ILIAD researchers teach robots to communicate to humans

His journey to Sweden was not a straight one, but he just managed to cross the border from Denmark to Sweden within 24 hours of the border lockdown due to the coronavirus in March. This semester, German student Tim Schreiter has had the opportunity to work with many state-of-the-art robot technologies gathered in one laboratory, at Örebro University.

The robot lab at Örebro University is fully equipped with state-of-the-art intelligent robot technology, and this semester Tim Schreiter got to experience it all first-hand. Being a master’s student at the Technical University of Chemnitz, he came to Sweden in March as an intern, as a part of the international ILIAD research project. “This project was a great opportunity for me, and I learned a lot and improved my problem-solving skills,” says Tim.

The goal of this project is to develop self-improving and self-installing robots that can safely work alongside human workers and interact with them. One example, which Tim explored, involved programming robots to operate in a warehouse and communicate with human warehouse workers while executing tasks such as lifting and moving boxes. For robots to be able to work safely and efficiently, and not to disturb its human colleagues, it is critical that the robots can communicate their intentions. “If a robot can tell a human worker where it is going, there will be less disturbance in the workflow,” explains Martin Magnusson, scientific manager of the Iliad project.

Humanoid robot as a communicative bridge

Tim was supervised by PhD student Ravi Teja Chadalavada during his project. Ravi is also working within the EU-funded ILIAD project and specialises in human-robot-interaction for industrial logistics. He explains that Tim’s experiment is using a humanoid robot (NAO), usually used in therapy and child-robot-interaction, as a communicative bridge between a robotic forklift and a warehouse worker. This is carried out by putting the humanoid robot on top of the forklift robot and programming them to communicate with each other. The humanoid robot then communicates the forklift robot's intentions to the workers in the immediate area, using human speech.

To the naked eye it looks as if the humanoid NAO-robot is commandeering the forklift. “We used its anthropomorphic abilities for communicating the intentions of industry robots [i.e. the forklifts]”, Ravi summarises.

Applying this communicative bridge, human warehouse workers know where, when and how the forklift is moving, ensuring work safety and efficiency. Soon the robots will be tested in reality, in collaboration with the partner company Orkla Foods.

Living and studying in Örebro

During his time in Sweden, Tim appreciated having access to top-of-the-line equipment during training. “I liked Örebro University because it is young and progressive university, compared to the more traditional academic environment back in Germany. It was amazing to have all this new technology gathered under one roof. And that as a student, I got to work directly with all of it. What an incredible experience!”

Ravi Teja Chadalavada had more of a scientific approach when deciding to move to Sweden from India eight years ago. He once read a study on Sweden being the happiest country in the world. As he looked into the study, he learned more about the country. So much so that he decided to make it his new home, “When I learned more about the country, I felt like this could be something that suits me. After deciding to come to Sweden, I first did my master’s in Gothenburg and then chose Örebro for my Ph.D. I can see myself settling down here, I really like it.”

The Master’s programme in AI and robotics

Martin Magnusson, who oversees the Iliad project, is also quite involved in the International Master of Science programme in AI and robotics. Apart from accessing all the high-end equipment, he emphasises the opportunities to work in exciting international research projects as well as collaborating with the surrounding community and industry:

“Many of our courses and projects are linked to the international research collaborations. Students are offered an excellent opportunity to tap into not only state-of-the-art research, but also to develop their network via our many industrial partners.”

Text: Elvira Andersson & Hugo Öhman
Photo & video: Drilon Cena