Raffaello D’Andrea believes that if there is a difference between having ideas and knowing which ones are possible, there is an even greater difference between knowing which ideas are possible and knowing how to turn those ideas into physical, working realities. D’Andrea has been putting ideas into action since graduating in Engineering Science from U of T in 1991, winning the Wilson Medal as the top graduating student that year.
He is a professor of Dynamic Systems and Control at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich, where his research redefines what autonomous systems are capable of. His creative team at ETH engages in cutting-edge research by designing and building creative experimental platforms that allow them to explore the fundamental principles of robotics, control and automation. The creations include the Flying Machine Arena, where flying robots perform aerial acrobatics, juggle balls, balance poles and co-operate to build structures.
In an interview while in Toronto D’Andrea reflected on the idea that he considers himself lucky to have made it to adulthood. Born in Pordenone, Italy, he went to Anderson Collegiate in Whitby before attending the University of Toronto. His experiments began early and he had a penchant for putting himself into them. He learned about water pressure by jumping into a pool with bricks attached to his legs and a garden hose attached to his mouth.
His knowledge – or lack of – aerodynamic stability was gained by jumping from a rooftop with an umbrella. He created hydrogen gas by electrolysis and in the process flooded his basement with chlorine gas. Despite his adventuresome disposition, he said he found going to New College “a little bit intimidating but after one semester I grew to love it.” He said “I really got into a groove and had a very balanced life,” playing soccer and volleyball as well as attending classes. “U of T is in a great location downtown. There is so much happening there. The fact that there are so many different folks from all over the world made U of T a great, great environment.”
Asked for advice to prospective students, D’Andrea said “you need to study what you are passionate about. You need to be excited about doing your homework. Do what your heart tells you to do. Life is too short to do just want your parents want you to do.”
D’Andrea has excited people all over the world with his fascinating inventions, including the Distributed Flight Array, a flying platform consisting of multiple autonomous single propeller vehicles that are able to drive, dock with their peers and fly in a co-ordinated fashion. There are also the Blind Juggle Machines, which can juggle balls without seeing them, and without catching them. And he is collaborating with scientists, engineers, and wingsuit pilots to create an actively controlled suit that will allow humans to take off and land at will, to gain altitude, even to perch while preserving the intimacy of wingsuit flight. ETH also collaborated with Cirque du Soleil and Verity Studios to create a drone video called Sparked that features 10 quadcopters carrying out the kind of complex dance moves one normally sees only human dancers do.
D’Andrea is also the co-founder Kiva Systems (acquired by Amazon in 2012 for $775 million), a robotics and logistics company that develops and deploys intelligent automated warehouse systems. He said “it is easy to get people excited” about the work he is doing “when they know there is some utility (with the inventions) in the near future.”