“I always loved working with tools. When I was young I had an electric train, a Märklin, and I used to go underneath the big table with the platforms, wrench in hand, to try to screw things and fix little traffic lights and level crossings…”
When it was time to choose a school branch Isabel Ribeiro knew without a doubt that she was meant to do engineering. “I did some indicative tests that worked out that I would be good in either mechanical or electric engineering. Mechanical engineering, no! I didn’t want to get my hands dirty and full of oil. I didn’t know exactly what electrical engineering was, but I was sure that it was what I wanted to do.”
In 1972 Isabel was accepted as a student at Instituto Superior Técnico, where she ended up graduating with honors. Right as Isabel was finishing her studies, opportunities started to appear in the industry. But the calling for an academic career was greater, so when an assistant position was opened at IST Isabel took it as the right opportunity. The several candidates at the time, who would almost all ended up being involved with CAPS (Centro de Análise e Processamento de Sinais, the “incubator” institute at the time), had to take an exam, a sort of final course evaluation, to be seriated. “I immediately told Professor Fonseca de Moura that I only wanted to teach servomechanisms and automation at the electrical engineering department. He told me ‘Ah, but that was the part of the exam where you had the worst grades…’ Of course, I was naïve to think that I would only teach that, I taught that and many other subjects.” Isabel Ribeiro kept working with Professor Fonseca de Moura throughout the duration of her Master’s degree and on December of 1983, she became, together with Professor Isabel Lourtie, one of the first two women with a Master’s degree in electrical and computer engineering in Portugal. “Our department was characterized by pioneer women named Isabel. The first two women to become full Professors were also both named Isabel, me and Isabel Trancoso.”
When Professor Fonseca de Moura moved to the United States in 1984, he offered his tutees the choice to pick a different PhD supervisor or to keep working with him, the second meaning some possible open doors to work with American universities, particularly MIT (Boston) and CMU (Pittsburgh) “It was almost a warm bed regime. The same day some of his PhD students left, someone else would arrive to stay with him and his wife, Professor Manuela Veloso.” This led Isabel to do a PhD with large stays in the USA, mostly theoretical on signal processing, although the call to put hands in action and see the direct results was still present. “We had a tight group at CMU and any excuse to get together was very welcomed. In one of our regular picnics, I met Alberto Elfes, a Brazilian researcher that worked at the Robotics Institute. He invited me to go for a visit and I was walking in the hallway when a small robot started following me. It was a circular unit with sonars and I immediately knew that that was what I wanted to do when back to Portugal after PhD.”
The theoretical knowledge Isabel had acquired turned out to be very valuable for her future achievements. After returning to Portugal the opportunity came up to work on an automated guided vehicle (AGVs) a type of robot that follows a specific path designed at floor level. “We buried a wire on the floor, with an electric current going through it, that generates a magnetic field the robot can ‘sniff’ out. We used skates’ wheels, bought window-cleaning motors for cars in the flea market, and we finally managed to make a first AGV unit, with analogical control.” The money to keep working on such things was scarce, so when by coincidence an IST classmate, who worked for the factory Efacec, came to visit the lab and asked “Isabel, you know how to make AGVs?” the only possible answer was “Yes we do!”. At Efacec they were reformulating an electric transformer factory and already had the technology for automatic warehouses, but were looking to invest in AGVs for the material transportation. The option was either to buy from foreign companies or to make their own and grab the know-how. This was a big challenge, being resolved by a partnership between the university and the industry, something much less common at the time. In two years the project ended up developing a fleet of four state-of-the-art vehicles that turn out to be a business line of Efacec with facilities installed in Portugal and abroad.
Since then, the work in mobile robots carried on and around the nineteen-nineties Isabel became an Associate Professor at Instituto Superior Técnico. “I think my hands-on experience with the industry contributed to me getting an Associate Professor position“. At the time the Portuguese Government, particularly Minister Mariano Gago, decided to invest in R&D to promote the intersection of several groups and gain critical mass in research groups. That’s when the Institute for Systems and Robotics was created, funded by Ciencia programme, and the assurance that there were already people working on projects in the field of robotics made a difference, once again.“At that time I shared an office at CAPS with João Sentieiro, who had finished his PhD at Imperial College, and was the leader of the group, Filomena Viegas our secretary from the very beginning, and a mobile robot. And it wasn’t a big office at all! With the money from the Ciencia grant I knew I wanted to build an open space lab for the robot’s’ experiments.” Today, in the eighth floor of the North tower at IST, the Mobile Robotics lab (LRM), previously referred to as Isabel’s lab, is located right in front of Professor Isabel’s office, where she always wanted it to be.
Besides all the national and international projects, Professor Ribeiro’s career had a very important parallel component of project management, with some highly ranked institutions and positions. The passion for science bled into the people doing it, and the work towards a common goal. “I’m proud to say that I was the person who brought mobile robotics to Portugal. I’m happy to have been the seed that spread through ISR-Lisboa, ISR-Coimbra, ISR-Porto…The ripples of people kept propagating and nowadays we even have school children working on mobile robotics, so it’s time for me to live life. My passion now is that the experience I accumulated along my life may serve the youngest.”