News

In this issue: Low-carbon to pay its way, 21st century disasters averted by engineers, policy review will concentrate on manufacturers, huge second airport for Beijing, killer robot development 'too fast', and more.

New York City connections

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are using images like that shown here, of New York's Internet traffic with other cities, to yield new insights into the dynamics of globalisation.

The size of the glow on each city location corresponds to the volume of IP traffic flowing between that place and New York City. The image is from a 3D animation currently on show at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York.

"It is like showing how the heart of New York pulsates in real time and how it connects with the global network of cities," said Carlo Ratti, associate professor of the practice of urban technologies at MIT.

"Our cursory analysis illustrates how telecom data can help us to expand our conception of global cities and their role in the process of globalisation," he added.

Maps from the New York Talk Exchange project will be on show at MoMA until 12 May 2008, and are simultaneously available at http://senseable.mit.edu/nyte.

Low-carbon economy 'will pay its way'

By James Hayes

The transition to a low-carbon economy would bring huge economic gains to the societies that undertake it, according to author, business leader and social entrepreneur James Martin.

The 2008 Turing Lecture speaker believes that 'carb-ageddon' can be averted if developed nations "re-build" their principal industries to minimise their impact on the environment.

"Every industry has got to be rebuilt," Martin said. "We've got to completely change the car industry, the energy industries, obviously. But we also have to completely change our food industries, agriculture, and the telecommunications and computer industries. And we need to change the entertainment industry totally."

Rather than prove prohibitively costly, the move toward low-carbon re-industrialisation will actually become a prime economic driver, Martin argued. "As we rebuild all of those industries some people are going to make huge profits," he said.

"Making the corrections is not necessarily negative for the economy. If we do the right things, I think it's going to be strongly positive for our global economies."

This year's IET/BCS Turing Lecture included the premiere of 'The Meaning of the 21st Century', a feature-length documentary based on Martin's 2006 book of the same name, and narrated by Michael Douglas. Martin's message places great emphasis on the importance of winning young hearts and minds to the cause of ecological engagement.

"We need to get young people to understand what their life is going to be like, and how much better they will be if they play the right role in changing things," Martin said.

"It's absolutely amazing that every child is taught history, but no child is taught about the future. It's much more important to understand the future than it is to understand history."

Martin called on the IET and other professional bodies to do more to "understand what they can about the future and its dangers, and do as much to steer us away from the bad things as they do to steer us toward the good things".

Engineers challenged to avert 21st century disasters

By Paul Dempsey in Boston

Technology must rise to meet 14 'grand challenges' during the 21st century, say leading engineers. Many of the challenges address the downside of innovations from the 20th.

The hit-list, compiled by a blue-chip committee assembled by the US National Academy of Engineering (NAE), was published at the recent AAAS meeting in Boston. It follows on from an earlier NAE report on key technological achievements during the last century, explained committee chair William Perry, a former US secretary of defence and, today, professor of engineering at Stanford University.

"But," he added, "those remarkable achievements also had a dark side. And that dark side we are facing in the 21st century: the depletion of energy resources, a looming global environmental disaster, a looming security disaster if the incredibly destructive levels of power that now exist fall into the hands of terrorists, and the emergence of drug-resistant pathogens."

The committee - which includes Lord Broers, chairman of the Lords' Select Committee on Science and Technology - identified the14 challenges after sifting through submissions from more than 40 countries, including one from the UK's Royal Academy of Engineering. They did not rank them according to priority.

The NAE is now looking to maintain public interest by asking people to vote online for those challenges they consider most important.

Perry said the panel had initially focused on energy. Here, it identified fusion-derived electricity as a potential medium-term solution and solar energy as a near-term one. But he noted that even if these technologies reach fruition on the most optimistic timescale, mankind will still need fossil fuels for decades to come.

Nevertheless, Perry stressed that "some [of the challenges] can be and should be achieved as soon as possible."

Committee member Ray Kurzweil, author and inventor of the CCD chip used in most digital cameras, said he and fellow report contributor Larry Page, co-founder of Google, were already putting their own money on the line to back advanced solar systems based on nanotechnology.

"We need only capture one part in 10,000 of the sunlight that falls on Earth to meet all our energy needs," said Kurzweil. His company, Kurzweil Technologies, is also actively engaged in another of the challenges, reverse-engineering the brain.

Lord Broers commented: "The Challenges address issues of sustainability, health, vulnerability and joy of living. Success or failure in meeting them will not only determine whether we are going to survive and lead healthy lives, but how much we are going to enjoy our lives."

Phone hope for voiceless

By Paul Dempsey in Dallas

A 'mind-reading' phone that provides a voice for the speech-less was one of the headline innovations at last week's Texas Instruments Developer Conference in Dallas, along with a graphical electronic stethoscope.

The phone system is based on neurological monitoring developed at Ambient, a spin-off from the University of Illinois. It uses signal processing to interpret signals from the brain that would normally lead the motor system to begin speech, but instead relays words silently to a phone line. The other caller hears a digitally generated voice.

CEO Michael Callahan said the current prototype has a limited vocabulary, but Ambient will launch commercially with a version based on the recognition of about 40 syllables, allowing it to relay virtually any sentence. A syllable-based system will also respond in conversations almost instantaneously; the word-based one suffers from latency.

The portable stethoscope, ViScope, shows audio signals from the human heart on an integrated display that replaces the traditional trumpet. PC-based systems have previously offered a similar option, but doctors found these inconvenient to use.

The ViScope's display allows doctors to see low frequency components in heart readings that can take years of auditory training to detect using traditional stethoscopes.

Damon Coffman, CTO of developer HD Medical Group, said the first generation of the device will provide waveform diagrams that doctors will analyse, as this speeds approval from medical regulators. Future generations could make diagnoses.

Both products incorporate TI technology. The chip giant used its conference to declare further ambitions in the medical as well as industrial and consumer markets.

It is launching four catalogue versions of its high-end OMAP 3 processor - originally developed for smartphones - to service these types of applications as well as the 'mobile Internet device' space targeted by Intel's recently announced Silverthorne chip.

Wireless infrastructure vendors face crisis

By David Sandham

The market for wireless infrastructure stands on the brink of a serious downturn, according to a new report. Sales in 2008-09 are set to flatten and, in some regions, to decline strongly, according to Matia Grossi, lead infrastructure analyst at IMS Research and author of the report.

According to the graph shown here, the annual growth in numbers of base stations sold will collapse, moving from double-digit increases in 2005-07 to a contraction of about 10 per cent in 2008.

"In developing countries where operators have already reached a good geographical coverage operators are now relying mostly on software upgrades," Grossi explained. "They are relying on additional base stations or transceivers only if they have no other choice." Although there continues to be excellent growth in certain regions, such as India, Africa and South-East Asia, this will not compensate for the saturation experienced in more mature markets.

Many of the world's leading infrastructure vendors have announced staff reductions. Nokia Siemens is in the middle of a plan to cut between 6,000 and 9,000 jobs by 2010. Ericsson is planning to shed 4,000 jobs by 2009, and Alcatel Lucent intends to do the same. This is "a clear signal of what is going on in the market", said Grossi.

In the face of this downturn, infrastructure vendors have been consolidating (Alcatel with Lucent, and Nokia with Siemens). Now, there are rumours that Motorola and Nortel have held talks about merging their wireless infrastructure divisions. "My opinion is that it is too late," Grossi told 'E&T'. "They should have done it a year ago. Motorola has lost contracts in China and Germany and Nortel has not been doing that great either."

Meanwhile, Chinese telecoms equipment suppliers Huawei and ZTE have been gaining market share. "Huawei's GSM and UMTS infrastructure, and ZTE's CDMA infrastructure have made strong progress in emerging markets, where most of the new network rollouts are happening," Grossi said.

Parliamentary review calls for evidence on state of profession

By Dominic Lenton

MPs carrying out a major review of UK engineering are to pay special attention to the areas of nuclear energy and plastic electronics.

The inquiry by the cross-party Innovation, Universities and Skills Committee will look at the role of engineering and engineers in UK society and the part they play in national innovation. The exercise will include a review of the country's skills base, including supply of new recruits and diversity by gender and age.

Alongside this, there will be a series of case studies looking at specific sectors, beginning with nuclear energy and the emerging discipline of plastic electronics.

Following the recent confirmation that the UK will consider building a new generation of reactors, the nuclear review will consider whether the country has the necessary engineering capacity. An important question will be the value of training British engineers compared with importing the necessary expertise from elsewhere.

The plastic electronics case study will take a similar look at the potential for this embryonic technology in the UK and whether British industry is set up to handle growth in this area.

The committee, which has set a deadline of Friday 15 March for written submissions, has said that it will consider the role that professional bodies like the IET play in promoting the profession alongside industry, universities and the government.

Paul Davies, the IET's head of policy, said: "This inquiry gives us the opportunity to demonstrate the importance of engineers in society and to the economy, and the key role professional bodies can play in this. We plan to work with our fellow institutions on a joint response to maximise our voice, and will be taking advice from specialists in drawing up our contribution to the case studies on nuclear engineering and plastics electronics."

Short films set for comeback - on mobiles

Mobile devices could provide the ideal distribution platform for short films, according to actor and director Robert Redford.

Speaking at last month's Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Redford said: "You will see whole new ways of storytelling which can take advantage of people's shorter attention span."

Redford launched his non-profit Sundance Institute in 1981 to support independent film. "Starting Sundance was not supposed to be an insurgency against, but an alternative and addition to, Hollywood," he said. "The wonderful thing about stories is there are so many to be told, which is why I've had little interest in, or patience for, sequels. There are too many stories to waste time repeating them."

Redford recalled his childhood growing up in a working class neighbourhood in Los Angeles, when going to the movies he would watch features, Pathé newsreels, cartoons and shorts. But the film business changed. "As the film business got greedy it became one movie and some loud trailers," he said. "Later I realised what a travesty it was that we had removed all these parts of the film experience."

Moves at last on Community patent proposal

By Pelle Neroth

Patents are vital to innovation, because they make invention profitable. Yet the European Union has, in all its guises, failed to fashion a patent system as cheap and effective as the US system.

Why are European technology companies less successful and innovative than they should be?

When businesses grow and want to expand, they find themselves confounded by different patenting rules that will bar their products from some countries while making them easily copied in others. All this uncertainty makes market penetration difficult.

The way to create a level playing field is to have a common patent law for the whole of Europe, argues Liberal Democrat MEP Sharon Bowles, a patent attorney, who is one of the leading campaigners for a new EU patent system.

She says it will be an improve-ment over a current halfway solution: the non-EU European patent, granted by the European Patent Office in Munich. A single grant application covers the whole of Europe, but it has two big disadvantages: contracting states still require translations into their own language for transposition into national legislation - which can prove expensive - and litigation is settled in national courts and subject to different outcomes.

As Bowles puts it, there is no common pool of judgments, no evolving common case law to build on. Uncertainty continues to prevail.

The Commission has long dreamt of an EU solution: a Community (not to be confused with European) patent subject to a single EU-wide jurisdiction. This has proved to be too much for member states, who also balk at the spread of English that this could bring. An insistence by member states on having the Community patent translated into all 23 official languages has long held up any movement in Brussels. But the needs of European technological competitiveness seem to have produced a mood of compromise.

A new deal is being thrashed out this year involving national courts with a central EU appeal court, and, importantly, a travelling pool of judges from several member states who will work together on cases to gain consistency.

Under the proposal, judges would have discretion on languages; litigation will either be in the language of the patent or in English, with allowances made for the weaker party. This language provision might put some countries' noses out of joint, but a requirement for costly translation into all languages simply makes a Community patent uncompetitive - many times dearer than patent applications in Japan and America. Anyway, experience with the European patent shows that even with translations, it's mostly the English version that gets consulted.

An increasingly expansive patent jurisdiction that's now on the cards won't be popular with everyone; small businesses in smaller countries will now find the going harder. It also offers greater opportunities to so-called patent 'trolls', who buy up large numbers of patents for the sole purpose of suing infringers. They can now operate across Europe.

The risks are outweighed by the benefits, insists Brussels. European innovation has for so long underperformed, and patent legislation is such an obvious possible cause, that many appear quite willing to take the plunge into a world of Europe-wide patents in English and a travelling circus of international patent judges.

UK spells out ambitions for space

By Dominic Lenton

A major international space technology facility should be set up at Harwell in Oxfordshire to focus on issues such as climate change and robotic exploration, according to a new strategy for UK involvement in space.

The plans just released by the British National Space Centre also include a national programme to support development of new technologies in a sector that is estimated to contribute £7bn a year to the national economy.

The UK civil space strategy, which covers the period from 2008 to 2012 'and beyond', was developed following a public consultation held during 2007. As well as the national programme and Harwell facility, it promises continued UK involvement in Earth observation, space science and telecoms, and closer involvement in international space exploration initiatives to the Moon, Mars and beyond.

A spokesman for BNSC, a partnership of government departments, research councils and the Met Office, told E&T that it expects more concrete details of how the strategy will be implemented to be confirmed towards the end of the year.

In the meantime it will be considering details, including costs, of establishing the national centre, which will consist of new buildings on the site of the existing Harwell Science and Innovation Campus.

Science and innovation minister Ian Pearson said that with the UK at the leading edge of satellite communications and space technology, they would provide strong business opportunities in the future.

"These coming decades promise to be even more exciting than the last. The government is determined that the UK remains at the forefront of the evolving space scene," said Pearson.

Rejecting suggestions that spending public money on space missions is an expensive white elephant, Pearson told E&T that it would bring rewards for industry and technology.

"Mobile phones, satnav communications, the national lottery, and much more, depend on space technology, and similar technologies will continue to evolve," he said. "We'll see new services develop, and there's a strong opportunity for commercial gains in these space applications."

Trade bodies representing the UK space industry issued a joint statement in response to the strategy, saying they welcomed the government's desire to maintain Britain's competitiveness in an increasingly crowded sector. "The challenge for us all, in industry, academia and government, is to work together to turn this vision into a reality," said UKspace chair John Auburn.

The strategy's lifespan could see the UK collaborating with NASA on a robotic mission to the Moon as early as 2012. The project is a key area of co-operation recommended by a report from a joint NASA/BNSC working group on lunar exploration that has outlined the next steps in possible co-operation.

Previous UK-US collaborations have included Swift, Stereo, and Cassini.

The proposed MoonLITE (Moon Lightweight Interior and Telecoms Experiment) mission would put a satellite in orbit around the Moon before releasing three or four high-speed missile-like 'penetrators' capable of embedding themselves just under the lunar surface. The satellite would then relay data about the structure of the Moon.

Read the UK civil space strategy at www.bnsc.gov.uk

Beijing plans huge second airport

By William Dennis in Beijing

Chinese aviation authorities have given the go-ahead for a second international airport serving Beijing, at a likely cost of US$10bn-11bn. This will be China's biggest ever single investment in a new airport.

The General Administration of Civil Aviation of China (GACAC) decided in favour of the new facility after carrying out a feasibility study last year.

GACAC deputy director Yang Guoying said Beijing needs a second airport as the existing facility, Beijing Capital International Airport (BCIA), is under growing pressure.

"A second airport will help Beijing cope with the projected increase in traffic over the next 25 years," Yang said.

BCIA is expected to reach its capacity of 82 million passengers by 2014.

The Federal government will decide over the next six months on the site for the new airport. Possibilities include Hebei province and the Tianjin Municipality. Construction will start late next year or early 2010.

Under the proposals, the new airport is to eventually have five passenger terminals and four runways, with the capacity to handle 110 million passengers a year. It is scheduled to start operations in 2015.

In 2004 the Federal government made an investment of $4.6bn to expand BCIA. It involved the construction of a third passenger terminal building and a third runway to increase passenger handling capacity by 47 million.

A phased opening of the 986,000m2 Terminal 3 was scheduled to start on February 29, with full operation planned in time for the Olympic Games in August.

Trials on simultaneous operations of the airport's three runways were carried out last September.

BCIA is the first airport in the Asia Pacific and one of only a few in the world to operate three runways simultaneously. At its peak BCIA will be able to handle 115 flights an hour, an increase of 35.

Last year BCIA handled 53.47 million passengers, putting it among the top ten busiest airports in the world. The projected total for this year is 61 million.

US 'moving too fast' on killer robots

By Dominic Lenton

Enthusiasm for replacing human soldiers with robots is based more on science fiction than reality, a robotics expert has warned.

Writing in the winter 2008 newsletter of technology ethics group Scientists for Global Responsibility, Professor Noel Sharkey of the University of Sheffield claims that the decision to start arming autonomous vehicles is the latest step on a dangerous path.

"Having worked in artificial intelligence (AI) for decades, the idea of a robot deciding on human termination terrifies me," writes Sharkey, who is professor of artificial intelligence and robotics at Sheffield's Department of Computer Science and known to the public for his role as resident expert on BBC television's 'Robot Wars'. "Policymakers seem to have an understanding of AI that lies in the realms of science fiction and myth."

Until recently, battlefield robots like the Predator aerial vehicles deployed in Iraq have been controlled remotely by human operators who make the final decision about whether or not to fire on a target. Sharkey's concern is that fully autonomous machines that make their own decisions about lethality are high on the US military agenda. Robots are integral to the $230bn Future Combat Systems project, and Congress has said it wants a third of ground combat vehicles to be unmanned by 2015.

Supporters have suggested that robots could be equipped with an 'artificial conscience', but Sharkey says he has "grave doubts" about the effectiveness of this approach to letting them make decisions such as distinguishing between combatants and bystanders in the heat of battle.

"We are going to give decisions on human fatality to machines that are not bright enough to be called stupid," Sharkey writes. "We will get little warning of the deployment of autonomous robot weapons. It is likely to happen piecemeal and leave us sleepwalking into an unprecedented ethical and moral minefield."

Sharkey is calling for international discussions about how, where and when robots can be used in war. One answer to the dilemma, he suggests, is a simple rule: "Let men target men and let machines target machines."

Jobs for the girls

Engineering apprentice Elizabeth Halliwell (pictured centre) helps to promote manufac-turing as a profession to pupils at North Manchester High School for Girls. Elizabeth, who trains at Bolton firm MBDA, was among speakers from North West of England companies who visited the school as part of the Make It In Manufac-turing campaign run by the Manufacturing Institute.

The event introduced girls to positive female role models from industry.

Manufacturers to be at centre of science policy review

By Bob Cervi

Manufacturing will be given a high priority in the government's plans for boosting science and innovation in Britain, according to Ian Pearson, the Science and Technology minister.

Pearson said that the government's science and innovation strategy, due to be published this spring, would be wide-ranging. Speaking to manufacturing leaders and policymakers in London, he declared: "I am determined that we address the needs of manufacturing in this strategy. The discussions you will have today will be a key input to it."

The strategy follows last year's Sainsbury Review of science and innovation policies, which called for a focus on high-value production activities to enable Britain to compete globally.

Pearson told E&T that being globally competitive in manufacturing might mean offering services as well as products. "Manufacturing has changed out of all recognition, and sometimes I don't think it's very helpful to have this distinction between manufacturing and services," he said. "One of the key sources of that competitive advantage for the future will be our ability to innovate and continually develop new products and services.

"I'm very positive about our ability to innovate," he said. "We have great strengths, in terms of language, open markets, and we can make the UK a world-leading innovative country. That's what we've got to aspire to be."

Pearson conceded that both industry and government "could do better" to promote the image of manufacturing. The conference heard that proposals mooted a few years ago for a Manufacturing Media Centre are still being considered. The MMC would operate along the lines of the existing Science Media Centre, which is an independent national press office for the scientific community.

Professor Mike Gregory, head of Cambridge University's Institute for Manufacturing, agreed that UK manufacturing needed to move up the 'value chain' by providing ideas and innovation as well as a range of services. But he added that manufacturers still needed to be able to provide "excellent production" of goods.

Carbon Trust offers £5m in biofuel challenge

By Lorna Sharpe

Oil produced from biomass could be processed in standard refineries to make non-fossil transport fuels if technical challenges can be overcome. Now the Carbon Trust wants to invest £5m in commercially-focused research projects to make the idea economically viable.

Dry biomass feedstocks such as fuel crops and plant waste can be heated without oxygen to produce oil in a process called fast pyrolysis, with yields of up to 75 per cent by weight. The oil can be used for heating or to make chemicals, but it contains too much oxygen to be readily integrated into a standard refinery.

In its 'Pyrolysis Challenge', the Trust is looking for partners who will commit matching finance to develop a way of upgrading pyrolysis oil and demonstrate the process on a prototype scale. The project will also involve economic modelling.

Robert Trezona, head of research and development at the Carbon Trust, said that the trust wants to accelerate the introduction of second-generation biofuels, which use the whole plant, not just the high-value oils or sugars, and found that much of the world-class research on pyrolysis is being carried out in the UK.

"It's very flexible," he told 'E&T'. "You can pyrolyse different types of feedstock and get more or less the same oil." There are two main advantages, he said. One is that putting the oil into a refinery could be a route towards producing aviation fuel or bunker fuel for ships from biomass.

The other benefit comes in the supply chain. Transporting plant matter from dispersed sources to a conventional biorefinery is expensive and not very carbon-efficient. Pyrolysis oil could be made locally and taken by tanker to a sub-depot or the refinery for upgrading. Mixing and storage would overcome seasonal variations.

If the project produces the required level of proof, Trezona predicts "massive interest from fuel companies, from oil and gas majors, and probably from automotive OEMs. This could have a really interesting commercial future".

Commercial jet flies on plant fuel

A Virgin Atlantic jumbo jet has flown from London to Amsterdam using a biofuel blend alongside conventional jet fuel.

One of the four engines drew its fuel from a tank filled with a bio-jet blend comprising 20 per cent babassu oil and coconut oil mixed with 80 per cent standard jet fuel.

No modifications were made to the plane or the engine.

Virgin Atlantic is partnering with Boeing, GE Aviation and Imperium Renewables to develop renewable fuel sources for aviation. The aircraft used for the flight on 24 February was a Boeing 747 with GE engines.

Preparation included 28 hours of ground testing in December 2007 of the Imperium fuel on a CFM56 engine at GE's Peebles, Ohio, facility.

"During these ground tests, the biofuel performed as we expected, with no negative impact on performance and with the same excellent fuel burn and emission levels," said Dr Tim Held, manager of advanced combustion engineering at GE Aviation.

John Plaza, president and CEO for Imperium Renewables, commented: "We're extremely proud to have produced the fuel used or this historic flight. Today's biojet fuel offers higher-quality standards and a more sustainable fuel than traditional jet fuel. Additionally it illustrates the potential for 'second generation' biojet fuel to be even more viable in the coming years."

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