Monday, 23 September 2019

VIDEO: Scientist With Croatian Roots Creates ''Flying Fish'' Robot

As Goran Jungvirth/Poslovni Dnevnik writes on the 22nd of September, 2019, Mirko Kovač, a team leader for scientists and director of the Aerial Robotics Laboratory at the Imperial College London, has achieved yet another great success by creating a new type of biology-inspired robot. This scientist with Croatian roots has thus created a very unusual invention indeed.

The unusual robot uses water to generate gas and as such, launch from the water's surface. After takeoff, it can travel 26 metres through the air and could be used to collect water samples in hazardous and inaccessible areas, such as during floods and to control the pollution of the world's oceans, seas and rivers.

Robots that can transition from water to air are desirable in situations such as the above-mentioned scenario, but when it comes to really making them move, it takes a lot of power, which is much more difficult to achieve for small robots.

Now, researchers at the Imperial College London have, under Kovač's direction, invented a system that requires only 0.2 grams of calcium carbide powder in a combustion chamber. The only moving part is a small pump that brings in water from the surrounding environment, such as a lake, river or, ocean. The collected water and the calcium carbide powder are then combined in the reaction chamber, creating a flammable acetylene gas. As the gas ignites and expands, it displaces the water like a jet, which pushes the robot out of the water and gives it energy to fly up to 26 metres.

"The water-to-air transition is a process that requires a lot of energy, and this is difficult to achieve with small vehicles that need to be light when they're in flight. We used water-responsive chemicals to reduce the materials the robot needed to carry. Because the chamber is filled passively and the water from the environment acts as a piston, we can create a full combustion cycle with only one moving part, which is a pump that mixes water and fuel," Mirko Kovač, a robotics researcher with Croatian roots who has researched robots at prestigious universities such as Harvard and Berkeley, told Poslovni Dnevnik.

The robot, weighing a mere 160 grams can "jump" multiple times after filling up its water tank. This can allow it to hover over water and take samples in multiple locations without needing to use additional power, thus successfully saving energy over greater distances compared to an electrically driven robot.

Today, a team of experts led by Dr. Kovač work with their partners in Switzerland to build new vehicles using advanced materials, and field trials of robots in a variety of environments are underway, including monitoring the ocean around coral reefs and coastal energy platforms.

Mirko Kovač is, as mentioned, a Swiss of Croatian roots, and this year Poslovni Dnevnik interviewed him to discuss the potential of robotics development here in Croatia. He then participated in the international DroneDays conference held at the Faculty of Electronics and Computing in the City of Zagreb.

The new Swiss Centre was created in collaboration with the London Laboratory, which Kovač included in collaboration with the FER Laboratory for Robotics and Intelligent Control Systems.

Because of this collaboration, which has been going on for several years now, the Zagreb and London laboratories were awarded the AeRo Twin project from the EU's Horizon 2020 EU research and innovation program, pushing them rightfully to the very top in the fast paced and ever advancing world of robotics.

Various lectures will be organised, as well as an exchange of scientists, and roboticists from Croatia will be staying in London to see what they can do in a similar sense in Zagreb.

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Friday, 29 March 2019

Mirko Kovač Discusses Robotics Possibilities in Croatia

Mirko Kovač, a Swiss scientist and roboticist discusses the situation and the possibilities of developing robotics and this type of technology in the Republic of Croatia.

As Goran Jungvirth/Poslovni Dnevnik writes on the 28th of March, 2019, at the international DroneDays conference, which was held this week for the first time at the Zagreb Faculty of Electronics and Computing (FER), Poslovni Dnevnik spoke with Swiss scientist Dr Mirko Kovač, head of the Air Robotics Laboratory at London's Imperial College, as well as the newly established Swiss Robotic Centre for Materials and Technology.

This centre was created in conjunction with the London Laboratory, which Kovač also included in collaboration with FER's Robotics and Intelligent Management Systems (LARICS). Due to this co-operation that has been going on for several years, the Zagreb and London labs have received (EU Obzor 2020) the AeRo Twin project (Twinning co-ordination action for spreading excellence in Aerial Robotics).

How did this important co-operation happen?

I met Croatian robot-makers from FER about five years ago when I had a lecture in Dubrovnik. They're working on some good projects, interesting ones. They're part of a robotics society, a global community. Together we applied and received the European project AeRo Twin (Twinning co-ordination action for spreading excellence in Aerial Robotics).

What will that project enable?

The project aims to convey the knowledge of various groups in Europe. It's actually networking with leading robot scientists to share their knowledge and experience on flying robots and in that way, reach the top of the world's robotics. Within the project, various lectures will be organised as well as the exchange of scientists. I can hardly wait for the roboticists from Croatia to come to London to see what can be done in Zagreb. There will be plenty of practical work, not just theory. I'm very happy to cooperate with Croatian scientists and to keep track of what's happening in robotics in Croatia.

Why is Croatia so dear to you?

Well, I feel close to Croatia. My parents come from Croatia, I have many relatives there, so it's not just about the scientific dimension and interest, but also about the culture of the country that attracts me and the feelings I have for Croatian people. It's nice to be here, to come to where my parents come from and communicate with people whose mentality I like very much.

The Swiss have just built a Robotics Centre within the Federal Laboratory for Materials Science and Technology because of you. What's going on there?

I'm glad that such a research centre has been set up with the aim of [undertaking] the futuristic research of flying robots to work in the buildings of the future. Here, we look at the symbiosis of such robots with people living in a certain space, to develop the robustness of the robots and materials that will increase their functionality and reduce any danger for people. The London lab provides knowledge of robotics, and the Swiss centre, the knowledge of suitable materials.

You haven't forgotten Croatia either, and the mentioned Aerial Robotics project - AeRo Twin opens up opportunities for the development of modern robotics in Croatia...

Yes, the project coordinators are prof. dr. sc. Stjepan Bogdan and Mag. ing. Ivana Mikolić. It's an important project for the future of robotics in Croatia, because, as I've already mentioned, it will enable the exchange of knowledge on flying robots and the mutual practical cooperation on the development of technology.

Is there any potential for developing a robotics centre in Croatia?

Of course there's potential. I think that will be more and more important for Croatia, how digitisation and robotics are being developed, and the strategies for its implementation. Robotics are the essence of this, and will become even more important in the development of artificial intelligence. Robotics can help everyone, and I think that there's great potential for this as far as Croatia is concerned.

When you say potential, do you mean human potential?

Yes, for example, FER has some very good students and has great potential to become a contemporary partner with other science centres in Europe. I'm mostly thinking of human and scientific potential, but there is also the [potential] of the country itself. Projects are growing in the EU and the situation for robotics is gaining traction. But infrastructure is still developing and that's where the chance for Croatia lies. Because Croatia has the sea, there is an opportunity for testing underwater robotics in various economic activities. It has a variety of nature and different terrain, a variety of topologies that can help develop robotic applications. Croatia has a lot of potential.

You were a robotics researcher at the world's most powerful universities, such as Harvard and Berkeley, while you got your doctorate at the Swiss Institute in Lausanne. How hard is it today to educate a robotics scientist, since everything is developing so quickly? You've been talking at Drone Days about the third wave of robotics in the economy. How does one track those standards and reach the top?

You need to be world-oriented for robotics. Yes, it's hard to keep track of it all because it involves the need to know about interdisciplinary science when it comes to robotics. There are many different concepts. Control engineering, algorithms for audiovisual processing, design, mechanics, material science, biology... all of these parts are very demanding even for themselves and it's very difficult to understand them in detail. Scientific collaboration is therefore very important for the development of robotics, because robotics integrates all of that knowledge.

So, a scientist in robotics must develop independently and specialise in certain knowledge, and then collaborate in teams with colleagues from other scientific disciplines?

Yes, that's a multidisciplinary area and collaboration is very important. Robotics is, by its very nature, collaborative, different teams perform different experiments, and then they share their results. That's why the aforementioned European project is important for Croatian robotics as FER scientists will be exchanged in London where they will collaborate with different teams.

How is your new Swiss NEST project progressing?

We're developing our team, it's essential to have cooperation and partnership with other groups from around the world. The biggest challenge is to find solutions for the integration of new materials. The materials are very important. We have a lot to do with the design of flying robots and the development of new autonomous concepts.

Since you live and work in London, what's your comment on Brexit? Will it complicate the co-operation you emphasise as crucial for robotics development for scientists?

There's a fear in the community that Britain will find it very difficult to handle Brexit. Science will suffer for this. The consequences are already apparent, but it's a relief that the top scientists are independent. All the partnerships I've been involved in are independent. British scientists will have to fight to remain involved in EU projects, not to stay isolated. This is a very dangerous situation, but it's good that Britain is investing heavily in the development of science and technology, such as robotics, digitisation and artificial intelligence. There are a lot of possibilities in the UK, but we will have to work hard to keep hold of the UK's cooperation with the rest of Europe.

Are you talking to Croatian scientists about the problems they face in Croatia?

Yes, we're talking...

And what do they complain the most about, what's the most problematic thing for the development of science and technology in Croatia?

I don't have a great deal to say about that, you'll have to ask them. I don't work here, so I don't have any of my own experiences on it.

What's the most important thing in your eyes for the future of robotics?

Multidisciplinarity is the most important thing. One can not think of just one area, but rather how to integrate various aspects of science and apply them to robotics. For example, for the development of my robot grasshopper - with which I earned my doctorate - I needed knowledge from biology and biomechanics. For robotics, everything is important and there's a lot of potential for all other branches of science to contribute to it. Robotics will become very important for the lives of all people.

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Click here for the original article/interview by Goran Jungvirth for Poslovni Dnevnik