Practical Robots in the Wild: Robotic Research in Rural India

Robotic Research: Indian Women Carrying Water

Researchers from the University of Glasgow and Amrita University in India presented a study where they took a water hauling robot to rural India to study human robot-interactions with the local residents.

At the Social Robots in the Wild workshop, Dr Amol Deshmukh Research Associate of the School of Computing Science at Glasgow University, along with collaborators from AMMACHI Labs at Amrita University in India presented the results of their new study, which focused on the use of a water hauling robot in a rural village in India. Water transport is a major problem in rural India as half the population do not have running tap water at home.

In this study, the lack of infrastructure was not the only facet being studied, it was also the participants who had never seen a robot let alone interacted with one and had a vastly different culture. They wanted to see how people perceived robots helping them in a daily activity, how it would change the social fabric of how they do things in the village and how the robot would impact their lives positively.

Clearpath Robotics’ Husky, an unmanned ground vehicle was customised to carry 60 litres of water. It was able to communicate with the participants using a Bluetooth speaker and spoke in a male voice using the local language Tamil. Husky was remotely controlled by a researcher from 10 feet away, a fact participants were made aware of.

Robotic Research in Rural India

The village selected for the study was Ayyampathy in the Southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu with a population of 200 people. It consisted of 25 houses which were between 100 to 500 meters from a nearby water tank. Households made on average 15 water trips every day, moving 20kg of water each time in jugs often balanced on their heads, taking up approximately five hours of their day.

This task is predominantly carried out by females, however getting the women to join the study was difficult due to cultural differences. Initially, the women refused to speak to the male researchers, so a female researcher had to be brought in to communicate with them. Many were living on a daily wage and had allotted tasks to perform so were wary to commit to a fixed period of time to the study. Another issue was participants differing schedules, which meant it was a challenge for researchers to present the robot when they required water.

100% of Participants Perceived Husky as Alive

In total 11 took part in the study, 10 of which were female and one male, aged between 15 and 70. Only two of the participants had seen a robot on television before and were the only ones who had been exposed to computers. This was precisely the point of the study as they wanted to expose people who had rarely interacted with technology to robotics to gauge their reaction.

Although aware the robot was being controlled, they still formed a bond with Husky saying that his movement and speech showed he was alive. Their social perception of the robot was that it was a separate autonomous entity. The women would thank the robot for bringing water to their homes. Despite the robot having a male voice, 40% said the gender of the robot was female, showing this ingrained cultural perception that water-bearing is a strictly female task.

More Robotics Research in Developing Countries is Needed

The majority of Human Robotic-Interaction (HRI) studies are carried out in the developed world on participants who are easy to access and reasonably cheap, so mostly students. This lack of diversity means that results are skewed. Often, research happens either inside the controlled laboratory environment or in a real-world environment within the developed world. In this experiment the robot was taken into what would be considered a wild environment.

Why are companies not exploring this application of social robotics?

Commercial viability hinder these types of studies, there is no money to be made in them. HRI studies and social robotics are aimed at wealthy urbanites who can afford their products. This is a shame as it means communities like Ayyampathy are omitted from research and consideration. As a result, we neglect the massive potential benefits that robotics can bring to developing countries. Another factor is the lack of electricity in rural communities, there would be no way for them to charge the robot. Deshmukh and his team hope that by conducting more studies such as this one they can find ways that robots can positively impact on the rural communities by helping with labour intensive tasks such as carrying firewood and heavy sacks.

Background information on the Social Robots in the Wild Study

The research was carried out by Dr. Amol Deshmukh from University of Glasgow and Sooraj Krishna, Nagarajan Akshay, Vennila Vilvanathan, Sivaprasad J. V., and Rao R. Bhavani from Amrita University, Kerala, India. This research was funded by Scottish Informatics and Computer Science Alliance (SICSA) and Amrita University, Kerala, India.

Amrita University and its parent NGO led by world renowned humanitarian Amma, popularly known as the hugging saint, carry out community development activities in over 142 villages all over India. Researchers from its robotics and women empowerment research centre called Ammachi labs spend a significant amount of time with rural and tribal communities in order to understand their issues and nuances that often-times are not considered in technology design for such communities.



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