Francesco Ferro will present the keynote, The Past, Present, and Future of Robotics on Wednesday June 21st.
1. Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you came to be involved in robotics?
I blame the Japanese cartoons I watched about robots when I was young! I’ve always been fascinated by how things work, so studying electronics at university was an obvious choice. Working in software, it’s easy to get bogged down in lines and lines of code and I wanted a more tangible, physical outcome, so I began to specialise in computer vision.
I left my PhD in 2004 to found PAL Robotics, and was responsible for the software in REEM-A: the first autonomous humanoid biped robot in Europe. As head of PAL Robotics’ software department, I worked on everything from image processing and embedded software to sensor connections. I became CEO in 2011, so now I spend less time working on the physical build and more time setting the company’s strategy, but my passion for software and electronics hasn’t diminished.
2. What have been some of the highlights?
Every time we launch a new robot, it’s a special moment for the team. Seeing all the hard work, sweat and tears that go into creating something from scratch come to fruition is a great feeling. The first time we saw our first robot, REEM-A, walk was incredibly special. Since then we’ve gone on to build and launch eight other robots, but a personal highlight was when we presented REEM-B on Al Reem Island in Abu Dhabi in 2008. The royal family, presidents and CEOs of some major middle Eastern companies were in attendance, and the event was covered by global media outlets, including the BBC and CNBC.
We attend lots of conferences and exhibitions, and it’s always a joy to see children and older people interacting with our robots. We strive to make robots that are useful for society and always design our platforms with Human-Robot Interaction in mind. People love meeting our robots - and REEM is proving a great success in London’s Science Museum at the moment!
3. What advice do you have to our readers about growing and developing synergies in their work?
At PAL Robotics, we encourage a philosophy of collaboration. All of our software is open-source and available for free online, so anyone, anywhere in the world, can develop and test applications that will work in real life. We pride ourselves on the accuracy of our simulations, so if an operator can make their application work on the simulator, it will work on our robots.
We collaborate with companies, research institutions and universities around the world, and it’s through these collaborations that mutually beneficial synergies are found. I truly believe that synergies grow naturally if individuals share the same passions and motivations. Even if the experience, background and immediate skills of individuals or companies differ, if people share the same attitude, outlook, willingness to work hard and desire to achieve, anything is possible.
4. What interesting developments are going on in the robotics industry at the moment?
There are a whole host of definitions being thrown around at the moment - AI, machine learning, Industry 4.0… The terms you use depend on the lens through which you view robotics, but they all boil down to the same issue: how robots interact with humans. We need to design robots that work in our world - and we’re getting closer and closer to this goal every day. The distinction between some of these terms (like machine learning and AI) is fluid at best; what ordinary people want to know is how robots can improve their quality of life, and that is what we focus on here at PAL.
5. What should we keep an eye out for over the coming months and years?
Most of the technology that will enable robots to become a contributing and functioning part of society already exists, but because of complex legal certification and the difficulties involved in commercialising research platforms, there’s a huge gap between the lab and practical use-cases. I don’t think it will be long before the developments we know already exist in research institutions make their way into our factories, hospitals and homes.