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Sutherland Spaceport

UK spaceport, China tariffs, arcade games 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.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

Government announces funding for UK spaceports to boost domestic sector

Dounreay destined for demolition: endgame for an atomic icon

Marine energy: fighting the headwind

I’ve linked these three articles together as my observation this week is about employment. The announcement by Business Secretary Greg Clark that the first UK spaceport will be in A’Mhoine, Sutherland, was something of a surprise to me – it’s not a place with the infrastructure to support mass to-ing and fro-ing of people and equipment. It is in fact on the very top edge of the UK mainland in a peat bog, the sort of place some would describe as a beautiful wilderness and others might simply call bleak. It does have the advantage of high latitude, which is ideal for the low-earth satellites that it would be used for launching and it’s away from people. If something goes wrong with a launch vehicle it will land either in the sea or the peat bog, startling deer or dolphins rather than endangering people.

With all due respect to the people of Tongue and Durness, the nearest town of note is Thurso, about 50 miles away, an hour and a half drive on those roads. Wick is the closest airport a further 20 miles east. Not irrelevant to this is that along the road to Thurso is Dounreay, the nuclear power station that is being decommissioned. Having previously employed, directly or indirectly, many thousands of people in the region, this has now been reduced to about 1,000 and despite the long-term nature of the decommissioning process this will carry on shrinking.

Equally, as reported in my article about marine energy, there is a technical industry based in Orkney and this northern tip of Scotland with an engineering supply chain that is struggling to make commercial sense without central backing. Clearly having no job doesn’t make commercial sense for an individual engineer in his or her prime and consequently this is one of those remote areas of Scotland where the population is shrinking and getting older on average as the young move further afield to find gainful employment.

Which is why the spaceport is such good news. It is fair to point out that the launch site itself doesn’t need to be that sophisticated. Roads would be nice, a solid base from which to launch the Lockheed Martin or Orbex (a British start-up) rockets and a control centre that just needs to make sure the launch itself goes smoothly – actual mission control can be elsewhere. It’s not Cape Canaveral. The rockets themselves, probably the Electron rocket if it is Lockheed Martin, are not huge and only have a payload of a few hundred kilogrammes, so it’s the small satellite business that this will serve. And the development cost of the site will probably be around £20m. As Roy Kirk of Highlands & Islands Enterprise told me at the Farnborough Airshow this week, it’s not a whole hill of beans but equally not insignificant, particularly to an area like this. He expects skilled employment to be around 40 or so. Again, not huge.

To tie together the various threads of this ramble, for some people (I’m one of them) this is an incredibly beautiful part of the world inhabited by wonderfully community oriented people. If I was an engineer worried by the uncertainties around marine energy, or potentially about to be decommissioned by Dounreay, then it could offer a lifeline to remain in the area. To have such a focal point for a new industry is a very positive thing. Engineering disciplines vary enormously of course, but maybe a bit of retraining and compromise will suit both the engineers and those companies who would like to see the Sutherland site grow to be more than just a launch pad.

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

E&T’s 2018 seaside summer special

Do you like to be beside the seaside? Beside the sea? Some of our readers from sunnier climes may take the sort of sunshine we’ve been having in the UK recently for granted but, for the weather-obsessed British, this heatwave is really quite something. Doesn’t it make you want to kick off your shoes, strip off your socks, roll up those trousers and run straight into the water? It’s lucky then that this week it’s E&T’s seaside summer special and all our seasonal features are now posted up online.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

EU slaps tariffs on Chinese e-bikes in anti-dumping effort

Suddenly, tariffs and trade wars are cropping up everywhere. First, it was Donald Trump going to war with China, in another of his ludicrously misguided attempts to ‘make America great again’, the upshot of which has been many American companies and trade bodies having to email their own customers with template letters of protest against the tariffs, which they are urging people to sign and send to their congress representative to try and limit the damage Donald the Clueless is doing to their businesses.

Now, it’s the EU’s turn to take on China, imposing duties on Chinese electric bicycles (e-bikes) as part of a broader battle against cheap imports to the bloc from Asia. It’s a tricky issue, world trade, and the delicate balances that countries and regions have to maintain with each other. Personally, I’m on a small-scale crusade to buy as little as possible from China, and the Far East in general, instead trying to buy more locally produced and sourced products wherever possible. I’m not 100 per cent successful so far, but I have found that once you set your mind to it - and change your previously casual consumption habit to something more focused and aware -  it’s surprising what a small difference you can actually make. We didn’t used to lazily buy everything in from overseas and it’s never too late or too soon to reject a life of rampant consumerism and get back to basics. Lord knows the world doesn’t need any more plastic crap or flimsy electronics cheaply imported from overseas, only for it all to end up dumped in landfill within a few years. When products are so cheap, we never truly care for them or about them and we don’t give it a second thought when they break down or fall apart. We just throw them away and buy another replacement. I advocate spending a little more on something and loving it for longer. Consume less. Help slow down the cycle of consumption, for the good of us all.

Gaming’s golden age: top 10 retro-vintage arcade classics

In a tangential way, this feature sort of illustrates the attitude I’m trying to embrace, about enjoying what you already have instead of relentlessly pursuing the new. Any one of these vintage video games still holds up as a classic, as exciting to play as any new console or smartphone game - a truth evidenced by the fact that virtually all of these titles have a modern-day smartphone app incarnation for the millennial generation to enjoy. Yes, the graphics and sound effects of these amusement arcades stalwarts are very basic by modern standards, but the actual gameplay is as addictive as ever. Put a 10-year-old kid in front of Pac-Man or Donkey Kong and they’ll still want to gobble all the pills while evading the ghosts or vault over the flaming barrels to rescue the princess from the giant ape, just like millions of 10-year-old kids before them.

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

3D gun blueprints available online again following four-year legal case

I’m sure American readers are all very aware of their constitutional rights to bear arms and to have freedom of speech, but when the US Justice Department rules that the constitution protects the right to distribute design files for 3D-printed guns, I have to say that to my British eyes it looks, quite frankly, barmy.

Yes, I know that the average teenage crook won’t have access to the kind of technology capable of producing a fully functioning gun which doesn’t pose as great a risk to the user as to anyone else, but (a) technology moves fast and there are some serious criminal masterminds out there with the money to fund illegal gun factories and (b) even a non-functioning replica is enough to terrify a bank clerk or shopkeeper. We need to be taking guns off the streets, not putting more out there.

Government announces funding for UK spaceports to boost domestic sector

The day after this story hit the headlines, the companies responsible for decommissioning the Dounreay nuclear plant put out a belated press release welcoming the choice of Melness in Sutherland as a satellite launch site. You might think there wasn’t much connection between the two activities, but Dounreay employs over a thousand highly skilled staff in a remote part of Scotland where there aren’t too many other employment opportunities. To quote Phil Craig, managing director of the site licence operator DSRL, “Our skillsets in engineering, environmental science, programme management and a range of technical disciplines are easily transferrable to industries such as the space sector.” As one door closes, another one opens.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

London’s “walking action plan” will see billions poured into infrastructure

Having been lucky enough never to have had to do a grinding daily commute into London, I’ve never acquired the immunity to the whole experience – including the apparent germ resistance – that regular travellers seem to develop. On the occasions when I do have to make a trip to the capital, my preference is always to get off public transport at the earliest opportunity and walk. I’m aware that that’s not an option for everyone, but spending significant money on making London’s streets safer to walk and easier to navigate is an excellent idea. Let’s just hope it’s done in a joined-up way with other ‘smart city’ innovations that tend to neglect pedestrians. We don’t have to make urban areas complete no-go zones for traffic, but there’s plenty of scope to make leaving the car at home or not taking a cab a less convenient choice than simply walking. And of course there’s so much to see in any town or city that you might otherwise miss that stepping out can be an education in itself.

First lab-grown meat could hit stores in 2021

As populations around the world grow slowly more affluent, one of the byproducts – like it or not – is increasing demand for meat. By the middle of the century, consumption is expected to be twice what it was in 2000. Yet with livestock farming accounting for nearly 15 per cent of the carbon emissions from human activity that are contributing to global warming, simply breeding more animals isn’t an option.

Lab-grown synthetic meat has long been touted as a solution and now a Dutch start-up is constructing a pilot production plant that aims to bring one version to market by 2021. I’ll reserve judgement until I’ve given it a try, but as an ambivalent consumer who’s cut down largely because it’s a pain to cook different meals every day when you’re catering for a couple of vegetarians, I’m finding that the less meat I eat the less I fancy it when there are other options on offer. Spending huge amounts of cash developing fake analogues seems like a bit of a waste of time when there are so many other, healthier alternatives. I’m well aware though that I’m lucky to have a choice, so will happily leave it to the market to decide whether this is commercially viable. The interesting aspect I’ve come across though is the question of how religious dietary restrictions will accommodate this kind of technology. Definitions of what’s halal, kosher or whatever rely to a large extent on how the animal in question was slaughtered and there’s an argument that because lab-grown meat has never been ‘alive’ it’s all compliant. Good luck to food companies who may end up having to argue their case with the arbiters of some of the world’s great faiths.

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