BAE drone concept combines fixed-wing and rotary flight

(Credit: BAE Systems)

(Credit: BAE Systems)

Engineers at BAE Systems have developed a concept for an unmanned aircraft that uses both fixed and rotary wing flight.

Working with students at Cranfield University, the defence company created the concept for ‘Adaptable UAVs,’ which can alternate between the two different flight modes on the same mission.

This would allow the aircraft to benefit from both the greater speed and range of fixed-wing aircraft, while maintaining the benefits of vertical take-off and landing. In rotary wing mode, the UAVs can be docked from a special pole.

“The battlefield of the future will require novel solutions to meet emerging threats and to keep human operators safe wherever they may be,” said Nick Colosimo, BAE Systems’ Futurist and Technologist. “The Adaptable UAVs concept and related technologies are one of a number of concepts being explored through close collaboration between industry and students in academia.”

Dolphin-inspired flexible turbines could harvest energy from Pacific Ocean

Kenichiro Soga, Hideki Takebe, Jun Fujita, Katsutoshi Shirasawa and Professor Shintake (Credit: OIST)

Kenichiro Soga, Hideki Takebe, Jun Fujita, Katsutoshi Shirasawa and Professor Shintake (Credit: OIST)

Biologically-inspired flexible turbines could provide reliable, low-maintenance power from the sea for many years, a researcher has said.

Professor Tsumoru Shintake and his team at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University in Japan will install and test half-scale turbine prototypes, ahead of possible widespread deployment around the country’s coast.

Installing the turbines in front of tetrapod wave breakers and sea walls around 1% of the mainland’s coast could generate 10GW of energy, claimed Shintake – equivalent to 10 nuclear power stations.

The turbines are built to withstand forces from strong waves and extreme weather such as typhoons, Shintake said. The blades are inspired by dolphins’ fins, and are designed to bend and release stress rather than stay rigid and risk breaking. The shaft is also flexible, inspired by flower stems which bend in the wind.

Japan’s abundant coastline, and features such as the Kuroshio ocean current from Taiwan, make sea power a viable alternative to wind and solar, said Shintake. “I’m imagining the planet two hundred years later,” he said. “I hope these turbines will be working hard, quietly and nicely, on each beach on which they have been installed.”

Placing the 0.7m diameter turbines in front of tetrapod and sea walls could also further protect the coast from the ocean’s destructive force, Shintake claimed.


British engineering concept ‘could make NASA’s nuclear rocket a lot better’

The Nasa project will use low-enriched nuclear fuel (Credit: Nasa)

The Nasa project will use low-enriched nuclear fuel (Credit: Nasa)

A 40-year-old British idea could make a new nuclear-powered rocket programme from NASA “a lot better,” an engineer has said.

The American space agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center recently signed a $18.8 million contract with BWXT Nuclear Energy for a “highly efficient, high-thrust engine” concept – to potentially take future crewed missions to Mars and beyond. The design and testing project will run through 2019 subject to Congressional approval.

NASA scientists hope the rocket engine will be much more efficient than traditional chemical propellant engines. The Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) concept could use nuclear fission of low-enriched uranium to heat hydrogen, firing it from the exhaust to create huge amounts of thrust.

An NTP engine could have double the propulsion efficiency of the Space Shuttle’s main engine, reducing a trip to Mars from six to four months, NASA said.

However, a heavy nuclear reactor and large fuel tanks for the relatively low-density hydrogen could reduce some of the potential benefits, said aerospace engineer Mark Hempsell.

“You need to use hydrogen propellant and that means the tanks tend to be a lot heavier than they would otherwise tend to be,” said Hempsell, who is also president of the British Interplanetary Society (BIS), to Professional Engineering. “A lot of the advantages tend to disappear a little when you get down to looking at the detail.”

NASA’s claim that shorter trip times would mean less radiation exposure for astronauts and reduced weight is also flawed, Hempsell said, as radiation from the nuclear reactor would require heavy shields.

The rocket could nonetheless hit ultra-fast velocities of 12km/s if NASA and BWXT adapted a concept developed by British engineer Alan Bond, Hempsell said. While working for Rolls Royce in the 1970s, Bond proposed an engine system using the nuclear reactor to create an electrical “arcjet”. The electricity would impart more energy to the heated gas, increasing its exit speed and creating more thrust – “then you are really humming,” said Hempsell.

However, he said the Nasa concept will still have performance advantages compared to chemical propellant alternatives.

The NTP “could open up deep space for human exploration,” said NASA aerospace engineer and NTP project manager Sonny Mitchell. “As we push out into the solar system, nuclear propulsion may offer the only truly viable technology option to extend human reach to the surface of Mars and to worlds beyond.”

Big wake up call from world’s cheapest electric car

Credit: GM

Credit: GM

The arrival of what could be the cheapest ever electric car must accelerate innovation around zero-emission vehicles, experts warn

China’s launch of a fully-electric car that sells for under £5000 is being described as a “wake up call” to European car manufacturers and policy makers.

Through a Chinese subsidiary, General Motors (GM) has unveiled the Baojun E100; a vehicle the size of a Smart car with a 100-mile range.

The new car is being rolled out in China and is not expected to appear in the United Kingdom or Europe any time soon, but its launch has coincided with several major developments in the motor industry.

The much-awaited Tesla 3 model was launched recently, grabbing headlines and hundreds of thousands of buyers. Selling for around £27,000, Elon Musk’s latest offering is billed as a revolutionary step in making electric cars more affordable.

At the same time, Volvo has committed to stop making purely-petrol cars by 2019, saying it will produce only hybrid or fully-electric cars from that year on. In Britain, government has proposed new laws against petrol and diesel vehicles that it hopes will usher in a new, greener future come 2040.

Last year, the number of electric cars in the world zoomed past the 2-million mark and in Norway, a third of all new cars being sold are electric. While electronic vehicles make up less than 1% of cars on the world’s roads, some estimates suggest this will rise to around 4% in less than a decade.

GM’s Baojun E100, released by SAIC-GM, is powered by a single motor that produces 29kW and a top speed of 100km/h. The car’s lithium-ion battery recharges in 7.5 hours and the vehicle offers some nice modern luxuries, like WiFi connectivity, a touchscreen console, keyless entry and parking sensors.

The latest launch, says David Bailey of the Aston Business School in Birmingham, is part of a wider story around China’s booming electric car market and within it, the growth of cheap battery-powered vehicles.

Bailey says that half a million electric vehicles were sold in China last year, making it the biggest market in the world. The race to electrify cars, he adds, is part of a “massive effort” to improve air quality in that country.

Due to regulations (which take into account safety standards), the Baojun E100 will be difficult to import into Europe or America but, Bailey says, major change is coming. “The direction is clear. Electric cars are coming and they are coming in a very big way. There is going to be a revolution not only in electric cars but also in driverless cars.”

Yoann Le Petit, clean vehicles and mobility officer at the Brussel-based research group Transport and Environment, believes this could be the cheapest electric car ever built. The cheapest hybrid vehicle in the UK currently sells for over £10,000.

He agrees with Bailey in that the Baojun E100 is not likely to arrive in Europe for years, but says its launch is a clear sign that there is a growing demand for cheap, electric cars.

Le Petit says more investment and research is needed in Europe into zero-emissions vehicles and particularly into the batteries that power them, the cost of which can account for 40% or more of the car’s price. In this respect, he says, China has a competitive advantage.

“In Europe, you have more and more cities banning diesel engines,” he says. “If we don’t produce the batteries and the cars, the big risk we are running is (having) to import all these cheap vehicles from China. In 20 years it could be the end of the automotive industry in Europe. So for car makers and policy makers this should be a wake up call.”

Save £600 a year by turning your home into a power station

A new development in Port Neath (right, top) will incorporate power generating features including saltwater batteries (bottom, right). The technology has been tested in an 'energy-positive' classroom in Swansea (left)

A new development in Port Neath (right, top) will incorporate power generating features including saltwater batteries (bottom, right). The technology has been tested in an ‘energy-positive’ classroom in Swansea (left)

A new report reveals that household energy bills could be cut by as much as 60% if homes were designed to generate, store and release their own energy, saving the average household over £600 a year.

The report is based on a concept for a new social housing development in Wales that is currently in planning. The Active Homes Neath development is the first major project with energy generation and storage built into the design of new buildings.

The houses, which are being built by Pobl Group, Wales’ largest housing association, feature solar roofs, shared battery storage, and the potential for electric vehicle charging points. A solar heat collector heats the water, and waste heat is captured and recycled.

The technology has already been implemented at a school in Swansea, which has the UK’s first energy-positive classroom. Over six months the Active Classroom, which was developed by Swansea University’s SPECIFIC Innovation & Knowledge Centre, generated more energy than it consumed.

The report, by independent energy consultant Andris Bankovskis, says that if 1 million homes like this were built across the UK it could reduce the amount of energy required at peak times by 3 gigawatts, and reduce carbon dioxide emissions be nearly 80 million tones over 40 years.

“The scale of the potential impacts is compelling, and demands that we make considered decisions about how we meet housing needs sustainably,” said Bankovskis. “It suggests that if we are prepared to take some bold decisions about the way energy is supplied and used in our homes, the rewards could be significant and lasting.”

Kevin Bygate, chief executive at SPECIFIC, called for more partnerships with industry and government to roll out renewable technology into new housing projects. “Today’s report shows that households and the country as a whole can benefit if we design our homes to be power stations,” he said. “The technology works, so what we need now is to build on our partnerships with industry and government and make it happen.”

Nina Skorupska, chief executive of the Renewable Energy Association said that efficient homes could “empower consumers”. “This new initiative is a good example of the bold innovation and big-thinking taking place in the renewable energy and clean tech industries right now,” she added.

Jenifer Baxter, head of energy and environment at IMechE, told Professional Engineeringthat the Active Homes Project was a great example of bringing housing and energy initiatives together. “As we build more new homes across the U.K., new and innovative distributed, flexible energy systems will be required that can meet the needs of different regions,” she said. “By creating local distributed energy systems that cater for domestic heat and power and transport the pressure on the centralised system can be reduced.”

According to Chris Goodall, author of The Switch, homeowners could even sell power to their neighbours, but it would require an improvement in digital technology. “What there is a need for information technology which records how much is going out of your system and where it’s being used,” he has told PE. “Advances in digitalisation are making that easier and easier – we’ll see sales and purchase systems developing. It’s a perfect use of blockchain – highly distributed ledgers. That’s what we’ll eventually end up with – millions and millions of small producers, putting into a network and getting payment and paying via some sort of distributed ledger.”

Smartphone-compatible device ‘cuts disease test times’ with one drop of blood

(Credit: BernardaSv/ iStock)

(Credit: BernardaSv/ iStock)

A new smartphone-compatible diagnostic tool could slash the time needed for life-saving disease tests, a team of researchers has said.

Biomedical engineers at Duke University in North Carolina said their new device detects disease markers “as accurately as the most sensitive tests on the market” in a fraction of the time. The tool, called the D4 assay, spots low levels of antigens ­– protein markers of diseases – in a single drop of blood.

The team created the D4 by printing antibodies onto a glass slide with a non-stick polymer coating. The coating stops proteins not associated with disease from attaching to the slide, removing “background noise” from results and making the device more sensitive than it would be otherwise. When blood touches the antibodies, they dissolve and bind to target proteins and create fluorescent light to reveal how much of an antigen is present.

Users then read results using a table-top scanner or a 3D-printed smartphone attachment. The Duke team said their “lab-on-a-chip” identifies disease biomarkers in as little as 15 minutes – far quicker than the current “gold standard” enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (Elisa) test. Elisa detects diseases like Zika or HIV, but requires trained researchers or liquid-handling robotic devices.

“What’s cool is that our assay can achieve comparable sensitivity to the Elisa within 15 minutes, and if further sensitivity is needed, longer incubation times can be used,” said engineer Daniel Joh from Duke University.  “This device can also be compared to a lateral flow test, which is quite fast as it takes less than five minutes to get a reading, but that test isn’t as sensitive. This is really the best of both worlds.”

The researchers used the D4 in clinical trials, measuring levels of serum leptin – a hormone which can reveal mortality and complications in malnourished children – in patients at Duke University Medical Center. Joh and co-author Angus Hucknall will next use their prototype in a field test in Liberia to better understand how results can monitor and help plan treatment strategies for malnutrition, and how it can perform wider diagnostics.

The device offers efficient and accessible testing which could be useful in remote or developing parts of the world, the team said. They said D4 chips will cost less than $1 and the smartphone attachment developed at the University of California will be less than $30.

“Diagnostic tools such as this have significant advantage over existing lab-based methods in that they can be used in the most extreme and isolated of areas, enabling communities who previously would have had to travel for days to a hospital to be tested in their own home or at a local clinic,” said Dr Helen Meese, head of healthcare at IMechE, to Professional Engineering. “This type of equipment means that clinicians can sample, analyse and diagnose patients more rapidly with equivalent or better results than existing techniques.”

Many more “lab-on-a-chip” devices will be developed in the coming years, she added, as they shrink from desk-sized to handheld and even plug-ins for mobile devices. However, as with other medical technology they face extensive research and clinical trials before widespread introduction.

The research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Prosthetics and wearables could get colour-changing electronic skin

(Credit: iStock)

(Credit: iStock)

The colour-changing skin of chameleons, octopi and squid has long been a fascination for scientists.

However, their attempts to replicate it have failed to have the desired effect. Often, the colour change is only visible to the naked eye when the material is stretched and placed under mechanical strain.

But, researchers in China have developed a new type of colour-changing electronic skin, where the shifts in hue can be seen by humans, under much lower levels of strain than in previous attempts.

A study published today in the journal 2D Materials details the work, by researchers from Tsinghua University in Beijing. They used flexible electronics made from graphene, and a stretchable organic electrochromic device to create the effect. “We found subtle strain – between zero and 10 per cent – was enough to cause an obvious colour change, and the RGB value of the colour quantified the magnitude of the applied strain,” said lead author Tingting Yang.

In other words – the more they stretched the new material, the more its colour changed. “It is important to note that the capability we found for interactive colour changes with such a small strain range has been rarely reported before,” said Yang. “This user-interactive e-skin should be promising for applications in wearable devices, robots and prosthetics in the future.”

The researchers were excited by the potential of graphene for this kind of technology. “Graphene, with its high transparency, rapid carrier transport, flexibility and large specific surface area, shows application potential for flexible electronics, including stretchable electrodes, supercapacitor, sensors, and optical devices,” said senior author Hongwei Zhu.

In an email to Professional Engineering, Zhu said the next steps could include adding more colours to the electronic skin. “The current work provides the e-skin with a reversible color changing capability for detecting strain or stress load,” he wrote. “However, the change in colour range, just between yellow and blue, is limited. Next we hope to introduce and design more electrochromic materials to enable various colour switching, thus broadening the application scope.”

Ravinder Dahiya, a reader in electronic and nanoscale engineering at the University of Glasgow who was not involved in the research told Professional Engineering that it looked like the Chinese researchers had “come up with a solution that is more sensitive than in the past.”

However, he was doubtful about the applications of such technology for wearables and prosthetics. “They say it will be useful for wearables, prosthetics and robotics. How it will be useful they have not said,” said Dahiya. “I can only see one benefit when it comes to robotics and prosthetics – the only benefit I can see – for example if you press your limb very hard it changes colour – so that could reflect the amount of force that is being applied on the limb structure.

But he said there were potential benefits in other areas in manufacturing and construction. “For example if such a layer is present on electronic wafers where electronics is being fabricated a minor change in the colour would reflect a non-planar surface. It could be used for structural health monitoring,” he said.

Zhu said that his team’s technology could be used in clothes, smart phones and smart watches. “It should be promising to be used as an interactive decoration or emotional expression,” he told PE. “Besides, it also offers a feasible scheme for camouflage and may be used in military applications, prosthetics as well as intelligent robots.”

Archive: George Stephenson’s writings

Liverpool and Manchester Railway brought several world firsts. IMechE archivist Karyn French delves into George Stephenson’s writings

The Liverpool and Manchester Railway was opened on 15 September 1830 to link the two cities. It was the first public transport system that did not use animal traction power and the first to provide a scheduled passenger service.

The initial 1823 survey for the line was carried out by William James but was considered defective and in 1824 George Stephenson was appointed engineer in his place. Stephenson was replaced too after further mistakes were made, possibly owing to the absence of his son Robert. George and John Rennie were then appointed as engineers, and they chose Charles Blacker Vignoles as surveyor.

But the crossing of Chat Moss peat bog (pictured top) saw both Rennies and Vignoles resign and brought the return of George Stephenson as engineer, with Joseph Locke as his assistant. The construction of the line itself was not the only engineering feat accomplished in order to overcome the topography and geography of the route: the crossing of Chat Moss is well known for its ingenuity but permanent civil structures were also built.

The most notable of these is the Sankey Viaduct, which is the world’s oldest major railway viaduct still in use. It was built by Stephenson and allowed the line to cross the Sankey Canal while leaving enough clearance for sailing vessels to pass below. It is 183m long, with nine round-arched spandrels on sharply-battered piers. Its arches are of 15m span and 21m high. The gradient of the viaduct had to be suitable for the locomotives. It was this that Stephenson seemed most concerned about in his reports. He commented that the nature of the supports required further consideration. He thought consideration should be given to driving piles close to the canal. He was also concerned about the piers; although these were completed in 1829 Stephenson was writing in 1832 (the viaduct was not considered complete until 1833). I cannot find any evidence that his advice was taken and his alterations made but if you know differently please email

Where the viaduct solved one problem by going above, the Wapping Tunnel (pictured bottom) in Liverpool solved another by going beneath ground. It was the first tunnel in the world to be bored under a city. It is 2km long and was open from 1830 until 1972.

Originally the railway out of Liverpool was to run north along the docks but landowner opposition made this impossible. The new route required considerable engineering works in addition to the tunnel. The 1-in-48 gradient was much too steep for the locomotives of the day. So a stationary steam engine was installed at Edge Hill to haul wagons by rope up from the Park Lane goods station at the South End Docks. The goods wagons were connected to locomotives at Edge Hill for their onward journey.

At Edge Hill cutting, the tunnel can be seen flanked by another Stephenson tunnel, Crown Street Tunnel, and a later addition, a short tunnel of 1846 that allowed an increase in freight traffic. The Crown Street Tunnel was bored from a deep cutting at Edge Hill and ran to the passenger terminus station at Crown Street, the world’s first public railway station. This station was later abandoned for the more central location of Lime Street.

Edge Hill was the site of another engineering spectacle, the Moorish Arch where the railway’s opening ceremony took place and where Stephenson was required to provide a dramatic and decorative feature.


The IMechE Archive has reports by Stephenson, and illustrations. These are online 

Asimov’s Laws won’t stop robots harming humans so we’ve developed a better solution

(Credit: Shutterstock)

(Credit: Shutterstock)

How do you stop a robot from hurting people? Many existing robots, such as those assembling cars in factories, shut down immediately when a human comes near.

But this quick fix wouldn’t work for something like a self-driving car that might have to move to avoid a collision, or a care robot that might need to catch an old person if they fall. With robots set to become our servants, companions and co-workers, we need to deal with the increasingly complex situations this will create and the ethical and safety questions this will raise.

Science fiction already envisioned this problem and has suggested various potential solutions. The most famous was author Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, which are designed to prevent robots harming humans. But since 2005, my colleagues and I at the University of Hertfordshire, have been working on an idea that could be an alternative.

Instead of laws to restrict robot behaviour, we think robots should be empowered to maximise the possible ways they can act so they can pick the best solution for any given scenario. As we describe in a new paper in Frontiers, this principle could form the basis of a new set of universal guidelines for robots to keep humans as safe as possible.

The Three Laws

Asimov’s Three Laws are as follows:

  • A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  • A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  • A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

While these laws sound plausible, numerous arguments have demonstrated why they are inadequate. Asimov’s own stories are arguably a deconstruction of the laws, showing how they repeatedly fail in different situations. Most attempts to draft new guidelines follow a similar principle to create safe, compliant and robust robots.

One problem with any explicitly formulated robot guidelines is the need to translate them into a format that robots can work with. Understanding the full range of human language and the experience it represents is a very hard job for a robot. Broad behavioural goals, such as preventing harm to humans or protecting a robot’s existence, can mean different things in different contexts. Sticking to the rules might end up leaving a robot helpless to act as its creators might hope.

Here to help. Shutterstock

Our alternative concept, empowerment, stands for the opposite of helplessness. Being empowered means having the ability to affect a situation and being aware that you can. We have been developing ways to translate this social concept into a quantifiable and operational technical language. This would endow robots with the drive to keep their options open and act in a way that increases their influence on the world.

When we tried simulating how robots would use the empowerment principle in various scenarios, we found they would often act in surprisingly “natural” ways. It typically only requires them to model how the real world works but doesn’t need any specialised artificial intelligence programming designed to deal with the particular scenario.

But to keep people safe, the robots need to try to maintain or improve human empowerment as well as their own. This essentially means being protective and supportive. Opening a locked door for someone would increase their empowerment. Restraining them would result in a short-term loss of empowerment. And significantly hurting them could remove their empowerment altogether. At the same time, the robot has to try to maintain its own empowerment, for example by ensuring it has enough power to operate and it does not get stuck or damaged.

Robots could adapt to new situations

Using this general principle rather than predefined rules of behaviour would allow the robot to take account of the context and evaluate scenarios no one has previously envisaged. For example, instead of always following the rule “don’t push humans”, a robot would generally avoid pushing them but still be able to push them out of the way of a falling object. The human might still be harmed but less so than if the robot didn’t push them.

In the film I, Robot, based on several Asimov stories, robots create an oppressive state that is supposed to minimise the overall harm to humans by keeping them confined and “protected”. But our principle would avoid such a scenario because it would mean a loss of human empowerment.

The ConversationWhile empowerment provides a new way of thinking about safe robot behaviour, we still have much work to do on scaling up its efficiency so it can easily be deployed on any robot and translate to good and safe behaviour in all respects. This poses a very difficult challenge. But we firmly believe empowerment can lead us towards a practical solution to the ongoing and highly debated problem of how to rein in robots’ behaviour, and how to keep robots -– in the most naive sense -– “ethical”.

Christoph Salge, Marie Curie Global Fellow, University of Hertfordshire

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.