Featured Fellow: Roboticist Volkan Isler

Editor’s note: IonE’s nearly 70 resident fellows — faculty with appointments throughout the University of Minnesota system who come together here to share ideas, inspiration and innovation across disciplinary boundaries — are among the shining stars of IonE’s signature approach to addressing global grand challenges. Over the course of the next year, this series will introduce our diverse resident fellows in their own words. Here we interview IonE resident fellow Volkan Isler, associate professor in the College of Science and Engineering. Let the conversation begin!

What is your current favorite project?

Our lab [the Robotic Sensor Networks Lab] is building robotic systems and deploying them in environmental applications. We have developed a network of robotic boats to track invasive fish. We are now developing a team of unmanned aerial and ground vehicles that can do infield measurements of crops such as apples. Hopefully soon, we will be able to perform other kinds of infield inspection, such as disease detection.

So far, the success of robotics is mainly in factory settings that can be controlled. Taking them into the field, into an unstructured environment, allows for uncertainties to be introduced. This makes structured and uniform agricultural settings, such as apple orchards or corn fields, ideal for the transition to more natural environments.

What is your greatest environmental concern?

I’m worried about the intersection of biotechnology and the environment. For example, food and chemicals. We don’t know what the chemicals in our food are doing to us. With GMO’s most people have a gut reaction for or against. For me, the biggest concern is that I don’t know what they’re doing to us and our children. Until recently, no one was eating food that contained chemicals but now everything has them and we don’t know their long term effects.

What is the most interesting thing in your backpack?

Annie’s snack bars, wet wipes and two bottles of hand sanitizer. You can tell we have a pre-schooler.

What is the personality trait you rely on most?


What gives you hope?

Young people, students. The general optimism and idealism that comes with being young and confident. As humans in general we rely on them to propel us forward. We get grumpy as we get older.

Reprinted with permission from Institute on the Environment.