Johns Hopkins tries out a library robot


As many a university student will testify, it is a blessing to be able to visit a library Web site and download reference materials in electronic form. When deadlines loom, who wants to leave the house and roam the stacks of a library in search of a book?

Unfortunately, the bulk of resources in most libraries is still available only in conventional printed form: bound, numbered and arranged on shelves. You can try doing all your research electronically but at some point, you will have to hunt down a book on one of those shelves, sit down and thumb through its pages.

In libraries of the future, researchers at the Johns Hopkins University say, that kind of grunt work could be handled by robotic systems linked to the Internet.

As the first step toward building such a system, the researchers have designed a robot that can move about inside a library and locate a book requested by a user, take it off the shelf and carry it to a nearby scanning station. In the system's envisaged final version, a second robot at the scanning station would scan specific pages of the book that the user was interested in. The user would then be able to leaf through the book over the Internet from any location.

Besides providing convenient access to books and journals, such systems could enable libraries to convert large volumes of printed material into digital format. At major university libraries, which routinely need to expand shelving space to accommodate new titles, the technology could provide an active link between the main library and storage sites far from campus.

The Johns Hopkins effort, called the Comprehensive Access to Printed Materials project, was driven by a desire to hook up the institution's main research library on its Homewood campus in Baltimore with a shelving facility about six miles away in Moravia Park. Currently, materials requested from Moravia Park have to be transported to campus libraries before they can be checked out. The process takes about two days, a long wait for impatient researchers and graduate students racing against time.

"We found that many of our library users were not requesting items from the Moravia Park facility because of the inconvenience," said Sayeed Choudhury, director of the Digital Knowledge Center at Johns Hopkins and a collaborator on the project. "Not only do users have to wait for a requested item, they are also unable to browse a book or a journal before deciding whether they want to check it out."

The project robot consists of a mobile platform equipped with infrared sensors and an ultrasonic ranging device that help it navigate. A rod fixed to the platform supports a mechanical device that serves as the robot's arm. The robot can adjust its arm level to the height of the shelf it needs to reach. Attached to the arm is a gripper designed to grasp a single book. A bar code scanner inside the gripper tells the robot whether it is retrieving the right book.

"Each book at the facility is kept inside an individual cardboard case labeled with a bar code," said Jackrit Suthakorn, a doctoral student in mechanical engineering at Johns Hopkins who is collaborating on the project. Unlike the books themselves, which come in a variety of sizes, the cases have the same dimensions so that the robot does not need to adjust its gripper each time. In its final, functional form, the robot will be guided in its movements by a three-dimensional map of the shelving space that shows the exact location of every book.

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