Eurasia?In 1920, Czech writer Karel Capek introduced the word ?robot? to the world. His play R.U.R. (Rossum?s Universal Robots) was a work of science fiction, but robots, albeit very different from how Capek imagined them, are rapidly becoming a reality today. Their development is being helped by groundbreaking research taking place in the Czech Republic, a country with a long history of innovation in many fields.
The Czech Technical University (CTU) in Prague, the oldest institute of technology in Central Europe, stands at the forefront of robotics research. Teams there are working on a range of technologies that promise great advances in robotic devices, applications and human-robot interaction.
In the NIFTI project, researchers from CTU are looking at how robots can most effectively cooperate with humans to perform different tasks with a focus on search and rescue operations. The goal is to develop a cognitive robot that is not only aware of its own capabilities and situation, but can adapt its behaviour depending on the people it is interacting with.
?Much research has gone into how robots could function autonomously? Little has been said so far on how a robot could cooperate with a human. Not just having a human in the loop ? but actually bearing the human in mind, when determining what to do or say next, when, and how. This is where NIFTI comes in. NIFTI puts the human factor into cognitive robots,? say the project team.
The vision is to one day have human-robot teams working together after a disaster to assess the situation and locate victims, with robots performing tasks that may be too dangerous for a human. In such a scenario, how would robots and humans interact and communicate?
That question is being answered in another project involving a team from CTU. In Humavips, researchers are developing robots with auditory and visual capabilities that are able to explore a new environment, recognise people and interact with them in a natural way.
Using multimodal perception, a Humavips robot should be able to enter a room full of people, identify which voice is coming from whom, select a person to talk to, synthesise human-like behaviour and engage in communications. In essence, the robot will have ?social skills? ? a crucial factor in making human-robot interaction natural and effective in any environment.
Sometimes, however, there may be a need for robots that do not act like humans. They might, for example, behave more like insects.
That is the goal of Replicator, a five-year project involving a team from CTU and researchers from the Czech Institute of Microelectronic Application, as well as partners in five other European countries. Together with a sister project, Symbrion, the researchers are developing ?swarm bots? ? hoards of tiny bio-inspired autonomous robots able to combine and configure themselves to perform different tasks.
Much as termites, ants or bees forage collaboratively for food, build nests and cooperate for the greater good of the colony, swarming robots could collaboratively work in hazardous environments, perform surgery or even explore the surface of Mars.
Among other challenges being addressed in Replicator, the researchers are working on miniature power sources, sensing technology, self-programming and self-configuration features and making the robots as robust as possible.