The WITCH is back, pirate defences for the 21st century, battlefield technology deployed for British elite cyclists and can the UK automotive industry be jump-started with clean-tec?

Oldest computer to be restored at Bletchley

The world's oldest complete computer has been moved to The National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park, where volunteers plan to restore it to full working order.

As the historic Harwell/WITCH computer arrived at the museum, UKAEA announced that it would take up a share in the restoration project, alongside initial sponsor Insight Software.

The computer was built in 1951 at what was then the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell, using electromagnetic relays, radio valves and 900 Dekatron gas-filled tubes that could each hold a single digit in memory. Programs were stored on paper tape.

The computer was used to perform calculations that had previously been carried out by young graduates using mechanical calculators. The team's work had been so tedious that mistakes were inevitable, so the aim was to automate the process. Simplicity, reliability and unattended operation were the design priorities, with speed of lesser importance.

After some seven years of regular use, UKAEA donated the assembly to the Wolverhampton and Staffordshire Technical College (now Wolverhampton University). Renamed WITCH (Wolverhampton Instrument for Teaching Computing from Harwell), it was used in computer education until 1973, when it passed to Birmingham Science Museum and was later put into storage.

Once restored, the assembly will be the oldest original functioning electronic stored program computer in the world.

Tony Frazer, leader of the restoration team, said: "The WITCH arrived in remarkably good condition after more than three decades of storage. We've assembled the frame and it now looks just as it did in its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s. Our first task is to see what we can do with the power supply - we dare not just switch things on, as time will have taken a toll on the chemistry and physics of the unit. Then we will be moving onto the thousands of wires and switches and the hundreds of Dekatron tubes. Although we have circuit diagrams, we can already identify wiring modifications, so this is going to require a lot of ingenuity."

With the news of the restoration project, the three original designers have established contact with TNMOC. It is hoped that a reunion at the Museum will be possible in the coming weeks. [new window]

View from Washington

Talks in NY key to world climate deal

By Paul Dempsey

This week brings together the world's leaders for a longer stretch of mutual confinement than at any other time during 2009. First, the latest session of the General Assembly of the United Nations will open in New York, immediately after which the politicians will decamp to Pittsburgh for a top-level meeting of the G20 group of industrialised nations.

Even in these interesting times, it is hard to see any dominant issue. The global recession has not gone away: despite pockets of renewed growth, fears of a 'double-dip' persist. The war in Afghanistan is beginning to match Iraq as a source of disagreement and controversy. And then there is climate change.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon wants to eliminate at least one round of horse-trading before December's Copenhagen summit, COP15, by holding a dedicated meeting on the day before the General Assembly begins. Ban's initiative reflects concerns that have been voiced privately for some time, but which have become public currency.

The assumption was that following Barack Obama's election as US President, the world's largest economy would revisit its repudiation of the Kyoto treaty, and introduce domestic legislation to combat greenhouse gas emissions. In July, the US joined other leading economies in saying it would work to hold the increase in global temperature to 2°C.

However, the recent summit of G20 finance ministers exposed serious differences on how this should be done and how it should be funded. UK foreign minister David Miliband has said there is a "real danger" that COP15 will fail to produce an effective treaty. So, will events in New York offer an accurate barometer for these comments? There are grounds for thinking as much.

Part of the problem remains the position of the USA. Obama personally favours action, starting with the establishment of a viable carbon-trading scheme in North America. But he may need to sacrifice his goals to realpolitik.

The critical debate in the USA today remains a domestic one over healthcare. There is some guff about bipartisanship - that is, finding reforms that attract a reasonable degree of Republican support - but Obama's real challenge lies in convincing the right wing of his own party. Democratic healthcare sceptics tend to feel the same way about climate change. While they may bow to White House pressure on one of the two issues, it is harder to see them acquiescing on both.

Meanwhile, developing nations - and most importantly the 'BRIC' quartet of Brazil, Russia, India and China - may refuse to sign up in Copenhagen unless they see the Americans on board. To the degree that the USA thinks it could be hobbled, the BRICs see their economic growth being hampered. Furthermore, many believe that China has enough political clout to go its own way, and already a US-China trade war is looming.

We will report on events in New York in the next issue, but already you have to ask, "Where are the science and engineering?" Whether you accept the case for global warming or not, the debate itself remains valid. Also, a more efficient use of energy will spur economic innovation while husbanding resources and improving global security. Nevertheless, after years of debate (and evidence), such thinking is still pushed down the agenda.

Technology takes on the pirates

By Dominic Lenton

Stretches of Scottish shoreline will stand in for the hazardous waters off the coast of east Africa when a sophisticated early-warning system aimed at tackling soaring levels of piracy undergoes trials early in 2010.

The package of measures has been put together by engineers at BAE Systems who are currently carrying out a feasibility study with ship owners and maritime security specialists. The aim is to detect approaching craft that could pose a threat at distances of up to 25km, giving crew time to take evasive action or alert navy vessels in the area.

Piracy off the Horn of Africa, and particularly along the coast of Somalia, has been a problem since the early 1990s, but recent years have seen a dramatic increase in attacks on what is one of the world's most important trade routes. At the same time raiders have become more sophisticated, using satellite phones and GPS systems, and replacing automatic weapons with rocket-propelled grenades. Gangs of 10-15 pirates based on an inconspicuous 'mother ship' can track targets from a distance before darting in with fast boats.

As ransom payouts escalate, operators' insurance premiums are estimated to have risen between five-fold and ten-fold over just 18 months. According to BAE, insurers are looking for alternatives to simply equipping cargo ships with more armed guards whose presence risks escalating the level of violence involved.

BAE's proposed solution combines early-warning technology and non-lethal weapons to give a ship time to get away from trouble. As well as high-frequency surface-wave radar capable of detecting small boats well beyond the horizon, it incorporates a 360° surveillance camera and display system with movement detection and threat level alarms, which could eventually include infrared capability. A passive radar identification system provides early warning of unidentified radar-carrying vessels, while improved lighting increases the likelihood of detecting intruders close to the ship at night and acts as a deterrent.

Speaking at the DSEi defence technology show in London earlier this month, Nick Stoppard, BAE Systems director of solutions development, said that technology and capability sea trials in partnership with ship owners are expected to take place in Scotland within the first three months of next year.

Once customers have signed up, he said, a commercial product could be brought to market fairly quickly because it would be based on existing technology. The surface-wave radar, for example, is based on technology developed by GEC Marconi, prior to its acquisition by BAE Systems, as part of research for the Ministry of Defence.

Stoppard was reluctant to put a firm figure on the size of the potential market, but confirmed that BAE sees commercial sales of this initial system as a stepping stone to the wider naval security market.

Asked whether air surveillance and satellite monitoring could do the same job just as effectively, Stoppard said that existing airborne systems are "Cold War technology" designed for tracking big, slow-moving vessels rather than small, highly mobile craft, although fleets of unmanned aerial vehicles operating from a central control centre might be a cost-effective approach to monitoring large areas of sea in future. Satellites, he added, are "simply unaffordable".

When it comes to "neutralising the threat" without resorting to gunfire, BAE's current plan is to use a laser dazzle device capable of disorientating attackers while they are still kilometres away. Sonic weapons were considered, but would be less effective, Stoppard added.

Battery storage to aid solar integration

An innovative lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery system developed in Europe will provide 'time-shifting' energy storage for a US project to advance the integration of solar energy systems into the electrical grid.

The project is among those funded by the US Department of Energy under the SEGIS (Solar Energy Grid Integration Systems) programme to develop high-performance products enabling photovoltaics to become a more integral part of household and commercial Smart-Energy systems.

The solution is being developed by battery specialist Saft for Apollo Solar, a power electronics company. The role of the battery system, which will be sized at around 10kWh, will be to provide efficient energy storage that will enable the solar energy to be effectively 'time shifted' to make it available for home consumption during periods of peak demand, or for injection into the grid when needed either for support or when it will generate the most economic value.

Saft is already demonstrating this approach in SOL-ION, a Franco-German project to develop a new concept in energy conversion and storage for grid-connected photovoltaic systems in Europe.

Under SEGIS, Apollo Solar will develop a competitive and more efficient Smart Grid inverter incorporating energy storage and two-way communications between solar electrical systems and utilities.

"The SEGIS programme aims to maximise the value of distributed solar electric generation, offer greater control of electricity consumption and its cost, and to anticipate the emergence of future smart grids," said John Pfeifer, president and CEO of Apollo Solar. "The inclusion of Li-ion energy storage and its capability for time-shifting was therefore a key success factor in our project proposal."

Cutting the carbon

By Lorna Sharpe

Low-carbon vehicles are high on the political agenda at present - and not only for their contribution to meeting tough emissions targets. They might also spell salvation for the UK's beleaguered carmakers.

Science and innovation minister Lord Drayson is well aware of the potential, speaking of the opportunity "to use the tremendous expertise we still have in our automotive science and engineering base, and team it up with other expertise from clean-tech, defence and motorsport to create - here in Britain - the next generation of low-carbon cars that global consumers are desperate to buy."

When the Government published its Low-Carbon Innovation Strategy in July (see E&T issue 14) it also promised to set up a single cross-departmental body dedicated to promoting low-carbon road transport. The resultant Office for Low-Emission Vehicles (OLEV) was formally launched this month at LCV2009 - a government-backed gathering for everyone involved with low-carbon vehicles.

OLEV head Michael Hurwitz told delegates that the body will work to a clear programme that encourages demand, supports supply and enables places where people can use these vehicles in their daily lives.

Support for the 'places' element of the programme came from the Energy Technologies Institute, which announced an £11m scheme to kick-start the roll-out of a national network of recharging points for plug-in vehicles.

Through the Joined-Cities Plan, local authorities and electricity distribution network operators will install the infrastructure to let motorists charge their electric vehicles in any of the nine major cities in the scheme: Birmingham, Coventry, Glasgow, London, Middlesbrough, Milton Keynes, Newcastle, Oxford and Sunderland.

The plan will make a series of recommendations and help to create an environment where motorists using plug-in vehicles can easily locate and use charging points from different providers across the UK.

Associated with the Joined-Cities Plan, the ETI has formed an Intelligent Architecture Standards Group (IASG). This brings together global system integrators and major providers of vehicle recharging networks, and will provide industry input and knowledge of major global projects associated with plug-in vehicles, to make sure that the architecture developed under the aegis of the ETI will be compatible with different business models. The group currently includes IBM, Siemens, Elektromotive, Coulomb Technologies and 365 Energy.

The Joined-Cities Plan builds on the Technology Strategy Board's Ultra Low Carbon Vehicle Demonstrator programme, which will see 340 electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles running on UK roads in coordinated trials over the next 12 months.

The Technology Strategy Board has announced new support for ten research programmes to develop innovative ultra-efficient electrical systems for electric and hybrid vehicles. One of these, led by Axeon Technologies, will aim to develop a lighter, smaller and more efficient battery than those currently available, with faster charging and a longer driving range.

LCV2009 was also a showcase for current projects supported by the Technology Strategy Board, including one to demonstrate that a large luxury vehicle can achieve emissions below 120g/km. The Limo Green consortium, led by Jaguar Cars, is converting an extended-wheelbase Jaguar XJ into a series hybrid - essentially an electric car with an onboard generator running on petrol, though it will also have plug-in capability. It will retain the features of a premium vehicle and is expected to have a top speed of 112mph (180km/h).

The all-new XJ, unveiled in July this year, has a lightweight aluminium bodyshell and a low-drag design. To reduce the weight still further, Caparo Vehicle Technologies has contributed an ultra-light rear sub-frame and lightweight seats, and the brakes are carbon-ceramic for the same reason.

MIRA is responsible for the electric powertrain and hybrid control systems, as well as a lithium iron phosphate battery using new chemistry that is not commercially available yet. Lotus Engineering provides the three-cylinder auxiliary power unit that maintains the battery charge and sustains cruising speeds.

MIRA spokesman Richard Adams said the technology is "as cutting-edge as you can get," while pointing out that this was strictly a preview, as the final vehicle is not due to hit the road until next year.

Nissan, which unveiled its Leaf electric car in August, has a clear strategy to bring electric vehicles (EVs) to the mass market. Andy Palmer, who heads the company's zero-emission business unit in Japan, says three factors will be key to achieving this aim. The first is to get the products and technology right: batteries, vehicles and charging infrastructure.

Equally important is to form partnerships - Nissan has signed 30 partnership agreements with administrations around the world "to help create the necessary conditions for EV acceptance". That means not just rolling out the charging networks but also providing the right financial incentives so that choosing a zero-emission vehicle makes economic sense. That leads to the third element in the equation, says Palmer: market education to create consumer demand.

Several conference speakers pointed out that people will not rush out to buy electric or hybrid vehicles until they understand what the options are, and what limitations might affect their decision. The urban commuter will have different needs from the sales representative travelling the length and breadth of the country.

Electric vehicles may not be the right choice for everyone, but there is no doubt that we are going to see a lot more of them.

Private sector 'will have to fund' infrastructure renewal

By Mark Venables

The UK needs a step-change in its infrastructure provision, and the private sector will have to finance it, says a new report from the Policy Exchange.

The authors of 'Delivering a 21st Century Infrastructure for Britain' say that competing in a 21st century world with 1970s electricity infrastructure, 19th century water networks and post-war transport networks is simply not possible. They argue that a ruthlessly competitive global economy and the challenges of climate change mean that sticking-plaster updates are no longer enough.

The report calls for the UK to take a leaf from the Victorians' strategy and begin a huge programme of investment. It says the importance of infrastructure cannot be overstated. In a global economy companies can choose to locate production, head offices and back offices wherever their needs are best served. Britain has some significant advantages - but these are counterbalanced by weak infrastructure.

The relative positions of Britain and France demonstrate the point. France has higher productivity - $53.7 per hour worked compared with the UK's $45.4 - in large measure due to its excellent infrastructure.

Few would choose to locate in Britain because of its dated infrastructure. Simultaneously replacing it and investing in new infrastructure to improve competitiveness, while meeting the challenge of decarbonisation, means that the scale of the required spending is potentially enormous. The report's "conservative" estimate is £434bn by 2020.

The economic crisis has highlighted the potential difficulties for the UK in financing this scale of investment within a decade. Deep structural weaknesses have been revealed. The state of the public finances is widely agreed to be unsustainable, while additional 'stimulus' spending has added to the debt.

"In contrast, encouraging infrastructure investment has significant advantages over attempts to boost consumption," explains Professor Dieter Helm, one of the report's authors. "The key difference from a macro-economic perspective is that it creates assets to offset against the borrowing, while at the same time contributing to aggregate demand. But it has an additional and, arguably, more important role: it addresses the productivity and competitiveness of the British economy by improving the energy, transport, communications and water systems which make a substantial contribution to the costs of consumers and businesses.

"To deliver this infrastructure investment so that it can stimulate economic growth sustainably, while addressing our significant infrastructure failures, we need to do four things. First, at a macro level we need to ensure that we move towards a sustainable consumption path. Second, we must ensure that after the credit crunch the transmission mechanism from savings to investment is as smooth and cost-effective as it can be.

"Third, we need to coordinate and prioritise infrastructure investments across the economy. And finally, given the size of accumulated government debt, as much infrastructure investment as possible should be undertaken off the government balance sheet and financed by the private sector.

"The choice is clear, as are the consequences," Helm added. "The economic crisis can prove the catalyst to a more imaginative approach to infrastructure - holding up demand, creating jobs and providing future generations with a set of assets. The Victorians did it: the current generation needs to repeat it."

Battlefield ID aids cyclists' podium push

By Kris Sangani

A performance-monitoring system based on battlefield technology has been installed at the Manchester Velodrome to give British cyclists an edge in training for major international sporting events.

Derived from a battlespace identification system, the laser-timing technology enables coaches to differentiate between individual athletes - something that existing break-beam systems cannot do.

The development is one fruit of a £1.5m value-in-kind technology partnership between BAE Systems and UK Sport, aimed at helping British athletes obtain podium places at World, European, Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Up to 30 cyclists will be able to train simultaneously with the system, which uses a laser to read a personalised code from a retro reflective tag attached to each bike.

Readers are installed at several points around the track, allowing individual recordings for each cyclist with millisecond accuracy.

"Current break-beam systems cannot differentiate between cyclists on the track and are less accurate, so this new technology will allow us to train harder and more as a team," said Jamie Staff, Beijing Olympic gold medallist.

"The new performance system demonstrates the essential role of engineering in helping our athletes to achieve those fractional improvements, which are often key to sporting success," added James Baker, director of technology and engineering services for BAE Systems.

As the data is captured electronically and fed into custom-made software, it can be used for historical performance monitoring and analysis of an athlete's progress. The software will be able to record split circuit times and lap times.

Under the five-year technology partnership launched in January 2008, BAE Systems UK-based engineers are providing technical support to help British athletes improve their training and ultimately deliver greater medal success for 2012.

Chartered Semi faces takeover

By William Dennis

An investment company owned by the Abu Dhabi government is set to acquire Singapore-based chip manufacturer Chartered Semiconductor.

The offer from Advanced Technology Investment Co (ATIC) comes at a crucial time as semiconductor makers across the globe look to increase sales after being hit badly by a drop in demand due to the global financial meltdown.

According to Chartered Semiconductor's chairman James Norling, the company had been looking at several potential strategic options. "After evaluating all the options, the offer from ATIC was the best," Norling said at a news conference.

Singapore government investment arm Temasek Holdings, which holds a 62 per cent stake in Chartered Semiconductor, has given its support for the sale.

ATIC will pay US$1.87 per ordinary share. A statement issued at the news conference indicated that the shares' sale is valued at about US$1.8bn and a total value of approximately US$3.9bn including debt and convertible redeemable preference shares of US$2.2bn.

Subject to approval by shareholders and the Singapore High Court, the deal is expected to be sealed by November.

This will be ATIC's second major investment in the semiconductor industry following the company's creation in March of a joint venture semiconductor manufacturing company with Advanced Micro Devices. ATIC holds a 55.6 per cent stake in Globalfoundries, which is headquartered in the US and also has a facility in Dresden, Germany.

The transaction will allow ATIC to build on the complementary platforms of Chartered Semiconductor and Globalfoundries, with the former's customer relationships and capabilities in 200mm and 300mm fabrication.

Nuclear option

Malaysia is considering whether to opt for nuclear generation to meet part of its long-term energy requirements.

The decision will be made early next year, based on the country's long-term energy policy, which is currently being drafted by the relevant government departments.

In July Prime Minister Najib Razak said Malaysia was keen to develop small nuclear reactors generating between 200MW and 300MW for industrial and daily use.

Currently national power agency Tenaga Nasional Berhad and independent power producers use coal, gas and hydro to generate electricity.

Opals under the spotlight

Australian researchers and industry professionals have unveiled the world's first automated device to grade opals using image analysis.

CSIRO Mathematical and Information Sciences image analyst Leanne Bischof helped develop the Gemmological Digital Analyser (GDA).

Bischof said that opals have a unique range of colour characteristics that makes them by far the most difficult gemstone to appraise. "Qualities such as 'flash', the way an opal reflects light and colour as it is rotated, can vary with human eyesight and lighting conditions," she said. "You really need objective image analysis and automation to assist with that."

Incorporating the expert knowledge of over 60 opal industry professionals, CSIRO designed a GDA prototype with Australian company Applied Robotics. CSIRO then developed the complex mathematical algorithms to drive the image analysis system.

A small camera inside the GDA takes 871 images of the stone as it rotates on a stage that moves 360° horizontally and tilts 90° vertically.

High-powered computers quantify the opal's gemmological characteristics, providing a classification grade based on colour, clarity, carat, cut and character, and a summary graph showing proportions of the opal's colours.

A database of the GDA-graded opals will allow jewellers and industry organisations to assign a value to a particular grade of stone depending on the daily market price.

The Australian opal industry is estimated to be worth around A$50m a year.

ARM takes on the mighty Atom

By Chris Edwards

British chip designer ARM plans to go head-to-head with Intel with a revised version of its A9 processor core that it claims is much faster or more power-efficient than the US giant's Atom, which is used in many netbooks.

With the Osprey, a dual-core version of the A9, ARM has chosen to aim for higher-power technologies like TSMC's 40nm general-purpose (40G) process, instead of designing for low-power process technologies as it has with its cellphone-oriented processors.

The usual problem with the general-purpose processors compared with their low-power counterparts is that they leak far more current, although they can support more than double the clock rate. But, by designing circuits to power down when not in use and run operations faster, it is possible to counteract the effects of the higher leakage.

"Using the Atom as a reference power profile, this offers five times the performance for the same power profile or five times less power for the same performance," claimed John Goodacre, director of programme management at ARM. "It's not the traditional place where ARM plays. This is a new space for us." He said the comparison was made using the CoreMark benchmark published by EEMBC.

One of the big differences between the Atom and the Osprey in terms of power saving, said Goodacre, lies in the way that the on-chip level-two can be powered down more frequently on the ARM design. Because the level-one cache will be used 80 per cent of the time, accesses to the level-two store will typically be in bursts, making a shift into a low-leakage 'retention' mode viable. In contrast, the Atom's cache will move into a power-saving mode when the processor is idle or sleeping.

Goodacre said chips based on the Osprey will probably come within a year to 18 months. Although 40nm is the initial target, he said the new crop of high-k, metal-gate sub-40nm processes coming from the Common Platform partners as well as from TSMC will help drive up performance.

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