Over the next few years, service and assistance robots will be able to take on an increasing number of tasks such as cleaning and transport in public spaces, for example in pedestrian zones, town squares, train stations and parking garages. Not only will they become part of the city landscape, but they will also impact the design of working processes.
The number of encounters between uninvolved parties and these robots will increase in day-to-day life. Therefore, in order to carry out their tasks efficiently and safely, the robots will need to interact not only with their human teammates, but also with uninvolved passers-by. This will have an effect, for instance, on the communication of their tasks and the coordination of their paths. The Ulm Centre for Research and Evaluation of Human-Robot Interaction in Public Spaces (Zentrum zur Forschung und Evaluation der Mensch-Roboter-Interaktion im öffenlichen Raum, ZEN-MRI) will be working intensely on addressing these and other questions over the next few years. To this end, Ulm University, Stuttgart Media University, the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering IAO Stuttgart, Ulm-based Adlatus Robotics GmbH and the City of Ulm have joined forces to work on a collaborative project.
Over the course of the next three years, the partners will be defining the necessary requirements for robot behaviour and interaction strategies (MRI) for public spaces. The research focuses on interaction with passers-by to optimise robot behaviour, but also on integrating the robots into public spaces. To this end, test areas will be set up in Ulm’s city centre. These test areas will include places in the pedestrian zone and in the underground passageway to the train station, where encounters will be possible with humans in day-to-day life. Legal and ethical questions will be just as important as design, safety issues and urban planning regulations.
The project is receiving a total of 3.6 million euros in funding from the Federal Ministry of Education and Research for the timeframe from 1 September 2022 to 31 August 2025. The project was officially launched on Thursday, 3 November 2022 in the M25 Information Centre in the Ulm city centre.
COMMENTS AT THE START OF THE PROJECT
Dr Johannes Kraus (Ulm University, Institute of Psychology and Education, Human Factors Department, head of Human-Robot Interaction, head of ZEN-MRI consortium):
“When designing robots that will be moving around in public spaces, it is important that the people in their environment understand what the robots are doing and when, and that they ultimately feel comfortable with it all. With this in mind, we at the Competence Centre ZEN-MRI are conducting research on, among other things, the psychology of interaction between humans and robots. The aim is to contribute toward designing the appearance and behaviour of robots in such a way as to minimise irrational fears and create an appropriate level of trust. Such human-centred design of robots maximises the chance of success for safe, efficient and positive integration of robots in public spaces for humans and society”.
Dr Siegfried Hochdorfer (ADLATUS Robotics GmbH, CTO):
“ADLATUS Robotics has been developing, producing and selling autonomous cleaning robots for the B2B market since 2017. The first generation of robots was primarily developed for use in industrial and commercial settings. The newest generation of robots is designed in such a way that it can be used in public spaces as well. To ensure acceptance of autonomous cleaning robots, such as those produced by ADLATUS Robotics, the interaction with humans is of utmost importance. That is why we at ADLATUS Robotics have been involved in research on human-robot interaction for several years already”.
Kathrin Pollmann (Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering IAO, User Experience Team):
“The success of a service robot is ultimately not decided by its technical equipment, but by people. In order for robots to be accepted and for people to happily use them in the long term, they must be designed to be pleasant and beneficial – in short, positive - for everyone involved”.
Prof Dr Petra Grimm, Prof Dr Tobias Keber (Stuttgart Media University, Institute of Digital Ethics):
“The use of robotics in social settings – which have not yet been optimised for robot use – is always linked to questions of an ethical and legal nature. For instance, how can robots “learn” ethical principles of behaviour? With our ethics-by-design approach, we at the Institute of Digital Ethics (IDE) therefore accompany development and design processes of autonomous systems in a cooperative manner. Digital ethics and legal regulations should not prevent innovative technical design. Rather, their potential should be unlocked by ensuring that risks and possible conflicts are considered right from the beginning”.
Mayor Gunter Czisch (City of Ulm):
“Ulm is a city of innovation and is on its way to becoming a smart city. Robotics is a central focus in the scientific and economic landscape of our region. This technology needs to be made ‘tangible’ for the people. We support genuine contact with new technologies that have become indispensable in our day-to-day lives. A big thank you to the sponsors, who are making it possible for our local citizens to have such practical encounters and exposure with this future-oriented technology in our city centre”.