Building a chaos machine

The mathematics of chaos theory is useful for studying non-linear dynamic systems in Mechanical and Civil Engineering. Our technician Mictroy has built a ‘chaos machine’, a pendulum based teaching tool to help Engineering students get their heads around the theory.

Building earthquake-proof schools in Nepal

The 2015 earthquake in Nepal was devastating. 9,000 people died, 3.5 million were left homeless and whole communities were flattened.

Our Civil Engineers have been working with local experts, the Government of Nepal, the Universities of Kathmandu and Tribhuvan, Arup International Development, NSET, Save the Children and school pupils in Nepal to save lives by making buildings and communities safer – starting with schools.

The project, led by Professor Anastasios Sextos, combines cutting edge research and laboratory-based testing with co-produced solutions developed with and by communities in Nepal.

For the project to succeed the solutions must be affordable, locally-sourced and acceptable to local people. During the last field trip our researchers spoke to lots of Nepalese people who witnessed the devastation caused by collapsed buildings in the 2015 quake.

We’re using our seismic shaking table to see how replicas of Nepalese classrooms, strengthened using novel yet cost-effective techniques, perform in earthquake conditions. ~We are also developing a simple, state-of-the-art phone app that lets local engineers identify at-risk schools and make them safer while facilitating informed decision making at a central level.

All our research is supported by workshops and on-site training so, aided by our local and international partners, we’re leaving behind the skills and expertise for communities to rebuild Nepal safely.

The team are heading out to Nepal again in April and will be updating us on this exciting project.

The earthquake shaking table competition

Our second year Civil Engineering MEng students compete to create the most resilient structure using the knowledge gained through their course. The shaking table runs a series of greater magnitude shakes until only one tower remains intact.

MEng in Civil Engineering students learn about the design of steel and concrete structures in the context of realistic multi-storey buildings incorporating common beam, column and slab arrangements.

If you want to gain a greater knowledge in earthquake engineering, we have the MSc in Earthquake Engineering and Infrastructure Resilience. One of the highlights of this programme is a field trip to an earthquake affected area, where students can visit structures and inspect recent damage.

Find out more about Civil Engineering at the University of Bristol

Building a replica Enigma Machine

Computer Science student Tom has built a working replica of the Enigma Machine used to send encoded messages during World War Two. He spent a six week internship in our Engineering Hackspace building the replica, which is now being used by students and school children to explore codes and number theory.

Bristol is a world leader in cryptography and our Computer Science students learn all about keeping systems like power stations and the NHS safe from hackers.
Find out more at http://www.bristol.ac.uk/computerscience/

Gulliver’s travels: can drones learn from nature?

Unmanned aerial vehicles are rarely out of the headlines. The world’s first driverless passenger drone has already been tested in China, and major companies have begun trialling drone deliveries to customers.

But despite this huge acceleration in popularity there’s a number of challenges which drone manufacturers are facing, not least the matter of urban drone navigation. To investigate this problem, PhD students Cara Williamson and Anouk Spelt are studying urban gulls to understand the most efficient flight paths through urban landscapes. We spoke to Cara to learn more about their project.

Drones could benefit society in so many ways, from the obvious, such as parcel delivery, to the life-changing, such as being the first point of contact for emergency services.

“The Urban Gull Project was started in 2016 by myself and Anouk Spelt as part of our PhD research. We’re supervised by Dr Shane Windsor who won a grant to start the Bio-Inspired Flight Lab.  Over millions of years, nature has optimised for every environment – urban gulls are particularly adept at coping with the complex wind flows around city buildings. UAVs could use similar flight strategies. Drones could benefit society in so many ways, from the obvious, such as parcel delivery, to the life-changing, such as being the first point of contact for emergency services.

Computational model of wind flow over buildings

“The project brings together biology and engineering, using GPS devices on 11 lesser black-backed gulls in Bristol. The tiny backpacks (under 3% of the bird’s weight) track location, altitude, speed and 3D acceleration data which tells us whether the birds are soaring or flapping.  Preliminary research showed how gulls position themselves in updrafts on the windward side of buildings to improve control and mitigate risks from gusts. These wind-highways help them maintain altitude so they can soar for a third of their flight time.  We’re now seeing that gulls choose routes to foraging grounds that save them energy, even if they are twice the shortest distance.

Battery life is a big problem for drones. Batteries are heavy and limit their range and endurance.

“The wind modelling and path planning method I’ve been using is very quick and could be run in advance of a UAV making a delivery, for example, in order to pick a route that keeps energy costs to a minimum. Battery life is a big problem for drones. Batteries are heavy and limit their range and endurance.

Tracking gull flight around Bristol.

“We collect habitat and weather data in and around Bristol. It’s the perfect location as it combines a diverse built environment with an established gull population. Over the last few decades, the birds’ distribution has moved away from traditional seaside haunts. It’s thought that cities offer warmer temperatures, protected nesting sites and rich pickings from our litter. Anouk compares the gulls’ foraging behaviour and energetic costs with their rural cousins to establish what is really going on.  Despite being referred to as seagulls, our birds don’t visit the sea at all during breeding season (March-August), which is why we use the term urban gulls (first coined by our collaborator and South West gull expert of over 30 years, Pete Rock).

Cara and Anouk present their projects.

“Having followed the gulls for three years, we’ve seen a gull laying an egg, held hatching eggs and watched chicks taking their first flight. Our work has taken us to the top of landfills, quarries, the waste treatment centre and up many tall buildings and church spires. The gulls have distinct traits – we even named some of them after our favourite Game of Thrones characters; Arya (quite feisty – tried to peck us); Sansa (the most beautiful); Lady Brienne (the largest) and Tyrion (the smallest). We also got very attached to the first season’s chicks and learnt the hard way that nature can be quite brutal. It would be good to mend the human-gull relationship. We want to get the message out that when animals thrive in the environments we create, they can teach us so much. It’s vital to study and conserve the natural world.

“At the moment, we’ve got a packed programme of workshops in schools. Pupils design and fly drones and find out about bio-inspired engineering and wind pattern modelling.  We’ve had some really encouraging feedback and we hope we’ve inspired a new generation of kids to take STEM subjects that they wouldn’t have previously considered.  We were really pleased that this outreach programme was recognised when the project was shortlisted for the 2018 Airbus Diversity Awards.”

Using sound waves to detect deadly diseases

Professor Bruce Drinkwater and acoustic levitator

Professor Bruce Drinkwater and his colleagues in Brazil are using acoustics to detect disease. Their collaboration was one of the six projects shortlisted in the Brazil category for the prestigious 2018 Newton Prize.

Sand fly biting skin
Sand flies transfer the parasites that cause Leishmaniasis
Bruce believes that new technology is the key to tackling the challenges of disease and poverty. He said, “As an engineer, working with the end-users of this technology, this is an area where I can make a difference. Leishmaniasis is a tropical disease that’s endemic in 97 countries. More than a million new cases occur each year world-wide and without early diagnosis, people are at risk of disability and death.  Parasites, transferred by sand-fly bites, cause ulcers of the skin, mouth and nose with skin lesions resembling leprosy. Unchecked, infections can be life-limiting, leading to horrific disfigurement, fever, loss of red blood cells and an enlarged spleen and liver.”  

Bruce is working with Professor Glauber Silva from the Federal University of Alagoas in Brazil.

Regular communication is crucial in this interdisciplinary project. Here Professors Silva and Moreira in Brazil discuss the experimental results of a new diagnostic device in a video link to Professor Drinkwater in the UK.
The team have made some fantastic breakthroughs in the area of disease detection: “We are developing small and robust prototype acoustic devices that have the potential to detect Leishmaniasis. The lab-on-a-chip devices use acoustic forces to sort and sense thousands of cells, or other microscopic objects, simultaneously. In Leishmania, the infected cells (macrophages) have different mechanical properties from healthy cells. We can exploit this difference in various ways, sorting diseased from healthy cells is just one. The devices can also help detect antibodies in blood and antigens in urine samples by concentrating them with ultrasonic forces. This leads to more rapid diagnosis and monitoring of the disease.

If successful, theses devices could have a huge impact on the lives of those in Brazil and other developing countries: “Leishmaniasis  is one of the NTDs that lag far behind HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria when it comes to research funding. It affects 20,000 people each year in parts of Brazil where poverty, overcrowding and inadequate sanitation are major risk factors. If we can have an impact on Leishmaniasis, the same techniques could be used against other NTDs, transforming outcomes for some of the world’s most disadvantaged people. “

If we can have an impact on Leishmaniasis, the same techniques could be used against other neglected tropical diseases, transforming outcomes for some of the world’s most disadvantaged people.

“These devices are undergoing testing by Brazilian biomedical researchers working on neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) with promising results. After further development of the devices, the next phase will be field trials in hard to access areas where help is most needed.

More information

Newton Fund:
The Newton Fund was launched in 2014 to promote economic development in countries eligible for official development assistance (ODA). A grant from the Newton fund and the Royal Society made possible Bruce’s research partnership with Professor Glauber Silva from the Federal University of Alagoas in Brazil, enabling them to bring together a multidisciplinary team with expertise in engineering, physics and biomedicine.

https://www.newtonfund.ac.uk

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leishmaniasis  (Content note: graphic images depicting disease)

Why we should care about supercomputing

Supercomputers already affect our everyday lives, in subtle yet significant ways – forecasting hurricane paths, predicting climate change and making huge breakthroughs in cancer treatment.

They’ve even been described as a ‘crystal ball’ we can use to predict the future… and, yes, maybe one day, they’ll figure out the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything. Yet outside of the scientific community, these monolithic machines aren’t as well understood as they deserve to be.

To help shed some light on the subject, we spoke to our very own Professor Of High Performance Computing, Simon McIntosh-Smith, to find out more about how we’re all benefiting from the power of supercomputers.

Simon picked up the Outstanding Leadership In HPC Award at the international supercomputing awards – SC18 – this month. He’s also leading a unique new supercomputing project called Isambard, as part of the GW4 Alliance, together with Cray Inc and the Met Office. The Isambard project is exploring the use of mobile technology in supercomputers, in order to build them at a fraction of the cost and make supercomputers more accessible for everyone.

Read more about the Isambard project here

World Toilet Day: In celebration of the toilet

For World Toilet Day we spoke to Gro Slotsvik, Global Challenges Research Manager for the Faculty of Engineering, about the importance of toilets and how engineers are working with local communities around the world to create global access to clean water and sanitation. 

“It’s one of the less glamorous parts of life. You’ll spend some part of your day, every day, in its company. You probably rarely think about its positive impact on your life. The humble toilet, does not get the attention it deserves.

“So opens the Water & Sanitation session of day three of the Global Engineering Congress in London. Over 2500 participants from 82 countries are finding new ways to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) together. There are civil, electrical and mechanical engineers, policymakers, research councils, UN agencies, charities, development organisations, artists and lawyers. And there is a buzz in the air.”

The sanitation challenge

“As the world tackles poverty, climate change and providing education for all, poor sanitation is stalling progress. Worldwide, 2.4 billion people do not have access to basic sanitation services, like toilets. Poor sanitation causes the deaths of over 1,200 children under five, every day. In 2016, inadequate sanitation and hygiene were the cause of more than half a million deaths from diarrhoea alone. A lack of toilets and latrines affects education, health, economic development and our environment.

“The toilet, our unsung hero of sanitation, has a key role to play in achieving the SDGs. None of the other Goals, on equality, poverty and climate action, can be achieved without achieving Goal 6. This Goal states that by 2030 all people should have access to clean water and sanitation. We need toilets to save the world.”

The solutions

“There is no quick fix when it comes to toilets. The toilet that works well in rural Somerset is unlikely to work in rural Sudan. Differences in water levels, space, number of people using the same toilet and how hot, cold, dry or humid the climate is mean that different places need different things. The challenges are diverse and so the solutions need to be too.

“Sanitation for all cannot be achieved without engineers who understand the local context. At the University of Bristol, our engineers are addressing the SDGs in partnerships with local communities and researchers. When we help create earthquake resilient schools in Nepal, map waterborne infectious diseases in the Congo or build sustainable energy systems for refugees in Rwanda, we do so with those who know the conditions best.

“In the case of making sure the world has access to clean water and sanitation, it starts with the humble toilet. Next time you see one, consider giving it a nod of thanks. Much like the engineers fixing sanitation all over the world, it’s a lifesaver.”

More information

Engineering for International Development
The Faculty of Engineering runs a number of international developmental projects across Latin America and the Caribbean, sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia:

Making the Gromit Unleashed trail a virtual reality for hospitalised children

This summer Wallace & Gromit’s Grand Appeal partnered with engineering researchers to bring virtual reality into Bristol Children’s Hospital, helping patients unable to leave the hospital experience the award-winning sculpture trail.

a young patient tries the VR experience at Bristol Children’s Hospital

Hundreds of thousands of people from across the UK and overseas took part in Gromit Unleashed 2, the third arts trail from Bristol Children’s Hospital charity The Grand Appeal. There were 67 giant sculptures of Academy Award®-winning Aardman characters, Wallace, Gromit and Feathers McGraw – all designed and decorated by a local and high profile artists and brands, including Pixar Animations Studios and DreamWorks.

The ‘Gromit Unleashed 2 VR Experience’ was developed by Bristol Interaction Group, a research group in Engineering, and Large Visible Machine, an independent mobile platforms game studio.

PhD student Gareth Barnaby, who led the VR project, said: “It’s been a great experience to combine our technical expertise with the tireless enthusiasm of the people at The Grand Appeal to create a fun project to be deployed in the real world and brighten people’s days in hospital.

“As a PhD student, it can be hard to see where academia and the real world intersect. This project has shown the difference our work can make and the huge benefits technology can bring. Thanks to everyone at the University who has put in their time to make this project happen, and a huge thank you to The Grand Appeal for the hugely impactful work they do, and for the opportunity to be a part of it.”

Children with complex needs or those undergoing intense treatments, such as bone marrow transplants, are unable to leave hospital, so the University donated over 200 sets of Google Cardboard and two Google Pixel phones, for patients without access to a smart phone. Using the headsets, through virtual reality technology patients are transported to the streets of Bristol to see the sculptures up close and personal in a live setting with the use of 360 camera technology.

Nicola Masters, Director of The Grand Appeal said: “Bristol Children’s Hospital and the 100,000 patients it cares for each year sit at the heart of absolutely everything we do. Virtual Reality is a powerful tool, and what better way to harness this than to bring the trail to the bedsides of young patients who are too poorly to leave their bed or their ward. Taking part in such an immersive and interactive experience is having a brilliant impact not only on the child’s wellbeing, but also on their rehabilitation and recovery in hospitals.”

Geothermal energy production in Cornwall- Is it viable?

Today marks the start of drilling for what may become the first deep geothermal power plant in the UK. Falmouth based firm Geothermal Engineering are drilling two wells, 2.8 miles (4.5km) and 1.5 miles (2.5km), into granite near Redruth, Cornwall.

Cold water will be pumped down to the hot rocks where the temperature is up to 200C (390F). Hot water will be brought to the surface. Steam from the heated water will drive turbines producing electricity. If this pilot project is successful it could pave the way for similar power production in the UK.

Professor Joe Quarini from the department of Mechanical Engineering shared his thoughts on the project:

Professor Joe Quarini talks to Jon Kay from the BBC

“This is a good and exciting project from an engineering perspective. Not only will it bring jobs and expertise to Cornwall, but we’re going to learn a lot about engineering as the work progresses. We’ve seen similar, but ‘easier’ projects work successfully in New Zealand, Iceland and Italy. There are some technical questions that will be answered during this pilot, like, whether there are significant fouling issues associated with leaching out soluble minerals from the underground structures, what proportion of the water pumped into the ground actually comes back and whether and at what rate the heat deposits are depleted.

The answer to these questions will dictate the long-term viability of geothermal energy production in the UK. Cornwall is unique, it has heat-producing granite rocks with the highest energy density in the UK. In terms of absolute sums, electrical power production from geothermal is likely to be a small proportion of the Nation’s needs; it best location will be Cornwall. That said, Engineering is a global discipline, so it’s great for our young engineers to get the opportunity to see projects like this in action. We know that young people are really interested in green energy and sustainability so hopefully this will get more young people interested in Engineering as a subject.

Whilst the project excites me in terms of Engineering, I’m less confident about the long-term economic viability of geothermal energy in the UK. When the engineering costs are accounted for, geothermal energy isn’t the cheapest source of power, but if we’re serious about decarbonising our economy then it’s a choice that we, as a society, can make. That’s where funders like the EU and the Government come in to help subsidise projects like this one. My worry is that when those sources of funding aren’t available this won’t be a very attractive prospect to private investors. I’d love to be proved wrong on this though!”

Hear Joe in conversation on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme at 1:21