A liberal interpretation of the term 'information and communication technologies' (ICT) could easily connect some of the earliest examples to Portugal. How?

a picture illustrating the story

Thanks to Portuguese technological advances in mapping and navigation, its seafarers were able to discover and later communicate (by sea) with the new network of colonies. Today, Portuguese researchers remain at the forefront of modern networking technology and a good many other ground-breaking fields, from robotics to radio and wireless developments.
The ancient universities that once nurtured these greats of astronomy and navigation remain very much intact today. Pedro Nunes was, for example, one of the first mathematics professors at the University of Coimbra, which started in 1290 in Lisbon under the name Studium Generale. Nunes pioneered the loxodrome concept - establishing that ships on a 'steady course' actually follow a spiralling route - and invented several technologies to improve measurements, including the 'nonius'.

The university joins relatively newer organisations as a lead partner in many EU-funded ICT projects under the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) for research. These include the Institute of Telecommunications in Aveiro, Institute for the Development of New Technologies in Caparica, the Association of Higher Technical Institute for Research and Development in Lisbon, University of Algarve's centre of technological research, and others.

High SME participation in EU programmes

In fact, participation in EU research programmes remains an important feature of the nation's overall (public and private) expenditure on research and development (R&D). Total funding towards the nearly 250 Portuguese partners involved in FP7-ICT projects amounts to EUR 72 million (around 1.5 % of the programme total).

SME participation in the programme is considered very high (at around 23 % of funded partners) and 60 % of the funding available to Portugal is won by organisations in the Lisbon area. The main ICT strengths in Portugal appear to be in the areas of future networks and internet, wireless, radio and cognitive systems, as well as robotics, but the portfolio is otherwise relatively balanced. The largest single recipient of funding is Portugal Telecommunication Institute, which has won nearly EUR 10 million from FP7.

According to the latest available figures, ICT's share of total 'business expenditure on R&D' (BERD) is quite high in Portugal, at around 30 %, and ICT R&D took up roughly 12 % of total public funding for R&D. In fact, public funding for research is equivalent to 1 % of GDP, the second highest level in the EU.

Portugal performs less well in broadband rollout with 21.6 % penetration of fixed broadband (well below the EU average), but the percentage of those lines performing at above 10 Mbps in Portugal is significantly above the EU average rate of 48.4 %. Similar mixed results can be found for mobile broadband.

Portugal is, however, making rapid progress in other important ICT developments. It recorded the third-largest increase in the percentage of citizens using e-government services; from 26 % in 2010 to 37 % in 2011 (although this is still below the EU27 average of 41 %). In addition, some 93 % of businesses now using online public services, well above the EU27 average of 84 %.

Pioneering spirit continues

The pioneering spirit of Portuguese scientists continues in good measure thanks to the results of several European projects in diverse fields, from energy-saving software to advanced wired and wireless networking solutions.

Researchers in the recently concluded ENPROVE project, led by the Institute for the Development of New Technologies (Uninova) in the Lisbon region, are developing a software model for more accurately predicting energy consumption in buildings. The teams' energy-auditing and prediction tools could help construction companies renovate buildings to use less energy and building management companies to improve the efficiency of their long-term contracts.

Meanwhile, researchers in the on-going LIFESAVER project are developing 'ICT building blocks' to help manufacturing companies improve operations through gains in energy efficiency. In general, companies seek to reduce production costs and, over recent decades, the share of these expenses related to energy has grown. The project aims to combine context awareness, ambient-intelligence monitoring and energy-consumption measurement in building blocks that can provide comprehensive information about energy consumption to enterprise management systems and a knowledge-based decision-support system for optimisation of energy performance.

But it is perhaps in the field of optimised networks - new solutions to deliver future internet services - that Portuguese research stands out the most. Partners in the EU-funded MONET project investigated cost- and energy-efficient solutions to boost network access in remote regions by integrating mobile wireless and satellite networks. Hybrid mobile-satellite networks such as this would pave the way for broadband services in rural or remote areas. This could generate e-business opportunities and access to health services and telemedicine where it is otherwise lacking. Other applications include better 'on-demand connectivity' for airports and aircraft, and improvements in public safety, such as emergency communications during or after disasters, as well as coastal monitoring.

Bringing the mobile and energy-saving themes together, the recently finished C2POWER project, led by the Institute of Telecommunications, investigated the use of 'cognitive radio' and cooperative strategies for power saving in multi-standard wireless devices.

'The promise of a truly mobile experience is to have the freedom to roam around anywhere and not be bound to a single location,' explains the C2POWER team, but batteries quickly run out as users keep mobile devices connected to the network over extended periods. Consumers rate operational time as the number one criteria when buying new mobile devices, according to the team. And shortened battery life is one of the main reasons why people don't use multimedia services via mobile networks more frequently - which stops the benefits of a knowledge-based economy reaching Europe's outermost regions and holds back progress towards the EU's Digital Agenda goals.

The team therefore has been developing flexible multi-standard mobile transceivers that can switch network based on power consumption criteria, as well as cooperative short-range communications strategies to allow power saving among a cluster of nearby mobile devices.

Meanwhile, the European 'Underwater acoustic network' ( UAN) project worked on a unique system of submerged, surface and aerial sensors and actuators to protect critical infrastructures, such as off-shore platforms and energy plants. UAN focused on a security-oriented underwater wireless network infrastructure which built on novel work in hydro-acoustic communication.

Portuguese scientific excellence has also played a leading role in the successful FUTON project - whose work on hybrid wireless-fibre-optic 4G networks has been covered in another ICT Feature article, 'New cellular network architecture promises mobile video and low environmental impact'.

From nets to bots

As European society ages and the costs of healthcare rise, governments are looking to scientists for efficient and safe solutions to improve care but save costs. Robotics and ICT combine very well to meet this challenge.

Two new projects ROCKIN and MONARCH, both led by the Association of Higher Technical Institute for Research and Development in Lisbon, are investigating advanced use of robotics in real-world applications. ROCKIN will set up and run yearly robotics competitions as a platform for kick-starting innovation in this important technological field. According to the team, two competition themes have been chosen for their 'societal and industrial' importance: Rockin@Home to encourage real-world designs for domestic service robots; and Rockin@Work for industrial robotics applications.

The Monarch team has also set their sights on real applications for robotics. In this case, the paediatric wing of an oncology hospital. The Monarch consortium involves three additional Portuguese partners: IdMind, which specialises in robotic solutions for scientific projects; the firm YDreams Robotics; and the Portuguese Oncology Institute of Lisbon Francisco Gentil.

Together with partners in Spain, Switzerland, Sweden and the Netherlands, Monarch will develop or optimise the systems and networked environment (cameras, sensors, tele-operations, augmented reality interfaces, etc.) needed to create a safe, 'natural' interaction between medical patients and healthcare robots. The team says it will handle uncertainties introduced by people and robots, generate natural interactions, and engage in edutainment activities in order to demonstrate its novel framework for mixed human-robot societies in the paediatric area of an oncological hospital.

Applications such as this show that Portuguese researchers continue to contribute to a new age of discovery - with real potential to improve lives.

The projects featured in this article have been supported by the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) for research.

Link to project on CORDIS:

- ENPROVE - 'Energy consumption prediction with building usage measurements for software-based decision support'
- LIFESAVER - 'Context sensitive monitoring of energy consumption to support energy savings and emissions trading in industry'
- MONET - 'Mechanisms for optimization of hybrid ad-hoc networks and satellite networks'
- C2POWER - 'Cognitive radio and cooperative strategies for power saving in multi-standard wireless devices'
- UAN - 'Underwater acoustic network'
- FUTON - 'Fibre-optic networks for distributed and extendible heterogeneous radio architectures'
- ROCKIN - 'Robot competitions kick innovation in cognitive systems and robotics'
- MONARCH - 'Multi-robot cognitive systems operating in hospitals'

Project coordinator
European Commission