A group of academics, graduates, and undergraduates from the Department of Informatics made waves in the world of robotics by clinching the gold medal at a prestigious competition held in Milton Keynes. Their remarkable achievements revolved around the theme of human-robot social interaction and the practical deployment of autonomous robots in real-world scenarios. The team’s exceptional work even earned them a spotlight on BBC One’s The One Show.
In recent years, the realm of human-robot social interaction has gained immense importance in the field of robotics research. The potential of autonomous robots in environments like care homes and the hospitality industry has been under scrutiny, primarily in response to the challenges posed by an aging population and shifting demographics.
The pioneering efforts of this talented team were spearheaded by Senior Lecturer in Computer Science, Matteo Leonetti, in collaboration with Lecturer in Autonomous Systems, Gerard Canal. Their dynamic squad comprised PhD candidates Peter Tisnikar, Zoe Evans, Jared Swift, and a group of dedicated undergraduate students including Nicole Lehchevska, Pawel Makles, and Yousef Altaher.
The team took center stage at the Milton Keynes Smart City competition, competing in the ‘Coffee Shop’ and ‘Elevator’ segments against formidable teams from across Europe. Their mission was to program the versatile robot, TIAGo, to navigate a mock café setting, efficiently taking elevator rides and processing customer orders while autonomously interacting with humans. Tasks included ensuring timely delivery of orders, maintaining table cleanliness, and engaging with customers when convenient, thereby simulating the social conventions of exemplary customer service.
To achieve this impressive feat, the team had to develop sophisticated software for autonomous behavior. This involved intricate integration and expansion upon various aspects of artificial intelligence, such as computer vision, object detection, and speech recognition. By implementing these systems on TIAGo, the robot could perceive its surroundings and respond to external stimuli, even understanding voice commands like a customer’s request for a cup of coffee.
However, the integration of these intricate systems and their deployment in real-world scenarios presented an array of challenges that required innovative solutions. Zoe Evans, a PhD student on the team, shed light on some of these hurdles, saying, “When you deploy in the real world, it’s not guaranteed that multiple software packages, like speech recognition and computer vision, will work optimally on the same hardware. Moreover, common systems like the object detection system YOLO, which excel at identifying general objects, can struggle with specific items commonly found in a café, such as coffee cups and biscuit packets.”
Throughout the competition, the team faced unexpected obstacles. For instance, sunlight streaming in through windows often interfered with TIAGo’s infrared detection systems, which are integral to its vision capabilities. Additionally, members of the public interacting with the robot sometimes failed to enunciate their voice commands clearly. These real-world challenges demanded adaptability and the ability to optimize the system on the fly, a skill the team honed during the competition.
The technical innovations behind human-robot interaction
Zoe Evans further emphasized the stark contrast between what works in the controlled environment of a laboratory simulation and what thrives in the unpredictable realm of the real world. She noted, “Building a mobile, conversational system that can adeptly navigate the unforeseen challenges of a real-world environment is a priceless learning experience and deeply gratifying.”
The practical experience gained through such endeavors equips students with the ability to translate theoretical lessons from the lab into real-world applications. This valuable skill set also positions them favorably for careers in industry. Notably, industry giants like Ocado sponsored the event, underlining the increasing significance of robotics in various sectors.
The triumph of the Informatics Department’s team in the Milton Keynes Smart City competition serves as a testament to the growing importance of human-robot interaction and the potential of autonomous robots in addressing real-world challenges. Their dedication, innovation, and ability to adapt to unforeseen circumstances have not only earned them accolades but have also set the stage for future breakthroughs in the field of robotics