E&T news weekly #92 – we choose our favourite engineering and technology news stories from the week

Friday 29 April 2016

Jack Loughran  Jack Loughran, news reporter
Driverless vehicles worry Brits as UK automotive sector soars

This poll showing that most Briton’s are concerned about driverless vehicles shows why you should never let the public make decisions about subjects they don’t fully understand (*cough* EU referendum *cough*). According to the poll of 1000 British motorists, 65 per cent are unsure about the new technology, probably for no reason other than being scared of new, unfamiliar things, like foreign countries and their inhabitants for example. Driverless vehicles are shown to be safer than human drivers for a number of reasons. Other than the obvious advantages of having a powerful computer constantly analysing the environment around the car for dangers and obstacles, driverless cars don’t get tired after a long day at work, they don’t lose concentration worrying about the mundanities of their daily life, and they never accidentally get too hammered at the computer pub and drive back overconfident while making miscalculations about their distance from other vehicles. Humans are the real danger on British roads. Contrary to the recent poll, I think that a computer should always be behind the wheel; in fact steering wheels should be removed from vehicles altogether in order to eliminate the risk factors associated with the many, many shortcomings of human drivers.

Jonathan Wilson  Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
Electric cars at heart of Volkswagen transformation

Really, what else could VW do than publicly embrace a new automotive technology? When you’ve foolishly shot your own diesel business in the foot, you’d be well advised to limp in another direction. Handily, the electric vehicle market is undeniably the future and is poised to blossom in terms of sales, especially if any of the proposed EU government incentives encouraging consumers to buy electric cars finally pay off. I, for one, am certainly interested in buying a VW Budd-E Microbus, if that ever comes to market, and if my government is prepared to bung me a few thousand quid as an incentive to do so, sign me up and plug me in.

Whiplash injuries tackled with active seat system

I enjoyed this story for its illuminating description of how and why whiplash injuries occur. Now I know this, they make perfect sense. When your body is heading in one direction while your neck goes off in another, that’s clearly a recipe for debilitating pain. Which, in turn, makes this Loughborough University research model for a safer car seat – one that works with the forces influencing your head and torso – also perfectly sensible. The short video accompanying this story clearly explains the thinking behind it.

Lorna Sharpe  Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
Computers in German nuclear plant infected with virus

Perhaps this story isn’t surprising, but it’s a warning all the same. Computer viruses spread just as insidiously as their biological counterparts, and good hygiene is essential. I’m willing to bet that none of the staff plugging USB sticks into their office computers believed they were infected – the symptoms only showed up later. Fortunately the plant operator, RWE, kept its administrative IT network separate from the power plant control system, but you can’t be too careful.

Robot monk spreading Buddhist teachings in China

I’ll be honest. I’ve picked this story because I like the picture. I doubt if the cute ‘robot monk’ will convert any convinced non-believers to religion, but visitors to the temple near Beijing can ask basic questions about Buddhist belief and practice without any fear of embarrassment, and anything that helps spread knowledge and understanding must be a good thing.

Rebecca Northfield  Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
South African rhinos protected by high-tech network

I love rhinos. They’re wonderful things. They look like armour-clad warriors with the thickest plated skin. And they have majestic, lethal horns. I would give them a good old cuddle if I didn’t think I’d get gored to death or stamped on until my brain oozed out of my skull. The calves are adorable too. Little bundles of 65kg cuteness. Drones, thermal cameras and motion sensors are being installed in a South Africa natural park to try and protect them from poachers. I hate poachers. I’d love it if they got gored to death or stamped on until their brains oozed out of their skulls. The supposed healing properties of rhino horn – which is essentially compacted hair – makes them targets, and they’re brutally slaughtered for it – 1,215 rhinos were killed in 2014 in SA. Absolutely ridiculous. That’s even when they’re monitored and looked after by rangers. Rhino deaths could take over their births by 2018 and they could be completely wiped out by 2025. Such an ancient, stupid myth and the utter ignorance and foolishness of some people is to blame for the demise of these great herbivores. Hopefully, the system will help reduce the death toll and rhinos can plod along on their merry way without having to worry about being attacked by soulless humans. Unicorns are real. They’re just big, grey and grumpy.

Georgina Bloomfield  Georgina Bloomfield, digital content editor
Driverless vehicles worry Brits as UK automotive sector soars

Apparently, 65 per cent of British motorists believe a human should always be in control of a vehicle despite the development of driverless cars, according to a new poll. As the industry faces a huge boom in driverless technology appearing more frequently, it looks like driverless cars are really on the horizon, and it’s making people a tad nervous. Can you blame us, seeing as there are so may grey areas still to be sorted out legally? If you have an accident with a driverless vehicle, who’s at fault? I’m assuming many of them would be fitted with cameras, but how will insurance companies keep up with the new legal pitfalls that are likely to arise from this? The study also found that people liked the fact that driverless cars would not be allowed to tailgate. Yay! But how many people will tailgate driverless vehicles just to see what would happen?

Katia Moskvitch  Katia Moskvitch, technology features editor
Egg-based memristor paves way for dissolvable body sensors

Durability is important for electronics, but sometimes we need components that don’t have to last very long. A team of scientists from China and the UK created a chip, or rather a memristor (memory resistor), that simply dissolves after its work is done. And they made it with the help of eggs – or specifically, diluted egg albumen, the clear part of an egg that turns white when it’s cooked. The researchers spun the albumen on a silicon wafer to produce a super-thin film. Then they put electrodes made from magnesium on one side of the film, and those made from tungsten on the other side – materials that are natural and dissolvable. The device is used to regulate the flow of electric current and can also remember charges, and the work paves the way for dissolvable sensors that in future could be used inside the human body.

dominic-lenton  Dominic Lenton, managing editor
High-tech buoys prevent illnesses from filthy water

As one of the researchers from Michigan State University behind this new approach to helping holidaymakers keep clear of water-borne illnesses explains, taking samples from a beach then sending them off to a test lab is just too slow. By the time you find out that you shouldn’t have gone for that bracing swim yesterday you’ve probably already spent a very uncomfortable night. The MSU technique uses buoys fitted with sensors that work like labs floating offshore and testing water quality continuously in real time for contaminants like E coli bacteria. It’s not clear how anyone thinking of taking a dip would be alerted; I’m imagining a scenario a little like ‘Jaws’ where a foghorn sounds and there’s a mad stampede to clear the water. More likely, it’ll be like the Blue Flag system we’re familiar with in the UK but operating on a day-by-day basis. Whichever, it would save a lot of people from having their holidays spoiled by a bout of swimming-related gastric trouble.

Jade Fell  Jade Fell, assistant features editor
Queen birthday message etched on corgi hair strand

Last Friday the whole of the UK joined hands in celebrating the 90th birthday of her Majesty the Queen, and what a day it was. The Queen must have received some fairly remarkable birthday presents – you don’t spend 63 years as the monarch of one of the most important nations on earth without making a few wealthy friends – but none seemed to receive as much media attention as this tiny little token. Yes, the University of Nottingham succeeded in giving the Queen the most bizarre birthday present in the history of the world, a single corgi hair inscribed with a personal birthday message. Would you call that thoughtful or just plain weird? Seriously, University of Nottingham, what were you thinking when you came up with this idea? I’ve received a few impractical birthday presents in my time, but a birthday message on a dog hair? That’s not only useless, but gross. I know you wanted to impress the queen but did you have to be so outrageously disgusting? Just look at that photo, it makes my skin crawl.

Robotic innovations on show at Hannover Messe 2016

This week I was lucky enough to attend the Hannover Messe trade fair and the robots on show blew my tiny little mind! This is just a little look at some of the robots that were displayed by industrial and automotive companies from around the world. Can you even begin to imagine anything cooler than a robotic rollercoaster? It was incredible! If you’re hungry for more head on over to E&T’s Twitter page and look out for #HM16 for more robotic innovations, including more than one gyrating hexapod!

Tereza Pultarova  Tereza Pultarova, news reporter
South African rhinos protected by high-tech network

On average three rhinos are poached in South Africa every day. That means that if the current rate of poaching continues, the rate of rhino deaths will overtake the rate of rhino births in two years and there may be no rhinos in South Africa by 2025. That’s pretty upsetting, especially considering the fact that the only reason why these animals are being slaughtered is their horns and their presumed therapeutic or magic properties in traditional medicine in Asia. A new hope has arisen for rhinos in South Africa in the form of a new tech project that will enable monitoring the movements of people in an unnamed private reservation. The reserve will be turned into a highly protected security ward – no one will be able to get in or out without the rangers being immediately alerted. If it proves reliable, the system may be deployed in other natural parks as well.

Atmospheric water machine designed to solve water crisis

A machine that can make water from air even in very dry climates promises to solve the world’s water shortage. Certainly an interesting idea as the atmosphere is the only source of fresh water in many parts of the planet. The team said that we don’t need to worry about depleting the water from the air as everything gets naturally replenished from the ocean.

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