social distancing in an airport with covid coronavirus restrictions

Autonomous robot detects when people are breaking Covid distancing rules

Image credit: Dreamstime

A mobile robot that can detect when people in crowds are not adequately social distancing has been developed by researchers at the University of Maryland.

Previous research has shown that staying at least two metres apart from others can reduce the spread of Covid-19.

Technology-based methods – such as strategies using WiFi and Bluetooth – hold promise to help detect and discourage lapses in social distancing.

However, many such approaches require participation from individuals or existing infrastructure, so robots have emerged as a potential tool for addressing social distancing in crowds.

The new autonomous mobile robot does not require participation and is able to detect breaches and navigate to them using its own Red Green Blue-Depth (RGB-D) camera and 2D lidar (Light Detection and Ranging) sensor.


The robot is capable of detecting when people in a crowd are too close to each other

Image credit: SATHYAMOORTHY ET AL., 2021, PLOS ONE, CC-BY 4.0

It can also tap into an existing CCTV system, if available. Once it reaches the breach, the robot encourages people to move apart via text that appears on a mounted display.

The robot uses a novel system to sort people who have breached social-distancing rules into different groups, prioritise them according to whether they are standing still or moving, and then navigate to them.

The system employs a machine-learning method known as Deep Reinforcement Learning and Frozone, an algorithm previously developed by several of the same researchers to help robots navigate crowds.

The researchers tested their method by having volunteers act out social-distancing breach scenarios while standing still, walking, or moving erratically. Their robot was able to detect and address most of the breaches that occurred, and CCTV enhanced its performance.

The robot also uses a thermal camera that can detect people with potential fevers, aiding contact-tracing efforts, while also incorporating measures to ensure privacy protection and de-identification.

Further research is needed to validate and refine this method, such as by exploring how the presence of robots impacts people’s behaviour in crowds.

“A lot of healthcare workers and security personnel had to put their health at risk to serve the public during the Covid-19 pandemic. Our work’s core objective is to provide them with tools to safely and efficiently serve their communities,” the researchers said.

Last month, a study from the University of Cambridge determined that the two-metre rule was somewhat arbitrary and was a number chosen from a risk ‘continuum’, rather than any concrete measurement of safety. They proved that Covid-19 could still be contracted outside at a distance of two metres depending on various environmental factors and the specific way that each person coughs.

There has been a significant amount of interest in robots that could help to reduce the spread of Covid-19. A 'telepresence' robot was developed in May that allowed sufferers of the virus to talk to their loved ones without putting them at risk. Last year, Heathrow Airport introduced a cleaning robot which uses ultraviolet light to kill bacteria and viruses in a bid to make the airport safer during the pandemic.

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