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Focus on transfer

The Sustainability Center launched by the University and five Fraunhofer Institutes in Freiburg goes into the second round of funding

Freiburg, Mar 18, 2019

The University of Freiburg and the five Freiburg Fraunhofer Institutes jointly established the Sustainability Center in 2015. In the second funding phase running since January 2019, the Center will be seeking to strengthen its second pillar after basic research – application-oriented research. A “kickoff meeting” on 28 March 2019 will detail the planned activities.

The Faculty of Engineering campus is the central future location of University of Freiburg building projects – in several years, a new building here will be home to the Institute of Sustainable Technical Systems, the engineering heart of the Sustainability Center. Photo: Jürgen Gocke

Finding escape routes after an earthquake, detecting cracks in bridges, identifying trees under attack by bark-beetles, measuring amounts of snow and calculating the resulting flood risk - remote sensing makes it possible to gather data so as to recognize dangers early and to better deal with disasters as they happen. “It is becoming ever more important to observe the environment in order to be able to act against negative changes,” says Barbara Koch, Professor of Remote Sensing and Landscape Information Systems at the University of Freiburg’s Institute of Forest Sciences. But the use of planes fitted with cameras and laser scanners is difficult and expensive. A research team in Freiburg is therefore developing an efficient, fast, and cost-effective alternative.  “The aim is a sensor system which is so small and light that it will fit onto an unmanned aerial vehicle,” says Professor Dr. Alexander Reiterer, head of Object and Shape Detection at the Fraunhofer Institute for Physical Measurement Techniques (IPM) and Professor of Monitoring of Large-Scale Structures at the Institute of Sustainable Technical Systems (INATECH) at the University of Freiburg.  The joint project is part of the Sustainability Center, which goes into its second round of funding with a kickoff meeting in March 2019.

Excellent basic research

The University of Freiburg and the five Freiburg Fraunhofer Institutes jointly established the Sustainability Center in 2015. It pools the skills of all the partners in four research fields - materials, energy systems, resilience and environmental and social transformation. The coordinators are Professor Dr. Stefan Hiermaier, director of INATECH and of the Fraunhofer Institute for High-Speed Dynamics, Ernst-Mach-Institut, (EMI), and Professor Dr. Gunther Neuhaus, Vice-President for Research and Innovation at the University of Freiburg. “The university and Fraunhofer had individual joint projects before 2015, but they tended to be coincidental. Now we are working together strategically,” Hiermaier says. In the first funding phase to the end of 2018, twelve pilot projects, each headed by one researcher from the university and one from a Fraunhofer Institute, have addressed issues in basic research. “That enabled us to build up scientific excellence and to establish ourselves as an actor in sustainability research across Germany.”

MulDiScan, Koch and Reiterer’s first joint project, was one such pilot project. “First of all we aimed to show that our idea is fundamentally workable, and to test various sensor and camera systems in order to map man-made and natural objects as precisely as possible,” Reiterer explains.  “But we had such a great team that we made headway much faster than we had originally expected.” The roles in the project were clear. Reiterer’s group constructed the reduced-size system; Koch’s group defined the requirements from the user’s perspective and processed the data obtained. The result was a system comprising a laser scanner and two cameras pointing downward and which take linear measurements at an angle of 90 degrees from each other. That means if the aerial vehicle is flying 80 meters above a plane, the area measured is a strip 160 meters wide. A landscape can thus be measured by flying back and forth across it. For every pixel the camera records, the laser scanner measures the distance. So the landscape can be reconstructed precisely and in color, Reiterer explains. “The digital model looks like a 3D landscape in a computer game.”

Lasers and cameras for unmanned flight: A team from the Faculty of Environment and Natural Resources and the Fraunhofer Institute for Physical Measurement Techniques are developing a new system enabling fast, efficient and cost-effective remote sensing. Photos: Fraunhofer IPM

Practical applications

In the second funding phase to the end of 2020, the Center will be seeking to strengthen its second pillar after basic research - application-oriented research. The focus is on five transfer paths - industrial projects, patents, transfer via people, startups and advanced training. “Demonstrator projects,” as they are called, play a central role. “In basic research, a proof of concept is needed to show whether an idea is workable - regardless of whether the result is commercially viable or not. Now projects are following which will culminate in a demonstrator which can go into production,” Professor Neuhaus explains. Eight such projects have been up and running since January 2019. They are meant to help industry organize the most sustainable developmental phases possible - covering issues like environmentally-friendly and health-promoting LED lighting in the workplace, long-lasting wear-and-tear elements in industrial production, and recyclable composites which can be made on a 3D printer.

Koch and Reiterer are continuing their collaboration in the SwInG demonstrator project. “We can get going with very well-developed hardware and fly regularly,” Reiterer says. Now the aim is to refine their calculations. One major challenge is how to more precisely determine the position of the sensors during flight, thereby creating an even more exact digital model of the landscape. Another is to further improve the programs with process the data automatically. The project’s marketability is not in doubt. Three systems have been sold already and their new commercial owners have put them to use. This example shows how the strategic alliance between the university and Fraunhofer institutes can provide impetus to research, which can lead to successful transfer. “We carried out our first talks and launched the joint project application via the Sustainability Center,” Reiterer confirms. The teamwork across subject boundaries was the foundation for the innovations to date, Koch stresses. “We could not have implemented a project like this via the faculty alone.”   

Long-term perspectives

The Sustainability Center is a cornerstone of the university’s overarching strategy, which aims to reinforce collaboration between researchers inside and outside the university and with business and the wider society under the motto “Connecting Creative Minds.” “For me it is one of our key strategies which makes us a model across Germany for cooperation between a university and a non-university research institution,” Neuhaus says. The Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft gave the Center a positive evaluation in January 2018. The goal is now to develop it into a viable legal entity by the end of 2020 - and thereby to lay the groundwork for long-term funding by the Federal and State Governments.

Nicolas Scherger


Kickoff at the Kreativpark

The Sustainability Center is holding an information session on 28 March 2019 at 3:30pm at a “kickoff meeting” at the Kreativpark Lokhalle Freiburg. The session will detail the Center’s planned activities during the second funding phase – particularly the research and development plans for the “demonstrator projects.” Along with the researchers involved, representatives of the state science and business ministries, the city of Freiburg, the Fraunhofer Gesellschaft, the university executive, and regional business will attend. All welcome.