Discovering innovations that matter since 2002

Dairy cows are particularly susceptible to high heat. According to the United Kingdom’s National Animal Disease Information Service, at temperatures above 25°C (77°F), cows can become heat stressed, leading to decreased milk production and fertility, and eventually causing illness. As average temperatures rise around the world, heat stressed cows are becoming an increasing concern for dairy farmers, and many dairies rely on sprinkler systems to keep the cattle cool in summer. But this method has drawbacks, as it tends to leave standing water which can itself create hygiene and health issues for the cows.

Now, a new product from Japanese underwear maker Gunze Ltd., promises cooler and healthier cows. Gunze, in conjunction with the Kyoto Prefectural Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Technology Center, has developed a shirt-like radiator for cows, made from a proprietary fiber with high thermal conductivity, developed by Gunze. The shirt covers the cow’s neck and shoulders and has a sensor that monitors the moisture levels of the material. When the shirt becomes too dry, water is pumped into the shirt through a tube. As the water evaporates, it cools the cow. The material is also highly stretchable, so that it stays on the cow, no matter what.

Tests have shown that the shirt, called Ushibull, is effective at minimising the heat stress in cows and maintaining milk production. We have seen other high-tech wearables aimed at animals, such as the Fitbit for cows, which wirelessly sends useful data to farmers, and bluetooth headphones to help horses relax and focus. What other innovative technologies could be considered for their future use in livestock development and welfare?

We’ve all been there – reached into a pocket for a wallet that was no longer there. Whether stolen or misplaced, the loss of such an item usually requires a major expenditure of time and energy. However, a wallet now in development may provide some peace of mind. There have already been a wide variety of ‘smart’ innovations, such as smart watches, smart shoes and smart bags, now there is a smart wallet.

The Volterman Smart Wallet is being funded through Indiegogo – reaching its target in just a few hours. The wallet contains a GPS tracking system and camera that can automatically snap a photo of anyone who opens it and email the image to the wallet’s owner. Users will be able to track the Volterman down, but also have a photo of the thief. If it is merely misplaced, the Volterman can pair with the user’s phone over Bluetooth, so that the phone has alarm capabilities. Similarly, the Volterman sends alarm signals if the user leaves the phone behind. Volterman’s chief technical officer found inspiration for the wallet after his 3-year-old daughter hid his wallet. He only found said item after spending month reissuing all the documents.

The Volterman also takes functionality several steps further – it contains a built-in battery charger, which can charge the phone wirelessly, and can itself be charged wirelessly by an optional leather charging pad (as well as by cable), it has 3G connectivity to act as a Wi-Fi hotspot, and in-built RFID protection against data reading and identity theft. It is fully compatible with both iOS and Android and comes in three styles – bifold, cardholder and travel. The wallets will be available in both Nappa leather and in a vegan (faux leather) option. At only 0.43 inch thick and just over four ounces, the Volterman is a similar size to traditional wallets. The company is taking orders through Indiegogo until the end of July 2017, and hopes to begin shipping in December. Can a wallet that is also a phone be far behind?

According to microbiologists, escalator handrails are one of the germiest places at the mall. Testing by microbiologists has found food, E. coli, urine, mucus, feces, and blood on escalator handrails. And where there are germs, there are increased chances for passing on colds, flu and other ailments, especially to the immune compromised. But if this is enough to make you want to avoid shopping altogether, there is now hope. LG Innotek has just announced the development of the world’s first handrail sterilizer, capable of continuously disinfecting escalator handrails.

Ultraviolet light has already proven to be an effective sterilizer in hospitals, and in sanitizing drinking water. Similarly, LG’s escalator sanitizer uses LG’s ultraviolet LED technology to completely destroy the DNA of germs. The device emits UV light in the 278 nanometer wavelength, which is harmless to the human body, but deadly to germs. LG claims that its sterilizer wipes out 99.99 percent of germs on the surface of the handrail. The sterilizer is installed on the front part of the handrail and shoots UV rays onto the rail as it passes through the sterilizer. The device can be easily retrofitted to any handrail, and operates both wirelessly and free from an external power source, relying on electricity generated from the movement of the handrail.

Although LG has not yet released the product for commercial purchase, it has already been certified for use in the European Union and South Korea, meaning that the sanitizer may soon be coming to an airport, mall, or subway station near you. What other application of UV light could be explored to improve the quality of life of the general public?

Many new build houses now come with smart technology built in, allowing residents to control entertainment, environment, phones, lights, shopping and much more from a single control or even voice commands. For the rest of us, however, retrofitting smart home technology can be expensive and intrusive. A new Kickstarter campaign aims to fund an outlet that can be installed using existing wiring, and a suite of inserts that can turn any home into a smart home.

Swidget is made up of two elements, the Swidget outlet and inserts. Once the outlet is installed, users can instantly snap in any of the inserts to create a nightlight, USB charger, motion sensor, Bluetooth speaker, power monitor, video camera, timer, mood lighting, AI repeater (such as Alexa or Google Home) and more. The inserts will connect with smartphone, tablet or existing smart home hub, allowing users to control all the functions from a central location. You pick the Swidget insert that has the function (nightlight, carbon monoxide sensor, etc.) and connectivity (Wifi, Z-Wave, ZigBee, etc.) you want, plug it into the Swidget outlet — and that’s it. On its own, Swidget operates as a normal electrical outlet, and fits into a standard electrical wall box.

Swidget was founded by electrical and mechanical engineers who wanted to rationalize the confusing array of smart home devices on the market. They have a prototype and are currently raising funding through Kickstarter to begin production. If they reach their funding target, shipping to the US and Canada is stated to begin in June 2018. Swidget are also offering a development kit, which includes a Swidget outlet simulation board, power monitor, CAD design files, and blank test inserts, for anyone with an engineering bent who is interested in developing their own insert. What other solution could upgrade existing buildings in a cost-efficient and non-intrusive way?

Everyone has experienced a loud colleague that they wish had a mute button, and a noise-cancelling device called Helmfon could be the next best thing. Created by Ukraine-based design company Hochu Rayu, the helmet-like solution fully reflects outside sound waves, blocking all sound from reaching the wearer. Helmfon – a word blend of helmet and phone – is equipped with a system board, microphone, speakers, accumulator, magnifier and a inside space for a smartphone, allowing the user to watch videos, organize Skype conferences and make calls from within the helmet. The device is built to be like a private pod, separated from the buzz of an office.

The device can be used in different positions, such as mounted to a wall or ceiling, or simply rested on a user’s shoulders. As it is made with foamed polyethylene and glass fibre, it means the helmet is very light and therefore easy to move around. Designed to help the wearer fully concentrate on their work, Helmfon can also be customised by the client so all colleagues have branded, matching devices. The helmet is in prototype stage and was presented at IT Arena, the biggest tech event in Ukraine, where it received a couple of proposition from local companies to test the device in their offices.

Getting the most out of workspaces is a common interest for office goers, with an electric mobile office within a van and an app that finds the perfect workspace for open plan office workers being two recent innovations with a similar motive. How does technology enable workspaces to become the most efficient environment possible?

Hula hooping is an effective way to burn fat and work your core. Much more than just child’s play, hula hooping is loved by many adults too. But for those that are missing the data-feed that comes with nearly all other forms of sport these days, there’s good news: hula hooping is set to grow up with the advent of VHOOP. This smart hula hoop is packed with sensors that communicate with a mobile-based app. The VHOOP app works as a personal trainer, recording data about each workout and taking users through a individualized fitness plan.

The VHOOP is also more flexible than a traditional hula hoop, providing variable weights to change the intensity of the workout and – solving the perennial problem of hula hoop lovers the world over – splitting into sections so it can be packed into a easy-to-carry holdall.

The Korean team that has developed what they claim is the ‘world’s first digital IoT hula hoop’ is called VIRFIT. They launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds on the 18th of July and hope to have their tech-heavy hoop spinning off the production line by the end of the year.

You have to go a long way to find an area of fitness that has not been digitised. This year we’ve already reported on a yoga apparel that vibrates to guide users through each pose and smart trainers that determine muscle fatigue and help wearers to modify the intensity of a workout. A digital hula hoop may be niche, but in such a crowded marketplace could this be an advantage?

While food was once sought in shops purely to feed, consumers are now quick to become besotted with unique packaging and often gimmick-covered buzzwords and branding. Much like the public reacts to out-of-the-ordinary awareness campaigns or branding powering a free cycle scheme. In the retail world how something looks often manipulates opinion of an item before even knowing what it is.

San Francisco and Minneapolis-based Brandless hopes to change this perspective with its ‘brandless’ goods, which include food and cleaning products. These items focus on quality for a better price, eliminating BrandTax that is a hidden cost when buying a national brand. The company claims the average person pays at least 40 percent more for products of comparable quality to its own and up to 370 percent more for beauty products.

Products by Brandless are non-GMO, organic, fair trade, kosher, gluten free, no added sugar and more, catering for a variety of pallets. It has also banned over 400 harmful ingredients in its beauty products such as parabens and phthalates, and its feminine hygiene range is free of chlorine, fragrance and dye. Brandless is also donating to domestic hunger relief organization Feeding America with every sale. There is a USD 9 flat shipping rate and free shipping for over USD 72 worth of purchases. Does branding in store sway you and would you try a brandless item?

It is an unfortunate fact of ageing that bodies become less responsive, but, as we’ve seen with various innovations such as a wearable that alerts carers when vulnerable patients wander away, assistive technology can help prevents accidents before they happen, which is exactly the thinking behind the B-Shoe.

The B-Shoe is a connected shoe designed to help prevent falls in the elderly, a phenomenon that unfortunately leads to many deaths every year and puts an enormous financial burden on healthcare systems. Everyone has a natural reflex that detects when they’re imbalanced while walking and corrects the stance back into balanced by taking a backwards step. In the elderly, however, this reflex is slow to detect and kick in, resulting in a fall before rebalancing can occur. With B-Shoe, Motion sensors embedded in the shoe detect when a moment of imbalance occurs, using sensitive algorithms that prevent false detection. These sensors feed a traction device located in the heal of the shoe that draws the foot backwards, acting as the backwards step, correcting posture and preventing a fall. And if the fall does still occur for whatever reason, the shoe will be connected to a smart device that will alert caregivers that a fall has occurred. The B-Shoe is still in working prototype phase, with mass production predicted to take place in 2019.

Shoes are proving to be another target for the wearable tech market with recent innovations including an e-ink shoe that creates dynamic patterns on users’ feet and smart trainers that self-tighten and adjust temperature. What other innovations could we see users walking around in?

As climate change continues to produce unpredictable weather patterns, such as the ongoing dry period in California, planting critical vegetation to combat the problem becomes more difficult in arid soils. Regarding this, we’ve already seen how an Egypt-based company is using ancient technology to aid irrigation, and now another company is taking a more modern, science-based approach.

Netherlands-based Land Life Company has developed the COCOON in order to facilitate sustainable tree plantation in low-quality soils and challenging climates. The tree sapling is planted into the structure, and the wick system drip-feeds the seedling roots drops per day, encouraging the roots to reach the subsurface water table. The COCOON comprises a water reservoir — a large, steady base that provides a slow but constant supply of water via a series of wicks (that will also channel rainwater runoff after the reservoir has run dry) and is made of 100 percent biodegradable material containing nutrients that will enrich the soil — as well as a tree shelter designed to protect the plant from outside harm, putting off herbivores and preventing damage from the sun and wind. Additionally, a tablet of Mycorrhizal fungi can be placed underneath the COOCON to stimulate a symbiotic relationship with the soil, helping seedlings to extract more water and nutrients from the soil. Available for USD 9 per device, the COCOON planting solution provides a cost-effective approach to tree plantation, with Land Life Company offering consultation with buyers to determine the most suitable species, planting times and project coordination for particular land restoration projects.

Alongside other projects we’ve seen, such as a forest city being designed in China, we’re seeing that steps are being taken to offset the effects of future climate change and urban sprawl — what other projects could help?

A collaboration between researchers at the University of Manchester and Central South University (CSU) in China has created a carbide ceramic coating material that could be used on hypersonic travel vessels. Hypersonic travel signifies moving at Mach five or more, which is at least five times faster than the speed of sound. Travelling at such speeds creates high temperatures of between 2000 and 3000 degrees Celsius that can affect an aircraft’s reliability.

The creation has been tested and proved to be up to 12 times more efficient than current ultra-high temperature ceramics (UHTCs) made of zirconium carbide, which are used on aero-engines and hypersonic vehicles including rockets, re-entry spacecraft and defence projectiles. The new material’s resilience is thanks to a process called reactive melt infiltration (RMI), which means it is reinforced with carbon-carbon composite known as C/C composite and is extremely strong against surface degradation. The material’s unique structural composition creates good heat resistance and improved oxidation resistance, and was manufactured at the Powder Metallurgy Institute at CSU and researched in Manchester.

The manufacturing of new materials has gone from strength to strength in recent years as a credit to advanced technologies, with impressive examples including a moth-eye inspired coating that can eliminate light glare and a water-repellent material that sheds like a snake if damaged. What common material could be replaced with a more efficient, high-tech alternative?