Robotics centre to pave the way for robots of tomorrow



A groundbreaking new robotics centre set to make significant technological advances, including developing assistive robots to help children and adults with special needs, will be launched this week by the University of Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam University.

The Sheffield Centre for Robotics (SCentRo) will combine the expertise from both universities in a bid to boost research into the creation of animal-like robots, self-driving cars, robots for the farms of the future and robots that can intelligently communicate with humans.

Members of the public will be invited to attend an exhibition tomorrow (2 September 2011) at this year’s Towards Automatic Robotics Systems (TAROS) conference organised by the two universities. The public exhibition will give people a taste of the work that experts at the Centre will embark on by showcasing a host of leading new devices from the robotics industry and from university laboratories. Devices on display will include:

• Shrewbot – a unique animal-like robot that can seek out and identify objects with its artificial whiskers using a new technology that was developed jointly by the Active Touch Laboratory at the University of Sheffield and Bristol Robotics Laboratory. The technology will enable the robot to function in spaces where vision cannot be used.
• Guardians – firefighter assisting robots developed by Sheffield Hallam University
• Grail – a robotic arm designed for use in domestic and catering scenarios developed by the University of Sheffield’s Department of Automatic Control and Systems Engineering
• The Tactile Helmet – a super-sensing helmet being developed by the University of Sheffield’s Department of Psychology to help firefighters find their way in smoke-filled buildings. The helmet works by detecting walls and obstacles through an ultrasound sensor which converts the signal to a tactile stimulus such as a buzz on the head when near a wall.

It is hoped that experts at SCentRo will unite the fields of engineering, psychology, computer science and robotics to make advances that will include robots with flexible, safe bodies and human-like sensory and learning capabilities, that will allow them to learn from experience as humans do and work more closely with people than current factory robots.

The core aim of the new centre will be to combine research into this new robotic technology with studies of human-robot interaction, and investigations of the impact of robots on human society. The hope is that the experts will make progress towards a world where robots can intelligently interact with people and become more widely used for dangerous tasks such as mine clearance or roles in the service industry, such as hospital porter robots. SCentRo will also develop postgraduate courses and initiate academic and commercial partnerships with outside institutions.

Professor Tony Prescott from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Psychology, who will be directing SCentRo, said: “We don’t want robots to replace humans, but to perform complimentary functions by undertaking dirty or dangerous jobs, such as going into burning buildings, decommissioning nuclear power sites or tending crops. We hope that by uniting the different disciplines and expertise, from engineering through to psychology, SCentRo will help drive robotic technology forward in a way that will be useful to people.”

Jacques Penders, head of Sheffield Hallam\’s Centre for Automation and Robotic Research (CARR), commented: “Robotics once was an exclusive engineering domain. However present day robotics is an inclusive area of research and requires experts from very different fields to work together. SCentRo is founded by experts from the required disciplines and thus has the basics for developing robots for the future; robots that have to operate for and alongside human beings.”

Roger Moore of the University of Sheffield’s Department of Computer Science remarked: “Robots generate speech at present but there’s still a lot of work to be done for them to understand what humans are saying. We want to take this communication further than robots simply responding from a script and will be looking to create friendly, useful robots.”