Dr. Mirko Kovac is at the forefront of what he describes as an all-out drone revolution, and he believes that his drones have the power to do good. His projects include drones that can deliver blood to remote parts of Africa, as well as drones that can aid in dangerous construction projects.
Dr. Kovac is director of the Aerial Robotics Laboratory and lecturer in Aero-structures at Imperial College London. He encourages students to draw on art and biology, as well as engineering, for inspiration in the design of drones. In 2017, Kovac and the Laboratory will move into a new, high-tech facility in the heart of London (with a glass wall that allows passers-by to see the drones flying inside).
Dr. Kovac earned his M.S. degree and Ph. D at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, and then did postdoctoral work at Harvard.
Interview by Naomi LaChance
Center for the Study of the Drone Could you describe your research?
Mirko Kovac My research program here at Imperial College focuses on the next generation of drones or unmanned aerial vehicles or flying robots—I prefer to call them flying robots. We build these robots for certain purposes and applications where it would be dangerous or time consuming for humans to do so. For example, we address the need for water and health monitoring, by doing water sampling and search and rescue or disaster response with flying robots in air-water environments such as after floods or tsunamis. Future drones will be able to go in the water, provide water samples, provide underwater video footage, and then fly back up. Another area is construction. We build drones for autonomous robotic construction. We call them flying 3D printers. It’s basically a flying robot that can act as a 3D printer, and it can repair structures or build structures in areas that are inaccessible otherwise.
Kovac “Drone” is a bit of a charged term. It has raised a lot of ethical questions and discussions about the use of drones in the military and for military interventions or secret service interventions. Of course, the ethical discussion is very important, but now what happens is drones of the same technology or similar technology move into the civil space and can be used by companies to increase their effectiveness and improve the way they do business. Sometimes when I give a talk, I use the title “Drones for Humanity,” because drones can actually be used for many, many civil applications. They’re very beneficial to all humans.
Drone How big is your group here?
Kovac My lab currently consists of about 14 people who work in this area.
Drone In the plan for the new lab, there is a big glass window, because you want people to see what you are working on?
Kovac One of the key features of this flight arena is to have an area that is very visible and shows on one side the strategic commitment of this college to this research area. Aerial robotics is an emerging area and an upcoming technological revolution. Flying robots will change how business is done. The central location and high visibility of the new flight arena will hopefully inspire the student community for these novel applications and technologies. It’s visible from the main square of the college, so you will see the drones flying in these glass halls when walking through the campus. That’s a key feature.
Aerial robotics is an emerging area and an upcoming technological revolution. Flying robots will change how business is done.
Drone Do you use any models made by companies, or do you construct them all yourselves?
Kovac Some we develop from scratch, and some we buy and use them as research platforms. We have some commercial quadcopters, for example, and we extend them with mechanical components, new control laws, new behaviors, so it really depends on what we work on. But in general, we work on the platform design, so we build new platforms and use them for new applications.
Drone Is it mainly quadcopters?
Kovac Not only, we also use flapping wings, fixed wings and hybrid MAVs with folding wings. The challenge of commercially available platforms is that they cannot be used in constrained environments like forests or indoors very well, so the commercial ones are not there yet to actually be used in cities, in forests, in nature, in water. And so this is what we are working on.
Drone What’s your favorite design that’s been made here?
Kovac The flying 3D printer was inspired by the edible-nest swifts—the birds that build nests using their saliva as construction elements. You take a similar approach and use expanding foam to build structures with the flying robots. That’s just one example of how we can take the principles in nature to build better drones.
Drone And you are developing drones that work in different environments—not just the air?
Kovac Yes, we look at ways to move in both mediums, how to move across interfacing ground, water, air. Hybrid mobility or multi-model mobility is the term for that. What we developed in the past is jump-gliding robots, robots that use jumping and gliding to move in air and also on the ground. They can jump and glide down from trees or from buildings. Also, we work on perching drones, drones that perch and attach to objects, to buildings, to trees, to monitor environments and detect environmental parameters to protect the natural ecosystem.
Drone What draws your students to studying flying robots?
Kovac Often, I ask first year students, “why do you study aeronautics?” And what they are commonly motivated by is Formula One race cars, airplanes, and rockets. Or they might just like math and physics. And now flying robots is a very exciting field to live those passions because it not only connects to technology but it also connects to animals such as birds and insects that have very fascinating flight capabilities. Looking at them, the dream to fly often starts. We do a lot of bio-inspired flying robots, and there we copy the principles of their flight to build better robots. This can actually be very inspirational and very exciting to work at this interface between animals and machines. Questions emerge about what is an animal and what is a machine.
Drone Some professors have gotten in trouble with their research, because of regulations. Have you run into anything like that in the U.K.?
Kovac There is a big discussion about how to regulate flying robot operation, so at the moment we do a lot of indoor testing. We don’t do much outdoor testing at this stage in the U.K. but we do test our drones in the Honduras rain forest. In the U.K., there are certain sites where outdoor flight can be done, usually for research and testing and not for commercial operations close to humans. Then there is another level and layer of legislation that needs to happen. For example, instead of adopting the legislation completely to unmanned aerial vehicles, one could also take an approach to ask unmanned aerial vehicles to be covered by existing legislation. In the same way as every pilot has to pass certain tests, maybe an artificial pilot or a computer pilot could pass the same tests, and then we don’t need to change too much. We just need to build drones that are as good or better than humans, and that might not be so difficult because humans make a lot of errors.
Drone What can a drone do better than a human?
Kovac For example, it doesn’t get angry, doesn’t think about laundry, it doesn’t get divorced and so on, so for some tasks, robots are more reliable. At the same time, a drone or a computer in general, doesn’t have the same integral understanding of reality as a human might have. Machines don’t feel compassion and don’t have intuition so their judgment is limited compared to human potential. There will be, and I think it’s healthy that there is, a division of labor between machines, robots, and humans. The machine can execute low level commands but the human needs to take the strategic and complex decisions that can not be based on a few simple parameters. But a lot of the low-level tasks can be done by robots very, very well. Something that an airplane already now has is an autopilot, and this airplane is basically a completely autonomous system. I mean, the airplane can fly the whole route without the human there, but it’s still important that the human is there as a safety mechanism. So something like that, I think some hybrid approach is healthy.
Drone What do you think of the fear that artificial intelligence is going to take over the world?
Kovac I think there is something about humans where they are afraid of their projections of what is possible and what not. On one side, we can project our vices to the future and say that machines will be evil killing machines and that technology will be misused by humans. Or we can also project our virtues and say that machines will save us, that machines will be good for us and they will do good things. So I wonder sometimes why there is this overemphasis on the negative potential of technology. Why don’t we put more energy in our positive motivations of how to use technology and to believe in the goodness of the people? Our thoughts create our reality and I believe that we’re better served with an optimistic and virtue-oriented mindset.
Now at the same time, of course, we have to create an ecosystem and an environment where legislation governs positive uses, and negative uses are prohibited in certain ways. For example, we say as a society that certain things are not ethical. Like drones that make certain decisions, such as life-and-death decisions, we might say that this is not something we want as a society. It’s similar to us saying that we don’t want to clone humans. It might be technically possible, but we say we don’t do that. Something similar has to happen for robotics as well. Once we have created this ethical and motivational framework on robot use, I believe that drones and unmanned aerial vehicles and robotics in general have a more positive than negative impact on our lives.
For example, it doesn’t get angry, doesn’t think about laundry, it doesn’t get divorced and so on, so for some tasks, robots are more reliable. At the same time, a drone or a computer in general, doesn’t have the same integral understanding of reality as a human might have.
Drone Do you feel that in the robotics community there’s been some kind of a moral code established around technology?
Kovac I think not enough, and we need to discuss it more, and similar to—as I mentioned—the genetic engineering community, we have to raise awareness in society, show the potential uses and misuses, and then create an ethics code, an ethics framework that governs all that in a positive way to the benefit of all. I think we are currently at the beginning of the robotic revolution, and this needs to happen now.
Drone Do you believe that you can teach a drone ethics?
Kovac Asimov’s robot ethics rules are an example of that. He defined certain rules about how a robot might operate, so I think it is possible to create ethics codes inside of artificial entities. But it’s not so easy, of course, and as it was suggested in some science fiction novels, one could argue that to protect humans from themselves, we need to put robots in power of the world. But that again is difficult because we have to ensure free will of every individual that would not be ensured by a totalitarian robot government. It’s a complex topic and there can be an extended philosophical discussion exploring which ethics rules robots should follow. Besides that, it’s a great challenge to build a robot that would then adhere to these rules reliably. But more important than the technical feasibility is the moral coherence that we decide together, of what we want and don’t want. I think that’s the missing part that we need to discuss and define it as humanity.
Drone What are some examples of positive uses of drones?
Kovac One initiative that I’m involved in is the Afrotech drone delivery initiative. It aims at developing a drone network in Africa to deliver blood to different hospitals. In Africa there is a big problem that there is not enough blood available in remote hospitals. Out there, a drone network makes a lot of sense and can actually save lives. That is one application.
Another one is search and rescue, which can be very important. For example flooding: if there is a flood or a tsunami, then certain areas might be contaminated with a certain bacteria. People in contaminated areas need to be saved more quickly which could be assessed with dones, that would then help coordinate rescue efforts.
A third application is one that was showcased by Delft University, where a drone would fly and have a heart defibrillator on board, so that when something happens it can come quicker and act on site to provide the equipment for anyone to use. The difference of a few minutes might save lives.
Drone And then of course there are concerns of privacy. What do you make of that?
Kovac I think it’s an important aspect and we need to preserve and protect privacy. I personally don’t believe that just because its possible to intrude on privacy that we should give up privacy. Although drones could do aerial filming which can be problematic, I think a much more challenging or concerning aspect of privacy is google glass, for example, or everyone having an iphone or a mobile phone, a smart phone with a camera in their pockets. At least drones can be seen and heard and they have limited flight range where they can go. I think it’s a general discussion that is ongoing. Drones are one factor, but they are not the first, and not the largest danger to privacy.
Kovac It’s very difficult to say those things, but I think in five years we might have drone delivery networks in developing countries such as in Africa, as I mentioned. Blood delivery, which I mentioned, is very feasible. I think in 10 years, we might have drone delivery in cities, but it is more difficult to actually have that. But what might be possible in the next maybe five years is drones for inspection of industrial facilities, servicing and repair. I think that’s the big area where drones can make a difference very quickly.
Drone What about the public attitude toward drones? Do you think that acceptance of drones is happening at the same speed as the technology is developing?
Kovac Well, I don’t think that acceptance comes as quickly as the technology progresses. I think that the technology is very fast. You can buy drones and do a lot of things with them already, right now. And the perception, I think, is still relatively focused on the discussion of ethics of drones in the military. I think many people quickly mention and quickly fear and question that aspect of drone applications. But I think it’s changing now as large companies see the benefits and adopt the technology. This is also fuelled through drones being used as toys. And this whole movement of drones coming from the consumer electronic site, and then going through the toy market to more industrial application, that can change the perception. They are generally perceived as just being a lot of fun. And then coming from that it will have a lot of uses across many fields and applications, I believe.
Drone If you were to design legislation for flying robots, what would it be?
Kovac I think there will probably soon be a framework of what is allowed with drones and what kind of electronics should be allowed with drones. For example, the electronics might need to be such that it cannot be hacked by anyone else. Or the electronics have certain channels, or some way for authorities like the police to access the drone. Drones might have some safety mechanism, such as a parachute, so if they drop from the sky or something fails they would not hurt people. Or they might have to operate within a specific set of GPS coordinates, like along a corridor through a city, or certain areas, and if you fly outside of that then you might be out of the law. Similar to highways for cars. I think something similar will happen with drones.
Images courtesy of Mirko Kovac unless otherwise noted.