13 December 2017 • by Marieke Linn
‘Innovation at THUAS is practical’
Head of theSmart Sensor Systems research Group John Bolte wants to create sensors and sensor networks that are so smart that they can help people and devices to make the right decisions. These range from measuring all kinds of health effects for people to mapping out the road for self-driving cars. There is no shortage of ambitions. He will be giving his inaugural lecture on 1 February.
Going from The Netherlands National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) to THUAS. How did you end up here?
‘I used to do research at RIVM into the relationship between electromagnetic fields and health. All electrical devices, such as televisions, radios or mobile phones emit electromagnetic radiation. Some people say that these cause them to suffer from complaints such as headaches, sleeplessness or lack of concentration. We used sensors, among other things, that people could wear, which are known as wearables. We then asked these people to keep track of their activities and complaints in a diary for several weeks. At a certain point, the project came to an end. However, I wanted to continue working with the sensors.”
What is so interesting about this subject?
“The endless series of preventative measures for keeping people healthy and how these can be developed. For instance, by using wearables. They allow you to identify specific vulnerable groups and provide them with tailored advice on exposure and effects. For instance, a very practical application of these is in work situations for creating early warning systems that warn people when exposure to gases is too high. You can improve work protocols if employee A and B do the same work, but employee A is exposed for longer than employee B due to his/her way of working. This is possible, which are nice to see.”
And then you saw an opening at THUAS?
“Yes. This advertisement talked more about sensors for industrial applications, such as self-driving vehicles. However, whether it involves noise, particulates or the environment, these are all measured by sensors. For prevention and prediction. For instance, health prevention. You can use sensors to measure particulates for patients with COPD. This allows you to give someone the possibility to assess whether or not he/she should go outside on the basis of the air quality. And the sensors can map out changing surroundings for vehicles. Is that a cat or a ball? Which side is that cyclist on? A smart system can make predictions using observations. It can then offer possible actions. Big data lies at the heart of all of this.”
“It involves generating high-quality data by using as few measurements as possible. Anyone can collect a lot of data. It doesn’t cost anything. However, cleaning the data takes time. During our greenhouse project, Scout – ‘Measurement in the greenhouse’ we wanted to determine the growth parameters for tomatoes, such as humidity and temperature. Which are the best measurement instruments we can use? Should they measure continuously or at set intervals? How long should the intervals be? And how many measurement instruments are needed for optimum measurement? This is what occupies us in the Smart Systems research group.”
You have been working here for a year. Is it going well?
“When I started here, I became involved with many things. I did everything, but almost everything came at random. There were many great projects, learning labs and various subsidy applications. For instance, we work on sensor boxes for environmental measurements which simultaneously measure exposure and effects using wearables. However, we also work on sensors for vehicles, a moving rubbish bin and a smart wheelchair. Acoustic signalling, 3d cameras and semantic mapping. Here, the sensor not only creates an image of an object, but it also thinks about which action belongs to the object. Take a table for instance. You cannot drive under it. A baby? You cannot drive over it. But you can drive over an item of clothing, for instance. Something else that is great is our learning lab URBINN that won the 2017 Mobility Award. Innovation at THUAS is practical. We respond to questions that come directly from the field of work. It’s good to have the link with companies and know what is involved there.”
Is that different than at RIVM?
“At RIVM you only work for government authorities. You work in a systematic manner, clock hours and draw up product agreements with clients. You also work with full-time researchers. It is a lovely institute and I can see opportunities for creating ties between technology at THUAS and the environmental health research at RIVM. Here, the approach is different. At THUAS, we have a lot more freedom. This also applies to my role. We do more work with fewer regular people. Also, these people tend to have less experience with research. However, we work with incredibly motivated students and there are some great minor courses that are connected to the projects. I talk to all of the assistants every few weeks to see how things are going. It is striking how motivated the lecturers are. We talk about something one day and the next day it is already implemented.
Do people have to get used to your way of working?
“Some people do, I think. In particular, the project-related nature of the work. There are two members from a research group who work within each project. We agree what they are going to do or create. Then we meet every two weeks, discuss how things are going and I ask whether there is something I can help with. I think that they like this now. They do the work. I watch them and everyone can get down to work independently.”
Imagine it’s your last day as the head of the research group and you are looking back over these years. What would you have liked to have achieved?
“That we can effectively measure individual sensitivity and are able to provide advice on this. That we are capable of making health and environmental measurements simultaneously using sensors, that create safer working conditions. That people can take their own measurements which allows them to determine what they need to do to stay healthy. Last but not least, that the THUAS car is able to drive autonomously through the streets of Delft. These are certainly feasible goals.”