By the time she had turned 23 years old, Diana Voutyrakou’s unprecedented success in the field of robotics had already led to her securing a place on the Forbes “30 under 30” Greece list.
Now, at the age of 25, the list of accomplishments that Diana has achieved in her life so far is no less than extraordinary.
Diana (Dialekti) has already graduated from the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering of the Polytechnic. She is already a professor of robotics, founder of the Not For Profit Organisation Unique Minds (an academic resource for students), and she is also already a researcher in the ground-breaking field of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education, which uses innovative technology to assist children’s learning.
And if all of that was not impressive enough, young teacher Diana Voutyrakou was also behind the student team who invented ‘Buddy the cane’, a robotic stick designed to serve visually impaired people.
Robotic Cane for the Visually Impaired
Diana was one of two teachers who led students Iris Angelopoulou, Vasiliki Iliadi, Christos Rentzis and Alkiviadis Kotsikopoulos, to win gold for Greece at the 2020 International Robot Olympiad for youth, after creating a “smart” white cane for the blind.
“We hope our invention will help millions of people and improve their lives,” the team said at the time of their win.
Sponsored by one of the most prominent technology outlets in Greece, Plaisio, the team worked closely together during the coronavirus pandemic.
The CEO of Plaisio, Costas Gerardos, said the gold medal “was the most moving and optimistic milestone in my 18 years in the business.”
The white cane has a 3D detection sensor that warns the visually impaired user of obstacles in the environment, including overhead minimising the chances of hitting their head. It can also “read” traffic lights, allowing it to tell users when to cross the street.
With the theme for the 2020 International Robot Olympiad being ‘Robots: The future of travel’ Diana says that she decided with her students to create the robotic cane “when we saw a blind woman trying to cross the road and two illegally parked cars were blocking her.”
Diana spoke of the long journey from the original idea and the first design on paper to the final prototype in a recent interview.
“The first step is to search the internet for what solutions are currently available. Then you need to find the people who will be your future users and talk to them to understand their needs.
“Then begins the search for the sensors and processors you will need. Especially in our case, as automated sticks were and are on the market, chatting with users and conducting extensive internet research helped the solution we propose to be unique, innovative and trying to cover most of the problems described to us by the people we talked to.
“It is a big process with many small failures and mistakes, but when you try your final product and see it work, I think all this effort is justified,” says Diana.
Speaking about the robotic cane Diana explains, “This stick is a complete prototype with two main features. Initially it protects the user by warning them in time about obstacles that are at head height such as branches, signs, and so on which are a common cause of accidents.
“In addition, it gives the user a three-dimensional understanding of the space around them, notifying them of the direction of each obstacle and of how close it is.
“Our desire and our main goal at the moment is for the stick to be placed directly on the market, so that every potential user can obtain it. However, because it is unprecedented for us, this process will take some time.
“In terms of cost, the construction of our prototype cost a total of $80,” says Diana, hopeful that the invention will eventually be accessible and affordable to all those who need it.
Transforming Passion into a Profession
Diana explained that her interest in robotics began while she was a student, after two of her teachers selected her to be part of the school robotics team.
“After intensive preparation for months, we participated in the 1st Panhellenic WRO robotics competition and managed to take first place. So we were chosen to represent Greece in the World Robotics Olympiad that was then held in Korea.
“I see that trip to Korea in 2009 as the beginning of my robotics career,” says Diana.
Having been involved in robotics for 13 years now and managing to turn this passion into her profession, Diana dreams of being able to help others to succeed in a similar way, by turning what they love into a career.
With this in mind, and believing in the importance of education and that all the problems of our society begin and end in its proper provision, Diana founded Unique Minds with Pavlos Symentis in 2016, a not for profit (NFP) organisation that helps students and young adults to identify and follow their ideal academic path.
“For me, it all starts and ends in the education provided to a child and the stimuli received during their education,” explains Diana.
“As a student I had the good fortune to meet robotics, which really changed my life. And that’s because two excellent teachers gave me the opportunity beyond the standard school curriculum.
“Each of us has a unique separate mind and must receive the necessary stimuli to chart its academic course.
“Through Unique Minds we open conversations between universities and students, they talk to each other in open dialogue, about different faculties.
“But the most important thing is that students are able to participate in workshops simulations.
“So for the first time the student sees in practice what it will be like to study at the school that interests them, before completing an application.
In the first four years, Unique Minds managed to help more than 20,000 students from all over Greece learn about the schools, universities and faculties they were interested in.
Bridging the Gender Gap in Tech
In an interview last year with Women4IT, an organisation that aims to raise awareness about digital skills and the gender gap, Diana was asked what it was like to be a woman working in the male-dominated tech sector.
“Unfortunately, not only robotics, but engineering in general, is considered a man’s profession. Thus, I will rephrase the question to “what is it like to always be the minority in your work environment?” explains Diana.
“Many times, you feel that your opinion or your ideas will not be heard and you will experience unconscious bias from most of your colleagues and also from your customers or beneficiaries.
“In particular, many times I was treated like I was the secretary and not a robotics instructor, or I have attended many meetings where everyone was expecting me to take notes and bring the photocopies instead of all the other people in the room.
“I thought that this was a problem that we are experiencing only in Greece, but after my participation in the Girls20 Global Summit in 2018 and in the Global Women’s Forum 2020 I realised that only a vast minority of countries have achieved diversity in terms of gender in the tech industry.”
Diana is firm in her beliefs about what the industry should be doing to encourage more girls to consider a career in tech.
“To begin with, I firmly believe that we need more female role models in the tech industry,” says Diana.
“These role models would be able to inspire and motivate young girls, and they could also guide and advise them on their first steps into this male-dominated industry.
“Once, I read that “we cannot be what we cannot see”, and this is exactly what we are experiencing,” continues Diana.
“For years, there were many stereotypes and norms which disheartened girls from following tech studies and careers and caused the lack of leading female role models in the industry.
“For a girl to be confident enough to consider a career in tech we need to firstly find and highlight the great work that women are doing in the industry; and secondly create a network with mentors and mentees, where women who have succeeded in this industry can provide help to others.”
For Diana, who has always set goals throughout her life, the pandemic came as a big shock, as it effectively changed all the plans she had set for the future.
“With a suitcase in hand ready to leave for Germany, the pandemic brought me to plan my next steps within the borders of Greece, at least until the situation improves,” says Diana.
However, no matter how everything may change around her, two of Diana’s dreams will always remain unaffected.
“The first is personal. I always dream of what I will do in my life to fulfil me, to make me happy and above all to feel that through my work I can contribute to the society in which I live,” she says.
“And the second is a promise and concerns the empowerment of more young girls to get involved with STEM.”
Sacrifice for Success
Having achieved so much at such a young age, Diana admits that this level of success does entail a degree of sacrifice.
“You definitely sacrifice things to achieve your goals,” says Diana. “Mainly free time and social life.”
“As a student, I had quite a limited amount of time given the robotics championship, so I was deprived of going out with my friends. However, I definitely gained so much from every project I implemented that I would not change that for anything.
“I have a motto that I often say: that the opposite of success is not failure but stagnation, and I remind myself of this every time I want to give up.
“I want to constantly evolve and only if you constantly set and achieve new goals will you achieve this.”
Achievements and Distinctions
Some of Diana Voutyrakou’s Achievements and Distinctions to Date include:
2009: 1st place in the Panhellenic Robotics Competition, WROHELLAS Participation in the World Robotics Olympiad in Korea
2011: 1st place in the Panhellenic Robotics Competition, WROHELLAS 9th Place in the World Robotics Olympiad in Abu Dhabi
2014: 2nd Place in the Pan-European Robomac Competition in Skopje
2016: 1st place in the Panhellenic Robotics Competition, WROHELLAS Participation in the World Robotics Olympiad in India
2017: 1st place in the Panhellenic Robotics Competition, WROHELLAS 7th Place in the World Robotics Olympiad in Costa Rica & Greek International Women Award (Young Star Category)
2018: 1st place in the World Exhibition of Youth Science and Technology in China
2019: Education Leaders Award, 30 Under 30 Forbes (Greek List) & Participation in Rising Women at the Table Program (Selected as 1 out of 9 women worldwide) by G (irls) 20 and TheNewNow
2020: 1st place at the International Robotics Olympiad in Korea
…with many more accomplishments to come, of this we are certain.
Photos: Διάνα Βουτ Facebook page