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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

For Editorial Services contact: bluestarfishoffice@gmail.com

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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!

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 Ecological Environment HEALTH internet Mobile Communications Science Technology Uncategorized Work

Mobile Communications – The Big Question Part 2

What to believe?

Whilst researching for my previous article covering the climate change impact of mobile communications, I came across further research which claims that mobile communications enables an overall reduction in Mega tonnes of CO2 equivalents per year (mtCO2e/yr).

Very odd.

My previous article presented facts that appeared to prove that the ever-increasing use of smartphones and mobile technology communications was responsible for contributing millions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere.

It would be useful to define mobile communications at this point. It covers quite a wide range of systems including mobile telephone networks, public Wi-Fi networks, Wide Area Networks, and Satellite networks.

To be fair, most of the carbon footprint was directly related to the extraction of materials and the subsequent production of the technology itself. The remaining contribution was as a result of the use of the equipment and the supporting infrastructure, such as powering data processing centres and the associated communications networks.

The research appeared to take no account of the societal changes caused by the use of such disrupting technology, and the reduction in the carbon footprint of mobile communications.

The counter arguments presented in this article are as convincing and fact-based as the arguments that mobile communications are climate change’s bad guys.

According to a report commissioned by The Carbon Trust, the use of mobile communications actually leads to an abatement of the carbon emissions generated by the use of that technology – approximately five times as much carbon emissions are abated as the emissions generated.

That’s quite a factor.

Use of mobile communications in the EU and the USA is currently enabling a reduction of about 180 million tonnes of CO2 equivalence per year – an amount greater than the annual carbon emissions generated by the Netherlands.

Part of the UK Mobile Communications Network

So how does this pay-off happen?

A significant percentage of the total reduction in COe – about 70%, is generated by what is known as Machine to Machine (M2M) systems.

Mobile communications have enabled our infrastructure to become “smart”.  

“Smart” buildings are fitted with several types of systems, such as those that monitor occupancy levels and turn lighting on or off as needed, and control heating, ventilation and temperatures according to programmed levels. Sensors fitted throughout the building communicate wirelessly to the controller to enable precise control of energy use and therefore costs.

In some cases, several buildings may be communicating with a server-controller located remotely, and if this is the case, it is likely that the internet or the cellular communications system may be the data carrier.

This type of technology is not limited to just commercial premises.

Flick through some of the glossier housing magazines, and you will find references to “smart homes”

Smart homes are designed and built to encompass the latest control systems. Many household systems may be configured and controlled using nothing more than a standard smart phone using simple software.

Owners of a smart home may be able to control heating, unlock or lock doors, operate lighting, close or open curtains, respond to the doorbell, play music, or switch the TV on or off.

A Typical Smart Home kit, with Heat Control, Lighting, Doorbell and Power Sockets

Some systems will have algorithms that learn the users tastes and preferences and will detect when the house has become un-occupied, and will back off the heating, and control lighting as needed.

This is often accomplished by the detection of system-recognised mobile phones. When the mobile phone(s) leaves the home for more than the programmed time period, the system decides that the house is now un-occupied.

When the homeowner leaves work and gets within a predefined distance or time from home, the phone will autonomously communicate with the house, and the system can put the heat on, close the curtains, put the lights on, and be playing music on the owners’ arrival.

So, whilst data is being exchanged (at an environmental cost) the more intelligent use of power and energy compensates for this. In the world of commerce and business the savings may be truly on an industrial scale.

Local Authorities also benefit from M2M communications and are able to control street lighting and municipal lighting based on pedestrian or vehicular activity. Street lights may be able to communicate with each other and be able to adjust to lower light levels when there is no detected activity. This not only conserves energy, but also prevents light pollution from degrading the night time landscape.

Smart Street Light, fitted with LEDs and clearly showing communications antennae. And Three Pigeons

Some towns have introduced smart refuse bins, which communicate their fill state to the local authority waste processing system. This enables real-time assessment of refuse collection requirements and enables collections to be scheduled only when needed. This has the net effect of making the collection of household waste much more efficient, saves money, and reduces the number of truck journeys made.

A Smart Refuse Bin, capable of sending it’s status to the Waste Collection System

Furthermore, intelligent use of M2M enabled traffic signals can change sequencing according to traffic levels and ease delays, in turn reducing the emissions levels from vehicle exhausts. In the future, as vehicles become internet enabled, they will be able to communicate directly with both the infrastructure and each other, leading to more efficient use of the road system, lowering fuel requirements and hopefully reducing accidents.

Traffic Signal capable of interacting with other signals at other junctions to improve traffic flows.

Mobile Communications has really come of age with faster, secure networks that have enabled a huge number of individuals to work at home.

According to the Office of National Statistics (UK) in January 2014 there were about 4.2 million people working remotely – an impressive 14% of the UK’s workforce. That’s a good few cars and their associated emissions taken off the road.

With growth in the self-employed “gig economy” the number of people working from anywhere (WFA) is bound to have expanded, which is good for the environment, and better for both the employer and the employee[1]

Working From Anywhere – All that’s needed is a Tablet or a Laptop and an internet connection
Photo by Snapwire on Pexels.com

Using mobile communications, it is possible to attend meetings remotely, using systems such as Skype, which are sophisticated enough to enable delegates to share their computer screens with other team members working at the office or from home.

Mobile comms also cuts down on wasted paper, saving trees. Simple smartphone-based apps enable an employee to submit their expenses remotely, simply taking photos of receipts, and submitting them electronically.  This reduces postage costs, as well as saving paper and time.

The rapid acceptance of smartphones and their associated technologies, has also stimulated behavioural changes in people’s personal lives.

Today, an average person may unwittingly reduce their carbon footprint by using video calling to talk to friends and family. In many cases this saves a time consuming drive to each other’s homes.  It’s not quite the same as visiting, but enables better use of time, and again, takes another polluting journey off the road network.

Mobile comms also impacts on the provision of healthcare.

Individuals with serious and chronic health problems will often require frequent visits to hospitals and clinics in order to monitor their conditions, or to discuss their symptoms with a healthcare professional.

Personal Health Monitor linked to a Smartphone

Smart phones and wearable technologies such as smart watches and fitness trackers are already beginning to enable a far more consistent capture of healthcare data. Suitable software programme can then transmit this over the mobile networks to the individual’s doctor.

Wearable Technology is getting evermore sophisticated…

Whilst this may not have a huge impact at current levels, as this become more accepted in the medical community, it will save journeys to hospitals, for both patients and visitors. It also enables patients to be potentially cared for at home rather than in hospital, which reduces consumption further.

Even agriculture and forestry benefits from the use of mobile communications.

Arable farmers may make use of smartphone and laptop-based systems to monitor crop conditions and target which areas of fields may require dressing with fertiliser. Natural fertiliser is an animal by-product which subsequently releases methane into the atmosphere.

Smartphone App to pre- plan an Aerial Survey conducted by a Drone linked to the Smartphone itself!

Applying less fertiliser and targeting it where it’s needed is far more effective and eco-friendly than just applying a regular amount onto a crop that may not need it. This also saves runoff from fields polluting the water table – so a double benefit!

Animal farmers are already using smart apps that monitor the health of pregnant cattle, and herds may be monitored by GPS trackers – all enabled by mobile communications. This allows farmers to reduce veterinary call-outs, and simplify herding journeys, saving both time, money and the environment.

Moo Monitor – A mobile based animal health monitor.

Having researched the information from both sides, my personal jury is still out on this subject. It has to be borne in mind that the report produced by the Carbon Trust was supported and funded by EE, BT, Telefonica (Who own O2 in the UK, and provide mobile comms globally) and Vodafone.

I am, however, a firm supporter of reducing traffic wherever and however possible, and working remotely using mobile comms is an obvious way to do this.

Go Well…


[1] A key takeaway from our research is that if a work setting is ripe for remote work – that is, the job is fairly independent and the employee knows how to do their job well – implementing WFA (working from anywhere) can benefit both the company and the employee” The Harvard Business Review