CES, UK rail, flying cars, laser weapons: E&T editors comment on the week’s news

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.

Tereza Pultarova, news reporter

CES 2017: Sleep-aid devices on the up; Samsung to debut first smartphone since Note7

I’ve been struggling with insomnia since my early twenties. The major nuisance disrupting my sleep is noise. I can’t stand virtually any noise. Even the breathing of a person sleeping next to me is enough to keep me awake and I don’t find early morning birdsong calming at all. I’m not even talking about traffic noise of all sorts. It has always been super important for me to have a quiet bedroom. The day I discovered earplugs revolutionised my life. Since then, I’ve had fewer constrains when choosing my accommodation. But to be fair, earplugs aren’t always comfortable (you may not believe it but your ears can actually sweat inside). New technology introduced at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas now promises to solve the noise problem with an ambient sound generator designed to block external noise. I’m curious but I guess the price tag would be far higher than that of my earplugs.

Green technologies need to proliferate 10 times faster to prevent 2°C rises

A new study suggests that if global temperature increases are to be limited to 2°C or less, which is the goal of the Paris Climate Change treaty, green technologies will need to be installed at a rate 10 times faster than at present. It’s clear that we are nowhere near to thwarting dangerous global warming and the question obviously is – can we do it? And if we don’t what’s going to happen next?

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

Major rail investment needed to cope with booming passenger numbers

Well, here’s a traditional “happy new year” to commuters from British Rail – another call for a “major investment” alongside a traditional increase in fares as the only potential source of such an investment. No ‘major studies’ were needed to highlight the extent of the problem: it is sufficient to join any London train commute on any day of the working week for the problem to stare you in the face. Brexit has nothing to do with it. And, with all due respect to Institution of Mechanical Engineers, “using flyovers and shorter signalling sections” is not enough. With over a hundred years of chronic underinvestment into the infrastructure, even the most brazen and innovative engineering solutions are doomed to failure.

Flying car set for 2020 commercial release

I look forward to 2020. If I am still in full-time employment by then (and I don’t see why I shouldn’t be), I stand a chance of a daily flight to work and back home! If I acquire the Cormorant flying family car that is. But let’s face it, the latter possibility (I mean my acquisition of the car in question), unfortunately, is highly improbable. Even if the Hollywood movie based on one of my books that is being negotiated at the moment comes to fruition, it still won’t be enough to purchase the flying vehicle, currently priced at £11 million. The only remaining options would be either winning a lottery jackpot or – much more unlikely  turning into a Russian oligarch (for I am actually Ukrainian by birth, you see). So, on reflection, I would rather cycle to work in 2020, health permitting. After all, no one can stop me from dreaming of owning if not a flying car, then at least a flying bicycle, which I hear is also being developed.

Georgina Bloomfield, digital content editor

Virtual reality to be part of everyday life in five years

Virtual reality will be a common part of everyday life as early as 2021, a survey suggests. About 12 per cent of the survey participants said they believe the traditional watching of sport on TV will be completely replaced by VR experiences. However, about 5 per cent of the survey participants reported unpleasant experiences such as nausea and claustrophobic feelings while using VR devices. Not to mention feelings of separation from the real world and any unknown mental illnesses associated with VR, it is indeed something that ought to be approached with caution if it’s to be used so heavily in our lives. Social media is dangerous enough as it is without introducing another dimension entirely.

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

Healthcare and wellbeing technologies dominate at CES

Technology makes life better - there’s no doubt about that. I haven’t the slightest desire to live like a Victorian, let alone go back to the days before the Industrial Revolution. All the same, I do sometimes wonder whether we make our lives unnecessarily complicated. I have a suspicion that a lot of the gadgets being launched at CES2017 are aimed at the ‘worried well’ with money to spare - bearing in mind that this mega-event used to be called the Consumer Electronics Show, with the emphasis on ‘consumer’.

Major rail investment needed to cope with booming passenger numbers

While the headline of this story could be seen as stating the obvious, the report it’s based on has been put together by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and the respected transport research organisation TRL, and it offers some practical suggestions for how to deal with the challenges that come with increasing demand, based on four case studies. For those with an interest in the industry it’s worth taking a look.

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

Contract for next generation laser weapon awarded

“You expect me to talk?”

“No, Mr Bond, I expect you to die!”

Laser weapons have long been imagined since a few years after the invention of lasers in 1960, such as that scene from Goldfinger, released in 1964. Lasers were even part of the Strategic Defence Initiative ‘Star Wars’ research project started under the US Presidency of Ronald Reagan in 1983. Yet they have been limited mainly to range finding and target acquisition applications. Now three decades later the UK is to build a prototype of a laser directed energy weapon designed to shoot down drones and missiles.

Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor

Flying car set for 2020 commercial release

So it’s taken 15 years and £11m to make what looks like an old banger/jalopy that nobody wants from Star Wars? At least it’s a start. A lick of paint wouldn’t go amiss when you’re presenting it, though. With its predicted release to the market for 2020, they’d better start thinking about what colour it should come in. Maybe give it some racing stripes? At least scrub the thing with soap and water. Any piece from the fictional planet Jakku, where old ships and junk are sold or left to rot in the harsh desert climate, would be an easy sell compared to the cacky-looking Cormorant. Aquatic birds would hang their heads in shame if they knew they were likened to the Urban Aeronautics drone.

Jade Fell, assistant features editor

The elderly most at risk from cyber-crime, report warns

A new report has emerged revealing the shocking news that the elderly are the most at risk of cyber-crime – crazy isn’t it? Who would have thought that the over 70s might be less technologically adept than their grandchildren? I for one am astounded. I agree that it is important to make sure that the older generation are kept safe online – but I don’t need a report to tell me that. What would be more interesting is a report which explains why so many young people fall for phishing and hacking scams, despite the fact they are less at risk. When I was at university we received an email every week informing us of another phishing scam, and warning all students to never, under any circumstances, respond to an email with their username or password. Like clockwork the library helpdesk would be inundated with lines of students queueing up to tell the friendly IT technicians that they had accidentally given a phisher their password and needed to have their account retrieved, and once again all Hotmail and Gmail messages would be blacklisted from the university server until further notice. It wouldn’t surprise me if this was still happening today, years after I graduated, because regardless of how much literature there is out there about cyber-crime and the risks of phishing and hacking scams, some people are inherently programmed to believe things that are written in an email. What’s that? I haven’t logged into my PayPal account in three days and so need to click this link to confirm my identity, and type in my username and password? Well, PayPal has informed me that they will never ask me to do this via email… but this all seems really quite legitimate and official… It’s probably true so I’ll just go ahead and pass on my bank details to these amateur hackers, what’s the worst that could happen?

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Cuadrilla starts preparations ahead of Lancashire fracking test

Another example of politicians saying one thing then doing another in Lancashire, where plans to assess the potential of a site for oil extraction using hydraulic fracturing that were rejected by the local council look set to go ahead after the decision was overturned by the national government. For all the talk of putting decision making about this and other environmental issues into the hands of the people who will be affected, it’s often more expedient to ignore them. Particularly when there’s a knock-on effect that hits everyone financially. If you’ve noticed petrol prices going up rapidly in recent weeks, that’s to do with fracking. OPEC and associated oil-producing nations are quite open about the fact they manipulate output to keep international prices bouyant, and a lot of recent fluctuations have been in response to America’s enthusiasm for, and apparent success with, fracking.

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