Author: Alina Pintelie

Passionate about innovations, I am constantly promoting smart ideas and technologies that make our life easier and our environment friendlier. I'm a B2B marketer and content strategist based in the Netherlands. I write about geospatial technologies, agriculture, and the food industry while I help shape the content provided by experts as Content Expert Manager.
space market

Start-ups Marking a Milestone in the Emerging Tug Space Market

The race for space commercialization started with the development of reusable rockets and the lowering of the cost of the launches to make them affordable to a larger number of players. SpaceX completed 61 launches in 2022 alone, within its smallsat rideshare program but now a new market segment started to unfold with the launch of the first space tug.

A space tug is a multi-purpose vehicle used to perform a series of operations in space, such as transferring spaceborne cargo from one orbit to another orbit, adjusting satellites’ positions, or re-supplying other space vehicles. With the space starting to crowd with rideshare flights, the presence of such utility vehicles is the next logical investment in the sector.

Several start-ups, like Launcher, Magdrive, and Epic Aerospace are already competing in the space race by launching as soon as tomorrow space tug missions linked with Transporter-6, the most recent SpaceX mission.

As Launcher’s tug, named Orbiter, will deploy or host payload for 10 separate customers, these initiatives will contribute greatly to developing the new space market for customers that need a specific orbit at a lesser cost than a dedicated rocket launch.

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Fusion nuclear, fusion, light

Significant Breakthrough in Generating Fusion Power

In the world’s quest for decarbonization and fighting climate change, nuclear fusion is seen as a potential solution that could one day replace fossil fuels. Researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the US have made a huge step forward in this direction by successfully creating, for the first time, a nuclear fusion reaction resulting in a net energy gain.

The experiment marks an important advance toward replicating the fusion process that powers the Sun, and could lead to the creation of an infinite source of clean energy that could make fossil fuels obsolete.

Fusion energy is released by fusing two atoms together. The process creates no carbon dioxide, nor does it leave any kind of toxic or radioactive waste behind, and it is generally safer than fission.

For decades, physicists around the world have been attempting to make the process work in the real world. The LLNL experiment is the first one to achieve “fusion energy gain”, which could be further proof that the process is viable.

The reaction lasted for only a fraction of a second, so it’s fair to assume that the road to a fully workable technology is still a long one, but it suffices as a proof of concept to demonstrate that nuclear fission could be the energy source that will power the whole world one day.

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food waste nanotechnology

Fighting food waste with nanotechnology

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, half of the world’s fruit and vegetable harvests go to waste every year, for reasons varying from pests and drought to issues with transportation, storage, and retail. Accounting for 8-10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), food waste is also a contributing factor to climate change and undesirable weather events such as droughts and flooding.

A vicious circle

Changes in the global climate and the overuse of agricultural land has a negative impact on crop yields and their nutritional quality, which could potentially lead to an increase in demand that the farms will simply not be able to meet at a certain point. Reducing food waste worldwide could be a critical factor in securing sustainable agrifood systems that make efficient use of the planet’s resources and provide food security and quality nutrition.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development aims to halve per-capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels while also reducing food losses along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses (SDG target 12.3). Reaching this target would have significant implications for breaking the vicious circle in the relationship between food waste, climate change, and the food crisis.

Technology against food waste

There are many measures that could stop or at least reduce food waste, at every step of the production chain, starting with minimizing waste on farms and ending with educating consumers about it. Technological innovation plays an important role here, as most of the initiatives rely on technologies like AI, robotics, additive manufacturing, and even nanotechnology.

Aside from wrapping in plastic (which comes with its own set of sustainability problems), one of the preferred methods in the industry for reducing post-harvest waste is coating fruits and vegetables. These thin layers are made from various substances, depending on the producer, and act like a barrier between the food and the external environment. This slows down the degradation process of fresh produce by preventing direct interaction with atmospheric gases and microbes. The resulting longer shelf-life offers more chances for the product to be bought or consumed, thus decreasing the probability of waste.

Edible wax coating is the most preferred method in doing so, but oftentimes, the wax is mixed with chemical components that are potentially harmful to human health. Many research facilities world-wide are dedicating their efforts to developing such edible coatings that are also harmless to consumers, and many have succeeded. More often than not, however, these biofilms are costly, restricted to the industry, and therefore inaccessible to a wider range of farmers.

A safe and inexpensive edible coating made with nanotechnology

A team from the Nanobiotechnology Laboratory and the Department of Biosciences and Bioengineering at the Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee has developed a nanofiber coating using a blend of silk fibroin, PVA, honey, and curcumin. Their edible biofilm, made with techniques like electrospinning and dip-coating, is cost-effective, and the ingredients used are all FDA-approved.

As a base for their coating, the team used the biomaterial silk fibroin protein extracted from local silk cocoons because of its biocompatibility, non-toxic, higher stability, and good mechanical strength. They added PVA as a supporting polymer for electrospun coating, curcumin for its antioxidant and antibacterial properties, and honey as a natural moisturizer.

The researchers tested their coating on several types of horticulture products, but they selected bananas as a model fruit because of their short shelf life of four to five days. Yellow bananas coated with edible silk fibroin nanofibers (SFNSs) remained fresh for more than four days, maintaining their texture and quality.

A) Time-lapse photography of silk fibroin composite nanofiber coated banana (150 min total electrospinning time by changing the position of banana to allow the proper coating from all sides) and uncoated banana. (B) Banana without peel on 6th day; Note: NC– non-coated, C- coated. Source

In the unripe green banana coated with SNFSs, the ripening process was delayed by two weeks, after which it was ready for consumption as a fruit (yellow banana), while the uncoated green bananas from the control group ripened after two weeks, but could not be consumed and were affected by fungal growth. The coated ones remained unaffected by fungi, thanks to the presence of nano curcumin, an effective antimicrobial agent.

The team tested SNSFs on apples as well, only to discover a spectacular one-month increase in their shelf-life, while preserving their texture, quality, and stiffness.

Another promising result in the experiment was obtained when performing the test of stability on fish. The coated zebrafish retained its morphology and internal fluids, while the uncoated fish dried up entirely.

The conclusion of the study was that silk fibroin as a method of coating is a very promising solution in the food nanotechnology field. It can be tested and extended to the preservation of meat or other non-veg foods that decay very quickly during long-distance transport.

This method is cost-effective, does not require any special expertise, and the edible coating is biodegradable and non-toxic. Furthermore, the team utilized silk cocoons discarded by the industry, so the production method favors the circular economy concept, and the curcumin and honey add extra nutrition to the food.

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Flying car, Dubai, XPeng

Flying Car Successfully Completes First Public Test Flight in Dubai

Flying cars could dramatically change urban transport, freeing up roads and thus making them safer for pedestrians and cyclists and reducing traffic. For those who are still dreaming about replacing the long daily commute with a few minutes of flying, the wait might soon be over. The two-seater flying vehicle made by Chinese company XPeng showed its capabilities by completing its first public test flight at GITEX technology expo in Dubai in mid-October 2022.

With its eight propellers, the XPeng X2 can take off vertically without requiring a runway, which makes it suitable for crowded urban areas. The fully electric car can carry two passengers, and the manufacturer claims it can ascend at a rate of around two meters per second and reach speeds of up to 80 miles per hour (nearly 130 km/h).

Thanks to AI-powered automation, the car can be steered by a person or fly in auto-pilot mode, as well as learn how to avoid traffic and buildings. Although the maiden flight only lasted 90 seconds, XPeng claims that the only obstacle to making the X2 available to the general public is the lack of a regulatory framework for flying cars.

The company intends to collaborate with governments in designing a physical regulatory infrastructure for flying cars in cities, and predicts that flying cars will be used in just five years, at least in limited, regulated spaces. Along the same line, the Chinese government has announced plans to launch flying taxis by 2025.

Worldwide, a number of other companies are currently working on developing flying cars. These include “BlackFly”, developed by the Canadian firm Opener; “SD-03”, developed by SkyDrive Inc; and “AirCar” from Klein Vision, some of which have already completed their first flights.

The main challenges in launching such vehicles on the market are related to governmental regulations on self-driving cars (or the lack of such legal frameworks), as well as public safety concerns and reluctance on the part of consumers to use them.

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robot butler

Robot Butlers – from Science Fiction to Reality?

Whether we like it or not, most of us live busy lives. Balancing professional careers with raising kids and keeping up with house chores is usually a challenge for people who cannot afford to pay for in-house help. Money aside, even if we earn enough money to afford a live butler to make us breakfast, do our laundry, and clean the cat vomit from the hallway, the truth is that hiring and managing people comes with its own set of challenges. This is why many science fiction books and movies portray robotic butlers as a common part of our future, and a lot of companies are working hard today to make that happen. But how far has development advanced? 

On this front, there is good news and not-so-good news. Financial considerations aside, the lack of human resources in some sectors, such as elderly care, home help, hospitality, and others means there are strong incentives as well as expectations for the robotic industry to come up with some kind of automated butler or even caregiver to service us. Nevertheless, we have yet to see a functional (and less expensive) machine that could perform services in these areas that can now only be provided by humans. 

Is there any kind of robotic help available to us today? 

To some extent, the answer to that question is yes. In 2022, we can already purchase various models of robots from stores to help in the house (or offices), some models being more functional or complex than others. We all know Roomba by now, but personal robots have already evolved to do more than clean the dust off your floors. They could be now personal assistants that will read stories to your kids, remind you to take your umbrella if it’s raining outside, and even fetch you a drink. 

MILESTONE2026 – AI and robotics will take over a lot of domestic / household functions. The former chair of an IETF working group wrote: “Change will continue to be pretty gradual in the next 12 years. AI and robotics are making great strides but will not suddenly take over a lot of domestic / household functions. The areas that border on factory automation are the candidates for change – perhaps low-skill assembly and clothing fabrication jobs will be affected next.” Source 

Moxie – promoted by the producer as a revolutionary companion for social-emotional learning social and included by The Times in the best inventions of 2020, is a cute-looking robot that does more than look pretty. Equipped with machine learning technology, the bot is designed to help promote social, emotional, and cognitive development in children through game-based learning and engaging content. The device can be purchased for personal use on the Embodied website, and the company has even announced it will enter into a partnership with the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) and Golisano Children’s Hospital (GCH) to develop clinical applications for Moxie in pediatric care.  Similar robots: Winky, Miko, Misa.

Emo – positioned as a desktop AI robotic pet, Emo could appeal both to adults and children. Thanks to its cutting-edge technology, Emo can embody many characters, explore the world autonomously, and interact with its owner by way of more than one thousand faces and movements. Aside from entertaining you with music, dance moves, and games, Emo will also perform some actions like waking you up, turning on the lights, taking pictures, or even answering your questions. 

Vector – this home bot is a bit more advanced. Unlike Emo, which is confined to your desktop, Vector is more mobile and can move inside your house autonomously. Due to its embedded AI technology and other state-of-the-art robotics, it can scan the room, give a weather forecast, set a timer, take a picture, and so much more.  

Lovot – Although created with one purpose in mind and lacking any life-useful functions like its counterparts, Lovot deserves a special mention. The little bot was designed to improve the atmosphere and sense of well-being in an office by creating “connections” and “bonds” in the workplace. True to its promise, Lovot doesn’t do anything but wander around and interact with people in an empathic and emotional way, but it does that really well. According to the Verge editors who had a chance to play with it at their offices, “Lovot is specifically designed to create emotional attachment, its only purpose to be loved, and it accomplished that goal the second I looked into its sweet eyes.” 

Getting closer to more complex robotic help 

Going further on the path of realizing the dream of offering us a true robotic butler, companies added more to their prototypes, like increased mobility, new functions, and enhanced environmental awareness so the new models that are starting to emerge on the market are truly starting to do more than entertain us.  

MILESTONE2025 – Robots will read books to people while commuting, clean houses, or serve as a digital concierge. Chris Donley, director of advanced networks and applications for CableLabs, said: “In this timeframe, I see robotics as primarily addressing convenience – allowing me to read a book while I commute to work, cleaning my house, or serving as a digital concierge. In this timeframe, robotics will primarily address things I would otherwise do myself, rather than pay other people to perform.” Source 

Nommi, your personal machine chef – Granted, this robotic kitchen will not serve you breakfast in bed on a tray decorated with a rose and a smile, but it will cook delicious meals every day without you having to lift too many fingers. 

Nommi is a fully integrated cooking system that can automatically produce and dispense a large variety of bowl-based meals, and it does not even require a reservation. The robotic kitchen can cook meals in three minutes from start to finish and can be customized to work with a variety of recipes and brands. The machine is battery-powered and self-charging and offers virtually limitless menu options and personalized services. Consumers can select multiple bases and toppings to put together their meals in combinations according to their tastes or preferences at any particular moment.

Each machine has a capacity of 330 bowls before needing to be refilled. The devices allow for multiple bowls to be prepared at the same time and are able to self-clean after making each meal. The best part? You don’t have to own a restaurant to buy a Nommi. According to the company website, you can simply configure one to fit in your home and just go for it. 

BellaBot – this may not be a robot butler yet, but it comes pretty close to a correspondence courier or a waiter. Already used by several restaurants around the world, the fun-looking bot can serve food and deliver dishes, napkins, and other items. The robot uses AI technology to find its way to the designated destination in any busy environment and even displays menus and takes orders with multimodal interaction.  

Samsung Bot Handy – Showcased and introduced at CES in 2021, this innovative machine most resembles what many of us imagine when we think of a robot butler. The Bot Handy is mobile, recognizes and picks up objects in the house, and can perform a variety of household tasks, like sorting tableware after a meal or tidying up messy rooms.  The company has not announced an official store launch or a price for its bot yet.  

How about the multi-purpose humanoid, autonomous robot butler? 

We may still be far away from having such a machine in our homes, but two recent attempts have fueled hopes and raised expectations by setting a milestone for the availability of household robots.  

MILESTONEIn 2040, robots will handle 90% of your household responsibilities. They’ll do most of the cleaning and cooking tasks in your home. You won’t have to cook for yourself, dust anything, or scrub a toilet ever again. Instead of home tasks, you can concentrate on your work or hobby or spend more time with your kids or pets instead of slaving over a hot stove. Source 

Optimus bot – Tesla’s recent launch of their robot Optimus left experts neither impressed nor underwhelmed. 

The human-shaped robot is a biped that can provide support in everyday life, is less expensive than a car, and can perform a series of activities, both in a household and in factories.  

While the stage demo and the recent launch have shown some impressive work from Tesla’s engineering, the limited functionality presented suggests that many more years of development will be required until we can actually buy a helpful robot butler from the store. 

At the demo, the robot demonstrated the ability to lift things slowly and perform various activities such as watering flowers, but it was unclear how the robot would move in an unfamiliar environment, how large its performance array would be, how easy it would be to program it, and even how reliable the robot would be in terms of working around people. No launch date or price has been announced yet. 

robot butler

Beomni robot – Arguably a more impressive attempt than Tesla’s, but failing at the autonomy part, BEOMNI 1.0 is promoted as the world’s first fully functional general-purpose robotic system. Beomni is meant to enable remote work at a high level of fidelity to be done from around the globe. With a humanoid build that includes hands with opposable thumbs, BEOMNI operators can make the robot perform tasks that require fine motor skills, ranging from picking up a pinch of salt to lifting weights up to 35 lbs. per arm. The highly mobile BEOMNI, which today simply serves as an avatar for the user, has the potential to evolve over time into a fully autonomous machine. 

It may take another five, ten, or twenty years – nobody knows for sure when we will be able to buy a household help from the store; but considering the current trajectory of the technology, we might not have to wait too long for this vision to become reality. 

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sustainable fashion digital

Can Digital Technology Be a Driver for Sustainable Innovation in Fashion?

As the fashion industry is generally considered the second largest polluter in the world just after the oil industry, it’s no secret that a lot needs to change to make this industry more sustainable. In order to be profitable, brands are constantly anticipating which outfits will be sold, and try to order the appropriate stocks of the garment in question. Inevitably, however, huge quantities of excess clothing end up being destroyed. In an interview with Supertrends, fashion expert Heidi Svane Pedersen says one way for the industry to solve the problem is to go digital.

sustainable digital fashion

Heidi Svane Pedersen is a specialist in innovation, technologies, and new ways of thinking circular business models, working on building bridges between academia and the lifestyle industry. Some of her initiatives have seen her working on the future of retail in San Francisco, the metaverse in Seoul, digital fashion/furniture in Amsterdam, or tech experiments with blockchain, IoT, and virtual tools to understand where they catalyze the circular economy.

She holds a master’s degree in strategy and innovation and is the head of digital at Lifestyle & Design Cluster, a Danish national business cluster promoting innovation and sustainable growth, primarily in small and medium-sized housing and clothing companies as well as in the related creative industries.

(In the picture to the right, Heidi Svane Pedersen is wearing a digital hoodie.)

Supertrends: Heidi, thank you for taking the time to talk to us. To begin, could you briefly describe your work at Lifestyle & Design Cluster?

Heidi Svane Pedersen: Amongst other things, we help startups in the fashion, furniture, and design industry get a good start in their business. But on an everyday note, our lab’s purpose is to keep this sector in Denmark as one of the most innovative in the world. We apply for funding, we raise the means and the resources to support them in this transition, moving towards a more circular industry, making sure that they use the leverage of technology, but also that they stay competitive in the future.

S: Can you say a few words about the trend of on-demand fashion?

HSP: On-demand fashion can mean so many things. First of all, the most important thing is that when we do research projects, we have to make sure that the industry gets new insights on how to become more responsible. We need to change the way we’re working and strive for an industry whose products can be circulated a lot more, so on-demand fashion questions this linear way of working today.

Do we actually know, as a brand, what our consumer wants? And do we enough to produce what they want in a linear model and keep it in stock until people are ready to buy it? You don’t need to be a researcher to see all the sales and discounts being offered by retail stores or E-commerce platforms. The current business model of the fashion industry has flaws, and doesn’t quite suit the customers’ needs, hence the extra stock.

We need to change this model, and on-demand fashion offers this way of thinking that if we knew more about exactly what a customer would like or what a user wants to wear, we would produce exactly what they need. It instantly helps us reduce stock, reduce waste, reduce resources, manpower, and hours. And it offers new business models in the way that we can offer fashion to a particular user to suit their needs in a more precise way.

S: You mentioned improving productivity and better adaptation of what companies are offering to what the customer needs for a more sustainable approach. In your opinion, can fashion companies provide on-demand fashion and still remain profitable?

HSP: That’s a really hard question right now because being more responsible is still more expensive. The business model calls for new ways of thinking, either new ways of offering products or new ways of producing because it’s going to be difficult in that situation. Because it is more expensive to produce responsibly, companies need to invest large amounts of money in order to exchange their business model for a more sustainable one.

Using digitalization is one way of approaching that. Some of the models that we’re seeing today are very much inspired by the gaming industry. For example, we see more brands being curious about how to use 3D rendering. You can design 3D clothing as a skin for your avatar, or use it as an image, as a video, or as an augmented reality filter today on your web shop, or on Instagram. Already today, you could publish the product you want to offer online in digital form, and let consumers give you feedback. Do they want to buy it or not? With the technology evolving exponentially, that software will just become better and better and give a more neat and emotional reaction later on.

There is also the question of big data. If you want to do on-demand fashion, you have to look at mass customization models, where you’re not customizing exactly for the individual need. But you might have a bulk of data that could tell you that your client database has these items in these sizes, so you can offer products that are more customized for them. But then the last trend may be tapping a little into slow fashion.

S: What can you tell us about slow fashion from the perspectives of the consumer and the supplier?

HSP: Over the past 30 to 40 years, we have become so used to being just able to buy and throw away, then buy again and throw away, that we’ve kind of lost respect for fashion. When we buy a couch, it’s a craft, it takes time and we respect that we might have to wait for six, eight, or twelve weeks before we receive the couch. As consumers, maybe we need to refine that respect for fashion as well. We need to understand the craftsmanship that goes into creating a piece of fashion.

On the supplier side, in reaction to fast fashion, at least here in Denmark, we see the emergence of micro-factories that can help a design brand execute their idea. They can post their digital designs, models, or drawings or renderings to their community to get instant feedback and find out if people are willing to buy this.

And then they have the technology to produce fashion locally via these micro-factories that can create the garments locally. A lot of things are happening in this industry right now, but fashion on demand offers a lot of questions right now – maybe a few more questions than answers.

(In the picture to the left, Heidi Svane Pedersen is wearing a digital outfit.)

S: You mentioned that companies need to invest heavily in order to produce sustainably. Do you think that the future will favor those who are doing that?

HSP: For me, that’s a simple answer. Sustainability primarily means transparency. Traceability is a license to operate in the future, and for textile and fashion, this is being legislated as well. In 2022, the EU proposed a new textile strategy, which will in the future demand a digital product passport, it will demand eco-design principles, and it will demand traceability of your CO2 footprint. This is all part of proposed legislation that will most likely happen in some format.

It’s not just a matter of accommodating your consumer. You will also be legally required to protect the climate. We know for a fact now that if we want to change something in the fashion industry, we need to bring down new production by 75 to 95 percent. That means a lot of businesses have to reinvent the way that they’re making clothes.

I think a lot of brands are using digitalization to understand how can they use data to tailor their production more accurately to what is demanded and what is needed: How can we, within new business models, circulate the garment that has already been produced? Some of the startup businesses that we see being successful offer the consumer the possibility to go into their platforms and type in their measurements. But very likely, soon they will be able to do this by scanning and maybe even use an avatar that can automatically project their needs.

To top it all, in 2017, Amazon filed a patent application for fashion on demand, where they would use data from their Prime customers and from all their sources of data to determine what type of fashion customers they want. This would allow them to launch their own fashion brands and accommodate this fashion on demand. This wouldn’t be possible without the power of digitalization, of mastering big data.

S: Will the companies dream even further and offer digital applications that you could use to design your own outfit application before placing the order with a supplier?

HSP: It is always interesting to think about designing your own clothes. What we have to take into account is that being a designer is a craft and an education. There are so many compromises you have to make in order to make a piece of fashion that is both beautiful and put together with the right material.

When we’re talking about involving the consumer in the development phase, we have to think about the user journey. This is where we see artificial intelligence and especially virtual technologies come into play. Because you can simulate fashion easily with an algorithm or with an augmented reality filter, which makes it way easier for customers to understand how their choices impact the design.

Let’s say they were to write, “I want long sleeves, I want a dress with draped skirt, I want it with this specific material.” They’re not designers, so it’s difficult for them to understand how the dress becomes beautiful. But these newer technologies, which are maturing extremely quickly, make it possible for them to use something almost like a Snapchat filter, try the model on, and see if their creation is what they want and reflects their choices. That being said, I don’t think this possibility is that far in the future. But implementing it demands that brands think about how they can make these collabs with their users.

S: You mentioned all sorts of digital technologies like artificial intelligence, digital clothes, augmented reality, and virtual fitting rooms, but you focused mainly on the benefits. Can you think of some pitfalls of using those?

HSP: Yes. First of all, we are talking about technologies in the fashion and textile industry, which is a really hands-on business and has not been very good at accommodating new competencies for academia or technology competencies. It is historically an industry primarily oriented toward fashion competencies. There’s a gap between utilizing these new technologies, digital or otherwise, and having the competencies to actually make a good business out of them.

Very often, if you ask the industry, IT projects are too expensive. They haven’t really shown great results. They demand much more than the organization is capable of lifting. That’s the biggest challenge in including these technologies into the pool of core competencies right now. It almost feels like it’s two different industries. We’re trying to match technology and fashion.

Second of all, technology is still expensive. We’re talking about artificial intelligence or blockchain technology that is only 10-15 years old. Our research shows that the technology of blockchain is kind of at the level that the internet was in the 1990s, so it’s still very much evolving. We’re talking about 3D technology and 3D rendering. These do not provide photorealistic results yet. A lot of people say: “Well, I can’t really use it, I need it to be faithful to reality.” My point is we’re still in the maturity stage of a lot of these technologies, but they’re maturing way faster than maybe the industry is.

And then there’s a cultural thing, right? Fashion is something personal, it’s something that people use as an identity, so there are so many customer demands out there that are really, really different. We are working in a world where the tech giants are keeping their data close. I think some of the brands in the world today are a little bit challenged on when to do open innovation, and when to keep it close to your business.

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digitalization agriculture digitalization agriculture digitalization agriculture

Digitalization for Greener, More Efficient, and More Profitable Agriculture

There is no industry in the world that has not been touched to a lesser or greater extent by digitalization. Agriculture may be one of the fields where digital technology adoption is slower than in others, but advanced digital technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI), big data, or the Internet of Things are nevertheless being integrated into agricultural practices. Here are some projects where digitalization is a stepping-stone for taking farming into the digital era.

Cloud-based AI platform for sustainable agriculture

Given the challenges facing farmers today – including climate change, lack of skilled labor, and increasingly stringent environmental regulation – there is a need for new tools and methods that can make agronomy more sustainable as well as more efficient. To this end, a team of researchers from the Fraunhofer Institute for Telecommunications, Heinrich Hertz Institute (HHI) in Germany are developing a cloud-based platform with open interfaces that can be used by the agriculture and industry sectors and providers of specialized service solutions in those fields.

The cloud-based data aggregation platform will enable a series of agricultural applications that can give the process of digitalizing Germany’s agriculture a much-needed sustainability boost. Together with partner organizations, the HHI scientists have launched the NaLamKI (Nachhaltige Landwirtschaft mittels KI, “AI-Based Sustainable Agriculture”) project with funding from the German Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology. Its purpose is to build a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) platform where data gathered by machines and devices can be collected and analyzed to provide an information base that will assist prognostics and decisionmaking in the farming sector.

The NaLamKI platform will aggregate sensor and device data collected by satellites and drones, ground sensors, and robotics, as well as manually collected statistics and legacy data, into a broad data pool that can be used to deploy Artificial Intelligence (AI) for streamlining agricultural processes and making them more sustainable. For example, the information will help farmers to analyze the state of crops and soils across broad swathes of farmland and to tailor activities such as watering, fertilizing, or pest control in a way that provides sufficient high-quality crops, and reduces emissions and safeguards biodiversity. Measures such as these not only raise crop yields and bring down costs, but also protect resources and the environment.

Beyond concerns about sustainability, the data platform will also help farmers utilize AI to compensate for a lack of skilled labor. By aggregating and modeling drone, satellite, and robot camera data, the planned cloud service will provide them with an overview of soil and plant conditions across large areas. The farmers will also be able to interact with the AI to ask questions and receive recommendations, for example, based on soil moisture or symptoms of crop blights.

The SaaS platform and AI services will be based on GAIA-X, a cloud infrastructure subject to European data sovereignty, together with a distributed-learning AI using farmers’ locally stored data. This will allow them to exchange AI models and transfer them to the NaLamKI platform and improve the algorithms. The platform will be open to third-party solutions, which could be provided by startup vendors of innovative AI applications, for example.

Green-on-Green Tech – Algorithms Fighting Crop Weeds

digitalization agriculture

Weeds are still among the most potent enemies of productivity in agriculture. Over the ages, farmers have constantly been looking for new ways to fight them. Digitalization of weed-control activities seems to bring a new promise of efficiency.

“Green-on-green” technology, a new innovation in agriculture developed and tested in Canada, instantly identifies weeds in growing crop fields, generating real-time maps and allowing for spot spraying. Besides reducing the costs related to human labor and pesticides, this technology has a positive impact on the environment, as it limits the amounts of pesticides released into the fields, leading to more sustainable agriculture.

This innovation builds upon “green-on-brown” technology, developed a few decades ago, which uses algorithms to identify green patches (i.e., weeds) on brown surfaces of soil. The algorithm then triggers a device that neutralizes them with pesticides. Despite the cost savings and efficiency afforded by this method, farmers rarely use it. The initial algorithm, which relied on identifying the color green imparted by plant chlorophyll, couldn’t differentiate between crop plants and weeds. Therefore, the fields first needed to be mapped manually, and the patches of weeds identified by human workers. However, due to the seasonality and changes in soil composition, new distribution patterns of weeds would appear every year, requiring additional efforts and resources for mapping.

Tom Wolf is the owner of Agrimetrix Research & Training, a Saskatoon-based company that specializes in the study of agricultural sprays. He says green-on-green technology is capable of differentiating between weeds and crops, generating the map instantaneously, and targeting only the areas where pesticides are needed. The technology is currently being adopted by an increasing number of farmers, who are able to use it with the equipment they already operate. Moreover, manufacturers of farming equipment have already started to build additional products that complement and enhance this digitalization initiative.

AI-powered sensor suite for more efficient agriculture

In an effort to alleviate the labor shortage and support the adoption of more sustainable practices in agriculture, the Canadian government has commissioned a CAN$419,000 project that will use digitalization technologies and AI to help farmers manage resources in a more effective and efficient manner. The Eye-Box project is a suite of AI-powered sensors and software that will automate agricultural data collection and processing, leaving the farmers more time to focus on other tasks.

Mojow Autonomous Solutions won the digitalization project to build a system comprising multiple cameras with GPS capabilities. These will transmit the collected data in real time to a powerful computer for processing.

digitalization agriculture

Based on these automatically collected images, which are subsequently interpreted and classified, Eye-Box will develop a digital twin of the farm that will be updated continuously and will help farmers make decisions on various issues related to agricultural work.

“By supporting innovation solutions for Canada’s agriculture sector, we are helping our farmers improve the efficiencies within their business while finding ways for them to respond to challenges such as labor shortages. With investments in businesses such as Mojow Autonomous Solutions Inc., the Government of Canada is helping to strengthen the competitiveness and resilience of the sector for the long term,” said Marie-Claude Bibeau, Canada’s Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food.

New sources of revenue for farmers with carbon credits platforms

Since the dawn of agriculture, farmers have been following the formula of planting seeds and harvesting the produce that grows from them. Now, some of them are being offered a different deal: bury carbon in the ground and get paid to ensure it stays there. Major agro-corporations like Cargill and Bayer are offering to sign up farmers for a program to harvest not cash crops, but carbon credits that can be sold to greenhouse gas emitters looking to offset their carbon footprints.

By planting cover crops during off-seasons, growers can improve the quality of their soil, raising nutrient levels and enabling it to hold more water. Increasingly, however, another aspect is gaining attention – the ability of the soil to sequester atmospheric carbon. In combination with the sparing use of fertilizer and less tilling, this practice can be used to extract CO2 from the air and ensure that it remains in the ground for extended durations.

Farmers can log these activities on a digital platform and rack up carbon credits, or certificates permitting emissions in increments of one tonne of CO2 or equivalent greenhouse gases, which can be bought and sold or used to offset the farmers’ own business activities in other areas.

While carbon capture and storage (CCS) is only one of many measures for mitigating climate change, it appears to be gaining traction as a commercial proposition, backed by major corporations in the agricultural sector or related areas, including providers of fertilizer, seeds, and chemicals such as Nutrien, Yara, Corteva, Cargill, or Bayer. The latter has contracted with farmers to sequester carbon on approximately 1.5 million acres of land, mostly in the US, according to Reuters. Cargill plans to offset emissions released by its supply chain operations by about one-third by 2030 and will enroll 10 million acres in sustainable agriculture programs by the end of the decade.

The CCS platform may be the best example of a business embracing the digitalization trend in agriculture by offering farmers a welcome opportunity to gain revenue while also improving the health of their soil.

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Novel Chip Can Process Two Billion Images Per Second

Artificial intelligence can be used to improve a wide range of systems, but this also entails additional hardware requirements. To replicate the ability of biological neural networks to recognize or classify new data points such as images, robust hardware with enhanced speed and capabilities is needed.

Scientists from the University of Pennsylvania School of Engineering and Applied Science (Penn Engineering) have developed a chip that, despite its minuscule size of just 9.3 square millimeters, can detect and classify an image in less than a nanosecond, without the need for a separate processor or memory unit.

Speeding up the ability of any computer to process images is very important for many applications, such as face recognition algorithms, automatically detecting text in photos, or even enabling self-driving vehicles to recognize obstacles faster and better.

The new chip made by the Penn engineers not only classifies and recognizes images significantly faster than conventional chips, but is also scalable. The new level of performance is achieved by using an optical deep neural network that directly processes the light received from the object of interest.

“Our chip processes information through what we call ‘computation-by-propagation,’ meaning that unlike clock-based systems, computations occur as light propagates through the chip,” said Firooz Aflatouni, a member of the research team. “We are also skipping the step of converting optical signals to electrical signals because our chip can read and process optical signals directly, and both of these changes make our chip a significantly faster technology.”

Furthermore, as Aflatouni notes, eliminating the memory unit that stores images also increases data privacy. “With chips that read image data directly, there is no need for photo storage and thus, a data leak does not occur.”

Currently, the team is exploring the scalability of the chip and also further developing its three-dimensional object classification capabilities.

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Bright Innovations Based on Smart Materials that Blur the Border Between Sci-Fi and Reality

To collect data you need sensors, to make moving machinery you need actuators or electronics. But what if all the functions are already supplied by the very material you build with? Here are some smart materials innovations made possible today thanks to advancements in nanotechnology and precision manufacturing.

Also called intelligent or responsive materials, smart materials are designed to sense and react in a controlled way to temperature, pressure, impact, and other variables. Some of them can send data to the cloud, others can reconfigure themselves as needed or even self-heal. Due to their responsive and flexible properties, these new materials will change the way we live and design products. Here are some amazing innovations based on smart materials that are poised to disrupt the products and services of the future.

Shapeshifting materials – Autonomous land vehicles can morph into a drone or even a submarine

If you’re thinking that such morphing vehicles exist already, try to take the gears, motors, rotors, and other moving mechanisms out of the equation. A team at Virginia Tech led by Michael Bartlett, assistant professor in mechanical engineering designed such a morphing vehicle approaching the shape-changing function at the material level. They started by developing a smart material that could change, hold the new shape, then return to the original form over and over again without losing function.

Inspired by an old Japanese art of paper shaping, kirigami, they devised a composite made from a low melting point alloy (LMPA) endoskeleton set into an elastomer medium. Heat causes the alloy to be converted to a liquid at 60 degrees Celsius, but the elastomer skin keeps the melted metal contained while stretching. When the metal is cooled down, the stretching is reversed and the material is pulled back into the original shape.

The material could have many applications in various fields like soft robotics, environmental services, healthcare, or even defense and security where smart materials are the key to achieve the sophisticated functionality needed for complex requirements. The team used their innovation to already create two proofs-of-concept in the lab, by building with it a functional drone that autonomously morphs from ground to air vehicle and a small, deployable submarine that can retrieve objects from the bottom of an aquarium.

Currently, the team is on working on solving challenges like manufacturing and component integration optimization so their smart composite material could go into the commercialization phase.

Acoustic garment – Your t-shirt could be also your phone

What if instead of having a phone in your pocket, you could actually wear one? A research team from MIT and Rhode Island School of Design set out to answer this and similar questions when they developed a new type of fabric that can not only cover your body but also convert sound into electric signals. Like a microphone, the material captures vibrations and can be made to display reversed properties, such as transmitting sounds to another receiver.

smart materials innovations

An MIT team has designed an “acoustic fabric,” woven with a fiber that is designed from a “piezoelectric” material that produces an electrical signal when bent or mechanically deformed, providing a means for the fabric to convert sound vibrations into electrical signals.
Image: Greg Hren

The fabric is made from a piezoelectric material that reacts to deformations by producing an electrical signal. It can capture sounds in a broad decibel range and also identify the direction from which they are coming.

“Wearing an acoustic garment, you might talk through it to answer phone calls and communicate with others,” said Wei Yan, lead author of the study. “In addition, this fabric can imperceptibly interface with the human skin, enabling wearers to monitor their heart and respiratory condition in a comfortable, continuous, real-time, and long-term manner.”

The technology could prove to be revolutionary for making hearing aids or garments that can communicate or track vital signals for health benefits, but it can also be used as a “listening ear” in the construction of spaceships, vehicles, or even buildings.

Energy harvesting fabric – Your movements could power your devices

A new type of stretchable, waterproof, perovskite-based material has been shown to transform the energy generated by body movements into electrical energy. The 3×4-centimeter prototype was able to continuously light up 100 LEDs. According to the research team, it could be worn as a base layer or integrated with shoe soles and used to recharge small devices or wearables.

Numerous attempts have been made to develop smart materials that can harvest energy from movement. However, these were unable to retain their electrical output when they were washed or crumpled. The energy harvesting device developed by Nanyang Technological University in Singapore produces energy when it is pressed, squashed, or when it comes in contact with other surfaces (e.g., skin, rubber, etc.). It can generate 2.34 watts per square meter, maintains its function even after multiple washing, folding, and crumpling cycles, and produces a viable output for up to five months.

Professor Lee Pooi See, a material scientist, and study lead said the breakthrough could eventually reduce or eliminate the need for batteries in wearables: “Despite improved battery capacity and reduced power demand, power sources for wearable devices still require frequent battery replacements. Our results show that our energy harvesting prototype fabric can harness vibration energy from a human to potentially extend the lifetime of a battery or even to build self-powered systems. To our knowledge, this is the first hybrid perovskite-based energy device that is stable, stretchable, breathable, waterproof, and at the same time capable of delivering outstanding electrical output performance,” she stated.

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The Road to Sustainability is Paved With Good Inventions

Saving the planet and the environment is a serious challenge, and scientists all over the world are working hard to find ways to tackle the various issues of pollution, over-consumption, and preserving natural resources from all angles. Materials science contributes new discoveries on a daily basis, and sometimes, sustainability in materials science is approached from an unusual direction.

Wood-based foam could help offset air-conditioning costs

Using air-conditioning devices to keep buildings cool is expensive, wasteful, and overall bad for the environment. Researchers at the American Chemical Society have developed a material that reflects sunlight, emits absorbed heat, and acts like a thermal insulator that could be used to keep buildings cool.

The novel material is made from wood-based cellulose nanocrystals and has the form of lightweight foam. The results of the study show that by using it to coat the building, cooling energy needs could be reduced by 35.4 percent on average.

sustainability materials

Coating the building with the novel wood foam could offset the high energy consumption of air-conditioning devices.

The wood-based foam has special properties that are superior to those of other materials built for this purpose, and it presents none of their disadvantages. Unlike similar materials, the new coating admits little heat to the buildings when the weather outside is hot, and it works well even in humid, hot, or cloudy weather. Reflecting 96 percent of visible light and emitting 92 percent of absorbed infrared radiation, the new materials proved to be robust and very efficient in preventing heat from passing through.

The foam is produced by connecting cellulose nanocrystals together with a silane bridge and then freeze-drying them under a vacuum. During the process, the nanocrystals are vertically aligned, resulting in white, lightweight foam.

While conducting the tests, researchers noticed that by compressing the foam, they were able to modify its properties so the cooling parameters of the foam could be adapted to various purposes and a wide range of environments, allowing this innovation to contribute even more to the common goal of sustainability.

Pollen-based paper can be erased and reprinted

Although the world is moving toward pervasive digitalization of communications, paper still has an important place in our economies. The conventional process of making paper, which involves cutting down and pulping trees, accounts for 33 to 40 percent of all industrial wood used in the global economy, so finding alternative ways to make paper could have a huge impact in terms of stopping deforestation and mitigating carbon emissions. A novel pollen-based paper developed by scientists at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University (NTU) could offer a solution to this issue. Their paper is not only produced in a more environmentally-friendly way, but also allows images to be printed and then erased, with the paper being reused to print on again multiple times.

The team of researchers printed colored images on the pollen paper with a laser printer, then removed the toner with an alkaline solution without damaging the paper. After drying, the paper could be reused for printing. This process can be repeated up to eight times before the surface of the paper shows signs of loss of structural integrity and the quality of printed colors declines.

The conventional recycling process of laser-printed paper involves many steps that cost time, energy, and human resources and are a source of carbon emissions as well. The pollen paper could significantly reduce these costs and negative effects by shortening the process and skipping steps like re-pulping or reconstruction. Also, the process of producing paper from pollen is simpler than the conventional method and consumes significantly less energy.

materials sustainability

Nature produces pollen in large amounts, so it is a raw material that is not only easy and efficient to produce, but also cheap and sustainable.

“Through this study, we showed that we could print high-resolution color images on paper produced from a natural, plant-based material that was rendered non-allergenic through a process we recently developed. We further demonstrated the feasibility of doing so repeatedly without destroying the paper, making this material a viable eco-friendly alternative to conventional wood-based paper. This is a new approach to paper recycling – not just by making paper in a more sustainable way, but also by extending the lifespan of the paper so that we get the maximum value out of each piece of paper we produce,” said Prof. Subra Suresh, NTU President and lead author of the paper.

The pollen-based paper is hypoallergenic, easily recyclable, and can be made from a highly renewable source. Nature produces pollen in large amounts, so it represents a raw material that has all the benefits of scalability, economic efficiency, and sustainability. “By integrating conductive materials with the pollen paper, we could potentially use the material in soft electronics, green sensors, and generators to achieve advanced functions and properties,” said Prof. Cho Nam-Joon, another lead author of the paper.

Your clothes could be dyed with microbes to keep the rivers safe

The dyes that are currently used to color our clothes play a huge part in the textile industry’s overall image as a polluting and unsustainable sector. Artificial colors leaking during production or even in the washing process are degrading the planet’s water resources by inhibiting plant growth and increasing the toxicity, mutagenicity, and carcinogenicity of the water consumed both by animals and humans. As an indirect contribution to pollution, the wastewater treatment that is necessary for removing the textile chemicals from the water is energy-intensive and carbon-emitting.

A better and healthier alternative is to use natural dyes extracted from plants. However, that is not a sustainable option, either. Now, scientists have proposed a completely different solution – obtaining dyes from microbes.

Companies like Colorifix, Pili, and Textile Lab are studying how to engineer such microbes and brew them in vats, in a process similar to beer production, then use them to naturally deposit dyes directly onto fabrics. Colorifix claims that its microbial dyes use at least 49 percent less water and 35 percent less electricity than modern cotton dyeing processes, potentially reducing carbon emissions by 31 percent. The situation is even more promising when it comes to synthetic materials like polyester or nylon.

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The Future of Construction is Digital

According to the United Nations, by 2050, around 68 percent of the world’s population will live in cities. The pressure on municipalities and builders to make sure that houses and offices are safe, sustainable, affordable, and livable is growing daily. The trend toward smart buildings is gaining traction globally, but which digital technologies have the potential to deliver the biggest impact on the construction worksites of tomorrow?

Recent world events have exposed with painful clarity the vulnerability of supply chains to disruption, which resulted in work stopping at construction sites, either due to scarcity of materials or labor shortages. The increased costs and inevitable delays have caused significant financial losses for many contractors. On top of that, the rise in energy costs poses a real challenge for future maintenance and management of buildings.

Digitalization could be the answer to many of these issues. IT solutions can help with keeping track of supplies (materials), improving the efficiency of operations, and saving money at all stages of construction, starting with the design phase and ending with the exploitation phase.

Although only a few players are currently using advanced digital tools to improve their operations, technologies like Building Information Management (BIM) systems, digital supply networks, digital twins, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and others are slowly but steadily becoming established as best practices in the field. Here are some examples of how digital technologies are already foreshadowing the future of the construction industry.

Artificial Intelligence for sustainable and healthy work environments

A 17-story office tower in Boston will be fitted with floor-to-ceiling smart windows that use AI to manage light intake, optimize occupants’ comfort, and reduce energy consumption. The project aims to set an example for sustainable and healthy work environments in the future. The 10 World Trade building, developed by Boston Global Investors (BGI) and its partners, will mainly offer office space in downtown Boston.

Its smart windows, delivered by View, Inc. – a provider of intelligent building technology – use AI to adjust their opacity automatically in response to the brightness of the sun, allowing occupants to enjoy maximum comfort at any given moment of the day. AI will also help to reduce the energy consumption from lighting and air conditioning systems that are 40 percent more efficient than required by the energy-saving guidelines imposed by the Massachusetts Department of Energy.

According to a study made by researchers at the University of Illinois and SUNY Upstate Medical University, employees working next to View Smart Windows slept 37 minutes longer each night, performed 42 percent better on cognitive tests, and had significantly fewer headaches. As an additional benefit, the smart windows eliminate the need for blinds, which helps with lowering overall costs, but also keeps offices cleaner.

Although this example is focused on maintenance, many building projects in the world now showcase the fact that digital technologies in general and AI, in particular, have the potential to help builders increase value throughout all project stages. Better design and smarter financing, online procurement and smart construction, better operations and asset management, as well as remote management and maintenance – all these can be achieved with the help of state-of-the-art technology.

According to McKinsey Global, digital transformation of the construction projects and companies can result in productivity gains of 14% to 15% and cost reduction of 4% to 6%.

Digital twins and real-time visual management of buildings

Modeling the real world in a digital environment even up to the tiniest detail offers many perks to builders, especially in complex projects. Buildings that will host medical facilities, for example, need to be very sophisticated in order to accommodate specialized medical equipment, meet elevated health codes and strict security requirements, and allow the use of business systems. Although still under-adopted, systems such as BIM are already less capable of real-time building status updates and handling big data volumes.

The new clinical center for Shanghai East Hospital affiliated with Tongji University was built with the future in mind. The 2019 construction project centered on the principle of the “continuous lifecycle integration” method, allowing the building managers to see the status of the building at any time, in a visual tool, over its full lifecycle.

Using a Digital Twin (DT), the builders integrated static and dynamic data from over 20 management systems that optimized all phases in the building lifecycle, from design and construction to the operations and maintenance phase. The control center of the building runs on a DT software solution that allows for real-time visual management and is enhanced with AI-powered diagnostic modules.

The benefits of using the DT in the design and building phase were not published, but by the end of 2020, management data collected from the system showed significant improvements in energy consumption, fewer facility problems, and repairs as well as better daily maintenance work.

Although there are still aspects that need further research, the project showed that DT has much more potential than BIM technology in terms of its real-time information management capabilities at all stages of a building lifecycle.

construction digital

For players affected by recent disruptions in the supply chain, labor force, and new construction standards pressure, these two examples show that digital technology solutions could help them to stay afloat or even increase their profits and decrease their costs.

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Five Technological Innovations Inspired by Nature

Animals, plants, and nature in general often have brilliant solutions for problems that engineers all over the world are trying to solve. This is why inventors and researchers in multiple fields study natural mechanisms and structures in order to understand how nature deals with specific challenges. The imitation of nature to solve human challenges is known as biomimetics. In the following, we present a few recent technological innovations inspired by nature, which show us that sometimes, the answer is in plain sight, if we only know where to look for it.

Super-material stronger than steel

Spider silk may seem fragile, but measured at scale, it has the tensile strength of a super-material and is stronger than steel, with properties that no manmade material can match. For years, scientists have tried to replicate these fibers with their unique qualities, but all attempts were thwarted by challenges in the manufacturing process.

A Californian startup, Bolt Threads, has now achieved a breakthrough with the launch of Microsilk, an artificial fiber produced by genetically engineered micro-organisms that can modify their properties to create different types of fibers, mimicking the natural process spiders use to make their webs.

The resulting material is stronger than nylon but smoother than cotton, and the company is currently using it to manufacture garments that are light, soft, and durable. As the production process is scaled up, the material could have many other applications, for instance, to make biodegradable items, to design improved bulletproof vests, or even for use in infrastructure projects.

A sharkskin suit for airplanes

In a quest to reduce the costs associated with fuel consumption, engineers from Lufthansa Technik and BASF have taken inspiration from sharkskin and developed a new material that mimics its water-repellent quality. Sharkskin is covered with millions of “riblets”, which shape its surface geometry in a way that helps the animal consume less energy when moving. By applying the same principle to fluid mechanics in aviation, the engineers developed a similar “skin” for aircraft in the form of a thin, clear coating containing millions of 50-micrometer-high riblets. The novel coating can reduce drag when applied to the surface of an airplane. The thin coating, called AeroShark, serves to reduce the fuel consumption of the plane by improving its aerodynamic properties.

Lufthansa Cargo plans to equip its entire Boeing 777F freighter fleet with AeroShark coating in 2022.

Retina-inspired sensor

Machines and robots that need to navigate real-world environments are helpless unless they are able to gather images and measurements that can inform their movements and operations. The ability of the human eye to capture the environment even under highly variable lighting conditions was the source of inspiration for a team of researchers at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Peking University, Yonsei University, and Fudan University. The team developed a new sensor that replicates the way the retina functions in the human eye, and which could enable superior vision in robots or surveillance technologies under a broad range of illumination intensities.

After a series of improvements and modifications, the bio-inspired innovation can now effectively imitate the function of a human retina and enhance machine vision with high image recognition efficiency, while simultaneously reducing hardware technological complexity. Currently, the vision sensor is in the proof-of-concept stage, and the team is working to integrate it with the control circuits. Once this has been achieved, the sensor could be introduced for practical applications.

Pathogen-repellant surface

Another brilliant technological innovation, an effective pathogen-repellent coating inspired by the water-repelling surface of the lotus leaf was invented at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada in 2019. The new material imitates the structure of the lotus at a microscopic level, enabling it to shed tiny organisms that come into contact with it, including viruses and bacteria. The material can be used for wrapping high-touch surfaces like railings or elevator buttons or in the manufacturing of medical devices. It could be extremely useful in reducing the spread of harmful pathogens and preventing contamination.

Self-cleaning packaging

The beautiful lotus also inspired the development of an innovative type of plastic at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, which has great potential for solving the worldwide problem of pollution generated by packaging material. The new material stands apart from existing bioplastics on the market by being yard-compostable, easy to manufacture, and self-cleaning.

Plastic materials produced from renewable biomass sources have been on the market for a while now. While they are branded as sustainable, most of them require special recycling facilities to be broken down as they don’t degrade under normal air-sun-soil conditions. Because most countries do not have enough recycling capabilities for these kinds of bioplastics, most of the wrapping ends up in landfills, where they pollute the environment just like regular plastic does.

The self-cleaning bioplastic developed by Australian researchers could solve this problem. The new material preserves its form well, repels dirt and liquids, and breaks down easily once buried in the soil. Made from starch and cellulose, two cheap materials that are easy to source, the new bioplastic is ideal for packaging fresh food and takeaway meals. According to the authors, the new material does not require heat or complicated equipment to manufacture and has the added economic benefit of being easy to adopt and scale-up.

technological innovation

The self-cleaning properties of this flower are often referred to as the lotus effect and they are a source of inspiration for many technological innovations. Its leaves and petals are ultra hydrophobic, which makes the surface of the flower very difficult to stay wet. As dirt particles are trapped under the water droplets due to the nanoscopic architecture of the plant, they get expelled too.

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Five Cities Say Yes to Autonomous Vehicles

Enthusiastically welcomed or subject of huge public controversy, it is by now clear that autonomous vehicles are here to stay. More and more cities are seeing driverless vehicles as a good solution for ensuring better and safer services for their citizens. Here are five cities in the world that have made real progress in adopting autonomous vehicles as part of their transportation network.


A driverless passenger shuttle was launched in Paris Ile-de-France in a pilot project running from 31 March 2021 to June 2022. The autonomous public transport line serves passengers traveling from the Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines-Montigny-le-Bretonneux train station to several local business parks. The free-of-charge service will operate Monday to Friday from 7.30 am to 8 pm, and the buses will arrive and depart every eight minutes in rush hour and every 17 minutes at off-peak times. In order to comply with current legislation, a human supervisor is present in every bus during the whole operating time.

The multi-modal transportation company Keolis was selected to run the new line with Navya autonomous electric shuttles that can carry 11 seated passengers. The minibuses use vehicle-to-everything (V2X) technology to communicate with traffic lights and navigate across busy roads.


As part of a larger project of modernizing transportation infrastructure in Moscow, the local government has announced plans for a driverless tram network that would link several nodes of the capital. As the legislators are already at work to ensure that the laws and regulations are updated to allow such a system to exist, the driverless trams could be tested in Moscow starting as soon as the end of 2022. Tests will be done at first in depots, during the night, and later on with passengers.

The transportation optimization plans are focused on moving towards autonomous transport, including the use of “robotaxis”. Other forms of Russian transportation could benefit from driverless technologies in the near future. Russian Railways has announced plans to adopt automated control technologies in order to reduce headway, at least on some of their routes.


Toronto’s Municipality approved its Automated Vehicles Tactical Plan as early as 2019, with the main goal of making Toronto “AV Ready” by 2022. The plan consists of several stages, which will include population studies to find out how health might be impacted by the introduction of automated vehicles, as well as research on best practices for AV trials, culminating with a real-life trial on the streets.

The trial is currently taking place in the West Rouge neighborhood. It provides an automated shuttle service with an attendant on board at all times. The quiet and emissions-free AV used in the trial is Olli 2.0, a 3D-printed, electric, self-driving shuttle produced by Local Motors that seats up to eight passengers. Olli drives at a speed of 20km/h when in autonomous mode and 40km/h in manual mode.

autonomous vehicle

To navigate autonomously in normal traffic, Olli uses tools such as digital mapping of the route, a pre-programmed track, and redundant LiDar and radar sensors to analyze and respond to road and traffic conditions around it.
The trial is scheduled to end in February 2022. It will be followed by a period of assessing how the automated vehicle performed in various weather and road conditions.


The Seoul Metropolitan Government has allocated KRW148.7 billion, or US$125 million, to be spent between 2022 and 2026 to build up the necessary infrastructure for autonomous vehicles throughout the city. In November 2021, Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon presented the municipality’s “Seoul Self-Driving Vision 2030,” painting a picture of a future where the daily lives of the citizens and urban spaces are filled with autonomous vehicles.

The municipality has published a detailed plan that stated bold goals for the city, such as expanding the autonomous vehicle hubs, establishing self-driving buses as public transportation means, and introducing autonomous vehicle-based urban management systems in public services while building and improving the autonomous vehicle infrastructure throughout the city.

Designed to be adopted in increments, the plan will introduce more than 300 autonomous vehicles by 2026, more than ten robot taxis that the users can call using an app, and the city plans to operate more than 100 autonomous buses and self-driving taxis.


In its autonomous vehicle (AV) test center, which opened in 2017, Singapore is conducting various trials, as the government considers this technology to be crucial for the improvement of the transportation network and an important step in the city-state’s journey to becoming a smart nation. In the last five years, the center has tested around 50 autonomous taxis, shuttles, buses, and road sweepers in order to gather the data necessary for wider adoption.

On a slightly larger scale, a few on-demand bus services were made available to the public in 2021 specifically for commuters at Science Park II and Jurong Island. In January 2022, at the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s (URA’s) AV-themed exhibition, URA and companies showed how Singapore was preparing for an AV transport future that may be within reach in the next few decades.

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Can Modern Technologies be Life-changing for Smallholder Farmers?

In view of the major global demographic and environmental changes expected in the coming decades, agricultural technology (agritech) will play a crucial role in making farming ready for the challenges to come. Such solutions already exist, but they are not yet being adopted at the speed required to achieve a fundamental transformation of the sector. Jon Trask, CEO of agritech provider, explains which modern technologies are likely to have a major impact on small farmers, and which obstacles need to be resolved to accelerate their uptake.

By 2050, humanity will need to produce 60 percent more food in order to feed the over nine billion people who will populate the planet by then. The agriculture sector, which provides the bulk of our food supply, will need to operate at unprecedented levels of efficiency in order to meet this demand while mitigating climate change in the process.

Many think that the way to increase food output significantly while preserving and protecting the environment is to harness more smart technology. Innovations in agritech aim to improve yield, reduce or eliminate harmful practices, and explore alternative sources of food. But is technology a solution for everyone? Big agricultural companies can certainly afford autonomous robots or analyze satellite imagery in order to improve their operations, but how about the smallholder farmers?

While the use of various technologies in agriculture is gradually increasing all over the world, their global adoption is slow due to a number of reasons, such as high implementation costs or a lack of knowledge among farmers regarding the requirements for integrating them into their businesses.

Supertrends discussed these issues with Jon Trask, CEO at, an international company on a mission to deliver agritech to farmers everywhere. He shared with us some insights from the frontline on how smallholder farmers around the globe can make use of this technology.

Supertrends: What are some of the problems the farming sector is currently facing?

Jon Trask: We found that smallholder farmers, which include most of the world’s farmers, are underserved from a technology perspective. They operate about 570 million farms and represent maybe a quarter to a third of the world’s population. In terms of productivity and the potential for improving it, these are very different from your typical European or North American farms, which are slowly being bought up by large firms.

Smallholder farms produce 60 or 70 percent of the world’s produce and foods and tend to consume a large percentage of what they produce. Farmers in Africa, for example, depend on their crops as they can consume 70 percent or more of the products that they create and sell maybe only 25 to 30 percent of their produce on the market. By providing good information and use of modern technology, there are many areas where we can help them increase yields, reduce their costs, and mitigate risks. In doing so, we can help them play a different role in the community. After all, farming has been a community event for hundreds and maybe thousands of years.

How can modern technologies help in this situation?

J.T.: Our objective is to find out ways to do that. We’re working in a number of nations with investment partners, governments, software providers, NGOs, and non-profits to find ways to deliver technology directly to those smallholder farmers for free. We have two groups of customers: the smallholder farmers and the governments themselves.

To reach this objective, we created a mobile app called Connected Farmer that can be used to register farms, set up geofences, etc., which allows us to use satellite and other technologies to improve or evaluate conditions in order to recommend improvements for individual farms. The app allows farmers to set goals and extract information regarding crops or livestock. With that information, we can provide analysis and offer best practices for improving productivity.

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Farmers can use mobile devices to introduce information about their crops in the field

Farmers also face problems related to animal health. How can technology help them deal with these issues?

J.T.: Our platform includes a genomics and genetics module that initially was built for governments. It gives farmers access to the information we retrieved from breeding or operations and genetic research labs, which is continually improved. Farmers can compare and assess their livestock using genetic predictors available in the app, just like we do in human health.

The app tracks different traits passed from parents to offspring among cattle and other livestock. They can easily submit information including physical genetic markers, such as the birth weight of a calf, or other health-related events to track the health of an animal throughout its life.

Certain diseases are passed from generation to generation. We offer sample kits that farmers can use to gather DNA from hair or blood and send it in for lab analysis. This information can be used to predict whether the offspring are likely to suffer from the same illnesses or have similar physical characteristics as their parents, which in turn allows the farmer to predict potential health issues and raise healthier livestock, or reduce some of the associated costs by making changes to the animal’s diet, activity, or behavior.

Data such as the weight, health, or ease of birth of a calf or illnesses in its first two years of life can either be analyzed individually or supplemented with additional genetics or genomics information and markers. We collaborate with geneticists and livestock experts, who have designed an algorithm that can make recommendations based on the combination of these two sets of information.

modern technologies farmers
Farmers can share with visiting specialists cattle data they gathered in the app

How do you make these platforms secure both for the farmers and the governments?

J.T.: Our platform contains information about the identity and financial operations of each farm, which we need to protect by maintaining a secure encrypted environment. Many challenges, including security, can be solved in a decentralized format. We’re also dealing with governments who require high levels of security. They also want to have control over certain data, and in many nations, we want to have data near the location. In a decentralized format, we can do that by combining technologies like edge computing and blockchain to deliver services and genomics.

For example, the genome of a cow is three gigabytes. We don’t want that completely decentralized and stored on 1,000 nodes around the world; we want to store it on a handful of nodes on the edge, and then store the basic identity information on the nodes around the world. Edge computing gives us quick access to the data, while blockchain keeps the identity data very secure, and the two pieces can’t work without each other. One piece of data isn’t useful without the other data.

Secondly, we’re dealing with complex supply chains. We’re not only dealing with a farm, but each farm is selling to packing houses, markets, and exporters. We need interoperability with many types of systems and provide data to many types of systems. Blockchain is highly suitable for maintaining security and ensuring high levels of trust regarding the permanent record within the system. So blockchain really fits that quite well. It’s much more difficult to maintain the level of security that we require in a completely centralized platform.

What are the biggest challenges in implementing modern digital technologies in agriculture?

J.T.: Like previous emerging technologies, blockchain & AI challenge the status quo and are still evolving as a technology. Blockchain with web3 is designed in such a way that we can layer and stack our technologies and make traditional mobile technologies communicate with the blockchain. There’s a bit of a misconception that a blockchain app is just a blockchain. But in fact, it consists of many different technologies.

When we need blockchain capability, we try to limit blockchain’s role in the software to providing or meeting that need. When we need artificial intelligence, we may be reading data from the blockchain. That data is analyzed to generate a report, which may – depending on its sensitivity – be written back to blockchain or kept in a traditional database.

How about at the farm level?

J.T.: Most smallholder farmers don’t have access to much technology. In a best-case scenario, their record-keeping is based on Excel and maybe an accounting system. But for the most part, we’re their first try at implementing technology on the farm. Most farmers wouldn’t notice that our platform uses blockchain; for them, it looks just like every mobile or web app.

However, not every farmer has access to the internet or cellular service, though most now have smartphones. How do we provide services that meet their infrastructure needs, not necessarily related to blockchain technology, but services where one farmer can log in live on their phone, potentially with offline access? Now, that’s a technology challenge.

Our ecosystem will allow other platforms to provide their software through the Dimitra portal itself. If you are a programmer located anywhere in the world, say in Kenya, and you have great software, and you want to use our team, use our distribution, and see how your product can align with our product, you can actually already publish your software within our platform itself. In the long term, we’re looking to have that in a hybrid open-source model, where any company can put their platform within the Dimitra platform itself.

If you had to single out the most significant challenges in helping smallholder farmers adopting technology, what would those be?

J.T.: I think as we grow as a company and get adoption around the world, language is of the first and simplest ones. In India alone, for example, our customers speak three or four languages, and that may cover only a percentage of the population. We’ve got the same issues in Africa and South America. The language issue is not difficult to overcome, but it does take time, effort, and money to publish the software in a number of languages and make it accessible.

The second challenge is the varying literacy levels in different areas of the world. How do you help those in need if their reading skills are lower than the typical average that we’re used to dealing with? We have to work with literacy experts to find different ways of helping farmers. How do you do this AND train all of those farmers? The solution we found is to outsource to knowledge partners, like, for instance with governments, NGOs, and non-profits. We train them so they can train the farmers, and allow them to play a role in distributing the software and helping people be effective with that.

In some of our projects, we need technology like sensors or DNA tests, and we get ecosystem partners who can go out and take a soil sensor reading on a farm, because a farmer may not be able to afford a soil sensor. We train that individual to show the farmer how to upload a soil sensor reading, and maybe show them a couple of tricks within the system to get more benefit for their farm in a very farm-specific analysis.

I think the human aspect in software in general, at least in my career, has been the hardest part. Developing the software is relatively easy. Communicating to thousands or millions of people who all have different communication styles, languages, and levels of literacy requires a certain touch.

When do you think that farmers using a simple app to manage their farms will become the “new normal” worldwide?

J.T.: I think that’s going to be different from region to region. It’s becoming normal in North America for farmers to use an app to do a number of things. I’m sure in the Netherlands, a large percentage of the firms are already using technology in that way. In India, we’re seeing adoption, and the levels are increasing. In some African countries that we’re working in, they don’t yet have the necessary infrastructure to make it normal. We’re going to learn the adoption levels of the country as we enter different countries and find our way around the local infrastructure capabilities.

I think there are generational aspects to it, too. Many young farmers are leaving the farming business, and older generations are looking at technology as a method to keep young farmers in the farming business and keep farming and agriculture exciting. It’s a new method for younger people in their late teens or early twenties to help the farm they’ve worked on – the farm that has belonged to their fathers, grandfathers, or their family for years and years.

When I grew up on my grandfather’s farm, my role was a laborer. I was the young guy who could throw the bales of hay on the wagon or whatever the case may be. Now the youth can teach the parents and teach the grandparents and teach those generational firms how to use technology to increase output. This way, the adoption rate could be much, much higher. It’s a new role, and it’s a new paradigm that we have to deal with.

For more interesting content on modern technologies used in agriculture, download our free publication about Innovation Trends in Circular Agriculture.

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