Rural residents angry at slow broadband speeds burn effigy of BT van

November 6th, 2017 no comment

Each year, Templeton chooses a different theme for its Bonfire Night celebrations. This year, they chose to attack the telecommunications company they hold responsible for their poor connectivity. Working from one resident’s barn, they painted a 2D effigy of a BT Openreach van – considerably larger than the real thing – and crossed out the “open” on its side, replacing it with “won’t” to read “won’t reach”.

Many people living in the hamlet must cope with broadband speeds of less than 1Mbps. This highly restricts what residents are able to do online; such limited speeds make streaming music and video impractical.

Robert Linden, a resident, told BBC News that Templeton residents were told three years ago that the issue of slow connectivity would be given consideration, although no actions have been taken since.

“[BT] managed to get a cable to the nearby hamlet of Nomansland, but just eight kilometres further and there’s nothing,” Linden said. “It’s incompetence of the first order.”

“But we all had a great evening watching the bonfire.”

According to BT, it is a major challenge to carry out installation of fibre broadband in rural areas and it has been working to find means of delivering appropriate broadband speeds to Templeton.

“Templeton is an extremely rural community which makes rolling out fibre broadband much more challenging,” a BT spokesperson said in a statement. “Templeton was not included in Openreach’s commercial rollout of fibre broadband or the first phase of the Connecting Devon and Somerset partnership, but we’re working hard to find alternative ways of bringing faster broadband to residents.”

BT reported that its engineers had surveyed the area to determine whether faster connectivity could be brought to Templeton. It also said that Templeton residents had signed up to the company’s Community Fibre Partnership program and that it was looking at a mobile broadband solution with EE and other partners to deliver 4G to the area.

British broadband has come under heavy criticism for its slowness and unpredictability. People living in rural parts of the UK have suffered particularly badly from poor broadband speeds compared to urban populations. In June, residents of Altnaharra and Skerray, remote communities in the Scottish Highlands – fed up with speeds of 0.5Mbps – took to helping with the installation of new cables themselves.

Homes suspended over railway lines could solve London’s housing crisis

November 2nd, 2017 no comment

The report, Out of Thin Air, states that modern engineering techniques could be used to construct apartment blocks directly above rail, Overground and Underground lines.

Hectares upon hectares of land could be created in even some of the capital’s most densely populated areas the report states.

For example, it estimate that a minimum of 1,000 new homes could be provided at Victoria.

“The station, the airspace above its tracks and approaches and nearby sites have significant potential for mixed use intensification, capitalising on enhancement to the public transport interchange and improvements to accessibility and capacity,” said Bill Price, strategic growth director with report authors WSP.


Aerial shot of area around Victoria Station


Victoria Station following completion of above-track accomodation

Research from the report identified all rail tracks in Transport for London’s (TfL) fare zones 1-6 where there were no breaks in the track made by tunnels, roads or bridges and where there was ten metres of available land on both sides.

This would allow for the development of 100m² apartments in buildings rising to 12 storeys. If a conservative 10 per cent of this total was delivered it would provide 250,969 new homes.

The London boroughs of Brent, Ealing and Croydon and TfL Zones 2, 3 and 4 provided the most ‘overbuild’ development potential.

In addition the plan states that rail lines can form barriers to movement within sites, something that would be remedied by building over them. This would help to “knit the development into the surrounding area”. Building over railway tracks can provide opportunities to address existing constraints.

“We have to be more creative in using existing space in what remains a relatively low-rise city,” Price said.

“The air rights above rail tracks present an unrealised but significant opportunity to build more new homes on brownfield land.

“It’s important to emphasise the engineering is absolutely possible and not new. We have been working on projects of this nature in New York for decades. Right now in London we are working on a variety of projects that rise above rail lines including a 50-storey residential tower, homes above a new Crossrail station and even a Premier League stadium.”

“There is a wider point about how we can better connect communities and unlock new homes not just above rail lines but adjacent to them as well. In some parts of London rail lines act as accidental segregators.

“By ‘decking’ over these lines, such as the proposed regeneration west of Earls Court underground station, we can join together sites to unlock an even higher number of new homes and create new vibrant communities.”

The thinking behind the report emerged after Network Rail appointed WSP in 2012 to study the feasibility of building above rail lines.

The study’s conclusions, which focused on the type of decking and noise and vibration issues are detailed in the new report.

Saudi Arabia to extract its own uranium for ‘self-sufficient’ nuclear power

October 30th, 2017 no comment

Hashim bin Abdullah Yamani, the head of the agency that looks after the country’s nuclear plans, said that setting up an extraction operation would make the most sense from an economic perspective.

Last month it was revealed that Saudi Arabia would soon launch a tendering process for its first civil nuclear reactors, making it the second Arab nation to turn to nuclear power.

Although the country is thought to hold 18 per cent of the world’s total crude oil reserves, the move is seen as a way to hedge its bets for the future as the first stirrings of an international shift away from fossil fuels begins.

Yamani announced the plans in a speech at an international nuclear power conference in Abu Dhabi, although he did not say whether the extracted uranium would be enriched and reprocessed, a potentially contentious move as it opens up the possibility of using the material for military reasons.

Saudi Arabia is not currently known to have a nuclear weapons program and from an official and public standpoint remains an opponent of nuclear weapons in the Middle East.

However, strategy papers leaked in 2003 showed that the government was looking into a nuclear weapons programme or allying itself with a power that had one.

The country is currently the world’s top oil exporter and says it wants to tap atomic power for solely peaceful purposes in order to diversify its energy supply and will award a construction contract for its first two nuclear reactors by the end of 2018.

“Regarding the production of uranium in the kingdom, this is a programme which is our first step towards self-sufficiency in producing nuclear fuel,” Yamani told a conference organized by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). “We utilise the uranium ore that has been proven to be economically efficient.”

Atomic reactors need uranium enriched to around 5 per cent purity, but the same technology in this process can also be used to enrich the heavy metal to higher, weapons-grade levels.

This issue has been at the heart of Western and regional concerns about the nuclear work of Iran, Saudi Arabia’s foe, and led to the 2015 deal in which Iran agreed to freeze the programme for 15 years for sanctions relief.

On Monday, IAEA chief Yukiya Amano said Iran was complying with the nuclear deal signed with world powers and which US President Donald Trump has called into question.

Under the agreement, Iran can enrich uranium to 3.67 per cent purity, around the normal level needed for commercial power-generation.

Last week, Mohammed bin Salman, the 32-year old Saudi Crown Prince, announced the “Neom” project, which aims to build an independent, liberal, high-tech megacity in the country. 

High-capacity wireless communications using ‘twisted light’ closer to reality

October 26th, 2017 no comment

Conventional digital communications use photons (individual packets of light) to carry data in a sequence of zeroes and ones. Adding spin information to these photons could allow for an enormous amount of additional information to be carried in each particle, much like adding the alphabet to the zeroes and ones.

This extra information can be added to the photons using a particular type of hologram to ‘twist’ them, giving them optical angular momentum.

While this has already been proved possible in studies using cables to transmit the photons, the true potential of twisting photons to store information is in wireless, high-capacity data transmission. This could allow for far higher bandwidth communication, and could make fibre-optics obsolete.

“In an age where our global data consumption is growing at an exponential rate, there is mounting pressure to discover new methods of information-carrying that can keep up with the huge uptake in data across the world,” said Dr Martin Lavery, head of the Structured Photonics Group at the University of Glasgow, and lead author of the Science Advances study.

“Free space optics is a solution that can potentially give us the bandwidth of fibre, but without the requirement for physical cabling.”

In order for this technology to be commercially viable, it must be possible to transmit data wirelessly and securely. This is particularly challenging due to the smallest changes in atmospheric pressure causing photons to be scattered and information to be lost.

Dr Lavery and his colleagues transmitted twisted photons across an open air space of 1.6km (1 mile). This environment was full of high-rise buildings, streets and fields, with ordinary atmospheric turbulence. They used this to study how phase and intensity of optical angular momentum is affected in these chaotic environments.

The researchers were able to identify previously unnoticed challenges – including rethinking approaches to channel modelling – which must be resolved to make adaptive optical systems a commercial reality.

 “This study takes vital steps forward in the journey towards high-dimensional free space optics that can be a cheaper, more accessible alternative to buried fibre optics connections,” said Dr Lavery.

“A complete, working optical angular momentum communications system capable of transmitting data wirelessly across free space has the potential to transform online access for developing countries, defence systems and cities around the world.”

Hands-on test: Morphy Richards Mico cookware

October 26th, 2017 no comment

Mico is a range of three (so far) pieces of microwave cookware that safely incorporate metal to cook proper oven-style jacket potatoes, eggs with runny yolks and even quick-toasted sandwiches. This unusual new range comes out of Glasshouse at Morphy Richards, the company’s in-house innovation centre, and the launch was funded via Indiegogo.

The Mico products are pricey, but unique. They do follow a current trend in the design of microwave ovens themselves: metal cooking trays called crisper plates. The idea is that the crisper plate gets very hot, offering some of the benefits of oven cooking foods such as pizzas that are super quick but have a crisp base.

You use the Mico Toastie much like an electric sandwich toaster. Butter the outside of the bread, add filling and pop it in the gizmo. The two sides clip together, clicking into place. Then, microwave for 2:30 minutes, flip the whole thing over and repeat.

The results were perfect: crisp, nicely browned and seemingly grilled on the outsides, melted in the middle. The only annoyance was that the metal plates are quite large so our sliced bread wasn’t quite big enough for it. As a result, the edges weren’t sealed all the way round.

This is definitely worth having if you like toasted sarnies, just as long as you’re happy only cooking one sandwich at a time. In return, it takes up less space than an electric sandwich toaster. It’s not necessarily cheaper, though; simple ones that cook two sarnies at a time start at around £10.

The Mico Potato is a little different, in that you first cook for 7-8 minutes with the lid off, then put the lid on and cook for a further 10-11 minutes. It’s big enough for one medium-to-large spud or two small ones. We cooked a medium potato for 7+10 minutes.

The results were impressive. Not a stunningly crisp skin, but definitely not a microwave jacket spud. It was like an oven-cooked potato that was just cooked enough. Two more minutes would have been perfect.

It’s worth pointing out that a spud this size only takes eight minutes to cook in a microwave conventionally, but then you get a skin that’s unsatisfyingly soft and moist. It takes twice as much time and energy to cook with the Mico, but then there are huge time and energy savings compared with oven cooking.

We were impressed with the results again then, but note that it’s of no use if you want to feed a family. The oven is still the way to go for cooking lots of spuds, but putting the oven on to cook one or two is daft and the Mico Potato does the job quickly and well.

A pair of ‘fried’ eggs is supposed to take 2:30 minutes in the Mico Egg, but they actually took four minutes. They were pretty large eggs, mind. The results weren’t quite as tasty as frying, not quite as crispy, but most definitely runny in the middle and well-cooked on the sides. They were infinitely better than normal microwave eggs. Impressive, as long as you master your cooking times. You can cook two eggs at a time and you don’t have to do anything apart from press the button on the microwave, so it’s a good timesaver when you’re juggling breakfast requests like a short-order cook.

Poached eggs in the Mico Egg, on the other hand, took the suggested 3:20 minutes but we were less impressed with the results. You cook in the same way as the ‘fried’ eggs, but add a splash of water to each little pan before breaking the eggs in.

The poached eggs cooked well but looked a little ugly and there was leftover water to be tipped out of the pans. We’d take the fried version without water every time. 

All three Mico products share a similar design. The metal is thin and has a non-stick coating, then it’s held in place by a sturdy silicone case. This stops the cookware slipping in your hands and keeps it cool to the touch, although beware steam escaping in places. They look cute but they’re quite bulky, so they take up a fair amount of cupboard space.

Everything is dishwasher safe and we found them generally easy to clean, with only the Mico Egg needing a real scrub. You do need to take the various elements apart to clean and then put them back together once dry, though, which is a bit of a faff and they take a while to dry, thanks to all the crevices.

In all, we loved Mico and found the products got repeat use. They definitely improve your microwave cooking results and save you time compared with, say, an oven. At £29.99 each, this convenience does come at a cost, although maybe if the idea takes off they will come down in price.

£29.99 each www.glasshouseatmorphyrichards.com

Alternatives

Russell Hobbs Sandwich Toaster 17936

Cooks two sarnies at a time, can stand vertically for storage. Shop around online and you can get change from a twenty.

£21.99 uk.russellhobbs.com  

OXO Good Grips Microwave Egg Cooker

This is primarily designed for making scrambled eggs in a microwave without splattering, but you can also make a single ‘fried’ egg or a small omelette.

£9 www.oxouk.com

Good2heat Microwave Potato Baker

This elevates your spuds. So while they won’t be crispy like the jackets from the MICO Potato, at least they won’t have soggy bottoms.

www.johnlewis.com

Sponsored: Bridging the Gap in Digital Product Design

October 25th, 2017 no comment

Bridging the Gap in Digital Product Design

As a result, products once unconnected and devoid of software must now be designed to converge the digital with the physical, creating connected smart products and related services.

For a deeper look at this shift, Harvard Business Review Analytic Services surveyed the HBR.org readership on hardware-software convergence in product development.

In this insightful report you’ll learn:                                 

  • The scope of companies implementing digital technologies in physical products
  • Top challenges businesses are facing with digital transformations
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Transparent solar panels could harvest as much power as rooftop panels, study suggests

October 24th, 2017 no comment

The US team who carried out the Nature Energy study were also responsible for developing plastic-like luminescent solar concentrators that are capable of harvesting solar power, while being as transparent as glass. They can be mounted on windows of buildings and cars, as well as on screens of devices such as smartphones that have clear surfaces.

This system uses organic molecules to absorb sunlight. They can be ‘tuned’ to absorb only light outside the visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum to generate electricity, while allowing visible light to pass through.

“Highly transparent solar cells represent the wave of the future for new solar applications,” said Professor Richard Lunt, associate professor of chemical engineering and materials science at Michigan State University.

“We analysed their potential and show that by harvesting only invisible light, these devices can provide a similar electricity-generation potential as rooftop solar while providing additional functionality to enhance the efficiency of buildings, automobiles and mobile electronics.”

Standard solar panels currently achieve efficiencies of 15 to 18 per cent, while the transparent solar concentrators developed by Professor Lunt’s team work at efficiencies of just above five per cent. Due to absorbing just invisible light, the efficiency of the transparent systems will always be limited, although their transparency means that they can be applied to more surface area than standard solar panels.

The near-universal adherence to the Paris Agreement – which aims to minimise the rise in global average temperature to below 2°C in order to prevent the most catastrophic effects of climate change – requires governments to look to alternative to fossil fuels in order to reduce carbon emissions drastically.

At present, just 1.5 per cent of electricity consumed globally is generated from solar energy. However, in the US alone, there are five to seven billion square metres of glass surfaces that could be covered with these solar concentrators.

Widespread use of these transparent solar panels, in addition to rooftop solar panels could nearly meet total US electricity demand by cost-effective means, the researchers found. Covering glass surfaces with these systems could generate 40 per cent of US energy demand; approximately the same as rooftop solar panels.

“The complimentary deployment of both technologies could get us close to 100 per cent of our demand if we also improve energy storage,” said Professor Lunt, who believes transparent solar technologies are at approximately a third of their potential.

“That is what we are working towards. Traditional solar applications have been actively researched for over five decades, yet we have only been working on these highly transparent solar cells for about five years.”

Sponsored: Cut costs and save time with functional customised solutions

October 24th, 2017 no comment

Groupe Atlantic wanted to launch a new range of boilers, requiring a swing handle that was secure, yet that standard tools could open. Essentra’s experts got to work, taking time to understand all customer challenges that needed solving. Having managed all aspects of the project from design to production to delivery, the outcome was a perfect bespoke handle that also included a much needed silicone isolation cap. Ongoing support was ensured with buffer stock agreements and a dedicated account management approach.

Download this insightful case study to discover how Essentra delivered:

  • Time savings
  • Cost reductions
  • Safety & security

Sponsored: Cut costs and save time with functional customised solutions

October 24th, 2017 no comment

Groupe Atlantic wanted to launch a new range of boilers, requiring a swing handle that was secure, yet that standard tools could open. Essentra’s experts got to work, taking time to understand all customer challenges that needed solving. Having managed all aspects of the project from design to production to delivery, the outcome was a perfect bespoke handle that also included a much needed silicone isolation cap. Ongoing support was ensured with buffer stock agreements and a dedicated account management approach.

Download this insightful case study to discover how Essentra delivered:

  • Time savings
  • Cost reductions
  • Safety & security

Home broadband speeds could get dramatic increase with new hardware technology

October 19th, 2017 no comment

Frustratingly slow, inconsistent Internet speeds and the dreaded ‘rush hour’ – the peak time when data speeds can drop by up to 30 per cent – could soon be history, thanks to new hardware designed and demonstrated by UCL researchers.

The research team from the UCL Optical Networks Group and the University of Cambridge has developed a new, simplified receiver to be used in optical-access networks: the links connecting internet subscribers to their service providers.

The new receiver is simpler, cheaper and smaller, requiring just a quarter of the detectors used in conventional receivers. It enables dedicated data rates of more than 10,000 megabits per second (Mb/s) for a super-fast, yet low-cost, broadband connection to every UK home.

This simplification was achieved by adopting a coding technique to fibre-access networks that was originally designed to prevent signal fading in wireless communications. This approach has the additional cost-saving benefit of using the same optical fibre for both upstream and downstream data.

“To maximise the capacity of optical-fibre links, data is transmitted using different wavelengths, or colours, of light. Ideally, we’d dedicate a wavelength to each subscriber to avoid the bandwidth sharing between the users,” said Professor Polina Bayvel, co-author and head of the Optical Networks Group at UCL’s Electronic & Electrical Engineering department.

“Although this is already possible using highly sensitive hardware known as coherent receivers, they are costly and only financially viable in core networks that link countries and cities. Their cost and complexity has so far prevented their introduction into the access networks and limits the support of multi‑gigabit-per-second broadband rates available to subscribers.”

The receiver was tested on a dark-fibre network installed between Telehouse in east London), UCL in central London and Powergate in west London. The team successfully sent data over distances of 37.6km and 108km to eight users who were able to download and upload at speeds of at least 10Gb/s. This is more than 30 times faster than the fastest broadband currently available in the UK.

“UK broadband speeds are woefully slow compared to many other countries, but this is not a technical limitation,” said lead researcher Dr Erkılınç of UCL’s Electronic & Electrical Engineering department.

“Although 300 Mb/s may be available to some, average UK speeds are currently 36 Mb/s. By 2025, average speeds over 100 times faster will be required to meet increased demands for bandwidth-hungry applications such as ultra-high-definition video, online gaming, and the Internet of Things.

“The future growth in the number of mobile devices, coupled with the promise of 5G to enable new services via smart devices, means we are likely to experience bandwidth restrictions; our new optical-receiver technology will help combat this problem.

“This simple receiver offers users a dedicated wavelength, so user speeds stay constant no matter how many users are online at once. It can co-exist with the current network infrastructure, potentially quadrupling the number of users that can be supported and doubling the network’s transmission distance/coverage.”

Looking to the future and assessing the commercial potential for the new receiver design, Professor Bayvel said, “BT Openreach recently announced that fibre access is a key focus and must improve. With high-capacity broadband a priority for the UK government, we will be working to reduce the electrical power requirements of this technique to make this commercially viable in the nearest future.

“We believe that [this receiver] has real potential to provide high-speed broadband connectivity to every home, which will support the growing digitally enabled economy in the years to come.”

The study, published in Nature Communications, was funded by the EPSRC UNLOC Programme and Huawei Technologies.