Day 3 Update – Don’t just watch the robots, look at the faces!

The competition is now in full swing as the teams send their robots into action to perform the actions in the five competition episodes. Using the lift, walking through a door, serving in the coffee shop and other everyday tasks – these all sound routine for humans but they present robots with challenges that test the problem-solving skills of the teams in competition.  On the simplest level, how well each team is doing is reflected by the points on the giant Leaderboard at the front of the arena. But there are other ways to gauge their progress, too. It’s fascinating to see how they perform, and then to watch the team members’ reactions as their robots perform their allotted tasks with varying degrees of success. This may be a robotics competition but in the atmosphere in the arena at Centre MK’s Middleton Hall there’s more than a hint of human emotion. 

The facial expressions tell the story – studied concentration as final preparations are made for the next episode; surprised, sometimes perplexed when things don’t go to plan; frequently relieved when an improvisation fixes a problem, and occasionally a little disappointed when it doesn’t. Best of all, the smiles when teams are pleased and satisfied when things work out well and a robot completes an episode without a hitch. 

Around the perimeter, passers-by slow down when they see the arena, read the signage and presentation screens and stop in their tracks when they spot the movement of a robot. The exhibitors and competition promoters have been doing an excellent job engaging with members of the public, answering their questions and generally feeding their curiosity when they show signs of interest. A small crowd gathers whenever the exhibitors take to the stage and make a presentation. Generally the mood is low-key – it doesn’t have the intensity of a sports event – but the public interest is genuine and so is the wider event team’s desire to engage. More than simply a competition between roboticists from around the UK and Europe, this week in Milton Keynes has been a very good example of robotics coming out to meet ordinary citizens in their world. As this third day of Smart City MK’s four-day event continues, all the signs show it’s a meeting that’s being welcomed by everyone.

ERL MK Smart City challenge – Day 1 Complete

The ERL MK Smart City competition is taking place this week (18-21 September) in the centre of Milton Keynes, UK, a city of a quarter of million people which lies 80 km north west of London. The venue is at Middleton Hall, a large public space inside Centre:MK, the city’s impressive shopping complex, one of the largest retail centres in the UK. 

The MK Smart City Robotics Competition comprises teams from universities, colleges, companies and laboratories from the UK and Europe, including teams from Madrid, Spain and from Bonn and Koblenz, Germany. The teams will be showcasing how their robots can solve a range of challenges designed to support everyday life. Milton Keynes, or MK as it is known locally, is no stranger to robotics competitions. It hosted a Smart City event under the SciRoc project in 2019. MK residents are also fairly comfortable with robots, too, as they have become accustomed to the sight of Starship food delivery robots on MK streets. 

Day 1 of the competition was a time for the organisers, teams, exhibitors and sponsors to set up, test equipment and connectivity and rehearse for the start of the competitive stage. 

The first day also saw a small but significant ceremony take place on the venue’s main stage when David Bisset Executive Team member for euRobotics and Françoise Siepel, Coordinator of the DIH-HERO healthcare robotics network, signed a Memorandum of Understanding that will see the two organisations explore future opportunities for fruitful collaboration. Further MOU signings with other DIH Networks will follow later in the year.

Day 1 ended with a Civic Reception hosted by Milton Keynes City Council for everyone involved with the MK Smart City competition. Welcoming his international gathering, Cllr Pete Marland, Leader of Milton Keynes City Council, explained that Milton Keynes was a new city, just 60 years old that had a strong reputation for technology. Referring to the MK Smart City event, he expressed the city’s pride at hosting the competition and spoke passionately about the power of events such as this to inspire young people to pursue careers in engineering and technology. 

In response, Juha Röning, euRobotics’ Vice President Research, thanked the City, Centre:MK, the sponsors and, particularly, Ian Pulford, the competition’s project director who had brought everyone together to make it happen. Juha underlined several benefits of robotics competitions of this kind, including the value of bringing robots out of the lab and into a ‘real-world’ setting that may still be artificial but is nonetheless is more realistic than the laboratory environment. He also mentioned the ‘demo effect’: “Things can go wrong –  especially when people are watching!” Competition settings away from the lab are also a good test of resourcefulness: “You only have a limited set of tools at hand, so you need to rethink how to compensate for a missing sensor, for example, or some other problem.” Finally but fundamentally, Juha said, “You get to understand the benefit of working as a team and solving problems together. Alone, you can only go so far. Together you can go further and higher.” 

Once the competition judging begins the competing teams will tackle one or more of five scenarios or ‘Episodes’, completing everyday tasks that are routine for humans but complex for robots. A succinct description of the task to be completed is reflected in the title of each episode: Episode 1 – Deliver coffee shop orders, Episode 2 – Through the Door, Episode 3 – Take the elevator, Episode 4 – Shopping pick and pack, Episode 5 – Socially Acceptable Item Delivery. 

The teams taking part are: Cranfield University, LASR (Learning Autonomous Service Robots) from Kings College London, MK Robotics, b-it-bots (University of Bonn-Rhein-Sieg), Buckingham Swans, homer@uniKoblenz, UC3M_Tiago (University of Charles III Madrid), Team MKC/IOT and Swift Robotics.

The event is supported by a range of public, academic and commercial partners including Ocado Technology, Cranfield University and Beckhoff.

The euRobotics team provided the organisers with a media text to provide background to a non-specialist audience. Here’s what we had to say: 

Playing chess – no problem. Pouring coffee? Now THAT’S a challenge!  

Robots are capable of performing many tasks but one of the hardest things to recreate is simple human movement. As action adventures go, delivering a cappuccino or walking through a door may not be the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters but these everyday tasks can present serious challenges to a robot. That’s why the five episodes of the MK Smart City competition are so exciting for around 16 or so teams of robotics experts who will descend on Milton Keynes this September. The competition will take place under the banner of the European Robotics League (ERL), an umbrella brand for recognised competitions that sees international teams competing in a variety of smart urban environments across Europe.  

MK is recognised in Europe and beyond as an advanced urban centre in the use of smart tech. It sits at the heart of a cluster of universities with specialisms in robotics and automation together with commercial enterprises and a hospital which make use of these capabilities. So it’s no coincidence that euRobotics has also chosen to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the DIH-HERO Network in Milton Keynes at the time of the Smart City competition.  

DIH-HERO is a consortium that supports innovation in robotics for healthcare. As the membership body at the heart of the European robotics sector, euRobotics is an important hub for connections among Europe’s robotics stakeholder community. The MOU is a clear demonstration DIH-HERO’s continuity at the end of the EU-funded project which launched it and euRobotics is delighted to mark the start of a mutually beneficial and sustainable relationship.

Episode 1 – Deliver coffee shop orders 

In this episode the robot will help the staff of a coffee shop to take care of their customers. The robot is asked to recognize the status of all tables inside the shop, report the number of free tables, take orders from customers and deliver or remove items from customers’ tables. 

This episode aims to measure some of the key functionalities required of an autonomous service robot to operate inside a restaurant or coffee shop. The key ones evaluated here are people perception and object perception. However, other functionalities such as navigation with obstacle avoidance and speech recognition are also required to complete the episode successfully. 

Episode 2 – Through the Door 

In this episode a robot will interact with one of the most common features found in environments designed for humans: the hinged door, which is an especially challenging object for robots. A door is one of the pieces of human engineering that are most closely matched to human 

capabilities and limitations. Due to this perfect match, a door is easy and natural to use for most humans, but harder for small children and wheelchair users, and – especially – for robots. Therefore, “operating a hinged door” is key for service robots in domestic environments.  

After navigating to the optimal position with respect to the door, the crucial phase of the task is for the robot to be able to detect the type of handle, trigger the related behaviour, and perform the desired movement via visual monitoring and motion planning. 

Episode 3 – Take the elevator 

The robot must take the elevator crowded with people to reach a service located on another floor. The robot needs to interact with the MK:DataHub to discover which floor it must reach to accomplish its task. The robot must be able to take the elevator together with regular customers of the shopping mall, entering and exiting the elevator on the right floors with people close by and/or inside. To perform this episode the robot can interact with people in spoken language. It is not supposed to push buttons; instead, it can ask the people around to do it. 

The episode “Take the elevator” has a different focus than other episodes as it includes social navigation. The evaluation for this episode is therefore mixed with assessments of the robot’s performance and also user evaluations of the human-robot interaction phases. Thus, the episode “Take the elevator” contributes to benchmarking robots’ social navigation abilities in a public environment populated by general users with little or no prior experience of robots. 

Episode 4 – Shopping Pick and Pack 

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This episode addresses the task of delivering customised orders. The domain chosen is the operation of a grocery shop. The user uses an app on a tablet to select a limited number of items from a range of packaged products, such as a pack of coffee beans or a container of honey. An order processing system assigns the task to the robot to collect the requested items from the shop shelves and to put them into a delivery area. The robot may be asked to deliver a number of products of different types and packaging sizes and that may be located at different shelf levels. A product is considered as delivered once it is placed in the delivery area and the robot has announced its delivery. 

Episode 5 – Assisting a Person in their Home 

In this episode, the robot is tasked with assisting a person at home by fetching an item for them. The person communicates to the robot which item they would like, and where it is located. The robot has to navigate to the given location, find the item, pick it up, bring it back to the person and safely hand it to them. The episode is based on several functional and task benchmarks from the HEART-MET (Healthcare Robotics Technologies – Metrified) competition developed under the EU-funded project METRICS (Metrological Evaluation and Testing of Robots in International Competitions). The main scientific challenges addressed in this episode are socially acceptable interruption, object perception and safe and socially acceptable physical human-robot interaction and collaboration for object handovers. Additional functionalities such as speech recognition, navigation and object manipulation are also required to successfully complete the task. The episode is based on several functional and task benchmarks from the HEART-MET (Healthcare Robotics Technologies – Metrified) competition developed in the context of the EU-funded project METRICS (Metrological Evaluation and Testing of Robots in International Competitions).