Innovation: pushing the boundaries of robotics

Expert Talk
By Keith Blanchet, Senior Director Kinova Innovation division

 

When non-technical people see my business card, people often ask me, “Where is innovation in robotics? Isn’t robotics an innovation in itself?” I always give the same answer: If you go to the door to my office, you’ll see: Innovating a better world, that is what I strive to do and what drives me.

More fundamentally, and as a leader in a high-tech organization, I would say that I build a team of technology listeners and advisors. Not just tech savvy people who talk robotics. I strive to build a team of people who pay attention to the professional but also psychological, emotional and physical need of our clients, partners and collaborators. Our speciality is to understand and adapt our robotic-based solutions to ensure they enable our customer`s definition of success. When we say listen, it’s also listening to the environment in which the clients work, their constraints, their partners in addition to their objectives.

I also insist that our approach with clients also applies to our approach with ourselves as co-workers. There is no better place to start.

Origin of innovation at Kinova?

Kinova started off by meeting the needs of people living with upper-body impairments through assistive robotics. In that field, we essentially give people a sense of purpose and empower them to leave a legacy in life. I can see no better contribution a company could hope for. That mission, to empower people, is what constitutes the soul of the organization and that’s why people have an emotional attachment to Kinova. It’s also what drives a lot of the innovation that we do now but in different markets. We now work with researchers all over the world, with integrators of robotics solutions and mobile platforms in all kinds of vertical fields ranging from entertainment to medical applications. Researchers themselves need their own solutions to contribute to innovative ways of empowering people. So, all those aspects and many more are areas of innovation at Kinova.

In the Innovation division, a lot of what we are looking at down the road will seem science fiction to a lot of people but they are not that out-of-reach in fact. Most innovations are based on known principles but need to be applied at different scales. But ultimately, the goal will always be to increase human capacity, rather than replace, through a responsible and respectful use of technology.

“Kinova started in business by paying attention to human needs of individuals with upper-body limitations. That is really what defines us: we focus on human needs first.” -Keith Blanchet

Often, simply combining existing technologies allows us to come up with fantastic solutions for today and even future challenges that the world desperately needs us to solve. Things like feeding 7, 8 or 9 billion people, which is a real and pressing need which people may not consider robotics for. Imagine a farmer, who has hundreds of acres of land and needs to make sure that it’s producing at optimal levels for his various crops. Typically, he will fertilize uniformly across all fields, irrespective of quality, condition or type of crop and hope for the best. Reality is that part of those fields and even sections of those fields have different needs in order to be optimal. Imagine the farmer puts on his upper body soft-robot control suit and his augmented reality visor. He’s controlling an aerial drone and he sees what the drone’s camera sees in the field. This drone spreads thousands of sub-millimetre-sized microbots around the field who are programmed to detect and analyze soil content and nutrients. Once scattered, the farmer starts to receive information back from his microbots on the precise condition of all sections of his fields. Now he could make use of pre-installed automation or even unmanned ground robots to fertilize according to the exact needs of the crops and condition of the soil to ensure that these acres of land are producing at the optimal level. These are all technologies that exist by the way. I’m just talking about bringing them together which is the type of capability Kinova wants to enable our research community with in order to tackle the plethora of challenges we are faced with in various application areas.

Focus on the Needs

Kinova started in business by paying attention to human needs of individuals with upper-body limitations. That is really what defines us: we focus on human needs first. All our decisions moving forward already meet this approach which we see society making demands for at an increasing rate. Because paying attention to these aspects of our clients is in our corporate DNA, it’s just a continuation to do so in other fields of applications.

It’s easy to get caught up in productivity goals and balance sheets but with the evolution of technology as it is and the speed at which it’s evolving, we have absolutely no choice but to be close to the research community, collaborate and partner with experts in their field and make sure that we are leveraging like-minded people and organizations in providing the best solutions towards empowering people.

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