'Everyman' robot Panda wins German president's Future Prize

German robotics firm Franka Emika has been awarded the prestigious German Future Prize 2017. Its Panda robot is affordable, safe, made in Germany and easy to use for everyone.

Munich-based Franka Emika's Panda is safe, has exceptional fine motor skills and is designed to interact with humans. And, perhaps most importantly, it is affordable.

Those were among the reasons German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier awarded the €250,000 ($295,760) prize to the team behind Franka Emika, robotics specialist Sami Haddadin from the University of Leibniz in Hanover, his brother, Simon Haddadin, CEO of Franka Emika and Sven Parusel, chief engineer at the company.

Steinmeier said the winners managed "the transition from laboratory to a viable business," which is the key characteristic to winning the prize.

The German Future Prize for Technology and Innovation, which was awarded for the 21st time on Wednesday, rewards "exceptional research and development projects" that are market ready and have the potential to create jobs.

Not a cute Panda, but safe and cheap

The product may not look as cute as, say, a humanoid robot likeSoftBank's Pepper, but it has the potential to shake up the industry, as it is available for under €10,000, which is a first, making it affordable for small and medium-sized companies.

Berlin Verleihung Deutscher Zukunftspreis

The winners herald a 'new age for robotics'

Strictly speaking, Panda is a robot assistant, as it is particularly good at working alongside humans. It is very sensitive to touch and can thus be guided with one hand and avoid collisions.

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Audios and videos on the topic

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Those are critical features at a time when so-called human-robot collaboration is still a challenge without industry-wide standards. Many industrial robots at assembly lines are still kept in cages, as the danger of accidentally whacking workers over the head or worse remains an issue.

Deutscher Zukunftspreis | Jedermanns-Roboter

Not cute, but a dependable, affordable helping hand

Market for applications

The mastermind behind the robot, Sami Haddadin, called it a product for "everyone, it's flexible and scalable." Easier to assemble than other robots, he said the tool could be adapted to companies' needs and opens up a market for software applications that can run on the Panda robot.

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The Panda could also be used in various different environments, including assembly lines, care homes and hospitals.

Haddadin, a robotics expert and professor at the Institute of Automatic Controls at the Leibniz University in Hanover, and the two other winners previously worked at Germany's national research center, the German Aerospace Center's (DLR) Robotics Institute. Their former employer congratulated them on Twitter saying "the foundations were laid at DLR" more than 10 years ago.

The other nominees for the prize were Klaus-Dieter Engel and Robert Schneider from Siemens Healthineers and Franz A. Fellner from the University Clinic Linz for their product on cinematic rendering, which makes CT scan images more realistic.

Stefan Schulz, Adrian Andres and Matthias Basler from Vincent Systems in the south-western German city of Karlsruhe had been nominated for what they describe as the "world's smallest and lightest hand prosthesis."


Animatronic baby

At the beginning of the "Robots" exhibition in London's Science Museum, visitors first encounter a realistic reproduction of a human baby. Just like any newborn, this robot's activity is limited to involuntary arm and leg movements; it appears to be breathing and can sneeze. Such babies are now often made for film sets; they're so life-like that some people feel strong emotions towards them.


Automaton monk

The exhibition covers humanity's 500-year-long quest to reproduce their features in mechanized forms. Although the term "robot" wasn't used until 1920, mechanical characters have been created for centuries. These automata would reenact Bible stories, for example. This monk, driven by a key-wound spring, comes from Spain and possibly dates as early as 1560.


Cabinets of wonder

In the 16th century, extraordinary clockwork-driven automata would find a home in aristocrats' cabinets of curiosities, or "Wunderkammern." The "Marvel" section of the exhibition features among others the legendary Silver Swan from 1773. When wound up, the swan moves, preens itself and catches a fish. Novelist Mark Twain once described the swan as having "a living intelligence in its eyes."


Hand of steel

Long before humanoid-figures were created, prosthetic devices were developed to replace lost limbs. An early model was found on an Egyptian mummy dating back to between 950-710 BC. For steampunk fans, these steel and brass Victorian-era prosthetic arms shown at the "Robots" exhibition may seem beautiful; others might find them rather sinister.


Let's call them robots

In 1920, the Czech writer Karel Capek invented the word "robot" for his science fiction play "R.U.R.," which stands for "Rossum's Universal Robots." The term came from the Czech "robota," which means forced labor. The influential play was translated into 30 languages by 1923. In this picture, "Eric" (right) is a reproduction of one of the first robots in the world, originally from 1928.


Cinema's first robot was a woman

Fritz Lang's pioneering science-fiction work "Metropolis" (1927) featured one of the first robots of film history, the "Maschinenmensch" (machine-human). In this story set in 2026, the robot's creator aims to reproduce the woman he loved, Maria. A model of this iconic character is also on show at the exhibition.


'I'll be back'

Our perception of robots has been greatly influenced by art. Already in Capek's play, robots rise up to overthrow their creators. Since then, movies have also contributed to their threatening image. One of the most iconic robots in film history was created by James Cameron in his 1984 thriller, "The Terminator." The T800 Terminator from "Terminator Genisys" is also part of the exhibition.


The science behind the fiction

The London exhibition has also planned discussions and screenings of films focusing on artificial intelligence, such as Steven Spielberg's "A.I. Artificial Intelligence" (2001) and Alex Garland's "Ex Machina" (2015). The latter stars Alicia Vikander as an extremely advanced robot (picture). Increasingly becoming part of our reality, the themes of such movies are no longer surreal science fiction.


Getting rid of repetition

Increasingly, robots are used to replace humans in industrial jobs. Why should people be obliged to do tasks characterized by the "four Ds" - dumb, dull, dirty or dangerous - when a robot can perform them? It only takes a few minutes for a regular worker to "teach" Baxter the robot a new task. It is sold for $25,000 (23,000 euros) - about the average annual salary of a manual laborer.


News shows are always the same, too

Sending out robots to clear dangerous landmines is clearly an advantage, but definitions of a "dull" job may vary. The Japanese Kodomoroid is a news-speaking android from 2014. She looks disturbingly human and can fluently report the news in a variety of languages, without stumbling. She is even programmed with a good sense of humor. Admittedly, she's a little stiff - for now.


Getting there soon

Rob Knight's open source android, ROSA, is the first "anthropomimetic" robot, which means that it reproduces the human body's structures. The robots shown at the exhibition at the Science Museum in London are not nearly as advanced as the androids of the TV series "Westworld," but they still provoke reflections on what it means to be human. The show runs from February 8 to September 3, 2017.