Who is Reachy, the robot who won two million dollars in a prestigious competition?

It was sitting at a table, wearing his dark blue marinière, that Reachy was waiting for us this Friday. He will show us how he succeeds in stacking wooden cubes. Just over two years old, the humanoid robot from Pollen Robotics has yet to master all fine motor skills, and must be assisted by a human for the execution of certain actions.

A Pollen Robotics employee puts on a virtual reality headset and uses cuffs to remotely manipulate Reachy’s articulated arms. After letting the cubes escape two or three times, the robot manages a nice stack of five. It may mean nothing to you, but it means a lot to him. “For example, Reachy will not be able to pick up a pen lying on the table, almost excuses Matthieu Lapeyre, one of its two designers who co-founded the Bordeaux nugget Pollen Robotics with Pierre Rouanet in 2016. On the other hand, he knows how to make of a perfect circle, which is difficult for people. »

Against competitors ten times more expensive

The two former researchers from Inria (National Institute for Research in Digital Science and Technology) are full of praise for their offspring, who just won them two million dollars by finishing second in the prestigious ANA international competition Avatar XPrize. , a few weeks ago . Although it’s true that Reachy is a bit “pimped” for the occasion.

“For this competition, objects weighing 3 kg had to be lifted, but Reachy’s arm was previously limited to a weight of 300 grams, so we accelerated the development of the arm that will equip the second generation of Reachy”, explained Matthieu. Lapeyre. Away from the pilot of independent judges, the 17 finalist X-Prize robots have to perform a series of tests, as soon as possible. “You have to open a door, navigate, weigh a gourd and put it in a certain place, then take a screwdriver and dismantle a door, then take some rough stones”, lists Matthieu Lapeyre.

Faced with competitors from around the world, sold at a minimum of 250,000 dollars when Reachy is offered from 25,000 euros, the Bordeaux robot impressed the gallery, obtaining the highest score of 15/15. Slower than NimBro, the winner, he finished in second place. A very good performance for this new prototype, which was finished assembling a fortnight earlier.

“Creating robots capable of adjusting to the unknown”

Basically, Reachy was just an arm, “and we gradually built the whole body around it”, continued the researcher. Mounted on wheels, the Reachy V1 saw the light of day ahead of CES 2020 in Las Vegas, where it was officially presented for the first time. And where a wonderful welcome was in store for him. “It really launched Pollen, and we started to market it around the world, to research labs or large companies looking to integrate robotics into their business. »

In the world of robotics, a distinction must be made between robots that thrive in industrial and logistics environments, “which are highly structured environments with assembly lines built for robots”, robots that can evolve “in open universes, social and unstructured. “In general, in a domestic universe to carry out daily tasks.

Which has nothing to do, because as soon as you take a robot from an environment structured for it, “it immediately becomes more complicated, because it has to move on a ground that is not right, manipulate things that are made for people, meet someone… So it is necessary to create robots capable of adjusting to the unknown, and to do this combine more artificial intelligence and analysis of the environment. »

“Teleoperation gives autonomy”

Although it is programmed to perform certain actions independently, the first step towards integrating robots like Reachy into social environments, and allowing them to perform complex tasks such as opening a drawer , picking up the equipment and closing the drawer, went through teleoperation, meaning the control of the robot at a distance. “It is already very useful, because it saves the presence of a person on the site, he can perform such and such a task remotely,” commented Mathhieu Lapeyre. I would liken it a bit to videoconferencing. But above all, it makes it possible to obtain the information that will allow the robot to learn. We can review all the moves made to make it more and more autonomous. Teleoperation feeds autonomy. »

Gradually, artificial intelligence will replace humans to control it, and allow Reachy and its congeners to develop more and more alone, “even if it is not for now”, warns the engineer. But to do what exactly? “The fields of application are many, assures Matthieu Lapeyre, it ranges from assistance to the disabled or the elderly, to placing on the shelves in supermarkets, going through the escort at the stations, for example. The manipulation is really the heart of what makes a robot useful, it’s the most basic building block, and that’s what we do. »

Pollen Robotics has actually focused its efforts “on the structure of the arm, to create light and agile arms, which are important for adapting to the changing environment, and for catching certain objects. And because the Reachy has local and ecological fiber, the arm is mainly made in France, and is quite sensible in terms of materials and energy consumption. “The new version of the arm weighs 4 kg, and can carry as much, when industrial arms weigh 20 kg to lift the same object”, asserts Matthieu Lapeyre.

In other words, we expect Reachy to replace people for certain everyday tasks. And after the step of the wooden cubes, who knows if one day he will be able to string the beads…

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