UK space plans, British engineering, smart ships, brain interfaces: E&T editors' picks
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.
Josh Loeb, associate editor
This week’s LaunchUK forum at the Royal Aeronautical Society was an eye-opener. Not only was the pitiful ratio of women to men working in the aerospace sector all too apparent (there must have been at least 10 men for every one woman in the room) but I had not previously considered space to be a pillar of the UK’s post-Brexit strategy. Nothing has ever been launched into orbit from British soil before, but the government has now boldly declared – with a straight face – that not just satellites but space tourists could soon be being propelled beyond Earth’s atmosphere from Snowdonia, the Scottish islands or one of the numerous other locations being touted as a potential UK spaceport site. It wants to steal a march on the rest of Europe to capitalise on what it sees as an important future market. I personally doubt there is a big enough market for space tourism, but that did not prevent me from feeling exhilarated by the huge legal and moral quandaries posed by plans for more manned and unmanned spaceflight. Time will tell if this week’s forum really marked the start of a new British space age or whether it was but another false dawn. Those attending included spaceport brokers, rocket designers and people interested in the prospect of mining for gold on asteroids. Fans of Brexit were fond of saying that Britain outside the bloc could connect more with the rest of the world. “Out - and into the world,” as the right-wing Spectator put it. What if it really were “Out – and into space?”
Georgina Bloomfield, digital content editor
A brain-computer interface that allows fast, accurate typing for people with paralysis has been developed by a Stanford University team. The outstanding amount of research that goes into these projects is amazing. It’s certainly good news, as each participant after minimal training, mastered the technique sufficiently to outperform the results of any previous test of similar devices for enhancing communication by people with impaired movement. One participant, Dennis Degray of Menlo Park, California, was able to type 39 correct characters per minute, equivalent to about eight words per minute. This is a great advancement and certainly one that’s welcomed globally.
Skills supply remains the major concern of the UK engineering sector, especially with the pending Brexit, although the first optimistic signs can already be seen, according to the 2017 State of Engineering Report. According to estimates, the UK would need at least 20,000 extra students graduating from engineering disciplines every year in order to be able to meet the demand for engineering skills. These vacancies are currently filled by EU workers or other migrants. With the pending Brexit and the expected withdrawal of the UK from the European Single Market and the area of free movement, the businesses are concerned they might struggle to find the required talent. As worrying as these figures are, I’m cynical. I think the skills are in the UK, but people are discouraged from working in engineering for various reasons. Have a look at my article here for more info.
Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
Ships are expensive items that are expected to last a long time. That means the people buying them don’t want to take risks with unproven technology. The advantage of Rolls-Royce’s latest concept cargo vessel is that its modular design lets owners make safe choices now and upgrade later - so they can switch to a cleaner fuel, go electric or even take out the bridge and put the officers in an onshore control room. Of course, concepts aren’t the same as commercial offerings, but this looks like an idea that could catch on.
Africa is about to experience a 'solar revolution' akin to the rapid increase in mobile phone use on the continent two decades ago, according to the head of the International Renewable Energy Agency. IRENA director general Adnan Amin believes that fast-dropping costs for solar power combined with plenty of sun and a huge need for additional electricity capacity are set to create the perfect conditions for a massive increase in uptake. That makes sense to me. Affordable solar panels can provide electricity without the huge costs of building transmission grids; it’s the same story as telephony in Africa, which was inaccessible outside densely populated areas until mobile technology came along.
Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
The case for wider use of wood in construction seems to me to be as solid as the 53-metre-high 'plyscraper' recently opened in Norway. Known as The Tree (or Treet, in Norwegian), it is currently the tallest wooden structure in the world - although this record will be short-lived, set to be bested in October by a magnificent Canadian erection. With many architects keen to get their hands on this natural wonder-material more often, wood is rising proudly to stand firm in all corners of the world.
How would you talk to an alien? Or an Amazonian tribesperson? Or, somewhat less exotically, a Swede if you didn't speak any Swedish? If you were a White House spokesperson, say, suddenly obliged to field calls from irate Swedes keen to berate your President's latest self-inflicted intellectual implosion. This intriguing article discusses the concept of first contact, the work of modern linguists and how technology is helping them understand how to better understand.
Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Sometimes you wouldn’t realise from the amount of coverage it gets in the media quite how important engineering is to the UK. Responsible for more than a quarter of the country’s GDP and with a contribution to the economy that at nearly £486bn is more than retail, wholesale, finance and insurance combined. The prospect of Brexit and need to assess whether the Britain has enough people to maintain industry’s competitiveness might have been expected to have helped focus. The worrying news from the latest annual report on the state of engineering from EngineeringUK, published this week, is that the perennial shortage of students with the right skills emerging from the education system shows no sign of ending. At a rough estimate, Britain needs an additional 20,000 engineering graduates each year on top of those coming out of university already to fill roles that are available. And guess who’s plugging the gap? Yes, just like the low-skill positions we hear a lot about, it’s immigrants from the EU and elsewhere in the world. Compared with a lot of other countries, typical graduate starting salaries around £26,000 are pretty attractive, but not attractive enough, it seems for home-grown youngsters. The EngineeringUK report is useful in that it provides a record of trends over the past ten years, a period during which the proportion of workers in engineering aged under 25 has decreased every year. There are reasons to be optimistic – the number of engineering and technology graduates increased by nine per cent in 2015 and increasing numbers of young people are taking the apprenticeship route to a career in the sector. That’s going to take a while to feed through to a point where it will address the skills gap though, as will the good news that more than half of teenagers now say they would at least consider a career in engineering. Most of us are probably suffering from Brexit fatigue by now, but important questions like this deserve to be a central part of negotiations on how the UK leaves the EU.