Scientific News (April 2018)

Droning on about landslides

A group of campaigners have urged the Environmental Agency to use a fleet of drones to uncover bad farming practices across the UK with a view of penalising farmers who allow soil to run off their fields. It is believed that only 0.5% of farms are checked each year, yet coalition campaigners feel that not enough is being done to protect rivers or rising flood numbers.

The groups feel that poor and careless farming is the cause of the decline of the United Kingdoms rivers, with much of the farmers waste off their fields causing our riverbeds to fill with sludge and become a potential cause of major flooding.
Proposals from the Angling Trust, the World Wildlife Fund and the Rivers Trust, and support from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds have been received in an initial briefing to the Environmental Secretary, Michael Gove.

Campaigners have estimated that investments into reducing farmers waste and the loss of soil on their land would save the government unnecessary financial outlays. The area of soil protection is majorly under-funded, and the Environmental Agency admit that careless farming practices are difficult to spot.

Areas within the West Country are often proved to be more at risk due to the farmers fields being situated on slopes. Fields of maize are planted across large areas leaving many gaps between the crops; due to the positioning of these fields during heavy rain the soil has a higher probability of being washed away into the West Country’s rivers.

Careless over-stocking of animals has also raised an additional area of concern, with the hooves of the animals compacting the ground leading to the creations of crusts that are seen to block water from soaking into the sub-soil. A trial surveillance scheme using drones in Herefordshire has reportedly been successful in the wake of preventing soil loss – the scheme focused fields containing crops of potatoes and maize. Throughout the trial the Environmental Agency moved budgets in the areas of Wye and Usk, to allow for the drones. Using a contoured mapping system, they were able to identify areas that were more likely to lose soil during heavy rain.

The Environmental Agency started to tackle the problem in the UK’s rivers in 2000 following the reduction in population and spawning of Salmon throughout the entire length of the River Wye. Following intervention in improving local farmers practices with their crops and livestock, the soil has improved, and the River Wye now boasts a 65 mile stretch with Salmon spawning.

Farmers within the Wye and Usk Foundation were given advice on how to improve their farming standards and practices to improve the conservation of good soil. Measures included planting bigger strips of grass around the edges of fields, an increase in land where livestock are able to graze, and using minimum tillage, the preparation of land for growing crops using a plough.

The largest issue that the Wye and Usk Foundation faced at the start of the trial initially was farmers accepting that there were issues and acknowledging problems on their land that needed to be addressed. Some farmers proved difficult; once they had accepted the issues the majority wanted to improve their practices on their working farms.

National awareness is the main issue, and the papers sent to Gove are urging government ministers to introduce and replicate the same scheme across the whole of the United Kingdom, as well as proposed incentives for farmers to receive grants. These incentives for farmers include grants for increasing carbon content in their soils and the prevention of flooding, and prosecutions if guidelines were not followed, especially those farmers who have allowed soil to run off their fields.


Robots get a leg up

Researchers based at Tokyo Institute of Technology have unveiled new technology by means of a two-level controller when using multi-legged robots. The new proposed technology boasts a network of non-linear oscillators that allow it to express various mannerisms in its movements and positions, encouraging the future of research in multi-legged robotic instruments as well as the future of brain/computer interfaces.

For years, scientific researchers have questioned the physical movements of many species in the natural world, and their ability to reach inaccessible destinations across terrains in which humans would struggle. Past attempts to make such robots mimic these movements have proved unsuccessful due to the lack of flexibility and required dexterity, but now research teams from Japan, Poland and Italy with funding from the World Research Hub Initiative, the Polish Academy for Sciences based in Krakow, Poland and the University of Catania based in Italy have suggested new ideas for the future of walking robots. Using a high graded group of electronic oscillators across two tiers, researchers have been able to demonstrate their findings with a specially developed ant-like, six-legged robot.

Inspiration for the new two-level controller has been drawn from biological constructs within the natural world. The top level holds responsibility over the control of sequencing of the movements, otherwise known as ‘gait’, the second level consists of 6 local pattern generators, that are responsibility for the control of the direction of each leg.

The study lead of the project, Ludovico Minati explained that trying to mimic the movements of insects and animals has been difficult to establish due to many factors, the main issue being speed. The research team have designed the controller to handle high levels of changeability, utilising Field-Programmable Analogue Arrays, that can reconfigure and tune circuit parameters. Their work has been based on previous research on “non-linear and chaotic electronic networks” that previously replicated biological brains when wired using simple configurations.

Minati is excited about the possibilities. “Perhaps the most exciting moment in the research was when we observed the robot exhibit phenomena and gaits which we neither designed nor expected, and later found out also exist in biological insects.”

Researcher Yasuharu Koikme said that one of the important aspects of the controller is the way that it is designed to condense so much information into such a small number of parameters. “These can be considered high-level parameters, in that they explicitly set the gait, speed, posture, etc. Because they can be changed dynamically, in the future it should be easy to vary them in real-time using a brain-computer interface, allowing the control of complex kinematics otherwise impossible to dominate with current approaches.”


Pushing the boat out for CO2 emissions

The shipping industry could see enforcements in place for tackling climate change by reducing its CO2 emissions. It is believed that if shipping companies do not change their ways, the industry could be responsible for nearly a fifth of the globes CO2 emissions by 2050.

Nations including Brazil, Saudi Arabia, India, Panama and Argentina are battling against CO2 targets within the shipping industry. They believe that by capping vessel emissions, it could set in motion restrictions on world trade and force the movement of goods to other methods of transport. However, other countries firmly believe that the shipping industry would benefit using cleaner technology.

UK Shipping Minister, Nusrat Ghani believes that if action is not taken, the international shipping industry could be left behind as other sectors move forward. Ghani said that the government have urged members of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) to introduce plans to cut the emissions from ships. The UK is amongst other European nations who have proposed to reduce the previous recorded 2008 shipping emissions by 70-100% prior to 2050.

The UK Chamber of Shipping have called upon the shipping industry worldwide to support the proposals. Guy Platten from the Chamber recently commented that “the public expect action”. It is well known that international trade bring wealth but the demand to make trade more sustainable and environmentally friendly has grown.

Carbon emissions within the shipping industry have grown significantly in recent years, and due to its nature of being an international industry, it avoids the “carbon-cutting influence” within UN talks on climate change and how the effects can be mitigated. Due to this, the IMO have been criticised for their unwillingness to be accountable. In 2011, the IMO agreed that any news ships would be 30% more efficient by 2025. No rules so far to date have been set to minimise emissions from existing ship fleets.

Green Group, The Clean Shipping Coalition wants to see shipping fleets conform to the Paris Agreement to see the global temperature increases to stabilise at 1.5 degrees, but these are only objectives, and the global economy is unsure if these goals could be met, meaning that the IMO are under pressure to produce a policy that shows ambition. It is believed that the European Union will take over the regulations of European shipping should the IMO not take the necessary action, which would also mean that it loses some of its authority.

The Panamanian government supports the Paris Agreement – albeit a developing country that is highly dependent on the movement of ships for its own prosperity, and believes that it is necessary for new strategies that will see increased sustainability and the reduction of emissions by 2050.

Figures show that the International shipping industry is responsible for nearly 1,000 million tonnes of CO2 every year, in a recent report released by the International Transport Forum. It expressed the opinion that if the industry maximised its use of modern technologies, the decarbonisation of shipping could be completed by 2035. Campaigners have urged that improvements could be made on today’s vessels just by reducing their speed of travel.


Counting sheep and other astronomical feats

Astronomical software techniques used to study our atmosphere are being used by researchers to survey endangered species. The team involved with the new system will be able to identify animals in their own surroundings, using their body heat even when camouflaged with the use of a camera affixed to a drone.

The new system, developed by Serge Wich and Dr Steve Longmore from John Moores University was unveiled during the European Astronomical Society Annual Meeting based in Liverpool.  Wich, a conservationist and Longmore, an astrophysicist believe that the technology will “greatly improve” accurate records when monitoring endangered species with a long term aim to help save them. Both scientists want to see local communities supporting conservation work and feel that if improved data was available it would provide a stronger foundation for conservations.

Conservationists currently physically count wild animals or use examples of their presence, be it footprints, faeces or other remnants – however, this is known to be an inexact science. Animals can be found in areas that humans cannot access, they migrate to different areas and some are known to abandon any nests they have built. Physically counting animals can be time consuming as well as expensive and as already mentioned, inaccurate. Wich and Longmore wanted to develop a system that would prove not only accurate but also time saving.

The notion of their new system cam from the method in which astronomers can identify the size and ages of stars using infrared images, by using drones with a view to reaching inaccessible areas. Both scientists took part in successful trials based at Chester Zoo and Knowsley Safari Park, with each species acquiring their own unique pattern of heat distribution throughout its ‘body’.

During the trials they encountered issues with identifying species especially at a distance. Wich required a form of technology that would enable him to identify different species of animals just from their heat distribution. It was during a discussion with Longmore when he explained to Wich about how stars could be indentified and classified from a distance just from their heat signatures.

The new developed system can provide details about the health of the animals as well as their numbers. If any animal is injured or has an illness, the affected area will glow brighter or will show a different heat profile. The use of drones will aid in determining and improving the accuracy of numbers as well as tracking and future community conservations strategies.


Out of orbit

‘RemoveDebris’ is a UK led experiment that will be used to identify and capture space junk that has been sent into orbit. The unit, designed as a small satellite is currently on its way to the International Space Station. Astronauts will be expected to launch the experiment in late May. The mission was organised by US company NanoRacks who specialise in the deployment of small satellites. Funding from the European Commission and 10 other partners including Airbus, will meet the projects £13 million price tag.

It is estimated that over 7,500 tonnes of redundant hardware is currently orbiting the Earth, and that number will continue to grow if not dealt with. Space junk consists of used rockets, unwanted spacecraft, screws and even small specks of paint. Each article could pose a collision hazard for current or future space missions.

The 100kg RemoveDebris system assembled at Surrey Satellite Technology, was launched on Wednesday to the ISS. It will be stored on board for several weeks before it’s release via the ISS platform’s robotic arm, when it will begin its manoeuvres. Onboard RemoveDebris are two cubesats, satellites that will be released into orbit and then tracked using new technology specifically designed to clean up orbital litter.

One of the cubesat’s will be tracked by the RemoveDebris satellite, while the other is planned to be snared in a net by the main satellite. It will also demonstrate the onboard harpoon. By using an extending boom aimed at a target, it is intended that the unit will fire a sharp object at the target to gain knowledge about how orbiting objects behave when firing and striking them in a micro-gravity environment.

Once the mission is complete, RemoveDebris will deploy a large sail that will act on the drag from high altitude atmospheric molecules, which will pull the satellite towards to Earth at a high speed. Guglielmo Aglietti, the Principal Investigator of the project is still sceptical about the potential of a system such as RemoveDebris, and the future of capturing and removing space junk from Earth orbit. Many scientists across the world are investigating and introducing their own concepts and designs using different technologies which present their own advantages and disadvantages.

The mission was organised by US company NanoRacks who specialise in the deployment of small satellites. Funding from the European Commission and 10 other partners including Airbus, will meet the projects £13 million price tag.


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Scientific News (March 2018)

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