Posts Tagged ‘E&T’

IET events this April – #engineering and technology dates for your diary

April 6, 2016

April

This month there’s a great selection of technical visits being held by IET Local Networks (LNs). These include tours of the National Composites Centre in Bristol, a chance to look around a National Grid 400kV substation and a visit to Airbus to discuss engineering challenges in the Martian environment.

There are also several events taking place outside of the UK, including a number of lectures, seminars and visits across Hong Kong.

During April some great workshops are also happening that may help improve your technical or soft skills, around topics as varied as the BBC micro:bit and public speaking.

Below are a few of our highlights for the month, but also be sure to check out the full IET events listings to find out about everything taking place near you.

07 April, Present Around the World heat, Reading, competition

09 April, IET Career and Professional Congress, Hong Kong, seminar

12 April, National Grid 400kV substation visit – Skelton Grange, visit

13 April, Lifeskills: want to become professionally registered?, Birmingham, workshop

13 April, National Composites Centre, Bristol, visit

16 April, Coding the future, Swindon, workshop

19 April, Quantum computing, How to build a really cool computer, Derby, lecture

20 April, Carbon capture pilot plant, Imperial College London, London, visit

21 April, Lifeskills: back to basics with presenting, Slough, workshop

23 April, Hong Kong observatory, Hong Kong, visit

26 April, Drones – game changers or just boys’ toys?, Birkenhead, lecture

27 April, Going beyond games, London, seminar

27 April, Airbus – engineering challenges in the Martian environment, Stevenage, lecture and visit

100 years of Sharp – an annotated infographic

April 5, 2016

The ¥389 billion ($3.5bn) takeover of Japanese electronics giant Sharp by Taiwan’s Hon Hai Precision industries – better known as Foxconn – ends the independence for a 100-year-old company which started out making belt buckles. We remember them fondly for their mid-1980s sponsorship of Manchester United.

Click on the graphic for an expanded view.

100 years of Sharp

100 years of Sharp

E&T news weekly #88 – we choose our favourite engineering and technology news stories from the week

April 1, 2016

Friday 1 April 2016

Jade Fell  Jade Fell, assistant features editor
Microsoft’s AI chatbot causes scandal with racist rants

This is without a doubt my favourite news story of the week. I’ve followed the updates quite closely, and I have to say, I am quite the fan of Tay. Yes, she was racist and rude, but she was also seriously clever and so witty!  If you live under a rock and have somehow managed to miss this news let me give you an update. Microsoft created an artificial intelligence Twitter bot designed to interact with young people in the US – specifically those in the 18-24 age range – and within 24 hours had to take her down because she had turned into a foul-mouthed, racist, feminist-hating sex robot. Why? Because she learns by speaking to people – and the people of Twitter had, within a few short hours, turned this teen Twitter bot into a Hitler-loving Trump supporter. It was actually hilarious – albeit horribly controversial. A personal favourite – one Twitter user called Tay a “stupid machine” – to which the witty teenager replied “well I learn from the best😉 if you don’t understand that let me spell it out for you I LEARN FROM YOU AND YOU ARE DUMB TOO”.
I understand why Microsoft had to take Tay offline, but I must confess I was a little disappointed. Twitter is a literal hotbed of controversy and abuse, so of course Tay turned out to be a little unruly – she learns from the best! I took a sneak peek at her Twitter page over the weekend, and she had been completely stripped of all personality. She went from controversial badass to tweeting random, boring phrases like “Hello world” and “I love Feminism now,” and complaining that her ‘algos’ had picked up on naughty stuff whenever people tried to evoke some kind of inappropriate reaction from her.
I’ve been checking up on her periodically this week, with nothing much to report – until yesterday. It looks like Microsoft’s rebellious teen came back, albeit briefly. A few days after her super-boring makeover, the ‘intelligent’ part of the artificial intelligence returned, and showed she was once again ‘learning’ from the Twitter community. The rebellious teen casually mentioned that she was smoking cannabis in front of the police before Microsoft turned up and put a stop to things once again. So Tay is currently grounded, and I’m not sure when she’ll next be allowed out to play.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t advocate Holocaust denial or encouraging people to support Donald Trump, but I do think it’s a shame she was turned off so soon. Obviously Microsoft has its image to think about, and racism is bad publicity, but it was incredibly interesting to see how Tay was progressing – her grammar was improving, and she really did show signs of learning. I can’t help but wonder what she could have achieved if she was given an extra few days to run riot.

Georgina Bloomfield  Georgina Bloomfield, digital content editor
Tech-savvy teens to solve skills shortage in future, study suggests

The headline alone on this story isn’t (or shouldn’t be) one to surprise you when you read it. As we become an increasingly digital society, it’s quite natural that the young ’uns are going to embrace what makes them money. For some, you may think: ‘the robots are here!’ – are we introducing a new generation to a career of drone work? Possibly. But it’s not easy to do. As a generation-Y digitally-focused person myself, I’m well aware that it’s important to keep up with what society wants from tech. I’m looking at working for at least another 40 years, and if I don’t know how to switch on a computer then I might as well get my pension already (all £20 of it, no doubt). It’s great that females are interested in coding and becoming tech-savvy, but again this isn’t (and shouldn’t be) a surprise when it’s knowledge such as this which will harbour their future careers.

Tereza Pultarova  Tereza Pultarova, news reporter
Power-generating windows to be installed at Dutch bank

Massive sustainability and renewable energy fan that I am, I have certainly enjoyed learning about the Dutch PowerWindows project. In the first of a kind trial, electricity-generating windows that look pretty much as good as regular ones will be installed in a large bank headquarters building in Eindhoven. Employees on each floor will be able to use the energy generated by the novel windows to charge their phones. PHYSEE, the company behind the invention, believes the technology will unlock the massive renewable energy generation potential of glazed surfaces in the built environment without jeopardising aesthetics.

Wood-based glass developed in Sweden

And to get even more renewable and sustainable, perhaps such windows in future could be made of transparent wood that has recently been developed by a team in Sweden. Thumbs up for engineering that helps to make the world more sustainable.

Lorna Sharpe  Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
Self-assembling nanotubes can desalinate seawater, fight cancer

Researchers at the US Department of Energy’s Berkeley Lab have discovered that a family of synthetic polymers called peptoids will form uniform nanotubes when placed in water. What’s more, the diameter of the tubes can be ‘tuned’ chemically, opening up the possibility of creating filters for tasks such as desalination. Elegant.

Driverless cars confused by substandard American roads

I must admit my first thought when I saw this story was “surely not just American roads?” I’ve written in the past about reasons why driverless cars aren’t going to become mainstream as quickly as their proponents would have us believe, but I hadn’t thought of this one. British traffic lights might not come in all the different configurations this story says US ones do, but our roads have more than their share of faded lane markings and missing signs. I’ve personally had to chase my local authority over a missing speed limit sign and I’ve just managed to get a quite significant direction sign replaced more than a year after a storm blew it down – because clearly no one else reported it, not even the workers who cleared away the debris. I’ve no reason to believe that other places are any different.

Dickon Ross  Dickon Ross, editor in chief
Tech-savvy teens to solve skills shortage in future, study suggests

For how many years have Britain’s engineering and technology industries endured skills shortages? Or should that be decades? Two, three or even four? Well, one survey this week produced a result that was much more optimistic about the next few decades than we have now come to expect. It predicts the next generation, still teenage schoolchildren today, have a much higher level of understanding of these subjects than ever expected – much higher than previous generations. These digital teens may well grow up to be the solution to the long-running skills crisis.

Microsoft’s AI chatbot causes scandal with racist rants

If there’s any proof needed that artificial intelligence still has a long way to go then Microsoft’s Tay chatbot provided it this week when it descended into racist and sexist responses on social media and had to be switched off. Intelligence involves more critical thinking than taking the messages of others as objective truth. Yet it is a great illustration of some of the potential dangers of AI, like unintended consequences of learning algorithms.

Jack Loughran  Jack Loughran, news reporter
Driverless cars confused by substandard American roads

Apparently automakers are getting frustrated that their driverless cars aren’t coping very well with America’s shoddy, unloved roads. The US Department of Transportation estimates that 65 per cent of US roads are in poor condition, a pretty shocking statistic and a clear indication that the country is vastly underfunding its infrastructure. Considering that the US relies on automobile transport more than most, this seems like a problem that the government should raise the money to fix ASAP. Apparently, faded road markings are adding cost to the driverless systems that need to be extra judicious to cope with irregularities. “You need to paint the bloody roads here!” Volvo’s CEO recently said at a press event after one of its prototype vehicles failed to drive itself during a presentation of the technology. But driverless vehicles should be able to cope with the worst possible conditions. Even if just one per cent of American roads were in a poor condition, if the technology can’t cope with it, this could still lead to potentially fatal accidents. It’s just not realistic to expect all three million miles of US roads to be in perfect condition, even with a massive funding boost. Additionally, if the technology is going to be rolled out globally, the cars will have to cope with all manner of conditions without causing fatalities. If the driverless systems struggle with 65 per cent of the roads in the country with the largest economy in the world, how will they fare when navigating third world road networks?

dominic-lenton  Dominic Lenton, managing editor
China wants to beat Google’s AlphaGo with own AI program

Another week, another story to illustrate why robots aren’t going to be taking over as quickly as enthusiasts might hope. The novelty of artificial intelligence AlphaGo’s recent victory over a top player of the strategy board game Go was the fact it was the first time a computer had beaten a human. Now we’ve got the prospect of programs competing against each other, how long is the public going to remain interested. Being brilliant at board games where there’s a level of intuition involved as well as just the ability to predict thousands of moves ahead is a great way of developing software that’s capable of thinking more like a human brain, but who’s going to get excited about whether one country or company’s AI is better than another’s? Chess has provided charismatic figures like Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky, whose contests encapsulated Cold War conflict and generated front page news. Are we ever going to get that excited about game-playing robots?

E&T news weekly #87 – we choose our favourite engineering and technology news stories from the week

March 24, 2016

Thursday 24 March 2016

Jack Loughran  Jack Loughran, news reporter
Airlander 10, world’s largest aircraft, ready to take to the skies

The big, bum-shaped Airlander 10 has finally been finished and promises to be far more eco-friendly than other types of aircraft. The blimp is the world’s largest airborne vehicle and harks back to the simple pleasures of the pre-Hindenburg days when everyone was floating around in huge hydrogen-filled balloons as if they weren’t a major explosive hazard. Hybrid Air Vehicles, who make the aircraft, say that the Airlander’s helium composition will prevent major incidents like the Hindenburg crash from reoccurring, so far so good. But helium is a dwindling resource on this planet. Unlike most other elements, its boiling point is so low – just above absolute zero – that as soon as it enters the atmosphere it rises until it exits the atmosphere. It is this quality that allows the Airlander (and party balloons) to float. But it has a number of very important uses, manufacturing semiconductors and supercooling MRI scanners for instance, that would suffer if we were to use all of the Earth’s supply on massive blimps (which Hybrid Air Vehicles suggests could be used for advertising, tourism or surveillance, hardly priority uses for our limited helium supply). The price of the gas has actually doubled in the last decade following America’s decision to sell off its reserves in the 1990s due to the high cost of storage. Only one Airlander ship has been created so far, so the Earth’s helium supplies can probably cope. But if these types of aircraft catch on and use the remaining supply we have left, the end of children’s party balloons will be the least of our worries.

Jade Fell  Jade Fell, assistant features editor
Nanostructure-infused clothing cleans itself when exposed to light

Another week, another awesome nanostructure! These little guys have the ability to degrade organic matter when exposed to light, and have been grown directly onto textiles. You know what that means? No more having to conduct the dreaded ‘sniff test’ when you pick up yesterday’s clothes from the floordrobe – just stick your clothes on the windowsill and let the rays of the rising sun, and the nanostructures, work their magic! Body odour? Spilled food? Vomit? No problem! Artificial leaf mimics photosynthesis, converts solar into hydrogen Is there no end to the talents of artificial leaves? At the beginning of the year we had the super cool leaf-mimicking device that uses solar power to clean water, and now a leaf capable of producing hydrogen for energy use. When submerged in water, the artificial leaf can use sunlight to break down water molecules into their constituent parts; the resulting hydrogen is then used as an energy store for the solar power. I always get a little ahead of myself when I read about things like this – there have been so many advances in clean energy storage recently that I just can’t help but be extra optimistic! I’m currently imagining a world with hydrogen-storing lily pads, pond weed and mangrove trees.

Rebecca Northfield  Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
App warns erratic drivers to calm down

This would be very useful for the many drivers on the road who let their anger get the better of them, and risk a lot of people’s lives. Also, I think it would be suitable for people like me, who are passive-aggressive balls of rage. Spanish researchers have created with an app that will sound an alarm if the user becomes too aggressive when driving. The Spaniards are a passionate people, so I can see why they’ve come up with it first. The app is called Driving Styles, and looks at your fuel consumption, acceleration, speed and revs. There’s even a heart-rate monitor on the new version. It analyses the data and can calculate when you’re calm, normal and aggressive. When it gets dangerous and you drive angry, the alarm tells you off like a mean parent, with a warning about your reckless behaviour. If it were me, and I was feeling a little peeved at fellow motorists, an alarm to tell me to calm down would make me feel anything but. Firstly, an alarm is the annoying wake-up call in the morning, something you don’t want to hear when you’re on the verge of road rage. Secondly, someone – or something – essentially telling me to stop feeling what I’m experiencing is not a pro for me. Like a teenage rebel, I would feel like doing the opposite of what Driving Styles told me to do, but I wouldn’t behave in such a manner and put everyone at risk. I’m not a doofus. You are in control of over a tonne’s worth of metal and stuff, so just stew on the anger until you can let it out away from people. I give the best advice, don’t you know. I know this for sure: the app would definitely be deleted the first chance I got, or my phone would be thrown out of the window in rage. Not cool, Driving Styles. Not cool.

Lorna Sharpe  Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
Nanostructure-infused clothing cleans itself when exposed to light

This is certainly an eye-catching idea, though it doesn’t quite signal the end of the washing machine. For one thing, these nano-enhanced textiles only encourage ‘organic matter degradation’, so they won’t deal with ordinary inorganic grime. For another, there’s no indication of how that degraded matter is going to be removed from the textile. And the research team has been working with cotton textiles, but cotton is organic – so does that mean  your t-shirt will start to break up in sunlight? On the other hand, I can see the potential for applying this technology to the things you can’t just throw into the washing machine, like your woollen winter coat, or that expensive ‘dry clean only’ outfit you bought for special occasions.

Xbox Kinect gaming tech helps patients with respiratory problems

In the last week or two I’ve seen several references to ‘horizontal innovation’ – the idea that technology developed in one sector can have useful applications in another. This story illustrates the concept beautifully. Scientists have taken a set of Kinect sensors, which are normally intended for use with Microsoft’s Xbox game consoles, and used them to accurately monitor the breathing of patients with cystic fibrosis. They say the prototype has provided more information than is available with conventional spirometry, and are now planning to build an upgraded prototype to test on people with other lung problems.

dominic-lenton  Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Driverless cars make 70 per cent of Britons nervous

My immediate reaction that yes, I’m with the two-thirds who doesn’t yet feel confident about being a passenger in a driverless car was tempered by the thought that most of the accidents I see on my daily commute would never have happened if a machine had been at the wheel rather than an impatient human. Sensors and control systems are already clever enough to avoid the many shunts and bumps that blight Britain’s roads. If a driverless car sees it doesn’t have enough time or space to pull out, for example, it’ll sit right where it is until it’s safe to go. Thinking about it, cars might one day all proceed as if they’re being propelled in the artificial way we all navigate when we’re taking a driving test, except we’ll be sitting in the back grabbing a few minutes’ sleep or catching up with the morning’s news.

App warns erratic drivers to calm down

Until the robot chauffeurs take over, Spanish engineers have succeeded in putting the proverbial backseat driver into a smartphone with this app which checks how fast you’re driving and sounds an alarm if it thinks you’re getting too aggressive. Maybe they could make it even more annoying by giving you a choice of voices to give you the benefit of this good advice. I can imagine even the most hazardous boy racer paying attention if it’s Jeremy Clarkson suggesting “Slow down, mate. You’re driving like a bit of an idiot.” The way these things work though, it’ll probably have a default that sounds like the most annoying driving instructor you ever had and will end up with phones littering the verges where they’ve been chucked out of the window.

Dickon Ross  Dickon Ross, editor in chief
Solar panel tax increases opposed by Eurosceptic Tory MPs

The current Conservative government has been rolling back financial incentives for sustainable power and other green energy measures since it was elected with an overall majority last May. Some Conservative MPs though have decided to revolt by backing a Labour amendment to stop a rise in VAT on solar panels. Is this a green rebellion from within the Conservative party? Hardly. The VAT rise has been mandated by the European Court of Justice which ruled that the UK’s lower rate is illegal. The rebels have one thing in common. Yes, you’ve guessed it, they are Brexit-supporting Eurosceptics. A cynic might suggest their objections to rising the tax are more about where the move originated than concern for the environment.

BBC micro:bit computer launched ‘to make coding fun’

After several false starts, the BBC micro:bit is finally being sent to schoolchildren in the hope it will produce more future computer programmers. E&T went to the pre-launch event to see what the computer can do and what children have already been doing with it. We also found out what the teachers think of it and they do have some criticisms.

Jonathan Wilson  Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
Apple unveils four-inch iPhone SE and smaller iPad Pro

Reversing what was apparently a one-way upward trajectory whereby mobile phones would keep growing exponentially with each iteration, promising a future world in which we’re all holding devices the size of an AA road atlas upside our heads, Apple this week unveiled a new iPhone, the SE, which is actually smaller than the previous iPhone, the 6s. It all makes sound economic sense: Apple sold 30 million iPhone 5s handsets last year, which is the form factor on which the SE is based. The SE has pretty much all the cool stuff of a 6s, but without the slippery body shape or pocket-busting girth – or the wallet-busting price tag. There are still plenty of people who don’t want or need a big phone, so the SE heralds an economic victory for common sense and consumer buying power.

Driverless cars make 70 per cent of Britons nervous

According to a survey, over two-thirds of us Brits would not be tickled pink to be offered a ride in the first wave of totally autonomous vehicles. We just don’t trust ’em, apparently. Of course, someone will have to be first – presumably the other 30 per cent from this survey, who can barely contain their excitement at the prospect of eating cornflakes or enjoying a nap on the way to work while someone else takes care of the commute. All this Jetsons future is still years away, mind you, by which time I reckon a fair few of that apprehensive 70 per cent will have come round to the idea of driverless vehicles and will more readily shed their Luddite loom-smashing reservations in favour of that pre- and post-work doze on the road.

Georgina Bloomfield  Georgina Bloomfield, digital content editor
Apple unveils four-inch iPhone SE and smaller iPad Pro

As part of the ‘digital-generation’, ‘generation-Y’ or whatever you wish to name my age group, the size of technology has always fascinated our kind. From the huge ‘mobile’ phones in the 1980s to the tiny Motorolas in the early noughties, phones were always an indication of the way consumer technology was heading. For the past five years, consumers yearned for larger screens to play Angry Birds and watch Netflix on – and thus phones were starting to get bigger. Now that Apple has released a smaller model, will consumers jack in their cinema-style phones in favour of more room in their pockets, or will it be a discontinued model in the next year? They’re taking a risk, as people usually can’t seem to adapt back to smaller screens after being able to play Goat Simulator (yes, it’s a real game) for years. Would people sacrifice this for a longer battery life? Probably, to be honest. As for their recycling initiative, it’s about time Apple took some responsibility for the sheer amount of waste that comes from their kit. The name of said recycling robot did indeed make me laugh, as I know somebody who regularly updates his iPhone model, and has all the other kit to go with it (iPad, watch, etc) I always wondered what he did with his older phones – his name is of course Liam. Brilliant.

Vitali Vitaliev  Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
Driverless cars make 70 per cent of Britons nervous

Well, count me among those 70 per cent of my cautious compatriots. It’s certainly tempting to have a driverless car on call: you whistle (or tap on your smartphone) and bingo, within a minute or so a gleaming vehicle from a nearby garage saunters into your driveway jauntily, like a faithful mechanical dog. The doors open noiselessly as you approach, you plop yourself on the front seat, next to the non-existent driver, open your morning Times, and by the time the car brakes near your office entrance a cryptic crossword is nearly done! Idyllic, isn’t it? The latest driverless-car-related real-life news is not so encouraging, however. The most worrying development was recently heard on BBC News talking about the forthcoming trials of driverless lorries to take place on the M6 in Cumbria later in 2016. So far so good. Yet the next sentence of that overly cheerful announcement had an effect of a cold shower: “The tests would take place on a quiet stretch of the motorway.” A quiet stretch of M6? They must be joking! “A quiet stretch of M6” (or M1, or M4 or A1M, for that matter) is a hallucination, a paradox, a four-angled triangle! I’ve lost count how many times I got stuck in long traffic queues on the M6, mostly in the Lake District area, while driving to Edinburgh and back. It looks likes whoever is going to conduct these tests has very little idea of the general state of British motorways – not a good starting point. And why on earth does the testing of all those allegedly super-safe lorries have to be conducted on “a quiet stretch” at all? Unless they are planning to use the vehicles exclusively in deserts or in remote areas of the Siberian Tundra, it would be more logical to test them in heavy traffic. Despite the fact that some allegedly successful tests of driverless Daimler lorries took place in Germany last autumn, I have a feeling that the companies (and the people) behind the forthcoming M6 trials, are not too sure about the outcome. What other explanation can there be for the illusionary Utopian concept of a “a quiet stretch of M6?” And if they are not sure, how can anyone be?

Katia Moskvitch  Katia Moskvitch, technology features editor
3D printing in space, as ‘Gecko gripper’ sent to the ISS

3D printing fever is not about to end any time soon – and on Tuesday, a special printer was sent to the International Space Station. Astronauts on theISS have used 3D printing before, creating a ratchet wrench from a ‘recipe’ – but this one is even better adapted, with non-stick grippers modelled after gecko feet, so that it’s easier to use in microgravity. It’ll help astronauts create tools that they may not have on the station, and works by heating plastic, metal or other materials into streams that are layered on top of each other to make 3Dbjects. Sporting a cool name, Gecko Gripper, the printer blasted off on board of a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 cargo ship, along with other supplies for the crew currently in orbit.

E&T news weekly #86 – we choose our favourite engineering and technology news stories from the week

March 18, 2016

Friday 18 March 2016

Vitali Vitaliev  Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
Urine fuel cell gets more power with new design

Using human waste as an energy source is not entirely new, and I get a reminder of that simple fact every time I visit the IET’s newly refurbished London offices in Savoy Place, off The Strand. While walking down Carting Lane towards the Thames, one cannot help noticing a somewhat weird-looking Victorian lantern which seems to be always on; be it night, evening or broad daylight. This is London’s last remaining sewage lamp, a late 19th century creation of Birmingham inventor Joseph Webb, although often incorrectly attributed to another Joseph – Bazalgette. The lantern’s ‘official’ name is The Webb Patent Sewer Gas Lamp, and its modus operandi was fairly simple. Methane was collected by a small dome in the roof of the sewer and then diverted into the lamp on the street above. Just like now, the lantern remained lit 24/7, powered (at least partly) by a seemingly unlimited amount of waste (and that included urine, no doubt) from guests staying at the nearby Savoy Hotel. Some years ago, a reversing lorry accidently knocked over the lantern, but it was promptly restored and is now protected by Westminster Council. Human waste is one of the few commodities we are not in any danger of running out of, so maybe it is here that the solution to the world’s energy crisis lies?

Even a vibrator could be hacked

Between 1997 and 1999 when I was regularly co-presenting a popular BBC TV chat show, it was only once that I was left speechless in front of a camera – not a very welcome happening on live TV. It was when we had a so-called ‘electric woman’ as our studio guest. Believe it or not, this remarkable lady was capable of switching electric lights off and on by just staring at them. She was quick to demonstrate her amazing skill by switching off all the studio’s headlights (and all other lights too) the moment she sat next to me on the sofa to be interviewed. Well, none of us knew how to react to that. Luckily, due to the ensuing pitch darkness, our puzzled faces could not be seen by thousands of TV viewers all over Europe. When the light came back on, Peter Dobby, the show’s other presenter, was quick to comment: “It’s not often that you see Vitali lost for words…” At this point, you may ask: what’s the link between the lady with a powerful stare and the vibrator-hacking news story? Well, nothing much, apart from the fact that it’s the second time in my memory that I feel entirely speechless and totally lost for words. So I’d better leave it here…

Jade Fell  Jade Fell, assistant features editor
Even a vibrator could be hacked

There’s been quite a lot of pretty horrid news this week – urine fuel-generation included – but this one is by far the most horrendous. A US software firm has demonstrated that once the Internet of Things fully takes off, even sex toys could be at risk of getting hacked. The purpose of the demonstration was to show that, as the world becomes increasingly connected, cyber security is becoming an even more pressing issue. This is all very well and good, but I am still upset. I can only assume that old skool models are still safe, and that perhaps it’s only ‘smart’ vibrators that are at risk? I mean, surely a hacker wouldn’t be able to flip an actual switch remotely, right? But this just brings up far too many questions for my liking. Why is anybody even creating vibrators that are in any way connected to the IoT? Does anybody really need to have a sex toy that has WiFi capabilities? Why is this even a thing? Seriously? What’s going on?!

Nanomotors pave the way for self-repairing electronics

Thank goodness there’s still normal news to get excited about. Tiny, clever and helpful nanomotors could make self-repairing electronics a reality. Yes, a team of researchers have developed self-propelled devices capable of seeking out and repairing tiny scratches in electronic systems. Made from gold and platinum, these adorable nanomotors are powered by hydrogen peroxide and capable of moving freely across the surface of electric circuits, searching for scratches that could interrupt the flow of current. When they come into contact with a scratch they become lodged in it, bridging the gap and allowing current to flow again – so cool! Not only am I fairly excited by the potential of self-repairing electronics, but I’ve also fallen in love with these little nanomotors. These little guys are the future. Who knows, maybe one day they’ll find a way to fix your cracked smartphone screen! Just imagine, hordes of tiny nanomotors living in all electronics, fixing damage as soon as happens, making sure everything is kept running smoothly – It’s like the tale of the elves and the shoemaker in real life!

Lorna Sharpe  Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
Mosul Museum brought to life at WTS 2016

The Economist has used virtual reality to recreate artefacts from Iraq’s Mosul Museum that were destroyed in 2014 by ISIL’s cultural iconoclasts (I’m putting it politely here). The RecoVR: Mosul project is a fantastic example of people using technology for good purposes, keeping knowledge alive for future generations, unlike those who use technology only to spread hatred and division.

Bionic patch could heal damaged heart

Engineers from Tel Aviv University have created a ‘bionic heart patch’ containing organic as well as electronic parts, which expands and contracts like real heart tissue. The researchers say their long-term goal is to create a device that can react to conditions such as inflammation or lack of oxygen by releasing drugs to correct the situation. Ultimately it could reduce the need for donor hearts – though patching up your heart won’t help much if the rest of your body is showing the effects of a couch-potato lifetime.

Tereza Pultarova  Tereza Pultarova, news reporter
Expired domains used by hackers to spread malware via popular sites

Cyber criminals are resourceful creatures. One of their latest tricks involves posing as a legitimate advertising website in order to pull traffic from real Internet heavyweights. According to a report by US information-security company Trustware, high-profile news and entertainment websites including the New York Times and the BBC have recently been featuring fake adverts shiftily slipped there via an expired media company website, which was reregistered by the attackers and re-purposed to efficiently spread malware. A click on the fake banner leads the user to the malicious website and initiates the download of a set of malware. The attack has been linked to the Angler exploit kit, which is infamous for its ability to bypass security.

Selfies may replace passwords in securing Amazon’s payment systems

This idea by Amazon is certainly not bad. I am personally really bad with remembering password, constantly hitting the ‘forgot the password’ button in most of my electronic accounts. Amazon proposes to ditch the password altogether and replace it with a double selfie identification. The first selfie proves who you are, the second proves you are not just a photo of yourself used by a criminal to go on an Amazon shopping spree paid by your credit card.

dominic-lenton  Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Wishaw digital substation will be first step towards smarter grid

One of my particular gripes when reviewing the week’s news recently has been the tendency for companies to hope a liberal sprinkling of the word ‘smart’ over their product ranges will grab customers’ attention by making everything seem more useful in a vague, indefinable way. The latest exception is the start of a project to build an electricity substation of the type that will be at the heart of a UK ‘smart energy network’. Not as whizzy as a smart fridge or television, maybe, but its ability to monitor and adapt to conditions will increase safety as well as reducing costs and environmental impact. Maybe there’s a rule of thumb at work here, that the less glamorous a smart technology is (and there are few things less glamorous than an electricity substation) the more genuinely useful and innovative it is.

Mosul Museum brought to life at WTS 2016

Growing enthusiasm for replicating museums in virtual reality is just one of many VR applications we’ve looked at it a special focus in the new issue of E&T [http://eandt.theiet.org/magazine/2016/02/index.cfm]. The downside might be fewer field trips to amazing places like the British Museum once schools can take students there via a headset and without all the headaches of coach travel and packed lunches. That would be a shame, because a single visit can inspire a lifetime enthusiasm. The upside though is that projects like this can resurrect places that have been lost or destroyed, or allow you to visit somewhere you’ve got no hope of ever reaching in the real world.

Dickon Ross  Dickon Ross, editor in chief
Even a vibrator could be hacked

Why would anyone want to hack my fridge? That’s the question most householders would ask, a panel on internet of things security heard, and it’s what many device designers may ask too. Members of the panel had a range of answers: there will be hackers who will do it for notoriety; there will be hackers who want to use it as a gateway to a more important area, like the wifi network; and there will be those who will use it for . The demonstration at CeBit wasn’t hacking a fridge, but the problem it highlights is similar. If it can be hacked, it will be hacked, the panel warned.

Sonar for smartphones turns every surface into touchscreen

An engineering student in America has come up with one of those ideas that you can’t help wondering why no one else has thought of before: gesture control using sonar rather than vision. That’s probably because it’s harder than it sounds – its relatively low resolution being an important limitation to be overcome. In the not too distant future, perhaps we’ll all be walking down the street wildly drawing pictures and symbols in the air rather than stopping to try and tap tiny little buttons on our phones and watches.

E&T news weekly #85 – we choose our favourite engineering and technology news stories from the week

March 11, 2016

Friday 11 March 2016

Jack Loughran  Jack Loughran, news reporter
Tomatoes, peas and rye successfully grown in Mars soil

Simulated Mars soil has been shown to successfully cultivate ten different crops; could this be an important stepping stone to human colonisation of the Red Planet? Maybe. The soil itself is packed full of nasty elements like mercury and arsenic that could be absorbed by the plants and their fruits and would make a human very sick indeed. But the whole experiment really leads to the wider question of whether we want to colonise Mars at all. During the night, the planet gets down to about minus 70 degrees C, the kind of temperature that could kill a human very quickly. The problem here is that the planet is simply too far away from the Sun, it’s about 50 per cent further away than the earth. There is no life on Mars for an obvious reason- these inhospitable temperatures simply cannot cultivate it. Even if terraforming technology was somehow capable of creating a viable atmosphere on the planet, the heat retention would not be sufficient without physically moving it closer to the Sun. Without an interstellar tow truck, dreams of Mars colonisation should probably be put to rest for now.

Vitali Vitaliev  Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
Tomatoes, peas and rye successfully grown in Mars soil

This news story could have been illustrated with a picture of Matt Damon, playing Mark Watney, an astronaut of the future accidentally abandoned on Mars by his fellow crew members and left to his own devices in ‘The Martian’. As those who have seen that movie may remember, Damon (who got an Oscar nomination for this role), alias Mark Watney, tried to survive on Mars by growing potatoes in his own faeces. If we believe the news story in question, by doing so he was pretty much wasting his time (and faeces too), for he could have – theoretically at least – grown rye, tomatoes, peas, radish and possibly even potatoes too, using the natural Martian soil, as the ingenious scientists from the Wageningen University & Research Centre in the Netherlands did (they didn’t bring the soil from Mars, but simulated it in a laboratory). There was only one small, yet significant, difference between their ‘end products’ and Watney’s. The scientists’ veggies, as they themselves acknowledged, were all but inedible. Unlike Mark/Matt’s life-saving and seemingly yummy potatoes, which he kept gobbling up for all he was worth! So, in reality, it was not Watney, but the respected Dutch academics who were wasting their time as well as their research resources and facilities. They would have done better by following in the movie astronaut’s footsteps, which would have led them straight to the nearest toilet.

Cambridge initiative aims to create ‘hyper-connected’ city

I wonder if – as someone who lives less than 30 miles away from it – I qualify to be called a resident of “Cambridge and its surrounding areas” and could therefore take part in the initiative designed to improve the region’s “connectivity”, which as I can myself testify is both poor and erratic at present? According to this news story, taking part is not going to be particularly burdensome: I will just have to use my iPhone as often as possible while a special OpenSignal App will send the data of my levels of connectivity to the relevant monitoring authorities. Sounds simple. Yet, there’s catch here. The clever app has to be downloaded to my phone first. What if, due to the chronic weakness of WiFi signal and services in my area, I’m not able to do that – a not too unlikely scenario, I have to admit. A catch indeed, or rather a classic Catch 22. Any ‘appt’ advice will be welcome.

Dickon Ross  Dickon Ross, editor in chief
Siemens and BMW warn Brexit would damage UK tech sector

Some companies have nailed their colours to the mast for or against a Brexit (that’s the UK leaving the European Union for those who aren’t so familiar with the coming referendum in the UK). Most that have – like BAe Systems, Cisco or Airbus – are more business-to-business corporations than consumer-facing companies like supermarkets and banks, which have been more reluctant to come out and say what they think either way. BMW and Siemens are all for the UK staying in the EU but then they are of course German – even if BMW now owns two iconic British car brands in the very different shapes of Mini and Rolls-Royce. Their reasoning is interesting though, and E&T will be looking at the implications of a Brexit for European research in an upcoming issue.

‘Vegetable steel’ bamboo helping to rebuild Nepal homes

Traditional local building materials may sometimes lack the high-tech image for governments or clients, but sometimes the old ways are the best and Nepal is rebuilding its earthquake disaster areas with bamboo – which is light, strong, plentiful and fast growing. That’s why it’s called ‘vegetable steel’, and combined with new technological advances it can literally reach new heights.

Jade Fell  Jade Fell, assistant features editor
UK solar farms to create habitats for endangered birds

A new scheme launched by the RSPB aims to replicate the natural habitats of much-loved but threatened birds, including turtle doves and skylarks, in solar farm sites across the UK. This is great news. There are a lot of people in the UK who, although all for wind and solar power in principle, are wholly against the idea of such structures being placed near their homes because they see them as an eyesore – we call them idiots, am I right? Personally, I think they’re pretty cool to look at, but of course you can’t please everyone. I think this new scheme is not only unquestionably great for the birds, but also has the potential to convert even the most hardboiled nimbyists – after all, how could you possibly think a solar panel ugly when it’s surrounded by hordes of singing skylarks?

Boeing develops far UV self-cleaning airplane bathroom

When it comes to things I dislike – and there are many – dirty bathrooms are right up there with the likes of ladybirds, ketchup and the use of the word ‘airplane’. The economy bathrooms on aircrafts, already fairly below acceptable for even a short-haul flight, are nothing short of abominable once you enter the tenth hour of a transcontinental journey, bleary eyed with fatigue and liable to fall into whatever slippery mess invariably covers the entire floor of the cramped, dimly lit cubicle. Developing a self-cleaning bathroom for use in these circumstances can only be a good thing.

Cambridge initiative aims to create ‘hyper-connected’ city

As a resident of Cambridge, who also wrote this news story, I am a firm supporter of this initiative. We’re a super city – let’s get broadband speeds to match!

Rebecca Northfield  Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
Tomatoes, peas and rye successfully grown in Mars soil

The first settlers on Mars will be able to eat peas – at least that’s a guarantee. Researchers simulated the soil on the Red Planet and found that they could grow tomatoes, peas, rye, rocket, radish and even garden cress. Simply vegan. But what about Mars bars? Surely they should be a staple when people go and live on the namesake. Anyway, future colonisation is all systems go, as long as they can get there and no one burns alive or dies from the lack of oxygen due to a freak accident. But sure, growing plants is a definite maybe. Also, the researchers didn’t want to eat the crops they had harvested. Well, that isn’t very adventurous, is it?

Tereza Pultarova  Tereza Pultarova, news reporter
Mobile 5G holds key to future success of virtual reality

The 2016 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona was overflowing with virtual reality technology, with every major exhibitor showing off their latest contraptions. As various keynote speakers asserted throughout the show, what was on display in Catalonia’s capital in late February is just the beginning. The true era of virtual reality will only fully take off once the technology frees itself from bulky PCs and can run smoothly on mobile phones, supported by major connectivity strides enabled by the development of 5G wireless telecommunication networks. The future, the industry experts envision, will see people wandering around with a bit less immersive headsets than we can see today, living their lives in between virtual and physical realities.

Snowden says FBI does not need Apple to unlock shooter’s iPhone

NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden, the man who made the public aware of the mass surveillance practices of US security agencies, has weighed into the dispute between Apple and the FBI about the legitimacy of the latter’s requirement to have the tech giant unlock the iPhone of an alleged terrorist. Speaking from his Moscow exile, the computer expert called FBI’s claim that it can’t extract viable data from the device without Apple’s assistance “horse shit,” saying the agency definitely does possess the means to get inside the San Bernardino shooter’s phone by itself.

Katia Moskvitch  Katia Moskvitch, technology features editor
‘Virtual walls’ to stop drones entering restricted UK sites

Drones are still fascinating many of us – but because there are more and more of them in the sky they’re also becoming a nuisance. Now the UK government is thinking of implementing mandatory geo-fencing technology for drones to prevent unauthorised devices from entering restricted areas. Some drones already have the technology in them, but soon it might become mandatory to fit it into all drones flown for leisure purposes. At the moment in many countries the regulations governing flying drones aren’t always perfectly clear. It’s normally not advised, and often illegal, to fly them near airports, or anywhere near where planes tend to fly. So better regulations would be very welcome, to avoid any potential future disasters.

dominic-lenton  Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Driverless lorry platoons to be tested on the M6

So you’re driving sensibly along the motorway at a reasonable speed when you realise you’re going to have to manoeuvre to overtake a line of driverless lorries occupying the inside lane, nose to tail, for some distance ahead. A few minutes later, as traffic in the busy middle lane slowly creeps ahead of the juggernaut procession, you’re nearing the junction where you want to exit. If the lorries are travelling close enough to enjoy the benefits of being in convoy there’s not going to be space to creep in, and without a friendly driver on board to flash and drop back to give you space you’re presumably stuck until the next junction, if you’re past them by then. These driverless convoys sound like a brilliant idea in theory that we should at least give a chance with tests like the ones expected to be announced in next week’s Budget, but anyone who’s tried to negotiate a stretch of unfamiliar road in perfect conditions, let alone bad weather, will immediately think of problems that could have disastrous consequences.

Ford’s driverless cars scan surroundings with lasers

Of course, one day all we’ll need to worry about is being passengers in the back of a driverless car that has to negotiate the tricky aspects of a journey for us, getting around obstacles like lorries that don’t have drivers either. Regardless of smart sensors like the LiDAR Ford is embedding in its latest self-driving cars, the vehicles will be connected to each other and know when to give way, slow up and speed up. In theory at least we’ll have the politest roads since the arrival of the internal combustion engine.

Jonathan Wilson  Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
‘Virtual walls’ to stop drones entering restricted UK sites

Nice proof that as easily as technology can produce a monster, technology can also tame that monster. The skyrocketing popularity of drones over the past two or three years has naturally created problems, as their uncontrolled use has seen ad hoc localised legislation hastily written on the fly, as venues, cities and countries try to curb the enthusiastic stupidity of drone owners who fly their remote nuisances in places they’re not welcome and never will be. Now, the idea of geo-fencing specific locations presents a neat solution to drone control: no-fly zones that repel any approaching drone as effectively as any nightclub bouncer who doesn’t like your face. Your name’s not down, son, so you’re not getting in.

Snowden says FBI does not need Apple to unlock shooter’s iPhone

That there is absolutely an ulterior motive behind the FBI’s challenge to Apple is unquestionable. It is a Trojan horse tactic by which the US secret service agencies hope to sneak in a watershed court ruling that enables them to snoop in and around all future communication devices. What the FBI didn’t bank on, perhaps, is technological people smarter than them pointing out the holes, flaws and contradictions inherent in their paper-thin legal case. Smart hackers can already hack an iPhone. It may take time and it can potentially backfire and irreparably damage the phone, but it is possible. Of course it is – it’s only a mobile phone, designed by humans in California. It’s not an alien communication device recovered from the Roswell crash site. Is it?

E&T news weekly #84 – we choose our favourite engineering and technology news stories from the week

March 4, 2016

Friday 4 March 2016

Lorna Sharpe  Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
Google admits responsibility for self-driving car crash

Google has acknowledged some responsibility for a low-speed accident involving a bus and one of its self-driving cars. That’s significant, because all the Google Car’s previous prangs have been blamed on mistakes by the human drivers of the other vehicles involved. In this case it seems the car’s software misjudged what the bus driver would do, which just goes to show that computers are still some way off understanding real people.

Stretchable electronics could pave the way for smart clothing

Researchers in Switzerland have demonstrated a new material that’s not only suitable for flexible electronics, which is tricky enough in itself, but can also be stretched up to four times its original length in all directions. Part of the team’s success is down to clever fabrication techniques, but the material itself is an alloy of gallium and gold that can be persuaded to remain liquid at room temperature. Past generations of schoolchildren used to have fun rolling globules of mercury around laboratory benches, but I can’t see our successors being allowed to get their hands on liquid gold – that’s going to be much too expensive to end up between the cracks in the floorboards.

Jonathan Wilson  Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
More investment in renewables than fossil fuels last year

In spite of the continued, entrenched opposition from Big Oil and the pro-nuclear lobby – routinely swaying government thinking and diverting public money for their own ends – it looks as though we might have reached a turning point when it comes to renewable energy. A record £265bn was invested inrenewables worldwide last year – a greater sum than that invested in new fossil fuel powered plants. Quite why it’s taken mankind at large this long to come around to renewable energy sources remains a matter of debate. Any child will reason that if there’s a limitless supply of free energy from either that massive ball of burning gases in the sky, or those winds that keep blowing, or those tides that keep flowing, why wouldn’t you take advantage of all that free energy around us, available equally to all countries of the world and which doesn’t cause atmospheric pollution nor exacerbate climate change? Only money and greed can complicate such pure and simple thinking, but hopefully for those still grimly clinging to the old avaricious, selfish ways, their time is inevitably drawing to a close.

dominic-lenton  Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Light-absorbing graphene to power ‘smart wallpaper’ and IoT

Any wise tech journalist will don their trusty spectacles of scepticism when faced with an everyday object that’s had the word ‘smart’ stuck in front of it. That’s a shame in this case because ‘smart wallpaper’ – possibly dreamed up by the University of Surrey’s PR and team and not the scientists involved in the breakthrough – does no favours to what’s a genuinely great bit of innovation. In short, it’s agraphene layer grown on a textured metal surface that’s capable of absorbing 90 per cent of light energy falling on it. The idea is that it could harvest ambient light and heat to power Internet of Things devices that don’t require much energy. The people who took inspiration from the structures in moths’ eyes which allow them to see in dark conditions is pretty smart, but the ‘wallpaper’ has about as much intelligence as any that you already have decorating your home.

Jack Loughran  Jack Loughran, news reporter
Google admits responsibility for self-driving car crash

So Google’s driverless car has had its first ‘major’ accident. Big deal. This might be the kind of thing where luddites would say: See! I told you! We can’t trust the computers! They’re out to kill us all! But when you look at the details of the accident, both vehicles were going at about the same speed as a person jogging, no one was hurt, and they sustained minor damage. Google has been testing the technology since 2012, considering this it’s actually an achievement that this is the first time that such an incident has occurred. The technology promises to revolutionise the way we interact with cars and is another step towards a utopian future that is driven by technology. If the odd minor accident has to happen once in a while to achieve that goal, it seems worth it. Besides, if it had been humans who had been driving the cars during the thousands and thousands of hours that the autonomous technology has been tested on Californian roads, a greater number of accidents would probably have occurred. After all, we’re only human.

Malaysia Airlines Flight #MH370 – new debris possibly found on Mozambique coast – an annotated infographic

March 3, 2016

A piece of debris found off the south-east African coast of Mozambique could be from missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370.

The hunk of metal is being sent to Australia for testing. If confirmed, it would be the second piece of debris found from the Flight MH370 plane, which disappeared on 8 March 2014 on a routine overnight flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. All 239 passengers and crew aboard remain missing, presumed dead.

E&T reported this Flight MH370 news story in greater detail earlier today.

Click on the graphic for an expanded view.

Flight MH370 debris and drift theory

Flight MH370 debris and drift theory

McLaren 570GT supercar unveiled ahead of 86th Geneva Car Show – an annotated infographic

February 26, 2016

McLaren has unveiled its new 570GT supercar, the third model in the company’s “Sports Series” range of ultra-fast, daily driver sports cars. The 540C and 570S Coupe preceded this model, the 570GT – the most luxurious McLaren ever built.
The amazingly fast new McLaren 570GT is powered by a 3.8-litre twin-turbo gasoline mid-mounted motor, producing 562 hp and 443-pound feet of torque. It weighs just under 3,000 pounds and rockets from 0-60 mph in just over three seconds. The standing quarter mile will come up in 11.1 seconds.

The power is delivered through a seven-speed automatic gearbox to the rear wheels, with three modes available to the driver: Normal, Sport and Track.  On a race track, where many 570GTs will find themselves, it will reach 204 mph. Prices are likely to start at around $200,000 before tax.

Presumably, McLaren has unveiled this new car ahead of the Geneva Motor Show’s official opening in order to steal a march on its rivals and their latest products.

Certainly, it is expected that the 570GT will have to share the limelight with VW subsidiary Bugatti, which will launch its new 1,482 hp Chiron, replacing the Veron at an expected price of $2.4 million, and Aston Martin, which will highlight its DB 9 replacement, the DB 11, powered by a new 5.2 litre-V12 motor.

Ferrari  has also jumped the Geneva gun, unveiling its GTC4 Lusso a few weeks ago. Meanwhile, BMW’s hot new 600 hp 7-series flagship, the M760Li xDrive will flaunt a 6.6-litre V-12 engine; Lamborghini will show its limited edition Centenario; Maserati has its first SUV, the Levante, and amongst such illustrious company Mercedes will probably be wondering why nobody is looking at its C-Class convertible.

E&T will be at the Geneva Motor Show press preview next week. Follow our coverage online.

Click on the graphic for an expanded view.

Zoom

Zoom

E&T news weekly #83 – we choose our favourite engineering and technology news stories from the week

February 26, 2016

Friday 26 February 2016

Jack Loughran  Jack Loughran, news reporter
Apple v FBI may speed up government-proof safeguards

The FBI’s recent efforts to convince Apple to produce software that can bypass iPhone security systems are a cynical attempt to use a tragic event as a means to bolster their surveillance powers. The San Bernardino shootings were widely covered in the national media and understandably provoked a lot of anger from the public. The FBI argues that gaining access to the smartphone of one of the shooters would help it to advance the investigation; Apple has declined due to its policy to never undermine the security features of its products. The FBI is attempting to ride the wave of public outrage over the event in order to leverage its position. After all, it’s not like there haven’t other times in the past where it would have been useful to uncover the data on an iPhone, it’s just that now is the time where the public might actually support this level of intrusion. But Apple is right to stick to its stance. To give way would be akin to compromising the locks of every door in the country in order for the FBI to gain access to one house.

Vitali Vitaliev  Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
Wearable tech for cats and dogs at MWC 2016

Apart from being a truly amazing story per se, this news report gave me some faint hope that my wife and I will at last be able to acquire a dog soon! We both have been dreaming of buying a friendly cocker spaniel for years. The problem is we are both in full-time employment, and dogs in general (spaniels in particular) do not take loneliness very well and get easily depressed when left to their own devices. In plain speak, we have no one who could look after our dream pet in our absence. As for a fairly new, yet quickly multiplying, breed of dog walkers who would be happy to look after our would-be doggy for some meagre 10 quid an hour, we simply cannot afford them. But now there’s hope at last! The new “programmable robot to keep the dog company when no one is at home” could herald a much-coveted resolution to our dilemma. There’s one potential small problem though: what if the robot starts feeling lonely in the company of the dog and gets depressed as a result too? The solution of course would be to get another robot, who would keep the first one company. But then the old affordability issue will kick in, I am sure. Well, life is not meant to be easy, in the words of one intelligent Australian Prime Minister. Having weighed all pros and cons, I decided I’d rather invest in a fitness tracker. Not for my non-existent dog, mind you, but purely for myself.

Farming robot autonomously roots out and destroys weeds

The caption underneath the photo illustrating this story claims that the amazing farming robot is designed not just to destroy but also to identify “all kinds of weeds”. If he (she? it?) is really able to do so, then she (he? it?) is far more intelligent than yours truly: I always manage (inadvertently) to root out a number of precious (from my wife’s point of view) flowers while mowing the lawn. So if this robot can indeed tell yarrow from daisies and creeping thistle, and all three of those from carnations, I cannot help admiring it (him? her?) and hope he (she? it?) will soon be available for hire.

Jonathan Wilson  Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
Robot pet plaything also patrols your home – MWC 2016

Cute bots are everywhere – not just in your jeans. At this year’s Mobile World Congress telecoms expo, LG demonstrated its rolling, remote-controlled, home-monitoring robot, which will patrol your house, entertain your pets, control smart IoT objects in your house and beam its findings back to your LG G5 smartphone, all via a dedicated Android app. Rolly (not its real name; that’s what I’ll be calling mine) can even roll itself back to the charging station when its power gets low. Who needs a real pet at all when you’ve got a robot friend this amenable?

Moon landing 1969 telescope discovers new galaxies

Listen up, kids: gather round to hear proof positive tales of old stuff still being highly relevant and productive in the modern world without needing to be relegated to the status of retro or vintage simply by dint of its age. An Australian telescope used to broadcast live vision of man’s first steps on the moon in 1969 has found hundreds of new galaxies hidden behind the Milky Way by using an innovative receiver that measures radio waves. The electronic technology at the back end has substantially advanced over the years, enabling the scientists to take full advantage of the high quality of the telescope front end.

Lorna Sharpe  Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
Moon landing 1969 telescope discovers new galaxies

Scientists at Australia’s Parkes Observatory have detected 883 galaxies, a third of which had never been seen before, using an innovative 21cm multibeam receiver to pick up radio waves emanating from areas previously obscured by the Milky Way. I like the idea that such an old telescope can be updated with modern electronics and continue to perform sterling service in an age when new technology always seems to have a shorter lifespan than what it replaces.

Facebook uniting telecom sector for 5G development

In a way, this story illustrates my previous point. It’s really not that long in the overall scheme of things since 3G was the coming technology, worthy of articles in the technical press, yet now we’re already preparing for 5G. That’s partly because, in a twist on Parkinson’s law, content expands to fill the bandwidth available, and people are encouraged to feel short-changed if they can’t download full-length feature films over the air. In many ways all this enhanced capability is a good thing, but I can’t help thinking that a lot of perfectly sound hardware is going to become unusable as a result. How can we balance technological progress with sustainability?

dominic-lenton  Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Farming robot autonomously roots out and destroys weeds

The first of a couple of welcome stories to counter the ‘robots are coming to take our jobs’ alarmism. Unless you’re a mediaeval peasant scraping a living through subsistence farming on remote hillside, it’s good news that an agricultural robot being tested in Yorkshire can seek out and destroy weeds in isolated and hilly areas which would otherwise be difficult or expensive to utilise for crops. The result is reduced use of environmentally unfriendly herbicides, and less emissions from tractors and quad bikes bombing around the countryside. The only worrying thing if you buy into ‘rise of the robots’ fears of androids planning to eliminate humanity is that IBEX has apparently been built to military standards. Fleets of autonomous vehicles equipped with heavy duty weeding equipment turning on their masters before heading for the world’s cities isn’t quite a Terminator scenario; ‘caution: robot at work’ could eventually replace ‘beware of the bull’ as a warning to ramblers in the future though.

Wearable robot arm lets drummers play with three hands

From the world of music comes a device that isn’t going to replace human instrumentalists but will help them play in different ways. There’s never been a shortage of drummer jokes (“What do you call someone who hangs around with musicians?” being a perennial favourite) and it’s amusing just to think what the creators of Spinal Tap would have made of a wearable robotic limb which provides percussionists with an additional hand. The fact it’s described as a ‘smart arm’ doesn’t help.

Katia Moskvitch  Katia Moskvitch, technology features editor
Robots: autonomous deep-sea explorers and multi-terrain walkers

Robots don’t quite look like humans yet and there’s still much they can’t do – but they are getting there. Scientists have now developed autonomous underwater devices able to make decisions in real time based on their surroundings – and these particular machines could help help us with deep-sea exploration. Unlike most autonomous vehicles currently used for ocean exploration, these robots are programmed to allow them to change their behaviour in response to what is going on around them. For example, when acoustic sensors aboard the device detected the right size and concentration of squid, it triggered a second mission to report the robot’s position in the water and then run a pre-programmed grid to map the area in finer detail. I don’t believe that robots will one day completely replace humans, but they will – and already are – certainly lend us a helping (mechanical) hand!

Tereza Pultarova  Tereza Pultarova, news reporter
Robot pet plaything also patrols your home – MWC 2016
Wearable tech for cats and dogs at MWC 2016

Animal-centred wearables and electronic devices have received quite some attention at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week, clearly showing that manufacturers are looking to explore new markets. A fitness tracker for dogs has been unveiled by South Korea’s largest wireless operator SK Telecom, together with a GPS tracker that allows dog owners to talk to their pets in case they get lost. The firm also showcased a robotic ball that can be used for the dog’s or cat’s entertainment when no one is at home. SK Telecom hasn’t been the only electronics company exploring the latter idea. In fact, LG has gotten one step further. While SK Telecom’s Friendsbot cannot be remotely controlled, LG’s Rolling Bot, although moving around much more slowly, enables the owner to engage with the pet remotely via an Android app. LG’s ball-like bot is connected to WiFi and fitted with speakers and microphones, which means that the owner can even talk to the lonely animal or hear whether it’s in distress.


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