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A team from Sweden was able to greatly improve the ability of operators to perform tasks with remotely piloted emergency robots by making the bots steer less like tanks and more like a first-person shooter video games like Call of Duty. It’s a small change that could save lives in an environment where an emergency robot has a limited amount of time to perform a life or death task like finding a survivor in a collapsed building.
Emergency response robots are really just small, remotely controlled tanks so the default steering system, not surprisingly, is akin to video games of the dual analog control system era. The operator has to move the robot to face a particular direction before it can move in that direction.
Petter Ögren, an associate professor at the Center for Autonomous Systems (CAS) at Stockholm’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology, set out to test a counter-intuitive theory, that less tank-like controls could improve emergency workers’ ability to steer small, tank-like robots. He designed an alternative “free look” piloting system.
Free look control is common in first-person shooter games. It’s been around since 1992 but it wasn’t until the 1993 release of the blockbuster video game Doom that free look went on to become the defining characteristic of the first-person shooter. “The idea is to reduce the mental strain on the operator, so they can focus on the environment they are dealing with,” says Orgen.
Though free look has been an aspect of video game design for almost twenty years, it wasn’t until very recently that it made its way into robotic piloting. Earlier this month, at the Association of the United States Army convention in Washington, iRobot demonstrated a new robotic steering system called uPoint Multi-Robot Control that exhibited clear free look characteristics. The company told Defense One that the system is not intended to emulate free look video game steering.
Ögren tested it on a group of fire fighters out of Pisa, Italy. Of the 16 users, 12 preferred the free look control to the tank control. The free look users also performed better. One of the experiment tasks involved finding a certain number of so-called markers in a given space. The operators need lots of degrees of freedom to visually investigate the space and find various markers.
“Using tank control, the average was 4.5 markers per user. Using free look control, they found an average of 6,” Orgen said. In a real world setting, that improved capability could translate to one or two more survivors found before a roof collapse or explosion. Making robot steering schemes more like Call of Duty and less like Resident Evil is more important than improving user experience — it will actually save lives.