The FROG Robot Is Assuredly the Most Adorable Robo-Guide Around

FROG is pretty much autonomous—it spots and approaches people, shows them around, and then moves on to the next group.

Jun 23 2014, 3:20pm
Image: FROG project site

Imagine the local Wal-Mart greeter or the info kiosk at Disneyland being replaced with an attentive robot. “Are you lost? Let me help you!” you'd hear, or perhaps “You’re going to throw up? The restroom is that way!”

You won't have to imagine much longer, as one autonomous bot from the Netherlands may be coming to a zoo near you. The FP7 FROG Robot Project, which stands for Fun Robotic Outdoor Guide, is designed to navigate in semi-controlled environments.

“Basically, the aim is to make a fun robot to augment the grand work done by human tour guides at heritage sites and zoos,” said Vanessa Evers, the EU scientific leader of the project, who is also professor and chair of Human Media Interaction at University of Twente in the Netherlands.

Already famous for having met King Willem-Alexander, you may soon see this green-eyed fella rolling around museums, zoos, or university campuses. In the case of remote spots like space stations or mountain lodges, it could help find people who are lost and keep them company until relief arrives.

King Willem-Alexander meets protoFROG. Image: FROG project site

There are two FROG bots, one red and one green. The red one is being developed into an info bot and messenger between buildings at the University of Twente, and features wheels ready for roads, grass, and cobblestone. It’ll make rounds around the campus, interacting with people before it returns to its docking station to recharge. Evers said her group hopes the red FROG roams the campus freely in the fall.

Right now, the green bot is chatting up strangers at the Royal Alcázar, a Muslim fortress-turned-museum in Madrid, Spain.

“Like a child, we will let go of its hand (if it had one) and we will see whether it now can effectively approach, engage and guide people,” said Evers. “Based on what we see the next few weeks, we will make improvements, another round of testing, and then FROG will be out there, left to do its job and offer visitors a new and interesting way to engage with important cultural heritage.”

Evers sharing a laugh with FROG. Image: FROG project site

FROG is pretty much autonomous—it spots and approaches people, shows them around, and then moves on to the next group. Just to make sure the FROG doesn’t freak people out, its developers are interviewing participants to see if the bot approaches people with the right speed, and how people react in general to a robotic tour guide.

“Compared to the usual monitoring bots that roam buildings after-hours for safety purposes, this technology offers the option to engage people actively,” said Evers. An international federation of zoos is sniffing out the concept, as well as remote cultural heritage sites “where guide people are scarce, especially after office hours,” she said.

More than anything else, the bots are being trained for understanding social cues. Are people having a good time? Are they scared? Are they cussing each other out? (In worst case scenarios, the bot alerts security.) What about replacing the role of tour guides? “I really see these robots as assistants to guides, security personnel, emergency responders, scientists, astronauts and so on,” said Evers.

In the meantime, Evers's group is training the bots how to deal with pedestrians, cyclists, and cars before throwing it into busy city squares. The green bot has stereo vision and can offer information to people entering airports, trade shows, and hospitals, which could be cheaper and simpler than setting up a human-staffed kiosk.

And it's not only humans that find FROG interesting: According to Evers, Lisbon Zoo had a pack of seals who showed excitement when the bot rolled past them, causing a splash and peeking their heads above water.