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Mobile robots

SDU puts eyes and ears on the robot

Researchers at SDU have managed to make a mobile robot capable of interacting with people. The technology opens up new opportunities for mobile robots, says Professor Norbert Krüger, who is behind the project

By Jakob Haugaard Christiansen, , 8/26/2021

Today, mobile robots drive bedlinen, blood samples and documents between wards in a hospital or move items from A to B in a warehouse or company.

This type of robot can move around in an environment where people are also present, but if the robot gets close to them, it will automatically stop.

In the future, the robot will also be able to interact and communicate with the humans it encounters on its way. For example, by showing the way, serving a soda or even taking on a task.

Eyes, ears, and voice

For the past three years, researchers at SDU's robot centre Mærsk Mc-Kinney Moller Institute have worked on a mobile robot with eyes and ears that can communicate and interact with people.

The robot has also been given a voice and it will answer you when you speak to it.

– Today, we primarily use mobile robots to move things around, whether it is in a hospital or a company. With our technology, we aim to make it possible to let a person and a robot speak together. This means you can give the robot a job and use it for far more tasks, says Professor Norbert Krüger.

Dialogue with the robot

The robotics expert is at the forefront of the SMOOTH project, which was originally launched with a focus on using robots in the care sector to help employees.

Along the way, however, it turned out that the selected “use-cases” at the care centre can also be moved outside the elderly sector.

– We started with logistics tasks, guide functions and letting the robot offer the older people drinks, but those tasks are general and not just reserved for a nursing home, and that is the starting point for the next phase of the project, says Norbert Krüger.

The research and development work on SMOOTH started in April 2017 and has since resulted in a technology that has made it possible to enter a dialogue with the robot. Especially eye contact is crucial, the professor says.

When you approach another human being, eye contact is crucial, and the same applies to robots

Norbert Krüger, Professor

– When you approach another human being, eye contact is crucial, and the same applies to robots, so we have developed a technology that enables the robot to perceive people in the room and see where they are looking.

– Today, you can only use a mobile robot for transport and logistics, but if it is to solve a task for you, it is important that it knows that it has your attention, he says.

Understands gestures

With the SMOOTH technology, the robot can also perceive, for example, an arm movement or gesture. If a service employee in a cafeteria points to some tables in a room and asks the robot to clear them of used service, then the robot can understand the verbal order.

–The robot can then be a part of a negotiation and dialogue with us, which is important if we are to be able to use robots better than today.

For example, there are hospitals where mobile robots have been deselected because they simply create chaos when there is too much traffic at once. In that situation, you need to be able to communicate with the robot so that it does not just stop and block the area, says Norbert Krüger.

There are hospitals where mobile robots have been deselected because they simply create chaos when there is too much traffic at once

Norbert Krüger, Professor

SMOOTH was financed with 18 million from the Innovation Fund and partner companies, which have ensured that the development work is now in place. Now the next phase awaits, where the technology must be transferred to commercial use.

– We have created results and technology that can now be transferred to existing robots.,

– SMOOTH is in contact with robot companies that are interested in the technology that has been developed in the SDU project. Now it's about creating the foundation for a business, says Norbert Krüger.

He points out that SMOOTH is placed at level 5/6 on the so-called Technical Readiness Level scale. Now the technology must be lifted to the top of the scale - preferably to a number 9, where it has been fully tested and ready for the market.

What is a use case?

In system development, a use case or usage pattern is a technique for uncovering requirements. It can either be a requirement for a new system or a requirement to change an existing system. Each use case contains one or more scenarios that show how the system should interact with a user or another system to solve a specific task that the system should be able to.

Source: Wikipedia

– In the first part of SMOOTH, we defined our use cases. Now it is up to partner companies to define the use cases we must work with over the coming project period.

– For instance, robots will be mowing grass in cemeteries, tidying up the tables in the canteen or picking up cigarette butts on pedestrian streets and in parks, he says.

The last task is one the company Capra Robotics in Hasselager, Aarhus is seeking to put into the hands or gripper of a mobile robot.

At Capra, the CEO's name is Niels Jul Jacobsen, and it is difficult to find a person in Denmark who has as deep a knowledge of mobile robots like him. Niels Jul Jacobsen developed both the company and the technology in Mobile Industrial Robots (MIR) from Odense, which in 2018 was sold for DKK 1.7 billion to American Teradyne.

Potential in software

Norbert Krüger has consulted with Jacobsen, who sees great potential in improving communication between humans and robots.

– There are very few companies working on this kind of technology, because the robot developers often spend the time and resources on developing the mechanics and the robot, but not so much on the software that needs to be done to put ears and eyes on so that it can communicate with the people, says Niels Jul Jacobsen.

This week Jacobsen and Capra are both in Odense to participate in the yearly DIRA-event Robot Brag at Technological Institute in the Science Park.

Meet the researcher

Norbert Krüger is a Professor at Mærsk Mc-Kinney Moller Institute


Editing was completed: 26.08.2021