Researchers from the University of Hertfordshire have designed a way for robots to recognize touch and perceive objects in their surroundings, including humans, utilizing the power of BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy). This achievement would provide robots with a level of adaptive behavior in human-inhabited environments where touch, proximity, and interaction come into play on a safety level. In fact, one of the applications envisioned by the researchers entails developing adaptive robots for interacting with children with autism for therapy purposes or diagnostic evaluation.
Since children, in general, are dynamic in their movements (they are seemingly everywhere at any given time), and the prospect of accurately judging proximity using robots is undoubtedly a challenging one. Traditional tracking platforms (cameras, sensors, etc.) won’t work effectively in this case, as kids tend to move erratically, and their interaction styles change from one minute to the other. To get around those issues, the researchers developed a new BLE-based tracking system that provides robots with a sense of touch and proximity to humans.
To design their platform, the research team used the QueBall robot from Que Innovations, which is similar to Sphero in its makeup, and equipped with servos for movement, four capacitive touch sensors, speakers and RGB LEDs to denote interaction. They provided the robot with a central Bluetooth device- in this case, a Bluegiga BLED112 module, and used the company’s BGAPI protocol to control the integrated BLE stack, which allowed them to inject search commands to find other BLE beacons.
When kids wear those beacons, the robot can then measure the signal strength and note distance, location, and which child is interacting with the robot based on touch. Since the beacons are so tiny (about the size of a coin cell battery), they can be placed anywhere — including clothes and caps, without being visible, contrary to existing tracking devices. It’s the researchers hopes that their platform could be used beyond autism therapy, where any robot could be outfitted with a similar platform so that they could easily garner proximity information and interacting with humans with safety in mind.