A Swiss roboticist exploring Latin America

Christian Michel Casulleras

Junior Project Manager at swissnex Brazil


From April 19 until May 1, Professor Rolf Pfeifer visited several countries in Latin America to analyze the development of robotics in this region and to search for potential partners for future joint projects.


Switzerland at the forefront of robotics

Being among the countries with the highest spending on R&D, at the top rankings of innovation indices, and with a great number of academic publications in artificial intelligence, the land of cheese and chocolate holds a leading position in the field of robotics. We can find a large number of Swiss robotics institutions such as the NCCR-Robotics, ETH IRIS, IFI at Uni Zurich, LIS EPFL, and SwissRobotics, doing research and developing avant-garde products in this area.

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Professor Rolf Pfeifer is one of the leading scientists in Artificial Intelligence and a pioneer in the fields of embodied intelligence and soft robotics. He is the inventor of Roboy, an advanced humanoid robot designed to emulate humans and to help out in daily environments. He is the author of the books Understanding Intelligence and How the Body Shapes the Way We Think.

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At his lectures during his tour of Latin America, he explained the importance of robots in our every-day life. According to him: “We have lived with robots for the past 50 years, relying on them in industry and increasingly employing them in our homes. Even though many tasks cannot yet be accomplished by robots, we are already now highly dependent on them”. He is currently a member of the board of several Artificial Intelligence and Robotics companies and co-founder of the National Competence Center of Robotics of Switzerland. He is also specially appointed professor at Osaka University and visiting professor at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.


Increasing importance of robotics in Latin America

This field has expanded and gained visibility in the whole continent, not only in the area of education but also in businesses. We observe the increase of use of robots in the productive sector. Governments incentivize young professionals to engage in careers such as science, technology, mathematics or engineering.


Argentina: the Ministry of Science and Technology has recently established new guidelines on research and development in robotics, aiming to find solutions to every-day problems in Argentina such as water distribution in arid regions or sustainable housing. Argentina has experienced several developments in the area over the last couple of years, for example Argentine IT companies are increasingly investing in the sector.

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In Argentina Lino Barañao, Minister of Science welcomed Prof. Pfeifer. They discussed Argentina’s national objective in promoting an interdisciplinary approach to build local knowledge because robotics integrates engineers, neuroscientists, biomechanical specialists, physicists and several actors. Prof. Pfeifer gave lectures at University of Buenos Aires, National Technological University, National University of La Plata, and at the OSDE Foundation with simultaneous transmission to 40 different places all over the country!


Chile: the newly created Chilean Association for Robotics (Achiro) seeks to increase the importance of robots in Chile’s industry. Chile is increasing innovation in the field of robotics arms and medical robots. Efforts are made in the creation of robots able to interact with humans. An example is Bender, a robot designed at the University of Chile with the goal of being able to interact with older persons or autistic children. Yet the center of interest lays in the mining industry, with the creations of automatized vehicles allowing humans to stay out of harm’s way and increasing productivity.

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In Santiago de Chile, Prof. Pfeifer participated in the 5th Congress of the Future at the former Chilean Parliament organized by the Commission on Future Challenges. He also gave lectures at the Catholic University of Chile and at the National University of Chile.


Brazil: Robotics is in rapid expansion and robots with excellent quality are being developed. Several research groups, mostly concentrated in universities offer high-level jobs in robotics. Brazilian robotics teams usually win the most medals at international robotics competitions. In the business area, Brazilian companies contribute the most to the development of industrial robotic machines.

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At his visit to the State of São Paulo, Prof. Pfeifer visited the Center of Robotics of São Carlos, the most important in the country. There, he met with professors and gave lectures to São Paulo University (USP) and Federal University of São Carlos. He then participated at a roundtable on scientists’ role in a globally networked society in the city of São Paulo.

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In Rio de Janeiro, Prof. Pfeifer visited Rio Robotics  Exhibition 2015, a platform for local high school and university students to demonstrate their last robot creations. Prof. Pfeifer gave direct feedback to students and professors and he presented one of his most recent projects: the Robolounge. He then gave a seminar on soft robotics at PUC-Rio University and visited RioBotz robotics laboratory.


Potential for improvement

According to the Robotics International Federation, there are around 1 million operational robots in the world today. Two-thirds are to be found in Japan, North America and Germany. Brazil has only about four thousand robots and the Latin American region presents in general low levels of automation. Robots in Latin America are still produced on a small scale to meet the specific needs of industry. There are very capable roboticians in Latin America, but there is not enough to tackle the US or Japanese market, yet. In the last couple of years, there has been an increase in demand of industrial robots in the region and Latin America is showing signs that it can compensate for technological delays since the start of robotics in 1946, when the first modern industrial robot, the Unimate was patented in the United States. To do this, the countries are working at a regional level, for example organizing several Latin American robotics symposiums and competitions. Government support is fundamental for the development of this field because private companies generally can’t afford the high costs of robotics and profit in the long term. Private companies should invest in educational programs and specific projects so that young people stay interested in this field but a close collaboration between academia and the government is more crucial. The following three examples show how this cooperation was fundamental and contributed to the development of robotics in Brazil. All of the following projects were supported by FINEP (Brazilian Innovation Agency) in cooperation with Brazilian or foreign universities.


Velaqua, a creation of ITEP São Paulo is a project, which presents an opportunity for increasing the competitive edge of Brazilian swimmers. The athlete’s performance can be monitored by accompanying the swimmer since the jump to the swimming pool until the end of the competition thanks to a robot-car on rails. A camera registers in a digital archive the athlete’s performance and software converts the registered information in graphs.


Rio PipeWay Engineering created devices used in the inspection of pipelines. These robots designed to identify structural problems have special sensors increasing their efficiency by reducing costs. PipeWay has an entirely domestic production manufacturing tools to check for anomalies and help to prevent leaks that can cause ecological accidents.


Armtec Ceará produces different kinds of robots. Saci is a robot with the greatest water jet flow capacity in the world. Firefighters managed to reduce fire fighting to 10 seconds. Mulata was created for events and exhibitions. It interacts with viewers passing sharing through built-in multimedia features. It is an efficient marketing and advertising tool. Samba is a mini-submarine used in high-risk operations.


Rolf Pfeifer’s tour in Latin America was possible thanks to swissnex Brazil (Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo’s offices) in collaboration with the Science & Technology Councilors of the Embassy of Switzerland in Santiago and the Embassy of Switzerland in Buenos Aires.