At times, it may appear to some that innovative technologies and products tend to spring up out of the blue – that John or Jane Doe woke up one morning and engineered a working product by nightfall. In rare cases, this is (more or less) the case. However, more often than not the truth is that the innovative technologies we see in the news were developed rather more meticulously – the result of continuous iterative processes that significantly transform a product from its original concept. ‘nowlight’, a renewable energy solution produced by company Deciwatt, is one such example – generating instant on-demand power independent of the weather.
Glastonbury Festival 2017. Image credit: Luke Taylor
As a company spanning engineering and the arts, both the very nature of energy and its functional application have always been central to what we do. From dramatic show moments that trigger a simultaneous upsurge of emotion amongst thousands of people, to 60-foot flames erupting with a thunderous shockwave – the harnessing and visualization of energy in its most visceral forms are the essence of the experiences we create.
When we hear about food waste, we tend to think of wastage at the consumer side of things – the bag of half-eaten salad mix you guiltily throw out every week, the enormous meal at a restaurant you couldn’t finish, or your parents sternly reminding you of the ‘starving children around the world’ as you pick at your peas.
Food loss and wastage, however, is a pervasive issue at all stages along the food supply chain from production and storage through to transport and consumption.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) claims that one-third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted globally – equal to around 1.3 billion tonnes annually.
While consumer-side efforts have been launched in recent years to combat this issue (such as ‘ugly’ fruit and vegetable campaigns, and apps that let consumers buy cheap food from cafes before it gets binned), there’s an opportunity to combat the issue on the production-side by harnessing AI and machine learning (ML) technology.
Our oceans are dirty. AI-powered robot microscopes may save them.
In five years, small autonomous AI microscopes, networked in the cloud and deployed around the world, will continually monitor the condition of the natural resource most critical to our survival: water.
As we discussed in our recent ‘State of engineering‘ article, engineers are innovating across the pipeline to develop accessible, low-cost, and intuitive technologies that help to realise the goal of global food and water security. For engineers, a large part of achieving this goal involves guaranteeing that the technologies and practices developed are sustainable. If not sustainable, then the developments merely provide a temporary patch for the problem, rather than an actual solution. Thankfully, as QEPrize donor company Hitachi writes, ag-tech solutions that optimise food production, improve food distribution, and reduce food consumption are already being implemented.
Before you dive into this article too deeply, take a moment to read the following description, and then close your eyes for a second. Imagine yourself standing inside a climate-controlled, high-ceiling warehouse. In front of you stands a tower with eight irrigated levels, on each of which lettuces, herbs, microgreens, and baby greens grow under LED lights. Robotics bring trays with young plants from outside into the right position in the growing tower, while on the other end fully grown crops are taken out, ready to be harvested. Can you see it? You are standing in Urban Crop Solutions’ PlantFactory – an indoor vertical farm – a highly engineered manufacturing plant producing not goods, but crops.
Achieving food and water security is a key priority for people, organisations, and government bodies around the world. However, due to a combination of factors – for example, population growth, climate change, lack of infrastructure, the high cost of maintaining existing infrastructure, or prioritisation from particular governments – achieving food and water security globally is proving to be not only an uncertainty but an increasingly complex problem.
While challenges in food and water security are often associated with developing countries – where poor infrastructure or inhospitable climate conditions limit either access to safe drinking water or agricultural productivity – a lack of resource security is a threat for the developed world as well. Engineers around the world are diligently working to produce innovative, relatively low-cost technologies that improve grey and green infrastructure, create new and efficient processes, and optimise social behaviours. If through these innovations, we can increase supply, reduce the demand on existing systems, and allocate resources differently, then we are a step closer to achieving global food and water security.
Imagine that you’re in the middle of a festival crowd, dancing away to the most dynamic names in music. 50-foot fireballs are exploding into the air, audience members are being abducted by acrobatic performers and luminescent creatures are swooping from the sky. Oh, and imagine that you’re looking up at a 50-tonne mechanical spider.
Arcadia is a performance art collective renowned for engineering mechanical monsters that they use as large-scale performance spaces. Perhaps the most recognisable of these is The Spider, a 360-degree structure built from recycled materials. Created by sculptors, engineers, painters and pyrotechnicians, the arachnid is an experiential dance stage for festival attendees.