CSIRO brings museum robots to life

CSIRO is working with the National Museum of Australia to develop a robot which will allow remote schools to take virtual tours of the museum

Students in regional and rural areas will be able to go on virtual tours of the National Museum of Australia (NMA) thanks to a new telepresence-enabled mobile robot.

The robot has been in development for almost a year, in a collaboration between the CSIRO and the NMA, and allows school students to virtually ‘visit’ museums on their computer. According to the CSIRO, similar robots may become a feature of museums around Australia.

“The robots consist of standard components and we are using our combined skills to bring these components together to make a broadband-enabled museum robot,” Jonathan Roberts, research director - autonomous systems laboratory at CSIRO’s ICT centre, told Computerworld Australia.

“We are often asked why students do not simply look up information on websites or tour a virtual or recorded version of the museum. What we are developing is a system that allows the remote visitor to interact with a human educator in the museum. The human educator will be with the robot and the robot will be the eyes and ears of the remote visitors.”

The robot comprises a commercial robot base and a head-height 360 degree camera and display screen. It also houses several on-board computers and wifi antennas.

The robot navigates around the museum at a walking pace, being guided by an human educator, and is able to ‘sense’ its physical surroundings, such as walls, exhibits and other people using a laser scanner.

Students are able to view the museum using a panoramic viewer in their internet browser.

Both the user and the hosting museum require access to high speed broadband, such as the National Broadband Network (NBN), to avoid lag, with Roberts stating it is still unclear yet what quality broadband link will be required.

“We do know that to support a classroom of 20 students we are likely to need broadband of the quality promised by the NBN. The key point of our system is that it will allow live and direct interaction between the student and the human educator in the museum,” Roberts said.

Australia is not the first country to investigate the use of robots in museums, but Roberts said to date, most museum robots around the world have been deployed in the actual museum as tour guides and not for remote visitors.

“There was a proof-of-concept system in 2001 in Europe that showed it was possible to support a remote visitor with the use of a robot and the internet. However, the technology at the time was not mature enough or widespread enough to allow the system to be adopted,” Roberts said.

“The time is now right from a technology point of view and Australia is in an ideal position to do this … Finally, we will soon have broadband to most Australians.”

A $3.5 million trial at the NMA will be carried out with schools connected to the NBN. The trial will commence in October this year and is scheduled for completion in June 2013.

Follow Stephanie McDonald on Twitter: @stephmcdonald0

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAU

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