The wonderful world of robots?

Author:Allen, Jeremy
Position:Business: entrepreneur in focus
 
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The world is teeming with footage and images of robots that resemble anything from humans to insects. Each seems as fantastic as the next, but are they a smoke screen for an industry striving to reach a mass market? Nicola Tomatis, CE0 of the Lausanne-based robotics firm BlueBotics SA, reveals his fears about the demise of the market for robots that assist humans. Unless some new sellable products are launched by the middle of this decade, he predicts that investors will lose interest in these metal man-made creatures.

For decades, the field of robotics has captured the imagination of those inside and outside the technology arena. Illustrators have brought us inspired creations like C3PO or Wall-E and scientists have added to the dream of a robotic evolution with a whole range of real creations: flying and underwater robots, devices that defuse bombs in war zones and robots that test soil on other planets. Finally, at the start of November, Japanese company Honda unveiled the world's most advanced humanoid robot thus far: 1,30 metre-tall Asimo, who can run and climb stairs. But how close are we really to the age of Robo Sapiens?

Life an Mars

In 2016, a scheduled mission to Mars is set to land a robot vehicle called ExoMars, whose technology was designed and built by BlueBotics SA, the brainchild of award-winning entrepreneur Nicola Tomatis from Ticino. The rover's job will be to explore the Martian landscape.

Part of the innovation square near Lausanne's Swiss Institute of Technology (EPFL), Tomatis' firm, BlueBotics SA, is a national leader in mobile robotic technologies. For over a decade, he and his team have been working on technologies that allow robots to move around obstacles and adapt to any environment, using one of their trademark ANT (Autonomous Navigation Technology) systems. This technology also led to products, such as the Robox entertainment droids, which guided visitors around the Expo 02 in Neuchatel. In 2007, the company teamed up with Nespresso[R] to create Nesbot, a robot that made and delivered up to 150 coffees per day to attendees at a conference in Rome. The prototype is still being developed further.

In recognition of his achievements, Tomatis won the Robotics and Automation Society's Early Career award in 2008. Two years later, Swiss magazine Bilan named him one of Switzerland's 300 most influential people.

An uncertain future

Despite an illustrious past and a solid reputation, Tomatis fears...

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