Roboticists from Trinity College Dublin are designing assistive robots that are stable and mobile, and have improved social interfaces to better interact with humans. Matthew Stock reports.
The 'socially intelligent interface', or Sii, is a light-weight, 3D-printed robotic head. With LCD screens for eyes and a mouth, and a flexible neck, it can convey a number of easy-to-read expressions. Just how humans and robots interact is still a grey area. Sii could help decipher this. SOUNDBITE (English) CONOR MCGINN, ASSISTANT PROFESSOR AT TRINITY COLLEGE DUBLIN, SAYING: "Certainly there's a lot of interest in using these sorts of robots as tools in psychology and trying to better understand and answer some questions that remain in how we understand things like emotion and to be able to test out concepts in psychology." Sii could eventually be mounted onto a mobile robot... such as this prototype, called Aerobot. In the lab at Trinity College Dublin, they're working on assistive robots to help the elderly or disabled increase their independence. Aerobot is mechanically simple, yet highly adaptive depending on the environment. SOUNDBITE (English) DR. CONOR MCGINN, ASSISTANT PROFESSOR AT TRINITY COLLEGE DUBLIN, SAYING: "We've developed this system so that it can actually move in four different configurations. And it can transition quite easily between those four configurations... it allows us to do things like climbing steps, it allows us to do things like crossing gaps that we might need to if the robot needs to get on a train, for example." An 'air muscle' actuator helps control how the mass is distributed throughout the robot, and improves safety. SOUNDBITE (English) DR. CONOR MCGINN, ASSISTANT PROFESSOR AT TRINITY COLLEGE DUBLIN, SAYING: "We try and make stability something that the system defaults in to. So if there is a problem, if the robot does break unexpectedly, it defaults and it falls, and fails, into a state that is going to do as little damage as possible." The team says robots like Aerobot prove dynamic systems don't need to be extremely expensive or complex. While it's far from market-ready... the team says with each iteration they're improving on problems inherent to robot design. They're now working on their most advanced prototype to date - a full-sized humanoid assistive robot.