Robots (Photo: Mikal Schlosser)

The world’s elite universities compete for tomorrow’s robot

Robot technology and automation Electrotechnology
As the only Scandinavian university, DTU is participating in a competition in Abu Dhabi, where robots’ ability to perceive and adapt to changes in their surroundings will be demonstrated.

The latest research in the field of robot technology will be put to the test when the world’s best universities within this field meet in Abu Dhabi in mid-March. Not as a traditional scientific conference, but in the form of a competition with a total of four disciplines.

“The participants have been found after a nine-month elimination process, where interested universities were asked not only to submit several reports with descriptions of the robots’ functions, something which everyone—in principle—is able to do based on theoretical knowledge. We also had to submit videos demonstrating that we have the technological insight to build and operate such a robot,” explains Nils Axel Andersen, one of the most talented robot researchers at DTU Electrical Engineering,

Robots now able to understand their surroundings
Tomorrow’s robot is not only able to carry out the same movement in a fixed pattern, which we know from robots in our homes or in industrial companies today. Researchers have now also developed robots capable of so advanced technical image processing of the recordings from the robot’s cameras that it is can perceive its surroundings, record any changes, and act accordingly.

“Traditional robots are ‘stupid’ in the sense that they are merely coded to carry out the same movement, for example moving something from A to B or vacuum clean until it comes across an obstacle. Thanks to the most recent robot research, we’re now able to successfully encode the robots, so that they are able to read and recognize their surroundings. They are flexible to changes, for example if something has been moved or has changed colour or shape. At the same time, they are able to communicate with and then coordinate their work with other robots. This is the knowledge we will be demonstrating in the competition,” says Ole Ravn, Head of Group, Automation, at DTU Electrical Engineering.

Industry 4.0 depends on the new robot
Ole Ravn predicts that the researchers’ newly developed robots will have a great impact on the increased automation of our workplaces—and especially for Industry 4.0.

“Small and medium-sized businesses, in particular, are reluctant to use robots today. But when, in future, they are able to use flexible robots that can be programmed to perform different kinds of tasks and even take into account that things aren’t always 100% as the day before, I’m confident that we will see a revolution in the area.”

Reaching the final is a feat in itself
At the competition in Abu Dhabi, the researchers must demonstrate that their robots are able to find, for example, a valve on a box and assess its nut size. The robot must then be able to choose the right spanner and loosen the nut. Three robot helicopters are tasked with flying around an area the size of a football pitch, find rings on the ground, pick them up, and throw them into a basket—without bumping into each other, of course. Everything must be programmed in advance, because once the competition is kicked off, the researchers have to watch from the sideline.

“We’ve been developing robots for the past 20 years, and we can’t wait to show the world what we can do. It would of course be great to do well in the competition, but we all know that there is also a certain element of chance in the form of weather conditions, unforeseen events, etc. So just being one of only 25 teams selected for the competition out of 143 applicants is a huge pat on the back. Especially, because the other participants aren’t just anybody, but the world’s leading technical universities such as the Korean university KAIST, Georgia Institute of Technology from the USA, and ETH Zürich from Switzerland,” says Nils Axel Andersen.


The 2017 Mohamed bin Zayed International Robotics Challenge (MBZIRC) competition will be held from 16 to 18 March in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.

The competition has four disciplines. Only 14 of the 26 participating universities have signed up for all four disciplines, with DTU being one of them

  1. A robot helicopter must land on a truck that moves around in figures of eight on an area the size of a football pitch
  2. A mobile robot must find a big box on the same pitch. There is a valve on the box and six randomly placed spanners. The robot must choose the right spanner and unscrew the valve.
  3. Three robot helicopters must find objects, for example coloured round discs on the pitch, pick them up, and throw them into a paper bin.
  4. All three above-mentioned tasks must be solved at the same time with a total of four helicopters and a moving robot on the pitch.

Participants from DTU
Four of the most talented robot researchers and eight elite students represent DTU. The final team has not yet been selected. Nils Axel Andersen will, however, be one of the participants