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


Friday 26 August 2016

dominic-lenton  Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Facial recognition tech to combat terrorism in Germany
Instagram users analysed by algorithm for signs of depression

Some of E&T’s social media followers were uncompromising in their reaction to the news that Germany is even considering using facial-recognition technology to try and prevent terrorist attacks at airports and railway stations. “Facial recognition is the final nail in the coffin to freedom,” commented one. “They can F off if they think they are scanning my face,” a more forthright tweeter agreed. A lot of this is down to an understandable mistrust of machines, whose false positive findings people worry will be hard to argue with. It’s the ‘computer says no’ (or in this case ‘yes’) effect; by the time you’ve been taken to one side, questioned on the basis that a computer thinks you’re a known terrorist and then convinced authorities you’re not, you’ve probably missed the flight and a day’s been ruined. There’s also the suspicion that without resorting to plastic surgery the same thing could happen all over again. We just don’t have the same worries when it’s humans doing the surveillance. London’s Metropolitan Police have employed a team of ‘super recognisers’ for a while who scan CCTV footage for persistent offenders and there’s little fuss made about that. More sinister, to me at least, is the idea that an algorithm thinks it can tell whether I’m depressed by analysing the colours in photographs I post online. Surprise, surprise – researchers have found a correlations between people whose pictures use less vibrant hues and a tendency to be depressed. So next time you consider applying an arty filter that turns your holiday beach snaps into something more Goth-friendly, maybe think again.

Vitali Vitaliev  Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
Edible batteries pave the way for ingestible medical devices

Having watched an excellent BBC 3 documentary “Dirty Secrets of Clean Eating” last night, I wonder whether the new “ingestible” (as opposed to “excretable”) battery could qualify as “clean” nutrition? The news story does not reveal whether the battery is going to be low-calorie, low-carb and gluten-free, or – on the contrary – rich in calories and carbs and stuffed with gluten. I am worried that the latter guess may prove closer to reality, since as all mini-electronic devices (be they embedded or ingested) go, the new battery must contain at least one chip, and chips (whether made of potatoes, or of silicon – no matter), as we know, are not particularly “clean” or nutritious.

Smart window material efficiently blocks heat and light

Just one quick question, based mostly on reading the headline rather than the full news story: if the new “smart” window can “efficiently” prevent light and heat from entering the building (which to me sounds like not a very nice perspective, particularly during European winter), can it be made even “smarter” and start blocking fresh air too? No light, no heat, no air – what an amazingly “smart” window that would be! The only problem it will be impossible to patent, for a very similar product has been in existence for centuries. It is called “a thick stone wall”. Please correct me if I am wrong, which I probably am.

Machine gun-toting robots launched by Iraq to fight ISIS

The phrase I want to focus on in this news story is “Russian combat robots” which to me sounds like your average special forces fighters – humans programmed to kill and maim, be they Russian or other. Yet, having spent half of my life in the former Soviet Union, I cannot help associating “Russian combat robots” with the so-called cannon fodder, i.e. young and untrained recruits sent to perish in their thousands by their commanders during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1978-1980.

Georgina Bloomfield  Georgina Bloomfield, digital content editor
Airlander 10 airship crashes during Bedfordshire test flight

The Airlander 10 airship, the world’s largest aircraft, has crashed at the Cardington Airfield in Bedfordshire on Wednesday during its second test flight after a UK revamp. After pretty much everyone in Britain has spent time finding the concept of the ‘flying bum’ pretty amusing, I actually felt quite sad for the poor aircraft to have had an accident so quickly into its flight. The 92m aircraft, which combines the features of a helicopter and an airship, was damaged during the accident, reportedly in a failed landing where the cockpit took most of the damage. I suppose everything should be tested…including crash landings.

Rebecca Northfield  Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
Airlander 10 airship crashes during Bedfordshire test flight

The Flying Buttocks crashed during its second test flight. What a bummer. Get it? Do you think it made weird, farting noises because it was damaged during a so-called ‘failed landing?’ Like a balloon parping when it gets deflated. Just 1,000 times bigger. That’s a lot of wind.

Most drone accidents due to technical faults, not users, study finds

Broken communication links between the pilot and the aircraft have been blamed for drone related accidents. According to the University of Melbourne down under, it’s technical problems that lead to drone crashes, not the operators. Apparently 64 per cent were technical problems. That leaves 46 per cent of hooligans with their flying machines getting into mischief for the past decade.

Lorna Sharpe  Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
Sabotage-proof chip checks against Trojan infection

It’s rare these days for chips to be manufactured by the same companies that design them, so it’s at least theoretically possible for a dodgy foundry to insert a trojan that won’t show up in post-fabrication testing. Researchers in New York have now developed an external unit that could be manufactured separately and would verify the results of the primary chip. Anything that adds another layer of security to healthcare products or equipment used in critical infrastructure has to be a good idea.

Mars rover design unveiled by Chinese space agency

China’s space agency has released the first images of a rover it plans to send to Mars within the next five years to study the Red Planet’s soil, atmosphere, water and ice distribution, and other physical attributes. China hopes to launch the mission in July or August 2020, but the delayed European ExoMars rover is aiming for the same launch window, so we could see an international race to get there first.

Airlander 10 airship crashes during test flight

Those of us who worked on E&T’s predecessor magazine used to joke about ‘the curse of IEE Review’ whenever something failed soon after we had written about it. I remembered that when I read about Airlander’s unfortunate close encounter with a power cable.

Tereza Pultarova  Tereza Pultarova, reporter
Killer robot electrocutes lionfish in Atlantic to save ecosystem

Tuna stocks are low, the population of wild salmon is declining – maybe we all shall eat lionfish instead? They say it’s tasty and there is a lot of it, especially where it should not naturally be (thanks, humans) and it’s messing up coral ecosystems and destroying native fish population. An international research team is now testing an ingenious method of killing lionfish with a remotely controlled robot that takes advantage of the creature’s natural gullibility. “Lionfish are not naturally afraid of anything, so they swam in and around it,” said John Rizzi, director of US-based non-profit RISE, which developed the robot, when describing the first tests. What happens is that the robot places its two electrocuting paddles around the patient lionfish and then strikes. I know that pest is pest, but that reminds me a bit of some Nazi extermination camp practices – just go have a shower, no big deal.

Earthquake-proofing cities with engineered materials

Too late for Italy and the more than 240 people who have died in the 6.2 earthquake this week but this research brings hope that in future people living in tectonically active regions could sleep without fear. Engineers believe that entire cities could be protected from devastating seismic waves using special shields made of the so called metamaterials. These engineered materials have properties not seen in nature. Metamaterials are known from photonics, where they alter optical waves and make objects appear invisible. Similarly they could modify the powerful Earth shakes into harmless vibrations.

Jonathan Wilson  Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
Autonomous octobot is first 3D-printed entirely soft robot

The octopus is frequently hailed as a wonder creature, its mysterious agile yet skeleton-less body inspiring all manner of new scientific thinking. The latest brains turned on by the octopus’ unique form have come up with a 3D-printed soft robot – nicknamed the ‘octobot’ – that could herald a new generation of completely soft, untethered autonomous machines. Where previously electric power and control systems, such as batteries and rigid circuit boards, have kept soft-bodied robots either tethered to an off-board system or rigged with hard components, this little octobot could revolutionise how humans interact with machines.

Plastic membrane offers super-fast electric vehicle charging

Electric vehicles are getting a lot of government and private sector attention these days, in tandem with autonomous vehicles. It seems inevitable that the two technologies will converge and rise together, as it’s highly unlikely that by the time autonomous vehicles become commonplace on the world’s roads – within as little as 10 years – that fossil fuels will still be the predominant propulsion system for their engines. The primary movers behind autonomous vehicles are also the types of companies keen to embrace cleaner, greener engine alternatives – e.g. the Google X team’s fleet of electric autonomous vehicles and Tesla cars, with their electric engines and autonomous AutoPilot mode. Battery charging and charge retention are accordingly key areas of research in this field, with new findings coming thick and fast from the world’s laboratories. The latest finding, from Ohio State University (OSU) researchers, concerns a thin plastic membrane that stops rechargeable batteries from discharging when not in use and allows for rapid recharging – two holy battery grails in one. The technology controls the way charge flows inside a battery and was inspired by how living cell membranes transport proteins in the body.

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