Intelligent tolls, ingenious PoW's, 'Internet for space' and have you heard of the engineering Mantra currently sweeping the nation? No? Well let us enlighten you.

Curriculum project

Seven UK universities are taking part in a project called 'Developing a Global Curriculum for Engineering', which will consider how courses can incorporate global issues such as sustainability, climate change and poverty.

Funded by a grant from the Department for International Development, the three-year project will be implemented by development organisation Engineers Against Poverty (EAP) in association with organisations responsible for curriculum review, professional development and accreditation.

The participating institutions are University of Liverpool, Cardiff University, Queens University Belfast, University of Derby, University of Leeds, Northumbria University and University of Plymouth.

The project will offer professional seminars to academic staff, provide specialist support for curriculum development, develop a database of resources and stage two national symposia.

EAP executive director Petter Matthews said: "This is a high level strategic partnership with the responsibility, expertise and influence necessary to bring about a step-change in the way that global issues are dealt with in engineering education."

Eindhoven runs road-pricing trial

By Chris Edwards

Trials of a variable road-pricing scheme, where the equipment has been designed to protect the privacy of drivers, have started in the Netherlands.

Erik van Merrienboer, the councillor responsible for traffic and the environment in the Dutch city of Eindhoven, installed the first device in one of the cars that will be used in the trial in an attempt to demonstrate that a road-pricing system can employ user-mounted equipment. Some 50 workers at the High-Tech Campus on the outskirts of Eindhoven, where the project's chip supplier NXP Semiconductors is based, will test the system for six months.

The onboard unit in each vehicle will record trip data and assign a price for each journey. Using a secure website and back-office system developed by IBM, users will be able to see what route they took and its cost. The messages sent by the unit while travelling are encoded so that the back-office system cannot link segments together to track an individual vehicle's progress. Prices are calculated on a kilometre-by-kilometre basis.

"At the end of the trip, the unit sends the total amount to the back-end unit that will bill the user," said Wouter Leibbrandt, senior director and manager of the advanced systems laboratory at NXP. "The back-end system knows a car is driving but it doesn't know which car it is. We wanted to do it in this cumbersome way to tackle people's concern about privacy. We want to show that the technology is available. Lawmakers can't say they can't do this because it's impossible."

The system is based around a multi-chip module that provides positioning information using GPS and which relays travel data using the GSM phone network. Another radio interface that supports the Near-Field Communication protocol talks to an ID chip glued to the windscreen to tell the mobile unit which vehicle it is in. In final systems, this link could be used to immobilise a car unless it has the unit installed.

During the second phase, drivers will commute outside peak times or use cheaper routes - and the best at reducing their overall costs will get a prize.

"We are also testing how it affects the behaviour of people," Leibbrandt explained.

Leibbrandt said the project will help demonstrate that NXP takes user acceptance into account, something that will become increasingly important as technology companies move to sell systems in transport and healthcare to governments.

PoW's cocoa tin radio stars in new exhibition

By Dominic Lenton

An ingenious radio built from cocoa tins, toothbrushes and an ashtray by a British engineer held in a German prison camp during World War Two is among exhibits at a major exhibition looking at the experiences of prisoners of war.

The story of how Captain Ernest Shackleton made the radio from odds and ends he scavenged while in captivity is told in 'Captured: The Extraordinary Life of Prisoners of War', which has just opened at the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester. Using a mix of objects, art, documents, photographs, film and sound from the Imperial War Museum's collections, the exhibition reveals the truth behind stories such as The Great Escape, The Colditz Story and The Bridge On The River Kwai.

As well as the experiences of British and Commonwealth prisoners and civilian internees in Europe and the Far East, 'Captured' features stories of Italian and German prisoners in the UK.

Shackleton was a Leeds University graduate who in peacetime worked as a radio engineer with GEC and was a member of the IET's predecessor organisation the Institution of Electrical Engineers. After being captured on 12 June 1940 at St Valery-in-Caux during the fall of France, he was held at various camps in Germany before being moved in September 1943 to Oflag IXa Rotenburg.

When prisoners asked their captors to let them buy a 'talkie' film projector, the Germans agreed on condition that a sentry was present when it was being used to prevent inmates carrying out their real plan of using the parts to make a radio.

The projector was later impounded for several months and the exciter lamp for the soundtrack was broken. The Germans lost interest in it, and Shackleton was able to use a valve and some capacitors and to make a regenerative receiver covering several wavebands with interchangeable coils made from toilet roll tubes.

Variable capacitor plates were made from Rowntree's cocoa tins rolled flat with a beer bottle and cut with scissors. The spindles were made from clinical thermometer cases. Two toothbrush handles formed the insulation supports. The rectifier valve holder for the power supply was made from a Bakelite ash tray cut and drilled with a penknife.

The completed set, which ran on mains electricity taken from the lighting, was concealed under the floor and operated by knitting needles poked through cracks between the boards. Used to listen to BBC and American broadcasts, it gave PoWs a link to the outside world to the point where they were often better informed than their guards about the progress of the war.

Having remained undetected through a number of intensive guard searches and surprise Gestapo visits, the set worked right up until liberation in March 1945, when Shackleton insisted on being taken back to the camp to collect it.

'The Extraordinary Life of Prisoners of War' runs until 3 January 2010. [new window]

Maths modellers aid research

The UK's contribution to the Virtual Physiological Human Network of Excellence (VPH-NoE) has taken a step forward with the development by the University of Nottingham of a post-graduate training programme that brings together researchers from different disciplines to consider the human body as a single complex system.

The VPH-NoE aims to create a methodological and technological framework to deliver patient-specific computer models for personalised and predictive healthcare, along with ICT-based tools for modelling and simulation of human physiology and disease-related processes.

The University of Nottingham, one of 13 European institutions involved in the initiative, hosted a study group earlier this month to investigate how mathematical modelling might be used to help solve biomedical problems.

The group tried to model various problems relating to regenerative medicine. "The event successfully met the main goal, which was to promote the interaction between modellers and academic and industrial experimentalists within life sciences," said Dr Bindi Brook of the University of Nottingham's School of Mathematical Sciences. "A week of brainstorming and mathematical/computational modelling [gave us] enough time to generate and assess many ideas for solving the problem" Outcomes included new theoretical models and the initiation of multidisciplinary collaborations that Dr Brook hopes will be made into funding applications.

NASA working towards 'Internet for space'

By Luke Collins

NASA has installed networking software on board the International Space Station (ISS) that will help it develop an 'Internet for space'.

The Delay Tolerant Networking code has been designed to overcome one of the biggest problems in space-based communications - links that suffer from intermittent connections, high error rates and very long latencies caused by harsh conditions and long distances that go with space exploration.

The code will run on computers already onboard the Space Station and will be used to develop and flight-test new delay-tolerant networking protocols for space communications. Current protocols, such as the TCP/IP stack used in today's Internet, assume that an uninterrupted connection, with low error rates and millisecond latencies, can be made.

These characteristics enable TCP/IP to rely on a steady stream of sent packets and received acknowledgements to track a transmission's progress.

Space links, by contrast, have high error rates, high latencies (of 1.7 seconds for a transmission to the Moon, for example) and can be broken for relatively long periods by the movement of celestial bodies, which block line-of-sight transmissions.

The NASA response is to use store-and-forward techniques in the network to compensate for intermittent links.

NASA is also adding a middleware layer that will choose the most appropriate protocol to carry data, depending on the characteristics of the channel.

The work could be applied to military applications, such as battlefield communications during which vital data has to be transmitted over intermittent channels, and in the ad-hoc networks that some commentators believe future smart-phones may use to ensure more robust connections to operator networks and the Internet.

Scientists bet on the nature of life

By Chris Edwards

A 20-year bet over the power of the genome to control the development of living organisms could hinge on how much computing power will be needed to demonstrate it.

The wager, between Professor Lewis Wolpert of University College London and former biochemist and author Rupert Sheldrake, stems from a debate held in March at the University of Cambridge over whether genes control development or whether, as Sheldrake asserts, it is the result of 'morphic fields'.

The winner will get a case of vintage port.

Sheldrake argues that science has been promising since the early 1960s to establish a theory that describes how a single genome can lead to all the different parts of living creatures but has, so far, failed. He maintains that DNA does nothing more than provide the recipe for proteins. That, in his view, is not enough. Wolpert argues that the interactions between proteins and between them and DNA provide the control necessary to built complex life-forms.

Technologies such as synthetic biology, which modify genomes to have organisms manufacture chemicals or perform specific tasks, rely on the idea that the genome and its associated proteins provide all the information necessary.

Wolpert agreed to a bet with a deadline of 2029 that biologists would be able to predict the features of an organism - for these purposes, a nematode worm - based purely on its genome and the initial state of the egg that contains it. However, he told E&T that the 20-year timescale for the demonstration is "quite generous" to Sheldrake's position.

He thinks it may take 40 years for all the theories to be developed and for the compute power to be available to predict the outcome of a given genome.

"It will require an immense amount of computing power to show all the proteins interacting and understand all the interactions within the cells," Wolpert said.

"I doubt if I will win the bet because 20 years isn't enough time."

Techno-truck takes engineering on tour

By Bryan Betts

A demonstration of advanced manufacturing and assembly technologies is touring the UK, mounted on a 14m-long unfolding articulated lorry. The high-tech Manufacturing Technology Transporter, or Mantra, is scheduled to visit more than 400 companies and 30 schools over the next three years.

"The aim is to show companies the tools and technologies available now, and to show young people that a career in engineering isn't the engineering career that their parents knew," said John Baragwanath, project director at the University of Sheffield's Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre with Boeing (AMRC), which set up Mantra.

"The idea is to enthuse young people - replacing a whole lost generation of engineers has always been part of the AMRC's mission. Children are naturally inquisitive, so if you show them something interesting they'll pick up on it," he added.

One of Mantra's highlights is a computerised multi-tooled lathe weighing 4.8 tonnes and capable of machining complex high precision parts. For those unable to see into the lathe directly, the cutting action is displayed by an internal camera on a 60in plasma screen.

A second demonstration uses 3D goggles so visitors can experience interactive computer models of complex machinery. Components can be moved around in 3D space using a joystick designed to act like a hand - to see if they could be fitted without fouling other components, for example.

The lorry also features several screens to show videos on engineering, or on AMRC's research in areas such as advanced machining and assembly technologies, depending on the audience. Baragwanath said that one of the group's specialities is optimising the process of cutting metal. In some cases it has been able to speed up cutting by 25 or 30 times, he added.

Mantra was funded by a £500,000 award from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and supported by industry sponsors including Boeing, Rolls-Royce and Mori Seiki.

Bullet train idea on hold

The Malaysian government is reluctant to commit itself to a costly high-speed bullet train project linking Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.

According to Baharudin Ismail, the spokesman for the Economic Planning Unit in the Prime Minister's Department, there were several factors to be considered even if the scheme was to be privately-funded. "A study has to be carried out to determine the feasibility of the project, the land to be acquired and whether residential areas would be affected," Baharudin said.

YTL Corp, a Kuala Lumpur-based Malaysian conglomerate has for the second time proposed the project, estimated to cost US$2.3bn, to the government.

"It is clear the bullet train service would have a major impact on airlines, as evident in Korea, Taiwan and Japan," Baharudin said.

China raises solar target

By William Dennis

China wants to increase installed solar power capacity from the current 180MW to 2GW by 2011 and 20GW in 2020 as part of its plan to find alternatives to fossil fuels.

Lu Xuanze, an assistant director at the National Energy Administration (NEA) in Beijing, said the agency has identified six regions and provinces in Northwest China where it would be feasible to build solar photovoltaic (PV) power plants.

Lu said the plan to increase capacity would be a boost for both consumers and companies.

China's solar industry has been severely affected over the last nine months because of the credit freeze.

"Prices of solar panels have also come down sharply due to oversupply," Lu pointed out.

NEA is confident that prices will gradually return to normal as the credit crunch eases.

Lu said although China was the leading supplier of solar panels to the global market over the last two years, there were no incentives previously.

In March, the government approved a subsidy of 20 yuan per watt for solar PV systems larger than 50kW installed on buildings, but this has yet to be implemented.

The six potential locations are Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, Mongolia, Qinghai, Gansu, Shanxi and Nigxia.

US border patrols develop tunnel vision

By Dominic Lenton

The US government plans to use technology developed for surveying archaeological sites and detecting buried pipes and cables in its battle to prevent terrorists infiltrating the country by digging beneath its borders.

Tunnels, usually used to smuggle drugs or people into the US, are being dug at an increasing rate. Border patrols unearth new ones every month, but the fact that they can begin and end almost anywhere, and that once discovered new ones can be quickly begun, makes them a particular challenge for agents.

The new threat, the Department of Homeland Security fears, is that they could be used to move in weapons and explosives for a terrorist attack. And according to Ed Turner, a project manager with the department's Science and Technology Directorate, detecting them is usually down to luck or good information. "All of them have been found by accident or human intelligence," he admitted. "None by technology."

Previously, government researchers have explored the possibility of using unmanned aircraft equipped with radar technology to fly along the border searching for tunnels. While this remains a possibility, it is made difficult by the fact that most existing excavations run through large urban centres, making them difficult to spot from aerial images. In addition, the airborne radar's radio frequency signals pose privacy concerns if they cross into someone's home.

The latest option, ground-penetrating radar (GPR), will be the focus of a Tunnel Detection Project being run in partnership with Lockheed Martin by the Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency.

GPR uses variations in the reflected signal when microwave band frequencies are transmitted into a solid surface to create images of what is inside or beneath. It has found a range of applications. As well as locating buried structures such as utility pipes and cables before digging commences, it has been used to find people trapped in collapsed buildings, and to scan archaeological sites.

The Tunnel Detection Project is using lower frequencies that penetrate more deeply, together with sophisticated new imaging technology. The approach involves putting radar antennas in a trailer towed along the border.

These transmit a signal directly into the ground, and use the results to construct a multi-coloured picture of what lies below that border patrols agents can view immediately on a monitor inside their truck.

Following a demonstration earlier this year that used a large box full of sand and rocks to simulate an area of the southern US border, with pipes as tunnels, researchers will spend the summer in the South-West testing it in the harsh desert environment.

A key test, said Turner, will be its ability to separate tunnels from rocks, plants and other objects along the ground or buried shallowly.

"We want to develop something that can be used with high reliability so you'll find tunnels and not other things in the ground," he said.

Solid gel makes screens readable in sunlight

By Bryan Betts

An innovative optical-bonding technique can make standard LCD screens readable in sunlight by dramatically increasing the display's contrast without increasing its brightness, thereby cutting the power needed to operate outdoor screens by as much as two-thirds.

The process builds on techniques invented decades ago for laminated safety glass, said its developer Nathalie Cheng, a Taiwanese entrepreneur with a background in materials engineering and biochemistry. She said she realised that eliminating the air gap between the LCD panel and the cover glass or touch-panel could dramatically improve a display's contrast ratio and readability.

"The air gap creates reflection and refraction because of the different refractive index of air and glass," she explained.

Cheng said that researchers have tried to eliminate air gaps using optical gels, but had problems with leakage and with damage to the LCD panel.

So she had the idea of a liquid that could be cured and solidified, but this was not easy to find. "First, the material has to have very good index matching, and second it needs to be very reliable, withstanding a wide temperature range," she explained.

She added that CiVue Optotech - the company she formed to develop her patented idea - sees applications in areas such as digital signage, avionics, ticketing machines and mil-spec laptop PCs.

Martin Whitehead, who is systems manager at outdoor screen specialist Display Solutions and has worked with Cheng's displays, said that optical bonding provides an effective alternative to transflective LCDs - panels with internal polarising films that allow incident light to be reflected, augmenting the backlight.

He said that compared to transflective, "optical bonding lets you build larger screens because it is better at dissipating heat from the backlight". He added that the cured gel also acts as an infra-red and ultra-violet filter, removing the need to add these separately. [new window] [new window]

View from Brussels

From MAD to MAS

By Pelle Neroth

Outside the conference room, it's a blisteringly hot day in Brussels. Inside, the calculations are not adding up, and it's all a bit worrying.

The event is Green Week, the biggest environmental policy conference on the EU's agenda.

Between the West's reluctance to cramp its style of living and the Rest's desire to become rich, there has been, in recent years, no compromise. And our combined and growing carbon emissions prompted one conference speaker to draw comparisons with the Cold War. "In the 1980s we saw the nuclear powers racing towards Mutually Assured Destruction - MAD," he says. Today, the developed and developing worlds are heading towards "Mutually Assisted Suicide".

Here is a simple, easy-to-remember figure: one trillion tonnes. According to an academic team led by Malte Meinshausen of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Research, that is how much carbon dioxide mankind is allowed to emit between the years 2000 and 2050 to keep global warming to within 2°C of the pre-industrial baseline. The two-degree limit is the guiding principle for international mitigation efforts.

Between 2000 and 2009 the world has already used up a third of that quota. For the next 41 years, we are allowed to use the remaining two-thirds. At current usage rates of 36 billion tonnes of CO2 a year - growing by 2 per cent a year - the allowance runs out before 2030.

Oh dear. The problem is that even if the US and the rest of the West make 80 per cent cuts by 2050 (very optimistic), that leaves rapidly industrialising India and China, which between them have 40 per cent of the world's population, and they are defiant.

A Chinese science report has said that, in the best scenario, its emissions will increase by only half from here to 2030. That's nine billion tonnes, on the working assumption that it makes an extraordinary investment of $146bn every year to raise energy efficiency.

And then there is India, whose emissions will equal China's today by 2030. Add all these figures up, and even taking into account belt-tightening by the developed world, the trillion-tonne carbon budget is still bust.

I talk to climate expert Kirit Parikh, an adviser to the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. If the West committed five murders on the way to industrialisation, he jokes, "let us please commit one murder". He says Singh will make one concession: that India will not at any point top the West's emissions per capita. "The faster you fall, the quicker our per-capita emissions will converge."

India, by 2012, needs to build power station capacity equivalent to 78,000MW. If the West wants to pick up the tab, Parikh says, to help build nuclear stations instead, it will cost 100 billion dollars a year. That's more than the entire international aid budget for the developing world, and India isn't the only industrialising power.

Later, I interview Janez Potocnik, the EU commissioner for research. I ask if the EU is prepared to cough up $100bn.

"All sorts of issues will be on the table at the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen," he says. Will the West have to sacrifice its living standards? "It's not a zero-sum game. Cleaner air and water and a cooler planet is better for everyone".

Tornado steams ahead

Tornado, the first main line steam locomotive to be built in Britain for almost 50 years, achieved its first 10,000 miles in service on 12 July since its completion in 2008 while hauling the 'Torbay Express' between Bristol and South Devon.

The £3m Peppercorn class A1 Pacific locomotive was built over almost 20 years by The A1 Steam Locomotive Trust at its Darlington Locomotive Works.

It is equipped with modern railway safety electronics and has sufficient water capacity to haul charter trains on the main line network.

Tornado recently featured in the BBC's 'Top Gear' programme, racing a Jaguar XK120 car and a Vincent Black Shadow motorcycle from London to Edinburgh. [new window]


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