Meet Libby, The University Of Pretoria's New Client-Services Robot

As part of its modernisation efforts the University Of Pretoria has deployed a service robot in one of its libraries to assist students and staff with queries and advice that's related to the library.

By: Mandy J Watson
Posted: 6 June 2019
Category: Feature Comments View Comments


Professor Tawana Kupe, the vice-chancellor and principal of the University Of Pretoria, meets Libby the robot
Above: Professor Tawana Kupe, the vice-chancellor and principal of the University Of Pretoria, meets Libby the robot.
The University Of Pretoria in South Africa has deployed a robot in its Merensky 2 Library on its Hatfield Campus. The robot, which has been named "Libby", is, as far as anyone is aware, the first client-service robot to be deployed in a university library anywhere in Africa.

Sadly the robot was not developed at the university and instead is a Sanbot, a range of service robots that is developed by Qihan Technology Co. Ltd, a company based in Shenzhen, China, that's been designing automated intelligent products since 2006.

Libby is specifically a Sanbot Elf, which is a Sanbot model that's designed to be deployed in client services, education, and healthcare.

YouTube link

As to why the university has deployed the robot, Thamie Mthembu, the university's spokesperson, says, "The library continuously strives to redefine academic librarianship and how we deliver services. With the growing number of students we had to get smart on how we still deliver excellent service but still advance and stay relevant. This has been done by the adoption of self-help terminals, AI chatbots, and now a client facing robot."

Isak van der Walt, the manager of the Department Of Library Services' MakerSpace, a creative laboratory at the University Of Pretoria, says that Libby's purpose is to interact with visitors to the library by "providing guidance, answering questions, and conducting surveys" and that the robot is even capable of displaying marketing videos. The Department Of Library Services funded the purchase of Libby and partnered with "a reputable Johannesburg based company" that assembled it and shipped it.

Mthembu adds: "The robot is trained on the core services of the library and able to answer library related questions; she will also deliver the services within the library. The purpose of the robot is to assist students and staff with finding venues, resources, and advice on certain procedures specific to UP libraries."

A close up view of Libby's touchscreen
Above: A close up view of Libby's touchscreen.
The robot weighs 19 kilogrammes and is 90 centimetres tall, which enables visitors in wheelchairs to interact with it and its front-mounted, 10-inch, 10-point capacitive touchscreen comfortably.

It is equipped with facial-recognition and voice-interaction capabilities. It uses a 3D sensor to observe poses and gestures, which it can analyse and respond to, and its microphones allow it to determine where a voice is coming from so that it can manoeuvre or turn to face the speaker. Two tweeters and a subwoofer allow it to talk to people. It also features an eight megapixel camera and a one megapixel camera with a 140 degree aspheric surface angle.

The dimensions of the Sanbot Elf robot

The robot is mobile, with a maximum speed of 0.8 metres per second, due to 12 small wheels (grouped in three sets of DOF (degree of freedom) wheels) that also allow for 360-degree rotation. It has infrared "obstacle detectors" built into the head, body, arms, and base that help it to navigate and it will head to its charging station if its battery is low. The battery is a 20 Ah/300 W lithium battery that offers about 10 hours of runtime and over 24 hours of standby time.

It also offers "self-learning" capabilities, which are enhanced by a cloud based "information platform", according to Qihan (called Qihan Cloud), which the University Of Pretoria says utilises IBM Watson, IBM's question-answering system that's powered by AI services. The robot accesses it via Wi-Fi.

The generic Sanbot Elf model before external customisation
Above: The generic Sanbot Elf model before external customisation.
At the moment Libby still features the Sanbot Elf's standard configuration but the model offers an open API and SDK so developers can build upon the basics. The university intends to do this in the future through the team at the MakerSpace laboratory.

"The middleware is Robot Operation System (ROS) 1.1 and [the robot runs] a hybrid version of Android for the front-end interaction and control," Mthembu says. "The main interface of the touch panel is Android and applications can be developed with Android Studio. The robot also has a mobile application [Q-Link] for both iOS and Android for manual operation."

Van der Walt says "Libby is not a threat to anyone's job; she's merely part of the library's innovative progress. For now, she only speaks English but my team and I will be sure to incorporate two more languages as time goes by. This dedicated service robot will only perform general, mundane, repetitive tasks that staff perform around the library, thereby releasing them to perform more advanced and specialised services. The library sees the use of robotics as an added benefit that augments and enhances its service portfolio."

Professor Tawana Kupe poses with Libby

If you're keen to interact with Libby Mthembu says that the robot "will be stationed on the entrance level next to the information desk [in the Merensky 2 Library]. She will be gradually introduced to the students and staff up to the point where she can work a full day."

University Of Pretoria: Official Site, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, YouTube, Twitter
UP Department Of Library Services: Official Site, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube
UP Library MakerSpace: Official Site, Facebook
Qihan Technology Co. Ltd: Official Site, Bloomberg Profile, LinkedIn
Sanbot: Official Site, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube
Sanbot Elf: Design, Performance, Education, Healthcare, Specifications, MPS, Q-Link

Tags: Robots, Technology

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