Face of the future

The congestion charge zone might irk many London drivers but the move towards traffic-free streets in Europe’s cities has prompted the EU to fund a project that aims to use robots within urban settings.

The programme envisions robots roaming city streets transporting goods to stores or acting as robo-cops, surveying areas for suspicious activity. The three-year project, called Ubiquitous Robots in Urban Settings (Urus), will design and develop a robotic cityscape that accommodates wirelessly networked robots that autonomously perform tasks, which might be too complex, time -consuming or costly for humans to do.

The programme’s lead researchers from the Technical University of Catalonia will demonstrate this networked robot system in a pedestrian area of a Barcelona city quarter when the project is near completion. Until then, the researchers are working with a European consortium to perfect the technologies needed.

The project aims to create 10 unique robots capable of different tasks based on individual motion capabilities and types of sensors on board. Most of the robots will interact with people, so researchers are keen to design robots with an intelligent robot head that is capable of human-like expression.

’As soon as you stick a face on a robot, people credit it with more intelligence than it actually has,’ said project participant Prof Richard Bowden of the University of Surrey, the only UK member of the consortium. ’If it’s a faceless piece of metal, you can’t relate to it.’

Actively looking

The university is not involved in the design of the robots, but will contribute knowledge of computer vision. This will provide the robots with a means of actively ’looking’ rather than passively ’seeing’ the world around them.

With the use of visual sensors, on-board GPS systems and programmed 3D image analysis algorithms, a robot will not only be able to determine its location and move around city streets but will also have the ability to interpret and react to moving objects such as pedestrians or vehicles.

The university will also contribute its experience with gesture recognition and the use of vision for human-robot interaction. The plan is for people to communicate with robots by phoning them on a mobile or speaking or calling them like a waiter. The robot will absorb this information with audio and visual sensors and respond by voice, an interactive robot screen or mobile phone.

In the first experiment planned in Barcelona, the robots will act as tourist guides, helping people to find places to go.

The experiment will also demonstrate the robots’ ability to transport people and goods from one place to another.

They will do this by using their knowledge of city maps and communicating with other robots that are wirelessly connected, via a system such as Bluetooth, to obtain updated information on street traffic or road obstructions.

When a tourist phones a robot for directional assistance, the robots will have an accurate estimate of the position of the person that requires the service by using vision sensors and mobile phone signals.

The second planned experiment will demonstrate surveillance capabilities. A networked robot will navigate the city and use pre-programmed data of an area to detect abnormal situations such as vandalised park benches, litter or suspicious activity.

’For example,’ said Bowden, ’if you have a robot with a camera that looks down a road and it knows it is normal behaviour for people to just walk along, then it will know that if somebody shimmies up a drainpipe, it is something the system has never seen before.’

From the point of suspicion, the robot will be able to exchange information with other networked robots and give its location and send an alarm. This will bring CCTV to a new level because criminal actions will not only be videoed but also detected and reported on the spot.

Elements of technology

While the Urus project is due to end in 2009, Bowden warns that people should not expect to see robots roaming the streets of London soon.

’What you might find out with Urus is that it’s not going to end in three years with a fleet of robots actually being produced and running around a city,’ he said.

’You will probably find elements of the technology — things like the integration of wireless GPS, cell positionings and visual surveillance systems — in various other autonomous vehicles in a smaller way.’