News

This issue E&T reports on the largest remote control gadget of all time - the WM Keck Observatory, an appeal to raise funds to put an off-road wheelchair into production, the Olympic Park construction site gets biometric security for onsite access and we take a look at the 'stealth' turbine blade...

Software brings space closer

Astronomers wanting to view images from the world's largest optical and infrared telescopes will no longer face a 4,200m uphill trek to the WM Keck Observatory on the summit of Hawaii's Mauna Kea Volcano. RealVNC's remote control software is being used to access images from the twin 10m telescopes from desktops at the observatory's headquarters in Kamuela (on Hawaii's Big Island), and at research facilities on the mainland.

The Observatory is a scientific partnership of the California Institute of Technology, the University of California, and NASA.

The RealVNC system is also being used to provide remote control and management capabilities for Keck's engineers and IT administrators to perform upgrades, fix problems, and perform software upgrades.

Action needed to avoid 'dark silicon'

By Paul Dempsey

Semiconductor designers could enter an era of 'dark silicon' by 2020 where they can use only a fraction of the transistors on a chip, according to a senior scientist with processor core specialist ARM.

Mike Muller, ARM's chief technology officer, based his warning of "trouble in paradise" on the International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors, his industry's goals for future manufacturing process shrinks and increases in transistor count.

"Most people miss off the 'power' line. And if you look at the predictions for the power saving as you go from 45nm [the process node entering production today] to 11nm [the node expected toward the end of the next decade], it's only expected to be 0.3," said Muller.

"According to ITRS, you've got 16 times as many transistors, going 2.4 times as fast taking 0.3 of the power. So if you've got a fixed power budget today and you don't do anything about it, you'll end up so you can only use 10 per cent of the transistors. You can make them. You can afford them. But you can't actually power them up."

Muller, who was giving the keynote address at ARM's US developer conference, techCon3, said that "brute force" techniques would not help shift the 10 per cent ceiling.

"You can also cheat and say that 90 per cent of your chip is going to be memory. But if we can't find more interesting ways of using all those transistors than that, our future isn't going to be very bright," he added.

Muller picked out four areas where innovative approaches to low power design could address the problem: system architectures, programming methodologies, application-specific accelerators and run-time adaptive power control.

"Products operate in different modes and need different system architectures that understand that, and that fundamentally change how they behave depending on what mode the user is in, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach," Muller added.

He said that 3D chip designs and moving rapidly to new process nodes would be necessary to develop the R&D needed to head off dark silicon.

Low power expertise is fundamental to ARM's position in the chip market. It is the market leader for processor cores in mobile devices and is engaged in a battle with Intel for control of the mini-laptop market.

Wheelchair project looks for backer

By Chris Edwards

A Bath-based start-up is trying to raise £250,000 to turn a student project into a commercial off-road wheelchair that would allow people with disabilities greater freedom in the countryside.

Tim Morgan, who developed the initial prototype for his final-year project at the University of Bath, said the Mountain Trike "came from my love of mountain biking. But I saw that there was no wheelchair that allowed a paraplegic to do what I can do".

The first version of the Trike, which is powered by a pair of handlebar pumps, was based on a converted basketball wheelchair. The current design uses a custom tubular aluminium frame. Morgan wants to refine this design, with the help of funding and a grant from the South West Regional Development Agency.

"At the moment, it is too wide. The plan is to move to a drive train so that it can go through doors as after a ramble you want to be able to get inside the pub for a drink," Morgan explained.

Altera plays it safe

Altera has stuck with a 60nm- class production process for its latest generation of low-cost Cyclone field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs).

The previous generation of Cyclone 3 parts are made on a 65nm process. Although the company claimed that the 60nm process is different from that used for Cyclone 3 and provides a moderate shrink, which should lower costs, its main competitor Xilinx has opted for a more aggressive shrink with the 45nm process used to make Spartan-6 devices.

Theresa Vu, low-cost product marketing specialist for Altera, said 60nm has distinct advantages because of higher defect densities. "Because we will be shipping parts in the next quarter, 60nm is cheaper. In the low-cost applications, design times are shorter."

The company started shipping high-end FPGAs based on TSMC's 40nm. Yield issues saw TSMC assign additional engineers to the process to try to reduce defect densities, although Altera claimed it has been able to ship Stratix-4 parts on 40nm to customers in production quantities.

Scans secure Olympic Park

Biometric hand and iris scanners have been installed to control access to the Olympic Park construction site in London by the 4,800-strong workforce, which will nearly double by the end of 2010.

Human Recognition Systems is supplying its MSite system, developed specifically for the construction industry. A 3D digital photograph of each worker's hand is used to create a unique code that is matched to their site pass. Iris scanning can also be used.

Access is via a turnstile, which is released when the user presents their biometric credentials. Each set of biometrics is attached to a personal record, which confirms that the individual is authorised to work on the site, as well as storing qualifications details.

Because biometric records cannot be 'borrowed' or stolen, the system lets managers monitor who is on site and prevents false payment claims, as well as maintaining site security.

The future of science and technology

By Vitali Vitaliev

Four areas of science and technology are set to change our lives radically in the near future, says American academic Jose Luis Cordeiro: nano, bio, info and cogno.

Cordeiro, a teaching fellow of the NASA-supported Singularity University in California, told the recent European Futurists Conference that the very concept of singularity denotes a not-too-distant moment when artificial intelligence overtakes the capabilities of the human mind, the point when "we are going to merge with machines". The purpose of Singularity University is to prepare humankind for this transformation.

The conference focused on forecasting beyond the economic crisis. Markku Wilenius, head of trends and strategy at the Allianz Group, said paradigm shift and a change in consumer habits will be needed, adding that the world today is on an unsustainable track. He won agreement from Stuart Walker, professor of design at Imagination Lancaster, a branch of Lancaster University, who pointed out that every year 400 million mobile phones end up in landfills while much-needed resources are depleted to manufacture new ones.

Uwe Möller of the Club of Rome presented the ambitious Desertec project for a network of solar thermal power plants distributed throughout the Middle East and North Africa to provide electricity for Europe as well as the producer countries. "Facts and figures can't be the end goal of business and technology. Responsibility and values have to be factors as well," said Möller, who went on to claim that 90 per cent of the world could be supplied with electricity from the Sahara and other deserts.

"The current crisis finds deeper roots in the big challenges that Europe will have to solve in the next 20 years," according to Ziga Turk, secretary general of the Reflection Group on the Future of Europe, which has to develop targets and visions of Europe in 2030 for the EU. The central question is how Europe, with its shrinking population, can face the growing economical and political power of the merging economies and sustain a climate-neutral wealth. Until now, growth of prosperity was linked with population growth, "so Europe will need a different model in the future", he said.

The annual European Futurists Conference in Lucerne has become one of the world's main forums of futurologists, scholars and global trend analysts.

Fast pan-UK broadband 'needed by 2012'

The Government needs to establish a roadmap by which Internet access rates of at least 10Mb/s will be available to all within three years if the UK is to remain competitive, an IET-backed report has warned.

The call for affordable, accessible and reliable broadband coverage to be ubiquitous by 2012 comes in 'ICT for the UK's Future', a report by the Royal Academy of Engineering following an 18-month study of how technology can be exploited to benefit national prosperity.

As well as readily available broadband, the report recommends widespread exploitation of cloud computing and collaborative Web-based capabilities by businesses. It calls for more emphasis on complex integrated IT systems in ICT teaching and a drive to encourage more young people into the IT industry.

The Technology Strategy Board should focus on a range of related applications and technologies with concentration on key projects that can give the UK a lead in world markets.

Average download speed in the UK in April 2009 was 4.1Mb/s. The government's 'Digital Britain' report that came out in June promised to deliver a universal service of 2Mb/s by 2012 by upgrading the existing copper and wireless networks.

The IET strongly supports the recommendations. Professor Jim Norton, a member of the study group behind the report and chair of the IET's IT Sector Panel, said: "This report describes how the gaps in our broadband coverage could be filled cost-effectively, by building on the UK's proud history of leadership in disruptive mobile communications technology."

Professor Jim Norton writes for E&T on page 14.

NGO leaders 'shaped the Internet', says academic

By James Hayes

Forty years after the first two nodes of the ARPANET were connected in California, an academic from City University London has challenged established consensus regarding the 'birth' of the Internet.

The ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), the world's first operational switched packet network, is generally acknowledged as the Internet's primary predecessor.

However, in a lecture on 29 October, Professor Peter Willetts argued that the Internet as it has evolved over the last 25 years is more truly the result of initiatives by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) during the 1980s and early 1990s.

Such groups were the first to develop the potential of interlinked bulletin board systems to connect groups in the voluntary and activist sectors, to promote online communities where information was shared freely. They then took the lead in connecting different networks.

The International Coalition for Development Action in 1982 started Interdoc, a bulletin-board conferencing and information exchange platform. This used technologies available at the time to empower developing country NGOs via a global network for groups working for economic and social justice.

Willetts praised NGO leaders like Mitra Ardron in London (who founded GreenNet, one of the UK's earliest Internet service providers, in 1984) and PeaceNet founder Mark Graham in San Francisco, who formulated the idea of linking the 'progressive' networks of the time, as unsung Internet pioneers. These two founded public networks in 1986. They linked their systems and by the end of the 1980s had a global Association for Progressive Communications, which even connected to NGOs in the Soviet Union. And just a few years later, FidoNet had several million users around the world.

Had it not been for these early visionaries, Willetts suggests, the Internet could have ended-up looking like "a landscape of walled gardens" where online entities were highly protective of their commercial interests, and even email interoperability was a charged-for service.

Progress announced on wind farm radar problems

By Lorna Sharpe

Two recent developments may help overcome the problem of wind-turbine interference with radar systems. £5.15m is going into a research programme to protect Britain's air traffic control systems, and a 'stealth' turbine blade has been demonstrated in action.

Energy and climate change secretary Ed Miliband announced the R&D programme at the British Wind Energy Association conference in Liverpool. The £5.15m fund is made up of £1.6m from wind companies, £2m from the Crown Estate and £1.55m from DECC.

Aviation radar objections are a major reason why wind planning applications fail in the UK. NATS (formerly National Air Traffic Services) has lodged objections to over 5GW of wind farms in the planning system.

The 19-month research and development programme aims to mitigate the effects of wind turbines on the NATS En Route primary radar infrastructure. NATS technical experts will work with Raytheon Canada, the suppliers of the NATS systems.

An alternative to focusing on the radar system is to modify the turbines. Technology firm Qinetiq is working with Vestas Wind Systems on a five-year project to reduce radar signature made by turbines to the point where they can be effectively 'factored out' of air traffic control and air defence systems.

Using a jointly designed 44m prototype turbine blade manufactured by Vestas, the technology has now been demonstrated at full scale at a wind farm in Norfolk.

The Stealth Turbine solution uses a portfolio of radar absorbing materials (RAM) that are integrated into the manufacturing processes for turbine components - blades, nacelle and tower - and which can be designed to operate at aviation and maritime frequencies. These include modified composites for nacelle and blades, and sprayable RAM coatings applied directly onto static surfaces.

The Norfolk trial involved fitting the prototype stealth blade onto a Vestas V90 turbine. Qinetiq says radar cross section measurements showed significant reductions in line with expectations based on analysis and blade measurements.

View From Brussels

Europe and the future of books

By Pelle Neroth

A truly important and interesting digitisation issue is gripping Brussels. Google has, over the years, scanned the full texts of 10 million books from the world's top libraries, and will soon have a larger number of holdings than the British Library. The contents appear as searchable items on the Google Books website, which has provided an invaluable service for researchers, who can read quite substantial excerpts to decide whether or not to explore further. There are tens of thousands of browsable contemporary works of engineering, for instance.

The question is, what happens next? If the book is out of copyright, no problem: the whole book can be read online. If the book is in print, you will be able to buy it in a bookshop - Google provides links.

The problem is those books that fall into the middle category: covered by copyright laws but out of print, and so inaccessible, unless you're in the reading room of a leading research library.

Google founder Sergei Brin has a solution to "unlocking the wisdom held in the enormous number of out-of-print books", that, until now, have dropped into black holes when bookshops stop selling them. Most books are in print for only a few years.

From 2010, Google Editions, a new service, will let readers buy books and read them on mobile phones, on their computers or even have them printed and bound in minutes via the new Espresso Book Machine service, described as "ATMs for books". Though mainly in the US, there is one machine at Blackwell's London branch in Charing Cross Road. Initially, the service will offer new launches sold after agreement with existing retailers. But, importantly, out-of-print books will soon be published too. Brin sees this as a public service.

An agreement hammered out in the US courts is set to allow rights holders of these out-of-print books to register ownership, so that they can be remunerated. (Google takes a 37 per cent slice.) Many authors have said they will appreciate the resumption of an income stream. Readers and researchers will, in effect, have the resources of the world's second-largest library at their fingertips.

But not everyone is a winner. The deal applies only to the US. Europeans are resisting the idea of Google scanning books published on this side of the pond. Much debated at the recent Frankfurt book fair, there are fears that Google's mass digitisation efforts and commercial tie-ups will make the European publishing industry redundant and the book could go the way of the newspaper. Since widening access to knowledge is a public good, the Commission has tried to strike a compromise solution, urging Europeans to develop their own Google Books equivalent, Europeana, and encouraging European partners to commercialise the project.

However, digitising books is very expensive, and the British Library, a potential partner, reports no funding is forthcoming. Only 5 per cent of Europe's historical treasure trove of works have so far been scanned, with few titles from the present century, so Europeana's cupboard is pretty bare. To many researchers, this tardiness is not a problem, since the language of modern scholarship is English. Much research could be carried out just by consulting Google's US collections. But no agreement has been made on European access to the new Google Editions either.

We are swiftly moving towards a world where everything ever written is becoming available to anyone anywhere. It's understandable to want to consider the consequences. European researchers, students and professionals are being denied a competitive advantage available to their American counterparts.

LG plans telco merger

Korea's LG Group plans to merge its three telecom businesses to create one company and better compete with its rivals SK Telecom and KT.

The three companies affected are broadband unit LG Powercom, the LG Telecom mobile service provider and fixed-line operator LG Dacom.

A senior LG official in Seoul, Park Sung Hwan, commented that it is getting tough operating in the South Korean telecom market, which is near saturation.

E&T understands that the merger will enable LG to offer mobile, fixed-line and Internet services in a single package to attract subscribers.

SK Telecom is planning to merge with Internet company SK Broadband, but will only go ahead if the LG merger materialises. SK Telecom merged with its fixed-line unit in March 2007.

Daxing confirmed as second airport location

By William Dennis

The Chinese government has approved the choice of Daxing district in the south of Beijing as the location for the city's second airport.

Two other sites, Wuqing in Tianjin and Langfang in the Hebei province, were formally evaluated with the backing of their local authorities before Daxing got the nod. A new airport will be instrumental in the economic development of the surrounding areas.

An official of the Civil Administration of China (CAAC) in Beijing who spoke to E&T said the State Council gave the approval for the airport to be built with a passenger-handling capacity of 60 million a year, an increase of 20 million from the earlier plan. He said that if the facility opened with a capacity of 40 million it would require an upgrade five years later, as domestic passenger traffic is increasing rapidly.

The airport will initially operate with two runways, with provision for a third to be built. Construction will start by the middle of 2010 with completion pencilled in for the end of 2015.

Domestic, some point-to-point regional flights and low-cost airlines' operations will transfer to Daxing. Regional flights will be those serving South Korea and Japan. Trunk domestic flights involving Guangzhou, Beijing and Shanghai that were to remain at BCIA will operate out of the new airport.

The authorities are currently finalising the construction budget. Part of the funding would be from the China Airport Construction Fund. Local airlines contribute 5 per cent of their revenue to the fund, which is managed by CAAC.

The new airport will ease pressure on the existing Beijing Capital International Airport. With a capacity of 77 million, BCIA handled 60.6 million passengers last year, an increase of 13 per cent over 2007.

Air travel is growing rapidly among Chinese citizens as they become more affluent with a booming economy.

In 2004 the Chinese government made an investment of US$4.6bn to expand BCIA. It is the first airport in the Asia Pacific and one of the few in the world to operate three runways simultaneously.

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