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Science

Nano pitch: a clutch of engineering ideas and innovations from young developers

Young engineers and scientists are always working on new products. Often they build on old concepts. But they're all looking for a niche market. Here's four we bumped into at the 2016 Hanover Fair.

Laevo: back relief for anyone from laborers to surgeons

What's your innovation?

"We designed this exoskeleton to support people in a static, forward bended position, or in a dynamic position, where they do a lot of lifting and moving," says Laevo's Duncan Treffers. "It relieves your greater muscles - your L4 and your L5 - which is where the pain sensation begins if you stay in a forward position for a long time."

Often when we think of exoskeletons, we think of a full-bodied suit. But this is lightweight.

"Well, you actually hold it, you put it on in about five seconds. This is what's called a passive exoskeleton, which means it's fully mechanical. There is no battery. You just wear it and go about your job."

What spring system does it use?

"There is a steel spring and a gas spring, and the combination of the two means your back is relieved by 40 percent of back action in every angle."

Who would use the Laevo?

"Imagine you're a surgeon, who has to do complex surgery. You have to stand for 8-12 hours. So imagine standing forward for 8-12 hours, that will hurt after a while. That's a static position. And another scenario might be order pickers, who might have to make between 800 and a 1,000 bend movements per day, picking up between 15 and 20 kilos at a time."

And how well are you doing?

"We've been commercially available since May 2015. We've sold approximately 200, and we're looking to sell 450 this year."

Sorama: visualizing noise at home and on the streets

What's your innovation?

"We've developed sound cameras to tackle noise pollution," says Sorama's Rick Sholter. "You can use the cameras to detect riots on the streets - so that's observation of a large street in a smart city environment. But noise pollution is much more than that: cars driving in the streets make a lot of noise, and your central heating system makes noise, which is all bad for your health."

How does the sound camera work?

"It's a normal, visual camera, combined with a number of microphones. In this case it's 64. We have a bigger one with 1,024 microphones. It's the same type of microphone as in your smartphone, but here they work smartly together, making a picture of [the sound]. It's a bit like a heat camera, but for sound."

What potential do you see for it on the market?

"Our customers range from Philips Electronics to Bosch and DAF Trucks. But we focus on wider markets, engineering firms - small companies that have products making too much noise, and with this they can take their product five steps further by making it quieter more easily."

Muscle bound: new prosthetics

What's your innovation?

"We've developed a new prosthetic device, which you control with EMG [electromyography] signals - so you control it with your muscles," says Alexander Tödtheide, Institute of Automatic Control, Leibniz University Hanover. "If I tighten my muscles, the prosthetic device moves upward. I can switch between modes so I can open the hand, move the forearm or move the elbow joints. We've implemented other special functions like collision detection. So if the device moves in a certain direction and there's an obstacle, it [can avoid that]."

Hannover Messe 2016 robotic prosthetics control by muscle activity

Prosthetics can be expensive. How about this?

"This is a prototype, but our aim is to build a low-cost prosthetic. We've used 3D printed parts. We want this to be for everyone - we want to rapidly decrease the costs to make it affordable for everyone who needs it."

We hear stories about researchers using mind-control for such prosthetics, but you're using a device attached to your arm. Are they two separate things?

"Actually they are very closely related. It's all about information. For the prosthetic device, it doesn't matter if the information comes from the muscle or the brain. So there's a kind of transformation between the two, and it's something we are interested in."

Fashion conscious: new use for old plastic

What's your innovation?

"Our project is called 'Ocean Plastic' and our goal is to find a solution for all the plastic in the oceans - for upcycling - ways to use the plastic to make new products," says Niels Morgan Brecht of Magdeburg-Stendal University of Applied Sciences. "We have prototyped high heels. And we have other products that are already for sale - jewellry made out of this plastic, combined with silver."

How do you fish the plastic out of the ocean?

"At the moment we're not using plastic from the oceans, but because we're in Magdeburg, the river Elbe is close by. So we had a collecting event and gathered between 200 and 400 kilograms of plastic and other garbage. We cleaned and sorted the plastic, and then pressed it under heat and pressure into sheets, and using those sheets we made the jewellry."

How much would a sheet of this plastic cost?

"They are not for sale and it's hard to say how much they would cost, but perhaps 100 or 200 euros. It's still in research."

That's a lot of money for one heel.

"Yes, but some people spend even more on their heels, so to them it may be quite reasonable. Most of our customers are concerned about the environment and are looking for sustainable solutions. We market our products on Facebook and the company is called 'Ways.'"

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