An Interview with ASPIRE

By Joel Davies -

Automate Pro Europe’s editor, Joel Davies, chats with the CEO of ASPIRE about how the technology branch is helping Abu Dhabi become an international innovation hub and the multi-million dollar challenge it’s running.

Could you tell me about yourself and ASPIRE?

My name is Dr Art Morrish. I’m the CEO of ASPIRE, which is part of the Advanced Technology Research Council (ATRC) here in Abu Dhabi. There’s two main components of the ATRC at this point in time – TII (Technology Innovation Institute) and ASPIRE. TII is the research arm of the ATRC and they do research with universities and companies working on fundamental research projects. If you’re familiar with the Technology Readiness Levels (TRL) system of grading, they typically work TRL level one through TRL Level four or five, maybe six, depending on exactly what they’re doing.

ASPIRE, on the other hand, is as my boss likes to say, the glue between what TII does and what the clients and the customers need. Our job is to take the amazing technology that world-class researchers in TII come up with and turn it into products through projects that then become things that can be commercialised. That’s whether it’s helping a specific client take the next steps taking something from the laboratory and getting it out into the field or into the commercial space. Or it can be whether it’s taking it to the point where you could start a new start-up based on one or more technologies to come from TII, from universities, from other places where we have international or global partners.

We’re programme management, we’re funding and we’re the guys that hopefully, as we develop our reputation, clients and customers will come to when they have problems that are keeping them awake at night. If you’ve got a really hard problem and don’t know what to do about it, come talk to us. We’ll help you out.

What is the Mohammed Bin Zayed International Robotics Challenge (MBZIRC)?

The MBZIRC is the third instantiation of this challenge. The first two were run by Khalifa University and they did an amazing job in making the MBZIRC a well-known robotics challenge. With the establishment of ASPIRE, we’re taking it to the next level developing challenges that are based on real-world problems that can only be solved by the application of advanced technology in the form of A.I., robotics and systems of systems engineering.

This particular challenge looks at the issues that are facing any nation, especially a maritime nation, with things like illegal fishing, piracy, smuggling and human trafficking. This isn’t like what you see in the movies when you think about piracy or illegal fishing or something like that. There’s nobody there flying a skull and crossbones, with a peg leg and a parrot on his shoulder going, “Arr, Matey!”. The whole thing now is an asymmetric problem that’s the quintessential needle in a haystack. The bad guys hide in amongst other vessels that are doing exactly what they’re supposed to be doing and they look like the other vessels.

How do you find that one bad actor mixed in amongst all of the good actors? One of the ways to do it is to utilise things like autonomy, artificial intelligence and machine learning to expand the capabilities of the Coast Guard. We’re by no means thinking that this will replace the Coast Guard. This just expands their reach and makes it harder to be that needle hiding in the haystack because now you’ve got drones that can serve a much larger area, much quicker.

For the challenge, the drones will find something like the right vessel and it’ll come back to the Navy Command Centre and we’ll confirm if it’s correct. If it’s correct, the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) will have to pick up a small box off the deck of the Coast Guard vessel, take it back to the Unmanned Sea Vessel (USV) and then guide the USV back up to the target vessel. The USV has a robotic arm on it that will reach out and pick up something that’s a larger object like the size of a ship’s log or a ship’s manifest to be put in the box and back on the deck of the USV.

We’ll run the challenge three times and the team that completes all of the challenges within the shortest period of time is the winner. If you make a mistake, you get a time penalty. This is playing beat the clock and you’re playing beat the other teams. We also wanted to make it a problem that really gets to the heart of how you think about the targeting, the navigation, the interactions between the vessels. So, we said you can’t use any global navigation satellite service.

Why use the specific technologies you set out in the rules as opposed to something like a satellite system?

Well, robotics, A.I., that’s the way that we think you can do this the most efficiently. If you can do it without satellite systems, then you can surely do it with satellite systems. We were trying to get to the other parts of the problem so it’s not just about who’s got the best algorithm to use GPUs like that. That was not the intent of the challenge. Actually, there are three pieces to the challenge.

The first phase is where teams send us white papers on how they would solve this problem. We’ll look at all the white papers and cut them to a much smaller number. Then we’ll get to simulate the problem and we’ll provide the simulation environment for teams to convince us that what they proposed can actually be produced and practised. The simulations will be simulations that you would have to do before you build something anyway. From that, we’ll select five competitors.

The competitors have to provide their own UAV because there’s such a slew of UAVs out there. We’ll provide a USV because that’s one of the more expensive things in the competition. We’ll also provide funding for the robotic arm. The five teams then have to actually build what they simulated and we’re going to fly them here to Abu Dhabi where we’re going to do this on the water. The prize is $2 million US for first place, half a million for second prize and a quarter million for third. So three out of the five competitors are going to walk away with a significant amount of cash.

With the competition being such an international event, is COVID a concern?

Well, the finals are really the only place where we’re going to have more people together than you would in any typical research environment. It’s not going to affect the whitepapers or the simulations either. COVID could possibly affect the final demonstration phase and we’ll simply have to play that as it comes. We’re looking for the event to take place in May, June, July of 2023. Hopefully, COVID will be better controlled. I’m not going to say that it’ll be gone because I’m not sure it’s ever going to be gone. But at least it will be under better control than it is right now and we’ll do it as we can do it.

The nice part about this is that as the teams compete, it’s their systems that are competing. It’s not that they’re head to head and the teams don’t get to do anything here other than download the report into their system. It’s going to be done on the water, we’re hoping that people will tune in and we’re going to live stream it. It would be nice if everybody could sit in some stands and see a big screen but if that doesn’t work, then we’ll live stream it and people will see it that way. That’s just a sign of the times, unfortunately.

What have been the outcomes of some of the other challenges that you’ve run before?

We have two challenges that are up right now, including MBZIRC. ASPIRE is only about a year old, so I’ve been involved in other challenges but these two are the first two that ASPIRE has run. The first one is the XPRIZE Feed the Next Billion challenge, which is looking at how you feed the next billion people on the planet. We’re working with the XPRIZE Foundation in the US and that one’s really all about how you construct a protein that’s not grown in an animal.

You’re familiar with the hamburger substitutes that are out there but they really only can be cooked like hamburgers. So you know, you can do some things with them, but you can’t really do the things that you would do with meat, with poultry, with fish. There are some adoption problems with it, too, because it sort of tastes like hamburger, but it hasn’t been as widely adopted as I think people would have liked.

So this challenge is really all about how you take either plant-based or animal-based proteins, grow them in a lab, put them on a framework that either looks, tastes, cooks and has the mouthfeel of a breast of chicken or filet of fish. We’re not only going to have food scientists grading this but another part of the challenge is that for an equal amount of protein, it has to have a lower environmental footprint than it would take to raise the chicken or to raise the fish. You’re not depleting stocks and you’re not overgrazing, you’re not doing any of those things.

Another part of it is that it has to be nutritious, so we’re going to have international chefs that are going to cook this in their favourite recipes. The one that cooks up the best, as long as it’s met all the other criteria, is going to be the one that wins.

[Joel] It sounds like an exciting and worthwhile challenge.

That’s the sort of thing that ASPIRE does, as well as, like I said, trying to do the new starts, trying to build up the ecosystem here for turning Abu Dhabi into a world-class technology innovation hub. When people think of doing really cool things, part of ASPIRE’s mission is to make them think of Abu Dhabi as being the place to come to do it.

How long has that been a goal for the country?

There was Abu Dhabi’s Economic Vision 2030 document that came out a couple of years ago from the very top of the Emirates saying we want to change the country from being a resource-based economy to a knowledge-based economy. Part of the way to do that’s to have good STEM, which the Emirates have. They graduate world-class people and a number of very important STEM fields. You have to generate IP intellectual property, and that’s part of what ASPIRE’s mission is, to generate the intellectual property working with these world-class researchers here and around the world.

Then you turn it into jobs and then the jobs put the in-demand function on the STEM because they’re going to need more trained people as you get more jobs, which creates more IP, which creates more jobs. Now, all of a sudden you’ve got an engine and you need to build that engine, so it’s sustainable. Part of the suppliers’ job is not only to build the engine but to make sure that the engine is sustainable and that we’re working on the problems that are of importance to the country and the big challenges that are important to the world.

Where will the technology be used after the challenge? You mentioned the Coast Guard earlier, would they adopt it?

The nice thing about this challenge is, as Lao Tzu said, “Every journey begins with a single step”. This is a journey. We believe that all of the pieces for this technology exist. What we don’t think is there’s one place in the world that has a lock on them all, so you’re going to have to collaborate. So, part of the goal is that we want to see collaboration and teams from around the world because we don’t think any single part of the world has a licence. The next step is then if we can demonstrate this, you’ve got a foundational set of technologies that can go through a lot of places.

Could the Coast Guard use this? Sure. There are other things that would need to be done, but now you’ve got a set of technologies that you can start maturing for a Coast Guard function. Could it be used for other things? Instead of a USV, you could use an Unmanned Ground Vehicle (UGV) and then you can start thinking about other things that you could do with drones working in conjunction with unmanned ground vehicles – disaster relief, that sort of thing. You could think about doing things like anti-poaching, right? Not just a Coast Guard challenge but if you want to keep track of people illegally harvesting whales. Well, this would be a way to do it because now you don’t have to have a ship with people up there all the time. So there’s a wide variety of things that you could do with this challenge.

How can our readers take part and follow the progress of the challenge?

The way your readers can take part is we have a website (MBZIRC.com). If they think they’ve got ideas, if they think they’ve got the technology, if they want to join a team, there’s a board there where they can sign up, register and participate. If they’ve got sensors, if they’ve got AI, UAVs, if they’ve got any of the things that are germane to the problem, go there. One of the things we’re doing is on this board, you can say, “Hey, I’ve got these kinds of capabilities and I’d like to be part of a team”. Then it’s up to the other people on the board to see if they want you on their team and we’ll go from there. But the white papers aren’t due for a while, so there’s still plenty of time to form teams. I encourage everybody to register and compete.

Do you have any other challenges on the horizon? Will they be related to maritime technologies and applications?

I do, but I can’t announce them yet. It’s like a pie and not quite ready to come out of the oven yet but when we’re done baking them, we’ll give you a holler! And no in regards to maritime. We’re looking at all different kinds of technologies. We’re looking to run the MZIRC challenge every two or three years so the next time we run it, it’ll be something completely different. I’m trying to make sure that this challenge stays on the forefront of the cutting edge of technology, for robotics, for A.I., for autonomy, for sensing.

Once we’ve done this one – assuming somebody wins – because if somebody doesn’t win, then we’ll run it again until somebody wins, then we’ll figure out something else to do. It’s not like there’s not a lot of really cool things that you can do up there, so stay tuned.

[Joel] Is Abu Dhabi and ASPIRE quite open to all sorts of different applications? I know that the country has quite a long coastline, hence why maritime is important.

Well, that was a good place for us to start because it was a challenge we hadn’t seen anybody else doing. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t a whole bunch of other challenges that I haven’t seen anybody else doing either. This was just one where we had the maritime environment and illegal fishing affects the livelihood of people all over the world. Smuggling affects people’s livelihoods all over the world, as does piracy. These seemed like something that we could address and we thought all the pieces were there. When we take a look again in a year and a half or so before we start the next one, there’s going to be other things where the pieces are there and we’ll try something different.

Any final words?

If I left you with a couple of things to remember, it’s that Abu Dhabi is a place to come if you want to be innovative. If you want to participate, all you’ve got to do is sign up and have some skills. Then you can see if you can find a team. We don’t guarantee that you get picked up, but we guarantee that we’ve got a place where you can come find out.

This interview originally appeared in Automate Pro Europe magazine 3. All information was correct at the time of publication.

You can find more information about ASPIRE on its website

Stay up to date with the most recent automation, computer vision, machine vision and robotics news on Automate Pro Europe, CVPro, MVPro and RBPro.

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