Fitter, happier… the rise of social robots

Socially Assistive Robots can provide motivation and guidance for those in need of a companion – Katie Winkle, Bristol Robotics Lab PhD student, explains ways that this is already happening

On 4 August this year, the maverick French inventor Franky Zapata crossed the Channel on a jet-powered hoverboard, with the 21-mile journey taking him just over 23 minutes. Clearly a remarkable achievement, but also a very public prompt to all those working in labs on the cool tech of the future – as envisioned by the sci-fi shows of the 50s – that they need to up their game. Yes, the white-coated technicians responsible for jetpacks, flying cars and robot housekeepers – we are talking about you. Teasing aside, Katie Winkle, a PhD student currently undertaking research at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, specialises in the field of Socially Assistive Robotics (SAR) and is certain that her area of study isn’t an unrealisable sci-fi pipe dream.

“I don’t think the use of robots as social companions and helpers is that far away, actually,” she says confidently. “Right now, I could program a robot for a specific use case for a school or a hospital. The real difficulty is in scaling that up in a way that still works for lots of different people and applications. That’s why we are researching it, but it is doable. I’m optimistic.”

Socially Assistive Robotics is a relatively new area of robotics that focuses on assisting users through social rather than physical interaction. So while there are physical robots that have been designed to help with ostensibly manual tasks as varied as assembling cars or even picking strawberries, a Socially Assistive Robot is subtler than that.

‘Pepper’ robot demonstrates arm exercises to a patient

They’re not going to help you out of bed by lifting you, but they might tell you to get out of bed. Or they might remind you to take your medicine.

They can support a trained practitioner, such as a teacher, to provide guidance and motivation to a person – in doing so, they attempt to give the correct cognitive cues to encourage development, learning, or therapy.

As Katie explains: “The distinction is that these robots aren’t physical, they are social. They’re not going to help you out of bed by lifting you, but they might tell you to get out of bed. Or they might remind you to take your medicine. They could even help to combat the issue of loneliness. The key is that the usefulness comes from the social interaction, such as conversation and companionship, rather than a physical act.”

Pet rescue

Another key definition is that a Socially Assistive Robot is not simply for entertainment and they should perform a useful process. But what are the main fields that these robotic companions could help and what are the tangible examples?

Robots have been introduced into nursing homes, where dementia patients have been given robotic pets to help with wellbeing. There’s certainly less mess than with a real dog.

“There are many, but the two areas I always mention first are health and education,” says Katie. “The applications we are starting to see linked to mental health are generally based around loneliness and dementia care. Robots have been introduced into nursing homes, where dementia patients have been given robotic pets to help with wellbeing. There’s certainly less mess than with a real dog.”

Another example is the use of robots in autism therapy. For children who have autism or social anxiety, robots can provide a safe social companion, ‘someone’ they can practice social interaction with. Autistic children respond well in these circumstances. In these cases, the robots are being essentially used to help them with their social skills and that has a very real application of putting them back into human-human interaction.

Katie Winkle with a Nao robot

“All these robots are helping where you need a social presence and there isn’t a human available,” explains Katie. “So, in between therapy visits or gym sessions, there is a robot there to provide the motivation you don’t have.

“As a proposal for future research here at the Lab, I would love to take a robot into Bristol Childrens’ Hospital and use it as a companion for children who are isolated there long-term.”

The use of Socially Assistive Robots in education is essentially the same thing again: helping children who perhaps need extra attention, or children in group sizes that are too big. The robot can perform small group work.

“It’s anywhere where you’d like to have an intelligent social presence, but you don’t. They are all cases where social influence is important,” adds Katie.

Personality issues

It’s important to Katie that her work at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory must at all times consider the end-user, the human who is being assisted by the robot. Just as you might not get along with your teacher or clash with the personality of another, is there any guarantee you’ll get on with your robot?

“The personality type of the robot needs to suit the personality of the person it is helping.”

“When we talk about robot personalities and robot emotions,” explains Katie, “what we are really saying is how well can we program a robot to look like it has those. This means we need to learn about human behaviour and then hook it into a robot. If someone is an extrovert, they’ll talk a lot, move hands about… we can model many of those things from psychology and put it on a robot. The personality type of the robot needs to suit the personality of the person it is helping.”

Metal motivators

“I’m working on a study right now where I’ve got a robot set up in the gym over on campus. The idea is to help people with the Couch To 5k running programme over a nine-week programme, with the robot assisting three times a week. To begin with, the robot is being controlled with the fitness instructor and over time, the robot will learn how to give encouragements at the right time.

“The robot will be giving the runners challenges. Some will respond to direct encouragement – ‘Come on, you can do it! Push a bit harder!’, while with others, it will be more sympathetic, because that’s what they need. Personalisation of robot interaction is a big thing.”

Katie’s Couch To 5k study is an easy-to-understand, tangible concept that brings the near-endless possibilities of Socially Assistive Robots to life. But are there any areas where they won’t be able to help?

We’ll leave the final word to Katie: “I’ve seen work investigating the effectiveness of a ‘marriage counsellor’ robot – it was a talking head in a wig that was supposed to facilitate conversation in couples therapy. Even I’m not sure about that one just yet, it’s a bit of a stretch.”

Academic profile

Name: Katie Winkle (MEng)
Title: PhD Student at Bristol Robotics Laboratory
Studies:
MEng Mechanical Engineering
PhD Robotics and Autonomous Systems

Katie’s story:
“Growing up, I was interested in cars, in how machines work, stuff we can build using science in an applied way. My dad was a car mechanic and he encouraged my curiosity.

“My Undergraduate Degree was Mechanical Engineering at the University of Bristol. I was all set to go into the automotive industry and wasn’t at all thinking about robotics. Then we had a final-year lecturing unit on the subject and it completely captured my imagination.

“I originally thought I’d work with very physical assistive robots, like those that help you walk. But as I got here, I found I was much more drawn to social interaction. I found it much more interesting. I was amazed that I could put a social robot in front of somebody right now and how I could make that useful. I find the underlying psychology so fascinating and that’s why I’m where I ended up now.”

Building a chaos machine

The mathematics of chaos theory is useful for studying non-linear dynamic systems in Mechanical and Civil Engineering. Our technician Mictroy has built a ‘chaos machine’, a pendulum based teaching tool to help Engineering students get their heads around the theory.

Building earthquake-proof schools in Nepal

The 2015 earthquake in Nepal was devastating. 9,000 people died, 3.5 million were left homeless and whole communities were flattened.

Our Civil Engineers have been working with local experts, the Government of Nepal, the Universities of Kathmandu and Tribhuvan, Arup International Development, NSET, Save the Children and school pupils in Nepal to save lives by making buildings and communities safer – starting with schools.

The project, led by Professor Anastasios Sextos, combines cutting edge research and laboratory-based testing with co-produced solutions developed with and by communities in Nepal.

For the project to succeed the solutions must be affordable, locally-sourced and acceptable to local people. During the last field trip our researchers spoke to lots of Nepalese people who witnessed the devastation caused by collapsed buildings in the 2015 quake.

We’re using our seismic shaking table to see how replicas of Nepalese classrooms, strengthened using novel yet cost-effective techniques, perform in earthquake conditions. ~We are also developing a simple, state-of-the-art phone app that lets local engineers identify at-risk schools and make them safer while facilitating informed decision making at a central level.

All our research is supported by workshops and on-site training so, aided by our local and international partners, we’re leaving behind the skills and expertise for communities to rebuild Nepal safely.

The team are heading out to Nepal again in April and will be updating us on this exciting project.

Nine ways our engineers are building a greener world

It’s Green Britain Week this week. While debate rages between environmental campaigners and those wandering the corridors of power, engineers are ever pragmatic and practical. Our researchers are working on a range of technological advances that will reduce the carbon in our atmosphere.

Here’s nine of our projects:

  1. Wind power: Harnessing wind power will be a key component of a greener energy mix. In partnership with Offshore Renewable Energy, the Wind Blade Research Hub is pushing the boundaries of current technology to produce a 13MW turbine. They are working on blades that will be 100m long, requiring new designs, materials and manufacturing processes. The world-leading expertise of the Bristol Composites Institute (ACCIS) is crucial in delivering this and other sustainable structures.
  2. Offshore wind and tidal lagoons: In another initiative to tap into the UK’s potential for offshore wind and tidal energy, a proposed tidal lagoon in Swansea Bay could provide electricity for more than 155,000 homes. It will take a solution that is affordable and scaleable to turn this idea into a reality. Researchers from Bristol and Plymouth Universities are part of a project to design and develop a prototype.
  3. Solar Cells: Solar energy is getting ever-more affordable. A £2 million grant from the EPSRC has funded work to develop new low-cost photo-voltaic materials. Researchers from the Bristol Electrochemistry Group’s PV Team are looking to replace elements such as gallium, indium, cadmium and tellurium which are rare, expensive to extract and toxic.
  4. Electric Vehicles: The move away from petrol/diesel and towards low carbon hybrid/fully electric vehicles depends on the availability of compact, highly efficient engines. The Electrical Energy Management Group are innovating and testing solutions. Their industrial collaboration on high performance electro-mechanical drives is important for the traction, steering and road handling of the cars of the future.
  5. Energy Storage: If the sun is shining and the wind is blowing, how can we store all that free energy? This question is being addressed by researchers from the Universities of Bristol and Surrey as part of self-funded company Superdielectrics Ltd. They have discovered new hydrophilic materials, like those used in contact lenses, that could rival the storage capacity of traditional batteries and charge much faster. Rolls-Royce recently signed a collaboration agreement with Superdielectrics, highlighting the keenness of industry to find new solutions.
  6. Microgrids: Ditching fossil fuels and halting deforestation can’t happen unless there’s a sustainable energy alternative. It’s estimated that 1.2bn people across the world don’t have access to electricity. By working with NGOs, local authorities and residents in rural areas, researchers from the Electrical Energy Management Group are designing a micro-grid system, intended for remote communities. It could generate enough power for 250 homes, using wind, solar and micro-hydro energy. A scaleable modular design means extra units can be added as and when.
  7. Water management: Climate change is having an impact on our water cycle with flood patterns already changing. The way we manage water resources will be increasingly key to mitigate natural disasters and provide clean drinking water to a growing population. The Water and Environmental Engineering group brings together engineers and scientists, taking a multi-disciplinary approach to the complex issues raised through modelling, measuring and prediction.
  8. Nuclear: Although controversial, nuclear energy will be part of the low carbon energy picture for the foreseeable future. The South West Nuclear Hub brings together academics from numerous disciplines. Their research ensures that nuclear systems are safe, reliable and efficient. Also focusing on safety, the department of Civil Engineering has been exploring the seismic integrity of nuclear reactors using the University’s impressive earthquake shaking table. The Plex project was one of the most complex shaking table experiments ever attempted anywhere in the world.
  9. Efficient Aircraft: Aviation is a major contributor to global CO2 emissions, burning more fossil fuels per passenger than any other form of transport. The Advanced Simulation and Modelling of Virtual Systems (ASiMoV) partnership aims to produce a jet engine simulation so accurate that designs can be signed off by the civil aviation authorities pre-production. It is hoped that by modelling the physical effects of thermo-mechanics, electromagnetics and computational fluid dynamics, more cost effective and energy-efficient engines will get off the ground.

LettUs Grow – low carbon food of the future

LettUs Grow was founded in 2015 by three Bristol University Students – Ben Crowther and Charlie Guy (Engineering Design) and Jack Farmer (Biology).

As a company they wanted to tackle some of the biggest problems facing the planet, by reducing the waste and carbon footprint of fresh produce. Their solution was to design and develop aeroponic irrigation and control technology for indoor farms. On World Food Day, they share their thoughts:-

Global warming and greenhouse gas emissions are two of the defining problems of our generation. Agriculture is a big piece of the puzzle, producing a third of global emissions. But the problem of global food security is much more than just emissions. A stable food supply is a fundamental human need and there is a severe lack of innovative solutions to help feed the next generation.

A common misconception about plants is that they only “breathe” through their leaves, but part of the oxygen and CO2 they use is also absorbed through their roots.

We knew things needed to change, so we devoted ourselves to finding food-focused solutions. By combining our backgrounds in engineering and biology we’ve found innovative ways to help indoor farmers scale up their operations to compete with traditional agriculture. Our novel technology builds on the successes of hydroponics and addresses many of the issues which have been holding back indoor farming.

A common misconception about plants is that they only “breathe” through their leaves, but part of the oxygen and CO2 they use is also absorbed through their roots. By suspending our plants’ roots in the nutrient dense mist rather than in water, we’ve overcome some of the problems faced by hydroponics. Because they’re not submerged, plants can respire optimally during their whole life cycle. Using this system, called aeroponics, we’ve seen up to a 70% increase in crop yields over hydroponics.

The UK was ravaged by storms and snow from February to March, scorched by months of temperatures exceeding 30°C.

Chard growing in one of the aeroponic grow beds

As is often the way, aeroponic growing’s biggest strength can also be its greatest downfall. Most systems produce their mist by pushing nutrient-rich water through strips of nozzles. The small holes quickly become clogged with falling plant debris and a buildup of salts and nutrients – much like how limescale forms inside a kettle. We’ve developed a system without any nozzles, so there is nothing to clog and break.  Alongside our patent-pending hardware, we’ve also developed an integrated farm management software system, called Ostara®, which reduces labour requirements, optimises conditions for plant growth and makes farmers’ lives easier.

The incredible weather of 2018 has shown the need for this sort of technology. The UK was ravaged by storms and snow from February to March, scorched by months of temperatures exceeding 30°C during the summer and more snows are predicted before the end of the year. These extreme weather conditions put an enormous strain on farmers. They’re faced with the choice of swallowing their losses or increasing their prices – something tricky to do when at the mercy of supermarkets!

If you’re keen to see one of our aeroponic grow beds in action and learn how we can help feed the next generation, come visit us at the People’s Tech on Saturday 20th October in the Engine Shed. We’ll be there along with another agri-tech startup, the Small Robot Company, who’re replacing bulky inefficient tractors with small robots. Tickets start from as little as £3 and can be bought from here: www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/peoples-tech-october-tickets-49245025196.

Visit the LettUs Grow website for more information.