By Minos-Athanasios Karyotakis
The last few years Greece has attracted the attention of the globe due to its financial difficulties and the unending negotiations of its bailout programmes. The loss of hope and the future that seems to be miserable are some of the reasons why this Mediterranean country is facing one of the most crucial brain drain of its recent history. However, there are still young people in the country that try to cope with the unbearable daily Greek life and realise their dreams. This specific story talks about the struggle of success and the students of the School of Electrical & Computer Engineering of Aristotle University of Thessaloniki that in 2005 decided to take their fate into their hands by creating PANDORA (Program for the Advancement of Non Directed Operating Robotic Agents). Nowadays, their inventions have competed in the RoboCup Rescue competition four times and hold a second place in autonomy category in 2013 in Eindhoven, Netherlands.
According to a former student of the first team of Pandora, about eight students gathered in the canteen of the School in order to find a way to apply the theoretical knowledge to a project that could provide them a more practical aspect of their field of expertise. The project had to be in close relationship with the field of robotics, as the majority of the students were interested in exploring this kind of technology. In addition, they all knew that they had to devote themselves in this new-born project and to spend a lot of their free time with the hope of producing something worthy. The initial goal of the team was the construction of a robotic four-degree arm of freedom, which made the students to get on top of the relevant national competition of the country. Moreover, the robotic arm had the ability to recognize, to catch and to move objects that were within its field of action.
Some of the professors of Aristotle University of Thessaloniki rushed to help with the creation of Pandora’s project and tried to guide the students concerning the insight of robotics and the search of the material, as the parts of the project have a high cost and it is almost impossible for the University to acquire them. Pandora then overcame the aforementioned difficulties and proceeded in the development of a robotic vehicle that with or without the human intervention is capable of detecting victims, after the occurrence of large-scale disasters (natural and non-physical). This vehicle has a length of about 50 centimetre and uses sensors of ultrasound, infrared, sound, heat, carbon dioxide to navigate itself and find the victims. Also, it has electronic and computing systems, which process the data that the robot collects. The purpose of the vehicle is (a) to be able to move comfortably on the uneven field that is caused by a natural disaster, (b) to identify the victims and (c) to inform the rescue teams in a timely and effective manner. Lastly, another key function of Pandora is that during its navigation, it has the ability to map the field and create a map, in which it is depicted, besides the obstacles, the locations of the identified victims as well as the course followed for approaching them.
In the international robotics competition of RoboCup 2008 (RoboRescue category) in the Chinese city of Suzhou, the Greek team managed to be placed at the 9th position among the overall 18 participants of the final stage.
On top of the world
After the successful participation at Suzhou the Pandora team wanted to become more innovative with improving the robotic vehicle and creating two new robots. The improvements were related to the movement of the original vehicle as well as the way the robotic arm used to approach the victims. Moreover, new sensors were incorporated into its mechanical rescuers for more accurate mapping of the field. From the new robots, the first one was intended to be independent and to navigate itself to the site of the disaster by using also its new abilities that were provided by the algorithms of the artificial intelligence of its. The second one was given the capability of moving in a far more complex environment and its control was done by the use of a remote control. These new improvements and creations did not help Pandora in gaining a better position in the same competition that took place in Austria (Graz, 2009). However, the tenth place brought broad smiles, as Pandora was ranked first among the European teams. At this point, it should be mentioned that the construction of a robot/robotic platform that is capable of moving in a devastated environment remains still at a research level.
The Greek team did not give in to the financial difficulties and the challenges that it faced. Also, in every competition it had to compete teams that had more resources in order to construct their projects. In 2011 in Istanbul, Pandora qualified for Best in Class Manipulation and two years after RoboCup in the Turkish city it achieved to be on top of the world with the win of the second place in the Robocup Rescue 2013 World Rally in the category of autonomous robotic vehicles. The competition was held from 24 to 30 June 2013 in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, and aimed at developing one or more robotic vehicles that can navigate in places that have been destroyed (e.g. by an earthquake) and detect victims. 20 teams from all over the world were selected and competed on various sloping sites under actual disaster conditions. This accomplishment paved the way for winning again the second place in the Robocup Rescue 2015 World Rally in Hefei, China. It was the second consecutive time that Pandora was getting the second place, as it was unable to participate at the 2014 Robocup Rescue in Brazil due to a lack of funding.
The story of Pandora highlights the incompetence of Greece in benefiting from the young generation of the country that despite the difficulties is bringing knowledge and power that can transform once and for all the current miserable condition. The bitter remarks of the team leader of Pandora, Associate Professor of the School of Electrical & Computer Engineering of Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Petrou Loukas, after the outstanding year of 2015 can underline the need of the officials to try to actively help this generation: “These achievements, which for years have been unexploited by the state, could be further developed and exploited in civil protection systems, in environmental and transport applications. For example they can help to control the arteries and tunnels in the road network and, in general, with systems of exploration, monitoring and security at national and /or international level”.
Nonetheless, the accomplishments of Pandora Robotics Team are recognised in a global scale: “Some of our programs are used in robotic applications all over the world, as we are active members and contributors of the open source community. Proof of the quality of our work are the old members of the team, who are currently distinguished scientists working in Greece or abroad. We are one of the few teams in the world, and the first in Greece to develop an autonomous robotic vehicle”.
In conclusion, Greece is going to struggle with its creditors in favour of the bailout programmes for a long time, though in its land live and grow a lot of scientist that can make the difference. This is the case also for the members of Pandora, as they have already learned that there’s no time like the present in order to work hard and realize the dream for a better future.
This article was one of my assignments for completing the course of Science Journalism.