EXCLUSIVE: How R2D2 is inspiring sidewalk-robot safety

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Cities around the world are beginning to see pedestrian areas populated by a new form of automated vehicle – the sidewalk robot, used for last-mile delivery of small goods. Now transportation consultant Bern Grush is calling for the industry to focus on standards to ensure this new transportation technology is rolled out safely and efficiently.

Speaking on the latest edition of the TTI Podcast, Grush – co-founder and chief innovation officer at Harmonize Mobility – reveals more about his work in this area and explains why pilot projects, already underway in cities such as Milton Keynes in the UK, are likely to become large-scale, real-world deployments in short order.

“I don’t think it can be avoided,” he says. “We’re far too close to this technology being ready. We certainly need to resolve the problems of deliveries. If we’re going to start removing cars from certain areas, I think we’re going to see this technology creeping in fairly confidently.”

Safety in these deployments is one of Grush’s concerns. To address this, he is investigating some innovative ways in which these robots might interact with humans.

“I’m concerned about people walking on the sidewalk and not particularly paying attention to what’s in front of them. And so, one of the things that I’m working on is sounds. It’s not a vocabulary – but sounds that a robot might make to get your attention. Think about R2D2 from Star Wars, for example. Can we get a robot make an ‘excuse me’ sound to get your attention? Or can it make an apology sound if it’s trying to decide how to get out of your way? Or a ‘thank you’ sound if you’ve stepped aside for it? I’m actually working with a sound engineer from Cambridge on this.

“But from a safety perspective I’m actually more concerned about cybersecurity, because if a small group of these devices were commandeered they could be very dangerous. So part of the standard I’m working on is that these robots have identifying marks and identifying signals, with IoT systems that are counting and watching these devices so a rogue device that’s not scheduled to be using the sidewalk can be detected.”

Grush is part of a team working on an ISO standard for sidewalk robots. To hear more about his work in this area and related issues surrounding robo-taxis, don’t miss Episode 12 of the TTI Podcast.

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About Author

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Tom has edited Traffic Technology International magazine and the Traffic Technology Today website since May 2014. During his time at the title he has interviewed some of the top transportation chiefs in charge of public agencies around the world as well as chairmen and CEOs of multinational transportation technology corporations. Tom's early career saw him working on some the UK's leading consumer magazine titles. He has a law degree from the London School of Economics (LSE).