Spencer the robot will be helping lost passengers at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport

Robot to help passengers navigate Amsterdam airport

A surroundings mapping robot named Spencer will be helping passengers at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport find their way to the gates.

The robot will have to tackle many challenges, including recognising glass walls, parked luggage and crowds of people, which it has to unobtrusively avoid rather than push through. It will also have to be able to make sure that the group it is supposed to guide is following and not falling behind.

The robot’s development, funded by the EU, was initiated by Dutch airline KLM which was concerned about the cost incurred due to passengers getting lost and missing their flights.

The robot has a set of maps stored in its memory against which it is constantly comparing data from its laser sensors to assess the distance from various obstacles and objects.

“People in motion and fixed objects like walls are not that tricky,” said Achim Lilienthal from the Örebro University in Sweden who led the team developing the robot’s mapping capabilities.

“Objects that are temporarily permanent, so to speak, are the most difficult to work around. We do not know, for instance, how long that luggage trolley will be parked in a particular spot, which makes it harder for the robot to determine its own location.”

The researchers had to fine-tune the robot’s algorithms to prevent it from being confused by seemingly small changes in the surroundings.

The robot, developed by researchers from five European states, will temporarily take up its duty as an airport guide on 30 November. Following a week-long test run, the researchers will use the data gathered to further improve the system before its official debut in March.

The researchers hope to add further functionality in the future. For example, the robot could keep passengers who have missed their flights company and provide them with up-to-date information. The researchers said the robot will also be able to speak in multiple languages.

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