News

E&T's round-up of the latest news brings you - floating car parks; electric vehicles infrastructure requirements gets funding, ZigBee goes underground, Samsung plan to slash carbon emissions, IT grants to help digital underclass, and of course much more.

Sleeping giants

The demand for cars has fallen considerably since the start of the worldwide recession and with it has fallen the demand for vessels to transport them. With new ships still on order, some owners have opted to scrap their older tonnage while others are just laying their ships up, like these seen in the River Fal in Cornwall.

A number of vessels are also finding work as giant floating garages to store the unsold cars that ports cannot contain.

£3m study to lay groundwork for electric-vehicle investment

By Lorna Sharpe

An ambitious study of the economics and infrastructure requirements of plug-in vehicles will form a core element of the UK's strategy for Ultra Low Carbon Vehicles.

The Energy Technologies Institute (ETI) was set up with matched funds from government and major industrial partners to accelerate the deployment of low-carbon technologies on a mass scale. ETI is committing £3m to the first stage of the Plug-in Vehicle Economics and Infrastructure project, which will gather information from early trials to help create the right conditions for a wider take-up of electric vehicles.

The Technology Strategy Board announced an Ultra Low Carbon Vehicle Demonstrator programme in June, while the government has set aside £250m for vehicle incentives and infrastructure investment.

ETI chief executive David Clarke said: "Vehicle manufacturers are almost ready to bring both all-electric (EV) and plug-in hybrid electric (PHEV) vehicles to the mass market, but there is still considerable uncertainty as to how consumers can and will use them, what investment is required, what supporting infrastructure is needed and the long-term carbon benefit."

Clarke added: "Working with government, industry and key cities, the ETI plans to conduct what is expected to be the most extensive evaluation of the consumer response to plug-in vehicles, and the supporting infrastructure, anywhere in the world."

The results will influence development of regulations, standards and policies across the UK, and also establish the requirements for the charging infrastructure.

"Our challenge is to make sure electrification happens in the most effective way, both from the point of view of the users and in making sure the government gets the best possible return on its investment," Clarke told E&T.

The evaluation work will start in early 2011 when a sufficient diversity of vehicles is expected from manufacturers with production volumes in the order of thousands. "With its densely populated cities relatively close together, the UK is well placed to act as a global 'Test Bed'," said Clarke. "The ETI project will generate a robust evidence base of the real-world consumer behaviours and acceptance challenges for plug-in vehicles."

Technology Strategy Board chief executive Iain Gray said: "This project will build on the Technology Strategy Board's £25m Low Carbon Vehicle Demonstrator competition, which will see around 340 cars being driven in demonstrator areas across the UK within the next 18 months."

ZigBee goes underground

By Mark Langdon

There has been a huge push to improve mine safety in the US and worldwide after 12 miners died in a coal mine explosion at Sago, West Virginia in the US on 2 January 2006. Since then the US Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response (MINER) Act 2006 and MSHA Improved Tracking and Communications have been introduced.

In the UK Dr Gareth Kennedy of Camborne School of Mines, University of Exeter, believes that wireless technologies have many advantages and applications in underground mining, particularly with regard to improving safety and that they can be used to greatly enhance both preventative measures against mine disasters and rapid and co-ordinated responses.

Kennedy has been working on a system that uses ZigBee (IEEE 802.15.4) wireless mesh networking technology to track personnel and equipment in a mine. The information is sent back to the surface using an Ethernet backbone (IEEE 802.11), which is already present in many mines. He developed the system in collaboration with Mines Rescue Service Ltd, funded by a Knowledge Transfer Partnership grant.

Kennedy chose to use ZigBee wireless mesh technology after carrying out extensive studies into UHF and microwave transmission in tunnels, testing various frequencies and examining waveguide theory. "2.4GHz is a 'good' choice of transmission frequency for underground mining," he explained. This led to various tests being carried out on using Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and ZigBee.

The use of such mesh networking technology in an underground mine environment has significant potential for 'Smart Sensor' applications, from environmental monitoring and control to monitoring of personnel themselves; as part of this work, Kennedy developed a novel smart sensor system for underground use.

This type of mesh technology typically has as little as 1mW nominal transmission power, with a low data rate capability and a very long battery life of potentially months to years on reduced functionality sensors and mobile tracking devices.

The system can now be rolled out commercially into the mining sector as well as for other applications such as energy management.

Skills exodus threatens renaissance of the mainframe

By James Hayes

An 'exodus' of mainframe operations staff, as IT departments are pressured to reduce headcount in the economic downturn, could result in many organisations' critical applications being put at risk, according to terminal emulation software firm FutureSoft.

The company claims that as mainframe engineers are more likely to be at later stages in their careers, they are being "persuaded to retire", with their responsibilities being ceded to younger IT colleagues who have no experience of operating 'big iron' systems.

Ironically, the skills down-scale comes at a time when mainframes are seeing a renaissance, said FutureSoft co-founder and CEO Tim Farrell. Pressure on IT directors to reduce employment costs is increasing, and will result in a loss of the specific expertise that is at present most needed in large organisations, he predicts.

"While mainframe technology undergoes a resurgence, those with the professional background in managing mainframes are both those most likely to retire, and are those who are most costly to employ," Farrell added. "[IT staff] are being drafted in to work mainframes who are not familiar with mainframe technology. They are people who have only known distributed computing environments."

Farrell warned that the skills misalignment will result in "some very illogical decisions" affecting the mainframe's integral role in supporting business operations.

However, Colin Bannister, VP technical sales at mainframe management software specialist CA, reported that although he is "definitely seeing a staff reduction inside the IT function", he has encountered no evidence that mainframe engineers are being targeted. "I'm not sure that they earn any more than their colleagues working in distributed computing," he said.

Bannister said that although mainframe interfaces can seem dauntingly alien to younger IT personnel, solutions such as CA's Mainframe 2.0 product suite are designed to bridge the technological 'generation gap'.

Comms project to aid Arctic research

By Mark Langdon

Offshore technology company Kongsberg Maritime has joined forces with Scottish communications technology company WFS to develop a unique wireless system for locating and communicating with AUVs (autonomous underwater vehicles) in ice conditions.

Called TILACSys (Through Ice Location and Communication System), the project has received investment from the UK's Technology Strategy Board and the Research Council of Norway, and will run for 24 months to deliver a demonstrator system that will be the first of its kind in the world.

"The reduced risk of loss of the vehicle will increase the use of AUVs and expand our knowledge of the virtually unexplored underwater Arctic environment," said Bjorn Jalving, vice president of Kongsberg Maritime Subsea's AUV department

While AUVs are able to explore beneath the ice in Polar regions, such operations are seldom carried out because of the risk of losing the vehicle. The TILACSys will be designed to enable a surface vessel, a helicopter or an unmanned aerial vehicle to locate and communicate with the AUV below the ice, which will increase knowledge about topography, oceanography, marine life and marine systems.

Samsung goes for green

By Kris Sangani 

South Korea's Samsung Electronics has announced an ambitious $4.3bn plan to cut emissions from its manufacturing operations and its consumer products.

The PlanetFirst project's target is to cut greenhouse emissions from its manufacturing plants by 50 per cent and to reduce total indirect emissions from all products by 84 million tonnes by the end of 2013.

The company is "committing to becoming a truly green enterprise that places eco-management at the very heart of our business decision-making and growth", said vice chairman and CEO Yoon-Woo Lee at a ceremony launching the initiative.

"This eco-management initiative will encompass all of our global operations, supply chain, and the complete lifecycle of Samsung products, and by achieving these goals we aim to lead the way in tackling our planet's environmental problems."

In addition to producing consumer technology products, the company is also the world's largest maker of computer memory chips.

Of the 5.4tr Korean won, the company plans to spend 3.1tr developing greener products and 2.3tr on energy-saving technologies and greening its manufacturing. The remainder will be used to reduce emissions from its manufacturing plants.

As reported in last month's E&T cover story, 80 per cent of South Korea's £22bn stimulus spending is allocated to climate-related themes, compared to just 12 per cent in the US and 7 per cent in the UK.

The South Korean government's Green New Deal plans to replace every incandescent lightbulb in the country's public buildings with high-efficiency LEDs, build two million green homes, develop low-carbon vehicles and boost rail and cycle use.

UK space launch

The European Space Agency has opened its first UK research facility, based at the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus in Oxfordshire.

Harwell is being developed as the hub of an International Space Innovation Centre, with publicly-funded scientific facilities operating alongside industrial R&D.

The ESA facility will focus on three key areas: combining data and images from satellites to create new applications such as automatic safety-of-life location services, climate change modelling, and the development of new technologies that can be used in missions to explore the Moon and Mars.

To coincide with the opening, Science and Innovation Minister Lord Drayson launched a public consultation on the establishment of a UK Space Agency to better coordinate civil space strategy.

www.bnsc.gov.uk/assets/pdf/consultation.pdf

£300m to eliminate 'digital underclass'

Exclusive By Dominic Lenton

UK computer retailers are set to get a boost this autumn with the rollout of a £300m scheme that will give grants worth hundreds of pounds to low-income households with children to buy computers and pay for Internet connections.

The Home Access programme, which aims to help the third of families the government estimates currently have no access to the Internet at home, is part of the Next Generation Learning campaign being run by Becta, the government agency responsible for promoting best use of technology in education.

Becta chief executive Stephen Crowne warned earlier this year that there is the risk of a "digital underclass" developing whose lack of opportunities for using technology puts them at a disadvantage.

"There's clear evidence to show that effective use of technology really does boost a child's achievement," said Crowne. "We need to ensure that every child has an equal chance to tap into the benefits of the Internet to support their learning at home."

A pilot scheme carried out in two areas to test the process for awarding grants proved so popular that additional funding was released. From February this year, eligible families in Suffolk and Oldham with children aged between 7 and 18 in full-time education at state-maintained schools were able to apply for credit worth up to £600 to spend on specific packages from approved retailers.

Early in May, Becta announced that more than 7,000 grants had been awarded and additional funding would be released so the deadline could be extended to the end of July in Suffolk and mid-September in Oldham. By the end of the month, however, demand had exceeded expectations and, once a further 2,000 grants had been awarded, the deadline was pulled forward to the end of June. Eventually, around £8m was awarded across the regions.

Six IT suppliers were awarded 'approved supplier' status for the pilot phase on the basis of their ability to deliver a series of specific bundles of IT resources. They also had to demonstrate a commercial understanding of the initiative and an ability to meet the needs of the specific customer group. The process included practical assessments of technical capability and an on-site check of business and quality processes.

Each grant entitled a family to up to £600 towards various specific 'packages' of hardware and Internet access, including desktop PCs with a fixed connection and laptops and netbooks with wireless connection through a USB dongle.

Every package included a comprehensive three-year warranty guaranteeing a quick response in the event of any problems. However, customers choosing wireless broadband found they would face additional costs if they want to stay connected through the full three years. Wireless USB devices only came with one year of connection included, so any subsequent years would have to be funded by the user.

Becta claimed the pilot had been brought to an end earlier than planned as it had "exceeded its objectives" by hitting targets months earlier than expected, and that the decision to close early was made in order to get the right balance between committing resources for the pilot scheme and resources for the national rollout.

"The Home Access pilot scheme has been designed to enable Becta to test the processes, understand any issues, and provide practical support to the local authorities, schools and the community before rolling the programme out nationally," a statement said.

Start dates for the national programme have yet to be announced, but the target is to provide funding to more than 400,000 children by March 2011, with additional support going to those with special educational needs. How entitlement is assessed has yet to be confirmed, but the benchmark used in the pilots was roughly equivalent
to the approach used for free school meals.

According to Alan York, head of accreditation at Becta, the majority of sales in the pilot were for laptops rather than netbooks or desktops. "However, there is an indication that this has been governed more by the range of packages on offer and it is anticipated that national rollout will provide a wider selection for customers to choose from," he said.

On the question of grants not covering Internet access after the first year, York said he hoped that families would see the value of connectivity and choose to renew. "The requirements established for Home Access reflect a minimum requirement of one year's connectivity; approved suppliers are free to provide further years' connectivity within the package as has been seen in the pilot," he said.

Foundries build bridges to design

By Chris Edwards

Foundries are building stronger links to design and IP suppliers as they try to overcome the problems of designing for the latest generation of chipmaking processes.

A week after Taiwanese foundry TSMC released a set of data formats intended to speed up the job of communicating complex chip-design rules to fabless customers, Synopsys joined ARM and the Common Platform group of foundries led by IBM in detailing a development environment for producing mobile-device chips on their upcoming 32nm and 28nm processes.

By providing a ready-made chip-design environment, the aim is to pull customers into 32nm design much more quickly than they might have done without this kind of support, according to Kevin Meyer, vice president of marketing at Singapore-based foundry Chartered Semiconductor Manufacturing. "We believe customers can come to this technology a full year earlier," he claimed.

Synopsys will use its Lynx design environment to hook together a ready-made flow that will act as the gateway to production at the Common Platform foundries. ARM will supply libraries and IP cores that have been tried out on test chips. The environment is meant to resemble the set-up that design groups within integrated device manufacturers (IDMs) have traditionally created for themselves when dealing with their captive fabs.

Tom Lantzsch of ARM explained: "We felt we needed to change the way we interact with some of our partners. Essentially, it is a recreation of the value chain that historically has been done within IDMs."

John Chilton, senior vice president of marketing at Synopsys, refused to discuss the commercial arrangement that has seen the company decide to customise its Lynx environment for a Common Platform flow.

TSMC, the market leader in foundry production, is trying to forge stronger links with design through, among other things, a pair of low-level data formats meant to ease the job of working with complex and advanced processes so that former IDMs can implement custom transistor designs at TSMC's fabs.

Tom Quan, deputy director of design services at TSMC, explained that the foundry's aim with the iDRC format is to streamline the process of getting accurate design-rule checks into tools. "Conventional design-rule files are getting very complex. It takes a lot of lines to describe the rules," he said.

The companion iLVS format that is used to check the actual layout against the circuit schematic lets users implement custom devices, such as multi-gate transistors, and have tools check them correctly.

John Ferguson, technical marketing director at Mentor Graphics, which is supporting both formats in its Calibre tool, explained: "Normally they would have to get the full rule deck from TSMC and figure out how to plug into that. With iLVS, it is modular. It is much easier to add a new device in."

The rise of chip design in Asia is playing a large role in the decision by foundries to provide more help to design engineers working with advanced processes. Meyer pointed to the large number of 65nm designs being done now in the Far East and claimed that advanced-process design work is growing rapidly in the region.

IBM sees the 32nm node being crucial. Mark Ireland, vice president at IBM Semiconductor Platforms, said companies migrating from 65nm nodes may well skip straight to 32nm processes as they seek to improve logic density and reduce costs. "From what we have seen, 32nm will be a very long lived node. There is a lot of excitement about it," he commented.

Smart lamp-posts to throw light on traffic trends

By James Hayes

Researchers at the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory have developed a prototype Intelligent Lamp-Post (ILP) that could play a key role in enhancing future Intelligent Transport systems.

Developed as part of the Computer Laboratory's TIME (Transport Information Monitoring Environment) programme, the ILP is designed not only to light up the street but also to monitor traffic flow using in-built infrared sensors. Placing sensors in a lamp-post is seen as less problematic than placing inductive loops in the road or locating sensors at the roadside.

Although the prototype ILPs are custom-made, the core technology can be installed in new standard units when existing lamp-posts are replaced in city centres. "A widely-deployed network of ILPs could deliver real-time, freely-available data for traffic control and journey planning, while also providing long-term data to help urban planners make informed future policy decisions," says Dr David Evans, project head at the Cambridge Computer Laboratory.

Lamp-post-based sensors also reduce the amount of unsightly, graffiti-prone street furniture, Evans adds, and the fact that the monitoring technology runs off the lamp's own electricity supply avoids the need for costly additional power provision.

"It is also possible to install acoustic sensors in ILPs which will provide more detailed information about the types of vehicles using a stretch of road, because it is able to distinguish between the sounds of passing heavy vehicles and of cars," Evans explains. "The data gathered can be used for a variety of applications, from feeds into Intelligent Transport platforms, to traffic-light sequencing, and traffic flow planning."

Theoretically, ILPs can also be used to take local pollution level readings at different street levels, and as mobile signal propagators, and to establish low-grade Wi-Fi hotspots, Evans adds.

Automation speeds cell selection for chemical production

By Chris Edwards

Scientists at Harvard Medical School have developed a rapid-prototyping technique for cells that is intended to make the process of optimising chemical production from bacteria and other low-level organisms run much more quickly.

A combination of robotics and a novel method for inserting multiple DNA strands into a genome at once forms the basis of the Multiplex Automated Genome Evolution (MAGE) system developed by graduate student Harris Wang and postdoctoral researcher Farren Isaacs in Professor George Church's lab at Harvard.

"Our approach involves a nice synergy between engineering and evolution," claimed Isaacs, noting that the technique used for a paper published online by Nature in late July relies on the combination of targeted genetic changes working in combination with the generation of a huge number of random variations, finally selecting cells with the desired behaviour.

By deliberately knocking out certain genes and trying out many different sequences in a part of the gene used by Escherichia coli bacteria to produce a protein that makes the industrial chemical lycopene, the researchers realised a five-fold increase in efficiency within just three days. Some 24 pieces of DNA, each around 90 bases long, were altered simultaneously in the target bacteria, with more than 4 billion subtly different mutants produced each day. From those, Isaacs and Wang were able to pick the best performers.

Although the key to MAGE is the way in which many different short strands of DNA can be inserted into cells, automation equipment is used to cycle through the seven major steps of heating, chilling and mixing that the full system needs. "We have prototype devices but we are trying to make them more robust and so we are working with some industrial partners on that," said Isaacs. "Automation will enhance our ability to do these experiments 24/7 as well as improve our ability to develop the technology further and hopefully commercialise it."

MAGE is also being used in a larger project to alter the genetic code that cells use to make proteins.

View from Washington

Chip businesses and Hollywood take same path 

By Paul Dempsey

Last month's Design Automation Conference saw the announce-ment of a new collaboration between processor core vendor ARM, its manufacturing partners in the Common Platform foundry alliance and the largest EDA (electronic design automation) software vendor, Synopsys. The move brings the Synopsys Lynx Design System into the customer infrastructure supporting the development of system-on-chip (SoC) products for mobile Internet devices.

Such alliances are common - and have been for some time. Apart from Intel and, perhaps, Samsung and IBM (both of which are part of the Common Platform anyway), it is hard to think of any chip company that can single-handedly develop an SoC at a cutting edge process node from soup to nuts. Cost, complexity and time-to-market stand in the way.

In this context, it is becoming very apparent that one infrastructure does not necessarily mean one pricing structure. Take the trio above. ARM, as an IP company, will most likely receive both a licence fee and a royalty against each device incorporating its core. The foundries will receive some service fee preparing a chip for manufacture and then something based on the volume it makes. Finally, Synopsys will be remunerated predominantly on a 'seat' basis, that is for every instance of its software a company installs.

Moreover, it need not end here. Mobile SoCs usually entail some form of embedded software that needs to be developed and enhanced for the silicon platform in question. In fact, this is becoming almost three-quarters of the effort involved in bringing these products to market, and many traditional hardware companies are now more than 50 per cent staffed by software engineers. Tool pricing here has its own variations.

Veteran EDA analyst Gary Smith says that 2009 is a "make or break year" for the chip design software sector to extend and establish itself in the embedded business and that would also offer some pricing harmony (although more recently the big deals in this field have seen chip vendors making the acquisitions - for example Intel's buy of Wind River).

Meanwhile, the pressure for a more simplified structure does seem to be bubbling away, moving out from the software business as it becomes more and more dominant in electronics design.

In a comparative move, the recent Comic-Con convention for things sci-fi and fantastic saw some Hollywood players state that they have convinced their CGI software suppliers to take a slice of a resulting movie's box office gross instead of an all upfront fee. It is an answer to economic pressures: studios want to make bigger, dumber movies, but fewer of them and for less cost.

Meanwhile in semiconductors, the move is towards bigger, smarter chips, but still in lower numbers and on cheaper budgets. This would again appear to favour a model based on profit-sharing or sales volume, although EDA vendors have tended to resist such concepts - and given that many of their customers are smaller, fabless design operations it is not that hard to see why the idea may not appeal.

What goes for Hollywood does not necessarily go for other forms of business - again, often for very good reasons. But the fact that such deals are now being cut does suggest that pricing structures throughout high technology are being brought under scrutiny now more than ever before. Recessions influence not just what you pay, but also how you pay.

See p10 'Foundries build bridges to design'

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