NATO Science presents: The robot that goes first
Questions and Answers with scientist Lorenzo Capineri
Location: Florence, Italy
Project name: Holographic and Impulse Subsurface Radar for Landmine and Improvised Explosive Device Detection
Project description: Explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. But with millions of pieces of ordnance left over from conflicts all over the world, it's necessary to detect and remove explosive remnants of war to protect civilians. To assist with this hazardous work, NATO scientists at the University of Florence in Italy have developed the first generation of a new EOD robot. The "UGO-1st" is smaller, smarter and more agile than previous equipment and it has two innovative types of radar to detect and identify underground objects quickly.
- The UGO-1st project was launched in 2015, and you recently started working on the follow-up DEMINING ROBOTS project. What are some of the key lessons learned from UGO-1st that you are bringing forward into this new project?
An important lesson for our team was learning how to manage a multicultural project, where the added value came from the collaboration between scientists of different nations (including Italy, Ukraine and the United States). The theme of innovation in safety for mine clearance operations was the point of attraction for all team members on this project, and all of them personally contributed to achieving this goal.
Another key lesson learned was that there is a concrete advantage of using a robotic scanner in the field to increase the safety and productivity of demining by using advanced customised sensors – but installing all of these tools in a single robot can be too complex and not effective. So we understood that a team of cooperating robots might be a better solution, which will be explored in the new project.
Both lessons learned are useful for the present project, where significant progress in multisensors and cooperative robots will be implemented with a larger number of international teams with different skill sets.
- What was one of the biggest challenges or obstacles that you had to overcome while working on this project?
The most important challenge was certainly that of integrating all the components of the project carried out in different countries into a robotic system operating on natural soil. For example, the problem of importing and exporting developed devices and instruments has limited the time available to test both the single devices and the whole system.
- How do you imagine UGO-1st could be used in the future? Who could benefit from it, and in which contexts?
The concept of UGO-1st is now developed for different cooperating robots, controlled remotely with an easy human-computer interface. This allows for both military and civilian applications, to detect subsurface objects or structures with very low set-up time. This is a key advantage compared to common hand-held, ground-penetrating radar or metal detectors. There are many consolidated areas for civilian use, like floor, road and pavement inspection, both indoor and outdoor. In the new project, there are industrial end users who are really interested in seeing a version of UGO-1st equipped with an ultra-wideband ground-penetrating radar for pavement thickness surveys, or in using holographic microwave radar imaging to detect underground services or cultural heritage items.
- What is the impact of your project on security and NATO's work with partner countries?
The sharing of technological solutions for demining with partner countries like Ukraine is one of the most important impacts of this project. This impact is also demonstrated by the commitment of endusers operating in post-conflict countries on explosive threat detection and removal operations.
Furthermore, the collaboration between young scientists from different countries improves the capability of dialogue and comparisons of the research methods and proposed solutions. This networking is facilitated by intensive and regular use of group meetings, in teleconferences, and in person before COVID-19.
- How was your background relevant to the development of this project?
My background in electronics engineering has developed through the years to create complete systems and instruments that are usable and useful in the medical field and in non-destructive testing. The system engineer approach, and the experience in leading institutional and industrial projects, have also been extremely useful for the project's development and management.
- What areas of expertise were necessary to create this prototype? What other expertise did your project partners bring to the table?
The development of UGO-1st, and now its evolution in the DEMINING ROBOTS project, requires teams with different backgrounds – in electronics, robotics, electromagnetism, computer science and applied geophysics. Moreover, the specific application for detection of landmines required that team leaders already had experience in projects related to this field.
- What advice do you have for young people who are interested in robotics and who would like to work on a project like yours some day?
The advice I would give to young researchers is to share their research specialisation/ excellence with others by operating in an organised project where all of them have a role and responsibility in defined tasks. This will provide a new perspective of doing their research not limited to their research group and laboratory in an international and multidisciplinary environment.
Learn more about other innovative science projects on the NATO Science main page.