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Virtual-reality tech is fast becoming more real

Virtual-reality technology could help cure people of phobias including about spiders. © Leena Robinson,

By Helen Massy-Beresford

Imagine a single technology that could help a robot perform safety checks at a nuclear plant, cure a person’s arachnophobia and simulate the feeling of a hug from a distant relative.

Welcome to the world of “extended reality”. Researchers funded by the EU have sought to demonstrate its enormous potential.

Relevant research

Their goal was to make augmented reality, in which the real world is digitally enhanced, and virtual reality – a fully computer-generated environment – more immersive for users.

One of the researchers, Erik Hernandez Jimenez, never imagined the immediate relevance of a project that he led when it started in mid-2019. Within a year, the Covid-19 pandemic had triggered countless lockdowns that left people working and socialising through video connections from home.   

‘We thought about how to apply this technology, how to feel human touch even at a distance, when we were all locked at home and contact with others was through a computer,’ said Hernandez Jimenez. 

He coordinated the EU research initiative, which was named TACTILITY and ran from July 2019 until the end of September 2022. 

The TACTILITY team developed a glove that simulates the sense of touch. Users have the sensation of touching virtual objects through electrical pulses delivered by electrodes embedded in the glove.

The sensations range from pushing a button and feeling pressure on the finger to handling a solid object and feeling its shape, dimensions and texture. 

Glove and suit

‘TACTILITY is about including tactile feedback in a virtual-reality scenario,’ said Hernandez Jimenez, who is a project manager at Spanish research institute TECNALIA.

He said the principle could be extended from the glove to a whole body suit. 

Compared with past attempts to simulate touch sensations with motors, the electro-tactile feedback technique produces a more realistic result at a lower cost, according to Hernandez Jimenez. 

This opens up the possibility of making the technology more widely accessible. 

The research bolsters European Commission efforts to develop the virtual-worlds domain, which could provide 860 000 new jobs in Europe this decade as the worldwide sector grows from €27 billion in 2022. 

The EU has around 3 700 companies, research organisations and governmental bodies that operate in this sphere, according to the Commission.

Phobias to factories

The TACTILITY researchers looked at potential healthcare applications. 

“We thought about how to apply this technology, how to feel human touch even at a distance.”

– Erik Hernandez Jimenez, TACTILITY

That’s where spiders come into the picture. They were among the objects in the project’s experiments to mimic touch.

‘One that was quite impressive – although I didn’t like it at all – was feeling a spider or a cockroach crawling over your hand,’ Hernandez Jimenez said.  

A potential use for the technology is treating phobias through exposure therapy in which patients are gradually desensitised to the source of their fear. That could start by virtually “touching” cartoon-like creepy crawlies before progressing to more lifelike versions.  

The tactile glove can also be used in the manufacturing industry, helping the likes of car manufacturers train their workers to perform tricky manoeuvres on the factory floor.

Furthermore, it can help people collaborate more effectively with remotely controlled robots in hazardous environments. An example is a nuclear power plant, where a person in a control room can virtually “feel” what a robot is touching. 

‘They get another sense and another kind of feedback, with more information to perform better checks,’ Hernandez Jimenez said. 

Joyful and playful

Wearables for virtual reality. © Oğuz ‘Oz’ Buruk, 2021

Wearable technologies for virtual-reality environments are also being inspired by the gaming industry. 

Researchers in a second EU-funded project sought to expand the prospects for technologies already widely used for professional purposes. The initiative, called WEARTUAL, ran from May 2019 until late 2021.

“Wearables are fashion items – they’re part of the way we construct our identity.”

– Oğuz ‘Oz’ Buruk, WEARTUAL

‘Our project focused on the more experiential side – joyful and playful activities,’ said Oğuz ‘Oz’ Buruk, who coordinated WEARTUAL and is assistant professor of gameful experience at Tampere University in Finland. 

Until recently, experiencing a virtual-reality environment involved a hand-held controller or head-mounted display. 

The WEARTUAL researchers looked at ways of incorporating wearables worn, for example, on the wrist or ankle into virtual reality to give people a sense of greater immersion. 

That could mean having their avatar – a representative icon or figure in the virtual world – blush when nervous or excited to enhance their ability to express themselves.

On the cusp

The team developed a prototype that could integrate varying physical sensations into the virtual world by transferring to it real-life data such as heart rate.  

Buruk is interested in how games will look in the “posthuman” era, when people and machines increasingly converge through bodily implants, robotics and direct communication between the human brain and computers.  

He signals that it’s hard to overestimate the eventual impact of advances in this area on everyday life, albeit over varying timescales: wearables are likely to be much more widely used in virtual reality in the next decade, while widespread use of bodily implants is more likely to take 50 to 100 years.

As technology and human bodies become ever more closely linked, the experience of transferring them to a virtual world will be enhanced, encouraging people to spend increasing amounts of time there, according to Buruk.

Virtual-reality technologies are already being used for practical purposes such as gamifying vital information including fire-safety procedures, making it more interactive and easier to learn. This type of use could expand to many areas.

On a very different front, several fashion houses already sell clothes that can be worn in virtual environments, allowing people to express their identity and creativity.  

‘Wearables are fashion items – they’re part of the way we construct our identity,’ Buruk said. ‘Investments in virtual reality, extended reality and augmented reality are increasing every day.’

Research in this article was funded by the EU via the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA).

This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation magazine.

Oceans to get better protection with connected underwater technology

Ocean divers could soon benefit from connected underwater technology. © Kirk Wester,

By Helen Massy-Beresford

Imagine seals swimming in the sea with electronic tags that send real-time water data to scientists back in their laboratories. Or archaeologists near a coast being automatically alerted when a diver trespasses on a precious shipwreck.

Such scenarios are becoming possible as a result of underwater connected technologies, which can help monitor and protect the world’s oceans. They can also shed light on the many remaining mysteries of the sea.

New frontier

‘A lot of funding has been provided to companies and institutions exploring space, but we have oceans around us that we have not explored,’ said Vladimir Djapic, innovation associate at the EU-funded TEUTA project.

“We have oceans around us that we have not explored.”

– Vladimir Djapic, TEUTA

Around 70% of the Earth is covered by oceans and more than four-fifths of them have never been mapped, explored or even seen by humans.

The Internet of Underwater Things, or IoUT, is a network of smart, interconnected sensors and devices to make communicating in the sea easier. It contrasts with the Internet of Things, or IoT, covering everything from smart phones to devices that allow people to switch on home heating remotely,

TEUTA ran from October 2020 through March 2022. It helped a Croatian company, H20 Robotics, develop and sell lightweight low-cost acoustic devices and robotic platforms for underwater wireless networks.

‘With a limited number of underwater network installations before, we could only explore limited coastal areas,’ said Djapic, who is chief executive officer of Zagreb-based H20 Robotics.

Advances in underwater technologies are expected to transform many sectors including marine biology, environmental monitoring, construction and geology.

Whale-like ways

TEUTA developed acoustic technology, which mimics the way whales and dolphins communicate.

Acoustic waves, unlike radio or optical communication ones, travel long distances underwater regardless of whether it is murky or clear.

Remote sensors, measuring tools, detection systems or cameras set up at an underwater site gather data then sent to a buoy on the surface. The buoy in turn sends the information wirelessly back to base, via the cloud, without the need for communication cables.

One focus area is improving communications between divers and land-based colleagues, according to Djapic.

‘For example, a diver working in underwater construction can send a message to a supervisor and request additional help or tools or similar,’ said Djapic.

Improved underwater communications will help connect land and sea, © H2O ROBOTICS, 2023

Scientists also stand to benefit by, for example, being able to remotely turn on a water-quality measuring device installed on the seabed from their labs.

For their part, archaeologists could use the technology to help protect vulnerable underwater sites with intruder-detection technology installed in remote locations.

Indeed, TEUTA technology will support another EU-backed project, TECTONIC, seeking to improve the documentation and protection of underwater cultural heritage at three pilot sites.

The sites are the Capo Rizzuto Marine Protected Area in southern Italy, the submerged ancient harbour of Aegina in Greece’s Saronic Gulf and a shipwreck site in the Deseado estuary in Argentina.

Other possibilities such as underwater agriculture or mining could also open up, according to Djapic.

For public agencies or non-governmental organisations that monitor water quality, the technology could replace the need for researchers to go and collect samples physically and deliver them to the lab.

While TEUTA gave a boost to fledgling underwater communication technologies, more work needs to be done in marketing them and ensuring they are used more widely, according to Djapic.

‘It all needs to be analysed,’ he said. ‘Our technology enables the measuring of environmental parameters.’

Sensors and samplers

Meanwhile, in Italy, a team of researchers is pursuing a new approach to ocean-data collection by using sensors and samplers that could be integrated into existing observatories and platforms.

This would enable the gathering of vast amounts of information useful for, as an example, the proposed European Digital Twin of the Ocean announced in February 2022. The twin will be a real-time digital replica of the ocean integrating both historical and live data.

By developing a new generation of marine technologies, the EU-funded NAUTILOS project will gather previously inaccessible information and improve understanding of physical, chemical and biological changes in oceans.

“They are the largest habitats on Earth, but the least observed.”

– Gabriele Pieri, NAUTILOS

Running for four years through September 2024, the project is coordinated by Gabriele Pieri of the Rome-based National Research Council.

‘Our proposal set out to fill a gap in the observation of oceans,’ said Pieri. ‘They are the largest habitats on Earth, but the least observed ones because of the difficulties in on-site observation and the costs of monitoring.’

NAUTILOS technology is already being tested in the Baltic and the Mediterranean seas, including the Aegean and Adriatic.

Sensors can, for example, measure levels of chlorophyll-A and dissolved oxygen in the water. These are important indicators of water quality and, by extension, of the presence of fish, helping protect their stocks.

Sensors and samplers collecting information about the concentration of microplastics in the water also expand understanding of the impact of human-generated pollution on the oceans.

Helping flippers and hands

One of the NAUTILOS partners, France’s National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), has even recruited some unlikely teammates: seals.

Swimming off the Valdes Peninsula in Argentina, these sea creatures have been tagged with sensors that record valuable data about the animals themselves and their habitats.

The NAUTILOS team, made up of research institutions and companies, is developing more than a dozen types of sensors and samplers. These include remote sensing technologies and microplastics detectors.

The project is keen to demonstrate that the new tools can work with existing and future platforms and easily switch between them.

The tools are relatively cheap, can be deployed quickly and work in conjunction with other equipment, offering many advantages. For example, a sensor can be mounted on an autonomous underwater vehicle and then moved to a fixed buoy.

Citizen science is an important part of NAUTILOS, which works with volunteers organising campaigns around ocean plastics, for example, as well as with scuba-diving associations whose members can test new technologies and offer feedback.

The team has also developed a smartphone app for divers to upload photos of underwater flora or fauna that can be assessed by researchers.

‘The interest in citizen science has really surprised me,’ said Pieri. ‘A lot of people are willing to help improve the life of the sea.’

Research in this article was funded by the EU and via the EU’s Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA). If you liked this article, please consider sharing it on social media.

This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation magazine.

Making drones suitable for cities

With technology for drones far advanced, the next step is to ensure they can fly safely in cities. Image credit: CC0 via Unsplash

The Spanish resort town of Benidorm is known for its sandy beaches with clear waters, a skyline dominated by towering hotels and tourists from northern Europe. But one day in February, it also served as a testing ground for European society’s future with drones.

Since the local economy depends on tourism during the summer, Benidorm is relatively empty in winter – and that’s a plus when it comes to safety while testing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The tall buildings that dominate the skyline also stand in nicely for those of a big city.

Sun, sea and…satellite signals

In sum, it’s an ideal place to try out new drone technology. And an EU-funded project called DELOREAN has done just that – testing new types of satellite tracking for drones on 9 February.

‘Benidorm’s skyline is quite similar to what you would find in larger cities like, say, New York,’ said Santiago Soley, the project coordinator who is also chief executive officer of Spanish aeronautics-engineering company Pildo Labs. ‘Generally, regulations limit drone flights over dense urban areas. It’s the first time in Europe we did these intense tests in a challenging city environment.’

Drones have been a hyped technology for years, during which the media popularised predictions that such aircraft would soon be used for all kinds of daily services including delivering packages to people’s doorsteps. Yet so far, widespread civilian use has failed to take off.

The bottleneck is safety and the need to demonstrate to city governments that drones can be operated in large numbers in populated areas without being a hazard. If a UAV crashes onto a busy street or into a plane that’s landing or taking off, the result could be severe damage or even deaths.

“Drone technology is getting there.”

– Santiago Soley, DELOREAN

Scientists and companies are now addressing these concerns – and the experiments in Benidorm might hold the key to the future success of drones.

‘Drone technology is getting there – it’s the least of our problems,’ said Soley. ‘What’s more important is to demonstrate how drones would safely be deployed over cities.’

DELOREAN is wrapping up after three years. The main goal was to develop navigation and positioning requirements for urban air services and show how the European Global Navigation Satellite System, or EGNSS, can help. 

Non-GPS options

Drones need to know exactly where they are at all times. For that, UAVs currently rely on satellites, mostly the US Global Positioning System, or GPS. Another alternative to GPS is Europe’s Galileo network.

DELOREAN is also testing Galileo’s potential for drones.

While led by Pildo Labs, the project has featured an international consortium whose members include France-based aircraft manufacturer Airbus, Spanish postal-servicer provider Correos and the European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation, or Eurocontrol, in Belgium. 

A challenge for satellite tracking in urban areas is that signals might be deflected or otherwise hindered by buildings. Galileo will help avoid such disruptions because of the waveform and structure of its signals, according to Soley.

In addition, Galileo is pioneering new services that could pinpoint drones’ locations with higher accuracy – something DELOREAN tested in Benidorm.

Furthermore, Galileo adds a layer of security. An authentication service that allows the drone to verify whether the satellite signal is real would counter any future efforts by criminal groups to misdirect UAVs and steal their contents through fake signals, according to Soley.

Airborne parcel deliveries

If experiments of the kinds conducted by DELOREAN prove successful, many applications could open up.

“Before businesses like urban air delivery can develop, we first need safety.”

– Professor Luis Moreno Lorente, LABYRINTH

While drones are already in use over cities, it is often in small-scale operations by local authorities. Police departments, for one, use them to monitor crowds or track speeding cars.

‘There are limitations on drone flights and you need to close the area,’ said Soley. ‘At the technical level, however, the flights are quite easy to handle.’

The next step could be mass urban air delivery. No more vans zigzagging through city streets with all the congestion and pollution.

Instead, fleets of drones would drop off packages across town. Companies like Amazon are already rolling out these services in limited areas.

‘Logistics will, I think, be one of the most promising uses of drones,’ said Soley.

Self-flying craft

An EU-funded project called LABYRINTH is tackling the challenge of ensuring that autonomous drones keep track of each other.

An ARQUIMEA drone being tested in Marugán, Segovia, Spain. © Labyrinth, 2023

Autonomous drones require no ground-based human pilots, who are generally needed for the current generation of UAVs. 

‘In the future, those drones will be operated autonomously – they will fly themselves,’ said Luis Moreno Lorente, the project coordinator and a professor of systems engineering and automation at the University Carlos III of Madrid in Spain. ‘But if you want to do that safely, you need to know exactly where each one of them is located.’

LABYRINTH, which is due to end in May after three years, is developing software that acts as an air traffic control system for drones. The 3D position of each is tracked and the aircraft then relays this information to other drones in the vicinity so they don’t crash into each other.

Similarly, if a drone faces technical troubles – say one of its motors fails – it needs to be able to direct other UAVs away from it.

‘Before businesses like urban air delivery can develop, we first need safety,’ said Moreno Lorente. ‘That’s what we’re building now.’

Together, LABYRINTH and DELOREAN are helping to clear the way for a future in which large numbers of drones fly over cities.

‘It’s just a matter of time before they do,’ said Moreno Lorente.

Watch the video

This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation magazine.

Robot assistants in the operating room promise safer surgery

Advanced robotics can help surgeons carry out procedures where there is little margin for error. © Microsure BV, 2022

In a surgery in India, a robot scans a patient’s knee to figure out how best to carry out a joint replacement. Meanwhile, in an operating room in the Netherlands, another robot is performing highly challenging microsurgery under the control of a doctor using joysticks.

Such scenarios look set to become more common. At present, some manual operations are so difficult they can be performed by only a small number of surgeons worldwide, while others are invasive and depend on a surgeon’s specific skill.

Advanced robotics are providing tools that have the potential to enable more surgeons to carry out such operations and do so with a higher rate of success.

‘We’re entering the next revolution in medicine,’ said Sophie Cahen, chief executive officer and co-founder of Ganymed Robotics in Paris.

New knees

Cahen leads the EU-funded Ganymed project, which is developing a compact robot to make joint-replacement operations more precise, less invasive and – by extension – safer.

The initial focus is on a type of surgery called total knee arthroplasty (TKA), though Ganymed is looking to expand to other joints including the shoulder, ankle and hip.

Ageing populations and lifestyle changes are accelerating demand for such surgery, according to Cahen. Interest in Ganymed’s robot has been expressed in many quarters, including distributors in emerging economies such as India.

‘Demand is super-high because arthroplasty is driven by the age and weight of patients, which is increasing all over the world,’ Cahen said.

Arm with eyes

Ganymed’s robot will aim to perform two main functions: contactless localisation of bones and collaboration with surgeons to support joint-replacement procedures.

It comprises an arm mounted with ‘eyes’, which use advanced computer-vision-driven intelligence to examine the exact position and orientation of a patient’s anatomical structure. This avoids the need to insert invasive rods and optical trackers into the body.

“We’re entering the next revolution in medicine.”

– Sophie Cahen, Ganymed

Surgeons can then perform operations using tools such as sagittal saws – used for orthopaedic procedures – in collaboration with the robotic arm.

The ‘eyes’ aid precision by providing so-called haptic feedback, which prevents the movement of instruments beyond predefined virtual boundaries. The robot also collects data that it can process in real time and use to hone procedures further.

Ganymed has already carried out a clinical study on 100 patients of the bone-localisation technology and Cahen said it achieved the desired precision.

‘We were extremely pleased with the results – they exceeded our expectations,’ she said.

Now the firm is performing studies on the TKA procedure, with hopes that the robot will be fully available commercially by the end of 2025 and become a mainstream tool used globally.

‘We want to make it affordable and accessible, so as to democratise access to quality care and surgery,’ said Cahen.

Microscopic matters

Robots are being explored not only for orthopaedics but also for highly complex surgery at the microscopic level.

The EU-funded MEETMUSA project has been further developing what it describes as the world’s first surgical robot for microsurgery certified under the EU’s ‘CE’ regulatory regime.

Called MUSA, the small, lightweight robot is attached to a platform equipped with arms able to hold and manipulate microsurgical instruments with a high degree of precision. The platform is suspended above the patient during an operation and is controlled by the surgeon through specially adapted joysticks.

In a 2020 study, surgeons reported using MUSA to treat breast-cancer-related lymphedema – a chronic condition that commonly occurs as a side effect of cancer treatment and is characterised by a swelling of body tissues as a result of a build-up of fluids.

MUSA’s robotic arms. Microsure BV, 2022

To carry out the surgery, the robot successfully sutured – or connected – tiny lymph vessels measuring 0.3 to 0.8 millimetre in diameter to nearby veins in the affected area.

‘Lymphatic vessels are below 1 mm in diameter, so it requires a lot of skill to do this,’ said Tom Konert, who leads MEETMUSA and is a clinical field specialist at robot-assisted medical technology company Microsure in Eindhoven, the Netherlands. ‘But with robots, you can more easily do it. So far, with regard to the clinical outcomes, we see really nice results.’

Steady hands

When such delicate operations are conducted manually, they are affected by slight shaking in the hands, even with highly skilled surgeons, according to Konert. With the robot, this problem can be avoided.

MUSA can also significantly scale down the surgeon’s general hand movements rather than simply repeating them one-to-one, allowing for even greater accuracy than with conventional surgery.

‘When a signal is created with the joystick, we have an algorithm that will filter out the tremor,’ said Konert. ‘It downscales the movement as well. This can be by a factor-10 or 20 difference and gives the surgeon a lot of precision.’

In addition to treating lymphedema, the current version of MUSA – the second, after a previous prototype – has been used for other procedures including nerve repair and soft-tissue reconstruction of the lower leg.

Next generation

Microsure is now developing a third version of the robot, MUSA-3, which Konert expects to become the first one available on a widespread commercial basis.

“When a signal is created with the joystick, we have an algorithm that will filter out the tremor.”

– Tom Konert, MEETMUSA

This new version will have various upgrades, such as better sensors to enhance precision and improved manoeuvrability of the robot’s arms. It will also be mounted on a cart with wheels rather than a fixed table to enable easy transport within and between operating theatres.

Furthermore, the robots will be used with exoscopes – a novel high-definition digital camera system. This will allow the surgeon to view a three-dimensional screen through goggles in order to perform ‘heads-up microsurgery’ rather than the less-comfortable process of looking through a microscope.

Konert is confident that MUSA-3 will be widely used across Europe and the US before a 2029 target date.

‘We are currently finalising product development and preparing for clinical trials of MUSA-3,’ he said. ‘These studies will start in 2024, with approvals and start of commercialisation scheduled for 2025 to 2026.’

MEETMUSA is also looking into the potential of artificial intelligence (AI) to further enhance robots. However, Konert believes that the aim of AI solutions may be to guide surgeons towards their goals and support them in excelling rather than achieving completely autonomous surgery.

‘I think the surgeon will always be there in the feedback loop, but these tools will definitely help the surgeon perform at the highest level in the future,’ he said.

Research in this article was funded via the EU’s European Innovation Council (EIC).

This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation magazine.

Education and healthcare are set for a high-tech boost

Robotics and AI are poised to fundamentally change the future of healthcare. © Elnur, Shutterstock

In a Swiss classroom, two children are engrossed in navigating an intricate maze with the help of a small, rather cute, robot. The interaction is easy and playful – it is also providing researchers with valuable information on how children learn and the conditions in which information is most effectively absorbed.

Rapid improvements in intuitive human-machine interactions (HMI) are poised to kick off big changes in society. In particular, two European research projects give a sense of how these trends could influence two core areas: education and healthcare.

Child learning

In EU-funded ANIMATAS, a cross-border network of universities and industrial partners is exploring if, and how, robots and artificial intelligence (AI) can help us learn more effectively. One idea is around making mistakes: children can learn by spotting and correcting others’ errors – and having a robot make them might be useful.

‘A teacher can’t make mistakes,’ said project coordinator Professor Mohamed Chetouani of the Sorbonne University in Paris, France. ‘But a robot? They could. And mistakes are very useful in education.’

According to Prof Chetouani, it is simplistic to ask questions like ‘can robots help children learn better’ because learning is such a complex concept. He said that, for example, any automatic assumption that pupils who concentrate on lessons are learning more isn’t necessarily true.

That’s why, from the start, the project set out to ask smarter, more specific questions that would help identify just how robots could be useful in classrooms. 

ANIMATAS is made up of sub-projects each led by an early-stage researcher. One of the sub-project goals was to better understand the learning process in children and analyse what types of interaction best help them to retain information.

“Mistakes are very useful in education.”

– Professor Mohamed Chetouani, ANIMATAS

Robot roles

An experiment set up to investigate this question invited children to team up with the aptly named QTRobot to find the most efficient route around a map.

During the exercise, the robot reacts interactively with the children to offer tips and suggestions. It is also carefully measuring various indicators in the children’s body language such as eye contact and direction, tone of voice and facial expression.

As hoped, researchers did indeed find that certain patterns of interaction corresponded with improved learning. With this information, they will be better able to evaluate how well children are engaging with educational material and, in the longer term, develop strategies to maximise such engagement – thereby boosting learning potential.

Future steps will include looking at how to adapt this robot-enhanced learning to children with special educational needs.

‘We believe that it could be really important in this context,’ said Prof Chetouani.

Help at hand

Aki Härmä, a researcher at Philips Research Eindhoven in the Netherlands, believes that robotics and AI are going to fundamentally change healthcare.

“Healthcare can be 24/7.”

Aki Härmä, PhilHumans

In the EU-funded PhilHumans project that he is coordinating, early-stage researchers from five universities across Europe work with two commercial partners – R2M Solution in Spain and Philips Electronics in the Netherlands – to learn how innovative technologies can improve people’s health.

AI makes new services possible and ‘it means healthcare can be 24/7,’ Härmä said.

He points to the vast potential for technology to help people manage their own health from home: apps able to track a person’s mental and physical state and spot problems early on, chatbots that can give advice and propose diagnoses, and algorithms for robots to navigate safely around abodes.

Empathetic bots

The project, which started in 2019 and will run until late 2023, is made of up of eight sub-projects, each led by a doctoral student.

One sub-project, supervised by Phillips researcher Rim Helaoui, is looking at how the specific skills of mental-health practitioners – such as empathy and open-ended questioning – may be encoded into an AI-powered chatbot. This could mean that people with mental-health conditions would be able to access relevant support from home, potentially at a lower cost.

The team quickly realised that replicating the full range of psychotherapeutic skills in a chatbot would involve challenges that could not be solved all at once. It focused instead on one key challenge: how to generate a bot that displayed empathy.

‘This is the essential first step to get people to feel they can open up and share,’ said Helaoui.

As a starting point, the team produced an algorithm able to respond with the appropriate tone and content to convey empathy. The technology has yet to be converted into an app or product, but provides a building block that could be used in many different applications.

Rapid advances

PhilHumans is also exploring other possibilities for the application of AI in healthcare. An algorithm is being developed that can use ‘camera vision’ to understand the tasks that a person is trying to carry out and analyse the surrounding environment.

The ultimate goal would be to use this algorithm in a home-assistant robot to help people with cognitive decline complete everyday tasks successfully.

One thing that has helped the project overall, said Härmä, is the speed with which other organisations have been developing natural language processors with impressive capabilities, like GPT-3 from OpenAI. The project expects to be able to harness the unexpectedly rapid improvements in these and other areas to advance faster.

Both ANIMATAS and PhilHumans are actively working on expanding the limits of intuitive HMI.

In doing so, they have provided a valuable training ground for young researchers and given them important exposure to the commercial world. Overall, the two projects are ensuring that a new generation of highly skilled researchers is equipped to lead the way forward in HMI and its potential applications.

Research in this article was funded via the EU’s Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA).

This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation magazine.

Robotic bees and roots offer hope of healthier environment and sufficient food

Robotics and AI can help build healthier bee colonies, benefitting biodiversity and food supply. © 0 Lorenzo Bernini 0,

The robotic bee replicants home in on the unsuspecting queen of a hive. But unlike the rebellious replicants in the 1982 sci-fi thriller Blade Runner, these ones are here to work.

Combining miniature robotics, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, the plan is for the robotic bees to stimulate egg laying in the queen by, for example, feeding her the right foods at the right time.

Survive and thrive

‘We plan to affect a whole ecosystem by interacting with only one single animal, the queen,’ said Dr Farshad Arvin, a roboticist and computer scientist at the University of Durham in the UK. ‘If we can keep activities like egg laying happening at the right time, we are expecting to have healthier broods and more active and healthy colonies. This will then improve pollination.’

While that goes on above the surface, shape-morphing robot roots that can adapt and interact with real plants and fungi are hard at work underground. There, plants and their fungal partners form vast networks.

These robotic bees and roots are being developed by two EU-funded projects. Both initiatives are looking into how artificial versions of living things central to maintaining ecosystems can help real-life organisms and their environment survive and thrive – while ensuring food for people remains plentiful.

“If we can keep activities like egg laying happening at the right time, we are expecting to have healthier broods.”

– Dr Farshad Arvin, RoboRoyale

That could be crucial to the planet’s long-term future, particularly with many species currently facing steep population declines as a result of threats that include habitat loss, pollution and climate change.

One of those at risk is the honeybee, a keystone species in the insect pollination required for 75% of crops grown for human food globally.

Fit for a queen

The RoboRoyale project that Arvin leads combines microrobotic, biological and machine-learning technologies to nurture the queen honeybee’s well-being. The project is funded by the European Innovation Council’s Pathfinder programme.

A unique aspect of RoboRoyale is its sole focus on the queen rather than the entire colony, according to Arvin. He said the idea is to demonstrate how supporting a single key organism can stimulate production in the whole environment, potentially affecting hundreds of millions of organisms.

The multi-robot system, which the team hopes to start testing in the coming months, will learn over time how to groom the queen to optimise her egg laying and production of pheromones – chemical scents that influence the behaviour of the hive.

The system is being deployed in artificial glass observation hives in Austria and Turkey, with the bee replicants designed to replace the so-called court bees that normally interact with the queen.

Foods for broods

One aim is that the robot bees can potentially stimulate egg laying by providing the queen with specific protein-rich foods at just the right time to boost this activity. In turn, an expected benefit is that a resulting increase in bees and foraging flights would mean stronger pollination of the surrounding ecosystem to support plant growth and animals.

The system enables six to eight robotic court bees, some equipped with microcameras, to be steered inside an observation hive by a controller attached to them from outside. The end goal is to make the robot bees fully autonomous.

The concept design of RoboRoyale robotic controller. © Farshad Arvin, 2023

Prior to this, the RoboRoyale team observed queen bees in several hives using high-resolution cameras and image-analysis software to get more insight into their behaviour.

The team captured more than 150 million samples of the queens’ trajectories inside the hive and detailed footage of their social interactions with other bees. It is now analysing the data.

Once the full robotic system is sufficiently tested, the RoboRoyale researchers hope it will foster understanding of the potential for bio-hybrid technology not only in bees but also in other organisms.

‘It might lead to a novel type of sustainable technology that positively impacts surrounding ecosystems,’ said Arvin.

Wood Wide Web

The other project, I-Wood, is exploring a very different type of social network – one that’s underground.

Scientists at the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Genoa are studying what they call the Wood Wide Web. It consists of plant roots connected to each other through a symbiotic network of fungi that provide them with nutrients and help them to share resources and communicate.

“Biomimicry in robotics and technology will have a fundamental role in saving our planet.”

– Dr Barbara Mazzolai, I-Wood

To understand these networks better and find ways to stimulate their growth, I-Wood is developing soft, shape-changing robotic roots that can adapt and interact with real plants and fungi. The idea is for a robotic plant root to use a miniaturised 3D printer in its tip to enable it to grow and branch out, layer by layer, in response to environmental factors such as temperature, humidity and available nutrients.

‘These technologies will help to increase knowledge about the relationship between symbionts and hosts,’ said Dr Barbara Mazzolai, an IIT roboticist who leads the project.

Mazzolai’s team has a greenhouse where it grows rice plants inoculated with fungi. So far, the researchers have separately examined the growth of roots and fungi.

Soon, they plan to merge their findings to see how, when and where the interaction between the two occurs and what molecules it involves.

The findings can later be used by I-Wood’s robots to help the natural symbiosis between fungi and roots work as effectively as possible. The team hopes to start experimenting with robots in the greenhouse by the end of this year.

The robotic roots can be programmed to move autonomously, helped by sensors in their tips, according to Mazzolai. Like the way real roots or earthworms move underground, they will also seek passages that are easier to move through due to softer or less compact soil.

Tweaks of the trade

But there are challenges in combining robotics with nature.

For example, bees are sensitive to alien objects in their hive and may remove them or coat them in wax. This makes it tricky to use items like tracking tags.

The bees have, however, become more accepting after the team tweaked elements of the tags such as their coating, materials and smell, according to Arvin of RoboRoyale.

Despite these challenges, Arvin and Mazzolai believe robotics and artificial intelligence could play a key part in sustaining ecosystems and the environment in the long term. For Mazzolai, the appeal lies in the technologies’ potential to offer deeper analysis of little-understood interactions among plants, animals and the environment.

For instance, with the underground web of plant roots and fungi believed to be crucial to maintaining healthy ecosystems and limiting global warming by locking up carbon, the project’s robotic roots can help shed light on how we can protect and support these natural processes.

‘Biomimicry in robotics and technology will have a fundamental role in saving our planet,’ Mazzolai said.

This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation magazine.

New robots in Europe can be workers’ best friends

Researchers are ushering in a new way of thinking about robots in the workplace based on the idea of robots and workers as teammates rather than competitors. © BigBlueStudio, Shutterstock

For decades, the arrival of robots in the workplace has been a source of public anxiety over fears that they will replace workers and create unemployment.

Now that more sophisticated and humanoid robots are actually emerging, the picture is changing, with some seeing robots as promising teammates rather than unwelcome competitors.

‘Cobot’ colleagues

Take Italian industrial-automation company Comau. It has developed a robot that can collaborate with – and enhance the safety of – workers in strict cleanroom settings in the pharmaceutical, cosmetics, electronics, food and beverage industries. The innovation is known as a “collaborative robot”, or “cobot”.

Comau’s arm-like cobot, which is designed for handling and assembly tasks, can automatically switch from an industrial to a slower speed when a person enters the work area. This new feature allows one robot to be used instead of two, maximising productivity and protecting workers.

‘It has advanced things by allowing a dual mode of operation,’ said Dr Sotiris Makris, a roboticist at the University of Patras in Greece. ‘You can either use it as a conventional robot or, when it is in collaborative mode, the worker can grab it and move it around as an assisting device.’

Makris was coordinator of the just-completed EU-funded SHERLOCK project, which explored new methods for safely combining human and robot capabilities from what it regarded as an often overlooked research angle: psychological and social well-being.

Creative and inclusive

Robotics can help society by carrying out repetitive, tedious tasks, freeing up workers to engage in more creative activities. And robotic technologies that can collaborate effectively with workers could make workplaces more inclusive, such as by aiding people with disabilities.

“There is increasing competition around the globe, with new advances in robotics.”

– Dr Sotiris Makris, SHERLOCK

These opportunities are important to seize as the structure and the age profile of the European workforce changes. For example, the proportion of 55-to-64-year-olds increased from 12.5% of the EU’s employees in 2009 to 19% in 2021.

Alongside the social dimension, there is also economic benefit from greater industrial efficiency, showing that neither necessarily needs to come at the expense of the other.

‘There is increasing competition around the globe, with new advances in robotics,’ said Makris. ‘That is calling for actions and continuous improvement in Europe.’

Makris cites the humanoid robots being developed by Elon Musk-led car manufacturer Tesla. Wearable robotics, bionic limbs and exoskeleton suits are also being developed that promise to enhance people’s capabilities in the workplace.

Still, the rapidly advancing wave of robotics poses big challenges when it comes to ensuring they are effectively integrated into the workplace and that people’s individual needs are met when working with them. 


SHERLOCK also examined the potential for smart exoskeletons to support workers in carrying and handling heavy parts at places such as workshops, warehouses or assembly sites. Wearable sensors and AI were used to monitor and track human movements.

With this feedback, the idea is that the exoskeleton can then adapt to the needs of the specific task while helping workers retain an ergonomic posture to avoid injury.

‘Using sensors to collect data from how the exoskeleton performs allowed us to see and better understand the human condition,’ said Dr Makris. ‘This allowed us to have prototypes on how exoskeletons need to be further redesigned and developed in the future, depending on different user profiles and different countries.’

SHERLOCK, which has just ended after four years, brought together 18 European organisations in multiple countries from Greece to Italy and the UK working on different areas of robotics.

The range of participants enabled the project to harness a wide variety of perspectives, which Dr Makris said was also beneficial in the light of differing national rules on integrating robotics technology.

As a result of the interaction of these robotic systems with people, the software is advanced enough to give direction to ‘future developments on the types of features to have and how the workplace should be designed,’ said Dr Makris.

Old hands, new tools

Another EU-funded project that ended this year, CO-ADAPT, used cobots to help older people navigate the digitalised workplace.

“You find interesting differences in how much the machine and how much the person should do.”

– Prof Giulio Jacucci, CO-ADAPT

The project team developed a cobot-equipped adaptive workstation to aid people in assembly tasks, such as making a phone, car or toy – or, indeed, combining any set of individual components into a finished product during manufacturing. The station can adapt workbench height and lighting to a person’s physical characteristics and visual abilities. It also includes features like eye-tracking glasses to gather information on mental workload.

That brings more insight into what all kinds of people need, said Professor Giulio Jacucci, coordinator of CO-ADAPT and a computer scientist at the University of Helsinki in Finland.

‘You find interesting differences in how much the machine and how much the person should do, as well as how much the machine should try to give guidance and how,’ Jacucci said. ‘This is important work that goes down to the nuts and bolts of making this work.’

Still, cobot-equipped workplaces that can fully tap into and respond to people’s mental states in real-life settings could still be a number of years away, he said.

‘It’s so complex because there’s the whole mechanical part, plus trying to understand people’s status from their psychophysiological states,’ said Prof Jacucci.

Meanwhile, because new technologies can be used in much simpler ways to improve the workplace, CO-ADAPT also explored digitalisation more broadly.

Smart shifts

One area was software that enables ‘smart-shift scheduling’, which arranges duty periods for workers based on their personal circumstances. The approach has been shown to reduce sick leave, stress and sleep disorders among social welfare and health care workers.

‘It’s a fantastic example of how workability improves because we use evidence-based knowledge of how to have well-being-informed schedules,’ said Prof Jacucci.

Focusing on the individual is key to the future of well-integrated digital tools and robotics, he said.

‘Let’s say you have to collaborate with some robot in an assembly task,’ he said. ‘The question is: should the robot be aware of my cognitive and other abilities? And how should we divide the task between the two?’

The basic message from the project is that plenty of room exists to improve and broaden working environments.

‘It shows how much untapped potential there is,’ said Prof Jacucci.

This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation magazine.

Research in this article was funded by the EU. If you liked this article, please consider sharing it on social media.

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

Artificial intelligence is set to revolutionise agriculture by helping farmers meet field-hand needs and identify diseased plants. © baranozdemir, iStock

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.

“Labour is one of the biggest obstacles in agriculture.”

– Fritz van Evert, ROBS4CROPS

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.

“With this robot everything is done in the field.”

– Francisco Javier Nieto De Santos, FLEXIGROBOTS

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. If you liked this article, please consider sharing it on social media.

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This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation magazine.

Battery-free smart devices to harvest ambient energy for IoT

The Internet of Things allows our smart gadgets in the home and wearable technologies like our smart watches to communicate and operate together. Image Credit: Ponchai nakumpa via Pixabay

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.”

– Mike Hayes, EnABLES

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

mbient 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.’

Research in this article was funded by the EU.

This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation magazine.

Robochop makes garden trimming a snip

A sustainable and scalable gas fermentation technology transforms CO2 from industrial emissions into a single cell protein for animal nutrition. © Valdis Skudre, Shutterstock

By Andrew Dunne

Gardening is proven to be healthful and joyful, but as more of us discover the joys of working in the garden for the first time, some basic knowledge about plants, landscaping and soil is required to get started. What, where and when should you plant, for instance?

These were some of the core questions co-founder of the start-up Draw Me A Garden (DMAG), Florent De Salaberry, realised were standing in the way of more people digging in to the subject.


Many people want to garden, but lots of us just don’t have the expertise or confidence to begin,’ said the French tech entrepreneur.

DMAG is an app and website service which offers tailored 3D-plans for garden design. It helps budding gardeners to transform any plot into a beautiful, sustainable garden with ease.

The inspiration behind the company’s name comes from the children’s book ‘Le Petit Prince’ in which the prince requests the narrator to ‘draw me a sheep’ to start a conversation and build a relationship.

De Salaberry says “Draw Me A Garden” uses digital tools in a similar way to help people build a relationship with nature in their gardens.

The DMAG service helps customers envisage their dream garden by providing creative ideas, planting tips and, most important of all, delivering all the plants to their door.

Giving customers ownership of their creations is what distinguishes DMAG from traditional landscaping, argues De Salaberry. ‘We know that if you just pay people to landscape your garden, not only is that really expensive but it’s also hard to feel pride in it,’ he said.

‘DMAG is about making gardening easy and affordable, and providing the resources to enable customers to be at the heart of their own projects.’

Garden varieties

Customers locate their garden online via a satellite map. Next, they list any pre-existing features such as a terrace or a child’s play area, then select a preferred garden style, such as for example English cottage garden or Mediterranean.

“Many people want to garden, but lots of us just don’t have the expertise or confidence to begin.”

– Florent de Salaberry, Draw Me A Garden

Behind the scenes, DMAG’s algorithm whirrs away using these inputs together with local knowledge (soil type, elevation, sun direction) to map out the perfect garden design. Customers can visualise the design using 3D mapping tools on the DMAG website.

A qualified landscaper supports the design process and the customer receives a number of planning options to mull over.

Green thumbs

Results come back almost instantaneously. ‘The idea was always to enable customers to do this wherever or whenever they wanted and it takes just a few seconds to get the first design back,’ said De Salaberry.

Once further small refinements are made, a 3D view is rendered, and customers can sit back and wait for all plants and growing instructions to be delivered.

A typical delivery might consist of between 200 – 300 plants. These come with biodegradable cardboard scaffolds cut to the exact garden size and instructions to help the gardeners plant them out.

So far, the DMAG team have supplied to gardeners of all kinds in France, Belgium and Luxembourg, with average expenditure of around €1 500.

De Salaberry likens his turnkey garden concept to how IKEA has revolutionised kitchen design.

As they look to scale-up this work in new EU countries and the US, they hope many more people will soon be asking them to start their gardening journey and “draw me a garden.”

Glade runner

If DMAG can help gardeners create the ideal future garden space, then the TrimBot2020 might be the answer to help maintain it.

The brainchild of computer vision and robotics’ expert, Professor Bob Fisher of the University of Edinburgh, TrimBot2020 is one of the first robot gardening devices that promises to do more than simply mow the lawn.

The TrimBot2020 © TrimBot2020 Consortium, 2020

Based on a modified commercially available robot lawnmower, the autonomous vehicle prunes roses, trims hedges and shapes topiary, all while auto-navigating garden terrain.

To achieve this, the robot uses a ring of cameras to draw a 3D map of the garden, some robotic snippers and hefty dose of computer processing power.

‘There are ten cameras which work together to build up a 3D model of the garden, just like our eyes do,’ said Fisher.

Together, these cameras help the robot gain a 360-degree view of the complex terrain of the garden. The robot also matches what it sees to a hand drawn map supplied by the users.

Upon command, the TrimBot springs into life by rolling up to the bush and scanning it to build up a computer-vision model of that particular plant.

‘Once it has an idea of where all the stems are, its robotic arm comes out with the cutter and it starts snipping away,’ said Fisher.


For the TrimBot team, the commercial target market is horticultural businesses responsible for maintaining parks, gardens, and recreational areas.

In such cases, they believe the robot can take on pruning duties while the human gardener does something more challenging.

While the commercial future of TrimBot is yet to be determined, the real benefits may yet come through incorporating the technology into the “brains” of next-generation of garden robots.

‘Outdoor robotics is notoriously hard,’ said Fisher. Typical challenges include constant lighting changes, the many different shades of green and variations in the terrain.

Current robot lawnmowers usually require users to mark out an exact area to mow and to position a robot in the right place to start. TrimBot’s technology should enable robots of tomorrow to work that out themselves.

‘With the TrimBot project we’ve really demonstrated what might be possible in the future,’ said Fisher.

Research in this article was funded by the EU.

This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation magazine.

Emergency-response drones to save lives in the digital skies

Uncrewed aircraft in the sky above the headquarters of the Port of Antwerp-Bruges. © Helicus – Geert Vanhandenhove, Rik Van Boxem, 2022

By Gareth Willmer

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.

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

– Prof Gian Paolo Cimellaro, IDEAL DRONE

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.

“We foresee drone cargo ports on the rooftops of hospitals.”

– Geert Vanhandenhove, SAFIR-Med

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.

Research in this article was funded via the EU’s European Research Council.

This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation magazine.

Beach bots, sea ‘raptors’ and marine toolsets mobilised to get rid of marine litter

Innovative technologies are under development to reduce plastic litter at sea by at least 50% © MOHAMED ABDULRAHEEM, Shutterstock

By Gareth Willmer

‘It’s the scale of it – it’s a global problem. You can guarantee that any beach you walk on, you’ll find pieces of plastic,’ said James Comerford, a senior researcher in materials and nanotechnology at SINTEF, an independent research organisation in Oslo, Norway.

Plastics are estimated to comprise 85% of marine litter, with 11 million metric tonnes entering the oceans annually and the volume potentially tripling by 2040. Some have predicted that, by weight, there will be more plastics than fish in the seas by 2050.

In light of the alarming outlook, innovative approaches are required to tackle the problem. This is exactly what the EU Mission “Restore our Ocean and Waters by 2030” is targeting, with the ambition of reducing plastic litter at sea by at least 50%, cutting microplastics released into the environment by 30%, and halving agricultural nutrient losses as well as the use of chemical pesticides.

To reduce pollution, the Mission is launching a ‘lighthouse’ in the Mediterranean Sea that will act as a hub to develop, demonstrate and deploy solutions far and wide across the world by getting all the relevant players on board. Its role is to connect and structure activities, disseminate and upscale solutions and mobilise relevant actors.

Its initial focus is on plastic pollution. Projects such as In-No-Plastic and AQUA-LIT are exploring ways to reduce the contribution of people and sea-based industries to plastic pollution, while the Maelstrom project looks at where marine debris is distributed and how best to remove it from the seabed and water. It is also exploring economically viable ways to recover and recycle marine plastic debris, such as circular product design for fishing gear.

The wide-reaching In-No-Plastic project, led by Comerford as the project coordinator, is developing a range of technologies that deal not only with easily visible, large pieces of plastics – or macroplastics – but also the insidious threat of tiny microplastics measuring less than 5 millimetres, and even smaller nanoplastics.

‘Macroplastics are going to need different cleaning technologies to microplastics, so we’re looking at the whole spectrum,’ said Comerford.

Several separate technologies that are currently under development can be deployed in tandem to clean up the water. A couple of them help to deal with microplastics by clumping them into more manageable sizes, one using biodegradable chemical substances called flocculants that cause particles to coagulate, and the other – known as SepaRaptor – using ultrasonic waves that push the particles into clusters.

These can be combined with another technology that uses a screen to sift out plastic debris.

On the macroplastics side of things is SEEker, a four-wheeled plastic-waste-collection robot being trained using artificial intelligence to identify and pick up litter from beaches and put it in a bin carried on its back. The robot will also have a loading station near the beach, where it can dispose of waste and recharge.

‘It’ll be entirely autonomous,’ said Comerford. ‘Because there’s so much litter and because it’s everywhere, you need something focusing on it all the time. To have solely a human influence is really time-consuming.’

Mobile application

Another technology, which includes features that could be key to tackling the issue of plastic pollution in the long-term future, is an application for smartphones. This encourages volunteers to gather litter and record data on their activities, using “social rewards” sourced via the local economy – for example, discounts on pizzas or at the gym.

However, the app will also eventually help to track the amount of plastic waste collected, recycled and used in products, allowing us to get more of a handle on how effectively the circular economy is working.

So many people say they include recycled material in products. If we’re really to make a difference and turn this whole thing round, that’s got to be countable

Dr James Comerford, Senior Research Scientist SINTEF Industry Oslo, Norway

Although that function is currently under development, Comerford explained that it will be supported using photos and GPS data on collected litter, as well as blockchain technology – which can enable better tracing of the contents of goods by storing data on the movement of materials through a supply chain.

‘So many people say they include recycled material in products,’ said Comerford. ‘If we’re really to make a difference and turn this whole thing round, that’s got to be countable.’

But apart from the pure tech side, public buy-in for solutions to the plastic problem is crucial. Partners in In-No-Plastic, such as non-profit organisation Venice Lagoon Plastic Free (VLPF), are also conducting clean-up initiatives supported by the mobile application and gauging the attitudes of the public on plastic pollution.

Davide Poletto, an executive director at the organisation, says Venice is an ideal place to run plastic pollution initiatives, as a location with an enclosed area of water, and intense marine traffic, aquaculture, fishery activity and tourism. ‘The lagoon of Venice is the largest wetland in the Mediterranean basin and a World Heritage Site of UNESCO, and this is an extraordinary laboratory to work in because you have a lot of different problems,’ he said.

He also points out that the pandemic has provided a ‘unique opportunity’ to analyse just how much overtourism contributes to pollution, including that caused by plastics, and the capacity of the local ecosystem to recover. Poletto cites a study showing that 17 of 40 chemical contaminants previously found in the Venice lagoon were undetectable after early-2020 lockdowns, while the presence of many others was significantly lower.

Boosting awareness

Recent In-No-Plastic events appear to have shown promise for growing public awareness and interest in getting involved. In one clean-up event organised in Venice in 2021, 130 people collected three tonnes of waste, including more than 1,500 kilograms of plastics.

Poletto also cites figures from an ongoing awareness study carried out by his team on more than 1,500 people in Italy, the UK and Croatia, the vast majority from outside related work sectors. Over 85% of respondents per country said joining clean-up events had helped them better understand the seriousness of marine plastic pollution, while almost 95% identified microplastics as a bigger issue than macroplastics – suggesting understanding is now widespread on the perils of invisible fragments.

Poletto pointed to growing coverage in the news and social media, as well as first-hand experience. ‘It’s interesting to see how people are realising all those things,’ he said. ‘And it’s not that they are specialists.’

But apart from stimulating public interest, he said more knowledge is needed on sources of plastic pollution to better advise decision-makers on how to deal with it. Using another app that aids with beach litter identification as part of the Maelstrom project, VLPF found that on some beaches, up to 40% of plastics on nearby islands such as Pellestrina came from fishing gear – mostly mussel nets.

This is important to show, for instance, that a big proportion of plastics in these areas goes straight into the sea rather than originating in rivers, said Poletto. ‘Then there’s evidence brought to the public administration that we should do more in certain locations.’

Aquaculture challenge

Gear is a big issue in the aquaculture industry too, where there is also an urgent need to tackle plastic pollution given that it is the world’s fastest-growing food sector. Aquaculture is estimated to account for more than half of global fish consumption, and could reach over 60% in the next decade.

But Mariana Mata Lara, project manager at environmental technology organisation Geonardo, says that much more knowledge is needed on how to tackle plastic pollution from the sector, caused by items including cages, ropes, nets and buoys.

She also said we need to separate data on pollution caused by aquaculture, or farming of aquatic produce, from that caused by traditional fisheries that catch wild fish. ‘In reality, we don’t know exactly the amount of plastics that comes from this sector,’ added Lara.

With this in mind, a project she led called AQUA-LIT sought to create a knowledge base on both plastics and other marine waste before the problem gets too big as the sector surges. ‘In many things in life, we come up with solutions once the problem exists. The idea with AQUA-LIT was to go in parallel and start solving this as it grows, so we don’t later have to come up with solutions to cover what we did in the past,’ said Lara.

AQUA-LIT did this by developing a toolbox of measures to monitor and prevent marine littering in the sector, as well as to remove and recycle waste.

The idea with AQUA-LIT was to go in parallel and start solving this as it grows, so we don’t later have to come up with solutions to cover what we did in the past

Mariana Mata Lara, Senior Project Manager for Geonardo Environmental Technologies, Budapest, Hungary

The team gathered the information by working with research institutes, organisations and people involved in aquaculture in the Mediterranean, North Sea and Baltic Sea. Activities included interactive ‘Learning Lab’ workshops to discuss marine litter issues, exchange knowledge and brainstorm ideas.

More than 400 ideas and solutions

The resulting toolbox contains a variety of measures, arranged by topics including different sea basins, aquaculture types, and stage of removal and recycling, as well as policy recommendations. ‘In the toolbox, we have provided more than 400 ideas and solutions,’ said Lara.

As part of its work, AQUA-LIT has created an inventory detailing 65 sources of waste generated by aquaculture, a database on how European ports deal with litter and regional maps on percentages of aquaculture-related litter across its focus sea basins.

Lara added that many of these ideas can be applied or expanded on elsewhere. ‘We wanted this information to be useful not only for these three sea basins we worked in, so we created action plans to transfer the knowledge to other regions,’ she said.

As an example, Lara described how the resources had been used by the Global Ghost Gear Initiative, an alliance involving the fishing industry, private sector, corporates, NGOs, academia and governments that focuses on solving the problem of lost and abandoned fishing gear.

‘The Global Ghost Gear Initiative developed a best-practice framework for the management of aquaculture gear, and they used four of our reports, our marine inventory and our toolbox to help build it,’ said Lara.

With a section in the toolbox for people to contribute ideas, she hopes it will grow further and that the knowledge base will ultimately lead to more practical solutions. ‘The idea is that it’s for everyone and fed by everyone,’ she said.

Lara said that promise was shown by AQUA-LIT being invited to present at events in locations such as the Black Sea, and for a Latin American audience, reflecting the significant need for this type of information and its importance as a widespread issue. ‘I think the value of AQUA-LIT is having done that first step,’ she said.

With In-No-Plastic likewise hoping to provide foundations to drive forward solutions to marine waste, the problem of plastics and other litter is set to be tackled from multiple angles.

That will also require wide societal strategies to deal with waste, said Comerford. ‘It’s a holistic approach we need,’ he said. ‘You need to look at everything in the environment currently, but also we can be a bit cleverer about our products in terms of sustainability and end-of-life options.’

The research in this article was funded by the EU. If you liked this article, please consider sharing it on social media.

How robots and bubbles could soon help clean up underwater litter

Free-ranging Risso’s dolphin (Grampus griseus) swimming with plastic litter © Massimiliano Rosso for Maelstrom H2020 project

By Sandrine Ceurstemont

If you happened to be around the coast of Dubrovnik, Croatia in September 2021, you might have spotted two robots scouring the seafloor for debris. The robots were embarking on their inaugural mission and being tested in a real-world environment for the first time, to gauge their ability to perform certain tasks such as recognising garbage and manoeuvring underwater. ‘We think that our project is the first one that will collect underwater litter in an automatic way with robots,’ said Dr Bart De Schutter, a professor at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands and coordinator of the SeaClear project.

The robots are an example of new innovations being developed to clean up underwater litter. Oceans are thought to contain between 22 and 66 million tonnes of waste, which can differ in type from area to area, where about 94% of it is located on the seafloor. Fishing equipment discarded by fishermen, such as nets, are prevalent in some coastal areas while plastic and glass bottles are mostly found in others, for example. ‘We also sometimes see construction material (in the water) like blocks of concrete or tyres and car batteries,’ said Dr De Schutter.

When litter enters oceans and seas it can be carried by currents to different parts of the world and even pollute remote areas. Marine animals can be affected if they swallow garbage or are trapped in it while human health is also at risk if tiny pieces end up in our food. ‘It’s a very serious problem that we need to tackle,’ said Dr Fantina Madricardo, a researcher at the Institute of Marine Sciences – National Research Council (ISMAR-CNR) in Venice, Italy and coordinator of the Maelstrom project.

(Our robotic system) will be much more efficient, cost effective and safer than the current solution which is based on human divers.

Dr Bart De Schutter

Human divers are currently deployed to pick up waste in some marine areas but it’s not an ideal solution. Experienced divers are needed, which can be hard to find, while the amount of time they can spend underwater is limited by their air supply. Some areas may also be unsafe for humans, due to contamination for example. ‘These are aspects that the automated system we are developing can overcome,’ said Dr De Schutter. ‘(It) will be much more efficient, cost effective and safer than the current solution which is based on human divers.’

SeaClear’s ROV TORTUGA is known as ‘the cleaner’ robot. It collects the litter from the seafloor. @ SeaClear, 2021

A team of litter-seeking robots

Dr De Schutter and his team are building a prototype of their system for the SeaClear project, which is made up of four different robots that will work collaboratively. A robotic vessel, which remains on the water’s surface, will act as a hub by providing electrical power to the other robots and will contain a computer that is the main brain of the system. The three other robots – two that operate underwater and an aerial drone – will be tethered to the vessel.

The system will be able to distinguish between litter and other items on the seafloor, such as animals and seaweed, by using artificial intelligence. An algorithm will be trained with several images of various items it might encounter, from plastic bottles to fish, so that it learns to tell them apart and identify trash

Dr Bart De Schutter

One underwater robot will be responsible for finding litter by venturing close to the sea floor to take close-up scans using cameras and sonar. The drone will also help search for garbage when the water is clear by flying over an area of interest, while in murky areas it will look out for obstacles to avoid such as ships. The system will be able to distinguish between litter and other items on the seafloor, such as animals and seaweed, by using artificial intelligence. An algorithm will be trained with several images of various items it might encounter, from plastic bottles to fish, so that it learns to tell them apart and identify trash.

Litter collection will be taken care of by the second underwater robot, which will pick up items mapped out by its companions. Equipped with a gripper and a suction device, it will collect pieces of waste and deposit them into a tethered basket placed on the seafloor that will later be brought to the surface. ‘We did some initial tests near Dubrovnik where one plastic bottle was deposited on purpose and we collected it with a gripper robot,’ said Dr De Schutter. ‘We will have more experiments where we will try to recognise more pieces of trash in more difficult circumstances and then collect them with the robot.’

Impact on underwater clean-up

Dr De Schutter and his colleagues think that their system will eventually be able to detect up to 90% of litter on the seafloor and collect about 80% of what it identifies. This is in line with some of the objectives of the EU Mission Restore Our Oceans and Waters by 2030, which is aiming to eliminate pollution and restore marine ecosystems by reducing litter at sea.

When the project is over at the end of 2023, the team expects to sell about ten of their automated systems in the next five to seven years. They think it will be of interest to local governments in coastal regions, especially in touristic areas, while companies may also be interested in buying the system and providing a clean-up service or renting out the robots. ‘These are the two main directions that we are looking at,’ said Dr De Schutter.

Honing in on litter hotspots

Another team is also developing a robotic system to tackle garbage on the seafloor as part of the Maelstrom project. However, their first step is to identify hotspots underwater where litter accumulates so that they will know where it should be deployed. Different factors such as water currents, the speed at which a particular discarded item sinks, and underwater features such as canyons all affect where litter will pool. ‘We are developing a mathematical model that can predict where the litter will end up,’ said Dr Madricardo.

Their robotic system, which is being tested near Venice, is composed of a floating platform with eight cables that are connected to a mobile robot that will move around on the seafloor beneath it to collect waste items in a box, using a gripper, hook or suction device depending on the size of the litter. The position and orientation of the robot can be controlled by adjusting the length and tension of the cables and will initially be operated by a human on the platform. However, using artificial intelligence, the robot will learn to recognise different objects and will eventually be able to function independently.

Repurposing underwater litter

Dr Madricardo and her colleagues are also aiming to recycle all the litter that is picked up. A second robot will be tasked with sorting through the retrieved waste and classifying it based on what it is made of, such as organic material, plastic or textiles. Then, the project is teaming up with industrial partners involved in different types of recycling, from plastic to chemical to fibreglass, to transform what they have recovered.

We want to demonstrate that you can really try to recycle everything, which is not easy

Dr Fantina Madricardo

Dirty and mixed waste plastics are difficult to recycle, so the team used a portable pyrolysis plant developed under the earlier marGnet project to turn waste plastic into fuel to power their removal technology. This fits with the EU’s goal to move towards a circular economy, where existing products and materials are repurposed for as long as possible, as part of the European Green Deal and Plastics Strategy. ‘We want to demonstrate that you can really try to recycle everything, which is not easy,’ said Dr Madricardo.

Harnessing bubbles to clean up rivers

Dr Madricardo and her colleagues are also developing a second technology focussed on removing litter floating in rivers so that it can be intercepted before it reaches the sea. A curtain of bubbles, called a Bubble Barrier, will be created by pumping air through a perforated tube placed on the bottom of a river, which produces an upwards current to direct litter towards the surface and eventually to the banks where it is collected.

The system has been tested in canals in the Netherlands and is currently being trialled in a river north of Porto in Portugal, where it is expected to be implemented in June. ‘It’s a simple idea that does not have an impact on (boat) navigation,’ said Dr Madricardo. ‘We believe it will not have a negative impact on fauna either, but we will check that.’

Although new technologies will help tackle underwater litter, Dr Madricardo and her team are also aiming to reduce the amount of waste that ends up in water bodies in the first place. The Maelstrom project therefore involves outreach efforts, such as organised coastal clean-up campaigns, to inform and engage citizens about what they can do to limit marine litter. ‘We really believe that a change (in society) is needed,’ said Dr Madricardo. ‘There are technologies (available) but we also need to make a collective effort to solve this problem.’

The research in this article was funded by the EU. If you liked this article, please consider sharing it on social media.

Foldable, organic and easily broken down: Why DNA is the material of choice for nanorobots

DNA origami is a technique that allows scientists to create 3D bots made from DNA. Image credit – Daniele Adami, licensed under CC BY 2.0

By Anthony King

Doctors know that we need smarter medicines to target the bad guys only. One hope is that tiny robots on the scale of a billionth of a metre can come to the rescue, delivering drugs directly to rogue cancer cells. To make these nanorobots, researchers in Europe are turning to the basic building blocks of life – DNA.

Today robots come in all shapes and sizes. One of the strongest industrial robots can lift cars weighing over two tons. But materials such as silicon are not so suitable at the smallest scales.

While you can make really small patterns in solid silicon, you can’t really make it into mechanical devices below 100 nanometres, says Professor Kurt Gothelf, chemist and DNA nanotechnologist at Aarhus University in Denmark. That’s where DNA comes in. ‘The diameter of the DNA helix is only two nanometres,’ says Prof. Gothelf. A red blood cell is about 6,000 nanometres across.


Dr Tania Patiño, a nanotechnologist at the University of Rome in Italy, says DNA is like Lego. ‘You have these tiny building blocks and you can put them together to create any shape you want,’ she explained. To continue the analogy, DNA comes in four different coloured blocks and two of the colours pair up opposite one another. This makes them predictable.

Once you string a line of DNA blocks together, another line will pair up opposite. Scientists have learnt how to string DNA together in such a way that they introduce splits and bends. ‘By clever design, you branch out DNA strands so that you now have three dimensions,’ said Prof Gothelf. ‘It is very easy to predict how it folds.’

Dr Patiño is developing self-propelled DNA nanorobotics in her project, DNA-Bots. ‘DNA is highly tuneable,’ she said. ‘We can have software that shows us which sequences produce which shape. This is not possible with other materials at this tiny scale.’

While DNA nanorobots are a long way from being used in people, with Prof. Gothelf saying that ‘we won’t see any medicines based on this in the next ten years,’ progress is being made in the lab. Already scientists can obtain a string of DNA from a virus, and then design using software shorter stretches of DNA to pair with and bend the string into a desired shape. ‘This amazing technique is called DNA origami,’ said Prof. Gothelf. It allows scientists to create 3D bots made from DNA.

In an early breakthrough, Prof. Gothelf’s research lab made a DNA box with a lid that opened. Later, another group built a barrel-shaped robot that could open when it recognised cancer proteins, and release antibody fragments. This strategy is being pursued so that one day a DNA robot might approach a tumour, bind to it and release its killer cargo.

‘With nanorobots we could have more specific delivery to a tumour,’ said Dr Patiño. ‘We don’t want our drugs to be delivered to the whole body.’ She is in the lab of Professor Francesco Ricci, which works on DNA devices for the detection of antibodies and delivery of drugs.

Meanwhile, the network Prof. Gothelf heads up, DNA-Robotics, is training young scientists to make parts for DNA robotics that can perform certain actions. Prof. Gothelf is working on a ‘bolt and cable’ that resembles a handbrake on a bike, where force in one place makes a change in another part of the DNA robot. A critical idea in the network is to ‘plug and play,’ meaning that any parts built will be compatible in a future robot.

This has the potential to make a completely new generation of drugs.

Prof. Kurt Gothelf, Aarhus University, Denmark


As well as carrying out specific functions, most robots can move. DNA robots are too miniscule to swim against our bloodstream, but it is still possible to engineer into them useful little engines using enzymes.

Dr Patiño previously developed a DNA nanoswitch that could sense the acidity of its environment. Her DNA device also worked as a self-propelling micromotor thanks to an enzyme that reacted with common urease molecules found in our bodies and acted as a power source. ‘The chemical reaction can produce sufficient energy to generate movement,’ said Dr Patiño.

Movement is important to get nanorobots to where they need to be. ‘We could inject these robots in the bladder and they harvest the chemical energy using urease and move,’ said Dr Patiño. In future such movement ‘will help them to treat a tumour or a disease site with more efficiency that passive nanoparticles, which cannot move.’ Recently, Patiño and others reported that nanoparticles fitted with nanomotors spread out more evenly than immobile particles when injected into the bladder of mice.

Rather than swim through blood, nanobots might be able to pass through barriers in our body. Most problems delivering drugs are due to these biological barriers, such as mucosal layers, notes Dr Patiño. The barriers are there to impede germs, but often block drugs. Dr Patiño’s self-propelled DNA robots might change these barriers’ permeability or simply motor on through them.


Nanoparticles can be expelled from a patient’s bladder, but this option isn’t as easy elsewhere in the body, where biodegradable robots that self-destruct might be necessary. DNA is an ideal material, as it is easily broken down inside of us. But this can also be a downside, as the body might quickly chew up a DNA bot before it gets the job done. Scientists are working on coating or camouflaging DNA and strengthening chemical bonds to boost stability.

One other potential downside is that naked pieces of DNA can be viewed by the immune system as signs of bacterial or viral foes. This may trigger an inflammatory reaction. As yet, no DNA nanobot has ever been injected into a person. Nonetheless, Prof. Gothelf is confident that scientists can get around these problems.

Indeed, stability and immune reaction were obstacles that the developers of mRNA vaccines – which deliver genetic instructions into the body inside a nanoparticle – had to get over. ‘The Moderna and the Pfizer (BioNTech) vaccines (for Covid-19) have a modified oligonucleotide strand that is formulated in a nano-vesicle, so it is close to being a small nanorobot,’ said Prof. Gothelf. He foresees a future where DNA nanorobots deliver drugs to exactly where needed. For example, a drug could be attached to a DNA robot with a special linker that gets cut by an enzyme that is only found inside certain cells, thus ensuring that drug is set free at a precise location.

But DNA robotics is not just for nanomedicine. Prof. Gothelf is mixing organic chemistry with DNA nanobots to transmit light along a wire that is just one molecule in width. This could further miniaturise electronics. DNA bots could assist manufacturing at the smallest scales, because they can place molecules at mind bogglingly tiny but precise distances from one another.

For now though, DNA robotics for medicine is what most scientists dream about. ‘You could make structures that are much more intelligent and much more specific than what is possible today,’ said Prof. Gothelf. ‘This has the potential to make a completely new generation of drugs.’

The research in this article was funded by the EU. If you liked this article, please consider sharing it on social media.

This post Foldable, organic and easily broken down: Why DNA is the material of choice for nanorobots was originally published on Horizon: the EU Research & Innovation magazine | European Commission.

Driverless shuttles: the latest from two European projects

AIhub | Horizon | Keolis autonomous shuttle
Autonomous vehicles must be well-integrated into public transport systems if they are to take off in Europe’s cities, say researchers. Image credit – Keolis

By Julianna Photopoulos

Jutting out into the sea, the industrial port area of Nordhavn in Denmark’s capital, Copenhagen, is currently being transformed into a futuristic waterfront city district made up of small islets. It’s billed as Scandinavia’s largest metropolitan development project and, when complete, will have living space for 40,000 people and workspace for another 40,000.

At the moment, Nordhavn is only served by a nearby S-train station and bus stops located near the station. There are no buses or trains running within the development area, although there are plans for an elevated metro line, and parking will be discouraged in the new neighbourhood. This is a great opportunity for autonomous vehicles (AVs) to operate as a new public transport solution, connecting this area more efficiently, says Professor Dimitri Konstantas at the University of Geneva in Switzerland.

‘We believe that AVs will become the new form of transport in Europe,’ he said. ‘We want to prove that autonomous vehicles are a sustainable, viable and environmental solution for urban and suburban public transportation.’

Prof. Konstantas is coordinating a project called AVENUE, which aims to do this in four European cities. In Nordhavn, the team plans to roll out autonomous shuttles on a loop with six stops around the seafront. They hope to have them up and running in two years. But once in place, the Nordhavn plan may provide a glimpse of how AV-based public transportation systems could work in the future.

Prof. Konstantas envisages these eventually becoming an on-demand, door-to-door service, where people can get picked up and go where they want rather than predetermined itineraries and bus stops.

In Nordhavn, AVENUE will test and implement an autonomous ‘mobility cloud’, currently under development, to link the shuttles with existing public transport, such as the nearby train station. An on-demand service will ultimately allow passengers to access the available transport with a single app, says Prof. Konstantas.

Integrating autonomous shuttles into the wider transport system is vital if they are to take off, says Guido Di Pasquale from the International Association of Public Transport (UITP) in Brussels, Belgium.

‘Autonomous vehicles have to be deployed as fleets of shared vehicles, fully integrated and complementing public transport,’ he said. ‘This is the only way we can ensure a sustainable usage of AVs in terms of space occupancy, traffic congestion and the environment.’

Single service

Di Pasquale points to a concept known as Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) as a possible model for future transport systems. This model combines both public and private transport. It allows users to create, manage and pay trips as a single service with an online account. For example, Uber, UbiGo in Sweden and Transport for Greater Manchester in the UK are exploring MaaS to enable users to get from one destination to another by combining transport and booking it as one trip, depending on their preferred option based on cost, time and convenience.

Di Pasquale coordinates a project called SHOW, which aims to deploy more than 70 automated vehicles in 21 European cities to assess how they can best be integrated with different wider transport systems and diverse users’ needs. They are testing combinations of AV types, from shuttles to cars and buses, in real-life conditions over the next four years. During this time, he expects the project’s AVs to transport more than 1,500,000 people and 350,000 containers of goods. ‘SHOW will be the biggest ever showcase and living lab for AV fleets,’ he said.

He says that most of the cities involved have tested autonomous last-mile vehicles in the past and are keen to include them in their future sustainable urban mobility plans.

However, rolling out AVs requires overcoming city-specific challenges, such as demonstrating safety.

‘Safety and security risks have restricted the urban use of AVs to dedicated lanes and low speed — typically below 20km/h,’ explained Di Pasquale. ‘This strongly diminishes their usefulness and efficiency, as in most city environments there is a lack of space and a high cost to keep or build such dedicated lanes.’

It could also deter users. ‘For most people, a speed barely faster than walking is not an attractive solution,’ he said.

We want to prove that autonomous vehicles are a sustainable, viable and environmental solution for urban and suburban public transportation.

Prof. Dimitri Konstantas, University of Geneva, Switzerland

Di Pasquale hopes novel technology will make higher speed and mixed traffic more secure, and guarantee fleets operating safely by monitoring and controlling them remotely.

Each city participating in SHOW will use autonomous vehicles in various settings, including mixed and dedicated lanes, at various speeds and types of weather. For safety and regulation reasons, all of them will have a driver present.

The objective is to make the vehicle fully autonomous without the need for a driver as well as optimise the service to encourage people to make the shift from ownership of cars to shared services, according to Di Pasquale. ‘This would also make on-demand and last-mile services sustainable in less densely populated areas or rural areas,’ he said.


But the technical issues of making the vehicle autonomous are only a part of the challenge.

There’s also the issue of who pays for it, says Di Pasquale. ‘AVs require sensors onboard, as well as adaptations to the physical and digital infrastructure to be deployed,’ he explained. ‘Their market deployment would require cities to drastically renew their fleets and infrastructures.’

SHOW’s pilots are scheduled to start in two years from now, as each city has to prepare by obtaining the necessary permits and getting the vehicles and technology ready, says Di Pasquale.

Getting authorisation to operate in cities is one of the biggest hurdles. City laws and regulations differ everywhere, says Prof. Konstantas.

AVENUE is still awaiting city licences to test in Nordhavn, despite a national law being passed on 1 July 2017 allowing for AVs to be tested in public areas. Currently, they have pilots taking place in Lyon, France and Luxembourg. In Geneva, the team has managed to get the required licences and the first worldwide on-demand, AV public transportation service will be rolled out on a 69-bus-stop circuit this summer.

AVENUE’s initial results show that cities need to make substantial investments to deploy AVs and to benefit from this technology. The legal and regulatory framework in Europe will also need to be adapted for smooth deployment of services, says Prof. Konstantas.

Both he and Di Pasquale hope their work can pave the way to convince operators and authorities to invest in fleets across Europe’s cities.

‘Depending on the willingness of public authorities, this can take up to four years until we see real, commercially sustainable AV-based public transportation services on a large scale in Europe,’ said Prof. Konstantas.

The research in this article was funded by the EU.

This post Driverless shuttles: what are we waiting for? was originally published on Horizon: the EU Research & Innovation magazine | European Commission.

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