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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