Navigation

News and events

Ground-breaking 'human' robot designed by UCLan student

02 May 2013

Chris Theobald

Teaching aid of the future: UCLan student hoping to create a big bang with ground-breaking ‘human’ robot MAKIIS

It may not look like a university lecturer, but this robot is thought to be the first of its kind in the world and could be the teaching aid of the future.

MAKIIS, which is Greek for human, is thought to be the world’s first *telepresence robot that can recognise when a human is addressing it and turn its ‘face’ towards the speaker.

Inspired by the Sheldonbot from the hit US comedy ‘The Big Bang Theory’, this ground-breaking robot created by a 20-year-old student at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) brings a whole new meaning to the term distance learning.

MAKIIS, which is also an acronym for Makroskopic Intelligent Interaction System, is a prototype telepresence robot which can allow university lecturers to interact with students anywhere in the world.

“Some telepresence robots are little more than SKYPE on wheels, but MAKIIS hears where the sounds comes from and turns to face them.”

Moving on wheels and projecting live video of a person onto the face of the robot, the droid can help a teacher deliver seminars, show slides, discuss things with students, and answer questions as if he or she was right beside them. MAKIIS could allow a UCLan lecturer in Preston to give a tutorial and interact with students from Peking to Pretoria.

According to UCLan’s Greek-born robotics student Panagiotis Gnafakis, the brains behind MAKIIS, the telepresence robot represents a leap into the future because for the first time it can mimic human behaviour. MAKIIS is also the world’s first robot of this type which ‘sees’ like a human.

Instead of using bat-like ultrasonics to avoid bumping into things MAKIIS is equipped with a 3D camera – adapted from the Kinect Sensor of a Microsoft Xbox – allowing it to judge the distance of obstacles and prevent it from colliding with them.

Mr Gnafakis, who spent six months and 400 hours building the robot, said: “My robot has been designed to mimic human behaviour as much as is possible.

“The robot has two features which have never before been integrated on a telepresence robot.

“Some telepresence robots are little more than SKYPE on wheels, but MAKIIS hears where the sounds comes from and turns to face them.”

MAKIIS, which uses an iPad to broadcast video of a subject, cost around £4,000 to build.

The concept for MAKIIS was born from Mr Gnafakis’ discussions with his UCLan lecturer, Phil Tranter, who often visits China as part of the University’s international partnership arrangements. A robot with the features of MAKIIS would enable him to make contact with UK-based students in a much more engaging way than teleconferencing could ever hope to achieve.

“As MAKIIS can imitate human behaviour we think this pioneering telepresence robot could be a perfect fit for education."

Mr Tranter, Senior Lecturer at UCLan’s School of Computing, Engineering and Physical Sciences, said: “A lot of experts believe telepresence robots could have a hugely significant role in the way businesses operate in the future.

“As MAKIIS can imitate human behaviour we think this pioneering telepresence robot could be a perfect fit for education. In my view a robot cannot replace the benefits of real human interaction but it could certainly be a valuable tool for the modern day teacher who is lecturing and providing feedback to students all over the world.

“There are several companies in California manufacturing these robots commercially, but none of them have the features developed by Panagiotis.”

Mr Gnafakis, a final year Robotics and Mechatronics student at UCLan, said: “The commercial and personal uses for a telepresence robot like this are almost endless. They could be used for businesses to communicate across the world, as well as for teachers, doctors and lecturers. They could also help families stay in touch, and be particularly useful to help severely disabled people to become more socially included.”

Mr Gnafakis’ passion for robotics started as a young boy in Greece but he came to the UK to study because, in his own words, there is “nothing for robotics” in his hometown of Athens.

He said: “Since I was seven years old I’d take my toys, break them up and put them back together to make new toys. My friends and teachers would ask me what I wanted to be when I was older and I always said a robotics engineer, but they never believed in me. Now I’m showing them that it can be done.”