Covid robocops could be introduced to ‘detect and discourage lapses in social distancing’

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Covid can partially be slowed down by social distancing, as explained by Government’s rules worldwide since the start of the pandemic, but some researchers think having a robot authority policing social distancing could help even more with containing the spread. Although it’s only one study published by the academic journal Public Library of Science One, for now, robots who could impose social distancing rules in crowds are being invented.

At the University of Maryland, a group of researchers have already created one specimen that could alert people in a crowded public space when they’re too close to each other.

The robot is equipped with a Red Green Blue—Depth (RGB-D) camera and 2-D LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) sensor, allowing it to monitor nearby humans and measure the distance between them.

The objective, short term, would be to astutely use a robot that could detect people with thermal cameras and sensors, access CCTV systems and contact passersby via text or message on a mounted display if they aren’t following the rules.

Adarsh Jagan Sathyamoorthy, the study’s lead author and PhD researcher in robotics, told PLoS One: “Previous research has shown that staying at least two metres apart from others can reduce the spread of Covid-19.

“Technology-based methods – such as strategies using WiFi and Bluetooth – hold promise to help detect and discourage lapses in social distancing.

“However, many such approaches require participation from individuals or existing infrastructure, so robots have emerged as a potential tool for addressing social distancing in crowds.”

The robots are still hypothetical resources to suppress the spread of COVID-19, as further research is required to validate and refine the system, such as looking at how the presence of robots impacts people’s behaviour in crowds.

Mr Sathyamoorthy added: “The robot uses a novel system to sort people who have breached social distancing rules into different groups, prioritise them according to whether they are standing still or moving, and then navigate to them.

“The robot also uses a thermal camera that can detect people with potential fevers, aiding contact-tracing efforts, while also incorporating measures to ensure privacy protection and de-identification.”

The policing robot has only been tested among a group of volunteers who were asked to act out social distancing breach scenarios while standing still, walking, or moving erratically.

The robot managed to detect and address most social distancing breaches.

The scientists from the University of Maryland said the system employs a machine-learning method known as Deep Reinforcement Learning and Frozone.

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The said algorithm was previously developed by several of the same researchers to help robots navigate crowds.

Mr Sathyamoorthy suggested the invention could help to have a device interaction to protect key workers.

He said: “A lot of healthcare workers and security personnel had to put their health at risk to serve the public during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our work’s core objective is to provide them with tools to safely and efficiently serve their communities.”

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