December 2023

Who’s who in the IEEE OES (December 2023)

Gabriele Ferri, IEEE Senior Member, 2023 IEEE OES Distinguished Technical Achievement Award, OES AdCom member 2024-2026

Figure 1. Sometimes field robotics can be tough. I was walking with DustBot, the fully autonomous trash-collecting robot, in Orebro, Sweden, in July 2009, the day before a project demo. The robot was not yet fully convinced about what to do the following day.

The apple does not fall far from the tree, they say.  Sometimes, it does.

I was born in Piombino, a town located on a promontory along the west coast of Italy.  A promontory protruding into the sea, with the eyes gazing at Elba Island and the other pearls of the Tuscan archipelago.

I spent the long days of my childhood on sunny beaches and bays, by swimming and diving, and by hunting for little crabs while exploring mysterious sea-side cliffs.

Developing a passion for the sea was unavoidable.

And then there was my father, who instilled in me many strong interests and passions, which would eventually steer all my personal and professional life.

History, art, and, in particular, a huge curiosity and love for computers and science fiction.

Fascination for the unknown and for science fiction stories are typically the best sources of inspiration for young roboticists. This was true for me.

This heterogeneous mix of passions led me naturally to earn a Master Degree in Computer Engineering with a specialization in Robotics at the University of Pisa in Italy.

Figure 2. The organizing team of the European Robotics League Emergency 2017 in Piombino, Italy. Beyond a successful event there is always a great team.

After graduating, I started my professional journey by joining the passion for computer science with robotics, working as a Software Engineer at a Leonardo company, by developing the system of control and guidance of a new autonomous vehicle.

Successively, strange coincidences in life led me to come back to the academic life. I started a PhD in Biorobotic Science and Engineering, jointly at Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna of Pisa and IMT Advanced Studies Lucca. My PhD research focused on using biorobotics for the mapping and localization of potentially dangerous chemical sources. This provided me also the opportunity to spend one year at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Massachusetts, USA. There, I developed novel autonomy algorithms for hydrothermal vents prospecting for the amazing ABE AUV, at the same time getting fascinated more and more by the ocean’s depths and mysteries.

In that period, my professional passions matured in the long-lasting objective of developing smart and autonomous robotic networks capable to accomplish useful tasks in the real world.

Figure 3. Award ceremony of RAMI23, in July 2023. RAMI is the latest of our competitions focusing on Inspection & Maintenance missions in an Oil & Gas scenario.

I pursued this ambition during my Post-Doc period at Scuola Sant’Anna, in which I worked in the DustBot EU project, developing a network of urban robots for automatic garbage collection. Then, I had the chance to be the project leader of the HydroNet EU project, which developed a hybrid robotic network

Figure 1. Sometimes field robotics can be tough. I was walking with DustBot, the fully autonomous trash-collecting robot, in Orebro, Sweden, in July 2009, the day before a project demo. The robot was not yet fully convinced about what to do the following day.

composed of buoys and autonomous catamarans for environmental monitoring.

My path to marine robotics was definitely marked. I started a new position as a Research Scientist at the NATO STO Centre for Maritime Research and Experimentation in La Spezia, Italy, in 2013.

Since then, I have been working on robot cooperative autonomy in communication-limited environments and I have been investigating the whole spectrum of topics related to the development and control of heterogeneous robotic networks. Over the years, I had the chance to develop and extensively test autonomy strategies in real-world scenarios, by combining the development of innovative multi-robot solutions with their extensive validation in the field. The results achieved in many sea trials demonstrate that cooperative autonomy solutions not only can increase the effectiveness of robotic networks, but also proved that they can be used actually in real-world scenarios.

The field experience taught me that robot vehicle deployment can be challenging for the best of veterans. For small research groups from academia, this difficulty is increased by orders of magnitude. For this reason, I started getting involved with robotics competitions with enthusiasm, with the aim of both disseminating robotics and AI and of supporting the new generations of oceanic scientists and engineers.

CMRE has a long tradition in organizing robotics competitions, starting from 2010 with the Student AUV Challenge-Europe (SAUC-E), the leading student AUV competition in Europe. I inherited the charge of SAUC-E Technical Director and I started leading the CMRE Robotics Competition Program in 2013.

Over these last 10 years, I have been heavily involved with the robotics community by organizing increasingly complex competitions, which were also events for the specialized and the general public. I was the General Chair of euRathlon 2015 Grand Challenge and of the European Robotics League Emergency 2017, the first and so far unique world’s competitions challenging international multi-domain robotics teams (sea, land and air) in realistic search and rescue objectives during mock-up emergency missions held at a real power plant.

It has been incredibly rewarding to support young generations of marine engineers and scientists, providing them training grounds and observing their initial steps into the robotics community!

It was only natural that this activity put me in contact with IEEE OES, which has always been fundamental in supporting our events. OES has strongly believed in my work and has sponsored our competitions since 2015.

Since 2017, I have been serving as the Chair for Europe of the IEEE OES Marine Autonomous Systems Competition Committee (MASC2). MASC2 Committee was born with the aim of homogenizing marine robot competitions around the world.

Along my career, I have pursued my passion for robotics and the ocean in my research activity, by organizing large competitions and events relevant to robotics and artificial intelligence, and with talks aimed at young students and the general public. It has been an incredible journey, made possible by the great friends and collaborators I met along the way.

The passions of that little boy hunting for crabs are still present today, even stronger, and have always been the polar star that has guided my steps through new challenges, ideas, difficulties, defeats and great achievements.

The significance of this continuing journey has been acknowledged by IEEE OES with the 2023 Distinguished Technical Achievement Award. I am deeply honored for this award and I want to respectfully thank all my mentors and collaborators, and also those who have criticized my activities. This was the decisive incentive to go ahead.

Even more, I want to gratefully dedicate this award to the memory of the person who has always been my greatest supporter, and has inspired all my life and career: my father Antonio.

Eventually, I have fallen very far from the original tree.

And I hope to go farther in the next years, supporting with even greater energy and enthusiasm the community as a newly elected OES AdCom Member, together with IEEE OES and with all of you, whom I heartfelt thank for the confidence I have been granted.