Oussama Khatib: diving into robotics

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

On this Monday afternoon, more than 120 people have been invited to the amphitheater of the Science Village to attend a small event in the world of robotics. In a few minutes, Osama Khatib, director of the Stanford Robotics Laboratory, will give a lecture entitled The age of human-robot collaboration. An inaugural lecture in the purest tradition of the highlight of the day: the ceremony of awarding the title of Doctor Honoris Causa of the University of Montpellier to this internationally recognized researcher.

First steps in France

" One of the fathers of modern robotics, a precursor and 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 by three hands 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 arrived for the first time in 1969 after a youth spent in Syria.

He stayed there to complete a master's degree in electronics and automation before moving to Paris where he did his thesis. At the time, he developed a new mathematical method known as "potential field" which revolutionized the way robots move. His work was particularly noticed and 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 in order for robotics to make its contribution to technical and social progress in our modern societies.

Aiming for the Moon with Ocean One

But it is without a doubt his latest creation, not to say creature, that has been the most talked about: the diving robot Ocean One. Let's go back in time and stop in 2016. We are off the coast of Toulon on board theAndré Malraux, the ship of the French department of underwater archaeological research, the Drassm. On the deck the agitation reaches the archaeologists curious to see in action the main actor of this mission. An orange body of two meters long for a weight of two hundred kilos, eyes equipped with cameras, two arms with seven joints extended by interchangeable hands and manipulated thanks to haptic interfaces able to restore tactile sensations to the one who pilots them. Ocean One is as surprising for its humanoid silhouette as for the sophistication of its equipment.

In the middle of the archaeologists, Oussama Khatib exchanges with Vincent Creuze, researcher in underwater robotics. Together they are working on the final details of this landmark dive. In a few moments Ocean One and Speedy, the Lirmm robot, will 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 objective of these first tests was to demonstrate that Ocean One was capable of recovering and manipulating 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 mind for the Stanford researcher: to bring Ocean One to a depth of 1,000 meters, where human divers cannot go. A goal almost reached in February 2022 in an underwater canyon off Cannes. There, thanks to the collaboration of Drassm andArthur, the latest prototype of Vincent Creuze, the American humanoid robot dives to 852 meters. "On board theAlfred Merlin, the Drassm's new boat, Ocean One is really in its element. The whole environment has been designed for him and for him and Arthur to work in an optimal way and reach the objectives that Osama has set for himself " explains Vincent Creuze.

Promotion of robotics

Very quickly the news spread like wildfire in the small world of robotics and far beyond. " Oussama Khatib is an extremely generous researcher who has done a lot and continues to do a lot for the promotion of robotics in the world," says Vincent Creuze. Everything he produces is immediately made available to the scientific community. And in fact, when the Stanford researcher is not at sea, it is in the air that he travels the planet, always between two conferences, to provide advice and seminars to the many universities, foundations and companies that are snapping him up. In France, he has been a member of 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," underlines Vincent Creuze, but also and above all to his role as president of the prestigious International Foundation for Research in Robotics(IFRR). A foundation on which he has relied to develop theIser, an international symposium of experimental robotics organized every two years since 1989 and which has been established on all continents: Malta, Buenos Aires, Tokyo, Delhi, Sydney, Honolulu, Morocco and even Toulouse in 1991.

" This symposium is really his baby. It is an event that is both very selective, with less than sixty papers proposed, but which also allows young researchers to meet the best robotics specialists in the world. " This is a great opportunity to taste even more the luck 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 I imagine? Fleets of humanoid robots working together under the supervision of one or more operators, in order to perform tasks that are risky for humans. This is the way. This is the future.