After boarding a plane in Spain and spending over a week on a layover in Paris, France, the much-anticipated REEM-C recently arrived on campus.

Now unpacked, the humanoid robot has started an extensive training program without once breaking a sweat.

At 165 centimetres tall, 80 kilograms in weight and sporting the University’s black and gold colours, REEM-C is described as the slightly smaller and lighter brother of TALOS, the full-size black and purple robot that was greeted with great fanfare at Engineering 7 almost two years ago.

Designed to interact with people, the new robot is currently capable of some basic everyday activities such as waving, shaking hands, standing up from a chair and walking.

Professor Katja Mombaur with REEM-C robot

Katja Mombaur, the new Canada Excellence Research Chair in Human-Centred Robotics and Machine Intelligence, greets REEM-C, a humanoid robot designed for physical and social collaborations with humans.

Katja Mombaur, the new Canada Excellence Research Chair in Human-Centred Robotics and Machine Intelligence, and her team of graduate and post-doctoral students have begun work with REEM-C to advance its movements and functions.

“We need to develop its skills for it to effectively and safely support in situations that are too dangerous, too repetitive or too boring for humans,” says Mombaur, a cross-appointed professor of systems design engineering and mechanical and mechatronics engineering.

First steps

Researchers are helping to improve REEM-C’s walking abilities so it can effectively navigate along a variety of terrains in a human-like way, an important prerequisite for the robot to eventually accomplish tasks in a wide range of environments including manufacturing plants, households, health-care settings and disaster sites.

One example Mombaur provides where a robot like REEM-C could have made a critical difference is the 2011 nuclear accident in Japan during which it was unsafe for a human to enter the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.

“Much of the damage could have been avoided if a valve in the plant had been opened,” she says. “The situation would have been much less severe if there had been a robot that could have gone in to do that.”

Mombaur moved to Waterloo in March 2020 from her native country of Germany where she was a professor at Heidelberg University. An international robotics expert, her work involves studying how people move to improve the motion of robots ranging from humanoids to wearable devices such as exoskeletons.

Her research background will come in handy with long-range plans to teach REEM-C how to help the elderly and disabled with everyday activities. The training for that assistance will begin with basic actions such as reaching out or bending down and handing objects to people.

Unpackaging REEM-C robot

Waterloo robotics researchers carefully unpack REEM-C after its long journey from Spain. From left: Katja Mombaur, Will Thibault, Jonathan Lin and Jan Lau.

“First, we have to teach the robot to move by itself in a very reliable and stable way before we want it to assist seniors or disabled people,” she explains. “It’s important to note that I see the robot as a support for a human caretaker or companion, not a replacement.”

The researchers will also teach REEM-C to work alongside humans, which Mombaur says will be challenging in terms of sensing and motion prediction abilities and safety issues.

A key part of the research will be evaluating the effect of the robot’s motion styles on the human collaborator.

“We want it to perform motions in a way that makes people feel comfortable allowing REEM-C to get close to them,” Mombaur says.
There will be a special focus on algorithm development for motion generation and control by combining model-based optimization with model-free machine learning approaches.

Mombaur and her team are looking forward to potentially collaborating on their robotic work with different Faculties across campus, research groups including the University’s Network for Aging Research, Centre for Bioengineering and Biotechnology, Waterloo Artificial Intelligence Institute and similar local centres, as well as international experts in the field.

Complementary skills = no sibling rivalry

Both REEM-C and TALOS were manufactured by PAL Robotics located in Spain. The main difference between the two is that REEM-C is better suited for physical and social collaborations with humans, while the stronger TALOS is better designed for independent tasks.

Mombaur would like to see the two robot “siblings” work together in the future.

“We want REEM-C to interact with TALOS,” she says. “There is such a great opportunity here at the University for robot-to-robot collaboration to advance our research.”

Banner photo: Canada Excellence Research Chair Katja Mombaur, pictured second from left, and a team of Waterloo Engineering researchers welcome humanoid robot REEM-C to campus. From left, Branca da Costa, Katja Mombaur, Will Thibault, Jonathan Lin and Jan Lau.