“That’s their workshop. Different explosions and different things happen in here,” is how Chamira Prasad Jayasinghe – CEO of Arimac described it. This workshop he pointed at was a small room right next to his office. Inside it, a team of six engineers is working on one of Arimac’s many grand projects. This one is a robot called Diyazen.
The origins of Diyazen
Originally announced at last year’s Google I/O Extended, Diyazen is Arimac’s effort to build a humanoid robot. This isn’t exactly Arimac’s first foray into the world of robotics either. The company had previously formed a partnership with Sanbot Robotics. Through this partnership, Arimac was the supplier for Sanbot robots in Sri Lanka and the Maldives.
Just last year, these robots were spotted roaming inside the Dialog Iconic Store. Arimac had validated the wow factor and versatility of using robots in the role of customer service. But not everything was working smoothly. They soon learned that Sanbot’s robots didn’t exactly meet all the requirements of their clients.
So Chamira approached Rasika Manawadu and asked him to look at alternatives or find out how Arimac could build its own robots. Having graduated with a degree in Electronic Engineering, Rasika jumped at the opportunity. He began exploring the world of robotics and found that if Arimac wanted the right robot, it would have to build it. Thus, Diyazen was born.
The challenges of building a robot
Soon afterward, a team was formed to build this robot with Rasika at the helm. Alongside him was Sadeesh Kalhara, Oshan Wickramasinghe, Kavishka Karunasinghe, Damith Galhena, and Neranjen Chameera. This team had a daunting task ahead of them. “Before creating a humanoid robot, we had to create an autonomous platform,” explains Sadeesh.
This was the first hurdle the team had to cross. So they started off by taking a steel block, slapped a few wheels on it. Once it could move, they created a basic system that utilized a few sensors to help it navigate environments. The team ticked off this first hurdle 5 months ago and it still sits in a corner of their workshop.
Having built the autonomous platform, the next step for the team was to enhance it. This meant adding additional sensors and giving it a brain. In other words, they needed to give their new platform knowledge. Until it learned how to make decisions and execute tasks it wasn’t a true robot.
How to give life to a robot
To give their autonomous platform a brain, the team now had to create the right software architecture. Based on Rasika’s initial research, the team decided to build everything on top of the open source Robot Operating System. This would make the core system of the robot. But from the beginning of the project, the team had the vision of making Diyazen modular.
Diyazen is meant to be a robot that can adapt to a wide variety of needs. Rasika elaborated on this saying, “If you’re running a warehouse then you might only need a simple moving platform. But if you’re running a hotel, then you need a robot that can do multiple things from greeting guests to help them check in to informing them about sights. So we want to ensure that Diyazen meets everyone’s needs.”
That means not only modular hardware but also software. Diyazen will have its own form of AI to help identify people and carry out other tasks. A necessity in modern times with the global AI market expected to be worth $89.85 billion by 2025. Sri Lanka too has it’s own plans to grab a slice of this pie. But for all this, developers should be able to flexibly utilize this AI.
As such, Sadeesh shared with us that they’d release a host of API’s and a Software Development Kit for developers. With these tools, developers would be able to control almost every aspect of Diyazen right down to individual motors. Using this approach, the Arimac team aims to give developers the freedom to create the apps they want.
This is how they’d give their autonomous platform a brain and transform it into a robot. It could now execute tasks. But when making decisions to execute these tasks, it still had to take one important factor into account: the battery.
Tackling the laws of physics and logistics
The battery itself gave the Diyazen team its own set of challenges. As the team worked on the software, they came to a realization. The processor consumed massive amounts of power as it tried to figure out how to navigate environments and carry out tasks.
Now whenever it carried out a task, Diyazen now had to take its battery level into account. Sadeesh explained this saying, “It’ll have to go from Point A to Point B to do something. But it also needs to analyze what are the obstacles in its way. After that, it needs to decide whether it has enough battery power to do the task or return to it’s charging dock.”
These batteries aren’t like the ones you’d find in your phones either. These batteries are significantly larger almost resembling car batteries. As such, due to the laws of physics, these batteries are located at the bottom of the robot. If not, then the concept of center of gravity would mean the robot would simply fall flat on its face. Yet, in Chamira’s eyes, all these challenges were relatively easy.
“The hardest part is simply getting the necessary resources down. We’ve had hardware and software challenges but we’ve overcome them. Our guys are too smart,” said Chamira.
This also states the biggest challenge that Diyazen faces right now. Currently, the Arimac team has tested all the individual components of Diyazen. This includes its face recognition and voice recognition systems along with cameras and screens.
Now the only thing that remains is to put it all together. For this, they need to get their enclosure, which they’re creating using 3D printing firm in China. When asked why, both Chamira and Rasika shared that Sri Lanka simply lacks the facilities they need.
Creating a good user experience with Sri Lankan flavor
Looking at the design of this 3D printed body, one can immediately tell that Diyazen is Sri Lankan. Immediately when you look at it, you can tell the face is based on the traditional Raksha Masks. Rasika shared that the ears, which share the features of the traditional masks, also includes 3D microphones.
Chamira added that the decision to base the design of the ears on Raksha Masks was intentional. One that he adds Arimac stubbornly adheres to. “Some of our clients asked us to remove the ears. But we were determined to keep it. We wanted everyone to know that Diyazen was a Sri Lankan robot,” states Chamira.
Another design decision Arimac made was to make Diyazen as tall as an average person. Rasika explained this decision saying, “One of the issues we had with the old Sanbot robots was that they were short. You had to bend down to use them. We wanted to ensure people had a good user experience with Diyazen, that’s why we made it as tall as a person.”
The greater challenge of selling a robot
Speaking to ReadMe, Chamira shared that with every Diyazen robot, Arimac would ensure it’s customized to the needs of the client. That means everything from the design of the robot itself to developing the exact apps they need installed. Furthermore, there would be a warranty period and they’re looking at collaborating with a local company to carry out maintenance.
Yet, when asked about how much the robots would cost, Chamira admits that Arimac hasn’t decided on a price for it. This he explains is because Diyazen is still in the prototype stage. Furthermore, Sri Lanka lacks the facilities for mass production of robots. As such, Arimac is currently exploring its options with local and Chinese hardware manufacturers.
Despite this, he shared that Arimac has received orders from some leading telecom operators. For these telecom operators, robots like Diyazen allow them to complete basic tasks like checking bills and issuing SIM’s. Such robots would allow these tasks to be completed with a wow factor.
But another area Arimac believes Diyazen will be a popular tool is in the tourism industry. According to Chamira, the Diyazen robots would be capable of recognizing individual guests, know if they’ve previously stayed at the hotel, and answer any questions they may have. Additionally, since Diyazen is modular, it would also be able to carry out check-ins and issue keycards.
“We can fake it till we make it. But we can’t sell it until we make it” – Chamira Prasad Jayasinghe
At the end of the day, Arimac aims to put Sri Lanka on the map in the field of humanoid robotics. Nonetheless, despite overcoming many challenges, the company still faces an uphill battle. One that’s known all too well by any company trying to manufacture hardware products in Sri Lanka. As Chamira describes the situation,
“We can fake it till we make it. But we can’t sell it until we make it.”