Space(s): Deep Tech Trends for the next decade

Soothsaying might be nice but what about some forecast based on actual data and analysis? We’ve got you. We are back again with the Hello Tomorrow Deep Tech Trends.

Based on the 5,000 worldwide applications we received this year to our Global Startup Challenge, and drawing from several years of watching, shaping and fostering the Deep Tech ecosystem, we are in a unique position to preview how the future will be shaped. The examples below are all carefully-selected Deep Tech Pioneers from this 2019–2020 Global Challenge. Keep on reading to get a sneak peek of what we foresee, or splurge and get the whole report already!

Cities will finally step up to the climate challenge

Both reducing carbon emissions and increasing energy efficiency have driven innovation in building construction and management in recent years. However, in 2018, constructing and operating buildings still contributed 39% to the global CO2 emissions and accounted for 36% of global energy consumption (figure 1 and 2) according to the International Energy Agency.

While the floor area growth is increasingly decoupled from energy consumption and related emissions, the sector’s overall carbon footprint is still dramatically increasing [1].

Unfortunately, we can’t just start from the ground up when it comes to cities. That’s why new, innovative solutions must not only make buildings of the future incredibly energy-efficient, but also able to retrofit existing infrastructure.

When addressing the climate crisis, one key issue in buildings is insulation. For most of the current insulating materials, the trade-off is between being fire-proof and well-insulating. Non-combustible solutions are made from minerals, while the thermally superior performing materials are based on oil or natural gas products. As we try to free ourselves from fossil energy resources, this is clearly not sustainable. Luckily, both IPSIIS and Thermulon are overcoming the current limitations by providing a well-insulating mineral foam and powder, respectively, with an ultra-low carbon footprint. Based on redesigned synthetic processes using mineral waste material from other industries, both solutions offer more competitive pricing than aerogels which until now, were the only other energy-efficiency and non-flammable material type.

Beyond better insulation, smart building management systems can help save energy in an otherwise complex-to-control infrastructure. Indeed, today’s static solutions rely on sequence programming and prefixed parameters which don’t allow for an occupant-centred, energy-efficient control of buildings.

Yet, up to 30% of energy savings can be achieved using one of the following two approaches:

Enerbrain is developing an IoT solution for the dynamic management of HVAC (Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning) systems. Controlled by machine learning-based algorithms, wireless actuators set in motion the components of an existing HVAC system, for instance, opening the valves of a heating circuit. By integrating inputs from a number of outdoor and indoor environment conditions through its IoT sensor network, the system allows for real-time and predictive regulation of the building’s indoor environment.

Like Enerbrain, Passive Logic’s solution also integrates pre-existing HVAC systems into its platform. However, in contrast, it relies on the creation of a digital twin model, quickly generated by an automated building analysis device, such as the one developed by Lumoview Building Analytics. This digital twin, which includes the thermal properties of the building, then enables us to control its indoor conditions, which saves the installation costs of an entire IoT sensor network.

The Lumoview Tech

Insulation and HVAC systems both seem like obvious candidates when tackling climate change in cities. Yet we have seen many startups get really creative! Previously considered non-actionable building parts such as windows, walls, and roofs are turned into power generating surface enabled by the ability to print solar cells onto various materials.

In the long run, these energy-producing, autonomously managed buildings will be interconnected and could cooperate in city-wide energy and utility networks. The autonomous buildings will act as agents trading energy and other utilities between them and the district systems. This will be further driven by the advancement of generic data platforms which will ease the flux of utilities and other traffic in a city. By predicting in real-time bottlenecks and surplus, platforms such as the one developed by Datategy will significantly contribute to a more efficient use of resources.

In the coming years, we’ll build with…. LEGO!

Well not exactly, but our construction techniques will become more modular and automated.

In its global status report from 2018, the Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction stated that the sector will continue to grow, the number of buildings is expected to double by 2050. Over the next 30 years, we are likely to add more than 200 billion square meters in construction to the currently existing infrastructure which is twice the territory of South Korea or half the area of either Germany or California [1]. Despite the continuous growth, productivity in construction has increased by only 1% a year over the last two decades. In comparison, the manufacturing sector has averaged 3.6% productivity growth a year over the same time period, which is largely attributed to the introduction of modularization and automation [2].

Because you don’t change a winning team, it is likely that the construction sector will enter into a decade of significantly increased productivity growth due to the large-scale introduction of modularization and 3D printing. NEXII has created such a modular building technology consisting of pre-manufactured panels made of an ultra-high-performance composite with an insulating core suitable for all structures up to 12 stories. Conversely, Armatron Systems has developed a full-scale 3D construction printing system that uses a wide range of printing materials to yield reinforced concrete construction.

The ability to either prefabricate modules offsite or directly print parts on-site has obvious labour and material cost benefits over more traditional building methods. If combined, the technologies allow previous restrictions, like worker shift patterns or weather conditions, to be overcome by creating a factory-like environment. Furthermore, they reduce the number of materials, amount of energy and time needed to construct buildings. Additionally, 3D printing will enable the production of tailored shapes at almost zero waste. The avionics industry serves as proof of efficiency, as mass production of 3D-printed components is already common practice there.

Then what’s the next step? Super-efficient construction cobots of course. Indeed, further automation of construction in the form of robots working collaboratively with humans on construction sites is highly anticipated by the sector.

But don’t get too excited yet, because it still requires significant advances in the development of smart robots, since every construction project represents a unique challenge in a fairly unstructured environment. Think rough weather, safety hazards, open area and uneven grounds… Thus, for the near future, robots will be limited to tasks in a more defined environment such as painting walls (Transforma Robotics) or the maintenance of hard-to-reach infrastructure like sewers (Watchtower Robotics).

If robots can’t come on-site yet, AR can! The construction process will further be eased by solutions that bridge the gap between the computational model and the actual, physical construction site. Today, buildings are designed digitally using Building Information Modelling solutions, and workers on-site are following the instructions laid out in construction blueprints. This process has been around for a while so LightYX’s technology instead projects an Augmented Reality of construction blueprints onto the physical construction scene enabling a millimetre accurate implementation of any building part.

We gave you a short tour of what our buildings could be like in the near future. Thinking long-term, the construction sites of the future will feature autonomous machines due to the advancements and convergence of digital technologies and robotics.

Yet, the actual revolution will be delivered by material scientists and the 3D printing industry. The development of novel, high-performance (bio-)composite materials and printing processes will enable 3D printing with in-situ resources. As an example, AI SpaceFactory is working toward the development of in-situ material harvesting (earth-to-printer) to dramatically reduce the carbon footprint of construction on Earth and enable 3D printing construction in hard-to-reach areas including the Moon and Mars.

Interested in seeing more of these solutions at the Hello Tomorrow Global Summit? Grab your pass and your full 2020 Trends Report here!

Can’t make it at the Summit but still interested in learning how construction material will become a carbon sink or if we’ll finally make flying taxis work? All this and more in the full 2020 Trends report you can get here!