The 25th edition of the IEEE International Conference on Emerging Technologies and Factory Automation (ETFA) was held in Vienna from Sep. 8-11. Not only in Vienna, actually, but worldwide. The COVID pandemic necessitated to explore new ways and invent a new mode of operation. The lockdown period during spring and the lack of opportunities to meet in person created a strong wish within the community for a “real” conference. With a view to worldwide travel restrictions, going back to normal was of course unrealistic, and so the organizers decided to try a hybrid delivery: on site in Vienna for all those who were able to come, and online for those who did not have the possibility to travel.
Going hybrid above all meant to reinvent the conference from scratch with the goal to achieve the best possible integration of online and onsite audience. As there was no prior experience, neither in the organizing team not within IES or IEEE, it was “emerging technology” in the true sense of the word. Apart from streaming of live presentations and using multiple cameras to create community feeling, the biggest technical challenge was to allow for simultaneous discussion after the paper presentations. The effort was considerable, and the setup had never been tested before in this level of complexity. Organizational challenges were manifold, too: As the audience spanned almost all time zones from Australia to California, compiling the program became difficult. A safety concept had to be elaborated in accordance with national regulations, which included distancing, facial masks, restrictions on lunch breaks and social events, and extensive documentation for contact tracing. For the organizing team, all of this was a thrilling experience from the first to the last minute.
Nevertheless, ETFA 2020 had a size comparable to previous year. 413 papers were submitted, 281 (regular and work in progress) were ultimately accepted, and the conference was attended by 120 people in Vienna and about 200 online, representing 30 countries from all continents. As a post-conference survey showed, an overwhelming majority enjoyed the event, and in particular the remote participants indicated that they always felt integrated and never as 2nd class attendees. Going hybrid was a high risk, but in the end, it was more than worth the effort!
Thilo Sauter and Francisco Vasques, ETFA 2020 General Chairs
Lucia Lo Bello and Valeriy Vyatkin, ETFA 2020 Program Chairs
Article written by Thilo Sauter