Oussama Khatib: diving into robotics

With his diving-archaeology robot Ocean One, the director of the Robotics lab at Stanford and world-renowned researcher Oussama Khatib has turned the spotlight on the mysteries of the deep and robotics. On February 20, on the recommendation of his French peers Philippe Poignet, Vincent Creuze and Philippe Fraisse, all three robotics researchers at Lirmm, the Franco-American received an honorary doctorate from the University of Montpellier.

On this Monday afternoon, more than 120 people are invited to the Science Village amphitheater to attend a small event in the world of robotics. In a few minutes, Oussama Khatib, Director of Stanford's Robotics Laboratory, will give a lecture entitled The age of human-robot collaboration. An inaugural lecture in the purest tradition of the day's highlight: the ceremony at which this internationally acclaimed researcher will receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Montpellier.

First steps in France

" One of the fathers of modern robotics, a pioneer and a visionary ". With these words, Philippe Poignet, Director of the Montpellier Laboratory of Computer Science, Robotics and Microelectronics(Lirmm), begins his eulogy of his American colleague. The speech, written in collaboration with his two colleagues Vincent Creuze and Philippe Fraisse, underlines the extent to which this honorary doctorate celebrates the collaboration between two teams, not to say two countries. For Oussama Khatib not only knows France well, but also Montpellier, where he first arrived in 1969 after a youth spent in Syria.

He stayed on to complete a master's degree in electronics and automation, before moving to Paris to write his thesis. At the time, he was developing a new mathematical method known as the "potential field" method, which revolutionized the way robots move. His highly acclaimed work earned him a post-doctoral position at the prestigious Stanford University in California, where he would remain for the rest of his life. Fifty years of research and innovation followed, making Oussama Khatib one of the most visionary robotics researchers of his generation, as Philippe Fraisse, who collaborated with him for many years, testifies: " He was the first to understand the importance of human-robot interaction and the scientific challenges to be met if robotics is to make its contribution to technical and social progress in modern society.

Aiming for the Moon with Ocean One

But it's undoubtedly its latest creation, not to say creature, that has made the most headlines: the Ocean One diving robot. Let's go back in time to 2016. We're off the coast of Toulon aboard theAndré Malraux, the vessel of the French department of underwater archaeological research, the Drassm. On deck, archaeologists are getting restless, curious to see the main player in this mission in action. A two-metre-long, two-hundred-kilo orange body, camera-equipped eyes, two seven-jointed arms extended by interchangeable hands and manipulated by haptic interfaces capable of restoring tactile sensations to the pilot. Ocean One is as surprising for its humanoid silhouette as for the sophistication of its equipment.

Among the archaeologists, Oussama Khatib talks to Vincent Creuze, a researcher in underwater robotics. Together, they are fine-tuning the final details of this landmark dive. In just a few moments, Ocean One and Speedy, the Lirmm robot, will set off to explore the wreck of the Lune, a ship belonging to Louis XIV that sank in 1664 and lies at a depth of 91 meters. " The aim of these initial tests was to demonstrate that Ocean One was capable of recovering and handling objects underwater with the same delicacy as an archaeologist .

This first success opens the door to several years of collaboration between the two researchers and their respective research laboratories, with a single goal in sight for the Stanford researcher: to take Ocean One to a depth of 1,000 meters, where human divers can't go. In February 2022, in an underwater canyon off the coast of Cannes, he will have almost achieved this goal. There, thanks to the collaboration of Drassm andArthur, Vincent Creuze's latest prototype, the American humanoid robot dives to 852 meters. " Aboard theAlfred Merlin, Drassm's new boat, Ocean One is really in its element. The whole environment has been designed with him in mind, so that he and Arthur can work optimally together to achieve the goals set by Osama," explains Vincent Creuze.

Promoting robotics

Oussama Khatib is an extremely generous researcher who has done a great deal, and continues to do so, to promote robotics worldwide," says Vincent Creuze. Everything he produces is immediately made available to the scientific community. And indeed, when the Stanford researcher isn't at sea, it's in the air that he criss-crosses the planet, always between two lectures, to dispense advice and seminars to the many universities, foundations and companies that snatch him up. In France, for example, he has sat on the Strategic Research Council since 2014, responsible for informing the French government's decisions on national research strategy.

A minister's schedule does not prevent him from devoting a maximum amount of time to his students "to whom he is extremely attentive ", as Vincent Creuze points out, but also and above all to his role as President of the prestigious International Foundation for Research in Robotics(IFRR). A foundation he has used to developIser, an international symposium on experimental robotics organized every two years since 1989, which has spread to every continent: It has been held in Malta, Buenos Aires, Tokyo, Delhi, Sydney, Honolulu, Morocco and even Toulouse in 1991.

" This symposium is really his baby. It's a highly selective event, with less than sixty papers on offer, but it also enables young researchers to meet the world's leading robotics specialists. " All the more reason to savour the good fortune of counting among the honorary doctors of the University of Montpellier a scientist such as Oussama Khatib, who declared in March 2022 in the columns of the newspaper Le Monde: " What do I imagine? Fleets of humanoid robots working together under the supervision of one or more operators, to carry out tasks that are risky for humans. This is the way forward. That will be the future.