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Images by Hep Svadja.

There’s a high bar for humanoid robots. We expect them to be, well, human — or at least to live up to ideas we see in movies and pop culture. We want more than a toy. It’s got to be a life-sized, high-powered machine with the capability to move, track faces, speak, and recognize voices. And one French tinkerer is working on exactly that: a life-size, open-source humanoid animatronic robot called InMoov.

InMoov is designed to be feasible for everyone. Depending where you source the parts, it can be built by anyone with a 3D printer for under $1,000. It uses common components, including inexpensive servos and sensors, and runs on freely available software. At Maker Faires for the past three years, we’ve watched the concept take shape, to what is now nearly the full form of your own personal droid.

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Gaël Langevin, the brains behind the ambitious project, started InMoov in 2012. The learning curve was steep — Langevin is mostly self-taught — and there’s still a lot to do. But InMoov has already succeeded beyond Langevin’s wildest expectations, capturing the imaginations of thousands across the globe.

InMoov’s humanoid characteristics look impressively polished and realistic, not unlike the title characters from the movie I, Robot. The high production values make sense; Langevin spent 25 years working on set design and sculpture for commercial projects for some of Europe’s biggest brands.

The concept for InMoov began when a French auto company approached Langevin, asking him to make a futuristic-looking prosthetic hand. Langevin designed the hand, printed it on his home 3D printer, and uploaded the parts to Thingiverse so that anyone could reproduce it. People did, and almost instantly the community formed. Spurred by his success with the hand, Langevin began to build a whole humanoid robot from scratch.

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Langevin is passionate about keeping the project and his tools open source. He uses Linux and Blender software. He wants to give back to the community, he says, because he learned so much from the internet. “When I printed the first hand, I didn’t even know Arduino at the time, and I didn’t know how to use the servo,” he says. “On the Arduino website, you see a little video … you have all this info you can learn.” Programming the robot, he says, was mostly trial and error. “I change the numbers, see what happens. If it works, that’s great. If not, I change another line,” he says. “I’m working on so many different levels — 3D printing, robotics, programming, and vision tracking — that I cannot learn everything deeply enough.”

Langevin has designed a finger starter kit to provide an introduction for newbies. “You can fit in the Arduino with a servomotor, and once you know how to program the Arduino and the servo you can actuate the finger, and once you know how to build the finger you can build the hand and so on,” he says. InMoov, he emphasizes, is not just a robot for engineers and roboticists. “It doesn’t have to be that. It can just be a father with children doing it on Sunday — that’s what I like about it. People are learning how to do it by themselves.”

The InMoov parts were designed to be printed on consumer-grade 3D printers. “I’m trying to make parts that are not too complex to print,” Langevin says. “I think it’s an interesting challenge to take into consideration … I’m used to working with companies in France that use professional 3D printers. They are very accurate machines, but I think it’s more fun to print with a home printer. It’s more DIY, and if it doesn’t fit well you can still adjust the things.”

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“3D printing is now taking off in robotics,” says Jacky Baltes, a computer science professor at the University of Manitoba who founded the HuRo Cup, a humanoid robotics competition. HuRo Cup has several teams that use 3D-printed parts, says Baltes, as does RoboCup, another international competition. He also points out Darwin, a small-scale 3D-printable humanoid robot that is used in most robot soccer competitions.

If you watch robot soccer, it becomes apparent that locomotion is difficult for a bipedal robot. It’s a challenge Langevin is still working on — InMoov has an impressive head, torso, arms, and hands, but no legs as of yet. “It’s been already a year and a half that I really wanted to build the legs, but I’ve slowed down a little bit on that because I worked on the new hands,” says Langevin. He spent more than a year redesigning the InMoov hand to be a better fit for the Bionico open prosthetics project, helmed by his friend Nicolas Huchet. The electronics are now streamlined and more tightly designed, compacted in the palm of the hand. “That’s the way I want the legs,” he says.

One of the problems with the leg design is keeping the cost down. “I want them to have motors that can be supplied everywhere in the world that are low cost and fast enough to make the robot stand by itself and walk,” Langevin says. “Every time I find a motor, it’s expensive, or it doesn’t go fast enough, or if it’s fast enough then it’s very expensive.”

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“A lot of the costs of the robot are not the mechanics, but the motors and electronics,” Baltes concurs. A lot of people, he says, thought they could 3D-print their Darwin for $1,000, “until they realized that each Dynamixel MX-28 servo is $225 and they need 20 of them.”

Another obstacle in designing an affordable leg: structural integrity. “You won’t be able to print a major structural part with your MakerBot that will withstand the stresses of walking and falling,” Baltes says.

One alternative Langevin has explored is to give InMoov wheels instead. He has built feet, but they’re an experiment — they won’t work with the final design. Ankles, he adds, will be especially important.

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When the leg project is done, Langevin plans to make kits — not for profit — so that anyone can build an InMoov. “Not everybody has printers,” says Langevin. “If they want just the hand, if they want the head or the torso, they could buy it on the website.”

The pace of progress on InMoov continues to accelerate, inspiring Makers with its open-source idealism. “By sharing and giving information, it gives a message that we can build things,” Langevin says. “We don’t have to make money with everything. Maybe being the first 3D-printed robot of humanoid size, it’s a message of hope.”


The international community is a big part of what makes InMoov special. See more of InMoov around the world here.