Section: Research Program

Natural Interaction with Robotic Systems

Scientific Context

Interaction with the environment is a primordial requirement for an autonomous robot. When the environment is sensorized, the interaction can include localizing, tracking, and recognizing the behavior of robots and humans. One specific issue lies in the lack of predictive models for human behavior and a critical constraint arises from the incomplete knowledge of the environment and the other agents.

On the other hand, when working in the proximity of or directly with humans, robots must be capable of safely interacting with them, which calls upon a mixture of physical and social skills. Currently, robot operators are usually trained and specialized but potential end-users of robots for service or personal assistance are not skilled robotics experts, which means that the robot needs to be accepted as reliable, trustworthy and efficient [51]. Most Human-Robot Interaction (HRI) studies focus on verbal communication [47] but applications such as assistance robotics require a deeper knowledge of the intertwined exchange of social and physical signals to provide suitable robot controllers.

Main Challenges

We are here interested in building the bricks for a situated Human-Robot Interaction (HRI) addressing both the physical and social dimension of the close interaction, and the cognitive aspects related to the analysis and interpretation of human movement and activity.

The combination of physical and social signals into robot control is a crucial investigation for assistance robots [49] and robotic co-workers [44]. A major obstacle is the control of physical interaction (precisely, the control of contact forces) between the robot and the human while both partners are moving. In mobile robots, this problem is usually addressed by planning the robot movement taking into account the human as an obstacle or as a target, then delegating the execution of this “high-level” motion to whole-body controllers, where a mixture of weighted tasks is used to account for the robot balance, constraints, and desired end-effector trajectories [35].

The first challenge is to make these controllers easier to deploy in real robotics systems, as currently they require a lot of tuning and can become very complex to handle the interaction with unknown dynamical systems such as humans. Here, the key is to combine machine learning techniques with such controllers.

The second challenge is to make the robot react and adapt online to the human feedback, exploiting the whole set of measurable verbal and non-verbal signals that humans naturally produce during a physical or social interaction. Technically, this means finding the optimal policy that adapts the robot controllers online, taking into account feedback from the human. Here, we need to carefully identify the significant feedback signals or some metrics of human feedback. In real-world conditions (i.e., outside the research laboratory environment) the set of signals is technologically limited by the robot's and environmental sensors and the onboard processing capabilities.

The third challenge is for a robot to be able to identify and track people on board. The motivation is to be able to estimate online either the position, the posture, or even moods and intentions of persons surrounding the robot. The main challenge is to be able to do that online, in real-time and in cluttered environments.

Angle of Attack

Our key idea is to exploit the physical and social signals produced by the human during the interaction with the robot and the environment in controlled conditions, to learn simple models of human behavior and consequently to use these models to optimize the robot movements and actions. In a first phase, we will exploit human physical signals (e.g., posture and force measurements) to identify the elementary posture tasks during balance and physical interaction. The identified model will be used to optimize the robot whole-body control as prior knowledge to improve both the robot balance and the control of the interaction forces. Technically, we will combine weighted and prioritized controllers with stochastic optimization techniques. To adapt online the control of physical interaction and make it possible with human partners that are not robotics experts, we will exploit verbal and non-verbal signals (e.g., gaze, touch, prosody). The idea here is to estimate online from these signals the human intent along with some inter-individual factors that the robot can exploit to adapt its behavior, maximizing the engagement and acceptability during the interaction.

Another promising approach already investigated in the Larsen team is the capability for a robot and/or an intelligent space to localize humans in its surrounding environment and to understand their activities. This is an important issue to handle both for safe and efficient human-robot interaction.

Simultaneous Tracking and Activity Recognition (STAR) [50] is an approach we want to develop. The activity of a person is highly correlated with his position, and this approach aims at combining tracking and activity recognition to benefit one from another. By tracking the individual, the system may help infer its possible activity, while by estimating the activity of the individual, the system may make a better prediction of his/her possible future positions (especially in the case of occlusions). This direction has been tested with simulator and particle filters [37], and one promising direction would be to couple STAR with decision making formalisms like partially observable Markov decision processes (POMDPs). This would allow us to formalize problems such as deciding which action to take given an estimate of the human location and activity. This could also formalize other problems linked to the active sensing direction of the team: how the robotic system should choose its actions in order to have a better estimate of the human location and activity (for instance by moving in the environment or by changing the orientation of its cameras)?

Another issue we want to address is robotic human body pose estimation. Human body pose estimation consists of tracking body parts by analyzing a sequence of input images from single or multiple cameras.

Human posture analysis is of high value for human robot interaction and activity recognition. However, even if the arrival of new sensors like RGB-D cameras has simplified the problem, it still poses a great challenge, especially if we want to do it online, on a robot and in realistic world conditions (cluttered environment). This is even more difficult for a robot to bring together different capabilities both at the perception and navigation level [36]. This will be tackled through different techniques, going from Bayesian state estimation (particle filtering), to learning, active and distributed sensing.