2015 has been a big year for the world of tech and engineering. The rise and rise of driverless cars and wearable technology foreshadow much bigger things to come in these sectors over the next decade, as evidenced by the release of the Apple Watch and Google, Nissan, Ford and others embracing vehicular autonomy.
Renewable energy has had a mostly strong year with some notable caveats. The launch of Solar Impulse 2, a plane capable of flying round the world powered purely by the sun, demonstrates how far this sector has developed recently. However, the plane has yet to complete its journey. Now stuck in Hawaii due to battery damage sustained in its record-breaking transpacific flight, the plane is being prepared to set off again in April 2016. Similarly, renewable electricity production in the UK was brought back to earth with the government announcing numerous cutbacks after the election. However, with the UK signing a binding contract to lower carbon emissions and boost renewable energy, there is still hope for the future.
A record number of companies and governments across the globe have taken a hit from hackers this year, culminating in the attack on TalkTalk which cost the company £35m and the loss of thousands of customer details.
The space sector keeps going from strength to strength, with SpaceX showing that a rocket can land on earth as neatly as it can take off. This followed the UK’s successful return to space with Tim Peake joining the crew of the ISS and NASA’s discovery of flowing water on Mars.
Here are the year’s top stories in full:
The UK found its Beagle 2 lander on the surface of Mars which had been lost since a failed landing attempt in 2003. Satellite imagery showed that the probe had been partially deployed, proving the entry and landing systems had worked as planned, but no data could be retrieved from it as the spacecraft’s antenna was covered by a solar panel.
The UK government gave the go-ahead for driverless cars to be tested on public roads in a bid to encourage companies developing the technology to invest in the country. A comprehensive review revealed there was no legal barrier to the testing of self-driving cars, although some road regulations and car maintenance checks will be necessary to accommodate autonomous vehicles on British roads.
The Solar Impulse 2, a plane powered solely by photovoltaics took off from Abu Dhabi in March to attempt to fly around the world without a drop of fuel. During its five-day non-stop cruise over the Pacific ocean in early July, the aircraft set several world records including one for the longest solo flying by any aircraft. After landing on Hawaii, engineers found the craft's batteries sustained irreparable damage during the challenging feat, forcing the team to suspend the round-the-world trip until the spring of 2016.
The Apple Watch was finally released for sale worldwide after being announced more than six months prior and suffering from supply shortages. Although the long queues typically seen outside Apple stores after a new product launch were notably absent, sales picked up as the year went on.
The science and engineering sectors were in two minds as David Cameron headed back to Downing Street with the Tories for another term. In a letter to the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), Cameron said that Britain could be ‘assured that a Conservative government will be committed to investing in science and engineering’. Although the party made investment pledges such as £1.1bn in science capital each year, rising with inflation up to 2020/21, its pre-election manifesto failed to promise any new money for the sectors.
The Large Hadron Collider at CERN was restarted and began delivering physics data again following a two-year pause. The machine had been upgraded so that proton beams could be clattered together at almost double the collision energy of its first three-year run. It is now set to run around the clock for the next three years, paving the way for the discovery of new scientific phenomena.
IBM announced it had managed to build a new ultra-dense chip design using a new 7nm wide fabrication process. The breakthrough helped to dispel, temporarily at least, fears of many tech analysts that believe that Moore’s Law had become unsustainable. The company plans to take the chips out of the lab to replicate them in manufacturing plants and has built a test processor of the chip, which is two generations more advanced than current technology.
Carmakers scrambled to assess damage to cars and facilities after two massive explosions in the Chinese port city of Tianjin. As China's largest automotive import hub, roughly 40 per cent of cars imported to China pass through Tianjin's port, which equated to more than half a million units in 2014. Jaguar Land Rover later announced it would take a £245m hit to its annual profits following the blast.
The biggest scandal in the automotive industry in years broke out after it emerged that Volkswagen had been cheating in diesel vehicle emissions tests in the USA. Europe's biggest car maker saw the value of its shares plummet as it was revealed that millions of its vehicles would have to be recalled to have the so called defeat device removed. The technology, capable of detecting when the cars were being tested, was able to to mitigate nitrogen oxide emissions for the time of the testing to comply with limits. The actual emission were over 40 times higher. Overall 11 million vehicles of several brands of the Volkswagen family including Skoda, Seat and Audi have been equipped with the cheating software. The scandal resulted in changes to the top-level management of the group but its impact on the group’s profits is yet to be revealed.
The internet service provider TalkTalk admitted that it had undergone a ‘significant and sustained cyber-attack’ that it feared had resulted in millions of customer details being accessed by hackers. The company initially hired BAE Systems to look into the breach. After extensive investigation, TalkTalk concluded that 156,959 customers had had their personal data compromised and 15,656 bank account numbers had been taken. It later emerged that the attack may have been perpetrated by a small group of British teenagers.
Talks began at the end of November between 195 countries on action to stem the impact of climate change to a maximum global temperature rise of well below 2 degrees Celsius. After weeks of discussion, the ‘Paris Agreement’ was finally signed and was touted as the world's first comprehensive climate accord, the core of which is legally binding and commits all countries to take action to address global warming. Although quite vague in laying down how exactly the targets are to be achieved, the agreement expects that technology an innovation would play a key role.
SpaceX performed the first successful rocket landing with its Falcon 9 rocket during a commercial mission. Descending slowly onto a launch pad in Cape Canaveral just minutes after it took off, the upgraded Falcon 9 proved that reusability is the future of space transportation. SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk believes that being able to reuse rockets similarly to planes would slash the cost of space travel by a factor of one hundred. The triumphant landing was part of the first mission Falcon 9 undertook after an explosion in June, which destroyed a cargo ship bound for the ISS.