Could robots replace human guards?

British researchers developing robotic technology that will be tested at security site


At many organizations, the implementation of security technology goes hand-in-hand with the employment of security officers. Guards are trained to become proficient in the use of myriad systems - video surveillance, access control, visitor management, intrusion detection, etc. – so that they can provide the highest level of premisis security possible. After all, who else is going to be on site to determine if a tripped sensor is an intruder trying to enter the facility or just a false alarm? Advancements in surveillance technology have enabled an unprecedented level of remote connectivity and the ability to conduct “virtual guard tours,” but they are still not an adequate replacement for a security officer in many circumstances.

What if, however, there was a possibility that guards could be replaced by artificial intelligence? It may sound like science fiction, but British researchers are heading up a project funded by the European Union that endeavors to give robots the ability to learn and adapt to their environment. The £7.2 million STRANDS project, which is being led by the School of Computer Science at the University of Birmingham in the UK, aims to overcome the limitations of current robotic technologies by enabling them to work for longer periods of time (at least 120 days), thereby giving them an opportunity to learn about the world around them.

Dr. Nick Hawes, a lecturer in intelligent robotics at the University of Birmingham, will coordinate the research project, according to a statement issued by the university.  

“Recent advances in robotics and artificial intelligence have enabled mobile robots to operate intelligently in predictable environments for limited periods of time. Our challenge is to develop robots which can go way beyond this, running reliably in dynamic real-world security and care environments for as long as they’re required,” Hawes said in the statement. “This will make these machines truly useful assistants in our workplaces. However to do this, we must make great leaps forward in understanding how robots can understand their worlds using the information their sensors provide. For this problem, long run times are essential as they allow the robots to learn what normally happens around them every day.”

Robots developed by the research team will be tested at two sites; an elderly care facility in Austria and an office environment patrolled by officers from guard services firm G4S in the UK. G4S Technology is a partner in the STRANDS consortium which involves three universities in the UK, plus universities in Germany, Austria and Sweden. G4S is providing expertise to guide the researchers into producing the right capabilities for the intelligent patrolling robot of the future.

“The idea is to create service robots that will work with people and learn from long-term experiences,” Professor Tom Duckett, director of the Lincoln Centre for Autonomous Systems Research, said in the statement. Duckett will be responsible for leading research on creating 4D maps of the environments, as well as methods for detecting changes and unusual situations.

“What’s unusual about any environment depends on the context,” he added. “In a security scenario, a robot will be required to perform regular patrols and continually inspect its surroundings for variations from its normal experiences. Certain changes, such as finding a person in a restricted area, may indicate a security violation or a burglary. In a care home, a robot will be required to act as an assistant for elderly patients, fetching and carrying things while also being alert to incidents such as people falling over. It’s not just about developing a care home or security robot. We are trying to enable robots to learn from their long-term experience and their perception of how the environment unfolds in time. The technology will have many possible applications.”

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