July 30, 2010      

France’s Robosoft, a provider of advanced robotics solutions for transport, cleanliness, security, and health, premiered the latest generation of its humanoid assistance robot line, the Kompai. Notably, the debut was not at a robotics conference, or at the Consumer Electronics Show, but at the 2010 Intercompany Long Term Care Insurance (ILTCI) conference in New Orleans in March.

According to Robosoft CEO Vincent Dupourqué, the goal for the Kompai robot is to provide assistance for dependent seniors and the handicapped, and even clients with autism. Robosoft did more than just demonstrate the Kompai. The company actively sold units to interested parties at the conference. The first production run (20 units) has been sold, and will be delivered before the end of July.

A demonstration video (www.youtube.com/watch?v=GciSisi1cMg) shows the Kompai responding to voice commands, navigating through an apartment, and helping the client with cognitive details like creating a shopping list, albeit only as an audio notepad. A built-in webcam enables easy videoconferencing between Kompai “clients” and family, friends, and medical personnel. A touch-screen tablet, front and center on the unit, can be used to control the robot during more advanced tasks or when the speech recognition technology requires additional input.

Remote managers, with the proper authority and configuration, can turn on the pan and tilt webcam to control the Kompai unit to move and stream video. Unlike medical alert medallions that must be worn at all times, the Kompai can move independently. Further, with advances in vision software, the system will be able to send alerts if the client appears to have fallen. Robosoft believes that as caregivers become overwhelmed by the number of clients who will require care, technologies such as the Kompai can extend the presence of these caregivers, enabling clients to stay in their homes.

Controlling Cost
Robosoft uses an open hardware architecture in the Kompai to keep the cost down, including well-tested modules for autonomous SLAM-based (simultaneous localization and napping) navigation, voice synthesis, and standard Wi-Fi networking components for full Internet access. Infrared and ultrasonic sensors keep the Kompai away from obstacles and hazards, such as stairways. The unit builds a basic map of the residence, and then can locate itself anywhere inside. It can also independently make its way to a docking station to recharge.

The Kompai’s head can be customized, as can the exterior shell. Robosoft’s robuLAB 10, a Kompai precursor, did not exhibit any humanoid features, and presented a much starker appearance. In a survey that ILTCI conference attendees filled out, 92 percent said they liked the Kompai appearance. Other survey questions asked if respondents thought Kompai could help dependent persons at home (99 percent said yes), could improve a caregiver’s efficiency (90 percent said yes), could reduce home healthcare assistance costs (76 percent said yes), and could compensate for the shortage of caregivers (84 percent said yes).

Pricing for the Kompai ranges from 10,000 to 15,000 euros (roughly $12,600 to $19,000), depending on options. Robosoft’s business model for the Kompai calls for a base purchase price and a monthly online service subscription. At the ILTCI event, 37 percent of surveyed respondents preferred a $5,000+$200 fee structure, followed by $2,500+$400 (32 percent) and $10,000+$100 (31 percent).

The European Market
To date, most Kompai sales have been in Europe. The robot’s customizable open source software supports Europe’s diversity. Kompai can be customized for language localization, as well as multiple caregiving approaches. The company’s Dupourque notes that he has been surprised by the different approaches to caregiving across Europe.  For example, Kompai purchasers in Hungary and Austria focus less on the robot and more on the person, his or her disease profile, and the medical approach, compared with buyers in France.

Funding for the Kompai’s development has come from European venture capital firms, private investors, and system sales. Dupourque notes that Robosoft is always looking for new investors, but the company is actively taking orders now.

Robosoft was spun out of the French National Institute of Research, Information, and Automation (INRIA) in 1985. Early on, Robosoft focused on drastically reducing costs in advanced robotic solutions. One way Robosoft controls costs is with the robuBOX original embedded control open source software technology.

Recently, the company demonstrated a new hybrid satellite navigation system for its Cybernetic Transport Systems that stays within centimeters of a recorded path. During one demonstration of the driverless electric cart, six people were carried around the Space City theme park in Toulouse, France, avoiding pedestrians by using ultrasonic scanners. Robosoft also designs or integrates a range of mobile platforms, manipulators, pan-tilt units, and vision systems for industrial robotic applications.

Focusing on Cognitive Functions
Although one might expect an assistance robot to have some type of manipulators, there are no plans to include any on the Kompai. According to representatives, current manipulators are not robust or inexpensive enough for Kompai applications involving manipulation. For the time being, the focus for the Kompai will be on cognitive functions. Dupourque hopes that in five or 10 years time manipulators will be both affordable and reliable enough to be incorporated in Kompai.

Dupourque stresses Robosoft’s low cost, product-oriented focus. He notes that while Honda’s humanoid robot Asimo is beautiful, it costs at least one million euros. Furthermore, Asimo’s technology is not yet mature, and Honda is still researching and prototyping. According to Dupourque, Robosoft will continue to integrate existing technology to deliver products that are functional, but relatively inexpensive.