Innovation – The best of 2015

Each year I am bombarded with new ideas from various inventors, some inventions are wacky, but are still looking for a problem to be solved. Other ideas could be useful but needs a little more work. Occasionally I am shown technology which is cheap simple and makes the problems they are trying to solve just disappear. Towards the end of 2015, I attended Aidex and the Nethope Summit.  Here are a few solutions which caught my eye.

airdrop 1Airdrops: a 20th century  concept with a 21st century twist
Aviators have been throwing all sorts attached to parachutes out of the back of low flying aircraft for nearly 100 years, so what could be new?

Traditionally airdrops have been used to deliver leaflets or much larger items.  The key challenge with larger items is that if its food, medicines or other items, is that they may be damaged when the package lands. As most items may be in a cluster of large packages, some people may grab all of the items and then sell it on – not the desired intention.

In 2010 following the earthquake in Haiti, logistics was the main challenge as there was a massive requirement to ship “stuff” to the places it was needed, but airport access was a challenge – a key bottleneck which prevents aid getting to affected populations.  Access to airports have been a major challenge during a few emergencies since Haiti, so how can we bypass the airport and get basic items to affected populations at scale? 

Sky Life (http://skylifetech.com/homepage/) have developed a system which delivers essential items like food, water, first aid kits to people over a wide area. It works similar to leaflet drops but with a difference. Boxes are dropped from planes which open up whilst still airborne. Small packages which are light enough to cause injury can be delivered over a wide area in an urban setting.

airdrop 2During a crisis such as an earthquake, people need information about where they might be able to get help. Its during disasters like earthquakes where infrastructure may be damaged and prevents radio stations and mobile networks from operating. The tradition method of leaflet drops may have limited value in some communities where literacy rates are high.

Sky Life have developed a technical solution to make the task of delivering messages more efficient. For a number of years, it has been possible to buy cheap greeting cards which have some cheap electronics built in to play a song or a pre-recoded message. The Live Leaf is a card which will play a pre-recorded message about where help can be found.

The innovation does not stop at messaging. Sky Life is developing a more technical version of the live leaf which has a built in AM or FM radio receiver tuned to the correct frequency where up to date information will be broadcast.

Other developments in the pipeline include a GPS tracker and two way communications. People will be able to let emergency responders know what sort of aid is needed. Signals would be picked up by aircraft which may be in range.

Skylife have developed the technology to load new messages onto Life Leaf quickly so that up iodate messages  can be loaded on the card immediately before planes depart from adjacent countries to the disaster.

drone 1The eye in the sky
“Drones” have been in the media for some time now and mainly for the wrong reasons. Large military drones are used to gather intelligence and to launch weapons, so the use of the word “Drone” can cause a great deal of concern in some countries. Smaller lightweight drones have been used during humanitarian response, most recently in Nepal. In the aid sector, people prefer to use the term Unmanned Aerial Vehicle or UAV. These aerial platforms have been used to film affected areas using high definition cameras. In some emergencies, getting a birds eye view of a situation will enable humanitarian aid coordinators to map out what assistance is needed  and where.

UAVs are lightweight and can be deployed instantly. Before UAVs appeared, NGOs had to rely on film footage from light aircraft and helicopters, an expensive solution which may not always be available due to airport access and operational costs.

Dan Office IT (http://www.danoffice.com/uav-drone/multi-rotor-uavs.aspx) is a leading supplier of UAVs to NGOs. They have deployed to a number of recent disasters and have supported the response community by providing aerial footage to NGOs.

drone 2UAVs have become very popular for leisure use in recent years. UAVs are mass produced to various qualities and many cheaper UAVs are made to poor quality. As UAVs are remote control, it is really important that good quality UAVs are purchased which has the required range. Beware of the low grade UAVs which operate over Wi-Fi as they go out of range after just over 100 metres.

Helicopter style UAVs are best suited to very local operations. Battery life is often quite short. For longer range reconnaissance, we still need to rely on traditional aviation, but Dan Office are planning to bring fixed wing UAVs to the market. The UAV in the picture has the ability to take of vertically.

So far UAVs are mainly used for filming, but as the technology advances they might be able to achieve much more. For example UAVs could be used to act as a communications relay between the Live Leaf technologies?  Larger UAVs might be able to carry out air drops.

There could be some challenges to operating UAVs as various countries are trying to regulate their use. In the USA, laws exists which forbids UAVs from being used near to public buildings. The CAA are serious considering setting up a registration system due to the high volume of UAVs being purchased for personal use. In other countries, the use of UAVs may be regulated by various state departments such as civil aviation,  military, police, data protection and perhaps communications. Data protection can be very sensitive as people may wish to assert their privacy from overhead cameras.

3d pThe small industrial revolution
I have been to plenty of events and trade shows where various organisations have demonstrated 3D printing. On each occasion these new machines have produced a perfectly formed rabbit, a model of the Eifel Tour or some other worthless piece of plastic. I am sure many other would have asked what is the point of 3D printing?  Why should we spend money on this toy?  Is this yet another solution looking for a problem to fix?

During the Aidex Expo in Brussels, one organisation managed to convince me that perhaps 3D printing could be useful to the aid sector. The key area where I can see this technology adding some value is for plumbing parts. Water and sanitation systems have many types of joints and valves and over time things wear out. Getting replacement parts can be a major challenge. It may be impractical due to lack of storage space and finance to hold a vast stock of spares, so what if we started a new industrial revolution to make our own spares on site? 

3D printers are now readily available and come in all sorts of sizes. Currently items are made from plastic. Complex 3D printers exists which can produce items made from metal, but this sort of technology is expensive and found in industries such as Space, Aviation and Defence.

Plastic is good for now. We can replace existing plastic parts with new parts we can make ourselves on site. 3D printing can be a great enabler for making items out of other materials. The method is really simple, use a 3D printer to create a mould and from that, you can create plenty of objects at high volume.

3D printers are just one part of the solution. To create objects, special software is need to be installed on a connected computer to turn a design into an actual object. In the emergency setting, if an engineer needs a new widget designed quickly, online communities now exists who will design objects for you.

As 3D technology advances, the way we procure many things may be disrupted. We are nowhere near being able to produce really complex working items such as computers using 3D printing, but I can see 3D printing having a disruptive impact on simple construction items such as plumbing. This could be a great opportunity for small business as a local shop will have the capacity to deliver a vast range of products from a 3D Printer.

Initially, the key challenges to disruptive change will not be the technology, it will be intellectual property rights. People who design and patent designs will realise a small royalty on every item made and sold. Copying existing parts will start to attract legal challenges. In due course a design license solution is likely to appear which ensures that an inventor gets a fee for each fee a 3D printer makes. No doubt the 3D Intellectual Property will suffer the same challenges as the software industry.

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