Superstars of STEM: Bringing sight to robots


Sue Keay is testing a robot called pepper to see if it can work with hospital patients. Dion Pretorius reports.


Sue Keay with one of her robotic test subjects.
Sue Keay with one of her robotic test subjects.
STA

Artificial intelligence, machine learning, big data, robotics – these fields are already transforming the way we live and the way we work. We still aren’t anywhere close to realising the full potential of these new technologies though, as there is still much to learn.

Sue Keay leads a team of Australian researchers at the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Robotic Vision, headquartered at the Queensland University of Technology, who are working to remove one of these limitations, by giving robots the ability to see.

They do this by transforming the way robots interact with the world, enabling them to collect and use data gathered via cameras and sensors.

These advances have led to the development of machines such as the RangerBot, a floating robot that monitors reef health, efficiently maps underwater areas, and controls pests like the Crown of Thorns Starfish – which is responsible for destroying around 40% of the reef between Queensland locality Cooktown and the Whitsunday Islands.

The centre is also the first in Australia to look for ways that robots can use vision to enhance the delivery of health and social services. Their focus is on applying visual learning to allow a robot to navigate hospital wards and make intelligent decisions, unsupervised, about how to interact with patients.

The future could see the devices entering a patient’s room and making valuable assessments and observations, such as: is the curtain closed? Is the patient asleep? Is the patient usually asleep at this time? Is this a good time for them to interact?

In these situations a social robot can serve a number of roles, including checking a patient is eating and taking medication, reminding him or her about doctor’s instructions, keeping company, connecting with family members, or even alerting a healthcare professional if a patient has a request or is in danger.

The Centre is using Softbank’s Pepper social robot platform to test this, with trials planned soon at a Queensland hospital and a nearby health clinic.

This work will build on earlier research by Griffith University’a Wendy Moyle, who showed the positive impact of robots applied in dementia care using a toy robotic seal, Paro.

In these trials, Keay and her colleagues will test Pepper’s suitability by having her deliver healthcare messages to patients or act as a concierge answering common questions about the hospital or centre.

Keay says the applications of robotic vision extend much further than healthcare and are almost endless, with Australians forging the way with in research. She has recently led the launch of a Robotics Roadmap for Australia that maps a way to capitalise on these new technologies for the benefit of the national economy.

“Until the Roadmap, little was known about Australia’s robotics industry and the crucial role it plays in modernising the Australian economy,” she explains.

“We identify the key ingredients required for robotics in Australia to flourish, maintaining our standard of living and unlocking human potential.

“We need to prepare the next generation for the jobs of the future and the future is robotics.”


Dr Sue Keay is among 30 Superstars of STEM featured in this weekly series prepared by Science & Technology Australia (STA). To learn more about the program, visit the STA website.

Dion Pretorius is Communications and Policy Manager at Science & Technology Australia.
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