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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…

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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

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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!

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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!

Categories
Aircew airlines aviation Climate change Econonomy Environment Flight pilots Science Technology Transport Travel Uncategorized Vehicles Work

Greening Aviation – Not as Simple as it Sounds

According to recent research conducted by the University of Reading in the UK, many tonnes of fuel could be saved by airlines, (and therefore many tonnes of greenhouse gases) if they planned to always fly in favourable winds whilst crossing the Atlantic.

The study found that commercial flights between New York and London last winter could have used up to 16% less fuel if they had made better use of the fast-moving winds at altitude.

New satellites will soon allow transatlantic flights to be tracked more accurately while remaining a safe distance apart. This opportunity could allow aircraft to be more flexible in their flight paths, in order to more accurately follow favourable tailwinds and avoid headwinds, offering the aviation sector a cheaper and more immediate way of cutting emissions than through advances in technology.

The report stated: “Current transatlantic flight paths mean aircraft are burning more fuel and emitting more carbon dioxide than they need to”.

“Although winds are taken into account to some degree when planning routes, considerations such as reducing the total cost of operating the flight are currently given a higher priority than minimising the fuel burn and pollution.”

Boeing 747-400 pulling Contrails at high altitude. This fabulous photo was taken by Sergey Kustov

This needs to be put into context.

Way back in time, I used to create flight plans professionally. This was done by hand and was sometimes quite time consuming, and required careful study of aeronautical charts, upper air weather, including icing levels, and any forecast areas of turbulence.

A Transatlantic Chart showing the Entry and exit waypoints for the North Atlantic Track System

The charts would also be checked to see the locations of forecast Jetstream activity.

A quick explanation here about Jetstreams.  Jetstreams are caused by two factors. Firstly, solar heating, which causes massive air movements, combined with the effects of the earth’s rotation (The Coriolis Effect).

Image courtesy of NASA

At lower levels, these air movements are known as Trade Winds, and two hundred years ago, clipper sailing ships used them very effectively to transport goods relatively quickly around the globe, hence the name.

Most weather phenomena is generated in the troposphere, which extends from the surface up to high altitude (30’000 feet at the poles, and 56,000 feet at the equator), and it is at these upper levels that we find the jetstreams.

Jetstreams are defined as winds with a minimum speed of more than 70 knots (80 mph), and often they may exceed 220 knots (250 mph) and so it makes economic sense to make use of them.

This has been recognised by the aviation airspace regulators, and specific routings that take advantage of the jetstreams have been in place for many years.

Typical Jetstream activity over Euope.

Each night, weather data for trans-oceanic flights is analysed, and tracks are optimised to use the flows sensibly.

Flights crossing the Atlantic use a system known as NATS (North Atlantic Track System). In simple terms, a number of tracks are generated for both easterly and westerly traffic that will enable aircraft to benefit from a tailwind, or at least a reduced headwind.

These tracks will move north and south over the Atlantic according to the weather and the predicted positions of jetstreams; sometimes tracks will start to the north of Scotland, and terminate in the far north east of Canada.

On other occasions tracks will run to the south of the UK, and cross the southern part of the north Atlantic joining the continental air route systems as far south as the Canadian/US Border.

Typical NAT Tracks. Westerly tracks, showing available flight levels for each alphabetically-identified track.

So, flights across the Atlantic already have some basic fuel saving principles built in advance. The same system operates for flight crossing the Pacific Ocean, known as PACOT tracks.  They run between the western seaboard of the USA and Japan and Asian destinations.

However, times move on, and grey-haired aviation expertise has been replaced in almost every arena with technology.

Modern computer-based flight planning systems are extremely sophisticated, and use some advanced algorithms to plan with even better accuracy.

Consider this.

Every nation has the right to charge a fee to every aircraft that uses its airspace. Airspace charges may be based on the time that the flight remains within that state’s territory.

So, modern flight planning systems will look at every aspect of the flight. It will perform calculations that compare fuel burn with overflight charges.

Sometimes, whilst flying in a Jetstream will burn less fuel, it may mean that the flight will pass through airspace with relatively expensive overflight charges. If the overflight charges amount to more than the cost of fuel, then the system will plan to use the cheaper route, and therefore save money overall.

Airlines also use a system known as Cost Index to further optimise the flight costs.

This is basically a system that compares the direct operating costs of the flight, with the cost of the fuel being used. If the direct operating costs (crew wages, navigation charges, cost of galleys and airframe hours – affecting the amount of maintenance required) are more than the cost of fuel, the system will plan to fly faster, burning more fuel in order to get on the ground faster. Conversely, if the fuel is more expensive than the direct operating costs it makes sense to fly slower, burning less fuel.

Airlines are extremely cost conscious, and low-cost carriers will do everything they can to reduce and eliminate costs wherever possible. For example, Ryanair removed paper safety cards as they wear out and need replacing. Now, their safety information is riveted to each seatback.

Ryanair Boeing 737 – and Safety Cards riveted to the seatbacks!

Some carriers do not serve peanuts, as if they drop into the seat mounting rails, they take time to remove, and time is money.

So, persuading airlines to always optimise their routes and use high speed Jetstreams to the fullest extent may take some time.

Stay Safe…

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Are We Being Ripped Off For Our Spectacles?

I was in my mid-thirties when I decided that I would make flying my profession, rather than a hobby. As I thought that there was no point in training for a Commercial Licence, I was going for the full monty – the Airline Transport Pilot Licence.

Being a naturally cautious person, I read up on the CAA’s Class One medical requirements, and thought that I would meet most of them, but before wasting the not inconsiderable fee, I decided to have an eye test at my local opticians.

It turned out that I needed some correction, as I was astigmatic, so I duly ordered two sets of spectacles (as required under the CAA regulations). Luckily, my eyes have remained relatively stable for many years, and I only needed infrequent changes.

When I did need a change of lenses, I used this as an opportunity to buy new frames – not that I am a dedicated follower of fashion – just that as my hair decided to part company with me, aviator-style teardrop glasses looked a bit odd.

As the years have gone by, my hairline has stabilised at what us aviation professionals describe as “bald as a billiard ball” but my prescription now changes much more regularly, with presbyopia adding to my astigmatism.

Why am I telling you this?

Well, it’s about waste, and sustainability.

I attended my annual sight test at the local branch of a well-known high street optician and, as expected, my prescription had changed, and I needed some additional correction.

Now, I paid a lot of money, relatively speaking, for my last set of glasses, and the frames were comfortable, lightweight, and suited me, as they sat comfortably under aviation headsets, and weren’t uncomfortable whilst wearing a motorcycle helmet.

“May I have these frames re-glazed with my new lenses?” I asked the sales assistant.

“Let me check” she responded, tapping away at her keyboard. Frowning, she looked up at me, saying “I’m sorry, but it’s more expensive to re-glaze your glasses than to buy a new pair.”

“These frames are only two years old!” I exclaimed, “and I like these ones.”

She squinted at the arm of the glasses, reading the name off. A flurry of further whacking on the keyboard, and she eventually looked up. “Good news – the frame is still a current model.”

“OK” I said. “How much?”

“”Well, for the first pair, with all of the lens options (Varifocals with photochromic tinted lenses, and anti-glare and anti-scratch coatings), it comes to £407, and the second pair with a plain lens is £165.00”

I thought about this for a Nano-second.

“No.” I said firmly. I needed to think about this.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

So, if spending almost six hundred quid on new glasses was the cheap option, and reglazing was more expensive, then I would consider cheaper frames. I didn’t have the time to select alternative frames that wouldn’t cost the equivalent of the GDP of a small country, so thanking the staff, I left to return home.

I thought about the incredible waste going on here. A perfectly good frame essentially being scrapped. Maybe this was a cosy arrangement with the opticians as the frames were their own brand and they were effectively influencing customers to buy new frames. New frames = better turnover = more profit.

A few days later, I was sitting at my laptop with a mug of tea in my hand, idly watching two Robins fighting in the garden. I realised that I was squinting, so I slipped my glasses on, which improved things a lot, but not 100%. This reminded me that I needed to do some research into the wastefulness of planned obsolescence in the optical trade.

It wasn’t long before I discovered that there is a solution.

I came upon a website called Lensology. Previously known as Reglaze My Glasses, this company specialises in fitting new prescription lenses into existing frames.

The company have no retail outlets, and are in fact an optical laboratory, producing lenses for the optical industry.

A bit of background here – consider this; The Association of British Dispensing Opticians reports that about 3.2 million pairs of glasses (which were no longer adequate due to prescription changes) were collected by their members annually. ABDO no longer collects them as the charity to which they were sent can’t make their collection financially viable any longer. Even so that is a lot of glasses.

Suppose that the average cost of a pair of glasses is £150. A staggering £450 million being thoughtlessly discarded.

Many spectacle frames are plastic, and contribute to the problem of global pollution and climate change.

Since 2010, a charity called Vision Aid Overseas collected these spectacles, which were then processed in order to raise funds for improving eye health in developing nations, such as Africa.

This would include recovering precious metals such as gold from spectacle frames, selling on appropriate frames to vintage and retro outlets, and recycling the other components such as lenses, and the metallic parts.

This was until august of this year, when the scheme stopped due to being economically unviable.

As a result, VAO report that many people will now just dispose of their redundant spectacles by throwing them in the refuse.

So, I decided to act, and get my perfectly adequate frames re-glazed with my new prescription.

Lensology’s process is ridiculously simple.

I registered on-line, and within a couple of days they sent me a flat packed cardboard box in the post. Filling in the enclosed form, I selected my lens type and my personal options (Varifocals, photo-chromic, together with anti-glare and anti-scratch coatings). and a copy of my optical prescription. The last thing was to email the company a photograph of me wearing my spectacles in order that they could measure my inter-pupil distance. This ensures that the glasses will be a perfect match.

I then put two frames into the box, and using their Freepost address, I popped it into the post.

The next morning, I received a friendly email from one of the staff at Lensology, who informed me that they had received my frames, and including a quote for the re-glazing of my frames.

The quote was exceptional. I could have my primary glasses with all the bells and whistles and a spare with just a plain varifocal lens for £334.75!

A saving of £237.25

I immediately placed the order, paying online, and a few days later, received my glasses.

The glasses were an excellent fit.

And the best surprise?

Inside the box, was a handful of chocolates.


This is, without doubt, the best way forwards. No waste, money saved, and chocolate.

Go well.

Mark Charlwood © 2020