News

Robotic fish monitoring pollution, space-age air quality monitoring technology and could the critical infrastructure of the US be at risk from cyber attack? We report on these, and many more issues this week.

Weapons inspector issues synthetic biology warning

By Chris Edwards

Top-down efforts intended to prevent the use of synthetic biology technologies for warfare or terrorism are unlikely to work, according to a senior officer based at the United Nations' Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) implementation support unit.

Piers Millett, political affairs officer for the unit, called on scientists at the BioSysBio conference in Cambridge to help monitor potential misuse as it gets cheaper and easier to genetically manipulate bacteria and other organisms.

Millett believes the only viable approach is bottom-up, in which scientists report work of concern that they encounter. "The approach is possible but difficult," he noted. "As a scientist there is an obligation on me to not have my science misused."

Commenting that biology is inherently dual-use, Millett used a comparison between vaccine production and the manufacture of weapons agents as an example of how close the two mechanisms are. The vaccine pathway contains just one extra step - in which the organisms used to produce the vaccine are kept under control or killed - versus the sequence of actions that produce a bioweapons agent. "I visited a vaccine lab where they admitted that if they didn't kill the organisms, they would effectively have a weapons agent," he remarked.

"There is no doubt that synthetic biology is already covered by the ban on biological weapons," Millett claimed. The problem is policing activities as access to gene synthesis and analysis technologies becomes easier. "It is difficult to tell 'good' biology from 'bad' biology."

A number of the gene-synthesis companies screen for known DNA sequences of pathogens, which can hinder attempts to synthesise diseases such as smallpox and Spanish flu where actual samples have been secured but the sequences are known. However, as the synthesis technology improves this activity is likely to be harder to detect.

"Do we want to cover every lab that could in theory make biological weapons? Are we going to place every facility in the world or focus on part of the problem? We could focus on those that deal with very dangerous pathogens or have high production volumes," said Millett. "You lose either way. If you focus on ones that you think are threats, very often the threats come from elsewhere."

The much larger number of biological labs makes the job of detection much more expensive, Millett claimed. It cost $27.4m to inspect the 400 or so plants potentially capable of turning out chemical weapons agents in 2007. He argued that some 50,000 facilities around the world could develop biological agents. It would cost $250m to inspect all those labs.

Eire-UK power link to go ahead

The Irish electricity grid operator Eirgrid has awarded ABB a contract worth €420m (£390m) to supply the power equipment for a transmission link between the grids of Ireland and Britain.

Legislation passed last year gave EirGrid the right to develop, own and operate the East-West Interconnector, which will strengthen the reliability and security of electricity supplies in both countries and enable Ireland to expand its wind power capacity. It will carry 500MW, which is equivalent to roughly 10 per cent of Ireland's peak demand in winter.

The system will use ABB's HVDC Light (high-voltage direct current) technology including, for the first time, ±200 kV cables.

ABB says that HVDC Light offers environmental benefits that include neutral electromagnetic fields, oil-free cables, low electrical losses, and compact converter stations. It also provides features such as 'black start' capability for restoring power after a blackout without external energy sources.

The transmission link will run underwater for 186km and underground for 70km. The only visible parts will be the converter stations near Dublin and in Deesside, Wales. The cable will be encased in extruded polymeric insulation, providing strength and flexibility needed to endure the severe conditions of the Irish Sea.

ABB will be responsible for system engineering, including design, supply and installation of the sea and land cables, and both converter stations. The system is scheduled to be operational in September 2012.

The European Commission is providing €100m towards the interconnector as part of an investment package in vital infrastructure throughout the European Union.

"We are delighted to partner Eirgrid for this project," said Peter Leupp, head of ABB's Power Systems division. "ABB's HVDC Light technology will enhance the stability of both the Irish and UK transmission grids, and also expand capacity for the use of renewable power."

Fish with chips

By Mark Langdon

Researchers at the University of Essex are building a school of robotic fish as part of a three-year project to analyse and monitor pollution in ports.

The autonomous fish will be able to function independently or as a team. Earlier versions could be seen swimming in the London Aquarium up until two years ago.

The fish will be equipped with chemical sensors in order to analyse contaminants in ports and produce a real-time 3D map showing the concentrations and movement of pollutants. They will be designed to adapt quickly to changes in the port environment, with advanced swarm intelligence techniques used to control and coordinate them for maximum coverage.

Professor Huosheng Hu is leading the Essex team. He explained: "The project is a world first. We will develop a team of robotic fish to search and analyse chemicals on the surface, such as oil, as well as those that are dissolved in the water."

Six partners are involved in the EU-backed 'SHOAL' project, which began in March: University of Essex, University of Strathclyde, University College Cork, Thales Safare, BMT and the Gijon Port Authority in Spain.

Hu said the team will face "some interesting challenges", including data security, communication, and clean energy, as well as getting the fish to navigate, since GPS doesn't work under water. "This work will be done by Thales, which will use some sort of localised sonar system involving fixed beacons, so the fish will be able to locate their position within the port," he said. "The high level swarming capability will be handled by BMT and the low level stuff including communication will be done by Thales. We will do the control."

Hu hopes to have a fish ready to swim in about a year's time. "The key is trying to make it a more efficient swimmer and to generate enough power to swim against the tide - that is the real challenge." This will be Strathclyde University's contribution. The fish will be quite large, possibly up to 1.5m, with their length governed by the size and weight of the batteries needed.

As well as helping port authorities to monitor pollution from ships and other sources such as underwater pipelines, the project should lead to important advances in robotics, chemical analysis, underwater communications and robot intelligence.

Pollution monitors come down to Earth

By Dominic Lenton

The first ground-based versions of an air quality monitoring device developed for use on satellites are set to go into operation in the UK within a year.

Described by its inventors as a 'pollution radar' that can create 3D maps of urban air quality in unprecedented detail, CityScan is a spin-off from work at the UK Centre for Earth Observation Instrumentation (CEOI). It is based on a compact air quality spectrometer (CompAQS) developed by CEOI researchers as part of work to create imaging equipment for satellites that operates in the ultra-violet and visible part of the spectrum.

With the help of funding from the National Environment Research Council, the technology has been incorporated in a separate instrument designed to check air quality across large urban and industrial areas from the ground. Each CityScan device can monitor nitrogen dioxide and aerosol levels in real-time at a spatial resolution of 50m across an area of around 25km2.

During 2009 two instruments are being constructed and configured for use as a ground-based differential optical absorption spectroscopy system by the University of Leicester in collaboration with partners at Surrey Satellite Technology.

The plan is for both to be deployed for testing in Leicester early in 2010, one on the roof of the university's Space Research Centre, the other potentially at the National Space Centre, as part of a demonstrator project to attract manufacturing support and commercial sales. CEOI estimates the cost of a city-wide monitoring system to be around £100,000. Data from the prototype systems will be made publicly available during 2010.

CompAQS project leader Professor Paul Monks from the University of Leicester explained that because the instrument was developed as a small satellite payload, its compact size means costs of manufacture, platform development and launch can be minimised.

"Measurements of atmospheric composition and quality are important to both the long-term monitoring and control of human and naturally occurring emissions and the shorter-term effects on human health," he added. "There is an increasing need for data to be collected, on a long-term basis, in more detail, over larger areas and with higher levels of consistency."

Engineering group aims high

Oldham-based Delta Group has just renewed the aircraft warning light installation on the Queen Elizabeth II (QEII) Road Bridge across the Thames in Dartford.

At 137m high, the QEII is the UK's second highest cable-stayed road bridge - behind the Severn Crossing - but due to its role linking northern and southern sections of the M25 it is easily Britain's busiest.

Because of its location under the flightpath of London City Airport, its pillars have been illuminated since 1991 by white xenon flashers, but recent regulatory changes have banned their use, prompting the need for a full system overhaul.

The bridge's controlling authority awarded the contract to Delta Obstruction Lighting (DOL), which specialises in designing and manufacturing aircraft warning lighting systems.

DOL's brief was to design, manufacture and install a lighting system that was compatible with the bridge's remote-controlled SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) framework with six lights at each fixing point lasting at least 100,000 hours. It commissioned sister company Delta International Steeplejacks (DSJ) for the installation phase.

Following a pre-installation scouting mission, the design team proposed incorporating both duty and standby lights at each fixing point. They developed a dual light incorporating duty and standby LEDs within one casing, which DOL says is an industry first.

A four-strong DSJ team then worked over five bitterly cold, windy days in January to fit lights at mid level - 50m above deck - on each of the bridge's four pillars and further lights on the upper levels of the south-west and north-east pillars - 100m above deck level.

DOL operations manager Asif Mukhtar led the DSJ team. He said: "Access to the bridge was particularly tricky. A service lift inside each tower and a hand-railed platform at each level made work relatively safe but the only way to get to the pillars was from the inside lanes and, with such incredible volumes of traffic, that was no easy task."

One lane of the four-lane carriageway was closed for ten minutes each morning and again when the team disembarked.

DSJ's first fix was tested in accordance with BS 7671 17th edition. Following work to overcome snags relating to interfacing with the previous system, the installation has now passed a function test and a test to ensure that it has fully interfaced with the control tower.

Smart grids 'vulnerable to cyber-attack'

By James Hayes

Security vulnerabilities in the Smart Grid technology being rolled out in the US and elsewhere expose utilities to online attacks, and risk impairing power infra-structures, warns Josh Pennell, president and CEO of security services firm IOActive

"Smart Grid vendors should model the attack vectors that have caused disruption in the IT industry, and see how these concepts would manifest in the Smart Grid ecosystem," Pennell told E&T. Online malefactors will shift their activities toward Smart Grid platforms as they are deployed, using the skills developed in the cyber-crime mainstream, he believes.

A Smart Grid incorporates information and communications technology and advanced computing to manage a network that can accommodate distributed small-scale generation and storage options as well as large power stations. A two-way information flow between supplier and customer provides features such as automated meter-reading and better information to help users manage their demand.

However, attacks on such a grid could result in the loss of momentary system control of utilities' smart meter devices to cyber-criminals, exposing companies to possible system interruption, extortion attempts, fraud, and lawsuits.

"Empirical data within our data set suggests an under-consideration of security in the design and implementation of these technologies," says Pennell. "If security is not addressed at the start, it may prove cost-prohibitive once the devices are fully deployed."

Pennell argues that the industry should follow a proven formal Security Development Lifecycle such as Microsoft's 2001 Trustworthy Computing initiative, and that there should be independent third-party security assessments of all Smart Grid technologies that are proposed for deployment in critical infrastructure. "Setting up an entity whose charter is to verify the design and implementation of the Smart Grid devices, [and] which is able to maintain an independent voice, would go a long way to protecting the public's investment in these technologies."

Green developers set out their stalls

By Vitali Vitaliev

A Canadian company that aims to produce energy from nuclear fusion by 2013 has won an award for environmental technology research at the CleanEquity Monaco 2009 conference.

General Fusion, a privately held development company, is working to develop a nuclear fusion reactor for energy production, based on a concept called magnetised target fusion. It has built a small machine producing fusion reactions to demonstrate the feasibility of the concept, and now wants to construct a larger prototype capable of break-even production.

The environmental technology development award went to Solar & Environmental Technologies Corp (US & China), which has developed a scalable solar thermal power plant with long-term storage capabilities and built a 150kW demonstration project in Tianjin, China.

Biograde, an Australian company that develops, manufactures and markets biodegradable packaging resins derived from renewable sources for the global plastics packaging industry, received the environmental technology commercialisation award.

The idea of CleanEquity Monaco - an annual forum bringing together small environmental technology companies and potential investors - was conceived by HSH Prince Albert II of Monaco in 2006. The aim is to provide contacts and exposure for carefully selected cleantech sector businesses by putting them in touch with both investors and the media.

The organisers 'vet' potential participants by considering each technology's presentability and revenue potential. Also, the technologies must be owned by the presenting companies.

The first event was held in Monte Carlo in February 2008 and was a resounding success. Among last year's award winners was David Fischer's Dynamic Architecture with its ambitious and eye-catching Rotating Towers project (described in E&T vol 3 #6, p18). Fischer was subsequently named The World Architect of the Year for 2008 by the USA's Developers and Builders Alliance.

Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Foundation on Economic Trends in Washington DC, opened this year's conference with a passionate keynote address in which he declared that we are now facing "the sunset of energy revolution". To beat the destructive effects of the climate change, he said, "every building in the world has to become a power plant."

Dozens of new eco technologies competed for delegates' attention - and investment. Among them were "the world's first zero emission mass transit system", a human-hybrid electric motorcycle, wind turbines with twin-blade rotors, and railway sleepers made from recycled tyres.

Prince Albert, a prominent environmentalist whose own foundation is working to combat the effects of climate change globally, presented the awards. In a brief closing address he spoke of the need to protect "our small and fragile planet" from increasingly greedy economies. "I am optimistic. Together we can overcome the greatest challenge of our generation," he said.

E&T will be reporting on some of the technologies presented at CleanEquity Monaco in future issues.

MPs 'shocked' at lack of engineering advice

By Dominic Lenton

MPs have called on the government to get engineers more involved in formulating policy in a report that claims past decisions have been made without sufficient input from experts.

The Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee said it was "shocked" that specialist advice was absent or barely featured in developing policies on such key issues as eco-towns, renewable energy and large IT projects.

"Engineering advice should be sought early, before policy is agreed," says the report 'Engineering: Turning Ideas into Reality', which is the culmination of a year-long enquiry. "Many officials do not have adequate knowledge of the sector to decide who to seek advice from and, crucially, when to ask for it."

The existing post of Government Chief Scientific Adviser should be replaced with a Chief Scientific and Engineering Adviser, the committee says. The GCSEA would be "head of the profession for science, engineering and social science", have a more senior role with direct access to the Prime Minister, and lead a Government Office for Science and Engineering, supported by a chief engineer, chief scientist and chief social scientist.

The report is critical of the fact that officials often do not know enough about their sectors to know where or when to seek advice. Not only should individual departments have a chief engineering adviser, chief scientific adviser or both, it says, but more trained and experienced engineers are needed at all levels of the civil service.

In particular, there is a warning that there is no clear and detailed plan for delivering the next generation of power stations, and that skills shortages could have a serious impact on any ambitions to build new nuclear power stations within ten years. "A master roadmap for delivery of nuclear new build is essential and it must address the issue of skills capacity," the MPs say.

Committee chairman Phil Willis MP said that despite the report's criticisms, it was important to remember that UK engineering research is among the best in the world. "The government is making efforts to improve the recognition of the engineering community. And it has become clear to us just how vital the contribution of the engineering community is to tackling the global challenges we face," he added.

The IET was among organisations from the engineering sector that welcomed the committee's proposals in a joint response which agreed that key policies have suffered as a result of a failure to engage with engineering advice.

"The system proposed by the committee really does reflect the importance of specialised engin-eering advice from practising professional engineers," said the statement, backed by engineering institutions and organisations including the Engineering and Technology Board, Engineering Council and Royal Academy of Engineering.

All were enthusiastic about the recommendations for professionalising engineering expertise in the civil service so that government can be an 'intelligent customer' for advice. "While we value the role of the current government Chief Scientific Adviser and Departmental Chief Scientific Advisers, we agree that the importance of engineering means that there is a need for specialist engineering advice. Government must recognise the difference between scientific and engineering advice and ensure that policy at all levels is appropriately informed by engineering expertise, improving deliverability and de-risking implementation."

IET President Chris Earnshaw said he was pleased to see evidence that parliamentarians had grasped the difference between science and engineer--ing. "The major challenges we face, such as global warming, will only be resolved by the skill and expertise of engineers and it is imperative that this is at the very heart of government. We would like to see more investment into engineering qualifications at the engineering technician level, as this is vitally important in securing the next generation of engineers and subsequently the country's future prosperity. We sincerely hope the findings of this report become a reality."

The proposals also received backing from industry. Matthew Knowles of the Society of British Aerospace Companies said the recommendations should be adopted as a matter of urgency. "The report notes that British engineers are well-respected abroad but not at home," said Knowles "We have to boost the reputation of engineering in the UK if we are to attract high-calibre people and maintain our world-class status."

Download 'Engineering: Turning Ideas into Reality' from www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm/cmdius.htm [new window]

View from washington

Greens and engineers need to talk

By Paul Dempsey

The recent Greener Gadgets conference in New York was a jolly affair. And I mean that without a scintilla of irony. The speeches and discussions had wit and wisdom, and we had a keynote speaker who statistically observed that everyone was a "planet f**ker" (he had the data showing that even modest Western levels of personal energy consumption far exceed the per capita average our planet can provide).

So far, so good. Sackcloth and ashes are no way to solve a global crisis. That's why most of us know to opt for reform over penitence. That's why bringing people up short with a crude joke is a better way of communicating your point than bathing it in hellfire. But the event still bothered me.

Perhaps it was because the press and blogger participants so heavily outnumbered all other categories. I wasn't helping much myself. But I would have rated the event as a bigger success had there been more representatives from the electronics business - it was sponsored by the US Consumer Electronics Association, after all.

Meanwhile, those from the green community showed worrying naivety. The centrepiece was a competition between energy-saving concept designs. The predominant trend rapidly became the promotion of gadgets that don't use electricity over those which reduce consumption.

There's nothing fundamentally wrong with that, but you need to acknowledge that reality will be a mixture of elimination and reduction. Otherwise, you enter a realm of pointless dogma.

One very clever idea was a foot switch that connects to a bedside power socket. When clicked, it would send a signal to a series of in-sequence circuit breakers connected to every household device that runs on standby power, turning them off completely.

The foot switch got nowhere, while there was time for a mini washing-machine-in-a-bucket and a drying rack that celebrity product designer Philippe Starck would have envied. These were also good, solid concepts, but their promotion by virtue of a 'good versus evil' worldview suggested that the two sides of this equation - the greens and the engineers - are still not communicating.

By contrast, I'm writing this on the 30th anniversary of the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant. The shadow of that event has blocked development of new nuclear plants in the US ever since. Until now, that is.

More recently, onetime hardline environmentalists and nuclear engineers have found common ground. Since the accident, the nuclear industry has striven to improve safety and efficiency, while many greens have come to see coal-fired generation as a far greater threat to the environment. So, the two sides have started talking... but it's taken three decades. If we apply the same learning curve to domestic electronics, there's a good chance we will "you-know-what" the planet. And that's no joke.

Cybercrime affiliates 'rake in £7,000 a day'

By James Hayes

Computer users recruited as affiliates into cybercrime networks can bag over £7,000 a day, an investigation by security vendor Finjan has claimed. The firm's Malicious Code Research Centre (MCRC) was able to monitor activity on a server hosting an affiliate network's activities, and discovered how it operated.

The affiliate network used search engine optimisation (SEO) techniques to distribute 'rogueware' - software posing as something that it's not - by trapping unwitting surfers into visiting malicious websites.

It works by snaring users who have miskeyed or misspelled popular search keywords ('obbama', 'liscense', 'mobile fone', for example). These, along with keywords from Google Trends, are used to make compromised websites appear in the top search results and millions of potential purchasers are lured to the rogueware offerings. Affiliates act as domain registrants, and help ensure that the suspect sites' content is kept updated, for which they get a cut of the proceeds. The money is channelled through Web money accounts like PayPal, or through the accounts of affiliates' friends and family duped or coaxed into becoming money launderers.

Finjan's MCRC was able to scrutinise the network's administrative records that revealed details of the rake-offs, and calculate payment figures.

"This SEO-targeted technique has proven to be very effective, and yielded almost half a million Google searches to compromised sites, according to statistics found on the criminals' server during the MCRC research," says Finjan CTO Yuval Ben-Itzhak. "1.8m users were redirected to the rogue anti-virus software during 16 consecutive days in February."

Affiliate network members are remunerated for each successful redirection with 6.7p 'a piece', which totals approximately £120,158 - or £7,538 a day.

"Based on a normal working week, this would put our criminals in a £1.3m+ annual income bracket," Ben-Itzhak points out. His company has published a description of the techniques and the spoils in a 'Cybercrime Intelligence Report'.

Ben-Itzhak is now calling for Internet service providers to take a more proactive role in blocking criminal sites as soon as their presence has been highlighted by the online security community.

What's black, green and cleans?

By Mark Langdon

Electrolux has launched a vacuum cleaner that it claims is the world's first to be made from recycled plastic. With recycled materials accounting for 55 per cent of the body, the Ultra Silencer Green is only available in black, to reduce the energy used to manufacture the plastic components. Electrolux claims that the recycling process saves 90 per cent of energy compared with the production from virgin plastic.

The cleaner also offers greener operation, as its 1,250W motor uses 33 per cent less energy than a standard 2,000W vacuum cleaner.

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