  Georgina Bloomfield, digital content editor
Explosives detection laser ‘CCTV’ could stop terrorists

This could unleash a whole new wave of technology – and influence how we build new tech too. A device has been developed by British researchers that has the ability to remotely scan and detect even the smallest amounts of explosives whether it be in passing vehicles or people’s possessions. It’s upsetting that a need for this technology has become so vital in our everyday lives and it’s made me think when it’ll become compulsory elsewhere too. Will it eventually be included inwearables such as watches and fitness trackers, so people on the street can go mobile with the technology and detect explosives themselves? So far it’ll be in the form of aCCTV camera – but if it’s successful, where will it take us? And also, if we have traces of everyday items that are used in explosives on us, does this mean we can expect to get ‘SWAT’ onto us in an instant?

Jonathan Wilson  Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
Loch Ness Monster hunt renewed by marine robot
Robotic falcon ‘hired’ to protect German airport

It’s robots vs mammals in the news this week. First, a marine robot has set off down to the depths of LochNess (and at 230m deep, those depths get pretty deep) in search of the elusive eponymous monster, as well as to conduct some regular, more mundane, topographic exploratory and mapping work. Secondly, at the small German airport ofWeeze (as in “a jollygood…”), a robotic falcon has been set loose to scare away the local birds (the feathered kind, not waywardWeeze women) from the runway and prevent them from wedging themselves in to the engines of incoming and outgoing aircraft. Robots vs mammals: it’s the bigRobo-Mammasmackdown. And if that doesn’t sound like a great night out to you, there’s just no pleasing some people.

dominic-lenton  Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Ultra-thin electronic thread empowers smart clothing

I’m always sceptical about industry claims that a new technology has broken through into the mainstream until I come across evidence in my own daily life. Fans of 3D printing have been telling us for some time that small-scale devices are going to be as common in homes as a fridge or washing machine for a while now, but it was only recently that a neighbour was enthusiastically telling me how useful the one he’d bought was turning out to be. Turns out it’s pretty straightforward to make replacements for all those fiddly but vital little widgets on all sorts of things that tend to snap or break but can’t be purchased even online. In one sense it’s a return to the old-fashioned make do and mend ethic from the chuck it away as soon as it breaks philosophy that’s prevailed in a lot of the world during the late 20th century. Next up in that vein could be a renaissance in home-made clothes, but with the twist that they’ll be smart. Researchers at Ohio State university in the US have come up with an electronic thread that can be incorporated in garments using a table-top sewing machine much like the one your grandparents might have relied on to patch up clothes. There’s a way to go before a consumer version hits the shops but it looks like an intriguing addition to the maker movement’s armoury of tools. Download circuitry patterns for the elements you want to include in your bespoke smart trousers, pick a fabric and away you go. The only question may be whether flares are on trend or not by the time this technology hits the high street.

Dickon Ross  Dickon Ross, editor in chief
LiDAR driverless system operates in total darkness

Our roads could look strangely different to us in the future, if today’s vehicle research is anything to go by. Anyone living in a city or next to a main road may find it easier to get to sleep at night, thanks not only to the prospect of the near-silent traffic of electric vehicles.Driverless vehicles may produce less light pollution too. Ford is conducting trials of vehicles that use laser light rather than headlights to find their way. Presumably they will need some kind of smaller light so other vehicles can see them but they need not be any brighter than bicycle lights – and why not switch those off too when there’s no other traffic around?

Hybrid ink allows electronic circuits to be drawn by hand

Every now and again there’s an invention so smart but simple emerges that you wonder why no one has come up with it before. This pen that draws electrically conductive circuits is one such invention but it was a harder problem to solve than you might imagine. The question now is what on earth it will be used for. The maker movement will surely love it as it allows them to add simple electrical circuits to prototypes. I am not sure who else will find an immediate use for it, though perhaps it could be useful in school education?

Katia Moskvitch  Katia Moskvitch, technology features editor
Paralysed man regains finger control with brain device

Technology is helping people – that’s a known fact – and one of the latest feats is helping a quadriplegic man play guitar. IanBurkhart, 24, broke his neck six years ago after diving into waves while on a beach holiday. He’s been unable to move ever since. Now, thanks to a computer chip implanted into his head,Burkhart has managed to move his fingers in six different ways. The chip sends signals from the brain to his muscles, enabling him to grasp and pick up small items, swipe a credit card and even play a guitar video game. DubbedNeuroLife, the pioneering device was invented atBattelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio, in collaboration with physicians andneuroscientists from The Ohio State UniversityWexner Medical Center.

Lorna Sharpe  Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
Ultra-thin electronic thread empowers smart clothing

Hybrid ink allows electronic circuits to be drawn by hand

A couple of stories that caught my eye from the news this week are potentially craft-related – though neither is really intended for the domestic hobbyist. There’s an ‘electronic thread’ that’s suitable for machine embroidery and could be used to create ‘smart clothing’ incorporating, say, medical or fitness sensors. Then there’s an electronic ink that lets you draw electronic circuits on paper or foil. Both developments have a serious purpose, but I rather like the idea of being able to experiment with creating my own electronic motifs for clothes and bags.

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