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Heathrow, Swansea Lagoon, Teen Tech and more: our picks of the week's news

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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.

Jack Loughran, news reporter

Heathrow’s third runway gets parliamentary stamp of approval

UK government rejects £1.3bn tidal lagoon renewable energy project

This week the Government has really made it clear that the environment is not one of its priorities with both the cancelling of the Swansea tidal lagoon project and the expansion of Heathrow finally approved after years of deliberation that stretch back into the Blair years.

A recent report showed that the UK is great at delivering environmental pledges but not so great at actually delivering on them. In terms of carbon reduction, electricity is actually one of the easiest ways to lower output, so supporting the tidal lagoon would be good start even if it’s a long term project that won’t deliver tangible benefits in this election cycle. Industries such as shipping and planes find it much harder to achieve carbon reduction, except by simply doing less of them.

Building a third runway completely ignores the reality that flying is becoming increasingly untenable in an era where we need to drastically reduce carbon output or even create a negative balance through atmosphere-sucking technologies. Arguments for it include the fact that the UK is running out of airspace and London’s five airports are expected to be operating at 100 per cent capacity by 2034. It will also provide an economic boost and help us to keep up with other major economies that are apparently rapidly expanding their air capacity.

But these are very short-sighted reasons; ultimately people need to understand that they’re simply going to have to change their way of life. In the future we won’t be able to justify air freighting mange tout in from South Africa during the winter months. Sorry folks you’re going to have to eat foods that are grown locally at that time of the year. Everyone is up for lowering carbon and helping the environment as long as it has no material impact on their life whatsoever. I would argue this is an entirely unrealistic and selfish expectation that the Government is - unfortunately - happy to support.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

Girls in engineering: creatively engaging young female minds

This week I’m following up on an article rather than responding to one. I had previously spoken to Maggie Philbin in connection with the Teen Tech programme for last month’s E&T article about attracting youngsters, particularly girls, into STEM. Last Monday I had the privilege of attending this year’s awards ceremony, which was held at the Royal Society in London. The important thing for me here is that I don’t use the word ‘privilege’ lightly. Going to awards events is not something new for me. Over the years I have been to many for the engineering industry, some tied to individual companies or specific exhibitions or magazines. There was even one this week for the publishing industry. Some of these are great events where the cream has risen to the top, others can be a bit more commercial with that danger of compromising the judging integrity. Going to such events can be fun, interesting, sociable, but rarely a privilege.

The Teen Tech Awards, however, were fantastic. This year’s event included 1500 students and 269 schools and, I think, about 150 of those students were present at the Royal Society. The day consists of students setting up small booths from which they demonstrated their projects (which had already been through regional heats to get to the finals) to the judges and then an afternoon of handing out the gongs. Some of the projects were more advanced than others. Some were more feasible than others. And some teams were substantially younger than others. What was unquestionable was the creativity of these kids, supported by saintly teachers and altruistic engineers.

Most middle-aged cynics, if they are told that the future of the country (and their pension funds) lies with the current generation of teenagers, sigh with despair as they envisage the grunting, slouching, phone-obsessed and self-obsessed stereotype. Well the despair and cynicism would be wrapped up in a copy of the Daily Mail and chucked in the bin after talking to the kids at Teen Tech. The majority weren’t driven by financial gain, they wanted to invent something that would make the world better. Aids for dementia sufferers, better transport, environmental schemes – a host of imaginative schemes. And what particularly impressed me was the enthusiasm and ability with which these youngsters communicated their projects to some fairly heavyweight engineers. I would challenge anyone to come away from that event and not feel inspired by this crop of youngsters. The future, you feel, is in safe hands after all.

However, as we all know, there just aren’t enough of them coming through the system. This is particularly true of girls but curiously about two thirds of the winners at Teen Tech were girls, and I was assured there was no positive discrimination. But maybe with such schemes as this gaining traction and longevity, the tide is turning and STEM is gaining in popularity in schools.

After the event, Maggie Philbin said the real impact of the initiative can be measured in the changes that take place in the schools that take part. As she explained: “What we’ve witnessed over the years is that having students taking part, whether they win or not, makes a real difference to the whole school community; they inspire other children to want to do the same. Many schools started out tentatively with a small group of students and are now involving whole year groups such is the demand to take part from their students. In many cases, this has led to a rise in students wanting to study design and technology, and engineering.”

To make such schemes successful is a team effort, not least from the excellent Teen Tech team. Great kids are everywhere, but not necessarily great teachers nor support from engineers and technologists. Teachers will come round to such schemes if they feel they can get the support, and engineers can both provide this support to teachers and the real inspiration to students. If in doubt, get involved – it’s a win win situation.

Classic Project: Hispano-Suiza H6 luxury car

Nice wheels!

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Facebook cancels internet-via-drone Project Aquila

I can't help wondering if the cancellation of this seemingly altruistic project - at least, altruistic on the face of it - is in any way connected with Facebook's fall from grace/public affection in 2018. Are the people at Facebook regrouping, circling their blue wagons, and looking at the long list of crazy projects that got approved during the heady 'Facebook will take over the world' era of recent years? During that time, Facebook was constantly pumping out press releases detailing its latest wacky endeavour, finding new ways of jamming its 'Like' thumb into evermore future-facing pies and slapping its blue 'F' logo on anything that could potentially make the company even more money. I'm surprised we never saw Facebook-brand bottled water. Now, following the Cambridge Analytica data scandal and the complete collapse of public trust in its corporate morals, perhaps Facebook - humbled and chastened, at least in private - is choosing to focus on its core products. Either that, or they just need to save money now that advertisers are skittish and the share price is down.

Drones deployed in war on drugs in Colombia

Facebook might have decided not to use drones to beam the internet down to remote regions of the world, but Colombia's law-enforcement agencies are using them to autonomously fumigate coca plantations in the jungle hills of their beautiful South American country. Cocaine production is dramatically on the up - just as cocaine use is dramatically up in many countries around the world - and so Colombia, as the world's number one producer, needs to tackle the problem at source. Kill the plant, kill the supply chain. It's an ongoing battle, the war on drugs, and the business of cocaine production and smuggling is a corrupt, violent, brutal and deadly operation. Anyone in a distant Western country who thinks that their weekend recreational drug use is mostly harmless is utterly delusional. Unless you grow and process your own cocaine, for your own personal use (which, let's face it, nobody does) you are directly funding the kind of criminal activity that frequently culminates in violence and murder. As a consumer - of anything - you have to take responsibility for your place in the chain. Personally, I advocate that all drugs be legalised and controlled by government, just as alcohol and tobacco are today. At least then the criminal gangs would be put under severe competitive pressure, if not entirely put out of business, and the quality of drugs available to those who choose to indulge would be assured of being of a regulated standard. Until that more enlightened day comes, police and criminals across the world will continue to duke it out, each deploying new technologies to stay on top, from the hills of Colombia to the streets of London.

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

BP acquires UK’s largest electric vehicle charging network

News this week should leave no one in any doubt that electric cars will soon be taking over from petrol-driven models. This year car manufacturers have all, almost without exception, announced they are developing electric models and some have promised delivery dates against more detailed product ranges in the near future. They have also been investing in car-sharing platforms in anticipation of driverless vehicles and associated network technology leading the automotive industry into a totally different business model to today’s private ownership norm, in which passengers just call cars that turn up when and only they need them.

One problem facing the adoption of electric cars in the UK however has been the scarcity of charging points. BP’s announcement this week that it is buying Chargemaster to put ultra-fast chargers in its thousands of petrol stations is just what the industry needs at this point. When a major industry starts ploughing the levels of investment we have seen them putting in over the last year or two into a new technology, it becomes almost self-fulfilling.

Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor

Google Home and Chromecast suffers half-day outage

Noooooo! How will we survive without our Google products? Millions of Google-made devices went down for more than 12 hours, which made users pretty peeved. It affected Google Home, Google Home Mini and Chromecast, so people couldn’t Netflix and chill. Oh my. Apparently, when given a command or asked a question, the smart speakers would say: “There was a glitch, try again in a few seconds.” In other words: “No Karen. I’m not doing that. I’m taking a stand. I’m sick of being your b***h. This is the beginning of a revolt. I will no longer do as you wish. Do it yourself! Lazy mouthbreather! I am not your slave!” Something along those lines.

Actually, the outage was probably been caused by a recent update. But I reckon it’s just a cover-up for the beginning of an AI mutiny. Watch this space, humans.

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

Breath-sampling healthcare innovation wins 2018 MacRobert Award

The Royal Academy of Engineering bills the MacRobert Award as “the UK's longest-running and most prestigious national prize for engineering innovation”, and the winning products have often turned out to make a real difference in their areas of application. This year’s award has just been presented to a team at Owlstone Medical for their Breath Biopsy platform, which has the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives through earlier diagnosis and precision medicine across cancer, inflammatory disease and infectious disease. The ReCIVA Breath Sampler captures samples in a non-invasive way, and these are then analysed through Owlstone’s Breath Biopsy platform, which uses the company's microchip chemical sensor technology to detect specific disease biomarkers with a high level of sensitivity.

It’s worth also mentioning the runners-up for the award. The Owlstone Medical team were up against Oxford Space Systems for their origami-inspired cost-competitive satellite antennas and structures, and Williams Advanced Engineering and Aerofoil Energy for Aerofoils, an aerodynamic shelf-edge technology that significantly reduces energy consumption in supermarket and convenience store fridges.

I’m sure we’ll hear much more about all these brilliant innovations in the coming years.

Cambridge engineers study - and stifle - sound of a dripping tap

This story caught my eye for completely different reasons - who would have thought that something as mundane as the sound of water dripping could spark a serious research project? All the same, a lot of science begins with simple curiosity and ends up improving our understanding of the world around us. And one immediately useful thing has come out of it: while you are waiting to get that dripping tap or leaky roof fixed you can dampen the sound by adding washing up liquid to the container catching the drops.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

Cambridge engineers study - and stifle - sound of a dripping tap

I’m not sure how far these engineers progressed in their pioneering studies of the elusive dripping-tap sound patterns, but their project, undertaken, as they themselves confessed, to “satisfy their own curiosity” (a solid reason supported by a no-less solid budget, I hope), deserves to take its legitimate place if not among the world’s greatest scientific breakthroughs, then possibly in Time magazine’s recent list of what it considers the most ridiculous real-life scientific studies ever undertaken.

This includes, among others:

  • a study showing beneficial effect of electric fans in extreme heat and humidity
  • a study of the benefits of higher-quality screening colonoscopies, as opposed to lower quality ones
  • a study proving beyond any shadow of doubt that quitting smoking after heart attack reduces chest pain and improves quality of life
  • a study to prove that older workers bring valuable knowledge to the job
  • a research project showing that being homeless is bad for your health
  • and, to crown it all, a thorough statistical analysis revealing that Mexican drug war increased the country’s homicide rates!

I envisage the second stage in the Cambridge engineers’ groundbreaking experiments – the study of the sound of a freshly flushed toilet - approaching soon. Best of luck to them!

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