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‘Spencer’ the robot wants to make sure you don’t miss your flight

It’s no fun getting lost at an airport. Whether you’re catching a flight or meeting an arrival, losing your bearings can waste time, cause stress, and even lead to accidents if you’re rushing to get somewhere.

As a backup for information desks and airport personnel, researchers across five European countries have been working on Spencer, a robot designed to put lost visitors back on track.

The EU-funded project, which is backed by Dutch carrier KLM and aiming to “break new ground for cognitive systems in populated environments,” will see Spencer rolled out for real-world testing at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport next week, phys.org reported.

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Besides a deadpan facial expression, solid-looking Spencer also sports a display on his torso offering passengers a range of airport information. Input your desired destination and, using mapping technology as well as an array of sensors and lasers, Spencer will happily lead the way.

However, the helpful droid isn’t quite ready, hence next week’s trial. Current issues? Well, while Spencer can comfortably handle permanent obstacles such as pillars and seats, as well as fleeting objects such as people, he’s still having some difficulties with objects that remain in the same location for a brief period of time, such as luggage trolleys.

“People in motion are not that tricky,” explains project researcher Achim Lilienthal of Sweden’s Örebro University. “Objects that are temporarily permanent, so to speak, are the most difficult to work around. We do not know, for instance, how long that luggage trolley will be parked in a particular spot, which makes it harder for the robot to determine its own location. We are working on a general map representation that includes and allows the robot to handle temporarily permanent objects.”

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The team is also working to improve Spencer’s behavior to make it more natural. For example, rather than try to barge through a group of people and consequently risk being set upon by a potentially angry mob, it wants Spencer to be able to politely navigate around such obstacles. Checking that the people he’s leading haven’t fallen behind is another important feature the team needs to incorporate, though judging by Spencer’s excruciatingly slow speed in this video of an early prototype, there seems little chance of that happening.

Lilenthal hopes Spencer’s technology will one day be used “in all robots intended to interact with humans. Autonomous trucks for example, would be more widely accepted if they functioned better in their interaction with humans.”

And Spencer won’t be the first robot to assist visitors at an airport. Indianapolis airport last year rolled out a customer service contraption, though we’re sure you’ll agree, its design can be described at best as “basic.”