понедельник, 26 октября 2015 г.

25 features of the new Horizon 2020 research plans: robot farmers to 5G phones

Éanna Kelly and Florin Zubascu, Science|Business

Final work plans for 2016 and 2017 are out, with ambitions to replace animal testing, resist the rising tide of antimicrobial resistance and deliver faster internet speeds

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With final copies of the European Commission’s research plans for 2016 and 2017 recently arriving online, Science|Business picks out 25 interesting features and competitions. Want all the gory details? Click here to read the complete work programmes.

1. Share more code

Horizon 2020 applicants for ICT money are now encouraged to share their research data and make their application programming interfaces (APIs) available. Making APIs available for other researchers and software developers is an important step towards the development of the ‘Internet of Things’, a catch-all term for connecting objects to networks. Researchers whose work involves developing advanced software are now expected to use online sharing tools to distribute their APIs openly. The Commission has even recommended a default platform, called FIWARE.

2. Improving the lot of bees

The life of a bee today is tough: They face, according to the Commission, “exposure to cocktails of agrochemicals, various pathogens, lack of abundance and diversity of feed, flowers, and possibly even climate change.” If the bee isn’t happy, neither is the human. Bees help pollinate the vegetables and fruits we eat directly, or the food for the animals that we then consume. They also produce honey and wax. The Commission will accept proposals for up to €4.5 million that give greater insight into bee health and ways to improve bee-keeping.

3. Helping large research infrastructure exploit more data

Research projects in general, and research infrastructures in particular, generate massive amounts of data that is very difficult to exploit efficiently. To tackle this, more Horizon 2020 funds have been allocated to projects that seek to develop effective data preservation and open access systems.

With the European Open Science Cloud for Research, a pilot project, Commission officials hope it will demonstrate how useful the open access to scientific data and data-analysis services will be for European researchers. Proposals in the pilot project should address problems related to the collection, storage and sharing of data across research infrastructures and scientific clouds.

4. Encouraging smarter energy-use from consumers

The Commission hopes that new research projects will develop ways to measure energy consumption and costs, and prompt users to change their consumption patterns. These solutions would include smart metering, virtual power plants and micro-grid management software. Smart metering tools are becoming increasingly popular in the US and some EU member-states, but existing technologies aren’t very effective.

Build smarter

About €206 million is allocated for researching better ways to build energy-efficient housing and industrial and public spaces, particularly for improving the efficiency of construction and insulation materials. Another challenge is how to heat and cool buildings more efficiently and reduce the cost of heating and cooling to affordable levels.

Storing more energy

A major obstacle for making renewable sources of energy more widespread is storage. Renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind, are not constant and require high-performance storage technologies for them to be efficient. Storage and good management of peak loads could reduce overall energy consumptions. The Commission will support research in highly efficient hybrid storage solutions for electric power, with the goal of balancing the supply and demand of renewable energy. This type of research will have to demonstrate the technical and economic viability of integrating storage equipment in distribution networks and smart grids.

5. Help from Japan on ‘humanoid robots’

There are few countries that take robotics as seriously as Japan does. Tapping into this passion, the Commission includes an EU-Japan joint call on ‘humanoid robotics’, which researchers think could help tend to the needs of the elderly in the future. It’s an area of mutual interest: both Europe and Japan are experiencing rapidly-growing populations.

6. Big data to bolster public health policy

Health policies are better if policy makers get to work with accurate data. The Commission is now funding ideas to overhaul methodologies for acquiring, managing, sharing, modelling, processing and exploiting huge amounts of data on population and health. Ideas on better systems for determining and monitoring the combined effects of environment, lifestyle and genetics on public health will be accepted.

7. Schooling for states on research policy

A new policy instrument aimed at giving guidance to countries with meagre R&D results, called the Policy Support Facility, was rolled out this year by the Commission. First up for tuition was Bulgaria and Hungary, two countries fed up with west European countries receiving the lion’s share of EU research funding. New money will be made available for the scheme in 2017, with other laggard countries expected to sign up.

8. Turning down the volume on planes

The Commission invites researchers in the ‘smart, green and integrated transport’ section to suggest new ways planes can take-off quietly. Proposals on turning down the whip-crack sound of sonic boom jets are also welcome.

9. Can’t see the intruders for the trees

Because several regions at the borders of the EU are covered with forests, spotting incoming people and vehicles is a thorny task for security forces. Surveillance technologies, built on airborne, satellite-based, or ground-based platforms are being asked for in the ‘secure societies’ section.

10. Philae Lander passes the baton

The success of the Rosetta mission last year, which saw a little probe hitching a lift with a moving comet after a 10-year, six billion kilometres chase, has galvanised the science community, and ramped up rhetoric and support for putting more machines in space. The Commission is firmly on the bandwagon, with new money in the ‘space’ section for “six specific robotic building blocks”: a space robot control operating system, a software framework for the development of highly autonomous space robotics missions, test vehicles, perception sensors that allow “localisation and map making for robotic inspection of orbital assets”, and ways for fusing data from LIDAR, Imagers, radar, sonar, IMUs, and sun sensors.

11. The doctor will see you now… with his web camera

The Commission is asking for new ideas in the area of ‘telemedicine’, which could allow for more virtual consultation and remote diagnosis for “chronic or rare diseases after hospital discharge”.

12. Doubling up on double talk

Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas wants Europe to produce more science diplomats – “an underestimated area,” he called it this week. In the ‘inclusive, innovative and reflective societies’ section, research is needed to “understand the success and failures of diplomatic efforts in the regions. It should also consider relevant results of international cooperation projects involving neighbourhood countries and all relevant existing legal instruments in various policy areas (e.g., energy), take into account the role of other states (e.g., US, Russia, and neighbours of the neighbours) and non-state actors in the various neighbouring regions.”

13. Smartening up cities

The Commission wants to continue plumbing cities with high-tech gear. In 2016 and 2017, there will be money going to research projects that will turn cities into scientific playgrounds for the deployment, testing, replication and scaling up of projects. The Commission wants scientists and innovators to experiment and collaborate, and transform cities into “living laboratories for testing automated road transport technologies that increase safety and reduce energy efficiency.”

14. Vaccine infrastructures

In biomedical research there is a significant gap between the bench and the bedside, particularly in the field of vaccines and immunology. Horizon 2020 money, from the ‘infrastructures’ section, is now allocated to bridge this gap. It will provide academia and SME-driven vaccine R&D with access to high-quality services to support vaccine development, pre-clinical studies including relevant animal models, vaccine trials, and advice on vaccine production.

15. Tending crops with China

European farmers grow plenty of grains, corn and vegetables to feed the continent's population. But most of Europe’s protein-rich soya is imported, from places such as Brazil, Argentina and the US. China is similarly reliant on protein imports, which is why its researchers want to join up with Europeans to “broaden the genetic base of legume crops for breeding purposes”.

16. New prizes

Setting a seemingly intractable research challenge and offering a prize for the best answer is becoming a well-known part of the EU’s repertoire. There will be a number of prize competitions in the field of climate change in 2016 and 2017, to be awarded to projects that come up with an effective way of destroying plastic litter; promoting the circular economy in the retail sector; and propose novel ideas for capitalising on reams of environmental data beamed down by satellites. The Commission will also set an encryption challenge in the field of cyber security and offer rewards to a project that delivers a cheap way of shooting nano-satellites into space and another for reducing car engine emissions.

17. Alternatives to animal testing

Roused by the Stop Vivisection campaign, which earlier this year saw an Italian pressure group gather over a million signatures in 26 EU countries in protest over animal testing, the health section includes money for a new expert group to examine the feasibility of alternatives to animal testing, from computer modelling to cell culture experiments.

18. Cyborg farmhands

Farmers across Europe are weathering a slump right now, with dairy prices depressed and agricultural exports down since the EU imposed sanctions on Russia over the crisis in Ukraine. It is hard how they will feel then, about a research call for labour-saving (or maybe labour-replacing) autonomous farmhands.

According to the food work programme, research efforts should, “prioritise technologies such as selective harvesting, more targeted weed reduction or environment friendly fertilisation, and/or livestock management, based on better planning and targeted intervention, using sensors (local and aerial, even maybe earth observation satellite).”

19. Motoring towards electric vehicles

With the global race to launch unmanned vehicles on to the consumer markets attracting the efforts of global companies like Google, Ford, BMW, Apple and others, it may be surprising to find just one call dedicated to autonomous cars (a pilot in the ‘cross-cutting’ section). By contrast, there are 12 calls for electric vehicles in the transport section.

20. Seeding the ground for 5G

Some money from the ICT section will go towards developing high speed 5G networks, which promise capacity so great that buffering videos and slow-running apps will be consigned to history. Europe’s role in building the networks, which could be available as soon as 2020, got a boost last week when the EU signed an agreement with China to set out common goals for 5G standards and timeframes for introducing the new technology.

21. Cleaning up data centres

With increasing demand for cloud computing, big data and the rise of the internet of things, the requirement for data processing and storage has never been greater. In the energy section there is a call for proposals covering, “innovative and energy efficient cooling solutions, waste heat reuse, geographical and temporal workload balance, integration of local and remote renewable energy sources, integration in smart grids, integration with district heating/cooling networks, integration of power backup system in the grid and use of heat pumps for efficient use of waste heat.”

22. A shift to close-to-market projects

Several commentators drew attention to what they see as the continued shift within EU research towards projects with higher technology readiness levels (TRLs). Such closer-to-market funding does not appeal to everyone. One lobbyist, who represents universities, worries the Commission is becoming too pre-occupied with the other end of the pipeline and moving steadily away from basic research funding.

The Commission does not go far enough for another who said, “I would have liked to see TRLs of between seven and eight for climate projects." Europe is committed to cut its non-renewable energy use by 2020 compared to 2005. “Ahead of the 2020 climate goals, I would have guessed this was a good time to ask for more demonstration projects.”

23. Risk-based financing for new antibiotic drugs

Horizon 2020’s investment vehicle, the InnovFin scheme, will introduce a pilot for antibiotic research financing, making loans of between €7.5 million and €75 million to SMEs, midcaps, special project vehicles, research institutions and large pharmaceutical companies for the development of new antibiotics.

24. Virtual reality

There will be some funding for the development of “augmented and virtual reality visualisation systems”, in the ICT section. The Commission funded several VR projects with health applications in Horizon 2020’s predecessor, the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), including a VR treadmill for senior citizens and VR for rehabilitation following stroke.

25. ‘Smart anything, everywhere’

Managing to imply everything and nothing at the same time, the vaguest-sounding call, and remnant from FP7, returns in the ICT section, promising to put money into networks of SMEs and mid-caps so they can solve particular problems. Whether the ‘smart anything everywhere’ initiative can go on to become a stock piece of technical jargon like ‘the internet of things’ remains to be seen.