Home Bots & Brains Diversity in design leads to better robots

Diversity in design leads to better robots

Carnegie Mellon University study explores what happens when roboticists, people with disabilities collaborate

by Pieter Werner

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have conducted a study exploring the collaboration between roboticists and people with disabilities to design robots that are more accessible and versatile. The study, led by Howard Han, a Ph.D. student at the Human-Computer Interaction Institute (HCII), was presented at the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI 2024).

The research, involving HCII assistant professors Sarah Fox and Nikolas Martelaro, highlights the challenges and potential solutions for sidewalk robots, particularly those encountered during deployment. Sidewalk delivery robots have become more prevalent, especially during the pandemic, but they often compete with pedestrians for limited space, posing issues for people with mobility disabilities. For instance, in 2019, a delivery robot at the University of Pittsburgh blocked a wheelchair user from accessing a ramp.

Fox and Martelaro’s study emphasizes that accessibility issues are often overlooked early in the design process because most companies developing these robots are startups moving quickly. Roboticists in the study acknowledged this gap and expressed a desire for better industry standards and regulations akin to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines for web standards. These policies could inform the technical design of delivery robots and other public robots.

The collaborative design process led to innovative ideas for sidewalk robots beyond delivery tasks. These robots could clear sidewalks of debris or snow, assist at crosswalks, carry supplies, provide directions, and monitor traffic or blockages. Such functionalities could be beneficial, particularly for users in wheelchairs, who could receive alerts through mobile apps about obstacles on their route.

This study builds on previous research by Fox and Martelaro, including a 2021 study on sidewalk robot accessibility and a 2023 observational study of a delivery robot pilot in Pittsburgh. Their findings indicate that while robots function well on controlled campuses, they struggle in open neighborhoods with broken sidewalks and unexpected obstacles. These robots often require human assistance when they encounter issues like planters or parked cars.

The study also revealed limitations in serving customers with disabilities. For example, while robots can transport food, they cannot navigate stairs or elevators to deliver items directly to a user’s door or countertop, which is essential for those with mobility disabilities. Addressing these limitations may require significant redesigns or new features.

The research underscores the importance of involving diverse stakeholders in the design process, which sparked valuable discussions about robot design and functionality. Future research by Fox and Martelaro will focus on testing these designs in cost-effective and expansive ways, aiming for deeper engagement with relevant stakeholders.

Image: Carnegie Mellon University

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