Professor Schmidt, looking back on your education and career to date, it’s instantly apparent that you have two passions in life: technology and the environment. How did this interesting yet probably highly challenging combination come about?
As a qualified university lecturer and engineering scientist, one first gets involved in the development of engineering machinery and processes; one tries to transfer the fundamentals of science to technical systems, especially from physics. But if one looks around at our natural environment, one can’t be but amazed at the creativity and perfection with which evolution has created systems – systems that are functional and efficient in every possible way. Biological systems that didn’t become a sustainable part of nature had no chance of surviving. An engineer can only look at this with awe and observe and learn. This is why I was particularly taken by agricultural science, because for centuries, humanity has been trying to optimize the biological system, using technical aids, our knowledge of the scientific fundamentals, but also a healthy serving of experience – all to arrive at products for our own nutrition, or in the meantime, for our own supply of materials and energy. From my point of view as an engineer, what’s particularly interesting is intensive crop cultivation in greenhouses. It’s here that we can control all the factors that influence plant growing conditions. But before we’re able to optimize things and use technologies to control the microclimate, we first have to work out how the processes of plant physiology – things like photosynthesis – react to these synthetic alterations in conditions. It’s an exciting job on an interdisciplinary level.
At your Steinbeis enterprise, Energy – Environment – Information, the services you offer include consulting, research and development in the field of sensor technology in nature. What sort of problems do your customers ask you about? Where do you see the greatest need to do something?
We’re not just seeing a whole host of different ways to obtain sensory information in nature, in high concentrations in terms of timing and space. What’s now happening is that we have a deluge of data that can hardly be managed. People are crying out for algorithms that filter data, compress it, and keep it in agile databases for analyzing processes. After that, there’ll be a proper gap to fill caused by the fact that, in many processes, there are no intelligent routines to evaluate the data as a basis for decision-making. What’s needed here is close collaboration between process scientists and IT experts, and these are the biggest areas where action is needed. Again, examples from agricultural science show how challenging this kind of work is. If you want an industrial robot to make a weld along a line on a car body, the location and the 3D coordinates can be reproduced precisely and there are also good ways to investigate how the materials react during welding. To get a robot to pick cucumbers or tomatoes, you need image analysis sensors that understand crop architecture, that select fruits of the right size, that analyze their ripeness, and carefully separate them from the plant. In automation engineering terms, this is a herculean task. Getting sensors to recognize the quality of different parts of a plant like flowers and fruit, or spotting plant disease in large crops would help improve the quality of production processes. Again, the information provided by the sensors has to be interpreted and optical signatures have to be evaluated. Clients in the agriculture industry want these kinds of systems to help them with decision-making. The complex interdependencies have to be represented in a way that is understandable and the time taken working with the measurement technology and analysis system has to be kept to a minimum.
Professor Schmidt, you founded your Steinbeis enterprise nearly 20 years ago. How have client demands and the affect this has on your work changed over the years, and what developments have shaped these the most, not just for technological reasons but also due to changes in society?
After I founded the transfer center, we invested a lot of time and energy developing measurement systems such as so-called phyto-monitors. We soon saw the first customers who bought these systems experiencing the shortcomings I described regarding data interpretation. Because of this, more was invested in software development to process the data, right up to entire automation systems for use with greenhouses.
As expertise grew in these areas, there was more interest from clients in related areas like materials research and power engineering. Society is now more aware of sustainability issues and this also spurred us on at the transfer center. Over the last five years, we’ve been involved in a major German collaborative project looking at the development of energy- saving greenhouses (the ZINEG project). Our role at the transfer center was to develop the software and sensors for controlling the greenhouses, which will also be able to function as solar thermal energy collectors. The innovative solution and other ideas the consortium came up with earned it the German sustainability prize for research. This was awarded in fall 2014 by the BMBF and it’s also a nice honor for the work of my Steinbeis Transfer Center in Berlin. Now it’s all about getting on with transfer again, which often involves just knocking on doors. Projects are now extremely complex. We get everything from collaborative projects to the ion-selective control of closed-circuit nutrition solutions and even new types of water disinfection systems in plant cultivation.
Environmental protection will remain an important topic in the future. Which role will intelligent measurement and sensor technology play in all this?
Measurement and sensor technology will have to become an integral part of the overall concept of information gathering. Not everything that can be measured has be captured by sensors in the production process. In keeping with the rapid development of computer systems, lots of things are possible if you use modeling. But the models that are used have to be trusted to provide the right information. For example, when we were developing phyto-monitoring, we integrated parts of the models used in artificial intelligence. We did this to test the plausibility of sensory information, so that we could keep working with model data if the sensors failed. These kinds of secure information systems play an important role in environmental protection. Environmental damage is often the result of substances escaping into the environment because automatic systems fail or because people start to think things are safe and there are material level “overdoses” in production. An example of this is fertilizers in crop production. In the past, people were worried about not putting enough fertilizers on cultivated plants, so they put on a little bit more than was actually needed, just in case. By the way, the same applies to watering and thermal energy supplies. An intelligent information system can tell you what’s absolutely essential. For producers to stop adding a little extra, just in case, and give crops what they really need, without leaching, energy loss, or CO2 emissions, they have to be able to trust the information. On a conceptual level, this is where the underlying philosophy of biosystem engineering – the specialist area I work in at Humboldt-Universitat in Berlin – overlaps with the interests of my Transfer Center for Energy – Environment – Information. It’s about research, development, and technology transfer at the interface between engineering science and biological production processes – coming up with engineering solutions for use in the sustainable production of farming products, as well as technologies for a safe and clean environment.
Prof. Dr. Uwe Schmidt is director of the Berlin-based Steinbeis Transfer Center for Energy – Environment – Information and professor for biosystem engineering at the faculty of life sciences at Humboldt-Universitat in Berlin. His work at the Steinbeis enterprise deals closely with issues related to automation, sensor technology, measurement devices and software.
Prof. Dr. Uwe Schmidt
Steinbeis Transfer Center Energy – Environment – Information (Berlin)