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Phone-detecting road signs, 3D-printed houses and more: pick of the week’s news

Image credit: DT

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.

Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor

Road signs fitted with phone call detecting tech to warn naughty drivers

The number of people I still see on their phones while they’re rocketing it down the motorway is ridiculous. And super dangerous. Some drivers aren’t even subtle. They have the thing plastered to their face, chatting away as if it isn’t distracting them from controlling a metal death machine. Now, in Norfolk, road signs have been deployed that can detect when drivers are using their phone while on the move, to try to eradicate the accident-causing practice. The system has a sensor capable of spotting vehicles where there are active 2G, 3G and 4G phone signals, linked to an LED warning sign located a short distance along the road. The sensor will pick up a driver using a phone for calling, text or data purposes and will activate the warning sign. This shows an illuminated mobile phone icon within a bright red circle and diagonal red line. If we shame the pesky drivers, and it works, then it would be a welcome addition to my local roads.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Half of climate change plans neglect people most in danger, researchers claim

In this analysis of the climate change-focused strategies of 86 countries, researchers discovered that such keywords as ‘poverty’, ‘women’ or ‘ethnic’ didn’t appear at all in almost half of the plans. You’d think that the government employees writing these strategies would be concerned with the people most likely to be affected by rising sea levels, but apparently not. To fail to mention even once the poor or the indigenous groups of the world most threatened by the effects of climate change and extreme weather events lays bare a troubling lack of concern at the highest level. I’m sure all due consideration has been paid to protecting the world’s financial districts and the real-estate portfolios of the mega-rich one percenters.

Peat-based material enables building of cheap 3D-printed houses

A significant percentage of millenials might have already resigned themselves to the fact that they might never own their own home, but actually all it might take is a degree of parallel thinking. Scientists and engineers are increasingly coming up with new and innovative ways of quickly and cheaply producing the shell of a house. This year alone we’ve already had pebble-shaped 3D-printed concrete pods appearing in Holland and 3D-printed concrete houses in El Salvador. Now, here’s a new material being perfected in Estonia that originates from a mixture of milled peat and oil-shale ash that could allow for the construction of energy-efficient, 3D-printed houses. Millenials: don’t give up hope, the future is looking bright, cheap and 3D-printed.

Road signs fitted with phone call detecting tech to warn naughty drivers

Obviously, using your smartphone whilst driving a car is unbelievably stupid. It only takes half a second of distraction glancing at your latest social media notification to cause you to lose control of your vehicle and end up just another depressing road death statistic - or cause the depressing road death statistic of other entirely innocent road users. Yet people still routinely use their phones while driving. These new smart road signs probably won’t entirely dissuade all the idiots, but they might at least encourage some to cut down on the dangerous practice.

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

UK’s lithium mining hotspots could be identified using satellite technology

A study from the UK’s Satellite Applications Catapult has found that satellite surveys of vegetation can highlight areas where the geology would indicate a potential source of lithium. Global demand for lithium is rising rapidly in line with demand for electric-vehicle batteries and large-scale energy storage. The study focused on two areas of Cornwall that feature hot brine springs. If further studies were positive, prospectors could drill down and pump out the hot salty water to extract the metal without large-scale open-cast mining. This surveying approach, based on multiple surface indicators, could also be valuable across the wider mining sector, both for narrowing down areas of interest and monitoring the environmental effects of mining.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Girls still less likely than boys to believe they could be engineers

The interesting aspect of Engineering UK’s latest briefing on the enduring gender disparity in the profession is a subtle one. As well as asking girls at the stage of their education when they’re likely to make decisions that close off routes to particular careers whether they would consider become engineers, the research queried whether they even believe it’s something they could do if they wanted to. The depressing result is that only 60 per cent of 11 to 14-year-old girls believe, compared with 72 per cent of boys.

There’s plenty of evidence for why this should be true, one of the main reasons being that girls are less aware of what the range of jobs in engineering involves and less likely to make the effort to find out. Credit to Engineering UK for acknowledging that outreach activities need to focus on young people before they get to secondary school and start making choices about their future that set them on a path it might be hard to change.

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