University of Texas to study how people interact with robots in public

While the robots roam UT’s campus, those monitoring the quadrupeds will wear brain sensors. | Source: University of Texas

Researchers at the University of Texas (UT), Austin recently received a $3.6 million grant from the National Science Foundation to do a five-year study focusing on how humans interact with robots in public. The research will involve deploying a fleet of quadrupeds on UT’s campus, with the first deployments starting in early 2023. 

The grant will help the interdisciplinary team of researchers set up a robot delivery network on campus using both Boston Dynamics‘ and Unitree Robotics‘ quadruped robots. 

Once the robots are up and running, members of the UT Austin community will be able to order free supplies, like wipes and hand sanitizer, using a smartphone app. The quadrupeds will deliver the supplies to certain pedestrian zones on campus. While delivering, these robots could encounter hundreds of different people and their reactions to the robot. 

At first, the robots will work individually, but after a while, the researchers plan to send them out in pairs. The robots will be monitored by chaperones and remotely by other people. Nanshu Lu, a professor in UT’s Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics, will design wearable brain sensors for the people monitoring the robots to wear. This will give the researchers some insight into the kind of workload and attention span monitoring the robot requires. 

The researchers will gain most of their insights, however, from observing and interviewing people who interact with the robots while they’re out in the world. The team is hoping to get a wide range of reactions so that they can better understand the full range of experiences robots can have on campus. 

The team hopes their research will help designers have a better understanding of how to create robots that can co-exist with humans in public, and how and where those robots should move when interacting with humans. 

While students might not see quadrupeds roaming around campus every day, college campuses have been popular testing grounds for mobile robots. Many sidewalk delivery robot companies, including Starship Robotics and Kiwibot, have rolled out delivery services on college campuses. 

This new research will build on the team’s six-year project that kicked off in September 2021 Living and Working with Robots. The team is made up of Elliot Hauser, an assistant professor in UT’s School of Information, Justin Hart, an assistant professor of practice with UT’s College of Natural Sciences, Keri Stephens, a professor in UT’s College of Communication, Joydeep Biswas, an assistant professor in of computer science, Junfeng Jiao of UT’s School of Architecture, Maria Esteva of the Texas Advanced Computing Center and Samantha Shorey, and assistant professor in UT’s College of Communication. 

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