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Spotlight on Young Researchers – revisited 5 years later: From drones to space robotics



We catch up with researchers featured in Spotlight on Young Researchers 5 years ago to see how their careers have developed.

When we wrote about Miguel Olivares Mendez in the 2017 edition of Spotlight on Young Researchers, the researcher was working on an FNR JUMP project, focussing on developing algorithms for autonomous drones. The robotics scientist has continued to build his career in Luxembourg – 5 years later, Miguel is a Professor leading a research group with a focus on space robotics.

Are there any developments that came from your Proof of Concept project that you would like to share?

“The outcome of this project was used to apply for an international project in collaboration with University of York (UK) and Hochschule Bonn-Rhein-Sieg (DE), and later to obtain my first European funded project, SESAME, with more than 14 partners.”

How has your research or its focus developed or evolved in the last five years?

“My research focus and development has changed and evolved enormously during the latest five years. Back then, I was working with drones developing algorithms for autonomous navigation.

“In 2019, I was appointed Professor in Space robotics and started my own research group (SpaceR). I started the group by developing two new cutting-edge research labs, one to simulate the surface of the Moon and another one to simulate orbital operation and scenarios. This was a big change in terms of the environment and constraints of the robots, but I was familiar with working on autonomous navigation for robots.

“In addition, once my group was created and members hired, we extended to other research topics, such as robotic manipulation in space, guidance, navigation and control for spacecraft, multi-robot cooperation and mechanical design for active space debris removal.”

You originally came to Luxembourg for a Postdoc position in 2013. When you were featured in Spotlight on Young Researchers in 2017, you were a Postdoc and PI on a Proof of Concept project. What is your position now?

“I’m now Professor on Space Robotics at the University of Luxembourg and head of the Space Robotics (SpaceR) research group. I’m working less with drones and more with planetary robotics and orbital robotics. Now, I’m leading projects and supervise 10 PhD students and 7 PostDocs. In addition, I have set up 2 new facilities: 1) the LunaLab, a Lunar analogue facility, and 2) the Zero-G Lab, a facility to emulate in-orbit operations and orbital scenarios in micro-gravity.”

The LunaLab
[photo by Phillippe Ludivig]

What have your highlights been in the last five years?

“Many things, the construction of the LunaLab and Zero-G Lab during the pandemic was really a big challenge and source of pride.”

You have now been in Luxembourg for nearly 10 years. What are your impressions of Luxembourg’s research and innovation in this time?

“I’m always impressed with the research of the SnT and the University of Luxembourg, the enormous amount of talented people and highly innovative companies present in Luxembourg.

“Since my research focus is now Space Robotics, I’m enthusiastic about the Ministry of Economy’s governmental initiative on Space Resources. I envision a fruitful future for Luxembourg in the topic of Space activities, due to the outstanding ecosystem that the Luxembourg Space Agency and the government of Luxembourg is creating in collaboration with the SnT, University of Luxembourg and LIST.”

  • u003cdiv class=u0022wpb_text_column wpb_content_element u0022u003ernu003cdiv class=u0022wpb_wrapperu0022u003ernu003ch3u003eu003cemu003eMiguel Angel Olivares Mendez works on mobile robots – more specifically: he develops algorithms that enable drones to fly around and perform various tasks autonomously, such as inspecting big structures. The Spanish national came to Luxembourg in 2013 after he came across a Postdoc position that fit like a glove. Currently a Principal Investigator on an FNR PoC project at the University of Luxembourg’s SnT, Miguel’s goal is to help bridge the gap between research and industry.u003c/emu003eu003c/h3u003ernWhen Miguel finished his PhD Robotics and Automation in his home country Spain, he and his wife made a list of potential countries they could move to for the next step. At first, Luxembourg was not on the list, but then Miguel found a Postdoc opportunity he could not resist:rnu003cblockquoteu003eu003cemu003e“The position that Prof. Holger Voos was offering me was to have the possibility to create from scratch a section of his group related to research with drones. The mix between the big challenge to construct this research line from nothing, combined with the beautiful city, the sensation of security in the streets, how this country is great to raise kids and to be located in the center of Europe convinced us to come to Luxembourg.”u003c/emu003eu003c/blockquoteu003ernMiguel’s work revolves around mobile robots (mainly unmanned aerial vehicles) – also called drones.rnu003cblockquoteu003eu003cemu003e“u003c/emu003eu003cemu003eMy research is focused on the development of the algorithms needed to give to the drones the capabilities to fly autonomously to conduct civil applications,”u003c/emu003e Miguel explains, adding that he for example works on selecting the sensor to fit on the drone, developing the algorithm that extracts the information gathered by the drone – and using AI techniques to make the drone able to navigate on its own.u003c/blockquoteu003ernu003c/divu003ernu003c/divu003ernu003cdiv class=u0022wpb_text_column wpb_content_element u0022u003ernu003cdiv class=u0022wpb_wrapperu0022u003ernu003ch3u003eAutonomous inspection of large areas and structuresu003c/h3u003ernThe idea of drones that can navigate an area on their own might sound very science fiction, but Miguel explains they have multiple uses in industry, such as the application he is currently working on in his FNR Proof-of-Concept (PoC) project: u003cemu003e“Some of the civil applications I’m working on are the use of drones for the autonomous inspection of big structures, such as airplanes”. u003c/emu003ernrnMiguel has been involved in several projects during his time in Luxembourg, all focused around making autonomous drones ready for industry use. One collaboration with the Luxembourgish army and LuxConnect saw him working on drones to help with the surveillance of big areas, while an FNR CORE project he worked on focused on developing a safety control system for remotely human-piloted drones.rnu003cblockquoteu003eBut what does it take for a drone to be able to inspect airplanes and large areas, without someone manually controlling every move? Miguel explains: u003cemu003e“To accomplish these tasks, the drones have to be able to take off and land autonomously (even on moving vehicles), measure the environment, detect obstacles, avoid collisions, follow moving objects and generate optimal trajectories to reach the desired destination.”u003c/emu003eu003c/blockquoteu003ernu003ch3u003e“I’m absolutely impressed by Luxembourg”u003c/h3u003ernSo how is Miguel feeling about his choice to move to Luxembourg to continue his research career? The answer is positive, with Miguel especially appreciating the many opportunities he has had to collaborate with partners outside academia:rnu003cblockquoteu003eu003cemu003e“I’m absolutely impressed by Luxembourg. I already met some people from the government, and many companies. I never could imagine to be seated with CEOs, CTOs, general managers from big companies and feel that they are more interested in what I was doing that me in what they are doing. u003c/emu003ernrnu003cemu003e“This level of respect, confidence and trust in research is completely unique and wonderful. I was involved in projects with the Luxemburgish Army, and the Department of Defense of Luxembourg, Luxair, CargoLux, Luxconnect, Deep Space Industries, CopterSystems, VdL, MUDAM, and I talked with more than 10 companies in the last years.”u003c/emu003eu003c/blockquoteu003ernSince December 2016, Miguel has taken on major responsibilities in the research activities on mobiles robotics in the Automation u0026amp; Robotics Research Group at the SnT at the University of Luxembourg, and currently also co-supervises no less than 3 PhD candidates.rnrnMiguel was also recently featured in’s series ‘Meet the Scientists’:rnrnu003ciframe title=u0022Meet the scientists: Miguel Olivares, Robotics Engineeru0022 src=u0022 width=u0022500u0022 height=u0022281u0022 frameborder=u00220u0022 allowfullscreen=u0022allowfullscreenu0022 data-mce-fragment=u00221u0022u003eu003c/iframeu003ernrnu003chr /u003ernrnArticle published 24 August 2017rnu003ch3u003eMore informationu003c/h3u003ernu003culu003ern tu003cliu003eu003ca href=u0022 Angel Olivares Mendez University of Luxembourg profileu003c/au003eu003c/liu003ern tu003cliu003eu003ca href=u0022 u0026amp; Robotics Research Group at the SnT at the University of Luxembourgu003c/au003eu003c/liu003ernu003c/ulu003ernu003c/divu003ernu003c/divu003e

About Spotlight on Young Researchers

Spotlight on Young Researchers is an annual FNR campaign where we shine a Spotlight on early-career researchers across the world with a connection to Luxembourg. Over 100 features have been published since the first edition in 2016. Starting in 2022, we are revisiting researchers featured 5 or more years ago to show the many paths that can follow a PhD in research, inside and outside academia.

Miguel Angel Olivares Mendez at work with his drones in 2017.
Miguel in 2022 in the LunaLab facility at the SnT