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Science Fiction or Fact? Robots Take to the Classroom

You thought some of your old teachers were robotic? Think again.

Nineteen elementary schools in Daegu, Korea, have introduced robot English teachers as part of a large-scale project that would have teaching robots in all 8,400 kindergarten classes in Korea by 2013.

Egg-shaped and standing just over 3 feet tall, these new recruits hardly conjure visions of schoolmarms past. Known as Engkey, a contraction of "English jockey," the robots rove the classrooms on wheels, asking questions, correcting pronunciation, and dancing to music while giving high fives.

However, despite all appearances, these robots are not autonomous beings. Developed by the Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KIST), these "telepresence" robots are actually controlled by English teachers in the Philippines who can see, hear, and interact with the students via two-way video and audio. The advanced technology behind these robots is made possible by voluntary consensus standards.

The Engkey robots boast an LED screen "face" that displays the image of a female countenance. To help bring the face "to life," cameras detect the remote teachers' expressions and reflect them onto their avatar. ASTM International, a member and audited designator of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), has developed a standard that specifically addresses video systems used in the teleoperation of robots.

ASTM E2566, Standard Test Method for Determining Visual Acuity and Field of View of On-Board Video Systems for Teleoperation of Robots for Urban Search and Rescue Applications, may be used to determine the camera's field of view and visual acuity under varying conditions of light and distance. While the standard was initially intended for robots in urban search and rescue operations, it can be applied to other remote platforms as well.

The tests outlined in ASTM D2566 measure the image resolution of the display screen seen by the remote operator. For the quality of the image on the LED screen itself, robot makers may want to look to a standard developed by the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC). IEC 62341-1-1 Ed. 1.0 b:2009, Organic light emitting diode (OLED) displays - Part 1-1: Generic specifications, defines procedures for quality assessment of LED displays, and establishes general rules for electrical and optical measurements, as well as environmental, mechanical, and endurance tests.

ANSI member and accredited standards developer the Robotics Industries Association (RIA) writes standards for robotic technology that span communication and information; performance; safety; simulation programming; and electrical, mechanical, and human interface. RIA's American National Standard (ANS) for robot safety, ANSI/RIA R15.06, Industrial Robots and Robot Systems - Safety Requirements, guides the safe design, manufacture, and maintenance of robots and robot systems.

ANSI/RIA/ISO 10218-1, Robots for Industrial Environment - Safety Requirements - Part 1 - Robot, describes basic hazards associated with robots, and provides requirements to eliminate, or adequately reduce, any risks. Though originally intended for robots in industrial environments, the safety measures established in this standard can also be applied to military, consumer, and space robots; surgical micro-robots; and other non-industrial robots. ANSI/RIA/ISO 10218-1 has been approved both as an ANS and an International Standard.

The Engkey program, which began two weeks ago, is still in its experimental stage; the robots are currently being used in small after-school settings. Whether the Engkey teaching squad goes full time remains to be seen. But a look at some of Engkey's potential co-workers currently in development, including a box-shaped robot that takes attendance and a puppy-bot that helps to lead gym class, may give a hint to the future of the classroom.


Jana Zabinski

Senior Director, Communications & Public Relations


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Beth Goodbaum

Journalist/Communications Specialist


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