Best of the week’s news: comment and analysis from E&T’s editorial staff

E&T staff pick their favourite news stories from the past week and reflect on what these latest developments in engineering and technology mean to them.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

Portable car’ available for pre-orders

This news brings back the days of my childhood, when one of my favourite toys was a tiny yellow truck. The moment I saw it in a toyshop window, I fell in love with it and had been harassing my poor mother for days until she surrendered and – rather reluctantly, her reasoning being that I had already possessed a crate-load of broken and prematurely discarded toy cars – acquired it for me. I spent hours imagining that my new toy vehicle was real and was dreaming of having a proper ride in it one day. And here we go: somewhat belatedly – more than half a century later, to be more exact – my childhood dreams have come true. Fancy that: you come out the house, take your mini-car out of your pocket, and whoosh off to work! My only concern is that the cost of that real-life modern toy would probably be equal to that of a full-size (and not portable, albeit I do not completely exclude that scenario either) National Express coach, if those were for sale that is. So for the time being, my dream will have to remain a dream.

Sensor enables trains to monitor condition of tracks

At the recent Innotrans exhibition in Berlin I saw a gadget called AiD-MC, an ‘electrical coaxial octocopter drone’ no less, now being tested by the German company AidDrones. One of the things it is capable of is monitoring rail track conditions. The drone looked sleek and bouncy –as if impatient to take off. I was impressed, but have to confess that it makes more sense to monitor the track from rail vehicles and locomotives themselves, as this news story suggests, simply because the latter happen to be much more down-to-earth, ie much closer to the track itself, and the sensors installed on them should be potentially able to spot the minuscule defects that could be easily overlooked from the skies.

Trump and Clinton pledge billions to fix US infrastructure

No matter who wins the US presidential elections, galvanising the ever-so-neglected USA infrastructure is not going to be an easy task, as the above E&T feature asserts correctly. Let’s take railways that, as an old cliché goes, “have built America”. It will take a long time to overcome the Americans’ innate distrust in any transport that departs and arrives on schedule. “No one is telling me when to take the train!” I often heard during my 11 months in the USA some years ago. A rather peculiar notion of freedom… Yes, most Americans, would rather spend hours in a traffic jam, yet in the privacy of their own car, than deign to take a short train ride. I remember staying overnight in a little New England town that also happened to be a major railway junction. The station building was across the road from my hotel, but when I asked the receptionist when the next train to New York was due, she shrugged and said: “No idea, buddy. I’ve never been to that station in my entire lifeShe was a middle-aged lady, born and bred in that particular small town.

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

Trump and Clinton pledge billions to fix US infrastructure

Never have two US presidential candidates been divided on so many issues - it's hard to find anything at all they agree on. E&T looks at the one concrete issue they can agree on which is, er, concrete. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates it will cost a whopping $3.6tn to fix America's ageing infrastructure. Can the next President do it, and if so how should they go about spending the money on all the airports, railways, roads, bridges and just about everything else that needs fixing?

How to build Trump’s ‘Wall’

Then there’s Trump’s wall. That’s not included in the American Society of Civil Engineers’ $3.6tn. I find it a xenophobic and divisive policy, but if Trump is serious about it and he is elected US President next month someone will have to design and build it - even if Mexico really does pay for it. We look at what it would take to build such a wall in engineering and financial terms, and we hear about more realistic, cost-effective ways of building secure barriers between countries. Unfortunately, it feels like that is the way the world is going right now.

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

Gravity-powered lamp wins funding for roll-out in developing world

British charity the GravityLight Foundation has won funding from Siemens to distribute its lighting technology to 15,000 people in off-grid areas in developing countries by 2017. The bright LED lamp is powered by the fall of a 12kg weight such as a bag of rocks or sand. Light transforms lives, but hauling up that kind of weight every 20 minutes sounds like hard work to me.

Graphene-fed silkworms produce super-silk

Chinese researchers have harvested ‘super-silk’ after spraying the mulberry leaves that silkworms feed on with a 0.2 per cent solution containing graphene or carbon nanotubes. I’m not sure why this story caught my eye, but I like the simplicity of the idea.

Georgina Bloomfield, digital content editor

‘Portable car’ available for pre-orders

A Japanese company is launching what it describes as the world’s smallest car. About the size of a laptop and essentially a battery-powered skateboard, the gadget is aimed at city dwellers dealing with the last-mile problem. Similar to the ‘hoverboard’ craze that’s swept Britain over the past couple of Christmas periods it looks a little more practical, and therefore a lot more scary. It’s tiny! And the wheels look like something I have on my office chair right now. In addition, what happens when you get stuck behind a slow walker? Can you ramp up the speed and just run over them? Is that a crime if it’s not on the road? I’m confused. I can’t see this becoming a familiar sight in the UK: it wouldn’t be legal on public roads and pathways, and even if it was, would probably lead to an outbreak of road/path/private property.

Tereza Pultarova, news reporter

Graphene-fed silkworms produce super-silk

Researchers found that simply feeding silkworms graphene and carbon nanotubes (well, mulberry leaves sprayed with graphene or carbon nanotubes) makes the worms produce super-strong silk.

Kite power demonstration plant being built in Scotland

The first kite power plant is being built in Scotland and the technology’s creators believe that replacing off shore turbines with these massive kites would cut the cost of off-shore wind power by 50 per cent.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Video-conferencing and wood to help UK achieve climate goals

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that even increasing renewable energy infrastructure at an unprecedented rate is unlikely to help the UK meet the Paris Climate Change agreement targets that prime minister Theresa May has said the country will ratify by the end of the year. The Committee on Climate Change, an independent group set up under the 2008 Climate Change Act 2008 to provide the government with expert advice on progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, was probably stating the obvious when it warned this week that we’re well short of where we should be. Domestic targets are ‘relatively ambitious’, but still not enough to achieve the Paris treaty’s goals. The message is one that’s addressed at the public and business leaders as much as it is at the people with their hands on the public purse strings who can throw big money at renewable generation and carbon capture projects. What’s needed, the committee says, is an approach that combines these with changes in behaviour that we can all contribute to. So you could videoconference instead of flying or driving to a meeting, and enjoy a meat-free lunch that’s probably not only healthier but also better for the environment. We don’t all have to become technophobes, but this warning, which drew little attention, should be a wake-up call for everybody.

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