The Snuffelfiets: pedalling towards a better environment

There is only one means of transport more popular in the Netherlands than the car: our faithful steel steed with pedals. Together we cycle some 15 billion kilometers a year in The Netherlands. That’s more than 880 kilometres per person. If we are cycling these great distances, why not do something useful with all those trips? That’s what the inventors of the ‘Snuffelfiets’ (‘browsing cyclists’, ed.) must have been thinking.

The companies Civity and Sodaq set up the project together with the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) and the province of Utrecht. Civity specialises in data solutions and Sodaq is an expert in the field of sensors. Lastly, RIVM takes care of the validation of the data that is collected by the Snuffelfietsers.

And this data, well, that could be anything. “There are several sensors in the device, such as humidity and temperature sensors,” Claar Schouwenaar explains. Schouwenaar works for the province of Utrecht and is the project leader for the Snuffelfiets. “These sensors can tell us something about heat islands, for example.”

Heat island effect

A heat island effect is a phenomenon whereby the temperature in urban areas is relatively high compared to surrounding rural areas. “Measurements show that the city can be up to eight degrees warmer than the countryside”, meteorologist Gert-Jan Steenveld of Wageningen University recently explained in the university magazine Resource. “But even in a city this can vary considerably from one street to the next.” Measurements from the Snuffelfietsen could therefore identify local heat islands. These could be addressed with more vegetation, for instance.

But that’s not all. “An accelerometer and a vibration meter are also included. These collect data on road surface quality,” says Schouwenaar. “So if you hit potholes or tree roots, it detects that.” This could help municipalities and road authorities in future to analyze and maintain cycle paths and other roads used by bikes. “And last but not least, sensors that are used to measure air quality, of course.”

Units handed out to 500 Snuffelaars

Meanwhile ‘Snuffelaars’ (‘browsers’, ed.) are riding around in the municipalities of Zeist, Amersfoort, Utrecht, Nieuwegein and IJsselstein. “But North Holland, South Holland and Overijssel are also interested in the project,” says Schouwenaar. “And a pilot with 50 bicycles has just been launched in Gelderland too.”

Het meetkastje, bevestigd aan een van de Snuffelfietsen. Foto: Ronald van Liempdt

The remaining devices were distributed last month. There are 550 units in total, 500 in the province of Utrecht and 50 in Gelderland. The project started a year ago as a small pilot with 10 bicycles in Zeist. Pretty soon there was a lot of enthusiasm for expanding the project. ” We then said: we are going to scale that up to 500 participants,” Schouwenaar says. “Although we’ll spread it across the entire region.”

The ultimate goal is a two-fold one, according to Schouwenaar: “On the one hand, it’s an experiment to see what we can do with the collected data. You don’t want to immediately invest a lot of money into something that might not produce the best results. But at the same time you could say that it’s also an attempt to work towards the creation of big data, which does involve a lot of people who take measurements.” After all, the more Snuffelfietsen there are riding around, the more valuable the data becomes. “Because then you will be able to determine an average from it,” Schouwenaar states. And the more data input, the more accurate the output will be.

Cheap sensors, relevant data

Schouwenaar is therefore hoping that ultimately as many municipalities and provinces as possible will want to participate. “Anyone with their own specific question or method would also be fine,” she says. “It’s a way of demonstrating that very cheap sensors provide relevant data as well, as long as you have enough of them.”

The data platform developed by Civity makes it possible to monitor measurements from the project on a daily basis. Participants can also view their own measurement results via an app. The image below depicts the data from all Snuffelfietsen in the Utrecht area on November 20th. Aside from this grid map, all the specific routes of that day can also be viewed in detail.

Levels of fine particles

So it seems that there are a lot of fine particles in the air. However, there are often days when most of the routes on the map turned out to be relatively blue too. “Yes, that’s also disappointing for lots of participants”, Schouwenaar responds. “They thought: now I’m going to show you for once and all just how disgusting the air is in my neighbourhood”, she laughs. “But it’ s not so bad after all. That’s why it’s nice that the RIVM is on board with the project. They ‘clean’ the data by correcting any anomalies with the help of their measuring stations”, Schouwenaar explains. “The RIVM also says that levels of fine particles in The Netherlands are on the whole quite okay. Therefore you will see a lot of blue routes on a regular basis.”

Nevertheless, this data is also valuable. And in any case, there are plenty of ideas to further innovate the project in the future. “We want to continue developing the device. If you really want to be able to say something about air quality in our country, it should also include a nitrogen sensor.”

New Snuffelfietser groups

And it could be made even smaller, so that the new version could be used by new groups of Snuffelfietsers. “Imagine, for example, cyclists who cycle other routes with a smaller device or perhaps a unit that’s even fully integrated into the bike frame. Or all the bicycle couriers in The Netherlands start using them”, Schouwenaar suggests. “Or – and this is really a very relevant option – working with shared bicycles, such as the OV-fiets (rental bike from the Dutch public transport provider).”

And that calls for improvements to be made to the measurement equipment. ” At present, the unit is linked to the user, who also looks after it,” says Schouwenaar. “Where shared bikes are concerned, the device should be vandal-proof.” Nevertheless, that type of an upgrade would immediately lead to a huge increase in data, which makes it an appealing option. “At the moment we are also working with the OV-fiets to see if this is feasible,” Schouwenaar concludes enthusiastically.

Millions of Snuffelaars who constantly analyze and improve the quality of our home environment with each bike ride to work or to the supermarket. In a few years’ time, that might just become a reality.

Photos: Ronald van Liempdt

TU Munich: Incarnation of the H-1 robot

Scientists surrounding Prof. Gordon Cheng from the Technical University of Munich (TUM) recently gave the robot H-1 a biologically inspired artificial skin. With this skin, (which is the largest organ in humans by the way), the digital being will now be able to feel its body and its environment for the first time. However, while real human skin has around 5 million different receptors, H-1 has a total of just over 13,000 sensors. These can be found on the upper body, arms, legs and even on the soles of its feet. Their goal is to provide the humanoid with its own sense of a physical body. Thanks to the sensors on the soles of the feet, for example, H-1 is able to adapt to uneven ground and even balance on one leg.

But of far greater importance is the robot’s ability to safely embrace a human being. And this is not as trivial as it sounds. As robots are capable of exerting a force that would seriously harm humans. A robot comes into contact with a human being at several different points especially during an embrace. It must be able to quickly calculate the correct movements and the appropriate amount of force required using this complex data.

“This may be less important for industrial applications, but in areas such as healthcare, robots have to be designed for very close contact with people,” Cheng explains.

Biological models as a basis

The artificial skin is based on biological models in combination with algorithmic controls. The skin of H-1 is made up of hexagonal cells. They are about the size of a €2 coin. The autonomous robot has a total of 1260 of these cells. Each cell is equipped with sensors and a microprocessor. These are used to measure proximity, pressure, temperature and acceleration. Thanks to its artificial skin, H-1 perceives its environment in a much more detailed and responsive way. This not only helps it to move around safely. It also ensures that it is safer in its interaction with people. It is able to actively avoid any accidents.

Event-driven programming delivers more computing power

So far, the main obstacle in the development of robot skin has been computing power. Previous systems were already running at full capacity when evaluating data from several hundred sensors. Taking into account the tens of millions of human skin receptors, the limitations soon become clear.

To solve this problem, Gordon Cheng and his team chose a neuroengineering approach. They do not permanently monitor skin cells, but use event-driven programming. This allows the computational workload to be reduced by up to 90 percent. The key is that individual cells only pass on data from their sensors when measured values vary. Our nervous system works in a similar way. For example, we can feel a hat as soon as we put it on. Yet then we quickly get used to it and don’t need to give it any attention. We only tend to become aware of it again once we take it off or it gets blown away. Our nervous system is then able to concentrate on other, new impressions which the body has to react to.

Prof. Gordon Cheng ©Astrid Eckert /TUM

Gordon Cheng, Professor of Cognitive Systems at TUM, designed the skin cells himself about ten years ago. However, this invention really only reveals its full potential as part of a sophisticated system. This has recently been featured  in the specialist journal ‘Proceedings of the IEEE.’

More IO articles on this topic can be found here:

Top 10 Emerging Technologies (2): social robots

Could you love a robot?

Improved level of comfort for babies in incubators thanks to algorithms and pressure sensors

Every year, around 15 million babies are born prematurely worldwide. Almost all of them spend some time in an incubator so that they can gain strength. Each of them is covered in electrodes and connected to a monitor via a tangle of wires. All of this in order to keep a close eye on the babies. An alarm goes off at least a few hundred times a day in these wards. In many cases this is a false alarm that doctors do not have to respond to. This causes ‘alarm fatigue’ among nursing staff, which means that they may be less responsive to an alarm that does matter.

Rohan Joshi has devised a way of avoiding false alarms in the event of lower heart rates or oxygen levels. One that is based on machine learning. In addition, the PhD student at TU/e uses this technique to enable critical alarms to be triggered 20 seconds sooner. Doctors at the Máxima Medical Centre are able to do their work more effectively because of this invention, . They don’t have to respond to non-emergency calls as much and can intervene more quickly when needed.

Joshi is one of approximately one hundred PhD candidates who are connected to the Eindhoven MedTech Innovation Center (e/MTIC). This is a collaboration between TU/e, Philips and three leading clinical hospitals in the region, Namely: the Máxima Medical Center, Kempenhaeghe and Catharina Hospital in The Netherlands. Within this consortium, researchers want to bring new healthcare innovations to patients more quickly. “We work in three different areas: pregnancy and birth, sleep disorders and cardiovascular diseases. In many cases, research is still carried out in an invasive manner. This can be quite daunting for patients. One of the things we want to do is ensure that patients are able to be monitored without the need for invasive contact,” says Carmen van Vilsteren of e/MTIC.

Another one of e/EMTIC’s projects: Multimillion euro grant brings artificial womb for premature babies one step closer

Increasing comfort levels

In addition to the algorithm, Rohan Joshi has also designed special pressure sensors. Van Vilsteren: “These are located in the mattress that the baby lies on. They measure the same things as the patches which are normally applied to the skin. This increases the level of comfort for babies considerably. Patients at Kempenhaeghe could benefit from this as well. They are also covered with sensors when they undergo sleep research. The ultimate goal is that people will be able to be monitored at home too.”

e/MTIC also researches solutions for cardiovascular diseases © TU/e

It is possible not only to treat a disorder, but also to prevent or detect diseases more quickly by monitoring people at home. That’s according to Van Vilsteren. “The hospitals we work with all have an enormous amount of patient data at their disposal. This enables us to provide support to physicians in a smart way. It can serve as a basis for making decisions concerning the treatment of a patient. But it is precisely through combining and analyzing all of this data across a variety of areas that you are also able to have something to say about the development of a disorder. This is how connections are found that would otherwise have remained undetected.”

More can be done under current privacy legislation than is often presumed, Van Vilsteren states. “It is often about interpreting what is conceivable within the boundaries of the law. You can see that because of this, companies and healthcare institutions are very cautious in their actions in order to avoid risks. As a consequence, they share less data or store less of patients’ data.”

That’s a pity in her opinion. “The technology that is needed to compare this variety of patient data is developing rapidly. Kempenhaeghe has an incredible amount of data on sleep. It could be the case that interesting insights could be gained by combining sleep data with heart failure data. However, the use of (patient) data should not be allowed arbitrarily, even if it has been rendered anonymous. Before you can analyze this data, you have to obtain prior consent from patients.”

Data portal

Researchers at e/MTIC are working on a data portal to make this kind of analysis and the necessary data exchange possible. “We make clear in advance what patient data can be used for and that this data is shared here solely within e/MTIC. At present you see that researchers sometimes take up to a year to set up a clinical study. They are no longer able to see the wood for the trees. That’s due to all the various rules and regulations that they have to comply with. We want to take that work off their hands by setting up that infrastructure and supporting them with their submissions. This will enable us to significantly speed up the innovation process without skipping any steps. Of course, we don’t want to act negligently or contravene any rules.”

Although e/MTIC has been officially in existence for just one year, the cooperation goes back much further than that. “The TU/e has been working with hospitals for about 25 years and the relationship with Philips goes back much longer,” says Van Vilsteren. These are no longer separate projects within the e/MTIC framework, but rather an approach based on a vision that has been clearly outlined by the parties involved. “We are working on a collective roadmap. The advantage is that we are working together with hospitals. This means that we know what is going on with doctors and patients. This allows you to come up with a solution based on specific needs. We then test a concept several times with patients and physicians. Then we take the next step in the form of a new algorithm or a prototype.”

e/MTIC has a strong industry partner in Philips.  Which makes sure that new techniques are less likely to remain on the shelf, Van Vilsteren adds. “When you first set up a medical start-up from a university, that road is often very long. A party like Philips knows its way around, which is a huge help. E/MTIC has a far greater impact because of this.”

On Friday 11 October e/EMTIC is organizing a symposium at the TU/e entitled ”Technology meets Value-based Health Care‘. This will be organized together with the Dutch CardioVascular Alliance. The inauguration of Lukas Dekker will also be highlighted. Dekker is a researcher at e/EMTIC in the field of cardiovascular diseases. Registration is possible via Mrs. A. van Litsenburg at A.J.J.T.Litsenburg@tue.nl.

Learn flips, kicks and boardslides in real time

A new phenomenon: qualification rounds for the Olympic Games in skateboarding. The best skaters in the Netherlands are competing for qualification points for the 2020 Games on 13, 14 and 15 September. It is the Olympic debut for the sport.

Skateboarding is a sport where everything counts. For example, how to get your board off the ground by putting your feet in the right place, applying pressure and sliding the toes of one foot over the board so that it goes up and you are able to jump over obstacles. This basic trick is called the Ollie, an introduction to tricks like the flipkick, heelkicks, bigspin and boardslide. You mainly master the tricks by trial and error. The Urban Sport Performance Centre (USPC) in Eindhoven would like to support this in cooperation with imec Netherlands. As part of the interreg project Nano4Sports, imec Nederland has developed sensors for use on skateboards.

Nano4Sports uses sensor technology for the development of innovative solutions that allow people to partake in more sports more safely. “In football, it is standard to keep track of passes, gauge ball contact or see where the players are on the pitch,” says Maxime Verdijk, embedded scientist at the USPC. “This is not the case at all with urban sports. As part of the Nano4Sports project, we asked urban athletes what could help them further in their sport.” For skateboarders, that was about gaining more insight into how they do a trick, Verdijk continues. “Skaters have come a long way with their own video analyses. Just have a look on your phone afterwards: what did I do and how else could I do it? But for the minor details, it’s obviously super cool to know how I place my feet, how fast I go and how long I’m in the air.”

‘Better off breaking your leg’

Early 2019 it became a graduation project for Jesse Kling, who studied mechatronics at Fontys University of Applied Sciences. He completed this assignment in June; at the same time he could work as an engineer at the research office. “No, I’m not a skateboarder myself. I always have played volleyball,” Kling says. In order to better understand the skateboarding world, he interviewed coaches and all kinds of skateboarders, professionals as well as amateurs. “If you start talking about training, you’re almost immediately kicked out of the room. They don’t see it as training – it’s a lifestyle. This cultural aspect is very important. In fact, the idea is: you’re better off breaking your leg than having someone teach you how to skate.’ This view is especially prevalent among “mainstream skaters”, Kling discovered. “I also spoke to the Dutch delegation for the Tokyo Games. Candy Jacobs for example. She is a lot more open and sees room for improvement with new technologies.”

In addition to these cultural restrictions, Kling also faced a number of physical ones. “Just look at the skateboard itself. It’s not the done thing to drill a hole in the board and certainly not to put a cable through it and bolt that with a screw. The skateboarder notices everything that changes on a board. If the board gets a little heavier or is no longer level. Every change has an effect. I would prefer to use the sensors in the trucks (the wheel mounts, ed.), but it hasn’t been developed as far as that yet.”

Also, the sensors themselves must not be damaged, which would quickly happen anyway what with all those turns and tricks in the air and on railings. “It can’t be too small.” Eventually, the sensors were mounted behind the trucks as a concession to the board. “Sensors that measure the placement of the feet and weight distribution are located on the side of the board and are covered with a rubber covering. You can see whether you are leaning forward or more backward with these sensors. This is very relevant when it comes to taking off or landing. You can’t see that kind of data on a video.”

Making every movement visible

The reaction from the skating scene was the best thing that both Kling and Verdijk noticed. That initially reserved and somewhat skeptical attitude changed as soon as Kling showed what the sensors are cabpable of. Kling: “It can be really mesmerizing for people who have never come into contact with this before.” Kling and Verdijk went to various skate parks to test the prototype with skateboarders. ” When they see how their board moves, they can keep watching it for several minutes.” According to Kling, the biggest challenge is to make this tangible: “How do you make this data visual so that people who don’t know any technology or mathematics are able to understand it?”

Every movement of a board can be viewed in real time in a 3D image on the computer: airtime, rotation, acceleration. The 18-year-old skater Theo van den Berg was allowed to test Kling’s prototype. “That was cool. I had never seen how hard my board flips (turns, ed.) are or where I apply pressure.” He did notice that it was a prototype: in a number of tricks, the box under the board fell off. It wasn’t his board either and that skates differently, says Van den Berg. “I think that if you can put it under my board, it would be easier to measure everything. With a different board, tricks work five times out of ten. Whereas with my board, nine times out of ten.” Van den Berg likes the idea of using the data obtained from the sensors on the board so that he can become a better skateboarder. He takes part in competitions and is keen to improve. Some days he dreams of the Games in 2024. “I have not been selected for 2020. But if you get better, it will be easier to make the selection.”

The skate project for Nano4Sports has now been completed. Kling would like to develop it further, but he is no longer involved with this at imec Netherlands. If there is a partner that imec can work with on the further development of the prototype, Kling hopes to have a role to play in this as well.

New sensors improve mind-controlled prosthetics

Biomechatronikerin Theresa Roland (c) Johannes Kepler Universität Linz

Biomechatronic engineers at the Linz Institute of Technology (LIT) have developed capacitive sensors for mind-controlled prosthetics, thereby significantly improving their quality. The prosthetics fit better and are less prone to failure.

Prosthetics give those patients who have lost limbs more independence in everyday life and a higher quality of life. The technology is very advanced. Mind-controlled prostheses are setting trends. As Theresa Roland from the Institute of Biomedical Mechatronics at the Johannes Kepler University Linz explains, mind control is based on the still-existent muscle tissue. A thought process inside the brain is ultimately an electrical signal that is transmitted by nerve fibres to muscle fibres and which can be measured on the surface of the skin.

Sensor technology

What this research is working on is the technical approach to the natural use of limbs. Sensor technology constantly opens up new possibilities. However, these are often accompanied by a number of obstacles in their application. Up until now, the following aspects have been problematic for sensor-based prosthetics:

  • Common sensors require a conductive connection to the skin and are sensitive to perspiration. For the sensor to be able to function smoothly, the skin must be prepared with an electrolytic gel or a skin preparation.
  • To ensure a conductive connectivity, the sensors must be pressed firmly onto the skin. This can lead to unpleasant pressure points and is particularly stressful for people with circulatory disorders.
  • Each shift and every vibration of the prosthetic triggers malfunctions.

Flexible capacitive sensors

The biomechatronic engineers at the Linz Institute of Technology have used flexible capacitive sensors in mind-controlled prosthetics for the first time and have been able to make crucial improvements:

  • Flexible sensors adapt to the anatomy of the human forearm, are very comfortable to wear, and also ensure stability and protection against interference.
  • Capacitive sensors react without contact to the approach of a conductive or non-conductive object and are therefore independent from skin conductivity.

The adaptability of the flexible sensors means that interference is reduced. Most importantly, however, the team developed a relatively simple algorithm with which the sensors can distinguish between thought signals and interference impulses, explains Roland. The system runs without an app. The algorithms are integrated directly into the sensor. Overall, the innovation brings a substantial improvement in the way a prosthetic works, as it is only activated during actual muscle contraction. Otherwise, a prosthetic might move if, for example, a mobile phone is activated nearby.

Cooperation with Otto Bock Healthcare

The flexible, capacitive sensors were developed in cooperation with Otto Bock Healthcare and supported by the Linz Center of Mechatronics. An article about the project was published in the science and technology journal Sensors, which you can read here.

Roland also wants to integrate artificial intelligence at a further stage of development. Neural networks are to be used above all to improve the robustness of the sensor. This system should be able to distinguish between interference and useful signals even more effectively.

About mind-controlled prosthetics

The first mind-controlled prosthetic was developed in 1964 in the USA. In Europe, the system was used for the first time in 2007 – in a collaboration between Otto Bock Healthcare (Vienna) and US scientists. The system uses nerves, which were initially responsible for controlling limbs, to transmit thoughts.

The prerequisite for this function, however, is a nerve transfer. This is a surgical procedure in which nerves leading to the amputated limbs are relocated. In the process, existing nerves of the body part are connected to the same muscle groups. Once the nerves have settled in, the patient is required to train the various movement patterns until sufficiently strong electrical impulses are produced by the muscle groups during contraction.

Myoelectric prostheses

These are complicated biochemical processes in the muscle cells that generate electrical voltage within the microvolt range. The technical term for this is myoelectric. Myoelectric prosthetics are battery-operated prosthetics which are set in motion by muscle contraction. These detect muscle movements via electrodes or sensors and convert them into impulses which control movement.

Also interesting:

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‘Measuring the Exact Concentration of Medicine can Save Lives’

Combating diseases and optimizing treatments. This is what Helia Biomonitoring, a spin-off from Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e), is working on. Helia Biomonitoring is developing a technology with which specific molecules in a fluid can be continuously monitored. It is a journey with stops in laboratories and industrial processes to finally arrive at the medical application.

“There are several parameters that can already be continuously monitored on patients, such as heart rate, movement and body temperature”, says Menno Prins, co-founder of Helia Biomonitoring. “There are also good sensors to monitor glucose in the skin, but sensors for other biomolecules are not yet available. Nevertheless, according to Prins, it could be very useful to measure more substances.” For example, drug levels in patients. They often get standard doses, but each person is different and reacts to medicines in a different way. As a result, the concentration of medicine in the blood can vary from person to person. By means of a sensor, the concentration of medicines could be set exactly right, which can make a big difference for the patient.”

There are several applications of the technique. In addition to measuring drugs, it will for example also be possible to detect inflammations. “The occurrence of an inflammation is now usually detected by fever and increased heart rate”, explains Prins. “But before those symptoms occur, you can already measure molecules in the blood that show the activation of the immune system.

There are new treatments for cancer that exploit the immune system, so-called immunotherapies. These activate the immune system and make white blood cells attack the cancer. “There are different types of cancer that can be cured with these treatments”, says Prins. However, the immune system may become overactive and also attack healthy cells. “With this technology, an overactive immune system could be detected early”, he says. “And accordingly the therapy could be adapted.”

Prototypes

Before this technology can be used in a hospital, a lot of research needs to be done and different prototypes need to be built. “The aim is to help sick people”, says Prins. “So the chance to unwantedly cause harm to the patient must be as small as possible. Next year he wants to test the technology outside the laboratory. “That’s actually the first prototype. It can only be used by researchers, not lay people. And it certainly cannot be used on patients.”

Industrial Application

According to Prins, the medical application remains the most important goal. “But before that we will be able to use it in other applications, for example in industry. In factories, the system could help in purification processes.” When processing raw agricultural products into food ingredients, it can be useful to keep a close eye on levels of impurities. With this information the manufacturing processes can be adjusted, to reduce energy consumption for example.” According to Prins, developing a sensor for the industrial market can be done faster than for the medical sector.” In the early phase, a new product may not always work perfectly. In industry, it is easier to correct for malfunction than in a medical setting.” In addition, the application in the industry will yield valuable information that will make the technology suitable for later use in the medical sector.

The Search for Partners

According to Prins, the search for the applications of the technology and the matching partners is an interesting step in the development of the company. “When we find novel ways forward, it gives a great feeling”, he says. “It’s not easy to find partners with appropriate visions on the future and complementary knowledge.” In addition, we take a close look at the current global trends and those of the future. “We want to tune into the important trends so that we will have a product that can be used for many years to come.”

This is why the development of the first product is still in full swing. “We now have four application areas for the technology and we have found potential partners for each application”, says Prins. “Establishing a growth path is an important goal for the coming year. We look at how the applications can best fit together in order to ultimately arrive at the medical application.” There are two important points that can contribute to this: attracting people with the right expertise and developing a financing path. “Prototypes must ultimately show how the technique can best be applied and when it is ready for the market. Both the technology and the organization around it are still growing.”

Image: Helia Biomonitoring