Field trips to museums could soon seem just a bit more interesting to the gaggles of schoolchildren taking tours. Researchers at the University of Toronto have designed a robot that can make its way through a building by using its own voice to navigate. The system, described in a paper available online that will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Information Fusion, could be employed as a tour guide within two years, according to its inventors.

Parham Aarabi and his colleagues created their robot by modifying a research model manufactured by Arrick Robotics. The researchers added on a 1.6-meter-tall support structure that holds four speakers to play the robot's synthesized speech. The scientists next outfitted their laboratory, which has a variety of wall types and geometries, with 24 microphones and had the robot, dubbed Trilobot, deliver a guided tour. "Using an array of stationary microphones in the museum, this kind of system could accurately help the robot find its location using the sounds that it generates," Aarabi notes. When the microphones pick up the robot's voice, a master computer pinpoints its location on a virtual map and then relays instructions for where to go next. Trilobot detects obstacles using metal wires that conduct a current when they are bent out of shape by an object in its path.

In testing, the robot found its way to the desired locations to within seven centimeters, though its accuracy declined as it moved farther away from the speakers. Using sound as the basis of the navigation system has the benefit of not requiring additional hardware, such as cameras or lasers, the authors note. According to Aarabi, future prototypes could be programmed to answer questions from their followers using speech recognition software.