E&T news weekly #102 – we choose our favourite engineering and technology news stories from the past week

Friday 8 July 2016

Vitali Vitaliev  Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
Robotic rectum to boost prostate cancer diagnosis

It would be easy to take a mickey out of this new invention, but on this occasion I am not going to do it. Moreover, I would be willing to characterise the robotic rectum – without a shadow of irony – as a major scientific breakthrough. The reason? Prostate cancer is a bane of modern human males. Natural shyness and sheer intrusiveness of the examination procedure have stopped thousands of men from seeking help until it was too late. Anything that facilitates prostate cancer diagnostic procedure and therefore makes the deadly and treacherous disease, with symptoms getting obvious only at its final stages, more identifiable and hence more treatable, should be extremely welcome. Another positive side effect of this invention is the fact that the person with (perhaps) the UK’s rarest profession – rectal teaching assistant – is likely to be made redundant at last. I don’t think he will regret his resignation too much.

Parking robot replaces valets to move cars into tight spaces

Continuing the theme of robots in “tight spaces” (sorry, could not refrain from this quip, but promise: there will be no more). It’s all very well to have a robot lifting your (empty) car and squeezing it between two other cars (or between a car and a car-park pole) – in fact, I was able to observe that very kind of parking more than once in the streets of Rome, with no robots involved. The question is who is going to un-park your vehicle? The news story stays mum about it which led me to assume that it won’t be the same robot, programmed for the parking function only. So getting out of the tight parking slot will probably be up to the driver. Only to un-park the car, he or she has somehow to get inside it first – and that should be difficult, if not impossible, due to the very tightness of the allocated space. Does this mean that your car will have to stay in that very coveted parking slot forever? Can you imagine what kind of parking charges that would involve? Well, I hope I’m getting it all wrong here, and, although it is not mentioned, the same hard-working robot that parked the car will somehow drag it out back into the open. Forgive me if that is the case. But I also know that the desire to find parking in a busy city is sometimes so strong that one would not even think of the consequences. I know for certain that some people (myself included) would do anything to get rid of their vehicle here and now, even if they are not going to drive it ever again.

Jonathan Wilson  Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
Solar power use hits record high in UK

Despite all the efforts by the UK government to keep renewables down and prop up our desperately failing, landscape ravaging but politically lucrative fossil-fuel industries, solar power use is actually regularly hitting record highs. It’s almost as if regular folk have realised that despite what politicians tell them they want, they’ve actually worked out for themselves that all that free sunshine isn’t going to run out any time soon, that it is environmentally clean, perpetually renewable and no one company can claim to own it and build a dirty, destructive business model around it. Whatever is Big Oil going to do about that?

Parking robot replaces valets to move cars into tight spaces

This is an idea so simple and so effective it’s surprising that no one came up with it before. ‘Geta’ (get a car) is a laser-guided robot that can slide under a vehicle, pick it up, find a free parking space in the tightest of spots and place the car perfectly within it. Essentially, it’s like a reverse car-impound service, in as much as this robot finds your car the best available space and moves it there for you, rather than finding your car in a good spot, penalising you for parking Against The Rules and confiscating your vehicle. I’m sure in time ‘Geta’ will be deployed by both sides of the Parking Wars that threaten to choke our city streets, so expect future iterations of Geta to come equipped with missiles in order to destroy other Getas in the battle to claim more vehicles for their own side.

Lorna Sharpe  Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
Parking robot replaces valets to move cars into tight spaces

I’m the kind of driver who would rather walk a bit further than struggle to get into a tight parking spot, especially if there are other people around to watch how many iterations it takes. I definitely like the sound of a robot that would do the job for me – but I suspect that at £115,000 a time, there won’t be many local authorities or supermarkets rushing to buy one.

Fatal Tesla Autopilot crash setback for autonomous driving

This is thought to be the first fatal accident involving an autonomous car, and it just goes to show how hard it is to think of everything that could possibly go wrong. As reported, the car ploughed into the side of a tractor trailer that was turning in front of it (what we call an artic in UK English) because neither the Tesla’s systems nor the human driver picked out the white trailer unit against a bright sky. On the other hand, it’s surprising to me as a British reader that the Tesla was able to pass underneath the trailer. The mandatory safety shields lorries have here owe a lot to the foolish imitators of a famous TV stunt and have nothing whatever to do with self-driving cars. Maybe US regulators should do a web search for ‘Frank Spencer rollerskating’.

dominic-lenton  Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Engineers unite to push for decent EU deal

Why UK engineering has to be fractured into so many different organisations is a perennial question levelled at the profession’s leaders, and a phenomenon that’s often blamed for the lack of influence many engineers believe it exerts. Nice to see then that the IET’s among 35 bodies who have joined up to create a policy group they hope will help the government negotiate an exit from the EU that does as little damage as possible to the country’s industry and economy. Many of the participants supported the Remain option ahead of the 23 June referendum, so it’s reassuring that they’re now uniting to try and influence the direction Brexit takes from and informed position. Together, they represent more than 450,000 people who work in a sector that’s responsible for more than half of UK exports. When the letter they’ve written offering their support lands on the desk of Oliver Letwin MP, who’s currently heading the transition planning team, let’s hope it gets the attention it deserves.

Drones and renewables on the agenda for new A-level

Doing the rounds of university open days with one of my children who’s contemplating an engineering degree, it’s interesting to see how often drones come up as an example of the extent to which today’s graduates will need cross-disciplinary experience that takes in more than just the established elements of electronics, mechanics, computing etc. The idea of putting a camera in a speedy remote control drone then coupling it to a virtual reality system for real-time racing involves serious technology, but is just the sort of thing that gets young people excited about what a career in engineering might involve. Some will probably be sceptical about this new A-level’s focus on issues like climate change and DNA testing, seeing it as a crude attempt to attract students who aren’t good enough for traditional course. There’s plenty of research, though, that shows these are exactly the topics that can persuade more young women to consider engineering as a career, so let’s at least give it a chance.

Dickon Ross  Dickon Ross, editor in chief
Brexit: UK research and innovation sectors wary of impact

Brexit is likely to hit the UK’s universities hard on three fronts: students, staffing and research. Tereza Pultarova has followed up her pre-referendum research with an analysis of how things are shaping up for universities and there is already evidence they are losing out, especially in research. It’s not just about the money either – access to collaborative programmes and research facilities will suffer. It will be in our next issue but you can read her article online now.

Engineers unite to push for decent EU deal

One effect of Brexit has been to bring together the UK’s engineering organisations. It has formed a policy group of several dozen institutions representing 450,000 engineers in an effort to steer government policy in a better direction for engineering and as it negotiates the UK’s divorce form EU over the next few years.

Engineering students reject hard hat as symbol of their industry

Engineers wearing hard hits are on the rise, according to those who monitor UK engineering media for pictures that give the wrong image to the engineering profession. E&T has always avoided hard hats and spanners as symbols of engineering because we know they sometimes offend. However, some types of engineers do wear them in their work. Several recent recipients of the Young Woman Engineer of the Year award released PR shots of themselves in hard hats, for example. And civil engineering is full of engineers – and indeed CEOs and MDs – doing site visits where they have to wear them. It would be absurd and dishonest to avoid them completely. But we do certainly avoid hard hats on ‘generic’ unnamed engineers. Except for this one…

Jack Loughran  Jack Loughran, news reporter
London Mayor Sadiq Khan calls for greater air pollution controls

Sadiq Khan’s recent announcement regarding new measures to tackle London’s air pollution shows a promising start for the new mayor but also prompts one to ask why such measures weren’t put in place previously. In his first two months in the post, Khan has already set out proposals to charge the most polluting vehicles £10 a day in the centre of the city from 2017 and extend the planned ‘ultra-low emissions zone’. He’s also seriously looking into pedestrianising Oxford Street, a natural continuation of Ken Livingstone’s similar efforts in Trafalgar Square, and is set to introduce a new bus fare system to make it cheaper for Londoners to use public transport. But how do these proposals reflect on Boris Johnson’s eight year tenure as the London Mayor? In that time, he managed to get stuck on a zipline, announce a few pie-in-the-sky ideas that will never get built, and generally splurge his bumbling ‘everyman’ persona all over the UK media in his (now failed) attempt to rise through the political ranks. In stark contrast to Khan, one of Johnson’s first acts as mayor was to actually scrap the western extension of the congestion charge. But what about Boris Bikes? Their implementation has been shakey and at a cost far greater than was initially envisaged, but they are finally here and genuinely improve London’s heavily congested transport networks and potentially discourage car usage. Well, these can’t be attributed to the blond buffoon either, since it was a project introduced by Ken in his final years that was well underway before Boris was voted in. Ken Bikes would be a more appropriate name, even if it doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as easily. So what did he actually do? Admittedly some of the most lethal areas of London for cycling have been improved, with roadworks taking place across Elephant and Castle and Vauxhall to create segregated lanes. But other than this, there really isn’t a lot. He used the mayoral post to boost his own personal profile while wilfully ignoring some of London’s most pressing issues. Hopefully Khan will take the role more seriously and continue to introduce tangible measures that will undo eight years of stagnation under Boris.

Rebecca Northfield  Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
Mars-inspired robots to search for oil on Earth

While we’re bugging about whether a stone on Mars that kind of looks like a head is a sculpture of some sort (it’s not, it’s a lump of rock), the tech used for the ExoMars rover is being utilised back here on Earth to help oil extraction. Where they’re going nowadays to collect oil is pretty much inhospitable, so the red planet tech would be perfect. There’s plenty of oil underground, so why not drill into our planet where we shouldn’t really go in the first place, get really invasive and nab some ancient plankton and plant juice? Because that’s what us humans do, of course. Duh!

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