Thursday, 24 April 2014
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The year ahead: the biggest technology stories of 2014?

The Engineer’s agenda for 2014 is already looking busy. Predicting how the year will pan out is something of a fool’s game but we already know there are some big announcements and launches on the calendar so we can at least get a sense of what some of the biggest stories of the year will be.

One particularly exciting prospect is the arrival of space tourism. In fact, 2014 could even become the year of the space plane, with both Virgin Galactic and California-based XCOR Aerospace planning to send their first paying customers on suborbital flights.

Meanwhile, the European Space Agency (ESA) is also hoping to get in on the action with the first launch of its Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle (IXV). While not a manned plane, it is an attempt to develop reusable space flight technology that can return from orbit, albeit launched via a rocket. If it’s successful, it could pave the way for more autonomous exploration and maintenance missions.

At a slightly lower height, the aerospace world will be looking forward to the commercial launch of the Airbus A350 XWB, Europe’s first attempt at a craft made mostly from composite materials. With Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner still experiencing unexplained battery problems, Airbus will be hoping its rival plane – which will come complete with the latest generation of Rolls-Royce “Trent” engines – will be well placed to capture the market when the A350 makes its first commercial flight with Qatar Airways.

Another big launch this summer will be the HMS Queen Elizabeth, the first of the UK’s two new aircraft carriers. The 70,000-tonne craft has taken five years to build and been the subject of major controversy over its cost – leading the government to raise the possibility that its sister ship HMS Prince of Wales will never see service after it is completed in two years’ time. Once unveiled, Queen Elizabeth will be kitted out for the start of its naval sea trials in 2017. 

While military craft will have the carrier, it is still unclear where civil airplanes will land in the future when the UK finally expands its airport capacity. Following its recent decision to shortlist Heathrow and Gatwick as possible contenders, the Airports Commission plans to this year study proposals for an artificial airport in the Thames Estuary in more depth.

This painfully slow process will mean we have a decision whether or not to add the island solution to the shortlist by the end of the year. But we’ll have to wait until after the next election before the final recommendation is made.

The government will also make a decision on its other big infrastructure idea, HS2, this year by deciding the final route of the new high-speed network linking Birmingham, Leeds, London and Manchester. But before then, we’re due to receive a report on how the new HS2 chairman, Sir David Higgins, intends to drive down the cost of the project, currently expected to reach £50bn.

On the roads, we’ll see the arrival of cars from the electric BMW i3 to the Range Rover Evoque convertible. (How many times have you seen an Evoque and thought ‘it would look so much better without a roof’?) If things go according to plan, we could also see the Bloodhound world land speed record attempt vehicle begin runway testing, but only at a mere 200-250mph, not its eventual speed goal of 1000mph.

But perhaps the most exciting automotive prospect for 2014 will be the start of the world’s first all-electric Formula E motor racing series. The first of 10 races will kick off in Beijing in September before the series heads to South and North America, Europe, eventually culminating in a London rally in June next year.

There should be some movements in the world of energy, with a decision on the 9GW Dogger Bank offshore wind farm (which would be by far the world’s largest), and news from the Crown Estate on which tidal and wind projects it plans to back. 

Assembly will also begin on the ITER experimental nuclear fusion reactor, which will hopefully pave the way for commercial-scale fusion power plants producing large amounts of reliable and clean (if not cheap) energy. 

We’ve repeatedly been told that 2014 will be the year that wearable computing takes off, although the various smart watches launched last year have yet to find a strong market. Perhaps the anticipated launch of the Google Glass head-mounted device will change all that. At the very least, it will attract a lot of attention for its ability to make consumer technology even more distracting, pervasive and possibly intrusive than it is now.

Following last month’s heats in the DARPA Robotics Challenge to find the best human-like robot for search-and-rescue missions – which was won by Schaft, the Japanese firm recently purchased by Google – we’ll also be looking forward to the finals at the end of 2014. The competition is certainly likely to draw more attention to the fact that humanoid robots are no longer just a feature of science fiction: let the inevitable Terminator comparisons begin. 

Finally, a quick reminder that 2014 will see the launch of The Engineer Design and Innovation Show from 3rd to 5th of June at the NEC in Birmingham, and the return of The Engineer conference. Make sure you attend to see the latest technologies being used to create next-generation products and processes and to hear the stories behind some of the UK’s most compelling engineering projects.

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