What a tumultuous year 2014 has been. E&T News has put together a timeline with this year’s most memorable events in engineering and technology, good and bad.
A plane went missing with 239 people on board, we had to change most of our passwords amid fears that hackers could grab hold of them – but we were granted the right to be forgotten, India taught us all a lesson in how to put a spacecraft efficiently into the orbit around Mars, while Rosetta successfully delivered the first man-made object to the surface of a comet. More tragic news made the headlines with the Virgin Galactic crash and we’ve probably witnessed the most extensive hack-attack against a big corporation to date.
Here are 2014’s top stories:
Cecilia Abadie, the Californian woman who was hit with a traffic citation for wearing Google Glass while driving, won her case in January. The judge ruled that there was no evidence her Google Glasses were switched on when she was pulled over. It is believed she is the world’s first to go on trial for such an offence.
The increasingly attractive cryptocurrency has seen a sharp fall in its value after MtGox – one of the biggest online exchanges – suddenly shut down in February, owing hundreds of millions of pounds. Bitcoin lost half of its value over the year crashing from the peak of $1,100 to the current position $330, and according to Bloomberg it was voted 2014’s worst investment.
On 8 March a Boeing 777 operated by Malaysia Airlines and with 239 people onboard disappeared from air traffic control radars. The incident spurred what has since become the largest search operation in the history of aviation. In more than eight months, not a single fragment of the plane has been found. UK satellite operator Inmarsat proved early in the investigation that the plane must have veered off its original course to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur and strayed thousands of kilometres into the Indian Ocean before running out of fuel.
Heartbleed rocked the Internet in April when a bug forced millions of people to change their passwords across an array of websites. The glitch in servers running OpenSSL allowed hackers to snatch sensitive data such as usernames and passwords, email, instant messages and files. Although Heartbleed has a quick software fix, it is thought it might stick with us for quite some time.
It was a tumultuous year for privacy and a landmark event was the ruling of the European Court of Justice when it granted users “the right to be forgotten”. It led to forcing Google to remove irrelevant or excessive personal information from their results if people’s rights to privacy were infringed.
Lockheed Martin’s next-generation short take-off and vertical landing stealth fighter jet missed its international debut at this year’s Farnborough Airshow following an engine fire during take-off at a Florida air base on 24 June. The incident involving the aircraft’s Pratt & Whitney jet engine grounded the whole fleet for the duration of the investigation. It was the eighth time the aircraft had been grounded, prompting further criticism of the project plagued with delays and cost overruns.
The rusty hulk of the once glamorous Costa Concordia cruise ship that crashed in January 2012 near the Italian island of Giglio was finally removed and towed away for scrap after the most challenging maritime salvage operation in history. Engineers managed to lift the 114,500-tonne wreck from an underwater platform by pumping air into 30 large metal boxes, or sponsons, attached to the hull. The salvage operation cost the ship’s operator about £1.18bn. Thirty-two people were killed in the shipwreck after Costa Concordia's captain Francesco Schettino steered it away from its safe route to salute the island.
An annual survey from the Institute of Engineering and Technology showed that the engineering skills shortage is not improving. More than that, the number of female engineers entering the profession has dropped since last year despite repeated calls to boost numbers. The most striking figure, which gets mentioned a lot at industry events, is the proportion of female engineers, which currently stands at 6 per cent.
Overproduction of oil in the USA has pushed prices below the $100 threshold for the first time in months only to trigger a major slump that would see the price for a barrel hitting a five-year low by the year’s end. With a barrel of Brent crude selling for about $60 in mid-December, the oil industry said many challenging undertakings such as deep sea or Arctic exploration may have to be scrapped due to the high costs and slow returns.
India made history by becoming not only the first Asian nation to successfully put a spacecraft into the orbit around Mars but also by becoming the first country ever to have succeeded on the first attempt. Joining the exclusive club of Mars orbit conquerors consisting only of the USA, Russia and Europe, India taught them all a lesson as its Mangalyaan Mars Orbiter Mission was achieved with a fraction of the budget usually required by other space agencies. With a £46m price tag, Mangalyaan’s mission was ten times cheaper than Nasa’s latest Mars probe Maven.
Although traditionally a petrol-loving discipline, car racing entered the electric age this year with the launch of the Formula E Championship. After a string of public showings and preparatory events, the series finally took off in Beijing on 13 September. Though still somewhat lagging behind its more established combustion-engine-powered sibling Formula One, the cars built jointly by automotive engineering heavyweights such as Williams, McLaren and Renault, hurtled around the circuit at an impressive 250km/h. Limited by the 30-minute battery life of the 300kg Williams-made power unit, the drivers had to switch vehicles mid-race.
Synonymous with space tourism as it may be, the plans of Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic were dealt a major blow at the end of October when the company’s SpaceShipTwo crashed during a test flight killing one of the pilots. Preliminary investigation results suggested the spacecraft broke apart after its braking mechanism accidently deployed during acceleration, for which, supposedly, a pilot was to blame. However, multiple space propulsion experts stepped forward in the wake of the disaster, criticising Virgin Galactic’s choice of engine and its safety engineering practices. Whoever was responsible, it is clear that even Sir Richard will not be taking his family for a space ride this Christmas.
European Space Agency’s comet-chasing spacecraft Rosetta accomplished a historical feat when it successfully delivered the first man-made object to the surface of a comet. The Philae lander provided scientists with a wealth of data although the touch-down was plagued with technical glitches which saw the washing-machine-sized spacecraft bouncing off two times instead of attaching itself firmly to the comet’s surface. Though a major success, the lander’s mission ended after only three days as it didn’t see the Sun to recharge its solar batteries. Rosetta reached comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in August this year after a ten-year journey.
At the end of the month a hacker group calling itself the Guardians of Peace (GoP) infiltrated the computer network of Sony Pictures Entertainment and stole troves of sensitive data, which was later dumped online. It is believed that the attack was carried out by the North Korean government, as FBI recently stated, in retaliation to Sony’s latest film where the communist state’s leader is assassinated. Setting up a precedent, the $44m film was later dropped. The Sony hack-attack was extensive, but its ramifications reached a different level through terrorist threats and the major corporate damage that was caused. We’re talking cyber-warfare.
From sensible attempts to use drones for parcel deliveries and inspection of power lines to outright bonkers ideas such as carrying mistletoe branches above the heads of dining couples, the UAV technology has gained significant momentum over the past year. It was just a matter of time before it would be involved in a serious incident. That moment was described in a report published by the UK Airprox Board in December. Rated an A – the highest risk level – on a five-point scale, the incident at London’s Heathrow Airport saw a small quadcopter coming within 20ft of a landing passenger jet.