December 13, 2021 – A new robot that can spot two or more people standing 6 feet apart could play an important role in maintaining social distancing requirements in the present or future pandemic.
The robot found, approached, and informed groups of two to six people who were standing too close to each other to separate in early testing.
The COVID control robot (CS-robot) discreetly uses the message on the screen to warn people who are too close. The technology, developed by researchers at the University of Maryland, also features a thermal camera that can help detect someone who is hotter than others who may have a fever. The robot can then notify health or safety personnel.
The study was published on December 1st PLOS One.
An element of surprise?
How the public could react to the judge’s robot remains unknown. “We mostly tested in our lab and buildings and at several public events,” said senior study author Dinesh Manocha, Ph.D.
“People are often surprised when they see robots moving around them or displaying such messages. These types of robots are not widespread, so it’s hard to guess the public’s perception of using such robots,” said Manocha, a professor of computer and electrical engineering and computer engineering. University of Maryland at College Park.
There are many things to consider about how people would react, said Bruce Hirsch, MD.
“I wonder what psychology would be, what sociology would be – what does it mean to be rebuked by a robot?” He said.
“There is already depersonalization and burnout in the healthcare environment, especially with the COVID epidemic. I don’t know if the robot would be considered useful and supportive,” said Hirsh, an infectious disease physician at Northwell Health in Manhasset, NY.
Manocha, first author Adarsh Jagan Sathyamoorthy, and their colleagues challenged an autonomous robot in five indoor scenarios that measured 4 meters x 4 meters (about 12 feet x 12 feet). They tested how well he finds people, discovers social injuries and follows people who walk or stand still.
The robot also worked in non-laboratory enclosed settings such as lobbies and narrow hallways with different levels of lighting, the researchers noted.
The study also compared the performance of the robot itself with the robot plus input from closed-circuit wall cameras (CCTV). Although the robot was able to detect and warn non-compliant people on its own, the use of CCTV data improved its performance in every situation tested.
On the go
The robot can cover all blind spots in CCTV coverage through a “mower strategy”, where it moves to fixed locations and explores its surroundings.
The robot uses its cameras and sensors to “lock” a person who is not at a social distance to focus their movement. In a series of tests, the accuracy of the location of the CS-robot was within 0.3 meters, regardless of whether the person was walking or standing still.
Interestingly, in addition to proximity, the robot also takes time into account. Engineers wanted to avoid labeling lower-risk situations, such as when two people pass within 6 feet per minute in a hallway.
Engineers have also designed the robot to bypass potential obstacles, including other people. Specifically, their Frozone collision avoidance strategy, described ua previous study, allows the robot camera “Red Green Blue Depth” (RGB-D) to monitor and predict where people will soon be moving.
The robot gives priority to its actions in order to first address larger groups and / or track people on the move based on their movements in relation to the robot.
People remain anonymous
Approaching or tracking a robot equipped with a camera could raise privacy concerns.
The researchers explained this with standard de-identification technology such as visual image editing for faces, gestures and gait data. And the visual camera on the robot assigns a random number as an identifier for each person in the group.
The robot also reduces risks to humans. “Monitoring people’s temperature remotely reduces the risk that security / health personnel will get coronavirus“, The authors pointed out.
Still a role for people
The benefits of robots, Hirsch said, include freeing staff from observing people. Technology could also make surveillance more robust.
But, he said, “I’m older and I love people.”
People are still more likely to help with education – explaining why social distancing is important – as well as “reading certain situations,” Hirsch said.
He cited the example of an upset, crying person in a hospital who has just lost a loved one.
“Will the robot approach that person at a potentially sensitive moment and ask him to move 6 feet away from the other person or hand him over for additional health care supervision?”
Although they have so far only been tested indoors, “we expect robots to be used indoors or outdoors where people are nearby,” Manocha said.
Researchers could also try to warn people who are not distancing themselves, other than a message on the screen, such as sounds or other warning signals.
Manocha noted that the robot does not distinguish between foreigners and people from the same household. Also, the authors said, “We need to develop better approaches to human-robot interaction.”
Researchers want to study the social impact of robots.
“We would also like to develop methods for detecting whether people around the robot are wearing masks,” they said.