EREVAN. – Naira Hovakimyan is director of Intelligent Robotics Lab at the University of Illinois. In an interview with Armenian News-NEWS.am, Naira Hovakimyan spoke about the development of robotics in Armenia and the future projects.
Naira, why have you left for U.S.?
I do not think that I have left for USA, as I never intended to do so. In 1998, I was invited for six months to work at Georgia Tech on stability of adaptive flight control systems. Prior to that I worked more than a year in Stuttgart University, Germany, and about a year in INRIA, Sophia Antipolis, France. Because Unites States is a country rich with opportunities, my stay at Georgia Tech was extended for another six months, then another year, and I eventually assumed a permanent faculty job in Virginia Tech in 2003. Then the successful collaboration with United States Air Force and NASA got us the visibility by the top universities, and University of Illinois recruited me with a competitive offer, providing opportunities for aggressive growth of my research program. If tomorrow another high-caliber research institution recruits me from Europe, I may move back to Europe. My permanent home is Yerevan, Armenia. I never left Armenia. I just happen to work in places that have long commute time with Yerevan.
Is it easy to make a career in U.S.?
It largely depends on what you want to do and what you want to achieve. You have to be in the right place the right time. In my case, the answer is absolutely NO, NO and again NO. I am sure that had I stayed in Armenia in mid-90’s, I would have left science forever. However, I want to emphasize that there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. My very good friends in those years moved into software industry and now hold leading positions in major software companies in Armenia. That is a different career path. In USA, I had to restart everything from the beginning. My prior degrees and education meant nothing in the context of the problems that I was challenged to solve during my research at Georgia Tech. Also, the US academic market is very much driven by the pedigree and connections in USA. If you are not a graduate of one of the top schools with a famous adviser, the barrier for entry into academic circles is very high and quite often impossible to break in. This reality has not changed for me until now despite numerous success stories delivered by my group. One step at a time we have moved forward. The key is never to give up. Hard work and persistence always pay off. You just have to stay focused and be open to new opportunities and twists of life as they come your way.
You are a co-founder of IntelinAir, Inc., a company that commercializes data-drones for delivering actionable information from aerial imagery for various industries. How are these drones used? For which purpose?
Right now we are focused on digital agriculture. We are creating the “MRI of farms”, by flying the drones at low altitude and taking high resolution imagery. We hope that with this technology we will be able to develop an early warning system for anomaly detection to prevent major damages and alert farmers on taking actions ahead of time. It is obvious that with today’s farming techniques it will be impossible to feed the 9bln population of Earth in 2050. IntelinAir aims to contribute to this grand challenge in a novel way that can have long-lasting impact..
Are you going to have such a company in Armenia too? What do you think whether it is possible to establish such a company in Armenia?
Our company has already opened its Armenian subsidiary in Yerevan. We have a group in Armenia, and I am very excited by its growth.
Since 2015, you are the director of Intelligent Robotics Lab of CSL at UIUC. Armenians also try to develop this branch in Armenia. What do Armenians need to reach the best result? Do we have necessary resource for developing it?
We certainly have the human resources and the enthusiasm that’s needed; we lack funding for supporting hardware purchase/development and educating students to develop competitive algorithms. We lack visionary leaders. Robotics today is very multidisciplinary. We work at the intersection of control technology, machine learning, human-computer interaction, cognitive psychology and medicine. Today’s roboticists need sufficiently good understanding of all these fields to interact with corresponding experts to integrate the advances from each of these disciplines into the next generation of robots. I cannot emphasize enough the role of multidisciplinary education and the role fundamental science.
Naira, an L1 adaptive flight control system is being modified for the U.S. Air Force’s VISTA F-16 aircraft by you and your graduate students. Have you already tested it in VISTA F-16?
We haven’t yet tested; we are anxiously waiting for those tests, which are scheduled in September.
What plans do you have for future? Any new projects?
I have plans to finish two more books in the next five years. I would like to see my students leading major innovations in the world based on the training that they get in my lab. I would like to see them holding faculty jobs in top universities or leadership positions in major industries. I would like to see IntelinAir growing into a powerful and prominent company. I would like to see some of my students creating other companies based on their work in our lab. In the near future, personally, I think I will be more focused on the cybersecurity solution developed in collaboration with my colleagues from Computer Science and will do my best to support that development and its commercialization, if at all possible. We have a unique opportunity there. Such a solution should help all robots to be safe from software viruses and attacks by hackers.
Are you going to make any projects in Armenia?
If interested groups have desire to work with me, I will certainly support such development and work with them. IntelinAir is just a good beginning, and I am very excited by our group in Armenia, its potential and its growth. I look forward to creating more initiatives like that.