Friday, 28 June 2013

KASPAR the robot becomes more sensitive to touch

KASPAR the robot
KASPAR has been fitted with ROBOSKIN sensor patches as part of a European project to develop more sensitive robots. KASPAR is the humanoid robot designed by Professor Kerstin Dautenhahn and her team to help children with autism to communicate better.

Developing new artificial skin and sensor technologies could help robots to become a lot more sensitive – with a view that they will perhaps one day be used in industry, hospitals and even at home! Such new capabilities will improve the way that robots work in unconstrained settings, as well as improving their ability to communicate and cooperate with each other and humans.

The 3-year EU-funded project “Skin-based technologies and capabilities for safe, autonomous and interactive robots” (ROBOSKIN), that ended in 2012, has developed new sensor technologies and algorithms to give robots an artificial sense of touch – which until now has been an under-explored quality in robotics. Inspired by biological skin, the artificial skin is able to detect different types of touch. This work has been carried out by a European consortium coordinated by Professor Giorgio Cannata from University of Genoa in Italy.

The University of Hertfordshire team (including Professor Kerstin Dautenhahn, Dr Ben Robins, Dr Farshid Amirabdollahian and Dr Daniel Polani) developed algorithms so that KASPAR can distinguish between different types of touch and used the touch-sensitive robot in various scenarios as part of trials of robot-assisted play for children with autism.  ROBOSKIN sensor patches were applied to common touch points on KASPAR – such as feet, chest, cheeks and arms.

With the sensor patches fitted, KASPAR can detect differences between wanted and unwanted touch and respond accordingly. For example, when a child hits KASPAR the robot will turn away and say “ouch, that hurts” – which can be used by teachers and therapists as a starting point to discuss cause and effect in social interaction. This work therefore aims at teaching the children about appropriate social tactile interaction.

The European team is still at the pre-commercial demonstrator stage but the latest version of the tactile sensors have great potential in different application areas, including industry… and KASPAR’s development takes another step forwards in helping children with autism.

The ROBOSKIN project received 3.5 million Eur in research funding under the EU’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7).

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Latest news from Bold Hearts at RoboCup 2013

Guest Blog by Dr Daniel Polani, Adaptive Systems Research Group

Bold Hearts at the German 
Open 2013 earlier this year
The latest world championship in robot football, RoboCup 2013, is currently underway in Eindhoven in The Netherlands – and the University’s Bold Hearts team has already been in action!

Bold Hearts has been taking part in these competitions since 2003. And until this year, Bold Hearts has competed in the all-software RoboCup 3D Simulation League. But, since last year’s RoboCup world cup in Mexico City, we’ve acquired a team of DARwin-OP robots – so we’ve also moved into the Humanoid Kid-Sized League. A whole new set of challenges for the team!

So back to this year’s championships – our first game in the Kid-sized league against MRL from Iran (who has a full building with labs and around 100 people devoted to RoboCup activities; a formidable opponent ) didn't go so well! The good news is that we did actual score two goals. But we lost 3-1 - one of "their" goals was an own goal by us!

We are aware that our robot's orientation is not quite as it should be because, in past years, both goals were different colours - but this year, both goals are the same colour - making it difficult for the robots to understand whether they are pointing towards the opponent's goal or to their own goal!

Bold Hearts in defensive 
formation at the German 
Open in April 2013
Then onto today’s games. Great news! We beat BitBots from Hamburg 2-1! Although, we did actually scored three goals - their one goal was another own goal from us! So quite clearly our robot’s orientation requires some more work!

And now we have just played a regular game time against SNObots from Australia resulting in a draw 1-1 (you probably have guessed it by now …..both goals by us!). Now we are going into extra time...., so wish us luck.

In the simulation competition, we only had drop-in challenge games so far (a challenge competition for mixed teams) - the normal games have not started yet. Watching our performance in the drop-in challenge, it looks good, but official results will only been known later.

In the simulation league (where AIs control virtual robots playing football), we have a successful record in previous competitions - our simulation team was third in last year’s RoboCup world championships in Mexico). However, we do not expect this string of success to continue because most of our effort went into the hardware kid-sized league, and the other teams have become stronger.

However, the transition is worth it. We have performed better than we expected. Our robot usually recognises the ball, walks fast, kicks the ball with conviction (and not everybody does that), and we scored (and not everybody does that either) - even if it was into our own goal (well nobody is perfect...)!

So, wish us luck as we go into extra time and also for the the remaining games in the simulation.

Visit our Facebook page for more information on our adventures at RoboCup 2013 but while we are busy on-field, we will be unlikely to update it too much, as our team is small. But keep an eye out.

The Bold Hearts team consists of: Sander van Dijk (Team Captain), Drew Noakes, Ismael Duque-Garcia, Daniel Barry, Oliver Olding, Nicole Hendrickson, and Daniel Polani (Head of the UH RoboCup project).

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Three planets in habitable zone of nearby star

Artist's impression of the Gliese 667C system
Credit: ESO/ M. Kornmesser
Could there be life on a planet (or maybe even three!) in our own Sun’s neighbourhood?

Well, according to an international team of astronomers which includes Dr Mikko Tuomi and Professor Hugh Jones from the University of Hertfordshire’s Centre for Astrophysics Research, a nearby star has a record-breaking three super-Earths lying in its habitable zone where liquid water could exist!

New observations of the star, known as Gliese 667C, have been combined with existing data to reveal a system with at least six planets. And at 22 light-years away, this is quite close to us — within our Sun’s own neighbourhood!!

Three of these planets are confirmed to be super-Earths — planets more massive than Earth, but less massive than planets like Uranus or Neptune and are likely to be rocky masses rather than just made of gas. These three planets are within their star’s habitable or ‘Goldilocks’ zone' - a thin shell around a star in which water may be present in liquid form if conditions are right and making them possible candidates to support life.

This is the first time that three such planets have been spotted orbiting in this zone in the same system - completely filling up the habitable zone of Gliese 667C, as there are no more stable orbits in which a planet could exist at the right distance to it.

This record-breaking discovery shows that cooler and dimmer stars such as Gliese 667C can host several potentially habitable planets – so there may be more opportunity for life on another planet in our Universe than we originally thought!

This research is published in a paper entitled “A dynamically-packed planetary system around GJ 667C with three super-Earths in its habitable zone”, in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.

To read more click here

Video: Artist's impression of the orbits of the planets in the Gliese 667C system

Video: Artist's impression of the Gliese 667C system

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Have you taken your seat yet in the Den?

Dragons' Den chairsYou may have noticed on our homepage a familiar icon. The Dragons’ Den chairs from the hit television series.

No we haven’t adopted them for our office (tempting though), but we have been working hard with our partners to bring you a new online educational programme themed around the television programme Dragons Den.

It’s a clever idea. You put yourself in the place of a Dragon and decide how to invest £100k across a number of business opportunities with the aim of making your first million.

How does it work?

Before you’re let lose as a Dragon, you learn the theory, covering: strategy, marketing and finance - all essentials for business success. This is presented in easy-to-learn bitesize chunks with activities to test your learning as you go along and feedback on how your skills are improving – just as you would expect for online learning (no dreary long extracts from textbooks here).

2_SkillsKnowMeters_DragonsDenOEPOnce you’ve tackled the theory you can then put into practice what you learnt and play the role as  a Dragon – where will you make your investment?  And this is the clever bit: working through our interactive scenarios, based on real Dragons’ Den cases, you invest your dragon cash on the business cases you think will be the most profitable.  What is great is you get instant feedback that helps refine your judgement and decision making skills- very helpful for the business world.

Using the programme you become ridiculously competitive seeing if you made it to the top of the leaderboard with the right investment choices (Take that! Dragons!), and yes it is rather fun too. More importantly perhaps is that you’re learning business skills, remembering them and putting them into practice in a zero risk environment.

As featured in…

DD_OEP_LOGO_LRWe have to be honest though, this isn’t actually completely new. University of Hertfordshire business students have been using the programme as part of their studies for a number of years, to help put into practice some of what they’ve learnt in their studies.

It also appears in a number of MBA programmes and some large corporations have adopted the Dragons’ Den Online Educational Programme to train their staff with too. In fact over 15,000 have experienced the programme so far.  We’re now releasing the programme as a stand-alone experience which budding entrepreneurs can purchase off the shelf and start straight away. You’ll also get a University of Hertfordshire Certificate when you’ve successfully completed the programme.

Like to find out more?

Here’s a video with a bit more information on our partner's website if you would like to get started on the programme. Best of luck! You have to get your own Dragons’ Den chair though unfortunately.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Santander grant to support collaboration in Brazil

Hertfordshire researchers are forging new links with research teams in Brazil – thanks to a further £10,000 grant from Santander Universities UK.

The funding will support two research projects within the School of Life and Medical Sciences which are being led by Dr Keith Davies and Dr Henrik Stotz. As well as extending our links with universities in Brazil, our researchers will explore opportunities for collaborative studies into disease in oil seed rape and finding environmentally-sustainable solutions to the use of chemical pesticides.

This new funding is in addition to the financial support provided by Santander in December 2011 when it added the University of Hertfordshire to its Santander Universities network. To read the previous news story click here.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

UH Online Student Blog Archives: Gareth - the first semester..

Gareth - an online student at the University of HertfordshireGareth started his MSc Computer Science (online) in Autumn 2011, we asked him to capture his distance learning experience through a series of blogs, here is his post about his first semester..

Having almost come to the end of my first module, I thought it would be interesting to share with you guys how I’m finding things in the world of online learning so far – hopefully I can pass on some useful tips from my experience too!

Since starting, I’ve been working on creating a dynamic, database driven Web 2.0 website for the Web Scripting & Content Creation module. The learning has centered on the programming language ( and the development software package, Microsoft Visual Studio.

The teaching has largely been delivered through examples in video tutorials, which works really well for this content. By the end of the module, we are expected to apply the techniques taught to our own site. One warning I’d give is to not assume that you have a full understanding just from watching the tutorials – you need to try it for yourself! I found following along with the tutorial, pausing it and then trying the code before continuing worked best for me. Another tip is to comment your code as you go – not only does this help you understand your work when you come back to it, it also makes sure you understand the code as you write it – it’s too easy to just mindlessly copy from the video.

Each tutorial gives you enough understanding to implement the basics, along with the tools to go out and use other recommended resources to further your understanding to add some flair to your project. This is where Safari Books Online has come in handy; it’s a virtually unlimited collection of IT reference books, all available to access online for free via your university login - really impressive.
Speaking of which, I’d better go...I’ve got a website to finish!

Until next time…



Gareth is from Belper in Derbyshire, UK and studied MSc Computer Science (Online) with the University of Hertfordshire.

Hertfordshire researcher becomes new president of Botanical Society

Dr Ian Denholm
On 12th June, Dr Ian Denholm, from the University of Hertfordshire’s School of Life and Medical Sciences, becomes the new President of the Botanical Society of the British Isles (BSBI).

Ian is research leader in Geography, Environment and Agriculture at the University with particular interest in the ecology and systematics of wild orchids. Orchids have an iconic status in conservation biology and are well suited for research at the interface of ecology and evolution. Ian and his BSBI co-referee, Professor Richard Batemen (Kew), are the botanical experts to whom the society’s 3,000 members and the wider botanical community, turn to for advice on correct identification of these difficult plants.

Ian has been a driving force behind the society’s recent initiatives in publicity and outreach. His presentation to journalists and conservationists, at the May 2013 launch of the State of Nature report, showcased BSBI as a key partner in this new coalition of conservation and research organisations supporting British wildlife.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

CLiCIR staff recognised at British Renal Society Conference

Vari Wileman
Two postgraduate researchers from the University of Hertfordshire’s Centre for Lifespan and Chronic Illness Research (CLiCIR) were recognised at this year’s British Renal Society Conference (BRS) in Manchester.

Vari Wileman, a doctoral research student, won the best Abstract prize based on her work - investigating the use of “self-affirmation” as a method of helping those people on dialysis for end stage kidney disease to manage their condition and treatment better. People with long-term illnesses, such as those with end stage kidney disease, need to make changes to the way that they live, including what they eat and drink and also taking their medication. But unsurprisingly, many find this very difficult!

Lewis Carpenter
Vari’s research on adherence to phosphate binding medication among patients with End Stage Renal Disease is in collaboration with Professor Ken Farrington , from the University’s Post Graduate Medicine, and a number of NHS hospital trusts (Royal Free, East and North Hertfordshire, and Southend).

An abstract presented by Dr Miriam Bell (East and North Hertfordshire NHS Trust) and Professor Ken Farrington  was also recognised at the conference.  Lewis Carpenter, a Research Assistant with CLiCIR, provided the statistical analysis to evaluate the pattern of health decline in the last year of life for patients who are on haemodialysis due to end stage renal disease. Statistics and mathematical modelling are vital to all health-related research.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Robots interviewing children

Guest blog by Luke Wood, PhD Student, Adaptive Systems Research Group

KASPAR the robot
Could a robot ever be effective as a tool for interviewing young children? And, if so, where would this be appropriate?

Recently within the University of Hertfordshire’s Adaptive Systems Research Group, we have been investigating if robots could be used to interview children.

We used our humanoid robot, KASPAR, to interview children. KASPAR is the friendly robot

designed to help children with autism to communicate and develop their social interaction skills. But could KASPAR's minimal expressions also be useful when interviewing children in emotionally sensitive situations such as those with police, healthcare and social services?

Surprisingly, the results of this study were contrary to our expectations. Rather than having a clear preference, the children behaved very similarly towards either of the interviewers whether human or robot. The children revealed similar information and used similar amounts of words, keywords and filler words when responding to both the robot and the human interviewer.

We are developing the robot as a tool to assist professional interviewers where conventional techniques are not working. One of the potential advantages of using a robot is the ability to consciously control the robot's facial expressions and body language precisely. Such control is often very difficult even for professionally-trained interviewers, especially if stressful or traumatic ordeals that children have undergone lead them to reveal surprising or shocking details that make it hard for interviewers to maintain their composure.  But this would be easy for a robot. such as KASPAR.

The paper “Robot-Mediated Interviews - How Effective Is a Humanoid Robot as a Tool for Interviewing Young Children?” is published in the open access journal PLOS ONE.

Friday, 7 June 2013

You joined us online!

Computer Science Online teamWow, we were joined online on Wednesday by over 25 people from 11 different countries to learn about BSc Computer Science (online) at our online open day.

We used virtual classroom software called Adobe Connect. Prospective students could see the university computer science online teaching staff live online and watch their presentation about the distance learning course.

Participants enthusiastically asked some great questions about studying the Computer Science degree and our team answered as many as possible live online.

If you were there- we hope you got a lot out of the event, and look forward to hopefully seeing you online soon!

To get a recap of the online open day, visit our online open day web pages for details.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Car fumes responsible for only 1/3 of traffic pollution

Motorway Traffic
There have been many moves to reduce the amount of pollution that vehicles create - particularly by focusing on the exhaust fumes.

Carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrocarbon (HC) emissions are checked during vehicle MOTs and new technology has been developed for modern vehicles to reduce CO and particulate emissions to meet the more stringent exhaust regulations.

But although greater efforts have been made to reduce exhaust emissions, there are other sources of pollution from vehicles that are not taken into account – and these are becoming more important in managing our air quality.

New research led by Professor Ranjeet Sokhi, from the University of Hertfordshire’s Centre for Atmospheric and Instrumentation Research (CAIR), shows that vehicle exhausts only account for one third of traffic pollution – with nearly a half of air pollution from road traffic being due to non-exhaust sources such as brake wear, road surface wear and particles whipped up from the road by passing vehicles.

Hatfield Tunnel
The researchers were interested in extremely small airborne pollution particles which are less than ten microns across - one micron is one millionth of a metre and these particles are smaller than the thickness of a strand of hair which is normally between 40-50 microns. These airborne pollution particles, known as PM10, are linked with long-term health problems, including heart disease.

They took samples from a more controlled environment where the weather had a lot less influence – and the Hatfield Tunnel proved to be an ideal location to collect the material for analysis!

The study, Source apportionment of traffic emissions of particulate matter using tunnel measurements, is published in Atmospheric Environment. It was part of a PhD project undertaken by Samantha Lawrence and funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the British Oxygen Company (BOC).

Image credits:Motorway Traffic- Credit Maxwell Hamilton under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. Hatfield Tunnel - Credit Brian Green under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.