2021 InnovateFPGA Contest: Creative Designers Show Us How to Tackle Sustainability

I don’t know about you, but I’m growing increasingly worried about our collective future. We hear the term “sustainability” a lot these days, but what does it actually mean? Well, one way of looking at it is that sustainability refers to the capacity for humans and the Earth’s biosphere to co-exist. In Our Common Future, also known as the Brundtland Report, which was published by the United Nations in October 1987, sustainability was somewhat poignantly defined as “…meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.”

Our ability to achieve sustainability is challenged by population growth and inefficient use of available resources. In recognition of this, the theme for the InnovateFPGA Design Contest 2021-22—launched by Terasic, working with Intel, Analog Devices Inc. (ADI), and Microsoft—is “Connecting the Edge for a Sustainable Future (Applying Technology to Address Global Challenges).”

The goal of the competition is to inspire and create sustainable solutions that reduce our environmental impact. Let’s take a look at some of the ideas: they are sure to get you thinking about what you can do.

The battle of population versus resources

One of the things that negatively affects sustainability is the number of people on the planet. Consider the famous Pyramids of Giza, for example, which were built from around 2550 to 2490 B.C. That’s only about 4,500 years ago as I pen these words. In those days of yore, there were only around 20 million people on the planet. By comparison, at the time of this writing, there are estimated to be 7.9 billion of us, and this number is predicted to rise to 8.5 billion by 20301, 9.2 billion by 20402, and almost 10 billion by 20503.

On the upside, one of the things that can positively affect sustainability is our ability to conceive and implement social and technological solutions to our problems.

I love science fiction and science fantasy. As a young lad in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I remember reading the 1952 science fiction novel The Rolling Stones (also published under the name Space Family Stone in the UK) by American science fiction author, aeronautical engineer, and naval officer Robert Anson Heinlein. In this tale, the Stone family, who are residents of the Moon, purchase and rebuild a used spaceship and go on a sightseeing tour around the solar system. As part of this, they visit the asteroid belt where the equivalent of the California Gold Rush (1848-1855) is in progress, with asteroid miners prospecting for various materials, including radioactive ores.

Although this may still seem to be the stuff of science fiction to many people, it’s interesting to note that, as recently as 2017, the Colorado School of Mines launched a multi-disciplinary graduate program offering Post-Baccalaureate Certificate, Master of Science, and Ph.D. degrees in asteroid mining (they call it “Space Resources,” but they aren’t fooling anyone—we know what they mean).

The problem is that Earth is a closed system. There is a limited amount of material available. What we have today is what we are going to have tomorrow and the day after. Even though there’s serious talk of mining raw materials (e.g., iron, nickel, iridium, palladium, platinum, gold, magnesium, and—possibly—water) from the Moon, near-Earth objects, and asteroids, actually doing it is estimated to be at least 20 years in the future. Even when this does come to pass, the cost in terms of energy, time, and resources to return these materials to the Earth means that their quantities will be minuscule in the scheme of things for many years to come. The bottom line is that we can’t expect to receive significant quantities of additional raw materials in the foreseeable future, so it behooves us to make the best use of what we’ve got.

Turning the tide: The InnovateFPGA Design Contest 2021-22

Inspired by the issues and needs identified by organizations like the Global Environment Facility (GEF) Small Grants Program, which is implemented by the United Nations Development Fund (UNDF), all of the above leads us to the InnovateFPGA Design Contest (Figure 1).

2021 InnovateFPGA Contest: Creative Designers Show Us How to Tackle SustainabilityFigure 1: One of the things that can positively affect sustainability is our ability to conceive and implement social and technological solutions to our problems. (Image source: Digi-Key Electronics)

Rising to the sustainability challenge, Terasic, Intel, ADI, and Microsoft launched the current InnovateFPGA Design Contest 2021-22, which emphasizes the intelligent use of FPGAs at the edge toward reducing demand on the Earth’s resources.

FPGAs are particularly useful for this application as they are both flexible and reconfigurable. Also, many of the designs in this contest are based on the use of sophisticated algorithms such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine vision (MV), which require vast amounts of computation. An FPGA’s programmable fabric can be configured to implement operations in a massively parallel fashion, thereby allowing them to perform compute-intensive algorithms locally in real-time while consuming relatively little power.

Contestants were invited to register as teams consisting of one to three people located within the same geographic area. These teams were invited to utilize a P0685 DE10-Nano FPGA Cloud Connectivity Kit from Terasic, which is based on the combination of the extremely popular P0496 DE10-Nano Kit and a P0499 RFS daughter card (Figure 2).

The DE10 Nano is based on an Intel Cyclone V SE FPGA augmented by 1 gigabyte (Gbyte) of DDR3 SDRAM, an Arduino Expansion Header (Uno R3 Compatible), full HD HDMI output, UART-to-USB, a USB On-the-Go (OTG) port, a Micro SD card socket, Gigabit Ethernet, and GPIO headers. The Cyclone V system-on-chip (SoC) FPGA features the combination of programmable fabric (110,000 logic elements (LEs)) and dual 32-bit Arm® Cortex®-A9 processor cores.

2021 InnovateFPGA Contest: Creative Designers Show Us How to Tackle SustainabilityFigure 2: The FPGA Cloud Connectivity Kit combines the rich features and versatility of an Intel Cyclone V SoC FPGA with the benefits of cloud connectivity. Additional sensors can be connected by means of the Arduino compatible headers or the ADI QuikEval Header. (Image source: Terasic)

Meanwhile, the RFS daughter card adds Wi-Fi and Bluetooth communication, as well as a wide range of sensors such as a nine-axis accelerometer, gyroscope, and magnetometer, along with ambient light, temperature, and humidity sensors.

Of course, as powerful as it is, the DE10-Nano FPGA Cloud Connectivity Kit is of limited use on its own. “No man is an island,” as the English poet John Donne famously wrote in the 17th century, meaning that no one is truly self-sufficient, and everyone must rely on the company and comfort of others in order to thrive. In this case, the DE10-Nano FPGA Cloud Connectivity Kit may need to be augmented by additional sensors; also, it may need to communicate with the cloud.

Thus, to support the InnovateFPGA Design Contest 2021-22, these kits will be provided to selected participating teams at no cost, along with a small quantity of plug-in cards from Analog Devices, and credits/limited-time access to Microsoft’s Azure Cloud Services.

Analog Devices has an extensive portfolio of Evaluation Boards and Reference Designs to help solve developers’ system-level application challenges. Examples are the EVAL-CN0398-ARDZ (soil moisture, pH, and temperature measurement), the EVAL-CN0397-ARDZ (three-channel light detection for smart agriculture), and the DC1338B (I²C temperature, current, and voltage monitor). These boards can be connected to the DE10 Nano by means of its Arduino-compatible headers or its ADI QuikEval Header.

The shape of sustainability: A sampling of the 261 project entries

Of course, I couldn’t resist taking a stroll through the wealth of project submissions. We are talking about 261 projects that span a tremendous range of application areas, so if you decide to take a look for yourself, you may wish to equip yourself with something to drink and pack a snack because you are going to be happily engaged for quite some time.

Coral reef recovery and automated trash collection: Example projects that immediately caught my eye were EM043, which proposes an underwater deep-learning, intelligent microbial delivery system for coral reef habitat recovery (Figure 3), and AS034, a smart trash can that will be able to identify and classify objects to determine what can and cannot be recycled.

2021 InnovateFPGA Contest: Creative Designers Show Us How to Tackle SustainabilityFigure 3: Project EM043 is a coral reef habitat recovery system that will be able to deliver coral probiotics and monitor their efficacy. The delivery will be precisely regulated by a deep learning network that monitors the color changes of the corals. (Image source: InnovateFPGA)

Project EM043 focuses on reversing the bleaching of coral reefs caused by changes in temperature that result in the reefs expelling the algae living in its tissues. It’s the algae that not only provides the coloration, but also enables the coral to perform the photosynthesis necessary to keep it alive and sustain the ecosystem.

There are various beneficial microorganisms for corals (BMCs) that can slow, or even stop the bleaching process, but which ones and the right mix need to be determined through lengthy prototyping and testing at the edge. Project EM043 combines the Cloud Connectivity Kit with a mobile 4G router, solar panel, camera, temperature sensor, a level sensor, and deep-learning algorithms to perform the analysis, and regulate BMC delivery using a specialized module (Figure 4).

2021 InnovateFPGA Contest: Creative Designers Show Us How to Tackle SustainabilityFigure 4: Project EM043 combines deep-learning analysis with sensors, solar power, a 4G router, and a BMC delivery mechanism, with the DE10 as the central processing platform. (Image source: InnovateFPGA)

The Microsoft Azure cloud is connected using the 4G router, and to remotely control the delivery system and visually monitor the coral conditions.

The system, as proposed, makes it possible for marine researchers to conduct precise and reliable monitoring experiments on the efficacy of BMCs in reducing the bleaching effect, thus contributing to a significant impact on restoring a coral reef ecosystem.

Organic CO2 removal: Another project that I like for its simplicity and scalability is EM003. This features a special houseplant called the prayer plant (maranta leuconeura), which is a low-growing tropical plant native to South America. Different studies and experiments have proved this plant’s ability to absorb greenhouse gases very efficiently in comparison to similar indoor plants. In fact, the project’s creators note that just one of these plants can decrease the amount of CO2 in a single room by 14.40% over a 24-hour period.

The idea behind this project is to coerce prayer plants to absorb the maximum amount of CO2 possible. This will be achieved by recording sensory data (temperature, humidity, ambient light, soil moisture) in the cloud, experimenting with the irrigation cycle, and analyzing the results. The eventual goal is to have millions of people using these plants and to gather and analyze data from as many as possible. In addition to the DE10-Nano FPGA Cloud Connectivity Kit, this project employs a soil moisture sensor and a water pump with a DC actuator (Figure 5).

2021 InnovateFPGA Contest: Creative Designers Show Us How to Tackle SustainabilityFigure 5: In project EM003, all of the sensory data is pre-processed by the FPGA, which also controls the plant’s irrigation cycle; the processed data is then sent to the cloud to be combined with data from other plants to be analyzed. (Image source: (InnovateFPGA)

Drone for agricultural water stress analysis: I don’t know about you, but I’m a sucker for anything to do with drones, so another project that demanded investigation was AP008, which features a drone called an “Agri-Bird” that helps detect water stress in agricultural settings (Figure 6). This team is based in Islamabad, Pakistan.

According to the team, agriculture uses approximately 90% of Pakistan’s water supply. If things continue on their current path, the country’s water resources could be exhausted by 2040. To avoid this and provide solutions for the average farmer, project AP008 proposes to use the combination of meteorological data, data from sensors on the ground, and aerial data gathered by a drone to create a water stress prediction model.

2021 InnovateFPGA Contest: Creative Designers Show Us How to Tackle SustainabilityFigure 6: Using data gathered from a drone in conjunction with data from other sources, the resulting water stress model can be used to prevent (a) loss of produce due to water deficit, (b) loss of soil nutrients due to excessive watering, (c) poor regulation of irrigation, and (d) wildfires. (Image source: InnovateFPGA)

Getting rid of plastic waste: I could go on, but one final project that is of personal interest to me is AP080, which involves a small smart robot that travels through the city streets spotting and gathering waste plastic products for recycling. This one really hits home because I see plastic waste wherever I go these days (Figure 7).

2021 InnovateFPGA Contest: Creative Designers Show Us How to Tackle SustainabilityFigure 7: It won’t have to be like this if project AP080 brings its smart robot to life. While this project is initially geared toward city streets, it—or other such projects—may eventually be capable of alleviating the scourge of plastic waste. (Image source: The Nature Conservatory)

When I was a kid and my parents took me on vacation, after a day on the beach our family rule was to leave everything cleaner than we found it. This involved us gathering not only our own litter, but also any other rubbish we could see in the vicinity. I cringe when I see people casually discarding rubbish by dropping it as they walk or throwing it out of their car windows. It’s going to be hard to persuade that sort of person to stop, but their behavior would be mitigated if we had robots like the ones proposed by this project, cleaning up behind them.

The scary thing is that, as interesting and diverse as the example projects presented here are, we haven’t even scratched the surface of all the possibilities presented by the submissions to this contest. Just scanning through the projects at a high level had me constantly exclaiming “Ooh, Shiny!”, and pausing to take a deeper dive. In fact, I’m going back in for another swim just as soon as I’ve finished writing this column.


All of the entries to the InnovateFPGA Design Contest 2021-22 are in. The teams are now working furiously on their projects with their sights set on the Regional Finals, which will take place in March 2022, and the Grand Final, which is scheduled for June 2022. I don’t know about you, but I for one cannot wait to see the results of this timely and thought-provoking challenge.