29/6/2021

Meet our team member Roland Siegwart!

Roland Siegwart is a Full Professor for Autonomous Systems at ETH Zurich and Co-Director of the Wyss Zurich. He is an affirmed innovator and entrepreneur in the field of robotics, and a strong advocate for sustainable industrial alliances for accelerating technology transfer.

In his career, Roland has been Professor for autonomous robots at the EPFL Lausanne and member of the board of directors at the School of Engineering, Vice President of Research and Corporate Relations at ETH Zurich, and covered leadership roles in several organizations in the field of robotics like the International Federation of Robotics Research (IFRR) and the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society. Beside being a Co-Founder and member of the board of Sevensense, Roland has been contributing to multiple other successful spin-off companies in robotics and related fields and is board member of various Swiss institutions and foundations.

When did you discover your interest in robotics?

I studied Mechanical Engineering during a time when computers only just glimpsed their full potential. Computers ended up being increasingly integrated within the mechanical engineering field. This advancement was fascinating to me, because robotics are the ultimate machines. They combine senses, mechanics, computers, intelligence in a very optimal way. Our professional and private life will only improve and gain new sophisticated tools thanks to them. 

Have you perceived the impact of robotics in your private life?

Today, robots do not have a big role in my private life. At home we have a small robot for cleaning the floor, which sometimes moves around. However, robots play a dominant role in my professional life. I am convinced that the main focus should be within professional surroundings. Robots are tools to help us have an easier job.

Robots should be where humans fulfill tasks that are tedious to perform or endanger them. Hence, the professional focus is more vital than different applications at home. Indeed home applications will increase and ease our chores, but universal robots that do everything will be extremely difficult. I do not believe this will come to life anytime soon.

" Robots should be where humans fulfill tasks that are tedious to perform or endanger them."

What does your dream world with robots look like? 

My dream is really to implement robots where people should not be. These are areas of extreme danger to humans and our planet. Moreover, any repetitive work should be alleviated by implementing robots. Tasks that require you to do the same thing again and again, for example the production of cars, are tedious to humans and we should be able to implement robots into this routine.

I really hope robots can help shape a more sustainable and safe world for humans. I think of dangerous occupations like mine workers, whose life expectancy suffers due to the bad conditions in the 1’000 m deep mines. I see the issue of an ever growing population that needs to be fed. Thus, a more sustainable approach is needed to fulfill many issues we face today in agriculture.

Monitoring the crops continuously, analyzing, interfering when needed and using the exact quantity of fertilizer and water could be easily handled by robots. Today, humans are spraying fertilizer all over and most of it ends up unused, spread into nature. I see much potential for robots to help us with some of humanity's biggest problems.

How does the future of robotics look like to you and what will it demand of us humans? Can you see any negative impacts of robotics on our lives like for example robots taking our jobs? 

I consider robots a tool, yet a very sophisticated tool. Their goal should be to aid humans in the professional environment. Thus, it has to be easy to use, easy to interact with and functional for a lot of different tasks. 

I am not so worried about robots taking over our labour. I believe automation and industrialization will always be part of the evolution. In the short term, it can really be painful for some typical hard labour employees. Fortunately, robotics is a very complex device and this revolution will not come in one step.

Hence, our society will be able to adapt to the next several steps of the technological advancements in robotics. We will be able to influence which jobs are more suited for robots and which jobs are best for humans. In the long term it will increase the value of life. Especially, for a developed country like Switzerland I think robots will be very positive for our work environment.

"I am not so worried about robots taking over our labour. I believe automation and industrialization will always be part of the evolution. Our society will be able to adapt to the next several steps of the technological advancements in robotics. We will be able to influence which jobs are more suited for robots and which jobs are best for humans.
“I am pretty sure that robots will never, or at least not in the next centuries, reach the flexibility and diversity we humans have”

What is your mission as a professor and what do you believe is the next big obstacle that autonomous mobile robots have to overcome?

My mission is, of course, to excite, educate and support young people to venture into this very impressive field. I am extremely fascinated by robotics because there are still so many challenges to address. Most of them are linked to their systems having to be more adaptive to the environment. Robots should have more of an understanding of their environments and be able to interact with it in a fine and tactile way. I think this is something that still needs a lot of research to advance.

On the other side, I think we should accept that robots are not humans and it is not, at least not my intention, to copy humans. It is to develop machines which are well suited for certain dangerous or repetitive tasks and fully utilize them in those areas. Hence, they will not do the full job of a human, but be integrated for certain tasks in the process.

I am pretty sure that robots will never, or at least not in the next centuries, reach the flexibility and diversity we humans have. We can handle very small objects, we can carry big loads, we can climb, walk, swim etc. All this is wonderful and I think if you work in robotics, you get more respect for nature. You see the beauty of humans and animals and their evolution, which is extremely difficult to replicate technologically. 

Having experience yourself in entrepreneurship, how fertile is Switzerland for robotics companies to emerge? 

I always claim that Switzerland has all the main assets needed for robots. Robots are complex machines. On the one hand, you need precision mechanics which have a long tradition in Switzerland. On the other hand, you need unique sensor technology, which is less commonly known worldwide. However, Switzerland is very good in various sensing technologies already. On top of that, you have to combine this with control and intelligence. I think this is something, thanks mainly to the universities ETH and EPFL, which is developing extremely well. Of course we had the fortune to attract outstanding people from all over the world to come to Switzerland. We can offer a stimulating and attractive environment. I think this created a place in Switzerland, where robotics will be a vital industrial factor in the near future. 

"Robots are complex machines. On the one hand, you need precision mechanics which have a long tradition in Switzerland. On the other hand, you need unique sensor technology, which is less commonly known worldwide. However, Switzerland is very good in various sensing technologies already. On top of that, you have to combine this with control and intelligence. I think this is something, thanks mainly to the universities ETH and EPFL, which is developing extremely well."

How is the start-up scene for robotics in Switzerland?

I think the start-up scene in general in Switzerland is really good. We have a lot of dynamics and especially the technical universities are really good in generating new startups and supporting young people’s careers. Not to forget, the vast opportunities and projects made available through the Wyss Foundation. Specifically in robotics we are in a situation where you have a lot of successful examples of companies that are growing in Switzerland. This stimulates the next generation of young entrepreneurs to take the risk and succeed. What is currently lacking, is probably the big investments for scaling.

When it comes to investments, I think that the Swiss philosophy in this field somehow reflects the culture of the country. Generally in Europe we are much more risk averse than in the US: it’s harder to raise very large amounts of money to grow fast, but on the other hand it helps to develop a sustainable customer-centric approach. Interestingly, the startups from ETH have a very high survival rate and about 80-90% of the startups survive long-term. In the US they continually claim 1 out of 10 make it. We have more or less the opposite. 

Roland in the Sevensense office with our Alphasense Core Development Kit

You are head of the ETH Autonomous System Lab, of which Sevensense is a spin-off. In other words it commercializes technology that you have been working on for 10+  years. How do you now continue to bring value to the company as a co-founder and board member? 

I think the most important value is people. This company is built on the backs of really brilliant and outstanding people which already have a lot of experience in this field. There are a lot of competitors in this field, there are a lot of people doing something similar. In the end the people make the difference. My main contribution is teaching and inspiring the next generation of people to join Sevensense at my research lab. I am strategically involved and support with new business models.

Questions that arise and I aid with are for example; How should we approach this? How deep should we go? Are we really a product provider or only a technology provider for others? Where should we approach different customers? What is the best path to follow? I believe there is always more to discuss, more where I can support and we will continue to progress as a team. 

Sevensense is operating in a multi-billion Euros market predicted to double or even triple in the next 5 years - What is Sevensense's role in this revolution?

A very important element for robots is that they can navigate autonomously in their environment. Sevensense is exactly focusing on this field. It is important for a lot of different robots across many sectors. It starts with delivery robots, autonomous cars, to flying robots. I think Sevensense is really contributing to the core element of the robotics revolution.

Automation is solved when you can not only do it, but do it to a reasonable cost. To manage that you need cameras and some simple sensors, I think this helps a lot of different robotics products on the market to evolve. Therefore, I see Sevensense enabling a lot of partners to give their robots the capability to autonomously navigate in their environment. 

"Automation is solved when you can not only do it, but do it to a reasonable cost. To manage that you need cameras and some simple sensors. I think this helps a lot of different robotics products on the market to evolve. Therefore, I see Sevensense enabling a lot of partners to give their robots the capability to autonomously navigate in their environment."

What do you believe is Sevensense’s greatest strength and what are you the most proud of about Sevensense?

I am probably repeating, but of course, the most important strength is the people (laughs). In general, investors typically say it is firstly about the people when they look at companies to invest. They want to get the sense of a motivated team that goes beyond what is required to develop their products and innovate further.

I see Sevensense having such an inspirational team. This will allow us to contribute to the robotics field. The team will make the difference and this makes me confident that we will be successful in the future.

Thanks to Roland Siegwart for this insightful and interesting conversation. We are glad to have him as an experienced and valuable team member. If you are interested in being part of our team as well, check out our open positions.

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