Just as drivers observe the rules of the road, most pedestrians follow certain social codes when navigating a hallway or a crowded thoroughfare: Keep to the right, pass on the left, maintain a respectable berth, and be ready to weave or change course to avoid oncoming obstacles while keeping up a steady walking pace.
Now engineers at MIT have designed an autonomous robot with “socially aware navigation,” that can keep pace with foot traffic while observing these general codes of pedestrian conduct.
In drive tests performed inside MIT’s Stata Center, the robot, which resembles a knee-high kiosk on wheels, successfully avoided collisions while keeping up with the average flow of pedestrians. The researchers have detailed their robotic design in a paper that they will present at the IEEE Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems in September.
“Socially aware navigation is a central capability for mobile robots operating in environments that require frequent interactions with pedestrians,” says Yu Fan “Steven” Chen, who led the work as a former MIT graduate student and is the lead author of the study. “For instance, small robots could operate on sidewalks for package and food delivery. Similarly, personal mobility devices could transport people in large, crowded spaces, such as shopping malls, airports, and hospitals.”
Chen’s co-authors are graduate student Michael Everett, former postdoc Miao Liu, and Jonathan How, the Richard Cockburn Maclaurin Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT.”

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