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The Social Value of PMRs

Authors: Bern Grush, Lee St James

Published: July 1, 2024

Readers may be most familiar with public-area mobile robots (PMRs) being used as delivery devices, or for maintenance tasks like lawn mowing. While such task orientations are dominant in the evolution of PMR technology and deployment, important accessibility and social aspects are often overlooked.

Accessibility/Rules of Engagement

A key aspect of accessibility is that PMRs should operate non-invasively and non-assertively when operating in public spaces. This is particularly vital in environments like sidewalks, crosswalks, and corridors in public buildings such as hospitals or airports. In these settings, PMRs must harmonize with pedestrians of every ability to avoid creating obstacles or hazards.

For instance, a PMR navigating a crowded hospital corridor must yield to patients and medical staff, ensuring its presence does not disrupt critical activities. Similarly, on sidewalks, PMRs must adapt to varying pedestrian speeds and directions, including those using mobility aids, allowing them to pass without interference. The ability to politely and smoothly navigate these shared spaces is fundamental to the acceptance and integration of PMRs in public areas.

Beyond this foundational “keep-out-of-the-way” behavior, PMRs can enhance accessibility by offering services that improve the quality of life for various community members.

Providing Services that Benefit the Disability Community

If system planning, bylaws, service provisions, and infrastructure planning each make accessibility a first priority, the realization of these opportunities can be enormous and shared by all stakeholders. - URF Executive Guide to PMRs (pg 11)

PMRs are being designed to provide services that benefit the disability community.

PMRs can serve as road crossing guard bots equipped with sensors and communication systems to control or anticipate traffic lights and alert drivers as pedestrians are crossing. This service is particularly beneficial for children, the elderly, and individuals with disabilities.

Michigan Central conducted a pilot project in June/July 2023 to determine whether a portable, off-grid pedestrian crossing solution could address safety concerns when pedestrians cross unprotected areas of a roadway.

Many other helper functions are being developed such as carrying shopping items, fetching items from high shelves, opening doors, providing assistance and escort services within large public spaces like malls, zoos, entertainment parks and transportation hubs.

PMRs could also patrol for accessibility barriers to provide optimally accessible routes in real-time.

URF member, Cyberworks Robotics offers an autonomous wheelchair robot that transports passengers in airport terminals and is being pilot tested to move patients in hospitals and residents in long-term care settings. (Vivek Burhanpurkar, Cyberworks Robotics CEO, is a guest speaker for our October 2nd webinar:

A new robotic wheelchair conceived by the Korea Institute of Machinery and Materials (KIMM), is being developed to allow the chair to climb stairs and let the occupant stand upright with assistance.

PMRs can act as guide robots for the blind in crowded or complex environments. For example, in an airport, a guide robot can help visually impaired individuals find their gates and avoid obstacles, all while providing real-time information about flight changes. Equipped with voice-assisted technology, these robots could communicate directions and alerts, ensuring safe and independent travel in busy spaces.

PMRs can also provide a variety of socially-oriented services to promote inclusivity in public spaces such as monitoring to enhance security and report suspicious activities, carrying first aid supplies, and providing medical assistance or instructions until human help arrives.

Putting accessibility first means our deployments will engender the greatest degree of acceptance, community value, and safety. If accessibility in its broadest sense is not a critical, primary design filter, it is unlikely that PMRs will achieve more than a small fraction of their potential. - URF Executive Guide to PMRs (pg 12)

Integrating these pro-accessibility and socially-oriented capabilities into PMRs not only improves accessibility but also enhances the overall safety and inclusivity of public spaces. This creates a more connected and supportive environment for all community members.

We invite you to Join URF today to keep up to date on the latest in PMR design, development and deployment. You are also welcome to register for our upcoming webinars to learn more.

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