atalysts spur the world’s economy, but they still hold many mysteries. “One-third of global gross domestic product relies on catalysts, and yet do we really understand how they operate under working conditions? Absolutely not,” says Charlotte Vogt, an assistant professor of chemistry at the Technion—Israel Institute of Technology.

Vogt is determined to fill that knowledge gap. Her research reveals the inner workings of catalysts that could tackle climate change by decarbonizing our energy systems and industrial processes, and she’s driven by the urgency of the challenge. “We have to come up with new catalytic systems at record speed, and how are we going to do that if we don’t really understand them?” she says.

Most of the common reactions in the chemical industry involve passing gases or liquids over solid catalysts at high temperatures or pressures. To improve the performance of these heterogeneous catalysts, chemists try to understand the mechanism of the reaction going on at the catalyst’s surface. Traditionally, this approach has involved using spectroscopic and other techniques to study simplified versions of the reaction systems—perhaps focusing on a single facet of a catalyst crystal at extremely low pressure so that just a few reactant molecules adhere to its surface.

Despite the insights they have provided, these model systems are completely different from the conditions of industrial reactions and can give a misleading or incomplete view of how the catalyst works. So Vogt instead studies catalysts in their real-world operating environments, known as operando in chemical parlance, and in real time, which poses enormous experimental challenges.

A catalyst particle can have many different reaction sites that change during the reaction. And the catalyst is surrounded by a blizzard of reactant and product molecules, most of which are not undergoing the reaction in question at any given moment. “You’re sometimes looking for spectroscopic signals that are like a needle in a haystack,” Vogt says. “So we’re developing techniques to elucidate those tiny but important signals and distinguish them from everything that is not important.”

“We have to come up with new catalytic systems at record speed, and how are we going to do that if we don’t really understand them? ”

Charlotte Vogt, professor, Technion—Israel Institute of Technology

Her team studies catalysts using X-rays at synchrotron facilities, for example, or infrared spectrometers in Vogt’s lab. Then the researchers use machine learning and pattern recognition techniques to comb through the terabytes of data. They also design specialist reactors that can operate at realistic conditions while allowing spectroscopists to peer inside the heart of the reaction.

Vogt is applying these techniques to the reactions of small molecules, including carbon dioxide and ammonia, that have a huge global impact. In addition to studying conventional heterogeneous catalysts, she’s also interested in developing operando techniques to study electrocatalytic reactions that produce NH3 or convert CO2 into fuels and other useful products. Deployed at an industrial scale, these reactions could take advantage of the growing availability of renewable electricity.

In 2021, Vogt established her research group at the Technion, where she has joined the new Stewart and Lynda Resnick Sustainability Center for Catalysis. “She mixes a deep knowledge of science with a vision of how to apply it to real-world problems,” says Ilan Marek, the center’s director. “She was a perfect fit.”

Vogt has always understood the power of chemistry to change the world. Her father, Eelco Vogt, was the global R&D director for catalysts at chemical company Albemarle, “so I had a really good role model at home,” Charlotte Vogt says. After undergraduate and master’s degrees at Utrecht University, she stayed on for a PhD with Bert M. Weckhuysen, a leading proponent of operando spectroscopy. “She is very driven, she knows how to organize things, and she has a real passion for science,” Weckhuysen says.

Her PhD research included dissecting the Sabatier reaction, which typically uses a nickel catalyst to convert CO2 and hydrogen into methane and water. Improving the efficiency and selectivity of that process could offer a way to use industrial CO2 emissions as a raw material for storing renewable energy in chemical fuels. Vogt’s spectroscopy work revealed how the nickel catalyst particles’ size and structure affected the reaction and how metal oxide supports beneath the nickel particles influenced the products formed.

Weckhuysen and Eelco Vogt are old friends, so Charlotte Vogt was determined to forestall any suggestions of favoritism and worked hard to establish herself as an independent scientist. “In fact, during my PhD I didn’t talk to my dad about my science. Not one word,” she says.

Now that Vogt has her own lab, though, she’s happy to discuss the trials and tribulations of being an assistant professor with her father and has even collaborated on a paper with him. “He’s an amazing support system to have,” she says.

Aleph Farms, which a Technion professor co-founded, continues to break more records in this latest development

The first company to grow steaks directly from the cells of cows has now received the first halachic ruling regarding the kosher status of cultivated meat.

Chief Rabbi of Israel, David Lau, made the announcement yesterday (Wednesday, January 18th), following an examination of the production methods in the company’s laboratory and speaking with experts in the field.

Rabbi Lau noted, however, that if it is marketed as meat or is “similar to meat in taste and smell”, it should not be mixed or consumed with dairy products.

Co-founded by Technion Professor, Shulamit Levenberg, from the Biomedical Engineering Faculty at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology and backed by Leonardo DiCaprio, Aleph Farms has – to date – raised $120 million in funding. It is awaiting marketing approval for its first product – Minute Steak – before it enters the market for the first time.

Other notable animal-free produce startups linked to the Technion include SavorEat, a company that produces 3D-printed burger patties via a robot chef using ingredient cartridges, SuperMeat, which takes cell cultures from chickens and Imagindairy, which develops real milk in the lab without harming animals.

Aleph Farms hopes to launch its Minute Steak in Israel this year, followed by other countries around the world next year.

Meanwhile, Professor Levenberg is working on a host of other exciting innovations, including genetically engineering muscle tissue to cure type-2 diabetes and treating spinal cord injury patients with exosome therapy, which contains three times the amount of growth factors of stem cells, is less invasive and doesn’t rely on human donors.

The Churchill Awards Gala Dinner was back with a bang after a long hiatus

An incredible quarter of a million pounds was raised for Technion UK during its first gala dinner in three years.

Over 300 people enjoyed a Tony Page catered event at the Royal Lancaster Hotel in London on Sunday night. 

Nobel laureate, Professor Dan Schechtman, who defied critics for his “off-the-wall theory” and the went on to claim the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, delivered the illuminating keynote speech. He spoke about the importance of education and gave examples of his contribution to help the Technion become the powerhouse of Israel’s high-tech society having trained most of Israel’s engineers who helped build the country.

Baroness Ruth Deech DBE, a British academic, lawyer, ethicist and politician received the prestigious Churchill Award and members of the Technion Chamber Orchestra provided entertainment, wowing the room with a violin medley of classical pieces.

For the first time,guests were invited to choose exactly where their donation went: The Program of Excellence for fast-tracked students, the Defence and Aerospace department, the Sustainability and Grand Technion Energy Program and research into Parkinson’s and other neo-generative diseases. 

Baroness Ruth Deech DBE said: “I cannot tell you how delighted I was with the dinner and the award – more than I deserve! It is a great piece of art, and I shall treasure it. The dinner was beautifully organised and conducted and it was a privilege to hear Dan Shechtman.”

CEO of Technion UK, Alan Aziz, said: “I’m delighted that after three long years we have been able to host another big gala dinner with amazing speakers and guests!”

And why H2Pro, set up by Technion Professors is the Israeli startup we all need to know about!

We are living through an exciting part of the global journey to reducing carbon emissions, thanks to a transition to clean energy that’s gaining serious momentum.

Between the ongoing economic recovery from Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine – highlighting the need for the Western world to become energy independent – investments in the global renewable energy market are expected to increase significantly. 

By 2040, around 10% of the world’s primary energy demand could be replaced by hydrogen, while the global hydrogen market is expected to more than double by 2050.

Israel, as one example, is currently aiming for 30% of its energy to be renewable by 2030 – a considerable increase on the 2020 total of 7%.

But its success relies on many factors, such as creating more storage, reducing the reliance on fossil fuels and making energy systems more flexible and resilient.

As the most abundant element in the universe, hydrogen is a portable, scalable fuel that can serve as a lifeline to sectors that are difficult and costly to electrify, such as long-haul trucking, maritime shipping and air travel.

As a zero-carbon duel, it is also an environmentally-friendly option for high-heat industrial processes, such as steel and cement.

The one to watch out for

While others are developing in the market, H2Pro is at the forefront of making these targets a reality, thanks to its revolutionary method for efficiently splitting water into its two components of hydrogen and oxygen.

Using electricity, the elements are generated separately, unlike conventional electrolysis, enabling a 95% system efficiency.

Founded by Professors Gideon Grader and Avner Rothschild and Drs. Hen Dotan and Avigail Landman of the Grand Technion Energy Programme in 2019, the company, which counts Bill Gates as an investor, has laid the cornerstone of its first production facility, which, when completed, will produce affordable green renewable energy at scale.

Technion, Israel’s Institute of Technology is the oldest university in the country and one of the leading universities in the world.  

Its Faculty of Biotechnology and Food Engineering is a unique department where expertise from many disciplines comes together.

Israel is a global centre of food and agri-tech, producing remarkable innovations, and attracting astonishing levels of investment.

But, like anywhere else in the world, there are problems; food waste, overfishing, unsustainable practices, feeding a growing population. Israel is facing all of the above and the issues are taxing its brightest minds.

The Food Matters Live Podcast has looked at innovation in Israel before, but in this episode we are going to get a unique insight into one of the world’s leading research centres.

The Faculty of Biotechnology and Food Engineering is led by Professor Marcelle Machluf, a remarkable woman who was named Lady Globe Magazine’s ‘Woman of the Year’ in 2018.

Her work has been included in the Israel Ministry of Science and Technology’s list of ‘Israel’s 60 Most Impactful Developments’.

During this episode of the Food Matters Live Podcast, we learn about the new Carasso FoodTech Innovation Center being built at Technion.

It has an R&D centre, packaging laboratory, kitchens, tasting, and evaluation units.

Professor Machluf says: “It’s not enough to just sit in the classroom. Our students need the right equipment to develop their ideas and they need to be prepared for whatever the future holds.”

Listen to the full episode to hear her views on the importance of building relationships to drive innovation, learn more about the work being done at Technion, and how the institute is going about developing a centre for ideas that haven’t yet been born.

Professor Marcelle Machluf, Dean of the Faculty of Biotechnology and Food Engineering, Technion

Professor Marcelle Machluf is renowned for her cutting-edge cancer and drug delivery research, and her work in tissue regeneration.

She is head of the Technion’s graduate Interdisciplinary Program in Biotechnology, a member of the Affiliate Engineering Faculty of the Technion Integrated Cancer Center, and former deputy executive vice president for research for the Technion’s Pre-Clinical Research Authority. She also works closely with the Russell Berrie Nanotechnology Institute.

Professor Machluf is developing a targeted drug delivery system using modified stem cells called Nano-Ghosts to home in on tumours, unleashing its therapeutic load at the cancer site.

She is also developing scaffolding for tissue engineering of the pancreas, heart, and blood vessels, and developing carriers for cell delivery with applications for treating diabetes and more.

She has a laboratory at Nanyang Technological University of Singapore, where she is working on a leading tissue regenerative project.

Professor Machluf has authored book chapters and more than 80 peer-reviewed journal papers in leading journals. Her work has been cited more than 2,800 times. She has six national patents and two approved international patents in the fields of drug delivery and tissue engineering.

She is the recipient of many honours including the Alon Award for excellence in science, the Gutwirth Award for achievements in gene therapy, the Hershel Rich Technion Innovation Award, and the Juludan Research Prize for outstanding research.

This Israeli startup finds key ingredients in nature that are also found in breast milk

The ingredients that make mother’s milk the best possible thing for a baby will now be available for grownups.

Israeli food tech startup Maolac uses an algorithm that matches the key proteins in breast milk with alternative sources found in mushrooms, algae, and plants.

Everything that baby benefits from — protection against illness, anti-inflammatory qualities, and nutrition — will be utilized in a superfood for adults, Maya Ashkenazi Otmazgin, and biomedical engineer and the CEO for Maolac, tells NoCamels.

“We created an algorithm that can actually look at all the proteins inside breast milk and mix and match the key proteins responsible for different functionalities and then find them in alternative sources in nature, like mushrooms, algae, and plants,” she says.

Maolac is also said to be the first company in the world to identify and extract functional proteins from bovine colostrum, a nutrient-rich milky fluid that comes from the udder of cows in the first four to five days after giving birth, which is 95 percent equivalent to those found in breast milk, according to the firm.

Bovine colostrum produced by baby calves should not go to waste. Image by Erdenebayar Bayansan from Pixabay

Extra milk from calves– as much as 20 liters per cow — is thrown away after getting a certain amount from each one. “If we look for it, we will see 5 billion liters of bovine colostrum that the dairy industry does not use,” Ashkenazi Otmazgin says.

“The idea of transforming the first, nutrient-rich milk of cows that have just given birth into a source for human protein is a stroke of pure genius. Billions of liters of bovine colostrum are discarded each year. Maolac takes this waste and creates a product of huge potential benefit to millions at a time when the world is desperately searching for new sustainable sources of protein. The company is a perfect example of the circular economy in action,” said Jon Medved, CEO of OurCrowd, which has invested in the company.

Nursing vision 

Otmagazin had the idea to create a superfood using nutritional ingredients found in breast milk while experiencing “the magic” of nursing her first child. She realized she wanted to harness the benefits of that breast milk for adults.

“I told myself – this is the ultimate superfood for mammals,” she says in a conversation with NoCamels during a short break between a hectic day of meetings. “There are different functionalities that breast milk can provide for a small human being and I realized we could leverage all the goodness to create something new inspired by a formulation that created the human species and actually brought us to where we are,” she says.

In 2018, Ashkenazi Otmazgin joined forces with Eli Lerner and immunity expert Dr. Ariel Orbach to form a food tech startup. The company just raised a $3.2 million seed funding round led by active crowdfunding platform OurCrowd with participation from The Kitchen FoodTech Hub founded by the Strauss Group, The Food Tech Lab, VentureIsrael, NEOME, and Mediterranean Towers Ventures.

Studies have shown that there are numerous benefits to breastfeeding a baby that both protect against illness and positively impact health and child development. According to the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio, USA, breast milk provides abundant and easily absorbed nutritional components, antioxidants, enzymes, immune properties, and live antibodies from the mother that attack germs and protect the baby from illness.

Maolac superfood products. Courtesy.

Maolac’s technology relies on a bio-convergence platform for the discovery of proteins based on machine learning and natural language processing search algorithms. The company identified more than 1,5000 known bio-active proteins in human breast milk and over 400 homolog proteins in bovine colostrum, and have since created thousands of human functional milk protein mixtures using similar ingredients found in plants and mushrooms, and other sources found in nature.

Ashkenazi Otmazgin stresses that the alternative sources must come from nature. “We don’t make them in a lab or genetically modify our mixtures.”

Maolac’s active ingredients work like breast milk to directly target specific body function, traveling through the bloodstream or gut to produce higher overall efficacy at lower dosages, a statement from Maolac said.

One of the ingredients has anti-inflammatory properties and is part of the first Maolac product line for humans. It will target athletes to reduce muscle strain and improve recovery time. The product will also target the elderly to support living and improved mobility. It will form the basis for the next generation of gut health solutions for humans and pets to help prevent severe cases of gut inflammation.

The second ingredient will be a part of products creating the next generation of probiotics, according to Otmazgin. It will contribute to a better digestive system to reduce inconvenience due to stress in the gut, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), or other conditions

Maolac will use the seed funding they just raised to build a state-of-the-art facility that will feature small-scale production capabilities. The facility will also be able to create analytics and samples for customers and clinical trials.

The Maolac team. Maya Otmazgin is in the center. Courtesy.

Ashkenazi Otmazgin tells NoCamels that the startup is in advanced discussions on joint development agreements with several leading Israeli companies in the food and supplements markets. It is also in talks with several of the world’s leading dairy protein producers and global dairy, ingredient, and supplement companies.

“We have several contracts on the table with potential global manufacturers that will produce for us. Our intention is to go global,” says Ashkenazi Otmazgin, citing both the US and Europe.

“We want to be the next generation of smart ingredient companies that create precision proteins for the food supplements and cosmetics industries with a portfolio of products with different functionalities,” says Ashkenazi Ashkenazi Otmazgin, “We want to bring active ingredients in small doses that won’t have an influence on taste, texture, or colors of existing food products, so people will love to consume those products.”

Ashkenazi Otmazgin also admits that in the future, the company will go to other markets, like the baby formula market. “Not full formula, but functional ingredients for the industry,” she adds.

For now, though, the focus is breast milk.

“There are so many companies that work in the alternative space and don’t look at breast milk — there is something quite repulsive when you talk about it. But adults can take real advantage of it,” she says.

Chief mobility officer of Michigan, the heart of the US automotive industry, says Israeli companies are reinventing transportation infrastructure.

“When we look outside of the United States for new technology, especially for mobility technology, there’s really only two places that have the technology applicable to the use cases that we have here,” says Trevor Pawl, chief mobility officer for the State of Michigan.

“The first is Europe and the second is Israel. It’s remarkable that Israel is the second market because of how small the country is population wise and geography wise,” Pawl tells ISRAEL21c after speaking at the EcoMotion international mobility conference in Tel Aviv.

Considering that the Michigan city of Detroit is the epicenter of America’s automotive scene – this is the birthplace of vehicle manufacturing as well as infrastructure such as traffic lights and lane markings — it’s significant that the state is looking to Israel for innovation in that sector.

While Israelis don’t have a history of car manufacturing, says Pawl, “they have a history of software engineering.”

And that’s key, he says, because “the automotive industry is being driven by four foundational platforms: autonomous technology, electric technology, shared technology and connected technology.”

All of which are Israeli areas of expertise.

In-road charging

Trevor Pawl, chief mobility officer for the State of Michigan. Photo courtesy of Michigan Economic Development Corporation

One joint project is with Israel-based Electreon to build America’s first wireless charging road for electric vehicles.

“We’re seeing Israeli companies come in and help us solve problems but also help us realize that the horizon for future technology being integrated into the real world isn’t as far off as we think. And the perfect example of that is Electreon,” says Pawl.

“Once we saw other Electreon deployments in Sweden and in Israel, we knew that Electreon was a company that we wanted to work with in Michigan,” he says.

Photo courtesy of Electreon

“As transportation infrastructure is being reinvented and we have money from the federal government to reinvent it, we are looking at what else could we do, aside from creating charging stations, to help fleet operators transition from diesel to electric. And one of those things is not having to wait half an hour at a charging station,” Pawl explains.

“We believe that Electreon’s technology will allow for continuous loops for things like delivery vans and transit vehicles. We’re deploying the first mile of road that charges a vehicle as it’s in motion, right here in Detroit, to go live next year. I’m almost certain that it’s not going to be the last mile.”

Kinetic charging

Michigan may also do business with ZOOZ Power (formerly Chakratec), an Israeli company whose Kinetic Power Booster (KPB) based on innovative flywheel technology can provide ultra-fast charging networks for electric vehicles.

Photo courtesy of ZOOZ

“As we build out our EV charging network in Michigan, where much of the population is in the lower part of the state, we have some unique challenges with the grid,” says Pawl.

“This company has a contraption that is able to create its own kinetic energy, then make up the difference in that portion of the grid to ensure that a charging station, or two or three charging stations, are able to function in areas where maybe they wouldn’t otherwise.”

Pawl said that the state is looking into Israeli solutions for maritime mobility for recreation and industry as well, given that transportation on the Great Lakes is important to Michigan’s economy.

Michigan Israel Business Accelerator

Pawl emphasizes that Michigan is seeking Israel innovation in a variety of verticals, such as security, consumer goods and water and agricultural technologies, that generate local jobs.

The Michigan Israel Business Accelerator organizes trade missions a couple of times a year to facilitate matches between Michigan’s needs and Israel’s capabilities.

“Obviously, I only get involved in the transportation mobility side of it,” says Pawl, “and it was important that we brought some of the Michigan Department of Transportation lead consultants on innovative projects — whether for bridges or for the future of automated payments — to EcoMotion to see what was going on in real time with a clear focus on the market.”

The accelerator, he continues, “has boots on the ground in Israel, allowing us to have a presence at cool events such as EcoMotion and making sure that we’re meeting with high-level officials, going into the command centers for certain highways, and meeting with people that are trying to solve the micro-mobility congestion issue in cities.”

Looking at the direction in which the automotive industry and smart cities are moving, Pawl says, “there’s more synergy than you would immediately think. You can’t afford not to be having a constant dialogue with leaders in Israel’s public sector and private sector.”

Mobility and smart cities

Among the Israeli technologies piquing interest are data-driven digitized garbage collection from GreenQ, road noise cancellation technology from Silentium and AlgoShield, a real-time early warning lithium battery hazard detection and explosion-prevention solution.

“We’re getting a lot of questions from cities like, ‘Okay, if we’re going to be aggressively rolling out charging stations and electric vehicles on the road — General Motors is flipping over to all electric by 2035 — how are we going to handle the worst cases, such as battery fires? How do we prepare for the future?’

“Aside from making sure firefighters have the right technology and knowledge to work with a battery fire, the vehicle is going to have to take a major leap forward,” says Pawl.

Photo courtesy of EcoMotion

“If you’re focused on trying to make sure that America not just leads the world in producing technologies and vehicles but also that it’s simply one of the best places to get around, I think Israel can help us find the way.”

Testing ground for Israeli technologies

Trevor Pawl speaking at EcoMotion 2022. Photo courtesy of Michigan Israel Business Accelerator

In his speech at EcoMotion, Pawl said that Michigan, which borders Canada, is a valuable testing site for Israeli businesses entering the North American market.

“We understand that there’s other markets like Silicon Valley, and places on the East Coast that have venture capital markets, but to really prove out your technology you’re going to want to actually get it out in communities,” he explained.

“You’re going to want world-class testing sites at the earlier stage, and once you’re past that point you’re going to want to work with a government that’s willing to give you access to their infrastructure and that has regulatory policies where you can move at the speed of the market and get permits quickly.

“So while you may kick the tires at an automaker R&D lab in Silicon Valley, if you want to end up on a North American vehicle, you have to come through Detroit. And if you want to build a fleet, you’re going to have to access our supply chain,” he says, noting that Detroit houses the lion’s share of US automotive suppliers and automakers.

“This is paired with our commitment to, for instance, the Electreon project, opening up our infrastructure to help Electreon write their playbook in North America.”

Michigan also has North America’s first smart parking lab and is constructing America’s first signature EV route along Lake Michigan. The US and Canadian federal governments are seeking technologies to build better border crossings, Pawl says.

In addition, Michigan is building a 40-mile autonomous vehicle lane between Detroit and Ann Arbor, “which will be essentially the road of the future and provide hundreds of other opportunities for Israeli companies to insert their technology.”

Wireless V2X technology developed in Israel alerts motorists and two-wheel vehicle riders to each other’s presence.

An affordable device that alerts cyclists and scooter riders to the danger of unseen motorists could prevent many accidents globally, says Israel-based Autotalks.

The company uses V2X (vehicle-to-everything) technology to connect two-wheelers with other road users and warn them of each other’s presence.

The device, called ZooZ 2, gives a visual warning to two-wheel riders if a vehicle is approaching an intersection and could hit them. It also alerts them to drivers indicating a right turn who may be in their blind spot, and cars that jump a red light.

Drivers who have the device are likewise alerted to the two-wheeler. ZooZ 2 uses wireless technology so it can reliably detect two-wheelers even if the line of sight is obstructed.

The company says three quarters of bike and scooter accidents are caused by drivers failing to notice the two-wheeler – and it’s almost always the two-wheeler that comes off worse.

“Autotalks regards all road accidents as preventable, and those accidents involving bikes and scooters deserve special attention,” said founder and CTO Onn Haran.

“We’re committed to making our new micromobility safety device available immediately in order to save the lives of two-wheeler riders around the globe.”

Cyclists and scooter riders fit the device to their handlebars at a cost of $50 to $100 or it can come integrated on high-end models. ZooZ 2 currently communicates only with the 10% of cars that are V2X-enabled, but the technology is to be included in most new vehicles launched in 2025/26.

The first version of the ZooZ micromobility device was launched in September 2021. Autotalks says the updated version is undergoing validation tests by four manufacturers of bikes or their components, and by two vehicle manufacturers.

Autotalks showcased the ZooZ 2 device last week at the Velo-City Conference, the world cycling summit, in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

The plug-and-play device uses software provided by US-based V2X specialist Commsignia and has been tested successfully by the European consortium Project SECUR (Safety Enhancement through Connected Users on the Road).

Autotalks has already produced similar technology for motorcycles and says the first motorcycle manufacturer will incorporate it into mass-produced models in Europe in 2024.

Israeli researchers from the Technion are developing a solution that addresses the shortages in seasonal harvesters: robots that pick fruit for us.

Throughout history, early summer has often signaled the time to harvest. Harvesting, of course, has evolved considerably. As opposed to ancient times when mobilizing the whole community was necessary to fully harvest grain, there are sophisticated machines nowadays run by just a few individual operators that quickly navigate through fields and efficiently process many acres at a time.

However, in the case of fruits, there is still a need for a great deal of manual labor throughout the harvesting process today, but workers are in short supply. The farming labor and resource shortage is reported in many countries across the world including the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom, Vietnam and Brazil. Unharvested produce leads to a loss of food quality and spurs enormous economic losses, a fact that will become more evident and problematic as the world population continues to increase. 

In a new Israeli study, researchers from the Technion developed a ground mobile robot that could drastically advance fruit agriculture and harvesting. The robot, whose development was led by Associate Professor Amir Degani from the Technion’s Environmental, Water, and Agriculture Engineering Department, will have the capability to use one or multiple small-sized drones to perform the operations required in orchards much more accurately and cheaper than the methods used by farmers today.

The study was recently presented at the “Water and Environmental Engineering in the Face of Climate Change” conference of the Environmental, Water, and Agriculture Engineering Department at the Technion’s Faculty of Civil and Environmental Engineering. 

The Need for Better Fruit-Picking Robotics

The gap between the number of seasonal laborers and the volume of work is expected to significantly expand as the world population continues to grow. By 2050 there are expected to be more than 9 billion people in the world, and in order to feed them all it will be necessary to increase the volume of food production anywhere from 35-60 percent (unless the whole world switches to a plant-based diet). 

One might expect though that with such a highly populated world there would be no shortage of working personnel, but sadly this is not the case.

“People have been moving from villages to cities for decades – and fewer people want to engage in manual labor,” Degani explains. “It’s seen in construction and agriculture, and it happens everywhere – including in countries with very large populations, like India and China. In India, for example, harvesting coconut is a very important task – but fewer and fewer people want to work in that field.”

According to him, the problem also exists in Israel. “As in many Western countries, there are quite a few years in Israel where apples fall to the ground because no one is there to pick them in time.”

Degani believes the solution to these problems lies in robots that know how to pick fruits. 

“Just as automation has solved many of the problems that plagued field crops, like using machines such as combine harvesters, once we adapt this strategy to plantations farmers will be able to better streamline and reduce the uncertainty that currently surrounds the acquisition of skilled seasonal labor for specific times of the year,” he says.

It is important to note that automating harvests should be approached differently than those used for field crops, which involve rough, large, and overly expensive machines. 

“In field crops, massive harvesting is carried out all over the area––usually indiscriminately,” says Degani. “Picking edible fruit should be gentle and selective. The fruits should be picked one by one and handled carefully.”

Interestingly, he claims that the robotic arms currently used in factories, which have a large range of motion and accurate precision capabilities that humans can only dream of, are not suitable for the task. 

“Although these robotic arms know how to perform a pre-planned operation, their sensing and decision making capabilities are limited and are not suitable for agriculture,” he says. “Agriculture is a more difficult world. Agriculture takes place in an uncertain environment with fluctuating changes in light and outdoor conditions, so the robot must have complex sensing and decision making capabilities.” According to him, the robot should not be too expensive of an alternative because otherwise many farmers will not be able to afford it.

Call in Air Support

Degani and his team began to approach the challenge of the harvesting robot’s development by first addressing its maneuverability in the orchard, a task more complicated than it sounds.

“In order for the robot to patrol and weave through all the trees and detect pests or ripe apples, for example, it must know where it exactly is,” Degani explains. The orchard environment is relatively homogeneous from a ground point of view, with most of the trees looking about the same and the GPS reception not being particularly reliable.

This obstacle gave rise to the idea of establishing a connection between a ground mobile robot and a drone. The researchers found that when utilizing the perspective of a low-flying drone, the top-view observation of the orchard provides a unique signature of every tree formed by the shape of its canopy. The first study on the subject was published in the robotics and automation section of the IEEE magazine. 

Currently, researchers are working on additional ways in which the farming robot can use small drones to perform the operations required for harvesting orchards. First, they demonstrated that a drone could hover around a tree, creating a detailed three-dimensional image of each of the trees in the area. These are needed to make the harvesting process more efficient and reflect more modern model of precision agriculture.

“The meaning of ‘precision agriculture’ is that instead of making decisions on issues relating to things like fertilization, irrigation, thinning, pest management, or harvesting at the entire field level, we will look at the agricultural plot at a higher resolution and make such decisions down to the individual tree level,” explains Degani.

This will make it possible to increase the volume of produce, by providing the best conditions for each individual tree, and beyond that, save the use of resources such as water, fertilizer, and potentially dangerous pesticides.

Degani believes the solution lies in the capabilities of a ground mobile robot that knows how to navigate around the wood, perform precise mechanical operations, and even pollinate flowers––another separate project currently under development in the laboratory.

A Shift From Human to Robot?

Today, Degani’s studies are in the prototype stage, and they demonstrate possibilities for future development. In any case, there are already several automation attempts in the fruit harvesting industry represented by Israeli companies such as FFRobotics, a robot equipped with the ability to emulate human hand-picking, and Tevel Aerobotics Technologies, which developed a flying harvester that is scheduled to enter its pilot phase in the coming year.

Beyond that, not only is the identity of the harvester expected to shift from human to robot – but the structure of the orchard itself is also speculated to change.

“The way we engineer and grow trees will change, and they will be designed in a way that is right for robotic harvesting,” Degani explains. “Even today you can see in the world apple orchards that look almost like a two-dimensional wall on which fruit grows. This is not genetic engineering but mechanical engineering operations designed to make the orchard grow as efficiently as possible.” The new orchard structure allows for denser planting and is designed to enable easier harvesting for both humans and robots alike. Studies are currently underway to determine the most efficient configuration, in preparation for an era in which robots will enter the agricultural landscape.

In the end, according to Degani, everything is aimed at becoming more efficient simply because we have no other choice. 

“Even in modern agriculture, the farmer will be very important, but he will need much fewer working hands,” he says. “Like quite a few things, the data will be at the center, to help him make informed decisions, and the robots will carry out the tasks in the field. This is what will direct the efficiency so that we can reach a sufficient crop target that will feed all humans,” he says.

“Because there will be less land, less resources, and less manpower over time, there is a need to find a solution. Otherwise, fruits like apples will be accessible only to the very rich,” Degani concludes.

Funding will be used to support more than a dozen studies

A new university grant program in Israel with a budget of over $1 million will support researchers in their quest for new food technologies.

The ministries of Agriculture and Innovation, Science and Technology initiated the program with an emphasis on alternative proteins.

The ministries launched a call for proposals last Thursday, in collaboration with the Good Food Institute (GFI) Israel, a non-profit organization that seeks to promote research and innovation in food technology.

The food technology sector is a broad field that includes nutrition, packaging, food safety, processing systems, new ingredients and alternative proteins. These include plant-based meat, dairy and egg substitutes, dairy products, cultured meat and seafood, insect proteins, and fermentation products and processes.

Many of the technologies used in this field are based on academic research. 

The technologies of two major Israeli cultured meat companies, Aleph Farms and Future Meat, are based on bioengineering research developed by their respective co-founders, Professor Shulamit Levenberg of the Technion – the Israel Institute of Technology – and Professor Yaakov Nahmias of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. 

Both are leading academics in the field of tissue engineering.

Ministry funding will support a dozen university studies offering science and technology solutions in the areas of cultured meat, fermentation processes and plant-based substitutes. 

These studies can be aimed at improving the final product or the production process itself, the ministries said.