37 : UTC Startups - Series I

All vertical market segments are affected by digital innovations and by trends seen at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), undoubtedly the greatest hi-tech event in the world, which 3 UTC start-ups chose to attend.

37 : UTC Startups - Series I

Still Human: autonomous, mobile house-plants

When we use the term ‘robotics’, we often refer to humanoid robots, drones or robotic toys. But robotics covers a domain that reveals many other potential possibilities. The start-up Still Human with its project Ga.ia transforms our house plants into real ‘cyborgs’!

Mathias Schmitt, who trained as an industrial designer at the Strate College, Sèvres (West Paris suburbs) initiated this rather mad-cap project. "To gain my diploma I had to develop an industrial project and I chose the field of robotics. At first, I thought of 'feeding' a robotic with a plant source and that led me to the conclusion that plants could gain through being connected to a robot! Finally, I decided to make a cyborg - half-plant, half-machine, where the plants could 'make decisions'".

Mathias Schmitt became associate with another Strate College graduate to found the start-up Still Human, and develop the Ga.ia. Project. That was when he met Quentin Guilleus, a UTC graduate in the major Mechanical Systems Engineering (UTC-GSM), working as a trainee at the Integrated Robotics Centre, Île-de-France.

Three years later, Ga.ia takes the shape of a two-wheeled robotic base, with an Internet connection and fitted with numerous sensors (hydrometry, UV, light, temperature ...). The data gathered in real time by these sensors depend on the species of plant, the period of the year, the weather conditions, etc., which are picked up Internet. Taken together, this information enables the robot to make decisions. "For example, if the plant needs water or light", says Mathias, "the robot will be able to take the decision to shift the plant to a more suitable position. From this point of view, Ga.ia is a real cyborg, with all the skills conferred by robotics, viz., with the capacity to make decisions to adapt to new situations, for example, when nearby house furniture is moved".

The plant pot is fitted with cameras and lasers, to make an exact map of the room. "Ultrasonic sensors will also warn the robot that things have moved and that certain areas are to be avoided", adds Mathias. There, therefore, is no risk of the plant colliding with a piece of furniture or an animal. "In the beginning our project was focused on robots installed in public access areas", says Mathias, "but, as time went by, we shifted focus to domestic or enterprise-based robots that can move round homes or houses without meeting any problems".

But, for Mathias and his colleagues, the robotic plant pot does not only have the objective to make the plant autonomous. "Currently, plants are considered as pieces of furniture and we tend to forget them. Now, we have plants that move around and we are more aware that there are alive, with their life rhythms and vital needs. We can now experience empathy for our plants and be more aware of the proper place for plants in our environment", underlines Mathias: the team is working on reinforcement of the interaction between plants and persons.

"If the water level is too low, the plant will send a notification to a smartphone or display a message on the robot's front panel. The plant could then move directly to a water base, absorb air humidity or, via the sensors and Internet, even "request" a move outside the home if rain is forecast".The Internet link could also enable the cyborgs to communicate with each other. "We envision using cloud computing technologies to collect the information generated, so that the robots can learn from other robots' error if, for example, a plant dies! We really want to exploit robotics as far as possible", asserts Mathias Schmitt.

Of course, users always have the possibility to regain control of the cyborg, for example, to place an access interdict for certain rooms, or on the contrary to order it to go to a specific place.The teams aims at commercializing several pot sizes, from mini-plants (office size) to small bushes (or trees). "Currently we are designing a 40 cm diameter pot, which allows you to plant an excellent variety of plants", adds Mathias. "We are also developing Biom, Ga.ia's small brother so to speak which does the same job, but without moving the pot, which make the price tag more affordable, approx. 50€ compared with 300-400€ for Ga.ia".

Sales of Ga.ia and Biom should begin in 2017. "Our first marketing target will no doubt be business companies, given that we have lots of enquiries for hiring plants to decorate open space offices or for special 'events'. After that, we do not as yet know if we are going to offer our products to private customers", announces Mathais. "We would welcome the opportunity to sell our products in flower-shops or in garden centres".

But, while Still Human is concentrated on development of its two products (Ga.ia and Biom), it is also looking at international prospects. "We are thinking about developing our business in Asia, notably in Japan and Korea", says Mathias, "given that these two counties welcome both plants and robots".