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“Research and cultural diversity widened my horizons.”

Pasquale Grippa recently completed his doctorate in technical sciences. He spoke to us about his research focus—improving autonomous transport systems with the help of artificial intelligence. Pasquale has developed an algorithm for e.g. optimising drone-based delivery systems to answer questions such as: Which customers does the drone have to serve? Where does the drone need to pick up the package and where can it charge its battery? He also told us why he moved from Italy to Klagenfurt, how his view of the world has changed through his studies and why everyone should study at the University of Klagenfurt.

Interview by Johanna Röttl. Feature photo by Daniel Waschnig.

How do you explain to your neighbor at the garden fence what you are working on?
For my doctorate, I worked on improving autonomous transportation systems by adding some intelligence to them. I focused on reducing the time users wait for their service to start, which is crucial to satisfy users and attract new ones. Let’s take some concrete examples: In systems such as cable cars, many passengers get out at one of the last stations. Cabins fill up along the line, and passengers at some stations might have very long waiting times. I developed an algorithm that decides how many seats to reserve in each cabin to avoid long waits. Another example is drone-based delivery systems. For the system to provide a quick delivery service, each drone must know what to do at any time. For instance, which customer to serve, where to pick up the package, and where to charge the battery. I designed an algorithm that optimizes these operations. For real applications, it is also essential that those transportation systems are financially viable. A company interested in providing a delivery service in a specific area via drones might want to know the initial investment and the number of drones and depots needed to achieve a particular delivery time. I developed a method to answer this question and help companies to make strategic decisions. Besides transportation, I am now working on how to coordinate swarms of drones to inspect large ships.

I got to know scientists from all over the world, and many of my friends come from different countries.

What do you know about your research question after your doctoral thesis that you didn’t know before?
I learned many things during the research process about the problems I mentioned earlier. Without getting too technical, I can share some particularly surprising results. Adding some intelligence to a transportation system can make a big difference. The algorithm for reserving seats in cable cars was tested with simulations based on empirical data. Using that algorithm reduced the waiting time at a problematic station from about 40 minutes to about 15 minutes without significantly increasing the waiting time at other stations. As a passenger, I would be happy about that. Another surprising result is that drone delivery systems can have tipping points. One drone can make the difference between having an average delivery time close to the minimum achievable and having an unstable system. The latter means that, on average, customers waiting for their package steadily accumulate in time, and new customers expect to wait longer and longer. Because of this result, we need methods to calculate the number of drones and depots required to serve a given area.

Why did you decide to study at the University of Klagenfurt? Why did you choose Klagenfurt?
I did not know Klagenfurt before. I was in Italy, looking for jobs abroad, and I found an exciting project at the Department of Networked and Embedded Systems in the group led by Christian Bettstetter. When I came here for the interview, I had a very good impression of my advisor and colleagues. Furthermore, the lake looked gorgeous, and Klagenfurt seemed a lovely place to live for a while. Therefore, when I got an offer, the decision was easy. I still don’t know whether the interview was strategically arranged on a beautiful day in August.

Sometimes students choose the easiest path. I think this is a mistake.

Are there still new things for you to experience at the university?
I had the opportunity to gain many interesting experiences during my doctorate. I have the feeling I got the most out of it. That said, there are always interesting research activities going on at the university.

Has your view of the world changed as a result of your studies?
Yes. Doing research changed the way I think and approach new information. For instance, I am much more critical of what I read or hear. Furthermore, I have always worked and lived in international environments. My department is very international. I got to know scientists from all over the world, and many of my friends come from different countries. All this cultural diversity certainly widened my horizons.

Why should one study here at the University of Klagenfurt?
At the University of Klagenfurt, there are several excellent research groups that are very well known internationally. It is worth joining one of these groups as a doctoral student. Furthermore, in my department, there are often master or bachelor students who work part-time. Being involved in research at such an early stage is very interesting and can shape students‘ careers. I believe the University of Klagenfurt offers many opportunities of this kind. Besides the university, Klagenfurt is an excellent location for those who like outdoor activities.

What would be important advice for new students?
One piece of advice to give doctoral students is to choose a challenging and exciting topic. Working on a challenging topic is important to get the most out of a doctorate. Being excited about the topic helps to stay motivated. I would recommend to master and bachelor students that they should learn as much as possible early on in their careers. Sooner or later, it will pay off. Sometimes students choose the easiest path. I think this is a mistake. It is better to choose the path where it is possible to learn the most.

Where do you see yourself in ten years?
I see myself as a professor or a director of research developing new amazing technology.

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This article was originally published on the Website of the University of Klagenfurt (June 16, 2021). Posted here with kind permission.