The mobile robot allowed Simon Charadeau (on the telescreen) to continue his engineering course

In April Simon Charadeau, a 21-year-old postgraduate engineering student at Centrale Lyon, had an accident. The keen climber had taken a weekend away from his studies at the prestigious grande école and headed to the Mer de Glace, France’s longest glacier on the northern slopes of Mont Blanc.

He was enjoying the climbing until he fell, tumbling with a number of rocks, some of which crushed his right foot. He was rescued by helicopter, flown to hospital and two weeks later was allowed home. Then misfortune struck again. His foot became infected and he needed more surgery. When he came round from the operation he learnt he would have to spend a further two weeks in hospital.

“I thought my year at engineering school was over,” he says. “Then a professor suggested that I try using a robot.”

The robot

EMLyon Business School’s Learning Lab happened to be experimenting with a so-called “telepresence” robot from Awabot, a French robotics company, which allows mobile video conferencing.

“At first I thought it was a joke because it was quite new. I had never seen this type of robot before,” says Mr Charadeau. He soon found, however, that it was surprisingly easy.

From his hospital bed Mr Charadeau was able to control the robot using a software package loaded on to his computer. To move the robot around the school he used the cursor keys on his computer keypad. He was able to see his professor and fellow students in lectures and classes through a camera mounted on the robot. His classmates could also see his face on the video screen of the robot via a camera mounted on Mr Charadeau’s computer.

“I could see, I could speak and people could see me and hear me too,” says Mr Charadeau.

Learning Lab

EMLyon’s Learning Lab was set up 18 months ago and is a joint collaboration between the business school and Centrale Lyon, the engineering college. Learning Lab’s stated objective is to encourage and test new technologies in the field of education.

Thierry Picq, associate dean for pedagogical innovation at EMLyon, was delighted with the robot experiment – one of several technologies the Learning Lab is investigating.

“You can use the robot wherever you are in the world,” he says. “It changes the way the interaction happens.”

He was pleased to see that Mr Charadeau even used the robot between lectures and seminars so that he could be with his friends when they took coffee breaks.

The robot has also been used in an executive education classroom and allowed the chief executive of a company that students were studying – who could not attend in person – to go from table to table to discuss points with each working group.

The future

Learning Lab at present has three robots. However, as a result of the experiments it has received regional government funding to acquire a further 10-20 robots (depending on the sophistication of the models chosen) to deploy in classrooms around Lyon to help disabled students have access to learning.

Thanks to the robot Mr Charadeau was able to continue with his own role at Centrale Lyon as project leader on the design of a new car.

He has a few design tips for future robots. These include a better zoom function for looking at a whiteboard and a more manoeuvrable camera. He would also have liked his robot to have had bigger wheels so that it could have moved more easily around campus.

Prof Picq, meanwhile, is thinking about the immediate uses of the robot. He hopes it will attend the end-of-year staff party at the business school and he can imagine open days in future where potential overseas students will take a campus tour by robot.

“At the moment it [the robot] does not bring any revenue in, but it could do in the future,” he says.

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