News

An eclectic selection for you this issue; What will astronauts be wearing next season? The Mobile Phone Security Challenge - can you make handsets more secure? £100m government scheme for British companies developing new products and services. Oh, and a chocolate inhaler that may stop you turning chunky. Plus lots more!

UK astronaut tests future Moon couture

Exclusive By Sean Blair

British-born astronaut Michael Foale is applying his plentiful spacewalk experience to evaluate a new generation of NASA spacesuits for prolonged stays on the Moon.

"I'm working on testing new EVA (Extra Vehicular Activity) suits in conjunction with a Lunar Excursion Rover," Foale told E&T while attending April's European Week of Astronomy and Space Sciences event, hosted by the University of Hertfordshire.

NASA plans to return to the Moon in 2020 for a programme of extended exploratory missions. Astronauts will travel the lunar surface inside the pressurised rover, donning spacesuits only for their forays outside.

"Lunar EVAs won't be any longer than current spacewalks but the point is to be able to use the spacesuits again and again," Foale explained. "The American spacesuit system is going to have to be serviceable in orbit; we're slowly modularising it. The Russian spacesuit has been like that ever since it was created - you launched it once and never brought it home and used it for 20 EVAs. However lunar dust is the big challenge for serviceability - it's very abrasive stuff."

The Lunar Rover design incorporates a suit dock system so astronauts can climb straight into their suits from the inside, reducing exposure to lunar dust, which has allergenic and potentially toxic properties.

Foale, 52, is among NASA's senior active astronauts, so he doesn't expect to be Moon-walking in 2020. However, while also currently serving as the Astronaut Office's Russia liaison for US Soyuz flights, he hopes for another stint on the International Space Station.

£400,000 to cut mobile phone crime

Up to £400,000 is on offer to engineers and designers who can find ways of making mobile phones less susceptible to crime. The Mobile Phone Security Challenge asks inventors to come up with better ways of securing handsets, the data they contain, and their use as electronic wallets.

Applicants have until 22 May to present their ideas, which could be any combination of hardware, software and services, to make it more difficult or less desirable to steal a phone; to protect the data held on them against misuse; and to secure future 'm-commerce' transactions.

Once a shortlist of four has been selected by a panel of experts, the teams will be allocated research and development money from the £400,000 fund. They will then spend six months developing working prototypes, to be showcased in early 2010. It is then hoped that the ideas will be adopted quickly.

The Challenge is part of the 'Design Out Crime' initiative, started last November by the Home Office's Design & Technology Alliance Against Crime and the Design Council. It is also supported by the Technology Strategy Board.

David Kester, chief executive of the Design Council, said: "The cleverer and cooler we make our products, the more they expose us and our children to serious crime such as mugging, identity theft and bank fraud. That's why we are calling on designers, technologists and manufacturers to help us all get ahead of the next crime wave and be more creative than the criminals."

Research shows that 80 per cent of phones contain information such as website passwords, bookmarks, emails, personal security data and addresses in mapping applications, which can be used by criminals to access bank accounts, steal identity, or sell personal data. Around 16 per cent of those surveyed keep their bank details on their phone, yet only four in ten people lock their mobiles using a PIN.

Home Office minister Alan Campbell said: "We are committed to tackling and preventing crime in all forms. The rapidly developing nature of mobile technology means we must continue to work together to eliminate any future opportunities for criminals to profit from mobile phone theft."

Designing out opportunities for criminal activity does seem to work - British Crime Survey figures show that the theft of vehicles has more than halved since 1997 because of improved security designed into the vehicle. And homes built to the Association of Chief Police Officers' Secured By Design standards experience 26 per cent less crime than those that don't meet the standards.

www.designcouncil.org.uk/crime [new window]

EU to invest in 'high-risk' research

By James Hayes

The European Commission (EC) wants to boost the riskier end of Europe's research into future technologies by seeing investment doubled at both national and European Union levels in that area by 2015. The EC itself will show a lead by increasing the current funding to €170m per year by 2013.

It also aims to launch at least two flagship research initiatives by 2013 that combine efforts across borders and scientific disciplines to achieve breakthroughs - such as in the development of biocomputers. The EC's actions are also predicated to help young researchers engage in high-risk research, and support research-intensive high-tech enterprises that can turn initial research results into business opportunities.

Cited examples include thought-navigated wheelchairs that interpret brain signals to move, computer technology that models how the brain processes information so that it can keep working after partial hardware failure, and a robot called COGNIRON that can learn how to cook by copying human behaviours.

Europe's investment in ICT research is lagging behind other regional markets. Although the EU produces around 30 per cent of the world's scientific knowledge, research in this sector accounts for only 25 per cent of its overall research effort, said Viviane Reding, commissioner for information society and media, at the launch of last month's European Future Technologies Conference in Prague.

Make way for white space

By Luke Collins

The world is on the brink of a wireless technology breakthrough that will have as much impact as the Internet revolution of the 1980s, according to Dr David Cleevely, chairman of Cambridge Wireless.

He predicts that, by 2050, wireless technology will not be constrained by architecture or spectrum, and that hundreds of devices will connect and support every aspect of our lives.

"The scene is set for radio devices to become quite intelligent and to have a different architecture," he said. "This will enable us to do things cost-effectively that we simply cannot do now. It will open up huge opportunities.

"Just as we have become used to having microprocessor chips in everything from the fridge to the doorbell, so every individual will own hundreds of radios, all working together to do fantastic things."

Cleevely believes that this will happen through the development of cognitive radio devices, which try to exploit unused gaps in the radio spectrum around them to transmit messages, and mesh networks, which collaborate to connect users to each other and the rest of the network.

"Originally it was believed that to make wireless transmissions we needed high radio masts, to broadcast at high power and use the same spectrum all the way to the end user. A breakthrough came with the idea of cells, each containing a full range of spectrum, so the smaller the cells, the more mobile phone conversations you could make.

"Cognitive radio builds on this breakthrough by being both intelligent and polite. It has a system of simple rules to see who is doing what and how it can interact with them. Introduce the concept of cognitive radio and you start to get a system which can react continuously to the amount of activity, just as the Internet does today." he said.

The other element of the equation is mesh networks. "In a mesh network, every radio acts as a switch for every other radio. They talk to each other in sequence," said Cleeveley. "3G devices can already work out where others are, and if you have further development of cognitive systems, radios will twitter together to organise into a network."

He also believes that intelligent devices using these technologies can be built with such low energy demands they could be powered by environmental vibrations or incident light. Although simple, they could potentially achieve a great deal.

"Ants only have a few rules but they can achieve sophisticated operations. I think these radio devices will also be capable of great things that have yet to be imagined.

"The big challenge is - how do we make it all work?"

See 'Mind the Gaps', p66

Companies challenged to develop new technologies

British companies are being supported to develop new products and services in diverse areas such as health, defence, transport and construction through a £100m government scheme.

Under the Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI), public sector organisations will invite British companies to submit ideas for solving specific problems and offer product development contracts for the most promising proposals.

Explaining the aim of SBRI, its head Mark Glover said: "There are lots of novel and exciting ideas out there. SBRI enables the public sector to seek out these innovative ideas and then support turning them into commercial, viable products and services."

The Department of Health ran a trial in 2008. Companies were invited to develop technologies and systems to improve hand hygiene in order to reduce the number of infections - such as MRSA - contracted in hospitals and doctors' surgeries.

The most promising ideas will be developed into prototypes, which may then result in the product or service being bought for use by hospitals and surgeries.

The Department of Health plans to fund further SBRI competitions, while the East of England Strategic Health Authority is launching three competitions this month, focusing on technologies to help manage patients with long-term conditions, to enable better patient monitoring and to encourage children to exercise.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Defence is inviting companies to come up with lightweight technologies and materials that reduce the weight carried by infantry soldiers, and their weapons and ammunition. The MOD is also looking for ideas for highly mobile robotic vehicles that can support soldiers in the field and carry some of their equipment.

SBRI has been promoted by the government's Technology Strategy Board.

The Department of Transport, Department of Communities and Local Government and Home Office are running and developing further SBRI competitions. Twenty will be launched over the coming year, with contacts worth a total of £40m available. This will be expanded to 50 competitions, worth over £100m, by 2011.

Super-capacitor solution for off-road hybrids

By Bryan Betts

Off-highway vehicles are the next frontier for hybrid technology, says automotive systems developer Dana.

The company's Spicer arm has developed a prototype diesel-electric hybrid powertrain for vehicles such as forklifts, excavators and bulldozers.

The TE-15HX transmission has dual power paths, enabling the vehicle to be powered entirely by its diesel engine, entirely by electricity, or by a combination of the two.

Electricity stored in super-capacitors will be used for low-energy operations such as inching, or when extra traction or more torque is needed. For light loads, the diesel engine works alone, but whenever possible TE-15HX control system disengages the engine and uses electricity. The hybrid transmission also provides power for lights, climate control systems and other electrical accessories.

"When it comes to hybrids, energy storage is the biggest challenge," said Rick Honeyager, the director of product planning for Dana's Off-Highway Products Group. "Lead-acid batteries are the cheapest, but the highest energy density is super-capacitors, which also have a very high efficiency rate and long life."

The disadvantage of super-capacitors is that they cannot store a lot of energy compared to batteries. However, they are ideal for activities that require a short sharp power boost, such as lifting materials or starting and stopping a vehicle. That could allow vehicles to have smaller diesel engines, thereby lowering fuel consumption, emissions and noise without sacrificing power and productivity.

"It is all in the intelligence of the control systems - they decide what is the most effective way to do what needs to be done," said Honeyager. As well as using the electric drive as a generator when running on diesel power, the vehicle would use regenerative braking to charge the super-capacitors, he noted.

While a parallel hybrid transmission adds complexity in the control systems, Honeyager argued that it avoids the energy losses inherent in serial hybrids that use a diesel engine to power an all-electric transmission.

He added that the ideal duty cycle for a hybrid vehicle would be a varied one: "A truck on a road at a constant speed is poor. The more cyclic is the duty cycle, the better a hybrid is - a varied load is good."

Vision for the future

The UK Industrial Vision Association (UKIVA) has formed an academic/industry sub-committee to try to influence what is taught in academia so that it is more suitable for commercial industry. The UKIVA recognised that there is a gulf between what new graduates and postgraduates know when they go into employment and what industry needs.

The 'traditional' university system in the UK is not, in general, producing the sort of graduates that the vision industry needs. It is not just industry that feels this way - graduates say the same. In a survey of maths and science graduates conducted by the Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA), 38 per cent said that they rarely or never get to use the knowledge gained in their degree in their profession and nearly half (46 per cent) were unhappy in their job because they cannot use the knowledge and skills gained in their degree subject.

Although the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is the main UK government agency for funding research and training in these fields, there have been other sources of finance available, notably from DTI (now BERR) technology programmes and the European Union. Many universities (including UKIVA research members) benefit from such funding and carry out a mixture of pure and applied research as well as being involved in consultancy projects with machine vision partners, even leading to the formation of industry-specific spin-off companies. The creation of Knowledge Transfer Networks is also aimed at sharing knowledge between academic research centres and industry.

Now the vision industry has concluded that it may itself have to become the driving force to maintain and further develop the interface with universities. The new committee has representatives from UKIVA, National Instruments, Cranfield University, the University of the West of England and Loughborough University.

See feature, p38

Historic building monitored without cabling

By Bryan Betts

The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) is using wireless sensors to monitor environmental conditions in its Grade II-listed Georgian headquarters.

The system measures temperature and relative humidity of the building in London's Spital Square. It will be used to assess the effectiveness of modifications intended to improve the building's energy efficiency.

Administrators will be alerted by email if a sensor reading goes outside a preset limit. That means that any potential problem, such as a humidity change that might affect SPAB's document archive, can be picked up well before any serious damage can occur.

The monitoring system uses small room sensors from GE Sensing & Inspection Technologies. These are programmed to regularly transmit readings to a network-connected data acquisition gateway. This gateway can be up to 45m from a sensor and the reporting interval can be from one minute to 24 hours.

Project manager Matthew Slocombe explained that the SPAB team can access environmental readings and trends via the Internet as well as viewing data from individual sensors. He added that he hopes the system, which is currently on loan from GE, will stay on after the modifications are complete.

"It is yielding further information that is useful to have, and the sensors are so unobtrusive there's no reason not to have them," he said.

Slocombe added that SPAB's experiments should prove useful to other owners of historic buildings. "We want to demonstrate that it's possible to make sympathetic changes to historic buildings to improve their energy efficiency."

View from Washington

Surgical cuts, or random slashes?

By Paul Dempsey

Ultimately, we will all take away some totem of this recession to demonstrate just how bad things got. I've already chosen mine. It was the closure of a 'big box' retailer near my office in northern Virginia. You might think this is a pretty unimaginative choice given the depleted state of shopping centres the world over. You may also question just how many of the High Street's difficulties should be attributed to the recession and how many to retailing's continuing migration online. All fair points. But what matters in this particular case is the nature of the shop.

Our local National Wholesale Liquidators was, as its name suggests, the place where stuff from other already-failed shops went in the hope of finding a buyer at a knocked-down price. Outlet malls and Wal-Marts would insist on higher margins than this place.

Even the supply chain's very definition of 'thrift' and 'last resort' could not find enough customers in a still relatively healthy area. Our local economy largely depends on government employees who so far have not felt this downturn as badly as those outside the public sector. There is consequently, for me, something off-balance about the shop's closure.

I know I'm probably not telling you the whole story - and that's largely because I don't know it. It could even be that numbers for our traditional local stores are holding up for exactly the same demographic reason I cited above. But somehow I doubt that. The thing is that, like so many gut-reaction metaphors, its value is more rhetorical than empirical.

However, consider some other lowlights from my last month - a period that has seen both the US and UK governments tell us that there are 'green shoots'. May is usually a busy month for engineering conferences, but this year has seen the cancellation or postponement of four different events that I planned to attend.

Of these, only one depended overwhelmingly on private sector support. Indeed, two specifically addressed public policy in an area that is receiving a massive injection of Obamabucks as part of America's national stimulus package. Yet I have no reason to doubt official lines that the events were victims of budget cuts rather than their having poor programmes or expensive travel.

My point is that there is a disconnect between these events and what is really happening, even though this is a truly horrible economic slump. Cuts need to be made, but are the (often highly-paid) people charged with making those cuts applying sufficient thought to their actions?

Downturns are often fuelled by irrational behaviour ('market sentiment'), and there is probably some rough proportional relationship between the two. Another maxim states that more companies go bust as an economy pulls out of recession than do during it - they cut back so far that they cannot satisfy renewed demand during the recovery.

That last point worries me more than anything else. You cannot call it a 'tough' choice if its basis was indiscriminate. It is, in fact, the 'easy' choice - and it could prove fatal. Regardless of where we truly are right now, we have to identify these possible disconnects and consider whether they are the result of laziness, error or ignorance. What matters is making the 'smart' choice.

Chocolate inhaler is sniff of the future

Chocoholics seeking a way to slake their cravings without getting fat will want to get wind of Le Whif, a chocolate inhaler that has just gone on sale in France.

Invented by David Edwards, professor of the practice of biomedical engineering at Harvard University, Le Whif imparts about 50mg of fine chocolate particles - each 10 microns in diameter - into the user's mouth and throat. Gravity prevents the particles from entering the lungs, Le Whif's French maker Labogroup maintains.

"We've been eating smaller and smaller quantities at shorter and shorter intervals," Professor Edwards said. "It seemed to us that eating was tending toward breathing, so, with a mix of culinary art and aerosol science, we have helped move eating habits to their logical conclusion."

An inhaler contains about 200mg of chocolate - enough for about four drags, each equal to about 0.25 of a calorie, Labogroup claims. Le Whif is priced at 9.95 (about £9) for a pack of six, and comes in four flavours - pure chocolate, and chocolate with mango, mint or raspberry.

Flaw-finding technique boosts safety

By James Hayes

A method for systematically identifying bugs in complex, computer-controlled devices - or cyber-physical systems (CPS) - such as aircraft collision avoidance systems and high-speed train controls has been unveiled by researchers at the Carnegie Mellon University, US.

Professor Edmund Clarke and assistant professor Andre Platzer have given their approach the working designation 'differential invariants as fixedpoints' (DIF). They say it has already found a flaw - now corrected - in aircraft collision avoidance manoeuvres.

DIF analyses the logic underlying the system design, much as a mathematician uses a proof to determine that a theorem is correct. It has similarities to Model Checking, a technique pioneered by Professor Clarke, that is used for detecting and diagnosing errors in complex systems with a finite number of states. However, a CPS must interact with the infinitely variable real world. DIF employs algorithms that decompose the systems until they produce differential invariants - mathematical descriptions of parts of the system that always remain the same. These can be used to prove the global logic of a CPS operation.

"Engineers rely on computers to improve the safety and precision of physical systems that interact with the real world," explained Professor Clarke, "but trial-and-error testing is unlikely to detect subtler problems in system design that can cause malfunctions. Even when system design is sound, DIF can prove these complex CPSs do operate as intended, or it can generate counter-examples of how they can fail, using computer simulation."

DIF should be most helpful in the design or redesign process, Platzer told E&T: "Most crucial questions arise while designing system controllers, such as what controller architecture to use or how to choose control parameters of the system.

"Like with desktop software, good or bad early design decisions have most impact on embedded software: that's when verification is most helpful to analyse if the model will work as intended, or to discover what can go wrong."

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