A Mobile Robot Can Make Sure Crowds Keep Two Meters Apart

A mobile robot has been created that can sense human distances and roll over to notify them that they are too close together. Although it is not quite Robocop, surely automated rule enforcement must begin somewhere. Adarsh Jagan Sathyamoorthy, a PhD student at the University of Maryland, College Park, and colleagues present a robot they constructed with depth perception, allowing it to detect distances between objects or humans, in PLOS ONE.

Because the robot is movable, it can use the same vision to make its way through a crowded place, alerting those who are too close together to relocate to a safe distance. The study states that this is done “discreetly, employing a mounted display,” but we would not bet on no one seeing a robot elbowing its way through a throng.

The scientists used the CDC-recommended distance of two meters (7 feet), but given mounting evidence that virus particles may fly further than that in still air, the robot should be able to reprogram if rules change.

A Mobile Robot Can Make Sure Crowds Keep Two Meters Apart

Detecting the distance between stationary individuals of a crowd is presumably simple enough that publishing it in a famous magazine may seem excessive, but Sathyamoorthy’s invention can go much farther. It cannot only detect persistent physical disconnection between persons moving in close vicinity, but it can also prioritize those whose closeness is most likely to encourage transmission, such as bigger groups.

Using its own cameras and LiDAR system, the robot has shown its efficiency on volunteers replicating crowd scenarios, and it can even plug into CCTV cameras to make you feel like a big brother is watching.

To top it off, the as-yet-unnamed robot has a thermal camera that can detect persons who may have fevers. It will not only be able to move those persons to the top of its priority list for those who must be kept away, but it will also be able to utilize this information for contact tracking. 

The authors say that this will be used in conjunction with de-identification to safeguard privacy, but there is no assurance that this will not alter in the future. The robot cannot “distinguish between strangers and persons from the same home,” according to the report, which may restrict its utility in areas where families are frequent.

Regardless matter how successful such robots are in real-world scenarios, the mere fact that they exist may be enough to discourage some individuals from leaving their homes — a potentially effective means of disease management in and of itself.

Despite the fact that the authors refer to their product as a COVID surveillance robot, it seems like something out of a dystopian science fiction story, the authors make a valid point regarding the alternative. 

“During the COVID-19 epidemic, many healthcare workers and security personnel had to put their health at danger in order to assist the public,” they stated in a statement. “The main goal of our work is to provide them with the tools they need to serve their communities safely and effectively.”