Budget, drones, CIA hack: E&T editors’ highlights from the week’s tech 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.
Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
Inevitably, the Budget dominated the news this week and - equally inevitably - many of the announcements made therein proved divisive. The National Insurance hit for self-employed people has been the main talking point both inside and outside the Houses of Parliament, overshadowing some key investments in future technology, with millions of pounds pledged to support “the brightest and best research talent,” towards 5G development, in support of a renewed push for nationwide superfast broadband - particularly to remote, rural locations - and for a significant investment in robotics. As long as all this money does indeed materialise where it should for the purposes intended, it should boost the UK’s position as a hotbed of future technologies.
When people start thinking laterally about a problem, raising a finger to say “Wait a minute, why are we doing this?” it seems like there’s almost no long-standing process that can’t be improved by scientific principle and engineering discipline. Just because “we’ve always done it that way” almost never means we should carry on doing it. Take car tyres: about 30 per cent of a typical automobile tyre consists of carbon black, which has been used in this way for more than a century. It’s slowly running out worldwide and isn’t sustainable. Now researchers at Ohio State University have identified that, of all things, discarded eggshells from food producers and the thick, fibrous skins from commercial strains of tomato could do the job just as well as carbon black and save many thousands of tonnes of this food waste going to landfill every year. Cracking.
Now here’s another example of using one old abandoned object for an entirely new sustainable use – in this case on a gigantic scale. Snowdonia Pumped Hydro (SPH) intends to transform two abandoned slate quarries at Glyn Rhonwy near Llanberis in North Wales into water reservoirs that will store around 700MWh of electricity over a projected operational lifetime of 125 years or more. The only visible evidence of the pumped-hydro storage facility will be a modest building on an industrial park and two reservoirs, whose water levels silently rise and fall each day, contained by slate dams blending with existing slate tips. It seems like an elegant and attractive solution, blending in the national power grid’s requirement for modern storage facilities with the natural landscape of abandoned quarries.
Dickon Ross, editor in chief
Sometimes it seems everything in the world has gone digital with one important exception in public life: voting. There are a few nations, like Estonia, that have led the way but it’s not as easy as it would appear for everyone else to follow. Now France has taken a step away as it drops a scheme to allow citizens abroad to vote remotely. In London we’re aware of the French elections. One member of my family was even canvassed in the street recently by a French party looking for voters in the constituency that is London. We are also only too aware of the problems in voting, where the mayor of Tower Hamlets was removed from office for, among other things, irregularities in the election. Remote electronic voting isn’t the answer though. The problem is who will be responsible for ensuring a secret ballot. How do you know the person who owns the vote was in no way coerced? That may sound abstract to the voters of Estonia but for immigrants from cultures where, for example, women are not expected to have political views, it’s more than a theoretical concern. Party canvassers in London tell me they sometimes knock on doors where the occupants are quite open about it too. I can’t see how technology can get around that particular problem.
Josh Loeb, associate editor
News that mock drone-on-drone dogfights are to be staged in the skies above a UK military base reveals just how seriously defence chiefs are taking the prospect of terrorists turning what are commonly regarded as fun techie toys into weapons of mass murder. I’m sorry, but drones are creepy. You’re sitting in your garden daydreaming when the next minute there’s a robot hovering above you, videoing you and whirring like a mosquito. Wouldn’t it be satisfying to get a giant fly swatter and whack the blinking thing? Whack, whack, whack… and problem solved. That said, there’s something strangely reassuring about the fact that securocrats in several European countries have turned to the age-old practice of falconry to provide a solution to this most 21st-century problem. Birds of prey have been trained to catch errant drones in their talons. That’s fine for a single drone, but imagine a swarm of the ghastly things buzzing towards you, perhaps armed with grenades, hazardous substances or radioactive waste. The poor eagle would be a goner. The best hope, therefore, probably lies in so-called “non-kinetic” options - namely hacking into a drone’s systems or interfering with its electrics to bring it safely down. The prospect of terrorists using drones is, well, terrifying. At least the authorities are alive to it and are drawing up robust counter-measures. It’s time we all woke up to the threat too.
Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
A grid-scale pumped hydro storage system has been given planning permission, the first in the UK for over 30 years. Developers of the Glyn Rhonwy scheme hope to build it without public money. Construction could start next year.
The Air Accidents Investigation Branch has published its report into why the Airlander 10 hybrid airship-plane was damaged after nosediving at the end of a test flight last year. AAIB traced a sequence of events that were triggered by the £25m aircraft’s mooring line hanging free after an initial failed landing. Manufacturer Hybrid Air Vehicles says it has now repaired the damage and developed an improved landing system, among other changes.
Jack Loughran, news reporter
The revelations that the CIA is spying on every device you own came as very little surprise to me. Documents released by Wikileaks showed how the CIA is capable of infiltrating many internet-connected devices using backdoor security holes. Of course they are! Even before Snowden this should have been assumed by most people. In his View from Washington column E&T’s Paul Dempsey argued that this leak was dangerous on the part of Wikileaks because it compromises the ability of the CIA, and other intelligence agencies, to track criminals and terrorists on the web. But these security holes are an open door for anyone with the requisite skills to come in and poke around in other people’s data, whether that’s the Russian government or a bored teenager with a grudge. Arguably the most significant cyber-security story in the last year was the Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee. That possibly resulted in the disaster that is the Donald Trump presidency, a political coup that is far more dangerous and damaging to the global political landscape than the actions of any terrorist or criminal group (even if Hillary can appear a dodgy character, the lesser of two evils applies in this circumstance). And who says the CIA is 100 per cent trustworthy anyway? Especially now it is under Trump’s leadership. By releasing the documents, Wikileaks has shamed all of the named companies into action and they will now be forced to clean up their acts and plug these security holes fast for the benefit of consumers, if not the prying eyes of governments.
Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Low-key tests in the broad and usually free-flowing roads of a modern urban area like Milton Keynes were never going to convince most British motorists that self-driving cars would be capable of negotiating a busy city centre in rush hour. Now Nissan is giving its Leaf electric car a bigger challenge by getting it to navigate the streets betwen the ExCel exhibition centre and Beckton in east London. Assuming this is during the hours of daylight, a clean safety record would go some way to persuading me that this is the way to go. As ever with this technology the problem isn’t the robot car itself, but the fact it has to cope with the hair-raising behaviour of human drivers. And as one correspondent who wrote to E&T this week prompted by our current ‘Cars of the Future’ issue wondered, when driverless taxis become the norm, how many might you have to turn away at two in the morning before you get one where someone hasn’t been sick in the back?