Some Optimism for the New Year (part 1)

From a Christian Science Monitor’s Dec. 30 article, "18 Leaps To Watch For..."

Sponsored Article from Person of the Planet- Shirley Lutzky

“The coming year will probably bring many surprises, but we can be confident in making at least one prediction: Technology will advance. And despite headlines warning of malevolent artificial intelligences, unscrupulous hackers, and greedy tech billionaires, many of these improvements will actually help make the world a safer, saner, and more prosperous place for the majority of us. Fueled by advances in electronics, software, and materials science as well as by the imaginative researchers and inventors, a number of new technologies promise to help curb global warming and biodiversity loss, ease commutes, and stretch the planet's natural resources to feed and house the nearly 10 billion people who are expected to be sharing it by 2050. . .from rooftop fans that pull carbon dioxide from the air to 3-D printed homes to radical concepts in transportation...

[Here are four that will contribute to the thriving of the planet. Part II will conclude with five more, in the next POP issue ]:          

1. Designer Solar

If you want solar panels, you don’t necessarily need to make your home look as if it’s covered with cereal boxes. Many companies are developing technology that lets homeowners integrate photovoltaic cells right into their houses’ existing architecture. Tesla, the electric car innovator, makes solar tiles that look like ordinary roof shingles. The company has installed them on about a dozen homes so far, including that of the company’s founder, Elon Musk, and orders for more are already sold out well into 2018. And...A team of Australian researchers has developed solar-powered paint. It works by soaking up water vapor from the air and then using the energy from sunlight to split the water into oxygen and hydrogen gas. The collected hydrogen is used in fuel cells.

2. Looks Do Matter

Facial-recognition systems have been used for everything from stadium security to unlocking a phone. But humans, it turns out, aren’t the only ones with machine-readable mugs: US researchers have developed a system that can reliably distinguish the faces of red-bellied lemurs - the furry primates with eyes like headlights that are among the world’s most endangered mammals.

The system, called LemurFaceID, could enhance wildlife conservation efforts by allowing biologists to identify and track the animals, found only in the wilds of Madagascar, without having to sedate and tag them. The technology works by identifying the fur on the lemur’s face, and its inventors suspect it could be used to monitor other species with distinct facial fur patterns, such as red pandas, raccoons, and sloths.

Already, scientists have used facial recognition with fish. In 2016, the Nature Conservancy’s FishFace project received a $750,000 prize from Google to develop a smartphone app that could be used on fishing boats worldwide. The technology could offer a low-cost way to manage fisheries, allowing more precise monitoring of stocks and better tracking of declining species.

3. Digital Farming

Quick: Which country is the second-largest food exporter in the world behind the United States? Surprisingly, it’s the Netherlands.

The country has become a global produce rack even though it is 1/270th the size of the US and lies at the same latitude as Newfoundland. It has achieved this by being in the forefront of the “precision farming” revolution.

Around the world, farmers are increasingly tapping new technologies to increase yields. Drones and satellites provide infrared and thermal imagery that measure the photosynthesis rates of crops. Sensors embedded in fields relay moisture levels and allow farmers to remotely control their irrigation pumps from their smartphones. Even the farmer’s trusty water bucket has gone high-tech: The WatchDog wireless rainfall collector measures temperature and rainfall down to a hundredth of an inch - turning farmers into instant meteorologists.

All of this data can be aggregated to help growers divine when and where to plant seeds, spread fertilizer and lime, and spritz fields with pesticides. The monitoring reduces both labor costs and environmental waste.

4. A Soft Pedal

Electric bicycles have been around since the 1890s, but they have long had a reputation of being ungainly, expensive, and heavy. Now advanced sensors and control systems are reviving the e-bike’s image - and its practicality as a form of urban transport in an era of irrepressible traffic congestion. 

Superpedestrian, an e-bikemaker in Cambridge, Mass., has created the Copenhagen Wheel, which looks like a rear bicycle wheel with an oversized red disc as the hub. It uses data from sensors to estimate the torque, cadence, and position of the pedals to emulate the feel of riding a normal bike, only with far less effort, since the battery is doing most of the work.

“E-bikes will really get going when they start to feel like regular bikes, but the riders become superhuman,” says Assaf Biderman, Superpedestrian’s chief executive officer. “That’s when we know we’ve nailed it.”

The $1,500 wheel can be purchased as a replacement rear wheel for a standard bicycle. The company also sells bikes with the wheel built in.

Other e-vehicles are blurring the line between bike and car. The egg-shaped ELF, produced by the Durham, N.C., company Organic Transit, sports three wheels and an enclosed cab with solar panels on the roof. Retailing for about $9,000, it is powered by a combination of pedals and a solar-powered rechargeable battery. Two other bike/cars are plying roads in Germany - the Twike, a fully enclosed electric vehicle, and the four-wheeled Schaeffler Bio-Hybrid, which looks like a cross between a baby buggy and an all-terrain vehicle. It can be propelled by pedal power, batteries, or both at once.

The next article, Part II, will present 5 more promising new developments that give reason for some optimism.