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1st October 2020

Technology Ocado overtakes Tesco as most valuable UK retailer

Technology Ocado overtakes Tesco as most valuable UK retailer


Technology Ocado delivery driverImage copyright

Online grocer Ocado has overtaken Tesco in terms of stock market value as investors continue to bet on the firm.

Ocado is now valued at £21.7bn, more than Tesco’s £21.1bn, despite having only a fraction of the UK grocery market share.

Analysts said a rise in online food shopping, plus Ocado’s new tie up with Marks & Spencer, had encouraged investors.

However, question marks remain as to whether Ocado is over-valued.

According to analyst firm Kantar, Ocado has only 1.7% of the UK grocery market, compared with Tesco’s 26.8% share – which far outstrips its nearest competitors, Sainsbury’s and Asda.

Technology ‘Charity’ jibe

Ocado was launched 20 years ago but in most of those years struggled to make money.

Ocado’s share price, which had been healthy after striking a number of big deals with overseas grocery businesses, began to climb quite quickly after the UK coronavirus lockdown in March.

A former Tesco chief executive once described the firm as a “charity” because of the losses it had racked up in its early years.

The business started to flourish in 2017 after cutting deals with US group Kroger, Casino in France, Sobeys in Canada, and ICA Group in Sweden. It then signed a partnership agreement with Coles in Australia.

Its stock market valuation has largely been driven by how investors view its technology, which provides retailers with the infrastructure and software to build their online service and compete with giants such as Amazon.

Technology Market value

That valuation picked up speed after the coronavirus crisis really started to bite in the UK and elsewhere in March as lockdown boosted demand for online groceries.

Ocado’s share price got a further boost recently after its switch to delivering M&S food and after it reported a 50% jump in third quarter sales.

This was despite some customers criticising Ocado when it launched its M&S range, saying orders made weeks earlier had been cancelled at the last minute.

The retailer also halted orders from its staff as it tried to clear an order backlog.

Technology Elephant

Despite its popularity with investors, Neil Wilson, chief market analyst at, questioned its market valuation.

“Ocado holds enormous promise but whether it can deliver is quite another matter, the cash burn remains and the payback from all these overseas deals is taking a very long time,” he said.

One of the reasons for Ocado’s valuation is the expected revenue from its overseas deals, but these “have been slow to materialise”, he said.

While Ocado’s share price “has rocketed this year thanks to the boom in online retail”, one of the problems for Ocado is that “setting up fulfilment centres costs a lot and the returns are slow,” Mr Wilson said.

He added that “investors put an enormous premium on growth so are prepared to pay a lot for any company that has a strong growth profile.”

Julie Palmer, partner at Begbies Traynor, said the coronavirus pandemic had aided the firm: “Where there is crisis, there is opportunity. These words have never been truer for logistics businesses at the moment, which is one of the reasons that Ocado appeals to investors.”

However, she said the challenge for the business is now to retain the growth it has seen since the Covid-19 outbreak.

“There is an elephant in the room with Amazon, which could strike this sector hard with innovation through technology at any point,” she said.

“This is a fact that must play on the mind of chief executive, Tim Steiner, and should make sure that he doesn’t become complacent,” Ms Palmer added.

Amazon, which launched an online supermarket service in the UK in 2016, has been making further moves into selling groceries.

These include a partnership with Morrisons, which said on Tuesday it would be taking on 1,000 permanent staff for its services on Amazon.

1st October 2020

Technology Coronavirus: Test demand ‘significantly outstripping’ capacity

Technology Coronavirus: Test demand ‘significantly outstripping’ capacity


Media playback is unsupported on your device

Media captionBaroness Harding: It is “quite hard to give you an accurate figure” on the level of demand for coronavirus tests

Demand for coronavirus testing is “significantly outstripping the capacity we have”, head of NHS Test and Trace Baroness Harding has told MPs.

She told the science and technology committee that the return to school meant test demand in England from under-17s had doubled.

She also acknowledged that results were also taking “slightly longer”.

But she said she was “very confident” of raising capacity to 500,000 tests a day by the end of October.

“I am certain we will need more as we go beyond the end of October. We have plans to go beyond 500,000 a day,” Baroness Harding said, before adding there was no formal target beyond the October deadline.

The test and trace programme has come under increasing pressure in recent days, with reports of people unable to access tests or being directed to test centres many miles away.

Figures published on Thursday also showed the turnaround time for community tests was getting longer. Only a third of these tests came back in 24 hours in the week up to 9 September, compared to two-thirds a week earlier.

It comes as the UK reported another 3,395 confirmed cases of coronavirus, and a further 21 deaths were recorded within 28 days of a positive test.

The number of people calling 119 and visiting the website to book tests was three to four times the number of available tests, Baroness Harding told the committee – although she said that may exaggerate the problem as some people call repeatedly from different numbers.

Committee chairman Greg Clark said it was “dispiriting” that despite the “entirely predictable” circumstances of the return to schools and offices “we haven’t had the right capacity put in place”.

Baroness Harding said they built the testing capacity for this autumn – which is now 242,817 a day – based on modelling from the Sage scientific advisory group.

“I don’t think anybody was expecting to see the really sizable increase in demand that has happened over the last few weeks,” she said.

Prof Carl Heneghan, a GP and epidemiologist at Oxford University, told the committee that the testing strategy was “utter chaos” at the moment because other illnesses with Covid-like symptoms such as colds and flu had risen by 50% in children in September.

He said there was only a “slight increase” in hospital admissions and deaths, however, and increased testing may explain some of the rise in cases.

“What’s happening at the moment is the language and the rhetoric is making people so fearful and terrorised that they’re going beyond the guidance because they’re so fearful of what’s coming next,” he said.

An unpublished study suggested that coughs and fevers from other winter viruses could rise to 445,000 a day in December, overwhelming test capacity.

In Sunderland, meanwhile, more than 100 people were left waiting at an empty car park where they said they had been booked in for Covid-19 testing, although no staff or equipment was there.

Bolton Council, which faces the highest levels of infection nationally, said it was “incredibly frustrated” after problems with the national booking system led to long queues and people with appointments being turned away.

Similar problems were reported in Lewisham, south London, where the approach to the centre was “gridlocked”.

Baroness Harding said testing was limited by the laboratory processing capacity, and that they had to restrict the number of people at centres because it would be “very dangerous” to send too many samples to the laboratory that would then go untested.

An NHS Test and Trace survey showed 27% of people seeking tests had no symptoms but had only been in contact with an infected person. Tests should only be provided for members of the public with a continuous cough, a high temperature or a change in sense of smell or taste.

“We don’t want to push away people who are scared,” Baroness Harding said. But she added that they must “protect the capacity we have for the people who most need it”.

The current priorities for testing are NHS patients, NHS staff and care home residents and staff. Together these account for 50% of testing, she said.

After that, areas with serious outbreaks are given priority. Baroness Harding said they were looking at putting key workers next, particularly teachers, “but work is still ongoing”.

In other developments:

30th September 2020

Technology Is there life floating in the clouds of Venus?

Technology Is there life floating in the clouds of Venus?


Technology VenusImage copyright
JAXA/ISAS/Akatsuki Project Team

Image caption

Planet Venus: The phosphine is detected at mid-latitudes

It’s an extraordinary possibility – the idea that living organisms are floating in the clouds of Planet Venus.

But this is what astronomers are now considering after detecting a gas in the atmosphere they can’t explain.

That gas is phosphine – a molecule made up of one phosphorus atom and three hydrogen atoms.

On Earth, phosphine is associated with life, with microbes living in the guts of animals like penguins, or in oxygen-poor environments such as swamps.

For sure, you can make it industrially, but there are no factories on Venus; and there are certainly no penguins.

So why is this gas there, 50km up from the planet’s surface? Prof Jane Greaves, from Cardiff University, UK and colleagues are asking just this question.

They’ve published a paper in the journal Nature Astronomy detailing their observations of phosphine at Venus, as well as the investigations they’ve made to try to show this molecule could have a natural, non-biological origin.

But for the moment, they’re stumped – as they tell the BBC’s Sky At Night programme, which has talked at length to the team. You can see the show on BBC Four tonight (Monday) at 22:30 BST.

Given everything we know about Venus and the conditions that exist there, no-one has yet been able to describe an abiotic pathway to phosphine, not in the quantities that have been detected. This means a life source deserves consideration.

“Through my whole career I have been interested in the search for life elsewhere in the Universe, so I’m just blown away that this is even possible,” Prof Greaves said. “But, yes, we are genuinely encouraging other people to tell us what we might have missed. Our paper and data are open access; this is how science works.”

Media playback is unsupported on your device

Media captionHow corrosive is sulphuric acid? Dr William Bains shows Sky At Night’s Chris Lintott

Technology What exactly has the team detected?

Prof Greaves’ team first identified phosphine at Venus using the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii, and then confirmed its presence using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array in Chile.

Phosphine has a distinctive “absorption line” that these radio telescopes discern at a wavelength of about 1mm. The gas is observed at mid-latitudes on the planet at roughly 50-60km in altitude. The concentration is small – making up only 10-20 parts in every billion atmospheric molecules – but in this context, that’s a lot.

Image copyright

Image caption

The phosphine molecule is made up of one phosphorus atom and three hydrogen atoms

Technology Why is this so interesting?

Venus is not at the top of the list when thinking of life elsewhere in our Solar System. Compared to Earth, it’s a hellhole. With 96% of the atmosphere made up of carbon dioxide, it has experienced a runaway greenhouse effect. Surface temperatures are like those in a pizza oven – over 400C.

Space probes that have landed on the planet have survived just minutes before breaking down. And yet, go 50km up and it’s actually “shirtsleeves conditions”. So, if there really is life on Venus, this is exactly where we might expect to find it.

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Image caption

Artwork: Venus is envisioned as a hellish world, an unlikely candidate to host life

Technology Why should we be sceptical?

The clouds. They’re thick and they’re mainly composed (75-95%) of sulphuric acid, which is catastrophic for the cellular structures that make up living organisms on Earth.

Dr William Bains, who’s affiliated to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US, is a biochemist on the team. He’s studied various combinations of different compounds expected to be on Venus; he’s examined whether volcanoes, lightning and even meteorites could play a role in making PH3 – and all of the chemical reactions he’s investigated, he says, are 10,000 times too weak to produce the amount of phosphine that’s been observed.

To survive the sulphuric acid, Dr Bains believes, airborne Venusian microbes would either have to use some unknown, radically different biochemistry, or evolve a kind of armour.

“In principle, a more water-loving life could hide itself away inside a protective shell of some sorts inside the sulphuric acid droplets,” he told Sky At Night. “We’re talking bacteria surrounding themselves by something tougher than Teflon and completely sealing themselves in. But then how do they eat? How do they exchange gases? It’s a real paradox.”

Image caption

The Soviet probes that landed survived just long enough to radio back a handful of pictures

Technology What’s been the reaction?

Cautious and intrigued. The team emphatically is not claiming to have found life on Venus, only that the idea needs to be further explored as scientists also hunt down any overlooked geological or abiotic chemical pathways to phosphine.

Oxford University’s Dr Colin Wilson worked on the European Space Agency’s Venus Express probe (2006-2014), and is a leading figure in the development of a new mission concept called EnVision. He said Prof Greaves’ observations would spur a new wave of research at the planet.

“It’s really exciting and will lead to new discoveries – even if the original phosphine detection were to turn out to be a spectroscopic misinterpretation, which I don’t think it will. I think that life in Venus’ clouds today is so unlikely that we’ll find other chemical pathways of creating phosphine in the atmosphere – but we’ll discover lots of interesting things about Venus in this search,” he told BBC News.

Prof Lewis Dartnell from the University of Westminster is similarly cautious. He’s an astrobiologist – someone who studies the possibilities of life beyond Earth. He thinks Mars or the moons of Jupiter and Saturn are a better bet to find life.

“If life can survive in the upper cloud-decks of Venus – that’s very illuminating, because it means maybe life is very common in our galaxy as a whole. Maybe life doesn’t need very Earth-like planets and could survive on other, hellishly-hot, Venus-like planets across the Milky Way.”

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Image caption

The phosphine signal was confirmed by the ALMA telescope facility in Chile

Technology How can the question be resolved?

By sending a probe to investigate specifically the atmosphere of Venus.

The US space agency (Nasa) asked scientists recently to sketch the design for a potential flagship mission in the 2030s. Flagships are the most capable – and most expensive – ventures undertaken by Nasa. This particular concept proposed an aerobot, or instrumented balloon, to travel through the clouds of Venus.

“The Russians did this with their Vega balloon (in 1985),” said team-member Prof Sara Seager from MIT. “It was coated with Teflon to protect it from sulphuric acid and floated around for a couple of days, making measurements.

“We could definitely go make some in-situ measurements. We could concentrate the droplets and measure their properties. We could even bring a microscope along and try to look for life itself.”

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Artwork: One of the best ways to resolve the uncertainty would be with instrumented balloons

The Sky At Night special on this story can be seen at 22:30 on BBC Four, and afterwards on the BBC iPlayer. and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

30th September 2020

Technology Hundreds of trains to benefit from £55m upgrades

Technology Hundreds of trains to benefit from £55m upgrades



image copyrightPeter Alvey

image captionHundreds of trains are set to be upgraded in the refurbishments

A fleet of 270 trains will undergo a £55m modernisation to improve travel for passengers.

The five-year project will see upgrades to Southern, Gatwick Express and Great Northern trains including real-time passenger information screens.

Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) and Porterbrook, the owner of the trains, will also equip carriages with environmentally friendly LED lighting.

The improvements will give “a better on-board experience”, GTR said.

Trains to benefit from “Project Aurora” include 214 on the Southern network between London, Surrey, Sussex and the south coast, and 56 on Great Northern or Gatwick Express routes.

While parts of the fleet are just five years old, most trains have been in service for between 15 and 20 years.

GTR’s engineers will install features including on-board real-time information through media screens, USB and power points and passenger counting technology.

The trains will also be fitted with an upgraded data recorder that will help predict and diagnose faults and streamline maintenance.

New forward-facing CCTV cameras will also help GTR and Network Rail investigate incidents that have delayed services.

GTR’s engineering director, Steve Lammin, said: “Taking on board our passengers’ feedback, this multi-faceted upgrade by our own team at Selhurst Depot will provide a better on-board experience and more reliability.”

Mary Grant, Porterbrook chief executive, said: “We are committed to helping GTR meet the needs of its travelling customers.”

The first completed upgrade is scheduled for autumn.

30th September 2020

Technology Coronavirus testing: Simple test gives results in 90 minutes

Technology Coronavirus testing: Simple test gives results in 90 minutes


Technology DNA Nudge kitImage copyright
Imperial College London

A rapid test can accurately diagnose a coronavirus infection within 90 minutes without needing a specialist laboratory, say scientists.

The study by Imperial College London showed the “lab-on-a-chip” gave comparable results to current tests.

The device is already being used in eight NHS hospitals to quickly identify patients who are carrying the virus.

However, experts warn that the kit will not be a solution to the beleaguered Test and Trace programme.

The device, developed by the company DnaNudge, can be used by anyone capable of taking a swab of the nose or throat.

The swab is placed inside a disposable blue cartridge which contains the chemicals needed for the test.

This in turn is slotted into a shoebox-sized machine to perform the analysis.

Media playback is unsupported on your device

Media caption“A device this small is effectively a laboratory” – Prof Chris Toumazou, of DnaNudge, explains how the new test works

The study, published in the Lancet Microbe, compared results when samples from 386 people were given both the DnaNudge and standard laboratory tests.

“The performance was comparable, which is very reassuring when you’re trying to bring in a new technology,” said Prof Graham Cooke, from Imperial College London.

“Many tests involve a trade-off between speed and accuracy, but this test manages to achieve both.”

If the lab tests said the patient was free of the virus, so did the rapid test. If the lab tests said the patient had the virus, the rapid test agreed 94% of the time.

The UK has already ordered 5,000 of the Nudgebox machines and 5.8 million of the disposable cartridges.

However, there is a major drawback as each box can handle only one test at a time. So during a day, one box could perform around 16 tests.

Prof Cooke said: “They are useful in clinical settings when you are trying to make a rapid decision.”

He described a patient last week who was rapidly identified as having Covid and started on the drugs dexamethasone and remdesivir.

The tests could become even more useful for hospitals in the future as it is theoretically possible to test for coronavirus, flu and respiratory syncytial virus (a major reason young children are admitted to hospital) at the same time.

However, the capacity issue means the test cannot solve the problems with NHS Test and Trace or help with Operation Moonshot and the plans for 10 million tests per day.

Testing 60,000 people at a stadium ahead of a football match would require 60,000 boxes, but it may be useful at smaller venues.

Prof Lawrence Young, who was not part of the research and from the University of Warwick, said the technology was “innovative”.

He added: “The CovidNudge test could have an important role where near-patient, real-time decision-making is necessary, such as screening patients for admission to hospital or for surgery.

“[However,] this is not the answer to universal mass testing. “

Follow James on Twitter

30th September 2020

Technology Covid: Scottish courts backlog ‘could last 10 years’

Technology Covid: Scottish courts backlog ‘could last 10 years’


Technology Bewigged lawyers in court

Image caption

The committee said delays were not acceptable to victims, witnesses or those accused of crimes

Scottish courts could take up to a decade to return to normal after Covid, a Holyrood committee has warned.

The Scottish Parliament’s justice committee said “unpalatable” steps were needed to address the lengthy delays in the criminal justice system.

MSPs have been looking at the impact of the coronavirus crisis on the courts.

The justice committee described the current level of delays faced by those involved in criminal cases as “not acceptable”.

The Scottish government said it welcomed the committee’s report and would respond in detail “in due course”.

It said the situation was one that was mirrored across the world.

Technology Cinema juries

Committee convener Adam Tomkins said: “The scale of the challenge faced by our courts is not to be underestimated. Current delays are not acceptable for the victims, witnesses or those accused of crimes.

“While that point may not be controversial, we need to ensure changes to improve the situation, whether long or short term, have the widest possible backing.

“To that end, we want the Scottish government to convene a meeting of all interested parties to agree a way forward. Time is of the essence.”

The committee’s report praised the use of remote jury centres based in cinemas and said more digital technology was needed.

It also recommended the consideration of extending court sitting hours and sentencing discounts for those pleading guilty at an early stage on criminal proceedings.

But it came out against the idea of holding trials without juries in serious criminal cases.

Mr Tomkins added: “Although the problems are at their worst in the criminal courts, there is still a mismatch in our civil courts, which are largely functioning, and other services linked to them, such as family contact centres, which are at best partially open.”

Technology Digital technology

The Scottish government said it understood the impact trial delays had on victims, witnesses and accused, and said it had pledged £5.5m to establish the remote jury centres.

A spokeswoman said :”The impact of Covid-19 is being felt by jurisdictions across the world. We continue to work with partners, including victims groups, the Scottish courts and prosecution services, and the legal profession, to identify the best possible way to deal with the backlog.

“This includes consideration of remote jury centres in sheriff and jury cases, optimising the use of the physical court estate within the prevailing public health requirements, increased use of digital technology where appropriate and additional support to organisations supporting victims.”

She added that a new structure, led by a criminal justice board, had been established to co-ordinate recovery activity, including in the criminal courts and that this board would meet every two weeks to direct and monitor progress.

28th September 2020

Technology China takes aim at US ‘bullying’ of its tech firms

Technology China takes aim at US ‘bullying’ of its tech firms


Technology China has launched a new set of global rules for tech companies to follow.Image copyright
Getty Images

China has taken aim at the US saying its tech firms are victims of “naked bullying”.

The accusations come as the Chinese government launches a new set of global guidelines for technology companies.

Its new initiative outlaws illegally obtaining people’s data and large-scale surveillance.

Last month a similar data privacy effort was announced by the US called The Clean Network.

It is the latest clash between Washington and Beijing over data security issues which has already embroiled TikTok, Huawei and WeChat.

In recent months, the Trump administration has taken steps to block Chinese tech firms like Huawei and Chinese apps including TikTok and WeChat saying they pose threats to national security.

“Some individual countries are aggressively pursuing unilateralism, throwing dirty water on other countries under the pretext of ‘cleanliness’, and conducting global hunts on leading companies of other countries under the pretext of security,” China’s State Councillor Wang Yi said.

“This is naked bullying and should be opposed and rejected.”

On Tuesday, Mr Wang said the new initiative also calls for tech firms to not create backdoors – secret access to a company’s data and network – into their services.

The US has frequently accused Chinese telecoms provider Huawei of having backdoors in its equipment.

“Global data security rules that reflect the wishes of all countries and respect the interests of all parties should be reached on the basis of universal participation by all parties,” Mr Wang added.

Technology Cleaning up

China’s global data security plan states that tech firms should not engage in large-scale surveillance of other countries or illegally acquire information of foreign citizens by using technology.

In August US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo launched the Clean Network, a global blueprint to exclude Chinese telecoms firms, apps, cloud providers from internet infrastructure used by the US and other countries.

“We call on all freedom-loving nations and companies to join the Clean Network,” Mr Pompeo said. More than 30 countries and territories have signed up according to the State Department.

China’s new initiative to set global standards on data security will be welcomed by tech companies, according to one legal expert.

“China has a robust national data privacy framework to protect personal data, whereas the US does not have a national level privacy law. In the context of developments that may restrict international data flows, this announcement looks like a pragmatic approach for international business,” Carolyn Bigg, a technology and communications lawyer at law firm DLA Piper told the BBC.

Technology Growing tension

This week, China’s largest chip manufacturer’s Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation (SMIC) was targeted for a US government blacklist.

This would restrict suppliers from providing it with American-based tech without special permission.

On Tuesday, US president Donald Trump stressed his desire to “decouple” from China.

“Whether it’s decoupling, or putting in massive tariffs like I’ve been doing already, we will end our reliance on China, because we can’t rely on China,” Mr Trump said.

India’s government has also banned TikTok and dozens more Chinese-made apps it says are a danger to the country.

27th September 2020

Technology Singapore distributes Covid contact-tracing tokens

Technology Singapore distributes Covid contact-tracing tokens


Technology The TraceTogether tokens are an alternative to the government's contact tracing smartphone app.Image copyright
Silver Generation Office (SGO)

Singapore has started distributing Bluetooth contact-tracing tokens to its five million residents to help contain the spread of Covid-19.

The tokens, which can be worn on a lanyard or carried, are a hardware version of its existing contact-tracing app which was rolled out in March.

Like the app, they use Bluetooth to look for other users’ devices and then log any contact with those devices.

They could be popular with older people who do not use smart phones.

The government also hopes the tokens will help to further reopen the economy, by enabling conferences to restart and providing better tracing in higher risk settings, such as busy hotels, cinemas and gyms.

The initial rollout is happening in areas with a greater concentration of elderly people, who are both at a greater health risk from Covid-19 and less likely to own a smart phone.

But the token will be available to all citizens, including foreign residents.

Singapore residents currently check-in to shops and office buildings using a separate SafeEntry system, that makes use of QR codes to log users’ presence.

For some higher-risk activities, SafeEntry will now also require the app or token to check in.

Technology Better for privacy?

A consultant tapped by the government’s technology agency to provide feedback on the token said it’s a better option for anyone concerned about privacy.

“I would prefer to use the token over the app,” said Bunnie Huang, who lined up for a token on the first day it was available.

Like app, information is stored on the token, purged regularly and is only uploaded – or in the case of the token physically handed over – to the Ministry of Health if the user tests positive.

The tokens can be carried on a lanyard or in a bag, and don’t require a smart phone to run.

The advantage to a hardware-only version, said Mr Huang, is that it makes it impossible for a software update to surreptitiously turn on location data or other sensors without the user noticing.

“With the token, if I want it off, I know how to destroy it,” he said.

The token will also help to cover people without a smart phone, and those who have encountered functionality problems with the app, he said.

Image copyright
Getty Images

Technology Apps around the world

Singapore was the first government to introduce a contact tracing app nationally in March.

Since then, about 2.4 million people have downloaded the app, with about 1.4 million using it in August.

Singapore government figures have long acknowledged that those numbers need to increase to make the app and the token effective.

But the Ministry of Health said the program has helped to reduce the time it takes to identify and quarantine close contacts of Covid-19 cases from four days to two.

The city-state has been more enthusiastic about contact tracing apps than many other countries, which have been slower to introduce apps or have struggled to make good use of them.

England and Wales, for example, won’t introduce their app until later this month, while Australia has struggled to get any information from the app that it didn’t get by regular contact tracing.

26th September 2020

Technology Black turbine blade ‘can cut bird deaths’

Technology Black turbine blade ‘can cut bird deaths’


Technology Turbines at the Smola windfarm, Norway (Image: Statkraft)Image copyright

Image caption

Bird strikes are one of the main environmental concerns surrounding onshore wind farms

Painting one blade of a wind turbine black could cut bird strikes at wind farms by up to 70%, a study suggests.

Birds colliding with the structures has long been considered to be one of the main negative impacts of onshore wind farms, the authors observed.

The RSPB welcomed the research but said the priority remained avoiding placing wind farms where there was a risk to wildlife, such as birds.

The findings have been published in the Ecology and Evolution journal.

“Collision of birds, especially raptors, is one of the main environmental concerns related to wind energy development,” observed co-author Roel May.

“In Norway, 6-9 white-tailed eagles are killed annually within the Smøla wind-power plant; This has caused opposition and conflict.”

The Smola wind farm is located on the west coast of Norway, consisting of 68 turbines over 18 square kilometres, making it one of the largest onshore wind farms in Norway.

Technology Paint it black

Dr May, a senior researcher from the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research in Trondheim, said the team were keen to test whether mitigation measures could reduce the rate of bird strikes.

“One of the mitigation measures we tested was painting one of three rotor blades black,” he told BBC News.

“The expectation is that this design reduces so-called motion smear, making the blades more visible to birds.

Image copyright

Image caption

Painting one of the blades on a turbine is believed to reduce “motion smear”, allowing birds to see the rotating blades

Dr May said the concept of reducing the motion smear of the rotating blades was based on laboratory experiments carried out in the US at the beginning of the century.

The authors observed: “The annual fatality rate was significantly reduced at the turbines with a painted blade by over 70%, relative to the neighbouring control (i.e. unpainted) turbines.”

Dr May said that the findings were encouraging but further testing at different wind farms was needed in order to make the findings more robust.

He observed: “Although we found a significant drop in bird collision rates, its efficacy may well be site- and species-specific.

“At the moment there exists interest to carry out tests in the Netherlands and in South Africa.”

Martin Harper, the RSPB’s director for conservation, welcomed the research but said it was important to remember the development of wind farms needed to “take place in harmony with nature”.

“Wind turbines are the right technology when we find the right places for them, so studies like this are valuable and build on our understanding of what additional mitigation could be used once we identify locations suitable for wind farms,” he said.

“As the report acknowledges, this studied a single site and more work needs to be done, so we would be interested in seeing more research in this area.”

Technology ‘Interesting development’

Meanwhile, a spokesman for manufacturer Siemens Gamesa said the issue was one for developers and operators of wind farms to consider, rather than manufacturers.

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Conservationists recognise the importance of onshore wind farms, but say that they must not be at the expense of wildlife

He told BBC News: “We don’t take part in the ongoing running of a wind farm, so we’re not familiar with instances of bird strike.”

But he added: “We could manufacture to a specification laid down by the developers.”

A spokeswoman for ScottishPower Renewables, which operates the UK’s largest onshore facility – the 539MW Whitelees wind farm in Scotland, described the study as “definitely an interesting development”.

She said: “Our approach to wind farm development takes account of the local bird population right from the very start.”

“That includes careful planning to ensure we pick the right locations in the first place; and we also work closely with the likes of RSPB and Scottish Natural Heritage to ensure we do everything we can to protect local wildlife.”

Dr May said he would like to see wind farm developers adopt mitigation measures, such as the painted blade, where it was proven that bird strikes were an issue.

“If done prior to construction, it will be a very cost-effective measure that may help reduce unnecessary conflicts,” he added.

“What hasn’t been tested yet, is whether other rotor blade patterns (e.g. red blade tips as used to warn aviation) might be equally effective.

“Any improvements (or co-benefits) of the design could be interest for further study. This does however not preclude implementation of the current design.”

26th September 2020

Technology Climate change: Earthquake ‘hack’ reveals scale of ocean warming

Technology Climate change: Earthquake ‘hack’ reveals scale of ocean warming


Technology indian oceanImage copyright
Getty Images

Image caption

Information about sea temperatures is critical for climate change but data is sparse in the Indian Ocean

Scientists have found a clever new way of measuring ocean warming, using sound waves from undersea earthquakes.

The researchers say the “hack” works because sound travels faster in warmer water.

The team looked at sonic data from the Indian Ocean emitted by tremors over a 10-year period.

As the seas have warmed due to global heating, the scientists have seen the sound waves increase in speed.

Their new method shows the decadal warming trend in the Indian Ocean was far higher than previous estimates.

Having accurate information on the warming of our oceans is critical for climate scientists.

They understand that around 90% of the energy trapped in our atmosphere by greenhouse gases is absorbed by the seas.

But having precise temperature measurements, in multiple locations and depths, is a huge challenge.

The deployment of around 4,000 autonomous devices called Argo floats that capture temperature information has helped enormously, but there are big gaps in our knowledge.

This is especially true in relation to what’s happening in the waters deeper than 2,000m.

But now a team of researchers has developed a very different approach that exploits the fact that the speed of sound in seawater depends on temperature.

The idea was first proposed and trialled in the late 1970s using sound waves generated by scientists.

However, concerns over the impact of these sounds on marine mammals and rising costs saw the idea abandoned.

The new approach involves using the naturally produced sound waves that occur when an underwater earthquake strikes.

The scientists examined data from over 4,000 tremors that occurred in the Indian Ocean between 2004 and 2016.

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Gallo Images

Image caption

Researchers recorded the time taken for sound waves to register on Diego Garcia after travelling across the Indian Ocean

The team then looked for pairs of “repeaters”, earthquakes with almost identical origins and power.

By measuring how long these slow-moving signals took to travel across the waters from Indonesia to a monitoring station on the island of Diego Garcia, they were able to work out the changes in temperature for the whole of the ocean over the 10-year period.

“It takes sound waves about half an hour to travel from Sumatra to Diego Garcia,” lead author Dr Wenbo Wu from the California Institute of Technology told BBC News.

“The temperature change of the deep ocean between Sumatra and Diego Garcia causes this half-hour travel time to vary by a few tenths of a second.

“Because we can measure these variations very accurately, we can infer the small changes in the average temperature of the deep ocean, in this case about a tenth of a degree.”

The author says the system has some major advantages, as it is able to provide a large-scale average temperature along the 3,000km path from Sumatra to Diego Garcia, which reduces the influence of local fluctuations, essentially making it more accurate over the ocean as a whole.

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Getty Images

Image caption

Students in Indonesia rehearse for a tsunami, an ever present danger because of earthquakes

The method is also quite cheap, as it uses data that’s already being gathered, and is sensitive to temperatures deeper than the current restriction of 2,000m.

In their research, the scientists showed that warming in the Indian Ocean over the decade that they studied was greater than previously estimated.

However, the paper has some important caveats.

“It is important to emphasise that this is a result that applies to this particular region and this particular decade,” said Dr Wu.

“We need to apply our method in many more regions and over different time frames to evaluate whether there is any systematic under- or over-estimation of the deep-ocean trend globally.

“It is much too early to draw any conclusions in this direction.”

To make the idea work on a global scale, the scientists will need access to more underwater receivers.

Right now, the research team is working with data collected by a hydrophone network operated by the United Nations Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization, which is listening for underwater nuclear explosions.

These hydrophones pick up signals from many of the 10,000 shallow submarine earthquakes that occur globally every year, explained Dr Wu.

“All this data contains information on the temperature change of the deep ocean — it is just waiting for us to extract it.”

The study has been published in the journal Science.

Follow Matt on Twitter @mattmcgrathbbc.

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