March 15, 2017      

Many educational robots are little more than remote-controlled toys or very basic programming tools, while most industrial robot arms are too high-powered — and too expensive — for small shops. Collaborative robotics providers are serving small and midsize enterprises, but hobbyists and researchers have had few options. Niryo hopes to serve that need with its Niryo One arm, for which it launched a robot Kickstarter campaign today.

Edouard Renard, chief technology officer of France-based Niryo, told Robotics Business Review about the thinking and development behind Niryo One and the benefits of using crowdfunding and open-source technology.

How does Niryo One compare with other arms currently on the market?

We noticed there are three markets. [The first is for] industrial robots, such as ABB and FANUC. Those companies provide very precise and powerful robots, which are the best for industry requirements.

The problem here is the price. Buying plus installing plus programming plus maintaining an industrial robot costs a lot. Most small companies, schools, and people can’t afford to buy one, and it’s often a lot of trouble to get the space to put the robot, with all the security issues. In this market, we’re starting to see companies providing cheaper cobots, such as Universal Robots or Rethink Robotics.

The second market is the toy market, with very cheap robots — under $500 — but those robots are just toys; we can’t really do anything useful with most of them.

We are targeting a third market, between the two previous ones. We provide a low-cost robot — about $1,000 — which is close to industrial robots. For example, the robot is powered by the Robot Operating System [ROS], but it is easy to use.

We’re mainly targeting makers who want to get an industrial-like robot at home for testing, developing, and learning new skills about robotics.

Then we’ll target education and small companies. We want to give children and students more motivation to learn mechanics, electronics, and computer science by allowing them to test what they learned on a real physical system.

For small companies, it will be a chance to get a robot for automating basic tasks, which do not need the high precision of an industrial robot. This market — low-cost and user-friendly robots — is our main target for now.

What were the technical challenges involved in creating Niryo One?

We have met a lot of technical challenges that did not have an existing solution yet, because we are one of the first to create such a low-cost robot.

The Niryo One robot Kickstarter includes software and hardware.

The Niryo One robot Kickstarter aims to bring industrial arm capabilities to researchers and hobbyists.

Concerning the mechanical structure, the main challenge was to make it as simple and as stable as it can be. The simpler the structure is, the better, but making a system simpler is not a simple thing to do.

We had to optimize the space inside the robot to put everything inside — all the wires, the cooling system, etc. — while keeping Niryo One nice-looking and easy to assemble.

For the computer parts, the challenge was to develop an entire robot system inside such small boards, make the most out of the Arduino processor clock speed, and set up a strong communication protocol between the cards and the user devices.

How did you work with components suppliers to keep costs down?

We are using standard components, well-known by makers, such as stepper motors (NEMA), servo motors, Arduino boards, Raspberry Pi boards. Those components are reliable and cheap because they are produced in very large quantities.

For example, a Raspberry Pi 3 boards only costs $40, and it’s a complete computer with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, i2c communication, and a camera interface.

How will your robot Kickstarter serve both research and commercial needs?

Many schools or universities can’t afford to buy industrial robots. For researchers or Ph.D.s, Niryo One is an opportunity to get a six-axis robotic arm to work on. They will spend less time researching funds and more time really working on their thesis or research subject.

Many research areas can be developed with Niryo One:

  • Perception: How the robot sees and “feel” the environment with sensors or cameras;
  • Motion planning: Planning a path for a six-axis (all not centered) arm while avoiding obstacles is quite a challenge;
  • Mechanical systems;
  • Artificial intelligence; and
  • Human-machine interactions.
Niryo One's software architecture includes more than just code.

Niryo One’s software architecture includes cloud services. (Click here to enlarge.)

Furthermore, Niryo One is powered by ROS, which makes it very similar to industrial robots. ROS is mostly open source and has a strong community, including companies, educators, students, and researchers.

Speaking of communities, there is huge and growing one around robotics projects. Makers and developers are willing to go further, to develop more complex systems, and to get industrial technologies at home. We have seen the democratization of 3D printers; now comes the democratization of the whole factory.

Our goal is to first provide accessible robots for makers, developers, educators, and researchers. With an open-source mind-set, and by creating a community around the product/service, we want to develop it faster so it can meet the need for connected home and global consumer robotics.

When you talk about “democratizing robots,” what do you mean? What are some examples of potential uses?

We want to bring industrial technologies to people. Many industrial processes are very efficient, but improvements are often made for factories only. Now is the time for robotics to get out of factories and help people in their daily lives.

Robots will be soon in everyone’s home. There are already vacuum cleaner robots and cooking robots, but they all do very specific tasks. We think of robots that will customize their behavior for people’s needs and easily adapt to their environments. Here are potential uses:

  • When you wake up, the robot automatically prepares your breakfast.
  • At work, you press a button on your smartphone, and the robot starts to prepare dinner or feeds the dog.
  • You can use the robot to help you in your workshop.
  • Children can play with the robot and learn programming with graphical blocks on a tablet.
  • You can automate all your boring and repetitive tasks at home.

How much support have you received so far from the developer community?

We receive requests from makers and developers who want to contribute to our project, and we’re using open APIs [application programming interfaces].

Most of the code powering the robot will be open source and released in September, after the first shipments of the products from the Kickstarter campaign. At this time, we will get more support and help through feedback and contributions from the developer community.

How has the crowdfunding model shaped your business plans?

For us, crowdfunding is about reaching a lot of people, and building a community around a company/product. Doing a robot Kickstarter campaign will help us see what people from our target market think about our product and if they are willing to take part in the community we are building around Niryo.

It also helped us deciding to go open source for the code powering the robot and the mechanical structure. Going open source is not really interesting if you are doing it alone.

We expect to get help in the form of feedback from our backers, as well as makers/developers, plus contributions from the open-source community.

We believe that by innovating quickly hand in hand with our customers, we can be more competitive on the market and make products/services that best meet people’s need.

More on Robot Kickstarter and SME Efforts:

How will you find partners for supply and sales?

As we use standard components, which are very common and easy to find, supply will not be a problem. We will mostly search for manufacturers selling good-quality products, because we want the robot to be stable and robust.

From the feedback we’ve already gotten, the robotics market is a worldwide market. We will then prefer online platform to sell the product (and probably our website as well). Many robotics shops are opening online. Some are just market shops; some are also handling distribution. We will work with that kind of shops to sell to different continents.