PhD position: design and manufacturing of multi-modal robots for tree canopy exploration

WorkplaceZurich, Zurich region, Switzerland


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PhD position: design and manufacturing of multi-modal robots for tree canopy exploration

The Environmental Robotics research group was recently established at the Department of Environmental Systems Science. The group is seeking highly motivated PhD candidates to study and develop innovative robotics methods for the exploration of forest canopies.

Project background

Forests cover approximately 30% of the Earth’s surface, yet their canopies remain among the most challenging and underexplored environments. Forests are crucial, high-impact regions for the welfare of human society due to their importance for biodiversity, climate regulation and ecological balance. However, their canopies are restraining from exploration because of their physical properties: they reach heights of 20-60 meters above the ground and are often shielded by leaves and an intricate network of branches. For this reason, the understanding, sustainable exploitation and management of forest canopies has been constantly slowed down by a very simple challenge: how to access and collect data from such an impenetrable habitat with adequate spatial and temporal resolution? And this challenge is becoming even more critical today, due to the disruption of canopy functions caused by climate changes, land-use competition, invasive species and wildfires.

In the Environmental Robotics group, we study the science and technology of new multi-modal robots for comprehensive canopy exploration. The goal is to develop semiautonomous robots to navigate within forest canopies, and to collect images and biological samples at different spatial and temporal scales. In doing so, we will address key scientific questions on multi-modal locomotion, perception and soft manipulation necessary to interact with complex natural environments.

Job description

The forest canopies extend 20-60 meters above ground and have a complex 3D structure that alternates between dense and scattered vegetation. Because of this structural complexity, robots with a single mode of locomotion are not suitable to explore them thoroughly. It is no coincidence that several arboreal animals have evolved hybrid aerial and scansorial locomotion strategies to adapt to this multi-domain environment.

The research will specifically look at new ways of multi-modal mobility in robots to access aerial environment with dense vegetation. This includes:

  • Conceive and develop robots with multi-modal mobility (e.g. flight, perching, climbing).
  • Experiment with functional materials and innovative manufacturing approaches to implement these robots (e.g. smart materials, origami micromachining).
  • Validate on the field the proposed solutions.

The PhD project will be hosted at ETH and WSL, where the experiments inspiring these questions are being performed. This offers a unique opportunity to work in a multidisciplinary team of roboticists, ecologists and biologists with tight feedback between experiment and theory, and the possibility to access state-of-the-art field sites.

Your profile

The successful candidates should hold an MSc degree with a background in mechanical engineering, aerospace engineering or robotics. Experience in the field or aerial robotics, design and prototyping of mechanical systems will be beneficial but not required. Applicants are encouraged to apply, even if they do not meet all the above criteria. Fluent communication skills (written and presentation) in English are essential. The starting date will be mutually agreed upon by both parties.

ETH Zurich

ETH Zurich is one of the world’s leading universities specialising in science and technology. We are renowned for our excellent education, cutting-edge fundamental research and direct transfer of new knowledge into society. Over 30,000 people from more than 120 countries find our university to be a place that promotes independent thinking and an environment that inspires excellence. Located in the heart of Europe, yet forging connections all over the world, we work together to develop solutions for the global challenges of today and tomorrow.


We look forward to receiving online applications that include a CV, copies of all Bachelor and Master certificates, transcripts, contact details for two references, and a 1-page letter of motivation addressed to Prof. Dr. Stefano Mintchev.

Please note that we exclusively accept applications submitted through our online application portal. Applications via email or postal services will not be considered.

For more information, specific questions regarding the position can be directed to Professor Stefano Mintchev at smintchev [at] ethz[.]ch (no applications). Review of applications will be on an ongoing basis beginning April 1st, 2020 and continue until the position is filled.


In your application, please refer to and reference JobID 47657.

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