Switzerland, a low-key robotics giant

We are still a long way from the thinking robot. But we know how to make robots that can hold a soft plastic cup without crushing it or dropping it when filling it. And incidentally, it’s already a lot. EPFL

This is where the robots of tomorrow are born, flexible, agile, collaborative and as smart as a machine can be. Visit to an EPFL laboratory in Lausanne and a start-up that emerged from it.

This content was published on March 12, 2022 – 11:00 am

It’s not a marketing slogan, it’s a fact: in robotics, Switzerland is world champion. “If we consider the 20 largest laboratories in the world, almost a quarter are in Switzerland, although we only have eight million inhabitants”, confirms Aude Billard, who directs the Laboratory of Algorithms and Systems.external link), from the Ecole Polytechnique Federal de Lausanne (EPFL). On the first floor of one of the futuristic buildings on the vast campus, this Swiss pioneer in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and her team make robots cohabit with humans, often writing software for existing robots.

A physicist by training, Aude Billard worked at CERN before completing her PhD in Artificial Intelligence in Edinburgh and taking up a professorship at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. Along with her professorship at the EPFL since 2003, she has co-founded three start-ups and leads the Swiss Thematic Network in Robotics. She is also active in politics, as a city councilor (member of the legislature) for the city of Lausanne. swissinfo.ch

Because Switzerland is not primarily a country that makes robots. These come from Japanese, Korean, Chinese, German or American factories. Its strength lies above all in research and the start-ups that are born from it, especially in new materials, programming or AI. The National Fund (SNSFexternal link), a public body that supports research, understood this well when it launched the National Competence Center (NCCR) in 2010.external link) in robotics, which brings together six universities and institutes, under the management of EPFL

From the lab to the factory

After 12 years and around 85 million invested, it’s time to move on to another phase. On January 1, 2022, Innosuisse, a public agency that encourages innovation, launched the NTN Innovation Boosterexternal link in robotics, endowed with half a million francs a year, whose management was entrusted to Aude Billard.

“We are going to support at least ten projects a year, and also support these young shoots, so that they can obtain broader funding”, explains the new director. Because if the PRN was mainly dedicated to cutting-edge research, now it is necessary to attack the markets, which are increasingly demanding in robots of all kinds. As Aude Billard sums it up, “Creating a start-up is one thing, producing a real product is another.”

And in which areas will these products emerge? One of the great challenges of robotics is to move from rigid structures, made of metal or rigid plastic, to more flexible materials. Because only a “soft robot” hand can approach the delicacy and efficiency of the human hand. It is much more than a matter of comfort when it comes to interacting with the environment or with people. “Research has come a long way. There are certain areas that can now lead to industrial products. That’s why I hope to see great achievements”, predicts the boss of LASA.

These non-rigid materials, however, pose all sorts of new control and accuracy problems, particularly in gripping objects. Imagine teaching a machine to pick up a carton of milk without crushing or dropping it. “As soon as we have these flexible materials, they become very non-linear and there are also a lot of uncertainties in the measurements. So we’re going to have to develop algorithms to control that, and that includes AI. But I think robotics will reach a point where it becomes possible,” explains Aude Billard.

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medicine and ethics

Medical robotics is another area where Switzerland excels. It constitutes a large part of the research being done in the PRN. The palette is very wide, from surgical robots to microrobots that are implanted in the human body, passing through active prostheses or the famous exoskeletons, which help with rehabilitation or restore autonomy to people with reduced mobility.

Furthermore, the new NTN Robotique will also be open to areas that are not strictly technical. The rise of robots raises ethical and legal questions, which Aude Billard considers “absolutely essential”. “We will be attentive to that and if we have good proposals, we will support them”.

programming for everyone

At LASA, we did not expect the NTN to bear fruit from the laboratory’s research. Three start-ups have already been born there, including AICA, which since 2019 has been working to make programming robots used in industry or crafts accessible to everyone.

“When you buy a robot, programming costs at least as much as the machine itself,” explains Baptiste Busch, co-founder of Young Shoot. Coming from the technical schools of Nantes, Bordeaux and Warsaw, this doctorate in robotics arrived on the shores of Lake Geneva thanks to a European project. And he feels like a fish in water.

“We had some manufacturers come to LASA to ask us to apply the solutions we were developing on their machines. But it is not a laboratory’s vocation to do that”, says the head of AICA. “So we decided, with Professor Billard, to create this start-up”.

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Initially, AICA obtained consulting mandates, but very quickly started to work with robotic integrators, that is, the companies that make the connection between the manufacturer of a machine and its user.

“We offer them software solutions to change the way they program robots, solutions that are less rigid than what is currently done and that are the result of our own research”, explains Baptiste Busch.

And the bonus is that AICA also provides an interface that will allow the customer to reprogram their own robot when they want to assign it a new task. This is quite intuitive and without the need for an engineering degree. It will also be able, thanks to learning algorithms, to show the machine the task to be performed, without having to reprogram it.

Enough to put worker robots at the service of everyone, from the big industrialist to the small craftsman.

Robotics and sustainability

Also involved in politics (on the Lausanne City Council in socialist ranks), Aude Billard doesn’t mince her words: “You have to be honest. Sustainable robots, I don’t really believe in them. On the other hand, we can take care of energy efficiency, not using robots when not necessary. It’s like with cars. We will always need that, if only for ambulances or firefighters, but we really have to ask ourselves what it costs society at large.

Because obviously, whoever says robot means battery, to be charged with electricity that is not necessarily produced sustainably. And to cite two concrete cases: “For example, it will be necessary to ask the question of the usefulness of a robotic dog, compared to a real dog. But if we are talking about an automatic wheelchair, and not a mechanical one, I think that society will lean towards the solution that gives people greater mobility, greater autonomy, a more pleasant life”.

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