Thursday, 30 October 2014

Pilots Association Call for Strict Drone Regulation

The association recently called on the Government to introduce strict regulations protecting commercial airlines and passengers before allowing large-scale drones to be flown in UK airspace.  BALPA says its members are already concerned after a number of run-ins with smaller drones that are not yet regulated as strictly as pilots would like.

In one such incident this past May (2014), a drone came within 25 metres of a commercial flight landing at Southend Airport.  Though 25 metres may not sound a dangerously close distance to the average airline passenger, it is much too close for a pilot trying to control a large passenger jet on a landing approach.  The drone in this case was close enough to cause great concern.

BALPA contends that the smaller drones now in use post enough concern for commercial pilots. Larger drones eventually intended to carry cargo could pose even more danger in the skies.  The association says the rules that currently regulate small drones would be ineffective and inappropriate for larger vehicles.

BALPA is not against the use of drones in UK airspace.  In fact, the association's general secretary says the UK should welcome the unmanned aircraft in order to take advantage of the opportunities these offer however he says drones should be as safe as manned aircraft at all times.  He went on to say that UK residents deserve to be informed before any sort of unmanned aircraft is flown over their neighbourhoods.

Regulations Are Coming

It is important to hear from organisations such as BALPA in regards to unmanned aircraft.  The fact is that it is only a matter of time before larger commercial drones are operating in our skies to handle everything from cargo delivery to data communications to wireless networking.  Moreover, with that inevitability is the reality that regulations are coming also.  In making its voice heard now, BALPA is ensuring that it has a place at the table when the discussion on regulation commences.

With multiple stakeholders networking and sharing ideas, regional regulations can be put in place that will let us make the best use of drones without endangering the public.  That's what this is all about.  By being proactive with regulations, the UK can create an environment that allows us to be a world leader in yet another emerging technology.  To that end, it is imperative that policy makers get to work on creating regulations now, before those larger drones are ready to take to the skies.

Monday, 27 October 2014

New Seattle Data Centre Proposes to Recycle Waste Heat

At the corner of Sixth Ave and Bell St in downtown Seattle, Washington (USA) sits a parking lot.  That parking lot is within a reasonable distance of a newly built Amazon data centre as well as numerous high-rise office buildings and ongoing development projects.  If a company known as Clise Properties has its way, the lot will become a 12-story data centre with a state-of-the-art system that recycles waste heat and sends it to nearby office buildings.

Clise Properties and Graphite Design Group propose to design and build a new data centre with a completion date of early 2017.  They have already submitted initial plans to the local Planning Award for review.  The key to getting the approval they need is their waste heat recycling system.  It is a system that Clise has already successfully implemented for Amazon as part of the Westin building development.

The new data centre will devote the first two floors to UPS and power and cooling needs.  The remaining eight floors will be data centre space at about 11,000 ft.² per floor.  The space is likely to be used by everything from individual hosting companies to enterprise clients leasing dedicated equipment.

As you know, a data centre of this size will generate tremendous amounts of heat.  Temperatures in the region of 38°C are not unusual for the air coming off cooling fans however, rather than allowing this heat to be wasted through the venting though, Clise plans to use an extensive duct system to send it to nearby office buildings that are part of the same development complex.  This will enable the other buildings to keep tenants warm while still reducing energy bills.

What Clise is doing in Seattle is not unique to them; other projects designed to recycle waste heat have been undertaken by Telecity (France), Telehouse (UK) and IBM (Switzerland) to name just a few.  Recycling waste heat is an extremely simple and efficient way to reduce energy costs by harnessing something that would otherwise be vented into the air.

Onward and Upward

It seems unlikely that the city of Seattle would reject the plans submitted by Clise and Graphite barring some exceptional circumstance no one is aware of yet.  The plan to build a state-of-the-art data centre in one of America's most tech savvy cities has many obvious advantages.  Being able to recycle waste heat for the purposes of space heating is an added bonus that should effectively secure development approval.

It would be nice to see this sort of data centre facility become the de facto standard all over the world and that may very well happen.  As the world looks for ways to be more energy efficient and cost-effective it just does not make sense to continue wasting the heat generated by server farms.  It is essentially free heat just waiting to be harnessed for other purposes.  To not take advantage of it is akin to throwing a lot of money away.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Complex Issues Raising Concerns about Energy Security

Energy security in the 1970s was anything but a settled issue.  Rolling blackouts and other interruptions were common in an era when energy production was dependent almost entirely on coal. Although strides have been made in the decades since, there are new concerns over energy security that could cause significant problems in coming years. The good news, according to The Guardian, is that we are in no danger of seeing the lights go out in the immediate future, however things could change beginning with the winter of 2015 / 2016.

At the heart of the issue are a number of complex problems surrounding how we currently produce and use energy.  On one hand, the UK is attempting to get away from burning coal in order to address climate change yet, on the other hand, coal is extremely cheap right now.  It is financially more advantageous to produce electricity with coal than natural gas, leading to existing gas-fired plants being shut down and delays in the construction of new plants.

In the arena of renewable power, things are not as far along as many in the UK would have hoped.  According to The Guardian, just 6% of Britain's total energy was produced by renewable sources last year.  That will have to change drastically if we are to continue reducing our dependence on coal and natural gas.

The current dichotomy between renewables and meeting demand is made even more complex by the question of investment.  The Government has limited funds to invest in commercial research and development, customer subsidies and so on.  At the same time, the big five power companies are not likely to put large amounts of money into what could end up being an energy gamble without Government support behind them.  Nevertheless, who decides which projects are funded and which are left by the wayside?

Decisions Must Be Made

The UK leads the world in two key areas that are, at the current time, opposed to one another: addressing climate change issues and pushing the world into the future of high-speed network communications.  Yes, the UK is on the cutting edge of renewable energy.  Nonetheless, we are also the first to design and build new data centres and high-speed networks to serve the average consumer.  Unfortunately, these facilities and networks consume a tremendous amount of energy that needs to come from somewhere.

Energy consumption has fallen in the UK by about 10% since 2005 / 20006 however, our energy margin has remained steady at 6%.  That margin could be as low as 4% late next year if the right mix of unfortunate conditions is present.  Avoiding that means making decisions now that will increase the margin substantially.

We can continue to design and build state-of-the-art data centres and renewable power generation projects nevertheless, at some point, we have to decide which priority is more important.  Without a miracle power source we have not yet discovered, it seems we cannot have the energy security we want with both.

Monday, 13 October 2014

US Company Builds World's Largest Thermoelectric Generator

What would you say if you were an oil rig manager and you received a call from a new start up claiming that they could save you as much as 3% of your fuel by harnessing the heat produced by diesel generators?  If you spent millions of pounds every year on fuel, you would likely be intrigued by the offer.  Well, it turns out that the scenario we just proposed is not fiction.  An American company has built the world's largest thermoelectric generator that can drastically cut engine emissions and reduce fuel consumption.

The company, known as Alphabet Energy, has managed to design and build their device based on a highly efficient thermoelectric material discovered by researchers at the University of Michigan (USA).  The material converts heat into usable electricity through a process known as the Seebeck effect.

The Seebeck effect is a naturally occurring phenomenon in which two opposing metals create an electric current when responding to the temperature differences between them.  Thermoelectric materials taking advantage of this phenomenon have been around for decades however, until the University of Michigan discovery, there has not been a material that could be used cost-effectively for commercial purposes.  The materials have simply been too expensive to produce.

Alphabet Energy CEO Matt Scullin says his company's new device can be connected to the exhaust of a 1,000 kW generator and, through the Seebeck effect, reduce fuel consumption by some 2.5% simply by capturing the heat and using it to generate electricity.  The electricity would be enough to reduce fuel consumption by more than 52,000 litres.

Scullin went on to say that, the device could be scaled down for use with smaller engines, or scaled up to accommodate larger generators.  He says the first applications for his company's device will most likely be found in the oil, gas and mining industries.  These could use the thermoelectric generator in remote areas where diesel powered generators provide the electricity for normal operations.

Other Potential Applications

We would be lying if we said we were not intrigued by the idea of a scalable thermoelectric generator.  Could it be that this technology may have other applications in the future?  For example, MIT Technology Review says that power plants waste as much as 80% of their heat energy through exhaust.  If that heat energy can be harnessed with a scalable thermoelectric generator, why could we not do the same thing for a data centre?

There are already some projects under way aiming to use the heat generated by data centres for the purposes of community heating or driving turbines that help cool the data centre in question.  Nevertheless, what if we could also use some of that heat to generate electricity that could either be sent back to the grid or utilised by the facility?  It is an intriguing question.

Time will tell if Alphabet Energy's new device enjoys commercial success.  If it does, we can see plenty of potential for other applications in the near future.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Australian Government Now Officially Cloud First

Adoption of the cloud within Australia's government agencies has not been as successful as hoped which has led federal officials to establish a new 'cloud first' policy that goes into effect immediately.  The policy was recently set forth in a document drafted to outline the responsibilities of each agency in adopting and procuring cloud services.

According to news sources, the document reads, in part, “under the Government’s Cloud Policy, agencies now must adopt cloud where it is fit for purpose, provides adequate protection of data, and delivers value for money.”

The new policy essentially dictates that all federal agencies will use cloud services wherever these will reduce costs, increase productivity and protect sensitive data.  The document also outlines benchmarks and procedures that agencies can use to determine whether cloud services are applicable to them or not.  If so, they are expected to solicit bids from a number of contractors previously confirmed by a government panel as being able to provide adequate service.

Government officials hope to save up to 30% per year by adopting cloud services where practical.  Whether that includes IT services and data management functions is not clear.  What is known is that adoption of the cloud will reduce the Australian Government's costs for infrastructure, hardware and software.

Australia's move does not come as a surprise to those who pay attention to cloud computing.  The Government previously commissioned a study to determine how much money could be saved by using the cloud to eliminate duplication and fragmentation while still increasing productivity.  Earlier this year, they also revised a policy that made seeking offshore cloud services difficult.  The new policy language now makes it easier than ever.

Cloud procurement in Australia has been slow since the start of the decade.  With total expenditures of only AUS $4.7 million over the last four years, it is clear that government agencies are reluctant to make the switch.  Now they will have no choice.  As long as cloud services meet qualifications, all government agencies must choose them as the first and best option.

A Better Government

Proponents of the plan say the new cloud first policy will be of great benefit.  They say it will make for a better government that is leaner, more efficient and spending taxpayer money more wisely.  The biggest concern is coming up with a list of qualified service providers able to meet contracts without artificially inflating prices however that's what the Department of Finance special panel is for.

Those opposed to the plan voiced concerns over data security and price competition.  They are not convinced the Government will save money in the long run, nor do they necessarily believe security in the cloud will be adequate.

As for cloud providers, it is too soon to tell whether the competition for Australia's government agencies will be hot and heavy.  We suspect it will be slow going at first, but more providers will get into the market as more agencies make the transition.  That is usually how it goes.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Unused Phone Boxes Getting New Lease of Life

There is only one thing in London that has achieved the same iconic status as the red double-decker bus: the red phone box.  Unfortunately, mobile phones have made London's thousands of red phone boxes obsolete.  So much so that city officials are begging for ideas for re-purposing them.

How about using them as charging stations for the very mobile phones that have rendered them useless?  That's a good idea, according to entrepreneurs Harold Craston and Kirsty Kenny.  Craston and Kenny recently unveiled five new green boxes that can be used to recharge a mobile phone at zero cost.

The new green boxes are fitted with multiple charging stations to handle the most popular phones.  Their power comes from 86cm solar panels fitted on the roofs of the boxes.  The panels can create enough electricity to keep the charging stations working all day, providing a 20% charge in about 10 minutes.

Craston and Kenny are funding their enterprise through adverts.  Each box is fitted with a video screen showing fun and interesting adverts from companies that have signed up.  Among the current advertisers are well-known companies such as Tender and Uber.   Craston and Kenny say that 30% of the advertising space is set aside for community projects.

In order to deter theft, the screens are reinforced and the phone boxes are locked at night.  They will be open during regular business hours and during the daylight hours on weekends.  Craston and Kenny plan to open an additional five boxes sometime next year.

Award Winning Idea

Craston and Kenny are to be commended for their ingenious idea.  Not only does its meet a growing need among Londoners for mobile phone charging, it also re-purposes old phone boxes and does so in an environmentally responsible way.  The official business, known as Solarbox, was the winner of this year's LSE Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year award.  It also took second place in the running for the Mayor of London's Low Carbon Entrepreneur of the Year Award.

Thus far, the green boxes attract roughly six users per hour.  Moreover, with the ability to charge up to 100 phones per day, Solarbox is a great example of a unique idea and then has realised commercial success because of the hard work and entrepreneurial spirit of two innovative thinkers.

These are the types of ideas we need in the UK to continue maintaining our position as a leader in technology and green initiatives.  It is such a simple idea, yet one that is quite powerful in the grand scheme of things.  Just think about the impact the green phone boxes will have once Solarbox has hundreds of locations opened throughout London.b Every mobile phone recharged by solar power is one less phone being plugged into a wall socket.  We may get to the point where one of the most exciting events of the day will be going out to the street to charge the phone.  Imagine that!

Source:  BBC Technology News –

Friday, 3 October 2014

Google and Facebook Competing for Aerial Internet Dominance

The Internet is certainly a wild frontier on many levels, including how the world's Internet service providers (ISP) offer connectivity to customers however even we are sometimes amazed at what lengths some players will go to in order to dominate an industry.  Such is the case with Google and Facebook; two cutting-edge technology companies now competing for aerial Internet dominance.

What do we mean by 'aerial Internet dominance'?  We are referring to the ongoing competition between Facebook and Google to provide Internet service to billions of people who do not currently have it.  Rather than building a traditional infrastructure of cables and wires though, the two companies are looking into drones and balloons respectively.

Google seems to be way ahead of Facebook at this point.  Google X's Astro Teller told the EmTech conference in Cambridge last week that his company's work on providing Internet access through high-altitude balloons is making good progress.  Google originally announced the project a little more than a year ago.  Known as Project Loon, it is an endeavour that aims to use specially designed balloons that float in the stratosphere.

The balloons are equipped with sophisticated software that is able to alter altitude in order to put the carriers into the appropriate wind patterns.  The balloons would broadcast signals to be received by special antennae mounted on rooftops.  Though Google has yet to make any money from the project, they have not hesitated to invest a considerable amount, including billions of dollars for new satellites.  Teller maintains that the investment is well worth it if his company is eventually able to provide Internet service to over 5 billion people.

Meanwhile, Facebook is working on its own drone-based technology for remote Internet service.  Rather than working with high-altitude balloons however, it is focusing its energies on drones.  It seems to be behind Google's efforts for two reasons:  First, it did not establish its Connectivity Lab until earlier this year.  Second, it has a lot more challenges to overcome.

Facebook's Yael Maguire says the Connectivity Lab must overcome both hardware and regulatory hurdles.  Where hardware is concerned, Facebook is working with drones roughly the same size as commercial airliners yet it has to create machines with the on-board solar and battery technology to keep them aloft for extended periods.  Where regulation is concerned, there are no rules or guidelines for the use of drones at the altitudes Facebook is looking at.  That says nothing of the signals that will be travelling between the drones and land-based receivers.

Who will win the race to aerial Internet dominance?  Only time will tell.  Google says it is ready to begin the testing phase of Project Loon in the very near future.  Facebook says it will not be ready for testing for another two to five years.  Meanwhile, billions of people who do not know what unfettered Internet access is like are waiting with bated breath….  Perhaps someone should start coming up with a strategy to provide them with computers too…