New BrunswickNew Brunswick news
Updated: Mon, 10 Jun 2013 17:32:38 GMT | By CBC News, cbc.ca

Independent robots may soon help in hospitals



Independent robots may soon help in hospitals

A University of New Brunswick researcher is developing a new type of robot that can take advantage of improving technology so they can perform simple tasks inside places such as hospitals.

Robots have long been able to perform incredible tasks, for instance, the American military is using drones to fight wars and undertake reconnaissance missions overseas.

But as advanced as those war machines are, they become useless the second they are brought inside.

Those robots depend heavily on a global-positioning system [GPS] to navigate. That system works outside, but those satellites cannot transmit signals to robots inside a building.

A new project at the University of New Brunswick is building robots that are aware of exactly where they are inside. And unlike those war drones, these little robots are being developed to possibly one day work in hospitals.

"I'm trying to make them move inside a corridor environment," said Hui Tang, a PhD student.

"So, like in a hospital, where the robot can navigate autonomously and do tasks like deliver prescriptions or foods."

Tang, a student of UNB's geodesy and geomatics engineering department, built the robots herself, but also the infrastructure they use to get around.

"I also had to do the code and the algorithms," Tang said.

"I had to, it didn't exist. Those algorithms tell the robot where it could deliver medicine to people in rooms even if they moved."

New robots have 'eyes'

Free-roaming robots have been vacuuming floors and cleaning pools for years. What sets these robots apart is their awareness.

Vacuuming robots bump into things to map out their environment, feeling their way around. These robots have eyes, otherwise known as sensors. These specifically designed sensors let them know exactly where they are and where they're heading inside a building.

"They have radio-frequency identification (RFID) sensors, which has a receiver and an antenna and a number of transmitters that are attached to the wall," said Tang.

"This lets know where they are in the building if they were delivering medicine or packages."

RFID transmitters are small battery packs placed on the walls of the corridors that act as way-points for the robot.

The second sensor has an accelerometer, a gyroscope and a magnetometer all packed in one giving the robot a sense of what it's doing in the real world.

The third sensor is ultrasonic. It gives the robot a local map of the indoor world around it using a type of sonar-vision. This allows of calculating distance from itself, walls, and other things in its way.

Indoor mapping technology took nearly 4 years

Tang has been working on the robots for two years now. As impressive as the robots are, it’s the indoor mapping that she's worked the hardest on, almost four years in total.

"Indoor autonomous navigation is much different and harder than GPS," Tang said.

“Accuracy for GPS can be around 10 metres. We need our indoor navigation to be more accurate than that.”

Right now, Tang has managed to bring the accuracy of the indoor system to two metre and she’s aiming for one metre.

"We are trying to develop better algorithms, to make it more precise. That's what we'll be working on next," she said.

Other “hallway robots” have been deployed in the past. But unlike Tang’s robots they rely on a track and are not capable of being aware of their surrounding such as people.

These robots are designed to be “smart,” going about their tasks, even if they change on the fly, without human interaction.

"A warehouse would also be a good place where they could be deployed," said Tang.

"A flat surface where they can retrieve things and bring them to target point."

The robots do have one limitation, for the moment, according to Tang.

"Nothing with stairs though," Tang said.

"For that you need legs and we're not there yet."

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