One man and his bot

Project aims:

An interactive event aiming to explain the difference between robots and remote-controlled vehicles in a fun and interactive way. The activity invites participants to try to herd a flock of robot 'sheep' into a pen by driving a remote-controlled 'sheepdog' around an arena. The intention was that the audience would experience for themselves that autonomous robots can – at least in this simple example – compete successfully with humans. The audience is also introduced to some of the ways in which researchers in the field of robotics are inspired by biology to create machines which have a little spark of life...


This project was designed to satisfy the following objectives:

• Demonstrate the difference between 'remote-controlled vehicles' and


• Build on previous experience of running similar events to promote a

greater level of interactivity between the audience and the robots, and

between the audience and the researchers.

• Demonstrate that autonomous robots may be 'human-competitive'.

• Entertain the audience and foster enthusiasm for science and in particular


• Provide simple illustrations of the ways in which biology inspires robotics.

• Provide further opportunities for young scientists from the BRL (Bristol

Robotics Laboratory) to experience public engagement.

Summary of activity:

During the course of this project ‘One Man and his Bot’ was delivered at three separate locations: the Imagineering Fairs at the Bath & West Show and the Royal International Air Tattoo, as well as the Discover Zone at Cheltenham Science Festival.

‘One Man and his Bot’ was delivered at three separate venues during the course of this project:
• Imagineering Fair1 at the Royal Bath and West show [4 days]
• Discover Zone at the Cheltenham Science Festival2 [2 days]
• Imagineering Fair1 at the Royal International Air Tattoo [2 days]
The Imagineering Fairs were held during school holidays or on weekends, meaning that almost all visitors attended in family groups. Conversely, at Cheltenham Science Festival the majority of visitors were in school groups. At all venues the ‘One Man and his Bot’ activity was set up within a large
open space (marquee or large hall). Visitors were able to choose from a range of interactive science and/or engineering activities to get involved in.

Target Audience
The primary audience for this activity was set by the host venues, and corresponds to schoolchildren aged between approximately 8 and 16.
Audience members fall into one of three categories:
• ‘Potential’ audience numbers are given by total visitor footfall to the event as a whole (figures provided by the event organisers). All of these visitors had the potential to encounter or become aware of the ‘One Man and his Bot’ activity at a superficial level.
• ‘Drivers’ were people who actively tried out the activity by controlling the ‘sheepdog’. The ‘driving’ time per active participant was limited (via the competition element) to two minutes. In addition, time between participants was required to allow for resetting the event, handling time etc., meaning
that in practice a new ‘driver’ was involved approximately every 5 minutes.
• ‘Engaged spectators’ consisted of people who stopped and engaged in the event in some way – e.g. by reading the posters, talking to the researchers, or discussing what was happening with other audience members.

The core project team consisted of Dr Matt Studley, Professor Alan Winfield and Dr Karen Bultitude. Other researchers who assisted with the activities included Dr Claire Rocks, Peter Jaeckel, Craig Chorley, James Edwards and Paul Bremner. The project was funded through a Partnerships for Public
Engagement award from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

Evaluation approach:

The evaluation was developed and overseen by a member of the project team (Karen Bultitude), and incorporated both formative and summative elements. A variety of evaluative techniques were employed in order to judge the success of the activity in achieving its objectives. The methodology

included determining audience perceptions via structured observations, short semi-structured interviews with participants and distribution of written questionnaires. In addition, the (external) event organisers were asked to provide both formal and informal feedback of their impressions of the event, and interviews were conducted with the researchers to allow them to reflect upon the project as a whole.

What went well:

1. The ‘costumes’ on the robot sheep were very popular – many participants commented on the look of the sheep when they first arrived, or invited friends and/or family over to see them.

2.The competitive element was very popular, with frequent discussions amongst participants regarding how many sheep they had respectively managed to herd into the pen. Almost all participants expressed disappointment when their time was up, and the vast majority immediately requested ‘can I go again?’.

What was learned:

1. Different age groups displaying different preferences for which role they preferred to take in the activity.

2. High visitor numbers created difficulties for the researchers in achieving proper engagement with their audience, especially when queues developed. The activity became more like a conveyor-belt, with participants focused on ‘getting their turn’ rather than thinking about or discussing the implications of the research.

3.The posters were not greatly utilised. Most participants looked at the posters extremely briefly (a few seconds), although some lone adults and/or older children did take the time to read them.

‘One Man and his Bot’ was a highly popular and successful project which engaged young people with contemporary robotics research. A thorough evaluation strategy was applied in order to judge the success of the project, including written questionnaires, interviews and structured observations. This

evaluation showed that all of the original project objectives were satisfied, and in many cases exceeded. This is a particularly impressive feat considering the short timescale available between the notification of the funding award and the start of the first delivery event (3 weeks).

Top tips and advice for others


Based on the experiences gained through this project the following key recommendations are advised in order to ensure success at future similar events:

• Recruit a minimum of 3 delivery staff, preferably 4 or more per day. Two team members are required at all times to actually run the activity; having more present enables greater interaction between the audience and the researchers, as well as providing cover for much needed breaks for the researchers.

• Where possible set up multiple arenas (each running the same activity). This will reduce the queue times in locations of high demand and ensure more people can participate.

• Include punctuated masterclasses / expert demonstrations, occurring say every half-hour or hour for 5-10 minutes at a time. This would provide an opportunity for audience members to find out more about the activity (and the research behind it) rather than focusing solely on

whose turn is next. To encourage participation in the masterclass, ‘tickets’ to drive the sheepdog could be distributed only to those who are present at a masterclass.

• Limit the posters to images and basic information (e.g. the activity title and basic instructions). This visual element will assist in attracting participants to the stall, but there is no need for further detailed information to be included on the posters; they are not utilised. Provide hand-outs for those who are interested in further information rather than information-based posters; they have the added advantage of being able to be taken away and perused at leisure.

• Change the phrasing of the ‘learning’ question in the written evaluation questionnaire to focus on intellectual (rather than technical) learning.

Future Directions

Both venues (the Imagineering Fairs and Cheltenham Science Festival) are keen to have the activity repeated at future events. In addition, interest has been expressed in continuing various aspects of the programme in more unforeseen ways, including:

• UWE’s Technology Society are interested in running ‘One Man and his Bot’ at the upcoming Fresher’s Fair (where new undergraduate students will be introduced to the activity).

• Faculty staff who were involved in the Imagineering Fair events are now taking on some of the evaluative tools (used as part of this project) to determine the successes and challenges of their own


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