News

Safety concerns prompt Taser test studies; UK invites bids for marine power generation; the heat is on for carbon reductions; fight for 32nm leadership at IEDM; wireless USB shake-out prompts merger; old planes banned; data to aid rescuers; Obama needs to listen to the voice of technology, and much, much more.

Safety concerns prompt Taser test studies

By Dominic Lenton

US engineers have developed a more accurate technique for measuring the output from electric stun guns and Tasers to help address concerns about their unpredictable effects.

'Electroshock' weapons have been used in law enforcement in a number of US states for some time, and manufacturer Taser International has products either in use or on trial in 40 countries, including the UK.

However, police forces planning to acquire the weapons have repeatedly faced legal challenges based on the lack of knowledge of their effect. Opponents say that their use can be linked to more than 150 deaths in the US since 2001.

Amnesty International and other organisations have called for guidelines on 'threshold exposures' - the minimum charges that would incapacitate different groups of people without putting them at risk of injury or death. The main obstacle has been that reports of the current and voltage delivered are often inconsistent.

Now researchers at the US National Institute of Standards and Technology's Office of Law Enforcement Standards have made a breakthrough in their work to create a method for accurately assessing a device's electrical output. They say the initiative will eventually help establish baselines for medical and safety studies.

The NIST team have developed methods for calibrating the high-voltage and current measurement probes used so that any inherent biases in the probes are minimised. By compensating for these probe effects, they obtained readings that reflect the energies being dispensed by the weapons.

NIST admits that further research will be needed before the method is standardised and can form the basis for guidelines on use of electroshock weapons.

Tasers are likely to become a more common sight on British streets following last month's announcement that the government is to provide funding for up to 10,000 new weapons for police forces in England and Wales.

A 12-month trial in ten British police forces indicated that the weapons have a powerful deterrent effect. In 661 situations where Tasers were drawn, they were discharged in less that a quarter of cases.

According to the Home Office, there have been no deaths or serious injuries associated with tasers in the UK. Independent medical advisors considered the risks to be "very low".

Police officers welcomed news of the funding. Paul McKeever, chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales, commented: "Tasers are not only an effective piece of preventative equipment, but the successful adoption of a less lethal alternative to firearms benchmarks British policing as a world leader at the forefront of technological advancement."

UK invites bids for marine power generation

By Mark Venables

Up to 700MW of offshore wave and tidal power could be generated in the Pentland Firth, off the northern tip of Scotland, by 2020.

The Crown Estate, which owns the seabed around the UK coast, is inviting initial proposals from developers for the country's first commercial marine power sites. The Round 1 leasing programme is expected to bring significant economic benefits to north Scotland.

The opening up of the Pentland Firth and surrounding waters - with six of the top ten sites in the UK for tidal power development - is central to meeting Scottish government green energy targets.

"In this country we are widely recognised as having both the technological lead and some of the best wave and tidal resources in the world," said Rob Hastings, the Crown Estate's director of the marine estate. "It is essential that this technology is given every opportunity to thrive here, in our waters, to the benefit of the environment and the energy industry."

The process will take into account the wide range of stakeholder interests including international shipping routes, ferry traffic, fishing, defence, environment and ecology.

The initial devices to be installed are expected to be full-size demonstrators deployed in small arrays. Larger-scale development may well require improvements to the grid; full-scale commercial development will almost certainly require significant investment in the grid. The contracts are expected to be awarded in summer 2009.

"This provides an important spur to the commercial development of marine energy in Scotland and the UK," said Simon Grey, chief executive of AWS Ocean Energy. "From our own experience, the developers of wave and tidal technologies face enormous challenges in rough and inhospitable environments to extract the energy on a year-round, long-term and sustainable basis, but we intend to play our part in realising this fantastic opportunity."

The heat is on for carbon reductions

By Mark Venables

The economic downturn should not be allowed to delay action on tackling greenhouse gas emissions and securing energy supplies, says the International Energy Agency.

The call came as the IEA published its annual World Energy Outlook, which predicts that on current trends carbon dioxide emissions will rise by 45 per cent by 2030 - putting the Earth in line for temperature rises of up to 6°C.

The IEA warned that the credit crunch could delay investment, leading to problems with energy supply that could prevent economic recovery.

Rising imports of gas and oil to developed nations and Asia and a growing concentration of production in a small number of countries could lead to supply disruptions and price hikes.

"We cannot let the financial and economic crisis delay the policy action that is urgently needed to ensure secure energy supplies and to curtail rising emissions of greenhouse gases," said Nobuo Tanaka, executive director of the IEA. "We must usher in a global energy revolution by improving energy efficiency and increasing the deployment of low-carbon energy."

And while oil prices have now dipped below $60 a barrel, he insisted that "although market imbalances will feed volatility, the era of cheap oil is over".

But oil would remain the main source of energy for many years to come, despite growing declines in oilfield output, he said, so production must be expanded in the lowest-cost countries to meet the world's oil needs at a reasonable cost.

Demand for coal - one of the most polluting fuels - is expected to rise more than any other energy source, the report says, but renewables will grow most rapidly, to overtake gas as the second-largest source of electricity soon after 2010.

Global energy demand is predicted to rise by 45 per cent between 2006 and 2030. More than half the increase will come from China and India, with the Middle East also emerging as a major new area demanding more power.

Commission 'fails to police' green rules

By Bob Cervi

European legislators have come under fire from a top industry executive for failing to adequately enforce rules on environmental sustainability.

PC maker Hewlett-Packard's senior environmental manager hit out at what he claimed was the European Commission's lack of policing of green legislation.

Klaus Hieronymi said that a key problem for industry was that each European Union member country was applying its own version of environmental rules, which was a burden on firms.

"We're not over-regulated by the European Commission. The problem is that every country takes EC directives and tries to apply a local flavour. That's killing us, because we have to make sure we are compliant in different [EU] countries," Hieronymi told delegates at a Green Power sustainable manufacturing conference in Brussels.

"There's a lack of enforcement. Big-name companies have to be compliant [in each EU country] while some others aren't. On compliance, the EC needs to walk the walk," he said.

It was also very difficult to calculate the energy efficiency of IT products such as laptops, he added, calling on the EU to offer a different approach to applying energy labels for such items.

Alberto Parenti of the EC's sustainable consumption and production division rejected the criticism. He told delegates: "Enforcement is down to the member states, and that's the reality. We've done a lot and are going to do a lot, but don't expect that we can change the world."

The EC issued its Action Plan for sustainable production and consumption in July aimed at improving the environmental performance of products and stimulating consumer demand for greener products via pricing mechanisms.

Indesit has recycling wrapped up

By Bob Cervi

A leading household appliance maker is believed to be the first UK manufacturer to begin mass-producing white goods incorporating recycled material from electrical waste.

Indesit says it has successfully trialled the use of recovered plastic from discarded fridges for use in two Hotpoint washing machine models.

Working with recycling firm Axion and WRAP, a government-funded advisory body, Indesit has produced a new cover plate for the Hotpoint Aquarius and Ultima premium models from the recycled plastic.

The material has been produced using shredded plastic that is made into a high grade-polymer that has a similar weight to the virgin plastic it is replacing. WRAP says the cumulative savings in CO2 emissions, raw materials and costs will be "significant".

The use of material recovered under the EU waste regulations, known as WEEE, creating a closed-loop production system, is a "step-change" in UK manufacturing, said WRAP.

"This groundbreaking project has demonstrated that closed-loop recycling in electrical equipment from UK WEEE is commercially viable on a large scale for the first time, with no negative effect on performance," said Peter Maddox, head of manufacturing at WRAP. "We encourage other manufacturers to follow this example."

Mike Birch, Indesit's environment manager, said: "Having successfully completed the trial, we plan to roll out the innovation to a range of our washing machines and washer dryers."

He added: "We are now considering how further environmental improvements and savings can be made by using recycled content within other components and parts, throughout our manufacturing operation."

wUSB shake-out prompts merger

Staccato Communications, which designs chips for the emerging wireless USB (wUSB) standard, has absorbed Artimi, another wUSB chip and software developer.

Wireless USB is a wire-free alternative to the ubiquitous USB cable. But there have been difficulties with establishing global radio standards, and initial implementations have suffered from poor data-rates, excessive power consumption and high costs.

The merger comes amidst uncertainty about the viability of the wUSB market, which observers believe has absorbed $300m-$500m in funding but has yet to see significant revenue.

Last month Intel ended its efforts to build a wUSB business, and WiQuest, another wUSB start-up, closed its door for lack of funding. In September Focus Enhancements, which provides ultra-wideband technology that wUSB relies on, filed for US bankruptcy protection.

Staccato used its merger with Artimi, which has an R&D centre in Cambridge, to announce it has raised a further $20m of funding from a syndicate of 11 existing investors in the businesses.

The merged company, which has absorbed at least $142.5m, will use the money to bring the best chips and software from both companies to market.

Marty Colombatto will remain CEO of Staccato, and Andrew Vought, CEO of Artimi, will become COO.

Chipmakers fight for 32nm leadership at IEDM

By Chris Edwards

This month's International Electron Device Meeting (IEDM)  in San Francisco (15-17 December) will see Intel, the IBM-led Common Platform Alliance and TSMC face off over 32nm processes, only a year after they did the same with the previous 45nm generation.

Intel engineers will describe their aim to implement a 32nm process, which should enable the company to halve the size of its current Penryn-generation processors. It will be Intel's second production process to use a metal gate, which makes it possible to operate circuits at a higher speed than conventional polysilicon gates at such small geometries.

Intel is claiming to have measured a maximum drive current of 1.55mA/µm, about 15 per cent higher than the comparable metal-gate technology that TSMC will describe. The drive current provides an indication of the peak performance of transistors in a semiconductor process.

TSMC will claim it has produced the most dense memory cell design yet for a prototype 32nm process, pushing the size of a memory bit down to 0.15µm2. That pips the Common Alliance design at 0.157µm2, although the TSMC design fares slightly worse in terms of noise margin. How the cell copes with noise has become a major issue as process geometries reduce. The voltages that determine the difference between a 'one' and a 'zero' have reduced to around 200mV, compared with approximately 300mV on a 90nm process from four years ago.

Looking at the 22nm process, expected to go into production in late 2011, the Common Alliance partners have developed a six-transistor memory cell measuring 0.1µm2 and with a noise margin of 220mV. The researchers managed to reduce the cell size by shrinking the contacts that wire transistors together to keep the transistors themselves as large as possible.

Some researchers believe it will be necessary to move from six-transistor to eight-transistor memory cells to cope with the noise problem when chips operate at low voltages, reducing the benefit of moving to smaller geometries. The 45nm Intel Atom processor already uses eight-transistor cells in its first-level caches to allow fast access times at its comparatively low operating voltage.

The Common Alliance and TSMC aim to compete over low-power performance with their 32nm processes. The problem with designing for high drive current is that leakage power increases dramatically, making it hard to use these semiconductors in portable devices. TSMC will claim it is able to achieve a drive current of just over 1mA/µm at a leakage current of 1nA/µm versus the 100nA/µm achieved when designing for maximum drive. According to their most recent results, the Common Alliance partners have also achieved more than 1mA/µm but with a leakage current of 10nA/µm.

While the leading chipmakers and foundries clash over 2D scaling, other researchers will demonstrate progress in using 3D to improve density. Innovations include a 3D reconfigurable processor developed at Tohoku University that uses a memory technology based on electron spin rather than charge.

ARM tries to unify microcontrollers software

By Chris Edwards

Processor designer ARM has developed a programming interface for microcontrollers based on its Cortex M3 core that will make it possible for users to transport code across products from different vendors.

Launched at Electronica in Munich last month, the Cortex Microcontroller Software Interface Standard (CMSIS) gives an abstracted view of the hardware peripherals so that, for example, one vendor's implementation of an Ethernet port will appear to the software to be identical to another's. Incom-patibility between the software interfaces for microcontrollers makes it harder for users to port software to new versions.

ARM aims to use the interface standard as a way of encouraging customers using other architectures, such as those supplied by current market leader Renesas, to move to what ARM calls its 'ecosystem'.

Reinhard Keil, director of microcontroller tools at ARM, said: "By standardising across all silicon vendor products, the CMSIS will reduce the cost of developing new software, and further accelerate the development of new Cortex processor-based microcontrollers."

Although the use of a hardware abstraction layer makes it easier to swap out one vendor's parts for a cheaper alternative, potentially commoditising microcontrollers even further, some suppliers that use the M3 welcomed the ARM move.

Geoff Lees, vice president and general manager of microcontrollers at NXP Semiconductors, said: "I don't think it will reduce differentiation. Otherwise, we would not support it. Cortex M3 offers us the same ability to innovate as we had before."

Old planes banned

By William Dennis

Indonesia plans to prohibit its airlines from leasing or acquiring aircraft more than 15 years old.

According to Eddie Kurniawan, a spokesman for the air transport division of the Ministry of Transport (MOT) in Jakarta, the proposed ruling is to enhance air safety and improve the daily operations of airlines using older aircraft.

"We are not trying to say that it is not safe for airlines to operate old aircraft, [but] like automobiles, older aircraft tend to have more technical problems," Kurniawan said.

He noted that most of the air crashes in Indonesia over the last 30 years involved old aircraft, though he acknowledged that some of the accidents were the result of technical issues being overlooked.

The proposed ruling is expected to be introduced on 1 April. Airlines currently operating aircraft that are more than 15 years old will have to return them to the lessors when the lease expires.

It will be interesting to see whether the authorities are serious about enforcing the regulation. In April 2006, MOT introduced a ruling prohibiting local airlines from leasing or acquiring Boeing 737-200 aircraft. It was never enforced. Aircraft of this type, which are between 25 and 28 years old, are still operated by a few airlines in Indonesia.

Most of the aircraft currently operated by state-owned Garuda and Merpati Nusatara Airlines and smaller domestic private carriers are close to 20 years old.

Garuda and Merpati were on the verge of bankruptcy early this year and were bailed out by the government.

For safety reasons, Indonesian carriers have been banned by the European Union from flying to the 27-nation bloc since June 2007. In March 2007 US watchdog Federal Aviation Administration downgraded Indonesia's civil aviation from Category 1 to Category 2 after two air disasters involving aircraft belonging to Adam Air and Garuda.

Adam Air backers try again

By William Dennis

The main shareholders of the now defunct PT Adam Skyconnection Airlines (Adam Air) are planning to start a new low cost airline next year using Jakarta as its base.

To be known as King and Queen Airlines, the proposed carrier will submit an application for an air operating certificate to Indonesia's Ministry of Transport early next year with plans for a third quarter 2009 launch, initially operating domestic flights.

Adam Air was grounded in April for blatantly overlooking safety requirements. Its president, Adam Aditya Suherman, and his mother Sandra Ang jointly held a 50 per cent stake in Adam Air. The rest was split between Bright Star Perkasa (31 per cent) and PT Bhakti Investama (19 per cent).

BSP and PTBI said they have no interest in the new proposed airline.

An official of the Indonesia National Air Carriers Association in Jakarta commented that in the interest of safety and the image of the country, anyone with a bad record in managing an airline previously should not be allowed to operate one again.

Indonesia plans ILS upgrade

By William Dennis

The Indonesian government is preparing to upgrade or replace instrument landing systems (ILS) as part of a plan to enhance airport safety.

Eddie Kurniawan of the Ministry of Transport's air transport division said a detailed six-month study will be carried out early next year. The proposal will then be submitted to the government for approval and financing.

Kurniawan said the programme would initially involve ten major airports over a period of three years.

"At certain airports the ILS needs replacement, while at others upgrading would suffice," Kurniwan noted. "This is the government's aim: to upgrade civil aviation with the hope that the [US] Federal Aviation Administration would elevate Indonesia to Category 1 again."

He acknowledged that at many airports the ILS is very old, but not all could be replaced as it would be too costly.

Many airports in Indonesia, especially in Sumatra and Kalimantan, are blanketed by haze every year due to open burning and bush fires.

Indonesia has 93 airports, with 52 serving scheduled flights. It is a country of 18,100 islands located on three tectonic plates - Pacific, Eurasian and Australian - and experiences frequent earthquakes.

Data to aid rescuers

By Mark Langdon

The University of Portsmouth and the US Coast Guard (USCG) are jointly developing a computer model to predict how long someone will survive when lost at sea, and hence when a search and rescue operation may be stopped.

Aircraft often search for those lost at sea in the US because the distances are great, particularly in offshore areas and in Alaska. Coast Guard helicopters and planes cost around $10,000-13,000 per hour to operate. If two aircraft are in the air, the cost of this alone can rise to above $1m in just a few days.

The US Coast Guard has a target of saving 93 per cent of victims whose lives are in danger at sea (3,000-6,000 people a year). "Using this computer model will take pressure off humans making very emotional and sensitive decisions about when to end a search," said Professor Mike Tipton, human and applied physiologist, from the University of Portsmouth.

The survival time model will add another layer to the USCG's SAROPS (Search and Rescue Optimal Planning System) software, which is used to calculate how far a person will have drifted and how large the search area should be. SAROPS uses data such as wind speed, sea state and water temperature, along with information about the victim's sex, height, weight and what they were wearing.

Chris Turner, who is managing the project for the USCG, said: "The University of Portsmouth has been able to tap into and analyse data held by the Institute of Naval Medicine and the Royal National Lifeboats Institution, both critical to the development of this survival model. To our knowledge no similar repository of this information exists - even in the US.

"The development of this technology is very exciting. It will be trialled in American waters in late 2009 and, once thoroughly tested, the aim is to roll it out to the whole of the US," he said.

View from Washington

Obama needs to listen to the voice of technology

By Paul Dempsey

It's a little over a year since President Elect Barack Obama first touted the idea of a federal chief technology officer (CTO), although quite what he meant continues to confuse much of the business.

In this time of economic calamity, multi-industry bailouts and decreasing US innovation, high-tech companies want an advocate in the White House. And they want it to be someone with clout - names linked with the job include Bill Gates, Internet pioneer and Google VP Vint Cerf, and (though he's now saying no) Cerf's boss, Eric Schmidt.

The problem is that Team Obama has something more pragmatic in mind. Industry wants a guy (or a gal) who can supply that good old vision thing. The politicians want someone who will make government IT work.

If you doubt that, here's how the campaign originally presented the CTO's remit: "Barack Obama understands that we must use all available technology and methods to open up the federal government, creating a new level of transparency to change the way business is conducted in Washington and giving Americans the chance to participate in government deliberations and decision-making in ways that were not possible only a few years ago.

"To achieve this vision, Obama will encourage the deployment of the most modern communications infrastructure. In turn, that infrastructure can be used by government and business to reduce the costs of health care, help solve our energy crisis, create new jobs and fuel economic growth."

Set aside the unavoidable schadenfreude in imagining Gates trying to run and struggling with some elephantine Windows server implementation, and you realise that it just isn't going to happen that way. This CTO will come from the grungier end of the business.

Obama is to be congratulated for, one suspects, observing the complete and utter Horlicks of things that other governments have made on the IT front, and deciding that a central government butt-kicker might be a pretty sharp idea (it's arguably not too late for someone in Whitehall to size up this CTO thing and conclude it might be worth doing in the UK, too - Blighty probably was the primary inspiration, after all).

However, that does not resolve the need for technology to make its voice heard as part of the policy process. Obama had a powerful array of Valley advisors helping behind-the-scenes for most of his campaign. Yet few seemed to be around when he publicly unveiled his economic back-room team. Internet 'wise man' Mark Cuban has further noted that Obama seems to share the same blind spot as his Oval Office predecessors in failing to pull advisors and advice from both the entrepreneurial and venture capital communities. If you are going to repair the US economy, though, Cuban is right in identifying those groups as fundamental.

So, the CTO job won't fix that particular problem, despite the position's undeniable merits. Technology will therefore have to find another way of making some noise - the good news there, though, is that Obama cannot realise even a modicum of his ambitious agenda without it.

Back to the future

Production company Wall to Wall, in conjunction with the BBC and the Open University, is looking for a family to relive the domestic technological revolution of the 1970s, '80s and '90s as part of a new TV series for BBC Four.

Initially the family will find themselves in a world without FaceBook, mobile phones or Sky+. There will be no Internet. Telephones will have dials. Music will be on vinyl. Photographs will be projected from 35mm slide film.

Gradually, the technology will evolve into something recognisably more modern. Microwave ovens will find a place in the kitchen, games consoles will enter the den and home computers will increase in power and complexity.

The series will chart the technological revolution of the past 40 years and assess its impact on ordinary people. By the end of the experiment, the family will have experienced almost 40 years of change.

If you are a home-owning family with at least two children between the ages of eight and 18, and you have an interest in how modern technology has transformed the home, contact either Michael Fraser on 020 7241 9349 or Laura Jackson on 020 7241 9308 or email michael.fraser@walltowall.co.uk or laura.jackson@walltowall.co.uk

The deadline for registering your interest is Monday 8 December 2008.

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