Best of the week’s news 21 October 2016: 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.

Jade Fell, assistant features editor

Universal laptop charger aims to reduce e-waste

I wondered how long it would take for there to be a universal charger for laptops. I don’t know about you, but the standardisation of mobile phone chargers has revolutionised my life. You don’t have to worry any more about leaving your changer at home because wherever you are going someone will almost certainly have a changer you can use. Even Apple got with the programme with the new USB type C. It’s incredible, and has significantly cut down my cable consumption which is good for everyone, other than my tangled drawer full of old cables. I chose this story this week because I like the thought that laptops will go the same way, it will make everything so much easier, but more than anything this story appealed to me because of the e-waste factor. If you didn’t already know, e-waste is a problem, a huge problem in fact. It is actually the fasted growing waste stream on Earth and an awful lot of e-waste simple cannot be recycled. It’s terrifying. Huge amounts of cabling are produced every year, and without standardisation demand is always high. A universal charger won’t solve the problem – we have consumer culture to thank for that – but it’s a start.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

Californian driverless testing proposals anger Google and automakers

I fully understand and share all the concerns about driverless vehicles and have expressed them in a feature ‘Transport in the Smart City’ in the June 2016 issue of E&T. On the other hand, I have recently learned of a very positive example in Switzerland, where they started testing driverless postbuses last June. PostBus is the country’s largest public transport company. With more than 3,700 employees and around 2,200 vehicles at its disposal, its cute bright yellow vehicles carry round 141 million passengers each year – both in the valleys and high in the Alps. And just like nearly 200 years ago, when the first horse-drawn postal carriages appeared on Swiss roads, the postbuses of today still carry not just passengers but also mail. On Tuesday 6 October, Postbus resumed testing Europe’s first driverless coaches, known as SmartShuttles, in the town of Sion, the capital of the Swiss canton of Valais. The earlier tests, which began last June, were disrupted by an accident when an autonomous mini-bus collided with a parked delivery van. PostBus and its vehicle supplier Navya have investigated the causes of the collision and have taken measures to prevent a similar incident happening in the future. The first driverless bus is small, more like a mini-van really, and only carries nine passengers. Yet knowing the traditional Swiss punctuality and precision, I hope very much that this time the tests will be successful, and soon we’ll see those agile yellow buses, with no driver at the wheel, running merrily along the roads of Switzerland, as well as Liechtenstein and parts of France, where PostBus vehicles also operate. (P.S. After writing this, I spotted another story reporting that trials of driverless buses will soon begin in Singapore, too. The exact date, however, has not been announced yet.)

Katia Moskvitch, technology features editor

Britain’s first robot brought back to life by the Science Museum 

He looks like he's come straight out of a science-fiction movie - but not only is Eric the robot very real, he's also Britain's first ever robot. Or rather, what is on display now at London's Science Museum is Eric's full-size working replica. Eric was originally built by First World War veteran Captain William Richards and aircraft engineer Alan Reffell early in the 20th century, and replaced the Duke of York in opening the Exhibition of the Society of Model Engineers in London on 28 September, 1928. Standing at the Royal Horticultural Hall, Eric bowed, looked right and left and moved his hands, and then gave a four minute opening address as sparks flashed from his mouth. But shortly thereafter, the robot mysteriously disappeared... until earlier this year, when following a successful crowdfunding campaign and with the help of old blueprints, his replica was rebuilt. The resurrected Eric, just like the old one, is two metres tall and made from polished tin. If you want to see him, he’s on display at the Science Museum until 30 November.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Multipurpose agricultural robot to offer farmers a helping hand

Meet Thorvald’, a mechanical worker created by engineers at the University of Lincoln to carry out a range of tasks around the farm. Capable of travelling across the most uneven field, ‘he’ can carry out tasks ranging from providing a simple carrying platform to taking sensors to where they’re needed. Eventually he’ll be capable of monitoring crop growth and carrying out precision weed control. Thorvald’s designers describe him as a roaming lab assistant, capable of squeezing between rows of plants to track their growth without causing any damage. This is one robotic initiative that won’t be putting people out of a job – most agricultural work is automated these days anyway, and Thorvald will give the people exploring how to do that even more efficiently more time to spend on research and less trudging around muddy fields.

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