The newest member of the European Union is already a player in European research. Croatia does well in R&D, with a respectably high participation rate in the European research Framework Programmes, given its size and non-EU status at the time. In 'information and communication technologies' (ICT), it is already at the forefront - participating in pioneering projects in robotics and intelligent transport infrastructure.
On Monday, 1 July 2013, Croatia - a country transformed in just two decades from violent conflict to a stable democracy, capable of taking on the obligations of EU membership - became the 28th Member State of the European Union. On the eve of its accession, European Commission President Barroso said, 'Croatia's accession to the European Union is a historic event, which returns the country to its rightful place at the heart of Europe.'
From an ICT infrastructure point of view, the country lags behind other EU countries. Currently, only two thirds of households have broadband internet access - below the average proportion in the rest of the EU, which is around three-quarters. But, when it comes to e-Government, Croatia performs quite well according to some measures: use of e-Government services for education matches the EU average, and the transparency of e-Government with regard to personal data is higher than the average for the rest of Europe, as is the usability of online government services by non-Croatians.
Croatian ICT research
Croatia has already been a participant in European research programmes for some time - taking part in 447 projects in total. This has grown from just 29 projects in the Fifth Framework Programme (FP5) to 130 in FP6 and now 256 in the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7). Croatian organisations are partners in 25 of the ICT projects funded under FP7.
In particular, the University of Zagreb has participated in around 40 % of the Framework Programme projects won with Croatian partners. Founded in 1669, it is the oldest and largest university in South-Eastern Europe and contributes over 50 % of the country's total research output. When it comes to ICT, the Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Computing accounts for around a fifth of the Framework Programme projects contracted by the university, many of which are truly remarkable.
Herding bees, or using robot 'sheepdogs' to control fish, may sound like fanciful ideas, but this is what a team from the LARICS lab of the University of Zagreb is working on currently, with encouraging results.
In the nature, swarms of bees and shoals of fish often coordinate their movements through a simple set of rules, each individual taking their cues from their neighbour to produce complex, coordinated patterns. Researchers have already had significant success in understanding and reproducing those rules and behaviours, but the ASSISI_BF (1) project, launched in February 2013, is taking things to a whole new level.
Led by the Artificial Life Lab in Graz, Austria, the project team aim to develop robots that not only 'learn' the social language of swarming or flocking animals, but can influence the collective behaviours of such groups. Eventually, the researchers hope to establish a hybrid self-organising society from a mix of robots and animals. Human operators would then be able to set goals for these communities, leading to applications in sustainable agriculture and livestock management.
A team from the project's Croatian partner, the University of Zagreb, is developing the hardware and software for a 'Honey-bee interaction arena' - a real-time, adaptive 'interpreter' for the language of bees. The researchers then aim to use this tool to communicate with bees and explore the features that make honey-bee societies so robust and efficient, so as to adapt such features for use in their hybrid robot/bee systems.
The LARICS research laboratory is also involved in the EC-SAFEMOBIL (2) project - devoted to the development of accurate motion estimation and control methods and technologies for unmanned vehicles.
'Unmanned aerial vehicles' (UAVs), commonly known as ′drones′, can get a bad press. But combined with autonomous systems they can play an important role in applications such as disaster management.
Where rescue or relief missions are impossible or high risk for human pilots, autonomous robot helicopters could step in to help or replace them - but these systems need to be reliable and able to position themselves accurately. The aim of the project is to develop abilities such as landing on mobile platforms (e.g. ship decks) and advanced cooperation, coordination and traffic control so they could be used for automation of industrial warehousing or transport.
LARICS expertise in robotics, intelligent control, flexible manufacturing systems and UAVs is contributing to developing 'Simultaneous localisation and mapping' (SLAM) using on-board sensors, dynamic routing and distributed autonomous warehousing traffic management. So it may not be long before robot drones can help coordinate disaster relief or manage the warehousing and transport of goods.
The university is also involved in projects to improve our communications, water supply and traffic infrastructures. The communications project 'Network of the Future' will rely on new technologies and architectures and, above all, on high-speed optical network infrastructure. Europe's lead in the field of optical networks could be lost if we return to an uncoordinated and scattered approach.
The BONE (3) project therefore set out to stimulate collaboration, an exchange of researchers, and integration of activities and know-how by establishing Virtual Centres of Excellence and reaching out to national research programmes, both inside and outside Europe. In particular, the University of Zagreb's Department of Telecommunications at the Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Computing organised and taught courses based on a Master's programme in 'optical communications and networks', building on the work of the E-PHOTON/ONE Network of Excellence funded under FP6.
The Faculty's Advanced Control Team has also contributed to the URBANWATER (4) project, which is developing an innovative ICT-based platform for efficient and integrated management of urban water resources and infrastructures.
Just 1 % of the Earth's surface water is liquid freshwater - the rest being salt water or ice. Demand has doubled in the last 70 years and is expected to increase by another 25 % in the next two decades. With urban areas accounting for 17 % of freshwater consumption in the EU, city water supplies are clearly an important piece of the puzzle.
The University of Zagreb's Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Computing had already helped modernise the Zagreb city water supply system in the early 2000s and is now using its expertise in wind farms and smart grids in the project. The aim is to build a platform that can incorporate weather prediction, data on surface-water reserves and household consumption and information on pressure and leakages. Combining advanced metering, real-time consumption data and demand-forecasting capability, adaptive pricing and user feedback, the system could even be interoperable with energy infrastructure management platforms.
Intelligent, sustainable transport
When it comes to updating transport infrastructure, 'Intelligent Transport Systems' (ITSs) are key. The Department of ITS at the University's Faculty of Traffic and Transport Sciences carries out research into architectures, technologies, services and tools for advanced traffic and transportation management. The Department is a partner in the ICSI (5) project's efforts to build a new ITS architecture that is less centralised than its predecessors.
Currently, architectures based on centralised control tend to have problems with updates to the transport infrastructure, such as increases in network size or amount of traffic. In the new, more flexible solution, intelligence for sensing and actuation will be distributed across the system, using local storage and computation capabilities to host a software platform that runs ITS applications. Communication with the control centre is only needed to update it with aggregated data from long-term operations, such as data mining, or for downloading software upgrades.
The ROADIDEA (6) project also looked into the innovation potential of the European ITS sector to reveal existing problems and bottlenecks for data utilisation and service build-up. The project team, which included the Croatian partner Meteo-Info, also tried to develop better methods and models to be utilised in different ITS service platforms.
Results from the project include innovation methodologies to help Europe make the most of its transport services, an 'Innovation Wiki' document library and pilot schemes that include a study of a statistical forecast model for road surface friction.
Meanwhile, the MOBINCITY (7) project aims to optimise the range and energy efficiency of 'fully electric vehicles' (FEVs) through an integrated ICT system which uses information from drivers, vehicles and transport or energy infrastructures to provide trip planning and routing that optimises energy charging and discharging opportunities.
Urban transport is responsible for about a quarter of transport CO2 emissions, so FEVs for public and private transport in our cities can contribute significantly to the lowering of the current pollution levels. The MOBINCITY team, which involves the Croatian Energy Institute 'Hrvoje Požar' (EIHP), is developing a system to supply vehicles with information on factors that could influence their performance - traffic, weather and road conditions, energy grid, etc. The vehicles will then use these to provide drivers with optimum route and charging strategies, increasing their practical range.
From e-Health to 'the cloud'
Croatia also has an active private sector involved in FP7 ICT research - especially in software systems. With 60 years' history behind them, Ericsson Nikola Tesla (ENT) is a Croatian provider of telecommunications products, solutions and services employing more than 1600 people.
The company's e-Health Systems Department develops and maintains large-scale and personalised health-care information systems, and is an active partner in the UNIVERSAAL (8) project. The team hopes to make it easier for the ICT industry in Europe to develop and deploy Ambient Assisted Living (AAL) solutions - software and hardware that improves quality of life for older citizens.
Elderly people often need help to maintain their independence, autonomy and even their health. As the European population ages, more and more citizens will require more of this type of support. AAL technologies use ICT to provide a solution. AAL applications aim to extend the time people can live in their preferred environment by increasing their autonomy and mobility. They also aim to enhance security, prevent social isolation and promote better and healthier lifestyles.
The project is developing an open, standardised platform and specification that should help AAL service providers build their services more quickly and cheaply. The team also aims to produce software tools that further decrease development costs and expand the AAL market by providing an application store, called uStore, through which developers, service providers and end-users will be able to offer and obtain AAL applications.
ENT is involved in the CLOUDSCALE (9) project, too, which aims to support cloud-computing customers in designing scalable and cost-efficient applications. CLOUDSCALE is developing tools and methods that detect scalability problems by analysing code and this will support Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) and Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) providers in designing their software for scalability, as well as trouble-shooting scalability problems in existing applications. The ENT team is primarily responsible for requirements collection, use-case preparation and results validation.
Croatia is also active in projects that promote regional or transnational research cooperation - especially in the Western Balkans regions, through such projects as 'Boosting EU-Western Balkan countries research collaboration in the monitoring and control area' (BALCON) and 'Western Balkan countries Inco-Net support in the field of ICT' (WINS-ICT).
Croatian organisations form a vital link in international research networks and grids too, such as the 'Multi-gigabit European research and education network and associated services' (GN3) project or the 'International cooperative action on grid computing and biomedical informatics between the European Union, Latin America, the Western Balkans and North Africa' (ACTION-GRID).
With an established track record, prospects seem good for Croatia to continue to grow as a regional leader and active contributor to EU research efforts in ICT.
The projects featured in this article have all been supported by the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) for research:
(1) 'Animal and robot societies self-organise and integrate by social interaction' (2) 'Estimation and control for safe wireless high mobility cooperative industrial systems' (3) 'Building the future optical network in Europe: the E-PHOTON/ONE network' (4) 'Intelligent urban water management system' (5) 'Intelligent cooperative sensing for improved traffic efficiency' (6) 'Road map for radical innovations in European transport services' (7) 'Smart mobility in smart city' (8) 'Universal open platform and reference specification for Ambient Assisted Living' (9) 'Scalability management for cloud computing'.