One vision for the future features a generation of robots designed to play various roles in urban society. Some robots will be guides for tourists, some will help the elderly and others will collect our rubbish. Research projects, being conducted in Italy and Spain, are adapting technologies to help these robots survive the demanding environment that is the modern city.
The new urban robots come with additional technical challenges compared with common industrial-style robots. Not only do they have to be very mobile, but they must be able to share space with humans and navigate their way through complicated and dynamic surroundings.
An example of progress in this field is Dustcart, a prototype from the research project DustBot. It is an innovative robot from Italy that collects garbage door-to-door. Having summoned Dustcart, the user can use the touch screen to open the drawer of the robot in which the garbage is placed. The drawer is closed and the type of rubbish (e.g. paper or plastic) is selected using the touch screen on the robot. Dustcart would then bring the garbage to the next central collection point. Designs are to allow for Dustcart to access city centres, squares, and to use small streets and more difficult pavement surfaces like those in historical areas. The robot should be able to reach people without getting in the way.
Navigating through a busy city is no easy task. Engineers in Barcelona are working on the URUS project and have created prototypes, named Tibi and Dabo, capable of independent operation within urban areas. Three onboard computers are required for their equipment and sensors. The plan is to have these robots act as tourist guides, a job for which they must be capable of autonomous navigation. To achieve this the team of engineers equipped the Polytechnic University of Catalonia campus with 20 cameras and wi-fi internet. This setup would be required on a larger scale if Tibi and Dabo were to work autonomously throughout a whole city.
Tibi and Dabo use special maps to find their way around. The maps are generated using another robot with the identical sensor setup as Tibi and Dabo. The 3D maps, which have little resemblance to the maps that humans would use, consist of geometrical elements (i.e. surfaces, lines and points) and annotations to indicate a corridor, building or building entrance.
Asides from navigating, the robots must also be positively received by humans. Originally the design for the Dustcart robot was simply a rubbish bin on wheels. However, while working with the public through questionnaires, it was discovered that the researchers had underestimated the importance of an emotional aspect in the design. The robot was redesigned with a head, eyes and a body, giving the robot a more familiar form.
Both European projects wish to see networked robots working autonomously in urban areas and interacting with humans. Although researchers are certain of the high potential to which robots can assist humans in the city, there are still many technical barriers between the present and their vision for the future.