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Tech Start-ups Key to Africa’s Digital Transformation but Urgently Need Investment

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The World Economic Forum’s latest report, “Attracting Investment and Accelerating Adoption for the Fourth Industrial Revolution in Africa” analyses the challenges Africa faces in joining the global knowledge-based digital economy and presents a set of tangible strategies for the region’s governments to accelerate the transition.

The Forum’s report, written in collaboration with Deloitte, comes just weeks after the announcement by Google of a $1 billion investment to support digital transformation across Africa, which centres on laying a new subsea cable between Europe and Africa that will multiply the continent’s digital network capacity by 20, leading to an estimated 1.7 million new jobs by 2025. Africa’s digital economy could contribute nearly $180 billion to the region’s growth by the by mid-decade. Yet with only 39% of the population using the internet, Africa is currently the world’s least connected continent.

Tech start-ups such as Kenya’s mobile money solution Mpesa and online retail giant Jumia, Africa’s first unicorn, represent what the continent’s vibrant small business sector is capable of. Despite raising $1.2 billion of new capital in 2020 – a six-fold increase in five years – this represents less than 1% of the $156 billion raised by US start-ups in the same year. Meanwhile, Africa’s investment in R&D was just 0.42% of GDP in 2019 – less than a quarter of the global average of 1.7%.

“African governments urgently need to drive greater investment in the tech sector and the knowledge economy,” said Chido Munyati, Head of Africa Division at the World Economic Forum. “Policy-makers can make a difference by reducing the burden of regulation, embedding incentives within legislation and investing in science and technology skills.”

The report breaks down these three policy enablers:

  • Pass legislation such as “Start-up Acts” designed to spur private sector innovation, reduce the burden of regulation and promote entrepreneurship, in which Tunisia and Senegal are leading the way.
  • Embed incentives for start-ups in legislation, such as start-up grants, rebates on efficiency gains through technology implementation, co-investment of critical infrastructure, tax-free operations for the early years, and incentives for R&D.
  • Invest in workforce education, skills and competencies. Currently, only 2% of Africa’s university-age population holds a STEM-related (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) degree.

However, the analysis of 188 government incentives for business across 32 African countries finds that just 14 incentives – fewer than 10% – facilitate investment in Fourth Industrial Revolution technology. And most of these incentive schemes lack an efficient monitoring and evaluation system to gauge their effectiveness.

Delia Ndlovu, Africa Chair, Deloitte, believes that digital transformation promises to boost economic growth in Africa: “Connecting the region to the global digital economy will not only open new avenues of opportunity for small businesses, but will also increase intra-Africa trade which is low at 16% compared to markets such as intra-European trade which is approximately 65% to 70%.”

African governments have much to learn from each other. In Côte d’Ivoire, an R&D tax incentive has been created to direct investment away from commodities and into innovation. In South Africa, the Automotive Investment Transformation Fund created by the largest manufacturers in the country is facilitating the development of a diverse supplier base to realise the 60% local content target set by the Automotive Production and Development Programme (APDP). In Tunisia, the government offers state salaries for up to three start-up founders per company during the first year of operations, with a right to return to their old jobs if the venture fails.

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Emergency-response drones to save lives in the digital skies

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by Gareth Willmer

Uncrewed aircraft responding to fire and medical emergencies will be used to save lives – if digitalised air-traffic control can help them navigate safely in the skies over Europe.

In a city in the future, a fire breaks out in a skyscraper. An alarm is triggered and a swarm of drones swoops in, surrounds the building and uses antennas to locate people inside, enabling firefighters to go straight to the stricken individuals. Just in the nick of time – no deaths are recorded.

Elsewhere in the city, drones fly back and forth delivering tissue samples from hospitals to specialist labs for analysis, while another rushes a defibrillator to someone who has suffered a suspected cardiac arrest on a football pitch. The patient lives, with the saved minutes proving critical.

At the time of writing, drones have already been used in search-and-rescue situations to save more than 880 people worldwide, according to drone company DJI. Drones are also being used for medical purposes, such as to transport medicines and samples, and take vaccines to remote areas.

Drones for such uses are still a relatively new development, meaning there is plenty of room to make them more effective and improve supporting infrastructure. This is particularly true when it comes to urban environments, where navigation is complex and requires safety regulations.

Flying firefighters

The IDEAL DRONE project developed a system to aid in firefighting and other emergencies to demonstrate the potential for using swarms of uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs) in such situations. Equipped with antennas, the drones use a radio-frequency system to detect the location of ‘nodes’ – or tags – worn by people inside a building.

Making use of an Italian aircraft hangar, the tests involved pilots on the ground flying three drones around the outside of a building. The idea is that the drones triangulate the position of people inside where their signals intersect, as well as detecting information about their health condition. The details can then be mapped to optimise and accelerate rescue operations, and enhance safety for firefighters by allowing them to avoid searching all over a burning building without knowing where people are.

‘You create a sort of temporary network from outside the building through which you can detect the people inside,’ said Professor Gian Paolo Cimellaro, an engineer at the Polytechnic University of Turin and project lead on IDEAL DRONE.

‘By knowing how many people are inside the building and where they are located, it will optimise the search-and-rescue operation.’

He added: ‘A unique characteristic of this project is that it allows indoor tracking without communication networks such as Wi-Fi or GPS, which might not be available if you are in an emergency like a disaster or post-earthquake situation.’

There are some challenges in terms of accuracy and battery life, while another obvious drawback is that people in the building need to already be wearing trackers.

However, said Prof Cimellaro, current thinking is that this can be unintrusive if tags are incorporated in existing technology that people often already carry such as smartwatches, mobile phones or ID cards. They can also be used by organisations that mandate their use for staff working in hazardous environments, such as factories or offshore oil rigs.

Looking beyond the challenges, Prof Cimellaro thinks such systems could be a reality within five years, with drones holding significant future promise for avoiding ‘putting human lives in danger’.

Medical networks

Another area in which drones can be used to save lives is medical emergencies. This is the focus of the SAFIR-Med project.

Belgian medical drone operator Helicus has established a command-and-control (C2C) centre in Antwerp to coordinate drone flights. The idea is that the C2C automatically creates flight plans using artificial intelligence, navigating within a digital twin – or virtual representation – of the real world. These plans are then relayed to the relevant air traffic authorities for flight authorisation.

‘We foresee drone cargo ports on the rooftops of hospitals, integrated as much as possible with the hospital’s logistical system so that transport can be on demand,’ added Geert Vanhandenhove, manager of flight operations at Helicus.

So far, SAFIR-Med has successfully carried out remote virtual demonstrations, simulations, flights controlled from the C2C at test sites, and other tests such as that of a ‘detect-and-avoid’ system to help drones take evasive action when others are flying in the vicinity.

The next step will be to validate the concepts in real-life demonstrations in several countries, including Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands. The trials envisage scenarios including transfers of medical equipment and tissue samples between hospitals and labs, delivery of a defibrillator to treat a cardiac patient outside a hospital, and transport of a physician to an emergency site by passenger drone.

Additional simulations in Greece and the Czech Republic will show the potential for extending such systems across Europe.

SAFIR-med is part of a wider initiative known as U-space. It’s co-funded by the Single European Sky Air Traffic Management Research (SESAR) Joint Undertaking which is a public-private effort for safer drone operations under the Digital European Sky.

Making rules

Much of the technology is already there for such uses of drones, says Vanhandenhove. However, he highlights that there are regulatory challenges involved in drone flights in cities, especially with larger models flying beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS). This includes authorisations for demonstrations within SAFIR-Med itself.

‘The fact that this is the first time this is being done is posing significant hurdles,’ he said. ‘It will depend on the authorisations granted as to which scenarios can be executed.’

But regulations are set to open up over time, with European Commission rules facilitating a framework for use of BVLOS UAVs in low-level airspace due to come into force next January.

Vanhandenhove emphasises that the development of more robust drone infrastructure will be a gradual process of learning and improvement. Eventually, he hopes that through well-coordinated systems with authorities, emergency flights can be mobilised in seconds in smart cities of the future. ‘For us, it’s very important that we can get an authorisation in sub-minute time,’ he said.

He believes commercial flights could even begin within a couple of years, though it may not be until post-2025 that widely integrated, robust uncrewed medical systems come into play in cities. ‘It’s about making the logistics of delivering whatever medical treatment faster and more efficient, and taking out as much as possible the constraints and limitations that we have on the route,’ said Vanhandenhove.

The research in this article was funded by the EU. This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.  

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Global Forum on e-waste management explores Circular Electronics

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Within the framework of the UNIDO-GEF LAC e-waste project, the United Nations Development Organization (UNIDO), the United Nations University (UNU) and the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) organized the third edition of the E-Waste Academy for Managers (EWAM) online, from 23 to 26 May 2022.

During the four-day event, which was attended by a total of over 340 participants, a wide range of international experts explored how to enhance decision-making for sustainable e-waste management systems while fostering cooperation at the national, regional and global levels. The event allowed for information, knowledge and experience sharing related to circularity in electronics and e-waste management – from policies to technologies and from gender perspectives to health impacts.

“In opening up this global forum and training event to online participation, we have been able to convene stakeholders involved in the practical design and implementation of e-waste management solutions from across the world, who are already interested in the Circular Electronics paradigm”, said UNIDO Project Manager Alfredo Cueva. “A series of panel discussions and group sessions will provide insights on topics ranging from transboundary movements of e-waste to collection channels and the experiences of vulnerable groups operating informally in the sector”.

Overall, the UNIDO-GEF project assists 13 countries with tackling e-waste challenges in the region, with capacity-building activities representing a key element of the project alongside awareness-raising, e-waste policy and regulation advice, public participation, and recycling facility upgrades, among others.

One example of the multiple collaborations developed under the project is the 2021 Regional E-waste Monitor (REM) for Latin-America, which was launched by the Sustainable Cycles (SCYCLE) Programme that is co-hosted by UNU and UNITAR in cooperation with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). The Report found that, between 2010 and 2019, electronic waste generation in the 13 participating countries rose by 49% but that only 3% was collected and safely managed. The remaining 97% may include US$1.7bn in recoverable materials a year; a great opportunity for implementing circular electronics. In addition, these wastes may contain potentially hazardous components and persistent organic pollutants (POPs), such as Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs) that need to be disposed safely.

Other pilot activities developed within the E-waste project framework include strengthening e-waste management with a focus on protecting health in Bolivia and Panama (with WHO/PAHO) and studying the value chain with a focus on labour conditions, health and occupational safety in Argentina and Peru (with ILO).

The event was opened by the Uruguayan Environment Minister Adrián Peña, WHO Director of the Health Department for Public Health, Environment and Social Determinants María Neira, UNITAR Director of the Planet Division Angus Mackay and UNIDO’s Department of Environment Deputy Director and Head of UNIDO’s Industrial Resource Efficiency Division Nilgün Tas.

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Safety boosters make e-bikes even better than the wheel thing

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Article by Sarah Wild

If Europe is to meet its ambitious environmental goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050, more and more people will need to cycle to get around. With World Bicycle Day on June 3rd celebrating pedal power’s undeniable benefits, we are curious to know what the bike and e-bike of the future might look like. 

Since the start of the pandemic, e-bikes have propelled a bicycle sales boom. Already in 2019, more than 3.7-million of the battery-powered e-bikes were sold with EU sales projected to reach 17 million units annually by 2030, according to the European Cyclists’ Federation.

Apart from the widespread adoption of electric power, at over 200 years of age, the ancient pushbike itself is enjoying something of a makeover. Innovations for safer braking, easier pedalling and better grip in changing road and weather conditions soon may be coming to an upgraded bicycle lane near you, thanks in part to €80 billion in sustainable transport infrastructure investments under the European Green Deal.

Brake time

One unfortunate drawback to this cycling revolution is, as e-bikes sales increase, so too do e-bike-related injuries. ‘E-bikes are light vehicles and have small brakes, so the pressure applied to them is significantly high,’ said Fabio Todeschini, founder and general manager of BluBrake. Based in Italy, BluBrake designs and manufactures anti-lock braking systems (ABS) for e-bikes and e-cargo bikes.

The majority of e-bike accidents occur during braking, with about 40% of those accidents due to the front wheel locking, said Todeschini. When the wheel locks, the cyclist can skid without control, overturn or worse, fly over the front of the handlebars. BluBrake developed a brake-set solution to make e-bikes safer, providing cyclists with safety technology similar to cars and motorcycles.

A sensor on the front wheel measures the bicycle’s speed and transmits that information to the main ABS unit, which is the brains of the system. A handlebar display keeps the cyclist informed of the status while electronics are used to monitor speed and predict potential danger. If a dangerous situation arises, an actuator engages to regulate pressure on the front brake in order to prevent the back wheel from lifting off the ground.

Since the company launched its ABS offering in 2019, a number of leading original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) have adopted it as standard on their bike models, Todeschini said. In 2021, BluBrake launched its second-generation ABS, which, at under 400g, is half the size and weight of the original.

Early reTyre-ment

Norwegian firm reTyre produces a modular tyre system with a range of treads, that can be changed easily by zipping them on and off.

‘It started when I was a student at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology,’ said reTyre founder and inventor Paul Magne Amundsen. ‘You can find almost 20 000 bicycles on campus (but) in the winter almost none of them had winter tyres.’ In frosty Norway, these tyres are vital because they improve traction and allow the bikes to grip the road, even in the icy conditions that sometimes prevail.

‘We realised that we needed to make some kind of studded winter surface that mimics a tyre, looks like a tyre, but is easy to take on and off,’ Amundsen said. Ultimately, Amundsen and colleagues ended up designing a modular tyre, consisting of a base tyre with a zipper to which can be fitted with different layers or “skins”, chosen according to weather conditions. ‘When you want to attach a new skin to the tyre, you slip on your surface layer,’ said Amundsen, ‘And that surface sits very snugly on the tyre, so you have the performance that you’d expect from a normal tyre.’

Since reTyre began selling modular tyres in 2020, they are now sold in more than 33 countries, according to Amundsen. The company also serves the electric scooters and wheelchair markets with modular systems, which, according to Amundsen, also is better for the environment.

‘When a surface layer is worn, you’re only discarding the surface layer instead of the whole structure,’ he said. Making it easy to switch tyres also increases the likelihood that people will use their bikes more, as they could otherwise be put off bringing their bicycles into the shop to have other tyres fitted.

The company is rapidly expanding to keep up with demand. Last year, reTyre produced about 40 000 modular tyre systems, and now plans significant increases. ‘We’re looking at 100 000 this year,’ said Amundsen.

Pedal of honour

Some people may find the physical effort of cycling deters them. It’s a reticence that Spanish company Bike Innovations is addressing with the manufacture of extending cranks which significantly reduces the effort required to move the bike. The cranks are the metal rods that links the pedals to the large chain wheel which ultimately powers the rear wheel. Bike Innovation’s Raylap project developed springy cranks which extend in length as a person is cycling.

These increase the circumference of the circle that the cyclist creates when turning the pedals, improving the rate at which force is transferred to the rear wheel by up to 35%, according to Bike Innovations. Demanding much less effort from the rider, the cranks can be fitted to any bicycle. In e-bikes, spare energy can even be fed back into the battery.

‘We are about to manufacture the first 200 products,’ said Juan Gazpio, sales manager at Bike Innovations. Initial feedback is promising, according to Gazpio, and following trials with cycling retail outlets in Madrid and Barcelona they are planning to ramp up manufacturing ahead of Christmas 2022.

The research in this article was funded by the EU. This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.  

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