A team of 14 young people from Cambodia have spent more than a year investing their knowledge, skills and resources into making what is likely the Kingdom’s first locally made humanoid.
The robot had made headlines on social media even before it was officially revealed at the National Day of Technical Vocational Education and Training in mid-June, a Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training event aimed at facilitating skills development in the Kingdom.
Called the Robocam Preah Kossomak, the Western faced humanoid is able to verbally and physically communicate with people. Built one year ago, it weighs 45kg and stands at a height of 1.58m.
It was built by a team of electronic engineers and programmers from Phnom Penh’s Preah Kossomak Polytechnic Institute with a budget of nearly $20,000 spent over a one-year period.
Sokphorn Veha, an electronics teacher at the institute who led the robot building team, told The Post: “Robocam is a humanoid that can communicate with us. He can answer our questions in both Khmer and English. He can recognise people’s faces and call out the correct name of each person. He makes facial contact and he can walk and move his head to follow us.”
The 28-year-old Veha, whose father was an electric and construction engineer, has always been fascinated by electronic toys and robots. As a child, he would disassemble his toys to learn how they work and would be scolded by his mother.
In 2003 he transferred from a public to private school, which is where he first had access to a computer.
“At that time, I started to know how to type on the computer. My friend told me that I can do and learn a lot of things from Google. I was so interested and would search for how to make cars and other stuff – I really liked it,” he said.
Chasing a lucrative job, Veha momentarily left his passion behind as he took the entrance exam to medical school.
“I failed the exam because chemistry and biology are not my strong points. In 2011, I began studying electronics at Preah Kossomak Polytechnic Institute. At first, I was not serious, but later I was hooked by my favourite skills and I really enjoyed my studies.”
His interest in building a robot emerged when he graduated in 2015 and got a job at a beer company.
“It was a push factor that encouraged me to be who I am now. In the beer factory, there are many automated robots to complete the production line. The company invested in technology and I was happy to see more robots adopted,” he said.
So when he became an electronics teacher at Preah Kossomak Polytechnic Institute last year, he formed a team to create a humanoid. He said though the technology is already widespread in the world, his team’s Robocam Preah Kossomak is likely the first made in Cambodia.
“The reason that we began this project is that we wanted to create something. We were aware that other developed countries are already leading in this industry, but we still wanted to do our thing."
“We began last year, with the first stage designing the head. Then we added the functioning body to make it a fully-formed humanoid,” he said.
According to Veha, the Robocam Preah Kossomak is divided into three parts. The robot’s head can move like human, with his eyes opening and shutting and lips moving like a real person. The head and face are covered in high quality silicon, and he was given short hair to make him look smart. The top of his forehead is also equipped with a tiny hidden camera.
For the body, there is a screen on his chest to show the operating system of the robot, where programmes can also be installed and managed. He was then given a green shirt to show his Cambodian identity.
His hands can move and hold objects, but Veha said the movement is still a bit awkward and not as smooth as a human. His legs enable him to walk short distances, and they are designed with exposed metal rather than covered with clothing.
With a team full of electrical engineers, Veha’s team had to pick up additional skills along the way in mechanics and design.
“Our team previously didn’t know much about mechanics and design. In order to create a proper robot with smooth movements we had to study design and mechanics too. We also had to run many tests to ensure his smooth operation.”
Team member Chren Chiva, an electronics programming teacher, explained the humanoid’s software: “We use python language as a general-purpose programming language so that the robot, through numeric applications, can process the information and respond to us accurately.
“We also had another challenge with operating in Khmer as it is difficult to programme the robot to recognise local languages. For the English part, with both voice and verbal response, the robot does very well without any problem. We first adopted a Google system which originally responded in a woman’s voice. Later I altered so it had a man’s voice to go along with his appearance.”
After making a successful debut at National Day of Technical Vocational Education and Training, Veha and his team are still committed to taking their humanoid to the next level.
“In the future, I want to upgrade the robot in terms of verbal communication and body language. I hope we can make it better looking and have more flexible movement to match the best artificial intelligence humanoid robots elsewhere.”