E&T news weekly #95 – we choose our favourite engineering and technology news stories from the week

Friday 20 May 2016

Jade Fell  Jade Fell, assistant features editor
Twitter’s 140-character limit to exclude photos and links

I can’t help but feel a little sceptical about this, seeing as how I commented on a very similar Twitter story back when I first started working for E&T several months ago. I was so full of hope that I could utilise the full force of the oh-so-pathetic 140-character Twitter ration without having to worry about my excellent photos snatching away my precious rant space. Have you any idea how many incredibly important Tweets have been cut short by this ridiculous limit? Too many! And I’m not just referring to my daily Hulk Hogan fan mail #Hulkamaniawillliveforever. Seriously, social media is one of the best ways to get a reaction from companies guilty of horrendously poor customer service, but have you ever tried to properly complain about anything on Twitter? It’s impossible! Unless of course you want to split your rant over several separate Tweets, which kinda ruins the effect if you ask me. Maybe one day Twitter will actually get their act together and stop ‘suggesting’ these things and actually do them.

De-cluttering robot shows unexpected creativity

Carnegie Mellon University has developed new software to help robots cope with unexpected clutter, an area where machines normally fall short. While robots on production lines are able to de-clutter to a certain extent, they are only programmed to recognise specific types of ‘clutter’. The new software, however, programmes robots to understand the basic physics of the world, and so predict which types of materials can be pushed, lifted, or stepped on. Perfect problem-solving skills when it comes to adapting to unexpected situations, like exploring distant planets, or cleaning out an over-filled broom cupboard. I’m normally ever so excited by robot stories, and this one looked really promising. There are few things I love more than robots, and few things I like less than clutter, so a de-cluttering robot sounds like it could well be best friend material. That said, I am slightly perturbed by the fact that the test robot showed creativity and carried out tasks that it had not been taught to do, and that one of the researchers described the robot as “exploiting sort of superhuman capabilities”. Tell me, is that exciting, or terrifying?

Dickon Ross  Dickon Ross, editor in chief
Carbon fibre plug-in ferry to clean up tourism in Norwegian fjords

When you think of carbon fibre speed, what comes to mind? Racing cars careering around curves at several hundred miles per hour perhaps? Or even a super-light track bike flying around velodrome? How about a ferry cruising the Norwegian Fjords? We kid you not. This electric-diesel hybrid really looks the part too. This is no rusting steel hulk.

EasyJet’s GPS smart shoes to guide geeks around cities

Wearables is a technology trend high on the hype curve and attracting the attention of a wide range of brands from a wide range of industries; clothing and sports names as well as the consumer electronics giants. Now an airline is getting into the wearables market with training shoes to help you find your way around strange cities. EasyJet’s Sneakers, which come in the airline’s trademark orange, connect wirelessly to a smartphone app and vibrate to let you know which way to turn so you don’t have to keep looking at maps on your phone screen. The drawback? Well, they come in EasyJet orange.

Smart energy meters vulnerable to hackers, claims Labour MP

Security, privacy and data ownership are important issues in the development of smart cities and indeed the wider internet of things area in general. Shadow minister Chi Onwurah raised questions in Parliament about all three with respect to smart meters, claiming they remained vulnerable to hackers. The smart city offers an exciting future with so many possibilities but these three overlapping issues will come up again and again.

Jonathan Wilson  Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
De-cluttering robot shows unexpected creativity

I love the photo accompanying this story. The robot in the frame looks absolutely ready to sort the heck out of the clutter in front of it, no problem. This is a step forward, as until now robots have found dealing with disordered environments challenging. The new software developed by researchers helps the robots deal with clutter more efficiently – and the robots have responded in kind by creatively dealing with problems in unexpected ways.

Camera-equipped robot hand demonstrates spatial awareness

Another robot story this week, and another breakthrough for robot dexterity. Attaching a camera to a robot’s hand has been shown to give it superior awareness of the space around it, due to the rapid generation of a 3D model of its immediate environment. With this finer gauge of spatial awareness, the robot is better enabled to more precisely squeeze its arm into tight spaces or pick up delicate objects. They’ll be picking and packing our soft fruit harvests before you know it.

Jack Loughran  Jack Loughran, news reporter
Android Pay launches in the UK

The UK launch of Android Pay sees Google trying to keep pace with Apple but not managing to deliver a service as easy to use as its rivals. Android Pay went from non-existent in the UK to accessible on almost all terminals where Apple Pay is available in the space of about 24 hours. An impressive feat admittedly and one that, considering its scale, was surprisingly without any leaks until a day or two before it happened. But it is missing one key feature that Apple Pay has embraced since the start, smartwatch compatibility. With many questioning the utility of smartwatches, being able to pay with it is, I would argue, a strong case for why they are more than just another gadget that you have to update every year or so. The Apple Watch, for all its foibles, has been compatible with Apple Pay since its UK launch (if not the American launch since it wasn’t publicly available then). It seems like an oversight by Google who should be pushing its Android Wear platform as hard as possible right now, especially considering the relative popularity of the Apple Watch which, within just a year of launch, now sells more than all the Android Wear watches combined.

Lorna Sharpe  Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
De-cluttering robot shows unexpected creativity

Outside the ordered world of automated production lines, clutter is a fact of life – and certainly a fact of my life. Now robots have been trained to find their way in disordered or confused surroundings. With the help of software, they even have “some idea of what can be pushed, lifted or stepped on”. That might work on the surface of a distant planet (one suggested application), but the real test will be to safely traverse a teenager’s bedroom.

Pakistan biogas project replaces diesel with faeces fuel

The fuel in question is a biogas produced from buffalo dung. It’s used to power irrigation pumps converted from diesel operation, and cooking stoves too. It saves money for the farmers and on a large enough scale it would reduce national dependency on imported diesel. To me it sounds like a brilliant idea – though it’s currently a pilot project backed by Pakistan’s Punjab provincial government, so it remains to be seen whether it would be economically viable without subsidies.

Tereza Pultarova  Tereza Pultarova, news reporter
Carbon fibre plug-in ferry to clean up tourism in Norwegian fjords

It’s nice to see a company pushing for a more environmentally conscious approach without being forced to do that by a regulator. The Norwegians value their natural treasures and have realised that decades-old diesel-powered boats dumping waste directly into the pristine waters of their fjords are only going to cause harm. One of the country’s major tourism operators has thus challenged a local shipyard to build a ferry that would be able to run completely emission free. The result is the Vision of the Fjords, an impressive ultralight vessel made of carbon fibre and powered by hybrid technology that can run on its batteries for long enough to cross the most precious parts of a UNESCO-protected fjord without producing a gramme of CO2.

EasyJet’s GPS smart shoes to guide geeks around cities

Travelling tech geeks may soon get a new gadget to help them explore foreign cities. Instead of staring into the smartphone screen to get around with the help of Google maps, the travellers would be able to put on EasyJet’s vibrating smart shoes to learn where to turn and where to stop. The first city, where the technology has been trialled is Spain’s avant-garde metropolis Barcelona.

Katia Moskvitch  Katia Moskvitch, technology features editor
Banana waste could power Ecuador and offset fossil fuels

Bananas are one of the most important – and tasty – fruit crops in the world. Just in Asia and America in 2013, a total of 106 million tons of bananas were produced. But there’s of course the question of banana waste – and processing waste from banana production could cover more than half of the electricity needs of some regions of Ecuador. This country has been struggling with fossil fuel dependence and vulnerability of electricity supplies. Now researchers from the Technical University of Madrid (UPM) in Spain have found that up to 55 per cent of the region’s electricity needs could be met if waste products such as stems, leaves and fruit not fit for selling were processed by a biomass power plant – and also that Ecuador could cover up to 10 per cent of its bioethanol needs using banana waste. Now if that works, there will be less risk of falling while accidentally stepping on banana peels on the ground, as they will all be used for a good cause.

dominic-lenton  Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Origami robot unfolds inside a human body for medical treatment

On the face of it, this sounds as much like the stuff of nightmares as an autonomous crawling robot for carrying out colonic examinations that I vividly remember hearing described in buttock-clenching detail at a medical engineering conference a few years ago. That did at least have the reassuring feature of a fibre-optic ‘tail’ which carried images from an on-board camera and could be used to retrieve the device if things went wrong. This much smaller gizmo from MIT is untethered and once inside the digestive tract is moved by the application of external magnetic fields. Two external layers sandwich a material that shrinks when heated, allowing it to be initially compressed into a swallowable pill before unfolding once it’s embarked on its fantastic voyage. Good news for parents is that one of the expected applications is to retrieve those tiny, tasty-looking but dangerous things that small children have a habit of gobbling down within seconds of getting their hands on them. It’s already been used in tests to remove a swallowed button battery from an artificial stomach.

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