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July 21 2021 | Laura Martinez

Right in the middle of the Montréal Science Centre’s Explore exhibition sits a particularly high calibre microrobot invented by Montréal’s own Mecademic Robotics. You won’t find a high-precision industrial robot quite like this anywhere else in the world. It’s the smallest of its kind! We met with members of the Mecademic team including Ilian Bonev, Professor at ÉTS, École de technologie supérieure.

Protected by an apple green-framed glass enclosure, this industrial microrobot has a particularly interesting way of interacting with visitors: it dances! And visitors are the ones who program its dance moves by arranging six colour-combination blocks in front of it, each programmed with different dance moves and facial expressions. Once the blocks are in place, the robot starts to boogie. It lowers its head, rocks it back and forth, shuffles to the left, inches to the right, and flashes smiles and looks of surprise too, only stopping after all six moves have been executed.

“My son was studying triangles, and the laws of sines and cosines, and wondered how this type of math was used in the real world. […] Well, I’ll tell you: they’re used in robots just like this!” explains robotics professor Ilian Bonev.

Lightweight, Compact, and Very Precise

Designed, made, and assembled in Montréal, Mecademic’s star robot, called Meca500, works in much the same way as other six-axis robot arms (robot arms with six motorized joints). Its job is to move objects very precisely. Depending on the tool installed on the end of its arm, it can insert, assemble, weld, and more, explains Professor Bonev, who co-founded Mecademic with one of his former Masters students, Jonathan Coulombe.  

But Meca500 is different than those other robots. It’s lightweight (only 4.5 kg), it’s compact (the entire system fits in a small suitcase), and it’s extremely precise — it can move things just 5 micrometres at a time… that’s 10 times smaller than the width of a human hair! Plus, explains Professor Bonev, it’s affordable and simple to use.

Thanks to ultra-small speed reducers installed at each of its joints, this robot can manoeuvre 100 times slower than the speed of its motors. “Fifteen years ago, we didn’t have tiny speed reducers as precise as this. These were integral to building something this compact and this precise,” he tells me. And where other industrial robots rely on large controllers, like computers, to tell them how to execute their movements, Meca500 uses a tiny controller installed right in its base. “The robot is small, and the entire system controlling it is small too,” explains Professor Bonev.

The only drawback, he says, is that Meca500 can only move objects weighing less than about 500 grams. In fact, that’s where part of its name comes from.

Application Engineer Alexandre Chartier-Pérusse, one of the twenty employees working at Montréal-based Mecademic, working with a similar robot. Photo: Laura Martinez

From Educational Robot to Exceptional Robot

When it got started back in 2013, Montréal-based Mecademic was focused on developing educational robots. That’s why they called themselves Mecademic: “meca” for mechanical, and “demic” for academic. But it didn’t take long for founders Ilian Bonev, originally from Bulgaria, and his former student Jonathan Coulombe to realize that it would be more profitable to develop industrial robots too. 

“Jonathan told me that his dream had always been to build a robot arm with six perfect axes,” remembers Professor Bonev. Two years later, Mecademic created the first version of Meca500 and showcased it on YouTube. “And just like that, it was an overnight sensation!”

Mecademic robots now have been sold in 33 countries to all sorts of businesses in the pharmaceutical, electronics, telephony, and 3D printing industries. Meca500 is even taking part in a NASA research project that is developing tools to sample and manipulate microscopic particles in outer space! 

An Engineering Marvel at the Science Centre

Meca500 is only programmed to perform basic movements, so if you want it to do things like dance, explains Professor Bonev, it needs additional instructions from another source, usually a special kind of computer called a programmable logic controller. Mecademic essentially builds the robot and hands it over to the client who then works on programming it.  

For its role in the Science Centre’s Explore exhibition, TKNL was hired to take care of Meca500’s integration, including giving the robot its screen face with those big eyes and programming all its dance moves. So, how are the dance moves that are drawn on those coloured blocks transmitted to the robot?

“Optics,” explains Jean-Maxime Couillard, the independent programmer hired by TKNL to design the robot’s system for the exhibition. “Meca500 has a camera that sees the colour combinations on each block placed in front of it. Every colour combination is programmed into its system and assigned a specific move. Once the camera transmits the colour combination, Meca500 executes the move.” Later during a video call, TKNL’s multimedia programmer Frédéric-Daniel Plourde tells me that his job was to code each of the robot’s movements.

 “Robots are becoming ubiquitous. Learning how to program them and interact with them is becoming an increasingly important skill. We hope that introducing young people to our robot in a play-friendly context [like the Science Centre] will get them excited and interested in the field of robotics,” explains Mecademic’s Marketing Director Leila Kayali.

“This is one high calibre robot. It’s an exceptional opportunity for us to have it and make it accessible to the public,” explains Élisabeth Monast Moreau, project manager for the Explore exhibition. For their part, the Mecademic team is excited to soon see their own kids interact with their star microrobot!

Laura Martinez
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Text and images by Laura Martinez

Laura’s love of science is matched only by her love for adventure. She is a PhD in biology who spent more than ten years studying seabeds. She’s also the expert on whale sunburns! Since 2017, she has been devoted to Arctic research, science journalism, and projects aimed at popularizing science. Keep an eye out for her next blog posts!