Engineering News (August 2017)

Business as usual

The predicted major disruption at London Waterloo has not occurred, even with ten of its platforms closed. Large scale works are taking place under an £800 million project to upgrade stations throughout London that will ensure that each station can cope with longer carriages as well as accommodating higher numbers of passengers during rush hours. Network Rail announced that the closures at Waterloo are due to last until 28th August. Warnings were made by Network Rail fore-warning commuters of the closures and to expect extraordinarily busy stations during the period of station closures; it appears that passengers have taken these warnings to heart, and fewer have travelled as a result.

Only a few train services have had to be cancelled on the interim timetable put in place. Train services have so far been for the most part running on time. Unfortunately during the first day of disruption, a signal failure occurred and caused some delays in and out of three platforms; this was quickly rectified. It has been reported that on average over 270,000 journeys are made to and from Waterloo every day, so a few minor incidents are expected.

Other stations throughout the rail network have also appeared quieter than normal, including Winchester station which has been reportedly described as a ‘ghost town’, and Esher, where passengers had previously been advised that they would be expecting large delays and long queues found only empty platforms.

Both stations at Wimbledon and Clapham Junction were particularly quiet during the daily rush hour with minimal queuing.

It is believed that approximately 1000 extra staff have been employed to oversee the important and necessary upgrade work; however, the work has not been welcomed by everyone. The Federation of Small Businesses have warned that premises including restaurants, hotels and shops, could face large financial implications during the works with loss of income, especially as it is the peak season for tourism.

Mark Carne, CEO of Network Rail has re-iterated the importance of the work that is taking place and assures commuters and businesses that the upgrades currently taking place will be invaluable to the future of rail links to and from London, improving journey standards and visitor numbers to the capital. Currently, South West Trains, the busiest commuter service in Europe, operate 1,600 trains every day, with approximate passenger numbers in excess of 651,000. In 2016, it was reported that over 99 million passengers had travelled through, to or from Waterloo Station.

In addition to the closures at Waterloo, other stations are also be affected by closures or part closures during the works. Some stations such as Queenstown Road are totally closed, whereas stations such as Vauxhall are partially closed as the works continue.  On Friday 25th August, Platforms 1 to 14 will be closed, effectively cutting 75% of trains to and from the station as the works near their anticipated completion over the August Bank Holiday weekend. Travellers are strongly advised by Network Rail and South West Trains to avoid travelling that weekend in particular.

Growth spurt

Developments have been made towards the future of searching through debris, rubble and fallen buildings by researchers and mechanical engineers at Stanford University with the introduction of a new type of robot.

Natural organisms such as worms can manoeuvre across an area by growing and shrinking their form – so do climbing plants.

Rescuers can find it an arduous task following a disaster searching through masses of debris and other elements, which can result in many man hours of painstaking digging by hand or using sniffer dogs to search for signs of life. The creation of this new mechanical device means that using large amounts of manpower for rescues could be a thing of the past.

The idea is to place the robot at the entrance of the area  it is required to search. A switch is then thrown, and from one end of a cylinder a branch with a small camera extends across the debris, (much like the movement of a vine growing). This camera then beams images back to rescuers – the branches can reach into small places beneath the rubble, where rescuers on foot have previously been unable to search.

Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Allison Okamura had noted that the team behind the findings were originally searching to understand the fundamentals of a new approach to get mobility or movement out of a mechanism, and that their findings were to find different motions than those normally found in humans, plants or animals. The group’s research has generated a number of prototypes able to move through various obstacles with a view of reaching their designated destination, whist forming a free-standing structure. The group’s aim was to create a robot that could provide a service for a range of different scenarios including search and rescue and possible future use as a medical device.

The Stanford robot has been formed from a simple basic idea, using a tube of soft material that folds up within itself: think of an inside out sock. The robot will then appear to grow in one direction. Once the material at the front of the tube turns outwards, the tube become inside-out. The manufacture of former prototypes were completed by using thin cheap plastic material. The robot body would turn outwards once scientists had pumped pressurised air into the still end. The group also used fluid as an alternative to pressurised air, thus creating both pneumatic and hydraulic prototypes.

The advantages of their design is that when it moves across terrain, its body remains still. This enables the unit to stay in one solid place, while the rest of the unit travels to complete the search. The robot’s body will lengthen as the unique material grows from the end, with the body of the unit sticking to the terrain, or in some cases jammed between rock or stone. As the end of the unit continues to grow, new material is added to the end.

Tests for the main prototype have included obstacle courses, where the group observed the robot travelling over flypaper, sticky glue and nails, and moving vertically up an ice wall with an onboard sensor used to detect carbon dioxide that is produced by survivors that have been trapped or covered by debris. The test proved successful even though an area of the robot had been punctured by the nails. Nethertheless, the robot managed to keep the affected area motionless and because of this, sealed the area by remaining in place.

Other tests carried out included the robot lifting a 100-kilogram crate, and manoeuvring under a door in a gap 10% of its diameter. It is also capable of spiralling up on top of itself, forming a free-standing structure and sending out its own unique radio signal. Additionally, the robot can also manoeuvre itself into a clear space above a dropped ceiling, proving its navigational skills through unknown terrains and obstacles. It was also able to pull a cable through its body whilst moving and growing above the ceiling – this development could lead to a new method for directing and routing wires within tight spaces.

The advantages of ‘soft robots’ is that they are deemed to be safer than original solid inflexible robots due to being lightweight and softer in body, which is preferable in situations when the robot is in close proximity to a person, or is required to flex itself and move through complicated terrains and paths.

Build a rocket boys

An investment of over £100 million has been announced by the UK government for plans to extend satellite test facilities at Harwell Science Campus in Oxford with £4 million planned to be used at Westcott, Buckinghamshire, where rocket motors are built and tested.

Science Minister, Jo Johnson announced that the sector was growing 8-10% annually, and emphasised the importance that the UK remained in a strong position when dealing with new developments within the satellite industry. It has been reported that between now and 2025, thousands of satellites are due to be launched into space and the UK needs to remain in a strong position in a global market with large opportunities in the years ahead.

The Harwell Science Campus has developed itself by becoming an important centre for space research, and has a long history of building and testing instruments used on satellites.

Their R100 building has recently been upgraded. The new funds from the government will be used to extend the upgrades to Harwell further, with a view of doubling its footprint. The building works are due to be completed in 2020 and once complete, the refurbished installation will be known as the National Satellite Testing Facility (NSTF).

Dr Tim Bestwick from the Science and Technology Facilities Council announced that the new facility at Harwell will be beneficial to entry level companies that are breaking into space industries. Even now, the services provided from R100 are proving to be in strong demand, even though the existing plans are a long way off from completion. The thermal vacuum chambers currently being constructed will prove their worth, and probably have already been booked several years in advance.

These chambers will be used to test mechanical qualities; materials will be heated, cooled and then put into a vacuum, and in addition to this, radiometric testing will take place where calibrated sources will be placed in front of instruments under test to ensure that the their function is optimised.

A larger chamber will also be introduced,  that will stand at 8 metres in height. This will have the capacity to hold large telecommunication satellites for testing, some weighing more than six tonnes. This will be crucial in the testing of instrumentation for the next generation of meteorological satellites.

Prior to the current upgrading of Harwell into a new state of the art facility, the UK has needed to send much of their equipment abroad, mainly to Europe for final testing. Although this has been done in order to gain access to individual experts in their field, it must be taken into account that the UK simply did not have the available facilities.

The UK Space Agency’s CEO, Dr Graham Turnock is keen for the NSTF to retain work on UK soil and wants to see the UK become an attractive base for future space business.

The National Space Propulsion Facility, based at Westcott is most famous for its rocket development in the post-war era is the home of a £4 million investment incorporating Reaction Engines, a company based close to Harwell and has designed an air-breathing rocket system which could power a spaceplane or a fast transnational aircraft.

The company was built from the British concept spaceplane HOTOL, a Single Stage To Orbit (SSTO) concept which was first bandied about in the late 1980s.

Reaction Engines have been developing another SSTO concept called Skylon, which shows much promise as a future service provider akin to the Space Shuttle.

With the UK being greatly involved within future pan-European projects, many of which that have been funded through the European Union, questions have been raised regarding Harwell’s position following Brexit. With the amount of investment and the successful programmes that UK businesses have submitted, the government are keen for UK companies to continue to participate within the programmes in place, and have concluded that broader discussions will need to be made around the terms of the UK’s exit from the European Union. Included in these projects is the Galileo satellite-navigation system, as well as the Copernicus-Sentinel constellation of Earth observation satellites.

Engineering News – July 2017

Subscribe to the Starjammer Bulletin

More about The Starjammer Bulletin

The Starjammer Bulletin is the official newsletter for The Starjammer Group, its customers, clients, affiliates and subscribers. With over ten years under our belt, we are proud of our commitment to our clients, and of our assurance that we provide them with the best level of service and help that they have come to know and respect us for. The Starjammer Group is proud of its track record to date, and strives to improve its products, services and standing on all fronts. Our mantra has always been '21st century thinking'. Why? Simple: we love doing what we do, enjoy our work, and work on the principle that our customers, clients and associates should share in the fun. Business shouldn't be a chore: we spend on average 8 hours per working day in the office, or factory, behind a desk, stall or wheel. We employ people who are not only competent and good at their job, but people who have that something; that little spark that grabs our attention. It can't be defined, and it's not always obvious. Nethertheless, we have been lucky to attract and keep the right people. Something we are proud of.