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CENSIS: Innovation Centre for Sensor and Imaging Systems

Making economic sense with sensors…

CENSIS: Innovation Centre for Sensor and Imaging Systems

CENSIS: Innovation Centre for Sensor and Imaging Systems

WHERE: Glasgow (Inovo Building)
FUNDING: £10 million
WHO: Scottish Funding Council, Scottish Enterprise, Highlands & Islands Enterprise, 12 universities in Scotland and 17 founding industry partners

Making economic sense with sensors

Sensor and imaging systems contribute about £2.6 billion per year to the Scottish economy, in a global market worth over US$600 billion.  There is hardly any industry that doesn't make use of these clever devices, and the technology is also becoming embedded in everyday life – not just to measure things but improve productivity and generate profits...

If innovation wasn't full of surprises, it wouldn't be called innovation. And for Ian Reid, the CEO of CENSIS, the Innovation Centre for Sensor and Imaging Systems, the biggest surprise since he came on board two years ago is not just the spectacular advances in technology and the number of projects the centre has launched but the variety of projects and companies getting involved.

In some ways, the variety is easy to explain – sensor and imaging systems are used in such a wide range of industries for all sorts of jobs – but it's hard to predict “what next?” in terms of new applications. 

The questions asked by problem owners cover the spectrum. Are the strawberries getting enough to drink?  Are the cows in estrus (ready to conceive)? What are the pollution levels in the centre of Glasgow today? What’s happening deep in the ocean? How can we improve the efficiency of water pumps? How can we detect the source of methane emissions? 

All these questions are part of a normal day’s work for the people at CENSIS. “If you can measure it,” says Reid, “you have the foundation for a new kind of business.” And this is reflected in the range of topics covered by CENSIS, including everything from food processing and defence to civil aviation and precision agriculture.

The first wave of projects suggested the variety to come, including a collaboration between Dunfermline-based Optos and the University of Glasgow to develop new eyecare solutions, and another project to develop a sports medicine device which brought together the University of the West of Scotland with Cumbernauld-based Gas Sensing Solutions. Other projects included adapting a device originally developed to monitor the density of fluids in oil pipes for use in the production of bechamel, custard and hollandaise sauce by Macphie of Glenbervie (in partnership with Heriot-Watt University’s MISEC Research Group); the use of hyperspectral imaging (HSI) in the water environment (AECOM and the UK Astronomy Technology Centre); and the development of low-cost magnetic encoders (Renishaw and Heriot-Watt University). 

To date, there have been about 25 projects, nearly ten of which have now been completed, with timeframes varying from only a month to about 30 months, working with large, small and medium-sized companies, from one end of the supply chain to the other. “We are happy with progress so far,” says Reid, “but we want to do more projects; and bigger projects.”

Recent initiatives include setting up a wireless video network in Glentress Forest for a sporting event (the Enduro World Series mountain biking competition), providing ‘live’ images from multiple locations, using pioneering technology developed by The Centre for White Space Communications at the University of Strathclyde. The project was organised in partnership with Scottish Enterprise, Boston Networks, Microsoft and Indigo Vision, and at the end of the event, the network was dismantled – leaving the beauty spot completely untouched.

One of the most unusual projects supported by CENSIS is the development of a new kind of sensor to monitor cows – not just their movements but, through analysing this data, also their health and wellbeing. Farmers claim to be about 60% accurate when it comes to knowing if cows are in estrus, but the new device increases this to over 90% accuracy, which can be critical, because any unnecessary delay in insemination reduces productivity.  The digital collar was developed by a spin-out from the University of Strathclyde called ‘The Silent Herdsman’, which develops predictive analytics software for dairy and beef farmers, to “improve herd performance, business efficiency and animal welfare.”  The innovative collar sends the data to the farmers via smartphones, and can also be used to monitor how much the cows are chewing – another indication of health. “The ‘necklace’ was developed using off-the-shelf components such as motion sensors and a small computer,” says Siân Williams, Business Development Manager for CENSIS, “but the magic is in the use of tools to analyse the real-time information.” According to Williams, the new device also has significant export potential, with India and Latin America major targets. 

Pig farmers are not forgotten by CENSIS – another project uses sensors to monitor back fat. At a certain stage of their development, the pigs start to produce more fat than lean meat and this reduces productivity and profitability. 

Economic value

No matter what initiatives are funded, however, the golden rule is economic value, says Reid. “Creating economic value may be a black art in some ways,” but the ultimate objective is to change the culture – how universities and business work together, “bridging the gap between concepts and commercial solutions.”

The aim is also to encourage Scottish companies to “dip their toes in the water,” says Reid, “and explore the possibilities of sensor and imaging systems.” CENSIS also helps potential partners access funds from UK sources and beyond. “We are not experts in every industry,” Reid says, “but we do have the core skills and know the right people to speak to, to translate a business problem into a research agenda.”

Reid also sees the challenges ahead: “We have lots of problem owners and lots of great technology, but our job is to build the supply chain so the partners involved can make money.”

More surprises

According to Reid, a lot of the work done by CENSIS also involves “what-ifs” – if a company could measure a particular quantity, could that lead to a useful solution? Even if it does not solve the problem entirely, the company may learn a lot along the way. For example, Scottish Water came to CENSIS seeking to improve the efficiency of its thousands of pumping stations by using data to predict the failure rate and thus reduce planned outages. In the end, the project (working with the University of Strathclyde) did not turn out as expected. Even though it was able to monitor current performance and had accumulated a lot of historical data on previous failures, it turned out to be very hard to predict future failures. But thanks to the project, Scottish Water was able to analyse real-time performance and change the way it operates its network of pumps and thus reduce its power consumption – a major achievement in view of the fact that Scottish Water is Scotland’s biggest electricity consumer. The project also underlined how hard it is to predict equipment failures: “You really need to design data collection systems with the end application in mind,” Reid explains.

Another big “surprise” for Reid is how much CENSIS teams up with the other Innovation Centres: “Two years ago, if you had showed me a list of the Centres and asked me which ones we would work with, I could not have predicted what has happened.” The Data Lab and the Digital Health & Care Institute are natural partners, but CENSIS has been working very closely with the Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre, as well as Oil & Gas and Construction, and sees tremendous opportunities with all of them, “opening hearts and minds to the greater efficiencies” sensor and imaging systems can bring, especially in areas such as building management or decommissioning oil rigs.

Environmental monitoring has huge potential for CENSIS, including a pilot study being conducted in Glasgow in conjunction with the Institute for Future Cities at the University of Strathclyde, to monitor particulates, using four or five mobile detectors. “This is an area where Scotland has a lot of potential,” says Reid, not just in urban management and the “Smart City” agenda, but also in rural management, including measuring levels of gas emissions from peat bogs. 

Business Development Director Mark Begbie is taking a very close interest in the mobile air quality project, which he believes will demonstrate the value of the system and its capabilities, with vans on the move taking samples at different locations and modelling data in real time to see pollution levels at a glance. “The benefits could be enormous,” says Begbie, “especially for vehicle makers, urban authorities and transport service providers.” Begbie also thinks the new technology will soon be integrated into public transport: “Buses can be seen as mobile points of connectivity, not only monitoring air quality and helping buses operate in zero emission mode, but also helping to analyse passenger movements and traffic.” 

Begbie also highlights a solution now being developed to monitor methane emissions at landfill sites, using special lasers to detect “fugitive emissions,” combining this with wind-speed data and “data inversion maths” to model the area in three dimensions and pinpoint the source of the leak.  Similar technologies can also be used for security systems, as stand-off detectors for explosive materials such as hydrogen peroxide, or at test sites for shale oil extraction.

Precision agriculture is another hot topic, using data gathered from sensors (e.g., hyperspectral imaging) to optimise land use and yields, with satellites or special drones providing the images. CENSIS will also be involved in a new “Agri-EPI Centre,” in partnership with Innovate UK.

The Internet of Things

For CENSIS, the Internet of Things (IoT) will be an area which sees a lot of action in the future, and it was recently selected as one of the four local partners to deliver IoTUK Boost, a series of challenges “to advance the take-up of IoT in the UK and find real solutions to business challenges,” focusing on smart cities and the environment, in collaboration with The Data Lab and the University of Edinburgh’s Informatics Ventures. 

Eighteen companies were invited to attend a two-day workshop and respond to a call for ideas. The workshop helped them mature their ideas and develop business plans, and five were selected to receive mentoring support as they bid to commercialise their product ideas. “This project will put Scotland and CENSIS on the map,” says Reid, “as a source of expertise in IoT.” 

In tune with this initiative, CENSIS recently opened the Connected Devices Development Centre (CDDC), a new in-house facility to “help SMEs overcome many of the challenges they face in product development and allow them to fast-track the development of IoT products and services,” developing product ideas from concept to prototype and commercialisation, with help from technology vendors and academic researchers. The CDDC will also “provide a complete ecosystem of hardware tools, connectivity, cloud storage, data analysis and visualisation and mobile application development.” Reid describes the idea as “applying the IoT paradigm to CENSIS.”

Reid also says the new facility will help reduce the time and cost of building new products and “de-risk” research, enabling companies to focus on the value add. “Companies can spend a lot of their budget reinventing the wheel,” he explains, “but the CDDC helps avoid that by providing access to lots of off-the-shelf components.” In one recent case, a company developed a prototype at the CDDC and won a new contract simply by demonstrating what it had built, without further refinement. Several leading vendors are providing the hardware and, according to Reid, they also end up as winners because developers get used to using their equipment and the same industry standards. One vendor also said the company “couldn't be expert in all fields,” and took a big interest in “working with the ecosystem” to see its products in action. 

In the world of sensor and imaging systems, animal or human behaviour can be treated much the same as the “behaviour” of man-made devices – for example, predicting the failure of a wind turbine based on analysing “vibration events” is not so very different from predicting the heating or lighting requirements of buildings, based on analysing levels of carbon dioxide, or when to inseminate cows, based on their levels of hormones. Sensor and imaging systems are transformative technologies, changing how we live and work as well as helping manage the environment. It is only a matter of time before these intelligent systems are playing an even more critical role in our everyday lives, and organisations such as CENSIS will be making it happen, in partnership with industry and Scotland's research base.   


Key Objectives

The CENSIS mission is “to deliver sustainable growth in Scotland’s SIS industry” by focusing on the following aims and objectives:

1          Accelerate the transfer of SIS technology from the   science base to industry.

2          Be a beacon for economic development and wealth creation by developing a
            strong innovation ecosystem, combining skills and integrating communities of
            researchers and innovators across the supply chain.

3          Create economic impact by funding applied research to meet industry needs.

4          Stimulate a more entrepreneurial and innovation-driven culture amongst the
            research and industrial base.


CENSIS: Major themes

>          System Engineering & Integration

>          Advanced Devices & Fabrication

>          Advanced Analysis & Visualisation

>          Imaging & Optics

>          Signal Processing, Communications & Networking

>          Remote & Distributed Sensing Applications


The technology

Sensor and imaging systems (SIS) are becoming increasingly intelligent in terms of how they detect things (changes in heat or light, vibration, density, pressure of gases, etc.) and communicate with other devices. Some sensors produce raw data, some pre-processed information, while others operate in unison across a distributed system. The ultimate challenge is to turn the data into useful information, to improve the design or performance of systems and projects. Applications include environmental safety and security.


Inspired by dolphins

New sensor technology inspired by bottlenose dolphins could help improve subsea detection capabilities, thanks to a new collaborative research project launched by Heriot-Watt University’s Ocean Systems Laboratory and underwater systems company, Hydrason Solutions. With support from CENSIS worth £40,000, the researchers will develop an enhanced wideband sonar system using signal processing techniques gleaned from previous research on dolphins. The new technology will be deployed on underwater vehicles, enabling users to locate underwater objects more accurately, as well as probing their structure and composition, without direct contact – for example, to find blockages in pipelines, check for structural defects, detect explosives or discriminate between man-made objects and wildlife.


Global ambitions

CENSIS recently announced a “ground-breaking new collaborative research and development (R&D) project” which is expected to create more than 40 new highly skilled research and manufacturing jobs and generate more than £50 million for the Scottish economy over the next ten years – winning Scottish companies a significant slice of the fast-growing market for sensor and imaging systems.

The Mirage Project is the first initiative of its kind backed by Scottish Enterprise and CENSIS, and will bring together several university and business partners, including Cascade Technologies, Compound Semiconductor Technologies Global, Gas Sensing Solutions and Amethyst Research, and the Research Division of Electronics and Nanoscale Engineering at the University of Glasgow.

The project will provide a new platform to develop and manufacture new cutting-edge mid-infrared (mid-IR) sensors for multiple markets, via access to III-V semiconductors, for applications such as environmental monitoring, medical diagnostics, military communications and security systems, and collaborate on making a range of new products that incorporate sensors, from asthma inhalers to infrared cameras.

The collaboration is expected to boost turnover for the businesses by £135 million over the next ten years, and cut production costs by up to 50%, giving them a critical competitive edge in a key segment of the global sensors market, expected to be worth over $150 billion by the year 2020. The participating companies will provide £2.8 million of the funding, matched by £2.6 million from Scottish Enterprise and £241,000 plus capital equipment from CENSIS.

Ian Reid, Chief Executive of CENSIS, said: “This project is a game-changer for collaborative R&D. Not only will it underpin the development of Scotland’s sensor and imaging sector, but it will also provide the academic community with access to cutting-edge technology, allowing further innovation and collaboration. The organisations involved will be at the forefront of global trends and in a unique position to access new markets, ultimately creating a globally-competitive supply chain of businesses.”

Deputy First Minister John Swinney said: “This project is an excellent example of how collaborative working can support the development of advanced manufacturing technologies, boosting productivity and driving growth. Innovation Centres have a unique role to play in engaging with businesses to identify new solutions and we would like to see more of these types of projects develop in the future.”


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"CENSIS: Innovation Centre for Sensor and Imaging Systems". Science Scotland (Issue Nineteen)
Printed from on 06/07/20 11:35:39 AM

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