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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3D printing - modularity in construction

The Future of 3D Printing in Construction – Modularity and Innovative Materials

3D printing is a very fast-rising technology that is gaining more and more space across different manufacturing sectors, including the construction industry, where this technology was first introduced in the 1950s. Since then, 3D printers and the related material mixtures used in construction have become increasingly efficient, cost- and time-effective, and environmentally sustainable. Modular 3D printing (M3DP) and advanced materials can help achieve these goals.

3D printing technology, also known as additive manufacturing, is emerging as a future player in construction practices, with estimates suggesting that this industry will reach the 36-billion-dollar mark by 2025. In this context, more and more companies operating in 3D printing have begun to focus on modularity, (i.e., the construction of buildings composed of modules prefabricated separately in an off-site factory and assembled on-site). This construction process has several benefits, not only for the industry, but also for society and the environment, with a potential ripple effect.

The benefits of modular 3D printing for construction companies

Modular construction began to emerge among 3D printing operators primarily in response to the COVID-19 crisis: worker-to-worker spacing requirements and construction site closures imposed by national health policies severely limited or prevented on-site work and the use of traditional construction techniques. At the same time, the crisis also caused raw materials shortages or delays in delivery due to supply chain disruption throughout industries. In this context, the combination of modularity and 3D printing lent itself to be a very promising solution to a problem that was bound to persist even after the height of the pandemic, as it allowed individual prefabs to be printed off-site and assembled at a later date, with faster and more flexible timelines, with less material needed, and far fewer workers required.

These advantages of modular 3D printing have triggered a trend for companies to favor this construction technique as it is much more flexible in design, customizable, fast, material- and cost-efficient than traditional construction, and capable of creating a more resilient industry in the event of future disruptions and global emergencies.

The benefits of modular 3D printing for society

Future demographic projections point to a trend that will continue to consolidate in the coming decades: the unstoppable drive toward urbanization. This means that more and more people will concentrate in urban centers, with estimates suggesting that by 2050 about 68 percent of the world’s population will live in cities. Geographically, this phenomenon affects poorer segments of the population in developing countries the most, but developed countries will also be profoundly affected.

In this context, speed and efficiency in construction, malleability, and the possibility to expand the number of rooms, become the key elements to meeting a growing demand for housing in cities. Modular 3D printing can fulfill these needs while achieving increasingly lower costs in the long run.

3D printing, modularity - Supertrends
Expandable and malleable houses

Modular 3D printing makes it possible to create houses quickly and efficiently using the 3D printing technique and with great potential for expansion due to modularity: depending on requirements, new modules can be added when needed to extend the living space. In addition, different modules can be reassembled in different ways. This allows for a dwelling that can better adapt to the number of tenants and their affordance.

Decent and affordable housing

The affordability of a house depends on construction costs, the cost of labor, and the materials used. Through 3D printing, construction costs can be reduced by about 35 percent through increased efficiency. In addition, the cost of labor is also reduced since fewer workers are needed. Although the cost per worker increases (due to the demand for more advanced or new skills and training) it is still cheaper for a company than traditional construction. The amount of materials used is also reduced by about 40 percent. At the moment, the cost of materials for 3D printing is higher than conventional ones, but it is estimated that there will be a gradual and significant reduction in cost as new more durable, highly-performant, and environmentally sustainable material mixtures are developed.

The benefits of modular 3D printing for the environment

The construction sector is a major source of pollution and resource depletion on our planet, responsible for over 30 percent of global CO2 emissions, raw material extraction, energy, and water consumption. As urbanization increases, these estimates are also likely to rise. This is one reason why, as part of the ambitious global sustainability goals, this sector is encouraged to move away from “tradition,” and explore new techniques and new construction materials.

Modular 3D printing enables a sustainable approach from the beginning to the end of the construction process. The prefabricated modules are printed and already partially assembled in the off-site factory, where work is faster because it is not constrained by potential delays (e.g., waiting for materials to arrive on-site at the appropriate time) or disturbed by external factors that would force operations to be suspended or slowed down. This leads to reduced emissions and lower energy consumption already in the construction and assembly phase. Off-site 3D printing also enables printing more insulating and finished modules than with traditional techniques. This allows future tenants to reduce energy consumption and pollution from heating and air conditioning.

Unlike traditional construction sites that can generate tonnes of waste, 3D printing of prefab produces no waste. Another benefit for sustainability is the wide range of environmentally friendly and bio-based mixes that can be used as printing materials. For example, the Italian 3D printing company WASP, in collaboration with architect Mario Cucinella, has printed eco-sustainable and easily transportable modules conceived primarily for developing communities, using a mix of soil from northern Italy. The same company also works with a mixture composed mainly of rice waste. In collaboration with the Dior corporation, it printed two pop-up stores in Dubai using this mix while producing zero emissions.

In addition to supporting sustainability goals, bio-based mixes also allow new ways of using locally abundant materials. This reduces the need to import materials from third countries and thus reduce the production costs. In the long term, this could allow different regions to become more independent in terms of resources.

From conventional materials to ‘secret recipes

Mixtures created for 3D printing in construction can be employed differently depending on the purposes or the performance desired from the printed construction. It is no coincidence that with the gradual global adoption of modular 3D printing, many companies have begun to invest in R&D to acquire proprietary mixtures (i.e., ad-hoc recipes of combined materials – some kept secret). This allows them to generate printing mixtures with well-defined properties depending on the purposes of the projects: Some may be optimized for building sustainable and eco-friendly houses – as in the case of WASP – while others are resistant to extreme climatic factors such as tornadoes, or even designed to be used on the moon.

D-Shape is one of the companies that employ unusual mixes that go beyond metal and different variations of concrete. A pioneer in the use of a sand-based mix, the company built a house using a sand-binding technique. This provided it with significant strength, preventing it from being blown or washed away. This mixture and the accompanying technique, first presented in 2010, have since attracted increasing interest among 3D printing practitioners, and are likely to see further use in the future.

Another interesting example is that of a mortar-based mixture (i.e., a mixture similar to concrete with the addition of lime), which is already used in traditional construction as a binder between brick layers. Its greater malleability compared to concrete allows for less clogging of nozzles and errors between layers during printing. Companies such as Laticrete are the leading producers of mortar, specifically adapted in its composition to be optimized for 3D printers.

Finally, there are mixtures based on lunar soil. Advances in space exploration have led many companies to think about printing constructions that would be ideal for the moon – or other planets – using local soil. Icon, for example, a construction technologies company based in Austin, creates 3D-printed prototype elements based on lunar materials that, when completed, could grant the company direct testing on the moon’s surface, as part of an upcoming project aimed at implementing a full-scale additive construction system. Similarly, AI SpaceFactory and the NASA Kennedy Space Center are engaged in the creation of LINA, an entirely 3D-printed structure made of a mix of terrestrial polymers and lunar regolith that will serve as a base to support astronauts. The goal is to make the structure more resistant to lunar-specific issues, such as radiations, thermal oscillations, and seismic activities.

‘One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind

3D printing in construction is moving toward a future in which this technique and the related material mixtures will acquire a predominant role in the construction sector. This will allow for reduced costs, higher speed, and resilience, and will sustainably accommodate the demands of an increasingly urbanized society.

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3D-printed wood 3D-printed wood 3D-printed wood

Grown to Measure: Can 3D-Printed Wood Prevent Deforestation?

A method for growing wood-like materials with specific properties and shapes could pave the way towards 3D-printed wood and offer an alternative to industrial forestry, which has severe effects on the global climate and environment and eliminates about 10 million hectares of forest every year. The ability to make “customizable timber” in a laboratory setting would reduce waste in manufacturing and allow forests to remain untouched as a measure to mitigate climate change.

Scientists at MIT have demonstrated how “wood-like plant material” can be grown in a lab from cell cultures in a way that tailors their material properties and shapes to specific purposes. In the first step, they extracted cells from the leaves of young Zinnia elegans plants. After being allowed to grow in a liquid medium for two days, the cells are placed in a gel-based nutrient medium. This contains hormones that can be adjusted to give the cells certain physical and mechanical properties such as density and stiffness. As such, they behave somewhat like stem cells, according to the researchers.

Moreover, using 3D bioprinting techniques, the plant materials could one day be grown into individual, artificial shapes, sizes, and forms that would be difficult or impossible to achieve with traditional agricultural methods. This means that little waste would be produced when processing the wood-like material into furniture or other purposes for human use.

“The idea is that you can grow these plant materials in exactly the shape that you need, so you don’t need to do any subtractive manufacturing after the fact, which reduces the amount of energy and waste. There is a lot of potential to expand this and grow three-dimensional structures,” said Ashley Beckwith, a recent PhD graduate at MIT and lead author of a research paper published in the journal Materials Today.

A 3D printer can extrude the cell culture gel solution in the desired pattern in a petri dish, where it incubates for three months, maturing at a speed that is about two orders of magnitude faster than a tree’s natural growth to maturity. During this process, lower hormone levels resulted in plant materials with lower density, while higher concentrations of hormones in the nutrient broth yielded denser and stiffer material.

More research is needed to study how these lab-grown plant materials can be lignified, i.e., how they can be made more wood-like through deposits of lignin polymer in their cell walls. The scientists also hope to be able to transfer and adapt the novel growth method to other tree species with commercial value, like pine, as a way of reducing deforestation.

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smart materials innovations smart materials innovations

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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Biometrics: facial recognition in banking services Biometrics: facial recognition in banking services

Biometrics: Facial Recognition in the Banking Sector

One of the biggest challenges facing the banking systems today is the security of transactions. By identifying and confirming the identity of users based on their physiognomy, biometrics such as facial recognition can support the banking and financial sector in identifying fraudulent transactions, increase the security of payments, and enhance customer experience. Face recognition algorithms can be used for user authentication procedures, the automated opening of checking accounts, authorization of financial transactions, and performing payments.

As our society becomes increasingly digitalized, biometrics solutions (i.e., technologies using anatomical features to verify someone’s identity) are slowly starting to replace traditional methods. Based on checking unique biological traits such as facial characteristics, retinas, irises, voices, fingerprints, or two-dimensional images of finger veins, these technologies promise faster, more secure, and more accurate authentication processes. Tailored applications have been developed for sectors such as banking and finance, defense, transportation, and manufacturing, to name a few. With the number of startups drastically increasing in the last decade, the biometrics market is expected to grow from US$42.9 billion in 2022 to US$82.9 billion by 2027.

The number of companies and financial investments (US$) in biometrics (US$) worldwide. Data source: CrunchBase

Currently, the US is the world leader in terms of investment volume and the number of companies developing biometric solutions, followed by Latin America and Asia. Africa has a relatively high number of startups; however, the total funding amount is very low compared to other regions. Nevertheless, the trend is picking up all over the world, powered by the quest for digitalization across all industries and the need for more secure and personalized solutions.

Facial recognition in the banking sector

While biometric technologies like facial recognition have been around for a while, the banking sector is only now starting to incorporate them into authentication processes. Adoption is also accelerated by significant advancements in technology, the increasing need for remote onboarding and interaction with customers, and by regulatory provisions such as “know your customer” (KYC) guidelines and the US Bank Secrecy Act.

In the banking sector, ATMs equipped with cameras can verify and validate a customer’s identity by checking the image of their face against a database of stored photographs. After the validation takes place, the customer can withdraw money or access other banking services. This type of authentication is already offered to customers by banking institutions such as CaixaBank in Spain and Singapore-based OCBC Bank.

Facial biometrics have additional applications in finance: The technology could be used to enable customers to log in to digital financial applications in order to open new accounts, secure mobile wallets, or approve financial transactions. In these situations, too, the face scan is matched against official identity documents or images that have previously been stored in the database.

Challenges in implementing facial recognition biometrics in banking

Despite its numerous advantages for multiple industries, face recognition technology also comes with a series of challenges and limitations. Firstly, the technology requires an extensive dataset to train the algorithms. However, these datasets are difficult to obtain and store, given privacy regulations and the growing number of data breaches and cybersecurity attacks. Moreover, poor-quality datasets could introduce biases and lead to false matches, which would defeat the main purpose of this technology.

Secondly, apprehensiveness and cultural anxiety among the general public regarding potential abuses of this technology might slow down adoption, despite the fact that providers are selling it as a means to increase customer satisfaction.

Startups on the rise

Although facial recognition is one of the most controversial and complex issues to regulate and implement in the market, investors’ interest in the technology surged in 2021. A CrunchBase analysis conducted by Supertrends shows that more than US$1 billion has been invested in various funding rounds. Here are some examples of face recognition solution providers that tailor their services to the needs and regulations of the financial industry.

US-based Incode Technologies is a digital identity company that develops biometric identity products for industries such as banking, retail, healthcare, and hospitality. Headquartered in San Francisco, it has offices in Europe and Latin America. One of their platforms, Incode Omni, offers self-service, omnichannel, and secure multi-biometric capabilities, supporting customers in performing identity authentication.

Based in the UK, Shufti Pro is a SaaS company providing fully automated solutions for end-customer authentication and business verification. Their solution can be integrated with other proprietary systems via an API. Besides face verification, the solution also supports document verification, video interviews, address verification, two-factor authentication, consent verification, and biometric sign-in through facial recognition. The verification process can be completed in under 30 seconds and is available in more than 230 countries.

Brazilian company unico develops facial recognition and identification solutions for banks and retail companies. Their product, Unico Check, allows for biometric authentication and validation of individuals during the onboarding processes and while performing various transactions, helping companies and the government to reduce fraud, streamline processes, reduce operation costs, and increase the security of exchanges.

An artificial intelligence and computer vision-enabled SaaS platform developed in India, Biocube offers biometric technology for border control, the finance industry, insurance businesses, and governmental organizations. Their robust yet easy “know your customer” and transactions system helps identify frauds in account opening and fraudulent transactions.

In the corporate banking sector, companies such as Barclays and Citi are experimenting with the finger vein reader technology. At the same time, fingerprint-based identification codes have been successfully incorporated into several contactless card pilots worldwide. Other organizations are pushing the envelope even further by developing 3D imaging for finger veins using photoacoustic tomography. However, experts consider that, among all biometric authentication methods, facial recognition is currently the closest to maturity, capable of confirming a person’s identity with high confidence. Nevertheless, governments and regulators must ensure that the legal and regulatory framework keeps pace with technological advancements so that basic ethical principles are respected and no civil rights are infringed.

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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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climate change

Make it Rain: Innovative Technology Transforms Desert into Agricultural Land

Jordan’s climate varies from a Mediterranean one, in the uplands, to steppe and desert, towards the south. Rising temperatures, a constant decrease in average annual precipitation, and deforestation are some of the main problems the government has been fighting for decades. The installation of a network of emitter stations based on ionization technology on the ground has led to a 27 percent overall increase in rainfalls over a period of three years, the extension of the rainy season, and rainfall volumes of hundreds of millions of cubic meters.

In an interview with Supertrends, Dr. Helmut Fluhrer, CEO and founder of WeatherTec, revealed more about the innovative rain enhancement technology and its potential to transform desert and semi-arid areas into land suitable for agriculture.

Deserts and arid areas cover approximately 26-35 percent of the Earth’s surface, with 900 million people living in these regions. Living conditions are marked by water scarcity, decreased soil quality, and reduced biodiversity. Moreover, the situation is becoming even more challenging due to climate change and population expansion. With average annual temperatures constantly rising, water evaporates faster, leading to serious droughts. Inconsistent rainfalls and low volumes of precipitation have led to accelerated depletion of water supplies and difficulties in maintaining crops or other types of vegetation.

Making rain and generating fresh water

After seven years of fieldwork and research, the WeatherTec technology was finally on the market and achieved its first success in Jordan, one of the most arid countries in the world. According to several reports developed by the Jordan’s Meteorological Department and the Ministry of Water and Irrigation, this technology played an important role in mitigating climate change in Jordan by “breaking and reversing a 30-years trend of constant decline in precipitation,” with a strong impact on Jordan, but also on the neighboring areas. 

Moreover, the rain-enhancing system has the highest potential in generating freshwater when compared to established methods such as cloud seeding (a chemical process that raises environmental concerns) and desalination (which is energy- and cost-intensive and produces large amounts of wastewater).

WeatherTec rain enhancement technology. Copyright: WeatherTec

The “Black Swan Technology”

Mimicking sun’s ionization process, the WeatherTec rain enhancement technology uses solar-powered stations on the ground to emit trillions of ions into the atmosphere and electrically charge the aerosols. When these negatively charged aerosols reach the clouds, they intensify the condensation process. As a consequence, water particles grow in size, increasing the volume and duration of the rainfall as well as the covered area.

According to Dr. Fluhrer, the technology is environmentally friendly, doesn’t make use of chemicals, and creates no waste. Endorsed by many scientists in this area, including Professor Peter Wilderer, holder of the Stockholm Water Prize, this innovation earned the title of “The Black Swan Technology” during the Munich Security Conference.

Transforming desert into agricultural land

The impact of the rain enhancement technology on agriculture has proved to be substantial. Besides providing continuity in the irrigation of crops, it could also significantly help with reforestation. Covering thousands of square meters through traditional irrigation is not efficient, and even impossible in arid areas. Rain is a natural process that can cover much larger surfaces, increasing soil moisture, nurturing the seedlings, and helping them grow. Moreover, increased humidity plays an important role in preventing forest fires.

“In agriculture, rain enhancement technologies will definitely help with crop seeding and harvesting in the more arid areas. However, given the water scarcity all over the world, even less arid areas could benefit from building up small ponds of rainwater to secure it for the periods with no humidity in the air.” Dr. Helmut Fluhrer

After enhancing rain in the region for three years, the Jordanian Farmers Union reported a 30 percent increase in the production of rainfed plants (i.e., olive trees), the re-emergence of several species of medicinal plants, and an increase in biodiversity. Furthermore, this had a significant impact on the country’s self-sufficiency, leading to a decrease in imported livestock and an increase in the national supply. Besides its direct applications in agriculture, this technology can also be used to enhance snowfall in order to increase water reserves, snowpack, and cloud coverage. Adding cloud coverage reduces temperatures by a minimum of 5°C and leads to a decrease of fog, which is of paramount importance for the land, air, and maritime transportation sectors.

Jordan’s transformation with WeatherTec rain enhancement technology. Copyright: WeatherTec

Interested to find out more about sustainable technologies with a direct impact on the agriculture sector? Check out our sustainability publications.

Sustainable Gardening and Permaculture – the Key to Restoring Urban Land Vitality

When speaking about sustainability, regeneration of resources, and permanent agriculture, people often think of fields and farms. We often forget that cities also occupy large swathes of land, and their landscape plays an important role in our entire ecosystems. Limiting our efforts to making open-field agriculture sustainable would not only be short-sighted, but also overlook massive benefits for us and the environment.

We spoke with Caleb Gruber, Supertrends expert in permaculture and owner of a business specializing in landscape designs for urban properties, about the challenges of restoring the ecosystem in the urban environment. We complemented his ideas with a few tech innovations that could benefit consumers in creating and maintaining their own home green spots in a sustainable way.

Supertrends: What is permaculture and why is it important for us?

Caleb Gruber: Permaculture gives us a system of ethics and principles which we can use to guide our urban land use decisions. For example, conversion of irrigated turf grass to wildscape and food production can have enormous environmental benefits.

In order to restore vitality and stability to our urban land, we must consider re-wilding as much of it as possible. Truly wild landscapes are at the heart of ecological sustainability – they provide the buffer for everything that we do, and it is the sheer beauty of these wild areas that grounds us and reminds us of our role as a humble species of Planet Earth.

Permaculture gives us a toolbox and a language for harmonizing with the rhythm of nature, for becoming stewards and caretakers of Earth rather than just taking resources from it, and for creating a new urban ecology which all beings of the Earth can benefit. Just imagine what we could do with all the land if we applied permaculture as a solution.

A NASA-sponsored study estimated that between 40% and 55% of all urban development in the US, or roughly 40 million acres, is devoted to irrigating turf grass. By converting just 10% of this land area to wildlife refuge, using permaculture methods and indigenous plants that flourish based only on natural precipitation, an estimated 25 trillion gallons of irrigated water per year could be saved. If another 10% of that land were used for growing food, we could grow enough to feed two million people.

ST: What are the most important practices of urban sustainable gardening?

CG: The most important practices of sustainable gardening can be drawn from permaculture, and that is to use only organic methods for growing, i.e., eliminating the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. Only organic fertilizers should be used, such as manure and compost. The gardener should strive to keep their ecological loop as close as possible, meaning they should recycle nutrients and organic material back into their gardens by composting as much as possible and growing a sufficient amount of high carbon crops (a technique known as biointensive gardening). Also, it is very important to actually eat or use what you grow. Vegetable and fruit plants require a significant amount of water to grow, so it is important that we aren’t just growing food for “fun”, but with the intent of consuming all of it.

ST: Why is it important that city people practice sustainable gardening in their homes?

CG: Even by growing a small amount of your own food, you can greatly curb your carbon emissions. Food mileage has a significant carbon footprint. A tomato shipped from 1,000 miles away may have a carbon footprint of a few hundred pounds of CO2. By growing our own food, we also reconnect ourselves to the cycle of nature and gain a better appreciation for the process. We learn how to eat in season, and we learn how to preserve our food to make it last longer. Food security and food resilience depend on a diversified and stable food chain, and by growing food ourselves, we greatly increase our own resilience and the resilience of our local food system.

Click & Grow builds indoors smart gardens for home use that come already assembled and are fitted with automatic watering and lighting, as well as an accompanying app. Available in several sizes and levels of complexity, these little gardens make it possible to grow your own food, even if you live in an apartment.

ST: What are the practical challenges urban people face in implementing permaculture principles and sustainable gardening?

CG: Space is always a concern in urban settings. Many people may have access only to a balcony, or perhaps not even that. Modern technology gives us tools for growing plants indoors, but without direct access to the Sun, they are energy-intensive. Cities and suburban areas often have rules, ordinances, or Homeowner Associations that can impose legislative limits on what people are allowed to do on their properties, or may require that a certain percentage of their yard be devoted to turfgrass. It is not uncommon for urban soils to be polluted or contaminated, preventing people from being able to grow edible food safely. All of these issues create roadblocks and limitations to implementing permaculture that can be difficult to overcome. However, consumers don’t need to convert their entire property into a farm to practice permaculture or sustainable gardening. The best way to start is to start small, and use the permaculture principle of “small and slow solutions”. Plant a tree, start a small vegetable bed, make a worm farm, support local businesses – all of these things are a great way to get started with permaculture.

ST: What is a wildscape, and why is it important for the ecosystem?

CG: A wildscape is a deliberately altered and maintained landscape with the sole purpose of providing habitat for wildlife and conservation of regionally endemic plant species. This differs from a true wilderness area, in that a wildscape is maintained by humans, and in that wildscapes are typically a form of restoration from the previously damaged landscape. Urban areas have sprawled into wildlife habitats, causing irreparable damage and strain on the survival of wildlife. Therefore, it is critically important that we cultivate our urban land with the intention of providing habitat for wildlife.

ST: What is the role of pollinators for the ecosystem, and what should city dwellers be doing to protect them?

CG: Roughly 90 percent of plant species on Earth require pollination by animals in order to reproduce. For nearly 250 million years, flowering plants have been co-evolving in symbiotic relationships with their particular pollinator species. For example, the tubular white flowers of the flowering desert yucca plants co-evolved with only a few species of night moths and bats.

Urbanization of wilderness areas drastically changes the biodiversity of local pollinator communities. When we talk about pollinator conservation, we cannot omit a discussion of rural agricultural land and its impact on pollinator biodiversity population. Because agricultural land has takes up a much larger amount of land than urban areas, it is actually in these rural regions that we see significantly lower populations of pollinator species. As it turns out, urban areas can act as oases and refuges for these threatened pollinator species to survive.

In 2015, Barack Obama issued a challenge to the urban conservation community to create a million new pollinator gardens in residential yards and business campuses.

The farming robot from FarmBot is fully automated, can be assembled in a very short time (1h), and can be a good solution for busy city people who do not have a lot of time, but still want to grow their own food. The FarmBot is suited to growing a polycrop of many common garden vegetables at the same time.

ST: How can technology assist in implementing sustainable gardening in the city? Can you give us examples?

CG: One example of a sustainable garden technology is smart irrigation controllers. Most irrigation systems use timed controllers to water a landscape on a pre-set schedule. Modern smart irrigation controllers take this a step further by automatically up-regulating or down-regulating their water use by accessing the internet to predict the weather and rainfall amounts, and by using on-the-ground sensors to measure rainfall and soil moisture. The future of this technology will utilize artificial intelligence (AI) and more advanced sensors to integrate every measurable environmental factor, and cross-reference this information with botanical databases to determine the exact water needs of each individual plant in a landscape, thereby allowing plants to thrive on less water and not wasting a single drop of this precious resource.

Smart irrigation controllers could be connected to rainwater collection systems and prioritize the use of rainwater over tap water when the rain collection tanks are full.

There are also many technologies in the realm of hydroponics and aquaponics that can assist with increasing the sustainability of gardening in cities where it isn’t feasible to grow outdoors. Examples include LED grow lights, vertical hydroponic tower gardens, and growing systems incorporating fish (aquaponics). Composting technology has come a long way as well, and people can now purchase home-scale anaerobic digesters and biogas generators. Satellite technology could be used to determine which areas of a city might be best suited for conversion to wildscape or farmland.

ST: Should city people grow their own food? If yes, how and why?

CG: Without a doubt, everyone who lives in the city should be growing at least a small portion of their own food, and in particular, they should be growing things that they like to eat often. Growing our own food helps to curb carbon emissions from food mileage, and it also adds to the food security of the urban eco-region. But before starting out, it is important for people to do a bit of research and educate themselves on what techniques are appropriate for their region, so that they are using their natural resources most efficiently and effectively. There is an ever-increasing number of technologies for people living in city apartments to grow food indoors. Many companies have created hydroponic growing towers that can fit in a living room or balcony. Wall-mounted hydroponic systems exist, as well as small desktop grow lights.

Autonomous smart greenhouses from My Food are modular, turnkey solutions of different sizes and incorporate sustainable tech like water-saving function, and connected sensors for harvest optimization

ST: Can aquaponics and hydroponics technologies be used in an urban home setting? How and why?

CG: Yes, aquaponics and hydroponics can be a great alternative to traditional soil growing methods in urban settings, particularly when people have limited access to land. Aquaponics is a more sustainable approach than hydroponics due to the use of fish in the system. The fish, along with beneficial bacteria, provide all of the nutrient needs of the plants, and eliminate the need for synthetic nutrients. Hydroponics does have the advantage of being able to grow food in small spaces with just a small tank of water, such as grow towers like those of Lettuce Grow. One big advantage of using aquaponics or hydroponics indoors is that it is possible to grow food year-round, and if LED grow lights are used, electricity consumption can be minimized.

Curious to find out more about sustainable agriculture and technology? Check out our sustainability publications page for more information on the topic.

About Caleb Gruber

Caleb’s personal mission is to empower urban land owners to regenerate their land and use its inherent potential to create ecological habitat for wildlife and to grow healthy, organic food. Through his private design practice All Beings Ecoscapes LLC, Caleb creates holistic permaculture landscape designs for urban properties and works with clients to maximize the potential of their land and reconnect with the rhythm of nature. He has spent the last seven years studying and practicing sustainable farming and landscaping techniques, including permaculture design, ecological habitat design, organic gardening, hydroponics, and aquaponics. He also teaches sustainability topics at Montessori School of Denver. Caleb holds a Bachelor’s degree in Environmental Engineering from the University of Colorado at Boulder and a Permaculture Design Certificate from Koanga Permaculture Institute in New Zealand.

farmer digitalization agriculture digitalization agriculture digitalization agriculture

Nanosensors Benefit Small Farmers and Reduce Pollution

Pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers pollute rivers, oceans, air, and soil. Yet small farmers rely on them to produce food. Researchers from Singapore are working on ways to improve the efficiency of these tools and reduce pollution at the same time. 

Disruptive technology for a more sustainable agriculture

In an age when sustainability is becoming a major concern, traditional agriculture faces a dilemma between preserving resources and meeting the increasing demand for food. This is where innovative technology comes into play. DiSTAP (Disruptive & Sustainable Technologies for Agricultural Precision), an interdisciplinary research group in the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), MIT’s research enterprise in Singapore, recently developed the world’s first nanosensor that can perform rapid testing on plant hormones. 

Synthetic auxins (plant hormones) such as 1-naphthalene acetic acid (NAA) and 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D) are widely used as herbicides in the agriculture industry. They are also used as plant regulator sprays to prevent premature flowering and fruit dropping. However, they are not safe for human health at higher concentrations, and their residue on plants should be monitored carefully. So far, there are no non-invasive and efficient ways to monitor these chemicals. A DiSTAP research team has now developed nanosensors to monitor the chemicals in real time. 

Will the nanosensors benefit farmers as well as the environment and consumers? Supertrends interviewed DiSTAP team members Dr. Mervin Chun-Yi Ang, research scientist, and Dr. Gajendra Pratap Singh, scientific director and principal investigator, to find out more about this breakthrough discovery.

Dr. Mervin Chun-Yi Ang & Dr. Gajendra Pratap Singh – Supertrends experts and researchers at DiSTAP

A precision agriculture tool

Supertrends: The sensors have been tested in the lab and in greenhouses to monitor synthetic auxin levels in plants. Does that mean the sensors will also work in real farms?

DiSTAP: As advanced analytical tools, the sensors could be used commercially in the context of precision agriculture as they are able to inform the farmers of the optimal amount of plant regulators required for their specific crops. Furthermore, as the output is available in real time, farmers can adjust and calibrate the amount of plant regulators to suit the growth needs of the crops at every stage of their development.

DiSTAP nanosensor and camera instrument setup

Economic and social benefits

Supertrends: How will farmers and consumers benefit from using the sensors?

DiSTAP: These novel sensing tools help farmers economically by preventing wasteful and ineffective deployment of herbicides, thereby improving cost efficiencies in herbicide usage.

There is also a mounting body of scientific evidence proving that the synthetic auxin herbicide poses a hazard to both human health and the environment. Given its widespread usage in agriculture, it is frequently detected in water from agricultural runoffs. Hence, besides the economic benefits to farmers, there are also health and environmental benefits that could be reaped from these nanosensors because the nanosensors allow for precise calibration of herbicide dosage in order to minimize usage. 

Challenges and future development

Supertrends: What are the major challenges in making the sensors into practical products?

DiSTAP: The environment is complex and changing constantly in the open fields. We are using a sentinel plant model to evaluate the technological robustness of our nanosensors under varying conditions of weather, plant development stage, soil types, etc. It may take one to two years for our nanosensor tools to be available on the market. 

For future development, we are looking into integrating machine learning and artificial intelligence algorithms into the nanosensor imaging platforms to simplify the data and make the information more useful to farmers. 

Do you want to know more about supertrends in agritech? Keep an eye on our page of sustainability publications for some awesome content on this topic coming soon.

palm tree farmers palm tree farmers palm tree farmers palm tree farmers

AI-Powered Ear Helps Small Farmers to Detect a Dangerous Pest

How can farmers, especially small farmers, benefit from a modern technology like AI? With this question in mind, Supertrends interviewed Zeid Sinokrot, the founder and CEO of Palmear, who is developing an AI-powered tool to help small palm tree farmers detect a dangerous pest. 

The red palm weevil: A global threat that is hard to detect

“The red palm weevil has become a global threat and demands a global strategy to eradicate it.”

– Jose Graziano da Silva, Head of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization

Originally endemic to South Asia, the Red Palm Weevil (RPW) attacks 40 different types of palm trees, with the Coconut, Palm oil and Date palms being the most affected. Most of the damage is caused by the larvae, the wormlike form in the early stage of an RPW’s life cycle. RPW larvae spend their whole life inside the trunk, destroying the trees from inside. 

With few natural enemies, the RPW has spread to more than 60 countries, affecting the livelihoods of nearly 50 million farmers. In 2017, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization identified the RPW as a global threat. Home to 90 percent of the world’s date palm trees, the Near East and North Africa (NENA) region has been hit particularly hard by this malicious pest. 

The key to RPW is early detection to stop the RPW from growing into adult form and spreading to other trees. That’s where Sinokrot thinks AI can lend a helping ear. 

AI-powered ear to help small palm tree farmers

Palm tree park in Spain

Having studied engineering and owned palm tree farms himself, Sinokrot believes that the combination of AI, big data, and audio engineering can provide an innovative solution for detecting the RPW. RPW larvae produce a distinctive sound when chewing and crawling inside palm trees. Although the sound cannot be heard by human ears, it can be detected by acoustic sensors. 

Before setting up the company Palmear, a company based out of Abu Dhabi, Sinokrot spent a year collecting data that will be used to train algorithms to recognise the precise sounds produced by RPW larvae.  In 2019, Palmear produced the world’s first AI-powered system for early RPW detection. By inserting a small needle that is only 3cm in length and 3mm in diameter into the trunk of a palm tree, farmers can detect the presence of RPW larvae within seconds. 

Many palm tree farmers are not exactly tech-savvy. Palmear offers a user-friendly mobile app that farmers can use to test their trees in real time. The app can also track nearby and countrywide RPW infections. 

Contributing to sustainability

To prevent their trees from being infected by the RPW, palm tree farmers often use a lot of pesticides. Several times a year, they inject insecticides into the trunks of the trees, which causes serious environmental damage. In a paper published in 2019, researchers in the UAE found carcinogenic and toxic pesticide residues from dates that grown on palm trees. 

If farmers can detect which trees are infected by the RPW at an early stage, they can then use pesticides only on the trees that were found to be infected. “Working with precision agriculture, farmers can reduce the usage of chemicals, as well as get higher value from their fruits,” Sinokrot told Supertrends.

An AI-Powered acoustic sensor protecting a palm tree park in Dubai

Through its R&D, Palmear is also looking at possibilities for working with other crops. Sinokrot mentioned crops such as oil palm and avocado, all of which are affected by wood-boring insects.

A question of ambition

“I want to provide protection for 50 percent of all the palm trees in the world.” – Zeid Sinokrot, Supertrends expert, founder and CEO of Palmear

When asked how many trees will benefit from Palmear, Sinokrot told Supertrends that he wants to provide protection for 50 million date palm trees in the next five years, which amounts to approximately half of all the date palm trees in the world. “Do you think I am too ambitious?” he asked. Only the future can show how realistic this plan really is.

At Supertrends, we believe that innovations grow at exponential speed. Do you think a young start-up can be a game-changer in the palm tree business? Share your prediction on the Supertrends Pro App by searching for “Agritech, Palm trees”. 

Groundbreaking Recycling Method Could Expand Access to Rare Earths

SUPERTRENDS – One of the main levers for making electric vehicles more sustainable and commercially viable is the sourcing of rare chemical elements used in components. Nissan Motor and Waseda University have begun testing a newly developed method for recycling rare-earth elements (REEs) from the motor magnets of electric vehicles, which, if successful, could help stabilize prices for electric motors and ease the increasing demand for certain scarce metals that are indispensable for the successful transition to a more sustainable energy system. 

The innovative recycling process, jointly developed by the world’s leading e-vehicle manufacturer and one of Japan’s leading universities, offers a simpler and more economical way of retrieving valuable REEs from damaged or discarded motor blocks. It involves adding a carburizing material and pig iron while melting down the motor at a temperature of at least 1,400° C. Once the mixture is molten, iron oxide is added to the mix as a way of oxidizing the REEs, supplemented by a small amount of borate-based flux that can dissolve rare metals such as neodymium and dysprosium at lower temperatures and assist their recovery. The mixture then separates into two distinct layers: A higher-density layer of iron-carbon alloy and a lighter molten oxide slag from which the rare earths can be recovered.

Preliminary results have shown that this process allows 98 percent of the REEs to be reclaimed in a process that is about twice as fast as conventional recycling methods, where magnets must first be demagnetized, removed, and disassembled. The project partners plan to continue large-scale facility testing, using electric motors supplied by Nissan, to further refine the method.

Key elements of the digital revolution

Rare earth electromobility recycling praseodymium dysprosium neodymium

Some chemical elements have unique properties not found in other materials, and are highly sought after for the manufacturing of advanced electric and digital products. Praseodymium, for example, can be used to make high-powered magnets.

Despite their name, not all rare-earth elements are in scarce supply globally, but they seldom appear in large seams or geological depots and are distributed unequally throughout the Earth’s crust. Some REEs have become highly sought-after commodities, especially in the wake of the digital revolution, since they are vital elements of many high-tech applications, with about one quarter of REE consumption currently related to catalysts and one quarter to magnets.

In the case of electromobility, the valuable materials are used to build lightweight magnets for electric vehicle motors, where the weight factor is a crucial part of determining performance and range. They are also used for fuel-cell batteries in hybrid cars. Looking beyond the automotive sector, REEs can be found other components of sustainable energy assets such as wind turbine generators as well.

Sustainable resource use

This means that more efficient recycling can bring down the cost of components and solutions by reducing the need for permanent resource extraction. Notably, mining, processing, and shipping the REEs from their natural deposits to the end-user also involves a huge environmental footprint that could be greatly reduced be re-using available materials.

Due to their uneven global distribution, there are concerns that a few countries with significant REE deposits could limit production or access, potentially creating bottlenecks and giving rise to trade disputes. China, one of the biggest suppliers of rare earths, has been criticized by other advanced industrialized economies for occasionally restricting exports or imposing quotas, ostensibly to prevent smuggling and protect the environment.

Nissan and Waseda University hope to introduce the recycling technology by the mid-2020s. In the face of increasing demand for these finite resources, any commercial-scale process that could expand access to recycled materials would no doubt be welcomed with open arms by manufacturers around the world. Cheaper sourcing of rare elements might also accelerate the process of electrification across numerous industry sectors.


When will all rare earths be sourced via recycling rather than through mining of raw materials? Join the Supertrends Pro community and share your predictions with everyone!

Image credit: Wikipedia user Jurii

Robotic arm medical information technology

Robots Become Reliable Assistants for Healthcare Professionals and Patients

Going in for surgery in 2030 could look like this: the patient is greeted by a smiling robot receptionist and asked to fill in personal information. Then the patient is led to a wardroom that has been disinfected by a service robot. On the day of surgery, the surgeon is in the operation room; but rather than standing next to the patient, he sits at a console, from where he can view the operation field and control his surgical-assistance robot to perform the surgery through a tiny incision.  This vision of the future may not be too far off the mark. Already today, different robots are taking over some of the most demanding jobs in hospitals and accessing the hard-to-reach parts of human bodies.

The Seven Revolutions in Healthcare That Will Impact Your Life – Part 6

(Missed the previous one? You can read Part 5 here – Defy Aging and Stay Healthy for 100 Years)

Surgical robots: smaller incision and more precise cutting

In 1985, the first documented surgical robot, PUMA560, was used to insert a needle into a patient’s brain for biopsy.1

Surgical-assistance robots have since been developed for use in two main surgical fields – minimally invasive general surgeries and orthopedic surgeries.2  

The da Vinci Surgical System is the most widely used robotic surgical system today. It consists of a console, a set of wristed instruments that move similarly to a human hand but with more flexibility, and a 3D-vision system. The surgeon can view a virtual surgical field on a monitor while controlling the movement of the instruments through the console. The size of the instruments makes it possible to operate through very small incisions accurately. Minimizing surgery incisions could help to reduce infections and other complications. The system can be used for surgeries on the stomach, liver, heart, and many other organs.

robots healthcare

Another area that has benefited significantly from surgical robot is orthopedic surgery, especially joint replacement surgeries. With the population getting older, knee and hip replacements have become two of the most common orthopedic surgeries. However, a 2021 study found that 20 percent of the patients who have undergone knee replacements are not satisfied with their outcomes. It also found that malalignment and bone cutting inaccuracy are two of the major factors associated with poor clinical outcomes.3 Robotic-assisted systems use 3D modeling of bone anatomy to create an individualized and optimized surgical plan. At the same time, tactile feedback is used to ensure the accuracy of the surgery.   

In the future, surgical robots are expected to obtain perception skills so they can see, hear, and feel their surroundings. Artificial intelligence will also make surgical robots smarter and perform some automated tasks. In 2020, a team from the University of California Berkeley developed a deep-learning system to teach robots to perform automated suturing by watching actual doctors perform on surgical videos.4

Exoskeletons help patients back on their feet

Robotic exoskeletons, also called powered exoskeletons, support and enhance human motion. One of the most famous exoskeletons is the suit worn by Iron Man in the Hollywood movie of the same name. While real-life exoskeletons cannot fly or carry weapons arsenals, they can enable paralyzed patients and amputees to walk again.   

Today, robotic exoskeletons are already commercially available in hospitals, homes, and community settings to improve patients’ physical and psychological well-being as well as their quality of life. In a 2020 study, patients with spinal cord injury found that exoskeletons provided the psychological benefits of being at eye level with their healthy peers. However, it is still not practical to use exoskeletons for activities of daily living due to limitations such as fitting time, speed, and cost of the device.5

robots healthcare
“The biggest thing for me is to be able to talk to somebody face to face standing up. It’s okay being in a chair, you’re still communicating the same way. But to look them right in the eye as your talking to them is a big deal.” – A spinal cord injury patient describes how they feel about using a robotic exoskeleton.6

Nanorobots deliver drugs to where they are needed

No matter whether we swallow a pill, get an injection, or receive a nasal spray, the medication will be absorbed into the bloodstream, then distributed not only to its targeting location but also throughout the body. Delivering drugs in a more targeted manner can improve treatment efficiency and reduce side effects.

One targeted drug delivery approach is through tiny robots. Nanorobots, also called microrobots, are mobile robots that are smaller than one millimeter. These miniature robots can be loaded with medication, then guided inside the patient’s body to the location where the medication is needed and release the medication at the targeted location. In a recent study, a team of US scientists developed nanorobots that are wrapped in soft algae capsules. These tiny soft robots were able to climb a 45-degree slope and “walk” on the surface of brain tissue in a rat without causing damage.7

Although research in nanorobotics is still mainly in the animal testing stage, it is not hard to imagine that one day, these tiny robots will serve as drug-delivering vehicles in our bodies.

Social robots and service robots extend a helping hand

Social robots can interact and communicate with patients as well as carry out certain caring tasks such as lifting. Service robots can handle routine logistic tasks such as disinfecting patient’s rooms, refilling medical supply cabinets, and transporting laundry items.

Social robots and service robots are viewed as part of the solution for healthcare staff shortages, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. One example of social robots is Pepper, a 1.2 meter tall humanoid robot. By analyzing facial expressions and tone of voice, Pepper is able to have “emotional” communications with patients. At the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the intensive care unit at the Pitié Salpêtrière hospital in Paris used a Pepper robot to help COVID-19 patients keep in touch with their families. Pepper was programmed to stand next to the patient’s bed and use a screen on its chest to facilitate a video call between patients and their families.

robot Pepper healthcare

The robot Pepper was able to reduce the stress levels of both the patients and their families. It also lowered the COVID-19 exposure risk of hospital staff by reducing their physical contact with patients, according to a research analyst.8

It is already technically possible for social robots to sense human emotions through implanted sensors.9 The question is which tasks social robots should be allowed to perform in healthcare, and for which ones only human intervention is acceptable. Going one step further, one might also ask whether it is acceptable to develop companion robots outside the healthcare sector.

The scenario of robots working alongside doctors and nurses in hospitals might become reality sooner than many people expect. Would you be comfortable having your blood sample drawn by a robot? Search “Future of healthcare” on the Supertrends Pro app and tell us your thoughts regarding the following milestones:

[1] Lanfranco AR, Castellanos AE, Desai JP, Meyers WC. Robotic surgery: a current perspective. Ann Surg. 2004;239(1):14-21. doi:10.1097/01.sla.0000103020.19595.7d

[2] Robotics in Healthcare to Improve Patient Outcomes. Intel. Accessed on 13 August 2021.

[3] Siddiqi A, et al. A clinical review of robotic navigation in total knee arthroplasty: historical systems to modern design. EFORT Open Rev. 2021. 6:252-269. DOI: 10.1302/2058-5241.6.200071

[4] Tarantola A, Researchers taught a robot to suture by showing it surgery videos. Engadget. 16 June 2020.

[5] Kinnett-Hopkins D. et al. Users with spinal cord injury experience of robotic Locomotor exoskeletons: a qualitative study of the benefits, limitations, and recommendations. J NeuroEngineering Rehabil. 2020.  17, 124.

[6] Kinnett-Hopkins D. et al. 2020

[7] Mair L.O. et al. Soft Capsule Magnetic Millirobots for Region-Specific Drug Delivery in the Central Nervous System. Front. Robot. AI, 22 July 2021.

[8] Bayern M. How robots are revolutionizing healthcare. ZDNet. 1 July 2020.

[9] Social Robots – a New Perspective in Healthcare. Research Outreach. Accessed 16 Aug 21.

The World’s First 3D-Printed Metal Bridge Opens in Amsterdam

The world’s first 3D-printed metal bridge opened to the public on 15 July 2021. The futuristic design of the smart bridge adds a modernist flair to one of the oldest canals in Amsterdam’s Red Light District. (Head image credit: Adriaan de Groot)

The challenge of a 3D-printed metal bridge

3D-printed metal bridge
A 3D-printed metal bridge being installed in central Amsterdam (Image credit: Merlin Moritz)

Metal 3D printing has gained massive interest in recent years. It enables manufacturers to advance more quickly from the design to the final product and facilitates a more flexible and complex design approach. The reduction of material wastage also makes 3D metal printing more cost-effective and environmentally friendly than traditional methods. However, most 3D metal printers can only print parts up to a size of 25cm3. Until recently, 3D metal printing was mostly used to create small components for the aerospace and automotive sectors and implants in the medical sector

MX3D, an Amsterdam-based metal 3D printing firm, created innovative technology to 3D-print large metal objects. Unlike 3D-printed concrete projects, which can be extruded out of nozzles in layers, 3D metal printing involves welding layers of metal together. MX3D developed an innovative method to bring the large 3D printed metal bridge into reality. The company developed their own software MetalXL, which transforms an off-the-shelf welding robot and a welding machine into a 3D metal printer for large metal objects.

“When we started with the concept the bridge was more than 100 times bigger than any part ever 3D printed in metal, and now it’s finished I still have good reasons to believe the bridge will remain the largest metal printed object for years to come”, said Gijs van der Velden, CEO and Co-Founder MX3D in a statement.

It took four robots six months using more than 6,000 kgs of stainless steel to 3D-print the 12-meter-long bridge. The world’s largest metal 3D-printed object is the result of successful collaboration from various industry leaders including ABB, Air Liquide, ArcelorMittal, Autodesk, AMS Institute, and Lenovo. 

The World’s first 3D-printed metal bridge is placed over one of the oldest canals in Amsterdam’s Red Light District
Video by Anita Star (JorisLaarmanLab)

Smart sensors feed ‘digital twin’

The bridge is equipped with dozens of sensors that collect real-time data, including structural measurements such as strain, rotation, load, displacement, and vibration, as well as environmental factors such as air quality and temperature. The sensory network then integrates the data into the physical bridge’s Digital Twin, an accurate computer model that represents its nominal state in real-time.

Engineers will use the digital model to study the bridge’s properties and will use machine learning to find deviations from the ideal-type state in the data that might indicate when maintenance or modification is needed. Constant data monitoring will help to prevent bridge failures due to corrosion, overload, lack of maintenance, or inspection. 

A live view of the real-time data collected and visualized by the bridge’s sophisticated sensor network is available online.

A research project at Amsterdam’s Red Light District

Queen Máxima of the Netherlands at the opening ceremony (Image credit: Jan de Groen)

The city of Amsterdam has always been open to diverse and innovative ideas. In 2017, Amsterdam was crowned the European Capital of Innovation. The municipal authorities have been a key partner and supporter of the 3D-printed metal bridge. In return, the sensor network in the smart MX3D bridge serves as a living laboratory for the city’s cutting-edge research project. 

Data collected from the bridge’s sensors will be used to explore the role of the internet of things (IoT) and connected systems in the local environment. Researchers hope that the smart bridge can help them to anonymously analyze crowd behavior and better understand the impact of tourism in the Red Light District. 

“The Bridge is only the beginning for our technology, by now MX3D has introduced its metal printing tool on the industrial market, and with this tool already many companies have started printing like us. I am looking forward to all positive impact and new ideas our client will realize,” – Gijs van der Velden, CEO and Co-Founder MX3D

Queen Máxima of the Netherlands officially opened the world’s first 3D-printed metal bridge to the public on 15 July 2021. The landscape of 3D metal printing is entering a new territory of many innovative applications. 

3D Printing is a Game-Changer in Surgery

In 2016, a nine-month-old baby boy in China was found to have a rare heart defect. He was taken to the hospital in critical condition. Without surgery, doctors estimated that he had only a 20 percent chance of surviving to his first birthday. However, the complexity of the surgery was a risk factor that concerned his doctor. The doctor 3D-printed a full-size model of his tiny heart for the surgery pre-planning. The baby recovered after the surgery and is expected to live with little to no lasting ill effects.

The Seven Revolutions in Healthcare That Will Impact Your Life – Part 2

Healthcare, an unexpected beneficiary of 3D printing

In the summer of 1984, Charles W. “Chuck” Hull patented the “apparatus for production of three-dimensional objects by stereolithography”, marking the birth of 3D printing. This technology has since been adopted across several industries. The healthcare industry was one of the first adopters of 3D printing. The enthusiasm expressed by the healthcare industry, and in particular by surgeons, even surprised Chuck Hull himself.

“To me, some of the medical applications have been the most surprising. I didn’t anticipate that, and as soon as I started working with some of the medical imaging people, it became pretty clear that this was going to work.” – Charles W. ‘Chuck’ Hull, inventor of 3D printing[1]

In the three decades following the invention of 3D printing, it has helped transform healthcare. Thanks to 3D printers, today surgeons have access to on-demand individualized organ models, bones, prosthetics, and medical devices. The medical applications of 3D printing continue to broaden.

3D printing enhances a surgeon’s capabilities

Traditionally, doctors work with two-dimensional X-ray, CT, or MRI images. When pre-planning a complex surgery for a traumatic injury or complex condition, excellent visualization skills are required from the surgeon. It becomes even more difficult to fit the puzzle pieces together when the injuries involve a patient’s face or skull. The adoption of 3D printing can reproduce the anatomical models accurately based on radiological imaging of the patients. These models enable a surgeon to visualize, pre-plan, and practice beforehand. A recent review found that in 82 percent of cases, 3D printed models resulted in better surgical outcomes, such as reduced surgical time, improved medical outcome, and decreased radiation exposure.[2]

Beyond the operation room, 3D-printed anatomical models that replicate the complexity and various pathological conditions are also unique tools for the training of young surgeons.

For hospitals investing in 3D printing solutions, the advantage is a reduction in surgical time, leading to better operation theater utilization and a higher number of surgeries being conducted, along with better patient outcomes in terms of faster recovery time, etc. As Supertrends expert Dr. Atanu Chaudhuri notes, the technology can also help individual hospitals attain leading positions in the field.

“Deploying customized on-demand 3D printing can reduce surgical flow time and its variability (in diagnosis, surgery, and recovery) while improving clinical outcomes.” – Atanu Chaudhuri, Supertrends expert[3]

A new way to produce medical devices and implants

Size is crucial when it comes to medical devices, especially implants. Using a wrong-sized implant can lead to poor outcomes. Mass-produced medical devices often fail to completely meet the complex needs of patients. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, US$36 million is wasted each year due to poor patient outcomes related to hip and knee replacement.[4]

3D printing transforms the manufacturing of medical devices and implants, allowing them to be customized in terms of shape and functions.

One of the leading applications is in orthopaedics and orthopaedic oncology, especially in complex restructuring operations. Skull and facial implants are another areas that demands highly customized implants. In the Netherlands, doctors have replaced the entire top of a 22-year-old woman’s skull with a 3D-printed implant instead of a traditional implant. Doctors found that 3D-printed skull implants were more cosmetically beneficial, and patients often had better brain functions as a result.[5]

With the reduced costs and increased efficiency, 3D printing facilitates a lower-cost approach to making otherwise high-cost items, such as prosthetics. A number of non-profit organizations are using 3D printing to produce parts for people in need. E-NABLE is an example of volunteers creating free 3D-printed prosthetics for children and adults.

Will 3D bioprinting be the answer for organ shortages?

3D printing is already shaking our age-old notions of what can and can’t be made. – Hod Lipson, professor and author

3D bioprinting uses cell-laden bioinks as material, layering them in a manner mimicking natural tissues and organs. The goal of this technology is to restore damaged tissue or organs. Over the past few years, significant advancements have been made in the design and synthesis of bioink and accompanying secondary technologies. Last year, researchers from Australia 3D-printed miniature kidneys using stem cells. Although the 3D-bioprinted kidneys are only the size of a fingernail, they have a similar structure to a real kidney.[6]

Other applications of 3D bioprinting include drug delivery and studying disease mechanisms. Companies are working on 3D-printed tablets with different sizes, shapes, and drug delivery devices to meet personalized needs. In 2015, FDA approved the first 3D printed medication Spiritam.[7]

The impact of 3D printing on healthcare is just beginning

What 3D printing holds for the future of healthcare is a more personalized approach, at a lower cost.

Below are examples of some historical milestones in 3D printing that you can find on the Supertrends Pro App.

What about the future? Feel free to weigh in and give us your predictions on the following three key questions:

  • 3D-printed anatomical models become standard for complex medical surgeries.
  • 3D-printed medical devices and simulations are regularly used in complex surgeries.
  • 3D-bioprinting of tissues and organs is available for regenerative medicine.

Do you think they will happen at some point, and if so, when? Or do you think they will never happen? Search “Future of healthcare” on the Supertrends Pro App to join the discussion.

© 2021 Supertrends

[1] Matthew Whitaker, The history of 3D printing in healthcare, The bulletin, 2014, (96): 7;

[2] Tack P, Victor J, Gemmel P, Annemans L. 3D-printing techniques in a medical setting: a systematic literature review. Biomed Eng Online. 2016;15(1):115. Published 2016 Oct 21. doi:10.1186/s12938-016-0236-4

[3] Chaudhuri, A., Naseraldin, H., Søberg, P.V., Kroll, E. and Librus, M. (2021), “Should hospitals invest in customised on-demand 3D printing for surgeries?”, International Journal of Operations & Production Management, Vol. 41 No. 1, pp. 55-62.

[4] Why size matters when it comes to medical devices, Qmed, Oct 26, 2015,

[5] Thomson Lain, The Register, March 29, 2014,

[6] Aussie research on bioprinting mini kidney raises hope for lab-grown transplantation, Xinhua, November 24, 2020,

[7] Dey, M., Ozbolat, I.T. 3D bioprinting of cells, tissues and organs. Sci Rep 10, 14023 (2020).

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