Innovation in clinical trials

Embracing virtual technologies offers powerful opportunities

Anthony Costello
29 September 2020

2 min read

Even before COVID-19, many business sectors were facing challenges to improve service and product delivery, and were beginning to explore the benefits of virtualization. The need to accelerate this trend has been particularly high in healthcare, where virtualizing clinical trials – using remote, patient-centered technologies – can help propel the research necessary to bring new medicines to market.

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to threaten public health and, in turn, the worldwide economy. The importance of discovering and developing new treatments and vaccines is obvious. But the novel coronavirus is also affecting advancements in other areas, ranging from Alzheimer’s disease to the Zika virus.

Because most clinical trials are conducted at physical study sites (a hospital, clinic, or doctor’s office), quarantines and limited access to healthcare facilities have created obstacles for patient volunteers to get to their checkups or enroll in new trials. Globally as of July 1, 2020, the average number of new patients entering trials year-over-year has declined by 6%. The impact is uneven, however, with trials down as little as 9% in France to declines of 55% in the UK and 79% in India. This trend threatens the development of new treatments while limiting patients’ access to experimental treatments that might improve, extend or save their lives.

Fortunately, the continuing digital transformation of life sciences offers new hope for overcoming these obstacles and discovering new treatments more quickly and more easily, with reduced barriers for researchers and patients. Part of this evolution aims to remove physical and geographical barriers that can interfere with launching a clinical study and carrying it to completion. Business innovation platforms, for example, have made it possible to manage multiple, divergent systems and technology for greater efficiency and economy. Best of all, these platforms make it easier for researchers to comply with all regulatory requirements.

RECOGNIZING THE BENEFITS

As a result, regulatory agencies are beginning to embrace technologies that enable the virtualization of clinical trials, as demonstrated by an analysis of 17 regulatory agencies’ practices around the world. Of four key technology areas surveyed – remote monitoring, e-consent, telemedicine, and direct shipment of investigational products to patients – all of the agencies have promoted at least two of the technology solutions; six of the agencies are advancing all four. Some have even indicated a willingness to extend emergency policies adopted during the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing the use of these innovations to become permanent.

These trends indicate that virtualized trials and direct patient interaction with technology are becoming more the norm rather than the exception.

Technology products, including mobile phones and wearable sensors, are continuing to virtualize more aspects of study design and data collection, including remote patient consent, treatment randomization, data capture, document monitoring and reporting, and site access. Cloud-based patient portals, meanwhile, are providing tools for study participants to talk with doctors, and also to share images and data related to their conditions. This same technology allows researchers to stay in close contact with study patients, monitor their conditions and collect a constant stream of data from both medical-grade and consumer devices.

These trends indicate that virtualized trials and direct patient interaction with technology are becoming more the norm than the exception. Beginning with the first partially virtual trial in 2001, about one-third of all clinical trials have already incorporated some form of virtualization, and the number of patients involved has more than doubled in the past few years.

CHANGE FOR GOOD

The adaptations the industry is making due to the COVID-19 pandemic will persist and grow, and will be supported by the next generation of analytical tools and AI algorithms. These are crucial to sifting through billions of data points to identify the evidence and insights necessary to demonstrate product safety and efficacy.

Rethinking and reengineering clinical development is revolutionizing the way we bring new therapies to patients, making trials more accurate, more efficient, and more patient-friendly than ever before.

PROFILE: Anthony Costello is Senior Vice President, Patient Cloud, at Medidata, where he oversees all patient-facing products and the mobile health business unit. During his 25 year history in the clinical research industry he has co-founded multiple start-up companies focused on clinical technology including Mytrus – acquired by Medidata in 2017.

Clearing the air

Plans for dramatically cleaner aircraft aim to meet aggressive carbon-reduction targets

Tony Velocci
23 September 2020

4 min read

Commercial aviation has made significant gains in reducing emissions, and research to identify more improvements is ramping up. However, advances may not be happening fast enough to meet long-range carbon-reduction targets. So how will industry pick up the pace?

Fifty years ago, the aviation industry focused on speed and capacity, both of which guzzled fuel and produced high volumes of greenhouse gases. Today, however, the industry’s focus has shifted 180 degrees – to sustainability and fuel economy.

Jetliners built by Airbus and Boeing have reduced fuel burn by 70% over the past 50 years. Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions have dropped by 80% in that time, and nitrogen oxide emissions by 90%. Airliners also are 75% quieter, due largely to advanced engine and materials technologies.

As a result, large passenger aircraft are more ecofriendly per passenger mile than almost any other mode of transportation, even with a massive increase in travel demand. Today, aviation CO2 emissions account for about 2% of total global carbon dioxide emissions.

“The industry is moving faster than many people thought possible, especially when it comes to new technology,” said Amanda Simpson, vice president of research and technology for Airbus Americas.

If aviation is to do its share in reducing emissions under the Paris agreement on climate change, however, it must cut carbon emissions by another 80% by 2050. That would bring the industry to half of its 2005 emissions. Although air traffic is anemic in the wake of COVID-19, demand is expected to resume in three to five years and then continue growing, meaning reduced emissions must be achieved despite adding thousands of new aircraft – albeit much greener ones – to the global fleet over the next 15-20 years.

Our target is to have a carbon-neutral airplane in 2035 instead of 2050

Bruno Le Maire
Minister of Economy and Finance, France

All of the airframe manufacturers are chasing solutions. Between 2012 and the end of 2019, for example, Boeing’s ecoDemonstrator initiative – part of the company’s accelerating focus on securing long-term sustainable growth – used a 777-200 aircraft to test 50 discrete fuel-efficiency technologies.

“We remain committed to the ecoDemonstrator program and will conduct additional testing across multiple platforms to help further innovation that makes flying more sustainable,” a Boeing official said.

WILL PROGRESS HAPPEN FAST ENOUGH?

Although such initiatives are helping the industry to achieve average pollution-reduction rates of 1% to 1.5% per year, it’s not good enough, Rolls-Royce Chief Technology Officer Paul Stein said. “Right now, we are not keeping pace with reducing net CO2 emissions,” he said. “More must be done.”

Airbus’s Simpson agrees: “Looking at the long-range growth curve, the industry is not on a path to meet the 2050 goal. We’ve got to stay focused on innovation.”

With the downturn in air travel due to COVID-19 and travel bans, the French government announced a plan for the development of hydrogen-powered aircraft in a dozen years. (Image © Bruno Saint-Jaimes, courtesy of Airbus)

To step up the pace, sustainability solutions now in development will span a combination of technologies. These include lighter, more aerodynamic airframes and deployment of next-generation air traffic management systems that will permit commercial carriers to fly the most direct routes, burning less fuel and generating fewer emissions per passenger mile.

New fuel sources, in particular, are getting significant attention. In fact, collaboration on fuel development is part of a sustainability agreement struck in 2009 by airframe and engine manufacturers Airbus, Boeing, Dassault Aviation, General Electric, Rolls-Royce, Safran and United Technologies (now Raytheon Technologies after merging with Raytheon).

“We must start growing the use of sustainable fuels, and we must encourage their use at a greater pace than ever before,” Stern said, speaking at the International Society for Air-Breathing Engines conference in Canberra, Australia.

Boeing Chief Technology Officer Greg Hyslop added: “From the fuel perspective, we have to get incentives in place for the oil industry, and we have to get that going now.”

Also in the early stages of development: hydrogen fuel cells that could power some segments of a passenger jet’s flight.

The French government, for example, plans to invest 15 billion euros (about US$17 billion) over three years to support research into environmentally friendly technology, with the goal of developing a hydrogen-powered successor to the Airbus A320.

80

The percentage reduction in carbon emissions that the aviation industry must achieve by 2050 to do its share in reducing emissions under the Paris climate change agreement.

“Our target is to have a carbon-neutral airplane in 2035 instead of 2050,” said Bruno Le Maire, France’s Minister of Economy and Finance. For their part, industry executives doubt that a radical switch from conventional jet engines could be ready for service by the mid-2030s. However, more R&D spending is being funneled into decarbonizing commercial aviation than ever before, and momentum is building.

Following a six-month study on the use of hydrogen as a primary aviation fuel, research analyst firm McKinsey concluded in June 2020 that developing a carbon-neutral airplane by 2035 is within reach, though the quest will be challenging. The study focused on liquid hydrogen, which it deems better suited to most of aviation.

The German government also believes hydrogen could play an important role in the greening of civil air transportation. It is investing 6.8 billion euros (about US$7.7 billion) in what it calls its “national hydrogen strategy,” which supports the use of hydrogen in aircraft propulsion and hybrid-electric flying.

The initiatives in both France and Germany align with the European Commission’s plan, announced earlier in 2020, to launch a Clean Hydrogen Alliance as a centerpiece of a new strategy to accelerate the decarbonization and digitalization of Western European industries.

ADVANCING TECHNOLOGY, BUT SAFELY

Developing more sustainable fuels isn’t the industry’s only focus. Major players are focused on electric and hybrid-electric propulsion of light aircraft and large-scale demonstration vehicles, which have made the most progress.

In 2017, for example, Airbus and Rolls-Royce recognized that emerging technologies for the future of flight – including batteries and electric motors – could lay the groundwork for exponential development of non-traditional propulsion. As a result, they launched a project called E-Fan X. It was phased out in early 2020, but Simpson believes the knowledge that came out of the project was invaluable and will serve as a mid-term solution to the challenge of sustainable aviation. “Our goal is zero emissions by the mid-2030s,” she said.

While Simpson is optimistic, she is quick to emphasize that Airbus won’t rush to deploy new technology. Safety must come first:  “It’s at the core of everything we do,” she said.

A brighter future through shared innovation

Frédéric Vacher
16 September 2020

2 min read

As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold around the world, it quickly became clear that PPE and ventilator manufacturers alone could not deliver enough of the vital medical equipment in time to fully manage the size of the crisis. The industry needed more hands on deck – and the open innovation community had them in plentiful supply.

Open innovation enables makers, innovators and other skilled individuals and volunteers to collaborate to solve specific problems collectively. While the concept has shown tremendous promise over the past two decades, that potential has gone largely untapped. In the face of a global crisis, however, open innovation’s full potential was put to the test.

The Open COVID-19 Community is just one example of what can be achieved with this collaborative approach to problem solving. In a matter of days, a global network of engineers, fab labs, makers, hospitals and medical professionals cooperated and collaborated to address the medical supply gap in new and creative ways via a cloud-based platform – and with remarkable effect.

The open network platform connected a Fab Lab network of more than 300,000 designers, makers and engineers, experts and professionals who could provide these teams with advice and guidance, and medical professionals who could share specific wants and needs. This collaboration among different professionals in different industries to solve a shared challenge was truly unique: for doctors to be able to voice their requirements in seconds to makers and innovators located half a world away was exciting and inspirational. Usually, the paths of these people do not cross; bringing them together through open innovation unleashed a collective intelligence that was quite extraordinary.

As well as facilitating collaboration, the Open COVID-19 Community made cloud-based design, 3D modeling and simulation software available to its participating makers and startups, enabling them to verify accurate representations of their designs in simulated real-world environments to ensure optimal performance – before putting them into production. This resulted in an agility that bridged a gap and delivered life-saving equipment to those who needed it most.

Indeed, while the globe’s biggest manufacturers were hampered by legacy processes and procedures, the open innovation community was free to try new ways of working, to take risks, and to act fast. These freedoms result in unprecedented speed in design and fabrication, with some makers working all night to fabricate parts for the front lines.

While the success of the Open COVID-19 Community is a proud achievement, the doors that this experience has opened to a brighter future are its most exciting aspect. There has never been a better use case for open innovation, and the success that followed demonstrated exactly how collective intelligence can enable breakthrough innovations for the greater good.

As we look forward to the years ahead, open innovation will bring even more makers and startups together, while providing fast but steady mentoring from experts and professionals. From the launching pad of a global disaster, these self-appointed problem-solvers will bring to life more innovative ideas than ever before, tackling and solving some of humanity’s biggest challenges. When the only “rule” is for each participant to contribute knowledge and expertise for the common good, everything is possible.

Discover more about the collaborative efforts of the Open COVID-19 Community

Frédéric Vacher is the Head of innovation, Dassault Systèmes’ 3DEXPERIENCE Lab, and creator of the Open COVID-19 Community

Open innovation in a pandemic

COVID-19 has proven the worth of open innovation, paving the way for a collaborative future

Lindsay James

5 min read

Despite causing unprecedented levels of chaos, the COVID-19 pandemic also demonstrated that collective intelligence – shared and developed through open innovation communities – can deliver capabilities that span far beyond what any one firm can achieve on its own.

While the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc around the globe, it also demonstrated exactly what can be achieved when passionate teams of experts and makers from around the world come together virtually to solve a problem. 

Neil Gershenfeld, director of the MIT Center for Bits and Atoms in Cambridge, Massachusetts, reveled in seeing the volunteer community of online innovators and makers he helped establish rise to one of the biggest challenges they were ever likely to face.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has presented unprecedented challenges, but has also significantly accelerated longer-term trends,” Gershenfeld said. “One has been to fill in the essential gap between individual rapid-prototyping – which can respond quickly, but not scale – and mass manufacturing – which can scale, but not respond quickly – by coordinating distributed production for PPE [personal protective equipment] and respiratory assistance. This has led to an appreciation of the mutual value of collaboration among groups that had never before worked together, from community activists to basic researchers.

“Perhaps even more important has been the essential role in the economic recovery of democratizing access to means of production through the rapid development and deployment of digital fabrication tools.”

A GLOBAL COLLABORATIVE EFFORT

Open innovation – a rising trend that involves independent innovators and makers joining together, often online – played a pivotal role in facilitating these collaborations. The Open COVID-19 Community, for example, is a platform designed to unite designers, engineers, manufacturers and medical experts from around the globe, using their collective intelligence and capabilities to source, qualify, design, engineer and manufacture rapid solutions during the pandemic.

To date the community has helped expedite more than 120 projects, including several innovative ventilators. For example, Indian startup Inali tapped into the Open COVID-19 Community to rapidly design, engineer, simulate, manufacture and validate a prototype of its “DIY Smart Ventilator” – all in fewer than eight days.

Other projects facilitated through the Open COVID-19 Community include:

  • the OpenBreath ventilator, built by a team of makers in Italy. The fully functional ventilator needs only electricity to be fully operative. It is made of sheet metal parts and off-the-shelf components that are accessible worldwide and can be assembled anywhere.
  • a ventilator designed in collaboration between Mexico’s National Council of Science and Technology (CONACYT) part of the national Center for Industrial Engineering and Development (CIDESI), and the Automotive Cluster of the State of Mexico, was the first ventilator approved for mass production in that country by Mexico’s Ministry of Health.
  • and, in Brazil, the Ventivida ventilator was designed around a windshield-wiper motor.

“The Open COVID-19 Community has been incredibly important in expediting the development of products for those on the frontlines.”

Nicolai Rutkevich
Master’s degree student, Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro

“We wanted to create something that could be delivered quickly to developing countries, using very basic components,” said Nicolai Rutkevich, a master’s degree student at Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, who led the project. “Our ventilator has been created using a basic mechanical concept which relies on harmonic motion to deliver air. Its parts could be scavenged locally. And it could be mass-produced very cheaply and supplied to ambulances and local health centers, who could use it for patients waiting to receive urgent medical help.”



The Ventivida ventilator was designed around a windshield-wiper motor so that it could be delivered quickly to developing countries, using very basic components. (Image © Ventivida Group)

Such efforts, Rutkevich said, helped many communities manage the worst days of the pandemic. “The Open COVID-19 Community has been incredibly important in expediting the development of products for those on the frontlines,” he said.

PROTECTING THE FRONT LINE

Other Open COVID-19 Community makers looked to meet the urgent calls for PPE.

When the pandemic canceled all on-campus classes at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, David Planchard – an active faculty member in the institute’s Mechanical Engineering department – decided to provide his students with an experience in solving COVID-19 problems.

The project proved to be a perfect exercise for applying the students’ engineering design skills in a remotely connected team environment.

“I’d heard about the Open COVID-19 Community and thought my students could learn a great deal from it, while also doing their bit for the pandemic,” Planchard said. “I created eight teams, each made up of three or four students. Each team was tasked to design their own 3D-printable face shield band. I asked them to consider design parameters, assembly, safety and strength, comfort, size, material, and [3D] print time.”

To aid students, Planchard also shared a scientifically accurate 3D simulation of a sneeze, demonstrating the trajectory of the various mucus particles and where the particles land on the surfaces of a shielded individual.

“This was a real eye-opener for students,” Planchard said. “It greatly influenced their designs.”

Working remotely in a connected team environment, students at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute applied their engineering skills to design their own 3D-printable face shield band. (Image © David Planchard)

Each student team joined the Open COVID-19 Community to post their creations and obtain global community feedback from industry engineers and medical experts.

“Students used this invaluable feedback to enhance the quality of their designs,” Planchard said. “Once the students submitted the designs, I printed them off at home using my personal collection of 3D printers. A winning design was chosen, which we have actually mass produced and delivered to a local hospital that did not have any face shields at all at the start of the outbreak.”

COLLECTIVE INTELLIGENCE

Without the Open COVID-19 Community, Planchard said, many products that proved helpful would not have reached those in need.

“The community helped our team gain access to the latest and greatest efforts underway globally to serve the high demand for face shields,” he said. “In a time when traditional manufacturing methods and supply chains could not respond fast enough, it was wonderful to see how distributed digital fabrication was leading the way. Makers, designers and engineers in fab labs and in their personal garages and basements were cranking out innovative ideas using 3D tools and refining their designs using the additive manufacturing tools available to them. This knowledge, provided through the Open COVID-19 Community, has inspired teams and given them sufficient information to get started.”

“The Open COVID-19 Community has been instrumental in filling the gap between demand and supply in these incredibly stressful times. I’m certain that this is just the start of a very exciting – and far more collaborative – future.”

David Planchard
Faculty member, Mechanical Engineering department, Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Brazilian ventilator innovator Rutkevich emphasizes the deep knowledge of those who assisted his team through the Open COVID-19 Community.

“People who have never met before are all helping each other, providing their own ideas and expertise,” he said. “I’ve connected with engineers from Bosch, Embraer, Cefet-RJ, universities in Sao Paulo and more. I also have access to medics who can give us first-hand information about what they need, and to service engineers from hospitals who can explain the specifics of equipment. In normal circumstances, I’d never have access to these people. But thanks to the Open COVID-19 Community, it is now possible.”


Each student team received global community feedback from the Open COVID-19 Community before 3D printing their face shield band design. (Image © David Planchard)

With these examples of successes achieved in the midst of a pandemic, open innovation advocates hope that this new, collective way of innovating will stick, facilitating new approaches to the world’s biggest design challenges. 

“The Open COVID-19 Community has been instrumental in filling the gap between demand and supply in these incredibly stressful times,” Planchard said. “I’m certain that this is just the start of a very exciting – and far more collaborative – future.”

Discover the Open COVID-19 Community

Read more from the founder of the Open COVID-19 Community

Eye in the sky

XSun CEO Benjamin David's vision for solar-powered drones is making long-range environmental surveys more affordable

Bertrand Dietz
9 September 2020

4 min read

Inspired by his experience in designing satellites, XSun founder Benjamin David is adapting space technology to the challenges of performing long-range, visual survey tasks for environmental and safety purposes with low-cost, zero-emission drones.

For Benjamin David, a perfect day combines his favorite forces of nature: wind, water, sun and sky, all working together with the best of human innovation to power a sleek racing sailboat over the ocean at top speed.

Benjamin David. (Image © Jeremy Levin)

David, an avid water sport enthusiast, frequently windsurfed the waters off Guérande, in Loire-Atlantique on France’s scenic Atlantic coast, during his aerospace engineering studies at nearby Polytech Nantes. “Water sports provide absolutely incredible sensations, but I also love sailing because boats are concentrates of technology and use renewable energy,” he said.

Flight, too, drives David’s imagination, and his dreams of creating a flying machine powered by those same forces of nature are coming true in Guérande. After working on satellite technology for the European Space Agency and for Airbus in England and Germany, he has returned to Guérande to found a long-dreamed startup. Called XSun – X for technology, Sun for solar power – the company focuses on building, testing and proving the capabilities of solar powered, long-range drones for surveys, research and environmental-protection missions.

XSun’s unusual two-wing design allows it to carry more solar panels, giving it a range of 600 kilometers (373 miles) in a recent 12-hour test, with zero carbon emissions. (Image © Jeremy Levin)

“The points of convergence between aeronautics and sailing are obvious,” David said. “The best-performing sailboats, including monohulls, now glide over the water using their daggerboard foils. They are gradually becoming flying machines, with control systems directly derived from aerospace know-how. These sailboats that fly on the water use a renewable energy: wind. At XSun, we use another renewable energy – the sun – to make our machines fly. I see a convergence here that really thrills me.”

ENVIRONMENTAL AND SAFETY MISSIONS

Besides being a beautiful place to live, Guérande provides the perfect environment in which to launch a high-tech startup focused on solar flight. In addition to its open coastline and plentiful watersports, it offers an uncluttered landscape perfect for testing long-distance drones and a rich heritage in aerospace and composite materials, with tech-oriented universities and innovation centers clustered around the region’s shipyards and its major Airbus facility.

XSun founder Benjamin David chose to locate his solar-powered survey drone company in Guérande, Loire-Atlantique, on France’s scenic Atlantic coast, because of its strengths in aerospace, yachting and composite materials. (Image © Jeremy Levin)

600 km

The distance covered by an XSun drone in a 12-hour, autonomous endurance test conducted in mid-2020 with zero carbon emissions.

Unlike satellites or their near-Earth counterparts – helicopters and airplanes – drones are more economical to produce and operate. XSun’s solar-powered, remotely operated drones also offer operators longer ranges, increased autonomy and improved sustainability, with none of the CO2 outputs produced by other flying machines.

Returning here to launch XSun delivers on a concept that has been simmering in the back of David’s brain since he worked on the Galileo satellite array for the European Space Agency. The array is powered by solar energy and remotely controlled from the ground; those same two factors are true of XSun drones. “Just like a satellite constellation,” he said

Among the long-range tasks XSun drones might undertake: oil and gas pipeline surveillance in search of small leaks that need repair, or scans of railway lines to identify obstacles or damaged tracks.

“XSun flying machines are a kind of human eye that is always open, permanently in flight and monitoring the Earth to better protect it.”

Benjamin David
Founder, XSun

“We are also thinking about the observation and monitoring of wildlife and plants in forest areas,” David said. “In the shipping world, the surveillance of vast stretches for military or environmental purposes, and the detection of oil slicks and illegal dumping, are other possible uses.”

Automation is important, he said, so that the drone can do most of its work without human supervision. “Our aim is to adapt the automation of space satellites into the drone sector, designing machines that can carry out programmed missions independently.” The only time human supervision might be required: during takeoffs and landings, to avoid tall buildings or other drones.

A WELL-REFINED DESIGN

The XSun team maximized the drone’s range using an ingenious, two-wing design that hearkens back to early airplane designs, allowing for twice as many solar panels as would be possible on a single wing. The two wings are arranged one behind the other, allowing all of the solar panels to soak up the sun at all times. “The design also has a number of advantages in terms of its aerodynamic performance, which the aeronautic industry has ignored, as the single wing has dominated until now,” David said.

To improve on its original SolarXOne design, the XSun team used digital 3D simulations to refine the drone’s surface quality and aerodynamics. Collaborating via a shared innovation platform on the cloud also allowed the team members to iterate their ideas repeatedly while maintaining a clear configuration of all subsystems.

“The cloud offers us remote access to powerful design and simulation tools,” David said. “We can work on the move, remotely or at a partner site, which ties in well with our central idea: Our machines can operate easily anywhere, so it’s only natural that the same applies to our working methods.”

Composite materials and optimized design combined to help the XSun team create a drone that weighs less than 25 kilograms (about 55 pounds), has a wingspan of more than 4.5 meters (nearly 15 feet), and a payload capacity of 7 kilograms (about 15 pounds) for flights lasting at least 12 hours. (Image © Jeremy Levin)

The end result: In an endurance test conducted in mid-2020, the company’s newest XSun design achieved a 12-hour, autonomous flight – with a payload – that covered a distance of 600 kilometers (373 miles) with zero carbon emissions.

LOW WEIGHT FOR LONG RANGES

The drone weighs less than 25 kilograms (about 55 pounds), has a wingspan of more than 4.5 meters (nearly 15 feet), and a payload capacity of 7 kilograms (about 15 pounds) for flights lasting at least 12 hours. Composite materials are used throughout to minimize weight, and the team has hopes of achieving 20-hour flights.

25KG

The drone weighs less than 25 kilograms (about 55 pounds), has a wingspan of more than 4.5 meters (nearly 15 feet), and a payload capacity of 7 kilograms (about 15 pounds).

The low weight means that XSun’s drones qualify for use in all countries worldwide. Low weight also translates into the ability to fly longer distances; the greater the drone’s range, the bigger the challenges it can address. Which also drives David in his quest.

“It’s an incredibly exciting project that throws challenges at us every day, whether technical, regulatory or financial,” he said. “We are at the dawn of a new age, one in which autonomous machines are proliferating on the ground, in the air and in the water, with a clear interconnections between them. If XSun can get the message across that it is possible to use renewable energy right now, and that it is not something for the distant future but for the present, we can consider our mission accomplished.”

XSun is a member of the 3DEXPERIENCE Lab, an accelerator that facilitates and nurtures disruptive product innovation.

Watch a video to hear Benjamin David talk about his passion for finding innovative solutions to reduce carbon emissions.

Tires that talk

Insights from IOT-connected sensors can improve automotive safety and service

William J. Holstein

4 min read

Tire manufacturers are already creating new types of tires optimized for emerging forms of mobility such as all-electric and fully autonomous vehicles.  But by incorporating sensors, tires can add both value and safety to drivers by developing intelligence about driving behavior, tire status and road quality.

In Clermont, affectionately nicknamed “the Akron, Ohio, of France,” Pascal Zammit is creating the future of the tire.

As vice president of connected mobility for Michelin, the world’s largest tire company, Zammit is focused on helping Michelin connect millions of tires on vehicles on the road. By 2023, the company plans to expand the use of RFID (radio frequency identification) communications technology to link all its millions of new tires to the Internet of Things (IoT), which would ultimately enable drivers to be informed of their tires’ health and other crucial information.

The company already provides trip planning through its ViaMichelin service and can alert drivers if it senses a slow leak in a tire. But armed with new data, the company plans to introduce predictive maintenance services by asking, for example, does the driver need new tires before embarking on a journey?

“In the future, we will understand your driving behavior, we will understand the status of your tires and we will understand the quality of the road,” Zammit said.

DRIVING DATA

Michelin's connected mobility team demonstrates RFID contactless reading on tires at TireTech International in Frankfurt, February 2020. (Image @ Michelin)

Half a world away, in Blacksburg, Virginia, researchers at the Center for Tire Research (CenTiRe), have even more ambitious plans. CenTiRe, a global consortium of tire makers and two universities – Virginia Tech and Ohio’s University of Akron – study tires mostly in a laboratory setting. Saied Taheri, founder of CenTiRe, said his researchers use sensors in tires to collect a wide range of data: whether the tires are operating on asphalt or concrete roads, whether the roads are covered by snow or ice, whether tires are at risk of hydroplaning or skidding. That information can be communicated to the driver to help keep them safe and to other vehicles in the area. Information about road conditions and traffic can be communicated among vehicles on one hand and bridges and tunnels on the other.

This revolution in tire intelligence will be enabled by the advent of IoT-powered, fifth generation (5G) wireless, expected to enable communication speeds 100 times faster than 4G. Tire innovators are preparing for the day when tires loaded with sensors develop a central role in vehicle-to-driver, vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications.

Tires already have sensors that detect tire pressure and heat, but many more, including accelerometers, are on the way. These sensors capture the friction of the tire on the road. Companies have devised a sensor “patch” that is 20 centimeters (8 inches) wide and extends from one sidewall of the tire to the other. Each of these patches can place as many as 64 sensors in touch with the road when the wheel is turned, immediately informing the entire “ecosystem” about health and safety issues.

TOO FAST?

The transition is happening so fast that it may outstrip the capacity of governments to create regulatory frameworks for smart tires and for auto manufacturers to fully incorporate the technology into their vehicles.

To realize the vision of a fully interconnected system of roads, cars and drivers, governments and other stakeholders must first agree on the communications standards and legal framework for who bears responsibility if a component of the system fails. Regulators may also decide who will own and control the data that tires generate – drivers, car companies (OEMs) or the tire makers themselves.

For their part, automakers are signaling that they need time to incorporate the new technologies into complex systems based on with years of engineering development. In many cases, integration will require five years of planning. But “in five years, most of this technology will be obsolete,” CenTiRe’s Taheri said. “There will be new sensors and new forms of communication.”

That friction is yet another example of the race between fast-developing technology and humanity’s ability to manage and incorporate it.

Michelin also has staked out a clear position on who owns the data: the owner/user. “Respect for user data is fundamental, and Michelin’s conviction is based on the freedom for owner/users to choose the data they wish to share and the third-party service providers who will use it,” Zammit said.

100X

How much faster 5G communication speeds are expected to be over 4G, enabling a revolution in tire intelligence

This month, Michelin plans to demonstrate one tangible example of what the future holds, unveiling a   predictive maintenance service relying on in-vehicle data to the European Authorities in Brussels. Michelin envisions a completely standard, secure, hacker-resistant system – another key concern for those trying to build vehicles of the future.

Their efforts mean that tires may ultimately play a key role in the development and adoption of autonomous vehicles. CenTiRe’s Taheri said his researchers can already tell – from thousands of miles away – whether tires are operating on a road with potholes or cracks, and then feed that information back into a vehicle’s advanced chassis control or stability control systems so that the vehicle automatically slows down or adapts to road conditions.

The problem, from the perspective of OEM manufacturers, whose products are developing into mobile communication platforms, is: What if one of the sensors fails or the information is not properly fed into one of the systems controlling the vehicle’s stability? How could a vehicle’s systems be engineered so that, if a tire-generated information flow suddenly stopped, traditional safety systems would automatically kick in without compromising the driver’s safety?

“It’s a complication they haven’t really figured out,” Taheri said. “It’s not fail safe yet.”

But, like most of the questions that invariably surround new technologies, solving it is only a matter of time.

Small potential

The SmartNanoTox project aims to make nanomaterials more viable for industry

Alex Smith
2 September 2020

4 min read

Nanomaterials have countless potential applications across multiple industries. However, they are difficult and time-consuming to develop, largely due to the complex tests required to ensure their safety. With predictive testing, the SmartNanoTox project aims to address this issue.

What do butterfly wings, ocean spray, wrinkle-free fabrics and sunscreen have in common? They consist of nanomaterials: particles at an extremely small scale.

Nanomaterials exhibit different characteristics than the same material at a larger size, such as increased strength, chemical reactivity or conductivity. These unique properties open new possibilities in a range of industries, including fashion, healthcare and automotive, where they are becoming an important part of many products.

The characteristics of natural nanomaterials, or those that are a byproduct of industrial processes, are already well understood. But data on the behavior of engineered nanomaterials is more limited. This makes the potential health risks created by those nanomaterials – and the end products in which they are used – extremely complicated to assess.

POTENTIAL HAZARDS

Nanomaterials interact with the body and its cells in ways that can be difficult to predict. In some cases, it is possible for adverse effects to occur if the particles are inhaled, as their small size can allow them to enter cells and potentially cause damage. Absorption through the skin is not thought to be a risk at present..

While consumers are unlikely to encounter nanomaterials in a form in which inhalation is possible, toxic nanomaterials could pose a risk to those involved in the manufacturing process.

“One of the challenges with assessing nanomaterials is that, because they are so small, they can be quite difficult to manage,” said Dr. Claire Skentelbery , director general of the Nanotechnology Industries Association. “The characteristics that make them unique, such as higher reactivity, also make them harder to assess, because a nanomaterial will behave differently depending on what you’re doing with it.”

Surface modified APTES Rutile nanoparticle, one of the engineered nanomaterial studied in the SmartNanoTox project

To mitigate their potential for harm, nanomaterials are governed by a strict set of regulations in the European Union. Falling under the EU’s REACH and CLP regulations, those looking to manufacture these materials for use in products sold in the EU need to submit information on their effect on both human health and the environment, and indicate how the potential risk can controlled. As a result of the current complexity of testing nanomaterials, this can be a lengthy and expensive process.

MECHANISTIC APPROACH

To help streamline toxicity testing, the EU has funded the the SmartNanoTox project through the Horizon 2020 program, a collaboration between academics and industry professionals. The project is developing an approach to screening nanomaterials for toxicity, taking into account the underlying mechanisms that can make them dangerous.

“We want a mechanistic approach from beginning to end,” said Dr. Vladimir Lobaskin, SmartNanoTox project coordinator and associate professor at University College Dublin. “And by mechanistic, we mean that we can track all the events that happen from the initial contact to the adverse outcome. On the biological side, this means tracking adverse outcome pathways, which are the chains of causal events that cause damage to the cells. On the physical chemistry side, this means identifying all the molecular interactions that trigger the biological response. This is not normally done and is the special feature of the project.”

Once this detailed analysis is complete, the data obtained can be used to establish a connection between an adverse outcome pathway and the property that triggers it.

“The advantage of our approach is that it is extensible,” Lobaskin said. “Once we identify the properties of concern, we can then scan new materials for those particular properties. We don’t need to repeat everything, as we can predict similarity by models trained using machine learning algorithms. If we can test a material’s ability to trigger the first event in the pathways we have identified, then our prediction will be that it leads to a damaging outcome.”

Once the pathways are mapped, materials could be grouped according to their ability to trigger specific types of harm. Grouping would make it possible for the toxicity of any new nanomaterial to be predicted with a scan for potentially dangerous properties – a faster and less expensive process than is involved with today’s custom, comprehensive tests.

“What Europe’s trying to do with projects such as SmartNanoTox is enable better early prediction and design of nanomaterials that are going to be safer."

Dr. Claire Skentelbery
Director General of the Nanotechnology Industries Association

For example, one method for a nanomaterial to enter a cell is by adhering to the cell membrane and causing it to bend and wrap around the foreign particle. This is only possible if the adhesion energy is sufficient. By simulating the process, the SmartNanoTox team has created a method to determine the adhesion energies between the membrane and the surface of a nanomaterial, predicting if it is possible for that material to enter a cell.

CLASSIFICATION’S BENEFITS

By developing faster and more efficient classifications, the SmartNanoTox project hopes to give companies looking to use nanomaterials greater confidence during product development.

“What Europe’s trying to do with projects such as SmartNanoTox is enable better early prediction and design of nanomaterials that are going to be safer,” Skentelbery said. “So rather than getting to the end of a design process, testing it and only then discovering that it’s bad for people, you can predict early in the process. Then you can develop products to market with greater confidence and reduced cost. That would allow products to get to market quicker, which means more potential applications.”

Lobaskin points out that the new approach could also have uses beyond identifying toxicity. Just as it can predict if a nanomaterial will be potentially dangerous, it could also identify characteristics that maximize its usefulness.

“The same approach also works really nicely if you want to enhance functionality,” he said. “What we’re trying to relate is a specific property to a quantifiable outcome. This means that if, for example, you’re trying to deliver drugs to a cell through the use of nanomaterials, we would be able to identify the material that maximizes the amount of the drug that is delivered. So the approach is extensible in that respect as well, as it can be used in the same way to optimize materials and their functionality.”

If successful, the SmartNanoTox project could signal a change in the use of nanomaterials. Freed from the complex and time-consuming process of blanket toxicity testing, businesses can begin to exploit the full potential of their unique properties, with confidence that the products they produce will be both safe and effective.

Stay up to date

Receive monthly updates on content you won’t want to miss

Subscribe

Register here to receive a monthly update on our newest content.