News

In this issue: BT's BlackBerry aspirations, the challenges facing innovation funds, the image-based search engine, the UK and China collaborates over Moon Rover, new safety tools for firefighters, and more.

BT targets broadband users with BlackBerry aspirations

By Jonathan Wilson

BT has launched its own smartphone solution for consumers, designed to act as an extension of its broadband service. The new service, called BT Total Broadband Anywhere, is aimed at Total Broadband customers who are keen to access their email accounts and the Internet away from home, and is in direct competition with established players in the market, such as BlackBerry.

John Petter, BT's managing director, consumer, said: "Communications services are converging and it is clear that customers want convenient access to the things that matter not only at home, but in the palm of their hands wherever they are."

The smartphone handsets are manufactured by HTC, which makes similar equipment for other mobile operators. BT's initial offering comprises two models: the HTC S620, which is a familiar wide, flat PDA-style handset, and the HTC S710, which is the size of a standard mobile phone and features a slide-out QWERTY keyboard.

Both devices are powered by Microsoft Windows Mobile 6 and support Wi-Fi, VOIP, IMAP and Pop4 mailboxes (including Hotmail and Googlemail), Bluetooth, WAP and quad-band networks. In keeping
with the trend in mobile devices, both feature a colour screen which rotates with the orientation of the phone and an MP3 player, although the displays do not stretch as far as featuring touch-sensitivity.

At the launch event, BT was quick to stress that the ToGo handsets are aimed at the average consumer, not the gadget junkie. They are delivered to the customer preconfigured with their BT Total Broadband details - such as BT Yahoo! email and Web links - as well as Hotmail and popular Web shortcuts.

Anti-virus software is also preinstalled and runs automatically. The software is supplied by US company Smobile, which provides a similar service for a number of mobile companies in the US; BT is its first UK customer.

The ToGo service, including handset, costs £29.99 a month, £5 more than the existing top-tier BT broadband package. It will work on both Mac and PC platforms.

Innovation funds to focus on key challenges

By Lorna Sharpe

A strong focus on environment and energy issues marked the Technology Strategy Board's recent launch of its three-year strategic plan to support business innovation.

There is new funding for low-carbon vehicles and 'zero carbon' building technologies, with proposals too for invest-ment in energy generation and supply projects and high-value manufacturing. For the first time, too, the TSB is including the creative industries within its remit.

In a separate announcement, the board has agreed to invest £25m in aviation through the Next Generation Composite Wing programme. NGCW will bring together 17 industrial partners, led by Airbus, in collaborative R&D to improve design and manufacturing proceses for aircraft wings using composite materials.

Originally created to advise the UK government, the Technology Strategy Board was relaunched last year as an independent public body with its own budget and a vision of making the UK a global leader in innovation. Its new strategy document, 'Connect and catalyse: a strategy for business innovation 2008-2011', sets out how it will do this.

The TSB's budget over the period is £711m, with aligned funding from the regional development agencies of £180m and "at least £120m" from the research councils. Matching private-sector investment is set to bring the total to over £2bn.

The strategy document says investment will be focused on areas of the economy where the UK has strength and where it will have the greatest impact.

Half the money will be used to address societal and economic challenges such as climate change and the ageing population, with detailed strategies in key application areas. Ten Innovation Platforms will bring together key players from industry, academia and government to identify and overcome barriers.

A quarter of funds will go towards technology-inspired challenges in areas where the UK leads or could lead, with the remainder set to foster an 'innovation climate'.

At the launch of the strategy, TSB chairman Iain Gray said that the organisation had come a long way: "We want to make the UK a global leader in innovation. This plan is our roadmap for the coming few years."

Image-based search engine scores higher, claim makers

By James Hayes

UK-based software company Pixsta is challenging Google's dominance with a search platform based on images.

The Pixsta engine uses contextual image retrieval and claims to enable image-to-image search - unlike the text-to-text or text-to-image capabilities of most current search engines.

Pixsta's 'advertising ecosystem' is similar to Google's Adwords model, but based wholly on images rather than text. From a random starting point, users click on an image of an item of clothing, shoes or jewellery to return further images of items that are similar by colour, shape or texture.

Clicking on any of the displayed items re-submits that item as the search term. When the user 'discovers' the item that they want to purchase, they click directly through to the product landing page to buy their chosen item.

"The snag with conventional search engines is that sources on the Web use different terms to describe different items," says Pixsta CEO & co-founder Alexander Straub. "Searching images means you can be much more granular and accurate in terms of comparing like for like. It also makes the searching process more enjoyable to end users, and means more items can be shown in the top tier of search results."

The contextual visual search technology employed is the result of five years of academic research at Imperial College London by Pixsta co-founder Dr Daniel Heesch. His work has developed complex algorithms that enable images to be compared with each other, to determine their similarity in terms of shape, colour, texture, and other attributes.

Pixsta displays results as images using a 'spiral of relevance' model, so that what it recognises as the most relevant result appears at the centre of the results.

To refine the platform and prove the business model, it has developed over the past 18 months a revenue-generating advertising network for the online fashion retail market, with live media partners including Handbag.com, Fabulous magazine and ElleUK, as well as advertisers Monsoon, Oasis, and Dorothy Perkins.

Pixsta's Visual Browse and Search technology will also be offered to e-tailers for use on their own websites.

UK-China moon rover collaboration paves the way for 2012 missions

By Dominic Lenton

Space engineers working on a new generation of lunar rovers will use a remote control centre in Surrey to put vehicles through their paces on an artificial moon surface in Beijing. The UK-China Research Exchange project is funded by the Royal Academy of Engineering.

The collaboration is one of the first under a scheme to promote links between top researchers in the UK, China and India through visits ranging in duration from a month to a year.

Dr Yang Gao, who heads the Autonomy Research Group at the University of Surrey's Space Centre, and Professor Hehua Ju of the Beijing University of Technology, will each spend six months working at the other's university, investigating on-board guidance, navigation and control systems that will allow a rover to operate autonomously.

One challenge is to develop robust stereo vision systems with precision of centimetres that can cope with the bright sunlight on the Moon's surface. The researchers will also investigate autonomous localisation, path and motion planning techniques, setting up a remote control station in Surrey from where they can carry out field tests in China.

The project will pave the way for future moon shots such as the UK's proposed Moonraker lander and the second phase of China's Chang'e programme. MoonRaker was one of the missions proposed in 2006 following a feasibility study carried out for the government by Surrey Satellite Technology, a Surrey University spin-off company, with a view to exploiting UK expertise in small satellites and miniaturised instruments.

The plan would see an initial mission known as MoonLITE (Moon Lightweight Interior and Telecom Experiment) launched in 2010. This would comprise a small orbiter and four un-braked units carrying miniaturised instruments that would penetrate the Moon's surface at high speed. As well as demonstrating how lunar orbiters can act as a data relay, the project would put in place a network of experiments designed to investigate the seismic environment and deep structure of the Moon.

MoonRaker would be launched two years later and involve a single soft-lander targeted on a nearside landing site. The primary goal is to attempt in situ dating of the young basalt rocks at the northern Oceanus Procellarum, information that would help to determine the age of the solar system.

The Chang'e programme, named after an angel in a Chinese legend who drinks a magic potion and flies to the Moon, successfully launched a lunar orbiter in November 2007. China's National Space Agency plans a robotic lander and rover mission as the second phase in 2012.

A Surrey university spokesperson said that the proposed sale of SSTL to the EADS European aerospace group will not affect its plans for MoonLITE. "SSTL is hopeful of being involved with future phases and will bid for further phases," he told E&T. "SSTL does not anticipate any change in its approach to this business opportunity in light of the EADS acquisition."

First Galileo signals transmitted

A second test satellite has gone live as a forerunner to Europe's planned Galileo navigation network.

Giove-B, which was launched on 27 April, began transmitting high-precision signals on 7 May from its orbital position.

The signals are locked onboard to a highly stable passive hydrogen maser clock, the first of its kind to be used in space.

They will be measured and analysed to ensure that they conform to the design specification for signal power, centre frequency, bandwidth and format, and will also be used to test Galileo receivers and other systems.

Giove-B was built by a European industrial team led by Astrium in Germany.

In addition to its technology demonstration mission, the satellite will secure the Galileo frequencies, eventually taking over from the SSTL-built Giove-A, which was launched in December 2005.

Novel electrolyte stops fires in laptops

By Bob Cervi

A 'safer' battery technology is being developed for devices such as laptops and mobile phones to reduce the risk of the batteries catching fire.

The long-life lithium-ion batteries used in a variety of devices have demonstrated a marked tendency to catch fire, causing leading manufacturers such as Sony and Dell to recall their products for safety reasons.

However, researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany say they are some way into testing a new type of lithium-ion battery containing less-flammable materials.

They have produced a prototype Li-ion battery that uses a non-flammable polymer in place of the more flammable organic electrolyte that is usually used. The prototype was displayed last month at the Hannover
Messe industrial exhibition in Germany.

"This considerably enhances the safety of lithium-ion batteries. What's more, because it's a solid substance, the electrolyte cannot leak out of the battery," said Dr Kai-Christian Möller, team leader at the Fraunhofer Institute for Silicate Research.

According to Möller, the polymer used by the researchers is derived from the 'Ormocer' group of substances - a compound with silicon-oxygen chains that form an inorganic structure to which organic side chains become attached.

The biggest challenge now facing the researchers, says the institute, is to increase the polymer's conductivity to improve the rate at which it can store or deliver energy. It is likely to be three to five years before commercially viable versions of the battery go on sale.

Blackberry takes on Apple

If BT is aiming its new service at BlackBerry users (see main story below), the new BlackBerry Bold has clearly been designed to challenge Apple's iPhone for style, though its features are firmly aimed at business users.

Manufacturer Research in Motion says the Bold is the first BlackBerry smartphone to support tri-band HSDPA high-speed networks around the world. It comes with GPS and Wi-Fi capability, while a next-generation 624MHz mobile processor speeds up large email downloads, streaming video and rendering Web pages.

There is 1GB of storage memory and 128MB flash memory.

View from Dubai Challenge to the mindset of the money men

By Paul Dempsey

First, a disclaimer. In the interests of full disclosure, these latest musings reach you not from Washington but rather the Emirate of Dubai. So, has the US Democratic Party's tiresome traipse towards nominating a candidate finally done for us Capitol hacks and sent us into headlong flight? Not exactly, but the invitation to Future Horizons' (FH) annual International Electronics Forum (IEF) was well timed in its arrival.

The IEF gives US-based media a rare chance to hear FH's chieftain Malcolm Penn in full flow. I have enjoyed Malcolm's take on electronics since I started covering the sector over a decade ago and still do today. In part, it is because his analysis is typically both nuanced and firmly rooted in common sense. But it is also largely because Malcolm seems far more comfortable than many of his colleagues when it comes to voicing his more waspish thoughts.

One particularly pointed observation this year concerned those financial institutions that have foisted the sub-prime fiasco on the global economy. Perhaps in future, Malcolm suggested, any moneymen who try to lecture other sectors on how to run their businesses should have it none-too-delicately pointed out that their own records look pretty dire. Yes, it did get a solid and thoroughly deserved round of applause, but more importantly it also provoked.

In my case, it specifically recalled an excellent new book by American economic commentator Kevin Phillips, 'Bad Money', that helped speed my flight to Dubai. For some time now, Phillips has been cataloguing the growing influence of 'financialisation' over trends in investment: in crude terms, this is the process by which markets turn away from traditional industrial opportunities towards instruments that are based simply on money and debt. Does that sound worryingly familiar? Like Penn, Phillips takes an unblinkered view and either his latest work or the previous 'American Theocracy' or 'American Dynasty' are well worth seeking out.

Meanwhile, by combining the two, I ended up back at a familiar issue - how well does the electronics industry communicate its investment challenges either externally or internally? Throughout the IEF, many wise men took us through the technological and financial landscape with great clarity. So far, then, so good.

However, there does seem to be a gulf between how insiders and outsiders see electronics. Its critical shift from being a component-based to a system-based industry that places ever-increasing emphasis on software does not seem to be recognised by the financial community. One private equity grouping costed a takeover in terms of the money it could save by going 'fablite' - pushing process R&D onto its foundry - while ignoring the rate at which software R&D costs are ballooning.

IEFs and other events like it do help to expose these tensions; however, they can also show that we are still desperate for solutions. Over the next few editions of this column, we'll hopefully look at some of the best now coming forward.

Firefighters' safety tool demonstrated

By Lorna Sharpe

Representatives from the fire and emergency services have seen a demonstration of a technology that would make it possible for incident commanders to track crews within a building. They could use the information to create floor plans where none are available, manage searches more effectively and direct help to any crew member who gets into difficulties. Conventional satellite location systems do not work well indoors.

The demonstration, held at the Fire Service College in Gloucestershire, was organised by Thales Research & Technology UK, which led the EU-funded Europcom project to develop the technology. Although initially designed to meet the needs of firefighters, the Indoor Positioning System could be useful in other applications such as in mines or for disaster relief, where existing maps may be meaningless.

The system uses frequency-hopping ultra-wide-band (UWB) transmissions between fixed (vehicle-based) and wearable radios to determine the relative positions of every node on the network in three dimensions (which is important in multi-storey buildings).

GPS receivers on the outdoor units are used to convert relative positions to absolute ones. The data is updated every second, and can be overlaid onto ground plans where they are available - as is often the case with large commercial buildings and industrial sites.

Mick Johns of Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service told E&T that, although commanders on the ground know which crews have been dispatched to which parts of the site, they cannot currently keep track of them as an incident unfolds, so if, for example, a roof is about to collapse, they do not know who is in danger and should be pulled out.

While the demonstration proved that the concept works, Thales is looking for feedback from potential customers before moving from prototypes to a marketable version. Further work will focus on reducing the size and weight of the units, making the specially-developed antenna more rugged and cutting the power consumed in signal processing.

Bristol joins supercomputer owners' club

The University of Bristol has activated a £7m supercomputer facility designed to extend research in climate change, drug design and aerospace engineering.

Major users of the BlueCrystal facility include climatologists in the School of Geographical Sciences who are developing models to predict climate change. These models demand massive amounts of computing power and disk space, with a typical simulation taking three months to run and generating 10,000GB of model output.

Other early users include the university's Department of Biochemistry, which will be using BlueCrystal computer simulation to screen for suitable compounds (rather than undertaking much slower laboratory screening processes), and the Department of Aerospace Engineering, which is examining the aerodynamics of helicopter blades at unprecedented levels of resolution.

Cutting-edge research in many disciplines can no longer be undertaken without high performance computing (HPC), says Dr Ian Stewart, director of the University's Advanced Computing Research Centre: "HPC-based research contributes significantly to university research income, and will play an increasingly important role in teaching. Large-cluster computing has brought supercomputing to the masses, and allows researchers who have not had access to such power to explore new avenues of research."

The BlueCrystal system - able to perform over 37 trillion calculations per second - is the result of collaboration between various companies including IBM, ClusterVision, and ClearSpeed.

The first phase of the implementation is BabyBlue Crystal, an interim platform live to all users across the university campus. This has 96 nodes each with two dual-core Opteron processors, and 8GB RAM per node (2GB per core), and 11TB of storage.

Airbus to build composite parts with Chinese partner

By William Dennis

Airbus plans to set up a joint venture company with a Chinese partner to make composite material components for the A350 aircraft, in a move to increase its share of China's booming aviation market.

The Chinese partner will be state-owned aircraft manufacturer China Aviation Industry Corp II (AVIC II).

Airbus China president Laurence Barron said details of the proposed joint venture will be finalised in August.

The A350 will be a wide-bodied twin-aisle aircraft. It will have three models - 800, 900 and 1000 - and will go into commercial service in 2013.Airbus has committed to having 5 per cent of the design and manufacture of the A350 carried out in China.

The European firm currently holds 38 per cent market share in China, up from 7 per cent in 1995, and is targeting 50 per cent by 2011. It has 411 aircraft in operation with 18 airlines, and another 478 planes on order from Chinese carriers.

The company predicts that China will need 2,800 new aircraft, including 130 freighters, between 2007 and 2026.

According to statistics from the General Administration Civil Aviation of China in Beijing, the country's civil aviation market is forecast to grow at the rate of 11.5 per cent over the next five years.

Chinese firms secure coal plant orders

Indonesia's state-owned power firm PLN has chosen two Chinese-led consortia to build coal-fired power plants in Aceh and East Java.

China National Electric Equipment Corp will build the 700MW plant in Tanjung Awar-Awar, East Java, while Sinohydro Corp will construct the 220MW plant in Nagan Raya, Aceh. Indonesian firm Penta Adi Samudra provides local representation in both consortia. The contracts are worth US$642m and $247m respectively, based on current exchange rates.

Construction will start in September, with the Aceh plant operational in October 2010 and the East Java plant in January 2011.

PLN will finance 15 per cent of the cost of the two plants, with 85 per cent raised through loans and bonds. PLN president and director Fahimi Mochtar said that in view of the massive funding required, the government is willing to extend the operating deadline by three months.

The projects are part of the Indonesian government's plan to build a total of 35 coal-fired plants - 10 in Java and another 25 in remote parts of the country - with a combined capacity of 10,000MW.

The ambitious plan is aimed at providing power for more people across the country. Currently only 55 per cent of the 223 million population has access to electricity. Around half of the population lives below the poverty line.

Fahimi said the government hopes for construction of the 35 plants to be completed by December 2010: "Our biggest worry is financing. Due to the huge cost, construction of some plants could be delayed."

Solar pump lightens school burden

Pupils at a remote village school in The Gambia are enjoying running water for the first time thanks to a solar-powered system supplied by a UK company.

'Sun-Sub', which is manufactured by Manchester-based Mono NOV, combines a solar array with a controller, a submersible brushless DC motor and a positive displacement pump. The photovoltaic cells are mounted on a GPS-enabled assembly that, by tracking the sun throughout the day - even in overcast conditions - boosts power enough to pump up to a third more water.

Mono engineers who travelled to Bijilo Lower Basic School were accompanied by pupils and teachers from Southlands High School in Chorley, who had raised money to pay for the project. Within a week the African children had access to water for their toilets and garden,as well as standpipes to supply the local community. The installation means they no longer have to make several trips a day to fill buckets.

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