Q&A with Venanzio Cichella

Venanzio Cichella is an assistant professor in Mechanical Engineering and a faculty affiliate of the Center for Computer-Aided Design. He joined the College of Engineering in 2018. We caught up with Dr. Cichella to learn more about him and his research.

Q: What do you do at the University?

A: My main research and educational activities lie at the intersection of robotics and control theory. I am interested in the development and implementation of algorithms to enable multiple autonomous systems to safely and reliably execute complex tasks in real-world environments inhabited by humans.

There is growing interest worldwide in the development of algorithms that enable heterogeneous autonomous vehicles, including space, aerial, ground, and marine vehicles, to execute missions in a cooperative fashion. The use of a cooperative group of vehicles, rather than a single heavily equipped vehicle, provides robustness to system failures, increases overall system reliability, and improves mission efficiency.

Despite significant progress in cooperative control, several problems remain to be addressed to enable safe and robust execution of multiple-vehicle missions in the presence of uncertainties, vehicle failures, and complex environments. In collaboration with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the Naval Postgraduate School, and the Instituto Superior Técnico in Portugal, I work on the development, implementation, and testing of control strategies that address these challenges. I focus on optimal trajectory generation, coordination, path following, vision-based tracking, collision avoidance, and inner-loop control.

Q: What do you enjoy most about your work?

A: Although my research is theoretical, grounded in control theory and mathematics, it is motivated by real-world applications. Exploiting the full potential of autonomous systems technologies for the benefit of society is my passion. My research is expected to make contributions to the state-of-the-art of cooperative autonomous systems in areas such as autonomous search and rescue, smart transportation systems, assistive robotics, and exploration robots, to mention but a few.

I am particularly interested in the use of multiple autonomous aerial vehicles for Earth observation. Our understanding of natural hazards and environmental risks to society, e.g., global warming, rising sea levels, and pollution, is limited by our ability to observe the planet. Earth monitoring and observation is performed by remote sensing through satellites, fixed ground stations, and floating ocean sensors, as well as by in-situ measurements from sensors mounted aboard aircraft. The use of these sensing technologies for remote and in-situ observations has broadened our understanding of the Earth system, but we are still severely constrained in our ability to model and predict environmental changes due to a lack of in-situ persistent and long-term observations. The development of a “deploy-and-forget” large swarm of autonomous aerial vehicles, which can collect measurements over long periods of time, could lead to a second revolution in Earth system modeling and prediction, enabling us to anticipate and mitigate sustainability challenges with unprecedented fidelity.

Q: Which achievements are you most proud of?

A: I am very proud of my work on coordination control for multiple autonomous drones. It led to the publication of several journal and magazine articles, a book, widespread media interest, and several awards, including the 2015 Outstanding Ph.D. Student Award from the College of Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; being listed among 2014’s five best drone videos by ArtSlant; being named winner of the online audience vote in Science magazine’s 2014 Dance Your Ph.D. Contest; being awarded two NSF travel grants; and being named one of five finalists in EURAXESS North America Science SLAM 2013.

Q: What are your goals for the future?

A: My long-term goal is to develop and sustain a career as a teacher/scholar focused on theoretical and experimental advances in the areas of multiple autonomous systems, optimal control theory, and artificial intelligence.

Q: What do you like best about Iowa City?

A: The music events (especially during summer). I have been in Iowa City less than a year, but it already feels like home.

Q: What do you like to do in your free time?

A: I play piano. I love to play blues and jazz. I also run. I like to run races, including at least one marathon every year, so I am always running around training for that.

For more information about Dr. Cichella and his research, please visit the following websites: