By Frank van den Nieuwenhuijzen, Fontys Source

Although he once graduated as a “philosophical engineer”, Taede Punter now wants to be mainly practical. In the Strijp TQ building, where part of Fontys University of Applied Sciences ICT is located, Punter’s inaugural speech ‘Software for smart systems’ in October gave the formal starting shot for his professorship. “Deep inside I want to make things and I am a carpenter.” This penchant for the tangible was also the reason to apply for a job as a lecturer in ICT & Technology at FHICT in 2015.

Punter wants to bridge the gap between theory and practice with both teaching and research. “You see that technology and ICT are increasingly embracing each other. You need both, to build smart systems. Technology, for example mechanics, is focused on the moving parts, but without software there is no control. Because systems become more complex, the software has to grow with them.”

With his professorship Punter wants to further professionalize the software development. “Software is a domain that is developing rapidly. Building robots is fun and relevant, but our research group is particularly interested in the methods and techniques behind them. Theoretical insights that we gather must eventually be translated back to the basics: education.”

“The new generation of ICT professionals is expected to get out of their comfort zone…”

One form of work in which this is already happening is the software labs. “Here students not only design, but also carry out their design in models and machines. Punter prefers to let students work with cases: “Companies get a concrete answer to a design question while students experience for themselves how much effect their ideas sometimes have.”

Another goal that comes into play here is ‘multidisciplinary working’. According to Punter, the average software developer is naturally introverted. “But the new generation of ICT professionals are expected to get out of their comfort zone… They have to think along about the integration of software with other disciplines such as mechanics and electronics. The software programmer must soon be able to read the models of the technician and incorporate that input into his software design. This skill must also ‘land’ in our curriculum.”

Punter’s research group focuses on sensor networks and mobile robots. “Both come together in automatic guided vehicles (AGVs) that you use, for example, to move an object from one production line to another. To enable these robots to do their precision work, they are equipped with dozens of sensors, which in turn places a lot of demands on the internal software.”

“Robotic football provides a wealth of information about artificial intelligence and robotics”

“We are currently working on the research project Let’s Move IT”, says Punter. “As more and more mobile robots are driving around on the shop floor, you also get problems with controlling them. This can lead to inefficient robot traffic or disruptions with electric doors and elevators. Let’s Move IT’s ambition is to make different AGVs work better together. “Participating companies, for example, build robots for pepper picking and dairy farming. They bring in the issues to which we want to find an answer.”

Punter is also tinkering with a robot football team. “Some people see this as Spielerei. However: robot football provides a wealth of information about artificial intelligence and robotics.” The creators of the RoboCup – an annual World Cup for robot teams – aim to have a team ready by 2050 that can beat the real FIFA world champion. “In parts of the football game, robots are well on their way. Such as the TechUnited robots from TU/e, which shoot more accurately at goal than PSV’s selection players.”

Back to Punter’s former study Philosophy of science, technology and society at the University of Twente. How does he view the implications of technology on our lives? “Technology changes people, for sure. But that is not yet a reason for fear or gloom. Robots may be able to do a lot, but they can usually just focus on one task. You shouldn’t ask an ironing robot to also pat the windows. We humans remain more versatile.”

But Teade Punter doesn’t actually want to look too much at the philosophical side. “There are still so many practical questions we run into. I think it’s more important that Fontys reaches a higher level in terms of software development and robotics than really working on distant horizons.”

From embedded to ‘cyber physical’

‘Embedded systems’ have existed for a long time. This is integrated electronics and software that is built into devices that you do not directly recognize as computers, such as the thermostat of your CV. Often without us being aware of this, these applications play an increasing role in all kinds of sectors of society: from care to transport and energy.

‘Smart’ systems go a step further. Several embedded systems are linked together, so it is important that they communicate with each other. Teade Punter: “It is not only about communication between systems, but also between the system and the environment. Smart systems are increasingly becoming cyber physical systems, based on the combination of IT and technology. The software is, as it were, the lubricating oil of the system.”