14 Oct 2019
Humanoid robots in Christchurch
Christchurch Airport has added robot Pepper to its study of disruptive technologies, alongside the Autonomous Smart Shuttle and Virtual Reality training for its fire service.
Airport Chief Executive Malcolm Johns says three Pepper robots have been under wraps at the airport for a few months while staff test what Pepper can and could do, but one is about to go into the terminal to learn a whole lot more in public view.
“We want to understand robots to consider what they can and might do to assist us and our airport visitors,” he says. “We are interested to see what people think and feel about interacting with a robot and what information they get and might like from it.
“Pepper is our first step in that direction and what I hope is the first of many robotic innovations people will see here over the next 10 to 20 years.”
At the same time, another Pepper will be put through its paces with University of Canterbury's (UC) Human Interface Technology Lab NZ (HIT Lab NZ), in a continuation of the collaboration between the airport and the university.
“We are lending the HIT Lab a Pepper for students to understand and suggest how it could enhance our customers’ journeys,” says airport Manager of Digital Solutions and Data Technology, Art Martinson.
“Pepper is a robot designed to interact with humans,” he says. “It is 120 cm tall, can recognise faces and basic human emotions, respond to requests made on the touch screen on its chest, and hold a conversation. At the moment, topics of conversation are limited, but growing all the time.”
Professor Rob Lindeman, Director of HIT Lab NZ, is UC project lead for exploring Pepper’s capabilities and programming the humanoid robot to interact most effectively with visitors at the airport.
“We are very excited to bring our deep knowledge and understanding of user engagement with technology to work on this fun project,” he says. “It’s great to have such a forward-looking neighbour as Christchurch Airport willing to embrace new technologies, and really explore how we can transform public understanding and acceptance of technology such as robots.”
From today, Pepper is living and learning in the Digital Innovation Zone on the first floor of the airport terminal, opposite South bar, for a few hours each Monday to Friday.
Malcolm Johns says there’s a lot to learn.
“We will observe how it interacts with our visitors to the airport,” he says. “Pepper will have a minder paying close attention to what happens when it makes new friends. The robot gets ‘tired’ after a day’s learning, so some visitors will see it re-charging behind glass alongside information to help people understand what is happening.”
He says Pepper is a little shy in public, but the best way for people to start a conversation is to ask for a selfie.
“Our visitors will get a pleasant surprise at the response and we hope they share their photos and videos with friends and family all over the world.”