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Updated: 2 hours 7 min ago

Multi-legged millirobot overcomes obstacles to deliver medicines

4 hours 23 min ago

A multi-legged millirobot could one day deliver medicines in the body or carry out medical inspections, claim researchers in Hong Kong.

A tiny, soft robot with soft caterpillar-like legs can adapt to adverse environments and carry heavy loads (credit: City University of Hong Kong)

The soft-robot, which is equipped with hundreds of caterpillar-like legs to help it carry heavy loads and traverse obstacles, was developed by a team led by researchers at City University of Hong Kong (CityU). The multi-legged design is also said to reduce friction, enabling the robot to move around areas inside the body that are lined or filled with fluids.

To arrive at their design, the team studied the leg structures of hundreds of animals, including those with 2, 4, 8 or more legs, and focussed on the ratio between leg-length and the gap between the legs.

“Most animals have a leg-length-to-leg-gap ratio of 2:1 to 1:1. So we decided to create our robot using 1:1 proportion,” said Dr Shen Yajing, Assistant Professor at CityU’s Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME), who led the research.

The robot’s conical legs are 0.65mm long and the gap between the legs is approximately 0.6mm, making the leg-length-to-gap ratio around 1:1. Laboratory tests showed that the multi-legged millirobot has 40 times less friction than a limbless robot in wet and dry environments.

The 0.15mm thick millirobot has been made with polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS) embedded with magnetic particles, which enables it to be remotely controlled with an electromagnetic force.

“Both the materials and the mutli-leg design greatly improve the robot’s hydrophobic property. Besides, the rubbery piece is soft and can be cut easily to form robots of various shapes and sizes for different applications,” said Prof Wang Zuankai at CityU’s Department of Mechanical Engineering (MNE).

During experiments, the team used a magnetic manipulator to move the robot in a flap propulsion pattern and an inverted pendulum pattern, the latter method requiring the device to alternately stand on its left and right feet to swing forward. Furthermore, CityU said the robot can lift one end of its body by 90-degrees to overcome obstacles. Speed can be boosted by increasing the electromagnetic frequency applied.

“The rugged surface and changing texture of different tissues inside the human body make transportation challenging. Our multi-legged robot shows an impressive performance in various terrains and hence open wide applications for drug delivery inside the body,” said Prof Wang.

CityU further claim that in laboratory tests the multi-legged millirobot carried a load 100 times heavier than itself, a strength comparable to a human lifting a mini-bus.

“The amazingly strong carrying capability, efficient locomotion and good obstacle-crossing ability make this milli-robot extremely suitable for applications in a harsh environment, for example delivering a drug to a designated spot through the digestive system, or carrying out medical inspection,” said Dr Shen.

Before conducting further tests in animals and eventually in humans, the research teams are further developing and refining their research in three areas: finding a biodegradable material, studying new shapes, and adding extra features.

“We are hoping to create a biodegradable robot in the next two to three years so it will decompose naturally after its meds delivery mission,” said Dr Shen.

The research findings have been published in Nature Communications, titled “A Bio-inspired Multilegged Soft Millirobot that Functions in Both Dry and Wet Conditions”.


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Southampton team begin study of the effect of space travel on muscle mass

4 hours 40 min ago

Researchers link up with International Space Station crew to document changes in muscle over a six-month stay in orbit

Professor Maria Stokes and Research Fellow Paul Muckelt linking up with ISS as part of the Myotones project

It has long been known that regardless of how much astronauts exercise while in space, their muscle mass and strength declines. However, until now no mission has carried appropriate equipment to test muscles over the course of an extended stay.

The Southampton team is taking part in the European space agency study called the Myotones project, which is led by Prof Dieter Blottner at the Charité Institute in Berlin. Three researchers from Southampton, Prof Maria Stokes, Martin Warner and research fellow Paul Muckett, have this week taken part in a live video link with ISS astronauts, talking them through a data collection session and explaining to them how they should perform measurements on their muscles over the next six months.

Dr Martin Warner using the MyotonPRO device to monitor muscle tone.

The ISS crew are using a commercially available device called a MyotonPRO, which sends mechanical pulses into muscles and records how the tissue oscillates in response to the pulse. This gives a rapid measurement of parameters such as tone and stiffness of muscles and tendons.

The Southampton team is leading on the imaging aspect of the project, using ultrasound scans to measure the thickness of soft tissue to understand any changes in the Myoton readings. These scans will also document changes in muscle size during the mission.

“During the live link we communicate with the astronauts to give instructions and guidance on how to collect the data,” Warner said. “On the ground we have remote access to the equipment being used by the astronauts, enabling us to change settings and record data in real time. This ensures we collect accurate and reliable data that can be compared with the data collected on Earth before the astronauts leave for their ISS mission.”

The aim of the project is not only to help understand what happens to muscles in space, but also to gain insight into muscle-wasting conditions. This will help in developing effective exercise programs for people on Earth living with musculoskeletal and neurological disorders, and will also help to counter the effects of ageing.

Science minister Sam Gyiama said the project will feed into the government’s Ageing Society Grand Challenge. “It’s a great example of how we are backing science and the space sector,” he said.


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Virtual factory to fast-track UK steel innovation

5 hours 13 min ago

A new “virtual factory” being developed by Swansea University, Tata Steel and WMG will fast-track innovation in the steel sector and help new products reach market far more quickly it has been claimed.

Chemical analysis of steel – Dr James McGettrick of Swansea University, with an X-ray Photoelectron Spectrometer.

The £7m initiative, funded through the EPSRC’s Prosperity Partnership initiative, will be based on a process called Rapid Alloy Prototyping which enables much of this testing to be carried out in research labs and imaging suites rather than in an actual steel plant.

Innovation in the steel industry is crucial to keep pace with changing technologies and customer requirements, but developing new steel alloys is often a very slow process with lots of steps and requiring expensive trials on hundreds of tonnes of material, much of which has to be remade into new steel products.

The new process combines physical testing and computational modelling to rapidly assess hundreds of small-scale samples, covering areas such as strength, electrical and mechanical properties, as well as durability and resistance to corrosion. “This project provides an exciting opportunity to accelerate the translation of innovative steel chemistry and process improvements into the steel industry,” said Prof Claire Davis of WMG at Warwick University.”

Test data can be fed into computational models, further refining their accuracy and allowing for better predictions on the final material properties. Alloys which show promise can then be investigated at a larger scale and in more detail.

According to the statement from Swansea University, the approach could have an enormous impact on the UK steel sector, enabling hundreds of samples to be tested in the time it currently takes to test one and bringer news and improved steel products to market far more quickly than is currently possible.

Commenting on the announcement Prof Steve Brown of Swansea University College of Engineering said: “This project is a huge boost for innovation as it massively speeds up the development of new alloys.  It means steel producers can deliver new and better products to their customers far more quickly.”

Martin Brunnock, Tata Steel’s UK technical director, said: “Steel is playing an essential role in helping to solve major societal challenges such as the transition to sustainable energy and mobility, and it’s vital we can keep pace through the faster development of innovative steel products.”


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September 1935: Class A4 locomotive enters service

Tue, 2018-09-25 21:22

The dry tone of The Engineer’s coverage of the 1935 launch of a new high-speed train service from London Kings Cross to Newcastle belies the significance of what now marks a major moment in the history of UK rail technology.

Silver Link – the first of the Class A4 locomotives

Whilst the majority of the article (based on details supplied by the London and North Eastern Railway Company (LNER) – focusses on the Silver Jubilee train) launched to commemorate the twenty-five-year reign of King George V (who died just four months later) it is the locomotive that pulled it – the 2509 Silver Link – which is of the greatest significance in engineering terms.

Designed by celebrated railway engineer Sir Nigel Gresley, Silver Link was the first of the Class A4 locomotives, a futuristic-looking family of engines that remain Britain’s fastest ever class of steam locomotives.  The most famous member of this illustrious group was the 4468 Mallard, which just a couple of years later (July, 1938) famously reached a world-record speed for a steam locomotive of 126mph.

The Class A4 locomotives wer notable for a multitude of reasons. Internal streamlining to the steam circuit, a higher boiler pressure, and the inclusion of a combustion chamber in the fire box all played a part in its superior performance. But one of the key areas of innovation is also one of the most visible, a streamlined aerodynamically optimised design reportedly inspired by the racing cars of Ettore Bugatti.

Commenting on this aspect of the locomotive’s design The Engineer explained that one of the key innovations was the use of a horizontal wedge on the locomotive’s front end, that as well as improving aerodynamic performance also prevented smoke and steam from obscuring the driver’s view. “This would cause an upwardly rising current of air to sweep past the chimney and along the boiler barrel top and by its velocity would assist in carrying the steam and smoke clear over,” wrote the publication.

This attention to aerodynamic performance was also carried through to the train itself. “The exterior finish of the train is a distinct departure from the company’s usual practice,” The Engineer reported. “Instead of the Standard varnished teak, the bodies are panelled in No. 16 gauge steel and covered with aluminium rexine, the cornices, door and window facias and bottom beading being in stainless steel. Exterior projections have been reduced to a minimum, and in order further to reduce the air resistance a skirting has been fitted between the bogies extending from the bottom of the body to within 10 in of the rail.”


35 Class A4 locomotives were built, remaining in service until the early 1960s. Astonishingly, Silver Link itself was broken up for scrap in 1963 and today, only six of the famous locomotives remain. In 2013, these trains were reunited at the National Railway Museum in York, in an exhibition billed as the “Great Gathering”.


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This week’s poll: New Prosperity Partnerships aim to boost industry-focused UK research

Tue, 2018-09-25 16:28

This week’s poll focuses on the announcement of seven multi-million pound Prosperity Partnerships that establish research collaborations between industry and universities.

Perovskite specialist SME Oxford PV is leading one of the prosperity partnerships Take Our Poll (function(d,c,j){if(!d.getElementById(j)){var pd=d.createElement(c),s;pd.id=j;pd.src='https://www.theengineer.co.uk/content/plugins/polldaddy/js/polldaddy-shortcode.js';s=d.getElementsByTagName(c)[0];s.parentNode.insertBefore(pd,s);} else if(typeof jQuery !=='undefined')jQuery(d.body).trigger('pd-script-load');}(document,'script','pd-polldaddy-loader'));

The EPSRC has announced a second round of Prosperity Partnerships: five-year projects to investigate topics of national and global importance co-funded by government and industry, with the research areas identified by business and undertaken in collaboration with universities. The first round of projects, announced last year, are now attracting additional foreign investment from business partners, the council said.

The new projects involve industry partners such as Akzo Nobel, AstraZeneca, Oxford Photovoltaics, Google, Rolls-Royce, Tata Steel and Weir Group. The EPSRC investment in the partnerships amounts to £20.4m, while industry partners are putting in £16.8m and universities are contributing £4.9m. These partnerships now represent the flagship approach to co-investing with business in basic research, and contributes to the government’s aspiration to invest 2.4 per cent of GDP in R&D by 2027. The most recent figures available, for 2016, have a total R&D expenditure representing 1.67 per cent of GDP, putting the UK 11th in the ranking of EU countries.

The seven new projects are:

Developing a new virtual factory approach to steel production, involving computational techniques and scale-up activities, aimed at reducing screening times for new materials by a factor of 100 led by Tata Steel in partnership with Swansea University

New materials for solar panels, focusing on perovskites, led by Oxford PV in partnership with Oxford University

Sustainable coatings and paints, using studies of coatings failure combined with a machine learning approach to designing protective coatings and nanocomposites, led by Akzo Nobel in partnership with the University of Manchester

Bio catalysts for production of medicines, and developing both new complex therapeutic molecules and new manufacturing technologies, led by AstraZeneca with Prozomix and in partnership with Manchester University

Quantum simulation and software development to harness the power of quantum computing, combining developments in quantum processor hardware with quantum algorithm development, led by Google in partnership with University College London

Hi-fidelity virtual 3D simulation of a complete gas turbine engine during operation, led by Rolls-Royce in partnership with Edinburgh University

New oil and gas well stimulation technology, using numerical modelling, sensing and electronic control to enable a targeted pulsed stimulation process that could improve exploitation of subsurface energy sources in a socially responsible way, led by Weir Group in partnership with Strathclyde University

In the first round of partnerships, 11 projects were announced, covering topics including electromagnetic and acoustic materials, photonics, offshore wind energy, vehicle electrification and nuclear asset management.

This is the latest in a long line of attempts to stimulate and direct basic research towards filling industry’s needs, which historically have not been entirely successful. We would like to ask engineer readers whether they think that this approach be more fruitful than others, and whether the right subjects are being tackled in this round of partnerships.

Comments are, as usual, welcome, but we ask all contributors to read our guidelines for content of comments and remind everybody that moderation is in effect. We will announce the result of this poll on 2 October.

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Australian nanofilter promises rapid access to clean water

Tue, 2018-09-25 15:25

A nanofilter designed by a team in Australia is claimed to clean dirty water over 100 times faster than current technology.

A liquid metal droplet with flakes of aluminium oxide compounds grown on its surface. Each 0.03mm flake is made up of about 20,000 nanosheets stacked together (credit: RMIT University)

The technology from RMIT University and University of New South Wales (UNSW) researchers is said to harness naturally occurring nanostructures that grow on liquid metals.

RMIT researcher Dr Ali Zavabeti said water contamination remains a significant challenge globally, with 1 in 9 people lacking access to clean water close to home.

“Heavy metal contamination causes serious health problems and children are particularly vulnerable,” Zavabeti said. “Our new nanofilter is sustainable, environmentally-friendly, scalable and low cost.

“We’ve shown it works to remove lead and oil from water but we also know it has potential to target other common contaminants. Previous research has already shown the materials we used are effective in absorbing contaminants like mercury, sulphates and phosphates.

“With further development and commercial support, this new nanofilter could be a cheap and ultra-fast solution to the problem of dirty water.”

According to RMIT, the liquid metal chemistry process developed by the researchers has potential applications across a range of industries including electronics, membranes, optics and catalysis.

“The technique is potentially of significant industrial value, since it can be readily upscaled, the liquid metal can be reused, and the process requires only short reaction times and low temperatures,” Zavabeti said.

Project leader Prof Kourosh Kalantar-zadeh, Honorary Professor at RMIT, Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow and Professor of Chemical Engineering at UNSW, said the liquid metal chemistry used in the process enabled differently shaped nanostructures to be grown, either as the atomically thin sheets used for the nanofilter or as nanofibrous structures.

“Growing these materials conventionally is power intensive, requires high temperatures, extensive processing times and uses toxic metals. Liquid metal chemistry avoids all these issues so it’s an outstanding alternative.”

The researchers created an alloy by combining gallium-based liquid metals with aluminium. When this alloy is exposed to water, nanothin sheets of aluminium oxide compounds grow naturally on the surface.

These atomically thin layers restack in a wrinkled fashion, making them highly porous. This enables water to pass through rapidly while the aluminium oxide compounds absorb the contaminants.

Experiments showed the nanofilter made of stacked atomically thin sheets was efficient at removing lead from water that had been contaminated at over 13 times safe drinking levels, and was highly effective in separating oil from water.

The process is claimed to generate no waste and requires aluminium and water, with the liquid metals reused for each new batch of nanostructures.

The findings are published in the journal Advanced Functional Materials.


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Spinal cord stimulation helps paralysed patients stand and walk again

Tue, 2018-09-25 14:11

Research groups in the US have demonstrated how implanted spinal cord stimulation technology could help patients recover from catastrophic spinal injuries.

In one such development, a team from the Minnesota-based medical research centre the Mayo Clinic and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) has used an implanted spinal cord stimulator to help a man paralysed from the chest down since 2013 regain his ability to stand and walk with assistance.

The 29 year old patient, Jered Chinnock, injured his spinal cord at the thoracic vertebrae in the middle of his back in a snowmobile accident in 2013 and was diagnosed with a complete loss of function below the middle of his torso.

In the study, which is reported in Nature Medicine, Chinnock had an electrode implanted into the epidural space, the outermost part of the spinal canal, at a specific location below the injured area. The electrode connects to a pulse generator device under the skin of his abdomen and communicates wirelessly with an external controller.

During 113 rehabilitation sessions, over which time the researchers adjusted stimulation settings, trainer assistance, harness support and treadmill speed Chinnock was able to walk over ground using a front-wheeled walker and step on a treadmill placing his arms on support bars to help with balance. However, when stimulation was off, he remained paralysed. Amazingly, over the course of 25 weeks his condition improved to the point where by the end of the period, he no longer needed a harness to reduce his risk of falling, and required only occasional help from trainers.

“What this is teaching us is that those networks of neurons below a spinal cord injury still can function after paralysis,” said Kendall Lee, M.D., Ph.D., co-principal investigator, neurosurgeon and director of Mayo Clinic’s Neural Engineering Laboratories.

In a related breakthrough, a team at the University of Louisville, have used a combination of epidural stimulation of the spinal cord and locomotor training to enable two severely paralysed patients to walk again.

Susan Harkema, Ph.D., left, with research participant Kelly Thomas and trainer Katie Pfost

Epidural stimulation is the application of continuous electrical current at varying frequencies and intensities to specific locations on the lumbosacral spinal cord – a location which corresponds to the dense neural networks that largely control movement of the hips, knees, ankles and toes.

Meanwhile, locomotor training aims to ultimately retrain the spinal cord to “remember” the pattern of walking by repetitively practicing standing and stepping. In a locomotor training therapy session, the participant’s body weight is supported in a harness while specially trained staff move his or her legs to simulate walking while on a treadmill.

“This research demonstrates that some brain-to-spine connectivity may be restored years after a spinal cord injury as these participants living with motor complete paralysis were able to walk, stand, regain trunk mobility and recover a number of motor functions without physical assistance when using the epidural stimulator and maintaining focus to take steps,” said Susan Harkema, PhD, the study’s author.

One of the patients to benefit from the research, 23 year old Kelly Thomas, who was paralysed from the chest down after a 2014 car accident said: “Being a participant in this study truly changed my life, as it has provided me with a hope that I didn’t think was possible after my car accident.”


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Manufacturing output dips but remains above long-term average

Mon, 2018-09-24 20:57

Output volumes from manufacturers have waned despite a strong showing in the previous month, according to the latest CBI Industrial Trends Survey.

The survey of 409 firms found growth in manufacturing output slowing down in the three months to September, but remained above the long-term average. Export order books also faded to their weakest in almost a year, but remained above the long run average.

According to the survey, output volume expanded in 10 out of 17 sub-sectors, with growth driven largely by the mechanical engineering, food, drink & tobacco, plastic products, and metal products sectors. Manufacturers expect output growth to pick up over the next three months.

Expectations for output price inflation remained above the long-run average, while stocks of finished goods remained adequate but below the long-run average.

The CBI said that it expects UK manufacturers to continue benefitting from external demand and a lower sterling exchange rate, but overall economic growth is expected to remain subdued, reflecting weak household income growth and Brexit uncertainty impacting investment decisions.

Commenting on the findings, Anna Leach, CBI head of economic intelligence, said: “While manufacturing order books remain strong and output is still growing, Brexit uncertainty continues to cloud the outlook. Heightened fears of a ‘no deal’ Brexit scenario have prompted some firms to move publicly from contingency planning to action.

“Efforts on all sides must be geared towards securing the Withdrawal Agreement and – crucially – the transition period. This will provide temporary but essential relief for businesses of all sizes and sectors.

“Looking ahead to the Autumn Budget, business rate reform, coupled with movement on capital allowances, could help encourage productive investment against this uncertain backdrop.”

Tom Crotty, group director at INEOS and chair of the CBI Manufacturing Council, added: “Robust output volumes and order books are good news for British manufacturers, who have benefitted from a healthy global economy and lower sterling exchange rate. However, the continued uncertainty surrounding the final six months of Brexit negotiations presents a real risk to the continuation of this strong momentum.

“In the coming months, manufacturers will be looking to the government to protect the frictionless trade with the EU that they need to thrive. And it is important that measures to bolster competitiveness domestically – such as getting the Apprenticeship Levy fit for purpose – aren’t overlooked.”

Key findings:

20 per cent of manufacturers reported total order books to be above normal, and 20 per cent said they were below normal, giving a rounded balance of -1 per cent

17 per cent of firms said their export order books were above normal, and 13 per cent said they were below normal, giving a rounded balance of +5 per cent

33 per cent of businesses said output volume over the past three months was up, and 22 per cent said it was down, giving a balance of +11 per cent

Manufacturers expect output volume to grow at a faster pace in the coming quarter, with 31 per cent predicting volumes to increase, and 12 per cent expecting a decline, giving a balance of +19 per cent

20 per cent of companies expect average selling prices to increase in the coming three months, with 6 per cent predicting a decrease, giving a rounded balance of +13 per cent (compared with +15 per cent in August)

16 per cent of firms said their present stocks of finished goods were more than adequate, whilst 13 per cent said they were less than adequate, giving a balance of +3 per cent, below the long-run average (+13 per cent).


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LEARN Mission: Students live on freeze-dried food in simulated moon experience

Mon, 2018-09-24 19:59

Living on freeze-dried food and forgoing showers might appeal to some students, although the novelty might wear off after a few days.

LEARN: Jacob Smith, a third year MEng (hons) Mechanical Engineering student at Bath University

For Jacob Smith, a third year MEng (hons) Mechanical Engineering student at Bath University, these were two depravations that had to be endured over the course of a fortnight as part of the LEARN (Lunar Exploration Activities and Remote Navigation) mission, which took place in the Lunares habitat in Pila, Poland.

Jacob’s temporary habitat simulated the type of conditions that future astronauts will experience living on the moon.

Jacob was the only UK student to take part in the two-week mission which monitored how the five-strong simulation crew reacted and adapted to these conditions, providing future mission designers with information that will help them make life as comfortable as possible for astronauts who could one day be spending weeks or months on the moon.

As part of LEARN, Jacob joined a team of crew members from Poland, Estonia and Slovakia in the role of Communications Officer, which meant being the primary communicator between the crew and Mission Control based at ESTEC, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Technical facility in the Netherlands.

Lunares: an international team effort

During the mission, the crew conducted extensive experiments to study their physical and mental health, stress levels, memory, group dynamics, performance, and behaviour in isolation. A variety of collaborating research groups also benefitted from experiments in the fields of hydroponic plant cultivation, psychology, tele-operations, the sense of security in isolation, bioacoustics, and diet and oral health in space – the crew ate only freeze-dried food to study its effects on their saliva and oral hygiene.

Commenting on the experience, Jacob said: “Being cut off from the outside world for two weeks, eating nothing but freeze-dried food; measuring and recording absolutely everything; and completing surveys and reports every day…was quite different to my normal life but I quickly got used to it and none of it bothered me!

“The experience showed me I can live happily in isolation, but I know that it was largely down to the fantastic crew-mates I was with. We worked together incredibly well, bringing together our different backgrounds and individual skills and ideas to successfully live and work in the habitat. I liked following a strict schedule for everything – eating, exercising, conducting experiments, sleeping, etc – meant I was productive and focussed throughout the mission. This experience has definitely whet my appetite for more space adventures.”

As well as his comms role, Jacob was responsible for operating the 3D printer, allowing tools to be made in-situ since there was no option for delivery. Jacob was also in charge of the biological laboratory, taking care of living organisms in the habitat and managing the habitat bioreactors that were used to recycle organic waste.

The habitat has a lot in common with everyday amenities on Earth – the crew had access a shared dormitory, kitchen, office, biological laboratory, analytical laboratory, equipment storage, gym and bathroom, as well as a main living area.

The mission was, however, designed to be as identical as possible to what is predicted a crew could experience on the moon. This meant that Jacob and the crew had to maintain the life support systems and learn how to manage limited resources such as water and food.


They were only able to leave the habitat wearing spacesuits to explore the adjoining hangar, which was made to emulate the lunar surface with basalt rocks and dust.

To emulate the light conditions on the moon, the LEARN participants saw no natural daylight with artificial lighting in the base, controlled by the Mission Control Crew (MCC) to extend the length of the artificial day much like what astronauts endure in space where a lunar day lasts 24 hours and 50 minutes.

LEARN: Preparing to operate the air lock hatch

Jacob and the team also learnt to waste as little as possible. The crew did not shower during the mission, instead using a small towel and bucket for washing. All the water they used for washing, cleaning, and drinking/eating was recorded, and they also measured their urine, and monitored the temperature and humidity in each room of the habitat. Every day after waking up and before going to bed they measured their heart rate, blood pressure, temperature, weight, and pulse oximetry to observe changes to their body over the fortnight.

Academic tutor and Senior Lecturer in Bath University’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, Dr Jos Darling, added: “Sending a student into [simulated] space is a first for the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Jacob has been uniquely privileged to experience life on a space station.  His knowledge of the space environment will help develop our existing teaching of Space Engineering and as a result of his initiative and drive he’s been a great ambassador for the Department and the University.”

A Facebook page for the LEARN mission can be found here.


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Spray on MXene antennas turn surfaces into transmitters

Mon, 2018-09-24 15:43

A method for spraying invisibly thin MXene antennas onto flexible substrates could lead to next-generation wireless devices including wearables, functional fabrics, and IoT devices.

Spray-applied MXene antennas could open the door for new applications in smart technology, wearables and IoT devices

In research published in Science Advances, a group from Drexel University’s College of Engineering in Philadelphia reported a method for spraying the antennas that are made from MXene, a type of two-dimensional, metallic material that is said to perform as well as those being used in mobile devices, wireless routers and portable transducers.

“The ability to spray an antenna on a flexible substrate or make it optically transparent means that we could have a lot of new places to set up networks – there are new applications and new ways of collecting data that we can’t even imagine at the moment,” said Kapil Dandekar, PhD, a professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering in the College of Engineering, who directs the Drexel Wireless Systems Lab, and was a co-author of the research.

The researchers from the College’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering, report that the MXene titanium carbide can be dissolved in water to create an ink or paint. According to Drexel, the exceptional conductivity of the material enables it to transmit and direct radio waves, even when it’s applied in a very thin coating.

“We found that even transparent antennas with thicknesses of tens of nanometres were able to communicate efficiently,” said Asia Sarycheva, a doctoral candidate in the A.J. Drexel Nanomaterials Institute and Materials Science and Engineering Department. “By increasing the thickness up to eight microns, the performance of MXene antenna achieved 98 per cent of its predicted maximum value.”

Preserving transmission quality in a form this thin would allow antennas to easily be embedded in numerous objects and surfaces without adding additional weight or circuitry or requiring a certain level of rigidity.

“This technology could enable the truly seamless integration of antennas with everyday objects which will be critical for the emerging Internet of Things,” Dandekar said. “Researchers have done a lot of work with non-traditional materials trying to figure out where manufacturing technology meets system needs, but this technology could make it a lot easier to answer some of the difficult questions we’ve been working on for years.”

Initial testing of the sprayed antennas suggest that they can perform with the same range of quality as current antennas made from gold, silver, copper and aluminium, but are much thicker than MXene antennas.

Drexel researchers discovered the family of MXene materials in 2011. The layered two-dimensional material, which is made by wet chemical processing, has shown potential in energy storage devices, electromagnetic shielding, water filtration, chemical sensing, structural reinforcement and gas separation.

In their paper, the Drexel researchers put the spray-on antennas up against a variety of antennas made from these new materials, including graphene, silver ink and carbon nanotubes. The MXene antennas were reportedly 50 times better than graphene and 300 times better than silver ink antennas in terms of preserving the quality of radio wave transmission.

“The MXene antenna not only outperformed the macro and micro world of metal antennas, we went beyond the performance of available nanomaterial antennas, while keeping the antenna thickness very low,” said Babak Anasori, PhD, a research assistant professor in A.J. Drexel Nanomaterials Institute. “The thinnest antenna was as thin as 62nm and it was almost transparent. Unlike other nanomaterials fabrication methods, that require…binders, and extra steps of heating to sinter the nanoparticles together, we made antennas in a single step by airbrush spraying our water-based MXene ink.”

The group initially tested the spray-on application of the antenna ink on a rough substrate (cellulose paper) and a smooth one (polyethylene terephthalate sheets) The next step for will be looking at the best ways to apply it to a wide variety of surfaces from glass to yarn and skin.


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Scottish team demonstrates Star-Trek inspired diagnostic device

Mon, 2018-09-24 14:57

Glasgow University researchers have announced the development of a Star-Trek inspired hand-held electronic device that could be used for rapid diagnosis of conditions including heart attacks, strokes and cancer.

A prototype consisting of a post-processed CMOS-chip with electronic readout attached to an Android-based tablet for data acquisition

Inspired by Star Trek’s famed Tricorder, the Glasgow group’s multicorder device – described in in a paper published in the journal Biosensors and Bioelectronics, pairs a handheld sensor with a smartphone app to measure the levels of various metabolites in fluid samples from patients.

Metabolites are small molecules found in fluids from the human body. By measuring and monitoring their relative abundance, scientists can keep track of general heath or the progression of specific diseases.

The ability to rapidly detect and quantify multiple metabolite biomarkers simultaneously makes this device particularly useful in cases of heart attack, cancer and stroke, where rapid diagnosis is vital for effective treatment.

Metabolites can be measured by existing processes such as nuclear magnetic resonance and hyphenated mass spectrometry techniques, but both approaches are expensive and require bulky equipment that can be slow to offer diagnostic results.

The new device is built around a new form of complementary metal oxide semiconductor (CMOS) chip. CMOS chips are inexpensive to produce and are often used in imaging devices.

The chip is smaller than a fingertip and is divided into multiple reaction zones to detect and quantify four metabolites simultaneously from body fluid such as serum or urine. The device can be operated via any Android-based tablet or smartphone which provides data acquisition, computation, visualisation and power.

Lead author on the paper, Dr Samadhan Patil said: “We have been able to detect and measure multiple metabolites associated with myocardial infarction, or heart attack, and prostate cancer simultaneously using this device. This device has potential to track progression of the disease in its early phase and is ideally suited for the subsequent prognosis.”

Commenting on the longer-term potential of the technology Prof David Cumming, Principal Investigator on the project said: “Handheld, inexpensive diagnostic devices capable of accurately measuring metabolites open up a wide range of applications for medicine, and with this latest development we’ve taken an important step closer to bringing such a device to market.”

More healthcare technology 

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Project will use satellite imagery to help tackle fuel poverty and carbon emissions in UK

Mon, 2018-09-24 14:18

Satellite data will be used in a UK project to pinpoint areas where energy efficiency measures are most needed in order to combat fuel poverty and carbon emissions.

Astrosat, E.ON & ESA to tackle fuel poverty with satellite data

The project, which involves E.ON, the European Space Agency (ESA) and Earth observation specialist Astrosat, will use near real-time and archived data gathered from orbiting satellites – including optical sources, thermal-infrared for heat mapping and air quality and pollution tracking. This will be combined with Astrosat’s ThermCERT software to address issues including housing condition and insulation, and air quality.

When cross-matched with existing housing or data on vulnerable customers, the platform is expected to provide local authorities with a street-level view of where improvements are most needed, allowing them to better target their approaches to upgrading housing stock, optimising energy efficiency installations, and improving air quality.

“In a world where data is routinely generated before a problem or application is known to exist, we are able to intelligently cross-correlate and fuse that data from in-situ satellites,” said Fraser Hamilton, COO at Astrosat. “This solution will greatly enhance E.ON’s ability to identify communities in need of assistance.”

According to E.ON, energy efficiency programmes often rely on door-to-door visits or doorstep mailings in order to talk directly to customers and analyse their needs. The large amount of data which can be captured using satellite technology means a bigger and more accurate picture can be created quickly, which improves the success rate of installation works.

During the project, E.ON and Astrosat, with the support of ESA, will develop the system for around 18 months, including a city-scale trial. E.ON’s reach across Europe could lead to the potential roll out the project across other countries once the UK trial has finished.

Commenting on the project, Michael Lewis, E.ON’s UK chief executive said: “Delivered on the doorstep but driven by big data gathered from Earth orbit, our work with Astrosat, in collaboration with ESA, is about using the almost endless possibilities of space to deliver real benefits on the ground.

“This…project is about harnessing the power of space, alongside our experience working with local authorities and delivering real change in terms of fuel poverty and carbon emissions, to help reduce heat loss and unnecessary energy expenditure in regional areas across the UK.”

“We have a two-pronged approach to supporting the green energy revolution,” said Nick Appleyard, head of downstream applications at the European Space Agency said. “Initiatives like ThermCERT show how space assets can help to reduce costs and improve energy efficiency in existing neighbourhoods. In parallel, we are open to proposals for space services that help to create Green Neighbourhoods by improving their initial design.”

In its first iteration, the platform is intended to help locate and provide targeted support for the most vulnerable individuals in society. Future iterations will leverage the growing wealth of high resolution commercial data that becoming available. E.ON and Astrosat expect the product to be ready for use in a UK pilot by the third quarter of 2019.


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No-deal Brexit will make business “untenable” for 1 in 6 manufacturers claims news research

Fri, 2018-09-21 15:49

According to research published today (21st September) by EEF, one in six manufacturing businesses said business would become untenable for them if the UK reverted to WTO tariffs, increased border checks on people and increased border checks on goods.

The EEF-commissioned ComRes survey of 500 manufacturing business decision makers finds with just six months to go until Britain leaves the EU, four in five (83 per cent) say that they are currently not prepared for a no-deal Brexit. Two in five companies (43 per cent) say they are not prepared – and will not be preparing – for what would happen if the government fails to strike an agreement.

Moreover, 30 per cent of businesses said that they are finding, or expect to find it, more difficult to recruit workers with the necessary skills. A quarter said that as a result of Brexit they have put investment on hold, or are expecting to lose out on investment, lose skilled workers and new contracts. A similar number expect to change their growth plans as a result of Brexit.

Respondents were uncertain about where future opportunities lie, with 24 per cent not clear what their biggest post-Brexit opportunity will be, but there was a definite appetite to take advantage of new trade possibilities, with 52 per cent of respondents viewing the US as the top priority for post-Brexit trade deal, and two in in five business saying that they are already exploring, or expect to explore, new markets outside the EU.

Manufacturers are, however, clear on their priorities for the Brexit negotiations, with some 58 per cent of business leaders highlighting the need to retain no tariff trade with the EU, and half emphasising the importance of retaining full access to the single market. Remaining in the Customs Union was seen as important for 71 per cent of those businesses surveyed.

Commenting on the research, Stephen Phipson, chief executive at EEF, said: “It is absolutely crucial that an industry that accounts for 10 per cent of the UK’s economic output and almost half of the country’s exports, prepares for exit day and all its possible implications.

“But currently over 80 per cent have no plans to prepare for a scenario such as no-deal. Industry is one of the jewels in the crown for the UK economy and can continue to be post-Brexit. It must however be given the opportunity to adapt and build in robust Brexit preparations. The Chequers deal is a pragmatic and realistic solution which offers a practical way forward. It is now essential that the Prime Minister is given the backing to deliver on it.”


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What do the British public think about manufacturing?

Fri, 2018-09-21 14:44

A new survey on public attitudes to manufacturing reveals support and ignorance in almost equal measure writes Stephen Phipson, CEO of EEF

As our politicians enjoy their conference season and consider the potential implications of a ‘no deal’ Brexit on the future of our economy they might do well to take notice of a survey that we’ve carried out with our partner law firm Womble Bond Dickinson.

We work with great businesses every day and see first-hand their inventiveness, their resilience and adaptability. We know that manufacturers are crucial to generating wealth, to the UK’s research and development efforts and we know that the UK would be exporting a lot less around the world without them. And we’ve got the statistics that show how important the sector has been in improving productivity. But we would say that, wouldn’t we?

So we’ve asked the great British public what they think about manufacturing.

The good news is that the public does understand the importance of manufacturing. They see that it matters to their local area, with that view being especially dominant in communities that rely more heavily on manufacturing for jobs. Looking forward, almost three quarters of people agree that the UK cannot tackle future problems without a strong manufacturing sector. The sector also comes first when asked which sector is likely to provide a solution to the challenges facing the UK, in particular the grand challenges identified in the Government’s Industrial Strategy which will impact on economies and societies all over the world.

In particular, these include the way that we travel and transport goods, as well as rapidly developing artificial intelligence. Manufacturing was also ranked second when it comes to reducing the impact of climate change and scores highly with the public for trust and ‘doing the right thing’.

Added to this the public also believes that when the UK leaves the EU manufacturing is vitally important to securing our place in the global economy, while they also felt that a strong manufacturing sector was important to secure employment for future generations.

The British public believes that the UK is ranked at fifty six in the world, which is actually the position of Kazakhstan

This strong public backing for the importance of manufacturing has significant implications for the direction of policy as we look to build on industrial strategy and decide what type of economy we are going to need to secure growth in a post-Brexit world.

That was where the good news stopped, however, as the survey also contained some alarming findings that confirm the poor and outdated image of manufacturing still persists among parents.

When asked only a fifth of parents want their children to work in manufacturing believing the sector to be poorly paid, whilst just over a quarter said they do not want their offspring working on a production line. In addition, almost one fifth said they did not want their child doing manual labour, a factor which has huge implications at a time when Apprenticeships and Technical Skills are so critical.

The extent of misperception about pay is that average earnings in manufacturing significantly exceed  average earnings in the whole of the UK economy and services, but just 16 per cent of the public are aware of this and the financial opportunities opting for a career in manufacturing could bring.

Furthermore, while the public understands the value of manufacturing the view of Britain’s international standing was extremely underrated. The British public believes that the UK is ranked at 56 in the world, which is actually the position of Kazakhstan.

The reality is that the UK has not been out of the top ten performing manufacturing countries around the globe for the last decade, and is currently sitting at ninth place in the world.

The findings make it clear that manufacturing still has a core role in the hearts and minds of the British public, that it is important for the country’s economy and government should invest more in its future. But the findings show an alarming misperception still exists about the opportunities and rewards available in manufacturing among those who are crucial to its future, namely the parents of the next generation. We must be ceaseless therefore in talking up our sector, its significance and the fact it is a sector the public and those working in it can be proud of.

As such there can be no easing in pushing government to work with industry to invest more in creating the next generation of manufacturers. This will ensure we are able to maintain Britain’s impressive place in global manufacturing and secure its future growth potential.

Key findings

The survey, which attracted 2052 responses from across the UK  was carried our for EEF by YouGov.

  • 79% of people believe Govt should place greater value on manufacturing
  • 70% of people agree a strong manufacturing base essential to tackle future challenges
  • 69% of people think manufacturing essential to post Brexit place in world
  • Yet only one fifth of parents would want their child to work in the sector
  • Misperception about pay and working on production line key reasons
  • Public believes Britain to be 56th biggest manufacturing nation, in reality is it’s 9th


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Digital sensor system for powered wheelchairs will use AI for driver assistance

Fri, 2018-09-21 12:21

Intelligent powered wheelchairs that adapt the level of support they offer users depending how skilled they are as a driver or how tired they become, could offer disabled people the opportunity for greater independence.

Researchers at Portsmouth University, led by Dr David Sanders and Dr Martin Langner, have previously developed low-cost analogue collision avoidance systems for powered wheelchairs, based on the use of simple proximity sensors.

Now, in an EPSRC-funded project with Dr Alex Gegov, the researchers are developing a digital sensor system for powered wheelchairs, which will use artificial intelligence to learn how well a particular user can drive, and adapt the level of support offered accordingly.

By reducing the effort needed to drive, the devices will allow some people to use a wheelchair by themselves for the first time, and make driving and steering far easier for many others, Sanders said.

“The system can automatically adjust itself for the child that is driving the wheelchair,” he said. “So for example, if the system knows, or very quickly learns, that a particular child is blind and has very little spatial awareness, then it can adjust itself to assist them in the best possible way.”

The sensors will be connected to low-cost microcomputers, such as the widely available Raspberry Pi devices, which will be equipped with AI software.

The system will be capable of interpreting hand movements and tremors, and will take into account factors such as skill, tiredness, and recent driving performance, to determine how much influence on the motion of the wheelchair it needs to have at any given time.

At least three different AI systems will be used to suggest a course of action, such as turn left or stop, for example, and a Decision Making System (DMS) will decide which of these suggestions to follow, based on information from the sensors and the needs of the driver.

“We will have a decision making system that sits above the AI systems, to decide which opinion is more valuable, and what are the risks of one [suggestion] over another,” said Sanders.

The system, which will be developed with the Chailey Heritage Foundation, a specialist school in East Sussex, can be fitted to existing wheelchairs, to minimise costs.

It will be tested at the university before being trialled at Chailey Heritage Foundation late next year.


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New UK bridge designs could connect Europe and Africa across the Strait of Gibraltar

Thu, 2018-09-20 18:49

New long span bridge designs that could ultimately cover distances such as the Strait of Gibraltar, connecting Europe and Africa, could be made possible by UK research.

Split-pylon concept bridge to cross Strait of Gibraltar, with two 5km main spans (Credit: Helen Fairclough)

In an EPSRC-funded project, researchers at Sheffield University and Brunel University London, alongside long span bridge expert Ian Firth of engineering consultants COWI, used a mathematical modelling technique to identify new bridge forms.

Most existing long span bridges are either suspension bridges, such as the Humber Bridge, or cable-stay, such as the Queensferry Crossing.

However, as these bridge spans increase in length, more and more of their structure is needed just to carry their own weight, according to project leader Prof Matthew Gilbert at Sheffield University.

“There is a theoretical limit on how long a bridge span can be before the material fails,” said Gilbert.

So instead the researchers set out to investigate whether new designs could lead to more structurally efficient forms, allowing longer bridge spans to be built.

The researchers developed a mathematical optimisation model, in which they incorporated a nineteenth century mathematical theory by Davies Gilbert, who advised Thomas Telford on the design for the Menai Suspension Bridge in North Wales.

They found that the most mathematically optimal designs would contain regions resembling a bicycle wheel, with multiple spokes in place of a single tower.

However, since this would be difficult to replicate on a large scale, the team replaced these wheels with simpler split towers comprising just two or three spokes each.

“Very often there are slight variations on [the mathematically optimal] forms, which are only very slightly less efficient, in that there is very little extra weight, but they are much easier to build,” said Gilbert.

In the design, the forces from the deck are transmitted more efficiently through the bridge superstructure to the foundations, meaning less material is needed. This is done by keeping the load paths short, and avoiding sharp corners between tensile and compressive elements.

More work is needed to ensure the new designs are practical, including how easy they will be to construct, said Gilbert.

“We haven’t yet looked at the lateral loading from wind,” he said. “So we’d like to work with experts in that field, to see whether [the design] is a practical solution for very long spans.”

The research is published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society.


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Airbus to develop concepts for moon-orbiting space station

Thu, 2018-09-20 16:29

The European Space Agency (ESA) has asked Airbus to work on concepts for key parts of the proposed Deep Space Gateway, a major international effort to build a moon-orbiting space station.

The NASA led project, which as well as ESA involves the Russian, Canadian, and Japanese space agencies, plans to use the base  as a staging post for missions to Mars and beyond. NASA plans to launch the first module – the central power propulsion element (PPE) – into lunar orbit in the early 2020’s.

A Boeing concept illustration of the Deep Space Gateway

As previously reported by The Engineer a number of private companies including Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Bigelow Aerospace, Sierra Nevada Corporation, Orbital ATK, are developing concepts for the space-station

Airbus has been asked to develop concepts for the space station’s habitation and research module as well as for an infrastructure element for refuelling, docking and telecommunications, which will also serve as an airlock for scientific equipment.

Oliver Juckenhöfel, head of On-Orbit Services and Exploration at Airbus said that its initial designs, which will be presented  at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Bremen in October 2018, will draw heavily on the lessons leaned through flagship projects such as the Columbus space laboratory, the ATV space transporter and the European service module for Orion.

“When developing the new lunar platforms, robotic and human space exploration go hand in hand,” he said.  “Europe has a fantastic track record in both, and these two studies will help to ensure a strong European presence in future space exploration.”

David Parker, director of Human and Robotic Exploration at ESA, welcomed that news as a sign that the European space sector will be at the heart of one of humanity’s most exciting space projects.

“With these studies and other preparations, ESA aims to stay at the centre of human space exploration. The Gateway will become humanity’s most remote research outpost and we hope Europe will benefit from the world of innovation, discovery and excitement that lies ahead,” he said.


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Robotic skins provide motion to everyday inanimate objects

Thu, 2018-09-20 15:27

Inanimate objects can be turned into robots following the development of robotic skins, an advance with a range of potential applications such as search-and-rescue robotics or wearable technologies.

New ‘Robotic Skins’ technology developed by Yale researchers allows users to turn everyday objects into robots (Credit: Yale University)

Developed in the lab of Rebecca Kramer-Bottiglio, assistant professor of mechanical engineering & materials science at Yale University, robotic skins enable users to design their own robotic systems. The results of the team’s work are published today in Science Robotics.

The skins are said to be made from elastic sheets embedded with sensors and actuators developed in Kramer-Bottiglio’s lab. Placed on a deformable object the skins animate these objects from their surfaces. According to Yale, the makeshift robots can perform different tasks depending on the properties of the soft objects and how the skins are applied.

“We can take the skins and wrap them around one object to perform a task – locomotion, for example – and then take them off and put them on a different object to perform a different task, such as grasping and moving an object,” she said. “We can then take those same skins off that object and put them on a shirt to make an active wearable device.”

Robots are typically built for a single purpose but the robotic skins allow users to create ad hoc multi-functional robots that can be used in settings that hadn’t been considered when they were designed, said Kramer-Bottiglio.

Additionally, using more than one skin at a time allows for more complex movements. Kramer-Bottiglio said the skins can be layered to get different types of motion. “Now we can get combined modes of actuation – for example, simultaneous compression and bending.”

The researchers created a handful of prototypes to demonstrate their robotic skins, including foam cylinders that move like an inchworm, a shirt-like wearable device designed to correct poor posture, and a device with a gripper that can grasp and move objects.

Kramer-Bottiglio came up with the idea for the devices when NASA put out a call for soft robotic systems. The technology was designed in partnership with NASA, and its multifunctional and reusable nature would allow astronauts to accomplish an array of tasks with the same reconfigurable material. The same skins used to make a robotic arm out of a piece of foam could be removed and applied to create a soft Mars rover that can roll over rough terrain. With the robotic skins on board, the Yale scientist said, anything from balloons to balls of crumpled paper could potentially be made into a robot with a purpose.

“One of the main things I considered was the importance of multifunctionality, especially for deep space exploration where the environment is unpredictable,” she said. “The question is: How do you prepare for the unknown unknowns?


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August 1884: The prospects of young engineers

Thu, 2018-09-20 14:31

Plenty of young men were willing to become engineers in the late 19th century, but their scientific training and overall aptitude was considered woefully insufficient

Potential source of confusion for the Victorian ‘man of science’?

Today’s graduate engineers are often accused of being blighted by book learning when they should’ve spent more time on the tools.

Despite years of study, these young professionals are sometimes accused by readers of this publication of not even acquiring the most basic theoretical knowledge.

The situation wasn’t so different in 1884 when The Engineer ran a piece bemoaning the quality of training for mechanical engineers, directing its opening salvo at college taught ‘scientific training’, which was considered ‘of no bread-and-cheese-earning value whatever’.


“A young man attends science classes; or he goes to a science college, and spends two or three years learning all that can be taught him,” wrote The Engineer. “At the end of that time we shall suppose that he gets, by good luck or favour, a berth as manager, we shall say, of a department, or even of works, of moderate dimensions. Before a week has passed away he finds that all his scientific training is entirely useless to him. It is valuable no doubt; so was the bag of doubloons, found by Robinson Crusoe on his island.”

No amount of training – scientific, theoretical, or practical – will supply brains, and tact, and the art of doing the right thing at the right time

Is it possible, asked our predecessors, that a high scientific training is of no value to the mechanical engineer? Not necessarily, but it was argued – as it is today – that the pursuit of theory hindered the creation of ‘shop ready’ engineers.

“His scientific attainments will not procure him a salary,” said The Engineer. “Out of his college he finds himself in another world. He sees things done and results arrived at apparently by intuition. He finds theoretical knowledge of all kinds at a discount. He learns that precedent is the great rule of life, modified and adapted to circumstances by the brain power of one or more individuals.

“He sees, if he is observant, things done, which for the life of him he could not do either with his head or hands; and be finds that if he is to be a mechanical engineer, earning a salary either as a head draughtsman and designer; or as a works manager, he must begin to learn all over again.”

On apprentices The Engineer expressed surprise at ‘the absolute, dense, ignorance of men’ undergoing training, noting: “No amount of training – scientific, theoretical, or practical – will supply brains, and tact, and the art of doing the right thing at the right time. Very many young men become engineers, not because they are fitted for the business but because they think they are.”

Today’s engineering profession is well aware of a looming skills gap and has done its best to reverse the trend by delving into the psyche of all youngsters via ongoing Big Bang Fairs and this year’s Tomorrow’s Engineers campaign, to name but two.

Our editorial predecessors would’ve scoffed at such schemes, thinking instead that engineers – specifically mechanical engineers – are born and not made. If the person has the aptitude then they will succeed.

“Our advice to most young men who wish to become engineers is like that given by Punch to those about to marry: Don’t! The exceptions are those whose fathers are engineers, willing and able to supply that special training which can hardly be obtained for love or money by those whose first connection with the profession, in any shape or way, takes place when their indentures are signed.”


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Crowd-counting WiFi technique looks through walls

Thu, 2018-09-20 14:23

Researchers in the US have demonstrated how WiFi could be used to penetrate walls and count the number of people inside a room.

Devised by a group at the University of California Santa Barbara, the technique could have applications in smart energy management, retail business planning and security. “Our proposed approach makes it possible to estimate the number of people inside a room from outside,” said Prof Yasamin Mostofi, who led the research.

Presented at the  2018 IEEE International Conference on Sensing, Communication, and Networking (SECON) the technology uses WiFi RSSI (received signal strength) measurements to estimate the number of people.

In the team’s experiments, one WiFi transmitter and one WiFi receiver were placed behind walls, outside a room in which up to 20 people were walking around. The transmitter sent a wireless signal whose received signal strength was measured by the receiver. The estimate of the number of people present is based on these received signal power measurements.

Mostafi’s group has previously demonstrated the use of WiFi for crowd counting, but this is the first time through-wall counting has been demonstrated. “Enabling through-wall crowd counting is considerably more challenging due to the high level of attenuation by the walls,” said Mostofi.

The key to this technology is that human presence and movement can result in significant drops in the received signal strength.  “Consider the event sequence that corresponds to the occurrence of significant signal drops,” explained Mostafi. “An inter-event time is then the time in between two consecutive events.” The researchers’ approach for enabling through-wall crowd counting is based on mathematically characterising the information content of the received signal inter-event times, and relating it to the total number of occupants.

The group used mathematical tools from renewal process literature, a theoretical field that has found applications in areas such as reliability and risk analysis to model the statistics of the inter-event times and relate them to the total number of occupants in the area.

The approach has been trialled in a number of different locations with different numbers of people, and has so far shown a counting accuracy of two people or less 100 per cent of the time.


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