The width of a 747, the weight of a car and the engine power of a scooter - is it a bird... is it a plane... yes! A solar powered plane that will fly around the world. Plus, engines that really do feed on your blood, sweat and..., well, you'll have to read on to discover the answer to this, and many more articles.

Science committee survives shake-up

The group of MPs responsible for advising the UK Government on science policy will continue their activities despite recent changes that have seen the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills become part of the new Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

A new committee will be created with the same membership as the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills select committee.

However, a formal response to the IUSS committee's report 'Engineering: turning ideas into reality' has dismissed its suggestion that the role of Government Chief Scientific Adviser should be extended to encompass engineering, and that departments should be able to appoint chief engineering advisers as well as scientific advisers.

Emphasising that advisers are appointed based on their ability to gather advice from a range of sources, rather then their own personal expertise, the response said the proposals would involve additional management layers and complication.

Super-light solar plane unveiled

By Lorna Sharpe

Adventurers Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg have unveiled the prototype of a plane they plan to fly around the world powered entirely by sunlight, in a mission to demonstrate that fossil fuel use can be eliminated.

Around 800 people, mainly media and guests of the corporate sponsors, gathered for the event at Dubendorf Airfield near Zurich, where Solar Impulse HB-SIA has been built.

With a wingspan of 63m, the aircraft is as wide as a 747-400 but with the weight of a motor car (1600kg) and the engine power of a scooter (4 × 10hp). The wings are covered in lightweight solar cells, which will collect energy during the day and store enough of it in lithium-polymer batteries to keep the plane flying overnight.

Following initial feasibility studies, Solar Impulse used Dassault Systèmes' CATIA design software to create a complete 3D digital model of the aircraft, including the position of the cockpit, aerodynamics specifications and the best arrangement of solar cells to meet the energy requirements.

The prototype design was fixed in November 2007. Since then, the various components have been built and tested, and the whole plane assembled in just 20 months. Now it will undergo three months of ground tests over the summer, followed by three months of flight tests, beginning at just a few metres above the ground. The first flight through the night is planned for next spring.

Using the knowledge gained from this test programme, the next stage will be to build a second plane, HB-SIB, that will be capable of flying continuously for up to five days and nights. The ultimate objective will be for Piccard and Borschberg to undertake a round-the-world tour starting in 2012, stopping once in each continent to change pilots and allow the public to see the aircraft.

The whole project is budgeted to cost €70m, with €46m raised so far. Now there is something tangible to show, Piccard and Borschberg and confident they can raise the rest through corporate sponsorship and a new supporters' programme for individuals.

"Yesterday this was a dream," said Piccard. "Today it is a plane, tomorrow an ambassador of renewable energy. Our goal is to show how exciting, how positive it can be to invent a new future."

More on Solar Impulse in the next issue of E&T

On the crest of a wave

Cornwall's ambition to become a leading centre for wave energy has moved a step closer to reality with the deployment of a high-tech buoy off the coast of Falmouth that will gather detailed information to inform the future design and development of moorings for marine energy devices.

The South Western Mooring Test Facility (SWMTF) will complement the South West Regional Development Agency's Wave Hub project. It was developed by a team at the University of Exeter as part of PRIMaRE (the Peninsula Research Institute for Marine Renewable Energy), a £15m joint institute of the Universities of Exeter and Plymouth.

The two-tonne buoy has a simple, circular design, with specialised sensors and other instruments built into its structure, enabling it to record very detailed data in actual sea conditions to show how moored structures respond to changes in wind, wave, current and tide. Using this information, developers will be able to model and test mooring designs and components for their marine energy devices.

Dr Lars Johanning of the University of Exeter said: "It has been a huge challenge to build something that can function in the unpredictable environment of the open sea. This would not have been achieved without the design effort provided by the PRIMaRE project engineers Dave Parish and Thomas Clifford, and the many companies who have risen to the challenge to manufacture the buoy and its instruments."

Now that the buoy has been launched, the team will conduct the first tests within the secure location of Falmouth Harbour. The buoy will then be moved to its mooring position in Falmouth Bay, from which it will transmit data in real time to a shore station for analysis. A surveillance camera will send images to the PRIMaRE Web page, allowing the team to continually monitor activities around the buoy.

Designers of mooring systems for other offshore industries, including oil and gas or floating wind installations, could also benefit from the SWMTF. Discussions are already under way with instrumentation developers to develop specific underwater communication systems.

Transatlantic telepresence

By James Hayes

A public demonstration of a high-definition interactive 3D telepresence system between the InfoComm09 conference in Florida and studios in the UK and Canada is being claimed as an industry first. Visitors to the conference in Orlando were able to interact in real-time with presenters and entertainers as they performed in studios in London and Montreal.

Based on Musion's Eyeliner system, and broadcast across Masergy high-speed network connections, a three-day programme of live, interactive holograms was transmitted via HaiVision codecs. Audiences could ask questions and interact with the 3D figures as they were projected into the specially set-up conference room. Other activities included a daily religious service and a live holographic auction.

The Eyeliner system captured images in London and Montreal using HDTV cameras at 50fps interlaced. At the audience end these were projected onto a 'foil' that reproduces a two-dimensional image which the viewer is optically 'fooled' into seeing as 3D. The demonstration also used display projection and image optimisation technology by Christie Digital Systems.

Musion director James Rock says the system can create a 5m × 5m-wide picture using a bandwidth of around 6Mbit/s, by only capturing individual figures within a vision field, without the background. That reduces the amount of data transmitted and ensures that the latency threshold of less than 200ms can be maintained across long distances.

Public quizzed on artificial life

Members of the UK public favoured the creation of completely artificial organisms over genetically modified creatures according to a recent survey carried out for the Royal Academy of Engineering.

Almost two-thirds of those surveyed agreed that artificial life forms built to produce medicines and biofuels should be allowed. Only a quarter thought modified organisms should be allowed, with concerns centring on the risks posed if they should be released into the environment accidentally or if they were to be used to clean up pollution.

However, discussions showed that people regarded the use of simple organisms such as bacteria and yeasts for production as acceptable, especially given that natural variants are already used in yoghurt and bread-making. Nevertheless, the idea of creating or adapting higher organisms was felt to be unacceptable.

Just under 40 per cent of respondents said they were worried about the idea of creating man-made organisms.

Dr Lesley Paterson of the Academy said a driving force behind the study lay in the problems that hit genetic engineering in the past two decades: "We don't want to make the same mistakes that were made in the debate on genetically modified crops. As with any new technology, synthetic biology offers potential benefits but also poses societal, ethical and regulatory challenges.

"More in-depth consultations are already being planned by bodies such as the research councils and we hope that this initial survey will provide a valuable basis for their investigations."

Offshore wind 'could meet quarter of UK needs'

By Mark Venables

The seas around the UK coastline could provide enough extra wind energy to power the equivalent of 19 million homes, an assessment by the government has found. This growth could generate tens of thousands of much-needed manufacturing jobs.

The government's strategic environmental assessment (SEA) confirmed projections that an extra 25GW of electricity generation capacity could be accommodated in UK waters.

This would be in addition to the 8GW of wind power already built or planned offshore, bringing the potential total electricity capacity of offshore wind to 33GW.

According to the government, offshore wind has the potential to meet more than a quarter of the UK's electricity needs, provide the UK with up to 70,000 new jobs and generate £8bn a year in revenue.

The findings of the SEA mean the Crown Estate can push ahead with round three of leasing UK waters for offshore wind farms.

The Estate has earmarked 11 areas which have the potential to be viable offshore wind sites, due to the levels of wind, water depth and potential connection to the grid, and taking in shipping and environmental concerns.

The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and energy regulator Ofgem have also announced they are opening the tendering process to companies to provide the £15bn of new cabling needed to connect new wind farms.

Speaking at the British Wind Energy Association (BWEA) Offshore Wind conference in London, Energy and Climate Change Minister Lord Hunt said: "Offshore wind is fundamental to delivering our target of 15 per cent renewable energy by 2020, and looking ahead to reducing our carbon emissions by 80 per cent."

He said wind power presented a "huge opportunity" for the UK industry. "We're already the world's number one offshore wind power. With the right support, we can grow the industry even further, supporting tens of thousands of high value, green manufacturing jobs."

Maria McCaffery, chief executive of the BWEA, said the "extremely ambitious" target could result in every home in the UK being powered by offshore wind farms by 2020 - if the right infrastructure was put in place.

"In order to achieve this very ambitious target, we have some supply chain issues to overcome and we need a grid and infrastructure that is capable of bringing all this electricity into the UK."

A BWEA report on offshore wind construction suggests that 9GW of wind power capacity will be built by 2015, with wind overtaking nuclear in terms of installed capacity in the next four to five years.

The BWEA said the government still needed to create a policy framework for wind, facilitate grid connections and ease supply chain pressures - some of the hurdles offshore wind farms face.

If annual deployment of wind capacity hit 4GW to 5GW per year Europe-wide, prices of installing wind farms could fall by 20 per cent.

"Round three is set to deliver the UK portion of this capacity and the Government must pull out all the stops to accommodate this programme," McCaffery said.

NASA returns to the Moon

Almost 40 years after Apollo 11's arrival, Nasa's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) has entered Moon orbit. After a commissioning phase it will spend 12 months compiling high-resolution 3D maps of the lunar surface, and survey it at multiple spectral wavelengths. LRO is aiming to create an atlas of the Moon's features and resources to aid the design of an eventual 'lunar outpost' for human habitation. The orbiter will also look for safe landing sites, identify lunar resources and assess how lunar radiation will affect humans.

As part of its surveillance, LRO will explore the Moon's deepest craters, and examine its permanently sunlit and shadowed regions.

Grey nylon the solution for white washing

By Lorna Sharpe

Leeds University spin-out Xeros Ltd has shown industry professionals a 'virtually waterless' laundry process that could slash water and electricity usage in commercial and hotel laundries.

The process exploits the fact that nylon-based polymers become absorbent in humid conditions. Dirty clothes are dampened with water and detergent and gently tumbled with reusable nylon beads that absorb and lock away the stains and grime. There is no need for a rinse cycle or high-speed spin.

Engineers at Cambridge Consultants have been working with Xeros to move from a laboratory-scale process to a technology platform that can be licensed to equipment manufacturers. That meant proving that the technology could be scaled to a 20kg load, the entry level for commercial laundry, and finding an effective way of removing the beads from the damp clothes.

The team has developed a demonstration machine based on a modified commercial tumble dryer. It has two concentric drums, the outer one solid and the inner perforated, letting the beads flow through to mix with the clothing. At the end of the cycle, the outer drum is stopped while the inner one continues to tumble the load, enabling the beads to fall away.

Resembling short-grain rice, the beads are about 4mm long and 2mm across. They can be used for up to 500 wash loads, and Xeros plans to offer a recycling service.

So promising is the technology that US-based GreenEarth Cleaning signed up to a partnership and distribution agreement at last month's Clean Show in New Orleans.

Cambridge Consultants programme manager Nathan Wrench told E&T the show provided useful insight from industry professionals for the next phase of development. "We did live demonstrations using shirts with ketchup and grass stains," he said. "People were asking us about other stains and fabrics, and they said that they are concerned about water and electricity costs - and sewerage charges too. They would like machines taking hundreds of kilos, because that's where savings are most amplified."

Laying the foundations for Britain's digital future

By Luke Collins

The government's final Digital Britain report lays out a set of plans, recommendations and ambitions that could change many aspects of the increasingly digital lives of British citizens.

"We are at a tipping point in relation to the online world. It is moving from conferring advantage on those who are in it to conferring active disadvantage on those who are without," the report says. "Those countries that push forward their digital communications sector will gain substantial and long-lasting competitive advantage."

Lord Carter, the minister for communications, technology and broadcasting, said: "Digital Britain is a statement of intent and ambition, a commitment to infrastructure and access, and an overdue recognition of the industrial importance of the creative industries."

Report highlights include:

A commitment to extend 2Mbit/s broadband connections to the whole country by 2012, using a mixture of DSL, fibre to the cabinet, wireless and satellite technologies.

A next-generation network project, focusing on the third of the population that is unlikely to get super-fast broadband by purely commercial means over the next decade. It will be paid for in part by a 50 pence per month levy on fixed phone lines, to subsidise the roll-out in otherwise uneconomic areas.

3G operators' licences will become indefinite, so that they can invest in network upgrades that will broaden coverage. The government is open to proposals from operators on network sharing, especially if it helps increase coverage.

The BBC is being asked to extend DAB coverage so that all national radio broadcasts are DAB-only by the end of 2015. Consumer electronics companies are being asked to produce radios retailing for less than £20, to encourage uptake.

Ofcom has been given responsibility to find ways to reduce illegal file-sharing. In a two-step process, offenders will first be notified of their infringement, and then taken to court if they persist.

A three-year programme is planned to boost Britons' engagement with the online world. Dotcom entrepreneur Martha Lane Fox has been appointed as a Digital Inclusion Champion for two years.

In support of the Digital Britain report:

Research Councils UK will invest £120m over three years in a co-ordinated Digital Economy Programme, including three £12m research hubs, focusing on: the digital economy and ubiquitous computing (Nottingham); the digital economy and social inclusion (Newcastle and Dundee); and the digital economy and rural UK (Aberdeen).

The Technology Strategy Board will spend £30m on Digital Britain-related research and at least £10m on innovation programmes. These include using next-generation broad-band networks as test-beds for ideas such as micropayments, new rights models and different approaches to personal digital security.

Ofcom will have a duty to review UK communications infrastructure every two years.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee will form a panel of experts to improve the use of public data.

Government departments are to propose at least two services that can be put online once universal coverage is available.

The government is consulting on whether to give £130m of the BBC licence fee to other broadcasters for regional news and children's programmes.

People-powered rocket passes tests

By Bryan Betts

Rocketry company Orion Propulsion has completed its initial testing on a thruster engine that will be powered by hydrogen and oxygen generated from human sweat and urine.

The engine is for use on Sundancer, a commercial space habitat under development by private developer Bigelow Aerospace, and the hydrogen and oxygen will come from its environmental control life support system (ELCSS). The latter will already be generating oxygen from waste water for the habitat's residents to breathe.

Part of a contract worth nearly $5m, the Orion-developed thrusters are for Sundancer's forward attitude control system. The aft propulsion system is a monopropellant hydrazine design from Aerojet and is similar to systems used in NASA's Phoenix Mars lander mission.

View from Washington

Obama's CTO sets out his stall

By Paul Dempsey

US humorist John Hodgman recently characterised Barack Obama as "the first nerd President of the modern era" - but then went on to show how hard it is to make the label stick.

After all, Obama is not only a sports fan (as Hodgman noted), but has such unnerd-like qualities as calm, self-confidence and a gift for expressing the complex in plain English. After Dubya, behold the Generation W president, a tad too old to be an X-er but still at home in a society driven by technology.

Which brings us to Obama's choice of national CTO. Here surely, we will find nerdism hidden in the White House behind Coke-bottle glasses. Sorry to disappoint, but the man approved as - by official title - director of technology in the Office of Science & Technology Policy is a public, articulate and intelligent figure.

Aneesh Chopra comes to the administration from Virginia, where his time as a state-level CTO coincided with the commonwealth reaffirming its position as a US hub for new industries, it having received a bloody nose from the dot-bomb downturn. At the same time, Virginia did not just get good at talking technology but also at using it at the governmental level.

Chopra had plenty to talk about, therefore, when he gave one of his first speeches at a recent Consumer Electronics Association conference in New York City - he had to apologise for repeatedly citing Virginian projects as indicators of what he wants to achieve.

With Chopra only two weeks into the job, the speech did in places resemble more a chaotic shopping bag than an organised list. But the ideas and the command of those ideas were undeniable. If Obama is the politician who feels comfortable with technology, Chopra came over as the technologist who's quite at home in politics - yes, it would appear they do exist.

He described a US technology policy that will be based around four objectives: innovation as a spur to economic growth; the development of 21st-century healthcare, energy and education policies; network security and countering the threat of cyber-crime and cyber-terrorism; and the use of technology to make government more efficient and effective.

He also urged technology companies to copy Google's willingness to have engineers spend 20 per cent of their time on their own ideas, and not just projects that could profit the company but also ones that might have greater social benefit.

Plenty could go wrong. Just one word: 'healthcare'. But Chopra communicated a clear sense of how the US will approach these objectives systemically and enthusiastically. Yes, 'enthusiastically'.

The appointment was a big surprise to most observers outside Virginia. They had expected a more traditional pick. However, the US technology community is quickly coming to believe that Obama has again chosen wisely.

Chopra's next step, he says, will be to publish benchmark objectives and invite us pundits to judge him by that list. No problem there. But as this administration tries to use charisma and smarts to stoke the technological engine room of the US economy, others should be taking note. Ask yourself, do either Gordon Brown or David Cameron have any equivalent in their arsenals? Even Sir Alan Sugar pales in comparison. Barack's got himself a rock star.

Arianespace scoops Asian orders

By William Dennis

ST-2 Satellite Ventures (STS) has chosen Arianespace to launch its new telecommunications satellite ST-2 from the Guiana Space Centre (GSC) in French Guiana.

ST-2 will be launched by an Ariane 5 ECA rocket in the second quarter of 2011. Mitsubishi Electric Corp is building the satellite, which will have a lift-off mass of more than 5,100kg. It is the first non-Japanese commercial spacecraft to be built on Mitsubishi's DS2000 platform.

With a 15-year in-orbit life span, the satellite will cover Asia and the Middle East, providing fixed and mobile satellite services, IP-based solutions such as SingTel's Office-at-Sea suite maritime applications and direct-to-home services.

STS is a joint venture between Singapore Telecommunications (SingTel) and Taiwan's Chunghwa Telecom Co.

In a separate development, Hong Kong-based Asia Broadcast Satellite (ABS) will launch its ABS-2 communications satellite in the first half of 2012. It will also be launched by Arianespace using an Ariane 5 ECA from GSC.

Built by Space Systems Loral, ABS-2 will weigh about 6,000kg and have a payload power of 15kW. It will serve Asia, Russia, Africa and the Middle East, delivering direct broadcast TV, television distribution via cable, multimedia applications and data networks.

Philippines to act on airport safety

The Philippines Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) says it will evict villagers who have illegally set up homes around airport boundaries.

People and vehicles have been responsible for runway incursions at several airports in the country, with the Catarman National Airport in the Northern Samar province being the most recent (see E&T Vol 4 #11). Many of these airports do not have fencing or barricades to prevent access to the runway.

DOTC spokeswoman Kristine Concepcion said the Department has ordered a study of the smaller airports in the provinces to determine the extent of runway incursions and the number of people residing within one kilometre of the airport perimeter.

"Where necessary villagers will be evicted and security at the affected airports upgraded," Concepcion said, though she added that this will have to be done gradually, as the government does not have the funds.

The Philippines consists of 7,107 islands and 80 provinces. It has 248 airports, most served only by domestic airlines.

Concepcion said that although runway incursions have been responsible for several aborted landings there have been no accidents involving aircraft.

She added that DOTC has no plans to relocate people living close to larger airports such as Nonoy Aquino International Airport in Manila, which has not seen similar problems.

Animatronic challenge

By Mark Langdon

Dinosaurs are touring the UK this summer in 'Walking With Dinosaurs - The Arena Spectacular', based on the BBC TV series, but the team behind the life-size animatronic creations are already looking at the next challenge: King Kong.

"We think that Kong will be about 4.5m at the shoulder, so he could stand up to about 7.5m," explains Sonny Tilders, creative director of The Creature Technology Company. "The dinosaurs that we have here are either bipedal or quadrupedal but all the legs are linked to the ground at all times and they are linked to our chassis system. The challenge with Kong is you have free moving hands which also have to walk quadrupedally from time to time. Kong also has to rear up, beat his chest and do a whole variety of things that dinosaurs just don't have to do. That is another enormous leap for us to make, but we are pretty excited about it - a bit scared but pretty excited."

One of the biggest problems is controlling the centre of gravity. "To make these things, dynamic weight really has to be driven down because any dynamic load just gets magnified. When you want complex moving hands, you have to have things to move them, so you have to ask what is the lightest possible actuator you can get and how far can you get it from the end of the limb to minimise that swinging mass. All these sorts of things are the stuff that we have to wrestle with."

See p44 Walking With Dinosaurs


The 17 September 2008 issue of Engineering & Technology included an article, 'London Water Wars', which examined the city's water supply infrastructure and problems experienced during the period of low rainfall in summer 2006.

Thames Water has asked us to point out that the accompanying photograph of members of the public queuing for emergency water supplies was not taken in London and that standpipes have not been officially deployed in the city since 1995. The company first sought planning permission for its proposed desalination plant in 2003, not 2006 as implied by the article.

In addition, August 2008 was London's seventh wettest since records began in 1914, not the wettest for a century.

Since the events described in the article, Thames Water has come under new management and informs us that it is working towards improving London's water supply.

Recent articles

Info Message

Our sites use cookies to support some functionality, and to collect anonymous user data.

Learn more about IET cookies and how to control them