While many colleges across the country have rolled out autonomous robots to help deliver food and supplies to students across their campuses, the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin) is taking a slightly different approach to delivery robots. Before rolling out a robot delivery network on the campus in 2023, researchers at the university will use a fleet of robots to understand and improve the experience of pedestrians who encounter the robots.
An interdisciplinary team of researchers were awarded a $3.6 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) that will support the creation of a robot delivery network on campus. Before rolling out the new robots, the researchers have planned a five-year study focusing on what it takes to create, safely operate and maintain this kind of robot network, while also adapting to the humans who live and work around it.
“Robotic systems are becoming more ubiquitous,” said Luis Sentis, a professor in the Cockrell School of Engineering’s Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics and leader of the project. “In addition to programming robots to perform a realistic task such as delivering supplies, we will be able to gather observations to help develop standards for safety, communication, and behavior to allow these future systems to be useful and safe in our community.”
A blog post from UT Austin explained that the team’s research “promises to become the most extensive data about human-robot encounters in public spaces to date.” UT Austin added, “over time, the team will learn how state-of-the-art robotic autonomy and a real-world community can best co-exist.”
Once the network is up and running, the UT Austin community will be able to order free supplies such as wipes and hand sanitizer via a smartphone app. The robots will deliver them to certain pedestrian zones on campus, door-to-door.
However, as robots roam around campus, they will encounter potentially hundreds of pedestrians. UT Austin said that researchers want to understand what kinds of behaviors and interactions are expected from the robots during these encounters while ensuring their tasks are successfully completed.
For the program, researchers will use dog-like robots from Boston Dynamics and Unitree. Later on in the program, robots will go out in teams of two, monitored both by chaperones and people remotely. UT Austin notes that this means researchers will always have the ability to stop the robots if necessary.
Researchers say they hope to gain insights from observing and interviewing people who encounter the robots in a variety of contexts. Acknowledging that reactions to the robots will likely vary widely, the team wants to develop tools for understanding the full range of experiences encountering robots on campus can produce. UT Austin said that this work could help designers figure out how future public-facing robots should be designed to co-exist within diverse communities.