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Being There: Humans and Robots in Public Spaces

A vibrant, open and inclusive public space is central to the social and economic health of society. However, developments in digital technology have begun to undermine some aspects of a progressive public space. For example, technologies now allow us to be tracked, surveilled, profiled and socially sorted as we move through public space. At the same time, there is a sense that public space has moved elsewhere. The rise of the internet and increasing digital hyperconnectivity has led some to argue that virtual connected networks (rather than physical public space) are where the public realm can now be found. 

This is an exciting, multi-disciplinary project that brings together five teams of researchers, from Oxford, Exeter, Bath, Queen Mary and Bristol. It looks at the interaction of humans and robots in public places, and explores how one might preserve privacy, encourage trust in human-robot communication, and the implications of using a robot to stand in for the physical presence of a human.

Our team's focus in Oxford is on accurately capturing the location and orientation of individuals and robots using low-frequency magnetic fields. This technology has already been shown to yield accuracy in the context of underground animal tracking. However, the sensors used in that setting are too large and impractical to deploy in an indoor environment. In this project, we will design and use small magnetic beacons that generate low frequency fields. These fields will then be sensed by low-power miniature receivers carried by individuals and robots, thus enabling them to position and orient themselves relative to beacons. The most important property of MI positioning is that obstacles like walls, floors and people that heavily impact the performance of competing approaches (e.g. WiFi-based positioning) are largely "transparent" to the quasi-static magnetic fields. MI has a number of challenges to robust operation, including the extremely fast decay of the magnetic field's magnitude, the presence of ferrous materials and sensitivity to user rotation. We aim to overcome these challenges, through signal processing and sensor fusion across multiple system layers. 

More specifically, in this project, our team will address the following challenges :

  • increasing the transmission range: by using sophisticated signal processing and parameter estimation techniques
  • detection and mitigation of magnetic field distortions caused by ferrous materials: by exploiting the rich features of the multiple-input multiple-output channel matrix
  • user rotation stabilization mechanisms: using inertial sensors
  • miniaturization of both transmitter (fixed infrastructure device) and receiver (user device): by designing efficient, tiny triaxial coils and very small analog/digital processing circuit boards

The Being There project web page can be found here.

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