Europe’s Guardian Angel

Adrian Ionescu is one of the coordinators for Guardian Angels, a project that aims to develop light-weight, self-powered gadgets. The future mobile micro-angels, which will keep us out of danger, aim for a billion-euro European financing.

Photo: Dreamstime.com

 

Four European research teams are waiting to find out, on January 28th, if they hit the EU jackpot – an individual prize of one billion euros, which Brussels will award to two of them.

 

It began with 26 projects, and after a rigorous selection only four remained: a plan to develop guardian angels to keep us out of danger; a supercomputer able to simulate the world’s social, economical and technological changes; a complex computerized model of the human brain; and technology for the more efficient production and use of graphene, an ultra-thin material that could revolutionize the way we make objects.

 

Adrian Ionescu, a professor of nano-technology at the École Polytechnique Fédérale of Lausanne, is in charge of the first of these projects, titled Guardian Angels. A few days before the grand finale of the competition, Das Cloud asked Adrian Ionescu what Europe’s guardian angels will know how to do, and how long before we’ll be seeing them in the sky.

 

How did the idea of this European technological competition come to life?

 

First of all, I need to explain the concept of FET (Future Emerging Technologies) flagship. Europe has, so far, had all its research finance invested in projects with a maximum duration of three to four years. There were aspects of research spanning levels of finance, new systems, software, technology, and so on. But Europe has never had a project structuring a multi-disciplinary field of research, and reuniting all resources for a single major goal, in the long term, and with a major impact on society.

 

Adrian Ionescu presents the Guardian Angels project in Brussels. Photo: genevalunch.com

There have been few such projects up to now even worldwide, and these have generally been undertaken by the United States. One such project was the famous “Man on the Moon” Project, credited to President Kennedy. Basically, during his presidency, all industrial, academic and research resources were reunited to develop the technology needed to put man on the moon. Another similar effort was the Human Genome Project. These kinds of actions need funding to the order of billions of euro. In the United States, “Man on the Moon” cost about 7 billion dollars at the time.

 

How did you end up entering Guardian Angels into the Brussels competition?

 

Europe is currently trying to define projects like Guardian Angels through a competition. They are fairly large projects, with a high number of participating partners. Our project has 66 industrial, technology transfer institutes, and academic partners – including the Institute for Micro-Nano-Technology in Bucharest. The competition selected six major FET flagship projects, in a pilot phase where the community financed the preparation of the final proposal by about 1.5 million euro. We spent one year preparing this proposal, with the aforementioned consortium.

 

The final project was sent to Brussels in October, and then only four of the six projects were invited for hearings. Of the four, only two will be financed, while the other two will probably get other funding. So either way, all four will proceed.

 

What can you tell us about Guardian Angels?

 

Our project is a highly technological one, as it will represent the new wave of technology and applications, at a time where mobile computing and mobile communication are omnipresent. We all benefit from these technologies today; the question is what will follow the smartphone. The Guardian Angels project aims to develop the technology necessary for smart autonomous systems.

 

These can be integrated in any of the objects around us that we use daily, and can offer functions for which intelligent sensors are extremely important. It could be a multi-sensing process (for biological signals within the human body or the environment) that would create opportunities for new prevention services.

 

1 billion euro – the financing available to each winning project over the next ten years

What kind of apps will become possible because of this?

 

There are several classes of apps.

 

Preventative medicine. It’s an underdeveloped field today, and it basically means not waiting for a disease to settle in and become chronic. On the contrary, you can preventatively predict that someone will be exposed to a certain disease. If you can do this very quickly, then not only do you not end up in a chronic stage, but health costs drop dramatically, and treatment can be light for the patient. There are many applications in aging society. At this moment, European society has major issues with supporting long-term health costs.

 

Environment application. Such systems grant access to a number of very interesting signals, that our own senses can’t detect – for example, all ionizing radiation, electromagnetics, allergen particles (pollen), polluting nano-particles, toxic gas. Such intelligent modules, offering information automatically, can be integrated into a cell phone or a distributed system. It can be part of a t-shirt, a watch or a bracelet you wear. Or even your glasses.

 

Detecting physical stress. We can detect a state of extreme emotional stress, based on intelligent monitoring of activities – biological and physical (the amount of cortisol in sweat, breathing variations, or modulations in cortex activity). While we respect every individual’s right to privacy, it can often be useful to detect emotional state. In the case of a driver, for instance, this information is crucial for traffic safety. Extreme tiredness or stress cause very low attention in traffic. It’s the same for the elderly, who have diminished reaction times. Such systems could activate a smart driving assistant, to make you aware and help you with this kind of situation. There are other activities where stress can have a major impact: picture a stressed out surgeon in the middle of an operation, or an air traffic controller.

 

How long before this technology is available?

 

These appear to be sci-fi scenarios, but technology can make them possible. I believe the future will make available services we can’t even imagine today. All these scenarios picture decisions being made not only locally and instantly, but also series of decisions being made within minutes, hours, sometimes days or weeks (in medicine, for example).

 

Today’s systems can’t do this because they require too much energy. Your cell phone needs to be charged every night. In order to create the energy needed for such complex function, you need to use energy efficient technology, nano-technology and sensors that barely use any resources. And you need to integrate them with something that will replace batteries – what we call an energy harvester, gathering energy from the sun, from vibrations or from temperature differences. It’s a viable solution for stockpiling energy locally.

 

In conclusion, this technology will require an effort of three to seven years. We’re hoping that after seven years all these systems will be developed, and all these services available. We want these systems to offer a fast feedback to the user, and allow you to make decisions that weren’t possible before. The decision is all yours; the system makes no decision for you.

 

Below is a presentation of the Guardian Angels project by Adrian Ionescu in Brussels:

 

 

What can you tell us about the general public adopting this technology for everyday use?

 

The speed at which this technology is adopted ultimately depends on the implication of the end user. The probability is quite good, though, as we are joined by major European industries. We have European leader, Siemens, for sensors. We have Infineon, one of the main equipment suppliers, for automotives. We also have major groups supporting us with medical apps, such as Philips or Sanofi, one of the world leaders in biomedicine. We have enlisted the help of institutes dealing exclusively with the ethics, and keeping a close watch on user interaction with technology.

 

“Within ten years we’ll have systems that don’t care about batteries anymore. They can self-charge and have multiple functions” – Adrian Ionescu

One of the essential issues is how to make this information available. You can have these systems communicating wirelessly, using interfaces we already have in present-day smartphones and tablets; but they can do so much more. Often we’ll have intelligent interfaces, integrated in intelligent textiles. The information can be displayed by changing the textile’s attributes, such as color-coding or another type of intuitive display for a certain alert threshold. One example is a dehydration-detecting smart textile for children and the elderly. It’s not a medical app per se, but it signals a threshold where immediate action is needed.

 

What is the total budget to make this scenario possible?

 

In our case, the budget estimate over ten years is 950 million to one billion euro. But it’s much more than just designing the apps we discussed. It basically implies developing a technological platform for this kind of systems, for all of Europe; and when we have it, we can open this platform up to startups, and small to medium enterprises, that can invent new apps and come up with new ideas. It’s basically an app generator.

 

Developing the platform where all this is available means opening its support technology for European innovation. The energy consumption will improve by a factor of 1,000. This would mean you would use your cell phone for up to one year before you need to re-charge it. And this is not just about a function’s lifespan, but also about redirecting all the extra energy to new functions of the system.

 

The technology I’m talking about exists and is being demonstrated in laboratories today. But it needs to be integrated in the system. Some of it will completely replace the high-tech of today. In the future we’ll have these self-powered systems. Within ten years we’ll have systems that don’t care about batteries anymore. They can self-charge and have multiple functions. But this comes at the high cost of developing a new technological platform.

 

Micro-résumé: Adrian Ionescu

 

Adrian Ionescu graduated from the Electronics School within the Polytechnics University of Bucharest in 1989, where he was also an assistant for a short time. Between 1994 and 1997 he studied for a doctorate at the National Polytechnic Institute of Grenoble, France. At the same time, he studied for a micro-electronics doctorate in Romania. “A post-doctorate at the French Atomic Energy Commissariat followed next”, he says. He has moved to Switzerland since 1999, as an assistant professor at the École Polytechnique Fédérale of Lausanne (EPFL). “Eight months later I was sent as a representative to Stanford, in the US, for a short while”, he marks another highlight of his career. He presently continues his activity at the EPFL, as a director of the Nanoelectronic Devices Laboratory (NANOLAB).

 

Within the Romanian Innovators campaign, as part of the Innovation Labs project, DasCloud discovers Romanians in the front line of the IT&C industry, which create innovative IT products and solutions, at home or abroad.

 

Innovation Labs is a project of TechSoup România and Tech-Lounge, as part of the YouthSpark initiative by Microsoft România. Since February 2013, Innovation Labs will support technical school students in creating original Romanian intellectual property.

 

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Editor’s note: a big thank you goes to Crina Caliman who managed to translate our not quite easy to translate romanian article.

 

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