Interview: Dr. Guido de Croon, Professor at Delft University of Technology Netherlands

Dr. Guido de Croon is a Full Professor at Delft University of Technology Netherlands.  Dr. Croon’s research interests focus on the bio-inspired robotics, micro air vehicles, vision-based navigation and swarm robotics.

He also holds the position of Principal Investigator at Micro Air Vehicle Lab, (MAVLab) TUDelft.

He obtained his PhD in Artificial Intelligence (AI) at Maastricht University. He has also worked for the European Space Agency for several years.

I have been following Professor Croon’s research and contacted him for an interview to which he agreed even during his hectic hours of work. So, without much ado, please find Dr. Guido de Croon himself answering questions on his scientific research and future applications:  

What attracted you into AI Robots and what immediate developments do we expect in the field?

I am very interested in animal intelligence, and how it works. Implementing bio-inspired AI in robots is a very interesting way to study the challenges that natural intelligence has to deal with / has solved. Moreover, it will lead to new applications for robots.

In your study swarm of autonomous tiny drones can localize gas leaks, I am curious to know, in highly explosive gases arenas, how would your swarm of drones deal with electric sparks?

For this, the drone design will have to be changed, so that there can be no sparks. They have to be certified then to pose no danger in such areas (ATEX certification). The current drone hardware is not yet fit for this specific purpose, but all the AI and algorithms behind it can be directly applied to such a case.

How would the tiny drones compensate for turbulence or other wind effects?

They have onboard controllers that can deal with disturbances. Of course, there are limits to this in terms of how strong a wind or wind gust they can counter. 

How far are we correct in saying that soft robots like Disney’s Baymax will populate the future than stiffer and metallic Terminator or a Transformer?

Different robots will have different purposes, but designing robots in a soft way is definitely the way to go when they have to interact closely with humans. Also, robots need to be able to make small mistakes (like animals do), so that a small bump should not break them, this should form a learning experience instead.

What are some of the hurdles and specific applications that you envision in the advancement of micro air vehicles?

Hurdles: how to get all the intelligence required also by big robots such as self-driving cars on a tiny flying vehicle with limited sensing and computing power? Biology can be a huge inspiration here.

Applications: There are many different applications. Personally, I work on drones in search-and-rescue (e.g., finding gas leaks), and in greenhouses (where drones can monitor the crop for early disease detection, etc.).

Nature is saturated with an inspiring source of knowledge. And biomimicry gives an upper edge when it comes to extra capabilities. Does this mean then that there is no limit to what we could achieve with biomimicry?

In the end, our technology is different from nature, so I am more a fan of bio-inspiration. Sometimes (often, actually) technology is more limited than nature, but sometimes it allows us to go beyond natural systems. In fact, for the gas source localization we have the drones exchange with each other the gas concentration they sense. I am not sure that there is a biological system in which this happens, but it definitely improves the performance of the robotic system.

‘Robots building robots’, does it sound scary to you?

At this moment, this is still science fiction, especially if you assume that the robots will also change the design by means of their own “agenda”. Of course, if one makes such a system, this has to be done in a very careful way so that it cannot get out of hand. Again, for the moment science fiction. 

Someone comes up to you and says, “I wanna be just like you. I want to be an “AI Researcher”.  What advice would you give?

Go for it! Nowadays a lot of information, code, tutorials, etc. is available online, and robotic systems can be really cheap. So, start playing and see if you really like it.

Quick bits:

What is your favorite movie quote?

“From now on, that’s how you drive!” – Bad boys

If you were a superhero what would your powers be?

Levitation would be awesome.

If you could get yourself anything, what would you get?

Difficult one, I am more interested in the ethereal than the material world, I guess.

What will your TED Talk be 10 years from now?

Bio-inspired AI for tiny flying robots.

What books should I read in 2021?

I recently discovered the “Invisible Library” series, I would definitely recommend it : )

Dr. Croon, it has been a real pleasure! I can’t thank you enough. Your work is truly an inspiration. We look forward to visit you again and see more of your innovative research. Till then, we wish you all the very best for your future endeavor.

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