In Conversation with Dr. Virginia Ruiz Garate

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Read the special interview conducted with UWE’s very own – Virginia Ruiz Garate – and published on AZoRobotics a few weeks ago.

Original interview conducted by Megan Craig, MSc and published on AzoRobotics International Women’s Day; In Conversation with Dr. Virginia Ruiz Garate

Please could you briefly introduce yourself and where your research is based?

I am an Associate Professor in Assistive Robotics at the University of the West of England (UWE), Bristol, where I develop my research within the Bristol Robotics Laboratory (BRL). Within UWE I am also the Co-leader of the Robotics Engineering And Computing for Healthcare (REACH) research group.

As far as I remember, I have always been fascinated by robotics. Although I started with a strong interest in Space robotics, during my Master’s degree, I discovered the field of biomechanics and the potential of robots to improve the quality of life of people in need of assistance.

Since then, I have been working towards developing assistive robots able to adapt to the individual characteristics of each user and make them natural and intuitive to use.

© Bristol Robotics Lab

What is your favorite thing about conducting research at BRL, and what made you choose to be based there? 

Bristol Robotics Laboratory (BRL) is the most comprehensive academic center for multidisciplinary robotics research in the UK. It is a collaborative partnership between the University of the West of England and the University of Bristol. The available assets emerging from this collaboration are formidable in terms of robots and available space, as well as the vibrant community of reputed researchers within the facilities.

My favorite thing about working in BRL is that it is a huge open space encouraging collaboration. Just by coming to the lab, I have the opportunity to witness and be part of the latest developments in robotics and to have very stimulating discussions or even casual chats over a coffee with extraordinary researchers and leaders in their fields.

Moreover, BRL offers the perfect framework to establish contact and invite end-users to participate in developing technologies from their early stage, which is extremely important and useful to create meaningful robotics technology.

Multidisciplinary research is more than just working with researchers in different fields but taking a global approach to collaboration. What more could be done to improve connections between international communities?

Collaboration between people of different fields is key for advancing robotics, especially Assistive Robotics. This subfield combines diverse technical aspects, which themselves are multidisciplinary, and human factors (end-users), which are a key component to a successful implementation and uptake of the technology.

After all, these robots are meant to be used by people regularly and interact with them, often even physically. This human-side of robotics makes inclusivity and diversity critical factors to be considered.

First, assistive robots are not meant to be used by the average population with who robots are usually tested, but by people in need of assistance, a group usually under-represented in research.

Second, it is important to bear in mind that we live in a world that is more open and global every day, and to maximize the impact of the developed robots, we need to be able to reach as much population as possible.

Therefore, national and international connections between researchers, developers, and end-users are needed to ensure that the technologies consider characteristics from all ethnicities, age, genders, and cultural backgrounds. Without this, advancements in research will have a very limited and local impact.

UWE 2021 Open Day © UWE

What could be done for those between women in STEM?

Women represent 49.6% of the population. However, they are under-represented as end-users of the technology and as designers and researchers.

By not including them in the development process, we miss their vision, needs and requirements, ending up with robots that are not appealing or even usable for them.

Initiatives such as the Women in Robotics group, Women in Engineering Society, or even at a smaller scale, the Women Researchers’ Mentoring Scheme in UWE, are beneficial to build connections between women in the field by creating a sense of community for women in STEM.

These communities not only serve as networking tools to establish possible collaborations, but they also provide a feeling of “belonging” in a field in which women are still underrepresented.

© DOERS/Shutterstock.com

This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is #BreakTheBias, focusing on forging an inclusive, diverse, and equal future between genders. What would you say is the most important action that needs to be taken to achieve this?

It is difficult to pick just one action, as so much can be done. Focusing on STEM, I would highlight having reference figures to look upon and feel represented. For example, having women in the higher layers of STEM research and technical jobs can help to break the bias. Women in senior positions can give extra encouragement and confidence to not feel “out of place”, and create that feeling of “belonging”.

During my early career, I have been fortunate to work with two magnificent women and two men as mentors, which gave me a good balance. However, I have often been approached by female students who said it was the first time they could have a female mentor and how they were looking forward to it.

We must start opening our eyes; numerous extraordinary robotic researchers are women, but we rarely hear about them. We must encourage diversity at conferences and symposiums, which often have an established repetitive structure. Only with efforts like these can we build a future where technology is for everyone.

About Dr. Virginia Ruiz Garate

Dr. Virginia Ruiz Garate is an Associate Professor at UWE

She researches adaptive controllers and leading the Assistive Robotics group at BRL. Previously, she was a PostDoc at the Italian Institute of Technology, where she worked under the EU projects SOMA and SOPHIA investigating new bio-inspired grasping stiffness controls for robotic hands and multi-robot collaborations.  

She obtained her Ph.D. from the Universite Catholique de Louvain (UCL) in Belgium where she developed bio-inspired controls for lower limb exoskeletons under the EU project CYBERLEGs. 

Virginia has been serving as a reviewer for IEEE journals and conferences and co-organized the ICRA 2021 and RSS 2019 workshop on “Emerging Paradigms for Robotic Manipulation: from the Lab to the Productive World”,  and the workshop “Human factors in the design and control of robots: what are we missing?” in the 2020 I-RIM 3D conference. Her current research interests include bio-inspired control, assistive robotics, grasping and manipulation, and human-robot collaboration. 

Banner images courtesy of Melitas & M.Style/Shutterstock

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent the views of AZoM.com Limited (T/A) AZoNetwork, the owner and operator of this website. This disclaimer forms part of the Terms and Conditions of use of this website.

Megan Craig
Written by Megan Craig
Megan graduated from The University of Manchester with a B.Sc. in Genetics, and decided to pursue an M.Sc. in Science and Health Communication due to her passion for combining science with content creation. As part of her studies, Megan partnered with Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre as a Digital Marketing Assistant, producing content and updating sections of their website. In her spare time, she loves to travel, exploring each location’s culture and history – including the local cuisine. Her other interests include embroidery, reading fiction, and practicing her Japanese language skills.

Gaming bot joins the outreach hub at UWE Engineering

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UWE Bristol Alumni, Silas Adekunle, recently dropped into the School of Engineering’s education outreach hub, to donate a smartphone-controlled robot he invented whilst studying at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory.

The fluid moving, life-like robot known as MekaMon, was the world’s first intelligent gaming robot, but it’s also an amazing tool for teaching coding, and so equipping the next generation with the skills required for a digital robotic future.

With no prior coding knowledge required, children follow guided learning missions on MekaMon’s counterpart app, ReachEDU, learning to code MekaMon from simple block-based coding onto written code.

A great addition to UWE Bristol’s engineering outreach hub!

UWE Alumni Inventor, Silas Adekunle, kindly donated a MekaMon to Laura Fogg-Rogers, Senior Lecturer and DETI Inspire lead, UWE Bristol

The Digital Engineering Technology and Innovation (DETI) Inspire team based at UWE’s new School of Engineering, were thrilled to accept the locally invented tech, and even keener to start putting it to use in engaging the school children |SPOILER ALERT| soon due to begin visiting the digital engineering outreach hub!

Expect to hear more about school visits to UWE Bristol very soon…

As for our Alumni extraordinaire, Silas first founded Reach Education in 2013 and has since moved into the development of cloud infrastructure for biotechnology automation in the UK. But he hasn’t forgotten his passion for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education, sending MekaMon robots to Nigeria through another company he founded – Awarri – which aims to enable the development and adaptation of advanced AI & Robotics technology in Africa.

Good luck Silas and welcome to the outreach hub MekaMon!

Bristol families say hello to Pepper the Robot and friends!

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Bristol Robofest is an annual city wide initiative taking place in June to celebrate the UK Festival of Robotics and raise the profile of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Maths) in our local communities.

The week of activity is delivered by teams from DETI Inspire at UWE Bristol, Bristol Robotics Lab and the University of Bristol’s Digimakers, with support from our local STEM Ambassador hub.

This year, robots popped up in various locations throughout the city, including the University of Bristol’s Micro-Campus at Wellspring Settlement which played host to several robotics inspired workshops where 24 enthusiastic 10 – 14 year olds from the local area took the opportunity to explore and play with MicroBit BitBots, and Thymio Robots. They learnt about cutting edge research in the field of Swarm Robotics, while honing their skills in programming and problem solving.

Children exploring how a Thymio robot follows a drawn track

Over at the Old Library in Easton, Pepper the robot gave a warm welcome to all of the visiting families. Over 100 visitors took part in family-friendly robot workshops which were on offer throughout the day, led by researchers from the Bristol Robotics Lab, with support from FARSCOPE PhD students and MSc students from UWE Bristol.

Children were able to get hands on with lots of different robots including Naos, Thymios, Vectors and of course Pepper! There was plenty of programming robots and exploring how they move and interact with each other and with people too.

At at UWE Bristol School of Engineering, the DETI Inspire team had a fun day building robots for the Prototype and Play lab, getting the space in tip top shape for hosting school groups next academic year.

The team also partnered with Explorer Dome to host a virtual viewing of their new interactive show, We Make Our Future, in celebration of this year’s regional Lego League teams, who have been busy building and programming their Lego robots to complete this year’s challenges.

Prototype & Play Lab (outreach classroom) at UWE Bristol

And over at community STEM clubs in Easton and Lawrence Weston, the theme continued, with lots of robot racing and children having fun exploring the many different behaviours of the Thymio robots.

Thymio robots at STEM @ Baggator, a community STEM Club in Easton

Bristol RoboFest was a great success and we’re already looking forward to doing it again next year, hopefully it can be even bigger and better in 2022.

If you would like more information about how to get involved with Bristol RoboFest or STEM outreach at UWE Bristol, please contact the DETI Inspire team deti@uwe.ac.uk


DETI is a strategic programme of the West of England Combined Authority (WECA), delivered by the National Composites Centre, in partnership with the Centre for Modelling & SimulationDigital Catapult, the University of the West of England, the University of Bristol, and the University of Bath. DETI is funded by £5m from WECA, with co-investment from the High Value Manufacturing Catapult and industry.

Dr Appolinaire Etoundi presents at ASE talk

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UWE Senior Lecturer and Researcher in Mechatronics, Dr Appolinaire Etoundi, recently delivered a fantastic talk for the Association for Science Education, engaging local teachers and STEM educators with the story of his engineering pathway and his research into bio-inspired prosthetic joints for amputees.

Engineers above all else are problem-solvers, and there are a lot of problems these days that we have to face.

In his talk, Appolinaire spoke about his route into engineering and how his passion started at an early age with a love for Kinder Surprise chocolate eggs and the small self-assembly toys found inside. A great reminder that children’s scientific curiosity should be nurtured form an early age!

Appolinaire also shared his career pathway, starting with his study of mechanical engineering and leading to his research combining mechanical engineering and robotics at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory. He spoke about a chance meeting with Rio Paralympic Triathlon gold medal winner Andy Lewis, and how this inspired him to change his research focus to robotic rehabilitation devices such as prosthetic joints and limbs.

Currently in the UK there are 5-6000 major limb amputations every year.

This area of Appolinaire’s research is heavily inspired by systems found in nature and these bio-inspired robotics have the potential to greatly improve the efficiency of current rehabilitation/prosthetic devices and improve the lives of people around the world.

Appolinaire’s passion for his research and how it can be of real benefit to people is truly inspiring. You can watch the full talk here:

Launch of West of England Digital Engineering Technology initiative

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UWE Bristol is proud to announce the official launch of the region’s new Digital Engineering Technology & Innovation (DETI) initiative!

DETI is a research, innovation and skills initiative created to develop and accelerate digital engineering across multiple industry sectors, to ultimately benefit future generations of engineers and engineering products, and to help tackle global challenges.

UWE’s Engineering, Design and Mathematics department will play a central role in DETI, leading the Skills development branch of the centre. EDM will work with other DETI partners to:

  • Inspire the next generation of diverse engineers
  • Transform the further and higher education landscape
  • Innovate lifelong learning of specialised digital engineering skills

Dr Lisa Brodie, Head of UWE Bristol’s Department of Engineering Design and Mathematics (EDM), who led UWE’s bid, said: “This is a vitally important investment for our region and we are pleased to be leading on the skills and workforce development element of the centre’s work. It comes at a perfect time as we prepare to open our new engineering building where we will have state-of-the-art digital engineering facilities and an increased focus on digital engineering to train our graduates for emerging roles in the sector.”

For more details about this exciting new venture, please read the official press release launch of DETI and visit the new DETI website.

DETI is a strategic programme of the West of England Combined Authority (WECA), delivered by the National Composites Centre, in partnership with the Centre for Modelling & SimulationDigital Catapult, the University of the West of England, the University of Bristol, and the University of Bath. DETI is funded by £5m from WECA, with co-investment from the High Value Manufacturing Catapult and industry.

Making mud-powered robots for schools

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In October, FET awarded the team at the Bioenergy Centre a public engagement and outreach award. The Centre are using this fund to support the production of an interactive workshop for schools – Mud powered robots!

Research Associate Pavlina Theodosiou, who led the project until her move to Newcastle University in January, provides an update here on this exciting workshop.

Before Christmas, Pavlina worked hard alongside electronics engineer technician, Ugnius Barajunas, to obtain quotes from various companies for the prototype motors – the most expensive part of the robot.

At the same time, the two assembled different electronic boards with the 3D printed parts and borrowed motors, to create three robots. The robots were tested with live Microbial FuelCells in the lab and ran well on urine (but don’t worry, they won’t be run on urine in school!)

They presented their results at the a best-in-class overview of robotics and automation, which BotTalks hosted at the watershed in November. The team are now excited about trialling the robots on mud for the first time!

“Overall the project received a lot of interest from public and investors at BotTalks.”

Pavlina
Pavlina and Ugnius speak about the importance of bringing these scientific discoveries to schools to help children get interested in STEM

Later in the year, the workshop will be taken into Sea Mills Primary School for the Year 6s to get stuck into.

Kids with specific learning difficulties visit the BRL

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Katie Sparkes from the Lightyear Foundation thanks Severin Lemaignan and his team for enabling the special educational needs (SEN) trip to the Bristol Robotics Laboratory in January.

The Lightyear Foundation works hard to break down barriers to getting more disabled people into Science, Technology, Engineering, Math, & Medicine. One of the ways they inspire children with SEN is through work inspiration trips.

This is what New Fosseway School had to say about the trip:

“What a unique experience for our students and interesting place to visit! It was a real delight watching them so interested in all the different robots from the very tiny to the huge car simulators.

They were especially interested in the social robots designed to help disabled people. Being able to have a go and manipulate some of the robots was really exciting and they also enjoyed the coding session where they got to programme some of the robots.

The trip most definitely inspired curiosity!”

Jo Payne, Transitions Lead, New Fosseway School.

Thanks to Severin, this trip has opened up the possibility of more SEN schools visiting the BRL….hopefully schools will be back in the summer term and these visits can go ahead!

Machine Vision Impacts Farming

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Technology from the Centre for Machine Vision (CMV) has been making moves to improve animal welfare and maximize crop harvesting.

Herdvision

First off, the 3D imagery system, Herdvision, that helps farmers assess cows’ wellbeing, was featured on the BBC six o’clock news in 2019 as it began a trial by Arla UK 360 farmers.

The technology developed in collaboration with Kingshay and AgsenZe, uses visual monitoring, data recording and automated intelligence to identify changes in each cow’s physical wellbeing, mobility and weight, before they are visible to the human eye.

Facial recognition used to assess pig’s emotions

Animal behaviourists from Scotland’s Rural College in Edinburgh, are using the technology provided by machine vision experts at UWE, to picture a range of pig facial expressions. The hope is that emotions can be identified and facial recognition used to improve pig welfare.

The BBC reported on the study in spring last year and the work is due to appear as part of a Netflix program in 2020.

Harvest Eye

The potato harvester based data capture system –Harvest Eye – provides insight on size, count and crop variation on unwashed potatoes as they are harvested. The integrated data analytics shows precisely what is being lifted and from where in the field, insights that will help maximise marketable yield and reduce crop imbalance.

The technology’s utility was recognised at the Potato Industry Event 2019/20, when it picked up second prize (out of 15 nominations) .

Harvest Eye was developed by CMV for B-hive, who then patented the technology in collaboration with CMV, and now B-Hive / Branston have established a new company, HarvestEye Ltd, to supply the HarvestEye technology to Grimme,a major manufacturer of root crop harvesters.

But the team at CMV aren’t stopping there.

“We’re working on a new funding bid right now to add functionality.”

Melvyn Smith, CMV
Mark Hansen, who led development of the technology, represented CMV, as part of the team that picked up the award. 

Robots. What could possibly go wrong?

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A new project studies how to investigate accidents with social robots, Alan Winfield explains why this is needed…

Originally posted on September 17th, 2019 by Alan Winfield on his blog.

Imagine that your elderly mother, or grandmother, has an assisted living robot to help her live independently at home. The robot is capable of fetching her drinks, reminding her to take her medicine and keeping in touch with family. Then one afternoon you get a call from a neighbour who has called round and sees your grandmother collapsed on the floor. When the paramedics arrive they find the robot wandering around apparently aimlessly. One of its functions is to call for help if your grandmother stops moving, but it seems that the robot failed to do this. 

Fortunately your grandmother recovers but the doctors find bruising on her legs, consistent with the robot running into them. Not surprisingly you want to know what happened: did the robot cause the accident? Or maybe it didn’t but made matters worse, and why did it fail to raise the alarm?

Although this is a fictional scenario it could happen today. If it did you would be totally reliant on the goodwill of the robot manufacturer to discover what went wrong. Even then you might not get the answers you seek; it’s entirely possible the robot and the company that made it are just not equipped with the tools and processes to undertake an investigation.

Right now there are no established processes for robot accident investigation. 

Of course accidents happen, and that’s just as true for robots as any other machinery [1].

Finding statistics is tough. But this web page shows serious accidents with industrial robots in the US since the mid 1980s. Driverless car fatalities of course make the headlines. There have been five (that we know about) since 2016. But we have next to no data on accidents in human robot interaction (HRI); that is for robots designed to interact directly with humans. Here is one – a security robot – that happened to be reported.

But a Responsible Roboticist must be interested in all accidents, whether serious or not. We should also be very interested in near misses; these are taken very seriously in aviation [2], and there is good evidence that reporting near misses improves safety.

So I am very excited to introduce our 5-year EPSRC funded project RoboTIPS – responsible robots for the digital economy. Led by Professor Marina Jirotka at the University of Oxford, we believe RoboTIPS to be the first project with the aim of systematically studying the question of how to investigate accidents with social robots.

So what are we doing in RoboTIPS..?

First we will look at the technology needed to support accident investigation.

In a paper published 2 years ago Marina and I argued the case for an Ethical Black Box (EBB) [3]. Our proposition is very simple: that all robots (and some AIs) should be equipped by law with a standard device which continuously records a time stamped log of the internal state of the system, key decisions, and sampled input or sensor data (in effect the robot equivalent of an aircraft flight data recorder). Without such a device finding out what the robot was doing, and why, in the moments leading up to an accident is more or less impossible. In RoboTIPS we will be developing and testing a model EBB for social robots.

But accident investigation is a human process of discovery and reconstruction. So in this project we will be designing and running three staged (mock) accidents, each covering a different application domain: 
assisted living robots, educational (toy) robots, and driverless cars.
In these scenarios we will be using real robots and will be seeking human volunteers to act in three roles, as the subject(s) of the accident, witnesses to the accident, and as members of the accident investigation team.
Thus we aim to develop and demonstrate both technologies and processes (and ultimately policy recommendations) for robot accident investigation. And the whole project will be conducted within the framework of Responsible Research and Innovation; it will, in effect, be a case study in Responsible Robotics.

References:

[1] Dhillon BS (1991) Robot Accidents. In: Robot Reliability and Safety. Springer, New York, NY
[2] Macrae C (2014) Close Calls: Managing risk and resilience in Airline flight safety, Palgrave macmillan.
[3] Winfield AFT and Jirotka M (2017) The Case for an Ethical Black Box. In: Gao Y, Fallah S, Jin Y, Lekakou C (eds) Towards Autonomous Robotic Systems. TAROS 2017. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, vol 10454. Springer, Cham.

Bristol Technology Showcase this Friday!

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The one day conference and expo coming to Aerospace Bristol this Friday (8th November), focuses on how new and emerging technologies will affect businesses and wider society.

Industry leading experts will be taking part in panel discussions and leading talks about the future of various technologies and industries. While local Bristol Tech will be showcasing in the expo.

Find out more on the Bristol Technology Showcase website.

Find discounted tickets on Eventbrite here.

And here’s a video from one of the speakers who is leading a session on the Future of vertical farming.

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