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UK Space Bill, boozy recycling, Industrial Strategy and more: best of the week’s tech news

Image credit: Diomedia

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.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

Space Industry Bill flies through parliament paving way to commercial space flights

An obvious pick for me as I’m researching content for the issue of E&T coming out in January, which will have space as one of its central themes. The race for space is no longer about putting a man on the Moon or creating military advantage. It’s about winning a sizeable proportion of the commercial opportunities that space offers, as it will increasingly play a role in the development of so many technologies, from autonomous cars to wearable health tech.

The Space Bill is an important part of the infrastructure behind a formative industry – without regulation in a field that previously had none, it could be a dangerous and expensive place to operate in.

The most challenging aspect would be the development of the UK’s own launch facility, but good regulations and adherence to them provide the framework to making them possible. What has increased the likelihood of the UK having its own space port is the announcement in the Government’s industrial strategy that £50m has been put aside to make it and other developments in the space industry possible.

An announcement about the selected site or sites is expected early in the New Year, with 26 consortia bids in the frame. Realistically, and I could be way off the mark here, in terms of how well the various projects are positioned for this, there seems to be the most convincing public cases for Prestwick, Campbeltown and Newquay, but the UK Space Agency is tight lipped about the process now that it is in a commercially sensitive stage.

The volume of launches makes it unlikely that two sites will be given support by public money, but it remains a possibility, particularly if the launch is to be horizontal rather than vertical – ie the launch rocket is strapped to a large plane and the key component for the site becomes a long runway.

One misconception that the national Press seems to be keen on propagating is that this would open the door for space tourism. Never say never, of course, but the space port proposals are for rockets that can accommodate satellites, and small satellites at that, rather than people. It is really Cube-sat sized units [10cm x 10cm x 10cm] that offer the most promising commercial returns and consequently are the main target area for the UK space industry.

Exciting times for space industry and the government is doing its best in these austere times to make sure the infrastructure and investment is there to keep the momentum going.

Josh Loeb, associate editor

Boozing Britain suffers waste and recycling headache, research reveals

I’m going to drone on about waste again. This time the culprit is booze. There’s nothing nice that’s not a vice, it seems, and alcohol is obviously no exception. We in Britain get through heroic quantities of beer, wine, vodka, whiskey and gin annually (no jokes about journalists please). At least half of all our booze bottles and cans end up in general waste bins as opposed to being recycled - despite the fact that aluminium and glass are eminently recyclable.

I have a simple solution. It’s called the pub. For environmentally conscious beer drinkers, the pub is a place where one can relax beneath one’s halo of ecological self-righteousness while enjoying one’s favourite tipple. That’s because proper pubs pull things called pints and halves using glasses (ie ones made of glass, not plastic). These can be easily cleaned and reused. There are also beer kegs, which are refilled on being returned to the brewery. In the grand scheme of things, it’s relatively ‘zero waste’ (in terms of packaging, if not the brewing process). Yes, it’s more expensive to drink in a pub than at home, but no one can deny it’s nicer.

On the subject of waste, remember how milk used to come delivered to your door in glass milk bottles, which, when empty, were put back outside to be collected for reuse by the milkman driving his electric-powered float? All very eco-friendly. The aluminium bottle tops were the only piece of disposable packaging, and even they could probably have been recycled were one so minded. Now we all seem to buy milk from supermarkets in plastic bottles. And they call this progress!

My point is that, while recycling is good, the real gains lie in reusing stuff. Sometimes that means going back to older and slower ways of doing things. Sure, it’s quicker to grab a takeaway coffee in a disposable container than to linger in a café and enjoy one in a proper ceramic cup, but is it always necessary to be in such a rush? The ‘on the go’ culture has a lot to answer for. It encourages us to consume and throw away. We have no time to stand and stare.

Maybe it would be no bad thing if we were all a little less hypermobile. I’m not a huge fan of the idea of mindfulness, but if it gets people to sit still once in a while, perhaps there’s something to be said for it after all.

Jade Taylor-Salazar, supplements editor

Christmas book bundle giveaway: A Very Short Introduction

I’m sure you all realise by now that E&T stories online are always excellent, but if there is one that’s really worth your time this week it’s this one. We are exceptionally excited about Christmas this year – it’s 1 December, which means bad jumpers and Christmas carols are not only acceptable, but encouraged – and so to welcome the start of the festive season we are giving five lucky readers the chance to win an awesome bundle of books from the Oxford University Press ‘Very Short Introduction’ series. We are huge fans of these books, which offer concise introductions to complex subjects and are the perfect size for stuffing in a loved one’s stocking, and want to share enthusiasm with all of you. To be in with a chance of winning all you have to do is head on over to the story and enter our giveaway by next Friday (8 December).

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

UK’s Industrial Strategy launched with pledge to embrace technology post-Brexit

Government trying to ‘pick winners’ is a very bad idea. That’s what we heard for the decades from the 1980s onwards, sometimes to the frustration of industry, looking with envious eyes to the help their competitors abroad receive from their governments. The industrial strategy announced on Monday aims to get around this accusation by picking instead ‘challenges’. Identifying the problem rather than the panacea avoids the accusation of picking winners while the panacea can still follow. It’s been controversial nevertheless, but more for other reasons, in the context of Brexit. Catch up on what’s in the strategy for engineering and technology - and what isn’t.

Comment: Industrial Strategy sees Government return to picking winners

Trying to pick winners is a mistake - unless government manages to pick right perhaps. Let’s hope they have picked the right problems at least. Chris Edwards thinks they look like pretty safe bets.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Formula E car races cheetah in savannah sprint to highlight conservation issues

It’s the big cat/fast car smackdown. Who will win? You’ll have to watch the video embedded in this story to find out.

Nasa’s new alien-hunting rover to lead Mars 2020 mission

Possibly an instance of a headline overselling the story - conjuring as it does images of Hollywood-style alien lifeforms being tracked and hunted across the surface of Mars by Nasa’s new rover - but the actual facts do still bear repeating.

Boozing Britain suffers waste and recycling headache, research reveals

Two facts gleaned here: Britons drink too much and recycle too little. Both need to change.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

‘Chatty factories’ get feedback direct from users

Imagine if sensors embedded in the things you use every day didn’t just alert you when they were wearing out or had suffered a fault, but could send a message to the company that made them in the first place to let them know how the design could be improved. Not too different from someone centuries ago dropping in on the local artisan who’d made their clothes, furniture or whatever and suggesting a few ways of doing their job better. This being the 21st century, ‘chatty factories’ do it on a massive scale using the Internet of Things. And in the example the researchers developing the technique use to illustrate it, it’s a bike helmet with a crack in it that sends out a warning – something you probably wouldn’t notice but which could be potentially dangerous and down to a flaw in the manufacturing process. 

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