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Battery-free smart devices to harvest ambient energy for IoT

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By  MICHAEL ALLEN

Tiny internet-connected electronic devices are becoming ubiquitous. The so-called Internet of Things (IoT) allows our smart gadgets in the home and wearable technologies like our smart watches to communicate and operate together. IoT devices are increasingly used across all sorts of industries to drive interconnectivity and smart automation as part of the ‘fourth industrial revolution’.

The fourth industrial revolution builds on already widespread digital technology such as connected devices, artificial intelligence, robotics and 3D printing. It is expected to be a significant factor in revolutionising society, the economy and culture.

These small, autonomous, interconnected and often wireless devices are already playing a key role in our everyday lives by helping to make us more resource and energy-efficient, organised, safe, secure and healthy.

There is a key challenge, however – how to power these tiny devices. The obvious answer is “batteries”. But it is not quite that simple.

Small devices

Many of these devices are too small to use a long-life battery and they are located in remote or hard-to-access locations – for instance in the middle of the ocean tracking a shipping container or at the top of a grain silo, monitoring levels of cereal. These types of locations make servicing some IoT devices extremely challenging and commercially and logistically infeasible.

Mike Hayes, head of ICT for energy efficiency at the Tyndall National Institute in Ireland, summarises the marketplace. ‘It’s projected that we are going to have one trillion sensors in the world by 2025,’ he said, ‘That is one thousand billion sensors.’

That number is not as crazy as it first seems, according to Hayes, who is the coordinator of the Horizon-funded EnABLES project (European Infrastructure Powering the Internet of Things).

If you think about the sensors in the technology someone might carry on their person or have in their car, home, office plus the sensors embedded in the infrastructure around them such as roads and railways, you can see where that number comes from, he explained.

‘In the trillion IoT sensor world predicted for 2025, we are going to be throwing over 100 million batteries everyday into landfills unless we significantly extend battery life,’ Hayes said.

Battery life

Landfill is not the only environmental concern. We also need to consider where all the material to make the batteries is going to come from. The EnABLES project is calling on the EU and industry leaders to think about battery life from the outset when designing IoT devices to ensure that batteries are not limiting the lifespan of devices.

‘We don’t need the device to last forever,’ said Hayes. ‘The trick is that you need to outlive the application that you’re serving. For example, if you want to monitor a piece of industrial equipment, you probably want it to last for five to 10 years. And in some cases, if you do a regular service every three years anyway, once the battery lasts more than three or four years that’s probably good enough.’

Although many devices have an operational life of more than 10 years, the battery life of wireless sensors is typically only one to two years.

The first step to longer battery life is increasing the energy supplied by batteries. Also, reducing the power consumption of devices will prolong the battery. But EnABLES is going even further.

The project brings together 11 leading European research institutes. With other stakeholders, EnABLES is working to develop innovative ways to harvest tiny ambient energies such as light, heat and vibration.

Harvesting such energies will further extend battery life. The goal is to create self-charging batteries that last longer or ultimately run autonomously.

Energy harvesters

Ambient energy harvesters, such as a small vibrational harvester or indoor solar panel, that produce low amounts of power (in the milliwatt range) could significantly extend the battery life of many devices, according to Hayes. These include everyday items like watches, radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, hearing aids, carbon dioxide detectors, and temperature, light and humidity sensors.

EnABLES is also designing the other key technologies needed for tiny IoT devices. Not content with improving energy efficiency, the project is also trying to develop a framework and standardised and interoperable technologies for these devices.

One of the key challenges with autonomously powered IoT tools is power management. The energy source may be intermittent and at very low levels (microwatts), and different methods of harvesting supply different forms of power that require different techniques to convert to electricity.

Steady trickle

Huw Davies, is chief executive officer of Trameto, a company which is developing power management for piezo electric applications. He points out that energy from photovoltaic devices tends to come in a steady trickle, while that from piezoelectric devices, which convert ambient energy from movements (vibrations) into electrical energy, generally comes in bursts.

‘You need a way of storing that energy locally in a store before it is delivered into a load, so you need to have ways of managing that,’ Davies said.

He is the project coordinator of the Horizon-funded HarvestAll project, which has developed an energy management system for ambient energy dubbed OptiJoule.

OptiJoule works with piezoelectric materials, photovoltaics and thermal electric generators. It can function with any of these sources on their own, or with multiple energy harvesting sources at the same time.

The goal is to enable autonomous sensors to be self-sustaining. In principle, it’s quite simple. ‘What we are talking about is ultra-low powered sensors taking some digital measurement,’ said Davies. ‘Temperature, humidity, pressure, whatever it is, with the data from that being delivered into the internet.’

Integrated circuits

The HarvestAll energy management integrated circuit device adjusts to match the different energy harvesters. It takes the different and intermittent energy created by these harvesters and stores it, for instance in a battery or capacitor, and then manages the delivery of a steady output of energy to the sensor.

Similarly to the EnABLES project, the idea is to create standardised technology that will enable the rapid development of long battery life/autonomous IoT devices in Europe and the world.

Davies said that the energy management circuit works completely autonomously and automatically. It is designed so that it can just be plugged into an energy harvester, or combination of harvesters, and a sensor. As a replacement for the battery it has a significant advantage, according to Davies, because ‘It will just work.’

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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Futuristic fields: Europe’s farm industry on cusp of robot revolution

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By Sofia Strodt

In the Dutch province of Zeeland, a robot moves swiftly through a field of crops including sunflowers, shallots and onions. The machine weeds autonomously – and tirelessly – day in, day out.

“Farmdroid” has made life a lot easier for Mark Buijze, who runs a biological farm with 50 cows and 15 hectares of land. Buijze is one of the very few owners of robots in European agriculture.

Robots to the rescue

His electronic field worker uses GPS and is multifunctional, switching between weeding and seeding. With the push of a button, all Buijze has to do is enter coordinates and Farmdroid takes it from there.

‘With the robot, the weeding can be finished within one to two days – a task that would normally take weeks and roughly four to five workers if done by hand,’ he said. ‘By using GPS, the machine can identify the exact location of where it has to go in the field.’

About 12 000 years ago, the end of foraging and start of agriculture heralded big improvements in people’s quality of life. Few sectors have a history as rich as that of farming, which has evolved over the centuries in step with technological advancements.

In the current era, however, agriculture has been slower than other industries to follow one tech trend: artificial intelligence (AI). While already commonly used in forms ranging from automated chatbots and face recognition to car braking and warehouse controls, AI for agriculture is still in the early stages of development.

Now, advances in research are spurring farmers to embrace robots by showing how they can do everything from meeting field-hand needs to detecting crop diseases early.

Lean and green

For French agronomist Bertrand Pinel, farming in Europe will require far greater use of robots to be productive, competitive and green – three top EU goals for a sector whose output is worth around €190 billion a year.

One reason for using robots is the need to forgo the use of herbicides by eliminating weeds the old-fashioned way: mechanical weeding, a task that is not just mundane but also arduous and time consuming. Another is the frequent shortage of workers to prune grapevines.

‘In both cases, robots would help,’ said Pinel, who is research and development project manager at France-based Terrena Innovation. ‘That is our idea of the future for European agriculture.’

Pinel is part of the EU-funded ROBS4CROPS project. With some 50 experts and 16 institutional partners involved, it is pioneering a robot technology on participating farms in the Netherlands, Greece, Spain and France.

‘This initiative is quite innovative,’ said Frits van Evert, coordinator of the project. ‘It has not been done before.’

In the weeds

AI in agriculture looks promising for tasks that need to be repeated throughout the year such as weeding, according to van Evert, a senior researcher in precision agriculture at Wageningen University in the Netherlands.

‘If you grow a crop like potatoes, typically you plant the crop once per year in the spring and you harvest in the fall, but the weeding has to be done somewhere between six and 10 times per year,’ he said.

Plus, there is the question of speed. Often machines work faster than any human being can.

Francisco Javier Nieto De Santos, coordinator of the EU-funded FLEXIGROBOTS project, is particularly impressed by a model robot that takes soil samples. When done by hand, this practice requires special care to avoid contamination, delivery to a laboratory and days of analysis.

‘With this robot everything is done in the field,’ De Santos said. ‘It can take several samples per hour, providing results within a matter of minutes.’

Eventually, he said, the benefits of such technologies will extend beyond the farm industry to reach the general public by increasing the overall supply of food.

Unloved labour

Meanwhile, agricultural robots may be in demand not because they can work faster than any person but simply because no people are available for the job.

Even before inflation rates and fertiliser prices began to surge in 2021 amid an energy squeeze made worse by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this year, farmers across Europe were struggling on another front: finding enough field hands including seasonal workers.

‘Labour is one of the biggest obstacles in agriculture,’ said van Evert. ‘It’s costly and hard to get these days because fewer and fewer people are willing to work in agriculture. We think that robots, such as self-driving tractors, can take away this obstacle.’

The idea behind ROBS4CROPS is to create a robotic system where existing agricultural machinery is upgraded so it can work in tandem with farm robots.

For the system to work, raw data such as images or videos must first be labelled by researchers in ways than can later be read by the AI.

Driverless tractors

The system then uses these large amounts of information to make “smart” decisions as well as predictions – think about the autocorrect feature on laptop computers and mobile phones, for example.

A farming controller comparable to the “brain” of the whole operation decides what needs to happen next or how much work remains to be done and where – based on information from maps or instructions provided by the farmer.

The machinery – self-driving tractors and smart implements like weeders equipped with sensors and cameras – gathers and stores more information as it works, becoming “smarter”.

Crop protection

FLEXIGROBOTS, based in Spain, aims to help farmers use existing robots for multiple tasks including disease detection.

Take drones, for example. Because they can spot a diseased plant from the air, drones can help farmers detect sick crops early and prevent a wider infestation.

‘If you can’t detect diseases in an early stage, you may lose the produce of an entire field, the production of an entire year,’ said De Santos. ‘The only option is to remove the infected plant.’

For example, there is no treatment for the fungus known as mildew, so identifying and removing diseased plants early on is crucial.

Pooling information is key to making the whole system smarter, De Santos said. Sharing data gathered by drones with robots or feeding the information into models expands the “intelligence” of the machines.

Although agronomist Pinel doesn’t believe that agriculture will ever be solely reliant on robotics, he’s certain about their revolutionary impact.

‘In the future, we hope that the farmers can just put a couple of small robots in the field and let them work all day,’ he said.

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

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Self-driving cars emerge from the sci-fi realm

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By Tom Cassauwers

It’s an ordinary day in the northern German city of Hamburg, where countless cars move along the streets and pedestrians cross at the intersections. Amid all the hustle and bustle, one vehicle advances without the driver’s hands on the steering wheel or feet on the pedals.

This isn’t some risky stunt but rather the final tests of technology designed by the European-Union funded L3Pilot project. In it, the researchers developed and tried out electronics for self-driving cars on urban roads and highways.

Road realities

‘It’s very important to test automated vehicles under real-world conditions,’ said Aria Etemad, who coordinated L3Pilot and is a researcher at German automaker Volkswagen. ‘Letting them drive around in artificial environments is not enough. We need to see if they can handle the complex and messy reality of the road.’

Self-driving cars have gone through plenty of hype in recent years. US tech companies such as Google and Uber poured billions into research, pursuing a science-fiction like vision of cars transporting people around with no human drivers.

Those dreams have at times been interrupted as self-driving cars turned out to be more complex to design than previously thought. There has occasionally even been tragic drama, such as the 2018 death of an American woman after she was struck by an Uber self-driving test car.

Nonetheless, out of the spotlight researchers such as Etemad are making real gains. And in the next several years, more vehicles with higher degrees of autonomy are likely to appear on roads across Europe.

The hope is that such cars will help the EU achieve a goal of reducing road fatalities to zero by 2050 from 19 900 last year. The 2021 figure marked a 6% increase from 2020.

If 30% of vehicles on highways used automated-driving technologies, road accidents would decline by almost 15%, L3Pilot predicted. Furthermore, automated cars hold out the promise of reducing both traffic jams (by making road transport more efficient) and driver stress.

‘We need a little bit more time,’ said Etemad, who now coordinates a follow-up EU project called Hi-Drive. ‘But in the near future more and more cars will have automated driving technology.’

Shifting gears

The whole process will be evolutionary, with varying levels of automation featuring in different car models at various stages.

Six levels of automobile autonomy exist under a common industry ranking. Level zero is a standard car with no automation, while level five represents total automation – a vehicle that can drive on its own in all possible conditions.

Levels one and two are already a reality, with the first containing adaptive cruise control and the second extending to traffic-jam assistance, according to Etemad.

Some existing cars already steer and brake by themselves, for example in relatively straightforward traffic conditions like on a highway or in congestion.

In certain cases, drivers can even remove their hands from the steering wheel or feet from the pedals while retaining ultimate control (and needing to be ready at all times to take over). Data from sensors and cameras attached to the car are entered into a software system, which often uses artificial intelligence to make driving decisions.

Car manufacturers are now trying to extend autonomy to level three.

‘It’s like level two, but at level three the driver can do side activities,’ Etemad said. ‘They could watch a video for example. Only when the system requests it, the driver should take back control.’

User signals

David Ertl of the European Bureau of the International Automobile Federation (FIA) says that car riders themselves are providing input on both their enthusiasm and their scepticism about the whole endeavour, adding to the research stakes.

‘There could potentially be clear benefits for car users, such as improved road safety,’ he said. ‘But they remain unsure about how safe automated driving really is.’

FIA was a partner in L3Pilot and is one in Hi-Drive, representing the interests of drivers.

Safety and trust will ultimately depend not just on technology but also on providing drivers with sufficient information on the automated functions. Future driving-licence tests should include training on automated driving, Ertl said.

The transition from level two to three is a big one. The automated systems must be safe enough to allow drivers to turn their attention elsewhere.

L3Pilot tests involved a total of 750 people acting either as drivers overseeing the operations or as passengers in seven countries including Germany, Italy and Sweden, according to Etemad.

In the experiments, the car drove itself while a trained driver sat behind the steering wheel to take over whenever necessary, he said.

Blind spots

It turned out that current autonomous-driving technologies still have a number of blind spots.

For example, when an automated car approached some roadworks, it was unable to figure out what to do and handed control back to the driver. A range of challenges like this is now being addressed in Hi-Drive, which runs until mid-2025.

‘We are cooperating with infrastructure owners to know where the roadworks are and what they look like,’ said Etemad. ‘That information is transferred to the vehicle, which would allow it to better prepare for them.’

These kinds of unexpected situations on the road are among the main obstacles to the development of self-driving vehicles.

‘This is why many manufacturers are hesitating to put these systems on the market,’ said Etemad. ‘You need to think of all possible situations your car needs to cover. And that’s not easy.’

Higher ambitions

For the even-higher levels of autonomy, more patience will be required.

‘Level four might arrive on the market as robot taxis or shuttles,’ said Etemad. ‘They are highly autonomous, but the speeds at which they operate are low, and the places in which they drive are well-defined. I’m pretty sure before the end of this decade we will see these in operation in metropolitan areas.’

What about the fifth level involving a car driving autonomously everywhere, from small rural roads and highways to city centres? Might it be a pipe dream destined to stay in the sci-fi realm?

Etemad thinks so. He says the related costs would be prohibitive in the near future – for both the car technology and the necessary infrastructure such as sensors able to inform a vehicle what’s happening on the road.

‘It’s simply not affordable,’ said Etemad. ‘With our current understanding and technology, we should focus on level three and four because that’s where the real potential lies.’

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

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Airports and harbours prepare to slash emissions as the greening of transport accelerates

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By Michael Allan

If the European Union is to meet its net-zero targets and become a climate-neutral economy by 2050, the transport industry needs to decarbonise – and quickly.

International aviation and maritime transport could account for almost 40% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by mid-century. Due to increasing demand for freight shipping and air travel, GHG discharges from ships and planes in particular continue to rise.

In the push to mitigate human-made climate change, both industries are looking to new low-carbon energy sources such as hydrogen and electrification.

While much attention is paid to cleaner planesboats and ships being developed, perhaps an even bigger industrial challenge is creating the infrastructure that ports and airports will need to produce, store and pump the low-emission fuels.

Airports have much to do in order to prepare for this coming era, according to Fokko Kroesen, who is coordinating the EU-funded TULIPS project exploring ways to reduce emissions at airports.

New fuels

Aircraft manufacturers are investing in new fuel and propulsion technologies, but they will also expect airports to be ready to deliver these fuels, according to Kroesen, who is senior advisor on sustainability at the Royal Schiphol Group, which operates Schiphol and other airports in the Netherlands. The whole system will be very different from current kerosene-based provisions, he said.

Through demonstrator projects at four airports, TULIPS’s research into innovative and sustainable airports will put new green technologies to the test. A roadmap to 2030 will then show airports the best ways to advance the low-carbon transition.

Research on supplying energy to aircraft is going in two directions, according to Kroesen. The first is sustainable aviation fuels produced from renewable feedstocks such as biomass, instead of petroleum. The second is energy supply for new aircraft that will be powered by technologies including batteries and hydrogen.

Because sustainable aviation fuels, or blended sustainable and conventional jet fuel, can be used in current planes, they can bridge the gap between today’s aircraft and those of the future that run on completely different sources of energy. This is particularly important for providing lower carbon alternatives for intercontinental flights, as novel aircraft powered by hydrogen or batteries are likely to be able to travel only shorter distances initially.

It could take a long time to develop alternative propulsion methods for intercontinental flights, according to Kroesen.

‘Therefore, we expect that sustainable aviation fuels are really needed to enable net zero-emission flights,’ he said.

Also in the future, most airport ground-support vehicles will run on batteries. Some heavy equipment, such as the tractors used to tow aircraft around the tarmac, may even need to be powered by hydrogen as a result of their high energy demands.

Kroesen says this poses an infrastructure challenge for airports. At Schiphol in Amsterdam, he said, ‘there is a growing demand for electricity and the current infrastructure is not sufficient to enable this.’

Greener airports

As a result, the airport is investing in solar panels and other forms of renewable energy. The long-term aim is for the airport to produce more energy than it uses, said Kroesen. Developing a smart energy hub will help optimise the green electricity supply to deal with the competing demands from the various applications.

Airports will also need to ensure reliable supplies of sustainable aviation fuels and hydrogen. TULIPS is exploring not only how airports can generate these fuels but also how new industries can be encouraged to produce and supply them.

Sustainable aviation fuels are generally produced from biomass. They have a similar chemical profile to conventional jet fuel produced from petroleum. While this means they can use the same storage and refuelling infrastructure at the airport, it doesn’t mean that switching is simple.

TULIPS is looking at the cost and practicalities of sustainable aviation fuel, and how to develop effective incentives to stimulate its production and use. Ideally, production would take place near the airport.

‘The main challenge we see for sustainable aviation fuels is the scaling up in a sustainable way – and the limits of available production technologies and resources, or feedstocks, to produce these sustainable fuels,’ said Kroesen.

Beyond plants and plant waste, researchers are looking to create sustainable fuels from electricity, hydrogen and carbon captured from the air.

‘That is very attractive because it is a type of circularity,’ Kroesen said. ‘We emit carbon dioxide, but immediately after emitting we will take it out of the air and, together with hydrogen, we can build new synthetic kerosene out of it.’

Unlike sustainable aviation fuel, hydrogen will require a whole new infrastructure for delivery, storage and refuelling. It cannot simply use the conventional jet fuel infrastructure. 

Hydrogen is created when it is separated from water using electricity. If the energy used for this electrolysis comes from renewable sources, the resulting hydrogen is considered a green energy source. It will be possible to produce hydrogen at airports and in the locality in so-called hydrogen valleys – economic areas that produce locally consumed green hydrogen.

In the longer term, however, Kroesen says that such local production will not be enough to meet demand. This is due to a combination of factors, including the limited availability and cost of green electricity in some locations. This energy source will also face competing demands from other industries.

‘We will probably see a mix of locally produced and also imported hydrogen, from areas that are richer in energy and poorer in demand,’ Kroesen said.

Smart ports

Arne-Jan Polman, at the Port of Rotterdam, said that preparing ports for the potential fuel mixes used by ships in the future is also a complex process.

Europe’s largest seaport, Rotterdam is seeking to become carbon neutral by 2050. The port set up the EU-funded MAGPIE project to create a masterplan outline of how Rotterdam and its partner ports will become green by mid-century.

The port will transform itself into a smart green port by improving current energy systems, developing a new greener energy system, switching to non-petroleum fuels and raw materials, and encouraging a shift to sustainable freight transport.

The project’s 45 partners intend to create an energy masterplan as inspiration for any of Europe’s maritime and inland ports that want to go green.

When it comes to fuels, MAGPIE is focusing on electricity, ammonia, hydrogen and a biofuel version of liquefied natural gas (bio-LNG).

‘We think that these four energy carriers will play a major role in the future,’ Polman said. The port also sees an important role for methanol as a green fuel.

As with TULIPS, a large part of this is encouraging new energy supply chains while demonstrating technologies for creating biofuels and exploring fuel infrastructure and supply needs.

Demonstrations by the project will include port-based bio-LNG production, ways proactively to manage power demand, ammonia bunkering (delivering the fuel to ships) and an offshore charging buoy.

Smart energy

Polman says that ports need to change how they see themselves.

‘Not any more the traditional landlord role, but more the developer of our surroundings, the director of the new energy landscape, which means we are sort of facilitating the whole smart energy transition process,’ he said. ‘What we need to do is make sure the conditions are there for companies to invest in our port area.’

As with airports, there are other vehicles besides ships that need to plug into the energy supply. These are mainly short-shipping barges, trains and trucks that transport goods to and from the Port of Rotterdam from smaller regional hubs.

MAGPIE will need to try to predict the future energy mix and work out how to prepare for it. But it is also just about getting these different fuels to a point of technological maturity where they can be used and are available for anyone that needs them, according to Polman.

After that, it is up to industry and the market to decide which direction they want to go and what to invest in. The ports just need to be ready.

The port will need to speak to industry to see what it needs while making sure it attracts the right partners to meet its long-term energy goals, rather than short-term economic profitability. But it must also liaise with governmental bodies – from the EU to local municipalities – to develop permits, regulations and subsidies to stimulate industry growth.

‘We need to build the landscape,’ Polman said.

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

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