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I Robot Inhabits Three Parkway

March 15, 2016

There is a robot inhabiting the 9th floor of Three Parkway.  It’s tucked away in a cubicle, but makes the occasional venture out into the hallways to interact with faculty, staff and students. Once it has completed its mission, it returns to its docking station to rest and recharge.

Its presence here is attributed to Leland “Rocky” Rockstraw, PhD, assistant dean of Simulation, Clinical & Technology Academic Operations and associate clinical professor in the Division of Graduate Nursing.  Rockstraw was approached by Double Robotics, creator of the Double Telepresence Robot about bringing one to campus. “Initially, I couldn’t really see an academic benefit to this technology. It was kind of fun, but I didn’t really understand how to use it.”

Then inspiration struck as Rockstraw became frustrated by telephone communication. “One day I had a chance to call both the procurement office and human resources. I called about four or five numbers in each department and got voicemail. Sometimes I feel like when you can’t talk to a live person, especially when you need an answer, it’s kind of disconnecting. And then I thought, how do students feel when they don’t get to talk to a person?” So Rockstraw contacted Double Robotics. 

“Now the idea is that an online student who cannot easily be present on campus can log in to iRobot and use it to essentially virtually visit with their professor or academic advisor. Phone calls can be okay, maybe if they have video conferencing like zoom, it can be okay, but you’re stationary. You’re at the control of the person with whom you are speaking.”

This promises to be a unique way for distance students and faculty members to feel connected to campus. It could also create opportunities for prospective students to participate in campus tours.  

At first named Rob Robot, it was pointed out that the robot becomes whoever is controlling it, whether male or female, so a more gender neutral name was chosen: iRobot.

iRobot, which is essentially an iPad on a Segway, can be a bit clumsy sometimes. It only has a forward facing and downward facing camera, meaning it doesn’t have peripheral vision, so it occasionally bumps into furniture or walls.  However, it is very sturdy and almost always manages to keep its balance. As long as the battery is charged, the robot needs only a wifi signal to operate. If it wanders outside of the wifi signal, it will shut down and will need to be retrieved.

There is also a different standard of etiquette when it comes to the robot. Because it travels rather quietly, as the driver it is polite to announce your presence, particularly when rounding corners. As a passerby, you can feel free to introduce yourself or greet the robot as it passes as you would when passing a human. To talk to the robot, you should stand several feet away so the camera can see your face rather than your chest. On the rare occasion that the robot falls or gets caught on something, please let the robot know you will be picking it up (it’s very light!).

This month, the iRobot recently completed its initial three week beta testing period, in which at least four of Drexel University’s College of Nursing and Health Professions’ distance faculty members have taken it for a test drive.