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HEALTH Science Technology Vision Wearable Technology

If You Thought Only Cars Had Anti-Collision Systems – Read On!

The wind was gusty, viciously throwing autumnal leaves into my face. It was almost as if the weather gods were deliberately insulting me, and I sighed as another gust blasted me, this time loaded with fine rain.

I do so love Guildford in October.

I continued to trudge up the hill to the hospital.

The Royal Surrey County Hospital was as busy as ever, and I had left myself plenty of time to get to the fracture clinic. Another trip to see the orthopaedic consultant for an assessment of my shoulder, recently the subject of arthroscopic surgery.

The Royal Surrey County Hospital, Guildford’s Jewel in the Crown

The main entrance to the RSCH is a congested and bustling area. To get anywhere in the hospital, visitors must run the gauntlet of the main corridor, which passes a large Costa Coffee shop, with a generous seating area and further along, a small branch of Marks and Spencer’s.

The crowded Main Entrance corridor in the RSCH, busy as normal

I made my way through to the fracture clinic. I checked myself in, using one of the touchscreens, and then found a seat to park up on.

I pulled a battered paperback book from my jacket pocket. I smiled as I looked at the worn, wrinkled and creased cover. Entitled “Three Cheers For Me” by Donald Jack, it told the story of a young Canadian pilot serving in the Royal Flying Corps in WWI. It’s an excellent read, if you like that sort of thing…

Old and worn, just like it’s owner

I bought this book (and it’s two sibling volumes) from the East Grinstead branch of W.H. Smith in 1974, whilst still at school. I must have read it twenty times over the 47 years I have owned it.

I had just settled into reading, when my attention was caught by a very loud regular clicking, and I turned to see an obviously blind chap, walking into the waiting area. He clearly could not check himself in, so I intercepted him, and offered to help.

I swiftly tapped his details into the check-in system, and found him an empty seat.

I sat next to him, and was about to engage him in conversation, when I was called in to see my specialist.

When I came out some twenty minutes later, he had gone.

I decided to have a quick coffee before leaving, and catch up on some of my book, when I heard the tapping again. I watched as the chap walked slowly down the corridor, his white cane constantly moving in front of him.

Several times he had to stop and on a couple of occasions he was jostled and bumped by others.

Whilst his white stick helped others to identify that he was visually impaired, it didn’t stop him from having to stop frequently whilst he was using the cane to detect obstacles.

The Long Cane in action…

I thought about this.

The white stick has been used by the blind for centuries, and has changed very little over the years. I think the only development is that folding models are now available – but other than that – not a lot.

A Long White Stick. Image by Sarah Chester under CCA 3.0

My curiosity was now piqued. I would explore what additional assistance was available to help visually impaired members of society during their daily lives.

I decided to specifically exclude guide dogs, as not all visually impaired individuals are fortunate enough to have one

I did, however, make the assumption that all will have a white stick to signify their level of impairment.

Having researched and written several articles on wearable and medical technology, I was very interested to find that there have been some developments in assistance for the visually impaired, or the completely blind.

Even more surprising was that it uses technologies that are direct spin-offs from aerospace and automotive technology.

It seems that a team of researchers at Stanford University have developed a prototype “Smart Cane”.

The Smart Cane developed by researchers at Stanford University

Using LIDAR1 , the cane can detect and identify obstacles in the path of the walker, and lead them around them safely

The tip of the cane contains an omni-directional powered wheel, controlled by a lightweight onboard computer.

The computer uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) and specialised algorithms to analyse the incoming obstacle data. It then calculates which is the best way for the person to be led to avoid the obstacle. The powered wheel is then directed to the correct position, and the motor will then drive the wheel. This causes the tip of the cane to move left or right, giving steering guidance to the user.

The stick is also equipped with other sensors which refine the guidance.

It has a GPS receiver, accelerometers, magnetometers and gyroscopes. The data from the additional sensors may be used to analyse posture, gait, speed, acceleration and deceleration and may also be used to programme a route to be followed, say to the local pub, shopping centre or gym.

Further refinements will no doubt be possible, such as using a smartphone as the processor, and maybe linking in other technology such as overall health monitoring.

Despite all the technology, the smart cane only weighs 1.3Kg (3 pounds), but remember, this is a prototype!

It is anticipated that such a cane could be available from about US 400$ (£290.00 as of 21st October 2021)

Another research group operating out of Harvard are working a slightly different angle on helping the visually impaired.

Currently, someone who is visually impaired, or blind, will carry a long white cane as their only aid in avoiding collisions. The smart cane is designed to reduce their collisions by actively leading them right or left using LiDAR as the primary detection tool.

The Harvard team are using optical technology to reduce collision risks amongst the visually impaired.

The alternative system uses a single video camera fitted with a wide-angle lens that is connected by Bluetooth to two wrist bands.

An electronic image processor, in a self-contained unit, is worn in a small backpack and the camera unit is mounted centrally on the chest strap of the backpack.

As the individual walks, the built in AI software analyses the streaming video footage, and uses algorithms to calculate the risk of a collision using real-time data on the relative movement and trajectories of approaching and surrounding objects.

If a collision risk is detected on the left side of the wearer, then the left wristband will vibrate. A risk on the right will cause the right wristband to vibrate, and should the risk be assessed as a potential head-on collision, both wristbands will vibrate.

The system is sufficiently sophisticated to only provide alerts for dynamic risks, and will ignore any other moving objects that do not pose a risk of collision.

A study concluded that the use of such a system reduces collision risks by about 37%!

The research, was published in Investigative Ophthalmology and Visual Science (IOVS)

Wearable technology, or in this case, portable technology can prove to be of great benefit to those that are less able, and to allow them to navigate their way around an increasingly crowded world.

Brave New World?

You decide.

Go Well…

[1] LIDAR – Acronym for Laser Imaging Detection and Ranging, which measures distance by transmitting a light pulse towards a target, and calculating the time for it to be reflected to the transmitter, allowing distance to be precisely calculated.

Categories
HEALTH internet Mobile Communications Science Technology Wearable Technology

Sweat-Powered Health Monitors? Whatever Next?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s a lot of trust, folks!

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are now developments that make this unnecessary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sweat-Powered Electronic Skin Image Credit – Caltech

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Triboelectric Generator Prototype. Image Credit Caltech

This is known as a “Triboelectric Generator”.

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

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

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

Brave new world?

You decide.

Go Well.

*University of California Los Angeles

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Categories
Ecological education Electric Transport English Culture Environment Motoring Science shipping Technology Transport Vehicle Safety Vehicles

Do You REALLY Understand Your Car?

Traditionally, the predominantly male operators of any form of transport craft confer a female personality to their vehicles. Down at a south coast yachting marina recently, I heard a proud owner boasting to a friend, saying “She’s truly beautiful”.

Pilots, including me, refer to their aircraft as “She”. “She flies nicely”, or “She doesn’t like being thrown about”, “She needs a touch of power when rounding out to land”.

Who could argue that She is beautiful. Supermarine Spitfire showing her elegance. Image courtesy Airwolfhound under CCA SA 2.0

It’s the same with cars, and it’s common to hear people, including women, referring to their cars as “She”. Before I get angry comments from my lady readers – yes, I am aware that many women own male cars, some that I know even name them.

The tradition of referring to a vessel as “She” goes back to ancient times. Nowadays, people may consider that this is somehow sexist, and objectifies women.

I prefer to believe that it’s more fundamental than that. Our early mariners were a superstitious bunch, and believed that the ship in which they sailed would offer protection and guidance, in much the same way that a mother or goddess would.

I refer to my aircraft as a “She”, as in my eyes she is elegant, pleasing to the eye, and demands to be treated with respect.

Today, there appears to be another reason.

Now, be honest. How many of you chaps out there believe that you don’t understand the woman in your life? How many long-suffering ladies out there are stupefied with their blokes’ methods and logic?

I have been happily with SWMBO for over three decades, but there are times when I am truly and utterly baffled by her. I know for sure that she experiences the same sense of bewilderment with my behaviour.

You may be wondering where this is going, but stay with me, dear reader.

If, like me, you own and operate, say, a five-year-old car, it will be fitted with some basic driver assistance systems. My car has rear parking sensors and steerable headlights. That’s it. Nothing fancy. It has standard Cruise Control, and an anti-lock braking system, like the one fitted to my previous 2002 Skoda Octavia.

If you decide to invest in a new car today, be prepared to be a little baffled by its behaviour and systems. (New cars are definitely female!).

In a previous article, I mentioned the Automated Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) that are fitted to modern vehicles.

It’s likely your new pride and joy will be fitted with Adaptive Cruise Control, Lane Keeping Assistance, Blind Spot Monitoring, Autonomous Emergency Braking, Collision Avoidance Systems, Driver Alertness Monitoring, 360º Cameras and Intelligent Parking Aids.

To make the best use of these systems, drivers need to fully understand how they operate.

A few months ago, I decided to evaluate electric cars. I arranged to test drive cars provided by three of the main manufacturers, Kia, Nissan and MG.

Now, bearing in mind that all the vehicles I tested were fitted with some sophisticated systems, you would have thought that a full tutorial or some guidance would be offered by the salesmen before they let me loose on the road in one of their expensive cars.

Not quite.

All the dealers involved were more than happy to show me the boot space, and the clever stowages and storage areas, and gave me a very brief explanation of how to interpret the instruments and how to use the infotainment system, but not one discussed any elements of the ADAS in any real detail at all.

Luckily, I had conducted quite a bit of prior research, so I had a reasonable idea of how to change the level of regenerative braking, and how to use the different driving modes. However, there were many systems that, whilst I knew they were there, I had no idea how to configure them.

I have several friends who have recently purchased new cars, and when picking up their new vehicles, each one received no real training on how to use the systems correctly and effectively.

I have considered this, and it seems that this presents a bigger problem than I initially thought.

After collecting their new car from the dealer, proud owners will drive their new vehicle home, and maybe they will find the time to sit and wade through the Driver’s Handbook or Owner’s Manual. The onus is very much on them to gain understanding of the plethora of safety systems that their car is now loaded with.

More mature drivers, such as myself, will fall back on our “What’s to learn” mentality. We have grown up with cars fitted with few safety systems – maybe embryonic energy absorbing crumple zones, and collapsible steering columns. This is flawed thinking!


We had relatively unsophisticated in-car entertainment – maybe a push button radio, or a radio cassette player if we were driving a more luxurious model. I can remember being delighted with the fact that my first company car was fitted with a proper heated rear window and a fitted rear wash/wipe system.

Our cars were so simple that we just picked up the use of what systems we had as we drove. I think my biggest challenge was remembering on which side of the steering column the indicator control was located. The first few days of driving was always entertaining, with me switching the wipers on before making a turn!

So, for drivers of my generation, it is possible that we have a degree of complacency about the new systems, and maybe we don’t bother to sit down and read the book. (I do, but then I’m a bit geeky, having been a flight technical instructor for the past two decades!).

That may not be a good attitude to have these days.

In my world of professional aviation, we frequently refer to human factors, and even have training sessions on how simply being human affects the way in which a pilot interacts with an aeroplane.

There is a lot of automation on a modern aircraft flight deck. Autopilot, Auto Throttles, Flight Control Computers, Flight Management Computers, Automated Anti-Collision Systems, Ground Proximity Warning Systems, and Electronic Checklists and Diagnostics.

All of these systems must be understood, reacted to correctly, and effectively managed by the flight crew.

Despite high levels of safety-related automation, there are still incidents involving the crew falling asleep in flight, and flying past their destination. We still hear of aircraft being landed at the wrong airfields.

The same human factors will come into play in our increasingly automated cars.

There have been numerous reports of Tesla cars being involved in colliding with emergency vehicles whilst the Autopilot was engaged.

Most definitely human factors incidents, as the drivers simply assumed that the car was infallible, and therefore mentally disengaged and stopped supervising the on-board equipment.

A study by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) clearly showed that once drivers had engaged the Autopilot (or Adaptive Cruise Control) their focus of attention changed, and they spent much longer looking inside their cars, than paying attention to the road ahead.

Sometimes, drivers disengage to the point of falling asleep!

See this video of a Tesla driver, cruising and snoozing!

As a result, Nissan, at least, has incorporated what it calls an Intelligent Driver Alertness System. This system monitors the driver’s inputs to the steering wheel, and, using algorithms, it can predict the onset of tiredness and inattention. As arousal levels reduce, the chances of an accident increase, so the system suggests taking a break.

Screenshot of the Arousal Monitor. Wish my car would invite me for a coffee…

When I learned to drive, before making any manoeuvre, the mantra was “Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre”. That has become ingrained behaviour, reinforced with 44 years of driving and in the region of 1.1 million miles travelled.

Wow! I have never worked that out before.

As a result, before lane changing, I always throw a quick glance in the door mirror. I have also ridden motorcycles for many years, so I can’t get out of the habit of looking over my shoulder as well.

If all is clear, I change lanes. Lots of people don’t do this and I have had to brake heavily to avoid being sideswiped on several occasions.

Interestingly, the Blind Spot Monitoring (BSM) systems being fitted to cars now are really good. You may be lucky enough to drive such a car, and, in many cases, the door mirror contains an indicator that turns amber when another vehicle intrudes into the safety zone, and turn red if a collision would result in the driver changing lanes.

Another piece of research studied the rates of lane-changing accidents across 26 US States. It found that accidents causing an injury were reduced by 23% in vehicles fitted with BSM systems.

If every US vehicle in 2015 had been fitted with BSM, it is estimated that 50,000 accidents and 16,000 injuries could have been avoided!

The other aspect of Blind Spot Monitoring is that used when parking or reversing. Now, I use all three mirrors, even though my car has a rudimentary parking aid that sounds a tone with increasing frequency as I reverse closer to a solid object – including a person, although I have never tried this.

Now, a further study has shown that the drivers of cars fitted with rear view cameras and sensors do not look to the sides of their vehicle before commencing reversing manoeuvres

Surprisingly, the use of rear-view monitoring cameras only reduced accidents involving “reversing into or over something” (maybe a person??) by 17%.

Still, a 17% reduction, is better than no reduction at all.

So, it all boils down to training and gaining an understanding of the equipment fitted to our cars.

I decided to check what the UK Driving Syllabus includes for cars and light vans (Class B Vehicles).

What I found was of interest.

As the document is undated, but is on the government’s assets publishing service site, as at October 2021, I assume it is a current piece of guidance.

I quickly reviewed it, and found two main concerns.

Firstly, it only mentions one Automatic Driver Assistance System, and that is Cruise Control.

Secondly, it focuses totally on driving a fossil fuel-powered vehicle.

Not a single mention of electric cars.

I do understand that they haven’t been around for very long – I mean, the Nissan Leaf has only been on the road since 2010, and what’s eleven years when you are setting the standards for people to learn to drive?

Sarcasm aside, there must be a need to teach new generations of drivers about the features, advantages and benefits of their vehicle’s on-board safety systems.

Maybe they should also be teaching students about the limitations of both those very same on-board systems, and their limitations as a human being.

You decide…

Go Well.

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

What Do Mars and Bicycles Have in Common?

It’s a lovely day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I digress…

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

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

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

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

Well…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now the good news!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Make it so!”

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

[1] National Aeronautics and Space Administration

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

Power Generating Flooring? What a load of Rot…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That old house is etched into my brain indelibly.

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

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

Simple but effective – a simple spring steel flint lighter.

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

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

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

I remember being intrigued with the way it worked.

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

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

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

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

There is a link, believe me.

So, back to sustainability.

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

Timber stacked ready to be turned into a house

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go Well.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, 3 hours!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No man is an island… Or is He?

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

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

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

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

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

There are several aspects to this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Very clever!

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

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

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

So…

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

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

You decide!

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

Go Well!

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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…