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HEALTH internet Mobile Communications Science Technology Wearable Technology

Sweat-Powered Health Monitors? Whatever Next?

It was a very gloomy Sunday afternoon. It had been raining all day, and the wind was lashing the rain against the windows, through which I regarded my sodden garden.

Autumn was upon us, and I involuntarily shivered. We had just enjoyed a late lunch of warmed crusty bread rolls and Heinz’s cream of tomato soup, our go-to comfort food for afternoons such as this.

It was definitely a slobby Sunday, a day for curling up on the settee to enjoy a movie, or to catch up on the latest episodes of good TV shows.

We have currently been watching “Manifest” which appears to be a good show. Intriguing, and possibly quite plausible. I’m not sure where it’s going, but I will stick with it for the time being.

I picked up the remote and brought the TV to life. I was rewarded with a new advert for EE, one of the UK’s cellular networks. In this one, Kevin Bacon was promoting EE’s new 5G service.

In the advert, a barber was shaving a man’s face from a remote location.

To accomplish this, the barber, (located in Clapton in London, 250 miles away) was wearing a modified glove that was fitted with finger and wrist position sensors.

The man to be shaved, actor, Tom Ellis, was located on the top of Mount Snowdon in Wales, accompanied by a robotic arm, complete with articulated hand, capable of holding a shaving brush and a razor).

I was absolutley fascinated with this, watching as the barber, using a phone connected to the 5G network to see what he was doing, loaded a shaving brush with shaving soap, and then simultaneously saw the mechanical robot arm applying the soap to the man’s face, despite him being many miles away.

Subsequently, the barber picked up a cut-throat razor, and shaved the man’s face.

That’s a lot of trust, folks!

Now, I’m a bit of a sceptic, and am aware of how good CGI is, but it does link into my interest in the medical uses of 5G, so I decided to do some research.

My first port of call was the EE website, to see what they had to say about their latest campaign.

I was a bit blown away to discover that this was a REAL demonstration, and made no use of CGI, but instead used the EE 5G network and a custom-made robot arm.

Only recently, the world’s first (allegedly – you may know differently!) successful surgical procedure performed from a remote location was conducted in south east China, using the local Huawei 5G network.

5G is certainly going to change the way we live, but more about that in a later article.


The reason that I mention 5G here, is that it will no doubt have other uses in medicine and personal health care, especially when used in conjunction with wearable technology.

A few years ago, I carried a little more (lot more) weight than I do now, and my blood pressure was all over the place. As an incipient hypochondriac, I also suffer from a condition known as “White Coat Hypertension”.

I first discovered that I had this condition was at the renewal of my first Class 1 flying medical. My normally placid, mildly elevated blood pressure launched to positively near-death levels as soon as I sat on the chair in front of the medic.

Over the years, my blood pressure has been brought under control, and is consistently textbook normal.

Until I am having a flight medical. Then it’s at stratospheric levels again.

One of my doctors decided that I would need to undertake an ambulatory blood pressure check. This involved me wearing a bulky blood pressure monitor, complete with inflatable arm cuff, for a twenty-four-hour period.

During this time, the system would take recordings every ten minutes or so. I spent a miserable 24 hours walking round like Quasimodo.

At the end of the test, I was diagnosed with mild hypertension and was prescribed medication to deal with it.

Medical technology has advanced a lot since the early 1990s and now health monitoring systems have become a lot smaller and a bit more refined, but they still require a battery to power them.

However, digital wearable technology is now commonplace. Smart watches such as the Apple, Garmin and Fitbit models, which monitor many health factors including heartrate, blood pressure, blood oxygen levels, sleep tracking, electro-cardiogram (ECG) and physical activity.

Apple Smart Watch 5 Image Courtesy Raralu444 under CCA-SA 4.0

As wonderful as they are, these smart wearables are still limited by their need to carry their own power source – normally a rechargeable Lithium-Ion battery.

There are now developments that make this unnecessary.

A group of bioengineers working at UCLA* Samueli School of Engineering have developed a flexible magnetoelastic generator, that creates electrical power from the natural movements of the human body.

The principle is simple. If you remember your schoolboy (and schoolgirl!) physics lessons, you will probably recall that the interaction between magnets generates an electrical current.

The generator consists of a matrix of tiny magnets, woven into a stretchy, silicone sheet. When the sheet is flexed, the movement of the magnets against each other generates an electrical current.

Flexible, Stretchable, Self-Powered, Waterproof, magneto-elastic generator. Image Credit Jun Chen, UCLA

The sheet is flexible and soft enough that it may be worn comfortably against the skin. Movement of the muscles will flex the sheet, causing power to be generated. It’s even sensitive enough to create power from the tiny movements caused by a human pulse.

Impervious to sweat, or water, the system is quite capable of generating sufficient electricity to power a self-contained heart monitor, sweat monitor or thermometer.

Another recent system is a sweat-powered artificial skin, developed by researchers at Caltech’s Department of Medical Engineering.

Sweat-Powered Electronic Skin Image Credit – Caltech

This alternative method is based upon a soft electronic skin, or “e-skin” made of flexible rubber, into which are embedded several sensors together with what may only be described as bio-fuel cells.

Human sweat contains high levels of the chemical Lactate, which is a normal by-product of any form of metabolic activity, for example, from the activity of muscles when the body is conducting physical activity.

The bio-fuel cells built into the e-skin, absorb the sweat, and in the process capture the Lactate, which combines with Oxygen to produce water and Pyruvate. During the process, the biofuel cells generate electrical power.

The amount of energy generated is sufficient to power all the sensors woven into the e-skin and additionally, a Bluetooth© transceiver, which enables the e-skin to transmit sensor data to any Bluetooth© enabled device.

This useful technology will allow the remote monitoring of blood glucose levels, hormone levels, cardiac activity, body temperature and neural activity.

The same scientific team at Caltech, (led by Wei Gau Assistant Professor of Medical Engineering at the Andrew and Peggy Cherng Department of Medical Engineering) have also developed a system that uses kinetic energy to generate power for biomedical sensors.

To put it simply, a thin skin is created using layers of Teflon, Polyamide and Copper. This is attached to the person’s skin.

A further layer of Polyamide and Copper is allowed to slide back and forth over the skin’s layers, and induces an electric current. In the prototype, the team stuck the Teflon/Polyamide/Copper layer to the subject’s torso, and the sliding layer was secured to their arm, so that natural movement would trigger the generation of current.

Triboelectric Generator Prototype. Image Credit Caltech

This is known as a “Triboelectric Generator”.

Most of us will have experienced this at some point, when we have walked across a synthetic carpet, whilst wearing synthetic clothing. We build up an electric charge, which can then discharge to earth – sometimes quite painfully!

Now, all these human-powered sensors are in early stages of development, but in due course, they will become part of the Internet of Things (IOT), and will be using 5G to send real-time medical data to your family doctor, your diabetic or cardiac specialist or medical consultant.

Maybe they will even send biomedical data to the emergency services should you get cut whilst going to the barbers!

Brave new world?

You decide.

Go Well.

*University of California Los Angeles

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Categories
Climate change Ecological Econonomy English Culture Environment local economy Poverty Relief Recycling Science Society

I Don’t Want to Eat My Vegetables is No Longer a Valid Excuse!

I leaned back in my chair with a feeling of contentment. SWMBO and I were sitting in the snug of one of our nearby village pubs, and I was now comfortably replete after noshing an exceptionally large Sunday Roast lunch. 

Ahhh. Sunday Lunch in a comfy local pub

This pub is renowned locally for its excellent food, well-kept ales, and quaint, comfy surroundings. The staff, all of whom were youngsters, were polite, attentive, and friendly.

Additionally, I had other reasons for using this pub. They have a policy of only using locally-sourced ingredients for all of their menu items. So, my roast beef was from a breeding butchery near Southampton, the vegetables were from a local farm, and the guest beers that I chose were from either the triple fff* brewery, based in Alton, or the Hepworth brewery in Pulborough, just across the county border in West Sussex. 

I am currently trying to persuade them to stock some of the really good ales made by the Firebird Brewery in Rudgwick, also in West Sussex.

I really like the idea of supporting local business, and helping to reduce my food miles, and my personal carbon footprint.

I was stuffed full. Yet the side dishes containing more vegetables and condiments and sauces were also still stuffed full, despite SWMBO and I laying into them with such gusto. I felt quite guilty about this, and knew that I was wasting perfectly good food. 

Not the Sunday Roast in question, but you get my point? Serving for one – plus sides!

In my rural area, the waste wouldn’t be quite such a problem, as some of it would probably go back into the farming system to be used as animal feed, but in towns and cities, this would all go straight into landfill.

I wondered to what extent we as a nation were wasting.

What I discovered was truly staggering.

In the UK alone, we waste approximately 10 million tonnes of perfectly useable food every year! Alarmingly, less than 1% of that is recycled in any meaningful way. 

Food – Just chucked into a skip, and left to rot before going to landfill

At the top of our “oh, just chuck it out” list was bread, with 900,000 tonnes wasted each year – that’s about 24 million slices that are sent to landfill. A lot of sandwiches, by anybody’s standard.

Add that to 5.8 million potatoes, and a huge volume of other vegetables and fruits, and it’s easy to see that we have a serious problem.

According to research conducted by the University of Edinburgh, about 33% of farm produce is wasted for aesthetic reasons. Supermarkets usually have contractual requirements for their vegetables and fruit, that specify minimum sizes, dimensions, weights, and appearance. 

This is driven by their perceptions on customer requirements, but, to be honest, the shape of my carrots, or a blemish on the skin of an apple aren’t overly high on my list of priorities. 


As a side issue, I have never once been canvassed for my opinions by any supermarket chain. 

Ever.

A third of all UK-grown, perfectly edible fruits and vegetables are rejected by our supermarket buyers for not meeting their specifications, and so they are wasted. They are probably just ploughed back into the land – and all this in a country where we now run food banks for those who are in desperate need.

This MUST change. The global food system produces about 25% – 30% of global greenhouse gases (GHGs), and agricultural supply chains use up to 70% of our freshwater reserves. Every tonne of food waste that goes to landfill sites will generate about 4.2 tonnes of GHGs. We must grow less and waste less.

But I digress. So, back to my sumptuous pub meal.

The hospitality industry wastes over a million tonnes of food because of providing over-generous portions. This is a tricky issue to address.

The corporate mindset seems to be that customer satisfaction is better served by plating up too large a portion and having some waste, rather than serving a portion that is perceived by the customer as being too small. 

Maybe a mental reset is required. The hospitality sector, pubs, bistros, restaurants etc., should start serving smaller portions, and tell customers that if they would like more side orders of vegetables and sauces, then they may ask for them free of charge.

So far, most that I have written is related to commercial food waste. Now have a think about the amount of food that you personally waste in your own homes.

For every 13 million tonnes of food waste generated, 7 million tonnes is wasted by people like you and I!

That is the equivalent of throwing away one full bag of groceries in every five bags with which you leave the supermarket!

Various initiatives have been set up by several charities, such as Feedback Global’s “The Pig Idea”, which attempts to change the law preventing waste food products from being fed to pigs. 

This law was originally passed to prevent contaminated edible waste from entering the food chain for pigs, which was thought to have caused an outbreak of Foot and Mouth disease. 

This was enshrined into EU law in 2002, but now that the UK has left federal Europe, it is possible for the UK Government to consider rescinding this law, subject to animal welfare standards being maintained to ensure the quality of any food waste to be fed to pigs.

Should this happen, the UK could simply revert to the centuries-old practice of feeding waste food to pigs.

A World War 2 Poster, urging the public to save food waste to feed pigs.

The food waste generated by the food manufacturing, catering and retail sectors (which would normally be destined for landfill) could potentially be reduced by about 2.5 million tonnes per year – a drop of 20%.

This is staggering!

The United Nations has stated that if all farmers globally were to feed their livestock on waste food and agricultural by-products, then enough grain could be liberated from the system to feed an estimated 3 billion people.

Supermarkets are also responsible for a lot of food waste at the opposite end of the process. Not only do they reject perfectly edible foodstuffs at the farm, but they also waste perfectly edible food that they over-order, and then just can’t sell!

We have all seen it. Yellow labels on food that is “out of date” being sold at heavy discounts. Like me, you have probably taken advantage of some low prices for food that is at the end of its shelf life.

Good Deals are often to be had, if you are willing to eat expiring food on the day you buy it!

Sadly, a lot of yellow-labelled goods remain unsold, and are therefore thrown into the skip (I have watched this happen at a local supermarket), destined for landfill somewhere.

This is a sad situation, especially as food poverty affects 8% of the UK population, some 5 million people.

To put this into perspective, my dear old Mum, who is in her nineties, volunteers at her local church, and as well as working in the café on a regular basis, she is also involved in the Church’s food bank. 

The food bank, like so many others, collects food and then distributes it to those who are in need. Having grown up during the Blitz, and the privations of rationing during World War Two (and afterwards – rationing didn’t end in the UK until July 1954) she hates waste of any kind, and always tries to live sustainably, well before such a word entered our vocabularies.

A Typical Weekly Ration for an Adult in 1940. 4 Ounces is 115 grams and 3 pints is about 1.7 litres

It still shocks her when she hears about waste of any kind, but she is a product of her generation, and some things are never forgotten.

There is hope though…

There are some wonderful charities that try to save food waste, and help those most in need of support.

Take The Felix Project. They collect surplus food, including vegetables, fruit, dairy produce, and meats, from food manufacturers, farms, supermarkets, and restaurants, and distribute it to those most in need. 

Then there is FareShare, which was started 27 years ago in 1994, as a joint venture between the UK Homeless charity, Crisis, and Sainsburys the supermarket chain.

Originally called Crisis FareShare, the charity collects and redistributes food to over 1,000 UK charities, and has partnerships with Tesco, Asda, and the Trussell Trust (which support the UK’s network of Food Banks). 

The “Feed People First” campaign that it ran in 2018 tried to ensure that it wouldn’t cost the food industry more to donate their surplus edible products to charities, than it would cost them to send it to landfill or animal feed manufacturers. 

By the end of 2018, the UK Government had committed to providing funding of £15 million to enable business to divert its surplus foodstuffs to charity.

Since it was started, FareShare has provided 236.8 million meals all of which were donated to people in need via a network of frontline charities. This resulted in savings to the voluntary sector (assuming they would have had to buy the same amount of food and drink) of about £180 million!

This is a fabulous achievement, but it still highlights a vast mismatch between food supply and demand – there is such a large surplus! It also shows that our society is broken in a sad way, when people living in a supposedly civilised country are suffering food poverty, despite our very generous welfare state.

They alone are responsible for saving tonnes of waste every year, whilst reducing human misery at the same time.

As climate change strengthens its grip on our world, we will have to make some serious changes. This is not only at a global and state level. This is also at local level.

I am not a great horticulturalist, and have little interest in growing things, but I think that in future more families will have to grow some of their own foods to reduce the need for intensive farming and food transportation. Maybe misshapen vegetables and blemished fruit will be more prevalent. 

In fact, Morrisons supermarkets have proven that even ugly produce is nutritious, edible, and has value.

Morrisons leads the way…

There is an alternative though, if, like me, you are a lousy gardener.

How about not only reducing waste for landfill, but also reducing GHGs, and saving money in the long run?

This is where a small, self-contained domestic biodigester plant comes into its own.

Biodigesters are designed to capture the methane given off by decomposing organic matter. 

A Typical Domestic Biodigester

For most people, organic matter would be food scraps including vegetables, fruit, meat, fish, dairy waste, cooking oils, pips, nuts, and bread.  Some folks may operate smallholdings, and may therefore benefit further by enabling a certain amount of manure from livestock to be used. 

For the truly environmentally-conscious, biogas lavatories are on the market that enable human waste to be processed as well. 

A Biodigester Toilet. Waste not Want not? https://www.homebiogas.com/product/bio-toilet-kit/

Biodigesters consist of a simple tank, which may be made of hard plastic, or out of very strong PVC sheeting. The waste organic products are simply placed into the tank, and within a short period of time, helpful, friendly bacteria will start breaking down the material.

There are two main by-products of the process. One is a good source of methane gas, and the other is liquid fertiliser.

The gas generation is simple, natural, and ecologically friendly, and the methane gas output may be used to operate a cooker. Once up and running, a typical biodigester will produce enough methane for two hours of cooking per day.

The slurry that may be drained off at the end of the process is full of nutrients that are essential for plant health, and are odourless and non-toxic.

I would add a word of caution here.  If you do decide to install a biogas lavatory, and use human waste, then you can’t use the by-product as fertiliser, and it must be treated as sewage and compliance with disposal regulations is essential. However, you can still tap off the methane!

So, maybe it’s time to buy less food, and to encourage our supermarkets to be less restrictive when specifying the acceptable standards for fruit, vegetables, and other produce.

Even reluctant gardeners should have a go. It’s possible to grow beans, peppers, potatoes and tomatoes in pots – even on a small balcony. Every little helps.

If you have a larger garden, maybe invest in a biodigester, and reduce your reliance on mains gas. You probably won’t generate enough gas to run your central heating, but you will be cutting down your GHG footprint.

I guess some of the answer lies in our own hands.

You decide.

Go Well…

Header Photograph – Surplus Tomatoes piled up to rot…

* Yes, It really is spelt that way!

Categories
Climate change Ecological Econonomy Environment HEALTH Living Organ Donation Local Authorities

The Wonderful World of Three-Dimensional Printing

I started work in 1975, as an apprentice communications engineer. During that wonderful autumn, I spent my time happily cruising around the local area with my supervising engineer, learning the art of installing and repairing telephones to residential addresses.

In the sleepy West Sussex town of East Grinstead (which was reasonably affluent), and the surrounding villages, many of the houses were large, and a number of our calls were to fit extension phones, extension bells or small House Exchange Systems.

House Exchange Telephone, circa 1970

Several customers worked from home, and their business needs in terms of equipment were relatively simple. Most had a second telephone line, and extension phones running from each. Some had a Telex machine, and some even had a very basic facsimile machine.

A good old fashioned Telex machine, circa 1970

No computers – all documents were created using typewriters, and I saw anything from a basic “sit up and beg” manual machine through to upmarket IBM “golf ball” typewriters.

IBM Selectric Electric Golfball Typewriter

It may appear strange to think that a home office could be so simple.

Surrounded by high tech, virtually every modern home has equipment that would make a 1975 businessman green with envy.

Inkjet printers that deliver reasonable quality may be bought in your local supermarket for under £100, and a home computer (with a massive 1 Terabyte of memory) will cost only £279.00 from PC World! Wi-Fi connectivity, and the ability to stream feature films in high definition is now commonplace.

My first printer was a Canon Bubble Jet printer, which occupied a corner of my desk. It was hard wired to my very basic desktop PC.

My latest set up is a full colour laser printer, which is attached to my home network by Wi-Fi, meaning that I can send a print request from my iPhone or iPad from anywhere in the house. It also has its own email address, so I can even send a document to be printed from anywhere in the world – not that I see much demand for this feature.

Laser printers used to cost thousands. They can now be obtained for a few hundred pounds.

Advances in software and computer processing, and a good deal of lateral thinking has enabled the development of three-dimensional printers.

In a previous article, “What do Mars and Bicycles Have in Common?” I asked whether science fact followed science fiction, or vice versa.

One of the original “Pulp Sci-Fi” magazines that my dear old Dad used to read, and give to me… 2/6d (12.5p)

It seems that in the case of three-dimensional printing, fact followed fiction.

The first documented reference to three-dimensional printing, (as far as I can prove) was made in the Sci-Fi story entitled “Tools of the Trade”, written by Raymond F Jones, and published in the November 1950 edition of Astounding Science Fiction. In the story, the author describes 3d printing as molecular spraying, but the principle was similar to what we now commonly refer to as 3D Printing.

During the early 1970s, a patent was filed by Johannes F Gottwald which described the principles and processes of 3D printing using liquid metals to form reusable structures, however, the technology and materials to develop the concept was unavailable.

It wasn’t until the 1980s, that the concept of 3D printing was seriously considered, and a number of early prototypes were under development from different designers and printer manufacturers.

As the technology was in its infancy, costs were very high – a basic 3D printer in the 80s would have cost upwards of 300,000 US$ (£217,000). In today’s money that would be in the region of 742,000 US$ (£539,000) – so not a realistic proposition for a home office.

By 1993, however, 3D printers using inkjets that sprayed liquid polymers were being manufactured, and by the 2000s, the technology was being developed and refined, and industrial applications were launched that enabled metals to be printed.

Think for a moment, about the way that many metal items are manufactured. Molten metal may be poured into a mould, and the resulting casting must be machined to create the shape of the part required. This is normally performed by using lathes, milling machines under computer control, from a computer-produced 3D design. (CAD/CAM – Computer Aided Design/Computer Aided Manufacturing).

This may be referred to as subtractive manufacturing, where unrequired material is machined away, leaving the part completed. Whilst the waste product may be recycled, this takes effort, and incurs cost.

On the other hand, using a 3D printer to produce a part, say an engine mounting bracket for a car, is an additive manufacturing process, where the part is created from nothing, and built up in the correct shape, layer by layer.

No waste, and incredibly flexible, the 3D printing process allows complex shapes to be created in one hit, rather than a number of different milling machine processes.

3D printing is rapidly penetrating all sorts of new markets, some of which may surprise you.

How about 3D printed food?

Sound crazy?

Maybe not – several companies have developed 3D printers that print Vegan “Steaks” using vegetable proteins. If a mass-produced artificial steak has the same texture, taste and appearance as an animal steak, then many people may switch to the alternative, which may be better for personal health in terms of eating less red meats.

From a sustainability perspective, globally, livestock produce 14.5% of climate change gases, so if meat consumption may be reduced, then there would be a proportionate reduction in intensively farmed cattle.

A 3D food printer which uses plant proteins as ink, and mimicks the texture and taste of meat….https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giuseppe_Scionti

Would I try one?

Yes, without a doubt, and if they truly were a realistic alternative, and didn’t taste like Linda McCartney’s sausages, then I would no doubt enjoy the experience.

What else then?

How about using a 3D printer to build a house? Already, large scale 3D printers exist that extrude concrete, and 3D house are now being built as new developments, particularly in the USA.

This is quite groundbreaking, and an exciting development. Printed homes can be simply built in a fraction of the time that a conventional house takes. 3D printers can not only build floors, and walls, but can precisely extrude integrated channels for utilities, and mould ducting for air conditioning and electrical services.

A Concrete 3D printer constructing the walls of a building. How cool is that?

They also require far less labour to construct and are considerably cheaper than a conventional home of the same size.

The medical industry is also interested in 3D printing. Imagine being able to print a tablet which contains multiple medications, custom built for each patient. Instead of taking several tablets, a single multi-purpose pill could control a variety of medical conditions.

Imagine constructing an artificial heart, made of medical proteins and stem cells to recreate an exact replica of the patient’s original?

Prosthetic limbs printed quickly that precisely match a patient’s physiology!

Severely burnt individuals treated by repairing damage using artificial skin contoured and printed using a 3D printer delivering layers of bio-ink…

Science fiction?

No – Science Now!

Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh USA) have printed a 100% accurate replica human heart, which exhibits the same levels of elasticity as human heart tissue. Only as a pilot project so far, but this technology can and will take off.

A 3D printed human heart – Pilot now, future of transplants? Photo Courtesy of Carnegie Mellon University PA USA

So, from the humble inkjet printer for bashing out a letter to Great Aunt Maud, to printing a three-bedroom house, 3D printing is here to stay.

Thank goodness for technology, eh?

Go Well…

Categories
aviation Climate change Cycling Driving Electric Transport Environment Exercise Flight marine pollution Motorcycling Motoring Science Sport Technology Transport Vehicles

What Do Mars and Bicycles Have in Common?

It’s a lovely day.

The sky outside is an impossibly brilliant blue, with just the occasional cloud to add texture and remind me that nature is hard at work, even if I am not.

This is an absolutely perfect day for flying. Definitely VMC (For my non-aviation friends and readers, that is Visual Meteorological Conditions, meaning that navigating and staying in control of the aircraft is performed by looking out of the windscreen – rather than flying in cloud or above the cloud, thereby having to fly by using the aircraft instruments, known as Instrument Meteorological Conditions).

The perfect day for a fifteen minute trundle over to the airstrip, to pull my aircraft from the hangar. A quick but thorough pre-flight inspection, and then away up into the sky, to meander through the air, with no particular place to go.

Maybe a leisurely buzz south to the coast, then east to Beachy Head, and then back over the sunlit rolling chalk and downlands that make up large swathes of Sussex and Hampshire.

So, why then, am I sitting here in my den, hammering an article into my keyboard.

Well, for one thing, my aeroplane is currently being reassembled after a major rebuild. It’s sitting forlornly in the gloom of the hangar, its wings rigged, and its engine and systems all fitted. However, with no flight control surfaces rigged, she might as well be a boat.

Fully rigged, engine and systems up and running – but no flight controls…

Secondly, I am awaiting the arrival of the technician from Autoglass to change the windscreen on my car.

Travelling back home from work one afternoon, I thought that I had come under machine-gun attack, and the volley of stones that hit the screen might as well have been real bullets, as they plunged deep into the laminated glass, and with a noise like a pistol shot, three long cracks propagated across the screen.

A short phone call to my insurers and £75.00 lighter, and the windscreen would be fixed. It appeared that as I had previously had two chips repaired, this would be a brand new screen.

Well, I was expecting to have to make an appointment to drop the car off at a repair station, but no, it would be changed on my drive, and all in about an hour.

So, staying with the vehicle theme, some of you may have read my previous article on the levels of pollution that is caused by the interaction of car tyres on roads?

No?

It may be worth a read if you are interested in sustainability, climate change and pollution.

Vehicle tyres degrade with use, and the erosion of the tread causes the release of micro-particles that wash into waterways, and ultimately into the seas and oceans.

So, a new piece of space-age technology caught my eye.

My first exposure to NASA[1] was as a barely-ten-year-old boy watching the launch of Apollo 11 on the 16th of July 1969, and subsequently watching recorded footage of the lunar landing on school TV on Monday 21st July.

To say that I was awestruck was an understatement.  Subsequently I couldn’t read enough about space, and became an avid reader of the science fiction pulp magazines such as Astounding Science Fiction and Amazing Stories that my dear old Dad used to buy from the secondhand bookstall not far from the tube station.

I think that by the time I was 13, I had the complete works of the mighty Isaac Asimov on my bookshelves, and was familiar with all of the Sci-Fi greats; Arthur C Clarke, Robert Heinlein and Philip K Dick.

A few days before the launch of Apollo 11, the BBC aired it’s first episode of Star Trek, and I had become a fan almost instantly.

The Crew of NC-1701 Starship Enterprise – Star Trek the Original Series

And I have been a real fan of quality science fiction (not to be confused with science fantasy such as the Marvel Superheroes) ever since.

There has always been, however, a blurring of the lines between science fiction, and science fact. Which drives which?

In Star Trek, (the original series) we saw Captain Kirk being presented with what looks like an iPad tablet for him to sign. Uhura, the Comms Officer wears what looks like an ancestor to a Bluetooth earpiece, and Motorola designed a flip phone that looked suspiciously like a Star Trek communicator.

Lt. Uhura, wearing her early Bluetooth earpiece… Photo Courtesy ViacomCBS

I have to admit, that I am REALLY looking forward to using a dematerialisation transporter. Imagine just setting the co-ordinates of a friend’s house in California, and hitting the button and arriving microseconds later.

A universal replicator that ends poverty, and makes the use of money totally redundant…?

I digress…

So, it seems that Science Fact is now about to follow what was Science Fiction up until a few decades ago.

The continuing exploration of Mars has been conducted to a great extent by the Mars Rover vehicles, which have been sedately pottering over the Martian landscape since 1997. Kitted out with sensors, cameras and communications equipment these vehicles have been surveying our nearest planetary neighbour.

Perseverance, the Mars Rover – Photo Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

In order to traverse the hostile terrain, the current rover, Perseverance, is equipped with six 52.5cm (20.7 inch) wheels made from aluminium and springy titanium spokes. The wheels are fitted with cleats for additional traction.

Well…

It seems that the NASA-developed tyre technology may be coming to a vehicle near you – well, initially, a bicycle near you!

NASA – Not just a Space Agency! Designers, Developers and Scientists

These highly advanced tyres are designed by the SMART (Shape Memory Alloy Radial Technology) Tire company, and manufactured by NASA using a highly elastic material called NiTinol+.

The Rover’s wheels – Light, and very robust! Photo Courtesy NASA/JPL-CalTech

Virtually all elastic materials will stretch, and then they may almost revert back to their previous shape and strength. Most will lose their resilience and potency – think of a well-used bungee strap.

The clever thing about the metal alloy used in the construction of Perseverance’s wheels is that it actually changes its molecular composition when it is flexed or distorted. Once no longer subjected to any loads, the material simply returns to its prior profile, and the molecules are rearranged to their previous composition.

Tyres constructed from this material would no longer need to have inner tubes, or be inflated with air – no more punctures, less weight, and the added strength of Titanium.

The outer surface of the “tyre” may be coated with a highly resilient synthetic rubber called Polyurethanium.

The robust nature of the tyre combination means that a SMART tyre will probably exceed the life of the vehicle to which it is fitted! There will be no risks of punctures, and deflations, no need to use sealants or carry a spare wheel.

In comparison to conventional steel, this new alloy, known as METL, is thirty times quicker to recover to its original profile. This made it ideal for use in the hostile environment and rugged terrain of Mars.

Now the good news!

These revolutionary tyres are about to be launched – initially for bicycles, which will enable further development to be carried out for heavier vehicles.

SMART Tire prototype clearly showing woven metal construction, Photo Courtesy SMART Tires

SMART Tires has already collaborated with the Micro-mobility scooter provider, Spin (owned by the Ford Motor Company) to develop tyres for electric scooters.

Currently, this is a small-scale project, but in due course, it will become a primary challenge for the $250 billion global tyre industry to adapt to and deliver. This will be driven, in part, by the ever more urgent need to reduce emissions of any kind.

SMART Tires aims to launch their range of tyres to the cycling community by 2022, and once in full production, will no doubt start developing wheel/tyre units for the automobile and motorcycle industries.

Prototype SMART Tyre designed for a bicycle – Photo courtesy SMART Tires

I imagine that the launch range of bike tyres will be expensive initially, and will appeal to only the upper echelons of competition cyclists, but the economy of scale will undoubtedly reduce prices to the level where they may be bought in your local high street bicycle shop.

So, in the words of Captain Jean-Luc Picard…

“Make it so!”

Well, Maybe buy one of these after I have bought the tyres! If I have any cash left!

[1] National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Categories
Climate change Ecological Environment Mobile Communications Science Society Technology Wearable Technology

Power Generating Flooring? What a load of Rot…

I walked into my den, clutching a fresh cup of tea, ready to start writing a new article. The squeaky floorboard near the door irritated me somewhat, as SWMB and I had taken every effort (as did our builder) to ensure that the wooden planks didn’t squeak as we walked around the house.

This plan worked well for the first few months, but gradually, the floor and stairs conspired against us, and began to creak as we walked around the house.

In some of the rooms, we managed to inject a resin compound to stop the slight movements, which is accomplished by drilling two small holes into the planks, and squiring the goo in under pressure.

Two tiny holes to stop a squeak… Photo Mark Charlwood©

This, again, worked for a while, until the creaks started coming back – and just when I thought that it was safe…

I personally don’t mind a few little creaks and squeaks, as it adds character to the place.

Squeaks and creaking floorboards happen as a result of the wood settling down, and as it ages, as all natural products do, it flexes more readily, and allows each plank to move slightly against adjoining planks, or shift slightly upon the joist to which it is fixed.

My mind wandered back to the old, edwardian house that I grew up in. Its’ uneven old floorboards used to grumble and groan, even when they were only supporting the weight of a poorly five-year-old.

That old house is etched into my brain indelibly.

When I was a kid, my Mum did all of the familys’ hot meals on a gas cooker, or in the gas oven. As a small boy, I well remember my Dad attempting to boil a kettle, striking match after match, and hearing him curse as the igniting gas finally engulfed his fingers, singing the hairs on his hand as he fumbled, without success to light a gas jet.

In the end the old boy arrived home one day with a small mechanical flint lighter, which was great news for Mum, as the shower of sparks lit the jet with ease.

Simple but effective – a simple spring steel flint lighter.

A few years later, Dad came home with his latest high-tech acquisition – a Piezo-electric butane lighter. This neat device contained a small reservoir of liquified butane gas, and a trigger that when pulled would generate a nice fat blue spark at the tip.

Easy and quick – and I still use one for fire lighting. Photo Mark Charlwood©

The resulting mini flame thrower was a teenage schoolboys’ delight.

I remember being intrigued with the way it worked.

The piezoelectric principle was discovered in the late 1880s. It was found that if certain materials were flexed, an electric current would be produced.

Over the years, this principle was developed, and has subsequently given us SONAR[1], inkjet printers, cigarette lighters, loudspeakers, motors such as those found on autofocus mechanisms in cameras and medical equipment.

Goodyear Tyres even considered using Piezoelectric technology to be used inside the carcase of a tyre that would generate electrical power every time the tyre flexed.

Why am I telling you about all this, when I normally write about new technology, sustainability and alternative energy?

There is a link, believe me.

So, back to sustainability.

Wood is a wonderful material for using in the construction of houses. If sourced responsibly, it is relatively inexpensive, reusable and recyclable. It also offers good levels of thermal and sound insulation, is relatively stable and may be machined fairly easily.

Timber stacked ready to be turned into a house

It is strong and resilient, and may be used in virtually every aspect of the construction of a house, from walls to roofing, and floors to cladding.

Whilst pottering about in the depths of the internet, I stumbled across a reason for welcoming potentially squeaky boards into your homes.

It seems that a team of researchers in Switzerland have established that timber, when flexed also exhibits the piezo electric effect.

Obviously, if it were to be possible to harvest the electrical output generated by people simply walking across a floor then this would assist in the battle to make homes carbon neutral.

The problem is that the types of wood used in flooring do not have enough flexibility to generate power effectively.

The research team discovered that by introducing a mild form of fungus (a white rot) the decaying process could be accelerated a little, and this in turn made the sample wood (balsa in the case of this early research) much more flexible – to the point that harvesting an electrical output became possible.

When a piece of wooden veneer was treated with the fungus, and then fitted with a piezo-electric converter, the plank would produce a voltage whenever it was trodden on!

The voltage was only small – just 0.85 Volts, and at a very low current, but the scientific conclusion is that the output could be scaled up.

Naturally, it’s likely that such a bio-engineered concept would only work over a large square area of floor, with a high traffic load, such as an office, auditorium, ballroom or gymnasium.

Harnessing nature and working with it may offer better long-term solutions to some of our global problems.

I guess the alternative is to incorporate piezoelectric sensors in my shoes, and charge my iPhone in my pocket?

Yes – Really! Walk 10,000 steps, get fit, and charge your phone!

Meanwhile, I will just accept that my floor is just sighing contentedly…

Go Well.


[1] SOund NAvigation and Ranging – The use of sound waves to both navigate a submarine whilst submerged and to calculate ranges undersea for the firing of torpedos. Known as ASDIC by the Royal Navy during WW2

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English Culture HEALTH internet Mobile Communications opticians Science Society Technology Vision Wearable Technology

A Book at Bedtime? Yes, but don’t use your iPad!

Following on from my most recent publication, one of my most loyal and long-standing readers (and good friend) commented that it was “A particularly (expletive deleted) gloomy blog today, Mr. Charlwood. Glass half empty is it?!!”

My Glass is never half empty – it just needs topping up regularly. Photo: Mark Charlwood©

OK, I admit that it was unlike most of my articles and was a little doom-laden, but I was, indeed, trying to make a point – and that is we really don’t take our personal data security that seriously.

During the text-based conversation that followed, we got around to talking about social media, and how much time it absorbs without our awareness.

When I used Facebook regularly, I could easily spend an hour and a half scrolling through my news feed, and commenting on friends’ activities and responding to posts mentioning me.

It shocked me when I analysed my Screen Time app on my Apple iPhone to see just how much time I was investing in what is, to all intents and purposes, a solo activity.

It seemed that I was spending 5 hours a day staring into my screen. To be fair, 2 hours of that was using the satnav function of the ‘phone in the car.

I hasten to add, that it’s not that I forget how to drive the 44 miles to work, but for updates on traffic, and route optimisation, but the Screen Time system still includes it in the tracking. I must remember to re-configure the Screen Time app so that it ignores screen use when I am using Waze.

So, 3 hours!

3 hours is a lot. Over 95% of that time was using Facebook. 2% was using LinkedIn. Luckily, Facebook was the only social media I really used – I could have been spending far more time if I also used Twitter, Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat.

I stopped using Facebook three weeks ago. This was as a direct result of Facebook’s “bully-boy” tactics of denying both local and international news from being shared on its’ Australian service. This was pretty much the straw that broke the camels’ back. I had been getting increasingly uncomfortable with the way that the platform harvests my personal data.

Since then, the time I spend locked into my ironically isolated world, whilst I “engage” socially with my friends has reduced enormously.

My Screen Time has plummeted by 70% – and my daily average screen time is 2h 41m which includes 1h 54m of travel.

Screen Time app, resident on iPhones and iPads… Photo: Mark Charlwood©

I note that my most used apps are WhatsApp (soon to be deleted and replaced with Signal), Messages, Safari, LinkedIn, and Mail.
Not surprising really, as without the need to be locked into social media, I am spending time on the phone actively communicating.

It seems that I am not alone. My friend was also shocked that he was spending over four hours daily looking at his ‘phone screen. Like me, it seemed that he imagined his usage was “maybe an hour a day”

What was more shocking, according to him, was that he doesn’t use social media!

Having looked into this, my research suggests that 4 hours a day is about the average amount of time for adult individuals to spend on their smartphones. I’m pretty sure that all of these people would also be surprised to discover how much time they were spending locked in cyberspace, rather than existing in reality.

No man is an island… Or is He?

Since I discovered the true value of the Apple Screen Time function, I am much more aware of my device usage. The system is self-managing, and it’s simple to configure using the settings menu.

I also use an iPad, and a MacBook Pro computer, so I have set the system up to combine my usage across the devices, so that I get a true picture of how I am spending my time.

Apple iPad with Retina OLED display – Easy to Read, but not for a book at bedtime! Photo Mark Charlwood©

For those of you who use Apple products for the whole family, the app will even be able to show individual family members times, which would be useful to monitor the time that children spend on their phones or iPads.

There is an important factor to this, as there is well-documented and respected research that clearly shows that excessive use of computer screens may be injurious to health.

There are several aspects to this.

Firstly, the display screens of modern computers, smartphones, tablets and e-book readers are backlit by LEDs. This gives a crisper, brighter image, but at the same time emits powerful light in the blue colour spectrum.

Screens bright enough to see even in sunlit conditions Photo Courtesy Senado Federal under CCA 2.0

Fluorescent lighting and the newer LED bulbs being used for environmental reasons also emit light in the blue spectrum, as does the sun.

In our natural environment, the amount of light that we receive regulates our circadian rhythm – our sleep to awake cycle.

As the sun begins to set, the reduction in solar light eventually triggers the pineal gland, seated deep in our brains to produce melatonin, a hormone that controls the sleep-wake cycle.

In most cases, the release of melatonin will cause the individual to fall asleep. As light levels increase at dawn, we wake up.

Melatonin not only regulates our sleep to wake cycle, but in vertebrates, it also synchronises seasonal rhythmicity, and triggers such biological factors such as the time to reproduce, and hibernate. Clever stuff from Mother Nature.

However, using our screens late at night (who hasn’t laid in bed watching a Netflix movie on their tablet?) interferes with our brain chemistry and makes it more difficult to fall asleep and may cause disrupted sleep patterns.

Blue light is also injurious to the retina, and a recent Harvard study concluded that the output of high energy blue light from modern screens may cause eye health problems.

The retina is located at the rear of the eyeball, and is made up of multiple layers of very thin tissue. The retina also contains photo-receptor cells which capture the images of what a person is looking at.

A small proportion of cells, known as Retinal Ganglion Cells are not used directly by our vision systems, but they do monitor ambient light levels, and feed this information into the brain to assist in controlling our circadian patterns (sleep/awake) and for controlling the light response of the eye pupil – dilating it in lower light, and constricts the pupil in brighter conditions.

Very clever!

However, High Energy Visible (HEV) Blue light may harm the retina. Some of the potential damage may be prevented by a group of cells known as the macula. The macula is a tiny yellow area in the eye which absorbs excess blue and ultraviolet light.

Should the yellow pigment become too thin, then blue light can bombard the retina.

The Harvard medical study suggests that after chronic exposure to HEV blue light, (overusing our tablets, phones, laptops etc) there will be a predicted rise in the number of age-related macular degeneration conditions, Glaucoma, and retinal degenerative diseases.

So…

Maybe we should schedule a sterile period each day, during which we have no interaction with our technology. Maybe dump Facebook? Instead of sitting slumped on our sofa, living our lives vicariously through the activities of others, we should go for a walk, or ride a bike.

Maybe use our phone to, dare I say it, make a voice call?

You decide!

Anyhow, just in case anyone finds this article too gloomy, here are pictures of a rabbit riding a motor-scooter, and a dear little fawn.

Go Well!

Categories
Civil liberties Crime English Culture HEALTH internet Mobile Communications Politics privacy Science Security Society Technology Telecommunications Transport Vehicle Safety Wearable Technology Work

The Internet of Things – Friend or Foe?

Who likes history? If you do, then I invite you to take a little journey with me…

Cast your mind back to the early 1990s.

If you were one of the 10% of the UK population that possessed a cell-phone at that time, then you may well have owned one of these – a Nokia 1610.

The Nokia 1610 Cellular Telephone

It was a simple device – able to make and receive telephone calls, and send and receive text (SMS) messages. I was using this model of phone back then, and at the time it was regarded as one of the top phones available.

It had a tiny screen by today’s standards, and was quite bulky. The antenna, whilst small, was still an intrusion, and would often malevolently jam the phone into my pocket.

In 1996, 27% of the UK population owned a PC (In 2017, 88% of us had a computer at home). Mine was a Packard Bell desktop system that I bought from the now-vanished Dixons.

Packard Bell – The workhorse for the British Public in the mid 1990s, Bought from Dixons, long since gone from our High Streets.

I can’t remember how much the system cost me, but I do remember that I was entitled to a Freeserve email account, which I used for a good few years before moving over to web-based systems such as Outlook, Google or more recently Imail.

My home set-up was ludicrously simple. No passwords, or hunting for that elusive Wi-Fi router.

Just plug the Modem into the network port on the PC, plug the other end into the phone line using an adapter, and the system was ready for use.

Old-School. A dial up modem – Looked cool with flashing lights and that wonderful connection sound

Getting onto the internet though, was a whole different matter. This was the heady days of Dial-Up Internet.

Simply open the web browser, and hit the connect button. The auto-dialler inside the PC would dial the number for the Internet Service Provider, and once connected, you would have been treated to the squeals and squawks of the computers setting up the connection.

Ahh, Yes, I remember something similar!


Once connected, the upload and download speeds were truly awful. I well remember downloading a detailed photograph. It appeared line by line, and eventually, after five minutes or so, I got bored with waiting and went downstairs to make a cup of tea. I came back twenty minutes later – and it was still not finished.

Today, with fibre broadband, images appear almost instantaneously!

The internet was pretty simple too. Basic browsers that contained a multitude of adverts, and rather unsophisticated email. Shopping online was in its infancy – eBay had only been started in 1995.

So, the interconnected world really consisted of a computer, hard wired to a modem, and the embryonic world wide web.

The only real risk attached to surfing the web, was that of unwittingly downloading malicious software (malware) or computer virus.

The first computer virus was designed in the early 1970s. It was created as part of a research programme conducted by BBN Technologies in the USA.

Researcher Bob Thomas designed the programme to be self-replicating and was targeted at DEC computers that shared the ARPANET network. This virus was called Creeper.

Bob and his team then designed a programme called Reaper which, once released into the ARPANET, hunted out the infected machines, and then killed the virus by deleting it.

Obviously, breaking into computers was seen as a target of opportunity to the less honest members of society, and viruses started appearing more frequently.

Some were just mischievous, such as the Elk Cloner virus (written by a ninth grader in a Pittsburgh High School in 1981) which upon its 50th opening would display a poem, the first line of which was “Elk Cloner: The program with a personality.”

Others were more malevolent, and were designed to either destroy records and data from the infected computer, steal personal data, record website access passwords and log keystrokes. Ransomware enables the attacker to hijack a computer, and then demand payment to unlock the machine.

The resulting loss of public confidence saw the arrival of cyber-security, specialist organisations that analysed the emerging viruses, worms, trojans and malware and wrote anti-virus software, which could be loaded onto a computer and which could then subsequently scan it for infection and quarantine any suspect viruses into a part of the disc not readily accessible by the user, or by the system.

Fast-forward to 2021.

The internet has evolved – and BOY has it developed! If you are privileged enough to live in a developed country, you may already be using fibre-optic broadband, offering speeds of up to 1 Gigabit per second.

According to recent UK survey Hyperoptic offer a 1GB service for an introductory offer of £45.00 per month!


This is jaw-droppingly fast. To put it into perspective, it would have taken about 3.5 days to download a 4K film (about 2GB) using a 56kbit dial up service.

My previous broadband was copper-wire based, and the fastest speed I ever achieved for a download was 8Mb/sec – and that same 4K film would have been delivered to me in 35 minutes.

My latest broadband is totally optical and is Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) and my download speed is a minimum of 71Mb/sec – that 4K movie is now mine in about 4 minutes.

One of the major advantages of broadband, is that unlike a dial up service, the system is “always on”. The old modem has been replaced with a router, which essentially does the same job, but additionally acts as a network hub, through which multiple devices may be connected simultaneously.

BT Hub – A home router, Wi-Fi enabled, with 2GHz and 5GHz Channels

Whilst is it possible to connect equipment to the router using a network cable, most routers offer Wi-Fi connection, and this allows several Wi-Fi/internet-enabled devices to connect to the internet simultaneously.

With a sufficiently fast connection, it is possible for SWMBO to watch a movie on Netflix, whilst I catch up with a friend on a video call, or listen to the internet radio.

Why am I rambling on about this?

Well, technological advances never stop, and there is much publicity about the new 5G (5th generation communications network) which will increase the speed and capacity of the internet even further.

In my previous article, “Who is Driving YOUR Car?” I explored the embryonic Intelligent Transport System, which relies on internet-enabled vehicles and sensors in the fixed transport network, communicating with each other to provide optimised traffic flows and traffic safety management.

This is only made possible with 5G communications and ultra-fast internet systems, and the Internet of Things (IoT)

The Internet of Things is the medium through which our emerging “Smart Society” will operate.

In essence, the IoT consists of items that have the capability to connect to the internet, and communicate and exchange data with other similarly enabled things. These “things” may have sensors, software and other systems to support their intended purposes.

It could be a device as simple as a smart lightbulb that is able to be activated by a smart assistant such as Alexa or Siri, or from a suitably equipped smartphone – located perhaps many miles away.

Such items are already used in intelligent Building Management and Control systems, which employ an array of interconnected sensors to monitor heat and humidity, occupancy levels, lighting, lifts (Elevators for my US readers 😁) and security within a building.

Intelligent Healthcare uses the IoT to monitor medical data such as cardiac performance and blood pressure, or blood glucose levels. This enables improved management of an individual’s medical conditions. Significant research is being conducted in this area, and there are already several emerging disciplines and specialities.

The Internet of Things is also used in industry and manufacturing, to monitor and control processes – making use of internet-enabled sensors.

We are now seeing “Smart Homes” being built, which use the same type of Wi-Fi-connected IoT devices to control home environmental systems.

Smart Home hub

I imagine that a fair percentage of you may well be protecting your property with Closed Circuit TV Cameras. It’s probable that most of these cameras will be Wi-Fi-connected to your home broadband – and from there out onto the web.

A Wi-Fi enabled Internet CCTV Camera – A hackers back door into your systems? Photo ©Mark Charlwood

Maybe some of you will have an App on your smartphone or tablet that enables you to remotely view the camera feeds.

Smart speakers such as Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Homepod and Google’s Home are wirelessly connected to home networks, and are continuously monitoring their environment for their wake-up command (such as “Alexa”)

Smart doorbells enable us to see who is at the front door using integral video cameras and transmitting the footage over the internet via the home router and to an app on a smart phone.

Smart appliances, such as Samsung’s Smart Refrigerator now offer us the ability to manage our food.

Smart Fridge – Whatever Next?

An internal camera within the fridge compartment enables the user to view the contents by using a smart phone. The system will also monitor food expiry dates, without the door being opened, thus saving power.

Some models also enable groceries to be ordered via the fridge – a rather redundant feature in my opinion, as you can order your groceries online from your phone, tablet, laptop or PC.

Or, for the truly bold and adventurous – take a risk, and actually go into a shop and buy your groceries.

A large LCD screen is provided in order to display a family calendar, and if you really haven’t got enough tech in your home, it’s also fitted with a 5W Stereo sound system to play your favourite music tracks.

Poor Alexa… She may feel quite outranked by the domestic white goods!

Smart Washing machines are able to connect to the home network, and may be controlled remotely using an app, and are able to automatically sense loads, apply the correct dose of detergent, and add the optimal amount of water.

On some models, the best programme for the laundry load may be selected by filling in a few pieces of information on the app.

I’m sure it won’t be long before your garments will be fitted with a passive RFID tag, or a label barcode, and the machine will scan the items as they are loaded, and then set the correct wash programme.

Should an item that is not compatible with other items in the load be added inadvertently then the machine will inhibit the washing cycle from starting until the guilty culprit is removed.

No more business shirts stained girlie pink then!

Result!

As a society, we are all used to smart watches, and fitness trackers, (which all fall within the scope of wearable technology) and have become very complacent about the interconnectivity with our other tech.

And this is where the real problem lies…

Security MUST be one of your top priorities these days. I have removed my profile permanently from Facebook, as the platform discretely harvests everything I “like” and every comment I make. My preferences and personal data are then sold to other organisations, without my permission and regardless of the ethics involved.

Think about why Google and Facebook are free! There really is no such thing as a free lunch.

Most of you will already be protecting your data and PC behind an encrypted firewall, with passwords, multi-factor authentication, and PIN codes. In all probability, you will be paying for some kind of anti-virus protection which will (hopefully) prevent your data from being compromised.

The IoT makes this a lot more difficult.

The processing power inside some of the connected devices, and to an extent, their size may well prevent them from having all but the most basic of security protection – if any.

The CCTV you bought to protect your home may well be being used by the manufacturer, or a malicious hacker to access a backdoor into your router, from where it can monitor data passing up and down your comms link.


So, all of these innocent devices are hooked to the web via your router.

Lots of individuals I know never both changing the default password supplied with their devices, and will happily discuss bank details, finances, and other personal details within “earshot” of their smart speaker.

So, nasty hacker chap decides to wage an attack on his ex-employer. By harnessing the combined IoT devices of many households, and requiring all of them to connect simultaneously to the target company’s website will cause it to crash.

This is an extreme example of a Distributed Denial of Service Attack (DDoS), where innocent PCs and devices are hijacked to overload the target’s website.

Many large and respected companies have been attacked in this manner, despite having the financial clout and technical expertise to surround themselves with multiple layers of digital security.

In 2017, Google came under a sustained DDoS attack, originating from China, which, according to Google, lasted for up to six months.

In 2020, Amazon Web Services (AWB) was taken down for three days following a similar, yet more sophisticated attack.

Internet security expert Brian Krebs was attacked in 2016, when his website was assaulted by the Mirai botnet, executed by about 600,000 compromised and suborned Internet of Things – such as Internet CCTV cameras, home routers, and other simple IoT devices.

This may be the tip of the iceberg.

Cisco, the internet systems company predicted in its annual report (2018-2023) that sophisticated DDoS attacks will double from the 7.9 million in 2018 to 14.5 million in 2022.

Now the truly chilling bit…

In our increasingly technological world, we rely on the internet in so many ways – from grocery shopping to building control, from home banking to healthcare. Connected vehicles – not just cars, but ships, aircraft, tankers, trains.

As I have said, many of these devices are so simple and un-assuming, that we don’t regard them as a potential threat.

That simple fitness tracker that you wear all the time. The silly old fridge, just sitting there in your kitchen, keeping your food safe and edible. The CCTV that you use to monitor your car in the drive.

The ease and convenience with which you access your bank to pay a bill. The ability to have a video call with your dear old Mum from miles away.

And yet, in the stygian, gloomy murk of the deep, dark web, there lurk hackers, thieves, and criminals. Hackers who are willing to mount cyber-attacks from as little as 7.00 US$ per hour.

Foreign states, and terrorist organisations that are willing – and able – to hijack your IoT devices to wage an attack on society.

Imagine, if you dare – a world where the bad guys can hack into your car, and disable the brakes.

A world in which someone can access your pacemaker, and shut it down…unless you pay a ransom.

A world in which a hacker can eavesdrop on your home, and record everything that you say and do, and record everything about you?

It’s not as far-fetched and dystopian a reality as you think!

Go Well!

Categories
Civil liberties Driving Electric Transport Mobile Communications Motorcycling Motoring Music Nostalgia Science Society Technology Transport Travel Vehicle Safety Vehicles

Who is Driving YOUR Car?

Those of you who are of a “certain age” may well remember the song Car 6-7, the lyrics of which tell the sad story of a taxi driver who has split up from his girlfriend, and is turning down a pick-up from control, as it’s the ex-girlfriend.

That was back in November 1978, and the old-fashioned two-way VHF radios used in taxi cabs have been largely been updated, and to a certain extent have been superseded by smart phones and booking software.

Typical 2-way VHF transceiver as used by mini-cab companies in the 1970s and 1980s

We have all become used to very sophisticated communications systems; Bluetooth earpieces and microphones, Wi-Fi internet connections, cordless phones and smart speakers such as Alexa.

Modern cars are no exceptions. My car has a Bluetooth system that will support two mobile phones; My 2013 motorcycle has the same. 

Very sophisticated.

Well, it was in 2017 when it rolled off the production line in Kvasiny in the Czech Republic.

Kvasiny in the Czech Republic – the home of the Skoda Yeti…

But things are changing fast, and we are now moving into the world of Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS).

ITS is a futuristic totally integrated transport system that uses an infrastructure of sensors, communications links, artificial intelligence and algorithms to monitor and manage traffic flow, safety and incidents. Data collected may also be used to help design safer and more efficient transport systems, which may be optimised for different conditions.

We are already using a very basic kind of ITS; We have CCTV cameras that remotely monitor our motorways and road networks. Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras that are able to identify and trackthe driving behaviour of a specific vehicle, and monitor entry and exit times of vehicles using private car parking facilities.

ANPR and CCTV cameras…

We have under-road systems that monitor the volume and speed of traffic[1] – (You may have wondered about those geometric grids in each lane of the motorway placed at regular intervals?), speed-monitoring enforcement cameras mounted on overhead gantries, and Variable Message Signs (VMSs) 

All of these systems will look like they came out of the stone age when compared with what’s coming very soon.

Intelligent Transport Systems combine data that comes from a variety of sources. 

One of the sources of dynamic data are vehicles that are actually using the road network.

Cars have recently become a lot smarter. My ancient vehicle (4 years old) is just about capable of talking to my smart phone. 

New vehicles will be able to communicate on many different levels.

Imagine, if you will, a car that is able to independently communicate with other, similarly equipped vehicles.This is the most basic system, referred to as V2V

Cars are already fitted with Autonomous Driver Assistance Systems which include obstacle detection, autonomous emergency braking, lane departure warning systems, and adaptive cruise control. See my previous article entitled Autonomous Vehicle Safety Devices – Do you turn YOURS off? for details.

Maybe the car ahead detects an obstacle, and applies the emergency brakes. This information in instantaneously broadcast to all following vehicles, and this in turn allows them to begin braking – before a human driver is even aware that an emergency exists.

Vehicles may also be designed to interact with the infrastructure (traffic signals, traffic density and speed monitors, road condition sensors etc). This is known as V2I. 

A V2V/V2I equipped vehicle starts to lose traction on a wet road, and begins aquaplaning. A message is sent from the vehicle to other vehicles, and also to the fixed highway infrastructure. The infrastructure may then automatically activate warning signs and reduce speed limits accordingly.

This is not science fiction.  This is Science Fact.

Infrastructure sensors that continually monitor the depth of water on the road surface and the road surface temperature already exist, and are integrated into the ITS. 

The UK’s Vehicle and Operator Services Agency (VOSA) have been operating a sophisticated network of subsurface sensors that are capable of accurately detecting overloaded Heavy Goods Vehicles. This system is known as WIMS, short for Weight In Motion Sensors. This uses induction loops and special sensors to detect the weight being carried by each axle of the truck in question. When combined with ANPR cameras, the system will identify the vehicle, and also be able to calculate whether it is overloaded, and whether it is complying with the speed limit.

Other car communications systems enable the vehicle to exchange data with the wider internet of things, and may also inter-exchange with other transport modes. This is known as Vehicle to Cloud (V2C). This would enable a vehicle to be able to communicate with trains, aircraft ships and exchange other relevant data.

Lastly, cars will also be able to communicate with pedestrians. (V2P). This would allow vehicles to update pedestrians on their status, and speed of approach. Such information could be received by the pedestrian by using a smart phone. 

Cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles, farm vehicles and even bicycles will all become part of a communicating interactive network, and ultimately connected to the global internet of things.

Combine the automated on-board driver assistance systems with the benefits of a smart, thinking and proactive transport network, and road safety may show some dramatic improvements.

Currently in the UK, about 40% all vehicle accidents were as a direct result on a driver “failing to see” the other vehicle. 

In our brave new world, your car probably won’t let you pull out of that junction as its already identified an approaching car, assessed the risk, and calculated that there would be a collision! That’s assuming that both cars are V2V/V2I equipped.

Old duffers like me driving a 2017 model will still have to rely on the Mark I eyeball, and the basic training received nearly 45 years ago.

The old saying that the best safety device in a car was a well-trained driver may no longer be true.

Live Long and Prosper…


[1] MIDAS – Motorway Incident Detection and Auto-Signalling. An Induction loops system that senses a vehicles presence using magnetism.

Categories
College Deafness English Culture Mobile Communications Science Technology Trains Transport Wearable Technology

Am I reading the Signs Correctly?

A sign of the times…

A few years ago, I had to attend a meeting in the London offices of the CAA, and rather than pay the congestion charge, and then fight it out with the city traffic, I decided to catch the train to Waterloo, and then use a Boris Bike to cycle the last mile to the office.

Boris Bikes – I love using these! Cheap, and only a seven minute cycle from Waterloo to Work!

It was a lovely sunny morning as I stood on the platform waiting for the 09:09 Liphook to Waterloo service.

The 0909 from Liphook to Waterloo. A mobile office – A mobile reading room…

The carriage that I boarded was almost empty, and I chose a table seat, and sat by the window, and took a sip of my coffee.

I smiled. I had bought my coffee from the young, attractive blonde woman who operated the coffee van outside the station.  

I had flirted outrageously with her, and she had charmingly flirted back, despite the fact that I am probably double her age (at least!). No wonder she always has a queue for coffees. She is always cheerful and happy regardless of the weather. And the coffee is great too, so a win-win for everyone.

The best coffee for a pre-commute journey, and served with a smile and a flirt… what more could a chap want for?

The Liphook train is never in much of a hurry to get to Waterloo. It meanders through Haslemere, Guildford and Woking, stopping at the many small towns and villages that constitute commuter-land.

By the time it clatters into Godalming, my carriage is starting to fill up. In compliance with the average Brits’ reluctance to engage with any strangers, many people passed through the carriage, despite the fact that there were three empty seats at my table.

Eventually, three young women shyly sat with me. I budged over to make room and reassure them, and fished my battered paperback book out of my bag. 

They all pulled files and folders out of their bags, and set them on the table, and busied themselves with their textbooks. Obviously, University of Surrey kids on their way to a lecture.

I returned to my book, and attempted to read, but something was not quite right.

It took me five minutes or so to realise that they were not making much noise, and I surreptitiously glanced over at them.

It suddenly struck me that these young women were all deaf, and were enthusiastically signing to each other – their hands moving constantly; some gestures as soft as butterflies, some more direct chopping movements.

British Sign Language being used to translate the Welsh Assembly’s COVID Briefing.

One of them caught me looking at her, and she fired a smile at me that was as bright as the sunshine pouring into the carriage, and I found myself disadvantaged in not knowing how to respond, and all I could do was offer a grin back. Embarrassing or what?

They departed the train at Guildford, still signing happily. I watched them wandering off up the platform as the train finally decided to recommence it’s groan towards Woking.

This did get me thinking. I had felt quite disconnected from three fellow human beings. If they had required my help, they would have had to write their request down, as I couldn’t sign, and I never heard one of them utter a single word.

I promised myself that I would learn British Sign Language one day.

Well, like most people, one day has still never come, and I still don’t know how to sign. 

Good news is now on the horizon, that will enable those who are unable to hear, to communicate with those that can’t “speak” in sign language.

It’s the white knight of wearable technology to the rescue!

There is now hope for easy communications between those that sign, and those that can’t. The communications barrier has finally been breached!

Recent research published in Nature Electronics shows that wearable technology is able to offer a highly accurate real-time translation of sign language into speech, and delivers translations that are about 99% accurate and with a translation time of less than a second on average.

To put it simply, Yarn-based stretchable sensor arrays (YSSA) are used to track the movements of the hand, and will monitor the position of fingers, thumbs, and the movement of hands through the air. 

These clever sensors are lightweight, cheap and highly sensitive. They offer stretchability and are durable and hard wearing, so they are ideal for incorporation into a wearable tech system.

Using artificial intelligence, and a specifically targeted algorithm it is possible to calculate the underlying meaning of the hand gestures and movements.

To put it simply, the sensor array is woven into a lightweight simplified glove, which flexes with the movement of the hand, fingers and thumbs. The movements of the glove generate electronic signals that are processed by the receiver and then translated into the speech equivalent.

To add even more accuracy, it was possible during the tests to stick a YSSA sensor to the side of the mouth, or near the eye of the wearer to monitor facial expressions, all of which are essential subconscious enhancements to language.

The Yarn-based Stretchable Sensor Array, in the form of a lightweight glove.

All of the data is then transmitted to a very small wirelessly-connected receiver which is worn on the body in an inconspicuous location. Once the data is received, it may be transmitted to a software application on a smart phone, and the “app” will convert the data to human speech and synthesise the words as audible and recognisable speech. 

According to the report, the system is 99% accurate, and has a gesture-to-word processing time of less than one second.

At the moment, the system is in its infancy, and is a bit agricultural to look at, but in time, it is possible that the components will be small enough and discrete enough to be worn confidently by a person with a serious hearing impairment.

It will also ensure that people like me won’t miss out on having our lives enriched by being able to converse easily with someone who signs.

How fantastic is that?

The photo that I have chosen as the cover image, is of a sculture on a wall outside a school for the deaf in Prague.

It translates as “Life is beautiful, be happy and love each other”

The sculture was created by Czech Zuzana Čížkové. Photo by ŠJù under CCA-SA 3.0

Go Well!

Categories
Climate change Driving English Culture Environment Motoring Society Transport Travel Vehicle Safety Vehicles

Staying Safe – Despite the Weather

I was mentally kicking myself. Just over a month previously, I had traded in my 4×4 SUV, replacing it with a 2WD Skoda Yeti. I had been pleased with the Kia Sportage, but despite my care in driving it, the fuel economy was not as good as I had been led to believe.

My Kia Sportage 2 4WD. Nice to drive, but too thirsty!

It was the 1st March 2018. At 1530, I left my office at Aviation House, heading for home. My route from Gatwick Airport was cross country. I could easily have driven home more quickly up the M23, M25 and A3, but at a cost of an extra eleven miles motoring.

Hardly fuel efficient!

Skoda Yeti… Workhorse, paractical and almost 60 miles to the gallon on DERV,

My normal route was a delight. Out through the village that shares my name, and then through Ifield and Rusper, to join the main A264 just east of Horsham.

I would then cut through the back lanes of Broadbridge Heath, and then head south west through Loxwood, and on through Haselemere and from there via Liphook to home.

Storm Emma decided to put paid to that little plan. The snow began to fall; small pellets that danced and pirouetted slowly through the sky until they smacked wetly on the car windscreen.

By the time I got to Loxwood, I was seriously considering the wisdom of my decision to trade the 4×4 in. It was now hurtling down heavily, a swirling white vortex pouring out of a grey and ominous looking cloud.

Traffic speed was decreasing to almost pedestrian speeds, and I was now having to concentrate hard to anticipate the erratic behaviour of other vehicles.

Haslemere was, by this time, totally gridlocked. The snow was now very deep, and it was almost dark.

Haslemere, in Surrey and traffic at a standstill.

I looked at my watch. 1830! I would normally have been home by 1700.

I was beginning to get worried. There were several routes that I could take to get out of Haslemere, but all required me to drive up steep hills, and looking at the developing chaos I had little confidence that I would make it up any of them.

Cars were slaloming down the slightest of inclines, and I witnessed many crashes, and the roadsides were now becoming strewn with crumpled cars,

At 2030, I had managed to travel about 2 miles, so I ended up making the decision to abort my journey, and park up and weather the storm. I knew the decision was correct when I witnessed a Police 4×4 pick-up truck struggling to climb the slight incline. Despite the four wheel drive, its wheels were still slipping.

Surrey Police Ford Ranger 4 x 4 pick up…

I now didn’t feel quite so bad. If a well-equipped emergency services 4×4 couldn’t make it out of the town, then even in my previous 4×4, I wouldn’t have either.

I found a grass verge sufficiently away from the kerb, and drove up and parked, backing up in such a way that a mature tree would offer some protection should someone lose control of their vehicle and depart the carriage way.

I gingerly opened the door into the maelstrom, and crunched my way to the tailgate. Opening it, I dragged out my thick government issue wet weather high viz jacket, and opened my car winter crate.

I decided when I first began commuting long distances across empty countryside to prepare for all eventualities, and so I had previously invested in a large plastic crate, into which I packed my emergency kit. Next to the crate were half a dozen blankets of the type that removal companies use to protect furniture.

A fold-up shovel, a set of jump leads, a pair of work gloves, half a dozen bottles of water, a pair of wellingtons, a torch, and some dried food in the form of energy bars, packs of nuts and chocolate.

Yes…. Lots of chocolate. You can never have too much chocolate in an emergency box.

I selected a handful of bars of chocolate, and a couple of bottles of water. Slamming the tailgate shut, I got back into the drivers seat, and started the engine.

I dialled up maximum heat from the climate control, and switched on the electrically heated seats. Reclining the seat back as far as it would go, I snugged up under the blankets and dozed off.

Haslemere snowed in. Photo Courtesy Ian Underwood.

The temperature outside continued to drop. and I eventually had to start the car every fifteen minutes and run the engine for a while to stay warm.

I slept very fitfully and was wide awake by 0530.

The storm had passed through, and I decided that I would attempt to get home.

I knew that as long as I could get the car moving and maintain a constant speed, I could probably get up the hill, from where I could make my way to the A3, which, I hoped would be open. I knew that once other cars started moving, my chances of a successful escape from Haslemere would revert back to zero.

Even genteel Haslemere loses it’s appeal to a cold and hungry driver.

Starting the car, I eased it into gear, and slowly, ever so slowly accelerated up to about twenty miles per hour. Every so often the wheels would spin, but the plucky little car continued up the hill which I crested without seeing another vehicle on the road.

I did see quite a lot in ditches though, inclding a single decker bus and a police car.

The A3 was closed northbound, but – joy of joys, it was still clear southbound.

Half an hour later I was at home. The first thing I did after having a hot shower and a cup of tea was to start researching for winter tyres.

I have to admit – I had never really considered using winter tyres. I had always thought that they were a hyped up fashion in the UK, as we don’t expereience the extremes of weather that are enjoyed by our continental neighbours.

If you are fortunate enough to live in the United Kingdom, then according to figures I dug out of the Meteorology Office, we only get to “enjoy” snow for 23.7 days per year, and it only lays around for an average of 15.6 days each year.

Winter Tyres – on a Steel Rim. Great for country lanes, potholes and freezing conditions. Image courtesy of FreeImages.co.uk

On this basis, I was started wondering if it would be worth it.

It seems that during the winter in the south east of England (The counties of Kent, Sussex, Surrey Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Hampshire, Dorset and Wiltshire, and London) the winter temperatures sit at around 3℃ in London, down to -0.5℃ on the coast.

There is little difference between snow tyres and winter tyres. Winter tyres are optimised to perform at their best during all types of winter weather, including rain, sleet, snow, and slippery surfaces. Snow tyres may well have studs moulded into the tread to enable better grip in very hostile weather conditions.

Winter tyres are designed to offer their best performance when outside air temperatures are less than 7℃ (45℉) and have a tread design that includes deeper grooves or “sipes”

This makes them ideally suited for a typical British winter. Take November 2019, for example. According to Met Office figures, the average temperature this time last year was 5.3ºC – prime conditions for winter tyres.

Firstly, how can you recognise a winter tyre?

Winter tyres carry a mark on the sidewall which consists of three mountains with a snowflake. This “Three Peak Mountain Snowflake” symbol indicates that the tyre has undergone and passed a specific winter traction performance test.

My somewhat salty, muddy, winter tyre, clearly showing the winter tyre mark Photo Mark Charlwood

In order to perform well under the low temperature, wet and slippery conditions, winter tyres are constructed from carefully blended rubber compounds that are hydrophilic in nature.

These compounds contain more natural rubber, which stays softer at lower temperatures, and helps the tyre to become more “grippy” in wet conditions.

Winter tyres are also narrower than standard tyres; the width of the tread is narrower for the wheel diameter. This reduces the resistance of the tyre as it is driving through snow.

The tyre will also have a deep groove pattern, with many additional smaller grooves known as Sipes that are designed to cut through snow, and improve traction.

Deep grooved tread pattern, clearly showing the sipes and the extra blocks for exerting grip. Photo Mark Charlwood

Tests conducted by the British Tyre Manufacturers Association found that a car braking at 60mph on a wet road at 5 degrees Celsius stopped five metres shorter, equivalent to more than one car length, when fitted with winter weather tyres.

I could see the immediate and obvious benefits of fitting winter tyres.

I started by ringing round the local tyre dealers, to get costs. Most of the dealers were able to supply, at reasonable prices.

What I hadn’t bargained for was the extra costs involved. My normal “Summer” tyres were not worn out. I would need the tyres removed from my rims, and the winter tyres put on. Then, when I needed to change back to the summer tyres, I would need the dealer to remove the winter tyres, and refit them.

As they wouldn’t be fitting a new tyre, they would charge £20.00 +VAT per wheel to switch them. £80, twice a year! And I would have to store the tyres as well.

It was beginning to look costly.

Then I had a brainwave.

What if I bought some steel wheels and had the winter tyres fitted to them?

It would mean my nice Alloys wouldn’t be subjected to the rough conditions (salt, mud, and the risks of hitting potholes, or the verges) and I could change the wheels myself without incurring costs.

Solution found.

Now I hit a potential problem that had me scratching my head.

My car was originally fitted with 17 inch rims. All of the winter tyres quoted for my model of car were 16 inch rims, and a lot narrower.

Whilst Skoda Yetis may be bought new with 16 inch wheels, I was worried that the smaller size would mean the the tyre pressure monitoring system, stability control and anti skid systems would be compromised if I put smaller narrower tyres on.

A quick conversation with the service manager at the local Skoda dealer and I was happy. He explained that whilst the wheel rim was of a smaller diameter, the extra height of the tyre sidewall would ensure the onboard systems wouldn’t have any problems.

I eventually sourced a company on eBay that supplied me with four Continental winter tyres, ready-fitted onto steel rims. They arrived direct from Germany, and it took me about an hour to remove and refit all four wheels.

My experience is good. There is a definite improvement in the handling of the car during braking and cornering in slippery and wet conditions.

Some folk complain of the tyres being noisier than summer tyres, but I haven’t noticed this. The only thing that I do notice, is that the speedometer over reads by about 10% now compared with the GPS (An indicated 77 mph equates to 70 mph GPS true speed) and as a result, my sat nav system calculates my drive to work as 44 miles, but the car trip recorder shows 47 miles.

Not too much of an issue, but I have to remember to deduct 10% of the fuel computer’s range-to-empty figures!

It must be remembered that winter tyres should really only be fitted in about October, and removed in March. Winter tyre rubber compounds do not work well at average spring and summer temperatures, and in many cases, braking will be considerably poorer than those achieved using the original tyres.

Yes, they cost me about £500 to buy, but I am only wearing both sets of tyres out at half the rate, so it was a good investment.

I regard it as an extra piece of insurance.

Stay Safe!