It’s sitting at the table, dressed in his dark blue marinière, that Reachy awaits us this Friday. He will show us how he manages to stack wooden cubes. A little over two years old, the humanoid robot from Pollen Robotics has not yet mastered all fine motor skills, and must be assisted by a human to perform certain gestures.
A Pollen Robotics employee puts on a virtual reality headset and uses handcuffs to remotely manipulate Reachy’s articulated arms. After letting the cubes slip two or three times, the robot gets a nice stack of five. It may not mean anything to you, but it means a lot to him. “Reachy wouldn’t be able, for example, to pick up a pen from the table, almost excuses Matthieu Lapeyre, one of his two designers who co-founded the Bordeaux nugget Pollen Robotics with Pierre Rouanet in 2016. On the other hand, he knows how to make a circle perfect, which is difficult for humans. 🇧🇷
Against competitors ten times more expensive
The two former Inria researchers (National Institute for Research in Science and Digital Technology) praise their children, who just won two million dollars by finishing second in the prestigious international ANA Avatar XPrize competition a few weeks ago. 🇧🇷 Even if it’s true that Reachy was a bit of a pimp for the occasion.
“For this competition, it was necessary to lift objects weighing 3 kg, but the Reachy arm was previously limited to weights of 300 grams, so we accelerated the development of the arm that will equip the second generation Reachy”, explains Matthieu. Lapeyre. Piloted remotely by independent judges, the 17 X-Prize finalist robots had to carry out a succession of tests, as quickly as possible. “I had to open a door, navigate, weigh a gourd and place it in a specific place, then take a screwdriver and dismantle a door, then pick up some rough pebbles”, lists Matthieu Lapeyre.
Faced with competitors from all over the world, retailing at a minimum of 250,000 dollars when Reachy is offered from 25,000 euros, the robot from Bordeaux impressed the gallery, obtaining the maximum score of 15/15. Slower than NimBro, the winner, finished in second place. Quite a performance for this new prototype, which had finished being assembled a fortnight earlier.
“Creating robots capable of adjusting to the unknown”
Basically, Reachy was just one arm, “and little by little we built the whole body around it”, continues the researcher. Mounted on wheels, the Reachy V1 saw the light of day just before CES 2020 in Las Vegas, where it was officially presented for the first time. And where a wonderful welcome was reserved for him. “He really launched Pollen and we started marketing it around the world, to research labs or large companies looking to integrate robotics into their business. 🇧🇷
In the world of robotics, it is necessary to distinguish between robots that evolve in industrial and logistical environments, “which are very structured environments with assembly lines made for robots”, robots that can evolve “in open, social and unstructured universes. “Basically, in a domestic universe to carry out everyday tasks.
Which has nothing to do with it, because as soon as you take a robot out of a structured environment for it, “it immediately becomes much more complex, because it has to move in terrain that is not necessarily right, manipulate objects that they are made for humans, they come across a person… Therefore, it is necessary to be able to create robots capable of adjusting to the unknown and, for this, to integrate much more artificial intelligence and analysis of the environment. »
“Teleoperation feeds autonomy”
Although programmed to perform some gestures independently, the first step to integrate robots like Reachy into social environments, allowing them to perform complex tasks such as opening a drawer, picking up a utensil and closing the drawer, involves teleoperation, that is, control the robot remotely. “It is already very useful, because it saves the presence of a human being on site, thus being able to carry out such and such a task remotely”, comments Mathhieu Lapeyre. I would compare it a bit with videoconferencing. But, above all, it allows retrieving information that will allow the robot to learn. We will be able to analyze all the gestures made to make him more and more autonomous. Teleoperation feeds autonomy. 🇧🇷
Gradually, artificial intelligence will replace humans to control it, and will allow Reachy and its congeners to evolve more and more alone, “even that is not for now”, warns the engineer. But do what exactly? “The fields of application are countless, guarantees Matthieu Lapeyre, from assisting the disabled or the elderly, to placing them on supermarket shelves, passing through monitoring at stations, for example. Manipulation is really the heart of what will make a robot useful, it’s the most fundamental building block, and that’s what we’re working on. 🇧🇷
In fact, Pollen Robotics focuses its efforts “on the structure of the arm, to create light and agile arms, which is important for adapting to changing environments and for capturing certain objects. And as Reachy has local and ecological fiber, the neck is produced mainly in France, and relatively sober in terms of materials and energy consumption. “The new version of the arm weighs 4 kg, and can lift as much, when industrial arms weigh 20 kg to lift the same thing”, insists Matthieu Lapeyre.
In short, we expect Reachy to be able to replace humans in certain daily tasks. And after the wooden cubes step, who knows if one day he will be able to string the beads…