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Updated: 57 min 25 sec ago

Origami device captures deep-sea creatures with delicacy

5 hours 38 min ago

US researchers have created an origami-inspired device for gently capturing delicate sea creatures to study and return to the ocean.

The rotary actuated dodecahedron (RAD) sampler has five origami-inspired “petals” arranged around a central point that fold up to safely capture marine organisms, like this jellyfish (Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University)

RAD (rotary actuated dodecahedron), was developed by a team from Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, John A Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and the City University of New York’s Baruch College. It is designed for midwater interaction using rotary-actuated folding polyhedrons to quickly and safely capture marine organisms such as jellyfish and octopuses. The device, described in Science Robotics, consists of five identical 3D-printed polymer “petals” that are attached to a series of rotating joints that link together to form a scaffold. The structure rotates at its joints and folds up into a hollow dodecahedron when a single motor applies a torque at the petals’ meeting point.

“We approach these animals as if they are works of art,” said David Gruber, Presidential Professor of Biology and Environmental Science at Baruch College and co-author of the study. “Would we cut pieces out of the Mona Lisa to study it? No – we’d use the most innovative tools available. These deep-sea organisms, some being thousands of years old, deserve to be treated with a similar gentleness when we’re interacting with them.”

Zhi Ern Teoh, a former Wyss Postdoctoral Fellow, got the idea to apply folding properties to underwater sample collection in 2014. “I was building microrobots by hand in graduate school, which was very painstaking and tedious work, and I wondered if there was a way to fold a flat surface into a three-dimensional shape using a motor instead,” he said.

According to Teoh, the design is perfect for the difficult and unpredictable deep sea environment “because its controls are very simple, so there are fewer elements that can break. It’s also modular, so if something does break, we can simply replace that part and send the sampler back down into the water,” he said. “This folding design is also well-suited to be used in space, which is similar to the deep ocean in that it’s a low-gravity, inhospitable environment that makes operating any device challenging.”

The team is currently working on a more rugged version of the device, while also adding further capabilities.

“We’d like to add cameras and sensors to the sampler so that, in the future, we can capture an animal, collect lots of data about it like its size, material properties, and even its genome, and then let it go, almost like an underwater medical check-up,” said Gruber.

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Comment: Brexiteer manufacturing ignorance spells disaster for the UK

6 hours 14 min ago

It’s time for SMEs to throw open their factory doors and educate MPs about the perils of Brexit before it’s too late writes Paul Murray, MD of UK SME Instrument Design Technology.

It’s over two years since the UK voted to leave the EU. It’s taken until a few days ago for the UK government to come to an agreed UK position for negotiations with the EU.

Simplistic arguments presented by Brexiteers show their lack of understanding

The Brexiteers have shown throughout the campaign and since a complete disregard and total lack of understanding for the manufacturing processes for industrial goods in the modern age.

In the automotive, aerospace and food manufacturing sectors to name but three of many; the requirement for integrated supply chains, just-in-time deliveries and seamless borders across Europe & Ireland are paramount. The cost of production is closely controlled and would be severely impacted by the potential of border delays & tariffs.

Simplistic arguments presented by Brexiteers show their lack of understanding of this process. Similarly, for common product regulations and standards these are set worldwide, and if you wish to sell into any market you have to show compliance – this is true for both large multinationals and SME suppliers.

The impact of the vote has been dramatic with a fall in market sentiment towards the UK

Perhaps Brexiteers would benefit from visits to JLR, BMW-Mini, Toyota etc. plus Airbus to understand the reality? It would be a breath of fresh air to hear informed comment from MPs, and certainly an improvement on the hugely negative recent comments by MPs and Ministers about business.

For our high-technology SME supplying precision instruments to the international science markets, the impact so far of the vote has been dramatic, with a fall in market sentiment towards the UK. Previous excellent working relationships between European partners and the UK supply base have suffered due to the perceived sentiment from the UK together with the huge uncertainty caused by the constraints of Brexit. This also seems to be the case with the Galileo project where UK suppliers are being frozen out of the procurement process.

The ease of doing business on our doorstep with European science laboratories cannot be underestimated- modern travel means short, efficient visits to the continent are possible. A common European culture with English as the language of choice further enhances the process. The ability to easily discuss and agree contract terms with Europeans is another advantage.

Contrast this with Asian markets, for example China, where the process is controlled by government with onerous conditions together with different language and culture. The distances involved mean visits are a full week, with many hours in time zones adding to the communication complexities.

Yes, it’s true China and Asia are huge expanding markets but for an SME this represents a very difficult market to penetrate with many barriers to overcome.

I understand for many other technology-based SMEs having access to the EU Horizon framework has been the cornerstone of their development. What happens to this post-Brexit is still uncertain.

Access to skilled labour for all SMEs is a constant unsolved issue. In particular, apprentice-trained technicians are like gold dust for technology companies. Training your own is the only way since the reduction in supply of EU people coming to the UK only adds to this shortage. Retention of skilled labour is also difficult since the larger companies can offer better conditions than most SMEs and are a big magnet for UK trained technicians.

Our SME exports regularly to the USA, which until very recently has been a very open and friendly market for high technology companies. Current duties are very low, typically 2-3 per cent. It’s difficult to see a large change in US market potential with a new UK-USA FTA. It certainly won’t replace any market loss in the European market caused by Brexit.

As the UK moves towards Brexit on 29th March 2019 it would help immensely if Brexiteer MPs would inform themselves about the issues the UK industrial manufacturing base, including the SME companies, truly face. Improving the quality of debate and moving away from soundbites and negative hits for political purposes on UK business can only help improve confidence in the future.

The spectre of a no-deal Brexit still looms large over UK manufacturing and reversion to WTO rules. This would be disastrous for the UK industrial base from multinationals through to SMEs. The impact on jobs and government finances would be catastrophic, and the UK may never recover from this scenario; educating our MPs and Ministers about integrated supply chains, just-in-time supply & technology-based SME companies is a top priority. This option is more hopeful than the grim reality that Brexiteer MPs are so ideologically wedded to Brexit that they don’t care about the economic consequences as long as they get a Brexit.

Maybe some MPs can still be enlightened by a visit to your factory and a greater understanding of these critical issues? Let’s get the invitations out!

Paul Murray is Managing Director of Instrument Design Technology Ltd, a specialist engineering SME based in Widnes

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BMW claims industry first with automotive CT scanning system

6 hours 44 min ago

In a claimed first for the automotive industry, BMW Group has revealed that it is using an advanced computed tomography (CT) system for prototype development, production and analysis.

The scan itself is performed by four coordinated robots

The company claims that the technique – which uses a team of coordinated robots to perform detailed CT scans of vehicles and components – is the only one of its kind in the automotive industry.

Until now, vehicles have had to be dismantled for analysis, but CT allows checks to be carried out with the vehicle completely intact. The new X-ray system is based in the BMW Group Pilot Plant in the Research & Innovation Centre (FIZ) in Munich, at the intersection between Development and Production.

Commenting on the system – which was developed in collaboration with the Fraunhofer Development Centre for X-Ray Technology (EZRT) – Udo Hänle, BMW’s head of Production Integration and Pilot Plant said: “We can now analyse our prototypes in minute detail without having to dismantle them first. Ultimately, this will enable us to integrate new technologies into a series vehicles even faster.”

Although the firm has been using CT and X-ray scans to check vehicle parts for a number of years, the latest system takes this capability to a new level, and enables engineers to analyse vehicles right down to micro-metre level.

This degree of detail is required for a range of reasons, for instance to check welds and punch screw connections, and to verify body condition before and after painting, where extreme temperatures can affect adhesive bonds. Findings from the scan are then used as a basis for making targeted modifications to series production.

The scan itself is performed by four coordinated robots. Once the vehicle is in position in the system, the robots move around it. Working in pairs, they send X-rays through it and across to their counterparts. The data they collect is then put through a specially developed computer program that calculates a multi-layered, three-dimensional image. This forms the basis for a detailed analysis of the internal workings of the vehicle, offering information on objects as small as 100 micro-metres – approximately the width of a human hair.

Engineers are currently carrying out research to establish how far Artificial Intelligence might be used to evaluate findings. By processing large amounts of data, the software can learn the many different patterns that occur, link individual items of data, and gradually evaluate findings automatically.

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Video(s) of the week: Autonomy at Goodwood

7 hours 31 min ago

The Festival of Speed is a celebration of both the classic and the cutting-edge, and this year’s Goodwood saw autonomy take on the hill climb for the first time.

Robocar, representing the Roborace motorsport series that relies on artificial intelligence (AI) instead of human drivers, became the first autonomous vehicle to take on the Goodwood challenge. The vehicle weighs 1,350kg and is powered by four 135kW electric motors used to drive each wheel, for a combined 500-plus hp. An NVIDIA DRIVE PX 2 computer processes Robocar’s data, which includes inputs from the LiDAR, radar, GPS, ultrasonic and camera sensors.

Following a dry run away from the gaze of the crowd, the sleek Robocar then took on the 1.16-mile course in front of packed stands. While it may not have clocked a time to compete with fastest cars on display, Robocar’s impressive handling of the tricky Goodwood track was undoubtedly one of the festival highlights. The onboard video of the festival run can be seen below.

Elsewhere, Siemens teamed up with Cranfield University to merge the cutting-edge with the classic, equipping a ‘65 Mustang with autonomous capabilities. Fitting out a car over 50 years old with a self-driving system was never going to be straightforward, and the student team at Cranfield apparently had just a few months to work on the task. After some initial steering difficulties attributed to a mechanical fault, the Mustang did make a clean run up the hill, though its top speed was limited to 20mph. Considering the timescales involved and the enormity of the challenge, it was an impressive achievement for the Siemens and Cranfield team.

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Australia’s Monash team takes Formula Student title

Wed, 2018-07-18 20:43

Monash Motorsport from Australia has won the 20th edition of Formula Student, the annual international racing competition for budding engineers.

Monash University taking part in Sunday’s Endurance event (Credit: IMechE)

Run by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE), the Silverstone event attracted 129 teams from more than 30 countries this year. Monash, hailing from Melbourne, won the overall competition, with university teams from Spain, Egypt, Germany, the US and the UK also honoured at Sunday’s awards ceremony.

This year’s Formula Student was also notable for the first ever appearance of an all-female crew, as Team AUJ, from the National University of Sciences and Technology in Pakistan, transported their car 4,000 miles by air freight to take part. Best placed of the UK teams in the overall standings were Oxford Brookes (2nd), University of Sheffield (5th) and University of Birmingham (6th).

“Formula Student, now in its 20th anniversary year has been producing highly sought-after graduate engineers, who have then gone on to very successful careers in leading automotive companies around the globe,” said Terry Spall, chief judge at Formula Student. “Around 40,000 students have been through the FS experience, emerging as superbly rounded and work-ready graduates, with a skill set the automotive community craves.

Formula Student AI car (Credit: IMechE)

The 2018 edition of the event also saw autonomous racing make its Formula Student debut. FS-AI tasked some teams with developing a cost-effective software package to enable an Artificial Intelligence (AI) car to make its own decisions, and evolve to improve its own performance. The new aspect of the competition aims to ensure that FS continues to support industry by addressing the skills gap and providing mechanical engineering students with the opportunity for real-world experience of integrated electronics, software and systems engineering.

“With the emergence of autonomous vehicle technologies and the possibilities of driverless cars entering the market in the coming years, Formula Student has recognised it has a role to play in producing the new skill sets future automotive engineers will need,” said Spall.

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Flexible graphene foam may power wearable devices

Wed, 2018-07-18 17:09

A Glasgow University team has developed medical sensors powered by a porous foam of graphene and silver, an advance with potential applications in the wearable device market.

Last month, researchers at Rice University in Texas unveiled a method for making three-dimensional forms made of foamed graphene. The Glasgow team, working independently, used a commercially available graphene foam to make a layered structure with a silver-containing epoxy resin to form supercapacitors capable of storing three times as much power as any similar flexible supercapacitor, they claim.

The graphene foam supercapacitor (GFSC) sits between a photovoltaic cell and the skin sensor. Image: BEST

In a paper in the journal Nano Energy, the team from Glasgow’s bendable electronics and sensing technologies (BEST) group, led by Prof Ravinder Dahiya, said that lithium ion batteries may not be suitable for wearable devices because they are inflexible and heavy and their heat may cause injuries. Supercapacitors, which charge and discharge quickly and can be made from more environmentally friendly materials, may be a more promising option, they said.

Dahiya’s team is exploring the emerging technology of hybrid supercapacitor/batteries. These are more stable than traditional supercapacitors, they said, and capable of operating over more than a million charge-discharge cycles without loss of performance.

Their device comprises several layers: a layer made up from 300 individual layers of highly conductive graphene sheet as a current collector, onto which a layer of silver epoxy was bonded, with graphene foam on top of that. An electrolyte of phosphoric acid was dropped onto the foam and a polyester/cellulose sheet was bonded on top of that as an ion permeable membrane. This whole assembly was connected to a commercially available photovoltaic cell. The team has also demonstrated that the capacitor can be charged by a flexible solar powered skin developed by the same group.

The team connected the power pack to a sensor designed to detect sweat pH to test the system, and obtained highly promising results. “We’re very pleased by the progress this new form of solar-powered supercapacitor represents,” Dahiya said. “A flexible, wearable health monitoring system, which only requires exposure to sunlight to charge, has a lot of obvious commercial appeal, but the underlying technology has a great deal of additional potential.

“This research could take the wearable systems for health monitoring to remote parts of the world where solar power is often the most reliable source of energy, and it could also increase the efficiency of hybrid electric vehicles. We’re already looking at further integrating the technology into flexible synthetic skin which we’re developing for use in advanced prosthetics.”

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Tooling technology has industry on the right track

Wed, 2018-07-18 17:03

Global developments in machine tools continue to meet a wide range of challenges from end users in both high-end technology and traditional markets

Notwithstanding the vagaries of global consumption, machine tool builders (MTBs) continue to invest in new production capacity to meet demand from increasingly sophisticated users. Mazak exemplifies this, announcing the completion of the first construction phase and the start of assembly operations at its new Inabe plant – its sixth in Japan. The plant will manufacture large, five-face machining centres and five-axis machine tools, mainly for the aerospace, construction machinery and energy industries; and raise production capacity in Japan by 20 per cent.

Meanwhile, more than £2m has been spent upgrading Heller Machine Tools’ manufacturing plant in Redditch, Worcestershire, providing a 30 per cent boost to output of horizontal machining centres.

Restoration of ‘Sir Nigel Greasley’ prompted investment in a new turning centre from XYZ

Commenting on the underlying production strategy, David Evans, UK operations manager, said: “As part of our expansion, we installed an 11-station Strothmann flow line and new logistics system for complete manufacture of horizontal machining centres – originally, our machine assembly was purely a mechanical process on an adjacent flow line and the machine had to be lifted off to be finished in a separate part of the factory. When we first moved from block assembly of machines in one location to the old flow line, there was an immediate 20 per cent increase in productivity. The new Strothmann system has resulted in a further reduction of at least 20 per cent in overall assembly time and we intend to improve on that by making the process even leaner.”

Mill-turning developments
Modern machine tool technology tends to be multifunctional, and whilst the Mazak and Heller initiatives focus on what can be clearly identified as machining centres, developments in mill turning continue apace, and include a new compact machine from DMG MORI for turning and milling large diameter components. The NTX 3000 2nd Generation multitasking centre is capable of simultaneous five-axis CNC machining of complex workpieces within a footprint of only 16.5m2. Experience gained from installing more than 1,000 of the smallest, 65mm bar NTX 2000 model, drove design of the new machine. It has a robust machine bed with roller guideways and offers high process stability and flexibility. Comprehensive water cooling of the spindles, ball screws and ball nuts ensures thermal stability in continuous operation. Magnetic scale feedback of linear position to a resolution of 0.01 micron is a further option, as is a range of automated workpiece handling systems.

The value of multi-axis machine tools is being demonstrated throughout the manufacturing supply chain, encouraging forward-looking SMEs and subcontractors to  sustain investment levels and exploit the latest technology. Worthing-based Roscomac invested around £3m-£4m with Citizen Machinery UK in the first six months of 2017, and is now enjoying the benefits. The investment programme started with a Miyano BNE-51MSY multi-axis turn-mill centre and two Cincom sliding head turn-mill centres, M16-V, and L20-VIII LFV. Such was the impact, in terms of productivity and problem-solving, of using low-frequency vibration (LFV) technology on the L20, that managing director Joe Martello ordered another L20 and a smaller-capacity L12-VII.

CoroMill Plura HFS targets high-feed side milling of titanium components

Game changer
Sean Keet, cell leader, said: “We had been experiencing problems with swarf when machining certain difficult components made from high-grade alloy and some stainless steels, plus copper, plastics and some difficult-specification aluminiums. Despite constant monitoring, we often faced significant levels of scrap or reworking, in particular due to swarf marks on critical features.”

Production of these parts has been transformed, with LFV described as “a game changer.” LFV is based on initiating selectable sequences programmed at the machine control through ‘G-codes’ to impart the size of chip to be produced. This introduces oscillation of the cutting tool through the servo axes of the drive system in the direction of feed in phases of tens of microns, which are precisely synchronised to the rotation of the spindle. The resulting controlled ‘air-cutting’ breaks the swarf into a designated chip size, which prevents ‘bird-nesting’ and can be applied to turning, drilling and even threading cycles. LFV can be switched in or out of the programmed cycle as required and helps reduce the onset of built-up edge on the tool tip, extending its in-cut life. It also allows increased depths-of-cut and enhances the achievement of improved surface quality.

Disruptive technology
The multifunctional trend enters disruptive technology territory with VIPER grinding. VIPER was the fruit of collaboration, back in 2001, between Rolls-Royce and Makino. Now, NCMT, which supplies Makino machines to the UK and Ireland, has won the Queen’s Award for Enterprise in International Trade 2018 for export success. Since 2005, NCMT has been licensed to sell VIPER across Europe; it has supplied more than 160 cells so far, many of them automated, into aerospace supply chains in the UK, continental Europe and as far afield as Thailand and Mexico. The process uses small aluminium oxide grinding wheels exchanged from the tool magazine on Makino machining centre platforms, allowing manufacture of nickel alloy components, such as turbine blades, much more efficiently than previously. Metal removal rates are five times greater than on traditional, higher capital cost, creep-feed grinders. Benefits include reductions in capital investment, set-up times, production costs, lead times and consumable costs – and very high accuracy.

Train time
Of course, less sophisticated solutions are appropriate for many machine tool users. The workshops of the Llangollen Railway provide maintenance for its own rolling stock, as well as supporting other heritage railways. A new project, to restore the iconic streamlined A4 Class locomotive ‘Sir Nigel Gresley’, prompted investment in an XYZ SLX 425 ProTURN lathe.

Built in 1937, the locomotive holds the post-war steam speed record of 112mph. The latest overhaul required sending the boiler to Llangollen for refurbishment and recertification. This included replacing the boiler stays – threaded shafts that support and brace the metal walls of the firebox against the pressure. As there are 296 of these stays in various lengths, with threaded ends, an upgrade from manual turning was deemed wise. The ProTURN lathe enables each boiler stay to be machined complete in half the time taken on a manual lathe. “The ProtoTRAK control makes life very easy as it guides you through everything, the TRAKing feature is very handy and the Do-One canned cycle feature in the control is extremely useful for machining features such as radii and chamfers,” said Llangollen machinist Michael O’Toole. “In addition to the easy conversational programming, we always use the Verify graphical system for added reassurance.”

O’Toole’s comments underline the fact that even the ‘simple’ manufacturing solutions encompass a level of technology we’ve come to take for granted. The key to investment is always about selecting the right technology for the job, and the view from the shop floor is a critical factor in making the right decision.

CUTTING TOOL DEVELOPMENTS

Milling titanium
Addressing the challenges of machining titanium parts for aircraft, Sandvik Coromant has introduced the CoroMill Plura HFS solid-carbide end mill. It exploits milling strategies such as high-feed side milling (characterised by low radial engagement, constant chip thickness, and high feed rate and speed). Sharp edges combine with a new coating that features a TiAlN inner layer and a silicon-containing outer layer. The outer layer reacts with titanium alloys and forms a sub-micron protective layer. During cutting, chips glide on top of the protective layer, preventing fast deterioration of the original coating and prolonging tool life.

Tangentially mounted inserts
WNT’s System SOGX series of turning inserts and toolholders combine to provide users with four useable cutting edges. In addition to maximising the number of cutting edges, by tangentially mounting the inserts, a stable process is ensured, even under extreme cutting conditions. This is further enhanced by the availability of a coolant supply that can be precisely directed and fed from either the rear or side of the toolholder.

Internal cooling
Horn Cutting Tools offers Boehlerit’s new turning toolholders with connections for internal coolant supply. They are available from stock with toggle clamp (ISO-P) and screw clamp (ISO-S) systems, allowing manufacturers to benefit from the productivity advantages of cooling directly at the cutting edge.

Wave mill expanded
Sumitomo Electric Hardmetal has extended its WFX-Type Wave Mill screw-locking shoulder milling cutter range using the proven economic advantageous series of four corner inserts into the WFXH, a high feed rate multi-purpose roughing, and WFXC chamfering-type bodies. By maintaining the use of existing inserts in the WFX Series, tool management and stock holding of inserts becomes more economic, extending their use to a wider range of applications.

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Rolls-Royce robots promise maintenance revolution

Wed, 2018-07-18 16:57

Rolls-Royce has presented a suite of robotic solutions, including swarm and snake robots, that it says could change the face of engine maintenance.

At a press conference during the Farnborough Airshow, the engine-maker provided details of four separate projects it is working on. They involve different academic and industrial partners and are at varying stages of development, but each has the potential to significantly reduce maintenance time and improve engine availability.

Alongside Harvard University, Rolls is developing swarm robots that can perform on-wing engine inspections. The beetle-like bots will be about 10mm in diameter and equipped with cameras to provide a live video feed while crawling through aero engines. According to Dr James Kell, Rolls-Royce on-wing technology specialist, swarm robots could help map the internal engine area and negate the need for time-consuming manual inspections.

“We thought, rather than doing that traditionally, we could put cameras on the end of small walking beetles and have them work in a team, whereby…collaboratively we start to map the whole environment,” said Kell.

“It’s a much more efficient way of performing the same kind of inspection. If we did it conventionally, it would take us about five hours. If we did it like this, who knows, we could probably do that in maybe five minutes.”

The beetles would be deployed by snake-like robots that can weave into the guts of a gas turbine. Rolls has already been working on similar technology with Nottingham University for another project called FLARE, where snake robots work in teams to perform patch repair to thermal coatings. With some adjustments, the same robots could help deliver the swarm robots in and out of the inspection area.

A demonstrator swarm robot was shown to journalists at Farnborough

While the swarm robots are some years away from becoming an operational reality – they are currently at Technology Readiness Level (TRL) 2 – demonstrators have been built and were on display at Farnborough. However, Rolls also unveiled a project that was much closer to deployment. Known as Remote Boreblending, it uses a robot attached to an engine to perform remotely-operated repairs. Boreblending has been used by Rolls-Royce since 2003 as a form of preventative maintenance, but it requires a small pool of high-skilled workers to travel around the world repairing the engines. Now, engineers will be able to carry out the repairs from anywhere using a robotic solution.

“It enables a skilled person to control the robot and actually perform a repair from the other side of the world,” said Kell. “It allows us to service our engines in hours rather than days.”

Remote Boreblending- currently at TRL 5 – was also developed in partnership with Nottingham University, having been first conceived about four years ago.

“We’ve gone from there to a full-scale engine demonstration within about three and a half years,” Kell said.

Lastly, Rolls is working with Nottingham, Oxsensis, BJR Systems and Roke Manor on a project called INSPECT, whereby periscope cameras would provide on-wing in-flight engine data. Currently at TRL 2, the technology requires extreme thermal management to withstand the temperatures produced by a jet engine. As it will operate in-flight, the certification process will also be a challenge. Nonetheless, Rolls believes the potential benefits are significant.

“This is a device where we’re suggesting that, rather than just having ears on our engine monitoring systems, we can have eyes on those monitoring systems,” said Kell. “So it’s allowing the engine to inspect itself.”

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Engineers sign pledge to halt weaponisation of artificial intelligence

Wed, 2018-07-18 15:44

Leading engineers and scientists have signed a pledge that precludes their participation or support of the development, manufacture, trade, or use of lethal autonomous weapons.

Released in Stockholm at the 2018 International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence (IJCAI), the pledge – organised by the Future of Life Institute and signed by companies and individuals working in AI and robotics – challenges governments, academia and industry to follow suit and ‘create a future with strong international norms, regulations and laws against lethal autonomous weapons’.

Corporate signatories include Google DeepMind, University College London, the XPRIZE Foundation, ClearPath Robotics/OTTO Motors, the European Association for AI, and the Swedish AI Society. Individuals who signed include Elon Musk, Jeff Dean, head of research at Google.ai; plus AI pioneers Stuart Russell, Yoshua Bengio, Anca Dragan and Toby Walsh.

“I’m excited to see AI leaders shifting from talk to action, implementing a policy that politicians have thus far failed to put into effect,” said Max Tegmark, a physics professor at MIT and president of the Future of Life Institute. “AI has huge potential to help the world – if we stigmatise and prevent its abuse. AI weapons that autonomously decide to kill people are as disgusting and destabilising as bioweapons, and should be dealt with in the same way.”

Lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS) can identify and target an individual without a human ‘in-the-loop’; the decision and authorisation about whether or not someone will be attacked is left to the autonomous weapons system.

Toby Walsh, a professor of artificial intelligence at Australia’s University of New South Wales in Sydney, said: “We cannot hand over the decision as to who lives and who dies to machines. They do not have the ethics to do so.”

Advocates of an international ban on LAWS are similarly concerned that they will be easier to hack, more likely to end up on the black market, and easier for terrorists to obtain.

Ryan Gariepy, founder and CTO of Clearpath Robotics and OTTO Motors, said: “The proliferation of lethal autonomous weapon systems remains a clear and present danger to the citizens of every country in the world. No nation will be safe, no matter how powerful.

“We hope that governments around the world decide to invest their time and effort into autonomous systems which make their populations healthier, safer, and more productive instead of systems whose sole use is the deployment of lethal force.”

In December 2016, the United Nations’ Review Conference of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) began formal discussion on LAWS. 26 countries attending the Conference have so far announced support for some type of ban, including China. The next UN meeting on LAWS will be held in August 2018.

The pledge

Artificial intelligence (AI) is poised to play an increasing role in military systems. There is an urgent opportunity and necessity for citizens, policymakers, and leaders to distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable uses of AI.

In this light, we the undersigned agree that the decision to take a human life should never be delegated to a machine. There is a moral component to this position, that we should not allow machines to make life-taking decisions for which others – or nobody – will be culpable.

There is also a powerful pragmatic argument: lethal autonomous weapons, selecting and engaging targets without human intervention, would be dangerously destabilising for every country and individual. Thousands of AI researchers agree that by removing the risk, attributability, and difficulty of taking human lives, lethal autonomous weapons could become powerful instruments of violence and oppression, especially when linked to surveillance and data systems.

Moreover, lethal autonomous weapons have characteristics quite different from nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, and the unilateral actions of a single group could too easily spark an arms race that the international community lacks the technical tools and global governance systems to manage. Stigmatising and preventing such an arms race should be a high priority for national and global security.

We, the undersigned, call upon governments and government leaders to create a future with strong international norms, regulations and laws against lethal autonomous weapons. These currently being absent, we opt to hold ourselves to a high standard: we will neither participate in nor support the development, manufacture, trade, or use of lethal autonomous weapons. We ask that technology companies and organisations, as well as leaders, policymakers, and other individuals, join us in this pledge.

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Norsk and QuesTek to collaborate on titanium alloys for additive

Tue, 2018-07-17 20:38

Norsk Titanium and QuesTek Innovations are to collaborate on the testing of novel titanium alloys for use in additive manufacturing processes.

Production at Norsk

As part of this collaboration, the companies are evaluating a QuesTek-designed titanium alloy using Norsk’s Rapid Plasma Deposition (RPD) process. Preliminary evaluation of the Illinois-based company’s alloy is complete and Norsk has manufactured initial test specimens.

The test program will characterise the alloy microstructure, provide initial material properties, and will confirm QuesTek’s Ti alloy performance using Norsk’s production process.

According to Oslo-based Norsk, RPD precisely melts titanium wire in an inert argon gas environment, which is then built up in layers to a near-net-shape part. The company says this then results in significantly less machining, and a 50 to 75 per cent improvement in ‘buy-to-fly ratio’ compared to conventional manufacturing methods. Norsk is a tier 1 supplier to Boeing and its RDM process is the first to be approved by the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) for 3D-printed structural titanium.

QuesTek’s patented titanium alloy is said to have demonstrated approximately 15 per cent greater strength and improved ductility over traditional Ti-6Al-4V in wire-based Electron Beam Additive Manufacturing and traditional casting processes.

“We are excited to be working closely with Norsk Titanium’s business and technical team to evaluate our alloy in their proven process. Based on our interactions with the major aerospace component suppliers and aircraft OEMs in the US, Europe and Japan, we know there is a significant desire for reliable, higher performance Additive Manufactured titanium components that will enable lightweighting and an increase in component life,” said QuesTek’s manager of business development Jeff Grabowski.

When implemented, the new alloy is expected to provide material properties in excess of standard Ti-6Al-4V.

“Norsk is continually evaluating new applications of our process beyond the structural airframe components in production today.  QuesTek’s novel titanium alloy will allow RPD to grow into new applications and will allow designers to take further advantage of the benefits of additive processes,” said Nicholas Mayer, Norsk vice president of product development.

Today’s announcement was made at Farnborough International Air Show 2018.

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July 1955: The winds of change

Tue, 2018-07-17 17:29

Orkney was home to the UK’s first grid-connected turbine

There are currently 7,063 onshore wind turbines operating in 1,529 projects around Britain, with a combined operational capacity of 12GW. These figures come from RenewableUK, which estimates current offshore capacity at 7.1GW, a figure that will grow if new seabed rights are made available to offshore wind developers.

The wind turbines that define this form of renewable energy are getting bigger, too. In March, GE Renewable Energy unleashed the 12MW Haliade-X, a 260m-tall offshore turbine capable of generating enough energy for 16,000 European homes, rising to one million households in a 750MW configuration wind farm. Back onshore, the same company announced a 4.8MW wind turbine in September 2017 that is equipped with a 158m rotor and a range of tip heights up to 240m.

Electricity-generating wind turbines can be traced back to 1887 and James Blyth’s battery-charging machine, which was installed at the electrical engineer’s holiday home in Marykirk, Scotland. Nearly seven decades later, The Engineer received word from Costa Head, on the Orkney Mainland, about a 100kW wind-powered generator built by John Brown and Co (Clydebank) for the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board.

This wasn’t The Engineer’s first encounter with the machine. In 1950 the journal received notice that an order had been placed for the windmill and by 1955 full details had been disclosed.

Critics of wind power often ask where the electricity is going to come from when the wind stops blowing – an issue deemed almost irrelevant at Costa Head, on account of winds in excess of 125mph and ‘the comparative absence of calm days’. The generation target of 100kW was to be achieved with a wind speed of 30mph or above.

“This meant a blade circle of 60ft diameter, but later the ‘rated wind velocity’ was increased to 35mph, allowing the blade circle diameter to be decreased to 50ft,” wrote The Engineer.

In common with the machines that followed, the Costa Head windmill was built for completely automatic operation, ‘so that it should be possible to leave it entirely unattended for long periods’. It consisted of a three-bladed propeller and nacelle mounted on top of a seven-ton steel tower 78ft above the ground. By means of a step-up gearbox, the hub speed of 130rpm could be increased to 750rpm for driving the electric generator. Yawing of the nacelle was obtained by mounting it on a pintle shaft and turning it with a bull ring and pinion driven at reduced speed by an electric motor.

Unlike today’s glass and carbon fibre composite blades, the three blades for Costa Head consisted of a compressed laminated wood spar fitted with spruce ribs, which were covered by 3/32in mahogany plywood skin and protected with plastic.

“Inside each arm are fixed and moving pistons for varying the pitch of the blades,” The Engineer reported. “This is done hydraulically under the control of a servo-governor, the motion being transmitted through torque tubes and Hardy-Spicer couplings to quadrant boxes situated at the ends of the hub arms.”

Our correspondent added that each blade root was attached by a quick-release fork to a universal joint, allowing the blade to ‘cone’ and ‘drag’ at speed, which helped avoid excessive bending stresses at the roots.

“When the blade is at rest, this joint is automatically locked so as to hold the blade fixed.” The Engineer wrote. “The movement of the blades on their hinges is controlled by hydraulic dampers in order to prevent excessive vibration.”

A small ‘pilot’ windmill mounted on top of the nacelle controlled the starting and stopping of the windmill. To prevent the turbine being started by a sudden gust of wind, the pilot windmill averaged the wind speed over a number of minutes.

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Goonhilly Earth Station to track and control space missions after BAE Systems deal

Tue, 2018-07-17 17:17

Goonhilly will become the first privately owned member of the Deep Space Network and will support ESA and NASA missions

Merlin, the largest dish at Goonhilly Earth Station, will be upgraded to send and receive data from missions beyond Earth orbit.

BAE Systems has formed a partnership with Goonhilly Earth Station (GES) to commercialise deep space communications. As part of the partnership, announced at the Farnborough Air Show, BAE will supply two tracking, telemetry and command processor (TTCP) systems that will provide uplink and downlink services to support spacecraft on missions to deep space, beyond Earth orbit, including manned and robotic missions to the moon and Mars.

Goonhilly, meanwhile, is to upgrade its largest antenna to incorporate the TTCP system, which will allow to support data rates from one bit per second to 300Mb per second from multiple spacecraft simultaneously, and enable it to track spacecraft distance to an accuracy of about 10cm from billions of kilometres away. This is the first time that BAE has sold TTCP technology to a private company.

The partnership will involve a close working relationship between GES and ESA on its current deep space programme, and development of a global network in the next four years. “We have a great deal of interest in using Goonhilly’s upgraded antenna from our international customer base, including space agencies and some of the new private space exploration companies. This system will ensure that we can support missions for a number of space agencies,” commented Ian Jones, Goonhilly chief executive.

Discussing the TTCP technology, BAE Systems lead engineer for the project Nick James said: “BAE Systems has developed a highly precise space communications and tracking system designed to support spacecraft operating both near the Earth and in deep space. The technology receives and converts faint radio signals from spacecraft into data that mission controllers use to monitor and control the spacecraft. The highly flexible system is able to handle differing ESA and NASA requirements and protocols, which makes it an ideal choice to support Goonhilly in future space missions.”

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Peelable technology turns everyday objects into IoT devices

Tue, 2018-07-17 16:42

Researchers have developed a new fabrication technique that uses a single wafer to build a nearly infinite number of thin film electronic circuits that are peelable from a surface.

Peelable electronic films can be cut and pasted onto any object to achieve desired functions. (Purdue University image/Chi Hwan Lee)

The technique from researchers at Purdue University and the University of Virginia is claimed to eliminate several manufacturing steps and associated costs, and allows any object to sense its environment or be controlled through the application of a high-tech sticker.

According to Purdue, the stickers could eventually facilitate wireless communication. The researchers demonstrate capabilities on various objects in a paper recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“We could customise a sensor, stick it onto a drone, and send the drone to dangerous areas to detect gas leaks, for example,” said Chi Hwan Lee, Purdue assistant professor of biomedical engineering and mechanical engineering.

Electronic circuits are often individually built on their own silicon wafer, a flat and rigid substrate. The silicon wafer then withstands the high temperatures and chemical etching that are used to remove the circuits from the wafer.

Lee’s new ‘transfer printing’ fabrication technique is claimed to cut down manufacturing costs by using a single wafer to build a nearly infinite number of thin films holding electronic circuits. Instead of high temperatures and chemicals, the film can peel off at room temperature with the help of water.

“It’s like the red paint on San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge – paint peels because the environment is very wet,” Lee said. “So in our case, submerging the wafer and completed circuit in water significantly reduces the mechanical peeling stress and is environmentally friendly.”

Ordinary toy blocks turned into high-tech sensors within IoT (Purdue University image/Chi Hwan Lee)

A ductile metal layer, such as nickel, inserted between the electronic film and the silicon wafer, makes the peeling possible in water. These thin-film electronics can then be trimmed and pasted onto any surface to give an object electronic features.

A sticker attached to a flower pot gave the object temperature sensing capabilities that could affect the plant’s growth. Lee’s lab also demonstrated that the components of electronic integrated circuits work just as well before and after they were made into a thin film peeled from a silicon wafer. The researchers used one film to turn on and off an LED light display.

“We’ve optimised this process so that we can delaminate electronic films from wafers in a defect-free manner,” Lee said.

This technology holds a non-provisional US patent.

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This week’s poll: the UK’s Scottish spaceport plan

Tue, 2018-07-17 15:47

What do The Engineer readers think of the plans to site a vertical launch spaceport in the north of Scotland?

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 UK space plane Skylon would require a horizontal launch site

The plans for a launch site for rockets in Sutherland on the north coast of Scotland have already attracted lively debate in our news section, so it is an obvious choice for our poll this week.

There have been ambitions to site a spaceport in the UK for over a decade, but business secretary Greg Clark’s announcement at the opening of the Farnborough Air Show was the first concrete sign of these plans being put into government policy, and were accompanied by an announcement of a £50 million UK space launch fund.

We have suggested a number of options as responses to the question. Is the plan an unequivocally good idea for the UK’s successful (but relatively little-known) satellite building industry? Is it, as some commenters have already suggested, a good idea but in the wrong place? In the absence – currently, at least – of a UK-made and operated vertical launch technology, does it increase our reliance too much on overseas launch operators? Considering the advanced state of development of Virgin Galactic’s Launcher One system and the possibility of the UK space plane Skylon, might it have been better to develop a horizontal launch site first?

There are, of course, other options and readers should feel free to suggest their own opinions in the comment section. We encourage debate here, but encourage all commenters to read our guidelines on comment content. We will publish the results on 24th July.

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Airbus claims world-first automatic mid-air refuelling

Mon, 2018-07-16 17:01

Airbus Defence and Space has performed what it says is the first ever automatic air-to-air refuelling (A3R) operation for a large aircraft.

While the manoeuvre had previously been undertaken to refuel a fighter jet, on this occasion Airbus’ A310 company development tanker linked up with a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) KC-30A Multi Role Tanker Transport, also made by Airbus. During the June 20 flight off the coast of Spain, the two tankers performed seven automatic contacts.

To achieve the manoeuvre, the system first uses passive techniques such as image processing to determine the receiver’s refuelling receptacle position. Once engaged, fully automated flight control flies and maintains the boom aligned with the receiver’s receptacle. The telescopic beam inside the boom can be controlled in a range of ways including manually by the Air Refuelling Operator (ARO), a relative distance-keeping mode, or full auto-mode to perform the contact.

“It was extremely impressive to see how accurately the A3R system tracks the receiver,” said David Piatti, the Airbus Test ARO, or “boomer”, on the A310. “It can be very useful to be able to refuel another tanker or transport, for example to extend its deployment range or to avoid taking fuel back to base, but it is also a challenging operation and this system has the potential to reduce workload and the risk involved.”

RAAF Squadron Leader Lawry Benier said the RAAF was assisting Airbus Defence & Space on the development of A3R and other technologies to increase the KC-30A’s battle capabilities.

“It’s very encouraging to come to Spain and see the progress that’s been made with A3R, and be able to witness it first-hand refuelling our KC-30A,” he said.

“Refuelling large receivers is a role RAAF has conducted extensively on operations and exercises, allowing us to extend the reach and responsiveness of our air mobility fleet, as well as keep surveillance aircraft in the air for longer.”

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Voice-activated digital assistants take to the car

Mon, 2018-07-16 16:31

Voice-activated digital assistants are spreading from our homes to our cars. Stuart Nathan looks at what it could mean for the future of driving

This feature was brought to you by Nuance software. Not in any commercial sense, like the sponsorship clips at the beginning of soap operas, but very literally. After a mild stroke four years ago, I lost the ability to type with my left hand, and so I use Nuance’s Dragon NaturallySpeaking system to dictate all my writing. The same disability has forced me to give up driving, as I can no longer reliably change gear or operate indicators in a timely fashion. So when Nuance invited me to see the voice-activated system it was developing for the automotive sector, my interest was piqued.

Voice-activated digital assistants are becoming familiar to many of us, with the technology arguably developed and certainly popularised by Google Assistant, Apple’s Siri and the Amazon Alexa system. They are becoming increasingly common around the home, where they can be used for everything from controlling audiovisual systems (“Hey Alexa, play such-and-such a track by so-and-so” is, I suspect, a common refrain) to compiling shopping lists and accessing online information. Despite their possible security risks, digital assistants seem to be infiltrating so many homes that they may inevitably become as much a part of life as domestic staff once were.

Voice-activated digital assistants in vehicles have many uses, but could come with privacy concerns

The convenience of a digital assistant in the car is undeniable. If the driver can use their voice to operate all the ancillary systems – climate control, audio, sat nav and so on – then these are all things that they don’t have to push a button to switch on and off, enter any information or otherwise take their attention away from what they are supposed to be doing: driving and concentrating on the road ahead and the surrounding situation. It’s no surprise that, now Google, Apple and Amazon have let the genie out of the bottle, the automotive industry wants a slice of the action.

But there are a number of unique factors to take into consideration in developing such a system. One is privacy. A car’s digital systems can contain information that many people would rather keep to themselves: if you use satellite navigation, for example, your car knows where you are and where you have been. If your car connects to your mobile phone, then it also knows who you’ve spoken to and might have access to any data you keep on there. If some overarching system has access to all of these, and its maker can make any claim to that data, then no driver in their right mind would use such a system.

Another issue is that people are increasingly using different digital assistants for different tasks. For some people, Siri is best suited to business or financial-related issues, and they wouldn’t want to ask it how to get to their next meeting destination or weekend getaway.
Equally, if you’re used to asking Alexa for your favourite playlist or to add laundry detergent to your shopping list when you’re in your living room, you probably want to keep doing that from your driving seat.

Such considerations are at the heart of Dragon Drive, the system that Nuance has developed for the automotive sector and which is installed in the new models of Mercedes A-Class and Audi A8 cars. Designed using the same voice interface that Apple licensed to control Siri, the system is designed to allow drivers to speak conversationally and intuitively to their cars’ systems, without having to learn and remember specific control words.

Moreover, the system is designed to work whether or not the car has an available connection to Wi-Fi networks, only connecting to the internet if necessary and therefore keeping as much data as possible on board. The system does not send any information back to Nuance. The natural language system, named “Just Speak” by Nuance, allows the driver to issue commands without any sort of control-freak prefix (like “Hey, Alexa”).

Just Speak is programmed to recognise context: so, for example, saying “I’m too hot” will switch on the air conditioning system localised to the seat where the system’s microphone array detected the speaker. Similarly, in an appropriately equipped car, saying “I’m feeling tense” would activate the in-seat massage system, and “my hands are cold” would turn on the steering wheel heater.

The system is also linked to satellite navigation, and uses available add-ons. Asking it to navigate to a certain destination activates the system and provides turn-by-turn directions. Navigation by postcode is available, as is the system known as “what3words”, which divides the surface of the world up into 3m squares and identifies each one by a unique combination of three words. This can lead to some odd-sounding phrases: should you want to visit The Engineer’s offices, you would say: “Navigate to what three words ‘reform ashes flown’.” (The Eiffel Tower is ‘prices slippery traps’). The system also allows connection to weather services, once again providing contextual information, for example by saying “do I need an umbrella in Manchester?” Or “do I need sunglasses in Rome?”

Also built in is an ‘intelligent arbitration’ system which recognises the context of a question and arbitrates as to whether the in-car systems can answer a query or whether a different digital assistant system needs to be consulted. This would depend on the user’s preferred settings. If, as in the previous example, the user prefers Siri to deal with financial information, asking the system “what’s the latest on Airbus?” would tell it to connect to Siri to retrieve stock market information or the latest business headlines. Similarly, should you remember something to go on the shopping list while driving, mentioning that would activate Alexa.

And the system is already evolving. Although its first iteration is voice controlled only, Nuance is already testing a feature that adds gaze control, so that the driver can access certain functions merely by looking in the right place.

Gaze control unlocks a surprising array of functionality. The system Nuance is currently using is licensed from Tobii Technology, a Swedish start-up previously covered in The Engineer. Its technology exploits two evolutionary quirks unique to humans: one behavioural and one physical.

The behavioural quirk is pointing. Humans are the only apes that indicate to others where their attention is focused. Other primates can learn to do it, but only in captivity and never in nature: some dogs, of course, can also be trained; but humans innately start to point at things, typically at the age of 14 months.

The other may come as a surprise. Humans are the only mammal whose eyes have visible whites all the time when open. Evolutionary biologists believe that this trait developed so that other humans can easily determine where somebody else is looking; it is, therefore, a subset of pointing. All societies point at things, although customs differ: to some, pointing with the finger is rude; some African societies sometimes point with their lips; but everybody points. It is one of those things that defines what is to be human but hardly any of us realise or acknowledge it.

Tobii’s system uses cameras and infrared light projection and mapping to detect the boundary between the white of the eye and the iris, both by looking for the change in colour and the bulge the iris makes at the front of the eye. Developed both to help disabled people use computers and for gaming, it is just one of many gaze-detection systems on the market. The detection device consists of a bar mounted on top of the dashboard facing the driver, and can also determine which way the driver’s face is pointing even if their eyes are obscured by sunglasses.

The demonstration of the system was literally eye-opening. It is linked to cameras installed in the front of the car, so a glance at a building by the roadside and a query of “What’s that building?” triggered a stream of information about the hotel the driver was looking at. “When is that place open?” while looking at a restaurant retrieved the opening hours; the system will also respond to a command of “book a table for two there at 8.30 tonight” by using online table reservation systems.

Other databases could also be used: for nature lovers, an enquiry of “What’s that tree?” could be accommodated by connecting the cameras to a machine vision and AI system equipped to recognise local flora.

Such a system could also be of use to the insurance industry, were access granted to its data. If cars equipped with gaze detection were involved in an accident, it would be possible to determine where the drivers were looking at the precise moment the accident occurred, which could be invaluable in determining who was liable. This, of course, has legal implications, which Nuance is investigating.

Going back to the personal, Nuance’s developers assured The Engineer that it would be possible for Just Speak to activate other electrical systems in the car. For example, “headlights on dipped”, “full beam”, “indicate left” and “indicate right” would all be workable commands if the user requested that these be programmed in. It would have to be a dealer or a manufacturer adjustment, but such functionality would allow me to once again drive safely and with confidence, despite my impaired movement.

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Lockheed Martin to assist UK in developing vertical launch spaceport in Scotland

Mon, 2018-07-16 16:29

The UK’s first spaceport, dedicated to vertical launch vehicles, is to be sited on a boggy peninsula in the north of Scotland.

A long-awaited announcement on the location of a British spaceport states that a facility for vertical launch vehicles – in other words, rockets – is to be built on the A’Mhoine peninsula in Sutherland, on Scotland’s north coast. At the opening of Farnborough Airshow, business secretary Greg Clark announced that Lockheed Martin will be closely involved in the development of the site.

Artist’s impression of the proposed spaceport on the A’Mhoine peninsula in Scotland (Perfect Curve)

The government is awarding the Highlands and Islands Development Agency £2.5 million towards developing the Sutherland site, while a further £2 million from a £50 million UK spaceflight programme will go towards developing proposed horizontal launch sites in Cornwall, Prestwick and Snowdonia. Additional grants will be awarded during Farnborough to help commercial operators develop more strategies for Sutherland.

“As a nation of innovators and entrepreneurs, we want Britain to be the first place in mainland Europe to launch satellites as part of our Industrial Strategy,” said Clark. “The UK’s thriving space industry, research community and aerospace supply chain put the UK in a leading position to develop both vertical and horizontal launch sites.” The first launches from the site could be in the 2020s.

The announcement builds on the UK’s proven capacity in developing and building small satellites, Clark added. Commenting on this, Will Whitehorn, non-executive chairman of Scottish satellite builder ClydeSpace, said “From designing and building the very first satellite in Scotland, Clyde Space has grown and become a front runner in small-satellite manufacturing. Having a spaceport located in Scotland will bring about a whole host of commercial advantages and not only to our operations in Glasgow, but to the entire space sector in the whole of the UK.”

For Lockheed Martin, the announcement is part of a strategy to boost space launch technology in the UK. As well as the Sutherland development, the company is working on a Cubesat delivery vehicle in partnership with Moog, designed to carry up to six of the small Cubesat modules and deploy them into orbit at staggered times. This Small Launch Orbital Manoeuvring Vehicle (SL-OMV) “can deploy [satellites] at the most optimal times and positions for their respective missions,” Lockheed says.

Notional image of the UK’s first commercial spaceport at the Sutherland Site in Melness, Scotland, which will conduct the UK’s first vertical, orbital rocket launch in the early 2020s. (PRNewsfoto/Lockheed Martin)

Another partnership, with Orbital Microsystems, is to create and fly UK-built pathfinder tests to validate the performance of the SL-OMV. “This historic ‘pathfinder’ launch for the UK will also demonstrate the tremendous potential small satellites and CubeSats have across a wide range of commercial and government data collection applications,” said Lockheed Martin’s UK chief executive space, Patrick Wood. “We believe, as the UK Space Agency does, that this effort will help bring the UK to the forefront of the rapidly-growing, global small satellite market and support the UK’s maturing space supply chain.”

Although most space launches are carried out from sites near to the equator, to take advantage of the effect of the greater speed of the planet’s revolution, Wood recently told the Engineer that sites at northern latitudes have advantages for commercially attractive orbits. “Equatorial launches are good for geosynchronous satellites, but a spaceport in Scotland would be good for polar orbits which are useful for earth mapping and observation and for telecommunications,” he said. Lockheed Martin currently launches its Electron rocket from a site in New Zealand, and the BBC reports today that it has ambitions to launch Electron from Scotland.

The horizontal launch aspect of the announcement will help satellite launchers that take off like a conventional aircraft and release a satellite launcher at altitude to be flown from the UK. Newquay airport in Cornwall has already expressed an interest in hosting Virgin Galactic’s satellite launch capability, which is based around the aircraft that will also launch its passenger spacecraft, currently in trials. The Welsh government also has ambitions to build a horizontal launch spaceport in Snowdonia. Welsh Secretary Alun Cairns commented: “The UK Government has an exciting ambition to take the UK into the commercial space age by enabling small satellite launch and spaceflight from UK spaceports. Wales now has an exciting window of opportunity to take a leading role in shaping that future. We have the right geography and a skilled engineering base in aerospace, electronics and the software industries, standing ready to diversify and to flourish in the fast-developing space market.”

Virgin Galactic hopes to use its WhiteKnight 2 lifting aircraft in “Launcher One” configuration to launch satellites into orbit

Horizontal launch will also suit the UK developed spaceplane Skylon, which is being designed to use the Sabre hybrid air-breathing rocket jet engine Sabre, being developed by Reaction Engines in Oxfordshire.

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Rolls-Royce unveils EVTOL air taxi concept at Farnborough Airshow

Mon, 2018-07-16 15:14

Engine maker Rolls-Royce has released details of a new EVTOL (electric vertical take-off and landing) vehicle at this year’s Farnborough Airshow.

(Credit: Rolls-Royce)

The hybrid aircraft, designed to carry four or five passengers, has an M250 gas turbine which delivers around 500kW of electrical power. This is used to drive six rotors that can provide both lift and propulsion, with the wings tilting forward 90 degrees once sufficient altitude has been reached. Four of the rotors can also fold into the wings, leaving two at the rear to provide thrust at cruising altitude while helping to reduce cabin noise. Top speed is estimated at 250mph and range is predicted to be 500 miles. According to Rolls, an onboard battery will bring additional climb power and will be recharged by the M250 engine.

“Electrification is an exciting and inescapable trend across industrial technology markets and while the move to more electric propulsion will be gradual for us, it will ultimately be a revolution,” said Rob Watson, head of Rolls-Royce’s Electrical team.

“Building on our existing expertise in electric technologies and aviation, Rolls-Royce is actively exploring a range of possible markets and applications for electric and hybrid electric flight. We are well placed to play a leading role in the emerging world of personal air mobility and will also look to work in collaboration with a range of partners.”

Rolls-Royce says that the EVTOL concept is based upon technology that either already exists or is currently under development. If a viable commercial model emerges, the company believes the vehicle could be in service by the early 2020s. Competition in the personal mobility segment is poised to be stiff, however, with companies such as Airbus and Uber having already announced plans, and the Google-backed Kitty Hawk undergoing trials in New Zealand.  Last year, Dubai staged its first autonomous air taxi trial, and authorities there claim personal air mobility could transform the region over the next five years.

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Biosensor could enable early Alzheimer’s diagnosis

Fri, 2018-07-13 16:30

Technology under development by researchers in Spain could help clinicians perform early non-invasive diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease.

Brain section of a transgenic mouse for AD showing accumulations of amyloid plaques (green) and ferritin (red).

The group at the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid (UPM), has designed a new contrast agent for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) based on functionalised magnetic nanoparticles that could work as a biomarker for an early diagnosis of this disease.

Alzheimer’s affects around 47 million people worldwide, but diagnostic techniques are currently limited to behavioural and neuropsychiatric evaluations, whilst a definitive diagnosis is only possible by analysing the brain of a patient after their death.

The Madrid group’s work could pave the way for new non-invasive methods that could enable far earlier diagnosis of the condition.

The technique focusses around the detection of iron deposits in the brain, which is one of the tell-tale signs of Alzheimer’s disease.

Whilst MRI techniques are able to detect these deposits, it has hitherto only been possible to detect them when they are present in high concentrations, making it difficult to use the technique for early detection.

The UPM group has developed contrast agents that significantly boost the sensitivity for detecting these accumulations.

In a study on its work – published in  the journal Chemical Neuroscience– the team describes the presence of accumulated iron and the protein that stores iron (ferritin) in a hippocampal area of transgenic mice for Alzheimer’s disease.

These accumulations of iron and ferritin are observed around the amyloid plaques which are characteristics of the disease. This finding helped the group develop a contrast agent for magnetic resonance imaging based on the functionalisation of magnetic particles with an antibody that recognises ferritin.

Leader of the group Dr Milagros Ramos explained: “the accumulation of functionalised nanoparticles in the specific area cause a significant decrease in certain values obtained through magnetic resonance, this indicates that the new contrast agent can be useful in the future for an early and non-invasive diagnosis of this pathology through magnetic resonance”.

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Industry welcomes Brexit white paper as Trump cools on trade

Fri, 2018-07-13 16:23

UK industry has reacted positively to the Brexit white paper published this week by the government, but visiting US President Donald Trump says it could jeopardise a transatlantic trade deal.

The white paper proposes a free trade area between the UK and EU for goods, including agri-food, whereby the UK would remain in harmonisation with EU rules. This would cover only the goods necessary to maintain frictionless trade, but would facilitate just-in-time supply chains for manufacturing and prevent a hard border in Ireland. While the white paper claims the role of the European Court of Justice would come to an end, the ECJ is the ultimate arbiter on the rules with which the UK is planning to remain in sync.

Theresa May’s ‘third way’ in relations to customs would see the UK collecting tariffs on behalf of the EU for goods that were destined for the Continent. Labelled the ‘Facilitated Customs Arrangement’ (FCA), the proposal would also enable the UK to level different tariffs for goods to be consumed in the UK. The FCA proposal has been criticised for its complexity, but if successful it could help retain some benefits of EU membership while also allowing the UK to strike trade deals with countries outside the EU.

“Today’s white paper is a welcome step forward in replicating the benefits of the single market and customs union as we leave the EU,” said Mike Hawes, SMMT chief executive. “The paper is evidence that government recognises the importance of the automotive sector and the need to safeguard our competitiveness in our future relationship with the EU. Trade with the EU must be completely without friction, tariffs or disruption to supply chains or just-in-time manufacturing. This can only be achieved by the avoidance of any customs checks or other barriers and by ensuring that the UK and the EU operate within the same regulation framework.”

Elsewhere, Ian Wright chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), praised the government for its pursuit of frictionless trade but said more details were needed on the common rulebook and the way in which UK industry would be bound by it.

“The UK Government is right to make no-friction trade with our most important trading partner its number one Brexit priority; it is extremely encouraging that the white paper seeks to do so,” he said.  “Our food and drink manufacturers rely upon integrated supply chains, with ingredients and finished products crossing UK and EU borders frequently – nowhere more so than to and from the Republic of Ireland.

“We also need to understand much more about how the common rulebook will work in practice. Businesses and consumers urgently need clarity and confidence in the process for both following and deviating from EU rules. It is welcome that the UK will seek to participate and influence EU technical committees and have access to RASFF, but many questions still remain around our valued relationship with the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). The devil is in the detail. FDF will insist that the proposals support the competitiveness of the UK’s largest manufacturing sector.”

Despite the positive noise from UK industry, May’s plans have come under fire. Staunch Brexiteers have criticised the white paper for conceding too much, and on Thursday night it emerged that President Trump said the softer Brexit strategy would scupper any proposed trade deal with the US. In an interview with The Sun timed to coincide with his visit to the UK, the president said the prime minister had ignored his advice on exit negotiations and that this would “probably kill the deal”. Trump went on to say that he thought Boris Johnson would make a good prime minister, while also appearing to suggest that London Mayor Sadiq Khan was responsible for UK immigration.

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