Three National Robotarium-linked projects which have the potential to changes lives

Robots are rising to a range of modern challenges, from talking to anxious hospital patients to ensuring social distancing is observed to reducing risks to life in hazardous industrial settings.

The National Robotarium, a world-leading centre for robotics and artificial intelligence research at Heriot-Watt University, is at the forefront of this work – and its facilities will be significantly enhanced when a new dedicated building for the centre opens on the university’s campus in Edinburgh next year.

The National Robotarium, a partnership between Heriot-Watt and the University of Edinburgh, is part of the Data-Driven Innovation initiative and supported by

£21 million from the UK Government and £1.4m from the Scottish Government, through the £1.3 billion Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal.

Its aims, explains Professor Yvan Petillot – co-academic lead of the National Robotarium at Heriot-Watt – are to promote entrepreneurship and encourage early-stage product development. He adds: “Working at the interface between academia and industry, the National Robotarium will translate world-class research into new products and markets for the benefit of the UK.

“It will be a major innovation hub, working across multiple sectors, offering staff and students the chance to co-create new products and businesses to support the net-zero and circular economy of the future.”

SPRING PRESENTS A REAL CONVERSATION PIECE

Could robots help reduce the anxiety of people waiting for a dementia diagnosis by having a conversation with them?

It’s a question roboticists hope to answer in a Europe-wide partnership that could revolutionise the way care is delivered.

A new humanoid robot recently arrived in Edinburgh as part of the SPRING project and Dr Christian Dondrup of the National Robotarium explains how it will be used: “When a patient goes to a hospital appointment, or has a series of appointments, there is a lot of waiting around, which can create anxiety. The first part of the SPRING project examines how robots might chat to patients in ‘non-medical phases’, when staff are busy and patients can be most anxious.

“The robot is programmed to chat about the news, Covid-19 advice or play a simple quiz with the patient.”

This is done by giving the robot – which is 1.6 metres tall (about 5ft, 3in) and runs on wheels – access to news sources such as Reuters and Wikipedia and the latest Covid-19 information.

“The robots will approach a patient in a waiting room, reassure them they’ve not been forgotten, check they have their documents and find them a chair. They will ask if they want a chat and to talk about non-medical topics to try to relieve anxiety. The robot’s conversational system is open domain, which means it tries to find a suitable response to whatever a person has said.”

The research team, including Heriot-Watt University and eight other universities across Europe, delivers its first project milestone in September, demonstrating that the robot can chat effectively to patients in a hospital-like environment.

Later, the robots will be used in Broca Hospital in Paris, a specialist dementia facility where patients can have several appointments in one day.

The conversational robot has been developed from a system created by Heriot-Watt PhD students for the Amazon Alexa Prize. “This was more like conversation with friends in a pub about TV shows and telling jokes,” says Dondrup.

“For medical settings, we developed a system that can also talk about current pandemic guidelines and even debunk myths. There is also a true-or-false Covid-19 quiz.

“After milestone one is achieved, we will look at multi-party robot interaction with several people and the robot involved,” says Dondrup. “It’s much more difficult as you have to read a range of social cues from more than one person.”

One later milestone in the four-year project is to examine how different patients react to the chatty robots. “When we do in-hospital trials, patients and their families will have agreed to take part, but we recognise this is a novel experience and people will react differently,” says Dondrup. “Our Italian partner is leading work to identify who wants to interact with the robot – no-one will be forced.”

There is long-term potential in care homes, although plans were delayed by the pandemic. Dondrup says: “In care homes, people might be more familiar with each other, so we might need different approaches to break the ice and get group conversations flowing, like quizzes and collaborative games, but it’s not too big a leap.”

CONNECT-R FOR WORK

An expert from the National Robotarium is involved in a groundbreaking project to build structures in the world’s most hazardous environments. Dr Adam Stokes is part of the team developing Connect-R, a self-building robotic structure, which removes the need to deploy people infor places where radioactivity or serious safety concerns pose risks to human life.

“We’ve gone from fantasy to idea to concept to something which is deployable,” says Stokes. “The problems are there and we can see the solutions, so It won’t be too long before we see this in use. Connect-R is a totally new capability going onto the market.”

Connect-R received £6 million from Innovate UK, the UK Government innovation agency, and is part of the £93m Robots for a Safer World challenge.

The National Robotarium leads on the development of the project’s control systems, and Stokes says the involvement of industry experts, alongside academics, has helped Connect-R develop quickly: “When you have a government challenge, to find a solution to an industry need, and you give clever people money to do that, they come up with interesting things.

The focus is on the end use and what can be achieved. It isn’t just academic and theoretical.” Industry partners include Barrnon, which has experience in removing waste from radioactive environments, and ROSS Robotics, which has developed robots to inspect and analyse contaminated zones at Chernobyl, along with Royal Holloway, Tharsus, and Jigsaw Structures. Stokes says nuclear decommissioning would be the “beach-head” for Connect-R, with interesting possibilities in oil and gas - and in space. Each Connect-R module is capable of creating structures as big as entire buildings, or spacecraft.

MICRO POST-PANDEMIC ROLE FOR ROBOTS

What role can robots play in helping people maintain social distancing to help reduce the spread of Covid-19? A project using MiRo - a small robot which looks like a dog-rabbit hybrid - attempted to find out, by putting the robot into a family home and student halls.

Professor Lynne Baillie says: “The pandemic has necessarily led to restrictions which can be difficult to follow. We wanted to see whether MiRo could assist with social distancing within homes or halls by alerting people when they get too close.”

Research was conducted over four days, with MiRo placed in a family’s kitchen and living room, and shared areas of student halls. The aim was to see how people responded to the arrival of visitors and if they would move away when given a range of alerts by the robot.

“We found MiRo can help people to socially distance within their own homes and encourages them to comply with notifications,” says Baillie.

A verbal reminder from MiRo had 71 per cent compliance, a siren had 65 per cent, touching the robot had 56 per cent and the robot lighting up 34 per cent. “That’s a very promising result, showing robotics can be useful in any future lockdowns, perhaps enabling different restrictions to limit social isolation,” says Baillie.

MiRo was chosen for the project because of its computer vision and sensors, and the way it looks. “We thought it would be more acceptable in the home,” says Baillie. “It’s also easy to transport and to give demonstrations.”

The team is keen to do a larger study over a longer period with more households to see if compliance remains high.