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18 April, 2015 - 16:43 By Tony Quested

Robots brought in to teach at university

Baxter robots at the University of Hertfordshire

If the teacher tutoring undergraduates at the University of Hertfordshire appears a tad robotic there is an excellent reason for that. The teacher IS a robot!

As far as the university is aware this is the first time that robots of this kind have been used for teaching undergraduates in the UK. In fact a pair of ‘Baxter’ robots have joined the university’s School of Computer Science. They are able to interact with people and have even learned how to play a game of draughts. While one robot is used for undergraduate teaching, the other is facilitating post-graduate research.

The ‘Baxter’ robots are designed to interact with humans and they can be programmed to play games and work collaboratively with people. The teaching ‘Baxter’ robot is used for part of the syllabus for the third year Computer Science degree courses at the University.

Dr Michael Walter, a senior lecturer in the School of Computer Science and specialist in human-robot interaction (HRI) said: “As Baxter is a safe robot and requires no cage we can have him in the classroom alongside the students and not have to worry about accidents.

“That’s especially important when you are looking after a class size of around 40 undergraduates. As far as we are aware this is the first time that robots of this kind have been used for teaching undergraduates in the UK.”

The school also includes the Adaptive Systems Research Group (ASRG) which is an internationally renowned group well known for their research into artificial life, cognitive robotics and service robots. Within the group there is a specific emphasis on the study of HRI. Over the years the ASRG has developed a number of their own robot systems for their research projects.

“In terms of HRI research we are one of the major groups in the world,” says Dr Walters. “We have around 30 postgrads and academics who are members of the ASRG and engaged in research at the moment. It’s a multidisciplinary group: we have mathematicians, engineers, computer scientists, roboticists, psychologists, artificial intelligence and cognitive science staff working on a variety of research projects.

“We’re using the reputation and expertise of the ASRG to build up the content of our undergraduate courses. The undergraduates start off with a simple small mobile robot system – they even get to take them home and can become quite attached to them – so they can learn the principles of programming and control before moving onto larger systems such as Baxter.”

For postgraduate research the second Baxter will either be located in the Science and Technology Research Institute or at the university’s Robot House. 

Walters said: “Our Robot House is where we can simulate a normal home environment very accurately and develop robots that are ‘user-friendly’ companions that can assist people at home, typically for care or convalescence. It will be interesting to see how Baxter can be used in this environment alongside our other robots.”

Researchers from the university have also delved into the world of human-robot collaboration and found that the vast majority of people will blindly follow a robot’s requests.

Led by Dr Maha Salem, a Research Fellow in the university’s Adaptive Systems Research Group, the team invited 40 participants to the university’s Robot House and explored how humans perceive and the extent to which they are willing to ‘trust’ a robot. 

By varying the robot’s behaviour in a correct versus faulty condition, they investigated how erratic robot behaviour may influence human interaction choices and the willingness to cooperate with the robot by following a number of unusual requests.

The odd requests included pouring orange juice into a plant pot, throwing away a pile of unopened letters and logging into a password-protected laptop. The team were surprised to see that almost 90 per cent of participants followed the instructions of the robot.

Sky’s the limit for connected car system

A cloud-based connected car system that uses satellite positioning to track a car’s location and assesses the collected data for potential dangers has been launched by the University of Hertfordshire.

An app in the cloud allows a fleet manager on an internet-connected device to view the location of any vehicle in the fleet in real time. 

The university’s smart systems R & D team, within the School of Engineering and Technology, can test from the university laboratory how the system’s in-car LTE modem – a device that enables the blackbox to communicate with the Internet – would perform in mobile networks from all across the world within a single simulator.

Data is then processed and the status of individual vehicles or the whole fleet tracked on an interactive map available via the cloud to any suitable tablet, PC, or smartphone. 

The technology gives the industry a complete wireless solution to enable cost-effective development and measure customer experience within a single system. It is being used for fleet tracking but it is also being developed for the use in other types of vehicles such as mobility scooters. A black box will report back to the cloud information about a scooter’s whereabouts so family and friends can monitor accurate location.

Johann Siau at the University of Hertfordshire
Johann Siau, principal lecturer in digital communication systems at the University of Hertfordshire

Johann Siau, principal lecturer in digital communication systems at the university, said: “With support from Anritsu, its simulator technology enables the team at the university to carry out detailed tests of various mobile network conditions and connectivity standards. 

“By working with Spectracom, which provides advanced satellite positioning technology, the team at the university is able to fully test their connected car cloud solutions through various tracking scenarios. We hope to develop this system so that it can be used in everyday life such as for the use of mobility scooters.”

The university worked with Anritsu, a specialist test and measurement equipment company, and Spectracom, a specialist in advanced satellite positioning technology, to demonstrate the system at the international Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last month.

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