Digitisation is spreading throughout our daily lives and is changing the world. The ETH Domain’s objective is to advance the development to best benefit the Swiss economy and society – from efficient environmental monitoring to new manufacturing technology, as well as to an improved Internet and to the protection of medical data.

Digital Day 2017 on the EPFL campus. (Photos: Murielle Gerber/EPFL)

Crossing the street in Fehraltorf, you would never know that there is a constant stream of data being recorded and transmitted up underfoot. The water level in the drainage canals, which run under three quarters of all the city’s streets, is detected by sensors in that community in the canton of Zurich. The ultrasound level sensors under the manhole covers transmit the measured values wirelessly to a base station at five-minute intervals; the base station, in turn, forwards the data to an Internet server.

The sensors in the sewage system are part of a unique field experiment led by environmental engineer, Frank Blumensaat at Eawag. “Digitisation creates previously untold possibilities,” explains the urban water management specialist, who is also a lecturer at ETH Zurich. “Data can increasingly be recorded and transmitted in a resource-efficient manner using geographically distributed sensors.” An innovative aspect of the work in Fehraltorf is the combination of robust and energy-efficient sensors and data transmission from underground via low-power wireless technology or LPWAN, which is short for the Low Power Wide Area Network of the Internet of Things (IoT). The Eawag researchers are seeking to capture the district water regime with a hitherto unknown degree of accuracy.

Their aim is to find out more information about drainage in areas that are not readily accessible and to use these findings in a meaningful way, for instance to give early warnings of floods in the event of heavy rain or of contamination. The network of sensors can also be used to find out how much sewage is discharged into streams, rivers and lakes and how this pollution can be minimised. The project will also provide training for students who, as the engineers of tomorrow, will bring that new expertise into planning offices.

Digital Day 2017 on the EPFL campus: A participant proudly demonstrates how she can draw with a drawing app that she programmed herself on a smartphone in the workshop.

«We have had good feedback from practice»

Digitisation has also long since been used in forestry, more recently in tackling the bark beetle. If the forest ranger wishes to know what the situation is with pests in his area, he can go to the website of the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research WSL to call up information about current developments with the bark beetle. “The information is based on a computer simulation for all of Switzerland,” explains Beat Wermelinger, Head of the Forest Entomology Research Group at WSL. The daily temperature data is supplied by MeteoSchweiz for a high resolution 2x2 kilometre grid.

“Temperature is the most important factor in insect development,” explains the specialist. Based on the temperature totals, researchers can determine when hatching will end in the bark of the spruce trees and the beetles will emerge. “Our model shows the daily development status of a population depending on altitude and exposure and how the emergence of the beetles is spread over time.” In order to tackle the problem, trees affected have to be felled while the insects are still in the trunks because a single spruce can be home to up to 50,000 beetles. “Traps that catch a few thousand of the insects are not much help,” explains the expert.

However, he does stress that the bark beetles play an ecological role; as pioneer settlers, they return freshly dead trees to the resource cycle. That said, with dry periods becoming more frequent due to climate change and there being a possible rise in serious storms, the bark beetles are able to settle in so many living trees in a weakened state that the insects have to be tackled. WSL has a website to provide assistance in this issue: www.borkenkaefer.ch. “We have had good feedback from practice,” says Wermelinger.

«Networking is the new thing»

Digitisation is making environmental monitoring more efficient and with it, the economy will be in robust shape for the future. “Our production processes have to get in shape for industry 4.0,” says Pierangelo Gröning, member of the Directorate of Empa. One type of production technology excellently suited to this is 3-D printing. Controlled by computer, this booming process enables bespoke single pieces to be manufactured without any human intervention in the manufacturing process. In this so-called additive production process, there are wider design possibilities than in conventional processes, and the design can be adapted optimally to the function of the piece.

Digital Day 2017 on the EPFL campus.

It poses a special challenge to materials scientists. “In 3-D printing, you do not only manufacture a product, you also synthesise the material from which the part is made at the same time,” explains Gröning, who is coordinating the research on the topic of Advanced Manufacturing. Materials researchers at Empa are developing special metal alloys which are ideal for 3-D printing. It is worth noting, that the liquid material cools in fractions of seconds, whereas this takes much longer with the conventional casting process. “The new processes enable us to manufacture materials which would otherwise be impossible to melt metallurgically,” explains the expert. “This represents a type of renaissance in industrial production for material science.”

As the end product cannot be tested as it is a unique item, it requires a new system of quality management – process technology that, together with the product, delivers a data record which confirms that the piece conforms to specifications. “This is an opportunity for countries where quality is of the essence, as in Switzerland,” says the materials scientist. However, the new production processes are complicated and require many process steps. Sensors deliver huge volumes of data which the computer has to process in real time in order to facilitate immediate intervention. For this purpose, everything must be networked. “Increasing networking is the new thing,” says Gröning. Digitisation as such has existed since back in the 1960s.

«The mountain of data is growing massively»

“Digitisation is probably more advanced here with us than it is in most Swiss companies,” explains Gabriel Aeppli, Head of the Synchrotron Radiation and Nanotechnology Research Division at the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI). An ever increasing volume of data is generated during the experiments on the large-scale research facilities. Aeppli explains that “in the time that it takes us to collect terabytes at present, we will be able to collect petabytes, i.e. a thousand times more, with the machines of the future.” He anticipates that by 2022 the PSI will be gathering as much data in one day as the CERN particle research centre currently gathers in a whole year. “The mountain of data is growing massively,” explains the physicist.

Current technology does not allow this information to be made accessible within a useful period of time. In order to compress, process and save the data, the specialists at the PSI have to develop new hardware and software platforms. The solutions which are being developed at the PSI will also be made available to Swiss industry. Digitisation repeatedly leads to spin-off companies, such as Dectris which develops pixel detectors which produce large volumes of data, or leadXpro which is looking for new active ingredient molecules for drugs – an undertaking based on particularly intensive data processing.

“The same problems will still have to be solved in a factory; it is just that our systems will be rather more complicated,” he explains. “We have the people who can design, organise and operate these systems. Consequently, the ETH Domain not only offers academic excellence, it also offers practical know-how.”

Aeppli also feels that the “Internet of Things” offers Switzerland a great opportunity. “We intend to incorporate Industry 4.0 in the forthcoming refurbishment of the Swiss Light Source,” explains the Head of the large-scale research facility. The individual components will no longer be wired by hand, but rather via Wi-Fi. Industry also stands to benefit from the experience of the engineers at the PSI. “The same problems will still have to be solved in a factory; it is just that our systems will be rather more complicated,” he explains. “We have the people who can design, organise and operate these systems. Consequently, the ETH Domain not only offers academic excellence, it also offers practical know-how.”

«Tailor-made Internet»

Our present-day Internet connects billions of devices around the world which are exposed to immense risks; attacks are lurking from all sides because the technologies used are no longer up to meeting the requirements of an increasingly networked world. It is only a matter of time until the Internet collapses in its present form, until critical infrastructures become uncontrollable, until personal data gets into the wrong hands on a major scale, and until we finally wish we had an Internet tailor-made for the 21st century. Is there such thing as a really secure Internet? The SCION Internet architecture developed at ETH Zurich is the first completely redesigned architecture for the worldwide networking of devices that can easily withstand today’s overload attacks (DDoS) and also meet all requirements of the IoT regarding security and availability of communication.

Digital Day 2017 on the EPFL campus.

A number of companies are already testing SCION, including Swisscom and a branch of a major Swiss bank which has only been communicating with the data centre via SCION since August 2017. “To the best of our knowledge, SCION is the first newly proposed Internet architecture to go into productive use,” explains Adrian Perrig, Professor and Head of the Institute of Information Security at ETH Zurich. His concept is based on what are known as isolated domains, i.e. regionally independent conglomerations consisting of multiple autonomic networks, which have been unified into a joint set of regulations. Large corporations as well as countries can create an isolated domain and set themselves apart in that manner. The ETH researcher explains that it “enables them to protect themselves against external faults and attacks.” “Astonishingly, routing and forwarding in SCION is even more efficient than it is in the current Internet, despite the enhanced security features.” For example, the routes which the data packets travel from the transmitter to the receiver are defined in advance, which makes it impossible for the data to be diverted.

What is important for the application is that SCION barely requires any new infrastructure. “It only requires a few SCION routers at the edges of the network; the internal connections remain,” explains Perrig. “In other words, we need the same roads but are travelling in different cars.” The software for the new, more reliable Internet is available as open source software. “Our aim is for SCION to go into use worldwide,” says the researcher, explaining why they have decided not to apply for a patent, which could scare off possible users. However, he has founded a spin-off company together with Prof. David Basin and Prof. Peter Müller which is intended to support users.

«DNA data is not a toy»

A secure network is especially important when it comes to exchanging sensitive personal data. “Genomics will become the next big challenge for the protection of privacy” Jean-Pierre Hubaux, Professor at the Faculty of Information Technology and Communication Systems at EPFL, has revealed. He was involved in data protection in mobile networks when two geneticists confronted him with the opinion that “there are more important things to do!” six years ago. They bemoaned the fact that even though DNA sequencing is largely on the increase, there is virtually nobody seeing to the protection of this sensitive data. Hubaux, who had studied information technology, took on this challenge, brushed up on genetics and and is now one of the world’s leading experts in the protection of genetic data.

Hubaux is managing a project within the scope of the ETH Domain’s initiative on “Personalized Health and Related Technologies” which is intended to ensure data protection when patients’ details are exchanged between hospitals and research institutions, as envisaged by the Federal Government’s “Swiss Personalized Health Network” (SPHN) initiative. “We have already developed some software packages,” explains the project manager. The experts now have to test how to integrate the solutions into the hospital environment. “We have a geneticist in our consortium to guarantee that our work can be used. In addition, I communicate frequently with the IT specialists in the hospital. That is an exciting dialogue.”

The exchange of patients’ genetic data will facilitate personalised cancer treatment, in particular. With an understanding of the DNA mutations which are linked to certain types of tumours and with knowledge of which type of treatment has been the most successful in each case, this experience can be applied on a targeted basis in the treatment of new patients. However, the genetic data is particularly sensitive as it can be used to unambiguously identify a person. Since relatives share similar genetic material, a person’s own DNA may also reveal information about family members. “DNA data is not a toy,” Hubaux warns. “It contains information about serious illnesses. We are talking about life and death.”