News

Giant robotic spiders, the safety design gap putting the public at risk, web infections on the rise, 3D scanning for cells, Berlin backs the electric car, and more.

Move over, you Beatles

By Mark Langdon

Liverpool was recently brought to a standstill by a spider taller than a house - but it wasn't a freak of nature or something created in a lab, just part of the city's European Capital of Culture celebrations.

The 15m beast was created by La Machine, which has created many theatrical machines that have walked the streets of European cities, including giraffes, a rhino and the giant Gulliver. The best-known in the UK is probably the 'Sultan's Elephant', which transfixed audiences in London during its visit in May 2006.

La Princesse, which took a year to build, weighs some 37t and has 50 axes of movement using complex hydraulics, allowing it to move at about 3km/h.

Once on the move it takes up to 12 people strapped to its body to operate it, along with 16 cranes, six forklift trucks, eight cherry-pickers and 250 crew to manoeuvre it around the streets. The spider produces seven different special effects: rain, flame, smoke, wind, snow, light and sound.

Public at risk from safety design gap

By Dominic Lenton

Deaths and injuries from electronic products and systems will rise to unacceptable levels unless industry addresses a gap in international standards covering the treatment of electromagnetic compatibility (EMC) in safety designs, the IET has warned.

Responding to a situation that it says is partly the result of decisions by international standards committees, the IET has updated guidelines on EMC for functional safety that it first published in 2000.

All electronic technologies are vulnerable to errors or malfunctions caused by electromagnetic interference (EMI), and the working group behind the guide is concerned by the extent to which increasingly sophisticated technologies tend to be more susceptible. For example, silicon die shrinking and its lower operating voltages reduces the immunity of chips to interference.

The group claims there are currently no published EMC standards that are appropriate for achieving functional safety, and no safety standards that include appropriate EMC requirements for functional safety. In Europe, for example, the EU EMC directive specifically does not address safety.

"Safety directives generally deal with EMI issues very poorly, if at all. As a consequence the effects of EMI on functional safety risks are largely unconsidered at present," says the introduction to the guide.

"Unfortunately, over past decades the disciplines of functional safety engineering and EMC engineering have developed separately, partly because it was mandated by certain international standards committees," it continues. "In general, safety engineers do not have a detailed knowledge of EMC, and EMC engineers do not have a detailed knowledge of functional safety."

Part of the problem, it is claimed, is that for decades companies have employed legal experts to either win cases for them or settle out of court. "In this way the true cost of poor engineering has generally been hidden from the public, governments and other companies," the guide says.

Based on principles outlined in the current draft of the second edition of IEC TS 61000-1-2, the guide provides management and technical tools designed to control the risks to customers and third-parties.

As well as direct consumer safety, it addresses financial risks to manufacturers connected to product liability legislation, and to safety regulations that can cause unsafe products to be banned. Owners, directors and senior managers might also regard it as a method for reducing their personal liability under the UK's Corporate Manslaughter Act, or similar legislation in other jurisdictions.

While it acknowledges that adopting a new approach to risk assessment, design, verification and validation presents industry with a significant learning curve, the working group believes it is one that companies will have to tackle.

"The alternative is a future of unacceptable levels of death and injuries, and unacceptable financial risks and losses by both creators and their customers," it says.

'Electromagnetic Compatibility for Functional Safety' can be downloaded from www.theiet.org/factfiles/emc/.

Web infections soar this year

By James Hayes

the number of Web pages infected by predatory malware has more than doubled over the last two months, with many big-name brands unwittingly hosting poisoned pages.

Figures revealed exclusively to E&T by online security firm Sophos show that during August 2008 its SophosLabs division detected more than one million new infected web pages - that's 32,000 each day, or one every three seconds. This compares to a rate of one infection every 12 seconds in the first half of 2008.

"Typically, hackers use a technique called SQL injection to insert malicious code into the Web page itself, so that when browsed it will redirect visitors to another site, or present a pop-up window offering free security software that is, in fact, a link to a malware site," said SophosLabs director Mark Harris. "Infected websites included high-profile names such as bbc.co.uk, hasbro.co.uk, www.atptennis.com, and the US Sony PlayStation site."

Before publicising a known infected site, SophosLabs notifies its administrators: "Most are cleaned up very quickly," said Harris. "But until then it still leaves a significant window of opportunity for cyber-crooks."

This threat has "sneaked past many administrators who are either not aware of the risk or, if they are running Linux or UNIX platforms, are convinced that open-source environments are less vulnerable to attack", Harris added. "But in the first half of 2008 we found that Apache open-source Web server software was used on at least 59 per cent of all infected websites."

As organisations get better at protecting their systems against hacking and viruses, Web server attacks will become increasingly favoured by cyber criminals, Harris believes. "Detection doesn't equal protection. The rate of infection shows no signs of abating."

Longbridge future brighter

The revived MG car plant at Longbridge, UK, is likely to be expanded further by its Chinese owner, a senior engineer has told E&T.

The plant fell into disuse after MG Rover went bust in 2005, but the assets were eventually acquired by Chinese car maker Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation.

Earlier this year SAIC started assembling a new version of the MG TF model at Longbridge for the Chinese market.

The firm is expected to establish Longbridge as its key technical UK centre and may produce a second model at the plant.

Ian Pogson, principal quality engineer for SAIC in the UK, said that the next vehicle could be an MG version of SAIC's recent Roewe 550 saloon, made in China.

Pogson, who is part of a team of 250 engineers at the UK technical centre in Leamington Spa, said SAIC is considering centralising its UK research and technical operations at Longbridge as it moves to selling cars in Europe.

See feature, 'MG gears up for a revival'

Minister unveils £150m strategy to boost UK manufacturing

By Bob Cervi

A campaign to promote manufacturing and a boost to industry apprenticeships were among a raft of new measures unveiled this month by the UK government.

Launching the strategy, 'Manufacturing: new challenges, new opportunities', Business Secretary John Hutton said the UK could become a world leader in manufacturing solutions for a low-carbon economy, supporting hundreds of thousands of so-called green-collar jobs.

He said the government would spend a total of £150m to support manufacturing.

"For many years the industry's success has suffered from a lack of public recognition and it is time we redressed this balance. We must attract more talented young people into the industry and ensure that this talent is nurtured and developed," Hutton said.

A new body, 'Manufacturing Insight', will be set up to improve the public's perception of manufacturing. There will also be a 'Manufacturing the Future' schools campaign to promote manufacturing career prospects to young people.

The number of manufacturing apprenticeships across Britain will be increased by 1,500 beyond the 9,000 places announced earlier this year.

A third Manufacturing Technology Centre will be established in Coventry, in addition to those in Yorkshire and under construction in Glasgow. It will have industrial-scale pre-production and demonstration facilities, which could lead to £130m-worth of investment in research over the next decade, according to the government.

Hutton added: "I want the UK to be at the forefront of opportunities opened up by the move towards a low-carbon economy."

Hutton's department, BERR, said that a low-carbon industrial strategy will be introduced next year "to address the challenges facing manufacturers as they try to reduce their carbon footprint and the huge opportunities from investment in energy and a shift to a low-carbon economy". That includes setting up a new Office for Renewable Energy Deployment, complementing the work of the Office for Nuclear Development.

The launch of the strategy follows recent demands by business lobby group the CBI for a new UK industrial policy in the face of the economic downturn.

Latest figures show that manufacturing activity fell for the fourth consecutive month in August and industry was hit by job losses for the fifth month in a row.

Sensors go to marines' heads

US marines are to go into battle equipped with new helmets capable of measuring impacts that cause brain injuries.

The headgear (left) will incorporate the Headborne Energy Analysis and Diagnostic System, a collection of accelerometers and pressure sensors that records forces sustained during combat.

The data will help Marine Corps scientists develop better protective systems, as well as improving diagnosis and treatment of head trauma.

BAE Systems, which has been contracted to supply 1,300 HEAD units, says they are small and light enough to go unnoticed by the wearer.

Cells scanned in 3D

By Chris Edwards

Scientists are using bullet-time photography and body scanner-like tomography to peer deeper and deeper into the workings of cells, providing a visual alternative to the indirect methods that biologists have traditionally used to work out how DNA and proteins behave in living systems.

Professor Wolfgang Baumeister of the Max Planck Institute in Germany is using a technique called cryo-electron tomography - a combination of electron microscopy and computer-based reconstruction - to build 3D images of cells that resolve almost to the atomic level. His aim is to build a "molecular atlas", he told delegates at the recent International Conference on Systems Biology in Gothenburg.

Baumeister said the concept was first proposed at the end of the 1960s, but it was not until recently that camera technology improved to the point where it can be used to image cellular features.

The process works by freezing cells and then rotating the samples in a beam of electrons to build up the initial images. Baumeister said a big problem is keeping the electron dose as low as possible to avoid destroying sample structure - this leads to noisy images, making it harder to reassemble them in the computer.

The next step produces the intricate images that cryo-electron tomography is capable of. Computer software matches 3D models of known structures voxel-by-voxel to features in the image. (A voxel is a 'volume element' - the 3D equivalent of a pixel.)

This works well for relatively isolated samples in vitro. The biggest problem, said Baumeister, is the crowded nature of the cell interior. The density of proteins in some cases is close to that of the dense crystals made from the huge molecules that are needed for analysis X-ray crystallography. That makes automated segmentation of the image difficult.

"There is an urgent need for software to do automatic segmentation," said Baumeister. For the moment, a lot of the initial recognition is done by hand, with software used to rotate and scale the model structures that are superimposed on the final image.

Having signed a deal with FEI to commercialise aspects of the technology developed at Max Planck, Baumeister is looking to increase the resolution of the microscope through better image sensors. The current camera has a resolution of 4K x 4K but the team is starting to work on 8K x 8K systems and expects 16K x 16K models to become available soon. That should make it possible to look at larger areas. Currently, the system can only examine about 15 per cent of a cell - images will need to be stitched together in the computer to produce the full cell atlas.

Japan cuts tax on Hynix memory chips

By William Dennis

Japan has reduced punitive taxes on DRAMs produced by Hynix Semiconductor of South Korea from 27.2 per cent to 9.1 per cent.

The cut took effect on 1 September following recommendations by the World Trade Organisation. Japan imposed the tax in January 2006 after claiming that the South Korean government had assisted Hynix in October 2001 and December 2002, enabling the firm to export its chips to Japan at low prices.

Talks between the Korean and Japanese governments to resolve the issue ended in a stalemate, which prompted Seoul to take the case to WTO.

Despite the reduction, Hynix is still unhappy. The company wants the tax to be scrapped.

Japan's Ministry of Finance in Tokyo said that the 9.1 per cent tax stays as the WTO recommendation stated that a country could start imposing punitive taxes within five years of unfair subsidies being provided. The South Korean government gave Hynix the second subsidy in December 2002.

Japan is not alone in slapping taxes on Hynix DRAMs. In 2003, the US and European Union both imposed charges, claiming that the Korean company had received unfair subsidies.

The EU removed the tax in April and the US is expected to follow suit by the end of the year.

Hynix is due to start production at its new 300mm (12in) wafer fab in Cheongju, Korea, this month, making high-density flash memory products using 40nm process technology.

Built at a cost of just over US$1bn, the facility will initially produce 40,000 wafers a month, stepping up to 100,000 wafers a month next year.

For financial reasons, Hynix, the world's number 3 flash chipmaker, plans to stop operating its 200mm (8in) wafer fab at the end of the year.

Chip firms racing against the clock

By Chris Edwards

Two companies are competing to introduce a technology that promises to replace the quartz oscillator used in most electronic products with clock chips made entirely from standard silicon.

Mobius Microsystems, which launched its first family of spread-spectrum clock chips earlier this year, has been joined by Silicon Laboratories in a race to have production volumes of silicon clock chips by the end of the year.

Although the low-end microcontrollers used in toys and other simple systems can run from an internal oscillator, it is only recently that process technology and design has evolved far enough to achieve a silicon-based oscillator that challenges quartz for stability.

Tunc Cenger, director of marketing for Mobius, said: "We will build a portfolio of products. The spread-spectrum product was first because we saw an immediate need for that. Going forward we will offer a number of parts."

Cenger said the company is sampling to a small number of customers clock chips that produce a single frequency rather than a spread-spectrum output - used to reduce electromagnetic interference peaks in consumer and PC products. Silicon Labs has started with single-frequency devices that run at up to 200MHz with the aim of offering them more cheaply than quartz devices, particularly where a design needs a frequency source that is not available off the shelf.

Both Mobius and Silicon Labs program the frequency and temperature compensation into their chips at the test stage. A quartz crystal, on the other hand, needs to be cut to a precise size and shape to produce a specific clock frequency. This adds a high one-time cost to custom requests.

James Wilson, senior marketing manager for wireless products at Silicon Labs, claimed: "You could see significant price savings at higher frequencies because quartz manufacturers have had to use [more expensive] third-overtone crystals in that range."

A Rose by any other name… would get less spam

By James Hayes

The first letter of your email address could determine the amount of spam that you receive. A study by University of Cambridge computer scientist Dr Richard Clayton found that 40 per cent of email received by addresses starting with A, M, S, or R will be junk; that's compared with 20 per cent for email addresses starting with Q, Z, or Y.

One reason for the phenomenon could be the way that spammers create email address lists - specifically an approach called a 'dictionary' or 'Rumpelstiltskin' attack. These originated when it occurred to the spammers that if john@example.com was a valid email address, then perhaps john@another.com was valid as well, leading them to combine local parts (to the left of the @) with other domain names.

Because there are more first names starting with A, M, S, and R, the number of spams with these constitute a greater proportion of the overall total of spams in circulation, as dictionary attacks snowball.

Based on traffic logs of 550,596,270 messages sent through service provider Demon Internet between February and March 2008, the analysis also indicates that around half of the email that is being given to Demon's spam detection system is destined for non-existent mailboxes.

Dr Clayton believes that his findings could point the way toward techniques for more efficient screening of spam by email service providers.

"Demon Internet handles emails on behalf of customer sub-domains (example.demon.co.uk or example.com) - hence it doesn't know if elephant@example.com is valid or not. That means that it accepts email for elephant@ and then decides whether or not it is spam and delivers the non-spam. If the customer doesn't have an elephant@ email address, the delivery will fail."

Clayton contrasted this with elephant@hotmail.com, where Hotmail knows if elephant@ is a valid address or not: "If it is not valid then there is no need to do any spam detection; they just reject the email. This reduces the amount of work considerably."

Clayton added: "How much spam a particular @ receives will be all about how many Web pages their email address appears on, and whether their friends have ever been infected with malware. On the individual level this will dominate."

View from Brussels: poor English can kill you

By Pelle Neroth

Anyone who has been on holiday this year may have ordered an ice-cream and been misinterpreted by the waiter as requesting crème brulee. You can shrug it off as part of the holiday experience.

There are areas though where precise communication is essential to prevent people's lives being endangered. Medical translations for one. They also include many situations that engineers come up against all the time: repair manuals, maintenance documents, technical instructions.

Then there's aviation. Here is a worrying revelation. Pilots and air traffic controllers don't always understand each other. Pilots even, on occasion, have problems understanding technical instructions inside their aircraft. Since English is the language of aviation, what this means is that a lot of people in the aviation world should be brushing up on what the French call "la langue de Shakespeare". The blogs and discussion forums of pilots and air traffic controllers (ATCs) are full of transcriptions of real cockpit-tower comedies of errors.

As David Learmount, an editor at Flight International, put it recently: "For many pilots, learning English is much more difficult than learning to fly."

According to the European Cockpit Association, more than 1,100 passengers and crew have lost their lives in accidents in 25 years due to language understanding failures. Here's just a random selection.

In 1980, a Spanish air traffic controller at Tenerife gave a holding pattern clearance to a Dan Air flight by saying "turn to the left" instead of "turns to the left" - resulting in the aircraft making a single left turn rather than circles. The jet hit a mountain killing 146 people. In 1993, Chinese pilots flying a US-made MD-80 were baffled by an audio alarm from the plane's ground proximity warning system. A cockpit recorder picked up the pilot's last words: "What does 'pull up' mean?" In June last year, a Polish Lot Boeing 737, carrying 95 passengers and crew, wandered the skies over Heathrow for almost half-an-hour as the pilots struggled to identify their position. A controller had to instruct another aircraft to change direction to avoid a collision.

The international aviation bureaucrats are aware of the problem, and ICAO has finally managed to push through a legal requirement for pilots and ATCs to pass proficiency tests in English if they want to fly internationally. Countries can apply for exemptions until 2011. Still, it leaves problems.

Air traffic controllers will still be permitted to communicate with native pilots in their own language; as has long been the case where English skills are traditionally poor and national pride strong, such as France, Spain, Greece and Italy. This infuriates other pilots, as, deprived of understanding useful snippets of information, their situational awareness is reduced. As one Dutch pilot put it: "It's the law in Northern Europe that all air traffic control is conducted in English; why can't the whole of Europe do this? It will make the skies much safer."

While ICAO could deal with technical proficiency issues, it can't deal with voluntary disavowal of English over national airspace in dialogues between native pilots and controllers. United in diversity may be the EU's unofficial motto, but there ought to be no compromise on safety.

Viruses build cell batteries

By Mark Venables

The energy for tomorrow's miniature electronic devices could come from tiny micro-batteries about half the size of a human cell and built with viruses, say US researchers.

Engineers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are developing a way to simul-taneously create and install such micro-batteries which could one day power a range of miniature devices, from labs-on-a-chip to implantable medical sensors, by stamping them onto surfaces.

The team have already assembled and tested two of the three key components of a battery. A complete battery is on its way.

"To our knowledge, this is the first instance in which micro-contact printing has been used to fabricate and position micro-battery electrodes and the first use of virus-based assembly in such a process," said MIT professor Paula T Hammond.

Batteries consist of an anode and cathode separated by an electrolyte. The MIT team created both the anode and the electrolyte. Working on a clear, rubbery material they used soft lithography to create a pattern of tiny posts either 4µm or 8µm in diameter. On top of these posts they deposited several layers of two polymers that together act as the solid electrolyte and battery separator.

Next came viruses that preferentially self-assemble on top of the polymer layers on the posts, ultimately forming the anode.

In 2006, Hammond, Belcher, Chiang and colleagues reported in Science how to do this. Specifically, they altered the virus's genes so it makes protein coats that collect molecules of cobalt oxide to form ultra-thin wires: together, the anode.

The final result is a stamp of tiny posts, each covered with layers of electrolyte and the cobalt oxide anode. "Then we turn the stamp over and transfer the electrolyte and anode to a platinum structure" that, together with lithium foil, is used for testing, said Hammond.

In addition to developing a cathode using the viral assembly technique, the team is also exploring a stamp for use on curved surfaces, and is considering integrating the batteries with biological organisms.

Berlin backs electric cars

Car-maker Daimler and electricity supplier RWE have launched what they say is the world's largest joint project for electric cars. They will provide more than 100 vehicles and 500 charging points in Germany's capital city.

The 'e-mobility Berlin' initiative covers everything needed to make use of battery-powered electric vehicles practical.

The German federal government is supporting the project.

Daimler will provide more than 100 electric cars from its Mercedes-Benz and Smart ranges as well as the vehicle service. RWE is handling the development, installation and operation of the charging infrastructure.

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