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2000 beautiful minds in CT

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Two thousand of the world’s foremost engineers, roboticists and mathematicians are currently in Cape Town for the 19th World Congress of the International Federation of Automatic Control (IFAC).

The conference is being held at the Cape Town Convention Centre and runs for the duration of this week.

Dr Kevin Brooks, president of the SA Council for Automation and Control (SACAC), which is hosting the conference, says: “A diverse agenda of topics range from how robot technology is being used in the Fukushima nuclear plant clean-up, to how control technology can make electricity grids smart, and enterprises more intelligent, through to innovative ways in which to teach tomorrow’s engineers and scientists.

According to conference organisers, African Agenda, twenty five parallel tracks make up the five-day conference, which is directly injecting over R35 million into Cape Town’s economy in the space of a week. On Friday, 29 August the event will end on a high note with a free public demonstration of automatically controlled quadrocopters in autonomous flight.

Brooks adds: “The conference theme is ‚ÄòPromoting automatic control for the benefit of humankind’. Automatic control is a complex field that requires, among others, close collaboration between mathematicians, roboticists and mechanical, electrical and software engineers. It is also one of the most important fields due to its potential to improve lives and make industries safer, more sustainable and more efficient.

Most of us interact with automatic control systems and sensors every day, including when remotely setting the temperature for an office air conditioner. Lesser known are the pioneering control technologies used in, for example, the autonomous vehicles that mine at extreme depths to save human miners from working under almost unbearable conditions. Or the revolutionary exoskeleton suits – wearable robotics that enable workers to lift heavy machinery without feeling its weight, or the weight of the suit – to reduce risk of injury, while increasing productivity.

Advances in this field are particularly relevant in SA where we are increasingly engaging in deep level mining in order to extract the natural resources that the economy needs. These include gold for the circuit boards that allow us to compute, and platinum for the catalytic converters that significantly reduce the toxic levels of exhaust gas.

Brooks says: “IFAQ 2014 will quicken the pace of innovation in automatic control and help profile South Africa as a contributor to the field. As important to SACAC is that the congress sparks the interest of SA’s future engineers, mathematicians and roboticists. We therefore encourage all interested young people and their families to join our public demonstration. Seeing a super-squad of six quadrocopters work in teams, fly in formation and even dance, without human pilots will help bring the technology to life.

While Cape Town’s financial gain from the conference is not insignificant, the real dividend will be the encouragement of South African youth to consider careers in engineering, mathematics, science and robotics as these are some of the skills our country needs most,” Brooks concludes.

SACAC originally started its bid to host IFAC in Cape Town in 1997 and was awarded the conference in 2007. In 2011, South African Professor Ian Craig of the University of Pretoria became President of IFAC, a prestigious international position which he holds to this day.

* Read more on what is happening at the conference in Arthur Goldstuck’s When the drones go dancing column.

* Follow Gadget on Twitter on @GadgetZA

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