Deep dive into tomorrow’s mobility solutions — 2019 Trends

Welcome back to Hello Tomorrow long-form series. More in-depth pieces that allow you to sink your teeth into specific topics and discover the upcoming trends before everyone else.

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Humans have always been extremely curious and mobile. Since the very beginning of our species, we moved from one place to another to find food and water, mating partners or to discover new horizons. 2019 is no exception. In fact, the year started with a big bang — the most distant planetary flyby of a man-made space probe in history! On January 1st, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew by Ultima Thule in the Kuiper Belt, beyond the orbit of Neptune which is about 6.5 billion kilometres away from the sun. This is about 17,000x the distance between Earth and Moon, the farthest a human being has been so far.

The instruments on board the space probe provided, among other insights, stunning pictures of a typical “contact binary”. This object has presumably been formed when two small icy bodies gently collided with each other in the early days of our solar system, about 4.6 billion years ago.

The first colour image of Ultima Thule, taken at a distance of 137,000 km (85,000 mi) at 04:08 am UTC on January 1st, 2019. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

So, what can possibly come next in mobility you may ask? Well, meanwhile on Earth, engineers are restlessly working on making semi-autonomously driving cars an everyday reality, others dream of colonizing Mars and the birth of the commercial space era.

Hello Tomorrow is in a unique position to preview the near-term future as we see many startups coming through our Global Startup Challenge, this year with over 4,500 applications worldwide alone. As we spend many hours studying their innovations, we have built up a solid idea of what is going on in deep tech. The following article highlights the great work done by some of these entrepreneurs.

Analysing the data provided by our applicants, let’s open a window into the future solutions of transporting goods and persons.

What we foresee — core trends

If you only read the following, you will have a pretty good overview of the major trends currently dominating the mobility sector.

Our urban mobility solutions are going micro

For a long time, it seemed like the future of urban transportation would look pretty much like the present, where cars would just have a few upgraded features. This perception has changed, and it’s mainly for two reasons.

Firstly, the urban environment attracts more and more people, which means increasingly crowded city centres. As of today, 75% of all Europeans live in cities and the trend is rising. Since the pre-existing infrastructure on the ground can’t grow in the same way, cities increasingly suffer from traffic gridlocks.

Secondly, the car has always been an inefficient mean of transport because the amount of payload it carries is very very small, relative to its own weight of about 1 500 kg. Combine that with the rise in awareness about the environmental impact of driving a car, it opened up the market for micromobility solutions which have a smaller physical and environmental footprint.

Micromobility solutions are designed for short-distances, are emission-free and need only a fraction of the space of cars. The purchase of such a vehicle is less costly than a car and the possibility to rent a micromobility solution without much administrative work has eased the entrance into the market. The result of that is that we see an increasing number of startups working on micromobility solutions such as NÜWIEL who have developed an intelligent electric bicycle trailer. Their solution enables instant synchronization between the bike and the trailer which therefore automatically accelerates, decelerates and brakes in according to the bike speed.

Another cargo transporting solution is introduced by Ono. Their vehicle is less than half the width of standard delivery trucks, significantly shorter and is technically an e-bike which means it doesn’t require a driver’s license or designated parking.

At Eliport, a team built a fleet of autonomous delivery robots which navigate the pedestrian space in cities at walking speed. Their robot is able to load and unload without human interaction, which means deliveries to drop-off points is even possible in off-peak hours.

Micromobility solutions aren’t restrained to just logistic applications though. Citytransformer developed a foldable vehicle that converts at a click of a button, from car-size dimensions to a motorcycle-like footprint. Its chassis covers the driver and passenger at all times providing protection in case of an accident and against all weather conditions.

Drones will populate our airspace

In the near future, air transportation will be conducted by many more means than today. Aircraft will differ in terms of (passenger) capacity, travel distances and routes as well as propulsion systems. This development is mainly driven by the increasing ground traffic and limited infrastructure leading to gridlocks we talked about earlier, but also by technical advancements, namely the ability to vertically take-off and land (VTOL). This reduces the need for long runways and the need for large infrastructure on the ground, making it easier to implement air hubs in urban environments. Another factor is the reduction of noise and air pollution which is achieved using electric propulsion systems which nearly all drones with a range of a few hundred kilometres are based upon.

While autonomously driving cars are still many, many years away, professionally-operated, near-autonomous drones in various shapes will become a common sight in the skies. Nowadays, drones are mainly developed for two functions. One of them is the mapping or inspection of assets and the transportation of goods. Iridium Dynamics developed a VTOL drone which takes high-resolution aerial images. Due to its novel design enabling near-optimal hovering and forward-flight modes, its drone can cover very long distances and still efficiently hover over one single location to provide detailed visual footage.

© Keystone / Walter Bieri

Others develop autonomous VTOL drones for the transportation of goods. The team at Flugauto designed their drones for heavy cargo transportation over medium-haul distances whereas Rigi Tech and Dronistics focus on small packages. The latter solution prevents people and external objects from touching the fast rotating propellers through a foldable cage, so it’s safe to land in crowded environments.

Beyond the development of increasingly sophisticated drones dedicated to different tasks, we also see advancements in the core drone technology. While scientists at MIT presented a very futuristic mini-aeroplane without moving parts propelled forward by an ionic thruster, researchers at Gradient developed an equally mind-blowing aerial solution. Its aerodynamically-efficient, low-power unmanned aerial system collects enough solar energy during the day to remain aloft throughout the night. The pseudo-satellite is based upon a novel concept of “tethered uni-rotor network”, which combines the best features of both glider and helicopter design methodologies.

Brayfoil Technologies also focuses on a new aircraft design with enhanced aerodynamic characteristics. The current design of aircraft wings is only an approximation of the flexibility of birds which can adapt the shape of their wings to the requirements of their flight conditions. In contrast, Brayfoil’s morphing airfoil section automatically set the correct angle of attack to the wind. The shape of the airfoil can be varied to produce different lift and drag characteristics at any speed without any flaps, joints or hinged control surfaces, thus allowing for shorter takeoff distances with higher loads and fuel savings during cruise mode.

Others such as Hionos develop a software autopilot for drones guaranteeing the same level of safety as for avionic systems. Its aeronautical software meets international standards and can be implemented into any unmanned aerial system.

While the focus above was on aeronautical solutions, drones are also developed for underwater applications like the inspection of the ocean. Companies such as Shell suspect valuable raw materials hidden at the bottom of the deep sea and encourage the development of drones that are able to map the ocean in detail. A team at Hydromea constructs small underwater vehicles that work in swarms and explore the ground of the ocean autonomously. Equipped with state of the art sensors and communication systems, they are able to discover the last unknown regions of this planet.

In contrast to autonomously flying and diving drones transporting goods or inspecting assets, air taxi services transporting humans will likely remain piloted in the near future. Air taxi services as proposed by Lilium, Hello Tomorrow’s Grand Winner in 2016, for short and mid-range transportation will relief cities from some traffic. Likewise Lilium, Ascendance Flight Technologies offers an air-taxi service addressing the urban and peri-urban air mobility. Its aircraft are built upon separated vertical and horizontal hybrid-propulsion systems eliminating any tilting mechanism thereby reducing the need for intensive maintenance.

Propulsion systems get greener

Bound4blue’s wingsail

About 20% of the yearly carbon dioxide emissions are caused by transportation of which almost 4% of that can be attributed to ocean-going vessels, 3% to air travel and the remaining 13% to ground mobility. To avoid a dangerously high increase in global temperatures, emissions need to be cut drastically across all means of transport. Indeed carbon dioxide emissions are directly proportional to fossil fuel consumption. Greater speeds require more fuel unless that increase in speed doesn’t come from the combustion of fossil fuels as proposed by bound4blue. Their rigid wingsail can contribute to reducing fuel consumption and thus emission production of up to 40% without significantly decreasing cargo capacity.

Protium Innovations also aims at reducing the use of fossil fuel based propellants by shifting to hydrogen fuel cells as a principal energy donor. The advantage of for instance hydrogen-powered air transportation is the greater range and faster refuelling times than what current battery technology can offer. To accelerate adoption, its developed lightweight, liquid hydrogen tank is made from polymer materials, which reduces weight and offers better thermal isolation, making it suitable to use also for aircraft.

One major obstacle for mass adoption of greener solutions by car manufacturers is the limited driving range offered by most green propulsion systems. Tesla’s high-end Model S can make 500 km under optimal conditions on one battery charge. At Volbao, their team is working on a virtual gearbox controlling the electric motor of a car. Its gearbox enables an instant adaptation of the engine to the required performance, making better use of the battery capacity and in turn, increasing the driving range. Moreover, Volbao’s setup can be operated at 48V instead of several hundred Volt currently used in electric cars.

Another frontier in the adoption of electric ground mobility solutions, the time needed to charge the battery, is pushed back by EtaEM who has introduced a wireless charging system. Its wireless power transfer system is based on an innovative coil design overcoming the most prominent problems inherent to this technology. By structural design, the coils block any undesirable electromagnetic interference, and its magnetic field is limited to the transmission pathway by the coils geometric structure ensuring efficient recharging.

Under the radar — picking up on the low signals

Now that you’re up to date on the core trends, stay onboard to explore our analysis of the more niche topics and shine with this under-the-radar knowledge.

Democratizing space

The space industry has radically transformed. Until a few years ago, space has been accessed exclusively by state-owned organizations, high-altitude surveillance and communication using satellites was the domain of global superpowers. Now, a growing number of countries launch space programs and startups enter the field, aiming to sell insights from sensors installed on small cube satellites or by providing communications networks as described in Hello Tomorrow’s deep dive into the super-connected world. The driving force behind this development is the drop in the cost of building, launching and operating satellites as well as the simultaneous increase of public and private investments in the New Space sector in general. Today, a 5 kg satellite equipped with state of the art sensors costs about $3 million and advances in AI-based data analysis allow the processing of data retrieved from the satellites in a reasonable amount of time.

The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs counts nearly 5,000 satellites orbiting the Earth. However, only 40% are still functional while the others are basically metal flying around the Earth at thousands of kilometres per hour. Consequently, those non-functional satellites increase the likelihood of satellite collisions. Atomos Nuclear and Space addresses this issue by building high-power satellites to recover or precisely-place other assets in space. Its space tug is equipped with relative navigation sensors, cameras, and robotic arms for capture and manipulation of customer satellites.

To further reduce costs of satellite operations, Pangea Aerospace developed a satellite launching rocket of which the first stage can be rescued and reused. Their rocket uses liquid methane as fuel for its aerospike engine, thereby reducing propellant use and emissions.

While the solutions described above facilitate the placement of satellites into the orbit, others offer one-stop-shop for satellite missions. Enpulsion offers modular electric propulsion systems for satellites. Their nano thrusters can be integrated into any satellite solution and be then operated as a single plug-and-play unit. Open Cosmos have made a development kit, which customers can use to design their satellite mission and launch service. This service includes everything from the integration of the customer’s payload into standard microsatellites, to the actual launch and finally a web application to access satellite data without requiring ground infrastructure, so greatly facilitating the access to space.

Increasing mobility for elderly and physically disabled people

As we said earlier, the world’s population is becoming more urban. We also live longer, therefore humanity is getting older. Consequently, the needs of older residents will play an increasingly important role in the shaping of cities. According to UN figures, the number of people over the age of 60 is set to double by 2050, rising to two billion people. All cities and transport means will need to adapt to this demographic change.

To deal with this change in population, Quasar Techmed’s offers a wheelchair which uses both tracks and inclinable cater wheels to take on stairs. Also aimed at wheelchair users, Munevo developed smart glasses allowing the user to navigate its wheelchair with head movements only.

The Myosuit by MyoSwiss

MyoSwiss took another path to improve the life of people with mobility impairments. Its soft exoskeleton combines robotics with functional textiles to work as wearable muscle. The Myosuit assist its users when moving with or against gravity by automatically maximizing the right forces.

Others, such as AIServe Technologies developed a computer vision-based navigation system for the visually impaired. The wearable features an integrated RGB camera, speakers and a microphone. Communication between the user and the device is based completely on voice instructions controlled by an app running in the background guiding the user on the right path.

A glimpse into the far future

Now that you know pretty much everything about core trends and nice topics, we are also able to build a longer-term view of what the future holds in terms of Mobility. Let’s go deep into the lab.

Sensors for (semi)-autonomous driving

When talking a few years ago about mobility on the ground, the predominant belief was that cars will still be the primary means of transport — only drivers will be substituted by software, making everyone a passenger. Since then, the belief has undergone some adjustments and a couple of nuances have been added.

Firstly, let’s state that cars are very likely to remain the principal mean of transport in the future — but only in non-urban environments and mid-range distances from ten to several hundred kilometres. Secondly, fully autonomous cars — usually called level 5 autonomous vehicles — which are able to drive in any condition (weather, crowded streets, off-road and so on.), will not be seen on public roads any time soon. The CEO of Waymo, John Krafcik, admitted at the end of 2018 that “autonomy always will have some constraints” and level 5 autonomous vehicles may never exist.

courtesy of the Rand Corporation

This might sound surprising coming from the CEO of the company with the most kilometres driven in autonomous mode and an intervention by the safety driver only be registered every 9’000 km. However, those kilometres were mainly collected in optimal driving conditions and the reactions by the public and legislation representatives to the horrific accident of an uber self-driving car made clear that autonomous cars will be held to a much higher standard than their human-driven counterparts. To make autonomously driving cars almost 100% secure, the perception of the complex environment must be accurate and driving-related decisions taken in split-seconds by an algorithm — either on board or in a cloud. Additionally, all devices involved in steering the car must be secured against any unwanted tampering attempts from the outside.

While the hype about fully autonomous cars seems to have calmed down a bit, many companies work upon sensor technologies that assist the driver in steering the car and allow for semi-autonomous driving. One of the most powerful optical imaging method adopted by the automotive industry to give cars a sense of sight is called light detection and ranging (short: LiDAR). A LiDAR system measures distances to an object by illuminating it with a pulsed laser, thus building a real-time map of the environment. It typically consists of a laser as light source and a scanning unit consisting of microscopic moving mirrors which sends the laser beam into all directions, thus allowing to scan a wider field. The reflected light is then detected by the third essential component, a sensor, which allows to calculate the shape of the object and its distance from the sensor.

While LiDARs have been used in the past, its potentially essential role in autonomous driving has driven the development of a new generation overcoming the cost issues that were limiting the mass adoption. Another challenge tackled is the interference of water in the near-infrared wavelength range of lasers commonly used.

Blickfeld — LIDAR imagery

For instance, Blickfeld’s LiDAR module is based on an improved, more robust scanner unit and a generally lighter design, resulting in a scalable, cost-effective system. Another update is introduced by Dephan which enhances the sensitivity of the LiDAR system by a redesigned detector. A third variation of such a system, based on short wave infrared range lasers, is presented by TriEye. The use of those wavelengths, in combination with TriEye’s setup, lead to better signal even in adverse weather conditions.

Others work on sensors monitoring the physical state and vital signs of the driver to ensure driving capacity. Neteera has designed and developed a contact-free vital-signs monitor operating in the sub-THz range of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Letos also relies on a non-invasive method called ballistocardiography. It tracks body vibrations resulting from the flow of blood from the heart to the head. This contactless monitoring tool, which can be integrated inside the seats, allows to record the activity of the Autonomous Nervous System, thus continuously yielding information about the state of the driver.

Stroma Vision’s infrared camera observing the driver can be mounted at the windshield. Based on human behaviour modelling it detects sleepiness or other endangering behaviour.

Another important element in semi-autonomous driving is the accurate determination of position. Hive’s service allows for 1 cm accurate positioning. It does so by integrating localisation data from all relevant global navigation satellite system reference stations around the object of interest instead of only the closest one as it is current practice.

A positioning system based on atom-interferometry is developed by Atomionics. Its sensor measures gravity so precisely that it can create a gravity fingerprint of any place which can be used for unprecedentedly accurate navigation. This approach works equally well for underwater navigation, indoor positioning or in principle also in space.

– Nicolas Goeldel, PhD, Deeptech Lead at Hello Tomorrow –

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