Switzerland, laboratory for the robots of tomorrow

Less known than watches, chocolate, pharma or space technologies, Switzerland has another great specialty: robotics. It distinguishes itself there mainly in research, even if many of its machines have already come out of the labs.

This content was published on April 12, 2022 – 16:51

In a country that excels in precision mechanics and electronics, robots seem a natural evolution. In 2010, the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSFExternal link) launches the National Competence Center (NCCRExternal link) Robotics, the first of its kind in engineering sciences.

After 12 years and some 85 million invested, the funding will end in November 2022. For what result? Today, the most popular robots are not made in Switzerland, but in Japan, Korea, China, Germany or the USA. The country is nonetheless a world leader in research, and the products of its start-ups are finding their way to market.

At the head of the Laboratory of Algorithms and Learning Systems (LASAExternal link) of the Federal Polytechnic School of Lausanne (EPFLExternal link), Aude Billard also directs the new NTN Innovation BoosterExternal link in robotics, which will promote the transfer of knowledge and the transition to the industrial phase.

For some products, this phase is already well advanced. This is the case of drones, especially professional drones, an area where Swiss brands are among the most successful in the world, as this quick overview carried out in 2018 shows.

And why stick to the traditional drone-helicopter? The Intelligent Systems Laboratory (LILYExternal link) from EPFL is developing a drone in the shape of a bird. Thanks to the lift of its wings, it consumes much less energy and can therefore fly much longer than a conventional drone on a single battery charge. It also has talons, which allow it to grab objects and land on a wire, possibly an electric wire, to recharge its battery.

Director of the lab, Professor Dario Floreano has also been directing the NCCR Robotics for 12 years. He opened his doors to us.

These drones are not toys. However, they are not yet capable of delivering goods or rescuing people, for example. Currently, they are mainly used to look and know how to see what escapes the human eye. Which can be very valuable in a field like agriculture.

Today, no one imagines coming across C-3PO or a Terminator, even in a lab. If the humanoid robot is still a distant dream, some are already getting closer to animals, equipped with these precious appendages to go everywhere: legs. In this field, the American machines of Boston DynamicsExternal link are particularly impressive.

In Switzerland, we are not there yet, but a Zurich start-up already offers kinds of robotic dogs, capable of moving in rough environments. We are thinking here of rescue missions, after a disaster or a bombardment. But we are still a long way off.

If robots are not yet able to pull a person out of the rubble, they can do a lot for our health. The vast field of medical robotics was one of the best represented in the projects supported by the NCCR.

This ranges from robotic prostheses to exoskeletons intended to restore mobility to people with disabilities, including robotic surgeons.

For one of our newsletters, we met a pioneer in the field.

There is also the robot-teacher, boosted by the pandemic and distance education. But there, everyone is in agreement: he may one day be an assistant, but never a teacher.

Because even if it is agile, fearless and quick, it sees better and it calculates faster than us, a robot does not have the intelligence of a human. His is artificial – which makes all the difference. So far, no artificial intelligence system has managed to pass the Turing test, invented 70 years ago, which consists of a computer pretending to be a human in a simple, blind conversation.

This is the state of robotics in Switzerland today. Promising or disappointing? It all depends on the points of view.

What is certain, however, is that the field is advancing rapidly. To be convinced of this, just read this article from 2010, when we visited a certain Dario Floreano, then newly appointed head of what was then called the National Research Center (PRN) Robotics.

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Switzerland, laboratory for the robots of tomorrow

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