This year, Up Great technology competitions organized by RVC, the Skolkovo Foundation and ASI are held in Russia for the first time. Their participants will demonstrate solutions to global technological problems: the effective unmanned vehicles control in the winter and the creation of a compact hydrogen fuel cell. Deputy General Director of RVC Mikhail Antonov told RIA Novosti about how technological barriers of Up Great were defined and why these particular challenges were opening the door to the future:
— Mikhail, what foreign and domestic experience did you rely on, creating Up Great technology contests? How do they differ from Russian and foreign analogues?
— We actively used foreign experience, studied the practice of the best international corporate competitions and “challenge” contests, such as XPrize, Darpa Grand Challenge, Google competitions. We also have good technological contests in Russia. In my opinion, Sibur successfully carries them out. We tried to take the best from the experience of Western analogues, and most importantly, several fundamental principles for organizing competitions.
The first of them is the basis for the formulation of the technological barrier and involves the absoluteness of its overcoming. In simple words, the barrier is either overcome or not. The award goes only to the one who has coped with the task — it is not enough to surpass the competitors.
The second principle, borrowed from our Western colleagues, concerns the role of monetary reward. On the one hand, it should be substantial enough, but on the other — money should not be the main motivator. Cash prize is only a “cherry on top”. The main value and interest of developers is to show their technological abilities, skills in solving complex engineering tasks.
— Apparently, it is equally important for the teams to have the opportunity to get support from venture investors, isn’t’ it?
— Of course, and I would like to mention that quite often in world competitions the teams that take the second, third and fourth places get investors’ money even faster than the winners. A team that did not reach the technological barrier can still be of serious interest. In that case, of course, if it demonstrated important skills. Such teams are engaged for solving new tasks. New large technological projects are based on their ideas.
— How do you determine the importance of the technological task? What are the criteria for selecting barriers to be overcome by the participants, and how are international experience and Russian specifics taken into account?
— The search system is based on the best Western practices. The barriers are defined. Overcoming these barriers gives an opportunity for the development of a whole group of technologies. These are the so-called “unlocking” technological solutions: they will allow people to open the door with a new world behind.
As for the Russian specifics, we have a program that our Western colleagues do not have: the National Technology Initiative (NTI). It covers a huge layer of topics that are already deeply developed by experts. The NTI has conducted a serious examination and formed an expert opinion on which critical technologies will have a decisive influence on our life, economy and society. It is about the future for the next 10-15 years. The NTI technology areas are becoming the focus of Up Great competitive tasks.
I would like to draw attention to one important detail: if the organizers of the competition find out that someone in the world has overcome the stated technological barrier at least a day before it is held, the competition will be canceled. This is stated in the RF Government Decree, which regulates the rules for conducting competitions in the framework of the NTI (No. 403 of April 3, 2018 — RIA Novosti commentary). At the design stage of the concept of the first Up Great contests, RVC attracted consulting company Frost & Sullivan to the assignments assessment. Its experts confirmed that the barriers announced at the competitions had not been overcome. It guarantees this with its business reputation.
— The topic of hydrogen energy, to which Up Great “First Element” competition is dedicated, is not so well known to general public. Tell me more, why did you choose hydrogen-based fuel cells as a subject of the competition?
— First, we conducted a survey among the participants of the NTI, during which it was necessary to propose the idea of the future competition and prove that it was this topic that opened up the maximum number of new technological solutions. As a result, the topic of hydrogen fuel cells has become the undisputed leader. Participants of the “First Element” will have to surpass existing technological solutions by creating compact, lightweight and powerful hydrogen fuel cells for multicopter platforms. They will open new horizons for hydrogen energy.
It is important to understand that the assessment of the prospects of a competition is based on the thesis that if it does not take place, the barrier will still be overcome by someone else within about five years. Thus, by organizing the competition, we in a certain way magnetize the future, which will come in five years. This means that Russia will become a leader in this segment if we succeed.
— Winter City. That is how you decided to call the competition of unmanned systems for cars. Why do you focus on winter?
— Winter is an important challenge for the unmanned vehicles technology. Judge for yourself: all these “unmanned wonders” in warm California are not yet for our daily lives. For example, we see an unmanned truck travelling along a priority lane ... But in fact it is far from 100% unmanned vehicle. Hanging a conveyor belt between the cities and moving loads along it would be the same thing. Such technologies will become truly unmanned when they are fully integrated into everyday life. That is, such a vehicle should be able to see the marking under the snow, cope with ice, yield to pedestrians, overtake moving objects, anticipate possible actions of people near the roadway. For example, to notice a child playing with a ball who may jump on the road and slow down. An unmanned vehicle must make a decision like a human driver, who uses several levels of brain work, intuition, and associative thinking. I can say one thing for sure: whether we overcome the threshold or not, but already now, in the process of preparing the competition, so many potentially interesting technological solutions have been born that it has already paid off.
— And what industrial prospects will open before the winners? In the West, there are such companies as Tesla. Who in Russia is interested in introducing unmanned solutions for passenger cars?
— An environment rich in business partners and scientific organizations is formed around every competition of this level. Russia already has notable players in the market of unmanned vehicles. Yandex, for example. By the way, the idea to invite Yandex to become a partner appeared spontaneously. We discussed invitations, and a video appeared on the web, where an unmanned vehicle Yandex drives along one of the highways. We saw that it had a number of restrictions — at intersections, when by-passing moving obstacles. We contacted Yandex and said that we wanted to try to solve these problems. They agreed and became partners of Winter City, then they helped forming an assignment for the competition.
I would single out NAMI among the scientific partners of “Winter City”. The institute would like to see new technology teams with whom it would then be interesting for them to work. We are looking for different partners, including those who could co-finance the competition.
— Tell us about the competitions of the near future. What topics may be relevant for the following Up Great competition?
— If we look at Western analogues, we will see that competitions there noticeably “drift” from solving technical problems to overcoming social challenges. Let me explain the concept with an example: let’s say a visionary appears who announces the idea that we need to become a multiplanet civilization. An engineer appears who says how to do it: for example, you need to fly to a certain planet, land, make a station and spend some time on it. If we overcome these challenges, we get the desired result. Further, the task is specified: we say that we need to fly to this planet in a certain time, for example, in 5 years. At the same time, we need to deliver a cargo weighing 15 tons. Now we have come directly to the technological barrier. Thus, the following algorithm appears: the acceptance of a big challenge by the society, its decomposition into the technological plane, the determination of the range of tasks that can be solved with the help of a technological competition.
Now we have about 5-7 major topics in which, as we believe, important results can be achieved with the help of technological competitions. Assistive technology (helping people with disabilities in health) is among them. There are many technological barriers in this area, one of them is the tactile sensations of the prosthesis. Imagine that a person with an artificial hand puts it into a black box and then tries to determine what is inside: an apple, an orange, a billiard ball or a foam cube ... Today there are no such technologies, it is impossible. A person “does not feel a prosthesis with his or her brain”. The task is to create such a prosthesis that will allow the transfer of information from an artificial hand to the human brain, so that it becomes a real substitute, and not just cosmetics or a functional “hook” that allows holding different objects.
There are interesting barriers and challenges in the field of genetics. With all the ethical restrictions, there is a huge field for work. There are no less serious challenges in the field of artificial intelligence. For example, today no artificial intelligence will play “What? Where? When?”. Judge for yourself: after all, the team of experts uses not only logical thinking to win. The players answer the most complicated questions with the help of associative or intuitive thinking — a human has many different ways to think. Will someone make a computer that can work at the same level? This could be one of the challenges of the new Up Great Competition, which received the working title “Turing 2.0”.
One more absolutely applied direction, which we are interested to include in the competitions, is underwater robotics. The world’s oceans are both “new oil” and “new gas”, and much more. People have so far learned only the “thin film” of the ocean, its surface. By the way, at the same time they have already managed to cause damage to the ocean. However, it is clear that humans are not yet functional in the ocean. Modern bathyscaphes are very limited in their capabilities, so everyone expects the emergence of a whole new class of sea robots. We do not yet fully understand what they can and should do at great depths. But at a depth of 100 meters, where we are now actively exploring the ocean, the tasks are already clear: they can, for example, repair the foundations of various structures and the bottoms of large ships, strengthen the supports of drilling platforms. Thus, we are talking about narrow-functional high-performance underwater mechanisms. This can also be the future of Up Great.