Service Robots in Epidemics and Pandemics

On October 14, 2020 the article “Der Einsatz von Servicerobotern bei Epidemien und Pandemien” (“The use of service robots in epidemics and pandemics”) by Oliver Bendel was published in HMD – Praxis der Wirtschaftsinformatik. From the abstract: “Robots have always been used to carry out dangerous tasks or tasks that are not manageable for us. They defuse bombs, transport hazardous materials and work their way into areas inaccessible to humans. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that even service robots, which are not actually intended for special cases, can provide helpful services in the care of isolated persons and in the containment of diseases. This paper presents four types of service robots. Then it gives examples of robot use during the coronavirus crisis in 2020. Finally, the question in which extent and in what way the robot types can cooperate and whether some of them can be developed into generalists is examined. Business models and operating opportunities are also discussed. The paper shows that cohorts of robots could be vital in the future.” It is part of Volume 57, Issue 6 (December 2020) with a focus on robotics and is available here for free as an open access publication (in German).

Simple, Soft Social Robots

With Hugvie and Somnox Sleep Robot, researchers and companies has made it clear that it is possible to build simple, soft social robots that have a certain utility and impact. This raises hopes for social robotics, which is currently showing some progress, but is still developing slowly. Materials such as rubber and plastic can be used to make simple, soft social robots. These materials can be combined with existing devices such as smartphones and tablets on which you run certain applications, or with simple sensors and electronic components. The project or thesis, announced by Oliver Bendel in August 2020 at the School of Business FHNW, will first do research on the basics of simple, soft social robots. The work of Hiroshi Ishiguro and Alexis Block (with Katherine J. Kuchenbecker) will be included. Then, examples of implementation forms are mentioned and sketched. Their purpose and benefits are presented, as well as possible areas of application. One example is to be implemented, whereby speech abilities and sounds can be an option as well as vibration and electrical impulses. The reference to applications in the household, in public space or in the commercial sector should be established. The project will start in February 2021.

Towards Robot Enhancement

Social robots and service robots usually have a defined locomotor system, a defined appearance and defined mimic and gestural abilities. This leads, on the one hand, to a certain familiarization effect. On the other hand, the actions of the robots are thus limited, for example in the household or in a shopping mall. Robot enhancement is used to extend and improve social robots and service robots. It changes their appearance and expands their scope. It is possible to apply attachments to the hardware, extend limbs and exchange components. One can pull skin made of silicone over the face or head, making the robots look humanoid. One can also change the software and connect the robot to AI systems – this is already done many times. The project or thesis, announced by Oliver Bendel in August 2020 at the School of Business FHNW, should first present the principles and functional possibilities of robot enhancement. Second, concrete examples should be given and described. One of these examples, e.g., the skin made of silicone, has to be implemented. Robots like Pepper or Atlas would be completely changed by such a skin. They could look uncanny, but also appealing. The project will start in September 2020.

3D Printing a Robotic Finger

Nao and Pepper have perfectly shaped hands and fingers. But the fingers are now facing serious competition. Scientists at University of California- Santa Cruz and Ritsumeikan University in Japan have designed and produced a robotic finger inspired by the human endoskeletal structure. From the abstract of the paper “3D Printing an Assembled Biomimetic Robotic Finger”: “We present a novel approach for fabricating cable-driven robotic systems. Particularly, we show that a biomimetic finger featuring accurate bone geometry, ligament structures, and viscoelastic tendons can be synthesized as a single part using a mutli-material 3D printer. This fabrication method eliminates the need to engineer an interface between the rigid skeletal structure and elastic tendon system. The artificial muscles required to drive the printed tendons of the finger can also be printed in place.” The biomimetic robotic finger was presented at the 17th International Conference on Ubiquitous Robots (UR). The paper is available here.

Ingenuity on Mars

The Perseverance rover, which is on its way to Mars, is carrying a drone called Ingenuity (photo/concept: NASA). According to NASA, it is a technology demonstration to test powered flight on another world for the first time. “A series of flight tests will be performed over a 30-Martian-day experimental window that will begin sometime in the spring of 2021. For the very first flight, the helicopter will take off a few feet from the ground, hover in the air for about 20 to 30 seconds, and land. That will be a major milestone: the very first powered flight in the extremely thin atmosphere of Mars! After that, the team will attempt additional experimental flights of incrementally farther distance and greater altitude.” (Website NASA) After the drone has completed its technology demonstration, the rover will continue its scientific mission. Manned and unmanned flights to Mars will bring us several innovations, including novel chatbots and voicebots.

Four-Legged Robots to Scout Factories

Ford experiments with four-legged robots, to scout factories. The aim is to save time and money. The Ford Media Center presented the procedure on 26 July 2020 as follows: “Ford is tapping four-legged robots at its Van Dyke Transmission Plant in early August to laser scan the plant, helping engineers update the original computer-aided design which is used when we are getting ready to retool our plants. These robots can be deployed into tough-to-reach areas within the plant to scan the area with laser scanners and high-definition cameras, collecting data used to retool plants, saving Ford engineers time and money. Ford is leasing two robots, nicknamed Fluffy and Spot, from Boston Dynamics – a company known for building sophisticated mobile robots.” (Website Ford Media Center) Typically, service robots (e.g., transport robots like Relay) scan buildings to create 2D or 3D models that help them navigate through the rooms. Shuttles use lidar systems to create live 3D models of the environment, to detect obstacles. The robots from Boston Dynamics are also mobile, and that is their great advantage (photo: Ford). Nothing can escape them, nothing can hide from them. Probably the benefit can be increased by including cameras in the building, i.e. using robot2x communication.

Chocolate Could Increase Acceptance

A multi-stage HUGGIE project is currently underway at the School of Business FHNW under the supervision of Prof. Dr. Oliver Bendel. Ümmühan Korucu and Leonie Stocker (formerly Leonie Brogle) started with an online survey. The aim was to gain insights into how people of all ages and sexes judge a hug by a robot. In crises and catastrophes involving prolonged isolation, such as the COVID 19 pandemic, proxy hugs of this kind could well play a role. Prisons and longer journeys through space are also possible fields of applications. Nearly 300 people took part in the online survey. The evaluation is almost complete and the results are remarkable. Among other things, it was found that women want to be hugged by a robot that is bigger than them, and men want to be hugged by a robot that is smaller than them. Not only the size is relevant for the acceptance of robotic hugging: “An interesting input given by one of the participants was that it could be more pleasant to hug a robot if it smelled nicely, for example like chocolate.” (Draft of Bachelor Thesis) Whether this is a typically Swiss view remains to be investigated. The results of the survey and the conclusions drawn from them for the design of HUGGIE will be compiled in a paper in the course of the year.

Robot Performs COVID-19 Tests

The COVID-19 pandemic has given a boost to service robotics. Transport, safety and care robots are in demand, as are cleaning and disinfection robots. Service robots measure the temperature of passengers at airports and railway stations. Now they can also perform COVID-19 tests.  “Robotics researchers from the University of Southern Denmark have developed the world’s first fully automatic robot capable of carrying out throat swabs for Covid-19, so that healthcare professionals are not exposed to the risk of infection. The prototype has successfully performed throat swabs on several people. The scientists behind are cheering: The technology works!” (Website SDU, 27 May 2020) A robot arm as known from the industry was used. The end piece comes from the 3D printer. This is another example from the health sector that shows how industrial robots – such as cobots – can become service robots. More information via www.sdu.dk/en/nyheder/forskningsnyheder/robot-kan-pode-patienter-for-covid-19.

An Insect-size Microrobot

In their paper “Scaling down an insect-size microrobot, HAMR-VI into HAMR-Jr”, Kaushik Jayaram (Harvard Microrobotics Lab) and his co-authors present HAMR-Jr, a 22.5 mm, 320 mg quadrupedal microrobot. “With eight independently actuated degrees of freedom, HAMR-Jr is … the most mechanically dexterous legged robot at its scale and is capable of high-speed locomotion … at a variety of stride frequencies … using multiple gaits.” (Abstract) The scientists achieved this “using a design and fabrication process that is flexible, allowing scaling with minimum changes to our workflow”. They “further characterized HAMR-Jr’s open-loop locomotion and compared it with the larger scale HAMR-VI microrobot to demonstrate the effectiveness of scaling laws in predicting running performance” (Abstract) . The work is partially funded by the DARPA SHort Range Independent Microrobotic Platforms and the Department of Defense (DoD) through the National Defense Science & Engineering Graduate (NDSEG) Fellowship Program. There is no doubt that the military is interested in miniature robots that are as big as cockroaches. They are certainly just as interested in animal cyborgs that use cockroaches as the commercial RoboRoach. At least no animals will be harmed in the scientific project. The paper is available here.

And the Winner is … Lio!

DIH-HERO is a project in the healthcare sector supported by the European Union since January 2019. According to the website, the mission is to create a sustaining network that connects players in the healthcare sector and to support small and medium sized enterprises. “Currently, Europe and countries all over the world are facing a global pandemic. Together with its extensive Robotics in Healthcare European network DIH-HERO decided to support the fight against COVID-19 by providing €1,000,000 for robotic technologies that can be deployed timely, in order to support healthcare professionals and save lives by satisfying a current clinical demand or need.” (Website DIH-HERO) F&P Robotics based in Switzerland is one of the winners of the announcement. Lio – one of the company’s flagships – will now learn new tasks in the field of disinfection (door traps, lift buttons). The normal use of the care robot was last described in a paper by Oliver Bendel (School of Business FHNW), Alina Gasser and Joel Siebenmann (F&P Robotics) that was accepted at the AAAI 2020 Spring Symposia. Because of COVID-19 the lecture was postponed to late autumn.