The vision of a harmonious coexistence


Robots might soon be a common sight in cities. Encounters with coincidental passers-by will then be everyday occurrences. But their coexistence must still be harmonious, even if the people are not involved in the tasks entrusted to these robots. One of the objectives is to design and optimise what the robots look like and how they behave in order to engender an appropriate level of trust and acceptance and increase the likelihood that they will be welcomed into the public space.

ZEN-MRI pursues the vision of enabling interactive robots to become considerate agents of social cohesion and to adapt their behaviour accordingly. Five partners are working on this within the project: Ulm University, Adlatus Robotics, the Media University, the Fraunhofer Institute and the City of Ulm. The project is receiving €3.6 million in funding from the Federal Ministry of Education and Research until August 2025.

Studies will be conducted with test persons in the city centre of Ulm in pursuit of this vision. Among the other project priorities are solutions for critical situations and moral dilemmas associated with the use of robots in public life. This will give particular attention to the interests of persons with impairments or special needs, such as those with restricted mobility, older people and also children.

Evidence-based approach


ZEN-MRI is the abbreviation for the full project name: „ Ulm Center for Research and Evaluation of Human-Robot Interaction in Public Spaces”. MRI stands for “Human-Robot Interaction”. The project is coordinated by the Human Factors Department of the Ulm University. The project follows a human-centered approach to design the appearance, behavior, and interaction with robots in a way that aligns with the needs of the people around them. To achieve this, researchers investigate human-robot interaction using a variety of methods from an interdisciplinary perspective. Among the study methods largely applied in the field within Ulm’s city center are observation, surveys, focus groups, workshops, and measurement of gaze behavior.

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The aim is to record the expectations, fears and psychological well-being of the test persons as they come into contact with robots. Safety, ethics and legal compliance are also evaluated as a means of drawing suitable conclusions.

Field evaluation


The competence center will test various service robots under realistic conditions at several points throughout the three-year project. This also includes an authentic setting: Parts of Ulm’s city centre will therefore be transformed repeatedly into a sort of real-life laboratory to obtain insights. This involves the establishment of test areas with different requirements for public spaces.

The studies are to be conducted at several locations in the City of Ulm. The test space extends from the multi-storey car park at the railway station to Münsterplatz and offers a ‘natural’ mission setting for the robots.

Three Adlatus robots are at the heart of the investigations by the competence center: A fully automatic cleaning robot and a sweeping robot with completely autonomous vacuum sweeper are used as efficient ways of cleaning the ground.

The project is also looking at the prototype of a delivery robot that can handle tasks in the area of logistics. Other robots are also available, among them a humanoid model called Pepper, which is used at the Ulm Municipal Library.

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