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UK rail future, Galileo, airport face recognition and more: Best of the week's news

Image credit: Network Rail

E&T staff pick the news from the past week that caught their eye and reflect on what these latest developments in engineering and technology mean to them. For the full story, just click on the headline.

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

Government urged to end ‘boom and bust’ in rail procurement

This has been a relatively quiet week in E&T’s production cycle, so I was able to spend a day at the Infrarail event in London, catching up on developments in the rail industry. It turned out to be very interesting. I was only able to focus on one point in my news story, but I noted many other things too. Transport Secretary Chris Grayling’s keynote speech showed he has got the message that more is achieved when everyone works together, and he also seems to recognise that diesel isn’t going to be eliminated, though if there were a few more engineers in the Department for Transport he might be less eager to “believe it won’t be long before we see diesel engines on bimodes replaced with batteries and hydrogen”. Never say never, but meanwhile maybe he should focus on getting more freight onto rail. Even with diesel locomotives it’s both cleaner and a lot safer than putting more HGVs on the roads, and if we can only get on with electrifying the main cross-country routes it will give the operators confidence to invest in electric locomotives.

Not so long ago, commentators were saying that Network Rail’s ‘Digital Railway’ programme had lost its way, but for the last two years it’s been under the stewardship of the well-respected David Waboso, whose presentation was so well attended that there were probably more people standing around the margins than were able to find seats. He has clearly got a grip on what was a rather amorphous concept, declaring right at the start that the digital railway programme is about command and control systems - in other words, signalling and the big control centres that manage the traffic. I haven’t space here to cover everything he said - I’m sure it will all be in the specialist railway magazines if you want to know more - but there were a couple of things worth noting. First, Waboso wants the supply chain involved from the earliest stages of a project and throughout its life, and instead of telling them exactly what to supply he’s going for ‘outcome specifications’ - what performance, capacity, journey time savings and cost improvements are wanted - to leave scope for innovation [and in another presentation, Network Rail chief engineer Jon Shaw invited the industry to challenge standards that might be inhibiting innovation]. Second, he’s encouraging a rolling programme of fitting European-standard ‘ETCS level 2’ signalling equipment in train cabs so that they will be ready ahead of the associated infrastructure upgrades planned for the next control period, which will see lineside signals removed. The industry has been talking about ETCS for a long time (cf Galileo, below) but Waboso told a questioner that he’s now happy to push ahead with it because there’s now a stable specification, following earlier issues with version control. “Lessons have been learnt,” he commented.

On the technology front, one thing that struck me as I walked around the show was the number of exhibitors involved in digital surveying - equipment suppliers, surveyors and data analysts - compared with when I first started taking an interest in the rail industry. That clearly reflects the developments in drones, lidar and processing power that we’ve often reported in in other sectors too.

I left ExCel feeling confident in where the industry is going, so it’s a pity that my final rail experience of the day was sitting in a train that went nowhere for two-and-a-half hours because the power lines had come down. However, I have to say that the driver kept us well-informed, a staff member came and unlocked some ‘emergency’ windows when the train went into sleep mode and the aircon shut down and the atmosphere in my carriage was generally very tranquil. I had a magazine to read and a bottle of drinking water picked up from one of the Infrarail exhibitors and in these days of mobile phones I was able to warn my husband that I would be late. I even had a comfortable seat - but I did reflect afterwards that I was lucky not to be on one of the newest trains on this line, where the seats have been universally nicknamed ‘ironing boards’ for their shape and hardness and have been packed together with no spacers between them. Someone asked Chris Grayling about the already infamous seats on these Class 700 trains and he replied that these are intended to be commuter trains, but added that he was sure the train companies were listening to the comments. I certainly hope so.

UK government ponders homegrown satellite alternative to EU’s Galileo project

One of the first articles I ever wrote for E&T’s predecessor magazine, IEE Review, was an introduction to the planned Galileo system at a time when most people weren’t even aware of the concept of satellite navigation. It was published in March 2001 and you can still find it if you have access to the IET Digital Library (search ‘Galileo Sharpe’). Back then, the project was expected to cost EUR3.2bn for development and deployment and it was going to attract private finance from the companies that would make money out of selling equipment and services (we didn’t use the word ‘apps’ 17 years ago). A full complement of 30 satellites would be in orbit by 2008. You’ll see from this week’s news story that the cost has gone up to EUR10bn, with completion due in 2020. The private finance never materialised.

What was clear even in 2001 was that this was a politically-driven project, designed to show that whatever the US could do, ‘Europe’ could do, too, and hold under its own control. Originally a joint project of the European Commission and the European Space Agency (ESA), the programme is now funded and owned by the EU, managed and overseen by the commission, though actual deployment and technical development are ‘entrusted’ (according to the commission’s website) to ESA.

After all that background, we come back to politics. The UK has not only paid its share of funding the project right from the start but UK researchers and businesses have been heavily involved in its development and deployment. Now, because we are leaving the political union, we are threatened with being cut out from access to the programme. That won’t make any difference to you or me – our phones and in-car satnavs will still pick up the signals from whatever satellites are overhead – but it does mean that our emergency services and armed forces wouldn’t be able to use the more precise encrypted signal that will be restricted to state-authorised bodies.

That’s why the Government has now confirmed that it is developing options for a British equivalent. Maybe common sense will eventually prevail in the Brexit negotiations - but this is clearly a case of ‘hope for the best, prepare for the worst'.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

Singapore airport to trial facial recognition to find late passengers

I’ve never been to Singapore per se, but at times I feel as if I have. The reason is simple: at least half of my 50-odd flights from London to Melbourne and back (all undertaken some years ago) stopped at Singapore’s Changi Airport for refuelling. After a 13-hour stretch from London, or seven hours from Melbourne, it was always a welcome break – a chance to stretch my legs, feeling stiff and alien after many hours of forced immobility, and – when I was still a smoker – an opportunity to replenish my poor lungs with nicotine. I would normally smoke five or six cigarettes in a row in the airport’s spectacular Cactus Garden, where you were allowed to light up. Apart from countless cacti in pots, it also had a bar where massively overpriced yet irresistibly ice-cold Heineken beer was available. I used to spend most of the stopover time there before running back to my lounge for boarding.

I can very well understand why the Changi authorities are finding it hard to persuade some transit passengers to return to their departure lounges on time; the airport offers too many attractions and distractions. Even many years ago, the facilities used to be mind-boggling: fountains, posh restaurants with live music, chic boutiques, gaming arcades, prayer rooms, saunas, hotels, cinemas, concert halls, exhibitions and much more. On top of it all, the airport was spotlessly, almost lifelessly clean – to the extent that one could safely eat from its carpeted floors.

Having visited hundreds of airports in my lifetime, I can say with a full sense of responsibility that Changi was – metaphorically speaking - towering above them like a snow-capped mountain peak above alpine valley huts. No wonder that, year after year, it keeps being voted the world’s best.

I haven’t flown to Australia for several years now and frankly do not miss the inevitably debilitating 24-hour flight one iota. Yet, there’s one aspect of it that I often feel nostalgic about: the stopover at Changi Airport. It was like taking a peep into the future.

I am sure that the airport’s facilities are even more spectacular than they used to be which means I would probably be among those forgetful passengers who got carried away. Like them, I would most certainly have to be electronically spotted (albeit, being a non-smoker, no longer in the Cactus Garden), facially recognised and dragged back to my waiting flight.

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

Predictive repairs to elevators rolled out worldwide by Thyssenkrupp

People may be weary of the hype around the Internet of Things, but its importance remains. In fact, trying to explain just how important it will be is like trying to explain the importance of the Internet before the turn of the century. First, you have to forget gadgets. People can understand gadgets and they like gadgets, so they are the first examples used to explain the IoT, but they are not the best examples by any means. The Industrial Internet of Things will be far more important, far more quickly. The revolution will start with the more mundane applications in industry, from power management to plant maintenance. These things don’t usually excite the public, but this week there was a classic example of an early and important application that will save trouble, money and plenty of time. The humble lift has been given the IoT treatment and what a difference it will make – although most people will still not notice, and why should they? That’s how it will be for some time, with the real excitement happening behind the scenes.

Jack Loughran, news reporter

Facebook rolls out dating service and ‘Clear History’ feature

Facebook has finally decided to make an online dating platform, years after singles everywhere got obsessed with Tinder and then later decried its shallow, appearance-based matching algorithm. It seems very late in the day to be entering this sector, especially considering Tinder itself already uses Facebook to log in and to retrieve users’ images. The announcement also comes just weeks after the disastrous Cambridge Analytica scandal, which already has people questioning how much data they actually want to give the social network and now they’re asking for even more revealing tidbits about their dating habits. In recent years, Facebook has appeared to be following a vague policy of throwing everything it has at the wall and seeing what sticks, so I suppose this isn’t out of character, although maybe they should have waited a bit longer until everyone forgot their part in the mass harvesting of user data for private firms that may ultimately have aided in the election of Donald Trump as US President.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

Tidal stream industry could create 4000 jobs and produce £1.4bn for the UK, report finds

I spent the last few days in Glasgow at the excellent All Energy conference and exhibition, which for all that is named ‘all energy’ is strongly focused on renewables. Next week should be even more interesting, as I am going to visit the European Marine Energy Centre in Orkney, to see their work on wave and tidal energy technology.

I sat through many interesting conference sessions at All Energy and there was an unmistakeable air of optimism that would have been a big surprise to anyone in the industry a few years ago as subsidies and feed-in-tariffs were removed. The case for onshore wind is now undeniable and while offshore wind is considerably more expensive there is little doubt that it has vast further potential.

Part of the optimism comes from the knowledge that other technologies, specifically wave and tidal, are being developed and are now at the point where they are commercially viable. Where that optimism starts to waiver is when discussions about where backing for the industry is going to come from. The UK was at the forefront of developing wind-energy technology and there were specific moments in its evolution where there was a real opportunity for government to get behind it and grow it from a technology to an industry. Famously we didn’t, the Danes did, and now the wind turbine industry represents 7 per cent of the Danish economy – an incredible success story.

While wave energy still has a way to go to prove it can produce reliable energy at scale, the tidal-energy industry is almost at the point where the touchpaper can be lit and the industry could ignite. And on a global basis. The frustration that such a promising industry – offering energy security and reliability for the UK – is amplified by the knowledge that whoever gets in first is likely to be the winner when it comes to fabricating and guiding the industry worldwide. Tens of thousands of potential jobs, many in ‘unfashionable’ parts of the UK, along with an industry for long-term future are the prize.

Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister, gave an impressive keynote speech at All Energy that was fully focused on a vision for renewable energy and largely devoid of political points-scoring, but she left no doubt about the frustration in Scotland over the lack of commitment from Westminster on the subject. This was echoed by many speakers from industry located either side of the border.

Schemes like the Swansea tidal lagoon or the many technologies being tested at EMEC have all made a sound case both technologically and commercially – but has the Government learned the mistakes from the past, or are we destined to repeat them?

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Human teachers trump robots, survey of teenagers reveals

Even with Google’s help, I can’t pin down a specific example, but I’m sure the idea that in the future all teachers would be replaced by androids was once a staple of children’s comics and television shows. You could tell they were a teacher because despite looking like the traditional 1970s comedy idea of a robot, they always had a mortar board on their head, maybe a cape and perhaps had an extending arm that wielded a cane. Flash forward 40 or so years and the prospect of artificial intelligence playing a significant part in education is a reality, even if it’s not going to be in the shape of a Terminator-style PE teacher. We’re approaching the point where the benefits that fans of this approach have been touting for years – individualised learning and the end of the physical ‘classroom’ – are no longer just on the horizon but within reach.

Problem is, as this survey shows, students actually appreciate the advantages of having a human at the front of the class and are overwhelmingly wary of replacing the traditional approach to education with some kind of AI-guided technique. Even bearing in mind that the research was sponsored by a headteachers’ group who were presumably once classroom teachers themselves, and that it quizzed sixth-formers who are being taught in smaller groups and have a more personal relationship with staff, the message is clear.

It’s just a suggestion, but maybe today’s teenagers who have grown up with technology that would have been mind-bogglingly sophisticated to their parents at the same age are more aware of the problems when it goes wrong. What happens when software fails or is hacked mid-lesson? Is someone responsible for switching it off and on again? Will schools have a store of robot supply teachers ready to be wheeled out at a moment’s notice? Time for someone from the Beano to get back on the case.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Marathon flight-time solar UAV announced by all-British partnership

A new solar electric unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), with the potential to remain airborne for up to a year between maintenance checks, has been announced following an agreement between two British companies, BAE Systems and Prismatic. I enjoy these ‘proof of concept’ stories that succinctly point up the unquestionable benefits of renewable energy - in this case, solar. Seriously, think about this: a plane that can fly continuously for a whole calendar year, powered solely by the Sun’s rays. We can all sometimes be guilty of taking technological leaps for granted, but this one fact alone - a plane that flies itself for a whole year without needing to land or refuel even once! - is simply amazing. If the solar technology powering this PHASA-35 plane could also filter down to transform our everyday energy needs here on Earth, that would be even more amazing.

Human teachers trump robots, survey of teenagers reveals

Technology may now be a key part of everyday school life, but a new poll suggests that when it comes to the instructor standing at the front of the classroom, teenagers would still rather be taught by a human teacher than a robot. This revelation may come as a surprise to some people - particularly many secondary school teachers, who struggle daily to engage their bored teenage human subjects - as it might have been expected that today’s teenagers would be fully up for a robot teacher. Anything to make school more ‘fun’ and modern. On the evidence of this survey’s findings, however, the traditional method of schooling still holds greater appeal for young adults.   

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