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Tracking Aircraft

I was surprised to hear an academic saying on the Radio 4 ‘Today’ programme this morning that planes should upload all black box and cockpit voice recorder data to the cloud. It would be so much easier, more secure etc if all planes did was to send their GPS coordinates every 10 minutes. I was also astounded to learn that pilots can turn off their SSR transponder in the cockpit. I believe they do so to prevent overload at airports.

Surely SSR transponders need to behave in a similar manner to mobile phones so that if there is a strong signal from the ‘basestation’ (i.e., they are close to an SSR RADAR transmitter) that they reduce power.

The Civil Aviation Authority ought to make it mandatory that when engines are running the SSR transponder cannot be shut down. The Malaysian and probably Indonesian civil aviation authorities could then have tracked the Malaysian airliner for some distance and sent fighters to investigate.

Roger A K Forster CEng MIET
Senior Lecturer, Maritime & Technology Faculty, Southampton Solent University


Cleaning up

I spotted a new engineering title on this van: ‘I am a Dyson Engineer’. I must say I was surprised to see that from that particular company. I wonder if they are accredited – is their title DEng?

John Cowburn CEng FIET
By email


Mars: why bother?

In your April 2014 issue you explain how people could live on Mars ( However, you do not discuss why people should want to do this, bearing in mind that we can find out all we want to know about the planet by robot exploration.

Laurie Jones MIET

We were living in Harare, Zimbabwe, at the time of the first landing on the Moon. Our gardener asked us whether there was anything to eat or drink there. We told him there was nothing and he asked why anyone wanted to go there. We could not answer. Forty-five years later, this dilemma is heightened and the cost to a world with billions living in abject poverty is more difficult to defend.

Mike Young MIET
Sedgefield, South Africa


Excessive packaging

When I bought a pair of door handles from B&Q recently, it took half an hour, using scissors, pliers, screwdriver and spanners, to release them from the excessive and unnecessarily ‘durable’ packaging. This consisted of 14 items, including a plastic blister pack, 2mm-thick cardboard, four sets of plastic-threaded bolts and nuts and two washer-capped rawlplug-type inserts. The whole exercise left me panting with effort, plus my waste bin was filled with mostly non-recyclable rubbish.

Back in the old days, my local hardware shop, MacBrides in Kidderminster (sadly closed long ago), would have sold me a pair of handles with screws in a simple paper bag. Considering we are all supposedly concerned with minimising waste and preserving the environment, how come we have moved so far backwards in the last 50 years?

Jim Groves MIET


LED reliability

Denis Sharp’s letter on LED lamp failures (February 2014) gave me a sense of déjà vu. What he describes seems to be a rerun of the same ongoing problem with compact fluorescent lamps.

Although the latter are sold with a promotion claiming 5,000-8,000 hours burning life, in reality they seem to have failure rates ranging from ‘dead on arrival’ to about 4,000 hours. However, the cause of failure invariably seems to lie not in the light-generating device, but rather in a component failure in the in-built electronic power-conversion module.

Since the LED-based units have a similar construction (with different device voltage levels), I suspect the problem is here. Most of the published studies on the life of LED lighting equipment concentrate solely on the reliability of the LED itself, giving little or no consideration to that of the supporting circuitry.

A thorough study of the reliability of electronic devices is quite a complex subject, but you get what you pay for. High-reliability components tend to be more expensive. Manufacturers are highly cost conscious and the temptation to cut corners in mass production seems irresistible.

Tony Fisher MIET
South Africa
[Kris Sangani looks at the debate surrounding domestic LED lamps on p40.]


Carbon capture

Concerning the Scottish CCS plant at Peterhead (News, April 2014), it is of course important to develop the technology for extracting carbon dioxide from flue gas. Note, however, that until there is a tax on carbon emissions, the only way to justify the cost is to use the CO2 to extract more oil from the North Sea, which will be burnt to produce even more CO2.

Richard Riggs MIET
Abingdon, Oxfordshire



Lorna Sharpe’s report ( on the EU’s latest effort to debate energy and climate and its revised target of at least 27 per cent of power generation from ‘renewable technologies’ by 2030, again highlights the quixotic notions at the heart of this issue.

Given the UK’s precarious situation on primary generation arising from EU directives to close our coal-fired power stations and the end-of-life situation for some nuclear reactors, it is disappointing not to read anything about securing the base-load capacity. Instead, the policy is focused heavily on CO2 reduction by recourse to largely unreliable generation mechanisms.

I enjoy the comforts of 21st Century life with power on tap 24/7 and not just when the wind blows. I have been a lifelong advocate of driving nuclear fusion to commercial reality. There will now be a chorus of derision from many readers happy to tell me what a fool’s errand that is. However, if engineers had taken the attitude of ‘it’s all too difficult’, we would never have had an industrial revolution or gone into space.

Senior officials at the Department of Energy and Climate Change view fusion in the same vein as perpetual motion, and brief ministers as such. Until engineers and scientists stop telling themselves it is too difficult and start making politicians aware of the opportunity, the only real opportunity for large-scale, clean, unlimited, sustainable and dependable power will remain derided and buried in research establishments.

Dr J Nigel Bennett CEng MIET
Marple Bridge, Cheshire


Mind your language

I read Benny Lewis’s Comment piece on taking an engineering approach to learning a new language ( with a great deal of timely interest having, in my later years, decided to learn Russian. Looking around at the available resources confirms Lewis’s point about a lack of good study materials.

I set about a search for a course that was tablet-based, and had the ability to recognise handwriting, correct calligraphical errors, pronounce words and phrases in the foreign language, record audio input for correction, have multi-threaded conversation, and rate progress. Integrating public-domain video threads should also be possible.

What do I find available? Interactive multi-choice questions (also available on paper cards with question on one side, answer on the other), material that seems to have been extracted from old text books, reformatted for PCs, then laptops, and finally copied to tablets. The pronunciation on the audios also varies according to the publisher, and there are even variations of the same word from the same publisher. One American product is a PDF of handwritten script with accompanying audio that is not synchronised.

For the future there is the Vibe Writer and other writing devices, but the structure and taxonomy to learn a new language doesn’t seem to be there. Or did I not use the correct keywords searching for such materials?

Brian Burgess FIET
By email



After graduation in 1959 I worked for four years in the research and development laboratories of a large and well-known company just north of London. During that time I used a couple of lunch hours to build myself a car battery charger out of spare bits that were destined for the bin. In the language of the time, such jobs were variously known as ‘foreigners’ or ‘home office jobs’.

The charger consisted of a mains transformer, an old silicon rectifier, a sliding rheostat to control the current, an in-line fuse and a meter to indicate the output. It worked beautifully, giving a current of up to 5A.

It still sits on the shelf in my garage, is still in perfect working order and it comes out occasionally to boost my car battery when the car has not been used for some months.

It is now over 50 years old and I wonder whether other readers have items of home-made kit that are as old. I know I could replace it with a smaller commercial charger quite cheaply, but I keep it for, among other reasons, sentimentality. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

David Parsons FREng, FIET


Island telecoms

Having been responsible for radio-telephone links in Scotland, especially those that were part of the first ‘Highlands and Islands’ telecommunications project, in the late 1960s, I was intrigued by the story ‘F1 energy storage will support island grids’ (March 2014).

One of my colleagues designed a ten-line semi-electronic telephone exchange for remote island communities which was connected by a single-channel VHF radio link back to the mainland. Power was supplied by lead-acid batteries that had to be charged and we explored a number of solutions including solar and wind power, but came up against the Ministry experts who assured us that there was insufficient wind on, for example, Fair Isle and Eigg, and certainly not enough sunlight to maintain the required charging currents.

The only alternative was to use diesel generators. On the island of Foula for example, where I personally soldered the battery connections, the local nurse had a Petter diesel generator. When she came home in the evening and switched on the lights the generator started up, supplying the house and the batteries in our small telephone exchange.

Our modern telecommunications technology was not universally popular. In many remote communities the social centre was the operator of the manual exchange who knew everyone and everything. The introduction of automatic telephony killed an essential social service and the Highlands and Islands communities would never be the same again.

Anthony V Knight CEng FIET
Midhurst, West Sussex

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