Wired In: Naira Hovakimyan


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On Sundays, staff writer Paul Wood spotlights a high-tech difference-maker. This week, Naira Hovakimyan, the Grafton and Lillian B. Wilkins Professor of Mechanical Science and Engineering at the University of Illinois. She co-founded IntelinAir with CEO Alfred Eisaian.

What's the current state of development in IntelinAir?

Right now we are focused on digital agriculture. We are creating the "MRI of farms" by flying drones at low altitudes and taking high-resolution imagery.

How can the information help farmers?

We hope that with this technology we will be able to develop an early warning system for anomaly detection to prevent major damage, and alert farmers on taking actions ahead of time. It is obvious that with today's farming techniques it will be impossible to feed the 9 billion people on the Earth in 2050. IntelinAir aims to contribute to this challenge in a novel way that can have a long-lasting impact.

What are you excited most about now?

Currently, we are very excited by our SecureCore architecture, developed jointly with Lui Sha from Computer Science, which helps to prevent cyberattacks on autopilots. This solution can handle simultaneously software and mechanical failures.

You've worked all over the world. Do you enjoy your experience at the university? Will you stay here?

I enjoy every day of my work here at UIUC. I got incredible opportunities for expanding my research in a few different directions with interdisciplinary collaborations. The high-quality program of graduate education at UIUC, determined by its incredible faculty, provides me with opportunities for recruiting outstanding students, who are capable of working across the boundaries of psychology, human factors, and computer science to open new unprecedented opportunities for exponential growth of my research program. I have been very pleased with my experience, and yet find it hard to predict the future, given the troublesome economic situation of the state.

What kind of work are you doing in the UI's Intelligent Robotics Lab?

Our work is very interdisciplinary. We work on diverse problems, including development of flying co-robots to help firefighters build situation awareness in emergency response, to aid elderly to age in place, to analyze the impact of Amazon Prime Air on society once the drones start delivering packages in Manhattan.

Are drones a natural progression from your previous research?

Drones represent just one dimension of my work. I am a mathematician by my training, and my Ph.D. was in optimization and differential games. While in Germany, I worked on the theory of chaos. In France, I worked on robust control problems. At Georgia Tech, I worked on neural network-based learning methods for flight control and applications of those to UAVs. Later at Virginia Tech, we developed the L1 adaptive control, which solved some of the fundamental robustness problems in nonlinear adaptive control, and we were fortunate to have opportunities to validate those results on commercial jets and Learjets. This year we will fly the controller on an F-16. Drones do not cover my work in its entire scope, yet represent one important dimension with commercialization opportunities.

What is next for you?

I have plans to finish two more books in the next five years. I would like to see my students leading major innovations in the world based on the training that they get in my lab. I would like to see them holding faculty jobs in top universities or leading positions in major industries. I would like to see IntelinAir growing into a powerful and prominent company. I would like to see some of my students creating other companies based on their work in our lab. In the near future, personally, I think I will be more focused on the cybersecurity solution developed in collaboration with my colleagues from Computer Science and will do my best to support that development and its commercialization, if at all possible. We have a unique opportunity there. Such a solution should help all robots be safe from software viruses and attacks by hackers.

Do you use social media?

Not really. I do have accounts on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, but I would not think of myself as an active user. We are trying to post our lab achievements on our YouTube channel, Facebook and Twitter, but beyond that we do not spend extra time on active marketing.

Books or Kindle?

I don't have a Kindle. But I read more from my laptop than real books.

Any wearable electronics?

Not yet! And I would add, "Never say no"!

Reporter (retired)

Paul Wood retired as a reporter in 2019 after 38 years with The News-Gazette.

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