News

IET's professional ethics in engineering initiative, established fibre-optic capacity smashed, Mauritius to start building their big green data centre and Samsung's memory improves.

UK tech firms 'missing out' on tax credits

A high-tech business incubator has claimed that a short questionnaire could help UK firms obtain thousands of pounds in tax credits for research and development. Called R&D TaxEway and assembled with the help of tax experts, the brief list of questions simplifies the normally complex task of determining your eligibility for tax credits, it said.

David Gill, director of the incubator firm - Cambridge-based St John's Innovation Centre - said that millions of pounds of government support for R&D is going unclaimed because young technology companies don't realise that they are eligible for tax credits.

"Our technologists are just too modest! They are not bullish enough on the international scene and are also missing out on valuable R&D tax credits which could provide a significant cash injection," he said.

Richard Heyes, finance director of touch-screen developer Visual Planet, welcomed the questionnaire, adding that the complexity of the tax credit process has delayed his company's claim.

"I have a claim to do for Visual Planet, which to be honest has slipped down my priorities as the process seems pretty torturous - anything that clarifies what is eligible is useful," he said.

'Talking books' take on a new meaning

By Bryan Betts

Books that talk and posters that light up when touched are coming closer to commercial reality.

A UK company that combines expertise in printed electronics and graphic design has hooked up with a US supplier of flexible printed batteries with the aim of developing "interactive printed media" products such as books, posters, cards and even packaging, which can interact visually and audibly with the user.

Dr Kate Stone, who set up Novalia to develop her idea of incorporating low-cost electronics into print design, said that the process could revolutionise consumer packaging, but could also be used in many other areas, from posters and books to in-store displays and menus. She envisages a take-away meal carton turning into a toy with lights and sounds, for example, or a birthday card with LED "candles" which responds when you blow on it, or a pharmaceutical package that highlights safety precautions.

"Printing has very low tooling cost," Stone pointed out. "The value is that the whole printed surface is the user interface. We're not trying to put a display on a cereal packet, we are trying to make a printed product interactive. We're taking electronics out of the cleanroom."

Novalia's designers begin with the graphics for the finished product, and incorporate lines that will form the circuit to drive the interactivity. These will be printed with conductive ink - silver, carbon or polymer depending on the print process. Sensors, LEDs and audio devices can be added, but no extra wiring is required. A small controller unit that also contains the power supply is manufactured separately and attached during the production process.

"At the moment the controller is a couple of millimetres thick, but there's always somewhere in a package to put something like that," Stone said, adding that the company hopes to shrink it to the size of a postage stamp.

She said that the partnership with battery developer Blue Spark Technologies will provide an eco-friendly and cost-effective power source for interactive printed media. Blue Spark's carbon-zinc batteries are not only thin and flexible, but they are disposable too, meeting the RoHS directive.

Novalia does not want to become an electronics manufacturer, and would prefer to work with the likes of printers to commercialise the technology, according to Stone. She said: "We have 13 patent applications in a range of things we do, but we don't want to use those to force people to work with us - I prefer the value
being in our knowhow and capability."

IET points the way on engineering ethics

How do you balance the commercial pressures of the business environment with the need to treat people fairly and act with integrity? Is it ever acceptable to disclose confidential information? What do you do when professional rules of conduct don't tell you exactly how to act?

These are just a few of the questions addressed by an IET-led international campaign that is setting out to demonstrate how professional ethics is at the very heart of engineering.

Central to the initiative is a web resource with a range of interactive case studies designed to help users practise exercising their judgment in ethically challenging situations. Based on real-life experiences and real situations, each illustrates a particular value associated with being a professional engineer that is highlighted in the IET's rules of conduct.

The site also includes a list of resources such as recommended introductory texts for those who would like to explore ethics further, as well as others that examine specific issues.

During his year in office, IET president Chris Earnshaw has highlighted the extent to which members face both professional and ethical challenges in all they do, from designing software to developing the fuels of the future.

Coming up with solutions to major challenges facing the world today, such as stabilising the global economy, countering terrorism threats, energy supply and climate change, is likely to bring engineers face to face with corporate and personal, moral and ethical dilemmas, Earnshaw added. "The work which the IET does with its members ensures a professional and ethical way of working is at the core of everything it does."

www.theiet.org/about/ethics [new window]

Fibre-optic record tumbles

Scientists at Bell Labs have sent 155 simultaneous 100Gbit/s signals over a distance of 7,000km on a single strand of optical fibre.

Parent company Alcatel-Lucent claims this is ten times more capacity than achieved by rivals.

The company uses a compound measure of performance, multiplying transmission rate by distance carried, to give a figure of 100 petabits per second kilometre (peta = 1015). In real-world terms, this is equivalent to sending the contents of 400 DVDs per second over 7,000km, roughly the distance between Paris and Chicago.

Researchers at Bell Labs in Villarceaux, France, used 155 lasers, each operating at a different wavelength and transmitting 100 gigabits of data per second, to drive their signals over an optical network that included repeaters every 90km. This spacing distance is 20 per cent greater than that commonly used in trans-oceanic networks.

Cyber-security research centre opens in Northern Ireland

By Chris Edwards

Queen's University Belfast has opened a £30m Centre for Secure Information Technologies (CSIT), whose aims include reinventing security on the Internet and building more intelligent CCTV systems.

CSIT will take a different approach to security from previous efforts by trying to tie together work on information security with physical security, according to Godfrey Gaston, operations director of the Institute of Electronics, Communications and Information Technology at Queen's.

Part-funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Technology Strategy Board, CSIT also has the support of more than 20 other organisations, including industrial partners such as BAE Systems and Thales UK.

Among other projects, the centre will build on work performed by a group headed by Paul Miller, director of research for intelligent surveillance systems, on security for public transport. Working with a group of criminology researchers from the University of Huddersfield, the team is two-thirds of the way into a project to help filter CCTV, prioritising only video that shows potential problems or incidents in progress.

Miller said the software uses video images, updates from door and speed sensors, and sound picked up from the driver's cabin to build a sequence of events that can assess the risk level of a situation. Higher-risk situations will be presented to a CCTV operator first.

Sakir Sezer, director of research for network security systems, claimed much more could be done to address pernicious problems such as spam and denial-of-service (DoS) attacks within the routers that tie the network together.

"We believe DoS attacks would not be so serious if routers were built to cope with 100 per cent load under any conditions," claimed Sezer. "You should be able to identify packets that are part of an attack and deal with them."

By putting more intelligence into the routers, attacks could be stopped closer to their source. For example, routers close to access points could spot hijacked PCs using fake IP addresses, a common technique in DoS attacks to make maliciously sent packets tougher to spot.

Sezer said it is possible to go further and identify spam messages by looking for common patterns such as disguised URLs. The key to the approach is a processor architecture, sold by ECIT spinout Titan IC Systems, designed to look for patterns in text, something that is only done comparatively slowly in software today.

By focusing on larger 'mission-driven' projects, CSIT aims to become the UK's lead centre for cyber-security research.

Tropical data centre uses sea currents for cooling

Construction of a 'completely green' data centre is due to start in Mauritius in December, as part of the island's bid to become a communications hub for the Indian Ocean region. It will be cooled by sea water and use solar energy and bagasse - sugar-cane waste - to produce electricity.

The Eco-Park facility will be a 10,000m2 Tier four data centre, signifying that it meets the most stringent specifications and designed to host mission-critical systems.

The project will exploit Mauritius's position on the path of cold deep sea currents using environmentally-sensitive technologies. Deep water temperature of 5ºC 1,000m below sea level, 4,900m off-shore, enables the use of seawater air-conditioning (SWAC).

Preliminary analyses carried out by Dutch renewable energy specialist E-Concern indicate that when fully operative, the system could have a displaced electricity saving of 94 per cent to cool an infrastructure of 10,000m2 with a cooling demand of 8.5MW. That would save $3m a year, planners claim, although a conventional electricity supply would be required for water pumping.

The Eco-Park data centre development joins Mauritius's existing Ebene 'Cyber City' development, 15km south of the capital St Louis. The island is already connected to the SAT-3/WASC/SAFE submarine cable system, which links West and South Africa to Europe and Asia. It expects to be connected to the SEACOM cable serving East Africa in 2010.

Samsung commits to PRAM

Samsung Electronics has started production of 512Mbit phase-change random access memory (PRAM), a non-volatile memory technology whose high performance and low power consumption make it particularly suitable for mobile devices. PRAM's greatly simplified data access logic requires less support from dynamic RAM (DRAM), so its power usage is very efficient. "By using PRAM, the battery life of a handset can be extended by 20 per cent," Samsung said. The company expects PRAM to become one of its core memory products in the future.The 512Mb PRAM can erase 64 Kilowords in 80 milliseconds, which is over 10 times faster than NOR flash memory.

View from Brussels

Bureaucracy is strangling EU science

By Pelle Neroth

If the Irish vote yes to the Lisbon treaty (after this article has gone to press) we are all set to witness yet another upwards ratchet in the powers of the European Union.

These powers include energy policy, personal data protection, intellectual property rights and space. As far as the general public's obsessions go, the EU will have a bigger say in issues like asylum, immigration and crime.

Many eurosceptics think the rise of the EU is a terrible thing for democracy - the MEP remains an anonymous figure; national parliaments are weakened even more; and laws will be an even greater mishmash of bureaucratic proposals, business lobbying and horse-trading between remote international politicians.

Setting aside legitimacy and looking at efficiency, one wonders how many of these fields will be ruined by toxic policy-making - just look at EU-funded science, about 5 per cent of European nation states' science budgets.

As science commissioner Janez Potočnik serves out his last months of a five-year term, scientists are still complaining about the rigidity in the way the EU research directorate dispenses its funds and looks at strategies. He promised to deal with this back in 2004, yet complaints are much the same.

The chairman of the European Commission's climate change science advisory group recently complained that scientists were limited to commenting on legislation the Commission had already drawn up and that their input was reduced to a "box-ticking exercise".

Luke Georghiou, an EU science expert at Manchester University, has found that the proportions of funds for research for each area of the six framework programmes have stayed constant since 1984. And ERAB, the European Research Area Board - the EC's big-picture science strategy unit - looks at the future of science, but its former president Helga Nowotny said the Commission rarely consulted it.

I recently interviewed Prof John Wood, head of the Engineering faculty at Imperial College London, who is the new president of ERAB. His picture of what science will look like in 2030 is radically at odds with the top-down prescriptions the EU seems so stuck on. He believes the amount of information coming out of international projects like the European X-Ray Free Electron Laser project in Hamburg is so large and so potentially fruitful in different areas that it is best dealt with through international networks of research teams augmented by the help of amateurs, with much more cross-disciplinary work.

These teams and individuals will be linked by high-speed internet. More rough scientific data could become available to the public, especially data collected through public funding, through digital video and audio recordings of physical meetings and conversations between professional researchers.

Wood thinks all this will mean an end to science as a finished product. Rather, an open innovation model will see products released to the public before being finalised: not complete in a book or journal, but in permanent 'beta mode', allowing wider feedback mechanisms and continuous improvement.

In the face of these novel prescriptions it looks as though European science policy has just got interesting.

The new science commissioner has not been appointed yet, but in the face of these novel prescriptions it looks as though European science policy has just got interesting.

Philippines seeks to defer air safety review

By William Dennis in Manila

The Philippines government plans to ask the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to postpone again its scheduled review of the country's aviation sector, which is due in October.

The US regulator downgraded its rating of Philippines aviation safety in December 2007 from Category one to Category two. A review was set for November 2008, but the FAA was asked to defer the audit to give the local civil aviation authorities time to rectify shortcomings.

The FAA raised serious concerns about the oversight of airline operations in the country, which it said were not in line with International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) requirements and standards.

A safety audit carried out by FAA then revealed that the Philippine Air Transportation Office (ATO) in Manila failed to meet international standards in six out of seven critical areas. The audit revealed flaws from the most minute to serious issues of poor administration and operation of ATO.

Prior to the downgrade, FAA had in July 2007 advised ATO and the Department of Transportation and Communication to take steps to improve on several aspects of the country's civil aviation. The advice went unheeded.

According to an official at the Civil Aviation Authority Philippines (CAAP) in Manila, the agency is unable to do anything about the Category two rating as it does not have the funds to address the issues raised by FAA.

The Department of Budget and Management had on 24 January 2008 provided ATO with US$2.66m for immediate costs, but the situation is unchanged. The official said the money was used to "support and upgrade the ATO office".

At the same time, the government gave an assurance that within three months the shortcomings would be addressed and FAA would elevate the Philippines back to Category one. Two months later, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo abolished AOT and CAAP was set up.

The government gave CAAP another three months grace to get the country's civil aviation to the level where it should be.

The official said CAAP needs an annual budget of about $35m, of which $15m is spent on maintenance of airports and its equipment.

"At least another $30m is required to upgrade navigational and communications equipment," the official noted. He pointed out that this funding was supposed to have been provided with the setting up of CAAP but it never came.

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