E&T news weekly #104 – we choose our favourite engineering and technology news stories from the past week

Friday 22 July 2016

Jonathan Wilson  Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
HMS Ambush submarine collides with merchant ship
MH370 search team may have looked in the wrong location for two years

Two stories of derring do on the high seas – or rather under the high seas, given the subject matter – each with a blackly comic edge to them. The first concerns HMS Ambush, the UK’s most advanced attack submarine (apparently), which was involved in what the Ministry of Defence referred to vaguely as a “glancing collision” with a merchant ship in the Mediterranean. This isn’t the first time such an awkward maritime encounter has beset what is supposed to be one of the stealthiest submarines on the planet and it is something of a gift for comedy writers everywhere. Expect future Johnny English films to feature a submarine that keeps bumping in to fishing boats. The second story is the latest update from the seemingly endless search for the wreckage of Flight MH370. After two years, thousands of man hours and millions of Australian dollars spent on the hunt, the search teams are now wondering whether the plane actually glided down onto the water and then sank, rather than spiralling and crashing in to the sea. If it did glide, it’s likely that the searchers have been looking in entirely the wrong place all this time.

Lorna Sharpe  Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
HMS Ambush submarine collides with merchant ship

When a Royal Navy submarine limps into port with an embarrassing dent in its bodywork it’s bound to attract attention. Our report shows that HMS Ambush has an unlucky history, but this event is pretty unlucky for whoever was in command at the time too, as submariners who can’t steer are likely to find their careers taking a sharp change of direction.

Digitalising every fish for online aquatic fauna database

Professor Adam Summers has come up with a novel way to make his mark in scientific history. He and his team are trying to create a digital catalogue of all 25,000 known species of fish – in 3D. That involves getting hold of a sample of every single one and taking multiple images with a small CT scanner to build up a picture of the skeleton that is available online. It sounds like a real labour of love, and one that will be a great boon to future ichthyologists.

Georgina Bloomfield  Georgina Bloomfield, digital content editor
Chip and pin compromised by hackers ‘within a year’

So the story here is that a former White House chief and US cyber security expert has expressed concerns that chip and pin payment technology could be compromised by hackers within a year. As we know, the United States has never really embraced the chip and pin system like we have here in the UK. They still have the ‘sign for’ system, which in itself poses security threats. Every new piece of technology comes with security warnings (hence why we still vote using a good old fashioned method of using a pencil/pen and not the internet) so the US will have to think this through. Get the ethical hackers onto it! Once the US has fully established chip and pin, what will be the latest method everyone else is doing? We’ve already embraced Apple/Android Pay methods and contactless payments. I suppose the US has an advantage in that it can learn from the mistakes that have been made by other ‘more advanced’ countries.

Vitali Vitaliev  Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
HMS Ambush submarine collides with merchant ship

Now, this is interesting. The other day I was explaining to my partner how a Trident-carrying submarine in high seas would find out if Britain is under nuclear attack. If BBC Radio 4’s Today programme suddenly goes off air between 6 am and 9 am on a week day or doesn’t go on air at all, the sub’s captain would know that Britain had been attacked and it was time to retaliate, ie launch a Trident or two back at the attacker. I grasped that valuable bit of knowledge while working as a researcher/scriptwriter for the BBC TV quiz show QI ten years ago. Now I can see that the reason for the start of a nuclear conflict can be much more mundane and can result from a collision of a submarine with a cargo ship, a cruise liner, a fishing boat or another submarine! Could an accidental Trident launch be triggered by a massive bump? I hope it cannot. But you never know: possibly, it can. I also wonder whether all those frequent submarine collisions with other floating objects are sufficient reason to deprive the careless submarine drivers (or captains, or pilots, whatever they’re called) of their driving licences (if any) – a measure that would have certainly been taken against their equally careless counterparts on dry land, even if the latter are not in any danger of accidentally starting a nuclear conflict. Another reason not to replace Trident? Jeremy Corbyn would like that, I’m sure.

Digitalising every fish for online aquatic fauna database

A commendable attempt, no doubt, but I wonder if the respected American professor will be able to digitalise the Devils Hole Pupfish (Cyprinodon diabolis) which is officially the world’s rarest and can only be found in one hard-to-access and rather sinister-sounding spot: the Amargosa Desert ecosystem, in the Amargosa Valley of southwestern Nevada, USA, east of Death Valley and the Funeral Mountains (I’m not joking!). I hope the brave zoologist won’t be put off by all those moribund toponyms and want to send my very best fishes to him.

Rebecca Northfield  Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
Online restaurant menus targeted by cyber hackers

There have been some fishy goings on at the ‘watering hole’. Cyber criminals are using ‘watering hole’ hacking to plant bugs on popular websites of employees, so they can infect a corporation using things like online menus. For example, if it was a late night at the office, and there was a Domino’s down the road, everyone chips in for some pizza. So you look at the menu on the web to see what the list of grub looks like. Alas, some little critter of a cyber bug gets in and nestles into your corporation’s database. Then everything goes wrong and the company is at risk, all because you wanted that slice of pizza. Was it worth it? Depends on the toppings. Anyway, if I was bored or intelligent enough to plant bugs in online menus, I would do some other stuff too, such as replacing names, or putting naughty words in the Sides part of the menu. “Frog and deer poo pizza? That sounds…exotic.” “Hmm, what side do I want? Says here they have…your mum?!” I’d have quite a time confusing all those hungry people.

Jade Fell  Jade Fell, assistant features editor
40 years of Ford Fiesta celebrated with Dagenham to Brighton run

Everyone’s favourite little runaround turned 40 last weekend, and to celebrate 40 different models drove in convoy from Ford’s Engine Plant in Dagenham, Essex, to Brighton Race Course. Labelled 1-40, the timeline of cars, from across four decades of continuous production, were joined by over 200 other Fords, for a summer festival in celebration of all Ford motors. That’s right, it was a Ford fiesta! Brilliant. I’m delighted by this news, not only because it’s a brilliant play on words, but because I love Ford Fiestas and I’m not ashamed to admit it. I know they’re not considered the most exciting cars in the world, and a lot of people think that they pale in comparison to their cooler younger brother, the Focus, but theres nothing I’d like more than a Ford Fiesta to call my very own. I’m over the moon that my favourite car has made it to 40 without being forced out of production – I still lament the loss of the Anglia and the Escort – and hoping for many more Fiesta-filled years to come. Here’s to you Fiesta, happy birthday, you handsome, handsome devil.

Tarpaulin mishap causes two-year delay to Japan’s military satellite

Tarpaulins are pretty useful things – you can use them as rather uncomfortable picnic blankets, shelters for building equipment, makeshift tents and shelters, maternity centres for earwigs and other mini horrors, and a whole host of other strange outside activities – but it turns out that they don’t mix very well with super-expensive Japanese military satellites. In fact, they cause millions of dollars worth of damage, and huge delays to important military communications developments, and potentially hinder the reinforcement of Japanese defences in the South China Sea. This is the news that someone in Japan is going to be in a lot of trouble, after an incorrectly placed blue tarpaulin wreaked havoc on the country’s first dedicated military communications satellites during transportation to Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana. Ouch.

dominic-lenton  Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Atomic hard disk could store every book ever written on postage stamp

Summer’s finally arrived in the UK, weather-wise, and with it a new use for chlorine other than to keep the nation’s outdoor swimming pools clean and clear. Forget taking your bestseller-packed Kindle to the pool or beach; nanoscientists at Delft University in the Netherlands reckon the technique they’ve developed using individual Cl atoms to store bits of data could eventually create a device capable of holding the entire library of human writing on a device the size of a stamp. (I’m assuming they mean standard issue ones and not limited edition ones that are twice the area – size differences like that matter a lot at this scale of technology.) As with all claims like this about data-storage density, the inevitable question is “Would you really want to?” It’s estimated we’re generating new data at a rate of more than a billion gigabytes a day, but not much of it deserves to be retained for posterity. And with so much writing starting life online now, what is a ‘book’? A lot of words that are never going to make it to the printed page have a far better case for making it onto that postage stamp than any number of physical works. It probably doesn’t matter though. By the time this embryonic technology has been developed into something marketable the idea of sitting reading words – whether on a screen or paper – could well be a thing of the past.

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