Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

Singapore deploys robots to remind nature lovers about safe distancing

Visitors to parks, gardens, and nature reserves may now run into Boston Dynamics' four-legged Spot robot that has been tasked to broadcast reminders about the need to observe safe distancing.

Singapore deploys robots to remind nature lovers about safe distancing

Visitors to parks, gardens, and nature reserves in Singapore may now run into a four-legged robot deployed to issue reminders about the need to observe safe distancing amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Dubbed Spot, these Boston Dynamics' droids are also equipped with cameras to track the number of visitors at parks. 

Part of a pilot launched by Singapore's National Parks Board (NParks) and Digital Government Group, which comprises Smart Nation and Digital Government Office and Government Technology Agency (GovTech), the robots aim to help efforts to ensure safe distancing measures are adopted and reduce the manpower required for park patrols. Controlled remotely, they also minimise physical contact between staff, safe distancing agents, and park visitors -- hence, lowering the risk of exposure to the coronavirus. 

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Boston Dynamics' Spot

The Boston Dynamics Spot robots have been deployed, for a fortnight during off-peak hours, over an area spanning 3km in the River Plains section of Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park, said the government agencies in a joint statement on Friday. A recorded message will be broadcast from the robots, reminding visitors about the need to practise safe distancing. 

Cameras mounted on the droids do not track or recognise specific individuals, the Singapore government agencies said, adding that no personal data would be collected. The visual aids instead are powered by video analytics, developed by GovTech, to help estimate the number of visitors at the parks. 

Because they are not wheeled robots, the Spot droids can move well across different terrains and navigate obstacles. Fitted with safety sensors to detect humans and objects in its path, the robot's algorithm enables it to detect objects within 1 metre of its proximity. During the trial, it also will be accompanied by at least one NParks officer. 

If the trial is successful, Spot's deployment may be extended to include morning and evening peak hours and to other parks managed by NParks, such as Jurong Lake Gardens. The government agency manages more than 350 parks, which amounts to 3,347 hectares of nature reserves, including the Singapore Botanic Gardens, Jurong Lake Gardens, Pulau Ubin, and the Sisters' Islands Marine Park. It also manages Singapore's Park Connector Network, which stretches more than 300km of linking major parks, nature areas, and residential estates across the island. 

Spot currently is also being piloted at the Changi Exhibition Centre, which has been converted into a community isolation facility for COVID-19 patients, to deliver essential items such as medicines. 

Boston Dynamics last month made its hardware and software designs for robotics open-source, so they could be deployed during the global pandemic to aid healthcare services providers. The US company said it had been working with these organisations to design and test robotics suitable for medical purposes, including in telepresence and telemedicine applications, remote inspections, disinfection and hospital room cleaning, and delivery systems. 

Its Spot robot, specifically, in the past couple of months had been the focus of application architectural development for frontline hospital use. Deployed at Brigham and Women's Hospital, it is used as a mobile telemedicine platform, allowing healthcare providers to remotely triage patients. 

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NParks has been tapping technology to facilitate its efforts in ensuring safe distancing measures are observed. Some 30 drones, for instance, were deployed in selected parks to provide its officers with a high vantage point and assist in visitorship updates. According to the agency, the drones offered a better indication of the density of visitors in a specific area. 

Singapore rolled out stricter measures over the past month, which forced non-essential businesses to close or have all of their employees work from home and food and beverage operators to provide only takeaway or delivery options. Meanwhile, stores that remain open, including supermarkets and pharmacies, are required to implement safe distancing measures, such as ensuring customers remain 1 metre apart while in line to make payments. 

To remain in place during what has been coined "circuit breaker" period, these measures were originally scheduled to end on May 4, but was later extended to June 1. 

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