Hello Bruno Maisonnier. You are the director and founder of Aldebaran Robotics, a French company specialized in robotics which is working on the development and marketing of the humanoid robot, Nao. Can you tell us about yourself (your journey) and the beginnings of Aldebaran Robotics?
ALDEBARAN Robotics was created 4 and a half years ago with an ingrained conviction in me for 25 years: the same thing is happening with robots as it did with micro computers. This means that hundreds of thousands of the young and not so young, curious and open to the future, want to explore a new device/type of tool which should revolutionize the world.
Everyone being a little more familiar with such and such technology, the focus will be to improve the functions of the corresponding robot. Of course, this assumes you already have a robot and since it’s difficult to build your own robot, ALDEBARAN Robotics has decided to offer the market a sufficiently performing robot, but also accessible and open so that it can serve as a platform for exploration.
The story goes further back still, to a time when I was failing in school and an electronics correspondance course put me back in the saddle and helped get me into higher education in engineering and an MBA. I then worked in a software and computing services company, before developing within a banking group as head of IT, human resources then director general. Before entering into the Aldebaran Robotics venture I was directing the Polish subsidiary of the group with more than 3500 people to manage.
In short, I built my journey with this goal to become one of the pioneers of the robotics venture, once I felt that it was the right time.
This was the case in 2004 when I left my albeit comfortable job to get involved, body and soul, in the creation of Aldebaran Robotics, which was officially formed in July 2005. At the start I was literally alone, for several months, then I surrounded myself with highly multi-skilled people who shared my vision. It was a small team of 12 people who put together the first real prototype of Nao in December 2006.
How many people work at Aldebaran Robotics today?
Today we have more than 95 contributors, including paid employees and interns.
How has the company been financed until now?
Initially I was almost the sole investor, with a little “love money” as they say. Then I raised the capital by appealing to my friends, family as well as the first paid employees who wanted to follow. We then fundraised, with private investment funds and in parallel obtained grants from public authorities and from Europe; today we’re almost even, thanks to the sales of Nao Research.
Is the company 100% French or does it have offices/interests abroad?
Yes, the company is 100% French and as we sell 85% outside France we will set up offices in China and the Unites States this quarter.
Can you tell us more about Nao? Its current intelligence, abilities and future in 10 years?
We’re extremely proud of Nao, whose level of sophistication goes beyond our expectations, in barely 3 years.
Nao is a 60 cm tall humanoid robot, with advanced physical and interactive abilities. Amongst other things, Nao talks, understands, sees, recognizes, avoids obstacles, picks itself up when it falls, connects to the internet via WiFi, keeps its balance, catches objects, can communicate with a TV or a hi-fi system.
It’s entirely programmable which allows all of its users to devise new applications based on its overall capacity or to include Nao in a research or education program, and for professional users.
What do we hope for Nao in 10 years? That it becomes the benchmark “platform” with which public or private research laboratories, and technology enthusiasts will be able to explore this new emerging world: one where robots are everywhere in our society; that thanks to NAO useful services will have been created for dependent people and for fun learning for children, and that scientific advances will have been made in France! NAO will be a product clearly identified as one of the first bricks of the personal robotics revolution. If, in the next ten years, Nao allows users to explore the world of robotics, to discover its uses, then the objective will truly have been achieved.
An academic model of NAO is already on sale at RobotShop in North America; can you tell us about your distribution model and also when the consumer model is likely to be released and at roughly what price?
We now offer Nao Academics throughout the world, thanks to our sales and marketing team and our means of direct sales. But in some central strategic areas, like North America, Japan and Korea, we have signed distribution contracts in order to support our customers locally. We are also now looking for new partners, all over the world.
Its range should extend very soon, especially with an offer dedicated to the teaching of robotics using educational kits.
We are on the path to a launch to the general public in late 2011. Clearly, with more than a year before launching, no price has yet been announced.
Do you think the demand for this type of humanoid robot will rise steadily in the coming years?
The market of personal autonomous robots is very specific: there are only a few products available catching up, while interest for this type of machine continues to grow. You just have to look at the press to be convinced!
An annual study conducted by the Economic Chamber of the UN predicts that by 2020 (and this isn’t far off!) as many units of this type of robot will sell as television screens! The conclusion of this investigation is clear: the industry of personal robots will be in the 21st century what the automobile was in the 20th in terms of economic growth and social change.
What is the business model and the futuristic vision of Aldebaran? To market Nao to the general public, to develop platforms for professionals and universities, then to create and market other robots (not necessarily humanoids) in the future? A scoop for our readers and robotics fans? ; -)
Good suggestions ; -)
Yes, for now NAO is a platform for exploring robotics that universities, schools and professionals buy and use. But there have already been some individuals who want to buy it, mostly technicians and programmers likewise to have a robot to program; we have already responded positively to some in 2009, we will respond to others in 2010 before launching a consumer series.
As our business model develops many paths are opening up to us and it’s difficult to known which will be the best. What we do know for sure is that over the coming years we will continue to develop both hardware and software, so more robots and lots of applications for NAO.
In terms of scoops, that’s not our policy… we’re currently perfectly transparent about all our developments, with our community of enthusiasts. If anyone reading about us wants to find out things that they don’t yet know about Nao, we’ll be delighted to welcome them on our forums!
According to you, when will mass consumer robotics be like computers? In 1, 5 , or 20 years?
The year 2010 of robotics is the year 1980 of IT. In our view we’re now in a short-term time horizon; between 2 and 5 years for the first steps of the mass market. Then by 2020 we’ll see a steady growth in the number of users, pioneers in this sector, who will want to advance and participate in this new revolution with a relatively small number of products available, which will define standards.
It’s easy to imagine the start of a massive democratization of descendants of Nao within the next ten years, the second step.
The Shanghai 2010 world expo is a real accolade. Nao is both the mascot of the French pavilion and one of the main attractions of the French pavilion. It might also be here that I give you a scoop: Twenty Nao robots will perform a synchronized dance in the French pavilion. This world first will take place on the day of the music festival and will allow us to assert ourselves, in the eyes of the world, as the international leader in humanoid robotics.
Is Bruno Maisonnier becoming the French Bill Gates?
For the moment we are striving daily with my team to make Nao a historic benchmark in the robotics industry, and to make ALDEBARAN Robotics a world success. It’s a common dream and everyone here is devoted to it! Flattering my ego will come later. That said, if I earn as much money to put in a foundation as Bill Gates, I’ll be fulfilled!
Bruno Maisonnier, thanks for agreeing to have this interview.