Asia pioneers janitor satellites, self-driving cars and a financial service transformation

Three Asian companies were awarded places in World Economic Forum's list of Technology Pioneers, 2017.
Three Asian companies were awarded places in World Economic Forum's list of Technology Pioneers, 2017. PHOTO: WEF

Jasen Lo

In August 2016, a satellite of the European Space Agency was damaged following a collision with a millimetre sized piece of debris in orbit. Copernicus Sentinel-1A was slightly knocked off its orbital course, and suffered a small power reduction due to the damage caused to its solar panel wing. Thankfully, the satellite remains functional and continues its routine operations. However, five pieces of debris have been observed to be in the proximity of Copernicus Sentinel-1A, most likely remnants created from the original collision.

According to NASA, there are currently many millions of such pieces of debris that orbit Earth at speeds of more than 28,000 kilometres per hour. Space junk is threatening operational satellites, space stations and astronauts, and following a failed Japanese mission in February 2017, international space agencies are still scratching their heads about this rising hazard.

Singaporean based start-up Astroscale, thinks it has the answer.

In fact, Astroscale has developed a solution so innovative and original, that it has not only earned itself plenty of investor funding, but also recognition from the World Economic Forum (WEF).

One of thirty companies from around the world, Astroscale was selected as a member of the 2017 Class of Technology Pioneers, by the World Economic Forum (WEF). These Technology Pioneers are "early-stage companies from around the world that are involved in the design, development and deployment of new technologies and innovations, and are poised to have a significant impact on business and society," says the WEF.

The newly selected Technology Pioneers met at the WEF's Annual Meeting of the New Champions 2017 in Dalian, People's Republic of China. The annual meeting, also called Summer Davos, had Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Singaporean Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam in attendance.

Astroscale, the world's first space waste management company, is developing satellites that collect data on and retrieves dead satellites and other space debris from the lower orbit. These extraction satellites are launched into space, latching on to their targets before de-orbiting into the Earth's atmosphere to be burnt on re-entry. Astroscale intends to test its satellite retrieval capabilities in a launch set in the first half of 2019.

Another Singaporean start-up, the online financial service start-up Bluzelle, was also recognised as a Technology Pioneer. Using blockchain technology, which also powers virtual currencies Bitcoin and Ethereum, Bluzelle's network provides online financial services such as bank transactions and insurance.

Underbanked populations, such as foreign domestic helpers in Singapore, stand to benefit massively from Bluzelle's technology, as they would no longer require going through fee-charging intermediaries when transferring remittances back home.

Bluzelle's founder Paval Bains strongly belives that blockchain can be used for world improvement.

"Bluzelle was founded on the basis that everyone deserves a certain standard of living. Access to financial services has proven to provide those standards. We believe in altruistic behaviour and that you can do business for a good cause," Bains tells The Straits Times.

The third Asian start-up in the list of Technology Pioneers is Chinese company Horizon Robotics.

The company is currently developing Artificial Intelligence for self-driving cars, and envisions a future where self-driving cars are equipped with "brains" which will allow them to become intelligent entities capable of independent decision making.

Horizon Robotics website states that the company's Advanced Driver-Assistance System is already capable of "real-time detection and identification of pedestrians, vehicles, lanes and travel areas in both highway and urban transportation scenarios."

Although start-ups from the United States dominated this year's class of Technology Pioneers, accounting for 18 of the 30 selected start-ups, companies from innovation hotspots all around the world were recognised for their efforts.

Dutch start-up Physee develops windows that generate electricity from sunlight. Another type of smart window that Physee produces can help conserve energy by compiling data on light and temperature levels. The data can be easily assessed through a mobile app, which is used to regulate the heating and light systems of the room for maximum evergy efficiency.

French company Chronocam have created computer systems that are based on how the human eye and brain works. Machines using Chronocam systems see the world as humans do, and can autonomously navigate by efficiently processing their surroundings into data. Chronocam's bio-inspired technology will be applicable to self-driving cars, robots and drones, and security systems.

This year's cohort of Technology Pioneers also features companies from Germany, Israel and the United Kingdom as well.