'Robots on reins' could soon replace guide dogs

'Robots on reins' could soon replace guide dogs: Machines use tactile sensors and vibrations to help people navigate

The small mobile robot is equipped with tactile sensors to lead the way

A sleeve on the user's arm then interpret signals sent back from the robot

These vibrations can reveal the size, shape or stiffness of an obstacle

Engineers said they could also benefit blind people as well as firefighters

For example, they could help firefighters move through burning buildings

Researchers have also developed a so-called 'tactile language' for robots

They now plan to explore how reins and haptic signals could help older people in their homes

By Victoria Woollaston for MailOnline

Published: 08:35 EST, 25 March 2015  | Updated: 11:02 EST, 25 March 2015 

Robots are already being blamed for taking people's jobs, and now the machines are gunning for guide dogs.

Researchers have developed a 'robot on reins' that can help people navigate using tactile sensors and vibrations.

The proof-of-concept currently resembles a vacuum cleaner or lawnmower but future versions could be smaller and more lightweight for use in the home.

Engineers said they could also benefit firefighters, for example, by helping them moving through smoke-filled buildings to find people more easily.

The small mobile robots are equipped with sensors that lead the way, with the user following up to 3ft (one metre) behind holding a rein.

A special sleeve covering the user's arm would then be fitted with electronic micro-vibrators.

This sleeve would turn the signals sent back by the robot into detailed data that the blind person, firefighter or other user would have been trained to interpret.

These vibrations could also provide data about the size, shape and even the stiffness of any object it finds.

This potentially life-saving robot has been developed by King’s College London and Sheffield Hallam University with funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

Jacques Penders, from Sheffield Hallam University, explained that the four-year project has seen the team using the tactile robot in a number of scenarios from a university gym to a smoke-filled cave in Germany.

The team has also developed a so-called 'tactile language' for the robots and now plans to explore how reins and haptic signals could help older people in their homes.

Currently, even when they have a map of the building, firefighters have to grope their way forward if smoke has badly affected visibility, feeling their way along a wall or following ropes laid by the first firefighter on the scene.

But with only 20 minutes of oxygen per firefighter, the researchers said there is a real need for any innovation that can help them move more quickly and easily.

The robot can also sense any hesitation or resistance from the user and adjust its pace accordingly.

In addition, it would be programmed to predict the follower’s next actions, based on the way they are moving as well as on their previous actions.

In trials, blind-folded volunteers were guided by a robot, and by using an algorithm the robot could detect their level of trust.

Dr Thrishantha Nanayakkara of King’s College London said: 'We’ve made important advances in understanding robot-human interactions and applied these to a classic life-or-death emergency scenario where literally every second counts.

'Robots on reins could add an invaluable extra dimension to firefighting capabilities.'

Senior designer Heath Reed, also of Sheffield Hallam University, added: ‘With the use of robots in emergency situations still in its relative infancy it is crucial to develop an understanding of how robotics interact with people and how those communications can be explored.

‘This project paves the way for robotics to be developed in a number of exciting sectors and I would expect the next five years to see some real developments based on our own research.’

Project partners included the charity Guide Dogs, South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service and Thales Ltd.

The researcher have built a proof of concept and plan to build a full-working prototype for testing in real-world firefighting conditions.


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