AUSTIN, Texas — In 2023, the University of Texas will bring dog-like robots to campus to study how people interact with the robots in a real-world environment.
"Often things work well in the laboratory, but they would fail in the real world or they would fail as deployed in the long-term," Dr. Justin Hart, one of the researchers on the project, said.
According to Dr. Luis Sentis, one of the leaders of the research, putting the robots in the campus setting will provide the experience the robots and researchers need to collect data on human response.
"The two delivery items that we found are very much in demand, are, first of all, you know, things like food and beverages across campus," Sentis said. "We ended up really focusing as a first test on delivering of supplies and in particular to things that became very important after COVID, which are wipes and sanitizers."
Sentis added that the wipes and hand sanitizers will be the items delivered for now, but that may expand as the study continues. The study became possible because of a grant provided by the National Science Foundation for $3.6 million. According to Sentis, the grant happened because of the University's Good System partnership among a number of different disciplines and groups.
The researchers will use robots from Boston Dynamics and Unitree. The robots will be able to function across campus, but the primary deliveries will take place between the Engineering building and Computer Science building on campus. The robot dogs will walk across Speedway, open doors to the buildings and make the deliveries.
Austin already has a couple robot delivery services. However, those have all been on wheels. The researchers say using quadrupeds will help the robots maneuver complicated terrain and scenarios like curbs, stairs and stepping sideways when navigating foot traffic.
"There is a level of capability of robots today and there are certainly a large number of companies which are trying to see how far we can push robots in the real world with that," Dr. Joydeep Biswas said. "We have a goal of how can we have them be more flexible, more capable, more general-purpose. We want the robots to be deployed everywhere, not just in, like, preset map scenarios."
Deploying the robots on a campus will come with its own set of challenges: Will students mess with the robots? How will the robots respond to heavy foot traffic? The researchers say they don't want the robots damaged, but say any interaction is good for their data collection.
"One thing that arises often in human-robot interaction research is that people behave in very unexpected ways," Hart said. "The charge there is like, how do you turn that into useful data, right? That interaction, that something that person was trying to figure out, how the device solves the problem, and trying to figure out, to kind of mess with, to break it so they can interact with it."
According to Sentis, while the study will start with sanitizer and wipe deliveries, they eventually want to program enough functions into the robots that they can "play fetch" with people interacting with them.
"The team knows reactions will vary widely and wants to develop tools for understanding the full range of experiences encountering robots on campus can produce. This work could help designers figure out how future public-facing robots should be designed to coexist within diverse communities like UT Austin’s, as well as how and where they should move," a release from the university said.
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