Surveying mines remotely, tracking sheep, a robot scientist called Adam, German soldiers and old chips - you wouldn't read about it. But you can! And should! Catch up on the latest news from E&T magazine.
Tin men trial cutting-edge equipment
Exclusive By Mark Langdon
South Crofty Mine in Cornwall, UK is hosting final trials of a piece of mine surveying equipment that promises to deliver a massive increase in the speed, efficiency and safety of underground surveys.
The Remote Surveying Vehicle (RSV), which carries a laser scanner, is currently being tested and fine-tuned before being 'commercialised' for general sale.
Dr James Jobling-Purser of Jobling-Purser RSV in Penryn developed the RSV to provide a stable platform for carrying the scanner over rough terrain. Because it can be controlled from a distance, it can be driven into potentially hazardous areas. Designed and built in Cornwall from locally-sourced parts, the RSV has taken five years to perfect.
Jobling-Purser worked with Exeter-based Merrett Survey Partnership, owned by Peter Merrett - a fellow graduate of Camborne School of Mines - to combine the scanner and RSV into a piece of equipment that meets the needs of the mining industry.
One reason South Crofty chose to deploy the equipment is that modern mines have wide tunnels accommodating large machines that need to be kept moving. The mining work suffered minimal disruption using the new surveying technique, which took only three days to gather information that would otherwise have taken weeks or months.
The RSV uses laser scanning technology to measure the rock surfaces and all features within the mine to a very high level of accuracy. This data is used to build a complete three-dimensional model of the mine, which will be of great benefit to the mining engineers and geologists designing the future layout of the workings.
Alan Shoesmith, chief executive officer of Western United Mines, owners of South Crofty, said the whole experience had been extremely beneficial: "This revolutionary RSV, coupled with the scanning equipment, can show in a matter of minutes information that would take our surveyors weeks to accumulate. The amount of detail derived by the scanning technology far exceeds any conventional survey methods and really suits our working environment."
Jobling-Purser added: "The RSV is lightweight, easily dismantled and assembled, easily transported and can be adapted for a variety of purposes beyond surveying. It has onboard computers, video cameras and can operate up to 200m from the operator using radio control.
"It speeds up the surveying process, which reduces the cost, but also it means that mining operations need not be interrupted while surveyors set up tripods and targets. Hazardous areas can be surveyed remotely from safe locations."
Sheep farmers slam electronic tagging
By Dominic Lenton
Farmers in Britain have branded European plans to track the movement of sheep and goats using electronic tags as "not fit for purpose". Their claims that the system will be an unnecessary burden have attracted support from other affected countries.
The electronic identification (EID) regulations, which come into effect on 31 December 2009, are designed to make it easier to trace animals so their movements can be controlled if there is a disease outbreak.
Agriculture department Defra is running a three-month consultation on the proposals. The government has already secured a number of changes, including an exemption for animals that are intended for slaughter under 12 months of age. This means the EID regulation will only affect the one sheep out of every five born that is retained for breeding.
An official impact assessment exercise carried out as part of the consultation puts the one-off equipment cost to farms, markets and abattoirs at around £27m, with average annual running costs of just over £5m.
The National Farmers' Union says that the additional costs, coupled with the recording requirements, will force many producers out of business while having no cost benefit.
Alistair Mackintosh, chairman of the NFU's livestock board, said: "This is a bad regulation that is not fit for purpose. It has the potential to dramatically affect the sheep industry across the EU."
Mackintosh added that when EU Commissioners visited UK farms, livestock markets and abattoirs in February, the delegation "was unable to identify any benefits electronic tagging and individual movement recording would bring regarding disease control that are not already available through our present ID and batch recording system, combined with our domestic movement standstills".
A conference held in Brussels in January saw Italy, Germany, Romania, Poland and Spain supporting the UK protest, with speakers claiming the measures would destroy traditional farming and have a serious effect on the environment.
Genesis of robo-scientist
Researchers have created a robot scientist called Adam which they believe is the first machine to have independently discovered new scientific knowledge.
The scientists at Aberystwyth University and the University of Cambridge designed Adam to carry out each stage of the scientific process without human intervention. The robot has discovered simple but new scientific knowledge about the genomics of the baker's yeast, an organism that scientists use to model more complex life systems.
Using artificial intelligence, Adam hypothesised that certain genes in baker's yeast code for specific enzymes which catalyse biochemical reactions. It then devised experiments to test these predictions, ran them using laboratory robotics, interpreted the results and repeated. Researchers conducted separate experiments to confirm that Adam's hypotheses were both novel and correct.
The work was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.
Prof Ross King, who led the Aberystwyth team, said: "Ultimately we hope to have teams of human and robot scientists working together in laboratories".
Adam is a still a prototype, but King's team believe that their next robot, Eve, holds great promise for scientists searching for new drugs to combat tropical diseases.
TVs to carry energy labels
By Dominic Lenton
Television manufacturers have three years to make sure their products are at least 20 per cent more energy efficient than the current average following an EU decision to subject TVs to the same regime as fridges, freezers, washing machines and dishwashers.
The changes to 'ecodesign' requirements are part of an overhaul of the existing system that was agreed by a recent meeting of the Ecodesign and Energy Labelling Regulatory Committee.
A series of changes that begins on 1 July 2010 will raise the bar for the minimum efficiency of goods that can be sold in the EU, at the same time as bringing in a new labelling scheme.
Most so-called 'white goods', including tumble driers, lamps, ovens and air-conditioners, have carried efficiency labels since the 1990s. From 1 July next year televisions will be added to the list. High-definition sets will have a more generous energy allowance, measured relative to screen size, although all sets will have to be at least as efficient as the current average. A second stage on 1 April 2012 will see the same baseline, 20 per cent better than today's average, applied to all new TVs.
At the same time, minimum requirements for domestic fridges and washing machines will increase so that only models achieving the current 'A' rating will be permitted from July 2010. By 2012 new fridges will have to be rated A+, with washing machines following in 2013.
The European Commission claims that by 2020 the new measures will reduce member states' electricity consumption by 51TWh - equivalent to the current combined demand of Portugal and Latvia. Of that, 43TWh will come from new measures for televisions, 6TWh from refrigerators and freezers, and 2TWh from washing machines.
The new design of energy label will incorporate a 'beyond A' element, with 'A -20 per cent' indicating that the product consumes 20 per cent less energy than an 'A' model. In principle, the class of any model already on the market will be unchanged.
A separate EU regulation on energy performance of external power supplies adopted this month is expected to cut electricity losses by nearly a third by 2020, saving 9TWh a year and reducing annual CO2 emissions by more than three million tonnes.
The requirements, which come into force in two stages in 2010 and 2011, address both the active efficiency when a device is in use and no-load power consumption which the supply still uses when the device is not plugged in.
German troops to use low-carbon wood power
By Dominic Lenton
The German army is to power its barracks by burning wood gas in high-tech units, in what the company supplying the equipment claims is the world's first zero-carbon investment by the military sector.
As well as reducing carbon emissions, the Bundeswehr hopes that using wood-chip gasifiers to supply soldiers with heat and electricity will cut its fuel bills. The wood will be sourced locally from trees grown and harvested on its own land.
German company Schmitt Enertec is supplying the equipment under a contract worth around £2m.
The first installation, at the Baumholder barracks, will include one of its Enercarb 250 units with wood chipping equipment.
As well as electricity, the plant produces hot water which is piped into the heating system and storage tanks.
According to the company, whose customers already include Pepsi, Tesco, GE and Kawasaki, a single tree can provide enough power to cater for the daily demand of 400 homes.
Fuel is prepared and gasified in a single-step process before the gas is washed, filtered and burned in an internal combustion engine, which drives an alternator.
Heat from engine jacket water and exhaust is recycled in the processing stage.
Schmitt claims that the Enercarb range is the only fully automatic and tar-fee wood gasification plant available in the 250kW to 1,000kW range.
"We have been working for eight years on this technology, but the military zero-carbon heat and power solution is a world first," said management board member Frank Schmitt.
'Green' aircraft paint cuts chromates
By Bryan Betts
Paint specialist PPG believes its new exterior painting system for aircraft will take hazardous chromates out of the process without reducing the paint's corrosion resistance. The chromate-free 'green' paint process includes an epoxy primer based on nanotechnology and an adhesion promoter invented by Boeing, which PPG manufactures under licence.
Aluminium surfaces have traditionally been protected from corrosion using chromate conversion coatings; these react with the cleaned metal surface to form a protective skin that can then be painted. However, the process involves washing off surplus coating chemical, putting chromate - a carcinogen - into the rinse water.
Alan Schoeder of PPG Aerospace said that in corrosion tests, metal surfaces protected by the new Desoprime high-solids exterior epoxy primer showed the same corrosion resistance as those coated with chromated primers.
"The adhesion promoter is applied to the stripped aluminium airframe and allowed to dry, and then the primer is applied," Schoeder said. "Only one application is needed, and no mechanical abrading is required.
"PPG Aerospace will be offering a complete, easy-to-apply, green depaint/repaint coatings system that meets the rigours of the exterior aerospace environment," he added.
By Paul Dempsey
Shoppers are increasingly using lists to keep a tight rein on their spending. This is bad news for the big grocers whose business models depend on persuading people to pick up little extras. However, help is at hand in the shape of a Web-based, networked trolley. The Concierge Smart Shopping Cart is less a gadget and more a clever (some would say pernicious) bit of system engineering.
The visible front-end is a touch screen LCD/barcode reader attached to the trolley's handlebar. But Concierge goes beyond mere advertising by integrating with a shopping list that customers are encouraged to upload in advance. A loyalty card typically provides the link at both ends.
Thus armed, the wireless cart can deliver very targeted marketing based on what appears to be tonight's menu and on the retailer's profile of the cardholder.
Concierge was developed by retail communications group Springboard Networks and embedded systems developer Bsquare. Following trials in North Carolina it is now being offered commercially.
Sensors to spot signs of chip ageing
By Paul Dempsey
Researchers are looking to create a 'check engine' warning for semiconductors because increasingly prevalent ageing effects are slashing device lifetimes, with potentially serious consequences.
One problem is that an induced electrochemical reaction at the meeting point of silicon and silicon oxide in a typical device can create interface traps, leading to negative bias temperature instability (NBTI). NBTI can reduce performance by more than 20 per cent by increasing the threshold voltage and dropping transconductance.
Other concerns include hot-carrier injection, electromigration and oxide breakdowns. As the size of chip features shrink beyond 65nm, all have led to unpredictable falls in performance such that chip use-by dates are becoming difficult to set, and are often being preempted. This is particularly worrying for semiconductors used in systems where safety is paramount.
A team from the University of Virginia (UVa) has proposed a technology it calls SENS (small embeddable NBTI sensors). The circuit itself is made up of a degradation tracking inverter and a reference inverter and was described in detail at the recent ISQED conference in San Jose.
An important aspect of the sensor is that it can be embedded within a chip at varying sizes, so that it can be placed near to the most critical areas of a device. It wakes up and sends out an alert when it detects that performance has fallen by a predetermined percentage.
Parallel work in statistical modelling has suggested that NBTI and other ageing sources can be factored in to generate a bathtub curve showing where such a 'critical' percentage could be identified. In this scenario, a device could be replaced before performance degraded beyond its viable use.
At the same time, research from chip manufacturer TSMC, Pennsylvania State University and Tsinghua University in Beijing has sought to make statistical analysis of circuit delays informed by the incidence of NBTI. This work, also presented at ISQED, has found that circuit delay fall-out is likely to have a power law type relationship to the shift in threshold voltage induced by NBTI.
The TSMC-led research also concludes that more efficient chip design techniques for mitigating NBTI - primarily based on the sizing of the transistor gate, body biasing and scaling of the supply voltage - may soon be possible as it becomes easy to identify which nodes in a chip are most susceptible. More NBTI knowledge might also be built into electronic design automation synthesis tools.
Based on increasingly detailed analysis, the UVa work could meanwhile offer something akin to a 'freshness' detector, if not a definitive use-by-date for chips.
However, UVa itself is also looking to an integrated design-level answer to the ageing problem, in the shape of chips that can dynamically respond to NBTI alerts such as those its sensors produce but now in real-time.
The relationship between such sub-nanometre performance issues as NBTI and the impact of other forms of semiconductor variability will be discussed at a conference on the topic in London next month, organised by the National Microelectronics Institute (www.nmi.org.uk).
Robot scanner checks chip fields
In a collaborative project carried out with Continental and Infineon Technologies, the Fraunhofer Institute for Electronic Nanosystems (ENAS) has developed a measuring system that can locate weak electrical and magnetic fields to an accuracy of a few hundredths of a millimetre.
"Circuits are becoming more and more susceptible with each generation," claimed Thomas Mager of the Fraunhofer ENAS in Paderborn. "Only a few years ago, it still took several volts to destabilise processors. Today, a few hundred millivolts are sometimes enough to disrupt millions of transistors."
Mager argues that designers of electronic circuits need to give greater consideration to electromagnetic compatibility. It is no longer just a question of protecting complete electronic packages such as cell phones or MP3 players against external influences, or shielding the environment against their electromagnetic emissions, but is also about how each individual component on the circuit board behaves.
The near-field scanner is a robot fitted with a probe that moves across the surface of a circuit board. Different probes look for electric and magnetic emissions from the circuit. An inductive-loop probe measures the magnetic field and small electric dipoles or monopoles detect the electric field components. Software then reconstructs the electromagnetic field from the measurements.
"We are also working with our French project partner CEA-Leti on a function that applies targeted electromagnetic fields to the test object. In this way, we can test for areas that respond sensitively to external fields," said Mager.
This makes the system useful for developers of smart cards. Fraudsters elicit confidential information from bank cards by bombarding them with pulses of laser light, electrical current or voltage. The resulting field patterns can reveal details about the chip card, such as its PIN. The near-field scanner provides time- and space-resolved images of the radiated fields of the card, allowing their weak points to be identified and helping card developers to better protect their products against fraud.
View from Sweden
Swedish third-agers on a roll
By Pelle Neroth
Spring sunshine in Sweden, and the old people with their rollators are everywhere.
Rollators are the Humvees of the zimmer-frame product universe: they're rugged, strong and have all-weather tyred wheels to assist locomotion, a basket for shopping and a front bumper that's apt to bark the shins of any young 'uns who get in the way. Your correspondent is a veteran survivor of the Swedish-designed things... unlike Stuka divebombers, rollators do not scream when they come at you.
Rollators are free to pensioners in the country with the world's second highest proportion of them: 25 per cent of the Swedish population is expected to be over 65 by 2020. And they are a symbol of the official drive to make older people more empowered by technology in a country where the cradle-to-grave welfare state is supposed to mean just that. "Rollators are very good at making older people feel secure and confident when they go out," says Prof Britt Östlund, a gerontology expert from Lund University in Sweden. "People are less likely to fall over, and they can carry more."
The fact that a Stockholm street sees more grey-blondes than real-blondes shows that Sweden's seniors are not only more numerous but more active and visible, say academics. "In countries like Britain, old people just sit and rot at home," says one Swedish pensioner sniffily.
The ever-inventive Swedes are also looking at other kinds of so-called assistive technology, often in cooperation with Japan, the only country with a higher proportion of over-65s. Walking sticks with lights, text messages received via TV rather than a handset, speaking medicine jars, and 24-hour security floor lights to the bathroom are being tested in mock-up flats in the gerontology labs of technical universities. Results have been mixed: "Some of these things are meant to help people who are confused in mind," says Östlund. "But old people usually know what is inside their flats and get even more confused by the novel technologies."
Not all developments are technological; there is also a growing demand for designers, architects and engineers to adapt the housing stock for an ageing population. Collective housing for healthy third-agers is now the trend. These things go in waves, says Östlund.
Family ties are weak in Sweden and the country got wealthy early: the tendency in the 1960s was to park people in old people's homes, at government expense. Since the healthy mixed with the demented, and because the homes had an unpleasant clinical feel, the idea in the 1970s was to encourage people to stay at home, supplemented by state-funded nurses.
The trouble there was that many old people felt isolated and shorn of social support which, as we all know, is hugely important to health.
The trend now is to build blocks of individual flats with common areas for socialising, plus low-key help on hand if needed. The idea is that people move in when they are healthy and even highly active, and that there is no stigma to it (think 'Friends' for 60-somethings). This mode of living is also supposed to ease the inevitable transition into the final period of ill health and perhaps dementia.
With Europe's population ageing fast, designing technology, homes and society adapted to the old will become ever more important, Östlund concludes.
EU creates cyber-attack strategy
The European Commission has put forward a strategy to protect critical information infrastructures against natural disasters, terrorist attacks, malicious human action and hardware failure. It says that a low level of preparedness in one country can make others more vulnerable, while a lack of coordination reduces the effectiveness of countermeasures.
The strategy is based on cooperation and the exchange of information to encourage good practice, share warnings and develop contingency plans for incident response and recovery. The Commission also wants to establish common criteria across member states for critical ICT infrastructure.
Communications infrastructure underpins the functioning of key areas from energy distribution and water supply to transport, finance and other critical services. It is also vital to commerce. Purchases and sales over electronic networks amounted to 11 per cent of total turnover of EU companies in 2007.
According to the Commission, there is a 10 per cent to 20 per cent probability that telecom networks will be hit by a major breakdown in the next ten years, with a potential global economic cost of around €193bn.
Photons under London....
By Christine Evans-Pughe
Following successful experiments last summer sending polarised photons down a 96km loop of its London network, the fibre optic network operator AboveNet has announced that it will partner with defence and security firm QinetiQ to make quantum cryptography part of its future network security offering. AboveNet appears to be the first large network operator to make concrete plans for commercial deployment of quantum key distribution (QKD).
AboveNet's networks, which are installed in London and 15 cities in North America, are popular among financial service organisations, the media and (in the US) government departments requiring dedicated infrastructure with a high degree of physical security. Even the access manholes are designed to be terrorist-proof, said Steve Potts, technical director of AboveNet UK.
"Up until now customers have had to rely on their in-house teams to do any data encryption. Quantum cryptography will allow us to bring the encryption down to the physical layer so not only can we provide a physically secure network, but also one that is logically secure," Potts commented.
QKD uses streams of photons, whose quantum states are used to represent 1s and 0s, to produce shared cryptographic keys made of random bit strings. The appeal of the technique is that tampering with the fragile quantum states leaves traces behind as an error rate, so the sender and receiver can tell if an eavesdropper is present.
However, a city like London is one of the most difficult environments for QKD to work in because of the vibrations from traffic above ground and trains below as well as day-to-day physical changes such as temperature, according to Potts. "Our experiments have proved that the thresholds of change were within the limits in which QinetiQ could get their equipment to function without disturbing the spin of the photons," he commented. "From what we've seen, we're confident that QinetiQ can produce a system that will integrate with our existing network."
QinetiQ is one of the 16 members of the new ETSI QKD Industry Specification Group, set up to develop standards after the successful demonstration last year of QKD in a metropolitan network around Vienna, the culmination of the EU-funded Secure Communication based on Quantum Cryptography (SECOQC) project.
While the SECOQC demo relied on secure 'trusted nodes' with keys distributed using a hop-by-hop approach, QinetiQ appears to be taking an alternative route that the company describes as 'complementary' to SECOQC. "To go across a network, you need end-to-end encryption. To do that you need to be able to trust the intermediate nodes. The downside is that the network nodes contain a lot of information," Brian Lowans, product director at QinetiQ, explained. "If a rogue third party were able to get access via equipment in the node, then your whole security network is laid bare. What we've done is to develop a technique so that the encryption keys - which protect all your information - are only known at the endpoints. This has been a major advance over our previous approach, which relied on the node security and a series of point-to-point links through a network."
QinetiQ is not giving away any more details at this stage. "It's a novel way of doing the key distribution using quantum techniques based on known technologies but the way we do it is slightly different," is all Lowans would add.
What the company will reveal is that QinetiQ's approach works as a straightforward add-on to existing fibre optic networks that use wavelength division (the keys are carried on one particular wavelength), and that the technique is scalable and can be deployed across all topologies including PON, LAN, Metro and Long Haul connections. Furthermore, once equipment is installed into the network all keys are automatically replaced at frequent intervals with no dependence on past or previous key material. A central administrator can manage the authentication of each network device so access can be dynamically managed and revoked if necessary.
QinetiQ and AboveNet expect to have a commercial offering in less than five years, although Brett Johnson, AboveNet's vice-president of business development, said it could be sooner. "Classical cryptography can now be cracked by clustering computers, so there might be events in the next couple of years that will accelerate people's planned use of quantum encryption, " he said.
"QinetiQ have an enviable record of deploying technology when required in a very short space of time, particularly in military situations. If people did need to deploy quantum cryptography in a short space of time, we think they would be able to do it."
A US biomedical engineering firm has demonstrated a self-balancing, hands-free concept vehicle for amputees and other people who have difficulty standing.
Exmovere's Chariot is a wearable, sensor-activated pod controlled by subtle movements of the lower torso and hips. Sensors inside the cocoon-like shell predict the intended motion.
The Chariot requires no manual dexterity, minimal physical effort and allows wearers to closely approach and reach objects, and to make direct eye contact with other people. It is battery powered and can travel up to 12mph (19km/h).
Production versions will integrate vital-sign sensors, environmental and ground clearance sensors, wireless and cellular connectivity, a smaller form factor and options for military and law enforcement customers.
Exmovere also plans to develop a feature that can switch the wearer from upright to seated position.
The company is hoping to partner with an automotive manufacturer to eventually launch a performance-oriented version.
EPSRC funding for metamaterials
By Chris Edwards
The University of Southampton is to set up a £6.3m centre funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) for research into nanostructured photonic materials that can manipulate light in unusual ways. The work could potentially lead to much more efficient solar cells and optical switches for the Internet.
Photonic metamaterials have surfaces covered with tiny features on the scale of tens of nanometres across. These nanostructured surfaces can influence both the magnetic and electrical properties of photons. The Southampton researchers, led by Professor Nikolay Zheludev, aim to create passive metamaterials and active forms, which add substances such as the phase-change materials used in rewriteable CDs, to create new data storage and sensors.
"It is a fast moving field and we want to lead it, not follow it," said Professor Rob Eason of the University of Southampton. "The aim is to update telecoms, recording and display technologies to make them better, faster, smaller. On the nano-scale, you can get massive enhancement of magnetic properties. By being structured at dimensions less than the wavelength of light, you can impart useful behaviours that you wouldn't see if you had larger structures."
The programme will run for six years, beginning in October. "There are six or seven areas where photonic metamaterials could have an impact," Eason explained. These include the efficiency of photovoltaic conversion, telecoms, chemical sensing and data storage, he said. "The idea is to do a whole slew of things and then narrow down the ones that look promising."