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Researching the best use of autonomous robots during an emergency

Autonomous robot. Image credit: Miguel Valdez

OU researchers are exploring how autonomous robots were used to support people during COVID-19 to propose how they can be best used in other emergencies.

Dr Miguel Valdez, Lecturer in Technology Management and Innovation in the OU’s Faculty of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, has received £8,100 from the OU’s COVID-19 Rapid Response fund to research how autonomous delivery robots can provide cities with policy options to support the needs of marginalised and at-risk populations in times of crisis.

Dr Valdez will develop a case study which investigates how a fleet of Starship robots operating autonomous shopping deliveries in the urban settings of Milton Keynes (MK) was rapidly adapted to deliver groceries to those self-isolating during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic when lock-down measures were in full effect.

He will use this information to inform further decisions by MK Council and decisions of other local authorities regarding the role of autonomous delivery robots in times of crisis including pandemics but also extreme weather events arising from climate change such as heatwaves or floods.

The main output from the proposed research will be a policy note for transport planners and those with crisis management responsibilities. The policy note, which is due to be disseminated in June 2021 will discuss the case study in depth to provide insight that will allow other cities to understand the role of autonomous robots in MK and, importantly will support authorities in developing their own specific schemes in their cities.

Dr Valdez said:

“Preliminary research suggests that the use of robots to support vulnerable or marginalised people becomes important in times of crisis. 

“Our additional research in this field will support a key priority of the OU coronavirus research activity by providing policy guidance for the deployment of AI-driven tools to support the response to the pandemic and in similar emergency situations.”

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