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Sort out Earth’s refuse first

Andrew Lavey’s letter ‘Who should clear up space debris?’, in the February 2016 issue of E&T, focuses on the popular topic of fixing the problems in space made by engineers. Of far greater significance are the vast number of ecological time bombs left across the world by engineers working for miners and chemical companies and other profit-driven developers.

Everywhere you look there are abandoned mines, underground or on the surface, that were worked until unprofitable, then abandoned. And the company that earlier had made stupendous profits by digging up resources or making things, and in its development application promised to remediate the site, has now vanished and there is nobody left to clear up the mess.

Space debris pales into insignificance when faced with the enormous pollution we have created here on Earth and are ignoring.

Peter Hewitt CEng
By email

Two wheels bad

The article on anti-doping technology in the February 2016 issue of E&T included a picture of British cyclist Chris Froome entering a control bus after a stage of the 2013 Tour de France. In January this year the cycling world was shocked by claims of what world governing body the UCI referred to as ‘motorised doping’, in which a competitor was said to have had a motor installed in the seat tube of her bike at the cyclo-cross world championships in Zolder, Belgium.

A report in Cycling Weekly indicated that such ‘doping’ emerged as far back as 2010. It is suggested that these motors can turn the bicycle cranks with the equivalent of an additional 100W of power. Top male road cyclists’ average power output for, say, a stage of the Tour de France would be in the region of 200W with short bursts of over 500W on mountain climbs and even higher on short sprints on flat roads, so that extra help correctly deployed, by a concealed switch under the handle bar tape, would give a cheat a significant advantage.

This is the first time that the UCI has introduced checking for this form of doping and it would seem to have been a correct decision.

William Coey MIET
North Down Cycling Club, Bangor, Northern Ireland

Euring Stars

I heard IET President Naomi Climer on Radio 4 talking about her desire for engineers to have ‘rockstar’ status. Getting all IET members to use the prefix EurIng in all their activities would certainly be noticed and raise curiosity at least.

EurIng Barry R A Whiting CEng MIET
By email

Patent reform may not cut costs

I was disappointed to yet again see the mantra of ‘cheaper’ in the February 2016 Comment column, ‘Euro patent reforms promise simpler, cheaper experience for innovators’. Very few patents are litigated, so the costs of the centralised court and any advantages in enforcement across the whole of the EU are, in practical terms, negligible. As a patentee, it is often advantageous for patents not to be able to be attacked centrally and to remain as the bundle of national patents mentioned in the article.

As any IP manager or CFO of a business with a patent portfolio will acknowledge, the vast bulk of lifetime patent costs arise from annual renewal fees, not filing or litigation costs. When proposed renewal fees were published last summer by the European Patent Office, the surrounding commentary was deeply misleading. A press release stated that the new fee “corresponds to the total sum of the renewal fees currently paid for the four most frequently validated countries (Germany, France, UK and the Netherlands)”. This fails to make clear that this is only of the Unitary Patent participating countries, ie excluding Spain and Italy. Italy may yet join the Unitary Patent but the proposal seems not to have taken this into account. My own firm’s analysis indicates that Spain and Italy are the fourth and fifth most validated countries, with the Netherlands coming sixth. The Netherlands is an expensive renewal country, a subtlety that makes the cost-saving calculations put forward with the proposal significantly flawed.

Our financial analysis suggests that applicants wishing only to validate in Germany, France and the UK will be about 30 per cent worse off under the new regime, typically representing approximately £10,000 per patent in extra lifetime costs. The different costs of renewal fees between the current regime and the UP regime will balance somewhere between a fifth and sixth country if the real typical applicant (validating in DE, FR, UK, ES & IT) is used for the analysis.

Thus validation and lifetime patent costs for the UP strongly favour applicants who routinely validate in more than five countries. However, a large majority of patentees do not, and perceive no commercial need to do so since the five countries of the typical applicant represent over 70 per cent of EU GDP and over 60 per cent of population. This leaves slim pickings for any competitors spread over the remaining 23 available countries.

Andrew Mackenzie MIET
Partner, Scott & York IP Law

Complexity of tackling floods

One of the problems often ignored by flood-relief planners is how the silt load of rivers increases as land use changes. In a totally unmodified environment, when a river floods the silt is deposited along its banks and a lot of the water is absorbed. If the surrounding plain has been surfaced with roads, car parks and buildings there is no place for the silt to be deposited. If trees have been removed for agriculture, the soil previously held in place by their roots flows into the river as the waters recede.

There are two main consequences: the silt eventually settles on the river bed or is carried to the river mouth.

If it is deposited before reaching the sea the river bed becomes higher, and the river overtops its banks more often. If it is deposited at the mouth it forms a small obstruction, which causes the water to back up in times of heavy rain.
Often, both of these occur and the net effect is to raise the water level.

If, in these circumstances you encircle a city, a town, or a house with an impermeable wall, eventually the enclosed space falls below water level more and more frequently as the silt load keeps raising the bed level. It may be protected against a flood of surface water, but not the consequences of ground water seepage.

Broadly speaking, embankments or built-up river banks may bring temporary relief, but they become less effective with time. The remedies, if there are any, are complex and expensive.

Fabian Acker
By email

Priorities for more leisure time

Some 50 years ago Denis Gabor, the inventor of holography, wrote a book ‘Inventing the future’ in which he forecast a time of increasing leisure. In practice we have experienced the opposite trend; both men and women now find themselves under more pressure, and with less spare time, than their fathers and grandfathers.

Martin Ford, author of the book ‘Rise of the Robots’, talks in his interview with E&T (March 2016) about the consequences of devolving more work, both manual and mental, to robots, so it is helpful to examine what has absorbed all of that ‘leisure’ time.

Some of the trends are obvious - other services such as health and welfare, transport and communication, education etc have expanded far more than Gabor could have foreseen. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the change is the vast increase in our understanding of the physical world. The spare time which the Egyptians used to build the pyramids we use for research, and our seemingly insatiable quest for knowledge and understanding cannot be met by robots.

This suggests that we have little to fear from a lack of job opportunities, provided we organise our society to function more equitably and with clearer objectives. The wider issues are those suggested by Martin Ford, but perhaps can be seen more positively. Provided that we direct sufficient of our vast ‘pure’ research effort to recognising and examining what is needed, there is no reason to suppose that we cannot be successful. We need to broaden our objectives, the most urgent being the need to study our use both of people and of our material resources.

John Carpenter FIET

Theremins are not for effects

As your Classic Project article on the theremin (February 2016) says, it is an extremely difficult instrument to play and there have been few enough virtuosos. Arguably the best player history can offer was Clara Rockmore, an ex-violinist who was the unrequited amorous target of Lev Theremin and who became a superb player. Rockmore reckoned, as I do, that the theremin has its rightful place in serious music; it should not be relegated to weird sound-effect wailings, and should be treated as a respectable musical instrument.

A more recent performer, again a violinist, was Celia Sheen. There cannot be many people in the UK who have never heard her performing as it was specially chosen as the instrument to play the main title theme in the popular TV programme ‘Midsomer Murders’. The music was specially written for her and has been used regularly since the show’s inception in 1997, in a recording made using an instrument of my design.

Berwick upon Tweed

Time to tackle ID theft

From the tone of your interview with Adam Levin about his book on data and identity theft, ‘Swiped’, (Book Interview, March 2016) it seems that we are continuing as we have in the past to combat this worldwide crime wave with a strategy that is entirely defensive. This, coupled with what seems to be a policy of despair, can only bring comfort to the bad guys.

Why can we not go on the offensive - or are we going to wait until this “rapidly approaching trillion-dollar worldwide issue” forces action upon us? Are we not in danger of the siege mentality taking over?

Arthur G Varney MIET
By email

Was Leonardo really an engineer?

Paul Kidd’s letter about Leonardo da Vinci (March 2016) reads much too much into a simple situation. Leonardo produced many works of art, so he was an artist. He drew many inventions, so he was an inventor. He did not develop them into practical form, so he was not an engineer. The idea that artists all work and think in some special way is a generalisation too far. Engineers also have widely varied work and thought patterns.

John R Batts IEng MIET

In your recent article on Leonardo da Vinci (February 2016), Dea Birkett asks, “Was Leonardo the engineering genius we’ve come to regard him as?” Perhaps we ought to ask the man himself for his opinion.

‘The Inventions of Leonardo da Vinci’ by C Gibbs-Smith, published in 1978 by Phaidon Press, includes a translation of the CV that he sent to Duke Ludovico (Il Moro) of Milan, in which he lists his skills and expertise in ten bullet points: the first nine are as a military engineer, and the last as a civil engineer and architect. Then he adds, somewhat as his other hobbies and interests section, his abilities in sculpture and painting.

It is clear, therefore, that Leonardo considered himself principally to be an engineer, at least when he was looking for a job.

Malcolm Shute
La Tour d’Aigues, France

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